"Center Point Media-Shaker screen" at Siam Square Bangkok: MAF-04 open air screenings. Photo: Francis Wittenberger

NEW.WRITING: : Isabel Saij interviews Francis Wittenberger, who curated and managed the Media Art Festival 2004, (MAF04) in Bangkok, Thailand, 20-28 March, 2004.

BY: Isabel Saij, with Francis Wittenberger

POSTED: Monday 07 June 2004


click here for French language version

Isabel Saij (hereafter, IS): Can you present the "Thailand New Media Festival 2004 to us?"

Francis Wittenberger (hereafter, FW): "Thailand New Media Art Festival" (MAF-04 Bangkok) is organized and produced by ICECA Thailand (Initiative for Cultural Exchange and Computer Arts). http://thailand.culturebase.org/MAF04

MAF-03 was the pioneer Media Art Festival in Thailand and MAF-04 marks it as an annual event.

MAF combines a Cultural Exchange Programme featuring international visiting artists, screenings and interactive computer art exhibitions.

The Festival is not meant to be a singular event but rather an event in a series throughout the year.

The main idea behind ICECA and MAF is to introduce new media and computer arts in Thailand, where cultural heritage is a national treasure. In Thailand, technology has already arrived in every corner of life but art in Thailand is still a thing closer to “crafts.“

Soon after I’d made my first project in Thailand, I saw the creativity of Thai artists, and I realized the potential they have to greatly influence the global media scene. This is why I thought that it was important to stay here and setup ICECA.

ICECA is not a formal institution, but it has stepped into close alliance with various Thai institutions and international cultural organizations active in Thailand.

ICECA also maintains workshops and presentations, which are currently being extended; InFoMAT (International Forum for Media Artists and Theorists) and NEXUS offer general Thai audience occasions to interact with cutting edge, digital media artists and international media artists who offer and partake in Cultural Exchange projects via fusion of artistic networks. Beyond the annual Festival--which exposes a large volume of international new-media arts in Thailand "MAF-DNL" -- the festival's Digital Network Library is a permanent collection conserving and offering access to a part of the festival's collection authorized for this purpose by the authors. The content is currently presented as part of the Alliance Francaise's Library/computer-lab in Bangkok, and final negotiations will soon allow DNL to become a permanent part of the Srinakarinwirot University's Central Library.

IS: How did you come to manage/curate a new media festival in Thailand?

FW: My first encounters in Thailand were in 1989. That time my interest was in audio recording studios. It took me 12 years to return and stay longer then a month. In 1996, artist Boris Svirsky and I were working on a software-art project "SEC" (Secondary Consciousness) http://uco.org.il and a thread of SEC became "Oman Robot" (http://oman.berlin.heimat.de), a globe-trotting robot in a wheel-chair. Oman got invited to Eu-Ka-Beuk exhibition in North Thailand and this is how it all started. Oman robot was broken by the Thai customs while examining "art containing a computer." Oman was broken and in my attempt to fix it for the exhibition at the Chiangmai Art Museum, I met with Thai art students. The students were fascinated buy the idea of a tech-art project and I was fascinated by their interest and skills.

Less then two months later I returned from Europe with a grant by Kunstpunkt Berlin (www.Kunstpunkt.com) to realize ICECA. After several month of successful activity, ICECA sponsors came to Chiangmai to evaluate the project, and I presented a project that even further extended ICECA's cultural exchange activities and raised the international profile. The project was called "Thailand First New Media Art Festival," and it was a three week long event spanning from March of 2003 to April. It was a very difficult project to realize, especially since there was no funding and the CMU did not understand what new media was, but the work was very rewarding; afterall, the timing was perfect (overlapping the Thai New Year celebrations, over 4000 visitors came to the Festival). It did not take long until the CM University realized the huge interest of local audience in new-media arts.

IS: What are the differences between managing/curating a festival in Thailand and in Europe?

FW: The main differences between managing/curating a festival in Thailand and in Europe are numerous. In Thai culture, people are indirect--saying "no" is almost never used. This means that for any question asked, you might get a "yes," "interesting," "we will give you an answer soon," etc. So without knowing certain cultural codes, a producer will face an invisible wall, and find out too late that the "yes" was in fact a "no." For example, when a proposal is made, an answer may be pending endlessly.

