Editor’s note: This is an extended conversation between Singapore-based Kenneth Tay and Geraldine Kang, partners and collaborators. Tay (b.1988) is a curator currently working at the National University of Singapore (NUS) Museum. His research background is in literary theory and visual culture. Kang (b. 1988) is a visual artist whose relationship with photography funnels into two main threads: first, using the medium as an introspective channel, and second, exploring the undercurrents and ambivalences of familiar places.
Kenneth Tay [KT]: I thought we might begin by talking about and around one of your most recent works, As Quietly As Rhythms Go (2014). What caught my attention back then, the first time I encountered it at your solo exhibition, was its form as a photobook displayed somewhere in the middle of the space. Photobooks are today nothing out of the ordinary of course, and we’ve had our share of events and discussions around the medium of photobooks; but I remember this work being sort of an interesting pivot in the space, connecting threads across two other series in your solo show. Though for now, I will like just to dwell on an earlier comment you’ve made in passing about the work itself. That is, if I read you correctly, the “documentarian eye” in As Quietly As Rhythms Go seems to run counter to your usual method of staging your photographs–not to the point of being theatrical necessarily, but of giving or injecting laboriously and physically into the actual site itself in order to experience a potentially different space-time. Can you tell us about the process of working on As Quietly As Rhythms Go, and what was it about the rhythms of land development that compelled you to document this dance between men, machines and land?
Geraldine Kang [GK]: I think it’s funny that the degree of physical proximity (between us and construction sites) largely dictates how much of man or machine we notice, and also how comfortably we notice them. From considerable distances, cranes, lorries and lifts look as though an invisible force is maneuvering them, buildings magically stacking unto themselves. Labourers become bright yellow helmets or fluorescent jackets, easily compressed into the greater landscape. I have to admit that I was first drawn to the steady extension-retraction movements of the excavators while jogging along Sungei Serangoon. What really prompted me to embark on a serious photo exercise was when I witnessed the rising of a red full moon over the tip of an excavator on the horizon. It felt extremely serendipitous, and I knew that the idea of motion and repetition was something I wanted to explore. There was also the lure of nascency: a construction project in its semi-early stages, and a piece of pre-architecture land–a point in time when there is still sufficient buffer from the reality of its transformation. That being said, I don’t think the conception of this project was ever one steeped in politics of land or labour, even if I have my own ideas and feelings about them. I am quite cognizant, and perhaps even slightly guilty, of the fact that what drew me was an image.
The men came in at a slightly later point, but I refrained from including too many images of them in the book, and in fact chose photographs that mainly held them at a far distance. At that point in time, I felt that I shouldn’t pretend to make a substantial part of the work about them if I wasn’t going to adequately address their livelihoods, the circumstances of their jobs and their intimate relationship with Singapore’s land. And so I decided on a portrayal and proximity–problematic nonetheless–that I was used to experiencing, something that I could honestly vouch for. That being said, the sighting of labourers milling through tall grass patches around the construction site at night still haunts me, but I wonder if I am more enthralled by the prospect of capturing a set of eyes trailing off into blurred bushes than anything else.
I believe you got the phrase “documentarian eye” from my conversation with Singaporean artist-curator Jason Wee. It does sound unnecessary and obvious in hindsight–which camera does not fundamentally “document” anyway? But I wanted to distinguish this project from my usual method of working. It was quite liberating to photograph in a much more spontaneous way, taking from the environment rather than executing something I spent a long time planning.
KT: I picked up on the term “documentarian eye” less so because of what a “document” might look like, but what the “eye” implies. It points to your embodiment in the project. This embodiment is critical, I would argue, to the reading of your images; and hopefully I’ll return to it later. Here though, I’d like to hold on to something you mentioned in your response: when you talked about physical proximity, and how it determines what we notice between man and machine on the construction site, and our relationship with what unfolds before us. Can we say then that this becomes a question of scale? In the sense that while the physical size of a labourer or a crane remains the same, its scale constantly changes in relation to us, depending on our distance from them. This relational aspect of the scale is something that is also constantly hinted in the work, when we think about the images moving in and out of the setting and situation, between man, machine and land.
