The Art of Storytelling with Professor Robin Lasser; Dream Boats: San José Stories – Vietnamese Diaspora

Small paper boats, each carrying a story, float on the koi pond at historic Kelley Park. A zither plays in the background and participants of the Áo Dài Festival showcase the traditional fashion of Vietnam. As the sun begins to set, the dream boats light up the pond with multi-colored LEDs and the trees come to life as projectors cast migration stories upon them.

Dream Boats: San José Stories- Vietnamese Diaspora from Robin Lasser on Vimeo.

Last September, Robin Lasser, Professor of Art and Coordinator of the Photography Program at SJSU, presented an installation documenting the refugees of the Vietnamese Diaspora as part of the Migratory Cultures video projection mapping project. The project—a collaboration between Lasser, Professor G. Craig Hobbs, and many other local and international partners—highlights individuals who want to share personal migration stories with the world. Through Migratory Cultures and her many other projects, Lasser seems to have mastered the art of storytelling.    

The stories begin in the physical world, as something tangible. “I create events, and or social sculptures, spaces, audio experiences that have been aestheticized as a bridge or a link between our stories and something that we’re exploring in the culture, the act of migration,” Lasser says. 

The boats floating in the pond, fashioned after the fishing boats used by many to escape Vietnam, the traditional clothing, the trees themselves—all become physical metaphors that can be interacted with.

“The reason we project [the stories] into the trees is that it’s a way of rooting the migration stories, because those who are sharing the stories are living here in San José and this is now their roots,” Lasser says. “With the boats in the foreground, we’re creating one large dome or diorama, including all of us who are coming as spectators, into one arena to experience these stories.”

Dress Tents, one of Lasser’s other projects, uses a similar method. The tents combine fashion, architecture, and interactive experiences to create spaces where different messages can be examined and explored.

Once the guests are fully “captured” within the arena, the mood is set, the stories begin. With little editing done to the video projections, the voices and the emotions of the migrants are allowed to show. “As somebody who is an outsider of sorts, I hope that I’m a respectful listener, so I try not to interject my own thoughts and feelings about people’s stories, and rather present them as closely as I heard them being shared with me.”

But there is more to the art of storytelling than knowing how to tell a story. Another thing to consider is: why do we need to tell these stories? And why should we tell them now?

“Today we are experiencing the largest waves of human migration since the Second World War,” Lasser says. “So, generally speaking, it’s really important for us to be empathetic towards that condition, because it’s going to be—and is—a major way of life. And it’s extremely important now to have the very powerful voices of those who were brave enough and had the opportunity to make their lives better for themselves and their children.”

The migration stories also allow migrants a form of release. Professor Lasser explains: “One of my biggest desires would be if these stories could allow for a bridge and healing between generations of those who have immigrated earlier in the mid-70s and those who have immigrated yesterday. I think that kind of healing is really important and should happen globally. Healing around our acceptance of who we may consider the ‘other.’”

“As a visual artist, my mode of communication is through aesthetics,” Lasser says. “And that’s really the skill I have to offer, that’s how I enjoy and research and experience the world, and that’s also the gift I have to offer back to the world. It was an extreme honor to be able to listen deeply to these stories and to be able to work with the greater Vietnamese community.”

If you missed the event, please watch the migration stories here. 

So what’s next for Professor Lasser and Migratory Cultures?

She’ll be busy over the next few years with two other installations in the Vietnamese Diaspora series. These projects, curated by Rory Padeken, Associate Curator of the San José Museum of Art, take place on March 21, 2019, 8:30-9:30 PM at the San José Museum of Art and March 23, 2019, 8:30-9:30 PM again at the Viet Museum in historic Kelley Park. 

A new Dress Tent, created in collaboration with Adrienne Pao, is scheduled for some time in 2020 (20-feet tall, with a functional swing!), this time in Brazil. The tent will feature the stories of women living in intensely dynamic cities like São Paulo and their potential power and safety in public spaces.

She’ll also share a solo art exhibit at Oklahoma State University Museum of Art with fellow artists Marguerite Perret and Bruce Scherting in August 2020. But before that, in June 2019, Lasser will be traveling to Paris with Perret to be one of three installations at Sorbonne University. The event, curated by Patrick M. Lydon (an SJSU alum), Stéphane Verlet-Bottéro, and Carmen Bouyer, will be a preview, of sorts, for her next project, The State We’re In: Water. The project focuses on what water means for those in urban environments, farmers, or for third-world nations where the need for fresh water is a huge concern. Like Migratory Cultures and Dress Tents, The State We’re In: Water will utilize social sculptures (a fully-functional wooden dock inscribed with water stories!), sound pieces, photographs, and video projections as a platform to get a larger message across.


The Dream Boats: San José Stories-The Vietnamese Diaspora installation was commissioned by the San José Museum of Art and made possible with support from California Humanities, a non-profit partner of the National Endowment for the Humanities. In partnership with Chopsticks Alley Art and the Áo Dài Festival.

Professor Lasser would also like to thank G. Craig Hobbs, the SJSU College of Humanities & the Arts, those willing to share their stories, and everyone involved in making this project possible. Thank you!


If you want to learn more about Migratory Cultures or any of Professor Lasser’s other projects, check out these links: