The research project "Lak-ka-pid-lak-ka-perd" is an art research that has been done in and through arts in the area of spatial representation in relation to homosexuality. It intends to become a platform for producing and testing out different modes of thinking in visual fields. The following is the road map to take you to different phases of my research journey from October 1997 to the year 2006.
There are films where you can't discover anything, where there's nothing to be discovered, because everything in them is completely unambiguous and obvious. And then there are other films, where you're continually noticing little details, films that leave room for all kind of possibilities.
Wim Wenders, The Logic of Images , p. 3
Right at the beginning of what was to become almost a decade of my life, I did not think much about how it might turn out to be, apart from a few hundred pages of writing, and then life would go back to normal, of not sitting in front of the computer for hours and hours. However, it turned out to be a long journey of thinking, living and breathing through the two obvious subjects of my study: space and homosexuality, with some filmmaking, photographing, writing, teaching and curating in between. It is a long way from my first thought of the thesis in which the films of 1970s New German Cinema director Wim Wenders would play a significant part, though I believe it is still his influence that leads me to search further into images that may inspire my imagination of space, as space is such a prominent feature in his films. With their vast landscapes and alienated characters on endless journeys, his films have brought back memories of my year in Utah when I was 15 years old and living with an elderly couple, where anywhere I went the Rocky Mountains were overwhelming. The vast landscapes were in opposition to my upbringing in the busy city of Bangkok. It was the first time I had the feeling of being misplaced, and the landscapes had an impact on me psychologically and geographically. Wenders' films reminded me of that very feeling again, though I may never understand or identify completely with his characters and filmic landscapes because of their associations with masculinity, which are too overpowering and dominant for me, in the same way that I do not feel comfortable watching Western genre films despite offering the same vast landscapes.
It was not long before I began my research that I discovered the films of Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-Liang, which depict similar subjects to Wenders' films but brought them closer to home. He portrayed the city of Taipei and its people when there had been a radical change in the 1990s due to its economic success in Taiwan. Instead of the German and American landscapes in Wenders' films, Ming-Liang's landscapes are the city of Taipei, where the built-up environments dominate the characters whose desires are often unfulfilled. His films often depict such spaces as the vacant modern apartment amidst high-rise buildings that the three unrelated characters frequent ( Vive l'amour , 1994), the family flat with a persisting leaking problem ( The River , 1997), and the vacant lot of flats after the evacuation of residents due to an unknown virus ( The Hole , 2000). Though his spaces often refer to the space of the family, many of them are no longer possessed of the same meaning as they are rather dysfunctional or, at worst, signify an absence from the space. The old meaning is in the process of deconstruction, as in Fran Martin's use of the term 'emptying out', and offers a new space where the meaning needs to be reconfigured, with the concept of homosexuality co-existing within the traditional space of the family and offering the possibility of new forms of relationship.
Ming-Liang's films were not an isolated phenomenon, considering the 1990s became a decade where many places around the world went through the process of remapping their social and physical terrain, with the increasing visibility of homosexuals which in a way was part of the globalisation process. There was also a group of films, queer Asian cinema, that projected similar ambiguous landscapes and made me question my own sexuality, both past and present. Having spent my primary education years in a convent school, my encounter with sexual ambiguity came at an early age as the most popular girls in school always had a tomboyish character. The effect on me may have come a bit later when I moved to a mixed-sex school where, at the age of twelve, I claimed one of the girls as my girlfriend. From then on, my sexuality became like a game for me, where I have found it liberating not having to submit to any category openly. In some way, homosexuality has been liberating in that one can directly resist the hegemony of a male-dominated society, and in queer Asian cinema they have also been a source of creativity. Ming-Liang's and other films in queer Asian cinema have become my motivation for wanting to know and discover these kinds of new spaces and their conditions that may provide a possibility for the construction of different identities to proliferate and offer an alternative living and thinking in today's rapidly changing society. No doubt these predispositions formed the starting point of my research.Coming to space through filmic images, amidst the current interest in 'space' in different disciplines, from geography to gender studies, particularly in the 1990s, I realise that space has become a more significant tool and can be productive for me in terms of rethinking its relation to sexuality. Pioneer works such as Henri Lefebvre's The Production of Space help me to think of space, not only its materiality but also the way in which it is conceptually produced and the significance of visual representation in the social production of space. Michel Foucault's Of Other Spaces enables me to search for 'heterotopia', spaces that are different from all the others, that "suspend, neutralise, or invert the set of relationships that they designate" in relation to homosexuality and how it functions in Thai society. Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick's Epistemology of the Closet makes possible a link between homosexuality and the concept of space and how the closet defines the structure of gay oppression; and in Judith Butler's Gender Trouble , the notion of performativity emphasises the social construction of gender. Both have influenced the queer theory and its extension to geography and the so-called queer space. From the influence of such prominent works, together with the Thai conception of space and sexuality, I am aware of the importance of opening up a link between disciplines. Therefore it is my aim here to bring together a set of debates concerning the relationship between space and homosexuality in relation to visual representation, particularly filmic representation. I aim to employ different theories and methods in order to create a new paradigm of understanding, including artistic and non-artistic approaches, such as writing, photographing, mapping, video-making, curating, etc.
