A Much-Needed Bridge (NICA, Yangon, 2003-2007)

Installation art by Khin Aung Aye, Collaboration, Networking, Resource-Sharing: Myanmar (CNRM), 2002. Courtesy of Jay Koh and Chu Yuan.

A Conversation with Jay Koh and Chu Chu Yuan on NICA
(Yangon, 2003-2007)

Networking & Initiatives for Culture & the Arts (NICA) was an independent not-for-profit resource development center established in Yangon, Myanmar and was managed from early 2003 by the international Forum for InterMedia Art (iFIMA). Created in 1995, iFIMA initially began as the international platform of "arting," an independent art space in Cologne from 1992 to 1999, to facilitate networking, collaboration, and resource sharing across different countries. In this conversation with iFIMA’s Jay Koh and Chu Chu Yuan, we discuss the challenges leading up to NICA’s establishment, the complexities of operating under a military government, and the changes that has occurred in the Myanmar art scene since.

The late Mandalay-based artist Tin Maung Oo discussing his installation art piece in CNRM, 2002. Courtesy of Jay Koh and Chu Yuan.


Chu Chu Yuan (CCY): Before we start, I actually want to comment a little bit about the title that you chose for the project because I want to question whether it was the right or wrong timing or we were the right or wrong people, and how do we actually judge what's right and wrong? Is it because the thing didn't continue therefore it was the wrong timing? Or was it the right timing but it had already served its purpose so it closed?

When we set Networking & Initiatives for Culture & the Arts (NICA) up in January 2003, it was certainly a difficult time. Jay first went to Myanmar in 1996, and the conditions of lack and isolation of those times led to the work that we carried out there. If we were to set NICA up in Yangon in the late 2010s, we certainly may be more “successful” and the work would probably not have discontinued, but for NICA to have happened then was very crucial for the Myanmar scene. So, even though our works were constrained and we eventually closed, was that the wrong or right timing? Who was the right person to do the work is also a very difficult question to answer because of the kinds of socio-political structures that were in place there at the time. How groups were organized was very closed and hierarchical and there was a system of patronage where opportunities came from the top.

Jay Koh (JK): Yes, thinking about “right people,” I've always been aware that each individual I meet has multiple personalities. So, if you work together for just one or two months, you won't really see their different personalities emerging. It all depends on who, when, and where you are talking and how the people you talk to create their narratives at that time. So, about this timing reference, it's a bit problematic because which constructs are you talking to? How do they see you, what is their intention, and how do they interact with you?

In the work I do, I always begin from the position of an outsider — not belonging to any dominant group — even though when I was working in Myanmar, Thailand, and Mongolia, I may have looked like a local. So, this title is a bit questionable, but that's good, as it is meant to be provocative, right?

Night and day circles on NICA’s raised platform in Pyay Road, where many performance and interactive activities took place. Night circle: New Year’s Eve gathering with Gangaw Ywa artists and friends, end 2003. Day circle: Nicholas Leong’s workshop on photography, 2003. Courtesy of Jay Koh and Chu Yuan.

Constance Singam providing career counselling at the Insein community school in Yangon, 2004. Courtesy of Jay Koh and Chu Yuan.


Merv Espina (ME): Could you take us through the conditions that led to the setting up of NICA? What were the lines of thinking behind your decision to work and live in Yangon for such a long period of time? But before that, Chu Yuan, could you tell us what were the circumstances behind your involvement with the international Forum for InterMedia Art (iFIMA) circa 2000? And, Jay, what were the circumstances behind your first visit to Myanmar in 1996? 

CCY: I met Jay on the cusp of the year 2000 and I started getting involved in iFIMA only in around the end of 2000. Before that, I had been practicing as an artist since 1993, and worked as an arts manager with The Substation. I started out with artist-run groups like The Artists Village (TAV) and the 5th Passage. 

Eventually, I became interested in collaborative art practice: artists collaborating with each other as well as with non-artists, enabling public participation. So, when I met Jay, his practice really went along with my interests and how I wanted to develop further. Thus, I became involved with iFIMA because its tenets were to establish collaboration, networking, resource and knowledge sharing amongst artists and art groups. 

