Why Digital Matters: Recap of 8th World Summit on Arts & Culture, Kuala Lumpur 2019
I'm driving into KLPAC, but I remember this as Strachan Road.
I cycled here as a little girl. A pink bicycle. I remember not wanting the extra tiny balancing wheel on each side.
Malayan Railways steam engine train at the Batu Caves stop - Probably in the 1970's. Photo Credit: Vijaya Kumar Ganapathy, member of Nostalgic Peninsular Malaysia Facebook Group
The trees here have witnessed me grow.
And I too, have sensed their roots deepening into this Nusantara land. They are growing tall, providing an oasis of green calming hue. It brings back a balance to Kuala Lumpur's neon-cityscape.
What else have these trees seen? Before me, besides me?
What a twist of fate - this land has now become a beacon of performing arts in Malaysia, known as the KLPAC.
But many are oblivious of the 113-year-old Sentul Depot pre-war history.
"Seen as a vital rail complex for the Japanese occupiers during WWII, Sentul Depot was heavily bombed by British B-29 bombers. The workshops were partially rebuilt but never regained their former prominence as the biggest and finest integrated engineering in the world. It employed as many as 5,000 railway workers in its heyday."
It also used to be a Malayan Railways (KTM) living quarters.
My aunt and her family used to live here in the 80’s, in one of those crafted wooden kampung houses. Built for the KTM managerial staff, it used to be the right side of this road, but demolished 25 years ago.
Offices were on left, painted white – hiding the timber’s deep brown earthy shade. I remember colonial buildings further down the road. But I was never allowed to go explore those places as a child.
Photo Credit: YTL Holdings
World Summit on Arts & Culture,by the International Federation of Arts Councils and Culture Agencies (IFACCA): Why Don’t I Belong Here?
You see, I’m not part of a big cultural organization, nor the government.
I’ve never had a say in policy-making in the arts.
Pfth, I only understood the functionality of an arts council recently.
ANCER held an Arts Policy, Cultural Democracy and Artist Communities conference in University Malaya two months ago. Kudos to the team for conducting the event before this summit. It brought the rest of us Malaysians, up to speed.
And well, it’s quite obvious I don’t have 20 years’ worth of experience either.
But instead of feeling like an outsider, I claimed my rightful space to be part of the summit. My childhood rooting in the venue, assured me that I'm meant to be here all along.
I sat down in the auditorium. Right behind.
As we're all waiting for the keynote speech, I’m feeling uneasy. Colleagues have been sharing their sentiments on social media about the summit.
I’m not sure what to feel.
I triggered me. It deepened the feeling of hopelessness.
Because, what can I do?
Malaysia’s Tourism Minister: “There are No Gays in Malaysia”
Everyone in the room was aware of Ketapi’s controversial statement, which made international news, a week before the summit.
Many foreign ministers and governmental officials boycotted this summit because of this statement.
It must have angered Ketapi when Karima Bennoune addressed his remark, as part of her keynote speech. She repeatedly mentioned out Lesbian, Gays, Bi-sexuals, Transgender and Queer people. Validating the LGBTQ community existence in Malaysia.
Ketapi’s body language was showing discomfort. He seemed reluctant to shake hands with her on stage. But he managed to keep it civil and acknowledged her quickly, before leaving.
What surprised me, was Fahmi Fadzil’s body language when he was moderating Kareema’s session after.
He kept looking at his watch while Kareema was speaking, restless.
When he received the report from Kareema, he made it clear that it's on the previous ruling government. He had nothing to do with it. Instead of owning accountability, he did what all politicians do best – ‘tai chi’ the blame.
Bukan salah aku.
“Move faster, I’m already late to go back to the Parliament!”
Fahmi says out loud on the microphone, in Malay. Only the locals understood. I’m sure this recently elected Member of Parliament, has so much on his plate to leave with such urgency. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.
While reporting, the media chose to stay on the fence. They picked up Kareema’s statement on Mak Yong – enough to be controversial, but let’s not push it too much, ey?
Hey IFACCA, “Do Words have Meaning Outside This Auditorium?”
Kathy Rowland finally addressed the while elephant in the room, on the last day. How are we having IFACCA’s World Summit on Arts & Culture here in Malaysia, while things are pretty ugly outside?
I discussed this with international delegates over one-on-one conversations.
Some said, I was being too idealistic. To expect a foreign body to interfere into the governance of the local politics. A sentiment represented by organizations, where I understand the need to be diplomatic.
The traffic officers who escorted international delegates to the venue, won them over. Privilege. If only they understood the local's frustration when they have to "respectfully" give way.
Others offered a sincere listening ear and empathy. This came from leaders who placed artists at the heart of their organization.
Photo Credit: CENDANA
Cultural Rights: “Are we having the right conversations?”
Karima said arts and cultural rights and practices aren’t a luxury. It is oxygen to the human spirit. Some key points raised during her speech and the Q&A that followed:
1. Defending human rights – is arts & culture for the elite? How are we getting people to understand what we mean?
2. Artists are the ones who are pushing the boundaries. But why are they rarely studied or recognized? How do we acknowledge them as cultural & human right defenders?
3. How are we understanding the challenges in diversity? For example, differently-able artists are still seen as charity, not as professionals. How can we change this?
It was inspiring to hear Kareema on stage. You may download her report addressing the challenges for cultural rights in Malaysia.
National Arts Council: The grass isn’t greener on the other side!
When I heard Saba Khalid from Pakistan, I thought she stole words from me. Every sentence resonated. Every point raised was so familiar. We have been working on the same issue, in different parts of the world. We both dealing with suppressed brown sentiments.
