What Remains: Textiles from Tuol Sleng - Transcript

Intro [00:00:02]

This is the Nordic Asia podcast.

Terese Gagnon [00:00:09]

Welcome to the Nordic Asia Podcast, a collaboration sharing expertise on Asia across the Nordic region. My name is Therese Gagnon. I'm a postdoctoral researcher at the Nordic Institute of Asian Studies in the Department of Political Science at the University of Copenhagen. I am here today speaking with Dr. Magali An-Berthon . She is a textile historian focusing on the contemporary history of Southeast Asian dress and textiles, Cambodian silk practices in particular. In 2021, she completed her PhD in History of Design at the Royal College of Art of London with a thesis titled Silk and Post-Conflict Cambodia embodied practices and global and local dynamics of heritage and knowledge transference from 1991 to 2019. She's currently a European Union Marie Curie postdoctoral fellow attached to the Center for Textile Research at the University of Copenhagen since January 2022. As a fellow, she is pursuing her examination of Cambodian textile practices in the 20th century from the 1970s to the 1980s, this time exploring further the decades of political unrest and dictatorship, relying on the textile collections and archives of the National Museum of Cambodia and Tulsa Genocide Museum, which we will be discussing in this podcast episode. Welcome to the podcast, Magali.

Magali-An Berthon [00:01:28]

Thank you so much for having me. It's my pleasure.

Terese Gagnon [00:01:31]

Just to get started, can you tell us a little bit about how you first became interested in working with textiles and Southeast Asian textiles specifically?

Magali-An Berthon [00:01:40]

Yeah, it's a good question. I think in my case it's a combination of personal experience, but also a constant question about identity, I guess because in my case, well, I'm mixed race. I'm French and Vietnamese, French on my dad's side and Vietnamese on my mother's side. But I grew up in Montreal, in Canada before moving to France. And my mother has been through the Vietnam War as as a kid first and then as a teenager and then as a young woman. And so there is not much from this time that she kept in terms of objects. And I do remember that textiles, I think, were a few things that she had brought with her when she moved to France at age 18. She had two dresses from that time from Vietnam, and that was everything she got. And I as a kid, I was always very moved by those objects and was always trying to see them, to touch them, to look at them. There was something I found quite moving and relevant to, I don't know. I think there was something there. I was trying to find something there that I was needing. And from there I think there's been a constant interest in connecting things and reconnecting things. And I do find that textiles and cloth and clothing are a great means to do that because, you know, on the body they're sensuous sensory objects and and they connect to people's cultures and people's skills and crafts. So they're quite deeply embedded within people's cultures. So since then, I don't know. I think I've been I've been pursuing that road and I've done that through different means. And one of them was being a designer first, a textile designer, and then moving into documentary, interested in textile practices around the world, especially in Southeast Asia, and then eventually going back to academia in 2015, first with an MA in New York at FIT on a Fulbright Fellowship and then continuing with the PhD and so forth. And that brings me here today. So the constant questions I've been looking at are loss and regain or reclaiming of identity through textiles and dress. So after long years of soul searching, I do think that this stems from this this kind of mixed background and also relationship to objects and how in some cases there's a scarcity of objects and they tell way more than the abundance of things that that people sometimes have. So there's I think that comes maybe from there. And the interest in Southeast Asia, I guess, is also cultural in my way, not necessarily approaching Vietnamese history directly, but through kind of a tangential means by looking at Cambodia and Cambodian history and textiles, which I discovered also through traveling with my mother in the 2000. Yeah.

Terese Gagnon [00:04:20]

Thank you so much for sharing that. That's really beautiful. Yeah. Think it definitely connects to a lot of my interests as well of the materiality of things and moving with those things. And yeah, I just agree those are really potent sites of inquiry.

Magali-An Berthon [00:04:35]

And I do think that everybody is a researcher for specific reasons. I think we all have very personal reasons behind a very serious research. So it's something I'm interested in hearing in other people's paths and careers as well.

Terese Gagnon [00:04:48]

Absolutely. Yeah. It's really kind of strange, I think that we don't talk about it more because the way that I think most of us are, almost all of us come to our research topics, is very personal and specific, but it kind of gets hidden behind this sort of professional version of ourselves that we present.