JK: Going back a bit to provide some background to the work, from my personal circumstances,  I had applied for political asylum in Germany and due to the asylum process, I had no passport and I could not leave Germany for 15 years, till I gained mobility with a stateless travel document which disqualified me for visas to Malaysia, Singapore, or Indonesia. With limited resources, I used Bangladesh Airlines, the cheapest airline, which only goes to Bangkok, Yangon, and Dhaka from Europe. These are the three places that I started working in from 1995 onwards.

In 1996, I went to Yangon and came into contact with the Inya [Gallery] group, who were recommended to me when I inquired about modern artists at a shop run by the Myanmar Union of Artists in Bogyoke Market. I asked the Inya artists what I could share with them, and they asked for materials on performances and installation art. [1] I shared with them my knowledge of these artforms and also brought in videos, mostly from Europe, for them and worked with Phyu Mon and Aung Myint to produce Phyu Mon’s first performance and Aung Myint’s first performance on video. [2] 

At that point, I was consciously seeking changes to my artist-led practice, searching for inputs and criticality to move away from the prevalent modernistic reductive methods that I thought subscribed to imagined intention, personal agendas, identities' representation, and author-centricity. As in the “E.T. (Exchanging Thoughts])” project in Chiang Mai in 1995/96, I was seeking to initiate ad hoc, everyday participation, and reciprocal collaboration. I was introduced to Dialogical Aesthetics during my presentation in the “Littoral” symposium in 1998. From there, I began collaborating with groups like WochenKlausur from Austria and Organisation and Imagination (O+I), formerly Artist Placement Group (APG) from the UK from 1999 to 2005. These experiences and processes contributed constructively in the development of my emerging praxis and influenced my activities in Myanmar and elsewhere.

In 1998, in collaboration with Inya artists who helped me translate texts and questionnaires,  I demonstrated public performance art in Yangon through “Public Acts.” [3] In 1999, our discussions on their needs to pursue more progressive art forms led to the idea of creating a long-term art space for experimentation, learning, and exchanges with the international scene. 

Impromptu performance made by Finnish artists Lea and Pekka Kantonen and their daughter with Kachin students at Myanmar Institute of Theology in Yangon, 2005. Courtesy of Jay Koh and Chu Yuan.

Top left: One of the Lokanat Galleries being renovated as part of the concept of Jay Koh’s M-Project. Top right: The transformed white-cube-like space with Jay’s installations being installed. The space was left that way for future use. Bottom left: Guests interacting at the front of the Galleries, that shows the original appearance of the space. Bottom right: The German ambassador to Myanmar and other guests during the opening. Paintings are typically hung salon-style in the Galleries. Courtesy of Jay Koh and Chu Yuan.


JK: Our discussion led to applications for international funding, and we advised Inya that the project should not be limited to just them and iFIMA. The use of public funds requires larger participation, ownership, and openness, and it should not be confined to just one Myanmar group. I then learned that two of Inya’s artists, Tito and San Minn, were actually members of Gangaw Ywa, an older and bigger group. Gangaw Ywa was formed by 30 to 40 former students, from different disciplines, of the University of Rangoon who were part of the university art club. Many of them were not active in the arts but they continued to participate in the group’s annual art show. 

Inya then decided to invite Gangaw in as a collaborator and, together with iFIMA, we formed what was named Ayeyarwaddy Artist Assembly (AAA). It was AAA that organized the first international art symposium and workshop in Myanmar called Collaboration, Networking, Resource-Sharing: Myanmar (CNRM), a six-day event, at the Beikthano Gallery in June 2002.

We actually submitted our program to Colonel Kyaw Win, the chief military intelligence officer, unofficially. He is a poet who, according to the locals, would sympathize with our effort to promote arts and education. He advised us to make CNRM by-invitation-only rather than a public event. CNRM continued and was considered by our participants as a groundbreaking international event in Myanmar. Over 200 people came and even though we were not supposed to let students attend the event, some came because they learned of it by word-of-mouth. 

ME: You have both written elsewhere [4] about tensions between the Inya group and the Gangaw Ywa artists. When the latter subsequently requested that iFIMA officially manage the art center, what was your line of thinking behind accepting the request despite the damaging rumors circulating and the ever-looming threat of harassment from the military government?

