To Think with the Forest

To Think with the Forest

  • 24 March 2021, 1–2pm
  • The Forest Curriculum is an itinerant and nomadic platform for indisciplinary research and mutual co-learning. It proposes to assemble a located critique of the Anthropocene via the naturecultures of zomia, the forested belt that connects South and Southeast Asia.

    The Forest Curriculum works with artists, researchers, indigenous organizations and thinkers, musicians, activists. It was founded and is co-directed by curators Abhijan Toto and Pujita Guha. Abhijan Toto is an independent curator and researcher, who has previously worked with the Dhaka Art Summit, Bellas Artes Projects, Manila and Council, Paris. He is the recipient of the 2019 Lorenzo Bonaldi Prize at the GAMeC, Bergamo. Pujita Guha is currently a Ph.D student and Chancellor’s Fellow at the University of California, Santa Barbara and publishes on South and Southeast Asian cultures and ecosophical thought.

    The Forest Curriculum collaborates with institutions and organizations in South, Southeast Asia and beyond, including the Arts Network Asia for the Forest Curriculum’s Summer School program, Savvy Contemporary, Berlin, Ghost:2561 Festival, Bangkok, Thailand; SUGAR Contemporary, Toronto; Tentacles Artspace, Bangkok, Ideas City, Times Museum among others.

    http://theforestcurriculum.com

  • Online and Caulfield Big Screen
  • Join us here at 1pm – we’ll update this page to include the live video
Click the image above to watch the recording.

For our third event in the Monash Art, Design and Architecture / MUMA Form x Content series, we present The Forest Curriculum, a platform for interdisciplinary research and mutual co-learning. Hosted by Andy Butler, Program Curator at West Space, Melbourne.

Form x Content is a mix of fourteen live and pre-recorded events featuring the voices of renowned First Nations, Australian and international artists, designers, architects, curators and academics. The program is delivered every Wednesday lunchtime during Monash University teaching semesters, both online and broadcast on the Big Screen at Monash Caulfield campus.

Form x Content engages with the ideas, histories, sites and critical questions of our time. Semester 1 focuses on sustainability, collaboration and the ways in which First Nations’ artists centre Country in their practices. Semester 2 explores ideas of disruption and resilience, together with queer perspectives on artistic practice and urban space.

Form x Content is free and accessible to all.


N'arweet Dr Carolyn Briggs: Mirambeek beek. Boon wurrung Nairm derp bordupren uther willam. That means welcome to our beautiful home, the lands of the two great bays, Nairm, Port Phillip Bay, Marrin, Western Port Bay. We're here at the Monash University campus and it is about celebrating knowledge, yulendji. It's also about respect, respecting the Country that you're now a part of.

And it's also djeembana, how you will build a stronger community, how do we unite community within Monash University. And it's about respecting sacred ground or Parbyn-ata, Mother Earth. These are the guiding pillars of Wurrung biik, the law of the land. Come with a purpose. Womindjeka mirambeek beek. Boon wurrung Nairm derp bordupren uther willam. Ngondjin.

Andy Butler: Hi everybody, and thanks so much for joining us today. My name is Andy Butler, I'm the Program Curator at West Space based in Narrm/Melbourne. I just wanted to begin by acknowledging that West Space operates on the traditional lands of the Wurundjeri and the Boon Wurrung people of the Kulin Nations, and I wanted to pay my respects to their Elders, past and present. I'm really thrilled today to be joined by Pujita Guha and Abhijan Toto of The Forest Curriculum. We're presenting a talk as a part of the Form x Content series hosted by Monash Art Design and Architecture. And this specific iteration of Form x Content is co-presented with West Space.

Form x Content is a mix of 14 live and pre-recorded events, featuring the voices of renowned First Nations, Australian, and international artists, designers, architects, curators, and academics. The series this year engages with ideas, histories, insights and critical questions of our time. Semester 1 focuses on sustainability, collaboration, and the ways in which First Nations artists centre Country in their practices. This is a really interesting framework to approach what The Forest Curriculum does, as I think that they bring some interesting international perspectives to some of these discussions that are happening around land and the environment, and broad international discussions that are happening here in Australia.

