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Liberation Radio: The Ultimate Message of Peace Through Audio Broadcast

An audio-visual installation at Manzi Exhibition Space followed in the footsteps of the American military deserters who opposed the war in Vietnam.

Nearly a decade ago, British writer Matthew Sweet was researching a book about a group of American military deserters who sought asylum in Sweden when he encountered a little-known story about the American War.

“Because they either deserted from Vietnam or they were in an existing group going there in the first place, they formed this group in Stockholm,” Sweet, author of Operation Chaos: The Vietnam Deserters Who Fought the CIA, the Brainwashers, and Each Other, tells Urbanist Hanoi in a Zoom interview.

The story served as inspiration for Sweet to team up with filmmaker Esther Johnson and sound artist Nhung Nguyễn to create “Liberation Radio,” an audio-visual installation that was recently displayed at Manzi Exhibition Space in Hanoi.

A little-known story

Made up of found footage, original recordings and interviews with surviving deserters and journalists, the work tells of the American military deserters’ attempts to persuade their comrades to leave the war through radio tapes.

“I interviewed lots of them about their experiences. And I found in an archive in Sweden evidence that they had been working on radio programs that were broadcast from Hanoi,” Sweet said. “And very fortunate that some of the guys who made these programs were still around, so they could tell me about what they’d done, and one of them, Vincent Strollo, is really part of these shows.”

Vincent Strollo (front row, far left) and the American Deserters Committee, Stockholm, 1968.

Strollo and his friends went to the "north Vietnamese mission" in Stockholm and made a bold proposal: to fight for this side, instead of the American army. The request was turned down, but they were asked to make a radio program instead, “which would really be about encouraging other American soldiers to desert,” Sweet says.

“And so they made these tapes, a mixture of pop music at that time, and these very radical, revolutionary messages saying ‘hijack a plane,’ ‘hold your own peace conference’, ‘get out of this’ or whatever way they can. And these tapes were sent by diplomatic bags to Hanoi where they’d be broadcast on Liberation Radio.”

Liberation Radio (Đài phát thanh Giải phóng) was a revolutionary radio station established in 1962 in Vietnam which broadcast across the country throughout the war until 1976. The eponymous installation replayed these messages and, in a way, conveyed a well-meaning message of peace from the other side of the war.

Still from the visual component of the installation.

A sinister feel

Hanoi is bathed in bright summer light, but none of this positive energy enters Manzi Exhibition Space, where “Liberation Radio” is stationed. The room was dark. Johnson’s film is shown on a projection screen, and Nhung’s soundtrack is amplified by an RCA Victor radio which she bought from an antique collector in Ho Chi Minh City.

Directly in front of the screen and the radio is the final piece of the installation: a small stool enclosed in an open-sided box. The audience is meant to sit in isolation while the sound and picture bombard them straight on. It was disorienting at the least, and frightful at the worst. Nhung calls it: “The best seat in the house to get the full experience.”

The installation. Photo via Empathy Museum (left) and Nhung (right).

The aim was to reconstruct the atmosphere of paranoia and the anxieties caused by the war, the inspiration for which Johnson got from American films made in the 1970s such as The Parallax View by Alan Pakula, and Richard Nixon’s TV ad campaign in 1968.

“There’s this one scene in Parallax View where the main character goes into this very ominous, dark room. And this film is kind of a very brainwashing film,” says Johnson, a British artist who works with moving images, audio, and photography. “And it uses [...] quite a lot of different stock images of the time, and it has all types of typography and kind of breaks up into ideas of war, love, friendship — these kinds of big themes. And that was a real key inspiration.”

To create the 10-minute film for the installation, Johnson looked at 400 films, and the final version was made up of clips from 52 different titles — most of them American, some Swedish.

“I made a list of all sorts of things that I thought would be good: planes, clocks, some of those little things that you see in the beginnings and ends of archive films such as the numbers, little print marks, little details that you might ignore but, somehow to me, suggested something about this mysterious, under-covered activity,” she says. “And another thing, the use of texts within the film was quite important, which picks up from the script [of the original broadcast] — certain keywords in the script — but also I looked for footage that has certain typography or messages in there."

Original script cards of Liberation Radio.

"Some of the films are really US army films made during that time, like training films I think, and I quite like the idea of using some of that but turning it on its head, for a different message of the opposite side," she explains. "And then of course it was choosing footage that has rhythms that you can play with, quite strongly with the soundtrack, so they are not separate, hopefully, they are kind of fused. And there are certain moments where they’re kind of synced together. So that was the goal."

A roundabout process

Sweet, Johnson and Nhung met in the UK in 2018 while taking part in the British Council’s FAMLAB initiative. Then, in 2019, they met again in Hanoi on another British Council initiative for creative practitioners. The 23-year-old Nhung was hooked the first time she heard the story of the American deserters.

The Vietnamese self-taught sound artist recalls: “When I met Matthew in Hanoi two years ago and heard that story, I thought ‘Wow, that’s so cool.’ And he said: ‘Do you want to make an artwork from that?’, I said: ‘Hey that’s difficult, but I’ll try, of course.’”

“I was very interested in the story because I grew up with lots of history books from a very young age, so that’s one of the reasons I decided to take part,” she adds. “And after that, I got tons of materials, research materials to read and to listen to; a lot of interviews, audio recordings, and his book, and a lot of reading materials.”

It took Nhung eight months to research and form a structure for the installation’s soundtrack.

“I tried to collect and divide long interview recordings into small bits that I then cut and processed later into the order of the audio composition. And then other sound devices arrived with both the recordings in Vietnam and Sweden, a couple of pre-recordings from the UK from Esther, and then post-production,” she shares.

A recording of Hằng Nguyễn, who worked for Liberation Radio in 1972.

Working together during COVID-19 was difficult, and the three creatives had to rely a lot on online tools. Johnson says: “I think it’s really important that we had met in person before all of these. We formed an understanding of each other’s practice and approach to work, and interest, and sensibility. The initial hope was that we would be there in Hanoi and install it with Nhung, but that hasn’t been possible, of course. So we’d have to just find other ways, and Nhung has had a lot more work to do on the ground and seek all kinds of help in Hanoi.”

Sweet agreed the process was not what they expected. But one consolation is it “strangely replicated the story of the original event.”

“Because what happened was I went to gather the material in Sweden, they got sent to this long, strange route, and then emerged in Hanoi. With all the frustrations of it, there’s something quite satisfying about that.”

More information about Liberation Radio can be found on the project’s Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter pages. 

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