Experimenta Mesh 17: New Media Art in Australia and Asia contact

Based on a true story

: : Gridthiya Gaweewong

Intro: <high tech/no electricity>

There are two anecdotes that I would like to share about the media art landscape in our beloved country Thailand. Last week, I was with the head of the Media Arts Design Department in Chiangmai University, who showed me how great his server was with its wireless LAN. I was responding to an urgent email from a friend based in New York. When I was almost done, a classic thing happened. It went so fast that I didn’t have a chance to save the file. Yep, the electricity went. Hmm… what’s the point of your wireless hi-speed internet access and fabulous new computer if there’s no electricity!

Six years ago, a Chinese media artist was invited to do a workshop in New Delhi; he came with loads of equipment, digital camera, video camera, laptop, etc. When he found out about the electronic infrastructure in that mega urban village, he simply gave up, and did a wonderful performance on water instead.

In answer to a question posed at Switch Media Art Festival’s Pathiharn Electron in Chiangmai, ‘is there a ghost in the machine?’ I would like to agree with Wil Smith in I, Robot and say ‘yes’, there is a ghost in the bloody machine! Oh, yes, every time we really need them, every time we rely on them, they fail, they let us down. Do all those ghosts in the machine need to be worshiped before they will perform?

I keep wondering about these ghosts. Why are we so reliant on these machines and how can we conceive of a world where we are no longer so dependent on technology?

Retro: < when idiot boxes come to a small town>

Once upon a time, during the 1960s, there was a small village on the border of Laos, Myanmar and Thailand, near the golden triangle area. Without electricity and water supply, the only entertainment available was music and drama on AM radio and outdoor movies presented by a pharmaceutical company in Bangkok. Later, a small makeshift movie house opened, showing films to the villagers every other night. Perched next to the local generator, the villagers watched films from the Northern Film Distribution Company, Thai, Chinese, Indian and Hollywood films. (Coincidentally, the owner of that film distribution company later became prime minister of Thailand, and has played an important role in developing the ICT industry.)

Wit Pimkarnchanapong
Wit Pimkarnchanapong, “Family Portrait’, 2004, photography, animation

Sakarin Krue-on
Sakarin Krue-on, “Circle of Hope”, 2001, Animation, loop

Ten years later, things changed again, with the arrival of the small black and white entertainment box, the television. It consequently became an addiction, a means of escape from everyday life as well as a cultural influence on villagers from the remotest areas of the country. This obsession later resulted in major social problems. Images of the urban lifestyle projected into the countryside hrough television soap opera began to infect the minds of rural villagers. An all-consuming desire for material goods (e.g. fancy electronic household equipment, cars, etc.) was projected into the countryside via the ubiquitous television screen. Households became haunted by fantasies of urban cosmopolitan life, as portrayed in Haunted House, a film by Thai independent filmmaker, Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

< The emergence of media art schools>

When Nam June Paik dissected and transformed the television, turning it into sculpture, there were few families in Thailand who owned a television. Local artists were not trained in new or digital technologies and did not see the potential of television as a creative tool. Educational institutions focused on traditional art, namely painting, sculpture, printmaking, and traditional Thai arts. It was not until the late 1980s, when a number of influential artists returned from study overseas, that new media arts began to enter art school curricula. It was during this period that Kamol Phaosvasdi and Apinan Poshayananda established Intermedia, a course at the Faculty of Fine and Applied Art at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. At the time, there were no similar programs in Thailand.

As interest locally and internationally in media arts increased, new courses were integrated into the graphic design, architecture and mass communication departments in universities throughout the country. However, despite these institutional advancements and the increasing influence of mass communication and digital technology on Thai society, new media arts remained largely unheard of or misunderstood outside the arts community.

In 2003 Chiangmai University inaugurated its Media Arts and Design Department in the College of the Graduate School. The Department received substantial support from the Taksin government keen to position Thailand as a global ICT player. Chiangmai is an important hub in Taksin’s blueprint for a new technologically advanced Thailand, and the city has received major funding to build local infrastructure, install wireless hotspots in the airport, attract business to the city and subsidize the local IT sector. It is within this context that the Media Design Department was established as a means to serve government policy. The department changed its name to Media Arts and Design, under the direction of Uthit Atimana, currently Vice Dean, Faculty of Fine Arts, Chiangmai University. Students came from a diversity of backgrounds, with most students enrolling in the program in order to develop their skills in response to market needs. The department is expected to be self-sufficient and as such it is both costly for students and, despite the fact that it evolved out of the visual arts, market-driven in its curriculum, with an emphasis on graphic design and web design.

< The art part>

What has all this got to do with the state of new media arts in Thailand today? How does this impact on the position of Thai artists both in the regional arts community and internationally? Are Thai artists in a critical and analytical position in relation to the international arts community, as Singaporean artists Tien Woon and Charles Lim from tsunami.net position themselves? Or are Thai artists, like their counterparts in Korea and Japan, so familiar with technology, so close to the means of its production, that they are unable to find a place outside of this from which to undertake a critique? Is it possible for artists to use new technologies to take a critical standpoint about technology and its impact on culture and society?

