Post Phnom Penh – Navigating the White Savior Industrial Complex

Teju Cole’s “The White Savior Industrial Complex” is the latest and one of the most brilliant analyses of global North’s codependent behavior towards the South.

After returning from a recent trip to Phnom Penh, Cole’s article was the perfect antidote to the absurd disparities in Cambodia. Since my last visit in 2005, there was a mushrooming of coffee houses affordable only for those on expat salary, as are luxury hotels, SUVs, gated high rise condos. Or perhaps I felt guilty from being driven around by a hired driver all week, or getting wined and dined inside expat bubbles. I was a willing participant in an economy propped up by foreign investments and aid.

As an international development professional, I experienced the joys of being able to affect positive change in a foreign country and I also know the local fallouts that comes with being *from* a foreign country. We often hear that  interrogating our own privileges is the first step in decolonizing ourselves. But what then? How could we change the system so it is no longer business-as-usual? After all, Cole didn’t call it a “savior industrial complex” for no reason.

"Hungry for the Real Taste of Cambodia?" next to Steve's Steakhouse (Author's photo)

Guilty as Charged

Critique #1.

There is nothing easier than slapping together a critique by just using pictures in a PowerPoint presentation. The one I prepared begins with a question — what do we associate with Cambodia? The Killing Fields? Angkor Wat? I added a story about the astronomical financial cost of the Khmer Rouge trial (100 million Euros and counting) and The Trial of Henry Kissinger, both refer to injustices done in the name of democracy and freedom. I then move onto an analysis of the marketization of art and design, global imperatives of young contemporary artists, and new works by Cambodian American artists. The talk ends with Studio Revolt’s My Asian Americana. A jab at the unusually harsh repatriation by United States Immigration and Customs Enforcement, it is a video that showcases the pledge of allegiance by “Exiled Americans.”

Only when I had to explain why the arts has been “resuscitated” by a Cambodian arts organization, did I slip in the fact that Khmer Rouge killed 90% of Cambodia’s artists and intellectuals. It seems like a footnote. While this is not to deny the gravity of genocide, it re-enforces that what happens in Cambodia is not “out there” but that we are all implicated in what goes on in Cambodia. Instead of pointing fingers to another boogie man (be it the Khmer Rouge, Hun Sen’s government, or faceless corporations that are carving up concessions in Cambodia), the circle comes back to us. The United States’s secret bombing of Cambodia between 1969-1975 led to the rise of Khmer Rouge. A 1996 immigrant law, coupled with a 2002 repatriation agreement between the U.S. and Cambodia, results in the deportation of hundreds of Cambodian Americans.

There are over 3,000 NGOs in Cambodia. For a country of 13 million people, it’s the second most per capita, after Rwanda. How many of us do-gooders are willing to turn the gaze back to ourselves, our own governments, and the destructive policies that we are a part of?

A Translingual Hiccup

Critique #2.

Sa Sa Art Projects is an art space created by Stiev Selapak, six young Khmer graduates of a photography workshop in 2007.  Beginning in 2010, Stiev Selapak rented two adjacent residential units in The Building. Sa Sa Art Projects hosts arts residencies, exhibitions, and workshops. We were struck by the beauty of the photographs, graffiti on the walls, and a tall sculpture made with found objects. Everything was picture perfect. Our informant, the eloquent director of Sa Sa Art Projects, gave us a run down of their documentary project around the neighborhood, done in collaboration with an UK-based group, Incidental.

When we first entered the space, a little boy who lives in an apartment downstairs came in with us.  During the time we were there, he was playing by himself. After a while, he started to take apart one of the smaller installations that was not attached to a wall. Part of me didn’t want to stop him. Why should this little boy not be another legitimate participant?

At Sa Sa Art Projects (Author's Photo)

The exquisiteness in which Sa Sa Art Projects serves as a place for artists/architects made me question my own reactions — I was looking for what I might call a “translingual hiccup.” I want to believe that it not possible to have the perfect translation. To navigate between contemporary art in Phnom Penh and New York, should it not be asymmetrical and frustrating clumsy? Can it be so easy to establish and maintain hypothetical equivalences between words and their meanings?  Since the global North has made Cambodia out to be a victim, shouldn’t it follow that we can’t always understand Cambodians’ motivations and desires. Yet in every which way, we act as if we are on equal footing. The child’s dismantling of an exhibit might serve as an analogy for a translingual hiccup. Would this moment of non-recognition be an opening of space to co-create a pedagogy of liberation for both the colonizer and the colonized?

