Tuesday, 19 February 2013

essay | "iterability makes possible idealization"

by Riya de los Reyes

Think of the word ‘Concept’. Refer to the word ‘Conceptual’. Think of the word ‘Performance’. Refer to the word ‘Performativity’. We live in a reality that requires certain definitions in order for us to identify with things on a symbolic level. However, such definitions have this effect of closing up situations in which we can think about things. Identify the problems involving language and exhibitions.


This paper will identify the “problems involving language and exhibitions” by first addressing how we define reality on a symbolic level, and then demonstrate how this has ”an effect of closing up situations in which we can think about things”. This essay will do this by examining [concept/conceptual] and [performance/performativity], which I see as two different exhibition strategies. For the purposes of this essay, it is imperative to understand how we derive meaning from ideas and objects through language. According to the Structuralist school of thought, “things cannot be understood in isolation” and that they have to be seen “in the context of the larger structures that they are a part of”. There is no inherent meaning within an object or an idea; meaning arises from the way that the human mind attributes sense and significance on them. Meaning is created and assigned through attribution, not contained within the object or idea.[1]

I.                    Structuralism to Post-structuralism: The ‘linguistic turn’

Ferdinand de Saussure, considered the father of modern linguistics, claimed that words themselves are ‘unmotivated signs’, which means that there is no inherent connection between a word and what it signifies, and that a word is attributed to mean something based on established linguistic conventions.[2] For instance, the word violet is not reflective of the colour violet – it is a way to name the colour. Now think of that popular mind game where you are asked to say the COLOUR, not the word that you read: RED GREEN BLUE YELLOW. It is easy to mix them up and say the word instead of the colour of the word because established conventions are thrown out of the window. This shows that as a system of signs, language is arbitrary and random. It is governed by conventions that assigned definitions on an object or an idea. Viewed this way, language does not provide a reflection of the world as it experienced (we experience the colour, not the word), but functions as a means to identify an object or idea.[3]

However, Saussure contends that “meanings are relational”, which means that a word can be defined in relation to other words surrounding it – that is, that the only thing that gives the word its “meaning” is its position and difference from other words surrounding and/or contrasting it.[4] When we say “violets are blue”, the verb are indicates that violets (plural noun) is described as blue, which does not make logical sense if they are both taken to mean colours. In this case, determining the meaning of the noun violets will have to take its cues from the fact that it will not make logical sense for the noun to mean the colour. Jacques Derrida expounds upon Saussure’s claim that meanings are relational: “The signified concept is never present in itself, in an adequate presence that would refer only to itself. Every concept is necessarily and eventually described in a chain or a system, within which is refers to another and to other concepts, by the systematic play of differences. Such a play, then—différanceis no longer simply a concept, but the possibility of conceptuality (emphasis mine)”.[5]

II.                  Defining the terms “concept” and “performance”

A definition of the term “concept” is first necessary to understand this shift from “simply [being] a concept” towards “the possibility of conceptuality”. A concept may be defined as a “mental representation”.[6] Language is a means to compose the mental representation of our world, not simply to label or record it (although it functions that way too). An example of this is how the calendar year has been categorised based on four seasons. This is even though in reality there is no real division or rupture indicating the switch, for instance, from winter to spring. In other words, the seasons are our way of seeing, “rather than an objective fact of nature”.[7] On the other hand, our “conceptual ability” enables us to interpret and attribute meaning to our world: for instance, we have associated flowers with spring, which is an objective fact of nature and has come to symbolize the season through our linking and attribution of meaning between them.

One of the problems with this way of defining “concept” is that language is viewed as “the tool of thought (i.e. that thinking happens in language)”.[8] Derrida has problematized that although language—through writing—enables us to be cognizant of the fact that meaning is relational, it also has the tendency to “over-determine the signs and prevents any coherent single chain of meanings from developing” (that is, has an effect of closing up the way we think about things). He believes that “iterability makes possible idealization—and thus a certain identity in repetition that is independent of the multiplicity of factual events—while at the same time limiting the idealization it makes possible”.[9] The seasons are conventionally “written over” the months in the calendars because of the repetitive pattern in nature that made it possible to identify each season in relation to their corresponding months. According to Derrida, this way of repetition “leaves us no choice other than to mean (to say) something that is (already, always, also)”, such that “discourse continually produces meanings which never fertilize reproduction but invite further dispersal in ultimately narcissistic acts”.[10]

Writing, therefore, not only enables the composition and creation of concepts, it can also render a concept a convention through repetition since re-writing or “iterability makes possible idealization”. This is how a concept can be repeatedly performed as something that becomes a recognizable pattern until it eventually becomes an established paradigm. Once it has become an ideal, Derrida claims that the concept would not allow for different ways of interpretation and instead “invite further dispersal in ultimately narcissistic acts”—that is, that it continuously performs itself to define itself as “reality”. We could then be locked in the paradigm of looking to the calendar as the authority (a conventional/customary way of seeing) in determining seasons. But what if spring does not arrive in March as the calendar system has determined? The snow has yet to thaw and flowers are nowhere to be seen (objective fact of nature). We would be more inclined towards believing the “objective fact of nature” and may become sceptical of the calendar system.