Yes, and No. Thai artists, like many in Singapore, enjoy taking a critical, satirical and whimsical approach to art making. Influenced by Hollywood films, information technology and international news broadcasting, many Thai artists are turning to new technologies to make work about the world they live in. For many artists the use of such technologies does little to move beyond a kind of formal fetishization. However, for a select few, new technologies have provided the means to undertake a critical and thoughtful exploration of contemporary society and culture.

Today, there are three generations of artists who have used new media within their creative practice. Kamol Phaosavasdi, an artist who came to prominence in the 1980s, remains a prominent figure today. Kamol’s practice has spanned both analogue and digital technology and his oeuvre provides an important history of the changes in contemporary arts practice in Thailand over the past three decades. Kamol is a link between the 80s generation and today’s new media art world. If asked about the difference between video production twenty years ago and today, Kamol would say, ‘it’s a totally different story’. For Kamol, the digital camera has had a phenomenal impact on contemporary art practice.

When the co- editor of Mesh Russell Smith invited me to contribute to this journal, he wrote that the editors did not want to confine the definition of new media art to work that utilized new technologies:

"New Media Art" should not only be taken to refer to art which employs the most recent new media technologies, but should be also taken to mean art which explores new possibilities of working with old media. We are particularly interested in how old or even supposedly obsolete technologies are being "repurposed" in the context of new media practices.

I was particularly attracted to this statement which struck me as a very different approach to most media art magazines, festivals or organizations.

Sakarin Krue-on from Thailand and Krisna Murti from Indonesia perfectly fit this broader definition of new media art. Both artists perfectly marry the traditional with technology. Trained as a traditional mural painter, Sakarin Krue-on worked as a traditional mural painter until he was invited by curator Naomi Urabe to do a big project Temple at About Café in Bangkok in 2000. Sakarin transferred his traditional motifs, mixed them with more contemporary imagery, and painted them onto the walls of the gallery and café. Later, Sakarin started to animate these images on his G4. Sakarin is a self-taught media artist. While teaching at the faculty of painting, sculpture, graphic and Thai arts, he became one of the key leaders in establishing the media art department at Silapakorn University.

Krisna Murti, from Bandung, is a leader in video art in Indonesia, and also marries traditional motifs and media art. His Wayang Machine (2001-2) is an excellent demonstration of this process. Krisna Murti constructed three images based on Wayang (puppets), a traditional theatre performance of puppets made of leather and wood, using them to illustrate his reinterpretation of the Mahabharata epic. Through an ancient Balinese poem, gamelan music and mantra characters, Krisna Murti experimented with media technology to reveal the hidden spirit. Like Sakarin, Krisna Murti is an important mentor and key figure in media art in Bandung. He initiated the 1st International New Media Art Festival in Indonesia, bavf~NAF#1 in 2002, and founded Jejaring Artnetworkers.

It is interesting to see how younger generations of artists have become interested in the new media art area. The number of students registered at the Intermedia section at Chulalongkorn University has increased gradually over the past ten years – from two to fifteen students per class – demonstrating that the younger generation of artists are more familiar with technology and keen to incorporate it into their practice.

This article wouldn’t be complete without introducing Wit Pimkarnchanapong, an important artist from this younger generation. If Kamol is known as the key leader of the analogue period, Wit would be the best person to describe as the leading artist in the digital era. His computer literacy, contemporary and commercial languages, and education have enabled him to move between disciplines, from his background in architecture into media arts. Wit received his MFA in Media Art from Kent in the UK. He revolutionized the music industry by incorporating video art, animation and synchronized multi-screen video installations in various concerts by independent bands in Thailand like T-Bone, Modern Dog, and the bands from Bakery Music and Hua Lampong Rimdim studio. He also works with other art programs launched by transnational telecommunication company, using commercial projects to hone his skills and bring his works into the public.

In terms of promotion, there are few venues and forums to show media art in Thailand. While some galleries exhibit new media art from time to time, none focus primarily on this area of practice. Most artists mentioned above show their works in local art projects, international shows and biennales. Festivals such as the Bangkok Experimental Film Festival, which is dedicated to short experimental video, film and animation, and the Thai Film Foundation provide an important hub for such activities.

Two media art festivals were initiated in Chiangmai, ICECA (2002) and Switch Media (2003), subsidized by the Chiangmai University under Uthit Atimana’s administration. Again, without infrastructure, intellectual debate and consultation with the arts community, it will be impossible to sustain the interest in media arts in Thailand. There is still long way to go.

Gridthiya Gaweewong is an independent curator based in Bangkok. Writing this article from the point of view of a curator from the 2 1/2 World, who’s accidentally involved in a few media based art projects in the region, she also does other projects including running a homeless art space Project 304, co-curating experimental film festivals and multidisciplinary art projects, and writings.