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October 21, 2022

The Lumen Interview | elekhlekha

The winners of The Lumen Prize Gold Award share their vision with Katherine Howatson-Tout
Credit: elekhlekha at Wonderville, 15 September, 2021. Photography by Dan Gorelick. Courtesy of the artists
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The Lumen Interview | elekhlekha

Katherine Howatson-Tout: Many congratulations to you both for winning The Lumen Prize. How do you feel right now? 

elekhlekha (Nitcha Tothong and Kengchakaj Kengkarnka): Thank you so much! It still feels inconceivable and we’re so grateful, thankful, honored, and hopeful for the future. Thank you, Lumen Prize, for shedding light on our project and giving us space and opportunity to grow. 

KHT: Can you speak a little about the past year and the process of submitting work for the Global Majority Award? 

e: We created this project out of struggle as a process of unlearning and relearning about the many political and technical layers of our history. The project parallels the 2020-2021 Thai protest movement in Bangkok, where the abusive government has silenced those opposing them. We named our project after a crucial Thai activist, writer, and historian, Jitr Poumisak (จิตร ภูมิศักดิ์), who was seen as a threat and killed in 1966.

Our history in Southeast Asia has been a story about the silencing and forced disappearance of many activist and radical thinkers, which still continues to this day. 

We learned about The Lumen Prize two years ago when our friend, Yeseul Song, made it to the longlist, while Cezar Mocan won the Student Award in 2021 and has been a follower since. We are very excited to apply this year, especially in the Global Majority category, since it shines a light on immigrant artists.

elekhlekha at The Lumen Prize Awards 2022. Photography by Shangyou Shi. Courtesy of Lumen Art Projects

KHT: The multisensory experience of Jitr (จิตร) is explosive on multiple levels. You’ve said that the work examines “suppression within the history of art and music in Southeast Asia.” Can you elaborate on how the different elements of the work destabilize a Eurocentric vision of culture?

e: The project explores how we might unlearn and situate historical knowledge in a new context by reshaping and making it relevant again using algorithms. We seek out non-binary, non-standard, and unconventional subjectivities — the kind of broad spectrum that always should have been in the spotlight. Many sound cultures have been constrained, and that suppression makes it hard to resound and be heard. Our approach is to look into the past and present, honor non-dominant and suppressed histories, and experiment and search for an alternative future. 

Jitr (จิตร) imagines a new process based on Southeast Asian sound cultures, philosophies, and indigenous knowledges to create new work and to challenge music technologies that are rooted in the hegemony of Western sound.

Western tuning defines how we hear music, and has created a bias against Southeast Asian sounds which are perceived as out of tune. The hegemony of Western music and the idea of centralized, standardized sound of equal temperament has affected these sound cultures in many ways. An example is the use of solfège (doh, re, mi, etc.) in traditional Thai music pedagogy instead of our own syllable (ต่อ แตร ตือ ตอย แรด) to name the pitch. Another clear example is the myth of the Thai seven-tet tuning system that was popularized by the interaction between Alexander J. Ellis and Prince Prisdang in 1885 at the Inventions Exhibition in London, later published in Sensations of Tone. It remains the only archival record of traditional Thai musical pitch, which many traditional practitioners disagree with. Still, somehow the idea perseveres and has been shaping Thai pitch for the past hundred years.

elekhlekha at The Jazz Gallery, 22 April, 2022. Courtesy of the artists

KHT: How central is code to your art? Is it a tool, a stage in the process, or part of the art itself?

e: The algorithm has been used to inform our improvisation, like a feedback loop between us and machines. It helps us to discover unexpected possibilities, which is hard to achieve on a conscious level with all of the many layers of beliefs and rules that are entangled in our practice and ways of thinking. We use live coding as an improvisational tool. In fact, the code is the first thing people see; however, the story that we unfold throughout the performance is as crucial as the medium. Every iteration is unique and specific as it is improvised every time. 

KHT: You’ve said that your work seeks out an “alternative future” and “decolonized possibilities”. How can digital artists subvert the futures imposed by algorithms and new technologies? Can we see Jitr (จิตร) as a model for this kind of subversion?

e: The alternative future is all about how we can move forward with care to an end point where abusive authority no longer exists.

Decolonization requires hacking the system that is not made for us but use its tools to tell our story with our own ideas in order to break through and liberate ourselves from that system. 
elekhlekha at The Lumen Prize Awards 2022. Photography by Shangyou Shi. Courtesy of Lumen Art Projects

For our project, Jitr (จิตร), we deliberately avoid the Western note name on the code itself, which was made possible through Hundredrabbits’s live coding platform, Orca, that uses a base of 36 increments. However, because the MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) is based on a 12-tone equal temperament, we are forced to find a way to retune pitches and assign them Western note names. The only tool we have seen that helped us to retune the pitches while maintaining local tradition is Leimma, created by Khyam Allami, who we’ve had the privilege of meeting and learning from thanks to the Common Tonalities project. 

Overall, we believe we are moving in the right direction, and we hope our project, Jitr (จิตร), can be a model of this kind of subversion.

At least, we can expose the public to a sound they might not have heard before, thereby reducing aural bias in a way that allows all of us to move forward inclusively. 
elekhlekha at Governors Island, 28 May, 2022. Courtesy of the artists

KHT: How can Web3 alter the music industry, which has been so affected by the music streaming platforms of Web2?

e: Web3 has much potential to decentralize and reorient the creative practices of the current system. Many web-based tools are available to aid creative expression, including Olivia Jack’s Hydra and Ted Davis’s P5LIVE, in addition to Orca. Many new tools are also open source, made and maintained by artists and creator communities. On the other hand, many artists still use platforms created by big companies. Even though many people are very conscious nowadays about how algorithms shape their habits and ways of expression, they are still incentivized by large corporate platforms to maximize views and engagement.

It is crucial for artists and creators to strategize and be critical about where our work is shown and how it reaches audiences in a way that preserves a culture of care. 
elekhlekha at The Lumen Prize Awards 2022. Photography by Alex Estorick. Courtesy of Lumen Art Projects

KHT: We’d love to hear about your forthcoming plans and projects ahead of the new year.

e: At the moment, we are planning to expand Jitr (จิตร) into many new forms in order to liberate the project from hyperlocal performance. We are currently devising multi-channel visual and sound experiential installations, documenting video editions, and a zine. Nothing is set in stone yet, which makes it more exciting, but we keep looking for new ways to bring this project to the audience. We hope to be able to share some exciting news soon. 

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elekhlekha (Nitcha Tothong and Kengchakaj Kengkarnka) are a collaborative artist group whose work develops subversive storytelling using sound and visual archives. Their research-based practice examines past histories, using multimedia and technology to experiment, explore, and define decolonized possibilities. Their first collaborative project, Jitr (จิตร), a speculative, imaginary electronics ensemble, premiered at Wonderville NYC and, in 2022, was awarded The Lumen Prize Gold Award. Elekhlekha have performed in small community and larger institutional spaces, including at LiveCode.NYC, the Jamaica Center for the Arts & Learning, The Jazz Gallery, New York; and online at Homeward Bound and CultureHub. In 2021, the artists received a City Artist Corps Grant for Jitr (จิตร), along with funding from Queens Council on the Arts and Babycastles. They are currently based in Occupied Lenapehoking, the unceded lands of the Lenni-Lenape and home for many Indigenous peoples past, present, and future.

Katherine Howatson-Tout is Assistant Editor at Right Click Save.