A New Dawn for Malaysian Artists?

The 14th General Election saw a historic change of government that ended its 60 years of rule. It is a cause for jubilation because Malaysians now have a shot to reboot an old, dogmatic governance system. Shortly after the elections, prominent Malaysian designer William Herald Wong asked on his social media:

”Hi friends of the arts, may I suggest to petition for Arts/Culture NOT be under the same Ministry with Tourism?”

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Screen grab from William Herald Wong’s wall post.

A flurry of comments rained in afterwards with suggestions for “art” to be under the jurisdiction of the ministry of creative industries or heritage. This question seemed to ask what is art in service for?  Should art be used for business (indicated by its association with the creative industry) or should be serve us as a signifier for identity (noted as heritage). How should art be deemed useful for society? William’s question reminded me of a time when I was asked the same thing.

2 years ago, I was interviewed by the boss of an upcoming arts agency for a job position. In the interview, I was asked to describe ways I would improve the Malaysian visual art scene. Without batting an eye, I replied, “Knowledge is key.”

Knowledge is what sets the amateurs and professionals apart and programs that galvanize knowledge creation is important to strengthen the art scene from within. This domino effect of educated and highly sought-after talent pool will lift the quality of the scene tremendously. I suggested for programs to be specifically targeted for people who are in the art scene, but aren’t artists themselves. Writers, art critics, curators, art historians, managers, tech specialists and scholars are the soft-power that form the backbone of the arts infrastructure.

Unfortunately, my answer wasn’t what she wanted to hear and she calmly said,

“I agree that education is important, but it will take a long time before we can get our returns. As for short term goals, I would like to focus on stimulating the demand for the arts by having more platforms for artists to showcase and sell their works. Like art markets and trade fairs.”

My interest for the job unexpectedly took a nosedive and it’s not because I can’t accept differing opinions, but it’s more of our conflicting principles. Her views reflect her value system that was at odds with mine and this would be a problem if I was given the duty through this employment, to execute them.

 

Art is an Ideology

 

It’s common to think of paintings, sculptures, drawings and ceramics, as art. This is where the systemic problem lies-its definition. The definition creates a limitation, so it’s important that I address this early on.

Paintings, sculptures, drawings and ceramics are not art. Instead they are objects of art. Art makes its appearance into the physical world through them. Art presents itself to the public in these forms.

Art is a manifestation of an idea. Kinda like a computer code, if you will.  Thus, they are objects that are a result of a certain type of thinking, but not art itself.

I’ll give an example by comparing two types of art; traditional art and modern art. In traditional art, the objects of art may come in the form of songket, batik, woodcarving and textile. The main idea behind traditional art is aesthetics that reflect spirituality (call them God, Gods, deities or even nature) where a strong belief in higher forces. The beauty in the cultural objects reflect this awareness of God by emphasising one’s spirituality. That’s why a lot of the wood carvers, songket weavers, batik-makers remain anonymous because art of that time, was not made to expose one’s talent. It was made to expose the beauty of God.

 

On the other hand, modern art presents the idea of aesthetics transcendence through human faculties and Man as the creator of his world. The human individual is now enlightened through rational and scientific thinking. Interpretation of the world through an human faculties, glorifies the individual. This gave birth to the many ‘ism’ movements of the early 20thcentury. Constructivism, Dadaism, Modernisms, which were all perspectives based on the human mind, It is here that you will notice how artists are named and are no more anonymous.

 

Art is a series or collection of small ideas that point to a certain a value system. Using the analogy of computer codes again, it’s a bunch of codes (or instructions) that work together to form an application or app. The app reflects our needs, so in a bigger picture, the app reflects the kind of environment we live it.

 

Art is also like a code, or a set of codes. It reflects the value systems the society it is in. It reveals what an artist or group of artists’ are thinking about, especially in terms of what is important or “valuable” to them.

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Independent art initiatives like Padang Jawa Street Art Festival emphasised on social engagement and community building through art. Set-up by artist collective T.I.G.A, they started a community space with art programs especially for at-risk & urban poor children. Their art space operated like a safe half-way home for them.