III.                Linguistic Representation  Conceptual Representation

This disconnect not only proves that language is not necessarily reflective of reality, but also shows the problems of viewing it as “the tool of thought (i.e. that thinking happens in language)” as the linguistic expression of thought “is often necessarily general, non-specific, even imprecise”.[11] Linguistic representation should therefore be seen as distinct from the corresponding conceptual representation. The philosopher John Searle’s Principle of Expressability, which states that ‘whatever can be meant can be said’, cannot hold true. As shown from the calendar example, “the more explicit I try to be (in idealizing and establishing ways of seeing), the more unintended implicatures I generate”, and these implicatures are often due to contingencies and alternative possibilities.[12] For Derrida, the alternatives and the possibilities surrounding a concept are paramount, as they are inextricably linked to it to ensure that “the purportedly ‘ideal’ structure must necessarily be such that [its] corruption will be ‘always possible’”. The ‘normalizing’ effect of speech acts (previously described in this essay as the establishment of conventions through repetition) fails to account for “the complexities of experience” and the way that forms of power “covertly establishes hierarchies of relevance” in interpretations.[13]

In other words, the performativity of ‘ideals’ could in fact simplify reality by failing to take into account that these established ideals are not necessarily immutable since—for Derrida—these ideals are always surrounded by possibilities. Ludwig Wittgenstein provides “hope for a possible cure” to this problem raised by Derrida. He suggested that “it is the grammatical competence which education in a culture produces that enables us to establish ideas for appropriateness and then to rely on practical considerations for defining degrees of probable relevance in hypotheses about meanings”. Rather than “rooting essences in nature”, Wittgenstein posits that “Essence is expressed by grammar” and that “Grammar tells us what kind of an object anything is.” We are able to eliminate objects as “irrelevant” not by forgoing the need for “forms of secure knowledge” but rather by altering “the grounds for determining what we know and can trust as secure and meaningful”.[14] I believe that what he is referring to is the need for context and knowledge classifications.

Recall the previous example: violets are blue. As mentioned, the verb are indicates that the noun (violets) to be blue, but it does not make logical sense if they are both taken to mean colours. How do we determine the meaning of violets? It is the human mind—our “conceptual ability” (i.e. through a system of categorization and contextualization)—that enables us to figure out that it would be better to interpret violets as a type of flower rather than a type of colour. Therefore, concepts can perhaps be better understood as “themselves connected to our larger knowledge of structures” and as “a kind of mental glue [that] tie our past experiences to our present interactions with the world”.[15] Moreover, we can see that human agency/human rationalization is possible when negotiating with concepts, particularly concepts that (through their iterability) have been deemed as established paradigms or way of seeing.

Concluding Remarks:

Derrida’s method of deconstruction states that ‘the centre cannot hold’ (decentralisation) and that the surrounding texts/contexts are more important in the search for meaning than focusing on the ‘centre’ or the concept itself. As such, this is how a concept becomes conceptual rather than simply being a concept. From this conclusion, I believe that a “conceptual exhibition” is one that relies not on its concept in itself, but rather the relation of the texts that surrounds and informs the viewer of the concept. The focus is not so much the concept itself, but rather the way it negotiates with the texts it has employed and engages with. The conceptual exhibition defines itself from the interpretation of the viewer—i.e. the exhibition’s meaning is not expressed directly or perceived immediately, but rather interpreted through the linking and attribution of meaning to the texts that constitutes it, through the texts that the exhibition attempts to compose.

I would like to bring this back to my assessment piece on Camping and Tramping... which I have attached in this essay (click here to read my assessment piece) and I think is related to whatever I endeavoured to reflect upon in this essay. For instance, the opposition between arbitrariness and conceptual in relation to language can be paralleled to the bricoleur and the engineer. The arbitrary vs conceptual dichotomy is analogous to the methods of inquiry espoused by Mohammad Din Mohammad and Dr Polunin, and the “gap” between them is ensured by the lack of grammatical congruence in the way they communicate to each other, if not the insistence to maintain their respective identities through the process of “othering” or performativity through the play of différance, according to Derrida.

One of the reasons why I liked this exhibition a lot was its ability to “speak against” the Westernized concept of the museum by deconstructing and exposing the way museums (as expressions of Western power) have conceptualized Malaya. Through mimicry (i.e. conscious iteration/performativity), the exhibition is able to speak about and against Westernized modes of exhibition-making using the same tools (grammar and language) used by “established conventions” of exhibition-making. This way, the curators themselves followed the same vein of Wittgenstein’s “hope for a cure” to Derrida’s gripe against idealization—that is, the curators acquired the grammatical competence to “talk back” and re-negotiate the way Malaya has been represented. The re-writing (performance) of established conventions is done such that the focus is no longer on the ‘ideal’, but rather on the context composed by the curators.

I guess one of the main problems (for me, personally) when it comes to language and exhibition is the question of authorship and the necessary ‘open-endedness’ of exhibitions. Roland Barthes’ proclamation of the ‘Death of the Author’ posits that the authorial intent is no longer relevant as soon as interpretation is given up to the viewer. The arbitrariness of language and the deconstruction method makes ‘representation’ multi-faceted, fractured and intricate, more so since the viewer is invited to be participant to the “meaning-making” process of the exhibition (intertextuality). But what if the viewer does not have the necessary context to even grasp the surface of the meaning/concept that the exhibition was trying to convey? From Derrida’s point of view, the re-presentations and even (mis)representations are invited if only so as to refute even the notion of an ‘ideal representation’, to make it open to “corruptions” and to prevent the privileging of one interpretation over others. (I personally believe some interpretations are better than others.)