Magali-An Berthon [00:05:03]

Absolutely. I agree with that.

Terese Gagnon [00:05:05]

Actually, I got interested in my research topic by eating and gardening.

Magali-An Berthon [00:05:10]

Oh, wow. Physical embodied experience also.

Terese Gagnon [00:05:13]

Yes, absolutely. Yeah. So maybe can you tell us a little bit about Tuol Sleng for those who might not be familiar or for those who are not updated on the details? What is slang and how did this collection of textiles that you're working with? What is the history there?

Magali-An Berthon [00:05:31]

Right. So Tuol Sleng, I mean, originally it is located in in Cambodia. And originally it was a high school that was taken over by the Khmer Rouge in 1975, basically, and turned into a prison or a center for interrogation and a center for torture during the Khmer Rouge regime. By 1976, until the collapse of the regime in 1979 and the arrival of the Vietnamese forces. So it was a secret prison because by 1975, Plum Pen was evacuated. All civilians were forced to leave and go into different areas in the countryside and being reassigned to a different role in society often put to force work. So the city was somewhat left empty, but there were still some factories, still some organization units for the Khmer Rouge and this specific site of prison. And it was changed the name changed into S-21 at that time and was directed and managed by different people. One of them was stuck. And so it was found this prison was discovered a few days after the collapse of the regime when everybody, the Khmer Rouge, fled and left the City of Lumpen in January 1979. But S-21 was not really a prison in the sense that they kept people for a really long time. I mean, some people stayed, some prisoners stayed for some time, but also they were quickly processed through this prison. And the number that we think now was in prison and then mostly killed is around 17,000 people. So it's it's a pretty grim account. And there were no very few survivors. That's why also I'm saying that it was necessary to prison to keep people alive as prisoners of war as much as to process culprits or to assess the amount of culprits in the regime that they could charge. So this site, you know, you can still visit to the present day. It was turned into a memorial first and then a museum. The Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum reopened by the 1980s, early 1980s, and to the present day, it's one of the main sites to commemorate those two, to try to understand what happened in Cambodia in the 1970s, in the late 1970s, and what we now call a genocide. So it's an interesting place to visit and a complex experience because you're basically walking in the former prison as a tourist, whereas the visitor. And so there's a very strong, how can I say, empirical experience in walking in those halls. And you are kind of feeling somehow the experience with the light, with the the setting, with the fact that they kept a lot of the objects of torture, the beds and the shackles and the the stains sometimes. And my interest really is is not as much in this experience, but still in some ways connected because I'm interested in textiles and clothing. And it sounds really something that you think about right away when you think about such a site of, you know, atrocities. It's you don't think about that. Textiles are nowhere in some ways, almost nowhere to be found. But there were actually some textiles and clothing, obviously, that were that I consider as a byproduct of those years at the prison. And they are interesting and important because they provide a different type of information that what we know and then what we have. And so I got interested in trying to approach a different form of history or different form of material culture associated to that site. The textiles, basically, and clothing prisoners, when they arrived at the prison right away, they were taken in the streets. They didn't have time to pack anything, so they came with very few