"The future is with the independent scene“
Three non-profit and project spaces, each with their own distinct approach, have played a crucial role in shaping Bangkok’s art scene: Jim Thompson Art Centre (JTAC), The Reading Room, and Speedy Grandma. In the following conversations, which took place last month, Unchalee “Lee” Anantawat, founder and director of Speedy Grandma, Gridthiya “Jeab” Gaweewong, artistic director of JTAC and founder and director of Project 304, and Narawan “Kyo” Pathomvat, founder and director of The Reading Room, reflect on their practises, the impacts their spaces have had, and how they have navigated Thailand’s complex political reality.
Unchalee “Lee” Anantawat,
Founder and Director of Speedy Grandma
Abhijan Toto: This year will mark the seventh year since you started Speedy Grandma, so I wonder if we could begin by talking about how the space came to be?
Unchalee “Lee” Anantawat: In 2012, two years after I came back from Melbourne, a friend wanted to open a graphics studio and she actually found the building that would become Speedy Grandma. It was three connected shophouses in Chinatown and the downstairs was empty, so another friend and I thought we could turn it into a gallery. Then we started to work together and renovate it. I don’t want to say its “experimental”, but my main objective for running Speedy is to provide an alternative space, an alternative way of doing a show, proposing the idea that we don’t really need these white cube environments and that we can actually have fun while seeing the work.
AT: Self-publication is an important part of your practice, particularly considering that you founded the independent printer and publisher POOP Press. Could you tell us a little about the landscape of self-publishing as you see it?
LA: This culture of self-publishing really just came back a few years ago – I think we’ve really been working to bring it back at Speedy, and now there’s the Bangkok Art Book Fair at Bangkok CityCity Gallery. In terms of the practice of self-publishing, we had quite a “renaissance” of zine culture from 2000 to 2004. At that time, music and films were also huge. We had FAT Festival, with indie bands, people who no one had heard of, and people would make their own books and selling them there, too. Soon after, there was an independent zine fair called Nangsue Tam Mue at MBK Centre in the middle of the city. I was like “Wow, it can be right there!”
AT: At what point did all of this kind of disappear?
LA: After 2006, [when the military deposed then PM Thaksin Shinawatra, following protracted protests] the independent scene went downhill and I think that was really related to the politics. 2006 really split the country along political lines and people’s views were so different they couldn’t work together anymore. I really think this was the main cause. Of course, right now we’re still trying to bring it back.
AT: And how do you think things are different now?
LA: We have a different king now, so the divisions between people will not be so hardcore. I think the way people feel towards the monarchy is different now and they are able to be more critical than they were before, more than ever. People who were royalists now want to be critical, too. I think people understand and feel like they are able to share more, even differences of opinion.
AT: And there’s also the upcoming election. Do you think this has changed the energy in the art scene?
LA: Yes, I think it’s definitely changed! However, we should be clear about what we’re talking about when we are talking about the art scene: We have more spaces opening, especially those run by the younger generation, and projects like IWANNABANGKOK, Sangnual lap, CONDO Art Space, as well as groups of kids doing things, but a lot of times these spaces last for a short while and then have to close because they don’t have the income to continue.
AT: Speaking of finding another way to do things, I’d like to talk about how the Bangkok Biennial came about in 2018. How did you guys go about doing something on this crazy scale, involving more that 246 artists, with pavilions all over the city, and the world, while still remaining completely self-organized?
LA: In Third World Countries, we are already equipped with the idea that we can’t really rely on our governments, so we have to rely on ourselves, and that’s the way to do things. I want to prove that that’s possible – and then people can see there’s another way to do things! Looking back now, it was pretty much the same idea as Speedy, just bigger. We wondered if we could make a biennial here, since there wasn’t one, and we wanted an alternative way to run it – I don’t think we’re an alternative biennial, but we’re a biennial using alternative means to do certain things. At the time, we, the organisers, were just three people, but we wanted to see if we could sell the idea to everyone without them knowing who was doing it. That’s how we came up with the open call: we released the form and once you registered, you were in! The form wasn’t for application – just registration. I really liked the way each pavilion supported each other, and this in turn built internal relationships. I know that people from outside of Thailand or from big institutions don’t really consider us a biennale, but who the fuck gets to define what a biennale is?
Gridthiya “Jeab” Gaweewong
Artistic Director of JTAC and Founder and Director of Project 304
Abhijan Toto: I’d like to talk about the relationship between the independent art scene and politics in the country from the 1990s, the early 2000s, and into the very interesting situation we are in now. Maybe we could start with what the scene was like when you came back from studying at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago – what did you encounter, what was the institutional landscape like when you set up Project 304, an experimental project space and artists’ lab, in 1996?
