Curating Collaboration Revisited

Curating Collaboration Revisited

Much of the work in my current role is invisible or in the very least  could be described ‘behind the scenes’. That is to say, as the organisation transitions to a model of institution with a refreshed approach to our work, there is considerable research and development work to be done.  Currently our work involves building relationships with key stakeholders, forming partnerships for the future, meeting with artists and similar organisations, fundraising and creating a  long-term strategy  and  the appropriate infrastructure. Discussion we return to on a daily basis involve questions about the kind of organisation we want to be based on how we think we can best serve regional and national need.

These considerations are more than familiar. During my time working in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, I was involved in Our City Festival  as Visual Arts Curator for two editions.  The festival was initiated by the Dana Langlois, Director of the capital’s Java Arts. It’s inception responded to the the city’s rapid urban change and the need to crate a discursive and democratic platform to articulate, consider and challenge the pace and direction of how the city was being reimagined through its reconstruction.

The process was innately challenging in its aspirations to be a collaborative project which had a strong overall vision yet encouraged partners involved to have their  own artistic agency.  Logistically it was challenging. The very precepts on which it was founded and the difficult negotiations its ethos presented are indelible.  Given that my focus at present is thinking through how our organisation can most appropriately wok with artists in our future iteration, as well as other recent conversations about relative approaches to commissioning artists, it felt like a timely moment to revisit an essay I wrote for the 2012 edition of Our City Festival which explored how the festival aimed to foster collaboration.

Curating Collaboration, Our City Festival Cambodia, 2012

The question ‘what is Our City Festival’ has persisted more than any other as we have worked with artists to develop the content of this year’s festival programme. More than simply an identifier or locator of the festival’s ‘position’, repeated consideration of this question feels critically important to the process of programming this large-scale series of events which respond to the changing artistic climate and socio-cultural context within which it‘s activities are located. Whilst it is a privileged position to contribute to the festival’s direction and methodology, such issues of definition are both thorny and complex. My responses have borrowed heavily on the descriptive texts in the literature that accompanied last year’s festival. On reflection, this reliance on constructed, summary texts, signals my discomfort in offering a definitive answer, especially given my position as a relative newcomer to Cambodia. Indeed, like the city which inspires it, Our City Festival is not constituted of a single subjectivity, but multiple. It was with the intention of enabling the multiple voices of the city to be heard that the festival was envisaged.

Launched in 2008, Our City Festival was motivated by a desire and perceived necessity to acknowledge the changing physical and creative landscapes of Phnom Penh. We might broadly see these new artistic and urban landscapes as having evolved and coalesced to form an alternative urban-aesthetic.  This is the central theme that continues to shape the festival’s ethos and events.  In the past five years, its exhibitions, talks, workshops, and tours have operated as creative and critical explorations of the city’s development trajectory. Those involved have reflected on this change through artistic responses and expressions. Today, Our City remains the only festival to bring together creative practitioners to focus on the timely issue of urban transition.

Reconciling art and urbanisation seems particularly pertinent given the momentum with which the capital’s urban development has gathered pace, which is not only unprecedented in Cambodia’s history, but remarkable by regional standards. Whilst my intention is not to give a prologue of Phnom Penh’s urban history, it is worth noting that its population has increased nearly 50 per cent in the decade following 1998, and is predicted to double by 2025 . Such growth highlights the special importance of giving space and time to discussion on the impact of such a transition.

Similarly, Cambodian contemporary art has been going through a period of rapid expansion and diversification in practice. A cursory glance at the 12 months separating Our City Festival 2011 and 2012 testifies to the continued vigour with which contemporary art practitioners are articulating their ideas. New and divergent art spaces in Phnom Penh, Battambang and Siem Reap respectively, increasingly offer opportunities for the practice and presentation of art. This diversity suggests a place of creative possibilities – one where different narratives are being etched more than ever in and through creative landscapes.

