Queer Ear Mastering Studio – Credit: Irma Fadhila

Nguyễn + Transitory is composed of Nguyễn Baly and Tara Transitory. Their work crosses the disciplines of sound, performance, and installation. Working mainly with modular synthesizers and analog tape, they attempt to approach sound, synthesis, noise, rhythm and performance from a post-colonial lens – looking into how frequencies, the physicality of producing sounds and its incidental vibrations relate to cognitive memories, stored emotions, and catharsis. And through the process, empirically learn more about various Southeast Asian + diaspora queer existences and lost histories.

Tara Transitory aka One Man Nation, makes what some consider as art, others as music and even some as trash. It doesn’t fit into neatly defined categories. She is trans, nomadic, and creates at the intersection of gender, noise, and ritual through sound, performance, and collective trance. Currently, she is a DAAD resident artist in Berlin.

Nguyễn Baly is a Vietnamese-German sound artist. She graduated from the Institute for Applied Theatre Studies (Giessen) with a specialization in Sound and Composition for Stage and Performance. Since 2010, Nguyễn Baly has been working in the areas of sound and performing arts as a composer and sound designer. Her artistic practice attempts to navigate the cross-section of performance, experimental music and post-colonialism.

Bird Bird Touch Touch Sing Sing

It was a humid sunny day in Chiang Mai, Thailand – the heat showed no sign of retreating in early October 2018. I was sitting on the back of Baly’s motorbike, following Tara riding though the southwest suburbia of the northern Thailand capital. I had just met with the duo for the first time at their artist residency nearby.

The duo came into being in 2018, debuting with the piece ‘Bird Bird Touch Touch Sing Sing’, a work celebrating co-dependency, vulnerability and collectivity. It is imagined as an immersive site-specific performance using touch, movement, feedback, proximity and sound.

“A quiet coup attempting to displace the structural imbalances, to disorientate geographies, and to find space for silenced narratives. An (auto)reflexive re-evaluation of the unquestionable hierarchy of values imposed unto ​Us​, a living work which attempts to embody extantation – to persist on existing despite conditions that favour its imminent extinction. In this work, the performers attempt to create another reality – through touching, proximity, and movements, that is not pre-choreographed but created in the moment by the circumstances within the process of creating the sound and by the movements of the performers+audience becoming a collective body – a space of disassociation unloaded with the social constructs associated with the politics of touch found in the modern world and the geography associated with it. Where to choreograph, compose and perform in this case, goes beyond the narrow confines of artistic concepts and aesthetics, existing in both the space of the ethereal and the space of an immersive installative performance. To process feelings, thoughts and intentions on the peripheral spectrum between the knowing and the unknowing, Nguyễn + Transitory hope to be one of the few ways left to reconnect with lost magic.”

Such a presentation was a new experience for the two of them, as their bodies were very much present elements of the musical performance – instrumentalized to influence the sound composition, and also, exposing the couple to the public’s gaze.

Since then, they only do interviews together and refuse to appear as a solo artist/performer. “It is a personal politic for me” Tara says,“what it means to be a solo artist is about self-celebration, but I’m at the stage of getting away from the ‘me, me, me’ and more into the ‘we, we, we’, to stop celebrating the individual idea, and try to dissolve individuals into collective entities.” Such challenges are not only in their professional work but also exists as a daily discipline beyond the creation of art as a couple – “it is about how to survive with each other, how to prioritize the collective over the self. It is an ongoing negotiation for us as a couple to collaborate through work 24/7.”


Tara refers to the artist residency “extantation” in Chiang Mai, Thailand, from 2017 to 2018, as a support system for artists, rather than an institutional agency.

While such space has its potential in other places around Southeast Asia, citing Tara’s personal reason in choosing the location: “it is easy to be a trans woman and to be in queer relationships there, and I love that it is not a big city, so it is easy to navigate with motorbikes.” She continues, “to be left alone by society is a reflection of how Thai society treats foreigners and, especially, transwoman – they will never totally accept you, but they are willing to leave you alone.”

Tara recalls her early art education in the west and its influence on her conceptual and theoretical approaches to her work. She constantly finds herself in conflict with her nature, “it is a struggle to always celebrate works that are well explained, written about, and conceptually strong…I don’t see myself historically to be so academic and … clean.”  It seems important for them to foster such a space in southeast Asia, an art space to come up with ideas and concepts that wouldn’t necessarily originate from a western university, and to unfold their decolonization meaning there. “Experimental art has a very long history in the West…(but) if it is from somewhere else, it is probably never being documented and would quickly be dissolved into history, never to be remembered.”

“The art and institutional structure are still very much constructed upon this western gaze of judging whether a work is or not contemporary art or experimental music.” When the Asian art market prospers from money-driven artwork, people are conditioned to the idea of what contemporary art “can be” in Asia. However, they also acknowledge such criticism can be problematic and forthcoming from an extremely privileged position.

Despite its emancipatory potential, such spaces have not gone without criticism. It was difficult for them to host a discussion about decolonization as an outsider, “Asia is a complex place, coming from Singapore to be in Thailand means one thing, being Singaporean Chinese in Indonesia means something else – there exists no binary in saying which is foreign or not. This shifting geopolitical identity for me was in constant negotiation living there…no clear answers.” Baly also mentioned facing such objection towards abstract diaspora views. She finds the path tricky of not being seen as imposing her western ideology and romanticizing the trend of finding one’s roots. The position of being there is a struggle between wanting to do something but being unsure of whether the desire will be welcomed.