 

The Heartbeat of the Art Scene: Human Talent

 

Strengthening the cultural economy begins with strengthening the talent pool.  The process that goes into the art practice very similar to that of any research and development (R&D) department. Hordes of money is invested on R & D before a product reaches the consumer market. An R & D requires good and talented people to experiment on new ideas and build prototypes that in turn, would be tested repeatedly until the final product. The art scene works in the same way. Developing the art scene means developing and nurturing the minds of its people. Human talent should be addressed on 2 levels, one is on the individual level and the other is at the collective or small organisations.

 

On the individual level, there should be more support for the artist’s livelihood. Ninety-five percent of the artists I know have a day job or even another career entirely because most importantly, they need a roof over their head and food on the table. It’s also very common to hear how their jobs actually finance their art-making or art projects. While some might say, this creates a multi-talented artist, the backlash to this that there is no consistency in one’s production. Artists need consistent dedicated time to concentrate  and focus on refining their craft and this months of creative experimentation often equates to financial instability to the artist. Whereas, having a day job means artists can only work on their craft on weekends or any spare time they have. This predicament the biggest stumbling block for our art scene as I’ve have seen too many of our talented artists forced to sacrifice perusing a possible successful career in art in order to survive or provide for their families.

 

Artists’ community and Autonomy

 

Thinking about small organisations or artists’ communities, I’m reminded of a time in 2013 where I had the chance to work a project alongside Ade Dermawan, one of the directors for Jakarta-based artist collective, Ruangrupa. What struck me about Ade was his ability to lead several big exhibition projects at one time and still find time to practice his art. For years, Ruangrupa has spearheaded the Jakarta Biennale and I asked him, ”How do you do it? Manage your time? Work on our project and still manage to deliver the Jakarta biennale?”

 

“It’s not difficult. I just ask for my terms. I told them (Jakarta Biennale organizers) I would only agree to be director, if they let me bring my team in the steering committee. Then I leave it up to my steering committee to decide what they want to do with the Biennale. I know they can deliver.”-Ade Dermawan, Ruangrupa

 

His simple and straightforward answer threw me off because of the leadership wisdom it holds. Who would know best what artists want then the artists themselves? Autonomy is given to the artists. I would go as far as to say that Ade’s revelation propelled me to take a closer look into the mysteries of Malaysia’s independent spaces.

 

Autonomy, under the guise of human resource management, allows a degree or level of freedom and discretion allowed to an artist or practitioner over her practice. Businessdictionary.com defines autonomy as ”jobs with high degree of autonomy engender a sense of responsibility and greater job satisfaction”.

 

The rise in independent art spaces and practices is a clear mark for the artists’ desire for autonomy. They form independent groups and organize small events, talks and performances, that are forms of knowledge production. Through these small events, ideas are generated and social networks expanded and they attract like-minded people who in turn contribute to that idea pool.

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Switch-On Mini Fest held at Findars’ (now RAW art space) an independent art space known as experimental sound and music space.

Independent spaces take on roles as social research labs towards developing new ideologies. In these spaces, you will find art managers, writers, archivist, curators, art historians and researchers, all of whom form the backbone of any art scene, working together to disseminate their ideologies.

 

With autonomy comes accountability. Nurturing a good ecosystem will create a natural check and balance, without the need of state interference. Anachronism in forms of censorship would then prove redundant and counterproductive.

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My understanding of how the art economy works

Problems in the System: Treating Art as an Object

Government bodies and agencies like National Visual Art Gallery, My Creative Ventures and Cendana are identified to provide infrastructural support the developing the visual art scene.

The general consensus I gather from these agencies and government bodies is that there tends to be an over emphasis on the peddling of the art product with intentions to capitalize through monetary returns. In other words, they are more interested in the art object with hopes to generate income.

 

For example, Cendana prides itself as being an artists’ start-up, a term familiar to those in the entrepreneurial side of things, “But Cendana is different. You can say that it is the start-up, and once the artist is ready, they can go to MyCreative Ventures to get a loan.”

