Conditions for Performance in Cambodia: Interview with Dana Langlois

Dana Langlois is an Artistic Director and curator with a background in visual arts. For more than 16 years, she has been actively involved in curating, researching and producing contemporary arts in Cambodia. Her focus has been in Cambodia where she works with Cambodian and diaspora artists in a time of intense creativity and reconstruction that followed the tragic destruction of the country’s cultural identity.  She has produced hundreds of exhibitions and launched well-known artists through the JavaArts platform (est. in 2000).  From 2008 until 2014 she founded and directed Our City Festival, a nation-wide art and urbanism festival.  Prior to that she ran Sala Artspace, an experimental gallery and studio (2006-7), in collaboration with artist Pich Sopheap. Her work with artists has been shown and collected in established museums and galleries in Singapore, France, Australia and the US.

Annie: Could you please tell me about how you began the work you do in Cambodia, especially in relation to performance?

Dana: My background is photography. I came to Cambodia, I started to do a little photography, but didn’t keep up with it, and I ended up opening the café and the gallery. That was from my own interest in visual arts and arts in general, and because it seemed like there was a need for some kind of creative outlet or space where people could show their work in Phnom Penh. Over the years I’ve realized that my background as a photographer has very much informed the way I create exhibitions. I know that I’m working from a visual point of view, because I’ve been trained in compositions, and gestalt theories. After a while, I realised that I was actually useful because I could organize an exhibition and that the artists needed that, which defined my initial relationship with the artists. I was fascinated by their work and why they did what they did. I spent many hours in conversations with artists, talking about them and their work. I particularly enjoyed the process of working with the artist’s ideas and making it accessible to the public, and creating an experience that reflected their concepts.

When I’m working on something for the café/gallery, I think about how the performance is situated in the space, how the audience will interact with it, and then talk through those ideas with the artist, and figure out what they’re trying to achieve. Sometimes as a gallerist I also consider whether there is an object that is part of the performance and whether that is something that can be sold. How can this artist make a living out of this piece? Can the gallery sell it to make money? It’s unfortunate, but it means so you’re thinking about the object-making, the commodification of it. Additionally, I may be involved in the documentation. Because the gallery, even though it’s non-profit, relies on sales in part to operate, I’m not often able to choose performance art, because it is very difficult to sell. And in the programme, I have to find a balance between works that are sellable, to subsidize the shows that are not. Then the other work I have done with performance is as an artistic director, and that was through Our City Festival. In that role I was largely thinking about the public outcomes, public engagement, and space – how do you put these performances in public space? One of our goals was to bring more art activities to making it more accessible and engaging everyday people.

The Buddhist Bug (Installation view), 2013, Anida Yoeu Ali at Java Cafe & Gallery

Annie: Can you some of the key performance projects that happened either at the Java Cafe, or at the Our City Festival?

Dana: There was 2 + 3 + 4 in 2006, an exchange between Vietnamese and Cambodian artists. It was initiated by Christine Cibert, the curator and involved Java and Popil, which was a photography gallery. She proposed three Vietnamese artists to come over to show their work with Cambodian artists we identified. We had some performances as part of the programme where Richard Streitmatter-Tran, Bui Kong Khanh and Leang Seckon were performing. Khan was doing Dollar Man, and Rich was sewing his skin. Seckon was responding to this by ringing a bell and basically opened up the space for the performers. He would move through the audience as well. And that was significant, especially as at that time, because there weren’t many things like that happening.

As a result of that performance, we had the closed-door roundtable. We all sat on the floor at Java and we invited specifically some of the older masters to join, like Svay Ken, Chhim Sothy, Sous Sodavy, and Prom Viceht. The younger participating Cambodian artists, at the time, would have included Pich Sopheap and Leang Seckon as they were the two artists working with Khan and Rich. The forum to me was actually probably one of the most significant events we had, where the artists were having an open conversation that revealed some really interesting aspects about the issue of censorship – that censorship in Vietnam is a little more clear because there’s a legal structure for it, whereas in Cambodia, it would appear as if the artists have freedom, but because there’s the fear of violent repercussions, the censorship is very relevant. The result is that it actually creates more fear because you don’t quite know what would happen if you made the wrong person mad. So if you knew you were going to go for three weeks in jail, you’d at least be able to be aware of what the consequences were. In Cambodia, the problem was it could range from getting a phone call to a death threat. You just never know how people would react, because it doesn’t have a legal structure, so it is personal and emotionally based.

