Jane DeBevoise (JD): This is Asia Art Archive in America and I am delighted to welcome Vuth Lyno. Lyno is a curator and artist but tonight we’re going to be focusing on his work as Director and founder of the independent art space Sa Sa Art Projects. Sa Sa Art Projects is based in Phnom Penh, which is where Lyno was born and where he completed most of his education, although he recently arrived in the United States to do an MA in Art History at SUNY Binghamton. In 2007 he co-founded an art collective called Stiev Selapak, and in 2010 the group established Sa Sa Art Projects, which is located in a low-income urban neighborhood in Phnom Penh called the White Building, a very interesting architectural monument which speaks to another era in the city’s history. At Sa Sa Art Projects, Lyno works with the residents of the White Building and local artists, and is developing an exchange program with artists outside of Cambodia. Thank you Lyno for coming tonight. We look forward to hearing about your work.
Vuth Lyno(VL): Thank you so much Jane for giving me the opportunity to meet so many exciting people. Tonight I’m going to focus on Sa Sa Art Projects which is the strongest practice that we have been able to establish and hold on to, but first, a little background. In 2007 a group of us founded the art collective Stiev Selapak (current members: Khvay Samnang, Lim Sokchanlina and Vuth Lyno), and at that time we began thinking about how we should approach art practice in Cambodia generally. There’s very limited art education in Cambodia. [There is] only one public university that teaches art and it is limited to technical skills. The exploration of conceptual ideas is very limited. There are galleries opening in the city, so it’s a very exciting time for artists to grow and show their work, but we were interested in how else to engage in art beyond exhibitions and displaying artwork. Also we wanted to open a space where we can explore and experiment. We believe art is not only for gallery goers but also for everyday Cambodians, so we were concerned about how they can they access art too. Therefore we decided we needed a flexible space where we [could] explore all of these ideas. When deciding on a space, one of our former team members Vandy Rattana who did a photo project in this building [the White Building] recommended we go there.
This is the White Building. It was built in 1963 as part of the growing art and culture scene after independence from the French. At that time there was lot of experimentation going on; the building itself was an experiment to see if it was possible to create affordable urban housing for low-income civil servants and artists. Back then it was built by adopting modern French styles, because the project manager Vann Molyvann studied in France. This building was part of a larger vision called Bassac River Front, which included public housing and art venues in addition to the White Building. This compound also included the National Theater and Olympic apartments intended to house the athletes during the Asian GANEFO (Games of the New Emerging Forces) in 1966. We thought this site was great, because as an experimental project, we wanted to be part of this [history]. This building however was never brought to full capacity because of the internal civil war in 1960 and then the Khmer Rouge regime, which started in 1975. At that time the city was abandoned. But when the Khmer Rouge fell after 1979 and people began returning to the city, some former residents came back to the White Building, along with new residents. During the Khmer Rouge 90% of educated people were murdered, so one has to be mindful that only 10% of the artists survived to try to rebuild the country.
Today the White Building looks like this because of poor maintenance and regulations. Also there are a lot of squatters, who have extended the exterior to make space. So it looks like it’s in poor condition but it houses a very vibrant community of about more than 2,500 people, including artists, musicians and classical dancers. These people are training the new generation.
We started there in 2010, rented a small space, and tried to do different kinds of activities. We started from workshops with local and visiting artists. For example, performance artist and Nippon International Performance Art Festival Director Seiji Shimoda from Japan did a performance workshop with some Cambodian artists and foreigners. We hosted numerous talks by Cambodian artists and also artists who were visiting. We also hosted workshops and training for artists, including a blog training so they can keep up with technology and put themselves out there. We’re not limiting our activities within our space and have held events outside too.
In all these events we want to explore three areas: art classes and workshops, artist residencies, and collaborative projects. We started the art classes very early on. We had students coming in to study, mostly high school students, starting at the beginning with basic drawing skills. Now we have photography and video class as well as mixed-media class. The mixed-media class grew from basic fundamental drawing and sculpture making to a more conceptual, idea exploration [format]. We encourage students to come up with projects and we assist in their development. Our co-founders and active members, Lim Sokchanlina and Khvay Samnang, who are both artists, as well as our collaborators, teach the Sunday art classes. They share their time and the students bring their own materials so we make the class happen. We encourage our students to experiment, moving them from more conventional practice to more idea-driven and explorative work.