 

From an artist’s perspective, I’m not sure about when should an artist consider herself “a start-up” or why should an artist make a loan to practice her art. This concept would make sense if it was within the context of business and is targeted to designers. Because design is regarded as a service industry, it makes sense to make business loan. Fashion designers, architects, graphic designers would fall under this category because there is clearer path for profit and return of investments. Thus, I feel this offer is more apt for the designers rather than artists.

 

In any case, the idea of making loan to finance an arts-related activity, aimed for the public, is rather exploitative to the artist. I think cost-sharing is a more realistic funding initiative for the artist.

 

My Creative Ventures are the main organizers behind RIUH, a monthly art bazaar at APW, Bangsar. It’s goal is to provide a sales and marketing platform for artists, musicians, bakers and other artisan craft makers. “He said apart from financing, the Malaysian art and cultural scene was also lacking the sales and marketing channel which required infrastructure enhancement. The government had allocated about RM10mil in Budget 2017 to provide a dedicated creative platform, called “RIUH”.”

 

The National Visual Art Gallery launched National Visual Arts Development Board Act 2011 (Act 724) and updated their definition of visual art as, “any art that appeals to the visual senses that exist in permanent forms such as photography, multimedia and any other interesting technology”. This myopic notion over ‘permanent forms’ disturbed me as it implies an attention over physical objects. If this is the case, we won’t be seeing any art installation, performance art, sound art, bio art and experimental art because it’s not considered as visual art-which is what the entire art world is doing now.  It’s the dumbest thing I have ever heard.

Again, there is a lot of focus on the art object and it’s “quality”. Touts one art agency:

”To scale up the quality of the works produced by our artists and increase the demand for arts.”

The strategies deployed by the government bodies and its agencies assumes art as a product, an object. The rhetoric of providing “dedicated creative platforms” like RIUH or wanting to “stimulate demand for arts and culture” are appropriate methods after the completion of the art object. And what’s more alarming is that, government bodies and art agencies are starting to think that an artwork’s value is based on its physical attributes.

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Excerpt from “KL as a Cultural & Creative City” report (page 19) describes the pricing of artworks based on its size.

Note to our new Malaysian government: Developing the art scene means developing the human talent in it. Empowerment, autonomy-then get the hell out of there.

My reply to William’s question was:

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If there’s anything governments can do for our art scene, is to support knowledge creation and talent development. Teach them how to be self-sustaining and critical. Teach them how to self-organise and not dependent on government hand-outs. And this shouldn’t be limited to artists, but every individual involved in the art scene. People centred, not painting centred. And when these foundations are laid, then get the hell out of the kitchen. Let it grow and evolve into it’s own. I remember a few years ago, Lim Guan Eng, the then Chief Minister of Penang said, “The best policy for the arts–is no policy!” and George Town Festival is what you have as a result of this no policy and full autonomy.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting a robust trading of art objects by encouraging sales and promotion. But if all the infrastructural support is focused on this segment, then development in terms of cultural economy and human talent, will be left far behind. Mammoth steps must be to ensure the livelihood of the artist and supporting and empowering the artists’ collectives and initiatives. Thus, if all of the developmental efforts focuses solely on the marketability of the artworks we will not have a sustainable art ecosystem.

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Proposal by Sharon Chin for a collective decision-making model for the visual arts community in Malaysia, based on decentralisation, localism, self-sufficiency & interdependence.

I resonate with  Cendana’s CEO Izan Satrina’s when she said:

”Arts and culture is where your ideas come from, your edge, your rawness, your stories. It is the heartbeat of the ecosystems in the cultural economy.”-Izan Satrina, CEO Cendana.

 

References:

  1. https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2017/09/17/singing-different-songs-but-in-tune/#HuS6w8XHIMWTs6ao.99
  2. https://www.thestar.com.my/business/business-news/2017/05/19/mycreative-targets-to-invest-up-to-rm60mil-this-year/
  3. http://www.businessdictionary.com/definition/autonomy.html
  4. http://www.artgallery.gov.my/?page_id=3744
  5. https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2017/09/17/a-new-hope-for-malaysian-artists/
  6. https://www.star2.com/culture/2018/02/09/cendana-kuala-lumpur-cultural-and-creative-city-report-think-city-british-council/
  7. https://www.cendana.com.my/articles/top-picks/cendana-launches-the-kuala-lumpur-cultural-and-creative-city-report-with-art-in-the-city
  8. Downloadable PDF for ‘KL as a Cultural and Creative City’ report here.
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Biennale bondage: Be loved or be gone?