JK: After CNRM, Inya left so AAA was just Gangaw and iFIMA. Soon after, dangerous rumors started circulating which led to Gangaw saying they can no longer take over the leadership and that we had to come in. There wasn’t much choice actually, unless we wanted to see the whole project collapse.

When we tried to seek legitimacy for NICA, we went to see the Director of the National Museum. She had attended CNRM and found it very good, so we were able to communicate with the Ministry of Culture through her. [5] We were told that to properly review NICA’s application for approval, since we were foreigners, we would have to go through five ministries and that would take five years without guaranteeing an outcome.

In the end, the Gangaw artist Nyo Win Maung registered with the artists union so that NICA can operate under a gallery license. In December 2002, we rented a space for NICA and we officially started our activities in January 2003 with iFIMA managing NICA.

Even with a license, to be accepted by the military government and to show cultural capital, we had to obtain a sort of consent or approval from prominent members of the artistic and literary circle who were not in the opposition. These persons must not openly show sympathy for the opposition, the National League for Democracy (NLD) or Aung San Suu Kyi’s party. However, we in turn also had to show that we stood for democracy so we consulted with prominent artistic and literary figures accepted by the opposition. This was visible to the right persons and yet discreet. There was an implicit expectation for foreigners doing NGO work — which our work was likened to — to be committed to bringing about positive changes for Myanmar, although the disposition towards democracy had to be restrained and exercised prudently.

CCY: Yes, we had to be seen performing in certain ways to be accepted by respected master artists and the government, but we also had to be seen negotiating with the dissident artists. It was a very delicate and almost insane play of performativity.

JK: We needed to be “seen” and acknowledged as performing “acceptably” — in fact I would say my performances began in 1996. Otherwise I would have been kicked out or refused a visa. But yes, we had to spread our own “rumors” in a way.

CCY: To answer your question, Merv, I always thought our running of the art space was going to be very temporary, that maybe after a few months, once the rumors died down, we would be able hand over the center back to the locals. 

I was very disturbed about the rumors and worried for the safety of those who worked or were associated with us. In those first few months, I kept asking the Gangaw members, “What should I do? How should I explain myself so that people would understand the real situation?” One artist advised me by saying that everything I say will be interpreted in ten different ways, so there's no point trying to think about how to make myself understood because that's just not possible. 

I would still say that the experience was traumatic for me because there was no way to pinpoint the things that needed to be resolved. People were not willing to say directly what they thought and felt or what the problem was so that it could be addressed. We were told later that there is a proverb that says to speak directly is to be very foolish. This unresolved situation is a very difficult thing for me even until today. 

Of course, I can understand that the reason why it is through rumors that information spreads in Myanmar is because they don't have a trustworthy, official source of information. They don't trust what the government authorities say, so they always try to speculate and get information from the side. 

JK: Because of conditions of lack and distrust, people tend to work in closed circles, in family-minded ways, not sharing resources outside of trusted friends and family. For example, as Chu Yuan briefly mentioned earlier, younger artists have to pledge allegiance to a master artist in a group who would give them money or opportunities, but he would not allow them to work with other groups. There was no interaction between them. NICA’s activities had to be repeated for different groups. 

CCY: In our interactions with the artists, we had to invite one group at a time to our events because they did not want to interact with each other. So, we had a very choreographed kind of interaction.

The fact that we were trying to spread knowledge laterally challenged their controlled, hierarchical way of working. That threatened certain persons, and Myanmar is a very status-conscious society where everything is ordered according to hierarchy and status. The political system has made them always suspicious. I now understand that what happened was not something personal, but at the time it seemed very personal. That’s what the conditions were like; they were not sure what was true. There was a massive culture of distrust.

Censorship committee comprising representatives from different ministries inspecting artworks in M-Project on the morning of exhibition opening. Courtesy of Jay Koh and Chu Yuan.

Participants of Sound and Web Art workshop by Filipino artist Fatima Lasay, as part of NICA’s Open Academy in 2004. Courtesy of Jay Koh and Chu Yuan.


CCY: We had a very difficult start and some of the rumors that were circulating within the arts scene was that we were teaching fake knowledge and we were associated with some foreign agencies that wanted to politically intervene in Myanmar. As a diversion from working with artists, we began rolling out a Young Adults Training Program which offered young people training in arts and cultural management. A group of three young adults started training with us in computer science, English, writing skills, as well as some exposure to art. 