means, usually what they had on their shoulders, basically, and men, women and also sometimes children were taken and all kinds of people, you know, in the beginning, the first waves, it could be opponents of the regime, intellectuals, artists, mostly political prisoners in the beginning of people considered opponents. And then eventually the regime kind of turned against itself. And there were lots of purges against Khmer Rouge cadres and guards and so and military use of forces. So eventually the prisons started to receive different waves of people that were also former Khmer Rouge that were taken. But the principal. Of the way they were being processed. And that's a horrible name to a horrible word to use process. As long as they're not human, they're kettles. But similar in some ways because there's such a process of dehumanization through the way they were taken in the prison and put in the cells, basically put in records and put in cells. So they were coming with what they had on their shoulders, and then they were being photographed and they were being very meticulously photographed in those haunting portraits that we can see at the prison, there were those black and white mug shots, basically. And so their prisoners were taken in their clothes. Some of them were wearing everyday clothing. Some of them were wearing military clothing and dark clothing as well, military fatigue as well. Some of the men were bare chested. So in that case, they were given a sarong chroma to cover their shoulders and to allow allow the guards to add a tag with a number. So to clip the tag on their chest with on fabric. And once the shots were taken, then the prisoners were often stripped from all belongings. So men were often not naked, but almost just wearing under shorts. Women were permitted to keep their tube skirts, their sarong at least. But clothing was considered almost a privilege, and you had to earn it in some ways to have it. So the few survivors who talked about what happened said they were freezing it and they were really cold because they didn't have a lot of clothing. So all of this clothing was transmitted through the prison, there was not like a proper system about cleaning them, about giving them to other people. It was a bit of an organic process. But through having 17,000 prisoners and people killed, it makes a lot of clothing, it makes a lot of garments left. There were textiles and clothing found after Liberation Day on January 7th, 1979. And one of the kind of heart wrenching story about textiles and how it's kind of the starting point for the collection and the museum is that the Vietnamese soldiers, when they arrived with the journalists in the prison, they found children for child survivors. And one of them was known, Chantelle and his brother. And to survive, they hid under a large pile of cloth that was behind the prison because they didn't really know what was going on. And so they rushed and hid under this big pile of clothing. Well, I guess all the guards were escaping and leaving the prison. So it starts, you know, on the very first day of discovering the site. Textiles are really there. There were this massive pile, but this pile that I think is a evidence that something happened, not just the bodies that were found, but also this big pile. That way more people were killed there because it was a secret prison site for all these years. And also to say that S-21 was not the only prison site across Cambodia, but it's the one that was found that was the most documented, where most information was found and probably the largest site for that. So that's the starting point is this big pile of clothing and what to do with that. And then after that, they found clothing in different levels of the building. The building S-21 site was quite large at the time, was larger than the actual museum site. And so they collected lots of clothing that they found and they gathered them. And several thousands of articles of clothing were collected by 1979, 1980.