Kuala Lumpur Biennale (KLB) opened its doors to the public in November last year, Johan Ishak, KLB chairman shared its aspiration:

“We wanted this first KL Biennale to carry a positive message and to reflect our culture and values. The artwork selection process was informed by this as well…We think this is more appropriate for a first biennale in the country.”

The biennale that will end in a few days is touted as a ‘game changer of an exhibition’ where it’s a marked progress of where the visual art scene is heading.

The theme for the city’s first large-scale contemporary art exhibition is “Be Loved” and the rational behind this theme is because it “goes beyond the usual themes of the international biennales such as divergence, ethnic conflict, war and politics.” Instead, the vibe of the biennale is about being constructive “such as compassion, sincerity, happiness, honesty, tolerance, mutual respect, solidarity, hope and sustainability”.

Nation-building, economy generator and an arts energiser; the biennale, was on paper, a good investment for the government’s tax-money. The idea to host a KL Biennale was undoubtedly, a directive from the top, with its tourism-ad friendly spin. The bar was set at attracting 250,000 domestic and international visitors.

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Shift (2017) by Bashir Makhoul-Photo credit: Suzy Sulaiman

There were definitely some strong installations and individual art pieces. What stood out for me was Leon Leong’s Razak Mansion project, Bibi Chew’s interactive work and Nurhanim’s kitab work. I found the placement of kitab under the theme of “belas alam” to be quite profound.

As much as there are reasons to celebrate this milestone in Malaysian visual art, I can’t ignore the elephant in the room anymore. The elephant’s name is “Under Construction” by Pusat Sekitar Seni. Less than a week left of this mega-scale exhibition, there is still no official statement about the status of this art installation. Aisyah, the spoke person of this collective, is anxious because the installation will have to be cleared soon while parts of the work are still missing. They were confiscated by authorities acting on a public complaint about malicious content.

 

Throwback 2017

Last year in August, Pusat Sekitar Seni (PSS) was approached by Kuala Lumpur Biennale 2017 (KLB2017) curatorial team to take part in upcoming biennale. Both sides were keen to work with each other and this followed up with a letter of invitation from KLB2017. The commission was for a large-scale location-specific art installation. For this commission, PSS formed a collective made of 7 artists. Each artist was entrusted to work on designated areas of the installation and employed different ways of working.

 

PSS spent the next few weeks, working on-site. They scavenged Balai’s surroundings and collected throw-away materials that would be repurposed to be part of the new art installation, including loan shark stickers and trashed posters that were abundant. With the accumulation of things, the artwork started to take shape. However. while the commission was to be location-specific, PSS lamented that they were asked to change location 3 times during their installation, first from level 2 then to level 3 and finally back to level 2 and all within the first 4 weeks. This poor planning caused PSS to have to remake and redo a couple of their pieces resulting in unnecessary wastage of their time and budget.

 

Parts of the art installation started slowly disappearing

14 more days before the KLB2017 opening, some of the artists noticed that parts of their installation went missing. Aisyah mentioned a few posters were taken off the wall like the “RUSUAHAHAHA” and “grow-your-own-food” stickers were some of things gone. PSS made an official inquiry to the organizers, but did not they did not respond. In the meantime, the artists carried on working into the next week; trusting that a logical explanation would eventually be given to them about their missing works.

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Through the black net, you can see portions of the “RASUAHAHAHA” whereby the text letterings were made from discarded items PSS collected on Balai’s grounds.-Photo credit Suzy Sulaiman.

 

And it got weirder…

The curator texted PSS saying that the Bukit Aman Police, Ministry of Internal Affairs (KDN) and a representative from the ministry came, with no further written explanation given.

