Reflecting on the Database: Art and Cultural Ecology
Review by Clarissa Lim Kye Lee

Where can I find our art and cultural workers?

Often a nebulous and multiplying field of work, the art and cultural ecology of Malaysia is imbued with institutions from the nation building post-war era grappling with the Malaysian identity, competing towards digitalisation with the implementation of the Multimedia Super Corridor shooting off towards modernity, as well as the sudden proliferation of younger initiatives and groups.

Reflecting on my own research1 , I found collective and communal projects to be a source pointing to the interdisciplinary nature of art and cultural work. Despite the scene being impacted by limited funding opportunities, compounded with the lack of theatre and performance spaces, I discovered that independent work, had a DIY nature of making art and a self-supporting network to embody the construction of what Malaysian art can be. For this article I compiled the lineage of various mapping and collation initiatives in the scene, to draw out moments of Malaysian art history which are perhaps overlooked by the larger apparatus of governmental arts infrastructure.

There have been many archival projects and moments of discussion about such nodes. I traced one such early work of mapping the ecology to 2005 when artist and educator Yap Sau Bin created a project titled ‘Mapping KL Art Spaces’, which featured a customised Google MyMaps map playing with iconography to denote important art spaces during that time. The “snowflake” symbol indicated dormant spaces whereas the “sun” reflected a more activated space. The rest such as the “fir tree” or the “coffee mug” are up to our interpretation to decode the past rich moments of the arts in Kuala Lumpur. These moments included ChowKit Fest (2002), or Notthatbalai Art Festival2 where artists such as Gan Siong King, the Lostgens’ collective and other bodies collaborated together and activated Kuala Lumpur. This digital map was exhibited in 52nd Venice Biennale, 8th Havana Biennale, UABB and more. It began just as My Maps was created by Google.

Mapping KL artspace by Yap Sau Bin

In 2012, the editorial team3 of the four volume series titled “Narratives of Malaysian Art”4 put together an “An A-Z Guide to Malaysian Art” published by RogueArt. In the last few pages, the guide highlighted several arts spaces, public, private and alternative. Alongside the arts spaces, it compiled a list of collectives to speak to, for those interested in participating and engaging with the art and cultural ecology.

During my research, my supervisor Dr. Simon Soon was kind enough to share the inklings of his first foray into digitally mapping art and cultural spaces in Malaysia. His map from 2011 was the basis of my further work with Creative Hubs5 which currently houses a database of over 90 Creative Hubs in Malaysia, defined as “a physical or virtual space that brings together enterprising people who work in the creative and cultural industries”. Created in conjunction with Husna Khaidil and Ali Alasri, the database involved the three of us travelling (mostly through zoom) and speaking to various art collectives to discover their practice, which were mostly interdisciplinary in nature, and constantly growing and changing. This project intersects with the work of Yap, but is focused towards the digitalisation efforts of art and cultural work, especially as we shifted to connecting over the digital realm last year. The website is not organised in the format of a map drawn atop the landscape of Malaysia, but rather is categorised through 14 attributes or “tags” such as “Event Organiser / Producer / Curatorial services” and “Fabrication spaces / Makerspace” to reveal how each creative hub can accommodate multiple different forms of the arts.

Creative Hubs by Husna Khaidil, Ali Alasri and Clarissa Lim courtesy of British Council, Unviersity of Malaya and Yayasan Sime Darby

It was through this journey that I stumbled upon the work of Eksentrika, an online arts and cultural community and website. Eksentrika is founded by two journalists who are also art and cultural workers, whose experience and love for the arts lead them to create an ‘Artist Registry’ embedded on the website. The list is extensive, international and ranges from workers, to collectives, one-off projects and more. Anyone can easily contact the editors and register to be part of the growing list, supported and organised by and for the community. This democratises the process and creates an equal opportunity for all to connect with the growing network on the platform.

Other efforts have sought to compile the spaces and places where arts and cultural works can gather, such as the series of ecosystem maps supported by CENDANA and created by Rogueart, My Performing Arts Agency and Dr. Adil Johan. The maps separated the arts into three forms mediums: Performing Arts, Visual Arts and Independent Music. These identify spaces of exhibiting and performing, arts collectives and networks, NGOs, arts organisations, funders, platforms and festivals, education and more. The maps identified the different nodes in a typically fragmented ecosystem, and by drawing invisible connections, art and cultural workers can recognise where to participate and create works.

All these initiatives begin to weave the very fabric of the art and cultural ecology of Malaysia, adding layers of comprehension to a body of work that would otherwise fall into a multitude of categories scattered across governmental bodies, government linked companies (GLC), annual budgets, industrial classification and more. The lack of a centralised arts council has led to a plethora of independent, part time and freelance workers who lack proper healthcare, EPF and stability in their labour. The arduous process of recognising the multiplicity of art and cultural work has only just begun.

1I currently am a master of visual studies (research) student at University of Malaya at the Faculty of Creative Arts
2To find more about notthatbalai:
3The team consisted of Adeline Ooi, Beverly Yong, Hasnul J. Saidon, Nur Hanim Khairuddin and Rachel ng
4To find more information about the compendium, do look here:

5Currently funded by British Council, Yayasan Sime Darby and University of Malaya

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Clarissa Lim Kye Lee is a writer under the CENDANA - ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021

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