How We Live Now, ‘Belong’

We are proud to present ‘Belong’, the second in our ‘How We Live Now’ series of short films exploring the importance of music in people’s lives.

In it, we follow the prolific Vietnamese-American contemporary artist Richard Streitmatter-Tran as he reflects on his life, his work and his legacy, with his thoughts and memories framed by lyrics from the 5 songs that have been most significant to his journey so far. ‘Belong’ was filmed across Singapore during Richard’s residency at the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art, as well as incorporating photographs from his childhood growing up in Massachusetts, and scenes filmed at his studio in Ho Chi Minh City. Since its release, ‘Belong’ has won the award for ‘Best Cinematography’ at the 2019 Oregon Documentary Film Festival.

You can watch ‘Belong’ directly below, and read on after the jump for our honest, in depth and insightful follow up interview with Richard. Included are some photographs shot at his beautiful home studio in Ho Chi Minh City.

Please remind us of the 5 songs you picked that have been most meaningful to you so far.

“Everyday is like Sunday” by Morrissey, “Mystery Train” by Elvis Presley, “Man of Constant Sorrow” by the Soggy Bottom Boys, “True Faith” by New Order, and “King of the Road” by Roger Miller.

Why these songs in particular?

I think broadly these are songs that have connections to particular moments in my life. I was introduced to The Smiths and by extension, Morrissey through my first crush. In the eighties, I was listening to what were called “alternative” bands and synthpop – hence the inclusion of New Order. They form my teenage experience. The three others are more closely connected – they come from American roots music – with origins in the blues and bluegrass, which rockabilly and rock derive from. After reading and watching S.E. Hinton’s story ‘The Outsiders’, it resonated deeply with me. Where I grew up on Cape Cod there was a clear distinction between the year-rounders (working class) and the summer folks (upper class). I was in the former and could identify with being a “greaser” opposed to the “preps” in the film. From that day on, I would always wear product in my hair, although with my Asian phenotype, getting that pompadour was quite difficult having course thick Asian hair. My mother was born in West Virginia and my father became a cowboy on a ranch in Cheyenne, Wyoming. So despite my appearance, I have a lot of honkytonk in me.

I’ve actually noticed you lately on social media, sharing memories of your past, your family, and even reflecting on your parents’ musical heritage. Is there anything in particular that’s brought on this reflective mood?

Hmmm. Yeah. I guess this aspect, the country roots of my family, despite growing up in New England, was something that I really haven’t appreciated much until now. There seems to be some strange cadence that when one grows up with a particular music culture, it somehow becomes ingrained. For example, there’s no way I can sing R&B  and do gospel, whereas many singers of this genre always come back to singing in the choir or church. My mom loved Elvis and the more adult contemporary country – like Kenny Rogers. I never really listened to them much growing up on my own volition, but it seemed to always be in the background. When I hear bluegrass and country now, it seems natural for me to have those singing quirks, even a yodel. Also, I’m thinking about this divide between my growing up in a working class white family and my choice to live and work in Vietnam, where I was born.

Regarding that choice to return to Vietnam, how do you feel about that now? How many years has it been now since you left the US?

I think I made the right move. My cumulated life has been as much a series of chance events, from joining the US Army during peacetime only to be at war during the first weeks of basic training, to applying to art school after missing the deadlines for the other schools – and of course, coming into this world in Vietnam during the war under unknown circumstances. So, there’s never really been a plan for me I suppose. The thing that has held me together is perhaps my own intuition. I felt that I had a full enough understanding of the US by the time I finished art school in 2003, the year I decided to sell all my belongings in a yard sale to pay for a ticket to Vietnam. I’m now going onto my sixteenth year living contiguously in Ho Chi Minh City. I’ve probably adapted to the rapid changes here personally as the city has itself. I do have a lot of attachments to the US, namely my family and as I’ve mentioned earlier, it’s country culture and the quirks of New England life – but I felt then as I do now, the twenty-first century is an Asian one. And I make that statement in that much of what happens during this century, will be strongly influenced by this area – the populations and resource demands. I feel I should be witness and at times, a participant in this part of the world in as much as I can do.