As such, grammatical competence on the part of the viewer is also necessary if he/she could purposefully partake in the “meaning-making” process of an exhibition. I believe this is also the main reason why art (especially conceptual/abstract or those that reference other established works) is sometimes deemed inaccessible to those who lack grammatical competence (context) to understand it. I remember Jim Supangkat saying that a viable way for Asian contemporary art to remain relevant is if it can be understood by Western audience—that is, not by aping Western art-making techniques but rather using it in such a way that warrants Asian contemporary art to be understood by the Western audience because the artwork could speak in the language/grammar that is familiar and immediately recognizable to the Western audience for a dialogue to ensue.

[1] Peter Barry, Beginning Theory (2002: Manchester University Press, Manchester), p. 41
[2] Ibid., p. 41-43
[3] This already hints on potential problems that could arise with regards to language and exhibitions: because language is arbitrary and distanced from reality, certain linguistic conventions have to be adhered to if an exhibition’s concept is to be communicated beyond the exhibition itself. As already expressed in the module, this has an effect of closing up the way we think about things.
[4] Barry, p. 42
[5] Charles Altieri, Act and Quality: A Theory of Literary Meaning and Humanistic Understanding, (1981: The University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst), p. 32
[6] Gregory L. Murphy, The Big Book of Concepts, (2004: The MIT Press, Cambridge and London), p. 1-2
[7] Barry, p. 43
[8] Jan Nuyts and Eric Pederson (editors), Language and Conceptualization, (1997: Cambridge University Press, Cambridge), p. 4
[9] Altieri, p. 36
[10] Ibid., p. 34-37
[11] Stephen C. Levinson, “From outer to inner space: linguistic categories and non-linguistic thinking”, in Nuyts and Pederson (ed.), Language and Conceptualization, p. 17
[12] Ibid., p. 18
[13] Altieri, p. 30-31
[14] Ibid., p. 47
[15] Murphy, p. 1-2

essay | The rise of the curated web

By Jane Koh
Information, as a body of knowledge and ideas, is synonymous to the 'internet' landscape. It’s volume and accessibility provides a readymade resource for curators to mine. Appropriating sets of knowledge as a basis for exhibitions is commonplace, often adopted as a predefined strategy. The Internet and it’s 'raw materials', in its organization and contents, can also be readily assimilated into an exhibition. (6 Modules)

Topic: The rise of the curated web 

To deny the presence of the “internet” landscape is idiocracy, it’s presence may be felt and is obviously changing the way which we perceive our everyday. As one witnesses Iran’s ‘Twitter revolution’ to Facebook’s ‘activism’, we cannot help but pause to wonder or wander in it’s ambiguity. For those who wish to embrace it’s virtuality, one can be pleasantly surprise that learning to ride this tidal wave requires more than clever presentation but a passion for critical selection and keen sense of social authorship.

“The Critical Edge of Curating” [1] a conference organized by international independent curators touched on this following framework: Authorship and Agency, Site-Specificity, Curating as Activism: the Social Responsibility of the Museum and Transnational Currents. While curating the virtual web can critically be assess within such, I will be narrowing my essay down to the topic of authorship and agency, in view of it coinciding with my most recent research paper and my current curiosity of the definition of curator in contemporary light.

In my final year thesis, Diary.sg, my research work particularly investigated the social phenomena of social media culture among young female Netizens. In this project, I delved into the sociology and psychology of notable online bloggers engaging the subject on issues about their online versus their domestic identity. Collaborating with the Information Engineering and Media (IEM) school, I interviewed, conceptualized and juxtaposed their online and offline dwellings in to an augmented reality installation.

Figure 1: Portraits from the Diary.sg series

Figure 2: Augment reality software in gallery space

Figure 3: Augmented reality software in gallery space

Recently, Mike Michael’s Technoscience and Everyday Life opened me up to themes to critical theory of the multiplicity of ‘new’ technoscientific societies in circulation and perhaps the performativity of these virtual society.[2] It fuelled my understanding of the current shift of culture “re-configuration” on the world wide web and supported many observations made in my findings in Diary.sg, such as the pluralities of identities, mundanity and alienation of reality, mass consumption of visceral information and the blurring of the private and public sphere etc…

Perhaps to set the idea of authorship and agency into more historical overview, Brittan Morin from the Huffington Post[3] wrote a piece which enlightened me about observations made in web curating. Basically, it all started with the printing press, then, media- radio, newspaper, television and magazines. We witnessed technology playing a crucial role in information distribution and being meticulously curated by professionals or in other extend known as editors. With the turn of this century, and the uprising of the Internet, we saw how search engines became the ultimate distributor of information with regards to speed and volume. In recent years, social media platforms such as Google have somewhat taken onus to “curate” by filtering search engine to your influences. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter creates an outlet for the authorship and agency of the individual to weave their own narrative or re-post information at present.

