ISSUE 3 Curating Performativity
Living and Working Together in the Now Normal: Visual Arts and Co. at Bangkok Art and Culture Centre
Among many lessons the COVID-19 global pandemic has taught us is that we should always see how people, places and things are interconnected. This is despite the facts they may not appear to be so and many people, for different reasons, have tried to segregate one from another by categorizing and labeling them. The fact that we have not only learned medical terms such as PUI (Patient Under Investigation) but are also using medical gears such as PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) more often than our mobile phones does not mean that our children should attend a medical, rather than arts, school. Rather, it means that there are many more things that are beyond our fields of interest, specialization, educational and professional backgrounds that we must pay attention to in guaranteeing our happy and safe lives. Even though many have noted that this unprecedented crisis is expediting the digital disruption and that this is the time when sciences and technology should be steering the wheels while arts taking the back seats, observing patiently, the number of collaborations among artists, scientists and technologists continues to rise in their finding of creative solutions.

B-Floor Theatre, Manoland, Bangkok Theatre Festival 2018, 4th floor studio (Photo by Jukkrit Hanpipatpanich)

While this may read like an opening paragraph of the proposal for an arts-sciences biennale, let’s leave it there. This paper, with examples from arts exhibitions and cultural activities held at Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC), focuses on how contemporary arts, with their multidisciplinary nature, can perform more than their usual functions when curators recognize and make use of their interdisciplinary, and even transdisciplinary, nature, and that’s not simply for the sake of experimentation.
BACC has been in operation for 12 years now; however, the design was completed more than a decade prior to its opening in 2008. The 12-floor building was meant to be a complex of “white boxes” of different shapes and sizes—large and small visual arts galleries, storage rooms, meeting and conference rooms, an auditorium, a library, multi-purpose open spaces indoors and outdoors in addition to retail spaces for shops, cafes and restaurants and parking lots. Neither film nor performing arts were not in the original plan. The 222-seat auditorium was designed for talks and forums with visual accompaniments projected on the screen that doesn’t cover the entire back wall. In proper film screening, it’s instead projected directly onto the backwall, not the screen even though it still does not fill up the proscenium. With its small stage and limited side-stage and backstage space and very few lighting bars, it’s suitable for a small concert and theatre performances which do not require scene changes. To accommodate performing arts programs and to attract a wider group of arts aficionados to the public cultural center, the storage room on the fourth floor was then fitted with black retractable curtains along its four walls and some lighting bars and equipment on the ceiling.
BACC then commenced its annual Performative Art Festival (PAF) in 2012 with this fourth-floor studio as the main venue for performing arts. Apart from presenting individual performances, PAF has also been working with festivals such as Bangkok Theatre Festival (BTF), Bangkok International Performing Arts Meeting (BIPAM) and Bangkok International Children’s Theatre Festival (BICT Fest all three of which are also using other spaces in the center for performances; International Dance Festival (IDF) Bangkok and Asiatopia International Performance Art Festival. When not hosting performances, the 380-square-meter studio double-tasks as a medium-sized visual arts gallery. By contrast, the main galleries on the seventh, eighth and ninth floors are solely for large-scale visual arts exhibitions. In other words, territories have clearly been defined and boundaries drawn.
Starting my directorship of the center in March 2018, one of my missions was to disrupt and blur, if not break, these territories and boundaries, corresponding to another mission in developing, and expanding, the arts audience by means of arts appreciation. As evidenced around the world, contemporary artists and audiences, especially the younger ones, are enjoying the interdisciplinary nature of contemporary arts because it corresponds with its openness as opposed to the hierarchy of arts in the previous times. More and more curators, producers and directors have realized that in the open spaces of white, or black boxes, there lie numerous possibilities for the encounter between arts works, artists and audiences, if we regard them as they organically are, and not rush to label, or restrict, them as galleries or theatres. As people value experience as highly as products now, restaurants, for example, are acclaimed not only for their food, but also their atmosphere and service, all of which change from one day to another and cannot be replicated by home dining with the same food. Likewise, arts audiences seek new experiences from their physical visits to museums, galleries, arts centers, theaters, cinemas, concert halls, festivals, biennials, etc. that they cannot find in the increasingly accessible virtual world.
A small example: on some weekday evenings of May 2018, at the seventh-floor main gallery where the “Caravaggio Opera Omnia” exhibition was on view, small university ensembles were giving concerts, of various styles of music relevant to the exhibits ranging from baroque to jazz, near the gallery entrance. The exhibition attracted more than 49,000 visitors in five weeks.
A major example, notwithstanding the fact that BACC was only a venue partner: as part of the inaugural Bangkok Art Biennale (BAB), Marina Abramovic Institute’s (MAI) “A Possible Island?” presented eight long-duration performances by eight international artists, for eight consecutive hours six days a week from October 18 to November 11, 2018 at the eighth-floor main gallery. The number of visitors to “A Possible Island?”, more than 55,000, remains a record for both MAI and BACC.

