VUTH Lyno (b. 1982, Phnom Penh) is an artist, curator and Artistic Director of Sa Sa Art Projects, an artist-run space founded by Stiev Selapak collective. His artistic and curatorial practice is primarily participatory in nature, exploring collective learning and experimentation, and sharing of multiple voices through exchanges. His interest intersects micro histories, notions of community, and production of social situations. Vuth holds a Master of Art History from the State University of New York, Binghamton, supported by Fulbright fellowship (2013-15).
Annie: You graduated from your university in Phnom Penh with an IT degree, before working for an NGO in communications and photography. Then you received your MSC in international relations. How do you think your training and background has shaped your practice?
Lyno: My practice now is very much shaped by my development back then, but also by the arts back then as well. Sa Sa Arts Projects for me, even though we were in a team, I think it’s partly my interest that’s reflected in the project. Even though we say it’s an experimental project, there is a strong community aspect to that, and is actually a hybrid project, engaging both with the community but also in art. We try not to serve only one end, to serve the community, or to serve art, but I think it’s more of a dialogical approach, in terms of how art and community building can go together, without losing or compromising one another. Here in Cambodia there are a lot of NGOs who work with art and community, or what we call community art, and most of the time you see the art just collapse, because we say, it’s community art, it’s more about the process, how horrible the work is, it doesn’t matter… I really try to push the possibility of art as well. Art should be interesting, art should be critical, but also is part of the process where we can engage with different people participating, collaborating, and do something together meaningfully, as a form of building a community of creativity.
We had one group that is the community and residents at the White Building, and one group as the artists, both Cambodian and foreign artists, and another group was the students. Sa Sa Arts Projects – in our events and projects we make sure that these three parties really come together, and I still believe that hopefully creates a new mechanism that can manifest in different ways. That’s why we did things not just within the space, we did things around the neighbourhood, because I wanted people to think Sa Sa Arts Projects is a spirit of coming together, that actually they can already do, because the students, the artists, the residents, can already do these things together. I wanted them to think that, yes this is something they can do, they do not have to have Sa Sa Art Projects. I don’t want people to depend on Sa Sa Art Projects as a space, but think more about what they can already do within their own resources, and so the role of Sa Sa Art Projects is more on instigating and facilitating.
Annie: A lot of your methodology is very self-aware of probable power structures, and working with the different communities of artists, residents and students, it has an underlying principle that you’re always enabling.
Lyno: I’m interested in fostering a loose structure, or a platform, that allows different kinds of people to come together, and doing something that is not so predetermined from the beginning, that something else could happen, or it could grow to something unexpected. I later realised that it’s more of my interest, so that’s why even with my artwork I like to work other people, work with participants in the project to shape the work together or collaborate in some sort of way. And curatorially when working with students, I really like them to think as curators as well. I like to work with them because I want them to think that they can curate their own work, and not rely on some curator. When we have students work at the White Building, I would raise a lot of questions, like this is your work, how do you want to show it? Who do you want to show it to? How do you think you can do it to connect with the audience?
I enjoy that because I’m more stimulated when people know themselves, like what they want to do. For example, I had a project with the film students, and we had a meeting about how you want to screen the films. They’d screened the film so many times at the White Building, they wanted to do something different to show to a larger audience. We tried different things, we synthesised ideas and put them on the table. Also, I proposed to them from a theoretical perspective to translate ideas into simple things. Since we showed a lot of their work here, maybe we could think about something like coming out of the White Building? Metaphorically but also something literally. Also, to understand the movement of the people, the mobility of the people, the mobility of the community, the neighbourhood, the city. One that was so obvious to all of us were these food vendors, who live at the White Building, and every afternoon they would set up their pushing carts, and they would have fruit, or like some fried noodles or other food, and they would push out from the White Building, and spread out into the city at different places. We identified that, and thought about how to utilise that? We experimented with putting a TV on the food cart and screening the video on that. They tried and followed the food cart, and at one point they gave up. We took the TV back, we were afraid they would steal the TV because we rented the TV. Then the next day the vendor was like, can we put the TV again? I liked the TV on my cart.
