Potholes and Corners:Intentions, Desires and Constrains of Cross- and Inter-cultural activities

This paper was a presentation given by jay koh in  Links, Platform and Networks, Hong Kong Art Museum, Hong Kong 2003

Published English and Chinese in Links, Platform and Networks, Publications of Asia Art Archive (AAA), Hong Kong and International Association of Art Critics Hong Kong (AIAC/HK), 2004

In my paper i will discuss some recent projects aimed at networking, forging links and creating independent platforms for the practice of contemporary art in Asia, and from these examples i will try to draw out some points of contentment for the purpose of our discussion here at this forum.

We have witnessed in the recent past the emergence of many cross-cultural and trans-national art projects, such as art biennials and triennials, but i will be focusing on smaller-scale, independently run (as opposed to large national or state-run events), and yet still ambitious projects that attempt to create cross-cultural links by involving participants from many countries. In this category are projects such as the Khoj International Workshop, New Delhi, Britto International Workshops in Dhaka, Asiatopia Performance Art Festival in Bangkok and NIPAF (Nippon International Performance Art Festival).


The emergence and existence of such contemporary sites and projects for networking i think results partly from exclusion of individuals and groups from mainstream agendas of galleries and national art institutions, as well as disagreements with conventional ways of practicing and promoting art activities.


Among other reasons is the lack of opportunity for artist individuals or groups to dictate/influence the direction and objectives of available platforms. The ability to influence, such as offered by these independently initiated activities, is perceived as an indication of being able to achieve certain degrees of independence and autonomy. From an idealistic point of view, such action can be seen as self-liberalising – enabling owners of these platforms and sites to free themselves from the structural impairment of present mainstream conditions.

Such activities have succeeded in gaining institutional support. From the institutional perspective,(for example, state-run art funding council) supporting such platforms will enable the creation of a spectrum of activities that is presently absent or lacking, which will greatly complement the cultural landscape and nurture grass-root activities as part of the diversity of a cosmopolitan society. This is partly a postmodernist social concept, that is, to engage in the development of modern community.


Like all activities and concepts, limitations are part of the story of wonderful possibilities. Due to the cross-cultural engagements that such projects have to undertake, differences must first be acknowledged before moving on to a common platform that should be arrived at through negotiation. For example, in developing the text and discourse for such projects, opportunities should be provided for different readings of texts and interpretation of key terminology to be explored prior to the event in order to lay bare the various nuances and positions that can emerge. This platform should be flexibly structured so as to let new meanings emerge, to be tested and contested.


Artists who become involved with cross-cultural work should also learn to be cross-culturally wise and sensitive in dealing with the different readings and localised responses. They need to understand that meanings and actions are subjected to different readings/interpretations 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.

In light of present knowledge and sensitivities of cultural conflicts (accumulated from personal and collective experiences of the past years), i have tried to ground my personal practice in line with a critically engaged form of art practice, founded on the Critical Theory of the Frankfurt School and the New French Theory of Foucault and Derrida, complemented by the critical theory of cultural studies. It is via the discourse from these theories, from both academic sources as well as from actual practice, that i exercise my critique. i would like to speak on some cases in which i have been an observer and/or collaborator.


The first example is an event that took place in Myanmar in 2000, ‘The 8th Nippon International Performances Art festival – Myanmar’. NIPAF, the acronym for Nippon International Performances Art Festival, is a platform organised primarily by Seiji Shimoda, a Japanese performance artist who has been given an award by the Asian Cultural Council[1] in New York for his work in promoting cross-cultural relations. The 8th NIPAF festival toured Myanmar as a first destination among many other countries. 


In Myanmar the local artists have been conditioned in a society that lacks public discourses and the knowledge to negotiate inter- and cross-culturally. These shortcomings also make them ill equipped to stand up for their own interests, as exemplified by the 8th NIPAF event. On one side, we have Aung Myint and Aye Ko of the Inya Artist Group who have attended other NIPAF events in Hong Kong and Japan. On the other side, a much more experienced Seiji Shimoda who 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 to increase 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 to showcase the work of nine Japanese artists and one US artist, of well-resourced nations joined by four local artists in Yangon and later a different group of four artists in Mandalay.


