Internal Change: ARC project at Bangkok, Thailand
Dr. Jay Koh and ARC in Bangkok
“The challenges lie in introducing new ways of working and understanding the use of art activities as means to work with people and not “for” or “about” them. For my part, there is a lot of relearning to do in allowing acceptance for others’ pace in doing and achieving things.” Jay Koh is answering my question about his involvement in what has variously been titled relational, dialogical, social and participatory art. Distinctions between these mantles might be parsed but collaboration and not categorization is the core interest.
Singapore-born Koh has been instigating projects since the early 1990s that draw on ideas and ideals of community, examining the promises and problems of bringing people together in order to move forward together. As his comment above claims, this involves a persistent re-thinking of the function of art, as well as attentiveness to process over product.
Koh travels almost constantly but for the moment is mostly in Bangkok to establish ARC Station in Bang Mot, a southern district of the sprawling city. ARC is an acronym for Art, Research and Collaboration and the project is contributing to a number of existing grassroots efforts in community organisation that we meet to discuss.
However, a quick look at Koh’s career to date can firstly highlight the distinctions of his collaborative processes. He obtained his DFA (Doctorate in Fine Arts) from Finland in 2013, further to studying under Grant Kester, a key figure in theories of dialogical art practice. Kester argues for a greater understanding of the reciprocal in the experience of art where situations of exchange and negotiation might replace the traditional contemplation of aesthetics.
Earlier in 1995, he had begun International Forum for InterMedia Art as an umbrella platform under which ARC also functions. Koh lived in Myanmar for a number of years under the harsh military regime and has said that the operation of power was so internalised there that one had to intuit the meaning of people’s behavior and speech. In Yangon in 1997 he had co-founded, with Malaysian artist Chu Yuan, Networking and Initiatives for Culture and the Arts (NICA). NICA aimed to organise and professionalise local artists and one challenge was to shape the very possibility of independence and self-initiative among artists more familiar with models of master and disciple.
A project in Dublin, Ireland ‘Ni Hao – Dia Duit’ (2006-07) worked with an immigrant Chinese community in a neglected part of the city. Activities included social gatherings between Chinese and Irish artists and the formation of the Ireland Chinese Cultural and Sports Association. The project necessarily contributed to shaping the very presence of the Chinese community in Dublin.
With awards from the Japan Foundation, Asian Cultural Council in New York Asia’s Ford Foundation and the British Council, Koh’s collaborative projects, also with Chu Yuan, include ‘Conversation Pieces’ (2008) in Malaysia. Residents of the town Seri Kembangan were invited for conversation about art and life at a local coffee shop. Offered an object to keep, the project set in motion an awareness of the very possibility of thinking with the visual and material cultures we often overlook in our daily lives. And here unpredictable outcomes are allowed for, which constitute another feature of dialogical art practice.
ARC’s work in Bangkok builds on collaborative activity in an area where it is recognised that there is a large Muslim population, isolation from mass transit lines and an education hub with King’s Mongkut University of Technology Thonburi (KMUTT) nearby. One of the existing projects is ‘3C: Canal, Cycling, Community’ which began in 2015 to establish a cycling path along a canal that runs through a number of districts, eventually leading to a BTS (Bangkok Transit System) Skytrain Station. Koh introduced himself to the organisers who then encouraged ARC.
The canals of Bangkok have suffered terrible neglect over the years, compounded by the imposition of a highway superstructure which left commuters limited and difficult choices to travel to the heart of the city. ARC has joined Professor Kanjanee Budthimedhee from KMUTT and the team who run Café CanDo, already a hub for diverse community activities. The cycle path will not only aid commuting convenience but will also be dotted with a community center, street art and a market.
Sections of the path are completed and negotiations with the district council continue. In February 2017, the ‘Bang Mot Festival of Creativity’ built on the energy generated by 3C and Café CanDo collaborators. Organised across many contexts with a main stage at the temple Wat Phutthabucha and also including Sonsomboon Mosque, artworks that had been created along the canal formed a coherent exhibition, and recitals and dance activities brought all the communities into close proximity.
However, one potential problem is the private ownership of land along the route. ARC is currently planning Phase 1 for the next two years. As an open platform with regular public meetings, the collaborators are currently grappling with aims based in health and social outcomes, learning and development and economic issues. Essentially, Koh has created, through art, sustainable possibilities which can effectively draw networks of people together, crossing different disciplines and needs.
This article is the final installment of the four-part ‘More Life’ series covering visionary — and determined — individuals who are breathing life into the art scenes in Southeast Asian capitals. It was written by Brian Curtin for Art Republik.