Notes on Bangkok Research: First Week

The following list categorized into days and divided into weeks are brief accounts of my twenty-one days fieldwork in Bangkok. This is the first half of my brief accounts, it contains both reflection and observation of my short encounters with various people in the city especially the continuous negotiations with people behind the project who initiated this research. It’s a research that aims to bring people together from different artistic practices and activism in Bangkok, however, some of us are foreigners from different parts of Asia bringing with us our outsider position in the local realm. Thus, this mix of different people, culture, perspectives – as far as the project initiator is concerned – will hopefully come together in a dialogue and work together horizontally, not only amongst ourselves but also with the public for the upcoming exhibition in August. Moreover, the initiator of this research is also “expecting to encourage young people here to work extensively beyond the social/cultural/political constraint with leaving the concept of the country into translocal network with the hope that we could mobilise and be mobilised whatever we regard crucial to address….”
My role in this project is not clearly defined but I take this ambiguous position as an advantage for me to move freely. However, for now, I presumed to be a researcher that from time to time will shapeshift into something else.


Day 1

Arrival. At 14:30 the aircraft touched down the tarmac of Don Mueang Airport one hour late from its scheduled time. After a long queue in the immigration security I finally get to meet my friend Judha Su – the main person behind the project. Her worries about the possible trouble in the immigration were gone upon seeing each other. So we drove off to the art gallery (the main supporter of the project) after taking a few bites from the infamous Chatuchak market – a place that reminds me one among many chaotic bazaars in Manila. In the gallery, I met the owners – a young energetic couple, who have been shaking, from my understanding of what they have said to me, the contemporary art gallery scene in Bangkok for some years now. Later in the evening, another artist currently based in Hong Kong arrived. Altogether we met and stayed in our designated accommodation for twenty-one days, which is a condominium unit located near the Lumpini Park. The artist from Hong Kong named Elaine Ho, during our brief orientation with the project initiator, was the one who brought up the concern of foreigner and local relations especially the power structure implicated in these relations.

Day 2

Fieldwork started. We came to visit a town within the highly urbanized area of Bangkok – it is located near the Central Train Station. However, the surrounding structures in the area are old buildings, some are dilapidated while others were refurbished into interesting design structures that cater to young foreign expatriates. Around the area we met a young artist, his name was KD, he is one of the key person behind the long-running artist-run-space in Bangkok – Speedy Grandma. He introduced a little bit about his work but during the conversation, he was more interested to know about us. So he asked a lot of questions that compelled us to comply in return until it was already dusk. After that, we went to the next block where an American artist named Jeff rents an old building for his working studio and exhibition space for local young contemporary artists. During our conversations, he talked about the importance of having an international art exhibition in Thailand mainly to introduce local contemporary art to the world especially to the global art market. The discussion went on until the late evening. Tired and sleepy, we went back to our accommodation and analysed briefly our encounters during the day before we went to bed. We problematized the idea and role of the art curator in exhibition-making and knowledge production, especially in big exhibitions that Jeff had mentioned. Mutually we shared the same feeling, yet in different levels, about our critical understanding of the role of curators behind contemporary art exhibitions. To reveal our different views and shared feeling I recommended to do a group reading of Paul O’Neill’s essay about the discursive form of exhibition-making that is dialogical, participatory, non-authored, process-based and durational.

Day 3

Depression. Due to my body clock that is set to wake up early in the morning, I performed the same daily rituals I do in Tokyo. My colleagues woke up late but just before the clock stricken at 13:00 we were all ready for our fieldwork. We visited an independent art space that is believed to be supported and funded by the infamous Relational Art pioneer Rirkrit Tiravanija. The space is a cluster of art galleries, workshops, and artist studios roofed under one big warehouse. However, because it was a holiday on that day for museums and galleries in the city (Mondays and Tuesdays, most art galleries and museums are closed), the big warehouse was so quiet, though we met there the gallery project manager of VER – one among the art galleries in the space. His name was Nat, he is also a practicing artist known for his raucous works that sometimes get him into trouble from authorities. According to Nat, he toned down a bit after recovering from a traumatic experience due to the political turmoil that rocked Thai society in the past six years. He just recovered from a severe depression. Just before dusk, we moved to another place to meet another artist who has been waiting for us at this make-shift canteen along the waterway that connects to the masculine Chao Praya river. Just like the previous artist we met earlier he also suffered depression and currently self-recovering. His name was Bom, he used to run an independent bookshop in Bangkok. His artistic practice is in-between graphic design and art. From my understanding of what he said about his further explanation he mostly works with media and technology. The last artist we have to talk for the day is a graphic designer his name was Sinat. He is known for his socially relevant artistic practice in new media art. He told us a lot of stories of the military coup and how this impacted his life especially when the military junta was installed in which it became nearly impossible to express politically. Some of his friends were arrested for making the effort to express themselves politically.