You and I have discussed this at great length, but for the sake of our readers, how much does your personal history inform your work, if at all?

My personal history/background have not been primary in the work I produce… or in other words, my work tends not to be autobiographical. There’s an intellectual distance in my work from my direct history. I don’t talk about my personal relations to gender, race, class, etc, through attaching them explicitly to events in my life, but of course, my own experience of the world affects the issues that concern me and therefore works I create. But there’s not anything in terms of “this art work is inspired from the day that I….”.

Has it been a conscious choice to avoid autobiography? Or is it just a case of, you make what you feel like making, and that’s just not it?

More than a conscious choice equating to a rule, it’s more of a sensibility. I’ve always maintained a distance from even myself. I sometimes think this is a common attribute of orphans, because you know the IRL (In real life) circumstances of your existence are probably not so good, so we tend to have strong imaginations. I could be a prince, or an alien. I could have brothers or sisters that share common genes or I could be the last member of whatever lineage I came from. I’ll never know, so as a mode of being, I often create it as I go along. And that is the art that I make, my particular relation to this world as I understand it at that moment. I grew up also in a particularly homogeneous community so drawing attention to my “otherness” wasn’t something I was really keen on doing. Remember, I grew up in the 70s and 80s… the notions of multiculturalism didn’t really begin to pick up speed until the 90s, if that. I was already a boy and teenager in New England when Boston was still trying to sort out desegregation for school bussing (1972-1988). Hell, I graduated High school in 1990. So yeah, I’m getting a bit off track here, but I do have a meta personality – I’m able to observe myself from afar and I learn a lot about myself that way. And I don’t feel the need to explore that explicitly in my art, as my art is often the explorations I don’t know or haven’t completed.

What are you listening to right now? Anything new on your playlists?

Well, over the past few years I’ve fallen deeply into Cigarettes After Sex, I just love their sound. But currently I’m listening mostly to country music – the classics. Particularly Alan Jackson, George Strait. My voice tends toward the baritone and bass, and so I’m listening to those country singers with a lower register so I can sing and play along with my guitar.

We started shooting ‘Belong’ in September 2017 during your residency at the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art in Singapore, with the final scenes shot at your studio in Saigon in March 2018. Could you let our readers know what you’ve been up to since then?

To be honest, it’s been a difficult period. The production of artwork isn’t the issue. I’ve done residencies and had great exhibition opportunities, so on the outside it appears as if I’m doing great. But that hasn’t translated directly into income and I had the unexpected onset of serious depression that came out of nowhere. Not having a history of depression, it was difficult finding ways to deal with it, while continuing to have an outward appearance of being in control of things, particularly my art career. I’m doing better now, but am always on guard looking for signs of another onset. I have some plans for ambitious works this year – including the Setouchi Triennale in Japan and my solo exhibition in Hong Kong – both at the end of the year. I’m feeling healthy now and hope I can make something significant this year.

Thank you for sharing that, and I’m glad that you’re feeling healthy right now. I feel like there’s a real mental health crisis brewing right now in the creative industries, and it’s so important for us artists and creatives to be open and transparent about these issues so that at the very least, others can see that they’re not alone.

One thing I’ve noticed about you is how completely dedicated you are to your art. Do you think that this work-focused lifestyle has affected your interpersonal relationships? And if so, how?

I’m not sure… for me, it’s similar to the question, ‘what does it feel like not knowing your biological parents as an adoptee?’. It’s hard to remove myself from an experience that is just me. I don’t think art has impeded my interpersonal relationships. Those relationship have always had to be synchronistic, in as much as my lifestyle also had to work in relation to the other persons needs as well. It’s always a relation.

You left a stable career in higher education to focus on your art full time. How do you feel about that decision now, looking back on it after all these years?

