Making sense of belonging through socially engaged art-activism in Nang Loeng neighbourhood, Bangkok

by Boonanan Natakun

In the 2018 report from SEANNET, Bangkok team, we illustrated what has happened in Nang Loeng, through three case studies about the Old Bangkok Neighbourhood’s development towards creative tourism: the Buffalo Field Festival (งานเต้นทุ่งสนามควาย), a community-based performing arts festival, and the “Mysterious” Physical Improvement Project of Sala Chalerm Thani. These two events and one incident respectively were discussed as ways in which the sense of belonging experienced by Nang Loeng residents could be improved. One year later, Nang Loeng has continuously hosted a number of research projects as well as architectural and urban design studios from various institutions. These projects and studios aimed to learn about and improve the physical environment in Nang Loeng. Many attempts were made to engage local residents to take part in these projects via public meetings and consultations. Needless to say, local participation was clearly limited because the locals did not see and/or might not feel any impact of these projects on their lives. In this year’s report, we revisited Buffalo Field Festival (BFF) and observed it thoroughly once again. We have also realised that this community-based arts festival could be seen as a socially engaged art-activism event. Again, we provide a disclaimer. We are not attempting to over-claim that the activities we have seen at the Buffalo Field Festival (BFF) can have a considerable impact on community development in Nang Loeng. Rather, after observing and participating in BFF in 2017 and 2018 and more recently in November 2019, we have fully participated in the festival and seen some changes and tactics which BFF could use to enhance a sense of belonging that can be shared for the locals. 

Even though there are a number of art events and festivals in Bangkok–for example, Bangkok Art Festival and Bangkok Art Biennale–funded by both government and private sectors, Buffalo Field Festival or BFF for short is a community-based event, where local wisdoms are demonstrated through a form of performing arts. BFF was softly launched in Nang Loeng neighbourhood in 2017 by Openspace (Ploy Yamtree and her team), Mike Hornblow, and a local group called E-Loeng, formed by community leaders and local artists. The festival aims to present local arts and culture through art practices created by international artists with close collaborations with community members as much as possible. Despite limited budgets, BFF offered a two-day local arts festival. During the daytime, artists prepare their shows onsite, while, at night time, they execute their art performances and/or installations with light & sound. One day during the festival, Openspace and some other artists offered a small dance workshop for visitors and locals in order to engage audiences both from outside and within Nang Loeng. Boonanan participated in the workshop in 2018 and reported his thoughts and feelings in last year’s SEANNET report (see above). The photographs below show activities in the small dance workshop as well as some performing arts during the evening in 2018.

A group of people standing in front of a building

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Photos courtesy of Ploy Yamtree 

In 2019, the BFF working group came up with new ideas to expand design-research activities in the festival. An extended three-day local workshop was included prior to the festival. Thai and international artists who were available before the festival were welcome to join the local workshop to gain an understanding of the neighbourhood context. The idea was that those invited artists could generate ideas and gain inspiration for their art performances during the festival. Once more, local residents were invited to attend the local workshop not only to engage them to take part in the festival, but also to provide a source of data for artists throughout the workshop. Participants in the workshop were not only from local and surrounding areas, they also came from outside Nang Loeng.   

Three themes were set up by Openspace and introduced as tactics to engage local people and participants in the three-day local workshop: Sustenance, Settlement and Social Fabric. All participants in the Sustenance group were asked to walk around Nang Loeng and look for areas, no matter how big or small, where local people could grow crops for food. Later on, discussions amongst group members would decide which places would be good spots for pilot pocket gardens within Nang Loeng. Some recycled materials such as glass bottles and small pieces of bamboo were provided for the Sustenance group members to create raised beds for gardening crops. However, after talking to the locals who have tried to grow crops in their house frontages, the group members realised that the local authority is always concerned about garden beds encroaching into public spaces. As a result, no one is permitted to build garden beds permanently on the ground. The group decided to do an experiment by building mobile garden beds on a trolley, which ultimately highlighted the limitations and opportunities for artists to contextualise themselves in Nang Loeng.       

For the Settlement group, a 5 X 5 metre vinyl-paper map of Nang Loeng neighbourhood and its surroundings was used to attract local people and also help run the workshop. The large map helped the locals orient themselves and recall their past stories and memories collectively with their neighbours. Mapping games were introduced by asking participants mainly from within Nang Loeng to draw houses, streets, and nodes in the past during different time periods. This activity was undertaken twice in two days over the workshop period. The mapping game attempts to unearth interesting issues and lost memories of the locals to be topics of interest for participating artists. Some of these were used for creating art performances later on in the festival. 

The Social Fabric group, on the other hand, used the large map for orienting long-standing stores as well as stores or shops which have long held local wisdom and expertise, but had subsequently disappeared. All group members were asked to visit existing tailor stores, barber shops, butcher shops, and last but not least, bicycle repair shops. The group members took photographs and drew floor plans of the shops, aiming to understand the cultural ways in which exterior and interior spaces, and furniture and equipment in these shops and stores are inter-related in order to realise inherited systems of local wisdom and expertise. The group members created collages and mapping to present ways of living of what they call ‘local experts’. The purpose was to connect local experts to other social activities as well as the surroundings to illustrate the network of social fabric exercised in Nang Loeng. Photographs below show uses of a large Nang Loeng map in the local workshop, dance practices in front of a tailor store, a mobile garden bed, and documentation of a disappearing bicycle repair shop as part of the design-research processes.  

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Photos courtesy of the author, Anya Koon and Nammon Welployngam

Unlike last year’s performances, these artists executed their art and dance performances in several areas throughout the neighbourhood, including a barber shop, a tailor store, and a bicycle repair shop.

During the festival, a series of art and dance performances by local and international artists were organised in the last two days/evenings. Unlike last year’s performances, these artists executed their art and dance performances in several areas throughout the neighbourhood, including a barber shop, a tailor store, and a bicycle repair shop. All daytime art performances were provided in local shops as a means of interacting with local residents and ‘local experts’. This helped as a means of interpreting local practices and turning them into art forms. During the evening, dance performances took place within the temple area bounded by walls in which bone ashes were kept. Both local and international artists performed their dances with lights and sound.

A number of different audiences from both within and outside Nang Loeng came to watch the shows and enjoy the festival atmosphere. Interestingly enough, many of the art and dance performances in BFF 2019 expressed interpretations of thoughts and feelings that had been perceived by the artists. For instance, the very last dance medley performance by all artists was spontaneously directed by an Indonesian artist who held a whip and swung it to strike the ground. This was to urge other artists to perform trance dances. Those artists had interpreted themselves as being in a trance-like state in the form of wild animals, who suffered injury from a superior fighter even though they fought to the death. This last performance took place for 15 minutes and the show ended with all performers lying down dead on the ground with a solitary victor remaining.  

A group of people performing on stage in front of a building

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A young girl standing in front of a building

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Photos courtesy of the author

Does BFF 2019 help strengthen a sense of belonging for the locals? How well do all artists convey their thoughts and interpretations to the audiences, which includes local people? Can these art and dance performances be considered as socially engaged art-activism practised in Nang Loeng? These questions are still being asked by both participants and the audiences of Buffalo Field Festival at Nang Loeng neighbourhood. What we, as urban dwellers, can learn from these activities co-organized by artists and locals, are questions not only about urban pressure and challenges at the local level, but also the significance of sending messages to authorities to express how these community members feel about their living environments, where residents feel a lack of security of tenure: homes that are not fully theirs to be called homes. 

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