Art equals craft in Thailand. There is almost no art in the same sense as we use it in Europe; the general public has never heard of a museum and a gallery is a place where tourist buy some colorful reproductions or local craft/traditional art. When it comes to introduction of new-media art, it’s very difficult to explain. Literally translated, "sue-sillapa" will mean 'media art,' but media equals mass media (newspaper, TV and radio) and art means craft; so most people will think you are talking about 'design;' and this is in the better case.

Visitors are interested and I do not fear their hands. In Europe, one will have to put signs of "do not touch" or "touch here--this is interactive;"in Thailand, people will not touch things that look fragile and will not break anything at all. Also, safety issues are different--the regulations of what is possible to present are kind of different. For example, a 220 Volt power cable can normally lay on the floor and that is not a problem, or an artist may perform live and close to the audience using a disk-saw or any other “violent“ tool. When it comes to computers exhibited, no one will fear to touch and interact. People will not be shy to say "I do not understand" or "show me how this works" and will experience works even if they are not sure how to operate the software; but because of language barriers and cultural differences, many of the messages may be lost.

"Punk“ attitude and rebellion, as well as pornography, are not common at all. Thai people live a happy life eating, drinking, and having a very rich social life. If you present them with, for example, "hardcore electronic music,“ they will not get the point; "why do the foreigners listen to noise" will be a common thought, and, without further say, the common Thai will turn to the buffet to get a drink or some sweets and wait until the "noise" is over. Also, in Thailand, technology is something which "if it works, it’s good." No one will have a language problem with an English menu on their picture-phone. If the tech device offers a useful feature, the English menu item will be memorized as a graphic icon, and from that point on the shape and location in the menu will be an address to access the useful feature--no more and no less.

There is no funding yet. There is full understanding from the side of modern generation in Thailand to learn English and to have better understanding of technology. Every Thai knows that knowing more in those fields will enable more ways to earn a living, but the government is not yet up to date, and there is absolutely no support or funding for modern art, not to mention new-media arts. From my experience of running ICECA (initiative for cultural exchange and computer arts) in Thailand for the past two years, it was hard to get started, as no one understood what the practical outcome would be. But once they (museum director in a certain case) saw the interest, a powerful alliance of local professors and university functions came together and, in fact, took over the ICECA credits, canceled its contract with the university, and in a matter of days the whole project was "their own;"... the office computer was confiscated; the data was deleted; the email account password was changed; the project website in the university server was replaced by their own clone; and an attempt to erase any sign of the original project was attempted. In short, 'useless art' is considered useless and is not funded; however, once it smells profitable, those in the top positions will easily form a hierarchic union that is very powerful. An artist will lose their intellectual property to their teacher; a volunteer will be denied credit; and others might hear and believe rumors originated by top levels in the hierarchy.

IS: How are new media, especially netart/webart, received in Thailand?

FW: In general, the gaming zone is very popular and new media is not far, in a sense, from that, so it’s very easy to get it going. However, the concept of cultural institutions that supports art (as the ZKM for example) is unimaginable. A Thai artist is never told by his teachers that a commercial company might have interest to sponsor a project, and a Thai artist has in fact 0% belief in getting support to realize his/her project (do not forget that a computer in Thailand is equal to about five average monthly salaries; an artist cannot in any way afford to own a PC, a DV camera, a scanner, and what is, in fact, a home studio). So, an artist in Thailand cannot think in terms of making a robotic installation or producing much of hi-end computer animation. And this is where web art comes into the picture. Thais are very good designers, and when it comes to low-cost productions, you can find interesting works like Girl6.intro (http://www.plog7.com) by Thai artist Sasis Suwonpakprak.

IS: I suppose that the Thai history, the Thai culture, and the religion (Buddhism), lead to specific creations from the Thai artists?

FW: Indeed, Thai artists relate to graphics and design. Their cultural heritage is full with examples of top quality design elements and an astonishing level of detail. This is, of course, reflected in any digital form of image they create. Also, peacefulness is part of Thai art, and the usage of thousands of colors in a single painting is very common. I am waiting to see how this will revolutionize web design. In fact, Thai websites are very 'flashy' and colorful. However, ’til now, most have nothing to do with art content; it’s mostly pop idols and games. But, it will come and make you love it!

