Burmese Reflections

Burmese Salons

Soundwalk Workshop

Sound is rarely used as a material or medium for artistic expression in Burma. Many people were, however, interested in sound art and we were asked by a Rangoon artist group to host a workshop where they could get to know more. After several soundwalk projects in Sweden, Omvägar i ljud and [ljudstråk] I, Åsa, thought it would be a concept suitable for Rangoon. I was thinking of it as a way of blurring the division between public and private sphere as well as trying out ways to turn up the volume and distribute people’s everyday stories without having to pass through the censorship boards. In Rangoon, as elsewhere in the world, it is common to listen to music in headphones while walking and thereby creating a kind of private sphere in the public space. The people who walk soundwalks will be seen as part of that social practice – they look the same as walkman-users from the outside and nobody will know what they are listening to. But, what stories to tell? And how to deal with the anxiety concerning recording devices? Perhaps  mobile phones are a  solution for audio recording when most electronic devices in public space are considered suspicious?

The workshop started off with me explaining, by exemplifying with previous soundwalk projects, how soundwalks are a way of making the city into a meeting place and a space for art. The listener gets a chance to experience the city through another person. Hopefully both the storyteller and the listener become more aware of their surroundings and can perceive them in a slightly different way.

After listening to a soundwalk prototype I had recorded in my neighbourhood in Rangoon, the task for the participants was to record their own soundwalk in one take; walking and recording live on tape. Although initially finding it a good idea, the majority of the workshop participants later expressed that they felt uncomfortable making recordings in public, even though they had a friend by their side and used mobile phones as if they were involved in a long phone conversation.

After several hours a crucial misunderstanding was revealed: the participants had not recorded with the intention of expressing any artistic ideas themselves. They came back from their recording sessions and thought I would then  compile and make ‘ art’ out of their sounds.

This confusion stemmed from different viewpoints concerning what to expect from a workshop and what a work of art can be. We discussed these topics without necessarily agreeing. Afterwards I scribbled down one of the challenges: How to communicate and work in practice with the concept of soundwalks to someone who is not used to art in public space, sound art, nor participatory art?

VJing in Rangoon Workshop

Before going to Burma I, Erik, made sure that I didn’t have too many fixed plans of what to do in the country. I knew little about the place, but I still had to make some choices of what resources and materials to bring with me. When I thought about possible workshops I early on ruled out anything related to VJ culture. What could be more unsuitable for a place with erratic power supply, no established club culture, and limited access to video projectors? Then, after a presentation in Rangoon, three guys came up to me. They said they were DJs and they thought that VJing sounded really cool. Perhaps I could host a workshop for them and their friends?

VJing is the art of live creation and mixing of video, usually in relation to music in a club or at a concert. My own VJ practice, developed in close collaboration with Andreas Kurtsson in our group TV-OUT, has focused on club performances. TV-OUT finds and amplifies everyday movements, zooming in on the quotidian and projecting it big  to the sounds of heavy electronic music. We produce an, often absurd, disco-ethnography, played out and experienced at loud, flickering, late-night dancefloors. Our aesthetics only requires simple capturing tools – small digital still cameras capable of recording short movie clips – making it a good starting point for a Burmese situation where there is a lack of high-quality video cameras.

After finally deciding on not renting a ridiculously expensive projector, moving the workshop starting time to 6 in the morning because of a hostile electricity schedule, and assembling three working PCs we started the workshop at one of the DJs' apartment.

During the next hours the participants went out in the streets to film their own clips and then mix them using a VJ software application. Soon 10 fresh VJs where mixing their own neighbourhood footage of speeding cars, leaking water conduits, skillful chapati-bakers and monks adjusting their attire – to the sounds of heavy hiphop and M-Pop.

Capturing VJ footage in this way turns you into a tourist in your own neighbourhood, as you perceive your familiar surroundings with fresh VJ eyes looking for interesting movements and visual patterns. The discussion afterwards also touched on the power of the VJ as an artist who has access to huge projection surfaces and an enthusiastic crowd.

