At sundown in Phnom Penh, if you go up high enough, you can often see children playing on the rooftop of the White Building.
While their home, once a celebrated social housing project designed by one of the country’s most acclaimed architects, has fallen into disrepair, a small community of artists is
The latest work to come out of the building, a multimedia project titled Through a Child’s Eye View which opened there on Friday night, makes use of animation, photography, video and mapping.
Some 14 children, between the ages of seven and 14, spent three weeks documenting their home. The results range from colourful collages mapping floors of the building to photos of everyday events that capture the children’s outlook, all shot from the low angle of a child’s eye.
“This is something that only those children can see from their perspective, so we wanted to give them the opportunity to reflect from their part of view,” said Emma Ota, the Tokyo-based British artist who has spent the past five weeks living in the building. She organised the project in conjunction with the not-for-profit artist-run space Sa Sa Art Projects.
The perspective of children can help adults see their surroundings more clearly, she added. “How can we use simple technology to reopen our eyes and see our everyday in a different light?”
Constructed in 1963 as housing for low-income civil servants on Sothearos Boulevard, the White Building’s gritty appearance makes it a local symbol of urban poverty. It is also home to Sa Sa Art Projects, which regularly hosts selected artists for its six-week Pisaot artist residency program.
“The White Building has a bad name in terms of its looks, and because there are some issues about prostitution, drug use and dealers,” said Lim Sokchanlina of Sa Sa, who added that much of the crime problems were exaggerated and limited to certain parts of the building.
“We hope that our activities and motivation can bring back the art to this community, and hopefully improve the Cambodian art scene too.”
For her Pisaot residency, Ota decided to equip children she recruited from a computer class at the Aziza School. In addition to giving the students tools to document the building, Ota also instructed the students to complete various tasks, such as going to parts of the building that they were unfamiliar with to photograph residents.
“That made them a little bit nervous to enter into a different kind of zone for them. But I think when they gained their confidence, they were excited to be able to use a camera and think what it means to point the camera in the world."
Ota also had the students create maps of the building, which she said illuminated their comforts and anxieties through the use of a colour code. “The place where they like to play and run about, we made green. The place where they like to relax and chill out, we like to make orange. We also discussed places where they feel uncomfortable, which was brown. The roof was coloured green to reflect its status as a popular play place, but many of the stairs leading to the roof were brown, indicating that the children are uncomfortable there.
“They take a round route to get up to the roof because there are certain areas they don’t want to go. Maybe some areas they feel they can’t enter that space because of the people who are there, they feel it’s not their space to enter or they’ve been told to avoid that space.”
In her time in the White Building, Ota said she has come to appreciate its community. “I was very impressed by the energy and vibrancy of the building.”