Day 4

Holiday Wednesday. Bangkok City City Gallery was open but it was a national holiday. It was a celebration of an important Buddhist ritual – the birthday of Siddharta Gautama Buddha. So we went to see the gallery and also to meet another artist. His name was Kae and mainly he works with video and film. But for the proposed exhibition scheduled on August, Kae explained the idea of his proposed work and it will be a collage of mass media print. He relates this to how mass media played in the crucial role of framing people’s mind since the coup. So, Kae wanted to deconstruct the images and text layout and see how it will reframe the thinking of the masses by allowing the public to reconstruct their own layout of signs and symbols of power in the interactive processes of collage-making. If the medium is the massage, according to the late media critic Marshall McLuhan, thus, the reconstruction of the medium could lead us to the question of what else can we do with massage? It could turn in many ways depending to what purpose it will serve – massage for pleasure or massage for awakening consciousness? However, this same day I actually had my first Thai massage in the Wat Pho temple near the Palace.

Day 5

Lazy Thursday. There was no scheduled fieldwork we just stayed the whole day in the condominium but most of us spent our time in each of our own writing tasks (not necessarily related to the fieldwork). On my behalf, I have to finish extracting data from reading materials for my research on critical spaces in Yogyakarta. However, in the evening we went out to see the biggest wet and dry public market in Bangkok. We explored it a bit and tried some of the snacks they sell on the street.

Day 6

Rainy Friday. My colleague slept the whole day while I was writing short descriptive notes of the fieldwork, especially what we have gone so far. In the morning it was impossible to go outside due to the big rain, so I stayed in the condominium starving. When my colleague woke up late in the afternoon I was already so hungry that my ability to think properly went into kaput. I could’ve left the room and eat outside before my colleague woke up, but for some reasons, I waited. With the limited time left for us, I asked my colleague to go to Chinatown and eat some street foods together. So we went to Hua Lamphong station near Chinatown only to abort the mission as soon we arrived. We hurriedly traveled back again to our scheduled meet up place with the project initiator at 3 PM, we were late! Bad decision comes in different ways which opens up a space for possible conflict. There was anxiety and it triggered me to think and express irrationally. For some, as much as possible, the irrational should be kept and controlled to maintain a certain level of harmonious relationship with the other – a fundamental postmodernist notion that operates behind the idea of tolerance to keep diverse community coherent. This is positively good but – according to Japanese media activist Keiko Sei who have been living in Bangkok for many years – transcending differences makes the idea of community problematic precisely because it ignores conflict inherent to differences. Just before that lively discussion with Keiko we met a young team of multimedia designers (Eyedropper Fill) working with technology and moving images as a tool to engage marginalized communities in Bangkok – they make multimedia films with and for the community. My colleague asked a question to this group of creative designers, from my interpretation to the question, she wonders how their audience react to their work and on the other hand how the community react to the reframing of their condition through the work. The question was basically about different ways of looking and how these differences affect their framing of each other – could it lead to possible tensions, reconciliation, empowerment, or exploitation? These conflicting ways of looking relates back to the problematic question of community that Keiko Sei had raised during our late evening informal discussion. Does this mean that there’s no such thing as community and we cannot possibly work together? This is too pessimistic to consider but apparently, for me, the answer to this question lies in the radical possibility of irrationality itself – where a shared feeling of anger, frustration, and love could be a provisional space that we could possibly work together without hiding our differences.

Day 7

Saturday. This is the last day of my first half of stay in Bangkok. I have another last half remaining, which is seven days more to explore and engage with different people. However, there was not much to do that day on Saturday. We slept almost the whole day for recently staying very late at night. However, in the evening we went to Mo Chit station to meet a colleague’s friend for a dinner.

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