SUNG TIEU: GHOSTS OF THE AMERICAN PSYCHE LET THE SERPENT IN

Still-No-Gods-No-Masters

“Welcome be a religion that pours into the bitter chalice of the suffering human species some sweet, soporific drops of spiritual opium, some drops of love, hope and faith.”
Heinrich Heine, Essay on Ludwig Börne (1840)

When I started to work on the newspaper articles for my exhibition “Remote Viewing” at Nha San Collective in Hanoi, I was doing research on the so-called Ghost Tape Nr. 10. The sound recording struck me as an extraordinary sound work, a strange and intriguing piece of music at best and an uncanny, haunting tool of terror at worst. The sound caused a physical response – like one I would associate with a work of ‘art’- that needed further investigation.

When Ghost Tape Nr. 10 was recorded at the end of the 1960s as part of “Operation Wandering Soul”, spirituality had been weaponized as part of the US war machine. Psychological Operation’s (PSYOP) entire objective is to induce or reinforce behaviour favourable to US strategic targets. The tactic was to tap into deep beliefs of the Vietnamese people to decrease the enemy’s morale. A tape was recorded, using Vietnamese actors, to compose a 4-min sound piece that would confront the Vietcong of their anxiously wandering souls once killed in war. The spiritual anchor for the tape lies in the Vietnamese tradition that dead relatives should be buried close to their ancestors, as it is believed that their souls would otherwise never be left in peace, but wander the Earth restlessly in a kind of eternal, terrestrial Hell. The Ghost Tape works in so far as it makes us conscious of our own mortality; it reminds us of a fundamentally basic question – on whether ‘death’ made sense. The ominous tape was made with the intention to be literally awful to listen to. It certainly had a result on its targets, if not always the intended one. The Vietcong would, when encountering its sound, come out of hiding, draw hostile fires and shoot randomly in the air. US soldiers bragged later that even if the tape didn’t make them give up the fight, it caused them to panic and act irrationally and to reveal their secret locations, making it easier for the United States to actually kill them.

Ghost Tape Nr. 10 consists of four sound sections. Vietnamese funeral music is played within the first 20 seconds of the audio recording, setting the scene for what is to follow. We then hear the haunting voice of a man from afar, weaved into distorted wind sounds and rustling. The voice of a child calling for his father appears. After that, a confused man, who is in the process of realising that he is dead, says:

Who is that? Who is calling me? My daughter? My wife?
Your Father is back home with you, my daughter
Your Husband is back home with you, my wife
But my body is gone. I am dead, my family
Tragic … how tragic
My friends, I come back to let you know that I am dead … I am dead
I am in Hell … just Hell
It was a senseless death. How senseless … how senseless
But when I realized the truth, it was too late … too late
Friends … while you are still alive …
There is still a chance that you can be reunited with your loved ones
Do you hear what I say?
Go home … Go home friends!
Hurry … If not, you will end up like me
Go home my friends before it is too late
Go home! … Go home friends!(1)

What is intriguing about the sound piece is its odd creative power to convey with music and voices a piece of manipulative psychological warfare tool that leaves those exposed to the tape in the jungle at night, fearful and horrified. It is macabre to discuss the success of the “work” in the creative sense and yet, the strength of the recording is undeniable. The audio perverts and arrests its audience, forcing the ears to imagine the manic extremes of a tortured afterlife before it occurs. Rather than representing the living, the voices are corpses, and like all “dead” matter, the tape offers an uncanny glimpse into the absolute difference between life and death. The objective here is to speculate on the target’s mental soft spot, which in this case was their Daoist beliefs, to disrupt business as usual. In short, the ideology of the medium is to make you surrender.

The US enemy normally looks different and sounds different. By deploying Vietnamese voices, the impression is given that it is your family and friends that are speaking to you. It destroys your conviction of the meaningfulness of this war, your potential death for the nation. A small section in Chris Marker’s essay film “A Grin Without A Cat” (1977) depicts the distribution of the sound tape. We see and hear how the noise of a groaning man is being spread over treetops, tickling down, as the helicopter flies pass the jungle. Hearing is something we cannot avoid, especially when it is broadcast on such scale.

