“The most important materiality in my work is time and history, including the history of knowing someone from working together.”
Korakrit Arunanondchai is a multidisciplinary artist based between New York City and Bangkok. His practice uses photography, video, music, and performance to explore a range of concepts, including human history, self-representation, and Thailand’s tradition of animism. In 2014, the Museum of Modern Art in New York hosted Arunanondchai’s first solo museum exhibition titled 2012-2055, which presented videos and paintings that explored the topic of transformation and his personal evolution as an artist. He received the Emerging Artist Grant from the Hort Mann Foundation in 2013 and the Ammodo Tiger Short Award at the International Film Festival Rotterdam for his film With history in a room filled with people with funny names 4 in 2018.
In this interview, Korakrit Arunanondchai reveals how he chooses his collaborators, the impact his mentor artist Rirkrit Tiravanija had on him, and his identity as a Thai artist.
TGL: How was your childhood?
KA: My dad was a first generation Thai person. His parents migrated from Southern China and they didn't speak Thai, so my grandparents on my father's side were pretty Chinese. My dad worked in a company leasing construction equipment for most of his life. On my mom's side, my grandfather worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, so my mom grew up in many different places. The first job my grandfather had as an ambassador was in Vietnam during the war. My grandfather became the ambassador of France, so my mom went with him. She studied language and became a teacher.
TGL: Did you want to be an artist as a child?
KA: Not necessarily. My parents didn't know that it was possible to make a living as an artist. They had the mentality that I had to get a job, be good in school, and make a living. My parents were supportive, but they didn't work in a creative field, so I wasn't exposed to anything creative beyond what existed in the 90s and early 2000 in mass media and pop culture. I was considered the artsy person in high school, but I didn't know much about art. The first time I saw contemporary art was when I went to visit my older brother in London, and I saw Olafur Eliasson's piece The Weather Project. That was the first time I thought I could be an artist.
TGL: Where did you go to college?
KA: I went to RISD, which is when I was exposed to more art. I majored in printmaking and studied silk screen and lithography, so I didn't learn a lot of discourse and art history. The art I made circled around lifestyle and a pure subjectivity. It wasn't research based. I felt like my art didn't meet a social context. It didn't even meet the fact that I had just come from Thailand and was now making art in America or even that I was making art for the first time. I was in this insulated bubble of an art school where everyone just did stuff because they wanted to. Towards the end, I did an internship in New York for two artists. One of them was Rirkrit Tiravanija. When I was interning for Rirkrit, he wasn't in the studio, it was just me and his two studio managers. I digitally archived every single book that mentioned his name. That's when I started reading about contemporary art and was exposed to artists like Liam Gillick, Pierre Huyghe, and Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster.
TGL: Was this internship a decisive moment for you?
KA: Everything in my career has been pretty gradual. The one plan I’ve had was that I needed to get into grad school, because that was the only way to keep a visa in America. I wanted to stay in America, because at this point all of my friends were here, and I didn't know anyone in the Thai art world. New York was my creative circle and the audience I was making art for. I had a lot of insecurities, if I wasn't able to stay in the bubble that made me who I am, maybe I would lose it. So I applied to grad school. I applied to Columbia, because Rikrit taught there and it would keep me in New York with the same circle that I had grown up with.
TGL: How do you cast the people you collaborate with?
KA: This goes back to me not planning ahead that much. The person that I'm collaborating with on No History in a room filled with people with funny names 5 was the first cinematographer I ran into in New York. He was shooting for one of my friends, Dora Bador. He was the first person who was like, "Hey, you're in New York. I'm in New York. I want to do stuff. Let's try and do stuff together." My main collaborator for seven years now boychild and I met when we both did a performance where five performers performed in one big room, it was curated by the artist Bradford Kessler. I didn't know her at all, then we performed and afterwards she said, "Hey, I like you and I like your energy. Let's start doing stuff together." It wasn't planned - organically works better for me. There wasn't any moment when I thought, "I'm going to become a contemporary artist and make it work as a contemporary artist.” Everyone who I've worked with are people who I already knew before as people, and then something prompted us to work together. I don't believe in fate per se, but somehow this works better. When I start working with someone, I trust them as people and I trust what they do. It becomes a real relationship and a real friendship, because what matters most to me is that a collaboration is not a one-off transaction. The most important materiality in my work is time and history, including the history of knowing someone from working together.
