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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

Meeting Point 2021: The cultural worker in a time of social change

By Wennie Yang
(2,000 words, 8-minute read)

Laptop fully charged, professional Zoom background selected – Meeting Point 2021 organised by Mekong Cultural Hub and its partners took place virtually between 20 to 22 May 2021. Artists, cultural intermediaries, academics, and other interested parties from around the region gathered to discuss their experiences melding arts with social action in Asia, especially during volatile times accentuated by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

What set this conference apart from others I have attended in the past was the theme of A Meeting Point on Art & Social Action in Asia. Many attendees carry a dual identity of being an artist and/or cultural worker as well as agents for social change. A quick survey of the motivations for artists and cultural workers to engage in social action include: addressing gaps in policy and infrastructures; fostering capacity building in underserved communities; forming resistance or critique of political system failures; and more increasingly, mobilising resources to help communities in turmoil. Conference participants also spoke of the precarious working conditions for arts and cultural workers in the region which existed prior to the pandemic, such as a lack of resources and institutional support, and sensitive socio-political contexts. 

While policy and academic research can identify overarching issues and statistics to advocate for change to address social inequalities, it is artists and cultural intermediaries that have the acute awareness to diagnose problems in a contextualised manner; the agility to embed into a local community; and the creativity to customise artistic interventions that are closer to implementation. 

Meeting Point 2021 offered a platform for participants to discuss the invisible labour of cultural workers in relation to social action and to foster professional collaboration within the region. In preparation for the virtual gatherings, weekly meetings and research were conducted over the course of six months by curators/researchers and their respective fellows. The findings were presented in the forms of two Roundtables, three Curated Conferences, and four practical Case Study Workshops. Key takeaways and notable questions are summarised below. 

Revealing Contexts Roundtable: “The Future of Art and Social Action in Post-Pandemic Asia” – May 20

 

Focusing on the now rather than the future 

Day 1 of Meeting Point began with Revealing Contexts Roundtable: “The Future of Art and Social Action in Post-Pandemic Asia” which reviewed long standing socio-political issues such as social inequalities, precarious living conditions, diminishing right to press freedom, and state-imposed sanction on dissidents, that have remained unresolved and neglected in the past. The roundtable discussions did not propose concrete future-proof actions, but rather highlighted the need to build solidarity practices to address inequalities before we can move forward. 

As artists and cultural workers, we are poised to rebuild fragmented community relationships and to minimise gaps in policy responses due to our awareness of on-the-ground contexts when compared to institutions and policymakers. This invisible labour is often not recognised or given legitimacy, and it leaves us anticipating for the next shift in policy directions, unintentionally adopting the “psychology of modernity, where we join the haste to imagine a future where we are claiming for resources,” as presented by Marco, architect/urbanist and co-founder of Rujak Center for Urban Studies in Jakarta. Therein lies the main problem in building solidarity, where pre-existing inequalities in urban communities are neglected and instead we rush into a future that is not inclusive of the population that has trouble reaching commonality. Instead of solidarity actions, Marco suggested reframing our thinking as solidarity practices where we slow down the chase for resources, seek collaborations with like-minded partners, and help those struggling to cope and engage them in collective sense-making. 

Architect/urbanist Marco speaking at the Revealing Contexts Roundtable as part of Meeting Points 2021.

 

Recognising privilege in hierarchical systems and find ways to address it 

Echoing Marco’s comments, Katrina Stuart Santiago, Manila-based cultural critic and founder of People for Accountable Governance and Sustainable Action (PAGASA), spoke of the need to be conscious of one’s position in the hierarchical arts ecosystem, and to challenge the privileges that are embedded in the power structure. It is after we recognise and accept our privileges that we can take inventory of our own capacities and access to resources (financial, exposure, or connections) and redistribute to those in need. 

Examples of artists and cultural workers utilising their positions in the art world to initiate social changes were presented in Day 2 of Curated Conference: Artistic Action in Practice. Under the mentorship of Taiwanese curator Chung Shefong, four fellows who all hail from the Mekong Region, presented diverse artistic projects that demonstrated social change can be supported in these communities through research, documentation, translation of unique histories, and presenting them to the outside world. These participants were in various ways involved in the frontlines of protest movements and/or living in exile or under great secrecy – which also prompted an examination of privilege for many of us who practise in relatively safer environments. 

In regions with little or no institutional support and when the arts are positioned in the peripherals of the hierarchy, artists and cultural workers persist to address the privilege disparity – whether it was tapping into K-pop fanclub donations to support music programmes for underprivileged youth; organising sidewalk art sales to fund protests against authoritarian governments; or to critique government responses via educational infographics on social media. By aligning missions and capacities with others who pursue the same objectives and hold higher authority, synergy can be achieved regardless of the geographical distances. 

The virtual dining room of EAt – EAst- rEvEAl- Collective Action with Trần Lương.

 

The need for social commentary and authentic storytelling

Throughout the three-day programme, questions were raised about the value and contributions of artmaking and imagination at times of change, especially when resources are tied up for more urgent issues at hand, such as pandemic responses. While artists and cultural workers often take on the role of change agents because of their inner calling to serve communities and develop a socially conscious practice, at times the role of the powerful agent in society is ascribed to large, often state-linked institutions in a top-down manner. The social contract that emerges is that the arts must exist to bring forth positive and quantifiable impacts to communities, leaving no margins for error and experimentation. 