Politics and culture are vital to urban sustainability, says Cecilia Martinez of UN-HABITAT

"The White Building," Phnom Penh. Author's photo

In her concluding remarks for the Better City/Better Life: South-North Initiative symposium, Cecilia Martinez, director of UN-HABITAT’s New York Office, two issues can be highlighted: (1) many technological innovations that are needed to address urban sustainability already exist; (2) politics and culture are vital to sustainability.

During the symposium, ten speakers from a variety of fields spoke about uses of technology to improve conditions in less developed countries. Topics cover GIS mapping on the U.S.-Mexico broader; poverty mapping of slums in Pune, India; blogging by citizen journalists in Rio de Janeiro, etc. So Ms. Martinez’s concluding comments might be considered a bombshell as politics and culture received limited attention during the entire day (only two speakers, Robert Buckley and Teddy Cruz, specifically mentioned politics/political economy).

As a shorthand, politics might be characterized as power structure and how individuals/groups jockey to shift the odds against them. In the context of the symposium, one might consider politics through the lens of governance. While the dictionary definition of “governance” is limited to governmental systems, the international development community defines governance with additional components consisting of “the mechanisms, processes and institutions through which citizens and groups articulate their interests, exercise their legal rights, meet their obligations and mediate their differences.” (UNDP)

Philos Health’s project in Jagna, Philippines is the perfect example of how good governance provided a favorable environment for the “upstreaming” of community demands. Since 1991, the Philippines has enacted the Local Government Code, which radically decentralized national and municipal decision-making processes and budgets. While the code could not solve problems by itself, decentralization enables civil society groups to leverage government resources — as the mayor of Jagna was able to do with the assistance of local health providers and a foreign NGO.

A number of other projects presented in the symposium have the potential to tip the balance of power to the less fortunate. However, most speakers have not given very compelling evidence of short-term or long-term impact. This is one of the most vexing problems in the development field as most projects began with very little baseline information, making it difficult for monitoring and evaluation. Another issue that seems glaring was that most of the cases and strategies presented originate from the North.

Yes, I’m setting the bar very high here. We need to admit that the field of South-to-North transfer is in its nascent stage. We already know that technological innovation is no panacea, so AIA New York’s leadership should be applauded for opening up a dialogue about the wicked urban problems in the Global South as well as the North.

Last but not least, a participant brought up the issue of follow up. Many such symposium bring together some of the smartest people and well-funded institutions in the field. Being all too aware of the pitfall of not having a sequel to the symposium, the most concrete suggestion brought up was an online exchange platform. Does the field need another online platform?  We already have many, e.g. UNDP’s Best Practices and Local Leadership Programme, a multi-agency platform Task Team for South-South Cooperation, not to mention development knowledge gateways such as Eldis. Only last month, Abha Joshi-Ghani of the World Bank’s Sustainable Development Network proposed a new online knowledge base to connect municipal managers, thinkers, and practitioners. What we need, it seems, is the analytical framework, operational guidelines, and rigorous monitoring and evaluations that could, borrowing a buzzword from the symposium, leapfrog sustainable development practices.

What about culture? I don’t think I heard the word mentioned during the day until Ms. Martinez said the word. Though if cued, some presenters might substitute the word design for culture when describing their projects. What Ms. Martinez was referring to might be characterized as social customs and ways of learning between/within individuals/communities. Culture should also include institutional culture, as in ways of doing things that enables/prevents institutions to learn and adapt. (Institutions’ immunity to change is all too real.)