That afternoon, Indonesian artists who are part of the PSS collective, arrived and wanted to start working on the installation. However, they were prevented from doing so by the security guards as strict orders were given to not allow PSS to touch their art installation. Later that night, PSS received a call from the curator stating that their artwork is under investigation by the Bukit Aman police because plausible Communist propaganda.

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I think the organizers KLB2017, KDN or the cops misunderstood the word “communal” for “communist”. All I could see were communal propaganda, like this one about separating one’s trash; paper, plastic and others.-Photo by: Suzy Sulaiman 

Between the time PSS reported that parts of their art installation went missing to the point where they received the text from KLB curator about the police visit; nothing was communicated to any of the artists by the organizers, despite that they were working on-site almost on a daily basis.

 

A week before the opening, the curator informed PSS that the missing works were actually confiscated by the police to be used as evidence in the investigation. However, PSS wants to reinstate that there was no written statement from either side, the police, Ministry of Internal Affairs (KDN) or KLB2017 organizing team.

 

Artists withdraw from inaugural KL Biennale

Disappointed by the poor handling of this matter and PSS’s complete loss of trust in the KLB organizers which lead to their decision to pull-out from the biennale a day before the opening. Meanwhile, the preparation for the launch of KL’s inaugural biennale was in full swing, awaiting the Tourism and Culture Minister Datuk Seri Nazri Abdul Aziz presence at the opening. Not wanting their incomplete artwork to appear during the media flurry of the launch, PSS covered the entire space with big black net. To add salt to the wound, I shocked when the Director-General commented that “this was just cheap publicity stunt by the artists”.

 

There were some points that didn’t make sense to me was the police said they acted on a public complaint. How can there be a ‘public complaint’ when the artwork was still being made and the gallery is closed off from public visitors?

 

Then there are these contradicting statements. The curator said that the police confiscated the artwork, meanwhile the police denied and stated they could only advise the organisers that some of the images were “inappropriate”.

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Beneath the black net, you can clearly make out photos of PSS’s community projects’ highly inappropriate images! – Photo credit: Suzy Sulaiman

No public statement has been made since this incident, despite having promised to do so by KLB 2017, this spectre of self-censorship continues on.

“Yet another censorship issue at the NVAG surely isn’t part of the plan to give Malaysia a progressive image.”

– Rouwen Lin, The Star

 

Tony Pua and Fahmi Fadzil have been quite vocal about this too, “If the government is sincere about making Malaysia a global cultural hub and developing her local creative industries, it must stop with these frivolous acts of censorship and allow creative expression to thrive.” Fahmi believes that this should be a point to create a dialogue and not just censor something that they think is not suitable for the Malaysian public without having a dialogue.

 

The engine that drives a successful Biennale is an empowered (art) ecosystem.

`Belas’ or Be Loved can be a powerful thematic statement but the strength doesn’t lie on its theme. Instead it’s a mobilisation of an entire art ecosystem, from curators, managers, translators, writers, art historians, academicians, art critics and technical/logistical team but it requires empowered, accountable and confident human resource to hold it up. They are people who rise above the myopic political agendas or be given that immunity so they may act as “mirrors” of society and holding it up to one’s own face.

 

Not money but honesty.

In these times of fake news, spin-doctors, instagram stars, honesty is a rarity and sought-after commodity. Themes of ethnic conflict, war and politics are not divergent, they’re used as points of reflection. Contemporary art equips us with aesthetics and the mindfulness that gives us the strength to peer into these horrible honesty with hopes of some salvation.

Two more years and we’ll see another biennale. Will it be another propaganda machine used to subvert it’s citizen by painting a rosy picture or is there hope for a more discursive and inclusive one?

I worry for KLB 2020.

 

“Perhaps, future editions of the KL Biennale will be bold enough to explicitly tackle a theme less predictable, with more space for surprises and with rose-tinted glasses used only sparingly.”

-Rouwen Lin, The Star

 

*Full list of collective members: Aisyah Baharuddin, Ahmad Azrel Kilheeny, Mohamad Idham Ismail, Nurul Adeline Zainuddin dan Iltizam Iman Abd Jalil. Isrol Triono (Yogyakarta) and Selo Srie Mulyadi (Jakarta).