Most of the foreign 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 wrap ‘Shwe Sein’ (gold leaves) – which are made for the sole purpose of honouring Buddha - 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, kneeled before them and started wailing. i will leave the message of her performance open for interpretation. My point here is that such a cross-cultural project should have pre-event interaction, which can create awareness of cultural sensitivities and potential offensive practices. Of course one can always claim ignorance in one’s defence, but how does this extend cross-cultural dialogue and interaction? And if one’s purpose is to intentionally provoke, contest or be offensive on a cross-cultural platform, then one should take the time to create a discussion platform during the event, to address this area of contestation or to take it further.

In such cases, a simple call by organisers for discussion after the event may not be enough, as one needs to consider the habits of discussion or discourse in that particular cultural setting, and especially if there is already resistance from having been offended by certain acts during the event. For example, in Myanmar, informal and indirect forms of questioning and discussion is preferred to direct ones, and this poses additional challenges to conventional discussion platforms. In the case of the NIPAF event, a post-event call for discussion was not taken up by any members of the audience. From my observation, i can say that the organisers did not invest enough time and attention to cultivate or strategise a conducive or adapted environment or platform for discourse, either in Myanmar or Japan. i can only speculate that Myanmar was sold on the publicity hype as the first ‘station’ stop in the 8th NIPAF, which then moved onto various countries to continue the exploitation of the ‘exotic’ and to sustain personal and Japanese national glory. It also served as a reminder of not-too-distant European, American, Chinese and Japanese colonial experiences, when cultural strategies of assimilation were practised. Is this the neo-colonialism of globalisation and multiculturalism, as described by Kuan-Hsing Chen, 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?[2]


This speculation may be substantiated if one is to examine the history of statements and actions made by Seiji Shimoda, 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 (BIPAF, SIPAF). This was read as an attempt to cultivate a multinational network in the style of multinational corporations. His comment during a talk in Beijing (in June 1999), without substantiation, that performance art is the ‘true’ form of art left leading members of the Chinese art community shaking their heads in disbelief.


My second case study is on the event ‘UP-ricing’, which took place in 2001, and was organised by the Hong Kong-based organisation Museum of Site, or MOST. The touring part of the event involved the participation of artists of Chinese ethnic origins from Mainland China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. The event’s concept paper claimed, ‘Rice is a means of survival. It provides tool and space for the suppressed to confront power and domination, seeking answers in diverse situations. It is a vehicle for artistic and self-expression. It is an Asian aesthetic and discourse, which is an open-ended platform, rather than a statement with a full-stop.’


In the event’s circus-like tour through eight cities in four or five countries[3], feedback from local audiences was that the visiting artists failed to communicate or convince them of rice as a wonder weapon, and they wondered how this all-Chinese troupe could claim this grain as theirs. The reluctance of local artists in some cities to participate in this cross-cultural performance program, and the fact that the brakes were pulled on the program in Beijing after the few initial minutes, showed the shallowness of the concept and the absence of necessary relationship building in order to set up any links, platform or networking. The behaviour of these visiting artists reminds one of imperialistic behaviour. 

In any cross-cultural project, or any project dealing with issues other than one’s personal expression, we have to present the different views and positions of all involved parties, to share knowledge and benefits, as progress is measured when a community or society advance together, and not through the idealisation of just a few. In my above-mentioned critique, i’m interested in the dynamic relations of intercultural differences and in the negotiation of these differences; not static representations of difference.