Culture may be one of the most intangible and unquantifiable aspects of the urban sustainability equation. It is everywhere and thus nowhere. Most international agencies pay lip service to addressing culture. UNESCO admits that it is a conceptual minefield. Eschewing the non-committal term “culture and development”, UNESCO recently changed the term into “culture for development” and released a Culture for Development Indicators Suite. This represents an attempt to quantify the full spectrum of drivers of development that could go under the umbrella of culture. The dimensions are:

  • Economy
  • Education
  • Heritage
  • Communication
  • Governance
  • Social
  • Gender Equality

I am anxious to see the results of this indicators suite. UNESCO is testing it this year in six countries. Could urban sustainability folks learn from these indicators? How might they use similar quantifiers to leverage resources to tip the balance for more equitable development?

A respite from justifying public funding for the arts as an economic growth strategy

Coney Island, 1945. Photo credit: NYPL

Vera List Center for Art and Politics often hosts timely events that are expansive and intellectually stimulating. While one can’t expect to get definitive answers from a two-hour talk, I was thoroughly frustrated with the panel entitled “Coney Island USA” held on May 5, 2011.

The event was billed as “a roundtable discussion focusing on how artists and art organizations have taken the lead roles in the economic redevelopment of New York City and other urban centers. Leaders of local arts organizations from the Bronx, Coney Island, Gowanus, and the Lower East Side discuss how small business creation and community outreach contribute to economic development.”

The panelists represent a wide range of arts organizations with vastly different budgets and missions. For example, Wythe Marshall of Hollow Earth Society says his organization doesn’t have a large budget, while Gail Nathan of Bronx River Arts Center oversaw a capital renovation project of $8 million, and Tamara Greenfield leads a coalition of arts organizations in LES that raised $650K. The exception was Candace Damon, who had worked at Atlantic Ave LDC, but now she’s at a consulting firm, which has been contracted by NY Economic Development Corporation to assess the arts sector and its economic impact. Her attempt to link the number of arts organizations in a neighborhood to real estate prices was critiqued by one of the panelists in passing. During most of the roundtable discussion, the speakers rambled about the meaning of art in post-industrial context and lamented on gentrification and displacement of artists.

In sum, the panel barely dived into the topic of the roundtable — the connection between arts and economic development. Can it be proven? But more importantly, why does it matter? To whom?  For what end?

Over a decade ago, a number of institutions and scholars began to investigate the relationship between arts and (economic/cultural/social) development. The history of this inquiry may be a lot longer, but concerted efforts to come up with robust indicators began in the late 1990s. This may be due to the relentless assault of the National Endowment of the Arts as well as endemic budget crises in American cities and states.

The panel was disappointing in that it barely mentioned the tools and methodology already developed at institutions such as the Urban InstituteSIAP, etc. Going beyond research, coalitions and networks such as CAN also formed to sustain dialogues regarding the arts’ interconnectedness with communities. So listening to the chatter from the panelists, I thought someone had hit a reset button — all the grounds gained in the last two decades seem to revert back to discussing more-of-the-same.

Granted. I over simplified that conversation. But the roundtable suffered from a number of fatal flaws.

1) The arts were never defined. Exhibition spaces, artists studios, performing arts groups, arts education, etc, have vastly different ecologies and relationship to the people who participate in and consumes them, not to mention the fact that they can have very different income streams. If the Metropolitan Museum of Art contributes to the proliferation of street side vendors and restaurants on Madison Ave, it does not engage in artistic production. Thus, it is a different “economic engine” than Brooklyn Academy of Music, which employs artists and production crews so they may make more art.

2) Many experts have already pointed out that arts organizations are not unique as anchor tenants, compared to, say, a movie theatre — which also help boost other businesses in the neighborhood. Therefore, arts organizations do not have a unique impact to this type of economic output.

More importantly, most economic justifications of the arts have a specific agenda in mind — to convince the city, the state, or the federal government to continue funding the arts. The rationale panders to policymakers’ obsession with economic growth. In effect, the logic has the perverse effect of convincing arts advocates that the arts cannot be judged solely for its intrinsic and social benefits.

During the Q&A session, a member of the audience attempted to steer the conversation by mentioning FIRE and ICE. For decades, urban economic development is said to rely on Finance, Insurance and Real Estate (FIRE). But the Intellectual, Cultural and Educational (ICE)* sector is the foundation of a knowledge economy.  Moreover, the commentator says that in many neighborhoods, arts organizations serve as “think tanks.” Oftentimes in marginalized communities, the arts might be the only voice of the community.