With the influx in massive amount of information, what is the role of curating then and who has the right to be the thought leader? What is the differences of editing (re-posting) versus curating ( how do we create, share and learn new ideas together?).Rather, who are the new “intellectuals” or some might like to think “advant garde” of our times?. How will virtual curating place a threat to accuracy of the real as mentioned?
One thing is for certain that with the rise of online tools for self expression and consumption, we will witness a rise of “hipster” culture. A recent New YorkTimes article, featured Bourdieu, a French sociologist view of “taste”and how “superior” taste was not the resultant of charm of the elites but rather Bourdieu’s statistic showed how rigid and arbitrary the local conformities were. [4] This exposes that“social class” and “advant gardes” were merely out of the need of strategy and competition for social dominance.With social media tools enabling authorship and agency, let’s brace ourselves to witness one’s assertion of their personal brand image and exhibitionist behavior for the sake of being crown the king of the social media cafeteria. 

These are critical questions, we ought to explore and perhaps in time, with practice, have more assurance and clarity of knowing our own position. All in all, I can say the least from my experience from interviewing Singapore’s blog stars, that if one so desire to master the virtual web, it helps to be bold and have a wealth of experience to share, people appreciate connecting to such. To end, I will feature a recent artwork done for Campaign City about the Singapore techno-centric and consumerist culture to evoke questions about our tomorrow.. .

[1] The Critical Edge of curating. Retrieved from http://curatorsintl.org/journal/the_critical_edge_of_curating
[2] Michael, Mike (2003) Technoscience and the Everyday([13). Open University.
[3]The Curated Web. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/brittany-morin/the-curated-web_b_1096186.html
[4] The New York Times Sunday Book Review, The Hipster in the Mirror, http://www.nytimes.com/2010/11/14/books/review/Greif-t.html?_r=0&adxnnl=1&pagewanted=all&adxnnlx=1361127746-S+bT2/84M8D8fBKMGIqImw

Monday, 18 February 2013

essay | Taming A Rebel Culture

By Mohamed Ashraf bin Mohamad Yoonus
Module 6: We are witness to a number of exhibitions and art works that involve commentary or reactions to socio-political issues. Art as activism has always been a highly contested arena, with many varied perspectives on the multiple issues involved. Think about an area in which art and politics had often come into contact, and state the various positions and reasoning for such positions. (6 Modules)
Taming A Rebel Culture

Political Art?

It is an easy enough position to take when an artist, critic, curator or an academic claims that all art is political. While the position may seem inquisitive and the semantics involved may seemingly offer an alternative to widely held views that delineate art and politics, it is a position that is easy enough to argue for. A closer look at how this position is arrived upon offers reasons why I consider this position slightly. The social relations that govern all human production be it art or beyond it, is considered political as social relations ultimately have political dimensions. The relationship between an artist and the society that he is a part of, the sort of economic dynamics within which he operates to ply his craft, and the very many artists who see themselves above and beyond petty preoccupations such as politics and thereby take a very political stand-it is all political (if you wish to contextualize it as such). I think no one capable of logical reasoning is going to dispute a statement such as “all artworks are political owing to how they offer perspectives on social relations”. By this reasoning, naturally everything is political. It is the sort of uninspired position that hampers any meaningful analysis of the issues that rise out of overlaps between art and politics. Especially since this essay is about a particular-political art.

I tend to have a very simplistic litmus test to determine if an artist and his artworks are political. While not foolproof, it helps to narrow the ever-extending list of artists. If an artist’s works are compared to the other artworks of its time and those who shape art aficionado opinions, such as critics and historians, trace influences to other art movements, then it is probably not political enough for me to qualify as political art; Whereas political art would probably be considered in terms of signposts that denote socio-political events of the era. Simplistic maybe, perhaps over-simplistic, but this test allowed me to quickly narrow down the list I had to look at when I started studying artworks that are considered to be political art.

And of course, at this juncture, it is important to state clearly what I mean by political art. Political art has to offer a commentary, make a statement, about various socio-political, cultural issues. Intentions of artists who produce political art if plotted cover a wide spectrum. From creating awareness to defeating a policy or even to sway the public to opt for a particular politician over another, it is all political art. It is the sort of art that purports to alter how we perceive the world around us, to make us understand what is going on in the world in the hope of altering it for the better; Better as according to the artist of course. And so an artist who produces political art is also a shaper of (public more than the art critics’) opinions. Political art has a determined activist angle to it, which is why political art and activist art are often conflated. Merely representing the world is not enough to qualify as political art, as such not all art that is about politics can be termed political art. The function of the artwork in some sense defines whether it is political art or otherwise. The idea is to challenge the way things are, and to facilitate a change for the better. Moving beyond artworks that are merely for contemplation and appreciation, political art has a strong action component that is required of its viewer.

For most people, engagement with what they would consider art would be at the museum. The museum as an institution defines what art is and determines what is good and otherwise. I would like to draw attention to the demographic of museum visitors. If I could pander to common stereotype, it is a select group that visits museums, especially art museums. What is art and what is not is defined by a small pool of people for the benefit of a slightly larger pool of people of mostly similar background. This oversimplification helps illustrate a point. The world of art consists of a very small populace. Political art in this sense is determinedly opposed to this as it targets a wide audience-the polis, in its entirety. This is the reason why apart from the potency of the content in inspiring change of some manner, political art’s success is also determined by its reach. At this juncture, I would like to write about street art in hopes of refining my focus.

