Discussion on ASEAN, Current and Future Issues of Korea’s Performing Arts


Discussion on ASEAN, Current and Future Issues of Korea’s Performing Arts
[Trend] 2015 PAMS Focus Session

Korea Takes Note of ASEAN

In 2015, the Performing Arts Market in Seoul (PAMS) selected the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) as this year’s country of honor. ASEAN was founded in 1967 by Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore, and Thailand, followed by Brunei Darussalam in 1984, Vietnam in 1995, and then Laos (1997), Myanmar (1997), and Cambodia (1999) joined as well. At present, ASEAN represents the seventh largest economic block in the world, with a combined GDP amounting to USD 3 trillion and a population—640 million—that is larger than that of the European Union or United States. In terms of labor force, ASEAN is only surpassed by China and India. In particular, ASEAN plans to launch an ASEAN Community by the end of 2015, one that comprises three main ideas—namely, politics and security, economy and society, and culture. Moreover, the organization aims to facilitate the exchange of goods and people by introducing a visa-free and tariff-free system similar to that of the EU. The entire world is paying attention to the ASEAN as its role and status will likely change upon the launch of the ASEAN Community. In light of the block’s growing prominence on the global stage, PAMS made the timely decision to select ASEAN as its country of honor for 2015. To date, Korea’s exchanges with Southeast Asia have not been as vibrant on the performing arts front as they have been in North America and Europe. For this reason, there has been little related information available. The 2015 PAMS will offer an opportunity for performing arts professionals to pursue more collaboration and exchange among the ASEAN nations and stimulate interest in the region’s arts culture.

2015 PAMS focus session: ASEAN & Current Issues in the Performing Arts ©KAMS

Current Global Exchange Activities and Implications

The focus session was held at the Dongsoong Art Center on October 5, 2015, (1–4 p.m.) and served as a platform for discussing the current trends and future of ASEAN. Speaking under the theme “ASEAN and current issues of performing arts,” presenters spent the first half of the session (Part 1) sharing the current state of performing arts in their own respective countries. The segment was moderated by Shim Gyu-seon of the ASEAN-Korea Centre, and presentations were delivered by Phloeun Prim, executive director of Cambodian Living Arts; Neo Kim Seng, an independent producer from Singapore; Kim Ngoc Tran, the founder of Hanoi-based music center DomDom; Jung Yeon-soo, the artistic director of Korea’s Post Ego Dance Company; and Norihiko Yoshioka, the deputy director of the Japan Foundation Asia Center, Vietnam. Following a short intermission, Part 2 began with a theme “Reimagining the future of performing arts with ASEAN.” Moderated by Anupama Sekhar of the Asia-Europe Foundation (ASEF), the venue accommodated an open discussion and Q&A session. 

The first speaker of Part 1 was Phloeun Prim, who has spent nearly 15 years attempting to revive traditional culture in the Cambodian performing arts circle by drawing connections between traditional and modern styles. In the 1970s, Cambodia experienced a massacre triggered by political and ideological confrontations. As a result, 2 million Cambodians—roughly one-third of population—were wiped out, with many talented artists among the victims. In light of this grim reality, Prim has searched for surviving performance masters who can continue Cambodia’s rich artistic tradition. Five years ago, he began to mentor new artists and tried to arrange collaborations with traditional performance masters, establishing connections between traditional and modern arts. Due to the lack of nation-wide policies and support for arts, the majority of the resulting works are led by the private sector and often executed with the aid of foreign organizations. At present, Prim is on a world tour for a collaborative project arranged by 34 New York–based organizations. Prim cited vibrant exchanges with Europe and the United States, places where he says fundraising for arts is relatively easy to secure, and emphasized the need for a more animated movement within the ASEAN region. He shared his plan for a program known as the Greater Mekong Hub for Cultural Innovators, a network of culture-related personnel such as young researchers and administrators around the Great Mekong Region. Those involved with the project will gather to discuss practical topics including policies supporting arts and fundraising, with the goal of catalyzing cultural exchange among ASEAN nations. It is hoped that this discussion can lead to new region-wide policies in the near future.    

