Art Activism and Cross-cultural Projects in Thailand and Myanmar: The Need to Open up Structures for Engagement. Published in 2002 by Focas (Forum on contemporary art and society) #2, Singapore and later online in the web magazine "Ezine" in

by jay koh


In this article i will outline some preliminary observations of art activist projects from Thailand and Myanmar. i was involved in some of these events as an artist and artist-curator, while in others i was working with groups as an adviser. i have been working in Thailand from 1995 and in Myanmar from 1998 under the organisation 'arting', which began as an art space set up by myself in Cologne in 1991. arting continues to run art projects in Asia and Europe and is now integrated into IFIMA (International Forum for InterMedia Art) founded in 1997. From February 2001, i have been involved in a residency project with The Substation, Singapore, entitled "Investigating Public Engaged Art" together with Chu ChuYuan, who has been involved with IFIMA's activities since early 2000. These views offered below represent my own critical perspective [1] and should be read as a starting point for further discourse.

i define "art activism" as any art initiative with the objective and desire to produce and/or influence change within society, and/or to project messages advocating social change. In cultures where freedom of expression is limited the mere attempt to create a space that can offer possibilities of expression can be considered as "art activism." i will begin by mapping out networks of and projects by activist art groups and art events in (mainly) Myanmar and Thailand, before going on to a further elaboration and evaluation of these groups and their practice.

Arts Activism in Myanmar

The first art group in Myanmar that i would like to introduce is the Gangaw Ywa. "Gangaw" is the name of a sweet fragrant tree that, according to Buddhist belief the next Buddha will reappear under. "Ywa" means village. Gangaw Ywa or Gangaw Village (GV) was founded by art students and graduates of the Yangon University, where one can find an abundance of such trees.

Some members of this group went on to form the Inya Gallery of Art with Aung Myint, while retaining their membership in GV.

GV was formed in 1979 and is today the oldest active art group in Myanmar. Their activities consist mainly of organising contemporary art shows, with both traditional and modern art. Their 12th Gangaw Village group show was held in March 2001. The group's activities were disrupted by social and political problems in the country, with the longest period of non-activity occurring at the end of the socialist period in the 1980s. From 1985, the government abolished all arts activities on campus and they had to move their activities out of the university. The group is currently managed by a group of mostly Yangon-based artists, like Khin Swe Min, together with Tito and San Minn, who are also members of the Inya Artists Group.

GV's members are closely watched, and all of the artists' works are subjected to strict censorship prior to any public showing. The paintings of Swe Min depict images of women in strong or forthright postures. These are considered to be too confrontational, and have been censored by the authorities. San Minn's paintings explore social issues and comment on social vices. One of San Minn's paintings, which contain reference to the Yangon University, a place where many revolutionary ideas originated, was not permitted to be exhibited.

The Inya Artists Group was formed in 1989, shortly thereafter evolving into the only contemporary modern art gallery in Yangon - The Inya Gallery of Art. Significantly, the administrative and decision-making structure in GV rests with the entire group. However in Inya, decision-making often swings in favour of the owner of the Inya Gallery space, Aung Myint. Artists from both groups presently form the oldest generation of contemporary modern artists. Modern art was, however, never taught in any official institution and has not received wide acceptance from the general public. But, some visual images dating back to the earliest civilisations in Myanmar - the Anyartheian Civilisation from the time of Bagan [2] in the Eleventh century - practised the use of coloured patterns [3] that have similarities with those of the semi-abstract art of the west.

Arts Activism in Thailand

"An artist is someone who works with his heart, an intellectual with the mind and a craftsman with the hand." This is a translation of a quote by German philosopher Goethe, words which have inspired Jutha Sucharit, and a description which aptly captures the spirit of the art community that he has founded together with his ex-wife, Somboon Phuangdorkmai. They created Raung Pung Art Community (RPAC) in the Bangkok Chatuchak Weekend Market in about 1984. It is a place free from official or government influence where groups of art lovers and art workers such as painters, sculptors and photographers can come together to exchange ideas, experiences and the understanding of art. At the time, this place was regarded as the most avant-garde space in Bangkok, where artists, musicians, cultural activists and art lovers met to play, talk and work. In 1993, a loose union of people agitating under a common name, the "Bangkok Outsider" (BO) were formed from this group. They began their annual series of events with the Festival of Contemporary Arts to raise funds for disadvantaged children. From BO, another splinter group "Ukabat" (Meteorite) was formed. This became the motivator for organising the later issue-oriented events of BO. [4] Events like Mai Pen Rai-Nuclear (Never Mind-Nuclear), which took place in January 1996 was a protest event against the French nuclear testing in the South Pacific. In 1997, Up Side Down, a protest against "all dirty societies" took place, and in 1998, Never My Land, in Sunday Gallery at Chatuchak Weekend Market, an event that reflected upon the situation in Thailand in the Asian financial crisis. Their latest event was in December 1999 in RPAC, titled Human Pedigree; DNA = DO NOT ART, for which they issued the following statement:

