Ties of Tenggara: SAGER Exhibition Catalogue

The Southeast Asia Art Group Exchange Residency (SAGER) was a program ran by HOM Art Trans. The residency ran from 2011 to 2013, with each residency period encompassing three months. Two artists from Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines would spend one month in each country living and working together. The program has been on hiatus for 3 years, but in 2016, the alumni artists were brought back together to showcase works (solo and collaborative) made in the years since their residency to be exhibited at the National Visual Arts Gallery of Malaysia. I was invited by Bayu Utomo Radjikin of HOM Art Trans to write an essay for the catalogue. I interviewed four of the Malaysian artists who did the residency – Suddin Lappo (Cycle 1), Fadly Sabran (Cycle 2), Azam Aris (Cycle 2) and Seah Zelin (Cycle 3) – and talked to them about how their experience doing SAGER impacted them, then and now. Ties of Tenggara was displayed at the NVAG from 15 November 2016 to 20 January 2017. The text is published below:

SAGE Residency Ties of Tenggara catalogue SAGE Residency Ties of Tenggara catalogue essay: Mark of a Residency

The Mark of a Residency

What good is a residency? What purpose does it serve, and whom does it benefit? One might see these questions as a capitalist’s or cynic’s skepticism about art’s general ‘function’ based on the assumption that art should serve a function, should be a linear operation of processing input into output, should (as artists might hear too often) have a ‘point’. After all, enormous resources go into the running of any artist residency program — space, facilities, the maintenance of both, materials, funding, administrative and/or curatorial support — with a ‘return on investment’ that is often invisible. Perhaps there are artworks at the end of a resident artist’s stint, a workshop, a performance, some form of reciprocal labour for the residency organizer. There are times where none of these things occur. Either way, at the end the artist leaves, with their residency experience most consistently visible in the most literal sense as a bullet point on their CV.

As the residency manager for private arts centre Rimbun Dahan (and its sister residency at Penang’s Hotel Penaga), what fascinates me about this structure for investing in artists and art is less about what occurs when a residency is completed and more about how artists flow through and experience a residency and, most pressingly to me, what mark it leaves on them — what traces they take with them when they leave, as creators and as people.

Southeast Asian Art Group Exchange Residency (SAGER) ran from 2011 to 2013 for three cycles. Each cycle lasted three months, split between a city in Indonesia, Malaysia, and the Philippines with two artists from each country per cycle. Three years later, the collective alumni of 18 SAGER artists are coming together to present the works they’ve made since the residency last ran. I spoke with Suddin Lappo (Cycle 1), Fadly Sabran (Cycle 2), Azam Aris (Cycle 2) and Seah Zelin (Cycle 3) about their experiences, to further explore the impact of undergoing a residency.

SAGER was the first international residency experience for all the artists, and the opportunity to travel was certainly a big draw. “What I understood as SAGER’s purpose and why I was attracted to apply was its goal to create a larger community that existed beyond just one country,” Suddin explained. Fadly echoed this — his application was motivated by his excitement to see what was happening in other countries, how people in those countries thought about politics, society, and art. The locations of the residency facilitated a travelling experience that would be both local and foreign. As neighbouring countries in the same region, Indonesia and the Philippines occupied a duality of being both foreign places to the artists while still retaining a familiarity thanks to shared similarities in culture and history.

Zelin found himself struck by the colonial histories that all three countries had and what that meant for the transmission of culture and language throughout Southeast Asia — this lead to some deeper questioning on his part. “Although the Filipinos speak a language different to Malay, they share similar key words. It has travelled around. And so I started thinking more about my position when I travelled through the region. Like, why me, here? The first Chinese people in Malaysia moved [here] from China. So [as a Chinese Malaysian] do I belong to Malaysia or — ? I see [that] people move from here to there from time to time, no one is permanently staying in one place. It was no longer an isolated experience for me, it gave me a bigger view about the uncertainties of belonging.”

The uncertainties of belonging. Such a poetic phrase also encapsulates the transience of the resident artist. SAGER was built on the foundation of artists moving through place, for them to grapple with being in a place but not of a place. For Azam, the residency was like a ticket. “You have a green light, a reason to be somewhere. [Then] you have to be part of the place and its geography, so that the space is intimately merged to yourself.” Zelin expanded on this by saying, “As you travel, you only see the surface. But with a residency you actually are dealing with life and daily routines. You start to learn to live there.” For both of them, being a resident artist was about gaining entry to a new ecosystem of elements and adapting and integrating as a way of earning their time in a new place.

Of course, there are myriad ways to undergo a residency, none more legitimate than the other. Some artists may prefer to work without a green light, to experiment with deliberate disruption, or to lean fully into unbelonging and feeling out of place. There are also residency programs that shift the focus off place entirely — for example, Akademie Schloss Solitude in Germany offers Web Residencies which are run entirely online, to expand beyond Stuttgart and to engage with the growing placelessness of a world where the Internet’s role grows bigger and bigger. However, this doesn’t change the question of impact; if place does not mark a residency, then time does. There’s a beginning and an end, and then what?

In the course of our conversations, the artists went back often to a single word: exchange (it is, after all, right there in the residency name). Azam’s expectation [of SAGER] was to make friends and exchange ideas. “The most important here is the relationship between the countries, between the places.” And that relationship is forged through the relationships between the artists themselves, fueled by a desire to see beyond their own knowledge and practice. “I think any artist from anywhere will always want to visit the studios of ‘masters’,” Suddin mused. “And studios of not just artists with more experience but simply artists from different backgrounds. When I visit artist studios — when you can see the artist, their workspace, their brushes, their face as they work — I get energized. And that energy that I get, it differs depending on place. Artists from different countries have different ways of working.”

Through the stories they shared, it became clear that for them, place has no significance without people and that during their SAGER experiences, community-building was central on both the larger scale of getting to know the people and society of different countries and on the smaller scale of bonding with their fellow resident artists. “From what I know, certain residencies are quite individual,” said Zelin. “You have your own space to do your own stuff. But we all lived together, spent a lot of time together; it wasn’t result-oriented, the focus was on making connections.”

Perhaps that then is the significance of this exhibition, of presenting works by post-residency alumni: it highlights the continuance of connections, of the exchanges that still occur through channels forged years ago during a shared experience that spanned three different countries, 18 artists, and myriad personalities, backgrounds and identities. Perhaps these connections would have happened without the residency program, but the fact is that intention and execution do matter — residencies invest in building the most conducive environments and circumstances for generating connections, creation, exchange, instead of leaving it up to chance (or institutional support, which is even more elusive). Maybe the purpose then is for residencies to simply continue (fortune willing) as a place and time for artists unbound by expectations.

At one point in the interview Azam mused, almost to himself, “At the end [a residency] is not about art, actually.” Depending on your stance or mood, this statement could be preposterous. It could be glibly provocative, or oversimplified, or untrue. And maybe it could leave artists and residencies alike the space to keep revisiting what it could be about if it’s not about art and keep building pathways to new futures and different questions.