If space is a product, our knowledge of it must be expected to reproduce and expound the process of production. The 'object' of interest must be expected to shift from things in space to the actual production of space , but this formulation itself calls for much additional explanation.
Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (1974), pp. 36-37
Departing from Ming-Liang's films, which centre on the city of Taipei, it seemed natural for my first venture to be to the city of Bangkok. First of all I wished to locate and bring to the fore what appeared to be under the visible layers of Bangkok. I set out to make a visual documentary on the life of homosexuals and how they construct their identity in the city of Bangkok. The documentary format is only a means I chose to work with. I did not intend only to make a record of homosexual life in Bangkok: it was a way for me to search for the origins of the subject of my fascination. Throughout the film, I also question my own identity and perhaps my own position in the culture, where public discussions regarding identity and sexuality, let alone homosexuality, have rarely been seen or heard. It is a way for me to pry into the invisible layers or into the private space of homosexuals which have never been represented before.
Through the life of four different characters - James, a German high-school instructor who commits his life to a partner; Ta, a student and part-time tour guide, whose life revolves around gay night life; Mount, a tomboyish tennis instructor; and Wee, an actor in a famous transvestite show - I was particularly interested in the way in which they construct identities in relation to urban landscapes and how the heterosexually dominated space of Bangkok has been appropriated by homosexual desires. It certainly directs my attention to the relationship between the alternative spaces that enable their desires and the already homosexually inscribed spaces like Patpong Soi 2, a famous gay night spot filled with bars and discotheques, and how both spaces play a significant role in the construction of homosexual identity. The documentary Blue Journey (1998, 45 mins.) had made sexuality visible through and in the urban landscapes which reveal certain tensions between the public and private space.
In an attempt to understand the conditions in which homosexuals found themselves, after my first visual research and my own private research on Asian queer cinema, I felt the need to lay the ground for my subject of inquiry and bring to the surface the subject of homosexuality in Thai society and further explore the subject of homosexuality in the public arena. Through the project Alternative Love Film Festival , which brings together queer cinema across the region and elsewhere for the screenings and the series of seminars regarding homosexual representations in the Thai media, I aim to provide an increasingly important issue concerning homosexuality but rarely allowed to be discussed in public, with the venue/a space to be discussed. Furthermore, I wanted to pose a kind of experimental project on public space in Bangkok: how the homosexual-related spaces are allowed to operate in the society. In hindsight, the project was of major significance to my overall thinking in the research.
My original intention was to keep the festival under an academic umbrella as I was not certain of the Thai audience's reaction to the first public screening of homosexually themed films. It was supposed to be held at Chulalongkorn University, with the support from the film department where I taught before taking a leave. However, it had to abruptly change as the project was facing discrimination within academic circles. Further, the Film Censorship Board, a government agency on which the head of department also had a seat, claimed the films were not appropriate for Thai audiences, deeming the films immoral and detrimental to the good nature of Thai culture. The event was forced to move from a university to a private location, a temporary theatre. The festival by then had become the centre of media attention and brought the homosexuality issue to a wider audience. Despite a threat from both organizations, the project managed to continue, with a legal threat hanging over it until the opening day, when police officers came in with a search warrant and tried to shut down the festival, as the films had been found unacceptable according to a report they had received from the Film Censorship Board. The local chief of police, in full uniform, attempted to disrupt the screening some five minutes into the film. When asked to address the full-house audience as to the reason for his interruption, he was immediately thrust to the forefront, and under the spotlight there was a momentary switching of roles between that of authority, the gaze, the surveillance, and the other that has often been the subject of the gaze and surveillance. The theatre had become a predominantly homosexual space in which heterosexuals had turned into a minority and the policeman's presence in the theatre needed to be justified. For me, this event foregrounded the significance of the unfixed relations between space and sexuality and how power relations work through space.