We are in a decay of the end of society and culture, where there is less and less meaning of human pedigree. The whole chaotic constellation of digital image and mass media revolves around human activities, that guidance controllable. We are all accomplices in this myth. There is no more human pedigree in human being. The essential thing today is everyone needs to be another and we are strangers to ourselves. This is the absence of human pedigree.

Other activities in public included demonstrations in front of US fast-food chains. Collaborations with NGOs in events like the protest against the Pak Moon Dam at Moon River, have given Ukabat a lot of media coverage and have made the group well-known both in the arts community and in the official sphere. The group have now expanded their activities to the south (in Krabi).

In early 2000, RPAC was closed. Today activist activities in Bangkok are predominantly those run by Concrete House (CH), founded by Chumpon and Chantavipa Apisuk in the early 1990s. The same couple also initiated The Empower Foundation, which runs programmes for sex workers. In 1995 they organised an event dealing with feminist issues titled Tradisexion, which led to the event, Womanifesto I, in 1996/7. Additionally, they initiated the annual performance event, Asiatopia, which began in 1998. Womanifesto II took place in Saranrom Park in 1999, organised in collaboration with Nittaya Urareeworakul of Studio Xang, who curated the show.

Public Art in Thailand and Myanmar

In Chiangmai, the most notable activist event was the Chiangmai Social Installation (CMSI), which took place in 1992, initiated by a lecturer, Uthit Atimana, from the Faculty of Fine Art at Chiangmai University. CMSI is unique in Asia for its use of public spaces, temples and private spaces to showcase works of art with the objective of introducing contemporary art to the people. The last CMSI was in 1997, but there has been talk of reviving CMSI, as Uthit is now the Vice-Dean and Director of the Chiangmai Art Museum.

Besides local events, artists in Thailand have also engaged in a number of cross-cultural activities. My definition of cross-cultural activities denotes activities involving participants from different cultures, bringing into the interaction differences in values, practices, attitudes, and thinking. These activities are often conceived with the objective to producing greater intercultural understanding and cooperation. An example would be the Performance Art Conference, in Bangkok. This is in stark contrast to the situation in Myanmar, where visitors are not allowed to interact freely with Myanmar people. Any such activity has to be carried out in private viewing, behind closed doors, with limited public access. One recent event that took place was the 8th Nippon International Performance Art Festival (NIPAF). NIPAF is a performance art series organised by their director, Seiji Shimoda. A trademark of this festival is that it is a 'touring circus' festival, covering a selected number of cities in a selected number of countries per festival. All artists spend a day or two in each of the cities in the tour. NIPAF aims to include as many participating artists from as many different countries as possible.

The Motivation and Methodology of Art Activism in Thailand and Myanmar

The creation of artist-run spaces mentioned above was motivated mainly by a need for independent spaces to pursue art activities with as little to no influence from governing bodies. Groups like Ukabat, Gangaw and Inya have afforded their members a place to learn from each other outside of institutional structures, providing a forum for collective action.

The freedom that the Thai artists enjoy in expressing their thoughts comes with that of a young democracy. The tolerance preached in Buddhist teachings also gives the Thai artists a lot more room for expression, as compared with other artists from Southeast Asia. The context in which the Myanmar artists work, in contrast, consists of very limited public accessibility and is military-controlled. However, Thai artists like Vasan Sitthiket have had to apologise publicly for their culturally insensitive works-such as his painting, Buddha Visiting Thailand from 1992. Certain politicians have also branded Vasan Sitthiket's public protests with various interest groups as 'actions of a madman'. Another work by performance artist Paisan Plienbangchang, (also a member of Ukabat), in the show Never My Land at the Sunday Gallery, made use of the Thai flag. After this, the gallery owner received threats from nationalist elements, on grounds that the flag may have been soiled during the performance.