Our City Festival offers a different model for engaging with shifts in the urban environment and artistic practice. In its current format, the festival extends the terms of the conventional exhibition over time and place.  This year  it occurs over a ten day period and continues to be located in multiple cultural institutions, venues, and public spaces. This scattered-site approach aims to challenge literal and perceived barriers to experiencing art and architecture in the city, widen opportunities for public engagement to those outside of the immediate local and expat arts and architecture communities, and take measures towards side-stepping the production of an institutionally framed and restrictive arts agenda.  In particular, the use of public space recognises that not all ‘meaningful’ outcomes or experiences of art occur in concrete institutions – such experiences may occur outside or between them, in conversations or other reflections.

Foundational to the process and programme of Our City is a belief in collaboration and participation in a spirit of asking questions rather than providing answers. The aim has been to develop a model of arts practice built on inclusionary processes, as well as outcomes, from the ground-up. Over the years, organisers have invited a variety of stakeholders to join formative programming discussions, which have helped steer the festival towards the particular concerns of that year. By casting the net wide, the festival galvanises the skills and commitment of creative practitioners, cultural institutions, urban-focused organisations and other contributors. This year we are delighted to be supported by UNESCO, whose commitment to local and international collaboration in championing culture is a particularly valuable endorsement.

When proposing people share their resources, time, skills, and experiences, trust and a mutual desire to reach a similar end is implicit. However, for numerous reasons, such ends are rarely identical. Practical or ideological challenges are inherent in collaboration between a wide variety of participants; pooling ideas can cause anxiety, and where the process aims to be open a lot can be exposed. Collaboration could, therefore, be seen to operate on unstable ground, or at the very least, in a place where the ground is constantly shifting as positions constantly undergo negotiation.

Whilst challenging, this model of practice facilitates the exploration of ideas with greater input, diversity and hence contributes to the widening of individuals’ thoughts and creative process. As such, Our City is not as interested in ‘producing’ a choir so much as encouraging a cacophony of voices. In a communities wide festival, a pre-ordained or authoritative path of least resistance seems antithetical. By advocating working together to create Our City Festival, this perhaps constitutes one approach in the greater process of living together in the city.

Urban Currents

This year’s theme began from three curators, two working group members, and one director in conversation. Having received feedback from participants and observers, we were looking for a point of departure which had strong contextual links to Phnom Penh and would reach out laterally to residents and participants in the city. How could we attempt to represent various individual concerns? How could we create a space for all those involved?  The conversation, which began in January 2012, turned to the heavy flooding in Phnom Penh which occurred across the previous October and November. In addition to devastating homes and livelihoods, the flooding had also flagged Phnom Penh’s particular vulnerability against this recurring environmental problem.

We then began to consider other types of flows informing Phnom Penh: flows of people in terms of migration, displacement and tourism; social exchanges of thoughts, ideas and experience; transactions of capital in investment and through financial negotiations; global influences that have manifest in political, economic or social structures and/or values. Accordingly, we proposed the theme of ‘urban currents’: the various overlapping flows between the people, resources, energy, environment, and landscape of Phnom Penh which constitute life in the city.

Looking at the resultant artworks, which were mostly new commissions, certain currents across the works emerge. References to memory and the passing of time, respective notions of place in contemporary Phnom Penh both from physical and ideological perspectives, reflections on the changing urban-aesthetic, all had multiple reference points. The arts programme could have been thematically categorised as a result. But even if such headings were purposefully broad, meanings and interpretations also naturally interchange and I wanted to acknowledge this – at times the connections between individual works or projects in this year’s programme seemed more concrete. Several events, for example, discuss the prevalent issues of land and ownerships of urban space. Connections may also be read more ephemerally. By the act of living in the city we are implicated in and shaped by interacting with urban currents; we, like these works, share a similar space at the same time, which does not necessarily make for a foregone experience or conclusion, but for a constant (re)negotiation of the urban space.

Multiple Streams: A Confluence

A Confluence is a group exhibition housed at No Problem Park which brings together contemporary art and architectural works around this year’s festival theme. Bringing together installation, sculpture, photography, video, and performance from local and international artists and architects, A Confluence offers a temporary juncture for the works on display, those it anticipates, and those it will remember. Visitors to the exhibition are invited to explore these works as they converge together before continuing their own artistic journeys once again. Viewing currents as rhythms, transactions, directions, and something in progress –  there is no prescribed route, only a set of propositions.