For today, I'll start with a quick introduction to The Forest Curriculum and Pujita and Abhijan, and then they will begin with an introduction about some of their concepts and what they do. Pujita and Abhijan have very kindly invited me to be an interlocutor with them today, so we'll all be in discussion about their work and some ideas to help give some Australian context to the work that they do internationally.

The Forest Curriculum is based across Bangkok, Yogyakarta, Manila, Seoul, Berlin, and Santa Barbara in California. It's an itinerant and nomadic platform for interdisciplinary research for mutual collab. It's mostly based in Southeast Asia and operates internationally. It was founded and is co-directed by curators, Abhijan Toto and Pujita Guha, who I'm joined by today. And with the Rosalia Namsai Engchuan who works with artists, collectives, researchers, Indigenous organisations and thinkers, musicians and activists, to assemble a located critique of the Anthropocene, via the naturecultures of the Zomia. Pujita and Abhijan will give us an introduction to the Zomia just after this.

The Zomia, very quickly, is the forested belt that connects South and Southeast Asia. The Forest Curriculum organises exhibitions, public programs, performances, video and multimedia projects, as well as an annual intensive in different locations around the region, which gathers practitioners from all over the world to engage in collective research and share methodologies. Some of the projects they've already worked on are the The Forest As School in Bangkok in 2019, The Forest Is In The City Is In The Forest 1, in Manila in 2020, and 2, online in 2021.

And the platform has collaborated with institutions and organisations internationally, including S A V V Y Contemporary in Berlin, Ideas City, New Museum, NTU CCA in Singapore, Nomina Nuda in Los Baños, and GAMeC Bergamo in Italy, among others. I'm going to now throw over to Pujita and Abhijan to give us a quick five minute intro into the nuts and bolts of what The Forest Curriculum is, what the Zomia is, and then we'll jump into some meaty discussion points. Thank you so much, Abhijan and Pujita.

Abhijan Toto: Andy, thank you so much for that generous introduction and for having us as part of this program. Especially, in terms of the framing of the entire series as such, it's a really amazing thing to be here, in that context. Maybe we can start with, Pujita, maybe we can have a discussion about Zomia as an idea, and then we can discuss the way in which we have been approaching and thinking about it.

Pujita Guha: Right, I'll make it really short like in two sentences, but thank you so much again. Zomia is basically a term that is first brought up by Dutch anthropologist, Willem van Schendel, and later by the American anthropologist, James C. Scott, a very famous anarchist anthropologist, to kind of configure a landscape— a mountainous forest belt that moves between parts of South Asia. So, Bangladesh and Northeast India, kind of moves to Myanmar, Southwest China, Laos, Cambodia, Vietnam. That's basically the sort of mountain belt that all of this idea of Zomia refers to as we also mentioned in our introduction.

Zomia, for them and mostly also for us, is a material heuristic, in the sense that it is both a specific contour, a geography, a landscape, with its specific biogeographic configurations. But it is also a political, cultural, and social construct, which means that in the history of these regions, the forests have often served as the site and space of refuge for those fleeing the nearby states and nearby empires in a long history of the region, like a deep history and a deep time of the region. Which means that the space has served as a sort of collective site of inhabitation by Indigenous communities, by those actually fleeing slavery, we'll get to that point when we talk about settler colonialism as well.

And later, also in the course of 20th century communists fleeing the persecution of state, other people persecuted by the state and so on and so forth. The mountain forests of Zomia become this very curious and interesting site to think about inhabitations of the state and also exit from ideas of conscription, regulation, and domination, on one account. Also, sites where practices of Indigenous cosmologies and so on, are manifest as well. Zomia is both the material landscape as it's spoken about, but also the site around which a lot of social construction happens as well. So that is exactly how we approach Zomia as a concept. Then, maybe Abhijan can take us through what we do with these formulations of Zomia, and how Forest Curriculum intervenes into all these, yeah.

Abhijan Toto: Absolutely, Pujita, and thank you for that. I think that it's also very, very important to acknowledge that we are dealing with a space that has this incredibly complex history, but also very incredibly complex contemporary. Especially, given what we're seeing unfold in Myanmar right now, given what we're seeing unfold in the Philippines right now, I think that we can also see the political urgencies. Yesterday for example, the leader of the civilian government in Myanmar... called on ethnic minority groups in the country to join in what he calls the revolution. So it talks about how, in different ways, this has been a place that has both been outside of the state, but is in many ways given form to the states as we understand them.