But also a lot of people were scared, they are afraid of they might be causing some problems. I think this was, in general, the political atmosphere and the issue of freedom of speech, and the government repression of public expression, especially anything screaming in the public. We were trying to go through some small pockets that evaded the provision of public space through government regulation, but somehow it’s still public, but it’s not too much out there. At first, the students thought it would be nice, it would be fun, but in practical reality, it’s so hot and tiring. So we changed that idea to just screen in the park near the White Building, which is opposite of the Meta House. We put the TV screen in the park, like several TV screens, put the video there…a list of small documentaries, mixed with some crazy video art. Then the kids in the playing in the park would watch on their little plastic stools and then they would storm to the next TV, and then storm to the next one. It was interesting. They were watching so close to the TV. That’s such an interesting reaction. Some older people too who like hang out in the party, feeding the little kids their dinner in the park, they would come and sit down and chat and watch.
Annie: In your article, “Knowledge Sharing and Learning Together: Alternative Art Engagement from Stieve Selapak and Sa Sa Art Projects” some key words were discussed and repeated in different contexts, for eg. ‘independent’; ‘Cambodian’, such as ‘for Cambodian’, and of course ‘community’, because you work with different communities. Could you please explain the emphasis at the different points of ‘independent’ might be important, and why, at others, the emphasis on “Cambodian” might be important?
Lyno: First of all, the ‘independent’ is absolutely important, in the context, that is partly informed by development studies. Here in Cambodia, the discourse of aid dependency in Cambodia, with thousands of thousands of NGOs – independence is an important aspiration to aim towards. That first of all, that we as an independent structure, are not bound and obliged to do certain tasks and missions set out by institutions. So being independent institutionally, that we are able to evolve, to change and adapt, and not conform to expectations of another entity. And so principally to manifest that, that’s why we are still not a registered entity. So Sa Sa Art Projects is not an organisation. Sa Sa Art Projects is a team of people, a group of people who are committed to a shared idea and want to do something together.
Because the nature of our work is that the team should be able to shift and change the structure, to allow new ideas. So like the way we work with other people, we instigate and facilitate this condition that allows people – actually it’s already happening in one way or another, but we just push it, make that condition, allow people to come together. People or projects should not depend on Sa Sa Art Projects, we are not again an NGO coming here to set up things, and raising expectations. I have a lot of problems with the way many NGOs operate here, the way NGOs run and how they use the money, and how the implication of dependency, even though now that’s a lot new progressive NGOs, and they are critical and self-reflexive on that. Many of these reasons inform that. Also when we work with students, people should have this confidence and freedom to think, to express and to utilise their resources that, more like fostering independent agent of change. And that, I think is integral for what changes, whatever happens, I think that it should be from these individuals who return and are committed to change, what they each believe in, and independently.
When I was writing that it should be coming from the Cambodians, I think yes, that is still valid, and it should be, though now I acknowledge that I shouldn’t limit too much the possibility. I’m interested in collective discussion and participation, but absolutely it should be, you can see it’s driven first, or coming up first from the Cambodian people, and because ultimately this is their place, this is their home, this is their future, and I think they should be the ones who really be where it should start. But also in the process, they should not be limited just to that. I’m interested in bringing many different perspectives, expertise to come and shape together. A collaborative project is interesting because it will produce something beyond all of us combined because it’s beyond that, something really remarkable and offer us ways to imagine different forms and ways of thinking, or different possibilities in art or in the way humans should interact with each other. And so as well in terms of the audience, Sa Sa Arts Projects puts emphasis on Cambodian audience, and we are very well aware of the existing audience engagements of other art spaces, and so what we feel is missing is the everyday audience, like simple people, the lady who sells fried noodles. This sort of Cambodian audience.
Annie: Perhaps in some of these cultural spaces that are supported by NGOs, or supported by a particular cultural institution, maybe the audience tends to be from the art community or the expat community. Maybe it’s not a space that your everyday person on the street could access, or feel comfortable to access.
Lyno: Yes. There’s accessibility, but also I want to get feedback from people as well, when they see art, how they think about it. I feel like the art community and the expat community, they could access many spaces here already. We engaged with other kinds of audiences here in the city, so the White Building community was interestingly a very rich community in that sense. I cannot claim that what we do was to address the interest of the White Building community, because we keep learning from them every day, right? What we do is sort of like, trying both ways, one is trying to have a dialogue with the interests of the residents, but at the other is to push them a little bit out of the comfort zone, and see how they would react.
And it doesn’t have to be contemporary art all the time. Because knowing the people at the White Building, there’s a lot of traditionally trained artists, musicians and dancers, teachers, you know, from the classical tradition, living there with a mix of more contemporary practitioners. So I think if you want to speak with the community, I think we should be able to speak with a medium that they are able to appreciate, and some of them participate. One example, during Our City Festival in 2014, we had our own village festival at the White Building. It was a multi-event festival over the course of two weeks, including a lot of things and a lot of artists participating from the White Building, and also artists from outside. We worked with a dance teacher and choreographer, and dancers from the White Building to perform a classical dance on the rooftop of the White Building. There were 200 people on the rooftop. And we had a photo exhibition in our space, and a mini film festival at the café every night in collaboration with the Bophana Centre, and a young film group. We had a rock concert band from the White Building, and we had a screening of video art on the street.