On the one hand, it had become a temporary space for coming out for many gays and lesbians who, by being at the festival, exposed themselves to the media. On the other, many homosexuals who did not feel comfortable exposing their identity to the public had the excuse of supporting an art and cultural event. This festival made visible the homosexual community outside their usual place in Patpong Soi 2. But i t is still inappropriate to call it 'community' as the festival was structured out of the temporary of both time and space. However, the short-lived festival provided a temporary space for a safe 'coming out' and coming to terms with their homosexuality in a semi-public space. The festival brought to the surface conflicts that may not be visible in what seems to be a peaceful society. Nevertheless, it is always under constant monitoring by the watchful eyes of authority, who often tries to impose its power upon those who are considered "the other" in society, both physically and symbolically. Despite the false impression of Thailand, Bangkok in particular, being a gay paradise, visual representations relating to homosexuality are rarely seen in the public arena. The project has certainly set out the scope for my PhD project in the sense that space, in this case urban landscapes, homosexuality and visual representation are intricate and provide a further framework for my thesis.
After the festival, I returned to the more traditional method of research in order to understand and analyse the relationship between Thai homosexuals and urban space. First of all, I attempted to locate homosexuality within Thai society and culture through research on historical and cultural backgrounds, to demonstrate the way in which it may differ from the Western model of homosexuality. At the same time, in support of my written part, I also attempted to locate the homosexual space in Bangkok by way of researching through the historical and social background as well as mapping the gay venues in different periods, which led to my further argument on the changing pattern of the homosexual space in Bangkok. The mapping of gay venues was done over two periods, 1999 and 2003. This I called 'Topography of Desire', which showed the production of sexual space, that being exclusive in the red-light district in the past, had slowly expanded to other areas of Bangkok by 2003. To further demonstrate the point, I refer to the film I am a Man (M.L Bhandevanop Devakul, 1987), one of a few films relating to homosexuality in the 1980s, as a demonstration of the changes that took place between the 1980s to, for example, the one that was fuelled by the announcement, in 1996, of Rajabhat Teachers College's ban on gays and lesbians enrolling in courses leading to degrees in kindergarten and primary school teaching. This marked a significant change in the discourse on homosexuality in Thailand, as well as the changes marked by Alternative Love Film Festival and Blue Journey , in which the boundary between public/private, hetero/homo had to be redrawn in the wake of Thai lesbians and gay men beginning to problematise the silences surrounding homosexuality issues in the 199 0s.At the time, I had been thinking about a Thai term, lak-ka-pid-lak-ka-perd , which is a term people use to refer to "homosexual", as it suggests the uncertainty in identifying the sexual identity of that person. However, it is a usage that seems to put emphasis on my interest in homosexual space, as it also can be used to suggest the unsettling relationship between two things that could also be directly related to space with the term pid ("close") and perd ("open"). It can also further suggest a kind of in-between notion between public and private, whether a space, a condition, a metaphor that is beyond the reference to homosexuality. It is useful for me to rethink such terms in relation to Soja's 'thirdspace' or Foucault's 'heterotopia' in different conditions and frameworks. I aim to use the term in a way that one needs to repeatedly question its origin and the difference from the Western references, to suggest the always changing nature of such spaces, which cannot be fixed either in terms of its meaning or its locations. In this way, lak-ka-pid-lak-ka-perd is a tool of thinking and also a condition, a space or behaviour that is specifically Thai. The following exploration, both in writing and visual works in different spaces, may offer a better understanding of what lak-ka-pid-lak-ka-perd might be, in that each may evoke different aspects and different arrangements from the traditional space, whether home, body, and so on.
Re-reading The Body
In order to add to the complexity of understanding a kind of in-between space in relation to homosexuality, I wanted to further suggest that the search for such spaces must be multiple and varied, and how they might relate to each other. For that reason, firstly, I move on to the space of the body as, according to Lefebvre, it is also a factor in the production of space, and in certain locations produces space through sexuality. Inspired by Parinya Kiatbutsaba's body, a transvestite or katoey boxer, I aimed to highlight the conceptualising of sexuality as performative, depending on time and space. For me, Parinya, who became famous for his make-up and hair band, and antics such as kissing his opponent at the end of each fight, has raised a lot of questions in terms of the degree to which the body of the individual subject could interrupt the dominant ideology, and blurring the boundary between public and private space.