This is part of the way that we approach it. In the sense that, when we're talking about these kind of histories of colonialism and of imperialism, and the various layers through which they interact and give shape to this region, a lot of the time the histories of these people that inhabit Zomia, that pass through it, that give it form in various ways, are seen as marginal, are seen as an addendum. For us, as people that are interested in imagining a potential anarchist fugitive... form of governance and the thinking together, this became a very important starting point for us. And I think Pujita can talk a little bit more about the ways in which we have been conceiving a critique of the Anthropocene.

What I would add to this is that, for us, we were looking at this not only in historical terms, but also as a space from which to understand organisation, from which to understand identity, from which to understand ways of working together and ways of creating fugitive forms of knowledge. We started The Forest Curriculum together in 2018 in its current form, but I think it's also very, very important for us to acknowledge that it's not something that we said was something that was new, in the sense that this was something... had been happening in these countries, but also very much in the recent past.

For us, we saw The Forest Curriculum as a platform where a lot of what had been going on in discreet ways, in often sporadic forms across the region and beyond, could be brought together and really be assembled around. This is what we tried to do with The Forest Curriculum. Andy mentioned a little bit about some of the forms that we take, but in terms of the way that we always like to work, we've always had to think through the work of artists, of filmmakers, of activists, and really to start from praxis, and from then, to create a space where we can collectively speculate. Maybe, Pujita, you can talk a little bit about the need for the collective speculation around a critique of the Anthropocene from this point.

Pujita Guha: Yeah, sure. I think one of the primary impetuses from which we began thinking about the project was to critique the ways in which Anthropocene was being spoken about. One was definitely a question of planetary habitation and what is now commonsensical or acknowledged widely within the environmental humanities or environmental activisms, especially environmental racism and things like that. But of course, we don't stay on the same planet, the planet is not the same for everyone, so that was definitely one of our starting points.

Then, we also launched off to think about, if the planet is not an equal starting point, what are the different epistemic forms, what are the different organisational forms that this planet actually in here is. For us, it became Zomia because of the fact that it enabled us to think about, or to talk about, naturecultures at once, in the sense that it was both the landscape and the environment and questions around these spaces. It was also being framed by specific political practices and political imaginary.

I think the specificity of Zomia, especially to think about different forms of habitation exit and different ways of battling the state and so on. It was also quite important for us, in as much as it was, to think about environmental humanities. Also, at a time when the environmental humanities and a lot of public programming within art, as well, was talking about planetary governance, like how the Anthropocene or how climate change or global warming were coming together as a planet in different ways or the other. We also wanted to think about different ways in which cosmologies or different ways in which the planet was being thought about or land was being thought about as well. I guess Zomia was that place around which we began to think and critique the Anthropocene in certain ways or the other.

Andy Butler: That's such a fantastic introduction to what you do. That's so rich in terms of the concepts you bring together, in terms of both geographic site but also the politics and culture and history that adheres to a particular geographic region. I love the way that you also talk about how Zomia is not only a geographic location, but also a political, and cultural, and social construction from which to build broader shared knowledges and ideas.

One of the points we talked about before this that you brought up was that you're sort of using an anarchist point of view to conceptualise the space of the Zomia and use that to orient us towards our current ecological moment. You talked there about the limits of the Anthropocene and in the introduction you sent through to me, you really clearly laid out how, in the Anthropocene, you see the limits as being— Within that body of knowledge there is a universal idea of the human that's very much embedded within a Western viewpoint. I was wondering if you could speak a little bit more about the way that this anarchist point of view adheres to what you do and how those ideas and different ways of organising yourselves, have really opened up different discussions in The Forest Curriculum.

Pujita Guha: I'll throw it to Abhijan in a second, later, but I just wanted to signpost this one important thing that we kind of did touch upon while we were introducing The Forest Curriculum as well. One of the important things is that, while the Zomia, within a certain theoretical construct, has been premised as a site of refuge, a site of exit for many different communities and so on, I think one of the important things that, especially when we talk about the Zomia in the contemporary, that we kind of obsess about in a way, is to move away from this romantic notion of Zomia that has also occupied a lot of public discussions around the place.

