Educated at the College of Fine Arts, but leaving before graduation, Jittima Pholsawek spent her last year of college in 1983 helping the hill tribes in Huai Pong, Weing Pa Pao, Chiang Rai, in the northern part of Thailand. She was inspired by the political student movement against the dictatorship during the 6 October event, which later became known as the Thammasat University Massacre, from 1976. As part of that historical incident, lots of activists had relocated to the forests, hid away from the then-dictatorial government and quietly formed an underground movement. Jittima decided to follow this “Way of Youth Philosophy” to discover the real meaning of life while her institutional education had to stop and was not fulfilled.
Introduced by her college professor, she joined the Thai Volunteer Service Foundation and was sent up north. During her time with the tribes, she educated the children and helped villagers in their daily routines such as agriculture and childcare. In exchange, they provided her with food and accommodation. Spending several years with the villagers and experiencing things that the classroom couldn’t have taught or provided, Jittima decided not to return to college for her final year. After spending some years with the foundation, writing books and helping the communities, she returned to an urban life, and then she began her career as a writer, illustrator and freelance artist to support herself. The starting point of her career as a performance artist began during the 1991 photo exhibition at the Goethe Institut, Bangkok. She met Mr. Chumpon Apisuk, one of the pioneers of Thai performance art, founder of Asiatopia and the Baan Tuek Art Center. Introduced to performance arts by Mr. Chumpon, she then began her career as a performance artist.
PS: I’ve heard that you are one of the selected artists for the Bangkok Art Biennale 2018, could you tell me more about your recent work?
JP: The work at the Bangkok Art Biennale is called Boat of Hope. It can be considered as installation art, but at the same time the boat could also be considered as a stage for performance art as well. When the sail is being raised, it is a sign that there will be something going on or about to happen in this area. The boat is an actual boat of the local fishermen from the Southern part of Thailand, where there is an issue on the building proposal of coal power plants in Krabi and Thepa, which will affect the environment and the villagers’ way of life. The boat is a symbol of clean energy, the energy that harms no one. Powered by wind and solar cells, the boat can produce enough energy to charge visitors’ smartphones or any electronic device, and we provided this service for free to all visitors in need. Solar-powered coffee is being served as well to the visitors.
PS: Why did you choose the boat as a symbol to fight against the coal power plants? There are also alternatives to the boat to symbolize clean energy, such as windmills, or you can also use the solar panels alone.
JP: I selected the boat as a representation of my thought for several reasons. Firstly, in the Thai language you have an idiom called “in the same boat”—meaning we are together in the same situations and all of us will cope with them, no matter how hard or difficult they are and, we shall get through them together. Secondly, the boat is a symbol of clean energy. Powered by the wind, fishermen can leave the shore at night and return in the morning. They just need a good plan to make use of the natural energy in a meaningful way. We actually can make use of clean energy, but we choose to go for not-so-clean energy such as coal for some reasons, economic or even political. Thirdly, the area that was selected to build the power plant was in the southern part of Thailand, where fisheries are the main local industry. This boat acts as their spokesperson to communicate to the public what is about to happen to the area and what their choices can be.
PS: As I’ve heard, clean energy cannot supply people’s demand. That’s why they need to build additional power plants. Is this true?
JP: Actually, clean energy is enough to supply households’ usage, but it’s insufficient for industries’ usage. For example, the shopping centre we can see “just across the street” consumes all the power that one power plant would generate. Other industries such as manufacturing industries, those factories consume more power than you can imagine, and villagers around the power plant have to suffer from what they don’t need. They are suffering for those investors for the capitalism. The pollution generated from the power plant also changes the environment around the site, which means it affects the community directly.
PS: It seems like you know a lot about the locals. What is your working process, and how do you work with them?
JP: We performance artists are not working alone—we are together with the activists, news reporters, environmental conservators, researchers and several foundations. Before starting to work, we always gather information and context around the scenes. You may think that the locals know nothing; actually the locals know everything. By “everything,” I mean they know even more than we expected. They know the impact and consequences of what’s happening to their area. They know that their way of life will not be the same. They hold alternatives and different approaches for the decision makers, but they can do almost nothing for some “reasons.”
PS: This is very interesting for the theme of Centre–Periphery. Can this be a good example to illustrate this dichotomy?
JP: There are so many things happening around the country and, of course, not only in the centre—as you may called a capital city or big cities. If you live in the big city, let’s say Bangkok, some information from several situations might be filtered or could not reach you. You are being attracted by other information or entertainment, and you may think they are not happening.
Interacting with the locals, you start to realize that they know everything from the environmental topic to government policy to the hidden agenda of the project. But they can do nothing, their voices are not strong enough. That’s why they need us to speak for them; the news reporter and the news itself can be a type of media that reach out to the public, but sometimes news alone becomes unattractive. Sometimes these two terms are being physically disconnected.
PS: That’s why you are invited to do art projects with the locals? Let’s say other stakeholders invite or collaborate with you.
JP: Art to me is one medium or one way to communicate messages to the public, the same as news on television. But when you make art, it attracts more of the public, and it also engage the locals to participate and interact with the outsiders. Arts bring us together and speaks the situations or issues out loud. Sometimes, news reporters also need interesting content to attract audience—just series of pictures of dirty beaches, dead birds or fish, or a bunch of garbage and polluted air could be boring. All kinds of arts that we do with the community could also help the media to have more “ingredients” for their content. The media needs us to be a part of their news, while we also need the media to broadcast our activities to the public as well; we are a part of each other.
