Occupy CMU: students take over university art centre after censorship attempt

Students from the Media Arts and Design Department, Faculty of Fine Arts, Chiang Mai University, took over the University Art Centre on Saturday (16 October), after the Faculty and the university administration prohibited them from showing their final theses as some pieces deal with social and political themes.

Students gathering in front of the dean's office building

Earlier on Friday afternoon (15 October), a group of Media Arts and Design students went to the Dean’s office to meet the university administration to follow up on a letter filed 2 days earlier, following an order from the Faculty of Fine Arts forbidding 4th year students from exhibiting their final theses in the Art Centre, as some pieces deal with political themes.

According to the students’ letter, they requested the use of the University Art Centre to organize their thesis exhibition. However, the Art Centre said that they have to submit information about every piece that will be exhibited, and that some pieces will not be allowed to be shown as the Faculty said the pieces are political and inappropriate for a public exhibition.

After they submitted the additional documents, the Art Centre asked them again on 12 October to send more information about how the pieces are to be set up and to attach a picture of the piece, as well as to get these details approved by the students’ project supervisors, causing the students concern that they would not be able to set up the exhibition in time for the opening date on 18 October.

The letter said that every project has been checked by their respective supervisor, and that the exhibition is not a political gathering but is organized as part of their thesis project, which they have been working on for their past two semesters.

The students also said that every piece should be exhibited because it is a question of freedom of expression, and because they have all paid their tuition fees and the cost of organizing the exhibition at the Art Centre.

University administration then replied to them via a Facebook post on 15 October saying that the exhibition should follow Faculty rules and regulations. On the same day, the students, along with lecturers and their parents, gathered in front of the Dean’s office and demanded a meeting. While they were giving speeches through a speaker, university security cut the electricity supply three times.

The students also attempted to join a university administration Zoom meeting, as the administration claimed that they are not able to meet with the students because they have to attend another meeting. Once the students tried to raise the issue of the exhibition, the administration muted them and deleted them from the meeting, claiming that the issue had nothing to do with what they were discussing.

The students also went to wait in front of the meeting room, but members of the administration left the building via a fire exit and did not meet the students.

Students went to the Phuping Rajanivej Police Station to file a complaint

In the evening, the students went to the Phuping Rajanivej Police Station to file a complaint that they were forbidden from showing their works, which may damage the pieces and their education.

One of the parents who joined the students’ gathering said that the students’ expression has been limited in the past, and that she believes that the arts should be open-minded and students should be allowed to express what they think or feel through their art so that society knows what is going on. She also noted that the university is preventing students from exhibiting their work just before they graduate, even though they have been working on their project for the entire semester.

“I came here today because I want to know if my child is going to graduate, or is it because some nonsense that has nothing to do with the kids. You’re linking this to the kids, and then they don’t graduate. They have already planned out their lives. Where are they going once they graduate? Which job are they going to apply to? But right now they don’t even know if they’re going to graduate. They came to ask you questions, but there are no answers. You ran away and did not answer them,” the parent said.

On Friday night (15 October), the students also found that water and electricity at the Media Arts and Design Department building had been cut, and that several students who were working inside the building were locked inside the Faculty and all exits were locked with chains.

artist and lecturer Thasnai Sethaseree and another student cut the chains locking the art centre gates

On Saturday morning (16 October), around 100 Media Arts and Design students, along with several lecturers, broke through the gates and occupied the Art Centre to set up their exhibition. As the gates were locked, they had to cut the chains to get in, and had to also break through the door of the Art Centre, which was also locked.

Meanwhile, electricity at the Media Arts and Design building was still cut. A university staff member informed the students that electricity and water in the building was cut by order of the Faculty Dean.

Students and lecturers took over the art centre to set up their exhibition

Thasnai Sethaseree, an artist and Faculty of Fine Arts lecturer who has been supporting the students, said that the Faculty was using a university order made in April 2021 to prohibit students from organizing protests on campus to prohibit students from using faculty space on the grounds that they need to prevent disorder and a breach of “good morals,” which for him raised questions of how art can cause disorder and damage morals.

“What happened during the past week is a common occurrence in Chiang Mai University, but the people who are affected have never spoken out. The President of the Faculty of Fine Arts Student Union has to show the content to the Deputy Dean of Student Affairs before it is posted. Things like this happen in Chiang Mai University every day. This case like a volcano that will make the lava in other places erupt,” Thasnai said.

Faculty of Sociology lecturer Pinkaew Laungaramsri said that the university has been claiming that they are trying to meet the UN’s sustainable development goals, one of which is to preserve justice and freedom, but what is currently happening in the Faculty of Fine Arts is injustice and a violation of freedom of expression, which goes against what the university has been claiming.

“I would like to tell the administration that if they want guarantees to truly reach the goal of justice, they have to allow students to freely express themselves,” Pinkaew said.

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