In Myanmar, restrictions are especially tight on artists practising contemporary art forms. Today in Myanmar, artists' primary struggle is to continue doing work, while negotiating a very delicate situation, which restricts their freedom of movement both inside and outside the country, and their freedom to experiment in their work. Myanmar artists are forced to 'hide' behind the facade of what is accepted as 'safe' expressions.

Activism in both countries, especially in Thailand, is expressed in highly charged emotional responses to a variety of social issues/incidents. The activities can be read as an invoking of "universal rights" by the artists as they speak from "privileged" positions about the experiences of Others. Expressions of angst are common in visual works and performances dealing with social grievances. While these works do provoke responses, these may, more often than not, be restricted to silent individual emotional reactions. Moreover, the communication practised here is a one-way, vertical form of communication. There are sporadic attempts to initiate direct involvement and social change, for example, via Ukabat's collaboration with NGOs, but in most activities, there is little attempt to bring about dialogue with the audience and a wider public. Perhaps the objective of these artist-activists is only to bring attention to specific issues, and not to initiate concrete action.

Among the artists and organisers, the potential for further discourse and self-reflection is seldom explored. This is especially the case in spaces and events run by the owners of the Inya gallery in Yangon, and Concrete House in Bangkok, where the ideology of the owners has become the main frame of the activities. Their practice of obtaining concessions for their activities via their favourable connections with certain politicians or persons with social wealth or status are hardly good examples for emerging artists in societies that are plagued with corruption and malpractice. Indeed, these are the very issues they claim to address. The value of these activities seems to rest on the fact that they even take place at all, allowing artists a space in which to agitate. However, documentation of any discourse, conflict or difficulties or even the resolution of these difficulties is absent - preventing those who would wish to learn from these experiences from doing so. For example, incidents which have stirred up tension are good opportunities for cross-cultural dialogue and learning. Japanese artist Masato Nakamura placing yellow, lit up, keyhole-shaped objects originating from the monarchy of Japan in a wat (temple), or the placing of an "imported" work by a Dutch artist beside the lake in Wat Umong during CMSI. The yellow keyhole-shaped lit up objects brought back connections to the invasion of the Japanese army under the name of their imperial monarchy during World War Two where the Thais had had their fair share of hardship. The temple authorities had obliged to the request as a gesture of goodwill after numerous meetings. The other case of bringing in an "imported" work by the Dutch artist was without consultation, neither with the inviting curator nor with the organisers. This resulted in additional bureaucratic work to deal with various authorities-for example the customs. This is a problem in Thai society as dealing with authorities is to be avoided as much as possible. This was especially so in the case of the Chiangmai Social Installation as it took place with resistance from certain city departments. The impatience of the Dutch artist to have his problem solved a.s.a.p. (like at home) created tension among all parties involved and led to losing "face" as no one wanted the responsibility of taking charge whilst the pressure from other participants requiring assistance piled up. More importantly, the artist failed to indicate the relevance of placing such an object on the grounds of a Thai temple. The "imported" work bore no visible, conceptual or performative value as an import and showed no effort on the part of the foreign artist to "understand" the purpose of a cross-cultural friendship project.

However, Uthit, the organiser of CMSI, wished to avoid open discussion or possible confrontation, preferring to fall back on the teachings of Buddhism - those of tolerance, and the ability of each individual to realise his/her mistake through personal contemplation. Clarification was also lacking when some of the works by visiting artists did not relate to the concept of CMSI, which was socially engaged in nature. The failure to create a space for the discussion of the various readings of (or responses to) the event, took away the opportunity for artists and organisers to realise the consequences of other readings. The organisers were not prepared to address such issues. Their interests seem to lie with simply wanting to make a show, accompanied by self-promoting and congratulatory statements, and praise for their pioneering status in organising such events.

Another common practice is that of promoting and supporting young artists, which is a sure way of gaining respect and publicity in Myanmar and Thailand, as teachers enjoy certain social privileges and community respect. The aim of nurturing young artists is commendable, but in events which solely focus on this, room for discourse is limited, as there is a lack of mature and experienced contribution to the potential dialogue. Moreover, young artists and students, being impressionable, can be easily manipulated. Artists working with youth need to take extra care against manipulation, by being more transparent and open about their objectives, working and negotiation processes. Examples of possible manipulation have been demonstrated in projects such as Future in Mind by Jarg Geismer. Supported by Goethe-Bangkok in 1999, Jarg Geismar wanted to collaborate with art students and spent a few weeks working with students from Bangkok University and Chulalongkong University and concluded with a show in the National Gallery with a catalogue and impressive pictures showing activities with these students as result of the collaboration. In a talk i gave on Critical Art Practice in Project 304 in Bangkok (an art space/gallery founded in 1997), some of these students gave their versions of this collaboration with Jarg. They told of Jarg's impatience in working with them and of being shouted at for being "slow" to understand him or in the use of video equipment.

