Wednesday 24 September 2014

journal | Pirates of the Curatorrent

by Kenneth Loe
Centre for Contemporary Art, Singapore 

 Image: Kenneth Loe
“torrent (ˈtɒrənt)
1. (Physical Geography) a fast, voluminous, or violent stream of water or other liquid
2. an overwhelming flow of thoughts, words, sound, etc
3. (Computer Science) computing a file that controls the transfer of data in a BitTorrent system. See BitTorrent [1]

I admit. My childhood fixation with 17th century buccaneers and their wayward seafaring ways never really went away. From plundering the “Horrible Histories” series in the children’s section at my neighborhood library for books on them Vicious Vikings and Plundering Pirates, which in hindsight was my first encounter with the authority of alliteration, to building and running my very own pirate haven as Pirate King on the PC game, Tropico 2: Pirate Cove, I was acquainted with infamous pirates, from the can(n)onical Blackbeard and Anne Bonny to the fictional Captain Hook and Long John Silver. Needless to say, I was hooked, line and sinker.

A whole decade later, as I mull over my month-long immersion at the Centre of Contemporary Art, I find myself hearkening back to those formative years and digging for doubloons. Incidentally, I had recently re-watched Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, the glib repartee of the roguish Captain Jack Sparrow meets piratical phantasmagoria of sword-wielding lobster bisques and anthropomorphic barnacles. Something I gleaned from all three films was how the responsibilities of the crew were in perpetual flux in relation to its captain. Every crew member wore many hats (literally and figuratively), its multifarious directional approach in collusion with a compass that pointed to what one wanted most instead of mere magnetic North, a captaincy that was bound to the whim of the tides and the looming presence of the enemy, be it the nefarious Davy Jones and his pet kraken or the “it’s just good business” armada of the East India Company, the indeterminacy of a life at sea, a never-ending balancing act between one foot and a pegleg and a bottle of rum in between.

Before I expound on my experience further, perhaps I should explain in pseudo-etymological terms, within rhyme and reason, how I arrived at this farrago of a word, “curatorrent”. There is a bot on Twitter that goes by the handle @portmanteau_bot, a bot that for a period of time tweeted the most wondrous of algorhythmically-generated portmanteaus but in recent times have slumped into incomprehensible gibberish. “Curatorrent”, an obvious portmanteau of “curator” and “torrent”, was born in my attempts at hacking together a word within a set of self-imposed conditions:
  • The word has to contain some form of the word “curate”.
  • The word has to rhyme (kind of) with Caribbean.
  • The word has to make enough sense while sounding absurd.
The past few years have been inundated with news of the clamping down on countless Torrent sites in the name of copyright, forcing them to set sail, go under before re-surfacing over and over, the online cousin of POTC’s Flying Dutchman and its undead crew, namelessly and tirelessly toiling, seeding and ferrying torrents of data to and fro-yo ho! And if we look at definition no. 2 of “torrent”, as “an overwhelming flow of thoughts, words, sound, etc”, you would be looking at a one-word tour d’horizon of my experience in the deep undulations of theory and theatricality.

On my first day at CCA, I was introduced to a book that I was to spend the next month and a half ploughing through by Anca Rujoiu, CCA Curator Exhibitions. “Mimesis, Masochism & Mime: The Politics of Theatricality in Contemporary French Thought”, a book of essays edited by Timothy Murray, I was told, formed the basis of Theatrical Fields, the exhibition curated by Ute Meta Bauer, CCA Founding Director, and Anca, first presented at the Bildmuseet, Umeå in Sweden and currently exhibiting at CCA. I was tasked with assisting in the areas of research and public programmes for the exhibition.

The next month was spend swashbuckling with a diverse range of texts, some denser than others, from Derrida’s circuitous reading of Artaud’s Theatre of Cruelty to the super abstract but immensely enjoyable text by Luce Irigaray titled “The Stage Setup”. The essay reinterprets and subverts the phallocentricity immanent in Plato’s myth of the cave, the necessity of which lent itself to my watching of Mass Hysteria Relapsed!, a remarkable spoken word performance by the AmOk Collective that sought to “to re-act and negotiate the hysterical and the historical”[2], performed in late August as part of Indignation Festival, Singapore’s annual queer pride season. I was to spend a whole week on the text, albeit in disjointed spurts and long bouts of pondering double negations and complex conjunctions in a torrential jouissance of theorizing by Irigaray, before the gaze gave way to this light which is not one nor the sun.

Looking at this idea of the “curatorrent”, which if I were to elaborate would refer to “the deluge of information one devours in endeavoring to knowledge production through curatorial labour”, I can safely say I have never read so intensely or successively in a field of thought or re-oriented that radically the lens through which I approached and perceived something as I have when working on Theatrical Fields. Having always struggled with while relishing in being a “Jack of all trades”, dabbling into whatever I fancied or found an opportunity in, Curating Lab not withstanding, I was utmost daunted in the beginning by the task ahead of me and utterly grateful at the end to be inducted into a methodology I’ve always maintained I never had the tenacity for.

While my commitment in the month of July was primarily anchored to CCA, I still had obligations at the gallery I worked at to attend to. Concurrently, my fellow CCA mates and I had to conceptualise the workings of an exhibition that we are co-curating in January 2015. I saw myself constantly shuffling between roles, shuttling from working on research and public programmes at CCA to administrative work and managing an exhibition at the gallery, to learning the ropes of what curating an exhibition entails alongside my peers. The parallel I observed happening in the scenes of POTC resonated strongly with me, the switching between modes of existence a crew member assumes, from rigger to powder monkey to becoming cannon fodder, the swapping of captaincy from Jack Sparrow to Barbossa to the crew becoming captain. Of course, the perils of what I imagine to be a life at sea is but an analogy inflected by my 14-year-old self, a Peter Pirate Pan who decided not to grow up.

Screenshot of “The Curse of Monkey Island” A Pirate I was meant to be
The Curse of Monkey Island, yet another pirate-inspired adventure PC game I fell head over heels for while growing up, is a charming cartoon-ish cabal of object-based puzzle-solving and insult swordfighting in a marvelous display of wordplay. In one scene, the protagonist and playable character, Guybrush Threepwood, a buffoonish self-proclaimed “mighty pirate”, finds himself on a ship he stole and a crew he gathered from the local barbershop comprising of Cutthroat Bill, Haggis McMutton, and Edward Van Helgen. On boarding the ship, the hapless pirates break out into a song and dance that’s all rhyme and ridiculousness that feeds off Guybrush’s/your responses by turning it into a verse. The only way that Guybrush/you can stop them is to foil their scheme by coming up with a sentence that is metrically impossible for them to find a rhyme to. The scene ends with the following exchange:

“Guybrush: We'll surely avoid scurvy if we all eat an orange.
Haggis: And...!
Bill: Well...
Bill: Door hinge?
Edward:No, no...
Bill: Guess the song's over, then.
Haggis: Guess so.
Edward: Okay, back to work.
Guybrush: Well gee. I feel a little guilty, now.”

“In civilizations without boats, dreams dry up, espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police takes the place of pirates.”[3] As I rest my feet at this port of call before the next journey beckons, Foucault’s assertion that “the ship is the heterotopia par excellence” floats to mind. I console myself that oranges are not the only fruit and what I’d really like right now is a Bloody Mary sans guilt. Avast, me hearties!

[1] Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged © HarperCollins Publishers 2003
[2] From “Mass Hysteria Relapsed!” Facebook event page -
[3] Michel Foucault. Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopias. In Architecture/ Mouvement/ Continuité journal, October 1984, translated from French by Jay Miskowiec

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