Can a museum engage artists in a discussion about what it means to collect? Taking the cue from artists’ changing modes of creating and presenting work, SAM presents its latest exhibition Wikicliki: Collecting Habits on an Earth Filled with Smartphones to explore key strategies needed in the collection of contemporary art today.
The exhibition borrows its title from http://dbbd.sg/wiki, the constantly evolving work by artist Debbie Ding, which traces emerging issues around society’s use of the internet, technology, design, architecture, linguistics and varied cultural topics. By referencing Debbie Ding, whose practice reworks formal, qualitative approaches, Wikicliki investigates the nature of collections and new strategies for the collection of contemporary art today.
“We hope this exhibition will open up a space for reflexivity and dialogue on new modes of collecting, creating and presenting art,” says Dr June Yap, Director of Curatorial, Collections and Programmes, SAM.
“Wikicliki: Collecting Habits on an Earth Filled with Smartphones asks the important question of what it means for museums to present and collect contemporary art in a time where the medium and format of the artworks themselves have become increasingly varied and dematerialised. We hope this exhibition will open up a space for reflexivity and dialogue on new modes of collecting, creating and presenting art,” says Dr June Yap, Director of Curatorial, Collections and Programmes, SAM. “The development of NFTs, for example, is vital to creating a way for artworks to be uniquely identified, especially with new mediums such as digital art or performance work, as we develop ways to exhibit such works and experiment with artists on contemporary practices as they happen.”
The six artists in the exhibition exemplify a new development in contemporary art referred to as the “aggregate,” a qualitative approach to collecting, organising and interpreting the array of images and data that increasingly govern our everyday lives.
“What does it mean for museum to collect, aggregate and select work today?” says curator Selene Yap. “How do we stage these items and objects of different values, and what does it mean for us to perceive a work – do we really need walls to put up artwork? What we’re trying to do is to examine such practices in our artists, revisiting some of their material, and gesture towards works representative of these practices.”
“The artist-curator pairings were intended to build on conversations we were already having, not just think about collecting in a conventional sense, but also engaging with artists, and thinking about how collecting has changed,” adds curator Shabbir Hussain Mustafa. “How does an institution then respond and accommodate these shifts, especially with how the digital is increasingly intersecting with our work? We’re confronting issues like these?
Ranging from mixed media and sound installations, performance, photography and video, the works, Everything (Wikipedia) by Heman Chong; Nothing and Paradise by Chua Chye Teck; Here the River Lies and Rules for the Expression of Architectural Desires by Debbie Ding; momok elektrik by bani haykal; Singirl Online Project by Amanda Heng and SEA STATE 9: PROCLAMATION (drag), (drop), (pour) and SEA STATE 8: The Grid by Charles Lim Yi Yong, activate anachronisms, fictions, improvisations, and sympathies that articulate the predicaments of our current times.
Exhibiting at The Ngee Ann Kongsi Concourse Gallery, National Gallery Singapore, Wikicliki features six artists whose modes of working provide unique insights into a range of issues confronting contemporary practitioners in Singapore today. It is presented via six artist-curator pairings — Heman Chong with Selene Yap, Chua Chye Teck with Cheng Jia Yun, Debbie Ding with Shabbir Hussain Mustafa, bani haykal with Chanon Kenji Praepipatmongkol, Amanda Heng with Teng Yen Hui, and Charles Lim Yi Yong with Kenneth Tay.
Debbie Ding presents two works. The first, Rules for the Expression of Architectural Desires, is made up of 24 speculative schemes, devices, and instruments for the urban and social redesign of a city. Each of these is written with the intention of promoting the expression of architectural desires, although it is unclear whether they will change the city for better or worse.
“In the last 15 years, more questions around geospatial tech have emerged, and the the digital no longer has to be literally integrated into a piece,” says curator Mustafa, who worked with Debbie. “Debbie defines herself as a technologist, and her roots lies in the expression of architectural desire. She is constantly thinking of how tech is intersecting with our everyday life, and as a graduate of English Literature at NUS, the act of writing is key to her work.”