This is one of our students, Phyrum Phoung Milea. She’s really good with drawing and she’s really into pop culture, so she made this project which mapped all these pop stars into the 52 playing cards, connecting ideas about the game of fame in the pop world.
One other student Yun Rottanak made a sound sculpture. He created this dome where people were sucked in, entering into another world of sonic experience. Another student named Long Rasmei explored digital pinhole camera techniques, trying to experiment [with] what was possible with making pictures. For this work he said he wanted to change the formal structure of these buildings into sketches. One of our ongoing classes is a video class. We work with Cambodian and foreign filmmakers and also our Australian partner organization Big Stories to teach video making to a group of students who are also teaching to their peers in the neighborhood. There’s a community school in the neighborhood and this youth group is teaching English and computer skills and organizing youth events with this school. So we went there and asked what type of additional skills they’d like to build and they said ‘we want to make videos!’ So we designed a video workshop and continue to work with them from very basic skills and the principles of video making to experimental projects.
The second component of our project is an artist residency, which we began in 2010. Depending on our budget or [funding from] grants, we occasionally host artist residencies. For example, we had Cambodian artist Kong Channa experimenting with sculpture and sound. Later we hosted artist Masaru Iwai from Japan whose practice has been focused on washing and cleaning, politically and mentally. When he came to the White Building he organized a cleaning day. He provided cleaning tools and assisted people [in] cleaning up the building and the stairs. Everyone participated in this performance of cleaning and he made a three-channel video piece about this action. Interestingly, two weeks later in the stairwell nearby people gathered to clean up as well, so it was great to see how this ‘art action’ can make an impact. In 2013, we launched the ‘Pisaot’ residency program after raising some funds online. Our funding [comes] mostly through the public, individual supporters, and grants because there is no government support for contemporary art in Cambodia. The ‘Pisaot’ residency program is focused on experimentation. We do not require a final result, which allows the artists themselves to determine the goal. We have invited three Cambodian artists and three from outside of Cambodia focusing on Asia. They spent usually six weeks living and working in our space. For the first year [of the] program, we provided a humble stipend and materials fee so [artists could] make their works. What we ask is that they try to expand their practices with new ideas, new materials, new ways of working, and also to give back through public engagement, with either an open studio or a talk or a workshop. Different artists give back to the community in different ways.
For example, this is Sok Chanrado. He just finished high school and he’s living in the White Building and in this residency he tried to use both sound and performance. So what he did was he created a sound system on a bicycle. Using a speaker he would cycle through town, asking people what they thought about the media in Cambodia, because the government controls most of the media and there [are] very few critical voices allowed. So when he met people, he asked what they thought of the media or just general views on what they listen to on the radio, what they read, or just engaged in a simple conversation, which he then recorded and would play on his sound bicycle as he rode his bike to the next person, playing live whatever the last person had said. He then repeated and replayed this process of people talking around the city.
Then there’s Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai, who’s based in Hue, Vietnam. Her practice has always been studio-based but when she came here, she wanted to do something different and outside the studio. She did a project with a primarily Vietnamese community in Siem Reap province. What she found out was that the Vietnamese community there had not been issued with ID cards, so they are not legal citizens of either Vietnam or Cambodia and there was this insecurity and uncertainty. She’s very interested in the idea of identity and displacement so what she did was she created ID cards for them: she would take photographs of them and make ID cards following the Cambodian ID card template. She would personalize some of the cards and authorize them herself.
Next is a Cambodian artist Phok Sopheap from Battambang province, who is a painter but with us he tried to experiment more with performance and sound. Another is an artist, curator, researcher Emma Ota from Japan who worked with young children from the neighborhood making animation projects and connecting their projects with [those of] children in Japan. For this project children in both cities developed parts of the animation stories and then completed them together.
Our works tend to be collaborative. We encourage artists to work together, because we believe by working together some new form or possibility will arise. One example is a collaboration we did in 2011 with two musicians from the White Building and our partner Incidental from England and our team. We worked together designing new sound and music instruments. Inspired by Cambodian instruments, we wondered how we could explore, what materials could we use, [and] what kind of scale we can develop using recycled and industrial material. We worked together designing and building these instruments.
