Abhijan Toto: How Curators Can Learn from Protesters

Courtesy Abhijan Toto

Decentralised, self-directed, hyperlocal and globally linked – new ways of working together outside of the constant circulation of the artworld

Splitting his time between Seoul and Bangkok, curator Abhijan Toto works across Asian contexts, often under the banner of the nomadic platform he cofounded in 2018, the Forest Curriculum. Through talks, workshops and research labs, as well as exhibitions, he and fellow director Pujita Guha have strived to spur new forms of ‘indisciplinary research and mutual co-learning’ – both in Asia and beyond – and done it in part by invoking Zomia: anthropologist James C. Scott’s name for the forested belt connecting South and Southeast Asia. For them, this ethnically and linguistically diverse highland region, with its history of counter-insurgencies against nation-states, animism and attunement towards ‘the other’, is of both literal and figurative interest, a site of investigation as well as a source of inspiration that embodies the spirit of askewness and indiscipline with which they hope to counteract the extractivism of universities and art institutions, and ‘assemble a located critique of the Anthropocene’.

Thanks in part to Zoom, they have continued to create events and ‘situations of encounter’ for emergent and marginalised groups – an impulse also indebted to Fred Moten and Stefano Harney’s idea of the ‘undercommons’ – during the pandemic. Toto has also managed to put together several hyperlocal yet globally networked exhibitions. In May 2019 he won GAMEC’s award for curators under thirty, the 10th Premio Lorenzo Bonaldi per l’Arte – EnterPrize, for In The Forest, Even The Air Breathes, a research-led group exhibition that, upon its realisation in late 2020, explored the forest-military-industrial complex, Cold War, indigenous struggles and multiplicities of human and nonhuman agency from a Zomian perspective. In December 2020 he conceived a two-week festival, A House In Many Parts, that saw five artists in France and Germany preparing boxes containing objects or ideas, which were then interpreted by Thai artists at venues across Bangkok. And current exhibition A Few In Many Places, created in collaboration with Protocinema, is a multicity group show addressing ongoing cycles of violence through various forms of collectivity, staged in locales as incongruous as an underground shopping plaza in Seoul and Governor’s Island in New York.

ArtReview Asia spoke with Toto about the new exhibition and where it fits within the dense thicket of ideas growing around his expansive practice.

ArtReview Asia How did the latest exhibition you have worked on come about and what is the premise behind it?

Abhijan Toto A Few In Many Places came out of a series of conversations between myself and Mari Spirito, who is the director of Protocinema. We’ve been working for a few years on putting together a summit of initiatives exploring itinerant models of curatorial work outside of brick and mortar spaces, looking a lot at the new relationships that are being explored between curators and artists, which are often quite fluid, often very context-specific, thinking about site responsiveness.

Sofia Lemos, Chulayrannon Siriphol & Liew Niyomkarn, Sonic Continuum, 2020, performed at JAM, Bangkok, as part of A House In Many Parts, 2020

It developed into this form where we were thinking: within this current situation, how do we not only create a situation of dialogue around these questions, but how do we actually actively create a system, a sort of a self-organised system where initiatives like this can support each other, learn from each other and kind of develop new ways of working together outside of the constant circulation of the artworld?

We’ve seen some interesting artistic and curatorial approaches to this, but for us, A Few In Many Places really is an attempt to think about how to do things differently and from a space of international solidarity, how to not become sort of exclusionary, how to not lapse into something that becomes parochial and very nationalistic but rather how to think about a sort of equal exchange within this process. Because one of the things that I’ve been very concerned about of late is hearing curators in Europe say, ‘Oh, we’re going to go quite local’, ‘No more flying people in’, etc. To me this is repeating exclusion all over again.

So within this context we’re trying to deal head-on with questions of extraction, questions of colonial and other kinds of violence, and while thinking about the context of each place. In a lot of ways, my previous exhibition, A House In Many Parts, took some of these ideas as a departure point. That’s why there’s a resonance between the titles.

ARA What are some of the moving parts that make up A Few In Many Places, and how do they fit together?

AT The project in Seoul, for example, has been realised by a collective called Welcome to Ogasawara. They are responding to ideas within East Asia of free movement harking back through the history of piracy, but using that as a way of also engaging with the cartography of the internet. In Puerto Rico we’re working with Jorge González, an incredible artist who uses soil and clay a lot and primarily engages with histories of colonisation. For a long time he’s been running a project called Escuela de Oficios, where he’s been challenging colonial art education within the Puerto Rican context and instead thinking about what a curriculum based on and focusing on indigenous knowledge could look like. And in New York we’re working with a really fantastic young curator, Lila Nazemian, of Iranian origin. She’s working with Vartan Avakian from the Arab Image Foundation, who is particularly interested in the archival image, in thinking about narrations of violence but also thinking through the different histories of migration, particularly in relation to the Armenian genocide.

The projects in each city are very, very different and respond very much to what is happening locally. So in that sense, when we’re talking about it as a group show across a number of contexts where none of us are going to see each other, how do you bind it together? It’s not necessarily in that classical thematical way, but rather through situations of solidarity, through situations of thinking together and learning together rather than trying to make something fit into some kind of overarching curatorial impetus.