Political art, by virtue of having the need to have a wide reach, contends itself with a venue for its “show” unlike any museum or gallery. The streets, the mass media, the digital media are all platforms to showcase political art. The basis of street art itself is political since it is often an overt, ostentatious and illegal display of resistance against the privatization of space. Control of the space is in the hands of a select few, the owners or the state and so the space in some sense becomes colonized by them. Street artists thus serve to resist this colonization of space in order to assert that these spaces are democratic venues open for everyone’s usage. Shepard Fairey expands on this by claiming that it is the right of taxpayers to use these spaces, the same way corporations use the spaces for advertising.

Street art while a derivative of graffiti, goes beyond tagging. The works of street artists have conceptual content and are used as platforms for the artists to voice opinions that are seldom heard and/or give voice to the marginal groups. The function of being a social commentary and the freedom that is afforded to artists who do not have to worry about institutional backing allows for a raw, unvarnished viewpoint that may at times seem raw and brutal. The works have to compete with the mess of what surrounds them. This is opposed to works shown in museums that allow for people to succumb to indulgence where they can retreat into silence and solitude. The brash quality, rather the lack of subtlety, is often derided by those who see street art as something of a pariah in the art world. Perhaps the rubrics that critics use to judge art need to be re-evaluated where street art, and political art, is concerned since the medium they work with necessitates the treatment. Street art cannot afford to be indirect in its communication of ideas. The wide reach that it contends with and the competition for visual arrest means that the message has to be conveyed in as few words as possible with a simple discourse that immediately evokes a visceral reaction or at worst a reflective moment. In this sense, it is truly democratic as an art form. While it goes without saying that street art allows for these voices to be heard, it also works with a platform that is not assured an audience. The notion of a captive audience, one that museums benefit from, is alien to street artists. The works of street artists can be ignored if not compelling enough, aesthetically and conceptually. Street art and political art thus have many overlaps and oftentimes one serves as a subset of the other. A needless clarification would be if I state that not all street art is political art, and not all political art is street art.

Banksy and Shepard Fairey have been by far the most iconic street artists and their success is in large part due to their strong social commentary element (and of course their employment of brand culture to position themselves as creative entrepreneurs). While street artists, they have made a name for themselves as political activists, with art being their medium for activism. Their success has brought to the fore many issues about street art and political art that had previously not been addressed widely.


Political street art combines social action, social theory and art to pave the way for a diversity of views that were hitherto not heard. While it may not be the best of didactic tools, Murray Edelman even claims that it is through the arts that our views of politics are engendered, and only indirectly through personal immediate experience. This is why there is an assumption oftentimes that what is reflected on “canvas” is akin to their own reasoning.

Although these art forms are considered to be fringe, and it is the artworks that are within the accepted art contexts that are considered mainstream, the fact is that political street art is more mainstream than most other art forms. The sheer reach of the artworks makes it mainstream. In this way, Banksy and Fairey occupy a coveted spot in the art world, for being able to operate in the mainstream and beyond accepted art contexts. This brings to fore an important issue. Art should not be defined narrowly and artworks should not have to be bracketed within styles. Rather, art is better defined when you consider the functions of the artwork.

Increasingly, artworks of Banksy and Fairey are co-opted into institutions with the likes of the Smithsonian being a patron of Fairey. While this recognition is a positive turn, as it shows a maturing art world that is more inclusive, it is also a troubling trend as has been argued by street artists themselves. While on the streets, the social commentaries were uninhibited. Condemnations and criticisms were exhibited freely such as against the state and the various apparatuses of the state. Operating under the auspices of an institution such as a museum, while giving the artworks a certain level of prestige, comes at a price. The unruly, brash nature of the artworks gets tamed. The appropriation of the artists and the artworks basically removes them from their contexts, their natural elements and they thus become open to the museumising effect of the institution. Curators get overzealous in slapping on meanings and recontextualising the artworks. In some sense, as the artwork becomes more mainstream in the conventional sense, from being fringe to going vogue, the rebel culture that set street art and political art apart from the other art forms is tamed.

While some museums are coming forth to include these art forms, there is also the problem of how most museums still have a revulsion towards them as being fringe or not being art at all. The argument that is often put forth is that while the social commentaries and the political activism is good for the streets, it has no place in this form in the museums. And then there is the criticism that such art is plain silly when compared to the actual needs of the issues that are touched upon by the artists. The works are thus shrugged off as nothing more than “abstract liberal pathos and self-righteousness directed towards an uncertain audience”.

Yet another issue faced by the likes of Banksy and Fairey as their works become more mainstream and popular is that they begin to lose their credibility as street artists and as political artists. As their works get duplicated and represented in institutions, whatever defined their works as political street art get diminished. It is a balancing game of sorts for the artists; Their crossover into the mainstream hinge on their fringe cred. Their reputation as artists of the streets is integral to their value as artists. This is why factors such as anonymity, the illegal nature of their activities (through arrests) are highlighted and hyped by the artists. Their anti-establishment rhetoric is praised for being alternative. As they crossover into the mainstream, they are able to do so only through harping on their difference from the mainstream.

