B. Chiang Mai, Thailand
Sutthirat (Som) Supaparinya is a visual artist, documentary video maker, lecturer, and the founder of the Chiang Mai Art Conversation (CAC) collective. She is based in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We met her on 27 February 2020 at Yesterday Café in Mueang Chiang Mai. She told us about her work, the developing cultural scene in the city, and her continued fascinations with changing landscapes, energy, and World War Two.
Contents1. Introduction: Education and Early Career. | 2. Connections Between Mekong Region Practitioners. | 3. Childhood. | 4. Chiang Mai Social Installation. | 5. Studying Abroad and Changing Perspectives on Thailand. | 6. Travels around Southeast Asia. | 7. Making Artistic Connections across Southeast Asia. | 8. Chiang Mai Art Conversation and Networking Communities. | 9. The Japan Foundation. | 10. The Art Map. | 11. Film Festival. | 12. Developing Audiences. | 13. Screening Initiatives. | 14. SEAFIC: Fostering New Industry Talent. | 15. Changing Landscapes. | 16. Exhibition and Reception. | 17. Outdoor Screening with MAIIAM. | 18. An Interest in Electricity Generation. | 19. Urban Spaces and their Politics. | 20. Future Projects: A Continued Fascination with World War Two.
1. Introduction: Education and Early Career.
Som discusses her early training in painting and printmaking in Chaing Mai. Her desire to explore different techniques led to further studies in Leipzig, Germany. She then talks about her early experience with documentaries which led to investigating Mekong regions. Next, Som talks about working as a lecturer in Chiang Mai and how the introduction of film to a Thai Studies syllabus for American exchange students at Payap University led to larger scale public screenings in 2011.
2. Connections Between Mekong Region Practitioners.
Som suggests that, due to concerns surrounding the Mekong River, the river itself as subject matter is one of the main connections between practitioners working in the region. She describes some of the investment and developments in the region, in particular the construction of dams in China which is having a damaging effect on lower areas of the river. Som clarifies that most of the practitioners in the region work in television.
Som describes growing up in the older, nearby region of Lamphun City. The spaces here were an important part of Som’s childhood, and she recounts time spent outdoors. The conversation turns to the exponentially increasing rate of change that can be observed in the landscape, brought about by development and urbanization. Som talks about her interviews conducted with older generations, attempting to imagine and record their memories of the older days.
4. Chiang Mai Social Installation.
Som recounts her time assisting with the Chiang Mai Social Installation project during her studies in the city. This project facilitated the exhibition of local artists’ and senior students’ work in public spaces. Som credits this initiative for encouraging students like herself to realise their fullest potential, and for providing the basis on which the Government endorsed the founding of the Chiang Mai University Art Centre.
5. Studying Abroad and Changing Perspectives on Thailand.
Som compares her experiences of higher education in Chiang Mai and Leipzig. She notes the increased independence and flexibility with her studies in Germany and describes the feeling of being abroad for the first time. Som believes that people’s questions for and impression of her while abroad prompted her to interrogate her identity, making her aware of a feeling that she did not know her roots as well as she felt she should. This led to her travelling around Southeast Asia when she returned.
6. Travels around Southeast Asia.
Som recalls travelling to Ho Chi Minh City and Hue in Vietnam, and the relationships she built with artists while there. She talks then about living with the curator Gridthiya Gaweewong when she returned, and how this enabled her to form further connections.
7. Making Artistic Connections across Southeast Asia.
Som suggests that connections between artists across the Southeast Asia region is a more recent development. She gives the example of a performance art group, ASIATOPIA, whose touring around the region she believes helped introduce performance art and tools for expression to many audiences. She says that since then she has observed more support coming from governments and the private sector in the region.
8. Chiang Mai Art Conversation and Networking Communities.
Som discusses the founding of the Chiang Mai Art Conversation (CAC) collective in 2013. She talks about how both the CAC and The Japan Foundation at the same time were interested in networking practitioners in non-capital cities across the region, with an interest in the KUNCI Cultural Studies Centre in Jogjakarta particularly influencing Som to pursue this. Som describes the varying trends of artistic output in Bangkok and Chiang Mai, and how a lack of funding and media coverage outside of Thailand’s capital encouraged Chiang Mai artists to collaborate with non-capital cities in other Southeast Asian countries.
9. The Japan Foundation.
Som talks about her assistance in helping The Japan Foundation to establish an outfit in Chiang Mai, which initially proved to be difficult, but then led to the creation of a new space for practitioners to work. Som suggests that the first Art Map projects they organised attracted the attention of the Foundation.