We also worked with a craftsman and installed all these instruments inside our space which we called the ‘Sounding Room.’ But the project didn’t end there, because that was only the materials; we wanted to think about how to engage with the materials. So after the installation was done in the room we organized different public sessions. For example, we had the musicians who created the instruments perform with contemporary dancer Chumvan Sodhachivy (Belle) and together they improvised a performance. We also hosted different sessions where art students and people from the building could try to play with the instruments.
But we still felt constrained by our space; we wanted to break the boundary between art space and [the] living space of the community. After that we encouraged our students from the workshops to make work that interacted with their neighbors, so for example our student Kath Soksamnang took portraits of people in the neighborhood and in this process he also taught the people he was photographing to use the camera and to take a photo of camera and to take a photo of him as well. He then installed the photographs under the stairway so people would pass by and see them. What happened next was [that] when people saw their pictures, they took [them] off the wall. There was something shifting with the interaction.
New media has proven to be an accessible medium that allows for interaction with the neighborhood. For example, this work was produced by our students from the video workshop. What they did was work with the community and the school there to transform this community classroom into an installation of video works. Some of those TVs were borrowed from the neighborhood. Similarly, this is a local coffee shop which we turned into a community cinema where the video works done by the students were screened so people could enjoy them. Video works by our students range across the board. We started with very fundamental principles [of] video making but some students are shifting to more artistic ideas, some are more into documentary, some are more into fiction; we encourage all sorts of video. One of our students asked a hairdresser to put his video on their TV, because they always had the TV on to entertain the clients! This meant people could watch [his] video while they were having their hair done.
This is the latest project we did at the White Building in January. It was called ‘Bonn Phum’ or Village Festival and was part of the larger Our City Festival. We stretched further beyond our comfort zone to work with classical dancers and rock bands from the White Building, because we wanted to get everyone involved. So this became a multi-platform and multi-event festival.
For example we had classical dancing master Hun Sarath who choreographed a new dance and had it performed on the rooftop of the building at sunset. Hundreds of people gathered to see the work. At the same time, we had a photo exhibition happening inside our space, and a rock band performing on the entrance street of the building. Most of the artists and performers were from the building. There were also nightly video screenings for the one-week period at a café-turned-cinema.
In order to engage with people in the building, a mostly low-income population, we offered a combination of art, in the hopes [that] while they might be drawn in by something they were used to, they might at the same time discover something new. A lot of people came to the festival: about 75% were from the neighborhood and the rest were from the outside. In total I think we had about 1000 people which was really exciting for us. We also saw new community actions happening where the community took steps to do things by themselves. For example, before the festival we had worked with the youth there to clean up one block of the building, but that became infectious and people started to clean other areas too. So this year we will continue to try to make visual changes to the neighborhood that people can see and we will focus on a series of workshops which will [involve] practical improvements to the architecture of the neighborhood. Our team member Khvay Samnang will take the lead in these workshops.
The last project that we did was collecting, gathering, and archiving audio-visual materials that have been produced at the White Building. These materials are now centralized in one place because we realize how important the present history about this neighborhood is. If you go to the website www.whitebuilding.org you will find a lot of audio-visual materials that were produced by our students and visiting artists. It’s all free, Everyone can access it, and find out about the White Building and its community. We also have a physical room, underneath our Sa Sa Art Projects space. It contains a limited collection of books, essays, written materials about the White Building, some visual materials, and also a place where they can access the archive online.
I want now to finish with our aspirations. Our projects tend to be short lived because we believe we should focus on these moments of collective action that shift and make change — something that is infused in the life of people but is also disruptive. Collaborative projects are important as well because we believe in bringing in people from different backgrounds and expertise to develop projects and events that are accessible and available to everyday people, especially like those in the White Building. We hope that what we do is contributing to exploration of new possibilities in art as well as in new knowledge production and contemporary practice in Cambodia. And if you want to learn more, you can find more about us on our website www.sasaart.info.
Audience Member: I just want to know about art education in Cambodia. There’s compulsory education up to what age?
VL: The art education is not compulsory in Cambodian public school…
Audience Member: Children go to public school until what age?
VL: Until they turn 17 or 18, so there are 12 grades of basic education.
Audience Member: Is art in that curriculum?