Terese Gagnon [00:13:44]

Wow. As you say, that's such a powerful testament to the the people that were moved through this prison and seeing the material remains or representation of these people's existence and and the time that they spend there. So can you tell us a little bit more about the process? I understand that these textiles went through a few different phases of their life within this space, and there were some different movements that occurred. So can you walk us through that process?

Magali-An Berthon [00:14:16]

Yeah, absolutely. I'm a textile historian, interested in trajectories of things, so I'm interested in the objects themselves. Obviously that's a big part of the research I'm conducting, but it's also how things got to be, how things transited, how things got to exist and the genesis, basically the history behind things. Because when you go to the museum now, you will see textiles. There's a current exhibition happening right now that has just opened at the museum that is showing some of those garments and it's beautifully made and shows the effort. Also the conservation effort that's been behind the conservation of those textiles and those fragments and clothing. So visitors sometimes come in and they see things and that's what they see. And but the process to get there was a very long, complex one. So in 1979, it's not a museum. Yet per se. It's a place to show international guests, diplomatic officials, journalists. The torture that took place at S21. And it really becomes more of a museum by 1980 as an official opening. And so all of those garments that were collected around the prison site, a lot of them were cleaned by the early museum work team, and they were showcased in the galleries, in the permanent galleries of the museum, which is also the prison. And so originally it was shown as a huge pile, again, as an enormous, almost a mountain of clothing that visitors could see. There was just they could almost touch them. And even there some stories that in the beginning people were so Cambodians were in such dire conditions that they would come sometimes and pick some clothing for themselves because they really lacked everything by then. By 1980, you know, the museum at the time, it was the Vietnamese who were in charge of Cambodia at the time when once they arrived in the country. So there's some narrative behind the formation of the museum. And I think the effort was to kind of put the accent on the atrocities that the Khmer Rouge did, but also to connect those atrocities very strongly to crimes such as the Holocaust and let a bit behind in the background the history that the Khmer Rouge originally claimed themselves to be communist, revolutionary, communist. And I think the Vietnamese at the time did not really enjoy that narrative. And so the idea was really to connect those atrocities to the atrocities in Auschwitz, for example. And that's interesting for us because the way the display was made also connects to that. And the first museum's form of tools was thought or designed by this Vietnamese Milam, who had also traveled to Germany to look at how things were presented. And so this big pile is reminiscent of what you would see in Auschwitz with the big pile of of shoes and even the sensory reaction. The strong impression on the visitors, I think is connected to this experience in Auschwitz. So this is kind of how the big pile came to be. And at the time also at the museum, you can also be see a big pile of shackles. They were not shown as objects. They were shown as a mass of destruction, basically. And so visitors started commenting on the stench, even though the pile most of the garments on the pile had been cleaned and boiled. Still, I think visitors did not enjoy that so much. So by 1991, the piles of clothing had been moved to the top floor of Building B, the main one of the main buildings of the museum. And then there was a massive storm also in 2011 that damaged the building and the clothing. So again, the piles were separated for storage in plastic bags and crates and only a small amount, 275 objects were kept and shown in window casing in the permanent galleries that have remained as is until 2020. All those clothes that were put in plastic bags and crates were put in different parts of the museum under staircases in places, and were left like that for some time and a bit forgotten. And it's only by 2015 that the new director, the new appointed director, Che visit, he stumbled upon those clothing. They were rotting, they were infested by termites. He sent along those objects and thought, well, what to do with those? We have to reclaim them. We have to make something out of them. They belong to the museum. And so he conducted with some volunteer students from the university where he taught the Royal University of Fine Arts the sorting of those textiles into categories and temporary storage to protect them in some ways, and then eventually through time and funding and fundraising, he managed to get the support of the US Embassy Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation, and by 2017 he brought in the American textile conservator Julia Brennan to devise a mass treatment protocol on those objects. And Julia Brennan is a very talented conservator and she had experience also in working in Rwanda on a genocide site. And I think she used that experience. And she also worked a lot in Southeast Asia, in Thailand also. So she came in the project and started also training local staff, especially in-house conservation specialist Koch and her team. And so from 2017 to now 2021, I would say there has been a large, very ambitious conservation program between her and on site staff and over several years. And they managed to implement a protocol to. Get a storage system that would be cheap or low cost, but that would allow all those objects to be conserved in a better condition because it's very humid in Cambodia. So things tend to rot very fast and it's hot. So for textiles, it's not very good in general to keep textiles in good condition. And I mean. Long story short. Approximately 3000 pieces of clothing have been inventoried, photographed, conserved and stored in the climate control system. And about a thousand has been treated basically really to conserve them on a longer term. So conservation, I think, is a very important aspect of this history. And there's a sense of reclaiming in a sense of healing probably is possible through that process. It was, I think, talking to Julia and Chandra and people in her team challenging process because of the smell, because of the termites, because of the stains, because of the dust. It was a bit of a difficult endeavor, but a brave one, and it needed to be done. So they did it. But it's wonderful what they've done, I think, because now there is this large collection of objects and textiles and a wealth of things that we can learn from, and it allows people like me who are not conservators, historians to be able to come and try to with them obviously make sense of of those objects if there's some sense to be made and it moves from a pile to plastic bags to an actual archive or collection of objects. And that is a tremendous feat, I think, on the part of the museum. And then people like Julia, who all worked so much all these years.

Terese Gagnon [00:21:52]

Yeah, it is really fascinating. And as you say, it must have been such a incredibly hard work to do. And it is extremely interesting to think about the kind of intentional optics of presenting things as a pile and that kind of undifferentiated quantity and mass, and then shifting from that to the emphasis on the conservation of individual pieces and kind of presenting them as archive or as a collection and seeing them as a window into history rather than just collective effect, I think is quite a fascinating movement in and of itself.

