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burma report

paths to art in zones of conflict & transition

rachael swain: the flying circus project, myanmar

Rachael Swain is an Artistic Director of Stalker Theatre, based in Sydney and a founder and Co-Artistic Director with Dalisa Pigram of Marrugeku, the intercultural-Indigenous dance theatre company based in Broome Western Australia. She has curated a series of International Indigenous Choreographic Laboratories (IICL) for Marrugeku exploring new cultural pathways to contemporary Indigenous dance with choreographers from Australia, New Zealand, Papua, Burkina Faso and Congo. The Listening to Country lab will be held in Broome in July 2013 and IICL 4 will be held in Toronto in 2014.

Nge Lay, The Relevancy of Restricted Things (2010), from the collection of the Singapore Art Museum and Fukuoka Asian Art Museum Nge Lay, The Relevancy of Restricted Things (2010), from the collection of the Singapore Art Museum and Fukuoka Asian Art Museum

From 2007 FCP widened its brief to include artists from Europe, the Arab world and Africa. Its focal points are individual creative action, encountering difference and the strategies of art practice, emphasising the tenacity of local sites—with their artists, activists and public intellectuals. The lab is curated around the central notion of ‘world creating,’ how do we form micro-worlds, which are responsible, articulated and ethically engaged?

superintense & ulter u

In 2007, the FCP visited Ho Chi Minh City/Singapore and in 2010 explored Phnom Penh/Singapore. Each time a group of international artists, themselves working in sites of transition and cultural change, is invited to participate in a curated local program. The FCP artists contribute a one-hour presentation from their own ‘world’ in a back-to-back endurance fest titled Superintense, in 2013 staged in Yangon (Rangoon) and Singapore. Theatre Works also runs the Alter U program as a tandem project, an ‘alternative university’ with a commitment to artist-to-artist exchange and exposure to a diversity of artistic strategies which they describe as “a shared micro-space/time made by artists for world-citizens to contemplate action.” Ulter U is the part of the program where local artists engage with the FCP artists and includes commissioned local work, workshops, presentations and other activities to stimulate the development of individual artists in their own context.

on the path to democracy

In 2010 Keng Sen began exploring the possibility of staging FCP8 in Myanmar while the so-called transition to democracy rapidly accelerated during that period. The release of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi followed by her party, the National League for Democracy, gaining 43 seats in the Myanmar Parliament spearheaded the change. As Keng Sen says, “It is true that this is only a fraction of the total 664 seats but it is still a significant dent in the armoured tank that runs the land some have nicknamed ‘the forgotten country.’” Well it’s no longer forgotten, for never a week passes without some headline grabbing news: from President Obama’s historic visit to the Rohingar issue and ethnic conflicts in the western state of Rakhine, to the violent security raids on monks and mine-workers during a recent protest in Monywa.


FCP8 took place in the shifting sands of a Myanmar in transition at a moment in time where artists and activists who had lived a life of fear simply for taking on the roles of educators, critical thinkers or documenters were facing an overwhelming level of change. This included the possibility of being able to speak directly to their audiences, exposure to international arts practices and, of course, the potential for all this to be swept away again in the erratic path of a violent and repressive regime.

artists as public intellectuals

The essential structure of FCP, of exchange across local and global contexts, laid itself out pretty quickly in Yangon where all activity took place at the Alliance Francaise. No strangers to censorship issues coming from Singapore, the Theatre Works team carefully set up the context where Burmese artists and activists were able to speak publicly on French soil.

In introducing the range of artists in the opening days in Yangon, Keng Sen proposed that the 8th FCP look at the role of public intellectuals in forming new societies. How do they communicate with a mass audience beyond the arts community and in a delicate dance with the authorities? We heard a range of approaches to change through arts practice from doctor and educationalist Ko Tah, cartoonist Au Pi Kyeh, novelist and environmentalist Ju to filmmaker Keiko Sei.

Burmese painter, photographer and video journalist Sithu Zeya, installation artist and photographer Nge Lay and performance artist Lyn Htet, director of Theatre of the Disturbed, have all worked from inside and outside the country and have each faced fear of censorship and imprisonment. 23-year-old Sithu Zeya was arrested for taking pictures of the aftermath of explosions in Yangon and sentenced to 18 years imprisonment. He was released on January 2012 after the relaxing of the censorship laws. Each of the artists has developed strategies to reflect government atrocities and stimulate art practice.