Some artists tend to simplify and glorify some idealistic notions of art, culture, and society without realising the complexity or without questioning the issues that may be involved. Take for example, some of these artists' and organisers' statements: "Deep in our consciousness, we recognise that we have Asian brothers and sisters who live beyond the Everest and Yangzhe river" or "China today is a postmodernist society". [5] Are these statements a reflection of an "Asian" zeitgeist of over-confidence or only an indication of an underdeveloped application of knowledge? Artists in Thailand do not seem to be participating at the same level of discourse as those taking place in Thai institutions of higher learning or among NGOs. On the academic level, there has been criticism of the way that the ruling class manipulates the population by propagating "western" [6] standards of affluence and culture as a kind of incentive to justify current hardship, further strife, and to continue subjugating the population under their leadership. [7] This, however, has not produced further independent discussion of the relationship of art and culture to social development. A deficiency in self-reflective discourses is apparent when problems arise during cross-cultural interactions across internal as well as international boundaries. The communication gap between artists from central or north Thailand with artists and cultural activists from the south has yet to be bridged. Cultural exchange activities with foreign artists, like the Performance Art Conference (PAC) in 1998, have been events that operate mainly in marginal spaces and cater to elite audiences, accessible only to those well-versed in the coded language of art and artists. The conference was organised by the Goethe Institute in Bangkok, in collaboration with Concrete House.

Many events, such as the PAC, illustrate the failure of international cultural institutions, such as the Goethe Institute, to provide a framework for cross-cultural negotiations and to create awareness of cultural sensitivities. An atmosphere of "private grievance and public silence" pervaded among the over 25 participants of the conference throughout the tour. There were grievances over the poor quality of some of the works (as was expressed by a senior art lecturer from Chiangmai) plus the ignorance of the mainly German-speaking group towards the local culture. Some of the Germans who are acquaintances and friends of mine expressed surprise when i questioned them about their knowledge of and consideration of the local culture, and failed to understand how my question was relevant to their participation. Their "just-here-to-show" mentality did not take into consideration local conditions, in their production processes. Their attitude demonstrated that they saw themselves purely as 'cultural tourists' under the inflated banner of 'cultural exchange.' The situation worsened when one of the German artists, Volker Haman, was hospitalised due to his careless use of a local pyrotechnic product, causing the Thai translator to be injured too. The attitude of most of his fellow German artists towards the incident has laid bare different cultural attitudes, which in turn led to disapproval and disbelief of the Thai community towards the visitors.

Most of the German contingent wanted to banish Volker from the event and send him home for having "sabotaged" the event by creating the incident and refused to visit him in the hospital. This attitude was viewed by the Thai artists as uncivilised, for they valued friendship and togetherness and questioned why Volker was treated so badly. The argument here is not about guarding "cultural sensitivities" but that cross-cultural projects are a lot more than an opportunity to show one's work in a foreign space, and that much more time, energy and attention need to have been placed on engaging cultural differences. In the post mortem in Cologne, the organiser and most of the participating foreign artists unanimously agreed that they would not plan any more activities in this unprepared manner and realised their mistakes.

Another event of cultural exchange that needs to be mentioned is Alter Ego, which took place in 1999, organised by the Silapakorn Academy, Bangkok and the European Community. The event was intended to be a collaboration between European Union (EU) artists and Thai artists, but since this is the first platform in which artists represented the newly formed EU, the event was also an opportunity to showcase the artistic and cultural "unity"of the European countries. The imbalance of this one-way exchange could be attributed to differences in resources available to the two parties. For the first time, the European countries came together as a united front, but their position/representation was weakened by the disorganised working process, whereby each of the EU members chose and funded their artists through different arrangements. This produced varying amounts of working time for European artists to spend with their local counterparts, and different attitudes towards meaningful dialogue and building relationships.