I started the research on the discourse of the katoey body and how Foucault's notion of 'heterotopia' enables me to rethink the katoey 's body in different way . I am also aided by Judith Butler's notion of performativity, which highlights issues of transgressive potential in the relations between bodies and particular places, to analyse how the presence of Parinya's body may have disrupted the highly masculine space of the boxing ring and clearly problematised the relationship between gendered body and space. His body of in-between masculinity and femininity may well explain my use of the term lak-ka-pid-lak-ka-perd in a more physical form.I was so overwhelmed by the atmosphere of a boxing match when I filmed one of the fights by Parinya, that I started to take an interest in how Parinya's body has turned into a the spectacular 'other' body that is both forbidden and desired. I attempted to portray such a process in Kinnaree (1998), a name taken from a Thai fairytale character whose body of half-bird, half-human was an object of desire by human. It is a kind of body that once forbidden from the stage during the dictatorship era. What interested me in this work is the way in which the body can transform the space and how it emphasises the importance of the 'gaze' in transforming the heterosexual space into a space of homoerotic desire. It also helps to extend the notion of lak-ka-pid-lak-ka-perd in the sense that the act of looking, of gazing, can make possible what seem to be in opposite poles to take place simultaneously.
Home has been one of the most important spaces in the construction of dominant ideology. It is also one of the spaces that has been changed dramatically in the last few years. The boundary that was once clearly drawn between public and private has been transgressed and destabilised through physical mobility, new communication technologies, as well as the transformation of sexual cultures. The conditions under which the public and private reluctantly co-exist, bringing one into another and vice versa, have given a new dimension to the notion of 'home'. It is a space that demands further attention, in terms of how it might need to be re-imagined in different ways and redrawing the boundary once again in relation to the presence of the body of homosexuals. This is exactly what the series of works which I will discuss below attempt to explore.
The first one is Home Movie (video, 2002), which investigates the traditional space of family, when homosexual desire is negotiated and perhaps reluctantly allowed to co-exist within the space of the family. For me, the concept of home movies is often associated with heterosexual ideology, the representation of family, a happy home. However, in this video piece the common images of the mother cooking in the kitchen, the father washing the car, the grandparents looking after the grandchildren, are no longer represented. By using what is considered to be personal footage and a kind of home movie that records everyday life as well as fictional footage from past memories, I replace common images of the bedroom and living room in the home with isolated, depressed, distanced images and fuse those images of supposed fact with fiction. It is when dark has become light and the private has become public that the unexpected - the "obscenity", homosexuality - is presented to us. Through the work, it is quite clear that the traditional space of home has been transformed into the frontier of the unknown.
In an attempt to extend the notion of 'home' beyond the boundary of the nation, and redefine its meaning in relation to homosexuality, the term "leave to remain" has struck me as a condition of my presence, both emotional and physical, in England, as well as that of many others in contemporary society where displacement has become a common symptom. It is a term that may well explain the condition of lak-ka-pid-lak-ka-perd in another dimension which I intended to use as a departure point to explore further and address several questions in the complex and ever-changing condition of the relationship between diaspora or the "Other" and the Western in the blurring phase of the borderlines in the world today. During my past few years in England, I came across many friends who have to live in England, legally or illegally, for different reasons. Many of them have chosen to live outside Thailand because of their homosexuality, and my encounter with them has redefined my notion of 'home' and the way in which desire has propelled people to create alternative spaces of desire beyond the traditional space of family that we used to know.
The first work in the theme 'leave to remain' is a series of photographic images, Feel It Like Home (2003-2004), in which I want to draw attention to the current state of post-9/11 paranoia and 'fear' and the continuing controversial issues of asylum seekers in Europe, particularly in Britain, both in the physical space and in the state of mind of the people who occupy the space that once again redefines what 'home' is. Its traditional notion has also gradually been redefined and is in question by the restructuring of gender and sexuality through the feminist and queer movement in the last few decades. The secured door and window of the happy family home have reluctantly been forced to open to uninvited guests. By choosing to work with the photographic images, in the moments of stillness I captured the individual that was caught in the void, which provokes the inability to feel the sense of belonging. The corridor, the window frame, the door-frame, the stairwell produce a sense of in-between where public/private, outside/inside boundaries no longer fulfil their usual function but provide a splintering boundary where fantasy and desire can fuse with reality, in which is created a surreal feeling imposed on the notion of 'home'.The second work is Are You Local? (video, 2004). During the course of interviews with many friends for whom homosexuality was their main reason to relocate, I met Tip, a homosexual whose meaning of 'home' may differ from that of many, as she reconstructs her new identity as a British wife in a 'home' in a suburb of London where she lives with her husband. The objective of this work was very much like that of my first work, Blue Journey (1998), but in a different context. As an actor, Tip prefers to 'perform' in order to give a truer version of her feelings. For Tip, with her new constructed identity, to perform is more real than to be natural. The exotic Other and the British notion of 'home' perhaps do not belong together in reality. I wanted to revisit the documentary form in a way to question the construction of the subject's identity portrayed in the film and experiment with ways of representing the new identity. It also aims to question the boundaries of the local and the global, the traditional home and the present home that often cross over and mix in the construction of homosexual identity.
