Fig 1: Image from a secret Rangoon fashion shoot. Photograph: Myanmar Photo Archive / Lukas Birk.
NOTE: Rangoon, Burma has been known as Yangon, Myanmar, since 2006. I use Rangoon and Burma for the period prior to 2006 and Yangon and Myanmar for the period thereafter. In addition, I have removed the name of any activist currently in Myanmar due to the recent policy of executing political prisoners.
On 1 February 2021, Myanmar was again plunged into political turmoil when the military illegally overthrew the country’s democratically elected government. This is the third time Myanmar, formally known as Burma, has been subject to a coup d’état; violent seizures of power took place in 1962 and in 1988-90. While those two earlier military governments met with opposition spearheaded by students and student organisations, in 2021 the military faced organised resistance through a mass Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) initiated by government healthcare workers who refused to come to work. They were joined by private sector “strikes” and, perhaps most visible of all to western viewers, mass street demonstrations “led” by “Gen Z” activists—young people who had come of age during Myanmar’s brief decade of democracy.
There is little doubt that the success of the CDM and associated protests is due to the widespread coverage and reach of social media as well as the creative communications skills of the country’s first “generation of digital natives”, who are sufficiently familiar and comfortable with social platforms to “participate and shape their identities in communication and dialogue with global digital media content” (Jordt et al. 12 ). The leveraging of global culture, including the use of English in protest signs, was notable in garnering international media coverage and so keeping Myanmar’s political plight front-of-mind with governments around the world. Yet this is not the whole story behind the effectiveness of these campaigns. As Lisa Brooten argues, contemporary networks are built on “decades of behind-the-scenes activism to build a multi-ethnic civil society” (East Asia Forum). The leading democracy activist, Min Ko Naing, aligned “veteran activists from previous generations with novice Gen Z activists”, declaring “this revolution represents a combination of Generations X, Y and Z in fighting against the military dictatorship’” (Jordt et al. 18). Similarly, the creative strategies used by 2021’s digital campaigners also build on protests by earlier generations of young, creative people.
This paper looks at two creative protest across the generations. The first is “secret” fashion photography of the late 1970s collected in Lukas Birk’s Yangon Fashion 1979 – Fashion=Resistance. The second is the contemporary #100projectors campaign, a “projection project for Myanmar democracy movement against the military dictatorship” (in the interest of full disclosure, I took part in the #100projectors project). Drawing from the contemporary advertising principle of “segmentation”, the communications practice where potential consumers are divided into “subgroups … based on specific characteristics and needs” (WARC 1), as well as contemporary thinking on the “aesthetics” of “cosmopolitanism”, (Papastergiadis, Featherstone, and Christensen), I argue that contemporary creative strategies can be traced back to the creative tactics of resistance employed by earlier generations of protesters and their re-imagining of “national space and its politics” (Christensen 556) in the interstices of cosmopolitan Rangoon, Burma, and Yangon, Myanmar.
Myanmar experienced two distinct periods of military rule, the Socialist era between 1962 and 1988 under General Ne Win and the era under the State Law and Order Restoration Council – State Peace and Development Council between 1988 and 2011. These were followed by a semi-civilian era from 2011 to 2021 (Carlson 117). The coup in 2021 marks a return to extreme forms of control, censorship, and surveillance.
Ne Win’s era of military rule saw a push for Burmanisation enforced through “significant cultural restrictions”, ostensibly to protect national culture and unity, but more likely to “limit opportunities for internal dissent” (Carlson 117). Cultural restrictions applied to art, literature, film, television, as well as dress. Despite these prohibitions, in the 1970s Rangoon's young people smuggled in illegal western fashion magazines, such as Cosmopolitan and Vogue, and commissioned local tailors to make up the clothes they saw there. Bell-bottoms, mini-skirts, western-style suits were worn in “secret” fashion shoots, with the models posing for portraits at Rangoon photographic studios such as the Sino-Burmese owned Har Si Yone in Chinatown. Some of the wealthier fashionistas even came for weekly shoots. Demand was so high, a second branch devoted to these photographic sessions was opened with its own stock of costumes and accessories. Copies of these head to toe fashion portraits, printed on 12 x 4 cm paper, were shared with friends and family; keeping portrait albums was a popular practice in Burma and had been since the 1920s and 30s (Birk, Burmese Photographers 113). The photos that survive this era are collected in Lukas Birk’s Yangon Fashion 1979 – Fashion=Resistance.
