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.

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