In this thought piece, I have tried to establish how political and street art can be integrated into the art world and also touched upon the problems that arise out of this inclusion.

Saturday, 19 January 2013

final exhibition | Curating Lab: Phase 03

Opening Night: 17 Jan 2013
Time: 7pm
Venue: Goodman Arts Centre (map)
              90 Goodman Road
              Block B, #03-13/18/19

To RSVP, please email museum@nus.edu.sg or call 6516-8817 / 8428

Exhibition Dates: 18 Jan - 03 Feb 2013

Opening Hours: Weekdays: 4:00pm – 8:00pm
                        Weekends: 12:00pm – 8:00pm
Admission: Free
Please direct all enquiries to: Michelle Kuek | michellekuek@nus.edu.sg | 6516 8428
                                           Stephanie Wong | steph.wong@nus.edu.sg | 6516 8797


Curating Lab: Phase 03 consists of three exhibitions presented by the participants of the Curating Lab 2012 programme. Beginning with a curatorial-intensive designed as a workshop, followed by internship assignments and a regional field trip, participants were guided by facilitators and mentors in the preceding phases, working towards the presentation of this final exhibition project. Curating Lab: Phase 03 draws attention to histories and the artifactual, their relationships and disjunctions, and the curatorial mediations that condition their production and consumption; to prompt provisional readings and trajectories of inquiries. 


A History of Curating in Singapore is a proposition examining curatorial development in Singapore traced through the undertakings of the individual, state institutions and the artist. The exhibition is predicated on unpacking the strongly-held and at times individualistic beliefs of how art and ‘culture’ intersect in society, where the manifestation of the curatorial has often teased the lines of complicity and intervention. Bringing together anecdotal histories and fragments from the repertoire of key curatorial figures in Singapore’s art history, the exhibition reflects personalities, national policies and social climates that have contributed to the emergence of the ‘curatorial’ as a state of awareness and being, where agencies are negotiated and (re)played. A History of Curating in Singapore is then precedent in its attempt to present a history of curatorial practice in Singapore. (more info)

after|thought interrogates the workings of the ‘Institution’ as a multifarious but coherent system that articulates and mediates  a national consciousness of 9 August 1965 - the date of Singapore’s separation from the Malaysian Federation. Isolating the museum, the media, and mass education as key instruments of mediation, it ponders how one consumes and negotiates the national narrative in relation to our personal memories of 9 August 1965; and how, does this moment of separation recur amongst contemporary generations. Deployed within a classroom setting, artists Joel Yuen, Teow Yue Han and Tse Hao Guang explore these questions, taking as their departure point archival traces of 9 August 1965 presented to them by the curators.

These undertakings into history are distanced by time and the immediacy of the contexts, but in harnessing gaps between contemporary imaginings and experience, the very act of representing something that can no longer be retrieved unfolds. after|thought provokes questions about how the institution and the individual agency becomes manifest as the spectres of separation continue to shape, reify or contradict conceptions or memories of the Singapore present. (more info)

Objectum explores the ambiguity of commonplace objects within museum collections. Based on the understanding that objects in the museum are cherished more so for their capacity to produce meanings rather than any innate qualities, this exhibition explores how objects lacking in fixed identification are malleable to signification. Collaborating with curator and photographer Ken Cheong,  Objectum revisits a 1995/6 exhibition at the Singapore History Museum (redeveloped into the National Museum of Singapore in 2006) titled Memories of Yesteryear, and the approximately 6000 daily life objects amassed by the Museum from 1994 to 2000. As a curatorial gesture, Objectum prompts an investigation into how easily things become embedded into discourses and therefore, how different spaces and agents, including museums, but also curators, artists and audiences, confer meanings onto objects. (more info)


Organised by NUS Museum with support from the National Arts Council, the Curating Lab 2012 programme offers final year tertiary students, recent graduates and young curators exposure into curatorial perspectives and practices. The programme centres on curatorial heterogeneities and contingencies, to be addressed as practices informed by conceptions of the nation and the global, spaces and their contexts, where modalities of practice are shaped and positions defined.

