Podcast 91: Curated Conferences with Chung Shefong, Janet Pillai and Anmol Vellani at Meeting Point 2021

Nabilah Said and Wennie Yang speak to Chung Shefong, Janet Pillai and Anmol Vellani the three curators who led the Curated Conference programme as part of Meeting Point 2021. The Curated Conferences comprised of three groups of participants from different Asian countries, who met over 6 months since November 2020, guided by their curator. This culminated in a presentation as part of Meeting Point, which took place from May 20 to 22.

Revealing Contexts: A Meeting Point on Art & Social Action in Asia is a collaborative effort of Mekong Cultural Hub.

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You can listen to the podcast episode on Spotify.


Nabilah: Hello, everyone, and welcome to the ArtsEquator podcast. My name is Nabilah Said, and I’m the editor of ArtsEquator. And today I actually have a co-moderator, Wennie Yang, who is an arts manager based in Singapore. Hi Wennie!

Wennie: Hello, everyone. Thank you for tuning in.

Nabilah: Today, we’re talking about a programme that was recently concluded, it’s called Revealing Contexts, a Meeting Point on Art and Social Action in Asia. And this was a collaborative effort organised by Mekong Cultural Hub, in partnership with Asia Arts Management or AAM, and quite a number of other organisations and groups as well – it was quite a large undertaking. And this was a three-day event that took place from the 20th to 22nd of May, with more than 40, curators, speakers and contributors. And the Meeting Point was essentially a space for people to, you know, have conversations, discuss ideas, exchange information, knowledge, best practices, and hopefully it can inspire more change moving forward as well.

Today we’ll be actually talking to three of the curators who were involved in the Curated Conferences programme. They are: Chung Shefong, a producer and curator who works predominantly in the music and film industry in Taiwan. Hi Shefong.

Shefong: Hi.

Nabilah: And we also have Janet Pillai, an independent consultant and resource person in the arts and culture, education sector, based in Kuala Lumpur. Hi Janet.

Janet: Hi, good evening, everyone.

Nabilah: And lastly, we have Anmol Vellani, a theatre director, writer, institutional– institution builder, teacher and actor trainer based in Bangalore, and working mainly in India and Southeast Asia. Hello Anmol.

Anmol: Hi Nabilah, glad to be with you.

Nabilah: We’re so glad to have all of you here on Zoom digitally, but still here. So the Curated Conferences, it was actually, if I’m not wrong, a six-month process that’s been happening since November of 2020. And each of you had your specific, individual groups of participants who came from various countries in Asia, talking about a specific topic. Wennie, do you mind sharing what each of them were about?

Wennie: Right. So over the course of the three days, it was very heartwarming to see everyone gather online to discuss various topics that may be important for artists and arts practitioners in the region. Specifically, the Curated Conferences were very insightful where the three curators shared different degrees of artist interventions, in terms of how arts and social change can work together and bring maybe social cohesion in communities, and also highlighting different contexts within the Mekong region because due to the different sociopolitical differences. Starting off it was “Artistic Action In Practice” by Shefong, who highlighted the role of arts and culture in inspiring change within society. And the context was revolving around Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar, and different artistic projects were presented by the artists. And the conversations revolved around how to present our artistic voice when the macro environments are proven to be challenging, and with a lot of volatility. And then moving on to “Thoughts On Art and Society” by Janet. It was also a six-month process in not only talking about artistic intervention in communities spanning from Singapore, Bangkok, Indonesia or Petaling Jaya in Malaysia, but it also encouraged a collective sense-making in terms of how to work with communities, and the best practices revolving around that. Lastly, we came to “In The Wake of COVID”, which was a very insightful performance piece done on Zoom, by, four artists and practitioners looking into the internal worlds of how artists are coping at times of the pandemic, and how they see productivity and imagination, and just how to stay motivated during this challenging time.

Nabilah: Yeah, so the Curated Conferences was actually the culmination, right, of a kind of longer process. Maybe Shefong, we can start with you, you know, how was that process like for you and the dynamic that you had in your particular group?

