About Zomia, and what Southeast Asian Forests can Teach Us

Curator Abhijan Toto
Curator Abhijan Toto

I always like to speak in the collective where “we” stands for Forest Curriculum. Forest Curriculum is fundamentally a collective, I co-founded it in 2018 with my colleague Pujita Guha, a media theorist, scholar, and activist, based in California. It’s a platform dedicated to thinking about collective ecological futures outside of the frameworks of the nation state and the western-centric idea of the Anthropocene, but thinking from a decolonial perspective, about a different idea of nature—which is multiple; and thinking from the perspective of indigenous forms of thoughts rooted in the forests of Southeast Asia. We have been working on this together for several years now and it takes the form of exhibitions, publications, and public programs, including a summer school. When I talk about the we, it is not only Pujita and I, but also this big network of people we are privileged to be part of, it includes filmmakers, scholars, gardeners, and other kind of non-human agents as well, including ghosts and spirits, that are also part of the nature we experience and articulate in this part of the world.

Urban forest. There is something we often laugh about: when we get invited to things, people assume that they should put us in a forest. But actually, we are not people who are going off and making a commune in the forest. What we say is that, while the forest is an important space for us, we look at ways it intersects with other aspects of life. Our current program, called The Forest is in the City, the City is in the Forest, looks at the notion of entanglement between spaces. I love being in nature, but I am pretty much a city boy.

Zomia, an ancient belt of forest. One of the terms we use is Zomia, a term originally proposed by the anthropologist Wilem van Schendel and James C. Scott. Zomia is this terrain that stretches from the North-east of India and Eastern parts of Bangladesh, and continues into Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, the Philippines, sort of across Southeast Asia. It’s this continuous belt of forest that existed for millennia. Even today when you look at Google map you can see this sort of belt of forest at the edge of several of these nation states. Throughout history it has been the place of indigenous communities outside the control of the bordering nation states, a place outside this history but with its own anarchist and animist traditions, of living with nature, along with spirits and non-humans entities. We were looking at this as a point of departure rather than the Anthropocene which for us always articulate a return to the idea of the nation. We didn’t want our post-apocalyptic future to be one that is bounded up in the narrative of the nation. We saw in Zomia this opportunity to articulate something else. We also saw that they were these completely amazing ways of thinking about nature that existed, that artists have been using to think through the histories of these regions. We are very much inspired by filmmakers such as Apichatpong Weerasathakul, Lav Diaz, Ho Tzu Nyen, and Nguyen Trinh Thi. These artists are finding these points of entanglement, between indigenous thought and contemporary histories. We are interested in how these films are articulating a different methodology to engage with the material, as perspectives into history and ecology. Rather than just thinking of these as singular art objects, we think of them as different tellings of contemporary issues.

Curator Abhijan Toto
Sonic Continuum for “A House In Many Parts”, Jam Cafe Bangkok. 2020. Photography Thana Pai Saengsorn.

Different ways to engage over time. One of our projects includes a collaboration with artist and curator Cristian Tablazon, from the Philippines. He has been working on this place called Los Banos, where successive colonial and post-colonial regimes experimented with the control of nature through their research on agricultural and scientific methods. We worked together on a workshop that we did in February before lockdown, supported by the IdeasCity festival and the NTU CCA in Singapore, where we brought people together over several days, to unpack and research. This research then fed a publication by Cristian, in the context of the exhibition “In The Forest, Even The Air Breathes”, a project we did this year in Bergamo at the GAMeC. We like to have these multimodal ways of engaging, sometimes it’s about having people together, or a publication, or an exhibition. It’s about keeping a collective spirit ongoing.