In 2013 FCP widened its scope to include activism and journalism. Keng Sen commented that the VJs (video journalists) are the cowboys of journalism, putting themselves in view of the secret police to make sure stories are told and smuggling footage out of the country, most often to Thailand. When Sun, one of the VJs featured in the award-winning documentary Burma VJ, addressed us at the French Embassy in Yangon it was the first time he had spoken publicly in his own country. One of Sun’s first statements to us was that Burma needs to release all political prisoners. Many of his colleagues have been tortured and are still locked away.

liberating film

Keiko Sei, a Japanese filmmaker working for 15 years in Burma, explained that the country has been quite random in its censorship; DVDs were sold quite freely over the past decade. What was lacking was not information but education and guidance on how to work with information that was forbidden. People were overloaded with mediatised junk and lacked perspective; as opposed to Eastern European dictatorships which have withheld media, the Burmese government took the opposite approach: “Korean soap operas, endless football and completely poisonous Hip Hop are what the government swamped the broadcast time with.” After being raided by the secret police and losing all the participants in her film discussion project Keiko Sei asked herself, “What would I risk 15 years’ imprisonment for, what art is worth that risk? It was a big responsibility for me.” After retreating to Thailand for some time, she returned, assisted by the Prague Film School who now take several students from Myanmar each year into their training program. Film played a significant part in FCP8 with the commissioning of English subtitles for short films by young Burmese filmmakers, the restoration of a lost print of the fabulous Wearing Velvet Slippers, Holding a Golden Umbrella (1971) by Maung Wanna (Godard meets Blanche Dubois in Yangon 1970!) and the presentation of the second ever Myanmar Film Festival in Mandalay.

theatre of the disturbed

Hotel Reverie: Part 2 , Theatre of the Disturbed, Yangon during Flying Circus Project #8 Hotel Reverie: Part 2 , Theatre of the Disturbed, Yangon during Flying Circus Project #8
courtesy the artists and Flying Circus Project
One of the most tangible elements of FCP was the commissioning program by Theatre Works which included two productions of the Yangon-based performance art company, Theatre of the Disturbed. The first production was a restaging of Hotel Reverie Part 1, a production which director Lin Thet stated was an experiment in considering the relevance of producing Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus in Myanmar. The performance was presented in the gardens of the French Institute, beginning with a libation ceremony by nine Buddhist monks, chanting in memory of those who disappeared during the 64 years of military rule.

Throughout the performance 64 male workers, gagged and with their hands bound, stood, leaned or sat (apparently depending on their levels of boredom or exhaustion) as a background to the action downstage. Following the libation ceremony a talk show was staged with three prominent activists, one of whom had endured lengthy imprisonment, discussing the moral, spiritual and political concerns of using violence as resistance to a regime. Each statement was translated at length for our benefit, resulting in a painfully drawn-out experience and growing concern for the 64 men wilting in the background. In the final moments a performance art nod to Titus Andronicus was played out involving a young woman with a pram full of raw meat and an overweight young man on stage inhaling ice cream.

Exhausted on the way home in the bus back through the Yangon traffic, the FCP artists discussed the work from our differing perspectives, with one of the new media artists from India prophesying Lin Htet will become famous as one of the pioneers of contemporary art in Myanmar. I felt I had had a comprehensive introduction to the complexities facing the fusion of art and activism in Myanmar, the troubled nature of importing art movements and most importantly the voice of Lin Htet, vocalising his experience of his country’s bloody history. The event was indeed disturbing and yet it offered a compelling picture of the struggles facing art making in this “forgotten country.”

something or nothing?

As the FCP artist presentations began in Yangon, Keng Sen noted that the connections (of his curation) would become visible over the coming days, that the different strategies we employ as artists in our work of ‘world creating’ in our different contexts would emerge. These would come to include “Land Art” as a link, the documentation of unsanctioned memories of atrocities and also the work of art making in conflict zones. With three Sri Lankan artists from Singhalese and Tamil backgrounds present, the issue of how to build paths to artistic practice in Sri Lanka was also a focus and perhaps an entree to the next FCP.

Keng Sen declared that one of the essential elements of FCP is “collaboration in location,” the histories and communities of location. Choosing not to use the word “community”—feeling it has been appropriated by funding bodies—he raised the issue of ‘for whom is the work made?,’ proposing “when we talk of making communities NGO’s want to make something useful. The ‘useful’ is defined very conservatively: we are meant to pass on useful skills to disadvantaged people. Some people say the Flying Circus is not useful. It produces nothing, but the concept of ‘nothing’ from an Asian spiritual perspective, is also something. What is the something?”

Sri Lankan filmmaker and photographer Anomaa Rajakaruna’s presentation outlined her documentation projects during and after a war, which has supposedly ended, though, as she stated, the struggle continues. She has made five video features, each of which have been banned in Sri Lanka, so the issue of who she was making her work for was critical. Keng Sen commented on the work of artists in conflict zones documenting for the future, a critical issue in Myanmar where memory, documentation and practices of remembrance have been controlled by a military regime, producing an ‘official memory’ for 64 years.