We wanted our first art event to be a group exhibition of installation art by five Myanmar artists but because of the rumors, our visual art coordinator Nyo Win Maung — we had two coordinators; one for visual arts and one for literary arts — told us that nobody's going to come as there were rumors spreading that the authorities were watching and that anyone who turns up will be arrested. We had to find a way around this to make our first event so we decided to test the waters by changing it to a series of solo exhibitions offering the whole NICA building and garden to the artists for their installations. Our coordinator volunteered to be the first. We started with him and there were no problems. We opened, people came, and the authorities didn't come to make any arrests. The young adults also had a chance to create their own installation works in this workshop series.

From then on, we gained more acceptance within the local setting so we were able to create more programs later on. We ran many programs and workshops and set up residencies for a local artist and a writer. We established the Mekong Networking & Exchange (MNX) with Reyum Institute in Cambodia for inter-institutional exchange of artists-in-residence and organized a symposium on MNX in Bangkok and Yangon. We also organized a similar exchange with Britto Arts Trust in Bangladesh. 

Creating exchange with the outside was one of the central tenets of NICA and therefore a central program we had was the Open Academy. For that, we invited educators and experts from both outside and within Myanmar to come and teach in NICA.  A lot of the people we invited played multiple roles; they were educators, organizers, arts managers, and critics, as we wanted to make those connections for the Myanmar artists and writers. For example, for CNRM, we invited representatives from the Japan Foundation and Arts Network Asia because we wanted to put Myanmar artists in contact with funders, sponsors, and resources from outside. 

Bangladeshi artist Lipi Tayeba of Britto Arts Trust speaking to guests during an exhibition of Bangladeshi artists at NICA. Courtesy of Jay Koh and Chu Yuan.

Artists’ Sharing Session by Myanmar artists Pe Nyunt Way and Nyo Wing Maung on their residency in Cambodia with Reyum Institute as part of the Mekong Networking & Exchange (MNX) programme. Courtesy of Jay Koh and Chu Yuan.


ME: Before the 2007 Saffron Revolution came about, did you foresee NICA actually lasting a certain time period? Were you thinking that it was going to last a longer time period or were you going to pass it on? What were your plans?

CCY: We didn't plan for it to last a long time. As I said, we hoped that the locals would take over NICA but it never happened. So instead, I felt that once the signs were there, that people were already becoming independent, organizing things, and opening their own spaces, we would be happy with that situation. If the foundations could give money directly to the local artists and groups, that would be the best scenario, and they eventually did. I felt that our role there was no longer needed and it was good to close it.

JK: Also, I started my doctoral study and went to work in Dublin, so it was better to close. It's also part of the concept; my work, durational engagement, is not continuous. Innovation and creativity need intervals. These breaks give people time to reflect, examine themselves, and discuss what they want to do because we are not a foundation. iFIMA always operated ad hoc; there were no obligations, membership, fixed structures, nothing.

CCY: I also find it hard to say when exactly NICA closed because we moved several times. We had three different spaces. We gave up the lease for the last space maybe in the beginning of 2007, and in the year before we left Yangon, we began working with other spaces that we hoped would make NICA a mobile entity or concept. We worked with and held activities at ForeverSpace that is run by a Myanmar e-book publishing company; Gitameit music school, a community school in Insein; and the Myanmar Institute of Theology in Yangon, as well as with Panthu Sanda in Mandalay, a school run by Daw Cho Cho Aung. Also in 2006, Jay and I also organized and ran a Bureau for Cultural Interconnectivity in Seoul to encourage engaged exchange between groups in Korea and Myanmar. 

We had another space in Chaung Tha, a small beachside town. Jay set up a space there where artists could go for a residency. It was managed by artist San Minn and that space still exists today, but I recently heard that it has not been active.

Visitors at Myanmar artist Than Htay Maung’s exhibition in the Installation Art Workshop Series at NICA, 2003. Courtesy of Jay Koh and Chu Yuan.

View of the performance festival Performance Site Myanmar: Borders Within and Without at NICA in 2005. Courtesy of Jay Koh and Chu Yuan.


ME: What are your thoughts about NICA from the vantage point of today?

