Trouble in Paradise: How the removal of Pangrok Sulap’s “Sabah Tanah Air-ku” points to a weakened state of artistic expression in Malaysia (revised)

When news of Pangrok Sulap’s mammoth woodcut print artwork “Sabah Tanah Air-ku” (Sabah, My homeland) was removed from the “ESCAPE from the SEA” exhibition just two days after it’s opening; I was shocked.

Luckily I had the chance to view the artwork during the opening and to me; it stood as a masterpiece. I was bewildered as to why it was taken down and also the lack of information about it; something I would not of expected from reputable organizers like Japan Foundation Asia Center, National Visual Art Gallery and Art Printing Works Sdn. Bhd.

“Sabah,Tanah Air-ku” that was removed from the exhibition. Photo credit: Ng Seksan

“ESCAPE from the SEA” exhibition is part of a larger project called “Condition Report”

Moreover, “ESCAPE from the SEA” exhibition is part of a greater project called “Condition Report” organized by Japan Foundation Asia Center that spans 9 countries and 21 curators. This project started in 2015 and will extend well beyond 2018 with a publication. I looked forward to this project for years since knowing about its open call in 2015 and have loosely followed the development of the project through conversations with the various friends involved. I imagined this to be another large-scale curatorial experiment lead by Yasuko Furuichi, Art Coordinator for Japan Foundation Asia Center, who also lead (and the lady we all answered to) the Media/Art Kitchen exhibition (2012-2013) where I was a co-curator. I learned a lot from her, so naturally, I looked forward to her curatorial experimentation productions.

A (singular) complaint from “higher management”

 After the opening on 24, February, 2017, JFKL received a complaint from “higher management” and quickly informed the curators Hiroyuki Hattori and Saubin.

The following day, the CEO of APW was informed and meetings were held between Japan Foundation Asia Center representative, JFKL, lead curators Hattori, Sau Bin, had an informal meeting with Pangrok Sulap at APW. Possible scenarios were discussed in response to the situation were shared to Pangrok Sulap. Here, if the scenerio called for their work to be taken down, they would agree to it. They also discussed with Pangrok Sulap as to what they could replace it with. That night, another meeting with lead curators, the curatorial team, JF Asia Center representative and Japan Foundation Kuala Lumpur met to draft a curatorial statement in response to the situation. They decided to wait for a formal letter from National Art Gallery before responding to the complaint.

 JFKL initiated the removal of Sabah Tanah Air-Ku to avoid unwanted scenerios

The next day, 26 Feb.(Sunday), JFKL announced for the artwork to be removed and to avoid any unwanted scenarios especially to sour diplomatic ties between Malaysia and Japan. They didn’t want to get the artists in trouble or the co-organizers in trouble either. They replaced the artwork with the video documentation.

Lack of transparency and communication sparks artists and cultural workers to mobilize own investigation

 Largely thanks to I-Lann’s active Twitter feeds and Simon Soon’s Facebook feeds, I managed to piece together a logical chronology. One of the co-curators, Goh Sze Ying has put together a timeline. Upon investigation by I-Lann, there were allegation claims of an individual who alerted someone in the Prime Minister’s Office and TV3 after visiting the exhibition at APW. However, these are allegations that lack evidence since there seems to be restraint from  the organizers from divulging the source of the “complaint”. I-Lann, together with some close friends, met with the Director General, Najib Dawa where he said BSVN did not order for its removal. In fact, he doesn’t know who did. An objection letter from Balai Seni Visual Negara was received by JFKL on March 1st.

*A SCREEN CAP IMAGE OF YEE I-LANN’S TWITTER FEED HAS BEEN REMOVED* (Kindly refer to the end of this blog for my notes.)

Pangrok Sulap ‘s willingness to cooperate with JFKL’s decision to remove their artworks, but must take responsibility to public’s questions.

In the beginning, Pangrok Sulap didn’t want to cause a stir and allowed for the work to be taken down. At the same time, they requested that JFKL be responsible as to public questioning about the removal of their artwork and gave them time to solidify a public announcement as to the reasons for it being removed.

Screen Shot 2017-03-14 at 3.22.53 PM
Screencap from Pangrok Sulap’s Facebook page.

“We were notified by the organisers that they had received a complaint about the artwork saying it was too ‘provocative’ and would take it down to avoid any action towards us from other parties, and we reluctantly agreed as we did not want to jeopardise the exhibition and the other artists’ work,” Jerome Manjat, one of members of Pangrok Sulap said.

Two weeks passed and JFKL finally made an announcement that no public statement on the removal of Pangrok Sulap’s work will be made. Instead, any public queries regarding this situation can be made directly to their office.

Disappointed by the lack of transparency of how this was handled, Mark Teh, representing the other artists’ participating in the exhibition issued an official statement. On behalf of the participating artists:

“We reiterate again our opposition to these decisions by JFKL, and are disappointed with the lack of communication and transparency about the situation, which has fuelled much confusion, frustration and speculation.”

