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What do you actually do? – Sung Tieu

“The whole of Berlin used to be like this,” murmurs Sung Tieu as she peers into an abandoned building covered with graffiti and dust. We’re in West Berlin to climb Teufelsberg, a man-made hill that offers a grand 360-degree view of the city, and we’ve stopped to see the remains of the former American listening station positioned partway along the trail. Famous for its golf ball–like radomes, the station was used to intercept, listen to, and disrupt radio signals from the Eastern Bloc during the Cold War. Nearby, another visitor is playing with a drone and I’m reminded of how much warfare has changed in the intervening years. I ask Tieu—whose research-based work often explores instances of conflict in expansive installations comprising sculpture, text, and sound—if she’s ever made work about unmanned aerial vehicles. “No,” she replies firmly. “I’m not so much interested in the weapons themselves—it’s their psychological effects that concern me.”

It’s true that there are no visible signs of weaponry in the German-Vietnamese artist’s visual output, but the threat of violence is everywhere. Her recent exhibition at Nottingham Contemporary looks specifically at sonic warfare through the lens of the so-called Havana Syndrome, the name given to a series of symptoms that were apparently experienced by the staff of the U.S. and Canadian embassies in Cuba after being subjected to aural assaults. First reported in 2016, the Trump administration considers the series of acoustic attacks to have been politically motivated and carried out by the Cuban government. Tieu was initially interested in this phenomenon, she tells me, because unlike other sonic weapons, which are mostly created by turning the volume up, the sound that ‘caused’ the Havana Syndrome was, in many cases, indistinguishable from other background noises. Is the weapon real? Tieu’s not so sure. Yet she was curious enough to expose herself to a reconstruction of the sonic attack, the results of which are displayed in a series of brain scans at the entrance of the exhibition.

Tieu’s interest in the psychological effects of sonic warfare can be traced back to a visit she took to the Hien-Luong Bridge in central Vietnam in 2016. It’s there that Tieu first heard the story of Ghost Tape No. 10, an audio recording made by the U.S. Army that featured a Vietnamese man purportedly killed on the battlefield. Played by a Vietnamese voice actor, the ghostly figure implored his fellow comrades to flee or risk being killed in action. Similar tactics were used in World War II, when the Allies played audio recordings of tanks in an attempt to trick German soldiers into thinking they were outnumbered. But what made this technique novel during the war in Vietnam is that the recording capitalized on the commonly held Vietnamese spiritual belief that without proper burial rites the souls of the dead are trapped in an eternal hell and will never rest. Tieu has a begrudging respect for the diabolical cleverness of this operation: “Tapping into this well-known belief was so effective that people in Vietnam are still looking for the bones of their relatives today,” she says, sadly. “It’s a big business.’”

The irony that the U.S. has accused another nation of something they themselves have admitted to doing is not lost on Tieu. In Nottingham, she bridges these two stories together through four fabricated newspaper articles—part of the artist’s series Newspaper 1969 – ongoing—contained in vertical TV screens spread throughout the space. By positioning an article on PSYOPS, the style of operations that led to Ghost Tape 10, alongside a report detailing the political fallout of the alleged attack in Havana, Tieu shows the various ways in which U.S. diplomatic relations are still tied to Cold War ideologies. “The whole relationship between America and Cuba is still based on the ideological threat communism supposedly poses to the American way of life,” she says.

By participating in an ever-growing number of unwinnable wars—against communism, terror, crime, drugs—governments can slowly chip away at their citizens’ rights while at the same time claiming to protect them. But in order for this to work, people need to be kept in a constant state of hyper vigilance against possible threats to their way of life. Cleaved in half by concrete pillars and fencing, this paranoia is reflected in Tieu’s oppressive exhibition design, as well as in a number of sculptures scattered throughout the space. Made up of military-style clothing, these sculptures and their dispersal reflects the post-9/11 fear of bombs being left in unattended luggage in public spaces—a threat that Tieu became aware of when she moved to London in 2015. When the artist first showed a similar work at her 2018 exhibition at The Royal Academy, each object was accompanied by a different field recording. “You might hear the sound of crickets,” Tieu explains, “then a helicopter comes in, mixed with the sounds of fireworks going off and you suddenly feel as if you are in a danger zone. For someone who might have experienced a trauma, even harmless noises can be associated with danger."

Since then sound has been a reoccurring element in Tieu’s multilayered installations. As viewers weave their way around her exhibition in Nottingham, they are accompanied by a multichannel sound work, made in collaboration with composer Ville Haimala and psychologist Christian Sumner, which is based on Tieu’s brain waves captured with an EEG scanner while subjecting herself to a recreation of the Havana Syndrome sonic attack. She might have come out of the experiments seemingly unscathed, but amongst the array of conflicting information and conspiracy theories, it’s impossible not to question her version of events. After spending time in Tieu’s orbit, threats loom all around: every unattended bag a bomb, every drone hobbyist a possible enemy combatant.

Sung Tieu is a German / Vietnamese-artist based in Berlin and London. She studied at the HFBK from 2009-2013 in the class of Andreas Slominski. Recent solo exhibitions include In Cold Print at Nottingham Contemporary, and Zugzwang at Haus der Kunst, Munich, both 2020.

HFBK graduate Chloe Stead, together with the photographer and also HFBK graduate Jens Franke, met former HFBK students to talk about work, life and art.

Annette Wehrmann, photography from the series Blumensprengungen, 1991-95; photo: Ort des Gegen e.V.

Conference: Counter-Monuments and Para-Monuments.