TGL: Can you talk about your artwork?
KA: Most of my work is created through materials that have been used and recycled over and over again, and my videos work in that way too. They're like relationships that are taken through time. That's a lot of what my work is about - it’s an active archive of a life lived. You can keep archiving and keep changing your relationship to the archives. That's how I think human memory works, how relationships work, and that's how my working relationship also works. It always builds upon a past. That’s also why I always work with the same people.
TGL: What was your starting point for the video No History?
KA: The new video is essentially the next video of the next video of the next video. So far, not all of them fall into one linear, episodic order, but I feel as if I’ve been working on one video since 2011. It carries forward the same body of research. This video first started as a prompt to a commission shown in the biennial of moving image in Geneva. The first seed to this work was a performance that I did with boychild and Alex Gvojic, my collaborator in Geneva. In that performance, there was a showing and reading of every single video that I've made. Videos were played with the sound cut off, and I read all the subtitles. It was in a cinema space, and there was another space behind it where boychild performed. I read through the different characters I played in the video, while boychild performed every single character she has played in my videos. Alex filmed her performance, and it was live-streamed back onto the screen, creating a loop. Based off our experience of this performance, we built a new narrative. For instance, the idea of touching without touching. This created the idea of a loop: a loop between the past, present, and archive. With boychild on one side and me, or this text, on another side. That's why in the video, two characters are talking; one is me and the other is boychild playing her character.
TGL: What is your process for shooting a video?
KA: Usually when I shoot a video, it's almost like a loose documentary. The subject of the documentary is humanness, history, personal history, collective history. This particular video circled around the story of 13 kids stuck in a cave in Thailand last year. There was a big rescue mission and the military in Thailand stepped in. The election was coming up, so it was a good chance for the military to portray themselves as heroes. The American military also came to help. Even Elon Musk flew there! All these spiritual, animistic leaders went, because everyone was trying to be a hero, and everyone was genuinely trying to save these kids. On top of it, the area was a border area - the furthest away possible from the capitol. This power play between the edge of Thailand and the centralized government and all these different characters that came to collaborate on building the real life story that is the rescue was interesting.
TGL: You seem open to adventures when you shoot, is that true?
KA: I have a few places and situations that I feel like I need to go visit, and a lot of the time, I don't know what I'm going to get. All the places loosely connect under a bigger umbrella. I go, and I talk to people. Then I come back to New York and everything gets edited together into a video essay. Each one depends on what is happening in my life and in the world that I have access to and feels immediate to me. Some places and conversations don't make it in. Some of that material will just make it in as a metaphor or even a thought in the back of my head that becomes something else.
TGL: How do you come up with the installation for your videos?
KA: The installation around my videos usually comes from research and collecting material. In this case, some of the installations have literally been this entire resin ground, this extinction-looking ground that we used to reconstruct rooms. The piece as an installation has four different media channels. One is footage of my grandparents: one in the hospital and one at home. One of the channels is every performance I've done with boychild, including the one in Marseille. Another channel is this instrument called the laser heart that’s being played in the video. It looks as if this instrument is a soundtrack for the video. In the end, it's just research, so I can write. I don't do all the research to make one piece. It just feels like I have an interest, and I'm lucky enough to be able to schedule my life to go and have these research adventures.
TGL: What is your experience working as a Thai artist on an international level?
KA: I hate the word "Global Citizen," because I don't have that. The citizenship I have is in Thailand. When I make a piece or a video and it's about a specific thing in Thailand, I do feel like it talks more about a universally shared human condition, and it isn't specific to Thai people. I trust that whatever I make shares one inner root: the consciousness.
TGL: Who would you like to have dinner with that you don’t already know?
KA: I recently saw the film Atlantics by Mati Diop, and it was very inspiring. I would love to have dinner with her and talk to her about her work.
TGL: What advice would you like to give to the readers of The Genius List?
KA: It’s hard to give advice for the future right now, but I saw this video of dolphins swimming in bio-luminescent algae, and it really reminded me that the world is an amazing place, so I recommend everyone to watch it over some meditative music.