Performance at HELLERAU – Credit: Udo Siegfriedt

When the laid back yet challenging phase of their lives in Southeast Asia came to an end, the duo moved back to Berlin, Germany, where experimental art and sound-making is both trendy and safeguarded. Yet political conversation in the industry is still limited in its scope. They don’t see any promising changes among the institutions. The most common and superficial way is often done by highlighting artists of color, followed by the phony discussions that come with it, required for the public image. But what’s lacking is the revolutionary action for the institutions to give up their power. Thus, the power structure in art and music production remains the same, and such toxicity is transmitted into the individual actions and behaviors of artists themselves.

When Asia and diaspora art use identity politics and self-exoticization by exploiting indigenous culture and traditions and feeding into the orientalist gaze of the western audience, Tara and Baly refuse to play the same sound to fulfill post-colonial ears. It is always a feeling of simplicity within their complex, yet never amplified, display of the cultural imagery.

Queer Ear Mastering Studio – Credit: Irma Fadhila

Queer Ear Mastering

“It is not for one  mastering engineer  to decide how people should listen to a sound.”

Besides their live performances and art, the duo founded Queer Ear Mastering out of the necessity to create a safer space for FLINT (female, lesbian, inter, non-binary, trans) and queer artists to get their music mastered, the final phase for professional sound production, which is still predominately occupied by cis white males.

“It is a very technical process, but we offer lots of workshops and people are generally interested to know how music is mastered.”

Their expertise doesn’t confine to one type of sound, it covers a wide range from electric pop, soul, traditional, experimental, electronic, electroacoustic and everything else in between. Since 2007, they have already been finalizing sound for vinyl, CDs, digital releases, performances, installations and films. In addition to mastering, they also provide dramaturgical consultation for music used in installations, stage and film as well as technical services such as reel-to-reel/cassette to digital transfers and vinyl test pressings. From all of what have be provided, they only seek to serve the purpose in actualizing artists’ sonic imaginations.

Nevertheless – always aware of the institutions using decolonization discussions to benefit the institution itself – they constantly self-critique making a business out of something related to social politics. “Having a sustainable way of conducting business is something I could have never imagined to achieve in my life. I was always trying not to engage in this way of functioning as an artist. But with age, it became more and more difficult to have no savings and not knowing where to go, and because the world is not clinging to something idealistic, it is more and more difficult to actually survive.”

“It is a difficult space to navigate, there are no easy responses or easy answers.” Queer Ear Mastering is seen as a combination between the capitalistic system of getting paid for their time and expertise, and the artists’ politics for social justice.

Topography of Vulnerabilities #1 – Credit: Irma Fadhila

A recent installation series by them is called, Topography of Vulnerabilities, ‘expanding on the artists’ ongoing research on inter-dependency, vulnerability, closeness, disorientation, and trust, they are questioning the effects that the current and post-pandemic climate has on these themes, where the policing of intimacies has become unquestionable and normalized’.

At the “Fingers Of The Air” exhibition at the daadgalerie in Berlin, the duo presented the first iteration of “Topography of Vulnerabilities” in July of 2020. With the worsening pandemic, it became impossible for them to perform. Relying instead on creating sound installations using self-generating machines and one long tape loop, they created an endless looping sound installation to examine how installations without the human body or spoken words can still transmit feelings.

“The work takes the form of an installation with sound and light elements using generative electronic sounds, an unstable vertical tape loop and 5 empty tape reels for shape and tension, installed on to the clean white walls of the gallery resembling a non-religious alter – a space to come in to dissolve.”

Topography of Vulnerabilities #2 – Credit: Montag Modus/Barbara Antal

At Ignition Cycle and FOMO, the duo presented the next iteration of “Topography of Vulnerabilities #2”. Contrary to the first version in its tidy gallery set up, the second version evolved into an installation with sound, light and plant elements using generative electronic sounds, an unstable horizontal tape loop and two plants installed into a lightless subterranean environment  – a club where gay sex parties were held in pre-covid time. The inclusion of plant life in the work paints a stark contrast to the cruelty of the space – one in which living beings can barely survive. It is a continuation of the duo’s attempts at impossibilities, attempting to exist in an environment where conditions are detrimental to existence.

“In a sense, the installation has a ghostly effect, you can feel some human presence is missing. There is a commentary or metaphor of the current situation through the installation, although the pandemic fuels the dystopic feeling, it was always a common theme for me, even if there is no pandemic, it is still a relevant social commentary, because the world was already in crisis before the pandemic, and if the pandemic has done anything, it was to bring up to the surface these deep fractures.”

In December 2020, the duo presented the  3rd iteration of “Topography of Vulnerabilities” as a virtual recreation of Topography of Vulnerabilies #2  in the Prater Digital, a virtual gallery space Commenting on online platforms, Nguyễn + Transitory are showing a certain resistance to diving in and adapting to the virtual space. “There is something impossible to transmit through the digital surface, one can only feel when one is inside the space.” You can visit the ongoing exhibition here at XING online as part of the Bite The Tongue exhibition: https://xi-ng.com/Topography-of-Vulnerabilities-3 

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