I do not enjoy ranting on a public event about a topic I care so deeply about. But I do wish that the panelists address larger issues such as their relationship with audience, public funding, private donors, and foundations, etc. On the first point, audience. Not many arts organizations collect and analyze information on the population to which they serve. If they do, it would be great to know about them. Also, does agglomeration have a tipping point because many arts organization compete with each other for the same audience? On the issue of foundations, it can be annoying that social innovations and entrepreneurship have become so trendy. Can the arts benefit from these trends? If not, why not? Ultimately, we should put an end to using economic growth as a justification for public funding for the arts. The perceived direct connection between the two does not contribute to the vibrancy of art and its communities.
* The invention of the acronym ICE has been attributed to NYU’s President John Sexton.

Is there a relationship between social outcomes and architecture?

There has been a lot of buzz lately on connecting design and the social sciences at The New School. While the articulation of this framework has not been fully fleshed out, it reflects a growing trend, amongst architecture and design professionals, to address issues of poverty, public health, disasters, etc.

Perhaps this all started with the emergence of design activists such as Bryan Bell and Samuel Mockbee in the 1990s. Certainly, post-Katrina reconstruction provided unprecedented opportunities for idealistic architects to work with clients from marginalized communities. Step back even further to consider the zeitgeist, our airwaves have been saturated by the irresistible mantra of “doing well by doing good” — which drives the boom in microfinance, social entrepreneurship, and bottom of the pyramid models, as well as fuels the popularity of the likes of Jeffrey Sachs.

As international and bilateral development institutions have undergone decades of growing pains and yet still burdened with unanswered questions about accountability and assessment (evident in leading critics in AID Watch), one begins to realize that socially responsible architecture as a practice field is still in its infancy.

That’s why I was fascinated by a recent GSAPP event that billed itself as a debate on poverty alleviation. Although there was enough differences between the fields of planning, architecture, and anthropology, the event did not provoke debate as it was a series of thought-provoking presentations/commentaries.

The first speaker, Tom Agnotti, a planner from CUNY, began by unpacking the concept of ‘poverty.’ Most people fall into the trap of thinking of poverty as a problem of income (i.e. the poor are often characterized as the ones who “make less than a dollar a day”). Agnotti points out that the heart of the problem lies in inequality. While focusing on income falsely leads us to fixate on economic growth, addressing inequality raises a whole set of structural issues. This has been articulated by the concept of capabilities championed by economists such as Amartyr Sen. Secondly, Agnotti cautions against so-called “physical determinism” in planning strategies.

[Physical determinism is also be referred to as "environmental determinism." According to Herbert Gans's People, Plans, and Policies (1968), this concept has a long history dating back to 19th century, when reformers and master planners "assume that people's lives are shaped by their physical surroundings and that the ideal city should be realized by the provision of an ideal physical environment. As architects and engineers, the planners believed that the city was a system of buildings and land uses which could be arranged and rearranged through planning, without taking account of the social, economic, and political structures and processes that determine people's behavior, including their use of land."]

Design and planning does matter, Agnotti says, when it is at the service of grassroots movements. Communities are not always constructing a building; as physical solutions cannot solve deprivation of capabilities. Planners need to engage with social movements, Agnotti concludes, they need to be engaged with institutional transformations.

The second speaker, Giancarlo Mazzanti, is an architect from Bogotá, Colombia. The noted designer of Parque Biblioteca España in Santo Domingo, Colombia, Mazzanti proposes 7 principles that enables architecture to embody social change. They are:

1) multiply uses and expand times — represented by Leon de Grief Library Park in Medellín; 2) building as an icon; 3) transparency and exchange — by breaking down of interior and exterior spaces; 4) openings and public space; 5) adaptive systems; 6) modules and lack of finish; 7) passive power setups and citizens education.

