24 JULY 2023
Ariana is as keen as I am, to learn from and with, our artistic and cultural community here in Thailand, and the region in which it rests. I was thrilled to receive her email seeking the possibility of working together and I’m excited (and thankful) to have both soundboard, co-researcher, co-writer and co-developer on board – for in-tangible has a number of exciting projects ahead!
Zoe Butt: I’m so looking forward to brainstorming why we do, what we do, with you! Thank you for wanting to be part of this in-tangible journey! You have been studying and working outside of Thailand for a while now. Can you share what you have been up to and why you are coming home?
Ariana Chaivaranon: I’ve been lucky to work in world-renowned museums and learn some of the best practices in the field. In Washington D.C., I became curious about what it means to serve a “national” audience and later moved to the Midwest of the US, an area many of the coastal folks glaze over in their mental map of the country. I turned my research toward questions of how art and museums shape narratives of belonging and citizenship. Thailand and the US were both forced to recognize the exclusions inherent in the concept of “nation” in 2020 with the Black Lives Matter movement in the US and the protests for democracy in Thailand. This question about nation-building led me to the Schwarzman Scholars program in China. For my dissertation at Tsinghua, I analyzed audience data gathered for the Palace Museum during the Zero Covid policy, finding significant overlaps in the preferences of respondents who identified as students and nationalists. I also worked with several museums to use data-driven strategies to deepen visitor engagement and understanding through texts and programs.
I kept publishing on the work of Thanom Chapakdee, Mit Jai Inn, Montika Kham-on, Jirat Prasertsup, Teerawat Mulvilai, Prakit Kobkijwattana, and others that advanced imaginative re/deconstructions of the “nation”. During a visit to Bangkok and Chiang Mai, I was floored by the collaborative, DIY energy of the community. The open generosity contrasted with some of my experiences in Beijing where weak intellectual property laws and censorship from all sides force many individuals and institutions to keep their guard up. I’ve come to see Thailand, and Southeast Asia more broadly, as the front lines of the ongoing negotiation over the future of the world order—of culture, the climate crisis, and the global economy, where such regionalism, to me, offers a partial antidote to the “nation”. When I became aware of your work spanning institutional strategic development and building global/local communities of artists and curators through in-tangible, I knew it was time to come home.
ZB: I am quite surrounded by artists who are also curating! Southeast Asia has taught me much in this regard. Contemporary art in this region has largely developed, in great thanks to their tenacity and brilliance in organizing art events, because ‘curating’ is not a generally understood profession. What made you turn your artistic endeavors to the world of curating? How do you see these two forms of creative thinking overlap?
AC: Yes, it seems many local folks (my bank teller, my neighbors…) have no idea what a “ภัณฑารักษ์ [curator]” does! For me, making art and an infatuation with art history were intertwined from an early age. My public high school didn’t have the resources for an art history class, so I established and taught a credited course for my peers. At Harvard, the Visual Environmental Studies Department (now Art, Film, and Visual Studies) has historical roots in theory and the study of the built environment, and I ended up taking as many courses in the History of Art and Architecture Department as I did studio courses. I particularly loved the courses geared toward doctoral students that bridged the two disciplines, such as Jennifer Roberts and Ethan Lasser’s Minding Making, or Professor Roberts and Matt Saunders’ Critical Printing. Through these courses and my museum work, I saw how my knowledge of materials and knack for visualizing the space-time dance of how an artist can make an object can offer a fresh perspective. In Kansas City, I found like-minded folks in my fellow board members of the artist-run curatorial collective “Plug”.
To me, these two forms of working feel as mutually constitutive as warp and weft, but the limitations of 24 hours per day and fear of judgment keep a lot of serious curators from becoming serious artists, and vice versa. Many of my dear friends who are curators make things in secret; we tend to be shy about our work because we know exactly how to eviscerate it. From the artist’s side, investment-savvy collectors have asked me how my curatorial work affects my object output, so I can understand why artists are closeted about their curating too.
ZB: What excites you about relocating to Chiang Mai to work with us at in-tangible?
AC: I still remember this analogy from one of the D.C. institution directors: “Our museum is like a battleship; mighty, and slow to change course.” By contrast, in-tangible, seeks a tight-knit team with on-the-ground projects, working to be agile and responsive to the innovations and needs of contemporary artistic communities. After working at the intersection of art, the nation, and global affairs, I’ve seen how quickly people can become unanchored from the human-scale of geopolitical realities. Historically, the artistic community in Chiang Mai, pulled the best of global contemporary art down from the sanctum and into the school, into the slaughterhouse (in, for example, the Chiang Mai Social Installation happenings of 1992 and 1994). in-tangible seeks to similarly work with such ethos, where the artistic rootedness in locality is inseparable from the urgency and relevance of their work in regional and international contexts. I’m so deeply excited to build together.
ZB: Can you share what you are currently researching / thinking about with your work?