The second speaker was Neo Kim Seng, an industry professional who has spent time working as a producer at Esplanade-Theatres on the Bay, a representative venue in Singapore. Since 1995, Kim Seng has independently produced dances and plays that address the Cambodia’s tragic history, working in conjunction with Cambodian NGO Amrita Performing Arts. In 2013, he directed a joint workshop involving Amrita and the Post Ego Dance Company and arranged the resulting show, titled Horizontal Life. According to Kim Seng, the most difficult aspect of running a long-term project involving multiple countries is fund-raising, describing the tough reality in which shows are produced with project participants’ personal award money in addition to government funding and sponsorship. Despite the challenging environment, he emphasized that we shouldn’t lose sight of the goal of such exchanges. Kim Seng also expressed his hopes for more collaboration among regional countries, efforts that would ideally promote more sharing of contemporary arts trends and a greater distribution of know-how among professionals within the region. He added that it is important to maintain exchanges so that artists can express what art means to them and what they hope their art can deliver to their audiences. 

The second presentation was given by Kim Ngoc Tran, the founder DomDom, a space designed to foster experimental musicians. Tran is also an artistic director for the Hanoi New Music Festival, an event that takes place at said venue. Operating since 2012, DomDom offers training for various types of music such as electronic, ensemble, and chamber, and runs a range of programs, including lectures, artist talks, discussions, and concerts. Given that Vietnam also lacks government-initiated policies and funding for arts, financial support for the operation has come from foreign embassies in Vietnam and culture institutes. Though the Hanoi New Music Festival did not garner much attention when it was first launched in 2013, over time, as it began to introduce overseas performers alongside Vietnamese acts, the event became the largest festival for experimental music. As Tran explains, however, it has not been easy to operate the facility in a nation that lacks performance professionals such as managers and promoters. Moreover, there are not many experimental musicians and audiences in Vietnam. Despite these challenges, she noted, the goal of DomDom is to serve as an incubating platform that assists the community through training. To that end it is important to cooperate with various organizations in and out of Vietnam.  

The next speaker at the event, Norihiko Yoshioka, offered an introduction to Japan’s state-funded art projects—a hot issue for the majority of the attendants. Under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Japan Foundation Asia Center opened in Tokyo in 1972 and is working to establish footholds for Japanese artists in major cities around the world. In April 2014 the center has launched the Asia Center, an affiliated organization tasked with preparing cultural events for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. The Asia Center has earmarked USD 67 million for Asian cultural exchanges and plans to open additional centers in Vientiane, Laos, and Phnom Penh, Cambodia. At present, Japan is trying to build a four-phase support system known as the 4C: Communicate → Connect and Share → Collaborate → Create. An example of such an initiative is the Performing Arts Meeting in Yokohama. Formerly known as the Tokyo Performing Arts Market, the new incarnation has substituted “market” with “meeting” while retaining the original TPAM acronym. As such, the new TPAM in Yokohama places more weight on the process of networking and enabling artists to get to know each other. As an organization that strives to facilitate pan-Asia exchanges, both TPAM’s secretary-general and artistic director have promoted a system of commission-based global collaboration for its productions. Through these efforts, TPAM aims to build an organic support structure where like-minded people can meet and discuss collaboration and joint production. Session participants at Yoshioka’s presentation showed great interest in Japan’s long-term policies to support the arts.

2015 PAMS focus session: Free discussion and questions ©KAMS

Supporting Policies by Country and Our Future

Once the presentations were completed, Part 2 began, opening the floor for free discussion and questions. The audience was most curious about how each country has been supporting its cultural arena policy-wise.  