10. The Art Map.
Som discusses in greater detail the Art Map project, which brought together various exhibition venues in Chiang Mai for a festival, organised for audiences as a map. In doing this, Som suggests it helped to consolidate Chiang Mai’s reputation as a cultural city, as well as raising the profile of some of the venues involved.
11. Film Festival.
Som returns to talking about the film festival that grew from the initial Payap University screenings. She believes that inviting a large number of filmmakers to talk led to the festival growing very big. There were particularly many filmmakers from Myanmar and Cambodia, including Min Htin Ko Ko Gyi and Kavich Neang. Som suggests that the presence of filmmakers from Myanmar helped to cultivate a large audience, as there is a significant Myanmar diaspora living in Chiang Mai, especially Shan people. Som recalls some of the topics discussed at the festival. For example, a talk on LGBT+ issues following a screening of Tanwarin Sukkhapisit’s Insects in the Backyard (2010).
12. Developing Audiences.
Som suggests the important impact of new festivals and screening initiatives is not so much in developing filmmakers, but in developing audiences. She talks about the large presence of European and American expats at the screenings and the notably older age of those in attendance. The facilities and equipment make screenings difficult, Som says, although she believes they are lucky not to have encountered government intervention yet.
13. Screening Initiatives.
Som suggests that the heightened political atmosphere in Thailand means that more people are enthusiastic to gather and have discussions, which these screening initiatives facilitate. She notes that certain filmmakers are also starting to develop followings.
14. SEAFIC: Fostering New Industry Talent.
In considering the idea of a regional cinema, Philippa asks Som about the role of the Southeast Asian Fiction Film Lab. Som talks about her interest in their projects and particularly the screenwriting, as she believes that the quality of screenwriting in the region is not as strong as other parts of the world. She further describes the training and experience offered by this initiative. There is discussion about the requirement to submit screenplays in English, which Som suggests is important to receive funding and make work more likely to be programmed in European and American festivals.
15. Changing Landscapes.
In considering the idea of space and landscape in her work, Som suggests that largely what many of her films attempt to do is to observe how sites have already and will continue to change. For example, My Grandpa’s Route Has Been Forever Blocked (2012) does this with the Ping River. Som describes a sense of urgency to film, to capture what might soon disappear.
16. Exhibition and Reception.
Som discusses the spaces in which her work has been exhibited and different exhibitions she has been invited to be a part of, including Riverscapes IN FLUX with the Goethe-Institut in 2012, SUNSHOWER in Tokyo in 2017, and the Gwangju Biennale in 2018. She discusses the audiences responses to food, water, and electromagnetic sounds in a recent screening.
17. Outdoor Screening with MAIIAM.
In more detail, Som describes an outdoor screening of work organized by Eric Bunnag Booth, the owner of the MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum. This event was called Noodles and the Wild Things and took place in February 2020. The setting was a plot of land he had recently bought surrounded by mountain views. Som describes the challenges in setting up this space for a screen and inviting a local noodle restaurant to cater as she often finds audiences quickly grow hungry after watching her documentary Taste of Noodles (2006).
18. An Interest in Electricity Generation.
Som discusses her explorations of energy and electricity generation in the works My Grandpa’s Route Has Been Forever Blocked (2012), When Need Moves the Earth (2014), and Ten Places in Tokyo (2016). She discusses the impact of dams on both the landscape and people’s lives. Som then talks about the ideas and research behind Ten Places in Tokyo, which she began working on in 2012. Influencing that work were both her awareness of weekly protests following the Fukushima Daiichi disaster in 2011 and a trip to Hiroshima which sparked interest in the atomic bomb, which Som views as linked issues. She discusses the symbolic disintegration of the black and white images in Ten Places in Tokyo and the importance of the exhibition space and lighting for these video projects.
19. Urban Spaces and their Politics.
Moving to focus on work which engages with urban spaces and themes, Som discusses the political contexts which shaped her two single-channel video works: Roundabout at km 0 (2017) and Unintentionally Waiting (2017). She relates the circles of the roundabout and the number zero to what she perceives to be the cyclical nature of the coups in Thailand. In discussing the second work, she is critical of the governments lack of practical consideration when developing infrastructure and the lacking distribution of finances beyond the capital city.
20. Future Projects: A Continued Fascination with World War Two.
Som discusses her continued interest in exploring what she perceives to be the insufficiently discussed history of Thailand in World War Two. She suggests this also related to changing landscapes of Thailand. Expanding on this, she returns to the interviews she conducted with elderly members of Thailand’s population. These interviews led to her discovering the fascinating life story of a Japanese photographer, working in the Second World War. She believes all these ideas will shape the content of her future work.
Phillipa and Jasmine then thank Som for sharing her experiences and insight.