New Zero Art Space
As Burma slowly transitions toward genuine democratic reforms in the judiciary and executive branches of government, artists and journalists have become litmus tests for the changes occurring in society. While subtle and sometimes not so subtle forms of censorship continue to plague print media, visual artists have seen their opportunities open up considerably. In the fall of 2013, I traveled to Burma to understand how visual artists address these new social realities through their personal works and community development programs.
At the invitation of Aye Ko, founder and executive director of New Zero Art Space in Yangon, I settled into the residency center, which features a gallery, living space, and an extensive library centered on Asian contemporary art. Most importantly, New Zero functions as a nexus for free art courses and cultural events. Aye Ko is a critically renowned performance artist and curator who works on projects throughout Asia and Europe and is determined to establish a new paradigm for contemporary Burmese art and education.
“I began New Zero Art Space to help build a community for contemporary art for the new generations of Burmese artists,” he explains. “I want these young artists to become an integral and connected part of the international art scene. It’s not going to happen for my generation. This is for them.”
I was graciously welcomed into the New Zero community and spent much of my time observing and listening. This is a community that does not allow itself to be consumed by the difficulties and absurdities of daily life in Burma. The artists who gather here are too busy making art, conducting workshops, and planning for a future where kindness, education, and community outreach will be the esprit de corps.
Most of the individuals I spoke with were new to the arts. They had discovered New Zero, attended a workshop, seen the possibilities, and adopted an artist nom de guerre for their new life in the arts. Among them was Haymann Oo, who first came to the program as an attendee in a series of curatorial workshops. She is now the director of community programs and education for New Zero.
Another, Yadanar, is an English teacher and performance artist with a passion for social change. “In my generation, the women have boundaries, both self-imposed and social structures,” she says. “I would like to work with women who are in trouble, who are in difficult circumstances: prison, mental health, and human trafficking. I had a delightful, normal childhood but I eventually realized a sense of being closed in. I see this so clearly when I speak with women. There is a sense of potential not even conceived, of women living within the artificial boundaries of society.”
The transformative power of New Zero demonstrates the truth, as expressed by one of the artists, Thyitar: “Suu Kyi cannot change my life. I have to change my life. In our society, too many people are afraid of this responsibility.”
With this emphasis on community engagement, I proposed a collaborative social practice project to investigate issues on transitioning to a civil society. I selected 29th Street as the focal point for its three very distinct sections of Upper, Middle, and Lower. The splendor of Burma’s multiethnic social fabric is ever present here, and many people seemed to welcome an opportunity for robust dialogue. Artists from New Zero set things in motion by introducing me to merchants and residents. I realized an additional team would be necessary for undertaking an immersive oral history of the neighborhood, and my lecture to a civics class at Stamford-City Business Institute provided a ripe opportunity for recruitment. A number of students enthusiastically volunteered, and the 29th Street Collective was born.
We took to the streets to undertake 29th Street Serenade (And Other Love Songs) the following day with my simple instructions: Engage anyone who interests you; never bring up politics or religion unless the interviewee mentions it first; stay casual. Fortunately, most everyone wanted to talk about politics, religion, and the government. Street vendors, coolies, publishers, barbers, sailors, repairmen, jewelers, cooks, healers, Muslims, and Buddhists filled our days with tales and imagery. We received blessings of poetry and multigenerational family sagas. Together, we discovered a highly diverse group of citizens who believe in unity and are optimistic that life will change soon, for the better, for everyone. Laughter was plentiful.
Outside the Cholia Darga Mosque, one person, Kyaw Lwin, captured the sense of community: “People are in unity here on the street, Chinese, Indian, Burmese. We have no conflicts here and I hold this unity, this bond in my heart. We are here to live peacefully. This street is like a family.”
Apartment buildings along 29th Street feature a classic method of communication and delivery services. Balconies have ropes tied with bells that hang down to street level. A tug on the rope announces your arrival. Household deliveries are hauled up one bag at a time. We used this system as a means of contacting residents on the upper floors of apartments. We drafted a manifesto in Burmese, clipped a copy to a rope, and sent it skyward. We watched with amusement as people read the treatise, looked down upon our merry troupe and waved us upstairs. This is how we met The Healer, who told us, “Everyone comes to me with their belief and I heal them all. There is no discrimination. I heal Buddhists, Muslims, Christians, Hindus. Everyone is welcome. We are all human.”
Development and Installation
This wealth of material necessitated a decompression period to process and investigate how to transpose the experiences into a visually dramatic public context, both at home and abroad (eventually we’d like to bring the work back to Burma). With that in mind, I outlined a series of goals for presenting 29th Street Serenade (And Other Love Songs) with an emphasis on low-cost and low-tech materials and processes, adaptability to diverse studio circumstances, ease of shipping, and ease of installation.
A fascination with light boxes became the point of departure. So the work was first installed in the large, west-facing windows of the Joann Cole Mitte building at Texas State University in San Marcos. The concept entailed having natural light illuminate the work inside the building during daylight hours. At night, lights from inside the building project the imagery outward toward the street. The interior architecture allowed for a dramatic first encounter looking up from the first-floor landing. Ascending the stairs to the second floor delivered the viewer directly in front of the installation.
Materials include legal-size transparencies run through a laser printer and mounted to large sheets of tracing paper. Each section of the installation is approximately four by six feet and contains roughly 60 transparencies. Digital formatting was the devil in the details. The textual content is from the interviews and student responses to a questionnaire regarding personal responsibility for a civil society. Sections are laid on top of one another, rolled, and transported in a tube.
I am indebted to Aye Ko, the artists at New Zero, students from Stamford-City Business Institute, project coordinator Soe Than, Meagan and Chase Henry, Texas State University, and the people of 29th Street, especially Daw Si Si Mar, a charcoal vendor, who elegantly stated her case: “I do the work that men refuse to do. They all want charcoal to cook with but they think it’s beneath their dignity to dirty their body like this. Look at my hands. They are more than beautiful. They support a family.”