PS: So, your art is considered a form of message from the periphery to the centre?
JP: Art is something that reflects and amplifies the situations, and also the thought of the artist, but when you make performance art or art with communities you are not speaking alone; the communities also speak with you. So, from just your speech, it becomes “our” speech. When we do art, it brings things together, and the art also reinforces the story and can be good evidence of the occurrences. Performance art has its own character; unlike painting or sculpture, it has a strong power and tension bouncing from the performer and viewers.
PS: And do the locals understand your message? Even someone with an artistic background could not get the whole message if it was too abstract or symbolic.
JP: Never underestimate the locals, they get the message even better than someone with an artistic background. When you have a lot of knowledge, you always judge or consume things from your mind, from the knowledge that you have but not with your heart. People around the area know nothing about performance art, but that doesn’t mean knowing no theories forbids them to enjoy and be a part of the art. During the performance they are like the empty glasses prepared for the water to be poured in. They are the ones that are confronted with situations. So, it’s not difficult at all to convey the message to them, unlike the people who are not familiar with the local situation, it’s more difficult for them to get the message. Maybe they have to get to know first what is happening, what the problem is, what affects the communities.
PS: Is there any impact from your projects after the performance? Any good examples?
JP: The Salaween River Project would be a good example in this case. This project reflects issues on the government’s movements in the Salaween Area. This area is the border and also a shared natural resource between Myanmar and Thailand. The Thai and Myanmar governments initiated several electric-generating dams along the whole river basin in Myanmar, and the Thai government planned to buy electricity from Myanmar. We are not against the project and the dams, but without a proper environmental impact assessment, this project would wipe away several villages and also their heritage. Along the river, there are several tribes and villagers, farmers who have lived there for generations, and without a proper study, maintaining them would be impossible. When the government project was made public, only positive impacts were announced, not the negative impact on the locals and the environment. As it’s an international issue, artists from both Thailand and Myanmar are working together in the Thai-Myanmar Collaborative Art Project to express our thoughts towards the issue. The project rose awareness about the locals and the public from both countries. Also, there were stories published in the news. Art itself amplifies the message and conveys the message to the public.
PS: So, the situation became a public issue after the project?
JP: It is a public issue already, but we helped make it reach the broader public—we amplified it. When there is awareness from the public, the voice from the locals became louder. Media also became interested in the topic and started to do some research, creating documentaries and broadcasting the issue for both the positive and negative impact of the project. Afterwards, the government had to put the project on hold and announce in-depth research on the impact before making any further moves. Maybe this is a good example of how the peripheral can make the voice that reaches the centre, or the capital.
PS: When you initiated the project, how did you obtain financial support? How can you make the project sustainable?
JP: It depends. For the Bangkok Art Biennale, we get support from companies such as ThaiBev. Some projects were supported by the related stakeholders, especially the organization related to the environmental conservation. For most of the project, we are supporting ourselves. We do not think about the financial that much; we are artists that make art, not commercial projects. The only way to sustain the art and the event is to continue working on it and not giving up.
PS: How did you generate revenue from the performance art? Another form of art such as painting or sculpture can be sold, but performance art is a happening. Is it more difficult to make a living with this form of art? How can this kind of art be valued.
JP: Some performance artists are making money with the printed materials from their performances, such as photography with autographs, books or the recorded (film/video) copy of their works. For me, performance art should not be valued or priced or owned. How much does it cost to save and preserve the heritage? How much does it cost to sustain the generations and continue the traditions? Performance art is the impact released from the performer to the audience, and the impact shouldn’t be evaluated. But the value of the art lies in its consequences and its duty that serves the public domain.
Jittima Pholsawek is an artist, a feature writer, a short story writer, and a poetess. She has devoted herself to several kinds of art such as photography, mixed media, and performance art since 1991 and was one of the initiators in “Desire-Tradition,” a women’s art project, which later was developed into “Women Manifesto International Women Art Festival.” She was also a founder of the community art project that has proceeded for 14 years. This project focuses on social, environmental, and cultural issues. The rapid social, environmental, and cultural changes resulting from the giant development projects in the Salween River, Kong River, Uraklavoy village on Lanta Island in Krabi province, and Dawei town in Myanmar have immensely captured the artist’s attention. In 2017, Jittima won the Manus Siansing Award from the Pridi Banomyong Institute in Thailand. The award was a significant honor for those who have devoted themselves consistently to social practice (art) for over ten years. Her art and writing work consistently reflect the inequality among human beings, the exploitation of the underprivileged and minority groups, cultural oppression, and natural resources colonization by humans and corporations. Jittima is currently assuming various roles, such as a director of community art projects, a committee member of the Asiatopia festival, and an editor of Klang – Kuan – Wan publications.
Pongpan Suriyapat is a CAS student at ZHdK in Zurich. Before joining the program, he worked for a museum design company in Bangkok. He is responsible for the management, design, exhibition settings, storytelling and multimedia / interactive system of the well-known exhibitions and museums all over Asia and Europe. He also uses his spare time to work with kinetic sculptures and interactive installation. Pongpan is now working closely with the Artists in South East Asia to enhance their Community Art Projects with Digital Media along with being a design consultant for the Swiss Tech Companies in St.Gallen, Switzerland. He got his M.Sc. in Art and Technology from Chalmers University of Technology in Göteborg, Sweden.