#100projectors was launched in February 2021 by a group of young visual and video artists with the aim of resisting the coup and demanding the return of democracy. Initially a small group of projectionists or “projector fighters”, as the title suggests they plan to amplify their voices by growing their national and international network to 100.
#100projectors is one of many campaigns, movements, and fundraisers devised by artists and creatives to protest the coup and advocate for revolution in Myanmar. Other notable examples, all run by Gen Z activists, include the Easter Egg, Watermelon, Flash, and Marching Shoes strikes. The Marching Shoe Strike, which featured images of flowers in shoes, representing those who had died in protests, achieved a reach of 65.2 million in country with 1.4 million interactions across digital channels (VERO, 64) and all of these campaigns were covered by the international press, including The Guardian, Reuters, The Straits Times, and VOA East Asia Pacific Session, as well as arts magazines around the world (for example Hyperallergic, published in Brooklyn). #100projectors material has been projected in Finland, Scotland, and Australia. The campaign was written about in various art magazines and their Video #7 was screened at the Bangkok Art and Culture Centre in February 2022 as part of Defiant Art: A Year of Resistance to the Myanmar Coup.
At first glance, these two examples seem distant in both their aims and achievements. Fashion photos, taken in secret and shared privately, could be more accurately described as a grassroots social practice rather than a political movement. While Birk describes the act of taking these images as “a rebellion” and “an escape” in a political climate when “a pair of flowers and a pair of sunglasses might just start a revolution”, the fashionistas’ photographs seem “ephemeral” at best, or what Mina Roces describes as the subtlest form of resistance or ‘weapons of the weak’ (Scott in Roces 7).
By contrast, #100projectors has all the hallmarks of a polished communications campaign. They have a logo and slogans: “We fight for light” and “The revolution must win”. There is a media plan, which includes the use of digital channels, encrypted messaging, live broadcasts, as well as in-situ projections. Finally, there is a carefully “targeted” audience of potential projectionists.
It is this process of defining a target audience, based on segmentation, that is particularly astute and sophisticated. Traditionally, segmentation defined audiences based on demographics, geodemographics, and self-identification. However, in the online era segments are more likely to be based on behaviour and activities revealed in search data as well as shares, depending on preferences for privacy and permission. Put another way, as a digital subject, “you are what you choose to share” (WARC 1). The audience for #100projectors includes artists and creative people around the world who choose to share political video art. They are connected through digital platforms including Facebook as well as encrypted messaging. Yet this contemporary description of digital subjectivity, “you are what you choose to share”, also neatly describes the Yangon fashionistas and the ways in which they resist the political status quo.
Photographic portraits have always been popular in Burma and so this collection does not look especially radical. Initially, the portraits seem to speak only about status, taste, and modernity. Several subjects within the collection are shown in national or ethnic dress, in keeping with the governments edict that Burma consisted of 135 ethnicities and 8 official races. In addition, there is a portrait of a soldier in full uniform. But the majority of the images are of men and women in “modern” western gear typical of the 1970s. With their wide smiles and careful poses, these men and women look like they’re performing sophisticated worldliness as well as showing off their wealth. They are cosmopolitan adepts taking part in international culture. Status is implicit in the accessories, from sunglasses to jewellery. One portrait is shot at mid-range so that it clearly features a landline phone. In 1970s Burma, this was an object out of reach for most. Landlines were both prohibitively expensive and reserved for the true elites. To make a phone call, most people had to line up at special market stalls. To be photographed with a phone, in western clothes (to be photographed at all), seems more about aspiration than anarchy.