Nahoko Kojima, Shiro, 4th floor Studio (Photo by Pawit Mahasarinand)

BACC’s keyword for 2019 was inclusivity, continuing with the hashtag #YOURbacc. Not only does this mean that the overall program attempted to attract more visitors with its wider variety of contents showing possibility of arts, but it also continued to serve as a platform for artists from different disciplines to work together in the same empty space. In other words, by proving that BACC is a people’s, not just arts lovers’, arts and cultural center where artists, not just visual artists, can always feel at home, it hopes to regain the city government’s annual funding support, terminated since October 2017.
In February 2019, after the conclusion of BAB 2018, BACC’s main galleries on the seventh and eighth floors were scheduled to be empty for the subsequent few months, due to the shortage of budget. A month prior, Pichet Klunchun Dance Company opened “The Intangibles of Emptiness” exhibition at the Artist+Run gallery with a live performance in which the company members created all artworks that were later exhibited in the one-month exhibition. The internationally acclaimed dancer and choreographer then proposed “Overloaded: The Intangibles of Emptiness”, an art exhibition to erase boundaries of arts that conveys the limits and physical restriction of human bodies (dancers’) and physical confinement of art space (BACC)”, at the eighth-floor main gallery from February 14 to 17.
On the first day, the artists arrived in uniform white jumpsuits written Pichet Kanchang (Pichet Mechanical Services) on the back. After exchanging their identity cards for the artists’ ones and before working in the gallery, they went to collect art materials from the centre’s storage. During the normal gallery hours, 10am to 8pm, they created artworks at various corners of the gallery, inviting the spectators to do so as well. In the late afternoons, free workshops on such topics as how to strengthen your vagina for dance performance, coincidentally on Valentine’s Day, and how to train your body to become a spiritual medium were offered; on the penultimate day, a lukthung (Thai country music) concert raised fund for the financially struggling arts center. On the last day, the visitors joined hands with the performers in removing all the artworks and the gallery returned to its previous condition.
In collaboration with Agency for Cultural Affairs, Government of Japan; International Exchange Program Executive Committee for Disabled People’s Culture and Arts, Japan and The Rainbow Room Foundation, Thailand, BACC presented “Thailand and Japan Art Brut: Figure of Unknown Beauty” at the eighth-floor main gallery from July 19 to November 3. Japanese curator Seina Kimoto and her Thai counterpart Suebsang Sangwachirapiban put paintings, ceramics, three-dimensional works, photographs and images by 51 Japanese and Thai artists into five categories. First, in “Repetition, dense and homogenous”, works showing rawness, a commonality among many Art Brut works, were exhibited. Second, “Raw materials and creation in everyday life” focused on works created with ordinary materials and techniques. Third, the artists’ sources of creation were highlighted in “Desire, the source, what makes them create.” Fourth, the artists’ relationship with others around them was presented in “Art which is born in relationship.” Lastly, “For further creation” were new creations from the collaboration of contemporary artists and Art Brut artists. It’s noteworthy that while the Japanese curator chose works by mentally or physically challenged artists, the Thai curator also included in his selections works by artists who work functions outside the mainstream, not dominated by artistic standards, presenting unconventional values through voices not yet heard, making the exhibition more inclusive and adhering more to the original meaning of the French term.
In the progress meetings between the Japanese and Thai co-organizers, the former proposed performing arts programs by physical and mentally challenged Japanese artists and an Art Brut documentary film screening for the exhibition’s opening weekend. After discussion, a consensus was reached that these programs would be spread out through the duration of the exhibition, the same way themed festivals do, in order to maintain the public interest and generate sustainable conversations on the topic. Moreover, these performances, either at the forecourt or fourth-floor studio, could also be part of PAF program and they could inspire the audience to subsequently visit the exhibition, or vice versa.
Additionally and accordingly, PAF programmed another two new Thai performances which discussed arts and disability during the same period. Napisi Reyes’s Nil’s Vision allowed a visually impaired saxophonist to recount his life stories with words, images and music. Pattareeya Puapongsakorn’s Sunny Side Up merged the stories of a blind apprentice psychologist and an actress with bipolar disorder and had them perform themselves on stage. Neither of these, for an unknown reason, are not included in the “Art Brut” exhibition catalog unlike their Japanese counterparts namely concerts by Salsa Gum Tape and Zuiho Taiko and Freedom Theatre’s Welcome to Walmart and After Breakfast, Maybe listed among “exhibition activities”, and yet none of these are mentioned in the virtual version on Google Arts and Culture platform. In fact, they could have easily been put into one of the five aforementioned categories. Nonetheless, coincidentally or not, the number of contemporary Thai theater productions dealing with disability issues at other venues significantly increased in 2019.
Partly concurrent with and complimenting “Art Brut” was “Art of Element and Therapy” exhibition at the seventh-floor main gallery from August 16 to November 3. Showing how elements in the world of arts, elements in human beings and therapeutic elements become sources and components in the process of arts therapy, which is both scientific and artistic, curator Anupan Pluckpankhajee, himself an anthroposophic therapist, introduced the public to many professional Thai therapists and their wide variety of practices.
A small room was blocked off from the public access, except for Saturday and Sunday afternoons from September 7 to October 13 when “Arts Therapy Performance”, a ticketed special program complimenting the free-admission exhibition, was presented. Theater director Jarunun Phantachat worked with music therapist Joe Zamudio, dance movement psychotherapist Dujdao Vadhanapakorn, expressive art therapist Prachayaporn Vorananta (Expressive Art Therapist as well as Anupan in recreating their therapy sessions. Each weekend, the audience observed each therapist worked with a patient actor in the rehearsed and partly-scripted performance. “Arts Therapy Performance” is in the exhibition catalogue, with full description and performance photos, though not on Google Arts and Culture.