Annie: Sa Sa Art Project’s work builds on the participatory involvement of the community, there have been a lot of significant performance work by its artists too. Could you please recount for me, in your understanding, how performance art developed in the local scene?
Lyno: Khvay Samnang went to do a residency in Japan with Seiji Shimoda, the director of the Nippon Performance Art festival, an integral person in the movement of performance art in Southeast Asia. Samnang was totally inspired when he went because he worked with painting, photograph, so when he went he was inspired by performance. He tried making performance, and he felt liberated, so he continued to practice performance here.
We got to connect with him [Shimoda], and he was interested in coming to Cambodia. He used to come before. When he came he led a performance art workshop with a group of students from Sa Sa Arts Projects and previous students from Reyeum Institute. Because Reyeum was closed the year before, just a little bit before we opened Sa Sa Arts Projects, I contacted the previous students from Reyeum who were exposed to performance work before by Japanese Butoh theatre. They were inspired by the Butoh tradition in contemporary performance art. So there are two consecutive years that Seiji came to Cambodia, engaged in a workshop and then make a performance at the end.
The first one was one week, and then the second one was a bit shorter with three days. It was affected by the very practical condition of funding. The first one he was just by himself, and brought together Cambodian students, with two foreign participants, who just happened to be interested in performance. The second round, he brought with him some Japanese artists, and other performance artists from Asia, to come and have the workshop together, with Cambodian artists here, and make a performance after. After that, Seiji Shimoda supported Cambodian artists to go to Japan instead, so Lina [Lim Sokchanlina] went there once, and another one was a graduate from Reyeum as well, who participated in some of the previous workshops with Seiji here in Phnom Penh.
Annie: Do you think these encounters generated some interest in performance? Do you think performance is a difficult medium to generate or sustain here?
Lyno: It’s hard to say, I don’t feel it manifests or produce or allow those participants to continue producing performance. The majority of those participants did not continue to be active artists, so I think that maybe other issues that contributed. The conversation of performance art in Phnom Penh was somehow stirred by those encounters or workshops and events, but I don’t see those participating artists actively continue to utilise tools that they engage from the workshop in performance in that way. Whereas on the other hand, artists who were already more or less active in their practice would continue. For artists who are not active, even though they learn performance, it doesn’t allow them to be more active or anything.
I don’t find it is difficult to sustain as a practice as performance, because making performance is not difficult, the conditions and environment in Cambodia do not limit the possibility of making performance. I think it’s the opposite of that actually, the environment is very open and people can make so much performance here because the government is not controlling, compared to say the history of performance making in Myanmar or Vietnam, where the government has strong surveillance. The environment here is pretty relaxed, even though there are some contentious issues, where you make performance art at contentious sites, for example like Samnang’s project in the river that was being filled with sand. But in general, I think it’s pretty easy to make performance in Cambodia, but I don’t know why many artists do not make performance.
Annie: Do the general audience of Cambodia, when they see performance, still think it’s something strange and they have no language yet to process that experience?
Lyno: Yeah, it’s performing art in general that they’re familiar with. Performance art, it’s a language that people are not used to, sort of abstract, but if it involves storytelling, then it’s more accessible. In Battambang, its more about live action, the painting, so for the artists in Battambang, it’s not more ‘live’ or ‘screening’ for the audience, but absolutely, the audience is very important for them because they want to draw people into the art. They do live painting so they could connect as people don’t get to come into the gallery and see painting that much. So live painting creates that interest and people wonder and experience and see. I also ask them, how does the audience react to, or what the audience think about the painting – it’s more about the experience of the liveness, excitement, the seeing, the action itself.
But the performance element, if you look at the history, the notion of performance, I wouldn’t think it is a foreign tool. For me I think performance in each place and context, it has its own history and form. More importantly, is how artists utilise it that is making sense and becoming their own. Some people say, performance is just a foreign idea, now Cambodian artists are like making foreign art or something. I think it is disrespectful to say that. Any medium and any form is transmuted, is transformed, is mediated between places. More important is how people incorporate and adapt and mediate that in relation to their very own context, and produce something interesting, is special for them, in a certain context, right?