Performance by Richard Streitmatter-Tran & Bui Kong Khanh in 2006.                                            Courtesy of Java Cafe & Gallery
Performance by Richard Streitmatter-Tran & Bui Kong Khanh in 2006, documented in a painting by Svay Ken

At Our City Festival, Natalie Pace and Kate O’Hara got involved when I decided to bring a curatorial structure to the festival by inviting them to be the curators. Before it was community-orientated, a little more democratic where everyone says, okay, this is our theme, okay I can do this, I can do this, great let’s just coordinate our schedules. Anida Yoeu Ali and Masahiro Sugano acting as Studio Revolt, did Gallery X, the photographic project in the market. They set up a little ‘studio’ in the market, and they invited people to jump, and they photographed them. Then they created a little gallery, putting two pillars on which they displayed the jump shot images on little screens. They turned the public space into a temporary gallery, so the subjects of the exhibition could also experience the exhibition, which was for me brilliant. I thought it was perfectly aligned with the vision of the festival. It certainly opened up a very important dialogue for ourselves and for the festival.

A year later there was the Mobile Gardens, which placed little gardens in garbage carts, that were pushed around on wheels. These were usually used by garbage collectors to go around the city and collect trash. This was a project of the festival run by artX projects, which was an initiative of the two curators, Kate O’Hara and Natalie Pace. They worked with an agricultural school and a garbage collecting company. It was a great way to bring together the private sector, education, and the artists they invited to make small objects that were distributed alongside plant seeds as the mobile gardens traversed the city. They created little invitation pieces that would be typical of a wedding invitation, but instead, it was an invitation to the festival. Inside there were little packets of seeds, and in the packet were little drawing pieces they commissioned artists to create which they would then give people. So the idea would be that they would travel with these little gardens, but saying, here, now you can make your own garden, and gave these art objects, and the seeds, as the invitation, as the mobile garden moved through the city.

Mobile Gardens 2011, artx projects

Annie: How did the Cambodian audience respond to these public performances?

Dana: With Gallery X, they loved it. They had a great time. This is what I liked about the approach from Studio Revolt, they wanted to focus on something joyful. It was fun, it didn’t burden the public in a way. Like they didn’t feel confused, or awkward, or even marginalised, as that often happens with public art, you’re just like, what the hell is that, why are they doing such things. It was just something really fun, and they got to be part of it. The market sellers were a little annoyed, because the traffic in front of them was all clogged up, so they would complain every now and then, but overall the people loved it. They just loved watching people making the jumps, and they actually helped hand out information. People passed by it, they loved it, they watched it. They ran the exhibition for 24 hours in the market.

Another significant performance that came out of Our City festival, was a couple of years later, with Building Again, by Amy Lee Sanford. Part of Amy’s practice is about construction and reconstruction, breaking things down and putting them back together. The idea of repairing and fixing things, which she made the entire process a performance. So over the course of two days, in the middle of Sothearos Park, in front of Meta House, she built a brick wall. She got bricklayers to do that. But then she invited people to come and break it. You would have people come in with sledgehammers and just whack at the wall, and shatter this brick wall. It was metaphorical, and it was also placed close to the White Building purposefully, because it was referencing all the issues about places being demolished, and communities being moved. It also worked out to be really great therapy for a lot of people. And then the idea was then to take some of the shattered pieces to try to rebuild the wall in some way. It ended up being a lot of kids from the neighbourhood, they just found it fun picking up all the pieces and reassembling the wall.

