The Malaysian Cultural & Artistic Landscape: Moving Forward

First published on TheDailySeni

A few Mondays ago, Suzy Sulaiman wrote an opinion piece on the Malaysian Art Scene inspired by the call of the petition for the newly elected Malaysian Government to reform the jurisdictions and establish an Arts & Culture Ministry instead of being mashed together with The Tourism Ministry.

The whole write-up is a pretty good read and the petition is in hindsight sounds like a good idea, I mean I signed it but I wasn’t too convinced. I felt the movement was a necessary optimistic delusion and the blog post was slightly too much intellectual masturbatory with references and quotations (which I will do exactly the same here) but nevertheless I agree with her cautionary tale.

The same day I read the post, I was also asked on the relevancy of Cultural Institutions such as CENDANA to the current market and how to improve their engagements and initiative with the ever-growing creative communities and add more value to the arts and culture of Malaysia. Thus is this long ass introspection essay.

But who the fuck am I? Unlike Suzy Sulaiman who is actually a well-recognized figure in the industry with educational backgrounds far beyond my own with experiences that demands respects. Or William Harald Wong who called for the petition is too a well-known designer and creative director of an established agency.

I am just Mr Nobody in comparison.

See while these big brothers and sisters were studying and working their asses off to get where they are now, I was just a high school graduate who came into age of legality in the dawn of Najib’s regime. It was shitty time after the recession and I came from a middle class family, so i had to hustle instead of taking loans and government handouts cause I learn quickly the meaning of debts and the chains of the contract. Basically I am a smart ass Millennial. We are your customers and the future, deal with it.

Like most Millennials in my generation, I seek gratification in a non-normative career. I seek a place to explore my curiosity of this world. I seek a place to express my creativity without judgement, controls or limitations. I seek changes and cultural revolution to fix the current social and economic dissatisfaction we are facing in these modern times. And that is when I found Minut Init.

 

Minut Init as a Hub of Counter-Culture

Minut Init wasn’t always a Dan Flavin flavoured cyberpunk-ish art social space as it was before the unexpected closure due to unforeseeable circumstances of our lifestyle being in complete opposite of the warranted narrative of the previous government. When I first stumble upon Minut Init, it was still in its infancy. It was still a small office space that assimilate the original infrastructure of the previous training centre that acts like a canvas for the curators/artists to create an environment where “the audience are made comfortable in order to have an easier understanding of the arts instead of the traditional galleries where the overwhelming arts often creates a sense of social detachment and barrier”[1].

It was my great pleasure to learn and grow with the founders and my mentors, Dali A. Azis and James Ly as we build their vision.  It was not only my passion in the Arts that made me solemnly swear my oath of fealty towards these Men but mainly because of their own manifesto in approaching their most ambitious art project, Minut Init. Their intentions of making Minut Init, the ultimate melting pot of artistic expression without discrimination or censorship has made the establishment’s administration and  decision-making process heavily focused on its philosophical and spiritual repercussions rather than just public exposure or monetary gains.

In a country where the rights to freedom of speech is restricted with observant eyes, they have given me the space to explore any and every topic of interest from sociopolitical rights movements of sexual liberty to the theoretical nature of class-consciousness in the form of art exhibitions and have given me the guidance to make a more informed conclusions to my research. They have groomed me to become a cultural entrepreneur just like them. Something I could not have learned from a higher education institute in Malaysia where the system primarily focused on profiting from their students through unnecessary loans.

The secretary of culture in the Dutch administration, Rick van der Ploeg (1999) defined a ‘cultural entrepreneur’ as someone who masters the following two faculties [2]:

  • To possess knowledge of, and sensitivity towards, the arts and creative processes, [possibly combined with] the ability to spot creative talents.
  • To possess knowledge and comprehension of potential public and marketing techniques.

With this definition, The Founders of Minut Init have managed to train me to understand the value creation  from my social interactions with the local and international artistic communities and develop cultural capitals through the management of events/exhibitions/workshops for positive social and individual impact. For 6 years, I have learned from the basic labour operations to the aesthetic decision makings. I have help built a space for social discourse and managed events to celebrates such talents found in Malaysian society.

Unlike most gallery owners and managers who enter the Art market from a corporate world who are experienced with the skill sets of business management and the analytical research of the industry’s landscape, Minut Init was run by artists for artists. We didn’t start with a comfortable financial capital but rather a huge database of networks and relationships with other members of the artistic value chain.