Gridthiya “Jeab” Gaweewong: After the Bhirasri Institute of Modern Art closed in the 80s, the scene was coming back around in the early 90s because of the commercial galleries. When I came back in 1996, it was towards the end of the bubble economy, which meant there was no space for non-commercial, experimental or conceptual work. But this kind of work was very much in tune with the rise of globalisation. People like Montien Boonma, Chatchai Puipia, Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, Surasi Kusolwong, Rirkrit Tiravanija, and Kamol Phaosavadi were already part of the biennale circuit – the Asia Pacific Triennial, the Fukuoka Asian Art Triennial, and even the Istanbul and Sydney Biennials.
I think this was a global phenomenon, but there was a growing interest in alternative spaces, with people like Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Michael Shaowanasai. The rise of the warehouse and the Damien Hirst phenomenon were coming here too. When I came back to Thailand, everyone wanted to do things in warehouses and I was asking why, because we’re not a post-industrial country with old warehouses – it really doesn’t work for me. I became interested in doing something from what we had, from scratch, also because of the funding. What if we wanted to do a non-profit art space in Bangkok? Without any infrastructure, without any support? Could it still work? Of course not, right? But I still wanted to try! When I was in Chicago, I was inspired by Randolph Street which also had a major history of being an alternative space. It became one of the biggest and most powerful institutions, but they made a mistake by buying a building, and that was the end. So for me, rule number one was: I will not own any property! [laughs] When I was looking for a space in Bangkok and couldn’t find one, I looked at what I had and decided to start with my own apartment, room 304.
AT: Could you tell us about the programme that was at Project 304?
GG: I saw Project 304 as a lab because we were trying a lot of new things in our space, but the first exhibition was called “Hidden Agenda”, a show I curated with a few artists like Surasi, Michael, Natee Utarit, and Chitti Kasemkitvitana. Michael also created a fictional gay artist as an alternate persona. It was a very small show, but it created a momentum. The audience was art students from Silpakorn University, such as Arin Rungjang and Pratchaya Phinthong, and they were shocked, it really changed their perception. It went on like this for seven years. The last show was after the Gwangju Biennale in 2013, which we participated in.
GG: We weren’t driven by the politics as much as by the economic situation. We always had budget issues running a space without proper funding, but we got a lot of attention from abroad. A lot of the artists we worked with were invited to join exhibitions, even some major shows. We helped people like Apichatpong produce work; his feature film Mysterious Object At Noon (2002) was produced by us. Also, I remember we were asked to do something for the 1996 remembrance of 14 October 1976, the Thammasat University Massacre, so we invited young artists to do a performance in the main area of Sanam Luang in front of the Grand Palace. It was the first time we invited artists who were studying at Silpakorn and other universities and were able to give them a fee of 500 Baht. For many of them, it was also the first time they had received an artist’s fee.
AT: Project 304 had a very interdisciplinary approach and one of the projects that grew out of it was the Bangkok Experimental Film Festival. You’ve always used a subversive element in your curatorial practice, so could you tell us about how you used it to navigate the political situation, particularly during the street protests?
GG: When we were planning the fourth edition of the festival, “Bangkok Democrazy”, in December 2005, it was the beginning of the demonstrations against [former Prime Minister] Thaksin Shinawatra [who was eventually found guilty of corruption and is now living in exile]. The demonstrators were going to use the same space we were going to use: Lumphini Park. Apichatpong and I wanted to create a parody of democracy, so we included everyone and made a giant installation in the park. We created a space for people to navigate and see whatever they wanted to. Of course, no one could finish everything over the three nights – it was more than three-hundred films in the middle of violent protests.
AT: Once you closed Project 304, how did you bring this energy to the Jim Thompson Art Centre?
GG: I think you can’t get away from your own personality. When I moved to Jim Thompson, people started to realise that something was happening here because things were not the same. We tried to engage people and integrate Jim Thompson into the arts scene, not only locally but also regionally and internationally. The House started as a museum in 1975 and in 2003 it became a space for the arts. When I joined in 2005, I realised that I knew nothing about Thailand, because when I was young I rejected the past, but there, at Jim Thompson, was the whole context of the Vietnam War and the Cold War. I felt less and less interested in aesthetics, and more in the history and the context, especially Cold War history in the 60s and 70s. That was another big door that opened for me.
AT: Finally, could we also talk about the alternative arts festival Khon Kaen Manifesto, which was supported by the Jim Thompson Art Centre? The approach of the curator, Thanom Chapakdee, was very political, not just because of the way he chose to directly associate with red shirt politics, but also because many of the works dealt with politics directly, and people got in trouble for that.
GG: You need a very hardcore kind of curatorial approach which isn’t something I would do. I’m always looking for something more subversive, for that space between art and politics, but that show was really about expressions. Once you got there, you could really feel the liberation – it was almost like a support group for people who wanted to do something, and a release for certain anxieties. Even though it was very brief, it felt very good, against all odds. In the past five years, we’ve always tried to decentralise the scene away from Bangkok. It shouldn’t be this Bangkok-centric – that has to be challenged, and it has to be decentralised.