In the sense that, the forest is not necessarily only a space of exit and refusal, but is also actually a space of predation and killing and violent histories as well. We are actually very much interested to think about and to actually talk about certain histories of the region, that speak about this multilayered history of the place. Especially, one where sites of exit are also actually sites where predation and violence also happens. In Zomia, any historian of the place and anybody with a bit of a critical lens will also tell you that these are also sites of mass unclaimed graves, for example. Mass genocides have happened in different parts of this region, contestations around belonging to the state and things like that.

Zomia is not just for us an anarchist point of view, but also one where we can unearth or claim a different set or different genealogy of the place and of these countries and so on. Anarchism is definitely one thing on our anvil, but it is also one that we actually take with a bit of a— I won't say pinch of salt, but definitely with caution, with regards to actual histories and how they've panned out in the region. In terms of how we go about getting to anarchist points of view and trying to enframe that within a set of practices, one thing is for sure is the way in which we actually like to introduce ourselves.

The way that we go about doing it is we actually never describe ourselves as being inter- or transdisciplinary, but definitely indisciplinary. This is something that we borrow from the works of a friend, Jessika Khazrik. In terms of thinking about basically how this idea of being indisciplined is something both that goes against definitely questions of discipline formation, which is also a thing about Western academia, which comes from a certain Western wide legacy of knowledge formation. Also, indisciplined as being against the state. That is one thing where we kind of begin from and this is something that we'd like to sign post pretty early on in the discussion as well.

In terms of trying to enframe it within our practice, I think one of the interesting ways in which— This is also the way in which we actually like to organisationally set up or think about how we are as an organisation. We like to often joke amongst ourselves that we are actually not an organisation. We have no bearings of something that would describe ourselves as organisation. We really are a group of people who actually also work pretty much in and out of flows. As much as we can push forth an anarchist viewpoint or a method within contemporary art infrastructures, we also are a group of people who are not just a collective, as in like everybody works together all the time, but also we try to move and shift our collectivities and collective organisations, all the collectives we work with, across different projects.

Even the very nature of what would be a collective actually shape-shifts all the time, and very much tethered to the different kinds of discussions we can have. Even The Forest Curriculum is really not an organisation, or not really a collective, in the sense that most people would understand it. I think the way also we often sign off in our discussions and in our texts, we often go Pujita Guha and Abhijan Toto for The Forest Curriculum, it is not as The Forest Curriculum or in The Forest Curriculum. It is just the two of us signing off through a larger collective that shape-shifts, ebbs and flows in time.

We actually try to think of these larger questions of anarchist formations, to actually very simple practices of collectivity, of actually signing off in signature how we put ourselves out into the world. I think Abhijan will talk about some of the more specific practices that we've done, but this is how I'd like to put it out right now.

Abhijan Toto: Absolutely, I think you put it really, really well. I think it is quite interesting how it often comes down to these very, very simple gestures, but at the same time which speaks to this larger practice. I think when we talk about being for The Forest Curriculum, we're also creating a space of acknowledgement of all the different agencies that are moving through us and that we are moved by at various points. I think that creating this space where that can happen and that we're opening ourselves to, is one of the ways that we always like to work.

In terms of how we conceptualised this anarchist mode... of practice to formulate this as moving as opposed to as merely being, is that we are always thinking of this in this iterative manner. Starting from points of concern and starting with stakeholders in a particular field of knowledge, in a particular field of operation and beginning to think and unpack from there what we are potentially doing. This also allows us to be much more responsive to what is actually going on in different places, and allows us to become various things in relation to what it is that we're attempting to deal with. In terms of organisational— or disorganisational form, what we attempt to offer to those that we are in relation with.

Again, speaking to Jessika's idea that Pujita introduced of indisciplinarity, I think for us, this question of being indisciplined is precisely what we're attempting to enact within this practice. Also, as a way of bringing to question those forms of knowledge that have not been disciplined or are not recognised as being forms of discipline, which include forms of worlding, forms of Indigenous knowledge, and all of the things that go with it. Which is not, therefore, an attempt to ring fence and discipline them within a particular context, but rather to use them to unpack the ways in which knowledge has already been structured and therefore from there to create new possibilities. I think some of the ways in which we do this are definitely through the works of artists and from the points of view of the concerns of the assemblies that we create.

