Para-zomias: Prefigurative Urban Transformations in Asia

The word “zomia,” common across language groups in areas of Myanmar, Bangladesh, and elsewhere in Southeast Asia, means “remote peoples” or “hill people.” The political and social dimensions of zomia were explored by anthropologist James C. Scott who describes the area as a riotous heterogeneity of Indigenous people, refugees, and others evading colonisation and exploitation. Thinking zomia as a concept through urban space, this session looks at “para-zomia” as a composite of fissures with cities in Asia where heterogeneous communities are self-organising diverse economic and social meshes to support artistic production and prefigure different modes of individual and collective life. In what ways are artists and cultural workers remaking urban space to create nourishing ecologies that support each other as well as other marginalised groups? With cities in Asia in the midst of transformation, how are artistic and collective practices establishing experimental communities in the lacunae of these cities to support daily reproduction, creative production, and prefigurative, anti-capitalist ways of living and working together?

This session delves into how different artists, collectives, and cultural workers are self-organising their own present and futures within Asian cities, as evidenced in the practices of the cultural collective Amateur Riot in the Koenji neighbourhoodof Tokyo or the artist collective Listen to the City in the Euljiro area of Seoul. In essence, the art historical potential of this session resides in its ability to uncover a rich tapestry of visual narratives that reflect the ever-evolving relationship between culture, space, and resistance in Asia.

Session Convenors:

Jason Waite, Curator and Independent Researcher

Minji Chun, University of Oxford)


Jason Waite, Curator and Independent Researcher

Nourishing Para-zomia in Tokyo: Amateur Riot’s Prefigurative Cultural Practice Against  Precaritisation

This paper focus how the Tokyo-based collective Amateur Riot worked to establish a form of collective agency in order to contest the neoliberal rationality and its precaritising effects. It shows how Amateur Riot utilized a prefigurative methodology to institute material and cultural practices to counter their cultural and economic precaritisation. Amateur Riot formed an alternative economy in the neighborhood of Koenji to develop what the author argues is a para-zomia to support the precariat, musicians, and artists and allow spaces for cultural experiments. 

While Amateur Riot does not consider itself an art collective, the paper shows how their prefigurative practices blend cultural work and life. In particular, the paper has emphasizes how their interventions in public space have important performative parallels to contemporary art. These performative gatherings opened up temporary autonomous zones for cultural experimentation in public space, provided an opportunity for the group to reaffirm their community and expand it, and advocated for changes in society to support fellow precariats. In 2011, after the start of the ongoing Fukushima Nuclear Disaster, Amateur Riot utilised this style of gathering to organise what would become the first large scale political protest against the corporate and governmental policies of nuclearisation that would lead to the largest social movement in Japan since the 1960s.

Minji Chun, University of Oxford

Collective Intervention through Art: The Eulji OB Bear Case Study 

The Euljiro neighbourhood, where the Cheonggyecheon Stream flows, is an urban commercial and industrial district in Seoul that began spontaneously developing shortly after the Korean War and is still expanding. Specifically for artists and creators, this area has been regarded as a hub for purchasing art supplies and producing prototypes. Nonetheless, the district has been subject to urban redevelopment due to its geographical advantage for commercialisation. The problem with gentrification is not merely a short-term infection but rather a long-lasting contagion in league with capitalism. In opposition to the persistent conflict, artists have been actively bringing attention to the issue through diverse participatory tactics (Michel de Certeau). In particular, the Eulji OB Bear pub, located in Nogari Alley, Eulji-ro 3-ga, Jung-gu, Seoul, was demolished in April 2022 after four decades of service. Since then, artists, DJs, activists, and others who support the Eulji OB Bear have gathered every weekend until mid-2023 to disseminate flyers, hold Christian worship services, play live music, and/or read poetry in order to encourage harmonious coexistence. As evidenced by my site visits in Seoul in 2022 and 2023, performative and musical effects were also located at the heart of this resistance; The Eulji OB Bear case reveals how spatial intervention as performance insidiously interconnects random bodies and underscores relationality in the public space. By highlighting this “artistic protest” as a case study and articulating its distinctive operating modes, I will analyse the participation of citizens and concomitant values in relation to spatial interventions.

Jessica Holtaway, Lecturer, Solent University

Yoi Kawakubo, Solent University

Zomia and Para-zomia: How to Organise and Sustain Non-Hierarchical Collectivism

To explore non-hierarchical organisation and the development of communities that are organised around voluntary cooperation, this paper explores the labour of sustaining prefigurative collaborations. It will approach the question of how to organise and sustain collectivism through two discussions. First, a discussion of failures within self-organised movements (with reference to James C. Scott’s 1998 book: Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition Have Failed – a book that shaped Scott’s thinking prior to his articulation of ‘zomia’) and interpreting these with relation to recent writings around ‘radical care’ (inc. The Care Collective’s Manifesto). And second, a discussion of how Japanese contemporary arts collective, art for all, is building strategies for sustainability that call into question ideas around ‘productivity’ and instead centres its development around the values and concerns of the group. As such, sustainability works with, and through, uncertainty and perhaps even dissent. How can such prefigurative collaborations work towards future goals? One suggestion we make is that visual and written narratives can act as a both a reflective tool that opens up ‘other’ spaces within capitalist and neoliberal environments to allow for such collaborations to flourish.

Annabella Mei Massey, University of London 

“To Live Fully is to Always be in No-Man’s Land”: Cyberfrontiers, Zomia, and the Joyous Nihilism of Lu Yang’s Doku the Self (2022) 

This paper explores how a generation of Chinese new media artists are moving beyond the corporeal environment to envision limitless virtual worlds and posthuman selves in cyberspace, with a primary focus on Lu Yang. In his work, Yang typically frames the Internet as a state-free realm of collective refuge and possibility, echoing the anarchic function of zomia for the Southeast Asian hill tribes in James C. Scott’s 2009 monograph. This paper concentrates on Yang’s Doku project (2020-ongoing), a video series centred around a nonbinary humanoid avatar (the titular “Doku”) who is conceptualised as the artist’s own “digital reincarnation”. After introducing the Doku series as a whole, I demonstrate how a joyously nihilistic “para-zomia” of community support and survival can be traced in Doku the Self, a 36-minute-long 2022 narrative film which presents six of Yang’s reincarnated alter egos as they travel ever deeper through the various realms of samsara. As we follow the central protagonist (dressed in a grey top which reads “to live fully is to always be in no-man’s-land” on the front and “to be willing to die over and over again” on the back), Yang moves our discourse of human interconnectedness beyond the physical urban realm (the video opens with a raucous apocalyptic fantasy of a city being destroyed by Doku), and towards his planetary vision of a shared virtual existence in creative flux and situated beyond traditional binaries and borders.

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