Arts Therapy Performance by music therapist Joe Zamudio, 8th floor main gallery (Photo by Jukkrit Hanpipatpanich)

In the meantime, “Rifts: Thai contemporary artistic practices in transition, 1980s to 2000s” exhibition was at the ninth-floor main gallery from August 30 to November 24. In the progress meetings leading to this showcase of 13 Thai visual artists’ works from the transitional period, a suggestion was made to curators Chol Janepraphaphan and Kasamaponn Saengsuratham to also include in the timeline chart of major events, incidents and works from other disciplines of contemporary Thai arts to enable the visitors to make connections and comparisons among them to understand the overall landscape. This, however, was turned down as the curators opined that each discipline should have instead had their own research and exhibition.
In the end, the numbers of visitors to “Overloaded”, “Art Brut”, “Therapy” and “Rifts” exhibitions, were respectively 2,933; 149,545; 147,152 and 97,378, and that to BACC passed 1.8 millions in a calendar year for the first time in its history; but of course that’s mathematics, not arts.
Many people are using the term ‘Now Normal’, instead of the more common ‘New Normal’, probably to lessen the burden while still signifying the fact that we all need to always adapt to the here and now. Many arts festivals around the world, for many years now, have been theme-based, rather than discipline-based. They are grouping works of different disciplines together, refraining from categorizing works with conventional terms or commissioning interdisciplinary works that take more risks. Meanwhile, many young contemporary artists continue to learn new skills that are not offered in their arts training programs, having realized that a single medium of arts may not always be the most effective in conveying their messages. On campuses, breeding grounds for next generation of artists, we can expect more interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary educational programs. Nevertheless, the organizational structure of a number of arts and culture institutions as well as public and private funding bodies is so rigid and conventional that it supports neither the artists nor the audiences to get out of their comfort zones and instead sustains the hierarchy of arts disciplines, a major obstacle for the development of contemporary arts.
Evidently, there’s plenty yet to be done. But first, all of us need to agree that in order to live and work with someone or something we have not yet been familiar with, thanks to our different backgrounds, we have to begin by treating them as our equal. That, as we all know, is democracy; and that is contemporary arts in the Now Normal.

Despina Zacharopoulou, PROTREPTIC 2018, 8th floor main gallery  (Courtesy of the artist)

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Author

Pawit Mahasarinand is CEO of art4d, bilingual print and online magazine on architecture, design and arts. A Fulbrighter and an Asian Cultural Council (ACC) fellow, he finished his MA in Theatre at Northwestern University.

Previously, he was chairperson of Department of Dramatic Arts and artistic director of Sodsai Pantoomkomol Centre for Dramatic Arts, Chulalongkorn University, dance and theatre critic for The Nation newspaper and director of Bangkok Art and Culture Centre (BACC).

The first president of the International Association of Theatre Critics (IATC)— Thailand centre, Pawit’s articles can be found in Encyclopedia of Asian Theatre (Greenwood Press) and Routledge Handbook of Asian Theatre. Awarded chevalier de l’ordre des arts et des lettres by France’s Ministry of Culture and Communication, he has been a member of the Southeast Asia Advisory Committee (SEAAC) for Taiwan’s Ministry of Culture since 2017.

Archive
Archive
Issue 3 Curating Performativity
Editorial /​ Curating Performativity I-wen Chang
Choreographing Exhibitions: Performative Curatorgraphy in Taiwan I-wen Chang
Living and Working Together in the Now Normal: Visual Arts and Co. at Bangkok Art and Culture Centre Pawit Mahasarinand
The Curatorial as A Praxis of Disobedience Miya Yoshida
Issue 2 Curators' Living Rooms
Editorial /​ Curators' Living Rooms Sandy Hsiu-chih Lo
Extended Living Room: Space and Conversation ruangrupa(Ade Darmawan, Mirwan Andan)
Freeing the Weights of the Habitual Raqs Media Collective
Curating Topography Sandy Hsiu-chih Lo
Issue 1 Curatography
Editorial /​ One Step Forward, Two Steps Backward Hongjohn Lin
What is Curatography? Hongjohn Lin
Les fleurs américaines Yoann Gourmel, Elodie Royer​
There are No Blank Slates Eileen Legaspi Ramirez​
Issue 3 Curating Performativity
Issue 2 Curators' Living Rooms
Issue 1 Curatography