Making an ESCAPE for it: To withdraw entirely.

 Finally on March 12, three weeks after the removal, Pangrok Sulap officially announced their complete withdrawal from the “ESCAPE from the SEA” exhibition. This comes as a form of protest as to the poor handling of this situation especially from not defending the artists’ message and art.

“I think we are most disappointed by how it was handled. We knew there would be some backlash especially on social media about why it was removed and we wanted the organisers to answer these questions. We wanted them to take responsibility for answering it and hopefully defend the artists’ work,” said Rizo Leong, another one of the collective’s founding members.

Disappointed as Sabah Tanah Air-Ku’s misreading

As far as I know, this was a commission work, so the organizers and curators saw their message from a mile away.

“In fact they initially sent us an email to say we had ‘misread’ the concept. But we had worked with our curator for about a year on the concept and they were well aware of what we were doing,” mentioned Jerome Manjat.

I think when people (especially the art community) found out that JFKL would not be making any public announcement; that’s when all hell broke loose on social media. If there was a chance JFKL and the curatorial team to salvage some integrity; this would be the time. Unfortunately, it didn’t happen.

A big question on my mind is who is this person who filed the complaint that was “elevated to the Prime Minister’s office”? What sort of “political power” did he wield that his one personal“reading” of the artwork overthrew all the curators’ and organizers’ readings and rendered them worthless. And why is he deliberately being kept invisible by Balai Seni Visual Negara?

Holding the snitchers accountable

Everyone has a right to intrepreate the artwork as to how they see it, but the problem arises when they aren’t held responsible for their actions that greatly effect the public sphere.

Not only this insane self-censorship has prevented the Malaysian public from truly seeing a spectacular artwork; it has prevented from having any room for discussion and public dialouge to avoid such things from happening in the future.

“…we must hold these invisible individuals accountable for their positions as their actions have very serious negative public implications. Otherwise, this perpetuates an unhealthy and damaging environment of censorship and self-censorship, moral and political policing for all stakeholders in our shared ecosystem – audiences, artists, curators, cultural workers, producers, collectors, supporters, national institutions such as the National Visual Arts Gallery, and cultural organizations such as JFKL and Japan Foundation Asia Center”, quoted from Mark Teh’s statement.

Biting off more than I can chew.

Because I’m a small fry in this art scene, I often find myself taking on many roles. That of a curator, producer and artist. This juggling of roles stems primarily from my lack of financial resources so I have to take up a few roles to get through the project. Lately I’ve noticed the word “curator” used so flippantly and interchangeably that one is easily lulled into being complacent. I admit, I may of taken my role as a curator lightly and never considered the gravity of the position, especially when it comes to defending your artists’ artwork when its stuck out there. It takes a scenerio like this one, to remind myself of the big and heavy responsibilities a curator takes on a every project.

Challenges of being an Independent Curator

Seems to be a lot of strong comments directed to lead curators HH, Saubin and their curatorial team for their actions. However, I’d like to suspend judgement so we can step back and see the bigger picture.

“ESCAPE from the SEA” is part of a larger curatorial experiment project called “Condition Report”. It’s in its 1st stage and there’s a 2nd stage next year where members of the curatorial team will hold their own individual exhibitions. At the 1st stage, the emerging curators are doing a sort of apprenticeship with the lead curators they’ve been assigned to. So this “EFTS” exhibition is just the beginning of a series of exhibitions from this program.

A lot of my friends have expressed dissappointment from Hiroyuki Hattori and Saubin being too “quite” or “silent” over the issue and not “defend your artist”.(Just to note Saubin came with a statement dated 15 March on FB; as this essay was written; which I’ve included at the end).

I can’t answer on behalf of Hiroyuki Hattori and Saubin but maybe I can provide some insight towards the challenges faced by independent curators in Malaysia. In any art scene, at the tip of the iceberg we can see the “artist”, but what supports the “artist” below the water; are countless professionals like curators, art managers, writers, art historians and cultural workers. These groups of people make up the art ecosystem. I guess because they don’t garner as much visibility as compared to the “artist”, they are often sidelined.

I was a participant of JFKL curatorial program “Media/Art Kitchen”

 As far as my limited knowledge goes, JFKL is one of the very few organizations in Malaysia that provides curatorial training. As an emerging independent curator, to get selected for Furuichi’s baptism-of-fire styled curatorial training is a once in a lifetime chance. You get access to an extraordinary amount of resources, either through international networking, connections with international institutions like Tokyo Metropoliton, Bangkok Art and Culture Center and most importantly for me, was to take part in international conversations about contemporary art with other like-minded independent curators in my region.