Reference:

http://artasiapacific.com/News/InauguralKualaLumpurBiennaleToLaunchInNovember
Interview with Aisyah Baharuddin, 14 March (Weds) 2018, Lost Gen Art Space, KL

 

 

 http://www.mycreative.com.my/news_events/kl-biennale-2017

 

https://www.nst.com.my/news/nation/2017/11/306767/works-114-malaysian-and-foreign-artists-display-kl-biennale-2017

 

http://thelevel.my/klbiennale/

 

https://www.star2.com/culture/arts/2017/12/04/inaugural-kl-biennale-love-national-visual-arts-gallery/#HOqmId5UuRR6l1LG.99
https://www.themalaysianinsight.com/bahasa/s/24271/

 

https://www.themalaysianinsight.com/bahasa/s/24126/

 

https://www.themalaysianinsight.com/s/24125/

 

https://www.thestar.com.my/news/nation/2017/11/23/cops-no-artworks-seized-at-exhibition/

 

https://www.beritadaily.com/pkr-wants-under-construction-reinstated-at-kl-biennale/

 

http://www.freemalaysiatoday.com/category/nation/2017/12/06/art-exhibition-is-malaysia-a-stalinist-regime-asks-pua-2/

 

https://www.malaysiakini.com/letters/404519

 

https://www.malaysiakini.com/letters/404519

 

https://fahmifadzil.com/kl-biennale-2017-balai-seni-visual-negara-perlu-pupuk-dialog-bukan-tapis-karya-menjelang-pembukaan-pameran/

 

https://www.harpersbazaararabia.com/art/news/trouble-at-inaugural-kuala-lumpur-biennale

 

https://www.seapa.org/weekly-media-roundup-18-24-november-2017/

 

http://artasiapacific.com/News/SevenArtistsPullOutOfCensoredKualaLumpurBiennale

 

https://www.artforum.com/news/artists-withdraw-from-inaugural-kuala-lumpur-biennale-72483

5 Things You Should Know About the Artists’ Whose Artworks Were Removed from the Kuala Lumpur Biennale

If you are one of the hundreds of visitors to the recently opened KL Biennale, you may have come across a large black net on the 1st floor. This net covered loose furniture made to resemble an interior of house. There are floor-mats, paint cans and even a ladder hidden beneath this black net. Looking at this big black net, you might think that this an artwork and reacted with puzzlement wondering what is this art about. Or your reaction is that of curiosity; probing and poking the objects beneath the black net.

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“Under Construction” at the KL Biennale covered with black net. Photo credit: Suzy Sulaiman

Unfortunately, KL Biennale visitors don’t have access to this artwork because it is now part of police investigation. Some parts of the artwork were removed by the organizers the day before its grand opening and subsequently, returned to the artist.

“We felt that they have violated our artwork by removing things that were part of the whole project. We were not allowed to go near it or even touch it. That was why we finally decided to cover it up with the black net as a sign of protest.”-Aisyah Baharuddin (PSS Artist)

However, the way the entire situation was handled was utterly inacceptable by the artist collective that lead to the artists to withdrawing from the Biennale entirely.

“Maybe the authorities don’t understand the art. Artists are not criminals.”-Aisyah[i]

Aisyah’s statement prompted me to step in with an intention to offer another perspective based on personal experience working along side this this artist collective a few years ago. Hopefully, through my short essay; I am able to shed some light as to why “Under Construction” is important to be included in the inaugural KL Biennale. us. In addition to that, it will serve as an entry point to the world of community-engaged art and the independent art scene movement; a movement that’s rapidly growing in its influence.

#1: Who are these artists and how long have they been around?

The formation of this group of artists began with T.I.G.A (Tindakan Gerak Asuh), an artist collective founded by three artists; Aisyah Baharuddin, Intan Rafiza Abu Bakar and Azliza Ayob. The current members grew to Farhana Mohd. Tajali and Mohd. Idham Ismail. T.I.G.A initiated a physical art space in Padang Jawa in 2013 called Pusat Sekitar Seni (PSS) and Padang Jawa Street Art Festival from 2011-2013.[ii] However, due to financial constraints, they stopped having the space and moved all the activities to Aisyah’s residence located within the same neighborhood. Currently, PSS still operates from Aisyha’s home.