ARA This project started in November but, given how you tend to work, I’m guessing your relationships with these artists and curators started long before that?

AT Absolutely. Part of the impetus for it was: how do we continue supporting each other in these networks? How do we keep building these relationships when we’re not seeing each other for three years? One of the things I’m also enjoying about the process with this project is that typically with international projects you’re flying everybody into one particular context and then learning a lot about that particular context through conversation, and whilst maybe picking up little bits and pieces about what’s happening wherever everybody else is coming from. But when you’re working with a number of people who are actually all in their own context, the learning curve is a lot steeper. It’s sort of like doing six residencies in six different places around the world at the same time. I think there’s something really beautiful about that.

Work by Welcome to Ogasawara, for the Seoul component of A Few In Many Places, 2021

AR What exactly is the Forest Curriculum?

AT The Forest Curriculum is not in itself an institution, but it’s also not not an institution. It’s a collective, but it’s also a formation of concern, as we like to put it; a network through which we attempt to institute certain practices. It is about creating a system of collective ownership and collective practice, which does not begin or end with us. We are part of a long-running history of different forms of practice, of which we are only giving shape to one set, one which comes from our concerns. And our intention has always been, since Pujita and I put the Forest Curriculum together in its current form, that as we proceed this should become more and more self-directed, especially by indigenous communities and activist communities.

ARA Earlier today I watched a 2019 talk in Berlin where you say that the Forest Curriculum is a ‘fuck you’ to the Anthropocene Curriculum [a co-initiative by Berlin’s Max Planck Institute for the History of Science and Haus der Kulturen der Welt navigating the predicaments of the Anthropocene]. I sensed, however, that you were less criticising the work it does than the educational establishment.

AT On the one hand I was trying to remind the people of Berlin that the world does not revolve around Berlin. The other thing I should point out is that, of course, a lot of really good research comes out of the Anthropocene Curriculum. However, living here in Thailand, I see a lot of excellent research being done around questions around Thailand, but that a lot of it happens in Western universities and stays there. The issue, for us, was not so much whether this work was happening; it was more about why is it not happening here. How do we make it happen here with the communities that this is about, right? It’s great to see some of the incredible work being documented, but how does that filter back into the communities about whom these works are being produced? How do we make this relationship, whether from academia or from the artworld or from these sort of hybrid institutions, nonextractive? How do we create active stakeholding within these processes? This is something that needs to be put at the centre of practice rather than being an afterthought.

ARA And to try to achieve that, you use Zomia as an entry point?

AT Part of the way we came into this was through thinking about how, within the context of environmental movements, it’s not enough to think about a future which is rooted in our nation-states as we know them. We come from an anarchist organising point of view, and so for us, when we want to think about the future, we need to think about a future that is commonly held and not built on exploitative nation-state structures. But also, what is an imagination of this that is rooted within our region? What are ways in which we can understand this region more complexly outside of these kind of often amorphous constructs like Southeast Asia, South Asia, Southern China, etc. For us as people of South Asian origin but with cultural affinities with the region, it also became a way for us to orient ourselves – to say, look, ASEAN is not a singular, monolithic entity that has been there throughout time, but actually there are much longer histories of cultural continuity, exchange and movement that go into shaping this region.

It’s also a way of getting away from this extremely compartmentalised way of narrating our history that we’ve begun to see, especially when it comes to the collections of Western institutions. It’s like: ‘OK, these are Southeast Asian artists, let’s frame them like this’. There’s very little in between those things, and we want to kind of upset that. But with the same gesture, we want to centre indigenous voices, centre voices outside of traditional urban contexts within this process. Thinking about all of these layers together is the way in which we orientate ourselves towards Zomia as a departure point, but also as a history to which we look.

Work exhibited in In The Forest, Even The Air Breathes, 2020, GAMEC, Bergamo. Photo: Lorenzo Palmieri

ARA You’ve acknowledged the guiding influence of Southeast Asian filmmakers like Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Lav Diaz. To what extent is your curatorial practice an attempt to distil ideas and impulses already in the ether?

AT That’s absolutely it. Maybe we’re bringing certain approaches and bringing ideas together in ways that have not been attempted before, but yeah, these are approaches that have been there not only in the zeitgeist of the artworld but around for centuries and millennia. It is more about creating assemblies of these ideas than necessarily trying to do something new. It is often looking at these ideas in all their complexity, giving them the justice that is often not necessarily done, whether it’s from a curatorial perspective or from a pedagogical perspective; and looking at, say, how entangled questions of nature, culture, history, violence, criminalism, etc, are. For us, one can’t begin to imagine a space through them without thinking about them all at once, and sometimes in contradictory ways. We often compare it to a sort of shamanic mode of working where a shaman is not necessarily bringing a new spirit into the world but rather looking at two things that are already existing but may not be able to see each other, then creating a channel of communication between them.