Andy Butler: I think this will be a really interesting time to drop to another talking point that you mentioned. You've really brought up this idea of different ways of learning coming together and being indisciplined, indisciplinarity. You seem to also have formed, in some ways, as a response to how universities organise themselves. Pujita, I know you're currently doing your PhD at Santa Barbara, UC Santa Barbara, so you're obviously very much embedded within the university. Abhijan, I know you've worked with universities in the past, and that was a really fantastic talk at that I'd seen you do online, Abhijan, where I think you have a slide where it says something about a criminal relationships to universities. Sorry, what was that quote?

Pujita Guha: I think it was Fred Moten and Stefano Harney's, I think it's from The Undercommons and the line goes, that the only relationship you can have to the university, is one of the criminal. To eat up such forms of and cases of knowledge.

Andy Butler: Sorry.

Pujita Guha: No, go on, go on.

Andy Butler: I'd love to hear your thoughts around this reorganisation of the university, but in terms of collaboration and knowledge and really thinking about what it is that The Forest Curriculum does in these events you put on where you bring all these different people together. How is it that you're trying to understand a different form of collaboration that goes against the disciplinary organisation of universities?

Pujita Guha: Maybe I'll just start again. Just also to kind of sound off, I think that slide that often attracts— this is not a quote by us but this is definitely by people who are vested within the university system for far too long, as is Moten and Harney. I often joke about— I don't really have much of a position to say on this, as you were saying, I am very much within the academic system as it exists in the global North. What we try and do within Forest Curriculum, is the fact that it's not just indisciplined in the manner that we pit. Often, many trans- or interdisciplinary programs would often pit a biologist to a counter cartographer and then put the two of them in an elevator and force them to talk, and things like that.

That's also a very crude manner in which interdisciplinary imaginations are often thought about. What we actually try and break away, usually in our public programming or in the summer schools that we've done, all the lecture series that we've done, and so on, is to actually put everyone into the room and start to get them talking. Honestly, in the sense that, often art spaces, often our summer schools are often the events that we do, are actually between collaborators that we actually like to collaborate with over long-term engagements.

One of the ways in which we also try to think about a collective, is not to just get an expert into the room to think about a project that they are expert at, something that they have been working for a long time on and off, but actually to grow projects or to grow ideas with them over long periods of time and to bring them in, in different ways, and to pit them against different collaborators and different interlocutors at different stages and so on as well. That's one thing that we like to do. The other ways in which I think that we like to think about indisciplinarity, is actually to, as we were saying, to go against expertise in some ways or the other. In the specific manner in which that we actually often don't call experts into the room to talk about ideas and things like that. We actually like people who are developing fresh ideas, learning new things, so as to harp on or shape things that they have been doing as well. Abhijan, do you want to—

Abhijan Toto: Absolutely. I was just thinking about the place in the Philippines where we met and essentially, again Tan Zi Hao was— I think that those kinds of contexts begin to speak about what it is that we're trying to do. With Tan Zi Hao, he was somebody that we were... just at the beginning stages of the collaboration with him. We essentially told him, "Look, we don't want you to talk about something that you're really sure about, but rather to bring something that you're still playing with experimenting with, and open that up to a collective intervention." When we're talking about what it is that we're trying to do with the university, I think one of the points that Pujita made very well, is that we're not seeing ourselves as a heroic, rebellious formation as being against an institution, et cetera, et cetera.

Rather for us, the more interesting and the more important question is always, what is it that we can all collectively do together that allows for a space of things to unfold? I think that this is what we understand as being this fugitive relationship that Moten and Harney refers to. For us, it's always important to acknowledge the fact that Moten and Harney are talking about a very, very specific... relationalities in universities are talking about the field of black studies and the presence of black bodies within these incredibly racist and colonial institutions, in the context of the US.