At exactly 11 am the apartment started beeping loudly – that familiar event in Burma which means you have five minutes before a complete power cut – signalling the end of the workshop for this time.

Unfinished Art: Sounds, Interactions and Surprises

Three times we presented our previous and ongoing work under the above title. Initially it was difficult to find venues to host the presentations. One gallery owner was afraid, since he feared we would show video and play sounds – media which are seen with suspicion by the authorities. Local art scene intrigues was another obstacle.

We decided to go for small semi-public or private settings, which made us think of the Parisian salons of the 18th century. In the French context it was one of few ways for women to access information and discuss literature, art and science. In Burma, more or less the whole population is denied proper possibilities for an open exchange  of ideas and knowledge.

Part of our talk was dedicated to discuss the expanded role of an artist, which includes, as we see it, an artist who uses her/his creativity and communication skills to share knowledge. Perhaps s/he could be called a catalyst (for change). We were talking about artistic work in academia, in the public sphere, as well as in the business arena.

There was an apparent interest in our talks and workshops. The Burmese art scene is hungry for news and thoughts from the outside. During the first two presentations we didn’t manage to involve everybody in a discussion, although we were happy to be approached afterwards by those who wanted to ask questions and know more. It dawned on us that we should have provided a written version of our presentation to the audience, both due to language difficulties and to the limited number of participants that could fit in the presentation spaces. Parallel to the text you are reading now, we are working on a written version of our Unfinished Art-presentation, to be translated into Burmese, printed and distributed in Rangoon and Mandalay.

Language was a hurdle in many ways, but in the third presentation it somehow didn’t matter. Our talk about multidisciplinary artistic work – about professional amateurism and going in and out of several professional identities – provoked a discussion that boiled down to Who are you? This question about identity is fundamental and in Burma you have to be really careful with how you answer it. Not being able to clearly express your identity leads to hidden narratives, to parallel stories about the self and your work.

On the eve of our last day in Burma a poet was arrested. One week earlier another poet was arrested and the paper that had published one of his poems was banned for two weeks. We were told that those who work with the written word are more vulnerable to scrutiny since they can publish and thereby spread their words to more people than artists who only show their paintings a couple of times a year to a few people. You are always representing something that is larger than yourself.

Beyond Pressure

At the end of our stay we were asked to help out with a grant application for a performance festival. An Asian funding body had contacted a Burmese artist and encouraged him to write an application for a festival since they receive so few proposals from Burma. Writing applications for art funding is an art in itself, mastered by few artists and organisers in the country. (Language difficulties, a bumpy and costly process of acquiring passport and visa documents, and the risk of rejection, of ‘losing your face’, stop many Burmese artists from applying for, for example, travel grants – effectively minimising the number of international art exchanges). We tried to write collaboratively and transparently in an attempt to pass on our knowledge of this field. We spent many hours to express what this festival is about, how it will be organised and why. Hopefully we will co-host a workshop series, on performance and learning-situations in public space, prior to the festival in November 2008.

We all have to perform every day, wherever we are, but in Burma a weak performance or acting outside of your designated role may have especially dire consequences. One person suggested we write an essay about the ‘unconscious performance of the everyday in Burma’, about the multilayered narratives that people have to choose carefully between when they present themselves. We were told that a group of students distributed candle lights to poor people in a neighbourhood, encouraging them to light them at dusk and pray that, just as the fire burns out and dies, may the present ruling of the country soon fade away.

The everyday performance and performance as an art genre intertwines. Performance art is ephemeral, can happen everywhere and at any time, in public as well as private spaces. It doesn’t have to be announced, often no specific material is necessary and can therefore be made at a low cost. T his makes performance art powerful in an environment where you need to evade control and censorship.

The working title for the performance festival is Beyond Pressure.