London has Dickens. Tokyo has Murakami. Saigon, Graham Greene. St Petersburg? Well, St Petersburg has just about every other writer worth mentioning in its thrall, from Dostoevsky to Chekov to Nabokov. But what about Phnom Penh? The Pearl of Asia has been and continues to be conspicuously under-represented and under-romanticised in literature.
If anything, maligning the city was something of a literary gentleman’s sport in the 19th and early 20th century. Henri Mouhot, ‘discoverer’ of Angkor Wat, dismissed the city in 1860 as “long and dirty… possessing neither beauty nor interest.” Enfant terrible of the 1920s literati Andre Malraux, en route to plunder Banteay Srey temple, wrote that there was no more fitting metaphor for the city than an ancient sitar player, “whose heroic strains had ceased to interest any but the beggars and coolie women squatting around him.”
However, this lack of pervasive colonial narrative is in no sense detrimental to Phnom Penh as a city. Rather, it allows current residents of Phnom Penh to conceive of and imagine their city with a liberty denied, say, the denizens of Dublin or Paris. Our City Festival, instated in 2008, aims to do just that- to open up spaces for discussion around urbanism and the city. Combining visual arts, pedagogical elements, performance pieces and interactive events the 10 day Festival, this year based around the theme of ‘Urban Currents,’ explores notions of confluence and creativity in the ever-changing urban landscape of Phnom Penh.
The idea of holding a themed event around art, architecture and urbanism was born when Dana Langlois, Our City founder and director, became aware of changes in the city and its development. “My main reaction was to the sudden changes in infrastructure- like the destruction of older buildings- and I thought this would be an important and meaningful topic for discussion.” Now in its fifth incarnation, Langlois remains convinced of the festival’s importance: “There are still ongoing changes, the city itself is very fluid. I think it’s extremely relevant here as new generations start looking at their identity and their place in the context of the rest of the world.”
Mirroring this urban fluidity, the 10 day event is itself amorphous. Installations, happenings and art will pop up around the city, eschewing didacticism and formalism in favour of creativity and accessibility. “The intention has always been to look towards the Cambodian public and their participation,” explains Langlois. “It’s about putting art into the public space and making it part of the every day experience.” You’re as likely to see an Our City event on a street corner as you are in a white cube gallery.
Many will take place at No Problem Park on Street 178, a grand colonial mansion and garden which for the Festival period will house around 10 projects. The garden will host exhibition Water: Curse or Blessing, which highlights the complexities of living with water and changing climates in the Asia Pacific region; inside the mansion installations by Cambodian and international artists will comment and converge upon each other. For Langlois, this space forms the centre of the festival, “looking at the confluence of ideas and how everything intersects and comes together. We’re trying to break down this binary idea of arts and architecture to be integrated into a larger conversation.”
This conversation extends far beyond the walls of No Problem Park. From Anida Yoeu Ali’s conversational performance piece The Public Square, to Eric Elull’s dynamic ‘Sponge’ workshops, which ask participants (or ‘spongiformers’, to give them their correct nomenclature) to explore the notion of The Body in physical space, to Kong Vollak’s architectural city-walks, Our City provides a platform for a multiplicity of narratives on past, present and possible futures of Phnom Penh.
Out of the chorus of voices contributing to Our City, perhaps the most emblematic is the Urban Lab initiative. Bringing together architecture and urban planning students, the Urban Lab provides an opportunity to share resources, ideas and visions about a city in constant flux. Lab organiser Shelby Elizabeth Doyle explains: “we wanted to give a platform and a voice to those students who will actually be designing and building the future of Phnom Penh.”
The participating students are more than keen to make their voices heard. 19 year old Em Thavrak describes being part of the Urban Lab in enthusiastic terms “The Lab opens my mind to see the world differently. It’s like a wake up call- we are the future architects of our country.” During the festival the students’ ideas will be showcased at Bophana, including the installation ‘Dreams for our City’- a visually nebulous installation conjuring images of the future Phnom Penh. Tan David, an architecture student, has high hopes for the impact of the initiative, and the Festival itself. “I think people will love it, because not many exhibitions focus on architecture. It feels great to be part of Urban Lab, and also to be part of Our City Festival.”
Creating this sense of hope and excitement amongst young Phnom Penhites is the realisation of a long-held ambition of Langlois. “One of our main objectives has always been to have the voice of this generation in Our City. I think the real impact of these discussions will come when you see this new generation become the creators and leaders, the ones to realise their vision for their city. That’s when we’re going to see a big change.”
Step aside Mouhot and Malraux; there’s a new generation in town, and they’re more than ready to make Phnom Penh into their city. Into Our City.