For us, while we find solidarity with those positions, we also have to negotiate and be quite firm and clear about the ways in which we are positioning ourselves. I think that this is also why we always go back to this space of movement and moving fugitively. Maybe one of the things that also intersects with this, that I think maybe Pujita, you might want to talk about a little bit more, which is our framing of identity. When we're talking about this question of positionality and from where we're attempting to... not dismantle university. This is something that we've been very clear about and especially in the texts that we've written about this and discussions we've had. We're not attempting to dismantle an institutional structure, but rather to imagine a totally different form of organising knowledge.

Part of what is at stake here, because we also draw from anthropologists such as Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, is that we are attempting to think about form, which is non-extractive in the sense that it is not creating a distinction between the production and the distribution of knowledge, but rather trying to create a form where knowledge is mutually held together. There is no point in which it is represented, but rather when representations are made, it is a... collective. This is something that we are attempting to formulate across our various modes of gathering. I think maybe within this context, Pujita, we can talk a little bit more about the way in which we're thinking about shape-shifting and identity, because this is also one of the things that brought us to the context of Zomia. It is a very important strand from which we are attempting to think about collectivity, as well.

Pujita Guha: I think one of our first preoccupations, and I think it is pretty much laid out in what we jokingly love to call our preamble, is the fact that because Zomia is a sort of a space where you think of other states of being, other than belonging to the state. I think one of the ways in which we actually think about it, is the way in which Zomia becomes this space for a sort of mutative, shape-shifting form of identity. And I think part of it actually has to do with a lot of material history of the people who live and move about in the regions. Part of it also, has to do with the fact that this entire history of the place is one of ferocity between nation states, between ethnic communities, between ethnic and different state forces, and so on and so forth.

I think this is pretty much well embodied in the works of filmmakers like Apichatpong Weerasethakul or Lav Diaz, who show characters move, not just between states, but move between states as in become a human and a tiger. All to say that people of these regions actually inherit multiple states of being, multiple states of identity, at all times. And are also often actually incurring a sort of fugitive relationship in terms of thinking of other practices that resist conscription in one way or the other. That is really a premise that we begin with when we think of organisational structure. Abhijan, do you want to add?

Abhijan Toto: Exactly. I think that part of what was very interesting for us with this, was how much it also produced a critique of, what we understand as the impasse within identity politics that we're concurrently seeing playing out in different parts of the world. Again, we've talked about this before, but part of what we're also trying to resist is an importing of a very particular formulation of identity, from places in the West to here, which produce a very different kind of impasse over here, where identity is fundamentally, not only understood to be different, but is different.

For example, when we talk about figures like a 'were-tiger', we're not being metaphorical, this is something that is real and within the experience of the people within the region. It is actually trying to unpack and work from that kind of positionality. We always like to talk about how, even currently, if we think about the forests that separates Thailand and Myanmar. It is a place that produces a kind of transformation of, not only allows for a space of migration in the sense that it is merely a space of physical movement, but it also a space of movement of being and becoming. This is the space from which we try to understand how to conceptualise and formulate identity. It is from this understanding that we tried to think about these forms of redistribution, as we discussed, within the context of the university.

Andy Butler: It's a really great point to come to because I feel like what you just brought up, Abhijan, and also Pujita, this idea of the impasse within identity politics, that is happening within the West. It is very much happening in Australia, which in our strange geographic dissonance, we consider ourselves as a part of the West, even though our closest neighbour is Indonesia. Obviously we have a lot of our own very specific impasses with identity politics. I was wondering if you could speak to— You brought up before, Pujita, the way that you're navigating these academic structures and they're very much particular to the global North. Abijhan, you just talked about the way that identity within South and Southeast Asia is actually just so different to the West. In our previous discussions, we've touched on how it is incredibly different between those living in the diaspora and those living within South and Southeast Asia. I was wondering if you can expand on some tensions within that impasse of identity politics, specifically within relationships between the diaspora and those within South and Southeast Asia, and maybe how The Forest Curriculum and ideas of the Zomia have maybe allowed you to open up those discussions?

Pujita Guha: Abhijan, would you like to take this off? Yeah.

