Rimbun Dahan – Res Artis Meeting of Southeast Asian Arts Residencies

For more than 20 years, Rimbun Dahan has offered residencies for artists from Malaysia and Australia, expanding in recent years from a pure focus on visual arts to writing, curatorial research, choreography and other art forms as well as turning to supporting artists from the Southeast Asian region. With not much widespread or accessible support for the arts in Southeast Asia (compared to other countries) in the form of sustainable funding, institutional support and spaces for art, investing in our own backyard felt crucial.

This was the impetus behind organizing the Res Artis Meeting of Southeast Asian Arts Residencies at Rimbun Dahan in July 2016. There had never been a Res Artis meeting in the region before, and possibly this was the first regional meeting of artist residencies in Southeast Asia. The aim was to host a meeting informed by the different and similar cultural, economic, and political contexts of Southeast Asian countries, a rare opportunity for residencies in this area to engage and share without following the lead of a European, Australian, or even East Asian lens, to focus on issues closer to home.

The four day meeting brought together 20 representatives from 19 residencies and organizations from Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, Vietnam, as well as Australia and China. Thanks to funding and support from Goethe-Institut Malaysia, the meeting was facilitated by Jean-Baptiste Joly, founding and artistic director of Akademie Schloss Solitude in Germany, and Res Artis board member. Jean-Baptiste engaged the participants using both his experience from working in an established artist residency in Europe as well as his awareness of how new and unfamiliar the entire Southeast Asian region is to him, encouraging a non-hierarchical space of equal exchange where everyone could learn from each other. While the borders of modern day Southeast Asia are a relatively new leftover from colonialist days, gaps still exist that leave neighbouring countries in the region a little distant from one another in familiarity and understanding.

The first day of the meeting was dedicated to the participants getting to know each other and the residencies and organizations they represented. Sessions such as ‘Residencies rooted in ‘place’ and ‘Thinking outside the field: Alternative models & residency spaces’ looked at the diversity of models in Southeast Asia and Asia Pacific – from independent residencies run by artist collectives, to residencies that grew to complement existing institutions (be it a cultural trust, museum, gallery, or small business) to community-oriented residencies with a huge relationship to a specific place or building. Residencies operating with limited physical resources such as Green Papaya Art Projects in the Philippines and Java Arts in Cambodia spoke about investing their resources in programming and curatorial and administrative support for the artists, while larger or more established residencies, such as Rimbun Dahan and Bundanon Trust in Australia, spoke about giving artists’ access to utilize and benefit from available facilities, without the same focus on customizing each residency experience. While a ‘platonic ideal’ for a residency might be having the capacity to invest equally in both, participants agreed that the diverse approaches attracted different types of artists and projects and that any limitations could also be used as guiding parameters for artists to experiment.

Other sessions looked at the role of the residency in the broader arts eco-system, what responsibilities we had to local communities (especially those that didn’t understand the purpose of an arts residency!), what relationships are needed with art institutions and funding bodies, and of course, the crucial dynamic between residencies and artists. Some questions were posed: how does one measure the success of a residency – when it benefits both the artist and the residency, or when it benefits only the artist? Is there such a thing as a ‘failed’ residency, or is the binary of success/failure restrictive to the open-ended experience of a residency? These questions inspired many invigorated responses, with many participants seeing a residency as a starting point on a long-term journey, from which short-term conclusions would not be cursory or untested. This discussion also led to the topic of establishing and maintaining an engaged alumni of past residents, a network that connected artists to each other but also the residency itself to a larger global context, opening more and more paths between Southeast Asia and the rest of the world.

At the end of the meeting there were already questions about a second meeting in the region, with requests in the feedback forms for more residencies and more countries – within Southeast Asia and also within Asia – to participate and be represented. The meeting truly highlighted the motivation to continue strengthening this regional network, and we hope there are more opportunities to keep advancing that.

About the author

Syar S. Alia is the Arts Manager of Rimbun Dahan in Malaysia. She started work there in 2015 and oversees the residency programs in both Rimbun Dahan and their sister residency in Hotel Penaga, Penang. Set on fourteen acres outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the compound of Rimbun Dahan is a centre for developing traditional and contemporary art forms, and has been active since 1994.