Narawan “Kyo” Pathomvat,
Founder and Director of The Reading Room
Abhijan Toto: You’re about to celebrate the ten-year anniversary of The Reading Room, which you say you want to approach as an opportunity for introspection, particularly in the current political climate. Could we start by going back to when you returned from NYC and decided to start the space – what was the landscape you encountered, how did you decide upon this model of an art-library/project space/screening space/discursive platform?
Narawan “Kyo” Pathomvat: When I came back to Bangkok in the mid-00s, there were a number of independent art spaces – mostly in the gallery or exhibiting model, but nothing quite like an art library or resource centre. I realised I had already gathered a small collection of books and materials that I wanted to share with the community, creating a small research library. But you know, a space becomes an organic thing and needs to adapt to the needs of the community that grows around it; hence I started doing the kinds of politically engaged activities that I’m still continuing [such as the Night School and Solidarities discursive projects, and the experimental film programs, among others].
Also, at that time I felt that there weren’t really the kind of hybrid spaces that could accommodate the kinds of things we were interested in, which were, of course, tied innately to the political situation of the time: this is 2009, before the election of Yingluck Shinawatra in 2011[the sister of former PM Thaksin Shinawatra], and we had seen large scale pro-Thaksin [who had to a large extent been supported by the rural populations, and was pro-democracy] political demonstrations around the country earlier in the year. We were in a time of intense restriction of the freedom of expression, while simultaneously there was an intense need to organise more political discussions. At that time, these talks were only being organised in spaces such as universities, which were already under scrutiny, so we needed another kind of space as a platform for radical, leftist activists, where we could bring together people from different backgrounds and disciplines. So in these early years, we focused largely on educational programmes, which included talks by academics and activists, and screenings.
AT: How did that programming progress, what happened after the coup in 2014?
NP: In the first five years, there was still a feeling of hope for the people organising for democracy in Thailand – we felt like we could make a difference. Elections were held, but after the coup, the sentiment changed. There was more censorship and no criticism of the government was allowed, so our programming had to change, too. If we wanted to talk about democracy, we couldn’t use the word. We navigated this by talking about other countries, other cultures, which resonated with the context in Thailand. One programme I remember from that time is “This Is Not Fiction”, which focused on political literature from other countries, including classics such as Fahrenheit 451 and Disgrace, to talk about what was going on here.
After 2014, with the political situation, I really felt like I wanted to quit – the military came in to cancel some of our events, and we’ve been under the scanner ever since. But that was when we did “Sleepover”, which brought in people from different disciplines every month to explore a new theme with installations, workshops and public programmes. One episode I remember particularly was the one organised by Apichatpong Weerasethakul, where he invited retired military officers to come and talk about their memories, their experiences, and then a civilian panel with people on the other side of the debate. That got us in trouble!
AT: What was the reaction like?
KP: The military came in to cancel our programmes, and we’ve been under the scanner since.
AT: But since then, the number of independent spaces has grown exponentially.
KP: Yes, but I still think we lack a lot of cross-disciplinary practice. The spaces that are opening up are more or less in the same gallery model – we’re not seeing as many hybrid spaces and smaller non-profits, which I think are crucial for the scene. I think the N22 community is one of the exceptions; they’ve created an interesting constellation of politically aligned practices.
AT: The Reading Room is one of the spaces where different kinds of communities can interact. It especially brings together a lot of people from the independent film scene.
KP: Yes, and I think that the people in the independent film scene can often be more open-minded, with more radical leftist politics and more openness to interdisciplinary experiments than I see in the visual arts. The collective Film Virus, which consists of dedicated cinephiles from different walks of life, came together at that time, and have been actively involved with this space ever since, and they’re about to complete ten years, too. For me, it’s important that we are a free library, and that’s what keeps us going. I want knowledge to be free, so there’s no membership fees or anything. I’d rather this be a more ideal or utopian space, because it’s horrible outside. This allows for different communities to come together – people who come for the events will come back for the library, and vice versa. It creates a timeless space that’s almost cut off from the outside world.
AT: Recently, your programming has become a lot more direct again. Last year, you held the month-long “Solidarities” programme, connecting political movements around the region.
KP: “Solidarities” was a long-time dream. We were able to bring together activists from around Southeast Asia, from Myanmar, Malaysia, the Philippines, Timor L’Este, through a programme of talks and screenings. It allowed us to think about the larger region, and the issues common to all of us, which is really not done enough.
AT: And this is where you feel that the independent scene can intervene?
KP: Yes, there’s a lot of energy in the scene right now, but I think the lack of alternative education platforms and forums for criticism is more apparent than ever, and the independent scene can intervene in this situation. The future is definitely with the independent scene – the government is not going to help, and at this point, I’m not sure we want their help.
ABHIJAN TOTO is an artist and curator based in Bangkok.
Part one of this feature on the Bangkok art scene, a cartography of contemporary art in Bangkok, can be found here.