Abhijan Toto: Sure. Exactly. What I would like to go back to is the fact that it is always important to actually start from the histories of the places from which we're working. When we're talking about these spaces of working together with artists in the diaspora and the tensions that that creates, it's always interesting to see oneself in multiple regionalities. The two very, very excellent examples of the people that we could consider as diasporic artists, but then who also conceived their identity in these migrating fashions, that we have been working with in a very, very long-term fashion are the works of the artists Sung Tieu and Jane Jin Kaisen. When we're talking about how we formulate this, they're some of the people that we have learnt the most from.

Sung Tieu is an incredible German-Vietnamese artist, whose lineage gets traced to North Vietnam and whose family was taken to East Germany as what we call "guest workers." After the fall of East Germany, became a refugee in the newly formed state of Germany. As somebody who constantly is... navigating multiple very hidden— The histories of both her identities, or her multiple identities, are things that are always regarded marginal, within the national narrative of the places in which she finds herself. Therefore, she's always attempting to create unpackings of how to position herself, vis-a-vis those things, through a constant interplay between fact and fiction. This is something that I think is very important, this ability to produce identity as a space of speculation, rather than as a place to which one is fixed. In a lot of instances, the way in which this navigation of identity politics occurs, particularly in the global North, is about creating boundaries about who can speak for whom, and rather for us.

This is what perhaps brings us to the work of Jane Jin Kaisen, the more interesting and more important question is, how do we speak together? How do we speak with and not for or against? Jane is another excellent example of how this occurs, as somebody who is from the Korean, quote unquote, "diaspora," but via the often unacknowledged history of infants being adopted away to the West and having grown up with a completely Danish identity. "Returning," quote unquote, to the place of her birth which is Jeju Island, which is this space of immense violence which was remembered only by the shamans of the place. When we're talking about, how do we think with these histories, with these contexts, and how to we create an expansion, how do we understand our location in an expanded sense. Jane's formulation of Shamanism and the ways in which it is both geographically rooted, but how this as a form of mediation can become something that becomes migratory, becomes nomadic. It's something that we always find ourselves referring to. Pujita?

Andy Butler: Sorry, Pujita, you're just on mute.

Pujita Guha: One of the things I think that's really interesting for Jane's work, vis-a-vis what we like to think, is the fact that often, no place of return, as has very violently held true in our own experience, can also be a place without whose history cannot not account for. You have to, especially as she returns to Jeju and she likes to think about her return to Jeju in a lot of her works, it also has to take in for the fact that Jeju was the site of violent massacres, and so on and so forth. I mean that, what all these artists like to think about is this sitting with trouble or sitting with a sort of uneasiness when it comes to identity.

I think that's really important with a lot of these artists that we like to interlocute with. Concurrently, what Shamanism also allows for her or other artists on a similar wheel, is to also think of how identity or Shamanism can help you open up to other forms of cosmological thinking. It's not just belonging to a community or to even history, but also to certain spaces, cosmological formulations, which means what kind of relationships you have with non-human entities, what kinds of relationship you have with your environment and so on and so forth. It is complicated on many different levels and all these artists think of this complicatedness at all levels.

Andy Butler: Yeah. Oh, sorry.

Abhijan Toto: I was going to say, just to add one sentence to that, to sum that up I would say that we look at Shamanism as something that teaches us how to be and how to become across worlds. This is the way in which we really think about these questions of identity. Please.

Andy Butler: We maybe have time for one more short discussion thread for about five or so minutes, and then we can have a quick wrap up. I really want to come to this question as I feel like we've built on a few of its ideas. Something you brought up before, Pujita, about sitting with trouble and uneasiness, is such an interesting idea. You mentioned the tensions between the global North and global South, we've mentioned settler colonialism, but not necessarily gone into it that much, and we've talked about identity. I was wondering, how do you navigate that trouble and uneasiness at the moment, when we're still navigating these settler colonial histories between the global North and the global South, when the global North still seems to control so many of the cultural and economic resources that shape the global South. How, from your positions, do you go about sitting with that trouble and uneasiness of those complex layers of history of structures of power, and how do you go about navigating them in what you do?

