“A coup d'état in Myanmar began on the morning of 1 February 2021, when democratically elected members of the country's ruling party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), were deposed by the Tatmadaw—Myanmar's military—which then vested power in a military junta.” – Wikipedia
Myanmar has been under military coup since early 2021.
In late 2021, The British Council opened a call to apply for it’s Connections through Culture SE Asia arts grant initiative including Myanmar for the first time. Having witnessed the dismay of young people, and anyone with their own sense of identity or self expression in the country being repressed by this new rendition of the regime, and feeling the despair as young protesters were shot, and the steps the country had taken forward in to democracy were suddenly erased, made me feel a need to act.
The conditions the project started in were also during the final stages of anxiety surrounding covid 19. We had time and space to think, and the conditions in Myanmar were still, although absolutely charged, relatively operable in terms of being able to organise meetings online, and for the artists involved at the Myanmar side to organise and create. By now (July 2022) this has become far more challenging with electricity available only for 6 hours maximum a day, and the cost of using the internet through your phone being out of reach for constant connectivity. Public services are none existent, schools are shut, people can not work, banks are closed. The new status quo of Myanmar, is virtually now a failed state.
We wanted to create a 2 part multi-disciplinary project based on collaboration and exchange between artists based in the UK, and Myanmar. We slightly expanded our original brief, incorporating artists who were involved with Phantom Limb, but not necessarily from the UK - although 99% were. Artists were to create some visual art works, to elicit a sound response. Some would choose visual scores, some would create films, some would propose installations. Some works were completely original, and some were adaptations of existing works, and continuations of already established practices. Myanmar artists (all from Noise in Yangon collective) made works for UK artists to create sound for, and UK artists would create works for Myanmar artists to respond to. Phase 1 is complete, and phase 2 is still in the works. Phase 2, is to conclude with IRL performances over 2 nights in Southampton, featuring the UK artists in performance, and if possible the Myanmar artists too by live video link up, or playback, or IRL if they happen to be n Europe when we finally schedule the concerts.
Through our work as a booking agency, I had met many artists from SE Asia, and a Japanese vinyl archivist who was absolutely obsessed with Myanmar, and it’s cultures. He had written a book about the history of vinyl in Myanmar; which if you are interested in such things, is obviously a pretty niche publication. Through his research and writing, he had met the members of an experimental music collective called Noise in Yangon. It was my good fortune to have become acquainted with NiY through my contact, because as soon as we were introduced I realised I had uncovered a group who had not yet received any exposure in the West.
Through one contact alone, I met with the lead protagonist of Noise In Yangon. After one conversation, we confirmed the collaboration. There was an abundance of motivation, creativity and intention from our first meeting right up until today. The members of NiY know what they were doing. They shared with me videos of their jam sessions, featuring electric cello, noise, incredible compositions using morse code and traditional instruments being used in conjunction with methods resulting in complete, long form, fantastic current compositions. Current compositions. Shot in HD. Some had studied in Singapore, some had studied and practiced in Germany. Members ran residencies for learning and dialogue in Yangon (https://www.uthanthouse.org/), and to me, represented the most exciting prospect a booking agent could stumble upon. I wanted to get projects moving, represent them in the UK/EU and find ways for us to facilitate exchange, collaboration, and performances.
So far, we have managed only one part of this project. The aim was to work with multi-disciplinary works, and collaborations. This way, we could make work that was more permanent than a one off concert, or online performance, and they would be able to be presented online, visually, as a core part of the work… not just ‘visuals to music’, but core to the work, necessitating the visual element. The idea was for artists from Myanmar and UK to create visual artworks, and for collaborators, to provide sound, as a response, in exchange. The sound/music was to be created in response to the visuals, and the partner in the partner country to create the response. I proposed to setup an exhibition in a gallery space, in Southampton where I live. I wanted to use it as an extra dimension to give that permanence I mentioned, as well as a sort of meta-intention of ‘art as reparation’ noting that in fact it was in Southampton (well, Romsey) that 1st Earl Mountbatten of Burma lived.
I reached out to a number of artists in the UK to take part. To my amazement, they all said yes. Perhaps this was because it was a funded project, and for performing artists in late 2021, the chips were down, and nobody was working (playing experimental festivals or getting booked for shows) because concert venues were closed, and travel was impossible. But I in fact, I believe this is due to the subject matter, and the intentions of members of the experimental communities to make decisions based largely on the essential nature of the projects proposed to them. We assimilated proposals and commissioned works from Apartment House’s Anton Lukoszevieze, Kim Macari, head of Music at Southampton University’s Ben Oliver, and multi-disciplinary sound designer Miedo Total. All the Myanmar works were to be provided by Noise in Yangon, which was a community of musicians, artists, organisers, collaborators and educators, active in the city of Yangon, creating installation works, live performance pieces, which were by nature of a completely unique and revelatory vitality I had not witnessed for many years.
My intention involving UK artists with some level of artistic profile and repute, was to help use this as a way of leveraging interest in the project, and bring some attention to the Myanmar artists’ works. I didn’t want to tow the ‘wow isn’t Myanmar exotic’ line, I wanted to find genuine interest for their work and showcase it on its own strengths. It was insightful to me, that the Noise in Yangon collective, created artworks which far out did their British counterparts in scale of ambition, and presence, in real space. Counterintuitively to what you would expect – they went for installations of scale, and size, physical pieces which effect you, even though they were in Myanmar, and the exhibition was to be in Southampton. I abided their requests. I was fortunate enough to be involved with the amazing SoCo Music Project (as a result of the pandemic reorganisation of creative sector) – through them I had become more confident in creating projects, applying for funding, and getting my foot in the door around the city. God’s House Tower was the perfect setting for the exhibition, and the gallery staff were fundamental in guiding me through the process of setting up an exhibition which is something I had never done before.
The reaction to the exhibition has been fantastic, with up to 100 people coming in each day. Of course, with all the global catastrophes since, it does seem as though the situation in Myanmar has floated out of vogue within the public frame. This is what we were aiming to create a space for – for people to feel, for people to think, and reflect on narratives that did not exist within the mainstream frame of reference. I hope we achieved that, even if only for a moment. The next phase of the project, is to organise the performances at a venue still TBC in Southampton. We’ll need funding, and we’ll need some more time… everything is delayed… but everything is in progress…
Our intention remains to build a persistent collaboration resulting in the creation of new recorded works, live performances, and eventually, to invite interpretations of the artworks by other artists, to keep the innovation alive, to keep some semblance of permanence in the spirit of resistance, and in the hope that one day some freedoms return to life in Myanmar.
- Andy Halliday