In early December, “Beyond Pressure,” a weeklong program of performance art in Yangon, Myanmar, was delayed by the closure of the Bangkok airport by Thai protesters and by the refusal of the Myanmar Censorship Board to allow the weeklong program to proceed as planned.
While capital flows freely across the borders of longtime trading partners Thailand and Myanmar, similar crossings attempted by humans—whether by land or boat—remain far more precarious. The dozen international artists slated to participate in the newly formed Yangon-based collective Beyond Pressure’s performance festival, originally scheduled for December 2–7, 2008, faced a farcical inversion of this hazardous migration route when Thai anti-government protestors—mostly urban middle- and upper-class members of the People’s Alliance for Democracy—forcibly occupied Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, stranding hundreds of thousands of passengers across the region and straining the Thai economy.
To make matters worse, the organizers of “Beyond Pressure,” performance artists Moe Satt and Aung Pyi Sone, along with poet Mg Day, found their efforts thwarted at the local level by the Myanmar Censorship Board, which denied permission for the festival only days before the scheduled opening. After further negotiation, Beyond Pressure’s eponymous festival proceeded over two weekends, December 4–6 and December 13–14, rather than the week that had been originally planned.
The scaled-down roster of international performance artists—Sharon Chin of Malaysia, Hong O Bong of South Korea, Tran Luong of Vietnam and Randy Gledhill of Canada—hosted a series of workshops, in which they discussed their respective practices for eager audiences in Yangon. At Yangon’s YMCA, several veteran Myanmar artists and writers held symposia on contemporary art in the country. Art critic Aung Win discussed street art practices in Yangon, and poet Nyein Way outlined the country’s various art communities.
After an interminable series of dialogues among festival organizers, local authorities and the Censorship Board, on December 6, Beyond Pressure’s local participants were granted permission to perform in public, marking the first time an independent performance art event has ever been officially approved by Myanmar’s governing bodies. A large crowd of onlookers gathered later that afternoon at Thamada Art Gallery to watch Nyein Way, Moe Satt, San Oo, Aung Ko, Aung Pyi Sone, Phyu Mon, Nyo Win Maung, Po Po and Mrat Lwann Htunn each perform, convening later at the restaurant M3 to watch performances by Sharon Chin and Hong O Bong.
Working in a social world that boasts a unique brand of fear—what Burmese call sei’chao’chaide, roughly translated as “something arising out of nothing”—Beyond Pressure’s members have hosted several public performance events with artists who might otherwise perform exclusively at residencies, festivals or other programs abroad. For example, in Beyond Pressure’s first street performance event, F n’ F on July 20, 2008, group leader Moe Satt engaged pedestrians with his contorted hand gestures and whistles, a trademark of his performance style. The work was abruptly shut down by suspicious authorities—who view performance art as a political demonstration—at its planned site of Yangon’s Stand Road and again later at a second fallback location. The group’s second installment, On/Off, was uninterrupted when staged in the semi-private space of Yangon’s BAK Shopping Centre on August 30, 2008. In a space normally reserved for fashion pageants or rock concerts, Mrat Lwann affixed tiny passport photos of anonymous individuals to every available surface, providing many of the city’s casual shoppers with a vivid experience of performance art. December’s “Beyond Pressure” straddled the line between the successes and the frustrations of these two earlier events.
The government’s eventual authorization of the festival, while certainly a dubious award, reflects Beyond Pressure’s capacity for compromise, the importance of which is often discredited by anti-government activists. After learning about the festival organizers’ letter of permission, additional artists joined the scheduled festival participants for their open performance session at the Queen’s Park Hotel. Than Htay Maung, Myat Kyewt, Nge Lay and Maung Day were accompanied by Marshall and Thet Ko Ko for this closing event, demonstrating Beyond Pressure’s potential to be the country’s first leading sponsor of contemporary art. The collective has already begun plans for a future residency and additional festivals.