Monday, December 22, 2008

Lifetime Warranty: Notes on the Khaosan Road Project

Something I wrote for Asia-Europe Foundation as part of the 5th ASEF Art Camp series last March 2008. The series brings 22 artists from 19 countries in Asia and Europe converged in Bangkok to work on the theme, Re-Vision Bangkok | New Media Art and Interactivity, a process to explore the possibilities of connecting new media art practices to the relational aesthetic concept. On their website, they have the publication of the whole event out already and can be downloaded here for free: ASEF Publication


"In my opinion, the majority of tourists come to Khaosan road because they want to visit and touch authentic Thai culture. The real conditions of what comes close to Thai culture will be the Phad Thai Trolleys, Thai Massage salons and even hill tribes who sell jewellery and wooden toys, but Thai people don’t buy such items because it doesn’t represent authentic Thai culture."    
-  “Kawtoo” Preeyachanok Ketsuwan 

Khaosan road is a tourists’ ghetto.  
Despite the crude, derogative, and exploitative connotations of that sentence, there is a sensitive eye and much vibrancy that could be discovered at this tourist squalor of contemporary Thai society. Electrical billboards and sizzling sounds begin at dawn and last until late night hours. The road itself is a plethora of touristic clutter: one shop/bar/restaurant/hostel situated one afer the other with no particular order. This road is a very active and vibrant community in its own right; where local and foreign people alike commune and interact daily in a fringe habitat filled with commercialism, transience, relaxation, discovery, and amusement. With this in mind, constant change is a given, where transience becomes a vital part of a transition between people and the road. 

Amidst this chaos, there  is a pre-school hidden against a background of billboard clutter and commercial noise. This school, Phimarnvit, has been situated on this road since 1919, and is run by a Muslim family who has had a  long enduring  tradition of religious, political, and racial tolerance. The discovery of this school has given our group a fresher perspective towards
the road itself, providing a contrast and adding signifcant meaning to the road. The fieldwork presentation of Khaosan road group was a result of the group’s  immersion with  the school: interviews, befriending people, playing with the children, attending their ceremonies, as well as sitting in their classes. The simplifed documentary on the school was a result of this immersion with the road; however was derived from a long group process that was as tumultuous as the Khaosan road itself. The process of documenting the school and the process of working with the road is as important and interesting as the actual process of our group’s individual conficts and approaches towards the task given.

The 2-minute trailer seemingly familiarises us with the family-run school and its daily life. In many ways it is a rough sketch of a myriad of possible pages, chapters, stories, and relationships between the school, its inhabitants and the road. This sketch was done with the intention of expanding and evolving the initial result (the trailer and the various collected documentation) into a full-blown documentary about the school and its relationship with the Khaosan road community. 

The Khaosan Road School 

The Phimarnvit school follows the lineage of family tradition of passing the school duties from one generation to the next. Mrs Lalita Phimarnvit, the head dean is a judge and an educator. Which one she considers as a profession or a passionate hobby from the two, I don’t know. The school itself is a small, dilapidated, primary school ofering the usual prescribed curriculum in Thailand. However, what sets it apart is that it offers various interestingly peculiar classes such as: foreign language classes (English, Japanese, Chinese and Italian), they do short time workshops like Thai massage, hair braiding, and henna tattooing. These extra classes are taught by a unique set of volunteers, usually travellers themselves in Khaosan, though some are professional tutors or teachers, who are eager enough to ofer their skills with minimal or no salary at all. As my group mate, Birte, puts it:
“The very remarkable thing about this school is the children participating in each others religious practices. In my opinion it’s the base for freedom and wisdom, and it seems to be one of the most modern pedagogic systems. You can feel this spirit in the way the family runs this private (self paid) institute. It certainly points out that in the middle of a commercially established place someone is giving an impressive example of non-commercialisation and taking the chance of a situation by involving the development, instead of just resisting the pressure of commerce and the backside of globalisation. In this very place the most valuable good is handed over sometimes even without payment.”

In one sense, one could see the school being an “island of  its own,” though this label would do them no real justice since they are active members of the community. How then would one explain the extracurricular classes offered? The school seems to have evolved through the years roughly at the same pace as the road’s evolution, inspired by its surroundings; keeping themselves updated with the advancements of trends and tourism of Khaosan road. However, the documentary trailer on this school let alone the sudden shift of focus towards the school and not the road, was a surprising turn in our group’s tumultuous process of fnding the right solution amidst our varied and diferent initial approaches towards the Khaosan road. 

The Process

I think it is best to talk about the context of the presentation through the process on which the series of events that led to it, in retrograde. By turning it upside down, I attempt to avoid straying too far away from the main result, also to discover things as opposed to narrating it chronologically. The trailer for the documentary was a result of a sudden decision we as a group undertook in the very end. Having already enough footage and sound bites to make a trailer, we were clear that we were going to forget all previous ideas and plans we all had with this footage we collected. We decided to “forget about a fnal result or an art piece” and present a socio-cultural documentary flm instead. We decided that we should also “try to get to know more about the people’s motives, focusing on the connection and how they afected each other.” It was not just a simple socio-cultural documentary; we wanted to make it more intimate and personal between us, the documentary filmmakers, and the people who populate the school.