Because currently, there is no easily accessible curatorial training besides theirs. They are capable of socially excluding you to future projects can be damaging to young curator. I have personally received “strong reminders” (aka subliminal threats) of the responsibilities that comes with accepting the grant and the grave repercussions that comes with it if I failed to perform because I decided to take my daughter along with me on my research trip. Luckily, I am very clear about my priorities. (Come to think of it, maybe I have already been “socially excluded” but it’s fine, I’ll just continue to waddle in my blissful ignorance).

Strengthen our art ecosystem to better support (and defend) the voices of our artists

Just as much as our artists need our support, so do our curators, art managers, art historians, art critics and writers. This Pangrok Sulap situation shows how weak and fragmented our Malaysian art ecosystem that it becomes so easy for people to bully and exploit us. We need more Malaysian-driven resources and infrastructures in form of grants, programs and projects supported and lead by local art institutions and galleries targeted at developing curators, art managers and writers. Then, work out strategies to reinforce their opinions and protect their freedom of expression. Surely, from this move, the artists’ freedom of expression will also be expanded and protected by Malaysian independent curators whom are all highly trained scholars themselves.

If more local programs were made available for young Malaysians keen to persue careers in curatorship, art management, research and other more scholarly pursuits of contemporary art; the few of us stuck in this field; might not be desperately clinging on the foreign hand-outs like we are now and allowing ourselves to submit to their terms so easily. Obviously, these foreign organizations carry their own agendas which might not be in-line with what’s important to us, like creative expression and integrity.

If there’s one thing I learned from this; is to hold steadfast to your voice. Standing up for what you believe in and standing behind those you believe in is the true test of strength. Taking cues from I-Lann, her advice to curators and cultural workers to take a “complaint” as a “point to start a meaningful discussion on censorship and why it’s counterintuitive.” I agree that the principle of curation is to defend the artists’ message when the time arises as I-Lann shared on her twitter, “Defend your artist or you will look weak.”

*This post was published on 17th March and on it I had placed a screen capture of I-Lann’s twitter. The screen cap divulged the name of the alleged individual who raised the strong comment. The person contacted me on March 20th to explain his side of the story. I greatly appreciate his effort of wanting to clarify his stand to me and am aware of the complexities screen cap brought forth. So, out of respect for this person’s stand and in the spirit engaging with him for future constructive dialogue, I have decided to take it down.

Today, I am reminded again that we are still far from a resolution when it comes to the Pangrok Sulap situation. New information and persons will slowly but surely reveal itself. The art ecosystem, for better or for the worse, has attracted a lot more political complexities along with its egos and agendas. Again, I hope I can be true to my voice and yet be respectable and empathize with the voices of others.*

-end-

 

References:

http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/sabah-art-collective-withdraws-from-exhibition-says-disappointed-with-artwo

http://eksentrika.com/pangrok-sulap-banned-sabah-tanahairku/

Participating artists’ statement of artwork removal:

Posted by Mark Teh on Friday, March 10, 2017

Yap Sau Bin’s reply to queries from MalayMail reporter Zuraidihttps://drive.google.com/file/d/0ByGR3fdgwKfneDhMdTgwNFo2Vlk/view

http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/japan-foundation-slammed-for-allowing-censorship-at-art-exhibition-video

http://www.themalaymailonline.com/malaysia/article/artists-pour-scorn-on-complaint-that-led-to-removal-of-sabah-collectives-ar

Acknowledgments

I would like to extend my gratitude to Simon Soon, Lainie Yeoh and Goh Sze Ying for their invaluable input and discussions.

Advertisements

The art (and science) of pavilion making

Pipe girl.

The name reminds me of a comic superhero side-kick who never made it off the drawing board, yet “Pipe Girl” stuck to me like that irritating chewing gum at the bottom of your shoe. Urgh.

Just as well, I shrugged, since my “break through” (art)work was a full scale PVC pipe forest sound art installation in Johor Baru. The follow-ups have been pipe-centric too (based on client requests; not mine).

So, you can imagine my giddy-happiness when Yayasan Sime Darby Arts Festival commissioned me for an outdoor art installation held at KL Performing Arts Center in Sentul.

“Now’s your chance, pipe-girl” a voice in my head said.

~

The organizers gave me a budget, deadline and a location. They determined my creative boundaries and now all I had to do is fill the void. Happiness.

This time, I had a fascination towards origami and finding ways to turn them into structures. The other thing was my recent travels to fabrication labs in Japan exposed me to technology-based production and piqued my interests as well. From these two trajectories; origami techniques and tech-based production, I began to dream up aesthetics based on symmetry, repetition, patterns, folds and computers.

Material Hacking

Because of my background in architecture; I am comfortable working with industrial materials rather than paint and canvases. My materials are all sourced from the local hardware shop and with some hacking, ingenuity and imagination; the function and form of these everyday objects (i.e pipes, rubber hoses and sink faucets) can be transformed. However, “hacking” is a double edge sword. The good thing about hacking is that it’s innovation on a shoe-string budget. The bad news is it’s susceptible to failure because you’re putting things together that aren’t meant to be together; making it extremely unstable.

