Entertainment » Culture

Artist Khoi Nguyen Remembers Harvey Milk, One Fingerprint at a Time

by Steve Duffy
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday Dec 11, 2018

On November 27, 1978, LGBTQ activist and San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk was assassinated by Dan White, another city supervisor, in one of the most shocking political murders in American history. To remember Milk, who is seen today as an icon of the gay right's movement, artist Khoi Nguyen has been working on a unique tribute: an interactive portrait of him comprised of some 43,000 fingerprints he has gathered from participants, who include many of Milk's friends and colleagues along with people drawn from all walks of life.

With a PhD in mathematics, Nguyen has linked the portrait to an interactive video that can display the name of each participant, the location of each fingerprint and participant interviews.

In describing the methodology for his work, Nguyen wrote he hoped to "create an oral history utilizing thousands of interviews linked to individual fingerprints forming an interactive painting of Harvey Milk. The painting will travel throughout the world collecting fingerprints of individuals that will be affixed to the painting. Each fingerprint will be linked with a personal video interview recording... The manifestation of this project will be a multimedia interactive experience. In this experience, the observer conducts a chorus of videos embedded into the painting that celebrates our journey, accomplishments and the fight to live without oppression and fear."

In addition to the Milk photograph, Nguyen is working on a photograph of Broadway star and LGBTQ icon Carol Channing that utilizes the same technology.

For an explanation of why he created the painting and how it works, watch this YouTube video:

EDGE spoke to Nguyen recently about his pioneering project that links art and technology while educating and honoring his subjects.

Passionate about art

EDGE: Why Harvey Milk?

Khoi Nguyen: I am gay and as community we didn't have a Martin Luther King. Everyone has their own fight, and Harvey started fighting for us when we needed it. He is one of the most recognizable faces in the LGBT movement. This project is not about him specifically, but the movement that he represents.

EDGE: With a PhD in mathematics, how did art become a passion for you?

Khoi Nguyen: My parents really discouraged me from getting my degree in art, so I went for a degree in mathematics. I do think mathematics speaks to me in a universal sense, but art speaks to me as a human being and how it affects my humanity.

EDGE: How did you develop a system where non-painters can contribute to the painting?

Khoi Nguyen: I would paint and leave small spots throughout the picture, so people can fill in the blanks. My painting is 95% complete then it is very easy to fill in the blank spots. To paint continually and leave empty spots is very hard.

EDGE: How does this new technology contribute to the world of art and painters?

Khoi Nguyen: Well, it's huge. I think a lot of interactive art is very forced. My way is a seamless approach to be able to access each individual fingerprint. I am using a lot of new technology and virtual reality. This type of technology has gained a lot of attention in the last two years.

Finding participants

EDGE: Over 43,000 participants have contributed to the Harvey Milk image. How did you find them?

Khoi Nguyen: I started this project to pay tribute to the people who have laid the foundation for our gay rights. I knew a lot of people who had lived through the AIDS epidemic in the '80s and some who have suffered massive discrimination. They were all happy to help. As the project gained more momentum, more people came forward to help. It has been a joy and a huge labor of love.

EDGE: Each fingerprint is linked to a video interview about LGBTQ issues. What types of issues/stories are being told?

Khoi Nguyen: For anyone who is part of the LGBT community, I wanted the stories to be personal. I wanted to know: "when did you come out?" "When did you know you were gay?" "How hard was it being gay?," and who helped them. For anyone older, who lived through the AIDS epidemic, I wanted to know how that experience was for them and what the younger generation needs to understand about our past.

EDGE: Besides Harvey, you have also created an image of Carol Channing using this technology. Do you have any other projects in the works?

Khoi Nguyen: Not right now. These two projects were huge and took a long time to create. My next project will be something that resonates with my humanity and something that I am very passionate about.

EDGE: How long did it take to create this work of Harvey Milk?

Khoi Nguyen: It took me roughly 6 months to just paint and that was doing it 5 to 6 hours per day. Once that was completed, I had to collect the fingerprints, processing video, and program the interactive technology. In total, about a year.

EDGE: How do you think Harvey would react to Jared Polis becoming the first openly gay man elected to state Governor?

Khoi Nguyen: I think Harvey was a visionary. To be honest, I think he would have expected it to happen. Harvey always believed that we could, and we would.

EDGE: How as working on this project empowered you personally and professionally especially being a gay man?

Khoi Nguyen: Art is never about the final project; it's about the journey. The project itself is just a small glimpse of what you went through. It has showed me to always be grateful to everyone who has paved the road that I now walk on. As human beings, we need to empower each other and add to each other's humanity. We should never hide who we are. We need to continue to push the pendulum towards justice and equality for all.

To view a sample of Nguyen's Harvey Milk project, visit this website.

Actress Alison Arngrim participates with artist Khoi Nguyen on his interactive Carol Channing portrait.


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