From the experience gained in my practice i have tried to avoid certain potholes in my work in Myanmar, and yet there emerged new challenges and corners to be manoeuvred. My research into the conditions faced by Myanmar artists and my interaction and negotiation with them began in 1997, when i began to make trips twice a year into the country. Initial activities included the sharing of knowledge by bringing in information, video and print material and showing artworks that Myanmar artists have the desire to know about but no accessibility to. i also began showing their works in Europe and holding discussions on issues on their request. This gradually built up to working together to organise an international symposium named ‘Collaboration, Networking, and Resource-Sharing: Myanmar’ and the ‘Open Academy’ workshops, which took place in June 2002. The event was co-organised by IFIMA (International Forum for InterMedia Art), a platform which i founded in 1996, and the Ayeryawady Art Assembly, an open platform formed initially by two local groups[4] for Myanmar artists to work together to advance the development of contemporary art in Myanmar. A local artists committee was in charge of all local organisation and details. This symposium and workshop was organised to pave the way for and build a foundation for long-term, sustained resource sharing and exchanges between Myanmar artists and foreign counterparts. The Myanmar artists’ long-term vision was to establish an art centre in Yangon.


As a result of the interest generated, the relations built and with remaining funds from the event, the art centre NICA, which stands for Networking and Initiatives for Culture and the Arts, was set up in Yangon at the beginning of 2003. The primary initiatives of the art space are to create a platform for mutual sharing of knowledge and learning across various art disciplines, and to develop collaboration, networking and resource-sharing especially between Myanmar arts and cultural practitioners with those from the region. The main focus is to lay the foundation to enable Myanmar art and cultural practitioners to determine their own directions and organise their own channels and activities.


In spite of action taken to avoid mistakes made before, other problems surfaced, as every site has its complexities, i.e., local knowledge and local power structures, as discussed in Foucault’s theory. Myanmar society is on its way to modernisation and operates in a general atmosphere of low public trust and it is a rumour-based environment, which is an obstacle for openness and creates other interpretations of the concepts of ‘accountability’ and ‘transparency’. It is also a strongly hierarchical society, working in closed ‘family-minded’ ways, that is, through personal relationships, similar to ‘kwan-si’. (Chinese word for connection)


IFIMA insisted on a working model that is more inclusive, open and transparent than the one Myanmar artists are used too. This of course created a site of contestation and resistance. Issues of trust, power contestations, and inability and unwillingness to work with groups outside of one’s own, eventually surfaced to test the artists’ working committees. The committee that worked to organise the CNRM event in 2002 was dissolved after the event, due to the resignation of some members. Another committee was formed to help set up the art centre. This second committee[5] was also dissolved after a short time. The centre is now managed by IFIMA, working with local coordinators and advisors. We are again working on forming a local committee to take over the running of the centre in the near future and we are also training a team of people to run the centre. We do not necessarily view conflicts and break ups in a bad light – they can create opportunities for further development and adaptation of workable, suitable and sustainable solutions, frameworks and structures fitted for each context or site, as well as for the forging of strong, resilient working relationships.


Cross-cultural work can indeed offer opportunities to address healthy and necessary conflicts which will arise, but what is most important is the investing of time, giving attention and developing the know-how to manage these conflicts. The structure and time frame of cross-cultural or trans-locational projects must include avenues for discussion and negotiation, be responsive to local situations, and address areas of differences and contestation, as well as find ways to extend discourses, relationships, and forge strong links and networks. These are all dynamic factors that need to be negotiated at every stage of any project or process.


i can only conclude that there are no fixed rules or theory to follow in setting up any meaningful networks or platform, but the reality of such work demands a constant process of critical negotiation and adaptation to local knowledge and larger structures and discourses that are already in place. 


[1] Asia Society in New York that gave him the award. It is between 1998-2000.

[2] Kuan-Hsing Chen & Ien Ang (Eds), Trajectories: Inter-Asia Cultural Studies (Culture and Communication in Asia), Routledge, New York, 1998, pp 21–22.

[3] I was originally invited to be part of the tour and the forum in Hong Kong. Due to unresolved differences arising from the concept and the organisational framework of the event I withdrew from active participation but still provided logistic support in honour of my obligation to the project.

[4] Inya Artists Group and Gangaw Village Group

[5] Members of Gangaw Village

 [sa1]Meaning happiness, satisfaction?

 [sa2]Would be better not to use ‘behaviour’ twice in one sentence.

 [sa3]Please include English meaning