Since we were one of the earliest independent art spaces in Kuala Lumpur, we grew strong from our reputations in the creative communities that has become a more effective branding strategy while staying true to it’s underground roots. With the advent of popular social media usage among younger generation, the local creative industry slowly flourish and Minut Init has evolved  to a widely known name that has gone broadly unchallenged for the last 6 years because of the absence of major competitors. Most of the necessary skills from the managerial standpoint was learned through practice and not just in theory as we were growing along with the new ignition of creative industry. Our curatorial decisions have become a natural process.

Minut Init has grown from an experimental social space from a bunch of conceptual artists collective and become more than just an institution or an agent in an emerging market. We are more than just a platform for creative communities to interact and showcase their talents. We have become a meticulously curated little pocket universe where the environment permits and encourage exchanges of idea and formulation of new visions from the sparks of social interactions between the artists. It is a unique space that holds the dualism of for-profit endeavor and a non-profit structure, trying to fund our non-profit activities through the commercial necessities. At times, the gallery has and will engage in loss-making ventures but these actions are not at complete loss since it nourishes the gallery indirectly. This duality is a tricky balance that is an ongoing challenge which Minut Init has to overcome in order to achieve it’s mission.

 

Now all this Ego-stroking is good and all but how does it relate to anything?

Well, Minut Init is the perfect example of what Suzy Sulaiman is saying. When there is lack of engagement from the country’s cultural institutions with the local communities, out of such vacancies the independent spaces will mushroom from the excessive pool of talented creatives. And these spaces will be better focused on the human elements of such industries and view Art in the whole grand scale picture of ideologies and philosophies. Minut Init is not alone in this. It is just one of the earlier ones and that I had personal experience with but as a Malaysian Youth who just a big nerd for the Arts, it was amazing to see new creative communities popping up everywhere for the last few years.

The dynamics of the visual and fine arts market in Malaysia is small in comparison. Although there is a fast growing interests of audience, unfortunately their purchasing power is weak due to the lower disposable incomes living underneath the economic state of our country. The ratio of the cultural capital producers over the consuming market that still holds onto the perception of artistic goods as merely a disposable investment of luxury has made it harder for Art Spaces to just survive instead of thriving like how we should. But all this should be changing with the newly elected government as suggested by Suzy Sulaiman in her cautionary essay.

Personally I believe to truly overcome this obstacle we would have to look at other nation’s creative markets and learn a new approach to creating a cultural capital that would not only profitable and beneficial in both short term and long term stability but also help protect and sustain this emerging creative ecosystem. And for me, Berlin is the perfect place to do so.

 

A Quick Study of Berlin’s Art Landscape

Hikayat Nusantara @ NON Berlin (2016)

Aside from being Europe’s Art Capital for Countercultures is because the environment in this amazing city not only have a great sense of appreciation of the aesthetic but rewards those businesses that creates cultural and social changes in more than just financial benefits. The ecosystem of Berlin feeds the right kind of incentives to keep the city filled with endless rows of galleries and artistic endeavours.

Berlin is one of the most progressive and unique blend of artistic landscape that captivated my attention from the rest of Europe due to it’s heavy lean on street culture. My first few exposure of Arts in Germany photographs of The Berlin Walls with the writing of “Freedom” adorned with endless graffiti. That to me was Germany’s Art in action. Deutsch artists protesting the divide of old ideologies with the 80’s Basquiat-like urban juvenile vandalism. Though I cannot claim the act of vandalism was the cause of the wall’s demise but the constant reminder of free speech that these unknown street artists surely impacted the cultural views of such an archaic methods of social control.

Berlin is no secret to many creative thinkers. How the environment of such a place allows for such amazing stories and cultural tropes is beyond just reading the stats and reviews of the creative market. There is something in the Deutsch culture that promotes this and preserve this part of it’s society. From what I have understood from my own research in Berlin is that it is a city where the balance of commercialization and aesthetic integrity has a good compromise and the compensation for innovative and creative products are substantial enough to keep sustaining the culture.