Building Again by Amy Lee Sanford Day 2
Building Again 2013, Amy Lee Sandford

There was also Full Circle, a project I produced and curated with Amy Lee Sanford too. It was a six-day performance at Meta House. Over the course of six days, Amy sat in a circle of 40 clay pots, and she would break and repair one after another. I think she did two sessions a day, so it was like a one-hour session each day. Everything was finished at the end of the project. We had a schedule, and people were invited to come and be there and watch her while she did it. We talked a lot about how we wanted the space to function, how we wanted people to engage with her, and the space, and the aesthetics of it, and how were we essentially staging it, but how were we creating space, like did she want people to approach her, not to approach her? We thought about all those kind of processes, as she really wanted some distance between herself and the audience. So we created the space to feel very sacred, it was darkened and there was only one singular light on her. It felt like a stage, there was a natural barrier around her, where you’re supposed to sit and be quiet and people didn’t feel like they could go and interact with her.

It was very positively received, and surprisingly people had the patience to watch it. Obviously, her process requires a lot of patience, also for the audience, just to watch her break and repair the pots. People stayed through it, they would sit through the whole session, they weren’t just moving in and out. There was this strange sort of reverence and I suspect it had a little to do with the way we created the scene and environment, as well. People responded to it in that way as well. They would talk in whispers. So that was really interesting, and very different from the performances she did on the street, where people didn’t feel at all like they had to stay away.

Full Circle 2012, Amy Lee Sandford

After having done Full Circle in the gallery setting, with this very structured, clean atmosphere, she wanted to bring this performance onto the streets, where who knows what could happen. A few strange things did happen. In one case, because she uses glue for the pots, a kid who is a glue-sniffer, came and was checking out her glue and smelling it. For Amy that was a terrible confrontation, because she’s in the middle of this process, that for her is also very meditative, and she wanted to see how she could deal with all that – the person, the environment, the noise of the traffic, and all these things. She had another strange experience where she did it in the temple. There was just a tourist who sat there, and was leaning over her shoulder, with no self-consciousness about getting in onto what she was doing. I wasn’t involved in the production side of that, but we screened those video pieces in an exhibition later.

Again there was another project with Anida Yoeu Ali where she did the performance workshops with the Royal University of Fine Arts. I think it was a couple of weeks of an intensive workshop where she would work with third-year students, to develop a performance piece. It was an intensive workshop, it was kind of a very brief introduction to performance, and then working with them so that they could develop an actual piece. And then the pieces were performed during the festival. We collaborated with the Institute Francais during that time, so they gave a space where the young artists could work, and make these performances within the gallery. It was in the gallery, and outside in the garden. So they could choose their spaces. And that was actually really interesting, and I think it worked extremely well. Some of the young artists did some fantastic things.

One of my very favourite performance pieces was the work of Sao Sreymao. So I should explain a little bit, this was 2014, and this was our last festival. It was around January 2014 that we had this festival, and at the same time there were very significant protests happening around the city, protests that lead to violence in a few cases, and actually death, for some of the protesters. That naturally came up as an issue, as a theme, but we were very cautious about how to talk about it. Because the performance workshop was happening just before the festival, and the protests were happening right then, it was one of the most urgent and immediate issues. Sreymao developed this piece that I just really love, where she and another guy who worked as a volunteer, he was actually one of our volunteers for the festival. Not an art student, but she got him to help her out to be her partner in the performance, and she had a red cloth tied together, so it was like one large band. When they started the performance they would sit down and play a game, I think it was something similar to ‘rock-paper-scissors’, if I remember right. After they played the game for a little bit, they would get up and struggled [with each other], but they had to stay in the band. They’re basically having this huge physical fight, it’s not very obvious what they’re trying to do, are they trying to knock each other down, are they trying to drag each other away, but in any case, they’re clearly having a very intense physical struggle with each other. The initial performance takes part over two spaces. One is inside a small house, like a little apartment house, and the other is in the public, which was in Freedom Park, which was the legally designated space for protests in Phnom Penh, but at that time it had been barricaded and nobody was allowed to protest. So even that limited space for protest was being refused to the public to access. But they did it anyhow, they got into the space, got past the barbed wire somehow, and they did this performance. In both cases this performance did not have a ‘live’ audience, they did it for documentation, so they made a video piece out of it. But then they did a live performance on the night during the festival event.