Annie: Also with performance, because it’s by a specific body, but by that very consideration is already stemming from who the artist is already and connotes the context it is in. Do you think that performance is important and valuable? Do you think it offers anything different to the other mediums here? What do you think can be done to create a more fertile condition of that to happen?
Lyno: For me, any medium is art. I don’t favour one medium to others, I think it’s all important. Any medium is for expression, and performance here, like I said, it’s pretty easy to make performance. I think the conditions do not limit or restrict the possibility of performance making. So I think, yes, maybe there should be more performances.
I tend to look at the conditions that artists construct to make art in general, not to make performance. If artist is likely to continue making art, I think it’s more likely as well for them to make performance. So yes, there’s some platform and loose structure that allows them to engage and participate. But more importantly, artists should be independent, actively making their own art. But the conditions of Cambodia, people need to make a living. Pretty much a lot of artists here do other things, very few are really totally relying on their art making. So maybe as part of artistic practice, the chance or the condition that the artist will be able to continue to make work, that is when possibility of performance will also thrive. We need dialogue or conversation, we need somewhere people can come together to exchange ideas, where they feel stimulated, stimulated and active.
We started a new contemporary art class bringing former students of Sa Sa Arts Projects, but also art students, graduates from Phare Selpak Ponleu, and from RUFA. There are two layers in the contemporary art class, one is contemporary artistic practice, but another layer is discursive learning through direct observation, learning outside of the class but also discussion on different topics, on history, art history, philosophy, looking at art in the region or elsewhere beyond. This discursive mode is really missing here. I want them to think a little bit critically because Samnang and I believe good artists are not about just only being able to make good art. It’s also about how you perceive the world around you and how you translate that into the work. It requires skills beyond artistic skills, critical skills in terms of how we understand the world and how we question the world. I hope it’s an opportunity to foster, engage with already existing wonderful students, but push them a little bit more. Also if you look at artists, I don’t feel like there are many upcoming artists, so looking at where people study art, how students study, what do they study and how they finish school, what they do after- many other factors. One of them is that if they have the opportunity to continue to make artwork after they finish school, it makes them catch up with what else to learn to step into being a practising artist. Then maybe it will increase the chance or likeliness to have more interesting artists.
Annie: So how do you and Samnang go about creating a curriculum or structure, and how do you approach it?
Lyno: There are two main art schools, one in Phnom Penh, RUFA, and one in Battambang, Phare Ponleu Selpak, even though RUFA is the only state university. The curriculum at RUFA is a traditional curriculum and it’s hasn’t really been progressive or updated for a long time. The visual art programme is painting and sculpture, whereas the leading programme is architecture. There’s only ten to a dozen students graduating from fine art each year, and we don’t know where they are after they graduate. Many got other jobs, apparently many got jobs in design, or some doing other things, or some teach art also, for young children programme in foreign-run art schools.
What we want to engage with is the existing programme that is heavily focused on skills and technique, how to make a good painting, how to make a good sculpture. I think that is the foundation, but I don’t think that should be the only focus. There’s not enough openness in the curriculum to allow more creativity and ideas. Students feel restricted, they feel like they have to follow what the teachers want, and so it’s rather not trying to be too creative or crazy, because they will have to defend their ideas, and those ideas are not well-appreciated by the school committee at all. When you’re doing your final project to graduate, you’re like on a chopping board. So students want to go for a safe project.
At Sa Sa Arts Projects, we are less focusing on skills, we focus more on ideas and creativity, and more importantly, freedom for thinking, which is really lacking. My experience with students from fine art schools is that because they got used to being shaped through this sort of environment, where they feel insecure and they feel like they have to defend their idea, it becomes so set, if they have something it’s so set. Our approach is to build confidence for the students, to think that they should be able to think and express their ideas freely. And also to build maturity of their thinking.
What I emphasise a lot in the class to make them a little bit more aware, to be aware of their own history. So looking at the Cambodian history, what was done, what happened, and to see something that you really can learn from history. People tried to innovate so many times, so many occasions, and what sort of principle that previous creative people used, the approach in innovation, so that we don’t have to start from scratch. You can learn from them, so what you, as a contemporary artist can do, now in this context, think about how you can innovate. You already have the tools.
Exchange, like conversations between artists here and creative practitioners in the region, is something we want to continue fostering, with opportunities for artists to travel around in the region and to interact and learn something from the colleagues, or colleagues from the region coming here and doing something. I’m more interested in exchange, workshop, collaboration – this sort of opportunity.
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.