Parque Biblioteca España, Medellin, Columbia (image from Designboom)

After looking at the video and pictures, it is easy to see why Mazzanti’s buildings have become pilgrimage sites for architects. Yet, Mazzani did not adequately address Agnotti’s questioning of physical determinism.  While we could imagine how architecture can convey a sense of hierarchy, Mazzanti is in fact proposing a framework for architecture of (social) equality.  Sadly, there was not much discussion on the panel about this daring and enticing proposal. However, it might be important to contextualize Mazzanti’s architecture in post-Escobar Colombia and socio-economic policies of Sergio Fajardo, former mayor of Medellín.

The third speaker was Janice Perlman, an anthropologist who has been working to bridge academia with public policy and civil society. Her new book, Favela: Four Decades of Living on the Edge of Rio de Janeiro, is probably the only longitudinal study of the urban poor. Comparing three sets of survey data of favela residents from the last 40 years, she finds that the favelas are not the end of the road for many people living in poverty. In fact, many moved on to living in residential neighborhoods — barring that they survive the disruptions of livelihood and opportunities from Brazilian government’s slum clearing policies.

Where does this leave those of us passionate about social justice and the built environment?  Can Mazzanti’s proposed principles be applicable elsewhere for the same effects (say in Dubai? Jakarta? Shanghai?)?  Given that social movements these days have been reduced to a few mouse clicks on (at least for the middle-class professionals), we’re left to the whims of speculators with financial instrumentals that only a handful of people understand. Yet for now, the verdict is still out on how one might document ways in which socially responsible architecture live up to its idealistic promises.

Deciphering “Empowerment”

The term empowerment has been used widely in development circles for a number of years. It has also become fashionable to link empowerment to economic opportunities such as Corporate Social Responsibility and social enterprise programs. When a complex idea such as empowerment becomes jargon, it is hard for activists and practitioners who have been working in this field to re-appropriate the term without going through serious soul-searching.

No one method is a panacea to ‘empowering’ the marginalized so that they may be treated with equality and dignity by institutions. There has been many studies and surveys that tried to get to some answers. Last week, I was invited by Huairou Commission to give a presentation on women’s empowerment. It was an opportunity to pull together research that I came across when I worked with Suranjana Gupta on a study of social mobilization and women as agents of change for UNISDR.

slide 1 From the outset, I wanted to distinguish between empowerment as it as been practiced  (through grassroots resistance movements since the 1960s), from how it is theorized by northern and southern feminist scholars[1] , and contrast with how it as been taken up as a cause célèbre by multilateral and bilateral agencies, and donors.[2]

slide 2 This is what I’d imagine to be the development paradigm — a rational organizing system in which multitudes of people/ideas/movements translated into an all-encompassing, neatly packaged ‘output,’ ‘deliverables,’ ‘outcomes.’

slide 3 All sociocultural systems evolve. It always escapes capture by language, not to mention government or donor programs. It is often messy, even contradictory. The ethnographic fieldwork I did in Jamaica Queens suggests that if we chart the web of charter buses from upstate New York all the way down to the eastern seaboard, it would overlap with networks of African-American churches, choir groups, and social groups. The phenomenon spread without any central promotion by Jamaica’s merchants or development corporations. When the BID tried to capture this by printing out a shopping guide a few years ago, as soon as the maps are printed, the list of shops have already changed.

slide 4 These are the terms of reference for our paper for the Midterm Review of Hyogo Framework for Action, UNISDR. Noted key phrases are social mobilization, agents of change, and empowerment.

slide 5 When I started reviewing documents from GROOTS and Huairou Commission, I found lots of descriptions of outputs. While it tells me about safe roofs, crop diversification, budget set asides, etc, etc, the outputs are not telling us anything about mobilization or empowerment. Ostensibly, there has a significant amount of grassroots organizing, trust building, consciousness raising, skills and leadership that enabled these outputs, but it was next to impossible to construct a narrative of the process.

slide 6 The enabling factors are many; though they are reduced to “[grassroots] tools” and “[institutional] mechanisms” in the report, the successes may be due to a combination of internal and external factors. Internal variables might be organizational effectiveness, stability, longevity, skills in building consensus, taking advantage of windows of opportunity, sustained involvement of members, etc, etc. External variables might be policy change, change of regime, new champions, donor assistance, etc, etc. Many of these factors are not often replicable, but they could be keys to success.