Untitled, 2014 at the Institute Francais, Sao Sreymao

And there was another programme that we paired with that particular event at the Institute Francais, so you had the works of these students from the performance workshops, and then we had another set of films that was one of the Amrita Performing Arts projects. It was initiated by Hannah Stevens, and what she wanted to do was to take dance and put it out in the city. Because that again was part of our tendency, I would say, for the festival. So she proposed a project where they would pair a filmmaker and a dancer to create a video piece. And so the videos were fantastic, they were really really cool works. The two would then create a collaboration, they would decide on a space, on a concept and the choreography and everything, and they worked together to make these video pieces. Really fantastic work came out of that. Those for me were some of the major events.

And of course Buddhist Bug at the gallery. I worked with Anida quite intensively in her time in Cambodia. A lot of the work I did around performance was with Anida. She did an artist in residency where it was the first residency that I initiated for Java Arts, and then it was meant to be relatively casual. That’s why I asked Anida specifically because we knew each other and we were friends, I knew it was going to be partly experimental from my point of view because I had never run a residency before, and so I was taking the opportunity to work with Anida then to mash it out a bit. Anyhow, she was in resident, and at that time we had a small gallery space which was also my office, and she basically used that gallery space as her studio, and then part of her residency was to open up the studio space to the public. So she created a studio space where people could respond to objects and the kind of space that she had created there and photographed them. So that was the open studio and that was a performance of a sort… in some ways, it was more like participatory art than performance. But anyhow, people would come in… but because Anida’s work is rooted in performance, there’s always that sense of performance in it. It was about creating a space, and asking then the public to come and perform in that space with the objects and the aesthetic composition that she created. That was then put in the gallery, later in digital displays on little tables, that people were then invited to sit at during the exhibition time. We created the same aesthetic of the studio that she had created, but it was meant for people to look at the images from that project. Part of that residency also led to another project, but it was performative work to camera. I would say it moved over a little more to the visual arts than performing arts, but, again, Anida’s work is rooted in movement, and responding to site and space as a performer. So the photographs and videos that came out of it were based on that practice. And then of course Buddhist Bug came shortly after that, I think maybe the next year.

Annie: So how do you think Java worked as a performance space, or do you think it’s adaptable to different types of performance? How did Our City came to be, and why do you think performance work went really well with Our City festival?

Dana: Java has limitations because it’s small, whether it’s a seated space or people are standing, others respond to it, the biggest thing is that it’s small, and it’s a little bit of an awkward space when viewing a performance, or even viewing an artist talk. So you have to think of that when you’re doing some kind of performance, it either has to be situated at some angle where maximum visibility is, or you’ve got to move, the performance has got to move in some way. I think, however, because the space and also my approach to the programme is to be adaptable, so we’ve manipulated the space, moved the café around, moved things around and disrupted things, and allow artists to take over certain areas, I mean we still have to function as a café, but there’s an adaptability to it. But it does take a certain kind of artist to be able to work in that kind of environment. Not all artists feel comfortable with that, they’re not entirely comfortable with that day-to-day activity, the buzzy environment of the café, so it does require a certain kind of artist. Those limitations of space, and the daily function of the café then kind of limits the options and what we can do, and then also what kind of artists are attracted to working in the space.

Evening snacks: near the statue of the King Father, 2016, Srey Bandaul with collaborators Hun Sokagna, Kong Vollak and Sok Chan Rado, at the Java Cafe & Gallery.

Our City festival was something I initiated because I was watching the city change really rapidly with buildings being torn down, others being built, spaces being constructed by companies, it felt like this decision-making process around the change of the city was happening in other places, in closed rooms, with private deals, and it felt like nobody had access to that. I felt that it would be important then for the creative community to respond to that in some form. that was the basic premise of the festival. I reached out to architecture community as well as the visual arts community, to propose developing this as a theme for a festival, I think we called it initially the architecture and art festival, and it wasn’t till maybe the third version of it that we actually called it Our City. So that was the premise.