CCY: I think that I have since grown in my thinking as an artist. In terms of teaching, had I known then what I know now, I think I would have focused on evolving contemporary art practice locally — to ask what does “contemporary” really mean for Myanmar? 

We did stress that what is considered “contemporary” to each particular time and place is different from others developed along different timelines, trajectories, and historical contexts. We said that the contemporary is actually closer to traditional art than it was to abstract art. This was because a lot of the Myanmar artists who thought of themselves as the “real” and progressive artists were abstract painters. We tried to connect with painters of still life, landscapes, and realism because we wanted to tell them that contemporary art is not dependent on media and that you can even use very traditional media to make contemporary work.

There was this thing about who were “real” artists and who were not in Myanmar. At one point, rumors were going around that Jay is not a “real” artist, and that led to him making “M-Project” at Lokanat in 2004.

JK: Lokanat is an artists association and gallery in Yangon. [6] Open since 1971, it's the oldest art space and it’s in the same building that housed the Ministry of Finance. All the exhibitions there had to go through a multi-ministry censorship committee. Because Lokanat’s group was large, they kept six months for their own members to exhibit and they would rent the space out for the rest of the year. I was actually the first foreigner to do a solo exhibition there with assistance from different players, including the censorship committee. It was strategized to counter the rumors circulating that I was not a “real artist.” [7]

For me, it was these experiences in Myanmar and with NICA that crucially went on to frame the analytic structures and processes of my Art-Led Participative Processes formulated during my transdisciplinary doctoral research and tested in my various activities later on.

CCY: Looking back, if I have a chance to do NICA again, I would not have given so much energy to the rumors and negativity and instead focused more on producing writing about the art and artists there. I feel that I did too little of that. But at that time, it was really impossible to not be affected nor to not take a position when you see and experience so much fear, injustice, and falsehood all around. 

I am happy though that one of the things I did manage to write was a feature on Tun Win Aung and Wah Nu on Artstream Myanmar, a website we set up about Myanmar arts and culture. They told me that it was through this feature that curators from outside came to know of their work and connected with them.

The irony about the rumor mill was that it inadvertently helped us with our work. Rumors spread about what we were teaching, so that even those who stayed away could observe and learn about the information and knowledge we were trying to spread.

Sau Bin Yap (SBY): In a way, I suppose some of the ideas they learned or observed interacting with NICA was somehow transposed into their continued interaction with the regional and international, whether with artists, museums, or funding bodies. I just want to ascertain whether that would be a good observation.

CCY: Yeah, I would think so because NICA and iFIMA actively tried to expose the local scene to the regional and international, and also assisted artists to secure grants for residencies outside, such as for Htein Lin in 2006 and Phyu Mon in 2008 from the Heinrich Böll Foundation. The fact that we were “outsiders” created unique problems but also unique opportunities, as compared to insiders running NICA. When Jay went to Myanmar in 1996, interaction with the outside world was very restricted unlike now, so we faced a lot of challenges when we wanted to collaborate with local artists. If NICA would be done today, the chances of it continuing is higher but then I feel that the role it would play would be very different. I really felt that NICA was a much-needed bridge at the time.

After ceasing activities around 2007, not only did artists’ interactions with the outside increase, but Myanmar artists also began organizing local festivals such as Beyond Pressure, organized by artist Moe Satt who was a staff member at NICA from 2004 and had participated in many of our workshops, and Blue Wind organized by artist Phyu Mon. 

Jay went back to work there in 2008 for a short commission from Prince Claus Fund to evaluate damages on cultural heritage after Cyclone Nargis, and from 2011 to 2013 for “Delicate Conversation” in Lokanat Gallery, a research project funded by the Finland Academy that deals with the rising xenophobia in Myanmar. When I went back in 2013 for “Delicate Conversation,” artists told me that they are very thankful for what we did in Myanmar at the time. That was something that made me feel that, with time, increased exposure, and maybe having more mobility, they began to understand the practices governing regional networks and what we tried to do in Myanmar back in 2003.

JK: Yes, in the first five years after we left, most Myanmar artists wouldn’t even talk about iFIMA or NICA. We heard many self-professed narratives of artistic lineages, chronology of events, and influences that are hard to verify. It took a long time for the Myanmar artists to even send their first funding application to foundations like Prince Claus. In CNRM (2002), we had a special session that Chu Yuan conducted on how to write applications for funding, but it was only after 2007 that we heard of artists making such applications.