You see, Berlin is not Germany. It is a country of its own. Art Landscape wise you can split Berlin into three different segments. The West Berlin is what happens when you allow full capitalistic approach towards Art with support from the cultural institutions for commercialization and gentrification efforts, a little Singaporean for my taste – too sterile. Then there is The Central Berlin, this is where all the professional and intellectual creative and cultural institutions are at, I did my curatorial residency/internship here. It’s a good mix of approaches but sometimes a little elitism at certain degree. But the Central is an important part of the peace in Berlin. It is a place where new ideas can be trained and educated but at the same time it is also the place where the cookie cutters are applied. My favourite has gotta be The East Berlin. This is the section of the rebels with the wars between the squatting punks and the gentrification units. There is plenty of clans there but somehow all united against the corporate hands. In many ways very similar to the new Malaysian Art Scene except they know their Rights and fight to protect them while we’re wondering if we even have Rights and since when does that even helped us out.

Malaysia has the same sort of landscape with the exception that our Capitalist Upper Class part tend to feel like a Mafia run style with endless backdoor connections and our East Berlin side is still a young beast that love fighting one another due to the competitive nature of the teen angst of the industry. Our Central Berlin however is unfortunately wasn’t concrete enough to connect these two sides but hey there has been valiant efforts in recent years, so I’ll stay optimistic. That’s why I signed the petition sent forth by William Harald Wong. Even Though I am certain that all government positions will be corrupted. It’s about time we have a Ministry of Arts & Culture which hopefully will not be a hand of censorship but rather a booster for the landscape. It is a tricky thing to have such an authoritative agency but I have faith in my fellow Malaysians to be too lazy to be corrupted. And I know unlike Germans we are not really good in taking orders and any indoctrinations would be a sloppy copy.

This is where I disagree with Suzy Sulaiman. Education should be the main focus for the Ministry of Arts & Culture but it is should not be the main focus for Cultural Institutions. For the sake of clarity and based on my own personal research. I categorize as such :

The Malaysian Creative & Cultural Landscape

1 – Government Institution : the proposed Ministry of Arts & Culture alongside with other institutions such as Aswara, National Visual Art Gallery and other arts and culture government bodies. Outlets for Educational programmes and aids/platforms for workshops.

2 – Cultural Institutions : the government/private investments arms such as My Creative Ventures, CENDANA, GeorgeTown Festival, Iskarnival Johor etc etc. Outlets for Financial Aids and commercialization efforts of certain creative projects and start ups.  

3 – Independent Sector : refer to both the non-profit initiatives and corporate approached businesses of a privately own establishments such as SGFA: Shalini Ganendra Fine Art Advisory, TAKSU, Hin Bas Depot etc etc. Outlets for monetization of a creative products and showcase of artistic capitals.

4 – Creative Communities :  refer to mostly artist run galleries and creative collectives in a certain establishment. Outlets for experimentations and platforms for new voices. Such as ZhongShan Building, Raw/Moutou previously known as Findars, Rumah Studio, 321 Studio, Galeri Titik Merah etc etc.

Now, the lines are really blurry sometimes and these outlets have done efforts that is beyond their requirements and most of the time no one is really aware of the differences in between these bodies unless it’s really obvious. Heck it took me years to realized it too and I was ignorantly deep in between all of them. For example, Minut Init is both a creative community and an independent privately own space that was aiming to work closely with the cultural institutions. A perfect establishment of the Arts will focus on building it’s community while finding a way to monetize the talents in order to continue financing their creative endeavors with assistance from institutions and support from the national platforms.

In order for Malaysia’s Creative and Cultural Landscape to truly flourish and thrive as apart of our nation’s identity, everyone has to first recognize their role and responsibilities. If anyone of these four layers are underperforming while another is recklessly smuggling out funds and another is viciously monetizing without proper compensation then there would be a very toxic imbalance that explode into more tiny trivial problems and conflicts that will inevitably slow the growth of the industry.

The Creative and Cultural Landscape of Malaysia is a Family. A big ass family who hates each other but need to learn to love one another and live together. We are not a Computer Code. You cannot program chaos and Art is quite often a messy work. I believe each layers of the landscape should all focus on the human talent and educations of Art but also that I expect certain responsibilities from each of them.

The Government Institution should focus more on the ensuring that our educational standards are in competitive nature with those in Europe and other highly respectable nations. These institution can be seen as the parent of the artistic landscape. They are the places we learn and receive our basic needs from.

The Cultural Institution should focus on ensuring a wide coverage of funding in every aspect of the creative culture with emphasizes on both finding new talents and ensuring the value of local art pieces in the same league as those of the international market to ensure that the Independent Sector doesn’t exploit our young talents. Yes quality is important for them since it’s their job to push our talents out to the world with their fundings but they should also be responsible in giving opportunities to fresh voices by not creating new marketplace which many artists feels like an exploitation but rather find The Creative Communities and giving them projects to further help fund their own platforms.

