Digital rice

Sam de Silva reports on new media in the Asian region

Bangkok Post Online Street Art

Bangkok Post Online Street Art

Often the region referred to as Asia is considered as an homogeneous environment—stricken with poverty, and social and political problems. But of course there are many countries which are placed at different positions on the graph of social-economic well-being. And within each country there are also vast differences.

In the cities in the poorer regions of Asia, such as Bangkok, Hanoi, Saigon, and Phnom Penh, the internet is readily accessible. High-end internet connected Pentiums can be found in venues such as cafes where for about $10 per hour ‘Hotmailing’, telnetting and IRCing are all possible. Often there is a queue to get access—busy with tourists and travellers eager to communicate their experiences in real-time back to their friends at home, or to organise rendezvous points with other travellers. All the tourists seem to have a webmail account. The net is never too far away.

Bangkok is full of new technology and the internet infrastructure is well supported by the government. Schools and universities have access to facilities and internet computers can be found in libraries. Software and hardware are readily accessible, but only affordable to the more affluent, a complete system costing around $1200. At Chulalongkorn University and Silpakorn University, two major academies in Bangkok, media labs equipped with high-end Power Macs can be found in the Creative Arts departments. Though Apple’s marketing has seduced the academics, many of the students decide to own the low-cost high-end Pentiums which come loaded with the latest pirated software.

The images and animations produced by students are of a very high quality but mainly lean toward the advertising industry. On graduation most students will likely be employed by design houses and advertising agencies. Associate Professor Suppakorn Disatapundhu of Chulalongkorn University is very interested in developing electronic art within the Faculty of Fine and Applied Arts. He is aware of the lack of student interest in art and the consequent focus on design and marketing. His hope is that the economic crisis in the region will mean that students might decide to stay longer at university and undertake research projects in the electronic art field. Unfortunately, the general attitude seems to be that if it has no commercial benefit then there is no point to digital art.

The Bangkok Post’s online division recently uploaded photographs of large billboard posters originally created by a group called Artists for Social Change in the early 1970s. The posters were created to commemorate student deaths during a political demonstration in 1973. The drive to increase the ‘creative’ content of the Post’s website wasn’t by local Thai people, but instead by Theo Den Brinker, an Australian ex-pat who is the Director of the online division. The actual photoshopping of the scanned photographs was carried out by local graphic artists—but for them, it was just another task.

A number of Thai artists are producing interesting original work—especially work that is critical of their own country. The military, the Buddhist religion, the government and the King are subjects that some artists have criticised through painting, performance and film works. But using the internet as a medium of expression is a foreign concept. In fact, most of the artists using traditional media to create political work are suspicious of technology—viewing computers and the internet as instruments of authority—and prefer to use the older media that they know cannot be controlled by the authorities and are easily accessible to their audience.

Some people I met claimed that information—such as video evidence—proving the Thai military and the King have acted against the interests of the people exists on a CD-ROM called The Truth. Thai expatriates living in the US have threatened to put this information onto the internet if the government and military acts against the people’s interest and this is apparently of major concern to authorities. China’s plans for building a (government controlled) intranet for the whole country were attractive to the Thai communications authority as they could ‘govern’ the amount of bandwidth used to overseas sites (these were paid in US dollars and at a relatively high rate to overseas companies). This provides a handy excuse to ‘regulate’ net access.

In Hanoi and Saigon, access to the internet is available from tourist cafes but, interestingly, some of the people who run these cafes don’t want to know about the content accessible from their terminals. There seems to be a fear of what this content will bring. Other owners and their families are more enthusiastic about what they can get—but of course this content is largely in English and is filtered through the ‘virtual’ grid of Microsoft, Yahoo, or CNN. It is difficult to maintain interest for culturally oriented or more complex or chaotic sites—those outside the glossy regimented mainstream. Combine this with the access speed issue and most people in these regions can only view the internet as a kind of online newspaper with ‘entertainment’ the main drawcard. On a more positive note there is also a lot of swapping of email addresses between travellers and local café owners which might hopefully be a forerunner of regional grassroots networks.

In Phnom Penh, there is a public internet and training centre which caters primarily for local Cambodians. The centre, funded by a Canadian NGO has, together with the Post and Telecommunications Ministry, set up an ISP called CamNet. Through the commercial activities of CamNet, and with some external funding, the centre provides low cost training courses on web browsing and web page design. Importantly, training is provided in the process of browsing (using search engines properly), something rarely taught here, thereby enabling people to utilise the internet more productively. However it should be noted that it most benefits those fluent in English.

The web is perceived by many in the region as a one way medium, just like a newspaper or television and overall there doesn’t seem to be much interest in setting up websites. In places like Vietnam it is very difficult to get server space, but in Cambodia the students have established free Hotmail accounts and are creating home pages and hosting it with the Geocities advertisement-supported free hosting service. It comes down to whether or not an awareness is created in how to set up and operate websites—and once it is people will generally utilise the knowledge.

The web, when viewed from a country like Vietnam, appears to be a domain of commerciality for the self-indulgent (no-one in the year 2000 will be without their own personal website). Artists in the region already have difficulties in freely expressing what they really feel through their art practice and so new media art isn’t even a consideration under these conditions. It could be that the future for this artform in this region will be determined by how much artists appreciate the marginal and privileged position of new media art and accommodate this in appropriate ways, not just in well-heeled touring exhibitions, but in developing and inspiring its use in accessible, relevant and non-paternal ways.

RealTime issue #25 June-July 1998 pg. 30

© Sam de Silva; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 1998