Turning media activism into art with curator Keiko Sei in Myanmar

Writer, curator and media art teacher Keiko Sei talks about bringing power to the people.

Can media art change the world? Japan’s Keiko Sei explains to Art Radar the medium’s potential for political activism, and discusses why she believes Southeast Asia’s artists must use creativity to circumvent oppression.

Film workshop, 2013.

A Keiko Sei film workshop in Myanmar, 2013.

For my entire life I have been fighting authority, so I don’t want to be an authority figure myself.

A short yet strong statement from Keiko Sei, an activist and a lecturer in media art and independent media currently based in Myanmar and Bangkok. Over a decade spent in Europe and Asia, Sei has maintained a belief in liberating media technology and its infrastructures, setting media free from its preset use and consumption. She highlights the need to enter new territory, to disturb the functions of technology and develop new media possibilities for activism.

Sei’s interest in media art began during her university studies in Japanese Literature, when she ran an independent media outlet in Tokyo and wrote her thesis on the relationship between literature and the moving image. “In Japan, people are overwhelmed by media,” Sei explains. “All kinds of media are available, but they actually don’t know much about how to do [things] with information.”

After university, Sei became interested in the ways in which people in other countries are restricted in how they use media, so she started to look at the case of Eastern Europe. “I started with people who use media to change society or government, or to provide more accurate news, because at that time [Eastern European] media was widely manipulated.”

Film workshop, 2009.

A Keiko Sei film workshop, 2009.

Times of transition in Europe and Asia

At the end of the 1980s Sei relocated from Japan to Eastern Europe. At that time, the Romanian Revolution, one of the historical changes of 1989, occurred. Sei points out that “[the] Romanian revolution was very important – people were yearning for a decent media. It has become a legendary story.” However, in the same year back in her homeland, another historical transition also took place.

“I missed an important transition in my country, the death of the emperor. It was a chance to observe how people can figure out the way to live without God.” Sei went back to mark the death of Hirohito in January 1989. “He actually died the previous month, but the official announcement was made when people were well-prepared; only after that was the emperor allowed to die. It was just after the New Year celebration.”

Sei outlines the relevance of these social transitions to her academic and curatorial development: “There are different models of transition; they can be political or social. How people deal and accept that transition, they have to find their own way.”

Design workshop, 2012, focusing on publication design.

Design workshop focusing on publication design, 2012.

In 2002, she relocated to Southeast Asia and based herself out of Myanmar and Thailand. Sei noticed that media control in Southeast Asia differed from Eastern Europe.

In the Soviet regime, everything had to be approved by the authorities. But in Southeast Asia the knowledge was out there, information was available, [but] the internet was banned. People could find the way to use it anyway, but it’s tragic that people knew about democracy but they didn’t have it. People are surrounded by junk, and they don’t know how to tune or use for their own benefit.

This lack of useful media education led Sei to set up a workshop project in Myanmar called “Mushroom Hunter”. She promoted cultural education with people there, showed films and encouraged people to discuss what they saw. “As I said, the information was there, and people saw in the points, but the discussion was absent. That was something new.”

Making art in difficult circumstances

Sei also founded the Myanmar Moving Image Centre, which is in fact not a physical centre but a virtual organisation. In 2011, under the name Wathann Film Festival, the centre launched the first film festival in Myanmar, right at the time of political transition.

We started when there was censorship, so we had to send everything to the censorship board. Two years ago, the censorship board would come in the morning of the [festival’s] opening day, and we had to give them food. If they took some of our work it would have been a disaster. This is the way that Myanmar artists had to learn to manage.

Despite political oppression, artists in Myanmar are politically active and “are very good at creating artworks in limited circumstances. In a limited situation, you have to use more imagination,” Sei explains.

Wathann filmfest 2 (2012): this film festival is started by the workshop participants and the students that study at FAMU (Czech national film school) with our grant, the first independent film festival in Myanmar.

Wathann filmfest 2012, started by Sei’s workshop participants and the students that study at FAMU (Czech national film school). The event is the first independent film festival in Myanmar.

Performance art is an important form of communication in Myanmar. There is a reason why these artists have played an outstanding part in the country’s political movement, says Sei.

[A] characteristic of performance art in many parts of Asia is that the body is not supposed to be one’s own property, but to be a deity’s. Therefore, performance provided people an opportunity to retain themselves. In a performance, artists can maximise their body to express freedom. Also, performance art is a cultural record, so it’s hard for governments to crack [down on] it. They don’t really know about performance art. When performance artists got arrested, it was never about the content but for being naked, or something [similar].

Referring to a recent international performance art festival in Myanmar, Sei claimed that “the board just asked artists not to give them any trouble (…) totalitarianism is a real comedy, it doesn’t make any sense.”

Going beyond Myanmar’s “democratic illusion”

Despite the activism of performance artists and the increasing access to information in many countries in Southeast Asia, particularly Myanmar, Sei asserts that perhaps the social transition is less profound than people believe it to be.

Social networks have created the huge illusion that people can engage with the world. I don’t think [people] are using media effectively. Myanmar people are addicted to Facebook which is a democratic illusion, because they are actually becoming part of commodity. It’s pseudo-independent media. Education-based media is missing, people don’t want to go deeper.

Sei sees her role in Myanmar as providing cultural and media education, introducing people to the visual literacy and critical abilities ultimately essential for a political change. As education is never a one-way process, she has also learned from encountering people, coming to the view that art is the best sphere in which diversity and possibility can be envisaged. Or, as she says in her own words, “we need art not in the usual way (…) I want to include art in society, to legitimise free space. Art must work closely with society.”

Judha Su

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Related Topics: Art in Myanmar, new media art, film, performance art, art and activism

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