The Cultural Institutions should be the big brother of a young pretty sister, The Creative Communities and protecting her from that bad boy with a good heart, The Independent Sector and providing them with things that The Government Institutions parent couldn’t.

The Independent Sector, in my opinion should be allowed to be a lawless land. The best way to teach someone to be self-sustaining is to ensure freedom in the private market and not just through theory based workshops. It’s the only way new galleries and independently own art spaces to grow without too much restrictions from the Ministry. Having the Cultural Institution and the Independent Sector focus on theory based workshops for creatives to be self-sustaining is a cheap ass idea of a workshop and honestly a con-job business model since any knowledge of such should be freely available in the Government Institutions.

But since it’s not available I can understand the call for such programs but I’ve went for one and I think that it’s dangerous to falsely inspire people to be a creative entrepreneur with certificates of participations. When in all honesty the vicious cycle of the capitalism will eat these folks up without mercy and too many creative capital producers will result in oversaturations and devaluing of certain products.

I think the most Cultural Institution should do is have the informations of it readily available in a creative manner through a documentary or something rather than a workshop and focus their attention on the Creative Communities as platforms for future creative entrepreneurs by rewarding those based on their merits instead. The main emphasis of the Independent Sector should be on ensuring the successful commercialization of the artistic talents with a contract that is profitable for all parties and pushing the products into the a far greater international client list. They don’t really have to  do anything they don’t want to but it would be best if they find new talents and sharpen them with a residency or something.

The Creative Communities should be the voices of the artists. A platform of new talents and experimental ideas. It should be focus to bring a different type of education that might be lacking from the Government Institutions. The Creative Communities should also work closely with the Cultural Institutions to create an accessibility of new voices to showcase new works and proposals. They should also work as though they are apart of the Independent Sector with the same agenda but a touch of humanity.

Only the right balance of socialist-based programs and capitalistic venture based on meritocratic hierarchy instead of status connections can we build an utopic creative scene. Any inclinations towards any side would either results into the next Cultural Revolution as China did and wipe out any non-approved narrative of the new amalgam identity of Malaysia or our nation might fall as the next Babylon of Cultural Degeneracy as we monetize and bastardize every inch of our traditions. We need to find that sweet spot right in between.

To do that is a difficult thing to do but having too many legislations and appointed correspondence of hierarchy as suggested by Sharon Chin in “Proposal for a Collective Decision-making Model for the Visual Arts Community in Malaysia” will make Art a tedious thing though it may prove to be necessary for now with the formation of Ministry of Arts & Culture that should allocate a percentage of the nation’s income to prioritizing the developments of the landscape.

But as aforementioned, I am no intellectual and have no degrees of any credibility to speak on any suggestions mentioned by other professionals. I am just a concerned citizen of the creative scene. I’ve seen the underground, I’ve watched something build from scratch and I’ve seen Rome burned to the ground. I’ve watched Icarus took flight and flew too close to the sun, I’ve met Phoenix that rises from the ashes and Lazarus hiding after meeting Death, I’ve seen seen men choked on their own aspirations after being warned by an old age asthmatic Anakin.

This essay is in no mean a solution to any problems faced by the Malaysian Cultural & Artistic landscape but it’s a continuation of the discussion. Sharon Chin proposed us to assembled like Avengers and William Wong bring forth the movement to form S.H.I.E.L.D and Suzy Sulaiman is asking accountability of the decision makings in these super powered associations and since Hydra has its roots everywhere, it’s hard to figure out who to blame but she did highlight issues concerning these folks. All my writings does is help deliver their proposals in relation the the current market and landscape with a clearer message on the importance of the whole ecosystem as a family.

Something I learn from Minut Init. We are all family.

A fucked up family but a family nonetheless.

 

“Handle your biz like grown ups

Own up” – Damian Marley

 


REFERENCES :

[1] ‘Master of Fine Arts – Project 6: Minut Init Studio Galleria’ by Dali A. Azis (2012).

[2] ‘Cultural Entrepreneurship’ by Arjo Klamer of Erasmus University, (2006)

[3] ‘Proposal for a Collective Decision-making Model for the Visual Arts Community in Malaysia based on decentralisation, localism, self-sufficiency & interdependence’ by Sharon Chin (2018)

Advertisements

Feed us your comments.

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

w

Connecting to %s