“Written in 2014, during a residency in Berlin, this is a series of fictive rules she authored in order to suggest the possibility of a new city that could emerge. It gets complicated, because it is unclear if following these rules will have positive or negative effects, and it prompts us into rethinking how our bodies relate to space,” he adds. ” It shows how she senses and views the world, and it grapples with sense of being that occupies everyday life. It was interesting because in working with her on exhibiting this work, the big question to us was how we would present it, given that it doesn’t actual need the architectural space of a museum. And I think that marks a challenge for modern curators, for institutions to rethink such new media and how to present it in a productive fashion.”
Her second work, Here the River Lies, is an installation of a large hand-drawn map of the Singapore River and over 1500 stories from members of the public that have been indexed and arranged into 35 categories. Unlike other historical archives and “memory projects,” the wide range of stories here may be real or entirely fabricated. “Here The River Lies has been shown across various sites over the years, and it’s a map that’s been drawn largely from memory,” Mustafa explains. “Debbie admits she’s not a painter, but is simply engaging with the idea of painting in this form.”
“Interestingly, in October 2006, the online mapping company Virtual Maps was embroiled in a civil lawsuit with Singapore Land Authority (SLA) for the copyright infringement of vector map data licensed by SLA to Virtual Maps in 2004. SLA refuted Virtual Map’s claim that its maps were not substantially based this data by revealing that it had inserted some imaginary features into its maps such as temples, buildings, and even a dead-end street. SLA argued that these fake elements were not intended to mislead users but served as “fingerprints” to help its true owner identify the map. By inserting fictional elements, it is a way of creating authorship, a means of playing with alternative landscapes by which to engage and live with the world.”
Debbie isn’t the only person presenting a map though, with SEA STATE 8: The Grid by Charles Lim. In revisiting the nautical GSP1 chart, Lim transfers a 2014 edition of the GSP1 chart onto a magnetic surface to track Singapore’s ongoing land reclamation efforts on the eve of the 50th anniversary of its nationhood. Scattered across the wall, each unit is scaled to represent 1 km2 of land. During the exhibition period, the artist will periodically reconfigure the artwork as a means to underscore the fluid nature of Singapore’s territory and its mutating contours.
“I’ve been working with Charles for some time now, and with this work, Charles is looking at the tension with regards to Singapore’s relation to the sea,” says curator Kenneth Tay. “As a former national sailor, he has an intimate relationship with our waters, and we’re fortunate that we’re able to present these works from his SEA STATE series here. We wanted to look more closely at his engagement with the moving image, and speak to his broader topic of state and fluid territory, as he explores the expansion of the sea and fluid territories in Singapore.”
In his second piece, SEA STATE 9: PROCLAMATION (drag), (drop), (pour), he uses drones to capture videos of the process of land reclamation, dragging sand in bulk through sand barges, the dropping of sand using extractors, and finally the piling on of the new landmass through the targeted pouring of sand, almost like photoshopping this new land onto the sea.
“With SEA STATE 9, I was trying to capture a moment where we pour sand into the sea, where there’s this point the sand penetrates the surface of the water,” says Charles. “The drone is a powerful tool, and I started to go there maybe three times a week just to try to capture the phenomenon. I also thought about the British cartographers in Singapore in the past, and they somehow came up with a system using the grid to examine the sea. And Singapore used a similar grid when they started their aggressive land reclamation processes, and it’s interesting how parts that used to be the sea have now become land, leaving these maps to mark the residue of sea.”
“I remember being in a kampung when I was young, and my grandmother told me how the house actually used to be in front of the sea, but now, it’s all gone, reclaimed land. As Singapore began to expand, the people who lived on the edge and islands have become increasingly pushed to the centre, and it seems that there is this other, alternative, narrative of Singapore now lost, as a sea state.”
In his work momok elektrik, bani haykal considers how our digital privacy is constantly under attack, and what it then takes to restore our trust in machines. The momok elektrik, or electric phantoms in Malay, combines the magic of talismanic amulets and the encryption of algorithms to conjure an enchanted realm of intimacy between humans and machines, as vocalists improvise incantations using the syllables cha, pa, and ga, which correspond to three unique phonemes in Jawi that are not found in classical Arabic.
