Beginning in February 2020 students, activists, and artists in Bangkok held demonstrations against the government of Prime Minister General Prayut Chan-o-cha. These protests transformed the city into a canvas for political dissent. On a massive concrete platform for the overhead rail system, a neon hashtag called for truth in relation to past episodes of state violence. A wall of the Grand Palace featured a still image of Pridi Banomyong, the civilian leader of the 1932 revolution against the absolute monarchy. Earlier this year, similar projections appeared on buildings, demanding an end to strict lèse-majesté laws, or Section 112 of the Thai Criminal Code, that prohibit open discussion of the monarchy. Displays of electric light have long been controlled by the crown and commercial groups to promote their narrow interests, and projecting light in these ways was not only a creative act but also a direct challenge to the inequality that electric light has helped produce over the past century.
Electric light began life in Bangkok as an ornament in the Chakri Maha Prasat Throne Hall. Thai army commander Chao Phraya Surasakmontri had travelled to Paris and was taken by the city’s brilliance. Using 14,400 baht gained from the sale of inherited land, he purchased two electric generators from Britain. To demonstrate the potential of electric power, lamps were installed in the throne hall’s reception room. In the evening of 20 September, King Chulalongkorn’s (r. 1868 to 1910) sixtieth birthday, workers turned the generators on, with light shining through the windows of the palace against the darkness of the tropical night.
Speculative investment quickly brought electric light under the logic of capitalism. In 1889, a group of Thai aristocrats launched the Siam Electric Company. They obtained the backing and money of a group of nobles, a handful of successful Chinese merchants, and a couple of Europeans entrepreneurs. The Royal Treasury supplemented the group’s private capital with a significant investment of 258,000 baht to buy 3,225 shares of the initial offering. The company set up a power plant next to Wat Ratchaburana, a Buddhist monastery in the southern part of the city. The plant generated power using logs, oil, coal, and rice husks as fuel. The initiative failed in just three years. A combination of poor management, lack of technical expertise, and shortage of capital doomed the company.
In 1898, a group of investors led by a Danish man named Aage Westenholz set up the Siam Electricity Company, Ltd and obtained a concession to run the plant. The group did this while managing to turn a profit for most of the years it was in charge. In 1908, a British engineer working for Bangkok’s municipal government named Lamont Groundwater wrote that the company was supplying “the whole of the city with electric light.”
This statement was only partially true, since the primary consumer in the early years of electric light was the royal household. In 1907, the palace used 28,114 units of current at a cost of 7,761 baht. The buildings in the newly constructed Dusit Park – a collection of homes for royal family members and state buildings – consumed 60,608 units at a cost of 13,636 baht. Government offices required 23,848 units, which cost 5,962 baht. By comparison, the deployment of electric light for public purposes was minimal. Street lighting, for example, used only 26,549 units at 4,466 baht. There were also private subscribers, like Chinese merchants and members of the European community, though their numbers were relatively low. Electricity thus did supply light to the city, but for the benefit of a limited number of residents.
In 1914 the government opened its own power plant on Samsen Road, near the royal compound at Dusit Park. The plant was built ostensibly to power the state-run opium processing facility and a new waterworks plant nearby. As with the Dutch-run power station, however, the royal household turned out to be the primary consumer. In 1916, the Phaya Thai Palace, an alternative residence for King Chulalongkorn, racked up a bill of 59,757 baht. At the same time, the Samsen facility had only 206 private customers. Most Bangkokians simply could not afford to pay for electricity or the equipment necessary to enjoy light. To instal fifty light bulbs cost 1,676 baht. A clerk in the civil service made about ten baht a month, a mid-level civil servant made twenty, judges received approximately 200, while foreign advisors earned between 600 to 800. Electric light was private luxury rather than a public good.
The city’s elite also benefited in other ways. The Samsen plant charged the royal household about forty percent less than other private customers and companies associated with the state like the Siam Cement Company, Ltd. received special discounts. The facility also allegedly provided Chao Phraya Yommarat, the Minister of Local Administration for Bangkok and the person in charge of the plant, a means to enrich himself. A British consultant called in to audit the power station noted that Yommarat regarded the utility “as the milk-cow of the family and personal interests,” using the facility’s budget as a personal account. Like other potential cases of corruption in Thailand, nothing came of these allegations. The point here is that the city’s electric infrastructure provided not only a novel source of lighting, it offered a small group of people new forms of privilege.
In 1932, a revolution against exactly this sort of inequity established a constitutional monarchy. Since then, the kingdom has seen a series of military coups, numerous popular protests, and at least twenty different constitutions or charters. Through all this, electric light never lost its decorative quality or its association with the aristocracy. In fact, the state has consistently employed it for royal celebrations and rituals, before and after the revolution. Archival photographs and documentary film footage from the middle of the twentieth century show remarkable displays of light on buildings near the palace on royal birthdays. When royalty travelled, electric light followed them. In 1926, local officials hung hundreds of light bulbs on a gate leading into the northern city of Chiang Mai in honour of Prajadiphok’s (r. 1925-1935) visit. Even in death, electric light does not leave their side. Royal funeral pyres beginning in the early twentieth century have been illuminated by electric light. Electric light thus evolved to provide the city’s elite a medium for generating public displays that celebrated their authority.
Today, the state continues with such displays. In May 2019, King Vajiralongkorn was crowned in a lavish ceremony. However, these are no longer one-way traffic. At the 2019 coronation, loyal subjects in the crowd of thousands did not just observe the show – they held up their mobile phones and digital cameras to record the performance for subsequent use on social media. In the process, individuals were united by common gestures– tapping, sliding, and clicking the screens of their electronic devices. Displays of electric light have evolved to actively engage Bangkokians in a ritual that perpetuates and personalizes existing social hierarchies.
Against this backdrop, the true importance of the artist-activists’ actions becomes clearer. The use of ‘projection bombs’ to commandeer the city’s infrastructure for political protest runs counter to both a long history in which the electric network (and other infrastructure projects) has been dominated by the elite for their own benefit. It also challenges the unreflexive use of portable imaging technologies by loyalist subjects to reproduce the state’s vision of society. The increasing availability of devices that can emit, record, and reproduce electric light makes it possible for a generation of politically aware and technically savvy Bangkokians to make displays of their own. As the demonstrations of the past year have shown, these are historically informed and incisive inversions of the state’s public spectacles. So even though electric-powered demonstrations are only temporary, they do offer an idea of what a city whose infrastructure is open and beneficial for all could look like. In the crowds that periodically take over the city’s streets and public spaces, each citizen is now a light.
Samson Lim is Associate Professor of History at the Singapore University of Technology and Design. He is the author of Siam’s New Detectives: Visualizing Crime and Conspiracy in Modern Thailand (University of Hawaii Press, 2016), a history of the visual culture of policing in Thailand. Samson is also a member of the Opportunity Lab, a centre at SUTD that encourages social change through design projects in Southeast Asia.