essay | untitled

By Rachelle Su
We are witness to a number of exhibitions and art works that involve commentary or reactions to socio-political issues. Art as activism has always been a highly contested arena, with many varied perspectives on the multiple issues involved. Think about an area in which art and politics had often come into contact, and state the various positions and reasonings for such positions. (6 Modules)  
To speak of a “cultural object” today is too limited, and that is partly because culture has become part of the market economy. Perhaps, the only domain that is not entirely absorbed by the market is the political domain…and a positive outcome of globalization is that we live in such an incredibly radical moment that the best way to participate is through politics, rather than culture.[1]
In “Curating Architecture” project, architectural research studio AMO develops an installation that rethinks the relation between image, data, ideological rhetoric and built forms. This work essentially conveys Rem Koolhaas’ firm assertion that “architecture develops out of shifting global economic and cultural infrastructures”[2], and should be rightly understood as “sites of politics…and that politics admits architecture both as a spatial and social process.”[3] Architecture and urbanism have always been considered as complex and creative acts that are uniquely sensitive as they work on a scale that requires keen calibration between various extremes of function, attitudes, objectives and thoughts. The contemporary city can therefore be read as a hybrid system that is constantly “becoming,” and through different intentions, interventions, narratives and analyses.  Beyond the structuring of cities by static objects such as houses, its urban flux – the ephemeral relationships formed between the users, objects and events – also makes up critical mass of a city’s experience. What is mapped in the mental life of a regular urban dweller will then require (re)-evaluations. Be it having breakfast in the park, wandering along the streets, or rubbing shoulders with complete strangers on crowded transportation, it is meaningful to note that the city arises out of these provisional and negotiated relationships as well.
The temporal expanse within which these dramas unfold, the ongoing writing and rewriting of the city, have rendered it akin to a palimpsest – a favorite term in urban studies of late, from André Corboz to Giuliana Bruno. What this amounts to is a reading of the city as a layered parchment, with countless fragments of possible stories emerging through constant overwriting, none of which can be read in isolation or completeness.[4]
And by doing so, urban dwellers are offered an opportunity to discover something new, and through their own agendas and perspectives find a new mapping and way of thinking about cities. These ambiguous and hidden layers in our urban-scape remain indispensable in recognizing cities’ latent energies and what seems to make up future interventions. This is a significant trial of contemporary urbanism, as it identifies the need to develop unorthodox ways of reading and intervening in the urban framework. The empirical apparatus for conventional urbanism deals only with limited aspects of the city while an elusive void still remains un-approached. The overload of information and stimuli that frames our recent culture is testimony for the need to widen the intellectual horizon and to be equipped with new tools for engaging with modern urban phenomenon. In this case, the contemporary city is one that,
… requires increasingly informed and critical navigation, if any sense – both as meaning and direction – is to be got from it. It seems that the work of interpreters has never been more topical. Approaching the city as a collection to be curated, whether through representations or in situ, opens up new possibilities for exploring and enriching the urban fabric and urban condition as a whole.[5]
Curation in its original meaning refers to the responsibility and care for something. In the past, a curator would traditionally be a person who looks after a collection of artifacts or things in a museum, and is a custodian of all that encompasses the collection – from ensuring that they are maintained in the best conditions, managing new acquisitions for expansion of works, to administrating its capabilities in display. Presently, curation has caught on additional meaning with a considerable shift towards the way things are displayed and less concerned with the specificity of the collection.
It (curation) has become a more loosely defined creative activity, increasingly  employed in a wide range of cultural fields. No longer implying an exclusive link to a collection, the contemporary curator is more like an artist-at-large, representing the world through the widest variety of media, locations and intentions. At its most  extreme, this reinvention of the idea of curation could be criticized as yet another fad of consumerist post-modernity, requiring ever-changing ways of selling  everything. Indeed, there is affinity between the arts of packaging, branding and curating, deployed in equal measures across the department store, the gallery and the museum. And although styling itself can no longer be dismissed as an inconsequential activity, it is the potential of contemporary curatorial practice beyond appearances that renders it most interesting and relevant.[6]
With such a shift from the traditional role of a curator, one naturally asks what is the stance that architectural exhibition-making can take in this expanded definition? Can an exhibition of architecture create a more complex inquiry into the link between architecture and other cultural participants? In her book entitled Art and Architecture: A Place Between, Jane Rendell proposed that public art could be thought of as social space. This proposition was interested in how the various forms of ‘spatial practice’ carried out by public artists engaged with issues developed through ‘spatial theory’. In addition, art and architecture collaborative, muf, also discussed their work as “a place between people”, much like how curation is the place of mediation between the work and the audience. Such an association inevitably provokes revisions in our thinking about the implicit relationships between curatorship and architecture. By taking a broader philosophical look at curation – by re-positioning it both as and within spatial practice – one may articulate ‘care’ as both a responsible act and a conceptual expression where idea and space interact. Ultimately, this links the curator, the architect-urban planner and the city dweller in a shared act of participation. The architectural exhibition, the national gallery, the urban redevelopment project, the heritage precinct, and art biennales, can unravel non-traditional forms of the city and route out fresh navigations between them. In essence, the architect-urban planner characterizes a type of über-curator, whose sculpting of cities provides grounds for their own involvement in the over-arching curatorial function:
Has architecture, properly thought and experienced, ever been otherwise? Is the city, considered as a site of curation, a place of care, anything other than such a irreducible life? Is the responsibility of the city curator, the urban planner, the architect, anything other or less than the fostering of such care? Or can their concern simply be regarded instead as the derived realm of res extensa, its forms and the materiality in which they are represented?[7]
Rather, just as the creative designer curates the city and at the same timecreates their work in a to-and-fro activity between what exists and what will exist, what they have an eye to in this resonating movement is its continuation by others within the space of the city of the room… when the task of the designer becomes not primarily the consideration of built form but the wider task of the consideration of the interplay of people and space, peoples and place… (this) gives responsibility and thus the possibility of curation to the others who will come to inhabit and come to view… this means that there is a responsibility – a political one – to allow for care, to allow for curation.[8]
In 1968, SPUR (Singapore Planning and Urban Research Group) exhibited on Elizabeth Walk a showcase entitled, Singapore: Our Environment Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow. Clearly, the ideological and educational values of public architectural exhibitions were never lost on civil society groups since post-independent. This exhibition premiered to jolt the public’s awareness of the condition of the city and to ‘bring out the inherent quality of the environment and attempt to recast old familiar scenes in a new light’. Rather than highlighting the state of architecture then, the curatorial technique used in the exhibition was to show deliberately how vital the architectural environment was to the existence of good architecture and practice. Curatorship in this case involves a different conception of space altogether, one that bridges the expanse between production and interpretation, author and reader – the city curator is therefore the ultimate mediator of things in space. Such category of urban curatorial acts translate to what Sarah Chaplin and Alexandra Stara has referred to as ‘poetic interpretations – creative interventions through interpreting and, conversely, invitations to critical engagement through making.’ This school of thought distinguishes curating from other types of public thinking, teaching and research in that it is both affirmative and critical at the same time. In other words, curation is not short of being a spatial practice with the act of exhibition-making an essential device for architectural production.

