Just north of the Cambodia-Japan Friendship Bridge, the rust-red boat comes into view: six storeys and 6,000 square metres of unused space floating on the Tonle Sap river.
With its dilapidated look, some might think it was abandoned — or perhaps even an eyesore — but it is this space that organisers plan to transform into Cambodia’s largest collaborative centre dedicated to the contemporary arts.
It’s an ambitious idea that, if successful, could in turn shape the landscape of the arts community.
The next phase of the project hinges on a funding campaign launching next week that aims to raise $40,000 to begin renovation work.
The Boat (it's officially rendered in caps per a naming contest held in October) is the brainchild of hotelier Alexis de Suremain and his collaborators Dana Langlois, curator and director of JavaArts, and businessman Jeroen van Daalen.
The group plan to run the floating arts centre as half-social enterprise and half-nonprofit arts organisation, hosting a diverse array of artists and exhibitions onboard and funding its operational costs through commercial activities and events.
Originally intended to be a floating hotel, the structure was left unfinished by its French-Cambodian owner in 2012. De Suremain reached a formal agreement with him to lease the space for his project in early September, and quickly set to work.
“Three months ago, I get an SMS: ‘Hey, I’ve got this project for an arts space. You interested to talk?’” Langlois says. “The next day, we were on the boat.”
To see the boat today, visitors must board a smaller, private vessel down river, and carefully climb inside through an opening in the hull. A bridge connecting the future arts hub to land — and the public — is one of the goals of the funding campaign.
Inside, the boat certainly still feels like an abandoned floating hotel: a little Titanic, a touch of The Shining and a lot of dust. It’s plain to see the space as it would have been. Furniture fills some floors and unwrapped air-conditioning units remain in the rooms.
But with the group’s plan in hand, it’s also quite easy to envision the space as it could be. In draft, the founders have adapted the long hallways and airy rooms quite readily for their own interests.
They hope to open the floating arts centre floor-by-floor — contingent on funds, of course — starting from the top.
The fifth and sixth floors were already the closest to completion, and feature a space for events with two bars and plenty of open air.
Up at the top, the two largest rooms are slated for a dance studio and the main exhibition space — all white walls and natural light.
The organisers hope they can get these floors open within six months of the campaign launch and begin hosting a few commercial events, pop-up exhibitions and discussions.
This initial phase will be “a very condensed, mini version of the whole thing”, Langlois says.
Down below, the hotel lobby, reached by a rickety ladder, features a two-level balcony centred on what will become a space for art installations, according to draft plans. A for-sale gallery, gift shop and cafe will also sit on this floor.
The guest rooms that line the boat’s hallways will become project spaces for a learning centre, offices for creatives and partly subsidised artist studios, altogether known as the “creative hub”, which Langlois calls “the heart and soul of the whole project”.
The 15 to 20 studios “will prioritise Cambodian artists”, she said, who may eventually work alongside artists from abroad as part of an international residency program still being sketched out.
“What I can say for sure is that diversity is the key, for creativity and creating that dialogue and exchange between artists,” Langlois said.
It’s this kind of exchange — among a lack of other resources — that has been missing from Phnom Penh’s small arts community, according to some veterans of the scene.
“We have artists who are doing well, but they do not reach out to the rest of the community,” says Khiang Hei, an artist, curator and consultant.
“Meanwhile, the arts institutions tend to lock themselves in their own territory. It is a small arts community. We should be able to work more collaboratively.”
Funding and infrastructure for the contemporary arts are particularly lacking in an already under-resourced scene.
“For a city of over a million people, Phnom Penh has pitifully limited spaces that present contemporary art, whether performance-based or visual,” explains John Shapiro, co-founder of Khmer Arts.
But Hei says that — despite the challenges — the past five years have seen growth in terms of collaboration between different types of visual and performing arts, and especially in local Khmer interest in the arts. It’s not just Western viewers anymore, he says.
It is this interest and growth that Langlois and her co-founders hope to build on, and with a focus particularly on contemporary work.
“It’s not a museum piece, it’s not a museum show – it's meant to be a living culture,” Langlois says.
And ultimately, De Suremain’s vision for the project extends beyond the Phnom Penh arts scene.
As a hotelier, he says, he sees tourists underwhelmed by the city’s offerings — or at least, by their number.
He wants to add a contemporary and dynamic space to the traditional list: the National Museum, Tuol Sleng, the Royal Palace.
“What we would like to do is [make it so that] when you go to Phnom Penh, then you have to see The Boat.”
He believes the project has the talent, the space and location, and the community resources it needs, but he notes the caveat: “Now what we need to have is money to make this happen.”
And members of the community — with enthusiasm or scepticism — will watch to see how it turns out.
“If The Boat takes a social enterprise approach, it will be interesting to see if that model can thrive,” says Shapiro.
“The floating arts centre sounds too large for a start-up,” notes Hei, the consultant.
Nonetheless, the campaign launching next week is designed to run that way, with “perks" ($25 gets donors’ faces on a photo installation called 10,000 Faces, while bigger donations earn artwork or a private dinner) and a social-media visibility aimed at garnering further sponsorship.
“It’s an incredible vision, and it’s also about the bigger long-term vision … It’s going to be good for everybody. So it’s just tapping into people that can see that as well,” Langlois says.