Rituals of Mourning

The Propeller Group explores musical processions as a form of resistance and healing.
The Propeller Group. <em>The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music</em>. 2014

The Propeller Group. The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music. 2014

The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music connects New Orleans and Saigon—the place called home by the Propeller Group. This artist collective, which also functions as a media company, draws on a range of idioms, from musical traditions to advertising campaigns, in works that speak in a positioned yet shared voice. In this work, they offer a medium for the political emotions experienced in one place to be felt in another. The video pairs brass bands and public processions, which come together in both cities to honor those who have recently passed. It cuts between roving shots of performers in flames and above-ground tombs and features a high-keyed musical genre unique to Vietnamese funeral rites, which is reminiscent of the second lines familiar to New Orleanians. In the process, it intensifies the implicit connections between the ways people respond to different but related traumas: the planned catastrophes of environmental racism in the US, and imperialist war in Vietnam.

“A space of resistance is opened up by these rituals of mourning,” Propeller Group member Tuan Andrew Nguyen recently said. “Because the belief in spirits are so embedded in the Vietnamese cultural landscape and because the funerary rituals are always in flux, the government is not able to censor these performances. It is one of very few times where transgender communities perform in public freely and are able to make money performing as audiences make offerings to them for ‘blessing’ the ceremonies with their presence.” The performances seen here make us aware, he suggests, of “the gaps between the living and the dead, the private and the public, embodiment and spirituality.” In this open space, state power can be refused and culture does the work of processing the absence left by the recently departed.

Across time and place, public grief is a common need, even as loss remains unevenly distributed. The war on Black life—which has made Black people the targets of early death both from centuries-long US-sponsored terror at the hands of the militarized police and the more recent COVID-19 pandemic—is a current domestic episode in a long battle once waged in Southeast Asia. Like ghosts reawakened, the past echoes in the present as it travels alongside the living.

How do we square the brutal force and historical scale of the skewed life chances that have structured our personal relationships to those individuals who have recently lost their lives? Each of our uncles or sisters has a name: Claude Botche, Layleen Xtravaganza Cubilette-Polanco. Some are known by millions and shouted alongside calls for freedom; others are mouthed silently by those who loved them. In honoring them one by one, we attempt to recognize the intimacy of daily loss and celebrate the ordinary lives obscured by abstractions on a graph. And in doing so, perhaps we might remember the koan invoked by the unnamed protagonist of The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music when she says, “I know if I forget I will miss you even more. So I force myself to remember in order to forget.”

—Thomas Lax, Curator, Department of Media and Performance

We presented the Propeller Group’s film The Living Need Light, The Dead Need Music from June 17 through July 1, 2020. The film is no longer available here for streaming.