The international conference at HFBK Hamburg on December 2-4, 2021 – jointly conceived by Nora Sternfeld and Michaela Melián –, is dedicated to the history of artistic counter-monuments and forms of protest, discusses aesthetics of memory and historical manifestations in public space, and asks about para-monuments for the present.

23 Fragen des Institutional Questionaire, grafisch umgesetzt von Ran Altamirano auf den Türgläsern der HFBK Hamburg zur Jahresausstellung 2021; photo: Charlotte Spiegelfeld


Who speaks? Who paints which motif? Who is shown, who is not? Questions of identity politics play an important role in art and thus also at the HFBK Hamburg. In the current issue, the university's own Lerchenfeld magazine highlights university structures as well as student initiatives that deal with diversity and identity.

Grafik: Tim Ballaschke

Start of semester

After three semesters of hybrid teaching under pandemic conditions, we are finally about to start another semester of presence. We welcome all new students and teachers at the HFBK Hamburg and cordially invite you to the opening of the academic year 2020/21, which this year will be accompanied by a guest lecture by ruangrupa.

Graphic design: Sam Kim, picture in the background: Sofia Mascate, photo: Marie-Theres Böhmker

Graduate Show 2021: All Good Things Come to an End

From September 24 to 26, the more than 150 Bachelor's and Master's graduates of the class of 2020/21 will present their final projects as part of the Graduate Show at the HFBK Hamburg. We would like to thank all visitors and participants.

photo: Klaus Frahm

Summer Break

The HFBK Hamburg is in the lecture-free period, many students and teachers are on summer vacation, art institutions have summer break. This is a good opportunity to read and see a variety of things:

ASA Open Studio 2019, Karolinenstraße 2a, Haus 5; photo: Matthew Muir

Live und in Farbe: die ASA Open Studios im Juni 2021

Since 2010, the HFBK has organised the international exchange programme Art School Alliance. It enables HFBK students to spend a semester abroad at renowned partner universities and, vice versa, invites international art students to the HFBK. At the end of their stay in Hamburg, the students exhibit their work in the Open Studios in Karolinenstraße, which are now open again to the art-interested public.

Studiengruppe Prof. Dr. Anja Steidinger, Was animiert uns?, 2021, Mediathek der HFBK Hamburg, Filmstill

Unlearning: Wartenau Assemblies

The art education professors Nora Sternfeld and Anja Steidinger initiated the format "Wartenau Assemblies". It oscillates between art, education, research and activism. Complementing this open space for action, there is now a dedicated website that accompanies the discourses, conversations and events.

Ausstellungsansicht "Schule der Folgenlosigkeit. Übungen für ein anderes Leben" im Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg; photo: Maximilian Schwarzmann

School of No Consequences

Everyone is talking about consequences: The consequences of climate change, the Corona pandemic or digitalization. Friedrich von Borries (professor of design theory), on the other hand, is dedicated to consequence-free design. In “School of No Consequences. Exercises for a New Life” at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg, he links collection objects with a "self-learning room" set up especially for the exhibition in such a way that a new perspective on "sustainability" emerges and supposedly universally valid ideas of a "proper life" are questioned.

Annual Exhibition 2021 at the HFBK

Annual exhibition a bit different: From February 12- 14, 2021 students at the Hamburg University of Fine Arts, together with their professors, had developed a variety of presentations on different communication channels. The formats ranged from streamed live performances to video programs, radio broadcasts, a telephone hotline, online conferences, and a web store for editions. In addition, isolated interventions could be discovered in the outdoor space of the HFBK and in the city.

Public Information Day 2021

How do I become an art student? How does the application process work? Can I also study to become a teacher at the HFBK? These and other questions about studying art were answered by professors, students and staff at the HFBK during the Public Information Day on February 13, 2021. In addition, there will be an appointment specifically for English-speaking prospective students on February 23 at 2 pm.

Katja Pilipenko

Semestereröffnung und Hiscox-Preisverleihung 2020

On the evening of November 4, the HFBK celebrated the opening of the academic year 2020/21 as well as the awarding of the Hiscox Art Prize in a livestream - offline with enough distance and yet together online.

Exhibition Transparencies with works by Elena Crijnen, Annika Faescke, Svenja Frank, Francis Kussatz, Anne Meerpohl, Elisa Nessler, Julia Nordholz, Florentine Pahl, Cristina Rüesch, Janka Schubert, Wiebke Schwarzhans, Rosa Thiemer, Lea van Hall. Organized by Prof. Verena Issel and Fabian Hesse; photo: Screenshot

Teaching Art Online at the HFBK

How the university brings together its artistic interdisciplinary study structure with digital formats and their possibilities.

Alltagsrealität oder Klischee?; photo: Tim Albrecht

HFBK Graduate Survey

Studying art - and what comes next? The clichéd images stand their ground: Those who have studied art either become taxi drivers, work in a bar or marry rich. But only very few people could really live from art – especially in times of global crises. The HFBK Hamburg wanted to know more about this and commissioned the Faculty of Economics and Social Sciences at the University of Hamburg to conduct a broad-based survey of its graduates from the last 15 years.

Ausstellung Social Design, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg, Teilansicht; photo: MKG Hamburg

How political is Social Design?

Social Design, as its own claim is often formulated, wants to address social grievances and ideally change them. Therefore, it sees itself as critical of society – and at the same time optimizes the existing. So what is the political dimension of Social Design – is it a motor for change or does it contribute to stabilizing and normalizing existing injustices?