Shefong: For my group, we had nine consecutive discussion meetings. Actually, time and internet access has always been the most challenging part for organising regular and fluent meetings. For example, we have a fellow who is a human rights lawyer who regularly travels across the country fighting for the injustice. So she had to meet us in different locations struggling to get the quiet corner, and stable internet access. So sometimes you had to leave in between the meeting to attend another meeting at the nearby table. One other fellow who lives in the community by Wu River, where internet could be disconnected when there’s heavy rain and strong heating. So in some locations, the fellows might encounter problems like unstable electricity and blackout during the meetings. So despite the issues of censorship, the global pandemic and the regional political turbulence, all these obstacles could occur on the daily basis. So I would say it’s actually a very luxurious process, in terms of time, space and freedom that the fellows have met every two weeks in front of the screen, to express freely to keep faith and to create something collectively when all the barriers and challenges exist in our daily life. However, the dynamic of the group has always been very, very high. I remember well, from the second meeting onward, there’s always a proposal raised for further cross-border collaborative projects among the fellows. They are always enthusiastic for meeting each other to produce something together. Especially after the February 1 coup d’etat in Myanmar, the group is more determined to implement the solidarity practice.

Nabilah: Janet, what about you?

Janet: Yah, my group, were mostly all practitioners, either artists, or intermediary, producer types. And they were extremely involved in their own communities, or their own projects. So very different maybe response from Shefong’s group. Basically, I gave them questions, you know, key questions every week. And they really responded in-depth, but it was very focused on their own work with their own community. They didn’t talk much about their country situation. They were more focused on reflecting on their own practice. I did, towards the end, ask them to kind of get responses from other socially engaged artists working in their countries, but only two of them did, with very interesting inputs, but they didn’t pursue it. They went back to reflecting on their own practice, ultimately. So I think unlike academics, practitioners are– maybe they don’t have the time to look at overarching questions, which academics do. So they are more interested in solving very complex situations of working with communities, you know, because they are third parties or going into a new setting.

Nabilah: Do you mind sharing, what was an example of a question that you would pose to them?

Janet: Sometimes I would ask questions, like, you know, socially engaged arts, how is it related to say, the national agenda? Or… what are the kinds of mechanisms that you use to engage with community, if you’re an outsider? Or, do you consider yourself an outsider or insider?

Nabilah: Thanks for that. Anmol, what about you?

Anmol: Yes, so we were discussing, as you know, COVID and its effect on the arts. And to some extent there’s some similarity with the elements that Janet talked about. I would say our process was both open, and streamlined. It was often because we did not set an agenda for all our meetings right at the start. We let what transpired in each meeting determine the theme, and the scope of the next, and these decisions were taken collectively, but the process was also streamlined. Each meeting was documented and a set of questions proposed for the next session, based on the chosen sub-theme.

Now, answering set questions help keep the meetings on an even keel. I noticed that the participants had different perspectives, but they did not end up arguing with each other or spending time on disagreements. Instead, I observed what one participants said often led another to understand and express their own situation better. Right, so they were growing with each other. And the growing bond between them through the course of our meetings was palpable. They opened up to each other more and began building on each other’s ideas, and towards the latter stages, helping each other with their projects. But I think the real turning point came when the group moved from asking questions about their experience of the pandemic and how arts practice had been affected by influential agencies like the state or funding agencies, to focusing on the self discoveries they had made. They began asking questions about the core values and beliefs, what they cherish deeply, what they won’t give up. About what they would want restored in the arts, or were willing to let go in a post-COVID time. They asked how they thinking, behaviour and ways of relating to others and trends, or the new concerns they had embraced. This brought about one interesting shift. They became curious about posing these sorts of self-reflective questions, where one turns one’s gaze inwards, to their peers, people in their immediate circle or known to them, you know, they felt that these conversations could focus on seeking answers to three questions – very similar to the kinds they’d asked themselves – What have we learned? What are we learning? What do we need to learn? And we reported their discoveries in these exchanges back to the group and that inevitably affected the direction and substance of what we were talking about.

Wennie: Thank you to all three curators for sharing the work dynamics with the team. And definitely there is overarching commonality or common ground in terms of the idea of Arts and Social Change, which is also the focal point of Meeting Point as well. It’s where we hope to use collaboration to generate positive change. Now looking into more individual perspectives, what does it mean to you as curators, for your own personal context, the meaning of arts and social change? How does working with your respective groups challenge or add to this concept?

Shefong: For the past few years, I have been invited to mentor and coach several projects in Thailand and Cambodia. When sharing the projects of art activism, which I have been involved in, I realised that my practices under the more democratic political system is not always applicable in the region. So the curatorial concept of this conference, “Artistic Action and Practice in the Mekong Region” derives, actually, from my experience of working with the artists and cultural practitioners from the Mekong Region, who are always faced with the challenges of censorship and being threatened by the law, such as the lèse-majesté law, such as the computer crime laws in Thailand. That’s why I raised these questions in the Curated Conference, like, how can artists and cultural practitioners navigate challenges such as censorship? Are there possible ways of responding to challenges and barriers faced by a society or community, apart from silence or direct activism? So each meeting, we started with exchanging the most urgent political and social issues in the region, then one fellow would take turns to speak as a keynote speaker to share the creative actions and strategies they have been involved.