We are happy to see that there is greater mobility and access now for the Myanmar artists. Many young artists approached me in my recent trip in early 2020, eager to know more about this history and express their rejection of the values that NICA faced in Myanmar. And thus, NICA was perhaps there at the right time? 

Installation for ‘Bureau of Cultural Interconnectivity’ in Public Moment: New Approaches in Public Art, organised by Artists Forum International, comprising exhibitions, symposium, public art projects in Seoul, Korea, 2006. Courtesy of Jay Koh and Chu Yuan.


[1] Discussed in Jay Koh, Art-Led Participative Processes: Dialogue and Subjectivity within Performance in the Everyday, (Kuala Lumpur: SRID/Gerakbudaya, 2016), 22, 23, 37, and 86. Subsequent mentions of pages refer to this book.

[2] 22.

[3] 7-10.

[4] Jay Koh’s Art-Led Participative Processes (2016) and Chu Chu Yuan’s “Negotiation as Active Knowing” (2013). 

[5] 78-80.

[6] On its board were non-artists.

[7] 37-57, 203.

The online interview took place on 3 September 2020. This interview was edited for length and clarity.


Jay Koh, an artist-curator, based in and considers himself a Southeast Asian, attained DFA (www.uniarts.fi), in trans-disciplinary artistic research. With over 30 years of practice2praxis, he takes on critical roles, as educator, mentor and evaluator focusing on interactions and ecology systems with/in the public. Author of the ALPP that discusses holistic, ethical and people-centered processes in interactions with art and society, in building relationships, knowledge, ownerships and seeking affirmation across sectors and disciplines. Jay is director of iFIMA and co-initiator of the Open Academy. Recently, he curated the international cross-disciplinary collaboration, Flowing on the Verge of Margins, in the Upper Gulf of Thailand funded by the British Academy.

Chu Chu Yuan is a Malaysian artist and cultural worker. From 1993, she was involved in artist-run initiatives, art management and network, capacity and alternate-institution building. She was affiliated with The Substation from 1994 to 2002, as staff and later resident artist. From 2000, she worked with iFIMA (international Forum for Intermedia Art) to build resourcefulness, self-organization and cross-cultural collaboration, in projects in Myanmar, Mongolia, Vietnam, Singapore, Republic of Ireland, Poland, Sweden, Finland, amongst others. Her PhD thesis “Negotiation as Active Knowing” presented a framework for engaged learning through the negotiation of difference. Chu Yuan currently oversees Library and Archive at Singapore Art Museum.

More info:

IFIMA, International Forum for InterMedia Art

Grant Kester. "The art of listening (and of being heard): Jay Koh's discursive networks." (1999)

Fatima Lasay. “NICA (Networking and Initiatives for Culture and the Arts).

Networking and Initiatives for Culture and the Arts.” (6 Sep 2010)

Chu Yuan. “Networking and Initiatives for Culture and the Arts.” (5 July 2006)

Jay Koh. “Potholes and Corners: Intentions, Desires and Constraints of Cross- and Inter-cultural activities.” (2004)

Jay Koh and Chu Chu Yuan. “Locating the Mobile Artist: from Cultural Diversities to Local Specificities: Reflections on various artist-in-residencies’ experiences.” (2006)

Bureau of Cultural Interconnectivity

Lokanat Galleries

Chu Chu Yuan. “Negotiation-as-active-knowing: an approach evolved from from relational art practice.” (2013)

Ellen Pearlman. “A Brief History of Contemporary Art in Myanmar.” (10 July 2017)

Voices of Transition: Contemporary Art from Myanmar.” (2017)

Grant Kester. "Art and Answerability in Jay Koh's Work" in Jay Koh's Art-Led Participative Processes (2016)

Kuvataideakatemia. "Jay Koh (part 1) Doctoral Thesis Demonstration 16.11.2013." (2 Dec 2013)

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Right People, Wrong Timing (RPWT) is a series of texts on defunct or inactive independent Asian arts initiatives that had crossed paths or ran parallel to Papaya’s own 20-year history. With new posts every Friday from August to December 2020, RPWT is kindly supported through a local grant by the Japan Foundation Manila.