A mechanism is an institutional structure that enables certain things to happen no matter what the specific context is, e.g. a “report card” is an accountability mechanism, an election is a mechanism to choose leaders, etc, etc. But to speak of mechanisms in grassroots process seems to be forcing a universal model onto a long-term context-specific process and ignoring the factor of time.

slide 7 Taking a step back from the dichotomy of specific vs. universal, I point to Elinor Ostrom’s study of institutions. Given any situation and institutions at any level, Ostrom proposes the use of “Action Arena” as a model in which one could map all the variables in order to see how the parts interlock with the whole. Where does development intervention occur? how/when do events trigger others positively and negatively?

slide 8 While we know that output does not equal process, what is empowerment then?

slide 9 In Ibrahim and Alkire (2007), they point out that empowerment should be described and measured with respect to specific domains of life.

slide 10 Ruth Alsop, Mette Frost Bertelsen, Jeremy Holland, Empowerment in Practice: from analysis to implementation (World Bank 2006) describes empowerment as two separate things. The expansion of agency is the ability to act on behalf of what you value and have reason to value; the opportunity structure refers to the institutional environment which offers people the opportunity to exert agency fruitfully. It is the precondition for agency.

slide 11 Empowerment is after all associated with POWER. Advocates don’t like to admit that power is zero-sum. Why else did it take so long for women to obtain the right to vote, and even longer for minorities? From the point of view of the people/institutions in power, there is no incentives to share. Power-sharing does occur, but often do not happen without struggles or sometimes even bloodshed.

In Norman Uphoff’s analysis of power in D. Narayan ed. Measuring Empowerment: Cross-Disciplinary Perspectives (World Bank, 2005), he talks the contestations that inevitably occurs in empowerment. He defines Power Resources as accumulated, invested, exchanged assets; and Power Results as the activities that are achieved by using these resources. Moreover, the empowerment process is to provide access to the these resources & used them to gain more power.

slide 12 One thing that has been missing so far is the relational aspects. In Conceptualising empowerment and the implications for pro poor growth, Eyben, Kabeer, Cornwall (2008) says that power can be “usefully be thought of as capacity generated through social relations — this is what enables it to enable social change as well as sustain the status quo.  “Power is part of all social relationships and institutions, shaping the limits of what it is possible for people to do or to envisage themselves doing.”

slide 13 In the hands of development agencies, empowerment has been equated to participation and social inclusion. But that should not be the case, for empowerment needs to come from the bottom, power can’t be conferred (because it is a zero sum) but claimed/negotiated.

slide 14 One of the most articulate scholars on empowerment is a social anthropologist who had a stint as a development specialist at the World Bank. Caroline Moser points to the institutional responsibilities of empowerment.

slide 15Eyben, Kabeer, Cornwall (2008) emphasize collective action as well as imagination as key components of empowerment. They point to structural causes, emphasizing that empowerment in one sphere (e.g. economic) can be reversible if there is no systemic change. They explain how empowerment should be seen “as a path rather than a building enables donors to identify better how they can support poor people’s empowerment. Conceptualising empowerment as a process draws attention to issues of reversibility. Legal changes to status – and the expanded opportunities resulting from these – may be easily reversed by a subsequent administration unless these changes are concurrent with systemic shifts in historically embedded political, economic and social relations. Such shifts may be a process of slow, incremental change, difficult for donors to observe and measure within their limited time frames for financial support.”

slide 16 Finally, empowering women is not the same as empowering other groups, explains Malhortra et al (2002). 1)Women are a cross-cutting category of individuals that overlaps with other groups (the poor, ethnic minorities, etc)– they are not just one group amongst several disempowered subsets of society; 2) Household and interfamilial relations [can be] a central locus of women’s disempowerment – which is not true for other disadvantaged groups; 3) Empowerment requires systematic transformation in not just any institutions, but in the supporting patriarchal structures.

slide 17 The following are some questions and hypotheses that should be discussed. First, we need to make absolutely certain what our unit of analysis is. This chart is taken from Malhortra et al. (2002).