Traditionally, the role of architectural exhibitions is to display representations of architecture – it is usually linked to the idea of a space with miniature structural models and architectural plans depicting scenes of a building’s development and construction. Although exhibitions are discursive environments, they are also communicative: 
The exhibitor can use them (exhibitions) to gauge public opinions on his or her cause, rally public support or fortify his or her position. For these reasons, the nature and the transformations of (architectural) exhibitions directly highlight the public’s awareness and interest in architecture as a medium for imagining the future and taking stock of the moment.[9]
Beyond these values, architectural exhibitions can also ‘show architecture without recourse to representation (since) exhibitions are produced in spaces and the experience of space is the primary way in which we perceive architecture.’[10] In Martina Eberspächer and Gottfried Korff’s exhibition entitled 13 things, they confronted the subject with the object. The idea of the exhibition was to examine the fields of significance of the objectworld using individual things. What structural effect do things have on the architecture of our reality? Is there a grammar of things in the same way that there is a grammar of language? Eberspächer and Korff described their exhibition as architectural, although architecture as a cultural-political object was never fetishized:
The exhibition room, the stage production: every thing corresponds to an angled wall panel. The panels are arranged in such a way that the observer always has a view from underneath and from on top. The things look as if they have been cut out from some larger framework, they turn away from each other, and also look at each other again around the corners. These are inclinations and aversions. The angled wall panels seem to like frozen moments in the whirling chaos, in the possible network of interrelations. The world of meanings is presented here as an open system in which constellations arise and break away from each other again.[11]
Here is something of a challenge to curators of architecture. How does one focus on the nature of architectural exhibits and the limitations of interactivity in exhibition design without merely just staging an event and controlling the terms of display and object engagement? With the pressing questions that face us about the future of the built environment, the business of curating architecture and the city should perhaps embrace a more messy manifestation – akin to a de-sign(ifier) of things of sorts. A thorough curatorial exercise would be to fully embrace endless questions and contradictions. What, we might ask, is that why not let what happens in art happen with architecture? Being the mythical mother of the arts, how should the treatment of architectural exhibitions differ from that of displaying of artworks? When asked by PRAXIS: Journal of Writing + Building what would be the defining aspect of contemporary moment in architectural production and thinking, Aaron Betsky the director of Netherlands Architecture Institute (NAi) replied, “If I knew that, I could retire.”[12] As a response to that question, the curator will have to seize architecture’s wider social and political context, and engage directly with spaces, places, people and their ideas. The objective is to discover as many relationships as possible between the city we live in, and the built and un-built objects within it, and how they all eventually coincide together as one curatorial gesture in which we make sense of life.

[1] A dialogue between Rem Koolhaas and Hans Ulrich Obrist as recorded in the essay published by Andrea Phillips on “Curating Architecture”, an exhibition at The Showroom, London, 2008. 
[2] Andrea Phillips, ‘Curating and Architecture: Notes from the Research’, http://old.gold.ac.uk/art/curating-architecture/Andrea-Phillips-on-CA.pdf, (accessed: 1 December 2012).
[3] Phillips, ‘Curating and Architecture: Notes from the Research’.
[4] Sarah Chaplin and Alexandra Stara (eds), Curating Architecture and The City (London: Routledge, 2009), p.2.
[5] Chaplin and Stara (eds), Curating Architecture and The City, p. 1-2.
[6] Chaplin and Stara (eds), Curating Architecture and The City, p. 1.
[7] Tim Gough, ‘Cura’, in Sarah Chaplin and Alexandra Stara (eds), Curating Architecture and The City (London: Routledge, 2009), p.101.
[8] Gough, ‘Cura’, in Chaplin and Stara (eds), Curating Architecture and The City, p. 101.
[9] Wong Yun Chii, ‘Missions and Visions: A Stock-take of Architectural Exhibitions in Singapore’, Singapore Architect Journal no. 228, August 2005, p.29.
[10] Carson Chan, ‘Showing and Experimenting Architecture’, http://www.domusweb.it/en/interview/showing-and-experimenting-architecture/, (accessed: 2
December 2012).
[11] Martina Eberspächer and Gottfried Korff, 13 Things, Württembergisches Landesmuseum,
Stuttgart, Museum für Volkskunde, Waldenbuch, 1993.