Magali-An Berthon [00:22:29]

Yeah, I think that's key here. Thank you for bringing that up because I think from the pile that says the amount of death, I guess the amount of death there are also anonymous. It's about the anonymity, I guess, or the fact that it speaks to that dehumanization, the fact that, you know, people don't matter didn't matter, or they were just processed, as I use that word, kind of on purpose. Because when the Khmer director called the S-21, the Khmer machine and there's an idea of almost a factory of like processing, photographing them, putting them into confession, taking their clothes off, killing them, and then moving on to somebody else. And so the humanity of the people, wherever they came from, wherever the background was, is completely erased and using a pile to create this feeling of all and a horror. I guess it is efficient. I think it was very efficient in a way that they wanted to show the exactions of the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge in 1979 because it was a country that was closed off from the rest of the world and nobody really wanted to see what was going on there. So that makes sense in that way within that political context, obviously. But now I think 30 years later, we're approaching a different way of seeing things in different ways of looking at things. And it is very meaningful to me that somebody like you would understand the value of objects as much beyond also textiles. He also started to look at the walls of the museum or the prison because people had left graffitis inscriptions. And he also assigned a team of volunteers to photograph those inscriptions, those texts, as if the prison, the site itself offered some textual evidence, as well as not just a framework for this the prisoners to exist or like a building, but also a space in itself that was living through that time. And those inscriptions, I think are seeing that and textiles, I think also play a similar role into shifting the narrative or at least one thing, the perspectives on that place, but also on the people who were there.

Terese Gagnon [00:24:39]

I think it's so interesting, as you've described, this huge imbalance in power, in record keeping and the narrative that's been told. And obviously those running the prison had almost complete power and control over the narrative and the record keeping that was going on and the fact that that's been studied so much. And then now is the time to really pay attention to the details and the histories and stories that these material objects might tell, since that was maybe one of the only means people had of registering their experience, including the graffiti on the walls. And I think, yeah, your your role coming to this now that the conservation work has been done or is continuing to be done and your attunement and expertise as a. Historian and a textiles expert. It's incredible to think about what kinds of things might be revealed, even in their quietness, even in their incomplete nature, because of the the very physicality and quality of these kinds of archives and testaments, as you say. But I'm wondering if you could tell us just a little bit about what kinds of stories or possible narratives you think textiles in particular might open up about this history?

Magali-An Berthon [00:25:55]

There's a tremendous amount of things that you can find still on this collection. I mean, so far it's been catalogued not catalog per se, but inventoried. And so they have about 1300 recognizable pieces, 2000 garments and approximately around 271 of a kind items. So you can already see families of things emerging. Most of the clothing really is military things. So uniforms basically. And the biggest category is actually caps, hats in the Chinese style Chinese hats, military hats. But you have pants and shirts, t shirts, socks, even shoes, boots, sandals, some carrying pouches, military bags, all kinds of objects like that, even underwear. So it's pretty broad, the amount of things. It's mostly menswear, I would say less than women's wear, which is consistent with what was going on in the prison. It was mostly men, though. There were some women as well. There are some children's clothing, which I find really the most difficult to to approach. And there's a range, mostly, I would say, machine made industrial clothing, nothing that seems handcrafted, mostly only to silk scarves or found very few luxury items, nothing of that sort. So it's interesting in that way. It shows a different vision also of production. You can learn a lot of things about textile production at the time. You can learn things about also what people were in 1975 and what they came to wear later on up to 1979. Because, for example, when the Khmer Rouge arrived to power, they changed rules about clothing, what people were allowed to wear, and all of a sudden they were mostly forbidden to wear things and they were forbidden to wear color, wear anything that looked luxurious, look cultural, like silk. Anything connected to their religious practices, You know, to go to the pagoda, for example. And they were forced to wear dark, muted clothing. So if they didn't have anything of that sort, they had men and women had to dye their clothing. They found natural dyes to do that or mud, or they would get dark shirts and that would be the process. So the objects that we found that were more of the 1917 style, because in the 1970s, Cambodian people and especially in the cities, they were wearing imported Western clothing styles with form fitting designs and bold 1960s 70s patterns. So you can find a few of those objects in the collection. And so you can imagine that there would be worn by people in the beginning of the regime. So maybe even closer to 1976 when the prison opened. And they were also most likely what the Khmer Rouge called the new people, meaning the urbanites versus the old people that were praised more, let's say, who were in the countryside. But it's going to be, for example, a lot of the questions that come up or can you identify the clothing and match them with victims? I think that's a question that comes up a lot. And the answer is, is mostly no. So it's a different kind of you can't really match a body, a person to clothing. And those clothes have been left for so long that how can you find evidence, forensics and like DNA. And so there were no DNA records of people in 1917 Cambodia. So I think this is kind of a very Western imaginary about what to do with those objects. And the goals, I think are more humble, but maybe also more realistic and more maybe more genuine in some ways in the approach that the museum has been carried on, I think. But at the same time, you could find some practices of dress that were relevant and connect with some of the objects. Among those 270 objects are considered one of a kind. You have a lot of patched, mended garments, shirts that are heavily patched with stitching, different patches of different fabrics in them, especially in the inside, to protect those shirts and and shorts and clothing. And those are incredible objects because they are almost a map of people's lives in the sense that you can really see that maybe they only had one shirt and they had a tremendous hardship they had to go through to keep that shirt in the best condition possible. So anything that looks at the wears and tears and seams and stitching and fading, all those aspects are invaluable to the research, which is kind of the counter idea of going to museum to stay