ARA You have already said that you want Forest Curriculum to be self-directed, but I was wondering whether, deep down, you harbour any long-term hopes in terms of what it can offer Southeast Asia, particularly at this moment of emboldened authoritarianism?

AT We come from an activist starting point, so this is something always at the centre of our practices. One of the projects that we’re in the process of launching really speaks to these concerns, because for us this question of collective stakeholdership is very important.

We are about to start a project in collaboration with a group of spatial practitioners in Australia and here in Bangkok that entails building a sort of critical indigenous design lab looking at questions of land rights in the region. The plan is to create a space for developing tools and methodologies that can be actively used by communities to both document and create evidence of these issues; but also as strategies for evading and creating new processes. And the idea is that, while the Forest Curriculum is initiating this, it is something that will ultimately belong to communities.

This is really responding to the rise of authoritarianism and the ways in which indigenous communities have been dispossessed across the region. And in the last year this dispossession has only sharpened, because there’s also no space for protests, the space for claiming accountability has shrunk.

ARA You recently wrote a dispatch from Bangkok where you applaud the radical aspects of Mob Fest, a gathering of music, performance art and speeches last November at the city’s Democracy Monument, staged illegally by protesters demanding a new constitution and reforms of the monarchy. What about it inspired you?

AT At Mob Fest I ran into Vipash Purichanont [an independent curator working on the forthcoming Thailand Biennale], and we were joking about how we spend years trying to put together a biennale and festivals, and these guys put these things together in a week, and they put us all to shame with the level of participation and creativity.

And I think there is also a reluctant recognition that there is a lot to learn from these organisations and networks, the ways in which they were creating space for very vital conversations in Thai society. We know that the government likes to portray the protesters in only one particular light, but I think the real substantive thing to have come out of the protest movement is a kind of space of discussion around the rights of women, of queer, trans people, sex workers, migrants, the working classes, etc. And there’s been so much conversation around all these questions that I think that, as much as the government wants to break the back of the protest movement – and who knows, maybe in the current moment, with the COVID-19 pandemic, this might happen – these questions are not going to go away anytime soon. The solidarities and networks that have been built will persist, and new ways of thinking will emerge out of them.

Council, praeng, 2020, discussion and sound performance, Bangkok, part of A House In Many Parts, 2020

ARA Can you talk about this idea of ‘indisciplinarity’ that you and Pujita write about? From what I’ve read, it seems apposite in terms of Mob Fest and the recent protest movement, which seems to largely be about questioning how power is formed, institutionalised and upheld in the country.

AT I will answer this by saying that one of the actions I felt to be so incredibly radical was the recent protest that happened outside the Siam Commercial Bank headquarters, where they were giving away these Duck Coin tokens that you could actually spend and use within the context of the protest, or if you went around the city and there were people that you knew who were allied with the movement, you could buy a meal or something using these tokens. And of course the authorities immediately clamped down on this and made it illegal, because it is so innately powerful. And if we look at what’s happening with bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, it’s not difficult to understand why: the ability to assign value is one of the ways in which power is centralised, and the moment you unpack that, the moment you make the assignation of value a collective exercise, something really radical and new happens.

This question of indisciplinarity dovetails with some of these ideas. We are coming from this place of thinking about the ways in which knowledge is structured: how is it held? To whom does it belong? How is it circulating in society? We began to be critical of these approaches of only opening up disciplines in the kind of multidisciplinary, pluralistic way we’ve seen since the advent of cultural studies. Instead we want to question the ways in which knowledge is disciplined into certain formations and to look at the historical, often colonial, often imperialistic ways in which these kinds of ring-fencing situations are created. To work instead from context, from practices. Say, for example, we’re talking about biologically studying a particular plant species in a particular context, that scientific study should not be divorced from indigenous knowledge around it, should not be divorced from questions of deforestation and habitat destruction in that context. They should not be divorced from an aesthetic understanding of these things. It boils down to: how do we work from a position where we have skin in the game of how knowledge circulates?

ARA When searching for new collaborators, what do you hope to find? And how do you approach each collaboration?

AT Deciding who we want to work with always starts from a place of solidarity; not only a practice that somebody’s doing but rather whether they’re really engaging with the politics of where they’re coming from and the way they’re trying to work through certain ideas.

This approach brings us into close conversation with philosophers of crypto finance as much as it does people that are working with, say, the Lumad community in the southern Philippines, because we find in each other spaces of thinking together about how to create a collectively inhabitable future. Because ultimately that’s what all of these things go back to. It’s always a feeling of realising how fucked we are together but maybe also rigging some propositions for another future. That’s where we try to work.

For each collaboration, we invite artists to spend time with people joining the programmes and to really unpack their practices, to think about them as ways of thinking and forms of philosophy almost, rather than merely as something through which a final artwork is realised. For us, an artwork is great and we love engaging with them, but within this universe of ideas, it’s also in a Deleuzian sense something that’s been captured, right?

A Few In Many Places, curated by Abhijan Toto and Mari Spirito, is on view in Seoul, Bangkok, Istanbul, New York, Santurce and Guatemala City between 8 May and 8 August

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