‘The Public Square’ by Anida Yoeu Ali/ Studio Revolt examines how thoughts and ideas are exchanged through conversation. The work is separated into two parts. In the gallery setting, the installation is yet to be fully realised. It will leave the exhibition to evolve in to a 24 hour durational performance at Central Market. Here it will be activated and resolved in its offering of a new place and context for dialogues between Phnom Penh residents and the arts community.

For the opening, part of the gallery lay dormant. Both a precursor and trace, this virtual emptiness transformed in to an archival site, making visible Amy Lee Sanford’s participatory performance ‘Building Again’. Exploring the process of breaking and rebuilding, Amy with several participants will construct a 2.5 x 3 meter wall, destroy it and rebuild it in a public space. This performance is anticipated in its referential treatment – with the aim of extending its temporal nature –  thereby helping to build the community.  Revealing alternative concerns with the process of art making and what constitutes material and action, the performance itself designates participation as a critical mode of engagement.

KIM Hak references Cambodia’s troubled past and the impact on cultural memory in his video ‘Daun Penh’ where he acknowledges the diasporic experience. He dedicates this gently powerful film to those who were here as ‘the sky turned black’ under the Khmer Rouge, before escaping overseas. Aware of the imprint on today’s generations, Hak looks hopefully to the present, personally calling for these people to ‘come home’.

Photography bridges the past with the present and the future with a focus on lived experience. Inspired by the week-long workshop led by KIM Hak, the participants- all of whom were new to photography- walked the streets seeking to uncover thoughts and stories from and about the city. The responses and observations were as diverse as the photographic approaches which capture them. This multi-layered project sees Phnom Penh through a variety of lenses; compassionate, uncertain, and celebratory. Mirroring the dialogical means in which these narratives were collected and evolved, the gallery setting operates as a place for continued reflection and interpretation.

A similar multiplicity of experiences and livelihoods is expressed in Alnoor Dewshi’s 30 minute film ‘Building’ screened at Meta House German Cambodian Cultural Centre. Dewshi presents the vibrancy of families and communities within a centrally located apartment block in Phnom Penh – a site of great social, cultural and political contention. Neither romantic nor damning in tone or content, it offers an alternative to the often politically charged readings of this site.

Through experiential means, KONG Vollak, SAR Rattana, and PROM Puthisal’s installation ‘Walk the City’ explores ownership, authorship, and identity, as it responds to the spatial reconfiguration and reconstruction of Phnom Penh in the process of urbanisation. This surge of development and transition probes questions of local versus imported ideas influencing the changing built environment. In providing a physical and material articulation of the city, it also acts as a provocation, challenging participants to critique the imagined city presented in the artwork as representational of what the surrounding city is or ‘could be’.

In her film ‘Phnom Penh Central Station’, Anna Katharina Scheidegger poetically portrays the particularly altered space around the capital’s railways. The film moves slowly and with a reflective distance. Quiet in its approach, much of it filmed with a fixed camera, the stilled image and subtle, non-linearity applauds stasis and cohesion against imposed change.  Dutch collaborative Topp & Dubio similarly discuss claims to urban space in their video ‘Niemandsland’ (No Man’s land). A clown roams absurdly through the city’s streets seeking out ‘undefined places’ to plant his flag; ‘places that are still being developed. Places that are shielded with fences…cut off from the so called public space. Places…we would like to mark them as “our place”.’

Contestations of places called ‘home’ are personalized in ‘The Black Wood’ at Romeet Gallery, and urban NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut’s (STT) exhibition ‘A World of Difference’.  ‘The Black Wood’ presents work by Battambang based artist MAO Soviet and American photographer Tim Robertson. The installations and sculptures have been re-crafted or simply placed and re-contextualised from materials gathered at an area which previously housed a now displaced community in Phnom Penh. A door placed as it was found, becomes a poignant symbol of the evidently moveable boundaries between private and public space, and the tenuous notions of home, shelter and a sense of belonging.  These exhibitions reiterate much of what Our City Festival is premised on: in navigating these changing waters, both community and collaboration are possible vessels.

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Ragnar Kjartansson, Barbican Art Gallery July – September 2016