Janet: In my case, I think after listening to the various participants from almost four countries, when they discussed their practice, it revealed that the notions of art and its function and purpose was quite often controlled by city centres, or by the market, or by national agenda. Sometimes these controls would seep into socially engaged arts. So there was a little bit of questioning about whether, when you do socially engaged arts, are you actually addressing the state’s agenda to some extent? Or are you actually addressing the community’s agenda? Or your own agenda as an artist? Because you’re beginning to question the role of art. So these things came forth. And for me, I realised that a lot of socially engage practitioners that we were speaking to, wanted to bring art and life closer together. And they felt that socially engaged art making, may have a close relationship to culture making within a communal setting, but that wasn’t fully expressed. I could just feel it in the background. So these things were a bit of a learning for me as well, for me to reflect.

Anmol: You know, our group did not unfortunately get round to discussing the pandemic’s effect on art that aspires to bring about social change. And I don’t think the group discussions were aligned on my personal situation, but it did inspire me in a certain way and I’ll get around to that. What I learnt indirectly though, from the personal examples of the artists in the group, was that art for social change in these times was in retreat. During the pandemic, for obvious practical reasons people can’t get together, they can’t group and work in communities. In fact, one of the artists in the group, Narumol (we call her Kop) from Thailand, she’s a socially active artist. But during the pandemic, she became comfortable with being isolated, focusing on self development, and learning from all the opportunities that were open on the internet. COVID hasn’t brought about many changes for me. My teaching and curating continues, though it has gone online. As a theatre producer, what I’ve started to do is turn my attention to writing or rewriting dramatic texts, adapting it for podcasting, or online conferencing platforms, for example. But the personal projects undertaken by the artists in our group has certainly opened my eyes to seeing online media as another kind of stage on which a new form of theatre can be performed. There’s immense potential here, but it needs a new kind of storytelling imagination.

Nabilah: So maybe starting with Shefong, kind of going into your session a bit more. In terms of your group, because as I understand it, someone wasn’t able to be there if I’m not wrong. There’s some safety issues as well around there. But at the same time, you were trying to create maybe a safe space for your group, what was that like for you? What were the kind of different challenges or differences were you working with?

Shefong: It’s true that during the process of our discussion meetings, one of our fellows had to leave his home, his hometown, his family, to be in exile due to his long standing up for human rights. While the other fellow who’s always been on the road to help the voiceless by advocating legal justice. All the fellows are standing at the front lines of the pro-democracy movement and be at the risk of arrest. So, there was always a challenge to meet together in front of the screen being secured. And without disclosing the locations sometimes. And I feel very close to them because we have to run the meeting, every two weeks, even they are all in a very difficult situation. And they had to now hide themselves because of different reasons. Still, they are still very generous about the time because we had nine meetings in the past six months. And they organise it voluntarily. I was very moved by the situation and sometimes my colleagues they were not able to participate throughout the meeting, but will use WhatsApp.

In terms of the language, I think it’s because the urgency of expressing the regional problems seems to us that using different languages have not been a problem of generating dialogues and meeting where we are and to communicate. There are new discoveries, for example, our Cambodian and Thai fellows, they have both discovered the traditional folk and literary forms they shared. They call it chapey and mor lam, both revealed the narratives of art activism, when the concept of aesthetics of resistance was featured in our discussion. So they concluded in their findings that art activism is a tradition in the region instead of a foreign concept or theory, which been introduced. I think that the conference actually helped to find the cultural resources that they all shared. Also the language roots.

Wennie: On a similar note, we’ll switch focus to Janet’s conference where you mentioned that artists should deconstruct the notion of the arts, sometimes there’s a different perspective on how a community sees art. Can you elaborate on that?

Janet: Among the practitioners that were in the discussion, there were artists who, on their own, personally wanted to go in or they were intermediaries or producers for other artists who also wanted to work with community. Of course, there are artists who on their own are going in to work with community. And the challenges they talked about are quite different. Artists going in on their own would slowly learn this problem of where the art is so dichotomised from life, and it has become a discipline of its own, they had to actually go through a process of re-learning, and learn how to appreciate what was considered domestic, vernacular art. What was comfortable for the community, and what the community saw as art. Most of them have come along in that journey, those artists who went in to work, they have come along in that journey. They also had a dichotomy as third party going in.