By PSYOPs creating a ghost beliefs and intrinsic values become the weapon for manipulation. The sensation of these ghosts is tied to an act of imagination. At the same time it aspires to a greater ideal, such as spiritual traditions, that act like behavioural norms to keep our actions in check, to revise our visions, dreams and nightmares. In “Religion and Social Control” Charles A. Ellwood argues, “Civilisation, as we have seen, is a complex of acquired habits. It is not innate in man, but each generation has to acquire the ever-increasing mass of habits and traditions which make it up.” (2)

Institutionalised religion, ever since its creation has been exploited as a tool for social control. One could argue that the most effective system of power and exploitation in history relied to some extent on tapping into and re-directing deep belief. With Ghost Tape Nr. 10 spirituality has moved from a tool for social control to a form of warfare.
Using these traditions to transform them into an audio weapon to win a foreign war is like a suicide trap – it explicitly uses spiritual convictions against the very people that believe in them. PSYOPs methodologically and scientifically searched for ways to exploit these non-scientifically proof-able beliefs. It was concrete secular materiality mining the subconscious for tools that could lead to concrete material outcomes that would favour the researchers and the associated military. In doing so the US army are aiming to directly exploit spirituality – a potential serpent in the garden. The result is a highly creative piece of work. It connects sound and noise to a propaganda message that is extremely haunting. It was not the last time in history PSYOPs used ghosts and super natural powers as warfare strategies – think of the “Stargate Project”.

The Vietnam war was an ideological war. The United States feared to loose its status as the world’s super power. To exploit spiritual belief was done under the intention to advance capitalist values overseas. Yet, as opposed to organised religion, spirituality has been neglected in Western philosophy as one of superstitious nature, with no scientific grounding, not because it isn’t legit, but because it doesn’t advance the logic of capital.

Today Ghost Tape No. 10 can be seen as a subconscious foreboding of what was surfacing in the collective American psyche at the time. By the beginning of the 1970s, it was the Americans that had actually lost faith in the war. With policies such a “redebriefing”, where soldiers were told to lie about what had happened on the ground, the US recruits themselves started to doubt the meaningfulness of their government’s foreign policy and the fight against “communism”. To quote the Ghost Tape: “It was a senseless death. How senseless… how senseless.” (3)

What they had been told to be dangerous Communists were more often than not civilians being killed. The existential crisis that the US wanted to create in the subconscious of the Vietcong by deploying the sound recording was actually taking part in the their own minds. It can be argued that America’s very identity as a super power floundered in the jungles of Vietnam.

Disinformation and media manipulation of the way the war was portrait back home further led to a grassroots anti-war movement. Subsequently the war was being lost at home where the US military has lost public support for the country’s cross-border aggression.

In “A Different War” (1990) Lucy Lippard speaks of the Vietnam war as the most significant event to initiate the formation of conceptual art. Conceptual art in this context was as a reaction against the misuse of information and language and can be seen further as a critique against the institutions that exploited them. The critique against consumer culture that delivered ‘war images’ to one’s living room in the format of a television screen, caused Martha Rolser to respond with her work series “Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful” (1967-72), just to name one example.

To Joseph Kosuth, conceptual art was the “art of the Vietnam war era”. Kosuth’s work, such as “One And Three Chairs” (1965), problematized the representation of the object, the visual and verbal definition of its content. In relation to the Vietnam war on TV, it questions the accuracy of the reportage, between the image and its reading.

The question of how images and their reading relate to text was a central question when I was working with Vincent Bevins, a journalist and Southeast Asia correspondent for the Washington Post, on the newspaper articles for “Remote Viewing”. Newspaper articles as a medium allowed us to provide simple exposition as well as interrogate the very way that modern journalism, in many ways like the Ghost Tape, relies on deeply-held beliefs and assumptions to create specific effects in material human subjects. The political economy of writer vs. reader, in our case the outsider, the American writer versus the Vietnamese audience, and I myself as the artist standing between these two poles exposes the complex relationship of the conditions of the works as we made them. But the articles also bring into question the relationship between real published news at the time (i.e. in the 1969 article) and our “alternative” news outlet. In the age of Trump, Twitter and privately sponsored blogging, any absurd claim can be deployed effectively as fake news as long as the writer possesses the platform or social media outlet to publish it for the audience. And yet, through framing, and playing on reader expectations, misinformation and propaganda can be created entirely through the transmission of facts. Even the most “trueful” journalist accounts suffer some tension as they sit between facts, norms, and desires.

The newspaper articles in the exhibition are no different. Facts have always been authorised by power, and standards of evidence are historically context specific. The control of information once lay in censorship by a sovereign and his agents. In the Vietnam war era, information was centralised through the concentration of television broadcasting technology in the hand of governments or private corporation. Today, these centralised powers have dispersed and with it has the qualifiability of the source of information.

As a work of art, of course these newspaper articles don’t claim to be truth in the first place and yet they relied entirely on real information, true history, and first hand reporting carried out by Bevins and me.