I was always interested in research and activism. It was through working with Council, a curatorial platform in Paris, that I learned about curating as something beyond just me putting together a singular event. Council proposes this collective methodology called the inquiry, a sort of questioning through which they engage with certain ideas over several years. One of the project I worked on was The Against Nature Journal, where they were looking at the idea of nature in the context of one specific law that prohibits sex against nature. They were working with activists, lawyers, community members, and artists in places where this law existed, to challenge what nature meant, through the form of a publication that they gave to activists, lawyers, and judges, as a real tool to use in the legal battles around this question. For me it was about looking at the curatorial as this larger framework through which many things could emerge. I’ve also always been interested in research and activism and the point of meeting between the two. I studied art history in India, then I trained at Beaux Arts de Paris as an artist, during which time my studio master said, point blank, that I was a better curator than I was an artist. Which is exactly what you want to hear from your studio master, ha! I work with an association back in India, Majlis, on the intersection between art and activism. I was always interested in what we, as culture workers, can allow to happen in different places. I am not only interested in making exhibitions, but also in what can art and culture express that isn’t expressed in academia, research, and science; not just about the aesthetics, but also about the multiple ways of being in the world.

I moved to Thailand in 2018. I was working previously with the Dhaka Art Summit. I decided to pursue Forest Curriculum work and my own independent work. I came on a research trip to Thailand, and it made sense for me to continue being here and develop my work with the community. Bangkok is such an incredible art scene, there are people doing things here that are absolutely light years ahead of what people are doing in other places. It’s an art scene that is booming and growing, and at the same time it sits across Southeast Asia. Before Covid-19, it was a place where everyone was passing through and it was very easy to be connected to the region. With all of us independent curators, having communities in many places has been an integral part of our practices. Before Covid-19, I was living between Bangkok and Seoul, and part of the time also in Berlin, so I was hopping around quite a lot.

Curator Abhijan Toto at the opening of "A House In Many Parts". Bangkok. 2020
Opening, “A House In Many Parts”. Baan Rim Naam, Bangkok. 2020.

I just finished this massive festival in Bangkok called “A House In Many Parts”, an initiative by the Goethe Institute and the French Embassy who invited me as artistic director. It came together in a short period of time, with a proposal to work during Covid-19 on a program between France, Germany, and Thailand. I invited French and German artists to collaborate, in the form of a publication or an artwork, which then was offered to a number of practitioners here in Thailand, who created a project around that. This is all in context of the current political revolution in Thailand. I worked with artists who were very much involved in the moment, to give them a platform to think about what our collective futures can be. For example, the collective Manifesto for Artists In a Strong State looked at how to transform Bauhaus objects into protest objects. They sent us these chairs that could unfold and become barricades, and I offered those to a dance and theatre choreographer, Thanapol Virulhakul. He turned it into a performance called “Act of Paddling”, which responds to the way Thai protesters are using these inflatable rubber ducks as barricades against water canons. This repurposed object became very emblematic during the protests. In his performance, Virulhakul is using that to think through the idea of bodily collectivity, looking at rhythms and movements and forms of being together. In another project, I invited Tomas Saraceno Studio to send us something from the Aerocene project. I then offered it to this Bangkok collective, called the Monitor Lizard House, who have been mapping climate change and coastal erosion in the province of Samut Prakan, south of Bangkok. They looked at the methodologies of the Aerocene and developed their own tools to create this live research installation, to observe climate change data and infrastructure. They had a live station where they were interviewing people, activists, environmental researchers, and locals, to find different forms of information about climate change, which aren’t articulated in the official numbers and pictures.

Bangkok is an incredible fun city. In addition to the art community I am also very privileged to be surrounded by an incredibly eclectic and creative community of musicians, designers, and architects. We are always finding ways of doing things together, whether it’s throwing parties, sharing food and incredible spaces, and making different kind of gatherings together. We are really privileged to have this, especially this year when parties and raves have become a thing of the past in America and Europe.

The perfect future invention would be to have something that allows you to be in more than one place, at the same time.

Curator Abhijan Toto, House In Many Parts. 2020
Eduardo Cassina, Chulayarnnon Siriphol, Liew Niyomkarn, and Abhjan Toto. “In The Dark Times Will There Be Singing? / A House In Many Parts”.
Alliance Francaise Bangkok. 2020.

The latest book that really impacted me is “The Forest & the School: Where to Sit at the Dinner Table?” edited by writer and visual artist Pedro Neves Marques, that I’ve recently been returning to. It’s such an amazing and significant volume of texts, with Neves Marques’s incredibly precise and poetic touch, and so important for the practice of the Forest Curriculum. I’m also looking forward to reading his new collection of poems.