Once we started shifting more towards a curated festival, I was always very interested in the use of public space. That was already a theme that came up for architects, for artists, and it was a very subtle political statement as well. It was my own political stance, asserting that people have a right to public space. Now I never used that idea or that concept in any formal way, because I never wanted to politicise it. I never wanted to put people at risk, and I didn’t want to put the festival at risk. But that was my reason, that was my personal reason for wanting to do this. It was there, people were ready to do that kind of stuff. They were already talking about those themes, and then we opened it up to the proposals, they came in and when Anida arrived in the country, for her that was a very natural thing to do and very much part of her practice. She had the confidence and the background to say, yeah I’m going to do this. And so that broke it all open and allowed people to go, oh, that’s kind of cool, I can do it too. But even after that, it was still largely the diaspora who were feeling brave enough to do those kinds of projects.

Annie: So in a sense do you think performance did something which could bring those kinds of dialogues into a public?

Dana: That’s what I don’t know, and towards the end of the festival, this is where I was getting frustrated, because I felt like we were just talking to ourselves, and just patting ourselves on the back, and going, wow, this is really great, we’ve just done some really good stuff, we put some really good art projects in the public space. And this is where in the final festival, I said, I’m really going to push for broadening our audience, and that was when I put together a team so that we could have marketing, and event management, and we developed a volunteer programme with students, just really build up our audience. We ended up having about 7000 people visiting the festival, which was great because that was our last one.

It’s kind of hard to know what’s the actual impact of it. I have a feeling it had an impact on the arts community, for the wider public I’m not so sure. Although with the festival, and some kind of other marketing activities that get put in public space, at least we broke down that barrier of ‘that’s just something weird foreigners do.’ I think we managed to break through that wall, and there is genuine curiosity and even confidence about approaching stuff, now more so than when we first started.

One of the things I’ve seen and observed with Cambodian audiences is a strong sense of curiosity. Often artists themselves will criticise Cambodians as audience, because they will say they’re not interested in anything, they don’t know anything about art. But I’ve seen a lot of enthusiasm around, coming to exhibitions, to see events, whether it’s entertainment and dance or if its something strange and contemporary.

This is just an analysis that I’m coming up with on the spot, but I would say there are kind of two general areas. You have this almost like gallery-based works that are often documentation of performances, so like performance to camera, video and photography works that are related to performance. And then you have this public audience works. I would say, honestly, with the lack of Our City festival, I’m not sure if that area is going to grow. Or without that opportunity or the platform for it, I don’t think that area would grow. I’m guessing it will continue to grow within the gallery environment, which could still mean live performance, as well as the documentation and the objects around performance.

I’m very biased towards putting art in the public space, and public engagement, and audience, and I also think it’s a very different kind of performance. The festival had its own kinetic energy that built off itself, that created more momentum, and it was obviously there. We didn’t ask people to make performance pieces, but people were inspired by the platform to create these pieces. So I think definitely it would be great if that was continued in some way. But again is the festival enough? If one, and I’m saying if one as in somebody, was interested in developing this field it might be interesting then to attach itself to the performing arts sector, and look at how you could bring together both stage performance and performance art, and maybe think about how you could combine these resources to develop it.

Annie: Why do you think performance is important for Cambodia? For Phnom Penh?

Dana: It allows for this immediacy and in an environment like Cambodia where things change quite rapidly, the socio-political and economic environment is quite… I won’t say turbulent, but it’s certainly not stable. It allows artists to deal with that, and respond to it quickly. That immediacy in the form is, I think, very valuable. And I’m thinking about the non-documented, or if it’s documented, it’s documented voluntarily by the artist, but that it’s safe, somehow. Because these events, these openings are not being censored or watched by the government, but with an exhibition of say paintings or photographs, it’s on the walls for two months. The opportunity for someone to see it and object to it are much greater. With a live performance, the chances of it being viewed by an authority that might object is extremely slim unless someone built a reputation, and they were being denounced. It allows them a little more political freedom because you could easily decide not to document it, and you could tell the audience not to document it during the live event. And it stays safely in that little moment without that fear of the repercussions from the authorities. I think that’s something very valuable as well.

This interview is part of a series that began with my curatorial research residency in Cambodia in 2016, which was kindly supported by Java Arts, the Artists International Development Fund and National Arts Council Singapore. The interviews and materials will be accessible at the Live Art Development Agency as part of the Southeast Asia Performance Collection launched by Something Human in November 2017.


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