In the context of Ne Win’s Burma, however, the portraits clearly capture a form of political agency. Burma had strict edicts for dress and comportment: kissing in public was banned and Burmese citizens were obliged to wear Burmese dress, with western styles considered degenerate. Long hair, despite being what Burmese men traditionally wore prior to colonisation, was also deemed too western and consequently “outlawed” (Edwards 133). Dress was not only proscribed but hierarchised and heavily gendered; only military men had “the right to wear trousers” (Edwards 133). Public disrespect of the all-powerful, paranoid, and vindictive military (known as “sit tat” for military or army versus “Tatmadaw” for the good Myanmar army) was dangerous bordering on the suicidal. Consequently, wearing shoulder-length hair, wide bell bottoms, western-style suits, and “risqué” mini-skirts could all be considered acts of at least daring and definitely defiance. Not only are these photographs a challenge to gender constructions in a country ruled by a hyper-masculine army, but these images also question the nature of what it meant to be Burmese at a time when Burmeseness itself was rigidly codified. Recording such acts on film and then sharing the images entailed further risk. Thus, these models are, as Mina Roces puts it, “express[ing] their agency through sartorial change” (Roces 5).
Fig. 2: Image from a secret Rangoon fashion shoot – illicit dress and hair. Photograph: Myanmar Photo Archive / Lukas Birk.
Fig. 3: Image from a secret Rangoon fashion shoot. Photograph: Myanmar Photo Archive / Lukas Birk.
Roces also notes the “challenge” of making protest visible in spaces “severely limited” under authoritarian regimes (Roces 10). Burma under the Socialist government was a particularly difficult place in which to mount any form of resistance. Consequences included imprisonment or even execution, as in the case of the student leader Tin Maung Oo. Ma Thida, a writer and human rights advocate herself jailed for her work, explains the use of creative tools such as metaphor in a famous story about a crab by the writer and journalist Hanthawaddy U Win Tin:
The crab, being hard-shelled, was well protected and could not be harmed. However, the mosquito, despite being a far smaller animal, could bite the eyes of the crab, leading to the crab’s eventual death. ... Readers drew the conclusion that the socialist government of Ne Win was the crab that could be destabilized if a weakness could be found. (Thida 317)
If the metaphor of a crab defeated by a mosquito held political meaning, then being photographed in prohibited fashions was a more overt way of making defiance and resistant “visible”.
While that visibility seems ephemeral, the fashionistas also found a way not only to be seen by the camera in their rebellious clothing, but also by a “public” or audience of those with whom they shared their images. The act of exchanging portraits, what Birk describes as “old-school Instagram”, anticipates not only the shared selfie, but also the basis of successful contemporary social campaigns, which relied in part on networks sharing posts to amplify their message (Birk, Yangon Fashion 17). What the fashionistas also demonstrate is that an act of rebellion can also be a means of testing the limits of conformity, of the need for beauty, of the human desire to look beautiful. Acts of rebellion are also acts of celebration and so, solidarity.
Fig. 4: Image from a secret Rangoon fashion shoot – illicit dress length. Photograph: Myanmar Photo Archive / Lukas Birk.
Fig. 5: Image from a secret Rangoon fashion shoot – illicit trousers. Photograph: Myanmar Photo Archive / Lukas Birk.
As the art critic and cultural theorist Nikos Papastergiadis writes, “the cosmopolitan imagination in contemporary art could be defined as an aesthetic of openness that engenders a global sense of inter-connectedness” (207). Inter-connectedness and its possibilities and limits shape the aesthetic imaginary of both the secret fashion shoots of 1970s Rangoon and the artists and videographers of 2021. In the videos of the #100projectors project and the fashion portraits of stylish Rangoonites, interconnection comes as a form of aesthetic blending, a conversation that transcends the border.
The sitter posing in illicit western clothes in a photo studio in the heart of Rangoon, then Burma’s capital and seat of power, cannot help but point out that borders are permeable, and that national identity is temporally-based, transitory, and full of slippages. In this spot, 40-odd years earlier, Burmese nationalists used dress as a means of publicly supporting the nationalist cause (Edwards, Roces).