I wanted to use the origami technique as a way of building, but wasn’t sure which material would best suit the job. Over the next few weeks, we experimented with all sorts of materials. We tried compact discs (CDs), aluminum foil, chicken wire; all of which turned out aesthetically unpleasant a.k.a ugly. After a while, and well into my production deadline, I realized nothing good was coming from these experiments. Time was of the essence and I needed to figure out something fast or risk the organizers from ever wanting to work with me again!

Picture above: Preliminary structural study on origami-type surface structures taken from an online available template. Created + Photo credit by Adha Zulkifli.  

I decided to take a stab at it from a different angle; just jump in and start building the damn thing! With the help of a prototype model, I studied the strength of the structure that resulted from folding technique. The fancy side of me wanted to explore laser cutting thinking it’ll reduce time and increase precision. I sent a sample batch to the cutters.

Pictured above: I discovered that polypropylene (corrugated plastic sheets) was a bad choice of material for laser-cutting. Photo credit: Adha Zulkifli.

The results were horrible! @_@

The cut edges resembled rat bites due to the unconventional material choice. Usually, people would cut MDF type boards; anything with highly compressed fibre gives it an even density. But the problem with MDF boards is that it’s not translucent. Another choice is prespex, but that would burst my budget and the installation would be a huge pain in the ass. It would cost RM7,000 to have my components cut and take a minimum of 1 week to cut them.

Screw that, man. No time to be fancy. Time to be realistic!”

We decided to shift our focus from worrying about the surface, but instead, the build the overall structure as a whole. For the surface, I decided on stretched white cloths that were later enhanced with interactive LED light stripes.

Pictured above: The different stages of prototyping making + testing. Photo credit: Suzy Sulaiman

I was given the concert deck at KL Performing Arts Center as my location. Upon site observation, I took note of the deck’s function as a foot path for people. I felt I could engage pedestrians by seducing them to walk under the artwork’s clothed canopy. It will then assume a form of public intervention that will alter one’s experience of walking on the deck. This contrast of big and small space; a big limitless space of the outdoor deck to the limited and slightly claustrophobic interiors of the artwork; was my attempt to accentuate its site conditions. A vision formed in my head that I shared to the organizer.

”Oh! You’re making something like a tunnel, is it? “, she candidly commented.

“Can also lah.” I replied.

Picture above: From mock-up model to the real: Demonstrating the complicated folds of the pavilion/art installation.

Naming the baby: Homage to Lunar Peaks

Being neck deep in production, my only contact to the outside world was through social media. In my media feeds, the controversy of the destruction of Puncak Purnama by DBKL of Malaysian laureate; the late Syed Ahmad Jamal; was at its peak. Photos from a peaceful demonstration in Kuala Lumpur attended by friends, dialogue sessions between art activists and concerned citizens; fuelled my news feed and my guilt for not being able to attend these historical events.

My parents were friends with Dato’ Syed Ahmad Jamal and I remembered the last conversation I had with him where he said to me in a tender yet begrudging way, ”Your father behaves like a child sometimes, you know. But your mom; she’s such a strong woman.” In his loving memory, I decided on the name “Homage to Lunar Peaks”. For purpose of YSDAF’s press release; pressed for time and not having ample time to reflect; I cited superficial similarities like its shape and colour, but upon contemplation, I hope that idea and memory of Lunar Peaks would continue to exist as long as my artwork is mentioned.

Picture above: Homage to Lunar Peaks extends itself to anyone who wants to reach out! Photo credit: Suzy Sulaiman

~ * ~

In the age of the internet, you would be hard pressed to find anything truly original. My approach to art-making is not to create something original, but to address contextual issues. These situations of context come together through the numerous experiments done throughout the project. The different layers of context; from materials availability to location and even current Malaysian news all shaped “Homage to Lunar Peaks”.

htlp-elevation

Homage to Lunar Peaks chillin’ with her homies…! Photo credit: Suzy Sulaiman

Credits to my production team:

Hailane Salam

Erfann Daniel

Nizam Daud

Adha Zulkifli

Syahmi

Mohd Asyrak

Rainf Puah.

 

 

Art, bytes and all in betw/ixt/een

Despite my accumulated fatigue from a 3-month fieldwork whilst being a full-time mom to my kid who travelled with me; I found myself hurling south bound to Singapore with my suitcase again to attend the Betwixt festival last weekend.

I clearly remember my afternoon with Wen Lei when she approached me about her Betwixt last August in Penang. Wei Lei is the co-founder and one half of the artist collective Spang&Lei and I welcomed a short coffee from DA+C ‘s hectic chaos. Over a cup of cappuccino, she explained her Betwixt festival; where she wanted to discuss more Southeast Asian digital art issues. Her recent return from the US for her masters made her realize that the American scene was more interested to know about China than Southeast Asia. She knew she needed to go back to Singapore to do what she wanted.