VL: Art is in the curriculum but it’s not compulsory, meaning that some schools have it and some schools don’t. The art teachers come from the Royal University of Fine Arts but the number of graduates is going down, which is really worrying. In 2012, there was no student graduated from the sculpture department and only four from the painting department.
Audience Member: And music?
VL: There are many more students in the performing art departments. Music and dance attract more students; visual arts less so.
Audience Member: How do you explain that?
VL: I think that the employability is key. When students in visual arts graduate, they can either work for the government as teachers, where they often have to travel (far from the city) because the schools that are more in need are in the provinces. Another option is being a (self-employed) artist and making artwork, but there is so little support in Cambodia and a very small market. For graduates from music and dance departments, by nature of their practice, some are able to form troupes and perform and stay closely together as a support network. It is less the case for visual art graduates. If we look at the Cambodian artists who are more actively engaging with their practice, many are not graduates of the Fine Arts school. They are self-taught or trained outside the formal school system, through workshops and residencies, or they studied abroad and returned.
JD: Last year at a symposium, you explained, if I remember correctly, that there was a big difference between what was being taught in the fine art schools in Vietnam and what was taught in Cambodia, where the focus was more on craft and decorative work, instead of Western style modernism and painting. Can you talk more about this?
VL: The fine arts school in Phnom Penh was first founded in 1918 by the French protectorate, and the first and the second directors of the school were French. At that time these directors saw Cambodian arts as endangered so they founded this school to reproduce existing [traditional] art, so reproduction of ‘authentic’ art objects became a focus. Only in the late 1940s were ‘modern painting’ skills introduced, but even so the curriculum focuses on technique more than exploring ideas. I have talked to some students there asking ‘why don’t you explore, do something that is interesting to you?’ and they said that then they wouldn’t pass the qualification exam at the end because they need to present and defend their works in front of this panel from the Ministry of Culture and the Fine Arts school, whose appreciation of what art is is of course quite conservative.
Audience Member: How are you funding your organization? Through the government?
VL: No, we’re not funded through the government at all because there is no government support for contemporary art. I find that we’re very lucky to have run Sa Sa Art Projects this long; it’s been over four years now! We started off with support from the local art community. We reached out to them, saying ‘this is what we want to do. We want to run this art project’ and we asked artists in Cambodia to donate works for auction, which gave us the funds to start the project. From there we’ve been lucky that we’ve been able to connect with some private supporters, individual sponsors, and we’ve also applied to grants to support specific projects. Before we ran an art class every Sunday, but discovered that we couldn’t sustain it, so we shifted to running art projects with workshop components instead by applying for grants.
Audience Member: A lot of this is really out of sheer desire by this group of artists, who are donating their time, and not charging for their art classes.
VL: I can do this because I earn income through other means. So do my colleagues. I make work, I write, I organize events. I try to make income from these channels.
Audience Member: You’ve said that you have received a grant; where is the grant coming from?
VL: So far, we have received grants from the British Council through a collaborative project with our partner Incidental from the UK. We used to get funds from Arts Network Asia based in Singapore. We’ve just received a grant from Art Collaboratory, part of a Dutch organization, for a collaborative project with our students at the White Building and our partner Big Stories from Australia.
Audience Member: So there [are] no granting or funding bodies inside Cambodia?
VL: No, so we need to look outside.
JD: Just give everyone a sense…what was your largest grant so far?
VL: It was the grant we received from Art Collaboratory. It was generous enough that [it] allowed us to establish this archive website and archive room and allowed us to continue to run the film and art workshops, so that will continue to allow [for the] collection and production of new materials.
JD: How long is that grant for?
VL: It’s until August.
Audience Member: How was the [Bonn Phum] festival for you? How did you feel about it?
VL: We felt so excited about it and so did the people that participated in it, both the artists and performers as well as the audience. Everyone developed this sense of pride, which I think is fascinating and encouraging because this neighborhood, as you can see, has a dilapidated look, and is known to international audiences and in the international press as a ‘slum.’ [The] word, ‘slum,’ is traumatic for people in the community because they’re like, ‘hold on, we just live our everyday lives here, and there are artists who live here.’ So we wanted to shift the thinking about this community. This festival I think has made another step in shifting this image. One resident said, ‘the building has got its reputation back again.’ We have an on-going goal of shifting perspectives about this community.