Thai artists with international experience like Kamol Phaosawasdi and Chatchai Puipia, initiated talks to explain local customs, cultural practices and taboos to their counterparts. However, some European artists responded either with indifference, or with inflammatory remarks on modern art in Thailand. The inflammatory remark by one of a pair of artists was not given in a discourse or in a work, but during a getting-to-know-you tour in the campus area showing the different facilities available for art production and education. The remark of, "Don't waste our time any longer by showing us your primitive facilities of modern art. We have a much more longer history - so just bring us to our studio and leave us alone." This incident, of course, resulted in the early departure of the artist who made the remark. The same artists also created a work titled Sport and Drug Society, which reflected cultural prejudice. Provocation can be good impetus for discourse, and works which just function as 'critical attack' may be valuable in certain situations but in the context of this particular intercultural collaboration, the artist's critical intention was read as of an ill nature and not contributive towards discourse. [8] Incidents such as these have led Thai artists to believe that the foreign artists had deliberately intended to insult them. No open discussion took place to air or clear these differences. Media coverage simply hyped up the events to ensure that such "cultural exchange" continues to be supported and practised.

Traditional Thai hospitality [9] strives to make foreign visitors feel welcomed. Misunderstandings can easily come about because guests' wishes are normally accommodated, but silence and smiles do not always denote consent. The Thai and Myanmar artists who become involved with cross-cultural work should also learn to be cross-culturally wise in handling such exchanges. Artists working in cross-cultural settings need to understand that meanings and actions are subjected to and need to negotiate with different readings in different cultures. Otherwise, they are reinforcing the greatest myth in art: that art is a 'universal' language that can cross all international barriers.

The lack of open discourse in events such as those of Gangaw Village, CMSI and Asiatopia contradict the artists'/organisers' claimed intentions to speak up on social issues and bring about changes in society, or to initiate cultural exchange. These shortcomings also made them ill-equipped to stand up for their own interests, as exemplified in the performance art event, NIPAF. On one side, we have Aung Myint and Aye Ko of the Inya Group who have attended other NIPAF events in Hong Kong and Japan. On the other side, a much experienced Seiji Simoda claims to be promoting contemporary performance art in as many countries as possible. The event organisers claimed to be helping Myanmar to set up a platform for performance art and increasing Myanmar artists' exposure to performance art and to the world. Naming the event The 8th Nippon International Performances Art festival ? Myanmar hardly appears to denote respect for the independence of the artists in Myanmar. The event turned out to be an opportunity for the showcasing of works by artists from well-resourced nations. Most of the works seemed to have been conceptualised outside of the Myanmar experience, and reflect the artists' insensitivity to cross-cultural negotiations. The perceived self-indulgence and belief in the myth of the privilege of the artist as a "universal spokesperson" or "to speak about social injustice" climaxed with the performances of Morgan O'Hara. She used Burmese craftsmen, reduced to mere props by the passive display of their activity in her performances, and asked them to use "Schwee Sein"(gold leaves) that are made for the sole purpose of honouring the Buddha, to be wrapped around slippers, which were also used as props in her performances. She then placed dolls representing all of Myanmar's ethnic groups on a platform, then kneeled before them and started wailing. i will leave the message of her performance open for interpretation but i feel the Myanmar organiser should have told her about the offensive nature of using the "Schwee Sein" in that manner, which was related to me by some members of the audience.

The call for discussions by the organisers was not followed up by any members of the audience, as these organisers had not cultivated a practice of discourse, either in Myanmar or Japan. i can only speculate that Myanmar was being sold in the publicity hype as the first "station" stop in the 8th annual event of NIPAF, which will now move onto various countries to continue the exploitation of the 'exotic' and to sustain personal and Japanese national glory. It also serves as a reminder of not-too-distant European, American, Chinese and Japanese colonial experiences, when the cultural strategies of assimilation were practised. Is this the neo-colonialism of globalisation and multiculturalism, which recognises and insists on cultural differences, for a cultural strategy of peaceful co-existence on the surface, while it in fact promotes identification with the self in the form of nativism, civilisationalism and identity politics? [10] This speculation may be substantiated if one is to examine the history of statements and actions made by Seiji Simoda, when he proclaimed to have "discovered" a young artist from Vietnam, and when he suggested that similar events in Bangkok, Singapore and Jakarta be named after NIPAF (e.g., BIPAF, SIPAF). Further, his comment that performance art is the 'true' form of art in Beijing (June 1999), angered the Chinese art community. [11]

In any cross-cultural project, or any project dealing with issues other than one's personal expression, we have to present different views and positions of all parties involved, to share knowledge and credit, as progress is measured when a community or society advance together, and not through the idealisation of just a few. In my above-mentioned critiques, i'm interested in the dynamic relations of intercultural differences and not static representations of difference. The historical trajectories that have created and uphold these differences are the targets of my scrutiny and issues of my debates. So it is not just what you are or what you have that is important, but also the positions that you take - where you come from and where you are going - including the rate at which you are getting there. 


