By Cody Mello-Klein | [email protected]
Vi Trinh can’t stop thinking about the internet.
As a post-grad artist-in-residence at the Torpedo Factory, Trinh is fascinated by the inner workings and subtle power dynamics of something most people take for granted. Through her interactive digital art, Trinh explores these dynamics of power and control, freedom and restraint, and how they manifest on the internet.
A 2019 graduate from the University of Richmond, Trinh, 23, is one of the youngest artists working at the Torpedo Factory. That hasn’t stopped her from carving out a unique place in the art center’s more traditional artistic milieu.
Trinh works in oil painting, charcoal and water colors, but most of her recent work, which she defines as internet art or net art, stands out in a building full of painters, potters and sculptors.
“Internet art just pushes the boundaries of what art can be, just inherently in its nature,” Trinh said. “I think it’s probably the future of art.”
Born to two refugees from the Vietnam War, Trinh grew up in Fairfax County surrounded by a large extended family that regularly pushed her to explore the arts.
Trinh’s mother kept her entertained with arts and crafts; Trinh’s uncle, who took classes at the TorpedoFactory, eventually introduced her to more traditional forms of art like water coloring.
“Art in and of itself has always been around, but I never thought of it as a very serious professional thing,” Trinh said. “It was just something that we did and was fun and that I enjoyed.”
It wasn’t until she went to University of Richmond that Trinh started to have her artistic awakening. Trinh entered the university as an English major but left with a degree in visual art and leadership.
Trinh took her first art class, on the basics of drawing, as an elective. The class formalized art for Trinh in a way that she had always needed but never knew she wanted, Trinh said. It helped her see art as a discipline worth committing to, not just a hobby to be picked up every now and again.
“I’m still thinking about why I do art. I’m not entirely sure except for the fact that I know that I’m sure,” Trinh said. “… It’s the one thing that I always come back to, I guess.”
For Trinh, art is a place where her flaws – a lack of discipline, disorganization – disappear, she said.
For the first two years of her art program, Trinh avoided doing digital art, she said. She was convinced she would be an oil painter, but digital art became the perfect link between her interest in the arts and her passion for an interdisciplinary analysis of the world.
By the time she reached her senior year, Trinh wanted to feel like an authority on something, so she leapt into the nascent field of internet art with everything she had. Her work is interdisciplinary, drawing from philosophy, sociology, film theory and literature to create online digital art that viewers interact with as they would a video game.
“Escape,” Trinh’s senior thesis, embodied a lot of her ideas about how the internet operates in stark contrast to how it’s perceived.
In “Escape,” viewers enter an underground bunker and attempt to escape through a series of rooms. Each room has a certain number of doors, and the viewer has to choose which door to enter in order to move onto the next room. Viewers eventually get to the “end,” only to get looped back to the beginning.
“It’s interactive for the viewer in the sense that you can interact with it, but in the same way where it’s an interface and not necessarily full control,” Trinh said. “That’s why it constantly loops and that’s why it’s called ‘Escape,’ since you can never escape.”
Both “Escape” and her most recent project, “The Station,” pull as much from rudimentary game design and interactive storytelling as they do from art theory.
“‘Escape’ was definitely more about exclusivity and also about the construction of the internet as we think of it in the modern age,” Trinh said. “It takes it back to its original roots as a tool and a method, not as we think about it now as egalitarian and very democratic but as something that was created by very specific people for very specific people. … It’s definitely that idea of power and power balances. The internet is just a new place where very old power struggles are playing out.”
Much like the internet itself, digital art is both freeing and confining for Trinh. The narrative potential of projects like “Escape” aren’t bound by the physical confines of a studio or access to materials. At the same time, digital artists are at the whim of corporations who publish the necessary software.
“A paint, once you buy it, is yours, but a lot of these programs, Adobe Photoshop, are constantly putting out updates. You rely on them not to cheat you,” Trinh said. “… If Photoshop increased its price by $100, I would have to pay it.”
Net art might be “a new age sort of art for a new age problem,” as Trinh said, but that comes with new age challenges.
“Escape” was only the first entry in a series of interactive narrative art pieces. The second, “The Station,” is still in the works and looks to take Trinh’s ideas to outer space. The eponymous station is a space station built by the ultra-rich who fled an environmentally decimated Earth instead of helping to fix it.
“The Station” is also an evolution of Trinh’s ability as a digital artist and programmer. Although she admits her skills are still rudimentary, Trinh wants to start learning 3D programming to bring her work further into proximity with video games.
“The Station” is an exploration of nostalgia and how it can be used to manipulate people, but it’s also a satire of the ultra-rich. Using two characters, a pair of artificial intelligences who accompany the viewer, Trinh aims to poke fun at those who would construct a private space station rather than help the planet.
When Trinh applied for the Torpedo Factory residency in summer 2019, she had no idea she would get it. She had already been rejected from several residency programs, and the Torpedo Factory program seemed too good to be true, Trinh said.
“I was really hoping to get it because it is perfect. It’s amazing; it’s an amazing place,” Trinh said. “And the Torpedo Factory, I took classes here, so I kind of enshrined it in my memories – my nostalgia, I guess.”
Trinh was accepted into the program in October 2019 and began her three-month residency in January 2020. Her digital art is often in contrast with the work of the Torpedo Factory’s more established, conventional artists.
“I am very aware that I am the youngest person here. I am also very aware that what I do is not considered traditional art by any means,” Trinh said.
Although it can be tiring to be labelled an ambassador for digital art – on top of being an ambassador for young artists and Asian American female artists – Trinh has embraced her temporary place at the Torpedo Factory.
And with her own studio space, Trinh is finally able to see what life as a professional artist can be.
“Right now, art to me is dedication and responsibility,” Trinh said. “Dedication and responsibility is a feeling that I rarely embrace. When I get the feeling of dedication and responsibility, I try to run away from it because who wants to be responsible for something, right? But with art, I never run away from it.” Trinh has made the space her own.
The walls are covered with her oil paintings and charcoal work and a research station where she pins relevant excerpts from existential philosophy, postmodernist theory and art theory. There is even a computer station where passersby can experience “Escape.”
At one point, Trinh proudly points to a wall that is dedicated to a vision board for “The Station.” Colorful post-it notes are organized in a complex pattern.
“I’m actually terribly unorganized about everything except for art. Art has made me a better person I think,” Trinh said.