After a few exchanges, Wei Lei invited me to speak about my practice and DA+C festival. I immediately agreed to be a part of a new digital art festival, simply because we shared the same vision of unearthing Southeast Asia issues. Not only an area of interest, also I really want to support endeavors by genuine grassroots. Also, from my own journey with DA+C festival, I know the powerful effect the word “YES” has on an producer.

The exhibition and talks were held at the Expression Gallery at the Art Science Museum, at Marina Bay Sands; while the workshops were carried out off-site at Objectifs. There were 2 panel discussions and a keynote lecture titled “Beyond the Gap”  delivered by Prof. Vibeke Sorensen, who is the chair of the school of art, design and media (ADM) at Nanyang Technological University (NTU). The morning session panel was about, “Women, Art & Technology” and was moderated by Honor Herger who is the executive director of the Art Science Museums with fellow Artists-practioners Angela Chong, Debbie Ding and Denisa Kera.

12794541_10153516672673877_3829591618915627946_n
The Sunday morning’s eager crowd.

Debbie Ding discussed how prototype-making is crucial part of her art production process. She shared with us a booklet that documented her earliest “inventions” when she was in secondary school that was probably influenced by her father’s engineering background. She also expanded on her current interest, an archival/documentation project of Pulau Saigon, an island on the Singapore river. Her works can be viewed on her website.

Angela Chong began her presentation by tracing her interest in light and darkness came from her college days where her studio had no windows. Her works are very ephemeral and dream-like, with the blurred projections that somehow relate with ghostly objects or memories. What are ghosts except that they are trapped beings? More about Angela’s practice can be found here.

“No theory can exist without a prototype”-Denisa Kera

Denisa Kera believes that through Socratic debate called “Elechus” (within the context of technology), we are able to probe biasness and question passive, uncritical knowledge. Denisa’s association with hackteria gave me an idea about her interests. I recalled Andreas (known fondly as Uchok from Lifepatch) hackteria festival a few years ago and wondered if she went to Jogja for that. The experiments that Denisa is part of, even though she readily admits that she’s not as technically apt as she’d like to be although she’s quite pleased to be able to philosophize about it. Denisa is an active researcher and many of her previous works can be found here. I was particularly interested in her “Microfluid Wayang” because it has the word “wayang” in it and noted that I’d dig up more on that project later.

12764325_10153456020326958_3674802242287805118_o
Me; saying something smart, I guess, during our panel discussion. Photo credit: Sarah Ameera

I was part of the afternoon panel to discuss “Digital Art in Southeast Asia”. My panel was moderated by Dr. Adele Tan and the speakers were Michelle Ho who is currently the gallery director for ADM gallery, Pichaya Aime Suphavanij who is head of exhibitions at Bangkok Art and Culture Center (BACC) and Dayang MNT Yraola; an independent curator (and my roomie!) currently a PHD candidate Lingan University (Hong Kong). We spoke on curatorial approaches that resonated within the Southeast Asian context. I took this chance to present brief observations from my recent research and share a bit about DA+C festival. We were given 15 minutes to present and I just steamrolled over my time to the dismay of my time-keeper.

Dayang’s “Manila tendencies” presentation was about how Filipino art practice was about making issues more apparent. Moreover, there seems to be a persistence of moral issues. A video she showed of a FPS of a game developed by an artist, where you’re an angry mob that broke into the prime ministers’ house and you’re beating the politician and his police with a stick; sets the tone of her discourse. Dayang shared insights working on project glocal and what it’s like to be an “independent” curator in Manila. You can find her complete bio here.

Aime’s presentation was more about sharing her current interests and questions she has surrounding her practice. Being a part of an  art institution, she navigates the Bangkok scene with themes such as synaesthetic experience, Monk-fetish and techno-animism. The idea of “money faketory”; to me; really represented Southeast Asia as well as Aime’s comment on having a “flat ontology as a secret structure of the visible”. More about Aime’s practice here.

With a quick Southeast Asia tour with the first 3 curators, Michelle Ho brought the discourses back to Singapore with her presentation “Media & Materiality in Southeast Asia contemporary art”. Her is interested in terminology for technology, for example what life means in the times of the smartphones. She notes of how works have become increasingly accesible to different disciplines. Lastly, I guess this relates to her current post at Art, Design, Media, Nanyang Technological Uni asGallery Director; where she questions digital art education in schools, the challenges to archive digital works and how interpret an art-work’s “value”.

The Q&A session moderate by Dr. Adele went very well, although I don’t remember most of what happened. I do know though that we couldn’t take many questions from the floor because we ran out of time. Fair enough. It was probably my fault for derailing the time-keeping.

But then, I was quite surprised to receive good feedback from our panel session. The organizers said it was because it presented both the formal approaches (institution-type or white box typed) and “guerilla styled” practices that Dayang and I often embark on. In future, they’d like to understand more about this polarity (?) and thought it was an interesting discovery that it existed. (It must’ve been Dayang’s comment on how she didn’t have to sell her liver to pay for the exhibition or how Dayang and I both agreed that we didn’t pick artworks, but picked artists to work with because “I might have to share the same bathroom with them and I gotta be cool with that”. The shock. The horror. Haha. (But that’s how we roll in Southeast Asia, no?)