As we embrace the digital era, the process of artmaking is shapeshifting to incorporate multiple forms, platforms, audiences and contexts. When it is difficult to pinpoint the meaning behind an artistic production, how do we assign a value to the final product? Key Performance Indicators are often set to translate qualitative values of artmaking into statistics, but many of the inherent values get lost in translation and do not fit into the framework of fiscal returns. In fact, programme participants expressed concerns about applying a yardstick to measure the value of artmaking as it leads to deafening effects and self-censorship, whereby art productions only present narratives that appease the funding body and do not represent the oppressed voices within communities. The participants also agreed that the value of artmaking lies in not only how it fosters empathy and mutual understanding between individuals, but also how it can be a key tool to record the diverse and rich forms of expression in remote regions — whether they are poetry, dance, documentary film or others. Artistic expressions mirror what is contemporary in society and provide context for the future. They serve as concrete evidence of a moment in time that future generations can refer back to, and we need to empower artists and cultural workers as agents to do meaningful and truthful storytelling in the present.

A Local Gathering in the Philippines, part of Meeting Point 2021. Photo by Baryo Balangaw Creative Initiatives.

 

COVID-19 as a chance to recalibrate focus and engage in cross-disciplinary collaborations

While the pandemic remained as the backdrop shaping decisions and impacting the chances of survival for artists and arts organisations in Asia, the participants also shared ways to make the best out of this downtime. As revealed by Nobuo Takamori, an independent curator based in Taipei, the halt to international travel was an awakening to alleviate the reliance on Western platforms of presentation, such as the Venice Biennale. This also requires a reconfiguration of curatorial practices and shifting away from ‘one-man shows’ to sharing curatorial spotlights by assembling curators and organisers from the region. This shift in exhibition making also calls for the need to establish a sub-international platform that recognises the rich talent pool of arts professionals in the region, and lending legitimacy to them to stand out in the global arena. 

Yet, while art and social change in Asia are foregrounded by local contexts, one must be aware that it could also be a limitation to our imaginations. Many participants agreed on the need for cross-disciplinary education and constant dialogue opportunities in the region, with Mekong Cultural Hub acting as an important intermediary. The downtime also served as a chance to return to traditional writing, publishing and research – fundamental approaches to learning and preparation of new materials which require time and focus. As Taipei-based moderator Lawrence Zi-Qiao Yang from the Revealing Contexts Roundtable concluded, “the confinement can be reversed; local is dynamic and it’s a rich source of imagination.”

A Local Gathering in Jakarta, part of Meeting Point 2021. Photo: Alinda Rimaya

 

Burnout, guilt, and anxiety: Side effects of socially engaged work

Throughout the three days, it was apparent that the side effects of merging artistic practice and socially engaged work were the challenges involved in sustaining ourselves. Participants spoke of feeling burnt out, feeling guilty for taking time-off, and anxiety about getting sanctioned by authorities. The situation worsens in regions experiencing political turmoil, harsh crackdown on dissidents, and ineffective judicial systems. Many participants expressed the feeling of helplessness when fighting the behemoth of injustice, but persisted nonetheless despite the risky paths ahead. For regions with relatively developed infrastructure, such as Taiwan and Singapore, the same sentiments were felt, albeit in different magnitudes. The great leap into the digitalisation era has introduced a virtual blackhole, where audience engagement is proven to be difficult when contending with social media algorithms and the plethora of alternative options available. 

On Day 2 of Curated Conference: In The Wake of COVID, the session began with a collaborative Zoom dialogue with a group of performers, under the curatorship of Anmol Vellani, asking the following questions: Is it self-indulgent to focus on myself? Is it wrong to turn away? How to stay curious? How to re-live spontaneity? Curiosity numbing out with oversaturation of connectivity, how to stay engaged? The downtime had led to introspective reflections, and many artists reported feeling vulnerable and anxious about not “being productive” and questioned the value of their practices. This highlighted the precarious conditions that artists often have to work with, where making a living is contingent on the opening of physical spaces and interaction with people in large groups. Without a sophisticated lobbying body for industry support, artists and cultural workers will have to carve their own path to stay afloat during these challenging times.

A Local Gathering in Hanoi, part of Meeting Point 2021. Photo by Heritage Space

 

Meeting Point 2021 brought us to an intersection to understand the state of  art and social action in Asia at this current moment, and confronted us with the issues that needed to be resolved and acknowledged before we can take the leap forward into a new future. While I must acknowledge that the three-day event left me with screen fatigue and numbness to new information – which I recognise is a privilege in itself, given that I have the luxury of a stable internet connection and sheltered space for learning – it renewed my curiosity to learn more about other important art and social action work being done in the region. 

When society has trouble coping and imagining a collective future, artists and cultural intermediaries can step in with their ability to be agents that help in designing and co-creating change with the local communities, and yet the degree of care that we show for communities should also be extended to ourselves. The next time we ask ourselves to be resilient, we should also question why there are so many precarious situations faced by arts and cultural workers that demand us to be tolerant of difficulties – whether they are driven by lack of labour protection for cultural workers, hostile socio-political environments or other reasons. The questions presented in this report do not have easy or concrete right or wrong solutions. Like with the positive spirit of learning and connecting forged as part of Meeting Point 2021, it is up to us to interpret the best way forward by forming alliances and solidarity in meaningful ways.  


Meeting Point 2021 took place from 20-22 May 2021. Read more about the programme here.

Wennie Yang is an arts manager and finance administrator from Toronto, Canada with general management experiences in the not-for-profit arts sectors spanning from Toronto to Singapore. After graduating with a BA in Accounting & Financial Management at the University of Waterloo, she further completed a MA in Arts & Cultural Leadership at LASALLE College of the Arts.

This article is sponsored by Mekong Cultural Hub.

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