For the newspaper article “Troops Employ Phantastic New Tools In ‘Nam”, which we dated historically to 1969, we compiled sourced historical documents and facts that would be composed to imply a certain narrative. The hint about Nixon and his domestic policy at the time was deliberate. Deliberate was also the tone of the narrator, as we imagined how it must have been to report about the war as an American Journalist, who was subjectively compromised, unable to get the full picture on the ground, conscious of his readers’ expectations, and who very likely truly believed that communism was an ideological threat to him and his way of life.

The two other articles are set in Mo Cay and Nui Ba Den (Black Virgin Mountain), both areas that were exposed to the tape. The audio recording was broadcast from helicopters and soldiers carrying backpacks with speakers. The idea of going to the sight of these once heavily fought for regions and experiencing it today, was a way to encounter the country’s changes, the landscape and its people.

Two very different observations have been made, when visiting the sights. In Mo Cay, I met a coconut farmer, whose family had been working in the region since decades. His questions and thoughts truck me, as they revealed how little he knew about the vast changes in the cities, the ever-growing capital ventures in Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang and Hanoi. We therefore based the article on these observations, looking into how the famers and the agriculture industry, which makes up almost 22% of the country’s gross domestic product, are experiencing the changes and stagnations of present Vietnam.

Nui Ba Den (Black Virgin Mountain), once a heavily fought for mountain during the war, as it was just kilometres away from the Ho Chi Minh Trail, is now a tourist attraction for religious pilgrimage. The name of the mountain itself can be traced back to a myth about Bà Đen, a local deity of Khmer origin, who died up the mountain due to a loveless affair with a soldier. The article “Destination: Black Virgin Mountain” is dated to 2017, as it most prominently speaks about contemporary conditions in Vietnam. Tourism – resort holiday deals but also war tourism spectacle – has been a great part of the country’s economic growth recently, long after the war has been over.

The design and layout of the article were developed together with graphic designer, Dan Solbach and is based on a Vietnamese newspaper called “Thanh Nien”.

Another aspect to consider was the journalistic undertone of the narrator, as the intention was to imagine a ‘truthful’ reporter, rather than a cynical writer. We recognize that journalism is never neutral but comes with interpretation and the background of the author while further relying on assumptions even though only employing “facts” – as Bevins mentioned he often encounters as a writer that you can play with his reader’s assumptions or lead them to certain conclusions without ever really lying. States and its societies produce beliefs and religion, as “an inverted consciousness of the world”(4), to quote Marx. To question these beliefs were part of the project. So we decided to gently prod at the journalistic form itself, critiquing that it always relies on certain perceived wisdoms or traditions to be effective, rather than attacking its content or just satirizing the medium by inserting false truths. The circulation of these new pieces of writing and the friction these information may create in relation to other ones, are a way to ever so slightly shift the pre-existing content. That disturbance of information is central to their creation.

The censorship of the works was a threat and a likely outcome. Indeed, works in another exhibition at Nha San Collective earlier this year have been censored. To write the articles was indirectly a way to address these censorship issues in the country itself. The translation of the articles into Vietnamese could not be straightforward. They were subtly modified. They are not a one to one translation, which attempts to be as close as possible to its source, but rather a loose interpretation of the articles. The compromise we had to take into account was the inaccessibility of the works, when being read from an only Vietnamese-speaking viewer in relation to an English speaker. The sad truth about censorship in this country is that it is self-censorship from the start, as the fear to be censored causes one to take precautions.

The Ghost Tape revealed how the U.S government has lost respect for religious and spiritual beliefs in so far that it was able to weaponize it for its own capital gain. In the same way the Ghost Tape was based on spreading existential fear at the time, today we are experiencing another media crisis, one that is very similarly associated with the manipulation of information.

With the loss of faith in media, recent logics of capital have made us all producers and receivers of capitalizable content. The weaponization of media, produced and consumed by everyone individually through social media outlets, blur the lines between information, judgement, advertisement and propaganda, within the private and the public terrain of one’s individual accounts.

Disinformation, spread deliberately to deceive, is a political issue both countries share. With Vietnam’s Communist Party censoring information and cultural production, and the U.S facing Billionaire President Trump’s tweets and the entire media ecosystem they occupy, starting at the White House, one of our most pressing questions may be: How can we judge information today?

(1) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4d9H_1ygEv8
(2) The Scientific Monthly, Vol. 7, No. 4 (Oct., 1918), pp. 336
(3) See footnote 1
(4) Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1843