slide 18 As a path, empowerment should be context specific as it can be seen as relational (to others who are more/less empowered?)

slide 19 It is often the case that when donors ask for results, quantitative data is useful. But it is?  Shouldn’t we change the paradigm in which empowerment should be measured at the individual/grassroots level? Huairou Commission’s MDG initiative is making progress in using women leaders’ words and definition to do just that.

slide 20 Can qualitative data be measured over time?

slide 21 I think of this as the picture of individuals, collectives, random amalgamation of many different colors and shades which is we should see when we think of the ideal development paradigm.


1 This body of literature is extensive and growing. A few notable ones are, N. Yuval-Davis, “Women Ethnicity and Empowerment,” Feminism and Psychology (1994) 4.1: 179-197; N. Kabeer, “Reflections on the Measurement of Women’s Empowerment: Theory and Practice,” in Discussing women’s empowerment – theory and practice (2001). For the current overview, I draw heavily on two recent studies, S. Ibrahim and S. Alkire’s “Agency and Empowerment: A Proposal for internationally comparable indicators,” OPHI Working Paper Series (2007); and A. Malhortra, S. Schuler, and C. Boender, “Measuring Women’s Empowerment as a Variable in International Development,” Paper prepared for the World Bank Working on Poverty and Gender (2002).

2 According to the UN’s Division for the Advancement of Women, commitments on financing for gender equality and the empowerment of women have been made by national governments beginning at the Fourth World Conference on Women (1995), the 23rd special session of the General Assembly (2000), the Millennium Summit (2000).

Between art and a human rights campaign – reflections from Grand Central Station

There is a lot in common between human rights campaign and arts advocacy. Both address fundamental human values — self-expression, freedom, creativity, just to name a few.  Yet the arts have multiple facets, media, and systems of signification.  What makes interpretations of creative/artistic endeavor challenging (and fascinating) is that the arts often signify meanings far different from what was intended.

This essay is about a particular performance held in Vanderbilt Hall, Grant Central Station. I write as a spectator of a 20-minute performance in the context of the public setting.


Chaw Ei Thien is a Burmese performance/installation artist who I got to know through a retreat hosted by freeDimensional in February. Her performance on June 22 was part of a day-long event organized by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in collaboration with JWT, an advertising agency. HRW aimed to gather signatures to send to Burma’s Senior General Than Shwe as a petition to free Burma’s estimated 2,100 political prisoners.

Exhibit with pens as prison bars. (Author's photo of installation)

The Event

At 12:40 pm, about 40-60 people have already gathered in front of a large installation that looked like a giant wooden box (see picture at the end). I was soon greeted by a HRW staff encouraging me to take a pen from the exhibit and sign the petition.

It seems, however, most of the people around me either work for HRW, JWT, or they are Burmese activities and their friends. Every once a while, people who looked like tourists stopped and listened. So the number of the members of the public at any one time could be between 10-15. Granted, this does not detract from the integrity of the installation or the performances. It only makes me wonder about the efficacy of public exhibits/performances. It’s a point I shall return to later.

Chaw Ei Thien's performance. (Author's photo)

To set up the performance, Chaw placed a chair in the center of the ‘stage.’ On its right, she placed two (9′ x 11′) drawings, one of a motorcycle, the other an airplane. On the left, she placed a plate of rice, an empty can, and a plastic tub. In front of the chair, she placed a long piece of black cloth and another one with a middle section held together (by a flat plastic tube?).

Emerging from behind the installation, Chaw wore a long white tunic, her head was covered in a black cloth bag. She walked tip-toed with hands behind her neck. I could almost hear the audience holding their breath as she stumbled left and right towards the chair.

She knelt on the piece of black cloth and held her arms straight. At first it seemed as if she was being handcuffed. But she was moving her clenched fist. It looked as if she was riding on the motorcycle! She then stood up and extended her arms and stood on her right foot. She was flying (on the airplane). Vehicles that enable mobility — the motorcycle would let her get away fast, and the plane would take her out of the country. But a black hood covered her face. Could she see where she was going? Is she going anywhere at all or was it just a fantasy?