Some of the conclusions drawn were how do you become a member of the community that you’re working with, rather than a third party coming in? Now for the intermediaries, or people who are facilitating, or bringing parties together that will be bringing artists and community together. They struggled more with issues of how do you handle transdisciplinary situations, or trans cultural situations, because some of these artists would come from the either middle class or city kind of context. And if you’re working with communities in rural areas, or you’re bringing different parties, like, you know, government agencies, community, artists together, then you have transdisciplinary kind of challenges. But most of them agreed that the role of the artist, or the creative, is actually to help reframe, or re-contextualise problems in the society in a creative manner. So that they could help the community to claim something via either culture making or art making, reclaim joint agency, you know, all together – can we have our own agency to solve issues on the ground or that are specific to community’s needs?

Wennie: Thank you for sharing. That was also very insightful in terms of the differences of our understanding of art–

Nabilah: Also the idea of embeddedness. Negotiating the priorities of embedding oneself in the community with the ego of the artist – there’s some negotiation around there. Moving on to Anmol. Now, your group, as I understand it, did a slightly different presentation in the Curated Conference, where it was almost like more performative and activating a kind of imaginative energy in the investigation of the role of the artists and arts in the pandemic. How did this idea come about?

Anmol: Curiously, the idea was suggested by Regina from Taiwan. Now, she is more of a curator and researcher in the area of material culture, rather than an artist or theatre artists unlike the other three. It was surprising that it was she who suggested it. She said that each participant could develop a personal project, springing from one or more questions they had asked themselves during the conversations. All of the others took to this idea immediately, because they’re more comfortable being creative, rather than discussing. They’re better at it. They wanted to express what the possibilities of art are in the pandemic, rather than talk about it, to show it, to demonstrate it, in some sense.

Nabilah: For you right, what is the value of the imagination during a pandemic? And even for non-artists?

Anmol: During the pandemic, the imagination needs to be rebooted essentially. Artists and curators need to develop a new imagination, one that cannot rely on how the imagination was able to work in the familiar terrain of offline exhibitions and live performances. But challenges and constraints are good to get the creative juices flowing. Necessity is the mother of invention, etc, etc. The need created by the pandemic is for artists to reimagine their creative idiom for the online world. I believe that was what most of the projects created by the group attempted to do.

Wennie: Thank you. A question for all the curators for the conference, what were some key or new insights you gained from attending Meeting Points? Perhaps programs that you did not participate directly in? We’d love to hear from you Shefong.

Shefong: I think the most inspiring part of being in Meeting Point conference is to actually meet the fellows in the past six months, while there were so many political movements happened in the region. I think this is the experience I would miss from reading news. I actually gained the insights from these experiences.

Janet: I think the highlight of the Meeting Point conference, the whole process was you know, it’s because community engaged artists, for some reason, they are just so pressured. Working in a community context is very complex. And they’re always like, I would say, stressed out and overworked. So it was kind of like weird that it was a COVID period when we had this six or seven sessions with community engaged arts practitioners, because they really had the time to think, talk, and reflect on their work. Although there are horrible things that came out of COVID, this is one of the beautiful things, time, having that time to actually extend a kind of academic exercise or reflective exercise over a period, a good period of time, you know, six months. And then to talk about it. However, I personally felt that “conferencing” may not have been a suitable term for the culmination project. And I would, you know, rethink whether that’s going back to an old fashioned way of thinking. Maybe could end in many other ways– although, it was very refreshing to actually watch the other two conferences, which were more using multimedia and the possibilities of multimedia, in a more creative manner.

Anmol: I found a lot to take away from the plenary simply because I was curious about it, the theme was overlapping with what we were talking about in our group. I was particularly enamoured by the term “solidarity practice”, because we did discuss this business about artists coming and working closely together. But what the plenary did was, give that idea more scholarly heft, you know, and weight, which perhaps, we were unable to give in our group discussions, because we lacked that kind of disciplinary background. So that was very interesting to listen to, and then try and relate it to our own conversations. The other part that I remember very clearly was the idea of “imagining the future through art”, and not leaving it to powerful people to monopolise what the future might look like. This did come up because what the artists were talking about was, how difficult it was, what a struggle it was to actually get the state to listen or any other influential agency to try to influence what they were doing. And although they were listening, they were at the same time, not listening, it was more a form of tokenism, they’d already made up their mind that, “okay, this is what must be done for the arts in COVID times”, and the artists who were actually experiencing what’s happening in the COVID time were not being listened to. So there you go, you know, the future of the arts, and the future in general is being imagined by powerful forces. And that’s one of the problems.