1 koh, jay, Critical Art Practice as a Case Study; A Step Crossing ... Appropriate & Propagate, Sub-Versions
Lee Weng Choy, Audrey Wong and jay koh (eds), Singapore: The Substation, forthcoming 2001.
i use the term Critical Art Practice (CAP) to begin building up some principles used to evaluate my own individual practice, and to inform my art criticism. i applied the principles of CAP in my recent installation work in Jyvaskyla, Finland, 2000 and in the group project The Other X/change in Beijing and Cologne. My activities under Engaged Art include collaborations with Myanmar artists in showing their works under the Oriental Curtain exhibition, held in 1999 in Galerie ON/Cologne and in 2001 in Varkaus Art Museum/Varkaus, Finland. Working with Thai artists, i curated a project titled The Other Critic in 1997, which took place in Cologne, Kassel and Munich, and another project, Visual Culture: Tourist Industry in 2000, held at Stadtpark Forum, Graz/Austria. IFIMA's current activities in Southeast Asia include assisting Myanmar and Cambodian artists in setting up independent art centres in Yangon and Phnom Penh respectively.

2. Bagan, previously known as Pagan, was the capital of the Pyu kingdom. It also denotes an archaeological period, today the outskirts of the town Bagan (West Myanmar) its beautiful ruins, rivals Angkor Wat as one of the most important heritage sites in the world and depict the influence of Bayon, Khmer and Indian civilisations

3. Khin Swe Win, Modern Art in Myanmar, a thesis for her French Language Diploma.

4. jay koh, Vasan Sitthiket-His Activism and The Ukabat Group, INTER ART ACTUEL, Les Šditions Intervention, ed. Richard Martel, QuČbec, forthcoming 2001.

5. Quotations taken from Asiatopia 2000 catalogue, Bangkok

6. Western ideas and influence were introduced to Thai culture from the time of King Chulalongkorn, beginning with his visits to Europe in 1897 and 1907. Even with today's understanding of globalisation, for many Thais, material pursuits and measurement of success and goals of the 'new economy' are still categorised under 'western' influences.

7. Thanom Chapakdee, Ideology and Contemporary Art in Thailand, 1950-1990s, Thesis for MA in The Kent Institute of Art & Design, Canterbury, Kent 1997/8. Chapakdee is a lecturer with Rangsit University and member of the Ukabat group.

8 Paul Michael Luetzeler reports in Der postkoloniale Blick, (The Postcolonial Gaze) from Die Neue Rundschau/1996, Frankfurt, on how German authors and intellectuals travel to the Third World since the 1970s with the good intentions of bringing critical attention to the problems of the Third World, reducing prejudice against foreign cultures and reducing inhumane conditions. They make it a point to have contact with local counterparts in the Third World countries. The question is, "do the locals benefit from such intercourse of short duration?" This practice continues today where even students from western and developed countries hunt for information from intellectuals and NGO's from Third World countries without realising that these people who are earning a fraction of the western rate have to make much time to entertain these debates and are seldom even credited for their help, much less be invited to partake in the financial and publicity benefits of the authors.

9. This statement is not meant to be representative of 'Asian values', but an observation of a widely adopted practices in many countries of Asia, especially in countries like Thailand, where the government actively encourages hospitality to attract the tourist dollar.

10 Kuan-Hsing Chen, Trajectories, Inter-Asia Cultural Studies, Routledge, New York, 1998. pp. 21-22.

11. i have only worked in a few Chinese cities such as Beijing, Guangzhou and Hong Kong and have only recently been to Hanoi, appointed as adviser to the League of Khmer Artists in Phnom Penh. So far my experiences with these places do not make me qualified to comment on the state of arts activism in these contexts, although i can make some general observations. Similarities do exist with the artists in these cities, who want to be able to work freely, without interference from the government. Otherwise the complexity of each place is dictated by individual historical developments. In Beijing, independent spaces have existed for only a short period, as they have to be constantly watchful and ready to switch their events from public to private to avoid different forms of censorship. The only independent space known to me in Guangzhou - Liberia Borges - closed down last year.