New media artists Sonal Jain and Mriganka Madhukaillya from Desire Machine Collective, based in Assam, suggested that coming from the North West of India “there is an expectation from people that you will create exotic images of conflict, a kind of ‘conflict tourism.’” They asked, “When you are living in a conflict zone everyday, what does it mean to make art?”

At the close of the period in Yangon and following the theatrical and confronting South African artist Brett Baily’s Third World Bun Fight, Keng Sen said, “We have been hearing of stories of violence and pain but also of humour and glamour. There are two threads of artistic response present, a kind of daily life investigation and a transgressive, subverted investigation.”

beyond mandalay: museum art project#5

After nine days in Yangon we moved north to Mandalay where we were advised to keep an even lower profile since a group of Malaysian street theatre performers had been deported on the spot a couple of months earlier after attempting to present a performance there.

Perhaps the highlight for me, and the day I felt the chemistry of both the FCP and Ulter U projects converging, was the day trip from Mandalay by boat across the Irrawaddy River to the sleepy riverside village of Mignon to view the Museum Art Project # 5, a pop-up style contemporary gallery curated by Tun Win Aung and Wah Nu and supported by FCP. Like many of the artists we had met they were concerned with bridging rural life and the art world, responding to the curiosity of the villagers with their projects. “In 2010, we started to realise small scale exhibition spaces in different villages and towns where there are no art galleries or museums built for the people. We thought exhibition designs should be connected and reflect on local people’s daily life, situations or landscapes. Space designs should be friendly and accessible for local people. So, we chose local small huts, tents and barns.”

May Phue Thet, Be Happy Be Happy #02 (2012) May Phue Thet, Be Happy Be Happy #02 (2012)
courtesy the artist
In Museum Art Project #5, Ming Thein’s Another Realm is a gigantic rifle made of hollow white cloth, suspended from the ceiling installed in one of the simple multi-use spaces perched on the banks of the river. May Phu Thet’s Be Happy Be Happy is a series of photos of Burmese baby puppets: garish white creatures with protruding, retractable red tongues, sporting lawn green sequined outfits. Curator Wah Nu addressed the FCP group and local guests saying, “This is an ordinary village but artists here have made it an extraordinary village. Now it’s like an art community where artists come to rent spaces and we can even say that the arts community here is stronger than in Mandalay. We have invited FCP here with the hope of exchanging with international artists. We hope it will be a good experience for the locals.”

What followed were two quite extraordinary presentations by FCP artists Sananthanan Thamotharampillai, a Tamil visual artist from Jaffana in northern Sri Lanka, and the wonderfully provocative Japanese performance maker and visual artist Tadasu Takamine, previously a member of Dumb Type. The range of their presentations—Sananthanan’s art book documenting Tamil displacement in hand drawn memories of the footprint of homes lost and Tadasu’s solo exhibition Cool in Japan, a series of rooms installed in Art Tower Mito as statements on Japan post-Fukushima—seemed to illuminate the goals of FCP as a site for exchange across worlds of experience.

For me FCP was a chance for reflection on our context in Australia, filtered through constant discussion with my good friend, South African artist Brett Baily, in our Southern Hemisphere gang of two! Long bus rides, pauses between presentations, random moments in temples gave space for exchange of the ideas behind the ideas between the participating artists, of what we do, how we do it and why, when and where we do it….And to meet new artists working in new contexts around the world, post Saffron revolution, post-Fukushima, post Arab Spring, in transition to democracy, or after war, under censorship or post apologies and reconciliation commissions, facing new challenges in cultural politics and representation.

Note: ‘Myanmar’ and ‘Burma’ are currently used interchangeably in that country. For more details on FCP8 see the blog by Singaporean theatre critic and writer Ng Yi-Sheng and the FCP website

FCP8, Yangon and Mandalay, Myanmar, Jan 3-4; Singapore Jan 16-20, supported by the Ford Foundation, the Institut Français, the Lee Foundation and the National Arts Council (Singapore).

Rachael Swain is an Artistic Director of Stalker Theatre, based in Sydney and a founder and Co-Artistic Director with Dalisa Pigram of Marrugeku, the intercultural-Indigenous dance theatre company based in Broome Western Australia. She has curated a series of International Indigenous Choreographic Laboratories (IICL) for Marrugeku exploring new cultural pathways to contemporary Indigenous dance with choreographers from Australia, New Zealand, Papua, Burkina Faso and Congo. The Listening to Country lab will be held in Broome in July 2013 and IICL 4 will be held in Toronto in 2014.

RealTime issue #114 April-May 2013 pg. 40-41

© Rachel Swain; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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