Pujita Guha: One of the interesting things that we like to think about, especially when it comes to Zomia, and it'll speak to where I'm going, is the fact that Zomia allows us to think of different imaginations of settler colonialism. Precisely for the reason that, it was also a space that was colonised and exploited without there being settlers for the longest time. A lot of Indigenous communities, a lot of people, natives and so on and so forth, were actually taken off as slaves to work in different places in that regard. Which means that actually, there is no settler— I mean, there is settler now, the state has colonised every inch of the planet, but it also allows us to think of other forms of colonisation that take you away or extract you away onto other places. It's not just the arrival of state that settler colonialism speaks of, but the kind of tethering to the state that may not be similar in its disposition or form that is one pronounced with settler colonialism.

Zomia is also an interesting way to think of how other forms of colonialism have happened and what the manifestations are. This was not colonised in certain ways that is often understood with settler colonialism, within the context of the US or Canada, for example. This is a place where people were taken off from for the longest parts. Through questions of raids, through questions of war and so on and so forth, one goes into a longer history of settler colonialism in the region. So I think that's really important, a way to think about these things, that not only, of course, take us away from the fact that it's not as if that the state does not exist in Zomia as well. Zomia also becomes a place where other forms of state take in and take labor out and take resources out. As we like to say, dry it out, in ways or the other in terms of its life force and vitality. That's also really a way to think of settler colonialism. That's one thing for sure, and I think— Sorry, I just lost you on you original—

Andy Butler: Yeah— yeah go.

Abhijan Toto: I was just going to say, I think that's a really important point that we start from. One of the things that we always try to counter, is this dichotomy between the colonial and the postcolonial, and therefore to think about multiple layers of always trying to decolonise as a continuous process. Within that, is to think against extraction and extractivism as forms. For us as well, to move through how we attempt to do this in our own practice, I think the two key ideas that we always try to work with are of solidarity and of fugitivity, and always in relation to one another. When we talk about this idea, the global North, who and what are we talking about?

We're not necessarily talking about a single homogenous space, and I think it's always important to acknowledge that and to find spaces in which we can have conversations, through which we can have conversations and collaborate and actually think together. This is also an excellent example of that because it is this space where we are still attempting to navigate these structures of power, but we are finding a space within which we're still able to have some kind of conversation and some kind of a possibility of thinking together. It's always attempting to very keenly identify what those are, who those people are, and how... and on what terms and with what stakes we can think and work together, and how we can always conceptualise redistribution within a particular framework.

Whether it's redistribution of actual resources, of support, of knowledge, even of cultural capital, as we discussed. That's another thing that we always like to think about in relation to the art world, because one of the last unredistributed things is always this thing of cultural capital. This also comes back to Pujita's original point of how we always sign off, because it is an attempt to redistribute all of these things to an as yet unidentified collective form.

Andy Butler: That's such an interesting point to end on, this idea of redistribution of capital, both cultural capital, economic capital, expertise, knowledge, in the way that we work. I think it's really exciting, the projects you've brought together and the ways that you're trying to really think about different ways of working together. It'd be great if you could let us know, how do we keep up with what you're doing and any interesting projects that you're excited about at the moment and coming up for you two, and for The Forest Curriculum more broadly.

Abhijan Toto: Absolutely, of course. This feels like a very YouTuber moment where I say, "Like and subscribe," but we do try to put as much of our information out there on social media. Some of the things we are really excited about— The form of The Forest Curriculum is constantly changing, we are currently in the process of planning our next intensive, which will hopefully take place in Indonesia in the near future. Beyond that, we are also in the process of creating new research labs, both around questions of countercartography, of thinking through sound, of working with filmmakers. These are some of the things that we are attempting to give form to and give shape to in the near future, in addition to continuing our ongoing engagement with public programming, et cetera, et cetera, that we have been doing. Pujita?

Pujita Guha: I think you've covered pretty much all of it, I don't think...

Abhijan Toto: Hopefully, we'll all find ourselves working together and thinking together quite soon.

Andy Butler: In the near future, hopefully in person in the near future. It will be great to see you in person again at some point, Abhijan, and to meet you in person Pujita, at some point. Hopefully, in the not too distant future. Thank you so much for joining me today for this iteration of Form x Content with Monash Art, Design and Architecture, presented in collaboration with West Space. Thank you so much Pujita and Abhijan.

Pujita Guha & Abhijan Toto: Thank you so much for having us.

Andy Butler: Such a pleasure.

More Events