AC: My recent writing examines how Thai contemporary artists deploy culturally potent symbols to re-image democracy, monarchy, and Buddhism in order to propose alternative futures for the country. I have an ongoing curiosity about Sino-Thai (agri)cultural exchanges as mediated through the political economy. Finally, I keep getting dragged back into conversations about AI, which I thought I left behind in 2018! Right now, I like steering these conversations into the ground, that is, into dirt, rhizomes, atoms, pig pens… I am spinning around the positionality of “under”. A question for you, however, you’ve directed several leading contemporary art spaces in Southeast Asia. How do you hope the projects and potentiality of in-tangible differ from and expand on your previous work?
ZB: Well, I directed two art spaces, both in Vietnam, and that political landscape taught me much. It prompted me to think hard about how artists survive under such censorship, and the only way, in my experience, is to develop a consciousness of ourselves as valid beyond the national sphere. I don’t wake up in the morning reminding myself that I am an Australian citizen; I have a responsibility to the planet! My work thus continues to tussle with the tension between what is deemed local and foreign by carrying out projects and initiatives in collaboration with international expertise and interdisciplinary knowledge. In founding in-tangible institute, I want to continue this study, but by focusing particularly on the relationship between artists and curators and its necessary support (intellectual and financial). There is a need for these three spheres of creativity to better understand each other’s motivations and desires in the interest of building a robust, responsive, and sustainable art ecology that understands the limits (benefits?) of where it is situated. So, via particular mentorship and educational programs, which may involve seminar programs, reading groups, residency, or long-term co-development of new artworks that result in exhibitions in particular sites, I hope in-tangible will offer a meaningful space of encounter with contemporary culture in Southeast Asia, in the interest of better understanding why we do what we do.
AC: The immature arts infrastructure of developing nations like Thailand can be a strength and a weakness. How do you face down the challenge of upholding international best practices in a local context with limited resources?
ZB: I perhaps would not say ‘immature’, but rather ‘disorganized’. The cultural knowledge across Thailand, indeed the Southeast Asian region, is rich and deep and has its own ways and means of circulation; but it often struggles to provide a comparative and contemporary understanding of itself from beyond its own shores. Sometimes yes, this disorganization means there is great room for innovation (ie. its lack of official regulation can afford responsiveness). However, on the other hand, it can mean the engagement of history and meaning of place and time with only local coordinates (due to poor local resources and little cultivated cultural memory). Upholding an understanding of ourselves from beyond our own purview, to me, is a necessary everyday human paradigm. Thus, to me, it is not so much about an ‘international best practice’ with my work, but rather how do I open up my eyes to other ways and means of getting things done and said, that may not be visible, that may not be ‘standard’, that may not have been considered, and to ask why. For me I rather ask how do I operate with integrity, care and openness? Sometimes what is deemed ‘international best practice’ can be a monopolization of neoliberal terms and processes that have little responsive care for the conditions of the local community.
AC: in-tangible aims to play an important role in bridging the art scenes locally, regionally, and beyond. What is your advice to international partners (i.e. museums, foundations, universities) who want to approach collaboration with locally rooted communities in an ethical and sustainable manner?
ZB: in-tangible institute is just beginning! But yes, I do hope that this little team can walk a path with our local cultural community here in Chiang Mai, to better understand our role in the world and the need to collaborate and learn with diverse partners; together. I’m a big proponent of the benefits of lived experience in advising how we do, why we do. And in that, I look for institutional and program partners eager to define progress by understanding our mutual impact and responsibility towards community and resources. For example, in commissioning an artist to make new work, do we ask if they have the needed people, expertise, time, funds and permissions to do what they want to do? What will be the impact of this work on the artist’s community? Will the work be showcased in the artist’s community? In terms of partnerships, I’m keen to build long-term programs that my regional community can look towards as a future opportunity. If art fairs and biennials can exist as a beacon of hope for artistic participation; how can museums, universities and private entities like in-tangible, work together to encourage knowledge sharing on a regular footing with equal hope and international benchmarking? I fear a future determined by AI in a vacuum of human bodies whose lived memories can, in my mind, never be substituted by technology! Thus, I think it crucial that we build cultural infrastructure with memory, in partnership, that cares for how our historical communities engage and overlap beyond the national understandings of past, present and future.
Ariana Chaivaranon is a Thai-born artist, curator, and museum professional. For the past decade, Chaivaranon has cultivated transformative connections between the public and globally renowned art collections, including the U.S. National Gallery of Art, the Beijing Palace Museum, UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, The Nelson Atkins Museum of Art, Harvard Art Museums, and The Frick Collection. Chaivaranon’s scholarship on Thai contemporary art and museum practice appears in publications including MoMA (NY) Post, NUS (Singapore) Southeast of Now, UNSW (Sydney) Di’van Journal, and Randi Korn & Associates. Chaivaranon has worked with artists including Rirkrit Tiravanija, Tania Bruguera, Jeffrey Gibson, and Lee Mingwei on projects that center activism and community. Chaivaranon’s work has been exhibited at H&R Block Artspace, the Charlotte Street Foundation, and Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts. Chaivaranon holds a B.A. from Harvard University in Art, Film, and Visual Studies and Art History, as well as a Masters in Global Affairs from Tsinghua University, Schwarzman College.