Bridge Art
Mural artwork made by artists working together with kids in Padang Jawa. Photo credit: Suzy Sulaiman

For the “Under Construction” art installation, PSS artists includes Ahmad Azrel Kilheeny, Mohamad Idham Ismail, Nurul Adeline Zainuddin and Iitizam Iman Abdul Jalil and two Indonesian artists; Isrol Triono from Yogyakarta and Selo Srie Mulyadi from Jakarta.

#2: An art movement that combines Art and Activism

T.I.G.A’s main objective was to create a platform where artists can actively engage in community building projects. Here, the artists place important value of an artwork on its impact to foster greater civic society. Artworks made by the artists here is not motivated by financial gains or is neither art market driven, but instead the artworks become artistic tools aimed at community enrichment. More emphasis is placed on the artist’s ability to take on leadership roles like teacher, advisor and facilitator to the community.

This philosophy that combines art and activism, is brought forward into Pusat Sekitar Seni or PSS. Their knowledge and artistic strategies are further enriched through the many artists exchange projects between Malaysia, Jogjakarta and Jakarta, initiated within the collective’s circle.

#3: Why they operate in Padang Jawa

Padang Jawa can be located at the fringe of Shah Alam. Padang Jawa folks consist of lower middle to low-income and high risk urban poor community. Kids and youths there come from broken or single parent families. A majority of them a high school drop outs and runaways. The place is extremely gentrified. Village folks sell off their farm lands to developers which in turn convert them into commercial shophouses or expensive condos. There is no public spaces like parks or playgrounds where the kids and youth can play or hang out, making them susceptible to participating in small thefts and vandalism.

PSS recognized the importance of providing a safe half-way space for the neighbourhood kids. A place where the kids can gather and read, do homework or just play together under the supervision of a responsible adult. At that time, PSS space was a few blocks away from Aisyah’s house. On the days that PSS was closed, Aisyah’s home served as the PSS space. She believed that it was important that she live inside the community. A typical afternoon at her house would have neighborhood kids storming into her kitchen and to drop off their school bags. They proceeded to change their school uniforms into play clothes and ran out.

“Who are those kids?” I asked. Aisyah one afternoon when I came to visit her.

She replied, ”Oh those kids. They always come to my house afterschool because they don’t want to go home immediately. They play games in the field and come back for a shower, then go home.”

Sure enough when the kids returned they were covered in mud and they quipped, ”Cikgu (teacher) can we take a shower in your bathroom?”

#4: Artists as community leaders. Artworks for social impact.

Padang Jawa Street Art festival would have to be PSS’s major event. Under the banner of festival programs, each artist would take charge of a community activity. There were programs like recycling, mural painting and wayang-type performances; that are all geared at promoting civic consciousness. Messages like “Reduce, reuse and recycle” and “Saya cintakan alam sekitar” were central to all the artworks produced for the event. At night, there would be puppet show performed by children and artists.

Show time!
. Parents, children and artists came to Pusat Sekitar Seni to enjoy a Puppet performance at Padang Jawa Street Art Festival. Photo credit: Suzy Sulaiman

In 2015, I had the chance to offer video-making workshop at a PSS event. Usually during the school holidays, PSS would offer workshops and activities for the neighborhood kids. It is not surprising to hear that these programs sometimes run on the artists’ own pocket money. However, this time around, Aisyah received a small grant from BSVN to support PSS’s initiative. The youths that signed up for my workshop are the stereotypical ‘budak jahat’ (problematic youths); kids that parents would warn their children to stay away from. One boy, Azizi, was a 13-year-old drop-out and his friend was a runaway (Aisyah isn’t actually clear where he’s from as most of the times these kids just show up at her doorstep). I knew early on, that where my teaching abilities were concerned, this group definitely challenged me. For the next few days, I focused on them; listened to them, provided them with whatever resources I could and encouraged them to be themselves. Under those conditions, they bloomed and flourished. My biggest reward was to see this so-called ‘budak jahat’ come early to class-they arrived early and quietly waited for me–like good students!- and executed their music video project beyond my expectations. Upon reflection, that experience given to me by PSS marked a turning point in my artistic career.