Re-Framing Cinematic Space
After several years of exploring this theme, I would like to go back to the origin of my quest, where the concept of lak-ka-pid-lak-ka-perd is substantially produced through filmic space. I wanted to focus on the films that came to my attention when I first started, as well as the recent ones, Vive l'amour (Tsai Ming Liang, 1994), In the Mood for Love (Wong Kar Wai, 2002), and Tropical Malady (Apichartpong Weerasethkul, 2004). By coming back to them again, I could see more clearly the complex relations between sexuality, space and representation. I am also assisted by Laura Mulvey's exploration of cinematic spaces and power relations. The cinema space, according to Mulvey, can be generated and extended into metaphor as well as embodied in the wider ideological ideas of cultural tradition and signification. These emblematic spaces are often filled with signification beyond its story and characters. They invite the spectator to read the cinema space in a way Gaston Bachelard terms a 'topoanalysis', or in the language of film criticism, to read the mise-en-scène.
Testing out Ideas and setting out for another Departure
My aim for the thesis project has been to ruminate on the possibility of the alternative arrangement of space in relation to homosexuality. There has been a search for an alternative kind of space and an attempt to understand its structure and the power relations inscribed on to it. Through the research I have formulated what I term lak-ka-pid-lak-ka-perd as a condition and a kind of space where I hope to offer a different mode of thinking in different disciplines. My move to Malmö Art Academy in 2003 from Goldsmiths College, University of London, has made it possible for me to better define the way I approach the subject matter and further allow me to explore it from different angles, particularly through art practices that generate different kinds of knowledge. It has also enabled me to test out the idea of lak-ka-pid-lak-ka-perd and open up to more possibilities of discovering the invisible layers of Bangkok. " Lak-ka-pid-lak-ka-perd : the Bangkok Invisible Landscapes Project" (2005) was created in collaboration with Miya Yoshida. It comprises art exhibitions, film competitions, and seminars concentrating on the way in which the space and its relationship to the city's inhabitants has been re-imagined in the new invisible landscapes of Bangkok through the changes in perception towards sexuality due to the increasing visibility of homosexual and other social and technological transformations. It is an open platform that allows artists, filmmakers and academics to address and question the term lak-ka-pid-lak-ka-perd , a condition that could happen in other places and different areas of interest, from the viewpoint both of the local and the other or outsider.
Moreover, the film programme aims to explore the relationships between city-filmic images and the link to the lived experiences of the inhabitants. The dynamic programme is comprised of three different groups of films. The first is a group of acclaimed short films on Bangkok that have been made in recent years. The second is a selection of short films from a short film competition, 'A Day in (The Other) Bangkok', which asked the participants to capture the transformations of Bangkok from diverse views. The third is newly made short films on Bangkok. It is an adventurous commission between the project and three young filmmakers to produce short films about their own invisible or lak-ka-pid-lak-ka-perd Bangkok.
The Bangkok that we know and experience and what has been represented elsewhere ("city of vice") may represent different cities. What is the real Bangkok may never be represented in one single entity in any one of the representations, whether in film or in any art piece, or cannot be articulated in any perfect description in a written version. Perhaps it is between these different approaches that one can find the real Bangkok, or perhaps an alternative Bangkok, if one really exists.
Through contributions by artists, filmmakers and academics, the project has opened up more possibilities of thinking and researching, which have become a platform for juxtaposing different ideas, different approaches, different elements, where I hope to further suggest the creativity that derives from questioning the binary opposition, whether hetero/homo, public/private, self/other, etc, triggered by the term lak-ka-pid-lak-ka-perd , which in the end produced a kind of an in-between space, a third space itself.For the final part of the project, the exhibition at Lund Konsthall in September 2006, I aim to juxtapose different forms of representation and different research approaches and materials that I have employed throughout my research in order to reveal the complex nature of contemporary urban conditions and to create the experience of lak-ka-pid-lak-ka-perd that cannot be reduced to any single form or approach. It is also a kind of test site, to put into different contexts the question of the relationship of sexuality to space. It is always in the state of 'becoming' an art-research that needs to be looked at with greater openness.
Laura Mulvey, 'Cinematic Space: 'Desiring and Deciphering' in Desiring Practices: Architecture, Gender and the Interdisciplinary (eds. Duncan McCorquodale, Katerina Ruedi and Sarah Wigglesworth), London: Black Dog Publishing Limited, 1996, pp. 208-215.
© Sopawan Boonnimitra 2004