The day before the public presentation at Bangkok University, we had a pivotal group meeting with Noraset Vaisayakul, the artistic advisor, who wanted to check up on our progress before the presentation. We presented him the idea of what we would be doing: a video installation that would show a visual contrast between the school and Khaosan road. Simply put, there would be a black box with a small LCD screen and headphones that would be positioned in the middle of the exhibition space. The video playing inside the box would be footage showing daily life in the school. The exhibition space would then consist of 3 projections of footage on the walls and the floor, familiarising the audience with 3 different angles of Khaosan road. The exhibition space with the black box would be filled with the recorded ambient sound taken from the road, bombarding the viewer with its noise – both visually and aurally. This would be an explicit contrast between the school and the road that we all wanted to explore. There had been unsettled disagreements whether or not to present the installation in a gallery or a non-gallery space, within Khaosan road itself. But the gallery exhibition was too unfeasibly expensive to pull of; we revised the idea by involving performance and intervention, by taking the black box and deciding to exhibit it in the road itself; literally getting people’s attention towards the existence of the school. In turn, elements would be added or taken out with the installation idea, without resolution. It was inevitable to realise that our attempts on this project were merely superficial, and did not prove anything significant, but just presented contrasts and comparisons, and failed attempts on placing depth and meaning. This realization would change all our ideas and tighten our knots as a group.

From the beginning we all had diferent approaches and ideas and couldn’t really agree completely on what to do with the Khaosan road project, even from the beginning. Hence, we reassessed the material and data we had collected, and decided to forgo all initial ideas and make a documentary film trailer instead. 

Initially Maris and I suggested leaving out the school. Birte was bent on discovering  the ‘opposite’ of the road within the setting itself, by observing and researching the road’s historical and present contexts Preeyachanok was more concerned on challenging the road’s  “fakeThai- ness”, since she had mixed feelings towards the road and had a completely diferent point of view – that of a citizen of Thailand. I was more interested in leaving out socio-political issues and focus more on the psycho-geography of the road, by seeing the road as an important trading stop, like on a trade route (except it pertains this very strong notion of touristic trade), and how it unites and dislocates groups of people and how they relate to each other, also on fnding new ways of awareness on urban landscape. Timo and Maris were more open to discovery and receptive towards the road by having little preconceptions towards it.

Atfer having spent days researching and being in Khaosan road, we all had mixed half-baked ideas and proposals with potential, but all proved to be dead ends. It took us a longer time to figure out what to decide on doing than researching and collecting data on the road. Until we discovered the school, then Preeyachanok proposed an idea for a ‘black box’ video installation which we focused on realizing frst of all; consequently one thing led to the other – the rest is history.

It is also important to note, that we are not documentary flmmakers. We come from diferent backgrounds and have diferent aesthetics and methods. Preeyachanok studied traditional Thai art in school and is more interdisciplinary in approach; Birte is mostly into process-based installation and performance; Maris is a photographer and designer; Timo is into programming and interactive installations, and I never formally studied art, but have a self taught multi-faceted interdisciplinary media art approach. We had come to a point where all rivers merge towards the ocean. Diversity has proved its worth, the process towards things have made us forget our own individualities, our aesthetics and jumped  into a thing with which we were all unfamiliar. I think it all came to point in one direction by unforeseen circumstance. There is merit to that discovery. It was as if we were all unconsciously mapping out our differences and these connections were unconsciously done with a logic we couldn’t foresee. Like Khaosan road or any other road, the road is a pathway for connecting diferent points on a map.

Art should sometimes be viewed as a map -- mapping out diferent connections, movements, routes, ins and outs of traditions; locations and dislocations between various histories, cultures, contexts, and traditions. Like vital trade routes, things have the power to cross-pollinate and fertilise each other, expand the reach and deepen productions with the increased richness that comes with drawing new and unexpected connections. Mapping exploits contrast, digs-up unexpected links and builds spontaneous bridges into the unforeseen. 
Maps encourage boldness. They’re like cryptic love letters. They make anything seem possible.

On behalf of Khaosan road group, Tengal, Manila 2008


Preeyachanok Ketsuwan  |  Thailand
Preeyachanok fnished her frst major degree in Traditional Tai Art from Silpakorn University in March 2008. She is the only student in her department who focuses on interdisciplinary art. She explores Tai feminine culture, which has been handed over from one generation to another, from her mother to herself, being the source of  limitations in her beliefs and way of living. She uses various art media including photography, VDO, 3D objects, and performance. Other than exploring feminine culture existing in Thai society, she is interested in working with local communities.

“Tengal” Earl John Philip M. Drilon  |  Philippines 
Tengal  is an  interdisciplinary artist, based  in Manila, Philippines, working with  sound, music, video, flm, performance, and computers. He curates, organises and performs in various new media shows in the Philippines. He founded and organises SABAW –a Manila-based artist initiative and non-proft platform for all kinds of information and communication carried via modern electronic media. SABAW also represents a cross-section of new media artists, performance/interdisciplinary artists, and contemporary musician-composers who find it difcult to release their material through more conventional channels.

Timo Toots  |  Estonia 
An Estonian artist, currently on an exchange in Iceland, Timo is a Computer Science university dropout. He realised that the school of informatics was using the right tools, but in the wrong way. He found the output to his ideas through art and photography was his frst medium, which enlightens his mode of observation. Since then Timo has been working through several mediums via interactive installations, mostly stimulating the viewer and the artist to transform roles. 

Birte Endrejat  |  Germany 
Born in 1979 in Langen / Germany, Birte studies Fine Arts at the University of the Arts, Bremen since 2004, in the class of Professor Katharina Hinsberg and Professor Yuji Takeoka. Her work focuses on installation art in combination with action or performance. During her studies she actively participated in the international projects “Bremen-Nagoya art project”, including two exhibitions, in Nagoya/Japan 2005 and Bremen 2006 and in Switzerland for the “dazwischen projekt #1 and #2” 2007-2008 including a collaboration project between Lahore / Pakistan, Cambridge / USA and Bremen / Germany, 2007-2008.
Maris Lagzdins  |  Latvia 
Maris is based in Riga, Latvia, studying his fnal year at the Art Academy of Latvia in the Department of Visual Communications. Maris is also working as a freelance artist/designer and photographer; he has taken part in various art projects and workshops in Latvia and abroad.