“I love how things work in Singapore. I enjoy the stability and civilized-ness of the place, but it’s in countries where police are corrupt, governments are dysfunctional; that my work makes more sense.” -Suzy Sulaiman.

Another observation too, I forgot to ask the organizers if it was a coincidence that the speakers were all women, although I doubt that it was.

There were interactive artworks outside of the talk-space. They were created by students of Ping Yi Secondary. Based on a conversation I had with one student, Zuqing, he said the organizers pulled together a 3 week computer programming workshop and that’s where he learned to code to make his art piece together with his friend Amirah Irwani called “Lumi Frost”.

10261991_10153516672693877_912516019110898391_n
“Pixelations” created by Nazihah bt. Ahmad, Putriy Siti Rahmah and Tasya Nathanael who are all students from Ping Yi Secondary School.

In the gallery next door were the selected artworks from their open call. Despite running for its first time, the open call attracted 170 applications from all over the world. This says a lot about how therein exists an audience for such an event. There were also off-site masterclasses like “Interacting Images: Reactive art for Beginners” facilitated by Nathaniel Stern and DIY Mind Machines & Creative “Eye-Ware” by Denisa Kera and Yair Rashef.

Overall, I had a great time with the people at Betwixt. Serena and Lei did a fine job with Betwixt. Their passion and commitment is reflected in the complex, well-thought and balanced programs. A large portion of the festival team included university students. The idea of having an open call as a pre-events showed their desire to be as inclusive as possible, overlooking age or education. The coding workshops with the Ping Yi Secondary school students was another way to boost computer science interest among the teens. Finally, the layering of curators, artists and academics whom all complete the digital discourse.

Therein lies the voice of the grassroots, which is crucial to any arts festival. Negotiating an elitist venue like the ArtScience museum is not easy, especially when one needs to deal with tight security (since the venue is part of the casino, it undergoes casino-tight security) and all the politics associated with such a high profile corporation. That for me, as much as it gave great leverage in terms of image and branding; would’ve scared me shitless in terms of possibly having to negotiate my values and perhaps even sacrificing our expressive freedom.

Overall, it was a very good beginning for Betwixt and kudos to Serena Pang and Wen Lei for such an awesome time. I look forward to Betwixt’s direction and strengthening their position within the digital art festival realm in the upcoming years. I hope they can continue to be bridge the communication gap and be a platform for discourse for independent thinkers in Southeast Asia.

Media/Art Kitchen

Looking back, I’d have to say Media/Art Kitchen or M/AK, is one of the turning point projects in my career. Frankly speaking, after the 1st da+c festival in 2011, I thought never in my life would I do such a production again. On top of getting a lot of criticism about things were not “perfect”, we lost a lot of money, which came out of our own pockets in the end. One thing I didn’t anticipate though, the festival put my name out there.

Source: Media/Art Kitchen

Curatorial

 

My Curatorial Practice with Project Glocal’s Transi(en)t Penang 2014.

When Dayang invited me to come on board as one of the co-curators of Project Glocal; I agreed without really knowing what it was about. I said yes mainly because it was Dayang who asked me and I thought it would be a good production execution training for me. Another reason was because it focused on North and South East Asia; areas where I’m interested to learn and build relationships on.  Project Glocal is Dayang’s “baby”, so I was sure that I’d get to work with a team that’s also dedicated to the cause, rather than being in it only for monetary benefits….

Source: Curatorial

Press “play” for school

It’s back to school time for a lot of parents, and every year around this time, I can’t help but feel sorry for the kids as they’re shoved back into an obsolete public education system.

I still cannot accept our public school education because of my own experience with it growing up as a kid. I told a friend once, how much I loathed it. Her reply was “But you turned out fine”.

Did I really turn out fine?

Quite the opposite, I believe. I am so traumatized by my school experience, that a large portion of my life’s work is committed to search for education alternatives.

10572236_10152337260148877_6682942443360442530_o
A workshop in YCAM about video streaming + monitors for kids. This is educate children & parents on issues related to media technology. This girl here discovered “feedback”. Photo credit: Suzy Sulaiman 2013

A few weeks ago, I attended at conference in Yokohama, FAB LEARN ASIA organized by FabLab Kamakura. Themed,”Key Challenges for Digital Fabrication to the 21st Century Education’, it centered on “fabrication learning”. This means having personal fabrication tools as part of the learning environment in the school. Personal fabrication tools are like laser cutter and 3D printer. Once you have these new hardware, you must learn the software that goes with it. By this, I don’t just mean that must learn the operating software like like 360 Fusion, or other Autodesk programs. Instead, the person needs to high level of critical thinking skills. How to identify a problem, conceptualize a solution and build that solution. Cognitive skills like problem-based learning, collective learning, collaborative practice, design and critical thinking; must be shaped first. With these personal fabrication tools in your hand, you must develop your brains in a certain way before it can be fully utilized.