Chaw Ei Thien's performance (Author's photo)

She then sat down and looped one side of the other strip of cloth through her right ankle, then another — it was a shackle. She began pacing around, still with hands held behind her neck. Her feet swung sideways as she stepped forward to the right, then to the left, bending forward, stood up, and then twisted.

It struck me that the hooded figure resembles the infamous photograph from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in which the prisoner stood on top of a crate. But the reference is a bit tenuous. Chaw’s hooded figure could be anyone who is incarcerated.

Soon, Chaw stumbled back behind the stage and returned with two bottles of water. With knees on the floor, she crawled with her heads held forward as if in chains. The slow pleading gesture seemed to hold us hostage as well.

After pouring the bottled water into the can and the plastic tub, she knelt again with hands behind her neck. Quickly, she started putting her hooded face into the plate of rice, knock over the can, then thrust her head into the water of the plastic tub.

The audience seems to have gasped. These violent  movements aggravates our inability to stop/help her.

Then as silently as soon as she began, she took off her hood and grabbed the postcards she had previously placed under the chair and walked towards us. With water still dripping from her face and looking just a tad out of breath, one by one, she handed out her postcards and the performance was finished.

Chaw’s performance gave us a glimpse of the rawness of emotions. The black hood speaks of isolation, anonymity; the pouncing of her head into the water speaks of anguish, frustrations, and hopelessness.

Reflections of the Vanderbilt Hall event

In the hall, there was in fact no ‘on stage’ and ‘off stage’ distinction as onlookers were encouraged to squeeze behind the speakers to view the photos and sign the petition. Passive onlookers became active participants as they take a pen out of the light box to sign the petition, by doing so, they symbolically removed a prison bar.

As the sacred and the profane spaces are blurred, ‘off stage’ activities also becomes part of the petition campaign.

The passing tourists, office workers on lunch breaks, HRW staff zipping back and forth, JWT staff with their ironed dress shirts, Burmese monks and activists, and people in suits who looked like funders, etc, etc. A couple of (Burmese) women even posed for photos. One smiled sweetly in her pretty taupe color shirtdress with embroidered borders. Another wore a paper mask of Aung San Suu Kyi. A professional photographer adjusted her mask and bent her elbows to pose for the picture. The totality was surreal because there were so many different performances going on at the same time.

Symbolically freeing Burma's political prisoners. (Author's photo)

Moreover, since there were more event staff then people who were not, this petition event seems to be a well run event but it did not draw crowds. In an advanced media age when smart mobs and Youtube videos can go viral, the public-ness of this event remains a limited engagement.

The hiring of a big advertising agency for this HRW campaign also adds to the setting’s surreal quality.

When one of the speakers pointed to one of the photographs, I was surprised to hear that these are not anonymous individuals, but are actual political prisoners even though we can’t see many of their faces.

Why did the organizers omit their names from the installation? What are their stories? How long have each of them been in prison? If we were to symbolically free each one of them, shouldn’t we also know something about them as individuals? (Viewers should have been encouraged to go to 2100 in 2010 Free Burma website to find out more.)

I feel particularly critical about this point because I found out later that these pictures were Photoshoped to look hauntingly beautiful and stark. The clever montages transport the viewer simultaneously between Burma and New York. Yet the slickness of the packaging denies the ugly reality of prisons. It is too clean. The pens as prison bars is a nice idea, but is that supposed to empower us? just for a signature?  Are there deeper ways to connect us to the issues?

Perhaps this is where we could distinguish between the installation and the performance.

Chaw’s hooded figure was anonymous as well. But one cannot mistaken her stumbles and jerky movements as aestheticisation. Her awkwardness embodies physical oppression and mental anguish. The resulting contrast could not be greater: while Chaw’s performance calls attention to the prisoner’s sufferings, JWT’s photographs draw attention to themselves as beautiful objects. The slick montages kept us at a distance. They remain exotic and foreign, like sepia photographs of the Ashes and Snow series. I only wish HRW’s well-funded campaign machinery could see this distinction.

Photomontage from JWT’s art installation brochure