Saba Khalid's work is recognized by the BAFTA awards. It gives me hope, as a practitioner, an aspiration to look forward too.
But it was Basma El Husseiny’s video statement, that brought a hard grounding effect.
She voiced out the contradiction between advances in technology. Yes, it helps more artist get a wider reach, while supporting freedom of expression. But there are ring-winged extremists who are controlling and restricting the environment.
She further emphasized her statement about disparity. Not everyone have equal access to technology. Due to root causes such as the war and economic exploitation.
Keynote Provocation: Human Rights in The Digital Age
Ashkan Fardost would have won the best presenter award, if this summit had such things. He was engaging and enthusiastic. Very Tedx-ey. Don’t get me wrong, I love Ted Talks, I’m guilty of giving those speeches myself.
The problem though, that it’s always general. It’s hard to grasp anything tangible out of it. This summit wasn't a general audience, it was industry-specific. I thought he spent too much time explaining the big grand ideas, and didn't quite get down to specifics.
But, the panel discussion that followed his speech brought out plenty of interesting points.
"Attention" as a Cultural Problem
Discussed by James William, who’s currently a philosopher in Oxford after his gig in Google. The case he presented was similar to Matthew Crawford, "The World Beyond Your Head". Stating that the act of paying attention is one’s personal resource that has been taken for granted.
“Distractibility might be regarded as the mental equivalent of obesity” Crawford attempts to visualize the intensity of this problem, while defending that the digital age is not the only reason to blame our mental fragmentation.
But we are becoming more alike, creating a mono-cultural society - how do we then find the world beyond our head?
While Crawford encourages radical self-responsibility, William wants us to invest more into more tech criticism. He elaborates that we must understand the nuances, emphasizing it’s not only about the negatives. It's the same way our arts industry needs literary critics, to keep it healthy.
Photo Credit: Tae Yoon Choi
Code of Conduct
Tae Yoon Choi, a programming artist who beliefs in code of conduct, not merely digital programming codes.
The people who built the internet are concerned about the state of the digital world now, he adds.
“Electronic circuit boards are like little cities”, he says.
He is humanizing computers, by making them into works of art. He urges us to reconsider the commercialization of digital networks.
Cultural & Art Practitioners: Collaborating Beyond Self-Interest
My opinion? We need to have conversation about creative economy, and the tools practitioners are currently using.
1. The Art of Asking: Crowdfunding Platforms for the Creative Economy.
The World Bank reported that the crowdfunding investment market is projected to hit $93 billion by 2025. “The potential size of developing world crowdfunding would represent 1.8 times global venture capital investments.”
While I thought Australia has one of the leading policies when it comes to Community Arts and Cultural Development, this article argues even their efforts are heading in the wrong direction. So, could crowdfunding represent the future for artists?
Photo Credit: Sketch Post, by British Council
2. Digital conversations – How are Communities Forming?
I’m disappointed we didn’t address formation of digital art communities that are empowering grass root artists and promoting cultural exchange.
Doodle Malaysia, a simple Facebook group that a few friends and I have been administrating, has exponentially grown in the recent years, to host 12,000 members today.
I replied Charis, that we need not be bothered trying to fit into their old forms of structure. One day, they will be looking for content when merely having "blue chip" gallery artists won't be enough to grow.
She added “And when that day comes, folks would probably be so used to having a global audience for their work that a local institution's interest wouldn't mean much. It's already happening with the current generation of comics artists and illustrators.”
Arts & Culture in The Digital Age: Inability to connect?
If Van Gogh was alive today, would he be famous? Chances are, no. Because of digital algorithm, argues Anette Novak, a representative from Swedish Media Council.
She goes on to explain why we can’t even protest for cultural and human rights, when we can’t detect online censorship.
The Cleaners is a brilliant documentary to watch about censorship in social media. Internet moderators that control what we see online, turns into a manifesto against the internet itself.
Trigger warning, this documentary can leave you quite disturbed.
General reaction towards technology stirred up end-of-the-world fear among the delegates. I’m not sure why. If we look back in history, we’ve always been fearful of change.
But, I’m a firm believer that digital is just a tool. A double-edged tool. We can create beautiful works of art that are politically correct. Help the humanity. It's also very possible to create material to brainwash towards extremism. Like the pen. Or, the brush.
It is ultimately dependent on users driving this technological force.
Let’s get rid of the old school top-down and bottom-up approaches.
Do we dare make this conversation more linear?
For a serious attempt to reach diversity and accessibility; open up the summit in digital formats. Invest in hosting webinars, so global practitioners can tune into this conversation. No, not this Youtube Live Feed that was barely engaging the audience.
Create live chat sessions. Invest in the system.
This will encourage more lateral conversations. It increases the possibility to network without hierarchy. And breaks the limitation of physical space and time.
“Good people who want to do the right things, who don’t speak up is more crushing than any oppressive law” - Kathy Rowland.
Towards the end of the summit, the agency given back to each individual to create change.
For me, the summit provided confidence. That my understanding of the digital space is at par with a global perspective. I found assurance that there is future for developing my career, and there is space for my ideas. I wouldn’t have gained this is confidence on my own.
I’m grateful for the opportunity to connect with light workers across the globe.
Notice, I didn’t say networking. It's never about the number of name cards you collect. I don’t even believe in printing name cards (because well, you can Google me).
I’ve done my best to invest in creating grass root change to empower women with my project, ANTIDOTE.
I understand my limitations as an independent creative professional. I acknowledge the threat that comes with the voices I’m providing a platform for.
I’ve been warned to not take anything beyond my power. But I’m willing to go to the limits of it.
How about you?