While addressing the issue, Phloeun Prim admitted that Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Art is neglected compared to the country’s other ministries, and said that efforts are being made to elevate its priority on the national agenda. The ministry is currently making an appeal based on the impact of cultural policies on the nation’s image, citing Singapore as an example. At present, the Cambodian government is gradually recognizing the importance of culture and is attempting to formulate policies that support culture and art. Prim smiled while explaining that a number of cultural exchanges are carried out in the private sector due to the absence of relevant policies in not only Cambodia but other ASEAN states such as Vietnam and Thailand. At the same time, however, the present political climate is beneficial in the sense that arts organizations only need to consider partnering organizations without concerning themselves with national policies, explained Prim. Tran agreed, pointing out that persuading the Vietnamese government is not easy. She said that she often faces questions about why her work matters due to differing visions for the future of the various facets of the cultural industry that are deemed important in the eyes of the government. Tran attributes this to Vietnam’s tendency to put economic development ahead of other issues, which is the case for many of its neighbors in Southeast Asia. She offered a not-so-bright outlook for Vietnam’s culture and art sector in the event that the nation’s political situation should continue for a while. Kim Seng answered next, indicating that government cooperation has always come with conditions, although cultural policies appear to be better established in Singapore than they are it its neighbors in the region. He explained that the situation is challenging because most of the conditions are prohibitions. Thanks to alternative financial resources such as crowd funding, however, organizations can now afford to the government policies instead of entirely relying on state support. 

All speakers agreed that state-led support comes with tricky conditions. Assistance coming from overseas, in particular, will always come with expectations. For example, if the support comes from a Korean government agency, the project should include a Korean artist or organization. If it is provided by a similar agency in Japan, a Japanese artist or organization should be involved. Are there any organizations in Asia that might offer assistance without strings attached? Yoshioka described his experience of trying to persuade the Japanese government to create a program that would offer assistance without requiring inclusion of a Japanese national when Asia Center was established. His efforts failed because, according to Japanese officials, if a program is supported by money from Japanese taxpayers and does not involve Japanese people, there can be little justification for how it benefits Japan. Yoshioka says it is unlikely that policies supporting international exchanges, regardless of benefits for their own country, will appear anytime soon. 

The second discussion question pertained to what arts organizations should do when they fail to secure a global exchange fund. Prim said that they could apply for public funding in Europe or private support in the United States, since the latter has no government agency in charge of cultural support. It is critical, he explained, to rely on a wide range of organizations when it comes to fund-raising. Prim emphasized the need for better communication regarding funding sources since it is often the case that, rather than funding being unavailable, many artists are simply unaware of what resources are available to them. Kim Seng added that securing funding should not be the greatest priority when running a project. Instead, he a rgues, it is more important to understand individual interest and partners than whether the funding issue will be taken care of. He expressed a positive attitude by saying that he believes that support will sort itself out in the end. 

Finally, the panelists asked Part 2 moderator Anupama Sekhar about the types of difficulties faced by the Asia-Europe Foundation as a supporting organization on the global exchange front. Sekhar answered that the difficulty lies in having any sort of expectations regarding the outcome from a project they have supported. After curators have met with one another and some time has passed, the supporting organization is bound to expect to see some progress on the project. However, financial assistance and a waiting period do not always guarantee a preferable outcome. After hearing a great deal about the difficulties experienced by those who receive support, hearing about the experience of the support provider helped both parties to better understand each other. 

Korea, ASEAN, and Determination

Through the focus session, it became evident that Vietnam, Cambodia, Singapore, Korea, and Japan have similar dilemmas in similar cultural environments. It is not an easy job to support the activities performing arts in Asia and produce positive outcomes. The event was meaningful as it shed light on the real-life experiences—and challenging realities—of artistic directors, independent producers, and administrators of supporting organizations. Through their steadfast determination to pursue cultural exchanges despite the increasingly tough market, the future of performing arts of Asia began to take shape.   





Song Jeong-eun_ Information & Data Unit of ASEAN-Korea Centre
Song Jeong-eun_ Information & Data Unit of ASEAN-Korea Centre
Song Jeong-eun has worked at the International Development Department of Korea Arts Management Service; the Hub City of Asian Culture at the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism; and the Korean Cultural Service in Brazil. At present, she is a member of the Information and Data Unit of the ASEAN-Korea Centre, an international organization established to expand exchanges and cooperation between Korea and the ASEAN states.