SNOW IN THE DESERT INTERVIEW: BETTY NGUYEN

Betty Nguyen is a curator, writer, instigator and artist, founder of Living Arts Fund and founder and editor of First Person Magazine. She curates and hosts this weekend’s Snow in the Desert at Ace Hotel & Swim Club, an activated art space for women. Artist workshops are open today from 2-4pm in the Clubhouse, and we’ll have DJs by the pool all afternoon Saturday and Sunday. Betty DJs tonight in the Amigo Room as well. She’s whip smart — as evidenced below.

You’ve said that you “embrace all forms of cultural delivery.” How do those semantics disrupt ideas of art?

I’ve never regarded one art form higher than another: film, music, performance, dance, painting … if the shit is good, I’ll take it. They all influence each other if we are open to them. I have very fluid instincts. I trained in college as an art director, so I envision worlds through texts and vice versa. Just because work is fun or colorful or punk doesn’t mean it’s not informed. My work goes deep and I enjoy it. The disruption comes from opening people’s perspectives to expand what art is or how it can be presented which includes where it can be presented like at the Ace Hotel.

Tell me about interviewing Yoko Ono and Missy Elliot.

Yoko Ono is so fucking alive. The bigger the name, the more I tend to be restrained as an interviewer. But that’s bullshit right? I interviewed Yoko Ono for First Person Magazine’s “Discomfort of Sculpture” issue that also included Lynda Benglis, Louise Bourgeois, and Maya Deren. I first encountered Ono’s work at ICA East London in 2000. She showed these big Oxford shoes in larger than life rat cages on top of tons of used paperback books. A map of the world was on a table top with her Imagine Peace rubber stamps all over the table for you to make an impression on a country or border line, the ocean whatever needed it. And the last memorable piece was this long dark corridor that led to a light box of a rainbow. Her work is so provocative in a positive way. It’s sometimes difficult to do both in a work. And it’s always been there in hers for me. She was on tour as the Yoko Ono Plastic Ono Band with her son and I was pretty nervous, thinking I had to make sure the questions were related to music. But she just went straight out the gate with, “You know John and I did a lot for promoting peace to end the Vietnam War” after I said I thought we were simliar… refugees of war. We talked about both being women and immigrants. And working in the arts as Asian women as being really fucking hard. I can name one other Asian woman curator at the New Museum. And one in Tokyo at the Mori. Oh, yeah and I made her pink peace sign sugar cookies for her show with Sean Lennon.

Missy Elliot was a tough one. I posted on Friendster, “What do you want to ask Missy?” I don’t think anyone took me seriously. I really wanted to interview Ciara. What happened to her? Missy was so gracious and kept thanking me, so I chickened out of trying to “out” her during the interview.

Do you see yourself as a hybrid instigator and creator? Or is it all creation?

I’m probably more like an alligator… independent with a very good memory. Like I said, as an art director, I like to do pairings and also imagine broader contexts for a work. I like to bring out the best in an artist and their work. It’s a collaboration and discussion for sure. It’s fun to make connections in the work that the artist hadn’t seen. When I asked these artists to lead workshops at Ace, it was difficult for some to understand because they wanted a lot of context. I think we will have some pretty great stuff to engage in. I like getting to know people through projects and this includes the public. It reflects a lot about a person, not only their actual work produced but how they work and play. I like to read personality and have fun in the process. I talked to Leah about the idea of the sno-cone as an “ice breaker” activity amongst participants.

I’m DJing in the “Amiga Room” tonight — playing women icons, producers, singers and this song here by Neneh Cherry, my best friend Tama’s godmother. I like that they put an image of Marilyn Monroe on the video. It’s super tragic but real in a fake way. Sometimes people get confused because dear gawd, as a curator I can’t be cool or DJ or perform, too. So, I like to break those dumb taboos. I will hang in a goddam buffalo stance. You feel me?

What inspired you to create this retreat? Do you see it as fulfilling something that’s missing from the arts for women, or an affirmation of something that already exists? Both?

I hope to meet women who are fun, creative, and generous. I wanted to do something that wouldn’t have any profit margin in mind when I started. I founded the Living Arts Fund to create a new mindset that wasn’t just throwing up art shows and hype. I wanted to make a new space for gathering and exchange. There is this oasis in the desert that you guys at Ace have created and I thought it would be a great place to soak in some scenery and have some different conversations. All the presenting artists are super complex in their approach to what they do. Thanks for engaging. It’s an inspiring place that I’d like to come back to and navigate more possibilities. 

How did you curate this group of people? What mattered to you in the process?

As part of my curating process, it’s normally mandatory for me to meet the artist first on a human level. To see if we can work together as a collaboration. This means personality, insights, core principles of just being a nice person who is enthusiastic.

Talk to me about radical food. I’m starving.

Thanks for asking. Radical Foods is the framework behind the current issue of First Person Magazine. It was an awesome and very challenging issue. I started a non-profit last year called Living Arts Fund and now position First Person Magazine under its umbrella. It just put me in a different spell for curating the issue. I encountered a lot of artists who work outside of galleries or have “left the art world.” Allen Ruppersberg’s “Al’s Cafe” was super inspiring. In the 70’s, he said he moved to LA because of the surf and the girls, and opened this spot only to serve coffee, beer and his assemblages. You could buy his art for like the price of a pie at Denny’s across the street and just hang out and talk. The cops busted it thinking it was some illegal drug ring and didn’t get it. Al said he was happy that happened because after three months he didn’t know how to end its run. I learned a lot about how art can happen outside of museums and galleries and it’s exactly what I was looking for. You can still get some copies of this issue. I’ve brought some to show this weekend at Ace. They’re kinda rare. All the issues are limited editions, more like books. This one has a gold letterpressed cover on it that my boyfriend made. The purple mountains on it are upside down…

"Ice Cream Underwear" by Carissa Potter.


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