12376140_10153362989988877_5744498487469313561_n
A gathering of FabLabbers, Makers and Educators in Yokohama, Japan (12-13 Dec. 2015)

The conference speakers who consisted of engineers, professors, teachers and industry practioners presented their case-studies that illustrated the application of fab learning and new learning environment. However; as interesting as these programs were; they operated largely on the periphery of the public education system. This means, these new teaching ways and education styles were only accessible to middle to upper income families. Namely parents who are educated and can afford these extra classes, will have these “enlightened” kids.

Stanford University Professor, Paulo Blikstein, called this the  “pedagogical divide” in his keynote address . This means there is a large gap between he kids who are schooled under more relevant education environment (often formulated by latest findings in cognitive development and access to more thinking tools) AND the kids stuck and schooled under obsolete public school system.

At the closing of the conference, an audience member asked the panel, “While it’s clear to me that fab learning is crucial, its quite obvious that it will not enter the public school in the next few years. What can parents do to bridge this gap now?”

His question got me thinking. In my head, I flipped through the many projects done by different bold and charismatic people, driven by the same question.

What is education for?

~*~

In that chilly afternoon, I spun around to have a better look of my surroundings “So this is your “university huh?”

What I saw were trees, scattered campsite, a kiln-like stove and lots of nature. Akira narrowed his eyes and grinned

“Yes, this is my university. Can’t you see it?”

Yup. I saw it; the open skies, the mud slides and tree houses. I spoke to Akira Tsukakoshi, one of the founders of Harappa University; a “school”  for outdoors situated on the outskirts of Zushi (Kanagawa Pref). It’s a place where parents and kids can play together, building tree houses and making meals; in forest mountain. He says the regular programs are very popular with families living in Tokyo. They come simply because most of them have never experienced this close contact with nature. Tokyo is such a rat race of a city, that to be playful, silly and to enjoy time with the family, has become such a rare treat. It’s a place for reconnecting with friends, family and environment.

Harappa Map
Map of “Village Ya”. Image credit: http://harappa-daigaku.jp/program/

 

There is a lot of imagination in the forest. Because you don’t necessarily have the best tools, you have to improvise or make own toys or create interesting situations for yourself. This is where the mind really starts to become engaged and active.

Akira said that, “parents should stop outsourcing their time with kids to other people, to teachers, baby-sitters, aunties, uncles, etc.”

I thought the same too before. Why should I pay another person to spend time with my baby girl? Instead, I’ve changed my practice so that I can accommodate my daughter with me, mainly because I want her to experience what I do for a living and practice similar principles. And I like the term Akira used, ”outsource our time”.

Harappa kids activities
Kids learn through serious play. Image credit: http://harappa-daigaku.jp/program/

Harappa University’s methodology seem to revolve around constant and direct exposure to the environment to stimulate intuitive responses. Through the act of spontaneous play; people respond in different forms of communicative, construction or physical responses.

~ *~

A friend of mine, Daiya Aida, is one the other end of this spectrum. He is interested in the “design” of alternative learning environments, especially where media technology is concerned. A few years ago, while Daiya was the chief educator at Yamaguchi Center for Arts + Media (YCAM) where he initiated and lead one of my fave projects ever, the Korogaru Pavilion.

Unlike the conventional playgrounds, that we see in our parks and public spaces, the Korogaru Pavilion completely revamped the old notions of play and learning. But it was not done randomly. Instead it was based on the results of years of workshop studies to understand how “learning through play” has changed within today’s digital media world.

I was lucky to catch it in 2013 in Yamaguchi, and experienced the playground for myself. The playground incorporated webcams and monitors on swinging balls, a constant real-time skype session with children at another playground. It also provided tactile experiences like ramps, earth, water and mud. It was a lively and bustling environment that the neighborhood kids took proud ownership of.

Screen Shot 2016-01-04 at 1.08.56 PM
Design of the spaces encourages personal exploration and interaction with the environment. Photo credit: Yamaguchi Center for Arts & Media (YCAM) 2013

He and his edulab team conducted a series of workshops with kids to find out what is the new concept of play. They worked with the kids to develop new types of “play” forms. According to Daiya, he discovered 3 concepts of play among the kids.

  1. Kids liked vertical axis (up & down, experimenting with gravity)
  2. Sequential (time based like a rotating lights on the floor) or strobing likes to create stop motion effects.
  3. Kids like to play with “remote” tools that allow them to extend their physical self. Like playing with a stick (to push or poke things) or remote control.
Kogoragu Pav
Kids in the Karogaru. Leaving their parents behind without even a care for it. Photo credit: Suzy Sulaiman

Based on the outcomes of these workshops, Daiya and his team worked with architects Megumi Matsubara & Hiroi Ariyama to build the Karogaru Pavillion in time for the 12th anniversary YCAM, and by far, this “exhibition” attracted the most visitors.