Like the portraits, the #100projector videos blend global and local perspectives on Myanmar. Combining paintings, drawings, graphics, performance art recordings, as well as photography, the work shares the ‘instagrammable’ quality of the Easter Egg, Watermelon, and Marching Shoes strikes with their bright colours and focus on people—or the conspicuous lack of people and the example of the Silent Strike. Graphics are in Burmese as well as English. Video #6 was linked to International Women’s Day. Other graphics reference American artists such as Shepherd Fairey and his Hope poster, which was adapted to feature Aung San Suu Kyi’s face during then-President Obama’s visit in 2012.
The videos also include direct messages related to political entities such as Video #3, which voiced support for the Committee Representing Pyidaungsu Hlutaw (CRPH), a group of 15 elected MPs who represented the ideals of Gen Z youth (Jordt et al., viii). This would not necessarily be understood by an international viewer. Also of note is the prevalence of the colour red, associated with Aung San Suu Kyi’s NLD. Red is one of the three “political” colours formerly banned from paintings under SLORC. The other two were white, associated with the flowers Aung Sang Suu Kyi wore in her hair, and black, symbolic of negative feelings towards the regime (Carlson, 145). The Burmese master Aung Myint chose to paint exclusively in the banned colours as an ongoing act of defiance, and these videos reflect that history.
The videos and portraits may propose that culturally, the world is interconnected. But implicit in this position is also the failure of “interconnectedness”. The question that arises with every viewing of a video or Instagram post or Facebook plea or groovy portrait is: what can these protesters, despite the risks they are prepared to take, realistically expect from the rest of the world in terms of help to remove the unwanted military government? Interconnected or not, political misfortune is the most effective form of national border.
Perhaps the most powerful imaginative association with both the #100projectors video projections and fashionistas portraits is the promise of transformation, in particular the transformations possible in a city like Rangoon / Yangon. In his discussion of the cosmopolitan space of the city, Christensen notes that although “digital transformations touch vast swathes of political, economic and everyday life”, it is the city that retains supreme significance as a space not easily reducible to an entity beneath the national, regional, or global (556). The city is dynamic, “governed by the structural forces of politics and economy as well as moralities and solidarities of both conservative and liberal sorts”, where “othered voices and imaginaries find presence” in a mix that leads to “contestations” (556). Both the fashionistas and the video artists of the #100projectors use their creative work to contest the ‘national’ space from the interstices of the city.
In the studio these transformations of the bodies of Burmese subjects into international “citizens of the world” contest Ne Win’s Burma and reimagine the idea of nation. They take place in the Chinatown, a relic of the old, colonial Rangoon, a plural city and one of the world’s largest migrant ports, where "mobility, foreignness and cross-cultural hybridity" were essential to its make-up (Aung Thin 778).
In their instructions on how to project their ideas as a form of public art to gain audience, the #100projectors artists suggest projectors get “full on creative with other ways: projecting on people, outdoor cinema, gallery projection” (#100projectors). It is this idea projection as an overlay, a doubling of the everyday that evokes the possibility of transformation. The #100projector videos screen on Rangoon bridges, reconfiguring the city, albeit temporarily. Meanwhile, Rangoon is doubled onto other cities, towns, villages, communities, projected onto screens but also walls, fences, the sides of buildings in Finland, Scotland, Australia, and elsewhere.
In this article I have compared the recent #100projectors creative campaign of resistance against the 2021 coup d’état in Myanmar with the “fashionistas” of 1970 and their “secret” photo shoots. While the #100projectors is a contemporary digital campaign, some of the creative tactics employed, such as dissemination and identifying audiences, can be traced back to the practices of Rangoon’s fashionistas of the 1970s.
Creative resistance begins with an act of imagination. The creative strategies of resistance examined here share certain imaginative qualities of connection, a privileging of the ‘cosmopolitan’ and ‘interconnectedness’ as well as the transformativity of actual space, with the streets of Rangoon, itself a cosmopolitan city.
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