Tango Intervention, Phnom Penh

Phnom Penh, Cambodia 2-22-09

Action: With the support of Meta House in Phnom Penh, Tango Interventions were executed at 3 sites followed by a two hour Tango Intervention sunset cruise on the Mekong river.

Dancers: Ana Nov, Bandith, Belle, Boline Khan, Cheat Somany, Chet Seila, Choung Fengheang, Den Prom, Lydia Parusol, Pick Phearoun, Rith Suon Bun, Robert Lawrence, Sandra Byrne, Soriya Serry, Tracy Kaye, Vanitha Tith, Veasna Tith, Yiv Chhoy Chhuong, You Chantha, and You Kimhorn

Documentation: Anders Jiras, Robert Lawrence, Nico Mesterharm, Virginie Noel

Special Thanks to: Anders Jiras, Lydia Parusol, Nico Mesterharm, Veasna Tith, Virginie Noel

Historical and Contemporary Context: In the 20's and the 30's while chic Parisians were transforming tango, a déclassé Argentine street dance of workers and prostitutes, into an elegant sensual indulgence for the trendy set; French colonialists of Indochina were transforming Phnom Penh from a lazy river outpost into an international colonial shipping center. These were two very different expressions of colonialism. Rich Argentines in Paris were horrified to see the gutter dance, tango, emerge as the most visible expression of Argentine culture in Paris where they were so earnestly trying to be accepted as equals by their colonial dominants. Tango was something they'd rather was left safely across the thousands of miles of salty water that separated Argentina from France.

Meanwhile, thousands of miles to the east, French engineers and urban planners were colonializing in a decidedly less sensual manner. To restructure Phnom Penh into an efficient colonial port city meant replacing local transportation networks with systems focused outward. Gridworks of streets were imposed over the organic local system, often replacing canals with streets. While the local waterways were destroyed or allowed to deteriorate, the international route out to the sea along the Mekong River was dramatically improved with dredging. Mud taken from the Mekong to make international shipping channels was used to fill in local canals. While serving the purposes of promoting colonial extraction, this redistribution of earth and waterways had other unforeseen consequences. Filling in the canal network eliminated essential drainage systems in the city and intensified the already serious seasonal flooding problems in Phnom Penh.

Now, nearly a century later, many parts of the city are torn apart for construction (by a Japanese Corporation) of a drainage system to correct the problems created by the filling in of the original canal systems. This drainage system will not replace the local transportation system of the canals though because the entire system will be underground.

But the story is more complex than this. Certainly colonial memory is shorter than imaginable. Even as this new drainage system to replace the canals is being built, foreign moneyed interests are also filling in Boeung Kak Lake, an invaluable safety drainage basin during the monsoon season. Again using mud dredged from the Mekong international shipping channels, this neo-colonial initiative is creating land for profitable building developments, guaranteeing forced evictions for local communities, profits for international investors and developers, bribes for officials, and worsened flooding in years to come.

For this intervention we chose 3 sites related to colonial/neo-colonial water policies. On the shores of shrinking Boeung Kak, the site of neo-colonial forced evictions and misguided destruction of natural drainage, we begin at #1 Happy Guest House and Restaurant, dancing on the waterside with a clear view of the ongoing infill areas of the lake. From there we move to the Norodom Blvd. Naga bridge and the Night Market, both on land that used to be a canal but was filled in by the French in the early decades of the last century. We finish with a sunset tango cruise on the Mekong.

What I am not talking about: The situation regarding water and land rights in Phnom Penh, and their historical and contemporary connection to colonialism and neo-colonialism is extremely complex. Within the context of this action I cannot begin to indicate these complexities and the challenges that they present to Cambodians. I do not begin to imagine that TiPP actually gets any real political work done. Nor is this my intention. My intention with this project, as with the entire TI series, is simply to use the sensual to point to the political, and to promote questions regarding the way we conceptualize, manage and act in these two realms of our lives.

While working in Phnom Penh I was fortunate to meet a number of very committed and hard working locals and internationals working (often through the context of NGO's) to advocate for local housing rights and make tangible differences in the quality of life in Cambodia. Below I have listed a number of links that I refer you to if you wish to learn more about this important work.

What I am saying even less about: In Cambodia today, and for years still to come, all of public and private life operates in the recent historical context of the horrors of the Khmer Rouge era. While the international genocide tribunals that opened on February 17 begin to address some of the legal issues and can help enormously in moving the nation beyond that dark era, in many ways these tribunals are too little too late. They are restricted to an extremely limited investigation including only the years of the KR occupation 1975-79. More problematically they do not address, and as final representation of justice in this matter can be seen to cover up, a vast history of crimes against humanity committed before and after these years. Most particularly egregious is the lack of accounting for the US bombing of Cambodia during the Vietnam War that claimed as many as 500,000 Cambodian civilians, and the continued support of the Khmer Rouge by the US and other western nations after the genocidal Pol Pot was finally driven from the country. The continued nightmare of landmine deaths is partially attributable to the West's support of the Khmer Rouge while they battled to resume their inhuman rule while exiled in Thailand.

To learn more about how the people of Cambodia were sacrificed as pawns in the last decades of the cold war, along with a wealth of historical perspective and critical analysis of the KR era, I recommend Fawthrop and Jarvis' "Getting Away with Genocide"