“How do you imagine a machine that measures the complexities of information production online?” says bani. “If we transposed all this data and data sets intp the machine, who has control over it, and what is their afterlife? Think of it as our souls trapped in the dungeons of Google and Facebook. As such, as a speculative exercise, I used these ‘digital talismans’ as a way to care for and safeguard this data.”
“The words you see on these gunny sacks are in Jawi, and I was inspired by my thoughts on how we have this relationship between our computers and machines, this intimacy we have with them.”
“I thought about the idea of encryption, and how strange it is that they are encrypting information, yet we know someone else through various forms of securing and locking information. The Jawi texts here then, are encrypted, so even if you knew how to speak the language, you wouldn’t be able to understand it in this form. I also thought about how images for machines are different than for humans, and how machines might hold all this information that’s potentially precious, if only we could understand it.”
“It’s exciting to see SAM doing this exhibition, because by looking at artists within the region using tech, it’s so different from the way people in the West approach it, especially with how plugged in they are into the discourse of Silicon Valley,” says Chanon Kenji Praepipatmongkol, the curator working with Bani Haykal.
“They’re approaching tech from a different point of view, and unapologetic about inserting their own cultural understanding of what tech is. bani is interested in the technical side, and how to use programming to generate sound, such as using pure data and sound samples, and turning them into musical instruments with a computer algorithm.”
“For myself, I’m originally from Bangkok, and very familiar with the practices of the region here. The line between art history and technology is becoming increasingly blurry, and I’m always looking at how artists from the Southeast Asian ‘third world’ in the 60s were suddenly thrust into Paris and London – how do you as a ‘third world’ artist enter the conversation? And how interesting it is that those dynamics have shifted, where Singapore is now on the leading edge of tech, yet we continue to use so much software from the West.”
Meanwhile, Amanda Heng’s ongoing Singirl Online Project invites all Singaporean female citizens to be part of a contingent for Singapore’s annual National Day
Parade dressed as the “Singapore Girl,” the iconic image of the Singapore
Airlines stewardess in her trademark sarong kebaya. To participate, women
need to submit an anonymous picture of their bare bottoms on the project’s
website. Amanda Heng originally envisioned that the contingent would participate in the National Day Parade in 2010 but unfortunately was not successful in realising the plan.
In this latest iteration, Heng aims to realise the contingent via a new mode
of display: the website. Women visitors are invited to register with the
gallery host then take a photograph of their bare bottom in the private
photobooth located adjacent to this text. Submissions will be collated
and programmed into an animated sequence that resembles a marching contingent in the National Day Parade.
“The personas I’ve created for live performances have been represented in so many different forms, from photos to live performance, or turned into objects,” says Amanda Heng. “This project is my chance to use the virtual space to engage a different generation of young viewers. Having started in 2009, it’s gone on to various gallery spaces, including an installations at 8Q in 2011. I hope that people see how the Singapore Girl image was created for nation building for our new independent state, and how the National Day Parade becomes a way to contextualise and bring that out.”
As art audiences move away from the gallery space to the digital space, these six artists, at the intersection of new image circulation technologies, highlight the multi-faceted experience of Singapore’s industrial present and technological future.
The artist-curator pairings seek to drive conversations around their modes of working through focused examinations of their selected works. From these pairings, a series of discursive programmes will be developed by curator and artist, aimed at engaging the public in these conversations. These discussions will open up a space for dialogue and speculative encounters on the topics of human-machine intimacies, strategies for data collection, contemporary imagemaking in an age of digital information proliferation, and more. The public programmes include artist talks and workshops which will take place online and at the exhibition gallery.
Images courtesy of Singapore Art Museum
Wikicliki: Collecting Habits on an Earth Filled with Smartphones’ is presented at The Ngee Ann Kongsi Concourse Gallery, National Gallery Singapore from 22nd April to 11th July 2021. More information available here