IS: Be specific – What were the expectations and reactions from the viewers regarding the creations of European/U.S. artists?

FW: Our Thai audience was impressed by several works--mainly I would say due to visual attributes. And here are a few examples:

Alfred Banze, Banyan Project, Germany
comment: "It’s nice to see so many people around the world collaborate in one project." (multinational project, performances)

Natalia Borissova, series of graphics from VJ performances, Russia
comment: "Cute images!" (reaction to pixelated c-prints )

Hermelinde Hergenhahn, Day in Day out, Holland

comment: "Wow, so much machines but the concept is good." "How much all this cost?" (video installation that recorded events during daytime and projected them to the street back at nighttime)

Kris Delacourt + Nico Dockx + Peter Verwimp + Christopher Musgrave, Building Transmissions, video and noise music performance, Belgium
comment: "Interesting, but I don’t understand" (reaction to noise performance; also, some people could not stand the flickering visuals).

Ma Yongfeng, Swirl, video art, China
comment: "Did the fish die?" (video showing goldfish washed in a washing machine for 15 minutes, a statement over condition of artists in china)

Calin Man Esoth Eric interactive installation, Romania
comment: "I do not know how to play this game" (computer installation, unexpected digital interface)

Przemyslaw Moskal, Virtual and Real: K-Dron and Light, interactive 3D in shockwave offline version, USA
comment: "This is amazing!" (real time 3D graphics)

Anouk De Clercq + Anton Aeki + Joris Cool, Building, video, Belgium

comment: "Wow, I never thought architecture can look like art." (3D model of architectural interiors. Only walls, columns, no other props, lit by moving light sources. Perfect motion compositions, perfect rendering, black & white video)

Juhani Koivumäki, Self-portrait, video, Finland
comment: "Do you think Thai people will understand what you were going through?" (finish director express mental issues on film, hard and personal)

Christian Hogue, motion graphics, video/lecture: where industry meet the arts, UK
comment: "This is very good and very interesting." (reaction to hi-end motion graphics presentations, excerpts from art and commercial special effects as used in commercials)

IS: Are there some Thai artists (or South-East Asian artists) working in net/web art you would like to draw our attention to?

FW: Here are some:
Roopesh Sitharan, Malaysia, http://www.roopesh.net/
Aziz, Malaysia, http://www.triyae.com/
Sasis Suwonpakprak, Thailand, http://www.plog7.com/

IS: How do you see the development of new-media art practices in Thailand ?

FW: Thailand develops fast and is very commercially oriented. Unfortunately, if there will be no financial support to keep the artists independent. They will all be lost in commercial projects as the need to survive. This is sad and I truly hope that ICECA can reach some Thai artists and let them realize that their work, in fact, can be supported if they will present it, if not in Thailand, maybe in other countries. I hope that the fact that this year's festival brought so many foreign artists will trigger positive thinking, and Thai artists will try to apply for foreign grants to realize their work, travel, and expose the world to what they have to offer.

However, some of those who are 'lost in commercialism' are keeping above the water, and few are able to afford small studios. Recently, some designers have initiated DJ and VJ parties and also perform with foreign artists. Such an event was part of the festival on MAF04’s closing party--"print party" we called it. Thai artist "Kronkrit" and his friends "evolved graphics" in an interesting live-action graphic session, in which they generated and re-used graphics, and eventually created evolving graphics that were projected and printed at the Oddyssee gallery.


Ryan Keln (left down) exchanging ideas with a group of students fromthe Faculty of Fine Arts SW University
Photo: Francis Wittenberger   





a DJ + VJ session at the "Oddyssee Gallery" - Thai Artists were invited to perform re-form and and de-form images, sound and video at MAF-04 final "Print Party." Photo: Christian Hogue (Lost In Space)




a 3 person research group from Denmark attended MAF04 collecting information on Thai interest in New Media Arts. in the picture (left) Catherine Loiselle [not in the image: Julia Bohlmann, Gemma Mclintock]. Photo: Francis Wittenberger

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