We recently contributed to this very beautiful project that Korean artist Jane Jin Kaisen put together called “Community of Parting” which was at the Venice Biennale last year, in the Korean pavilion. It’s an incredible collection of texts and contributions by people like Hyunjin Kim, Anselm Franke, and Heidi Ballet, around themes of naturecurltures, history of the cold war etc.

I write a lot, in addition to curatorial work. I write many reviews, just today I was writing for Esperanto magazine in Japan. Writing is very central to my practice—going between fact and fiction, and experimenting. Writing and curating are extremely interconnected, it’s always about ideas. The form that something is going to take always comes from the way in which we engage with it. From that perspective, I would say that writing is also a space that I use to figure things through.

I am not sure I know what a holiday is, ha, ha. I just went to Koh Mak Island for New Year’s Eve, but the “Fly To The Moon Festival”, we were going to attend, was postponed because of the Covid-19 situation. I think my perfect holiday right now would be one that actually takes place.

Curator Abhijan Toto
Abhijan Toto. Pro-democracy protests. Bangkok. October 21, 2020.
Courtesy Hutsama Juntaratana.

Texts and conversations, and vive versa. Recently, I wrote a little essay for a project called “A Few In Many Places” for Protocinema. I was writing about the new work made by Filipino artist, Michelle Lopez, and I really enjoyed doing this because it allowed both of us to think through this space of political anxiety that we were facing. It was just before the American elections, and she was responding to the uncertainty at the time, and I was responding to the political moment that we are experiencing in Thailand. It became this very fluid, very gentle text, that didn’t necessarily talked about the artwork directly, but became a document of what we were experiencing. I love doing things like that, I also love writing collectively. That something we do in Forest Curriculum a lot, work externally with artists, writers, other curators, to develop things together. The text often becomes a kind of residue of a conversation that gets circulated in different ways.

I am not someone who is necessarily interested in collecting. I love the practice of people like the Thyssen-Bornemisza Art Contemporary foundation (TBA21), who come from a collector position, but use that to develop conversations and projects with artists in a long term way. If I were a collector, I would like to collect those kind of experiences, as opposed to becoming a collector of say, video art in Southeast Asia.

If I wasn’t curating, I probably would be a filmmaker. With Forest Curriculum, we are coming to terms with the idea that we will make films ourselves soon, so it’s not an either / or situation, but about finding space to do more, and more, and more, always.

Abhijan Toto

Independent curator

Bangkok, Thailand


Abhijan Toto  is an independent curator and writer, interested in ecosophy, indisciplinary research, labour and finance. In 2018, he co-founded the Forest Curriculum with Pujita Guha, a multi-platform project for research and mutual co-learning around the naturecultures of the forested belts of South and Southeast Asia. He has previously worked with the Dhaka Art Summit, Bangladesh; Bellas Artes Projects, Manila and Bataan, the Philippines; Council, Paris; and Asia Art Archive and is currently a curator at SAC Gallery, Bangkok. Selected recent exhibitions include A House In Many Parts, Bangkok (2020); Minor Infelicities, Ujeonguk, Seoul, South Korea (2020); In The Forest, Even The Air Breathes, GAMeC, Bergamo, Italy (2020); The Ghost War, WTF Gallery, Bangkok, Thailand (2019); Southern Constellations, Museum of Modern Art, Ljubljana (2019); The Exhaustion Project: There Is Still Work To Be Done, Haus der Kulturen der Welt, Berlin (2018). He has participated in residencies at Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul; HSLU-University of Applied Arts and Sciences, Luzern, Switzerland and at the Tentacles Art Space, Bangkok, and in the ICI Curatorial Intensive, Bangkok (2018); the Gwangju Biennale Curator’s Workshop (2018) and the Trans-Curatorial Academy, Phnom Penh (2018) among others. He was awarded the 2019 Premio Lorenzo Bonaldi, at the GAMeC, Bergamo.

Art critic and writer.

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