Korogaru Pavilion video

~*~

In his speech at FabLearn Asia 2015, Paulo Blikstein, asked the audience, ”What is the role of education? Why do we spend so much money and time to get into good schools because we think good schools equals to good education? Is it because we want our children to get good jobs? So that they can be financially stable and live comfortably?”

I mulled over this for a while.

He continued, “The role of education is to emancipate. This means, with the knowledge we get, it must be able to free our minds so that we are empowered to change things around us. Education is to have this mind of knowing we can change things for the better.”

Therefore, education is about giving exposure to powerful ideas and access to the right tools so that we can change our situations to what we want.

A study on creation-centered spaces in Japan and South East Asia.

Actually I’m already 1 month+ into my fellowship research, so there will be a bit of back tracking here. Below is my write-up for my prelimanary observations:

The purpose of this research is to investigate the phenomenon of “alternative spaces” or “center creation spaces” in the development of media art. Also, this research will attempt to determine the variables of a creative environment, or creation centric environment. Four alternative spaces were determined as main case-studies. The rationale behind the multiple locations is based on 2 theories. The first one is from a critical essay by Steven A. Moore titled, “Technology, Place and Nonmodern Regionalism”. The gist of this essay is how technology is understood as “asocial application of scientific truths”. Technology comes “to define who and what we are”, based on Heidegger’s theory. Therefore, technology is a “social system” that is part of its society and context. Thus, technology is like “place”; where, the struggle between competing interests play out. The main statement is that technology is best understood by geography; such as location; and not by history. History is interprets reality through time; for instance in sequence, cause and effects; but geography interprets human events in space (real-time, relationships, rhizome). Technological network dominant the places inhabited by humans & nonhumans, much like a rhizome.

The 4 alternative spaces and fabrication labs areas selected for this study are; Yamaguchi Center for Arts + Media (YCAM) (JPN), FabLab Kamakura (JPN), 98B Collaboratory (PHY) and Lifepatch (IDN). Using a comparative analysis, the areas in Japan and South East Asia will be analyzed. Generally, how technology is received by its society. In the northern hemisphere, countries such as Japan are known as technology producers while South East Asia is a region of technology consumption.

The aim of this research is to develop a framework for creation-centered spaces in the art gallery. The research objectives are:

  1. To investigate the phenomenon of “alternative spaces ”/center creation spaces. In the context of media art.

 

2. To determine the variables of a creative environment, or creation centric environment

 

Whereby my case-study areas are:

Institutional Alternative Space

Yamaguchi Center for Arts + Media(JPN)

 

Community-runned Alternative Space

FabLab Kamakura (JPN)

 

Artist-runned Alternative Space

Manila (PHY) and Jogjakarta (IDN)

 

Significance of the Study:

 

  1. Public access to technologies to encourage citizens creators.

Before we can generate an economy, we must be a nation of “creators” and not “consumers” of technology. Creativity is what sets us apart from blatant consumption.

While the Malaysian government is committed towards certain sectors of technological infrastructure like the implementation of Multimedia Super Corridor since the mid 1990’s, many of these technologies are generally not accessible to the digital artists and public.

By introducing co-creation spaces into the Malaysian public realm, much like the public libraries and health parks, it could promote creative thinking and creation/invention at any stage of a person’s life.

 

  1. Quality of Life

Co-creation the digital artists as a place to network and collaborate on new art works. The access to technologies will provide a platform for Malaysian digital artists’ exploration and creation, that will lead to the strengthening to the Malaysian art scene. With the increasingly disconnected lifestyle as a result of urban living conditions, more public spaces are needed to promote a sense of connection to the community.

Screen Shot 2015-12-22 at 6.48.48 PM

Proposed research design is as below:

Screen Shot 2015-12-22 at 6.49.07 PM

Under the Asia Center Fellowship Program, I will cover steps (1) and (2).

Back to school (school of life).

In efforts to discipline myself to write down my “learnings”, I’ve decided to start writing again. I know I can write and I enjoy writing if I can find a mental space for it, but frankly, I’ve been lazy. But the buck stops here because now it’s not about me anymore. It’s about sharing my experiences  to anyone, with hopes that it will be useful knowledge in some way or other.

Early this year, I accepted a grant from the Asia Center Fellowship Program (http://jfac.jp/en/grant-fellowship/asia_fellowship/) to conduct my research on “The Roles of Alternative Spaces + Fabrication Labs in the Development of Media Art”. It’s a short-term research project for almost 3 months and it allows me to take time off to deepen my knowledge in other areas related to my practice. Part of this work requires me to travel to Japan, Manila and Jogjakarta, where I’d get to observe and to talk to people whom are doing great works in their areas.

I hope to use this platform to share what I have learned.