Terese Gagnon [00:30:41]

Of course. And as we just kind of draft to the end, I think you've said so many things that really touch on this, but maybe to speak to it more directly or to draw it out even further. So all these things you've described of small details that can help to retrace someone's experience and their their identity and their presence even within this unimaginably restrictive and oppressive circumstance, What is it about materiality and about textiles in particular that can help us understand history differently from the kinds of textual and visual sources that are so often given priority within historical research?

Speaker 4 [00:31:20]

I think it's important in the case, especially if a place like Tuol Sleng 21 is that the bodies are gone. There were people there and prisoners and people who died. And clothing are what you have on your body. The closest thing you have on the body is clothing. You use clothing for protection for care to just be in the world, be human in the world. And it is is what supposedly separates you from being treated as an animal. It puts you in the realm of humans and so looking at textiles in these particular cases, pursuing this goal of humanizing, of bearing witness, both very humanizing the process of destruction of what was going on there. Their tactile quality, the proximity to the skin, the sensory dimension. Even the fact that visitors complain about the stench when they saw the big pile in 1979, you cannot have the reaction with paper and with photographs. I think it touches on other senses, other emotional connections that humans have. They're not necessarily spoken. They might be faint in some ways, and that's what interests me in that connection. So it's a challenge to make them not as mundane as people might think, but the mundane also is important. I mean, I think in those stories of war or, you know, bombs and death and torture, those big words and trauma, looking at textiles as those kind of mnemonics in some ways. This repository of human life and knowledge and people, they're bringing things back to very low level of things that are very simple level of things of survival. So they're bringing back other parts of the history, I think, and they're important that way to complement those larger narratives. I think people are so attracted to and also the nuances to discussion.

Terese Gagnon [00:33:23]

I think it's so easy, as you've said, when studying histories of war, to think about this as something that just could have only happened in this one context that this one time and looking at the everyday dimensions of experiences of war removes a bit the distance and reminds us that this happened to people who are perhaps not so different from us as we might imagine when we read the history book.

Magali-An Berthon [00:33:45]

Yeah, it can happen to all of us. It goes back to kind of primary needs also of like being closed, being fed. When you read the testimonies of the survivors that you may or not at the same at the at that time, the painter may also was one of the survivors. That's all they talk about is what survival is about the day to day needs, really and I think textiles speaks to that basic need of survival, but it's also basic level of identity and humanity in people.

Terese Gagnon [00:34:15]

Absolutely. Well, I know I am inspired by your work and definitely interested to learn more as you continue to work on this project and really interested to see what comes next as you continue during these next two years of your Marie Curie Postdocs, Thank you so much for speaking with us.

Magali-An Berthon [00:34:33]

Thank you. Thank you so much.

Terese Gagnon [00:34:35]

My name is Theresa Gagnon, I've been in conversation with Magali and Benton, and you have been listening to the Asia podcast. Thank you for joining the Nordic Asia podcast showcasing Nordic collaboration in studying Asia.

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