Education and art are a natural pair for many working artists. They can be symbiotic in so many ways, allowing one to critique and prepare ideas in coherent ways for delivery to others. But I’ve been in education since 2000 and I was nearing my ninth year employed by one university in Vietnam. I discovered over the years that the balance between my arts practice and my responsibilities to the university were becoming, well, unbalanced. Also, I was going to be phased out since I don’t have a doctorate. So it was the culmination of a perfect storm – lose my job that I was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with and move toward my dream of focusing on the one thing that I believe I was made to do. It’s been hard financially, but I need to find a way to make it work.

How long has it been now, that you’ve been working full time as an artist?

As a full-time artist, meaning having not being employed or receiving any income from anything but my art? To be honest, I’ve only had a full-time practice since 2015 when I resigned my teaching position at the university after 9 years. So, quite a short time, albeit one in which I’ve been able to do so much in terms of work and production. In spite of that, I’m on the cliff as far as being able to support myself this way. But I suppose life in general is a struggle, and mine isn’t more than my single mother who worked three jobs to support my brother and I. I know I must pursue what I’m passionate about and what I’m actually skilled enough to do.

The film opens with you considering your legacy, and saying that you don’t think you’ll be a great artist. You think you’ll be a good artist, but not great. Firstly, I just have to say how much I admire your humility and vulnerability in being able to say this, and your confidence to sort of relinquish the weight of how you are perceived to the audience, as opposed to trying to imposing your own self-perception. And I’d counter that, in all likelihood you will be seen as being a great artist. But in any case, you said this back in March 2018 right after we’d finished shooting at your studio, which is quite some time ago. So I guess I’m curious, have your thoughts on this changed since then?

It’s the real world. A kind of longer explanation is probably required here. I suppose I’m somewhat mid-tier. I’ve given it all I’ve got and there’s not much more you can do sometimes. I may get a lucky break or I may develop some strong works that may get some attention. Sometimes things just line up for people and it’s luck. Sometimes it’s a long war of attrition against all odds – and they make it. Some have formulas, like Gladwell’s 10,000 hours of practice will lift you to the top of the heap. I don’t know. I haven’t made it into the elite yet and it’s unlikely. Just google something along the lines of “percentage of artists that make it” or something like that. There’s multiple recent studies that examine the system. Anyhow, that’s not the point. I’m healthy, safe, and I’m happy most of the time – so with the love of my family, from the day I was adopted, I already had a better life than I most certainly would have had. It’s ups and downs. And my experience with those is just like everyone else, it’s how we continue that matters. I hope I’ve had a positive influence among those I’ve had contact with over my life this far. I said that I’ve likely lived more than half of my life already – now at 46, if I live to 92, wouldn’t that be amazing? So given the time I have left, I intend to continue what I’ve always done… to remain curious, to try and be a decent human and give love, and to go out with a smile, like a cowboy artist riding into the sunset (my imagination again..)

In terms of your work, what have you got planned? What can we look forward to seeing from you in the near future?

I’m going to the United States again after many years for a residency at the Worcester Museum of Art in Massachusetts, the state where I was raised. I will examine some of the collection at the museum, particularly Winslow Homer, Edward Hopper and John Singer Sargent – all quintessential New England artists, and I’ll try and reconcile their approach to painting an area and it’s people that were formative in my early life experience. So, the whole country music and the art of New England – I’m looking back in order to move forward.

Richard, I can’t thank you enough for giving so much of your time to this whole process, and for allowing yourself to be so open and vulnerable. Good luck with everything you have planned! (You can find Richard on Facebook, Instagram, and you can see his work online.)

. . .

Directed by Dillon M. Banda
Cinematography by Dillon M. Banda
1st AC Basil Tan
Edited by Sean Cunningham
Score by David A. Molina
Produced by SoundChips + Dillon & Co
Photo Credits: All images shot on 35mm and 120 film by Dillon M. Banda.

22.03.2019 / By Dillon M. Banda