Written by Annie Sheen – @AnnieMusicEd
We make our way through the maze of empty rooms and long hallways, poking our heads behind solid teak doors and ascending grand colonial style staircases, clouds of dust created with every step. This place is wonderfully eerie and we feel we could be in some sort of adventure video game.
At first you might ask why Paddy and I are visiting a collection of rubble filled rooms connected by dark corridors and step ladders instead of strolling around Phnom Penh’s Russian Market or relaxing in the shade of The Royal Palace. But this isn’t any old building on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, it is in fact the chosen space for Cambodia’s first major arts centre. And its no building, it’s an abandonned boat.
With its total of six floors and earthy facade which, from afar looks like rust but is in fact red paint, the structure certainly commands your attention.
Originally built to be a luxury floating hotel, but left half complete, the boat now sits on the west bank of the Tonle Sap River, north of the city. There is no doubt it’s an amazing space, brewing with unlocked potential – even the harshest cynic couldn’t help getting a little excited.
Naturally, the project sparked both our interests, me having worked in the arts for 8 years and Paddy being a chartered Marine Engineer. In fact, I don’t think we’ll ever find another project which marries our two interests quite like this one – indeed, if the project takes off, as far as I know, it will be the first floating arts centre in the world (at least on this scale).
Three international ex-pats, who together bring representation and expertise from the hospitality, business and artistic sectors, are the brains behind the project. I came across their plans while doing some research about Cambodia in Vietnam and instantly made contact with Dana who has lived and worked in the Cambodian arts scene for 17 years and leading on the creative side. We were lucky that her schedule allowed us time to visit the space.
While Paddy donned his headtorch and climbed down inside the hull to examine the engines, watertanks and quality of the welding, Dana and I headed skywards (via a rickety ladder) her explaining the overall vision for each floor as we go.
As we move up she takes me through where the education and library/archive spaces would be housed, where she’d ideally like to knock down walls to create group workshop spaces and where there would be office space for a number of in-resident arts organisations. A whole floor would be dedicated to offering a range of artists affordable studios and the deep bow has the potential to be turned into a tiered garden.
As we continue to move up, the spaces become more and more ‘finished’ and you begin to really see the potential for where impromptu performances and installations could take place. The upper floors would be dedicated to what we call in the arts ‘commercial activity’ – an essential lifeline for any arts space, and an important ingredient when mixing leisure with cultural activity. Most people are unlikely to visit any building unless there are some great places to socialise and be merry with friends, and I’ve visited some arts centres where the designers have forgotten that food and drink can also be counted as important cultural capital.
The top floor which houses some of the three largest spaces, would be used as an open performance space/cinema, dance studio and huge gallery. There is also an open top pool already installed which would offer a paradise like retreat for sun worshippers, offering spectacular views across the city.
The project has a huge number of hurdles to jump before it can really start to take shape however. Currently, these mainly consist of construction questions – Paddy is trying to help with this. Surveys to determine any issues require a certain amount of seed funding, and as one might expect, sponsorship and/or central funding are hard to drum up for an arts project which is still in it’s infancy… ‘harbour trials’ is hardly a sexy phrase when talking to philanthopists…
After the little I’ve learnt about Cambodia’s arts sector during my short stay in Phnom Penh, I’m genuinely excited about this project. The artistic community has been desperately recovering from the effects of the Khmer Rouge regime in the 1970s when 90% of all Cambodian artist and arts academics were rounded up and executed. Entire art forms were very nearly wiped out (many of them ancient traditions) and the past 40 years have naturally focussed on rediscovery and consolidation, with an emphasis on passing these art forms on to the next generation. From the looks of things, organisations such as Cambodian Living Arts have played their part well in ensuring the survival of this cultural heritage.
However, Cambodia (particularly Phnom Penh) now feels it’s on the crest of a new phase of cultural development; one which focusses on innovation, creativity and artistic exploration. Led by a new generation of artists who can drive Cambodia’s cultural sector forwards and who will mirror the Cambodia of today. But these young artists need a dedicated space, somewhere which will act as an incubator for ideas, skill development and artistic dialogue. A space which will support a diverse melting pot of current creative thinkers, audiences and businesses and which will help to support both the old and the new. A space which will support the social and environmental sustainability of Cambodia’s capital and which can attract swathes of foreign visitors as well as bring the local community together.
Apologies, perhaps getting a bit too ‘arty’ and utopian in that last paragraph, but I can’t help myself!! 🙂
I’m so pleased I was able to see this space and if you are interested to know more or wish, (perhaps?) to contribute to the crowd funding campaign to help get this project off the ground please click the link below. Please help to share with anyone who might also be interested.
That’s it for Phnom Penh for now, time to get back on our tandem and head north towards Angkor Wat, Thailand and beyond!