#5: Independent movement serves as a check-and-balance to our capital-driven society.

PSS; along with other community-based artist collective like Lost Gen, Pungrok Sulap and Sasaran Arts Festival; are driven by need to elevate and enrich society. For this reason, they are often tagged as ‘independent’ or ‘alternative’. They are citizens of the world and take an active stand on public issues like environment, gentrification and corruption. Extending their artistic capabilities to that of community leaders, their focus is to change mindsets and attitudes at the grass root level.

Handmade cardboard puppets.
A child at PSS plays with the puppets as artists are busy preparing for the performance that night. Photo credit: Suzy Sulaiman

I remember a recent comment by a fellow independent curator on the works of PSS; “But their form is weak…”, I think this person is missing the point; their work has never been about form. It’s never been their prerogative to produce an object of art meant to be admired for its aesthetic beauty. Therefore, the art produced here cannot be measured in the same way one measures art generated for the art market. The latter would require the artwork to can be categorized (either by mediums or dates), appraised, arranged in an order or even be framed. It’s like trying to get to a place either by car or public transport. Each means of transport provides a different journey because they were each built to fulfill a certain purpose; yet you still can arrive at your destination.

Lastly, Art that provokes also make us think outside the box.

Perhaps the censors are too quick to judge the messy “presentation”; that to me; serves only to mirror the kind of dysfunctional urban environment they operate in and where these youths call their home. But if you allow the time to read the texts, it all promotes a civic society.

Art has that ability to provoke and it is this “discomfort” that stings us to reality. Often, reality isn’t pretty and middle-upper classes (who make up for a large art going audience) would turn a blind eye. Moreover, it takes a lot of maturity to be able to look at one’s own ugliness in the eye.

At this moment, all you can do as a visitor is to react to the “censorship” that has befallen this RM6,000 commission art installation. It’s gross state of limbo means that visitors are prevented from enjoying the space intended for kids to read books and take part in other art-making activities; as initially intended by the artists. All you can do now is sit on one of the cushioned PVC benches in front of the black net and pretend not to notice it.

However, credit must also be given to the curatorial team for inviting PSS to the biennale in the first place because “Under Construction” art installation is an apt representation of one of many the independent art collectives in Malaysia, that holds true to the biennale’s theme of “belas” or be loved.

PSS activates the community by immersing themselves in the community and take part in social re-building and at the same time, operate with an enormous amount of compassion to the kids and families in Padang Jawa. They organize and implement projects within the community to raise awareness on local issues and empower them. This juxtaposition of chaos and empathy resonates in their “Under Construction” art installation and should be part of the KL Biennale.

*Below is a list of online articles of the censorship of “Under Construction”  in chronological order:

https://www.themalaysianinsight.com/s/24125/ (22 NOV 2017)

Our work violated, say KL Biennale artists  (Nov. 23. 2017)

Cops: No artworks seized at exhibition (23 Nov. 2017)

Biennale KL 2017: Balai Seni Negara patut pupuk dialog (23 Nov. 2017)

KL Biennale 2017 (I): Under Construction (Nov. 24 2017)

Biennale KL 2017: Polis akan soal kurator, artis dan media (24 Nov. 2017)

ASIAARTPACIFIC: SEVEN ARTISTS PULL OUT OF CENSORED KUALA LUMPUR BIENNALE (24 NOV 2017) 

Artists must challenge censorship (28 NOV 2017)

KL Biennale: Concepts of love and artistic discourses (4 Dec 2017)

References

[i] https://www.themalaysianinsight.com/s/24266/

[ii]  (2016). Narratives in Malaysian Visual Art: Infrastructure.Yong, Beverly, Nur Hanim Khairuddin, Rahel Joseph, Tengku Sabri Ibrahim,  Rogue Art  (pg 239)

 

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.

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.

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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.

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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”.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.