Nabilah: To round up our discussion, what are some of your lingering thoughts now that whole process has come to an end? And also, how do you actually keep your hopes up during this time?

Anmol: I came away with this idea, there’s great value in a curated conference like the kind MCH has introduced, which m ay not have been meant for the pandemic. A small group meeting again and again to examine a single issue from different perspectives is immensely rewarding. It is more satisfying because it allows one to continue discussing an issue that was felt to have been left unfinished in a previous meeting. It deepens understanding of that question, and enables empathy for different ways it can be looked at, rather than simply being challenging or disagreeing. Therefore, it enables a real conversation to develop and builds enduring relationships between participants. That’s a kind of bond building, and relationships is very important. I think it’s an idea that needs to be pursued further.

Janet: I think to echo what Anmol said earlier, the need to look at new ways of doing things is really just there in our face. And I think the Curated Conferences is the beginning of a new way of doing conferences. We were ecologically sound in carrying out this conference. We have more depth in doing this methodology than in any normal conference. We saved a lot of time, and we could do several other things in parallel, because we were working online. I think what I would have liked to see change a little bit more in the future is leaving behind the formal conference kind of structure — like with preliminary keynotes, speakers, and you have to make the connection. When actually, I agree with Anmol, there was so much of connections between the small group discussions and these keynote speakers, but unfortunately, there was no platform. This is where we need to use our imagination a little more. I was also very fascinated by some of the findings by Shefong’s group , but again, the three groups didn’t get a chance to reflect on a larger umbrella scale. On the different ways in which socially engaged arts serves humanity. So that’s something I’d like to see go further.

Shefong: For me, the lingering thoughts is actually what my group has raised. They’ve been asking, like, what’s the next move of our group? They have been motivated by the whole process of meetings and the final Meeting Point, so they really want to move on, move forward to, to work together, to collaborate together. I don’t know how much I still can help, or I think it’s also good that they can develop their own projects to further their collaborations. And also they are calling follow-up meetings and drinking sessions, something like that. But I like this. This is something we didn’t actually expect in the beginning, because we thought it would only be six meetings, and then the Meeting Point, that’s the end. But that’s something that’s more impactful and more powerful than we expected.

Wennie: Thank you all three curators for sharing your insights and your perspectives on the benefits of attending Meeting Points. Personally, after having attended the three-day conference, I not only understand the new mode of presentation in terms of digital conferencing. I expected with the increasing screen time, people would become less engaged in online content, which was not the case because everyone was very engaged during the session and also during the Q&A process where a lot of different ideas were exchanged in a field. That was a very valuable process because everyone’s opinions were addressed and I think there was a very valuable knowledge exchange, that doesn’t happen very often, perhaps outside up online now that I think of it. With the final thought, I feel Meeting Point was definitely a good converging point of all the different disciplines — whether you’re an artist, academic, practitioners, or just interested parties, because I do see participants who are not in the arts, but they do share the same passion in driving change. Using the creative side to drive social change is definitely a direction we should all aim to move forward with to imagine a shared common future.

Nabilah: Yeah, it definitely gives me hope, hearing all of your reflections. And often, the term “solidarity” is bandied about quite a lot. But it does sound, like, when we are intentional about how we’re doing it. What you all brought up, the idea of time taken, it really sounds there can be a lot of commonalities that can be found. Especially when we talk about Asia, which is so big, so sometimes it’s scary to say like, “oh, it is the Asian conference”, like what does that mean, sometimes we don’t know. It did sound like there were a lot of perspectives being shared in each of your sessions and throughout Meeting Point. Hopefully, this isn’t the end of that conversation. With that, thank you so much to the three of you, Janet, Shefong, and Anmol, for sharing so generously. And all the best for all your practices and for your groups as well!

Wennie: Thank you for sharing!

Everyone: Thanks, and goodbye!

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

This article is sponsored by Mekong Cultural Hub.


About the author(s)

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.

Nabilah Said is an award-winning playwright, editor and cultural commentator. She is also an artist who works with text across various artforms and formats. Her plays have been staged in Singapore and London, including ANGKAT, which won Best Original Script at the 2020 Life Theatre Awards. Nabilah is the former editor of ArtsEquator.

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