Hanoi has seen the emergence of a few independent art shows and spaces, like the events organised by Tran Luong in the Nhasan (minority house): My Thuat & Phuc Che, and by Dao Anh Khanh in another communal artists' space in the Gialam district. A more established space is Natasha's Salon, run by Russian-born Natalia Kraevskaia and her husband,Vietnamese artist Vu Zan Than, which is officially an artist's private studio space. Although they are primarily commercial in nature, they have organised interesting exhibitions and performances by some of the more critical young artists of Hanoi. The Vietnamese 'alternative' art scene is however quite fragmented due to competition, jealousies and secrecies in a blooming art market and the government's strict surveillance. In my opinion, artists and organisers there are not yet able to carry out any effective activist work. Artists from Phnom Penh are are still suffering from a state of paralysis and fear caused by their recent sad history of bloodshed. They just wish for space to showcase their work and are not ready to participate in discourses that will dig up more ballast. However, they have begun to take steps towards self-organisation, as exemplified by the efforts of the Khmer League of Artists to set up and run an independent art space. Whether these spaces will emerge as platforms for discourses or to merely satisfy the western thirst for exotic art forms, or whether they will be suppressed by various government agendas, remains to be seen.

First Published in Forum on Contemporary Art & Society (FOCAS) No.2
More information on FOCAS available here

Note on the use of " i "

jay koh has requested that in his essay we print the first person singular as a lower case "i", rather than an upper case "I". As we were not in complete agreement about this, we have decided to print an edited version of our correspondence on the subject below:

An "i" for an "I"

Lucy Davis: jay, although I respect your intention, breaking this convention might backfire. My objection is that it draws attention to the fact that, "Oh look at me i'm being so modest", and therefore has the paradoxical effect of sounding rather egocentric.

jay koh: It is certainly okay if others want to read it as bringing attention to, "look, i'm modest", which is the way it would be commonly read in the west. However, my intention is to bring awareness to the difference in the social culture of representing the individual as reflected in the languages between Western and Asian cultures. As to my knowledge, in most, if not all, Asian languages, the pronoun "i" is not written in the upper case. This is a registration of this cultural difference for further discourse.

Lucy Davis: I don't quite buy the 'It's an Asian thing'. It's also a non-anglo European language thing-this is not really the point. We are talking about a journal that unfortunately, inevitably targets a readership of more or less cosmopolitan artists and intellectuals who already know the codes of international standard English and who don't think that everybody who writes an uppercase "I" is on an ego trip, or that they're being irreverent to various cultural hierarchies of speech. Now if you had chosen to write the whole article in say, Thai English or Singlish-as a statement about the homogenising linguicism of standard English, then that would have been an interesting political argument in it's own right. Alternately, if you had chosen to write the whole essay in e-mail English, where vowels and syllables and caps are dropped at random, as an argument-say about the Orwellian repercussions of internet language-then that again would have been interesting. Here, as far as I can see, you are just embellishing a standard English text by drawing attention to the "i". Of course bell hooks and others also write like this but frankly I find it quite pretentious.

jay koh: In the first place, the fact that this article is written in the standard English discourse is not really as a matter of choice, given that there is a history to English having been adopted as a common language for journals such as focas. It is precisely because this forum is conducted in standard English, that i should use it as a platform to bring up certain issues for consideration/discourse. If i had written in Thai English or Singlish, it would have had a different impact altogether; it may have been considered a 'marginalised' discourse. It would have been read as a liberty taken in an intentionally "differentiated" discourse, as a "normal" practice in an "other" discourse and the point would not have come across.

Lucy Davis: I do agree with you here.

jay koh: "International standards" and conventions did not innocently get there by themselves. By the fact that they are taken as 'standard', familiar and accepted, they are capable of concealing the processes by which they have arrived where they are, and the continuing interests to keep these in place. The point that i am making is not that "everybody who writes an uppercase "I" is on an ego trip, or being irreverent to various cultural hierarchies of speech". Neither am i suggesting that everyone should now start writing "i" instead of "I", or that by doing that, it automatically means they are being reverent of different cultural practices. i am using this substitute of "I"for "i" as a strategy to register a parallel discourse which addresses the need to expose certain privileged positions, which entails being aware of these concealed, but entrenched,privileges, bias, or ignorance.