Audience Member: That sounds great, but I just wonder if you have received any comments or criticisms; what kind of problems have come up along the way?
VL: Certainly, it’s not all shining! For me, the community spirit is really important and I keep focusing on it because I came from an international development background. But of course [there are] issues that come up when you organize public events because there are strangers who come in. The White Building is not a public space per se; it’s private homes. People can walk through the hallways, and interact with the kids, so we need to manage the risk of someone coming in and doing something harmful. I’m worried all the time, but for each public event, and especially this festival, we worked with our community partner, the organization that runs the school, and consulted them [on] how to manage this. At Bonn Phum festival they were very wary and didn’t want to be publicly seen as an official partner and therefore liable, even though they helped and supported [us] throughout the festival. For incoming foreigners we gave them a small [list] of guidelines about what they should and should not do, like don’t walk into people’s homes and don’t take photographs. Also, for the events upstairs we were worried about what would happen if someone just jumped or fell off the roof. That was the fist time we used the rooftop. We were flirting with this idea for years, and so we worked with the village chief about our ideas and the relationship was very cooperative; they had police watching out and controlling the crowd. There [was] this constant awareness about not unintentionally bringing harm to the community.
Audience member: From my experience with different smaller communities throughout Asia, particularly in central Asia where for a while there were a lot of really vibrant activities for the younger generation, one of the problems they’re facing now is that because there is a void in the actual larger society, for mobility and placement for the artists, that once they go through this whole process of being trained, many of them end up turning around and getting jobs in radio and television, or being scooped up by giant corporations and stop being artists and do not give back to the community. So I’m wondering about your thoughts about this and how many stick through the process, because there’s also pressure from the families….
VL: Very good question actually. There are some students who drift off along the way and there are some students who stick with us. The group of the video workshop students that we worked with, you could call them the youth leaders in the community, they have a certain spirit of commitment to the community and a spirit of activism, participating in demonstrations or documenting political events. You don’t have to tell them; they do their own things. So when we started to work with them, we could immediately see how interesting and engaged their ideas were. For example, one student worked on women and education and made a video about that. Others worked on media, and these interests manifested through their work. Now they are studying at universities so we don’t know what will happen in the future but I have this belief in this spirit, so even if they get a job in another field I want to encourage them to keep making work.
JD: We’re going to stop here and go downstairs but thank you very much Lyno. I think you should continue to cultivate these students!
Disclaimer: Watermarked images are the exclusive property of their respective owners. Asia Art Archive in America does not hold copyright on them. All other images courtesy of Vuth Lyno and Sa Sa Art Projects.
Sa Sa Art Projects is Phnom Penh’s only artist-run space dedicated for experimental art practices. It was founded in 2010 by art collective Stiev Selapak and is located in a historic and vibrant apartment complex known as the White Building. Sa Sa Art Projects aims to facilitate artistic knowledge production and sharing through experimentations and collaborations. Sa Sa Art Projects engages with Cambodian and visiting artists, creative individuals and groups, students, and the White Building’s residents in realizing art projects and events that are accessible and enjoyable by everyday Cambodians. Sa Sa Art Projects does these by focusing on three main areas of programming: an experimental art residency with Cambodian and visiting artists, art and media workshops, and collaborative projects.
Vuth Lyno is an artist, curator, and artistic director of Sa Sa Art Projects. He is a founding and active member of Stiev Selapak collective who established Sa Sa Art Projects and SA SA BASSAC. Coming from an international development background, he is interested in socially engaged, participatory, and experimental arts. Vuth’s solo exhibitions include ‘Thoamada’ (2011) and ‘Thoamada II’ (2013) at SA SA BASSAC, Phnom Penh. His group exhibitions include ‘Xishuangbanna Foto Festival’ (2014), Yunnan, China, and ‘Riverscapes IN FLUX’ (2012), Hanoi, Saigon, Bangkok, Phnom Penh, Jakarta, Manila. Vuth was visual art curator for 2012’s Cambodian Youth Arts Festival, Phnom Penh, and curatorial assistant for IN RESIDENCE, the visual art program of the Season of Cambodia 2013, NYC. Vuth is currently an MA student in Art History at SUNY Binghamton under Fulbright scholarship.
Transcribed by Hilary Chassé, edited by Jane DeBevoise.