Susan Sontag, in her book On Photography, described photographs as fiddling with the scale of the world, and this is evident, for example, in the way photographers crop or blow up their images. I’d like to propose that your work allows us to think about the scalar in photography through the myriad positions that we can adopt in relation to this documented scene. In that sense, when you were talking about how you did not want to romanticise a certain angle or image of the construction workers, I sense that it’s largely to do with your awareness that there are many points of entry and positions we can take. Many different scales we can measure the scene with. And that taking merely one perspective, much less that of a romanticised one, is clearly insufficient. Moving in and out of the scene, I sense the unearthing of several issues all at once. Zooming in, we dwell on the sight of shifting sands; and there are undercurrents, perhaps, of the instability inherent in a Singapore that is perpetually reshaping its land. Zoom out and we find ourselves looking at the question of labour, the relationship between the labourers and their labour, between the labourers and the (foreign) land on which they labour. There is, in other words, a real sense of energy between these pages. Looking through the images again, I’d say that there is never one image that remains static; no embalming here. They all have, in fact, the tenuous quality of a freeze-frame.
GK: One of the questions that was most frequently asked was “How did you get permission to photograph this?”, followed by “Did you get permission to photograph this?”. I suppose this means that the work gives sufficient illusion that I was up close or even on site. To add to your thoughts on Sontag, I think the equipment used in photography is seldom discussed meaningfully. We get stuck at merely understanding gear in terms of what effects they achieve, but we rarely consider what it means to work with different types of camera bodies (digital, film, medium format, large format, phone camera, drone, non-cameras), lenses (wide, mid-range, telephoto-range, zoom) and other supporting tools such as lights, scanners and computers. These determine the speed, workflow and ultimately, your physical and emotional proximity to the subject, which in turn (in)form the underlying premise and attitude of the work. Photography also has the tendency of amplifying the presence of subjects because they can be iterated with such immediacy. Things are not only disembodied, dislodged and contained, but they are also compressed and ported around quickly, making things or ideas closer and culturally immediate. This kind of mirrors how I feel about construction sites, that this state of machines and workers is here to stay.
I think what you’ve articulated about the “zoom” hits the nail on the fence. Sometimes I feel that the lens’s ability to switch between these points of view–glass attachments to our eyes, encapsulating wider and further than what is humanly possible, and at such speed and whim–can be problematic. It underscores a kind of privilege that makes me uncomfortable, even if I love what I see on playback. Perhaps it will be good to not give in to this ease all the time, or for the photographer to consider her/his place in relation to this ease, but also the further implications of such an ease.
KT: Yes I do think that the ease, the reproducibility, and corresponding ubiquity of photographs do give them presence or the appearance and weight of truth. Images thicken our environment in that sense. But at the same time, I know many who will argue that all these associations to truth, presence and permanence that photography enjoyed is really endangered by the introduction of digital imaging. Today, photo manipulation seems to be the rule rather than the exception. I suppose I should add that I am not concerned here with the ontological status of the photograph. This has taken the bulk of many discussions on photography theory to date. And you’re absolutely right to say that we have not yet begin to think harder and further about the (theoretical) implications of certain equipment in photography. They are more than just mere tools of the trade; each of them asks a different question to the photographer.
But to return to the earlier point about embodiment, what I meant to suggest with that term is not merely to point to your bodily involvement or presence within those images. For the sake of clarity, I should point out that embodiment, for me, moves beyond the usual dichotomy of mind and body, beyond the gap we assume between thinking and sensing. The mind after all is not physically detached from the rest of the body but connected to its circuitry. So what I am interested in by bringing up this question of your embodiment is also a way for us to deal with the experience of reading these images through the physical copy of the photobook itself. We haven’t even begun to talk about the tactility of such an encounter, the seductive grain of the paper eating up the ink of the images, the sensation of flipping the pages, and so on. But on that last point, I wonder if this is in any way connected to your interest too with rhythms. I thought we might begin again with this image of the full moon we see in the book As Quietly As Rhythms Go, and by the end of which we’re left with a disappearing trail of moonlight across the horizon. Why this way of structuring your images in the book? Can you talk a little about the editing of the images in this work?
GK: It’s true that we should assume image manipulation as the default condition of image production. Strangely though, it doesn’t deny the photograph, or should we say the photographic, its power. It has become so much easier logistically to hyper-realize and churn out perfected abstraction/fantasies of commodities. It’s also so much harder to ignore them. In the case of Singapore’s property market, I find myself constantly bombarded by photographic illustrations of ideal home luxury that are as smooth and flawless as their architectural renderings. It is as if these images lift themselves up and over their conditions of production, veiling the people and flow of capital/material involved.
To be specific, my interest lies more in the circularity of happenings, and if/where change figures in that run. Things that we see looping unto themselves have a strange way of hypnotizing; it’s as if they never leave the present, and we as onlookers remain rooted in them. And then there is the position of onlooking itself; can you interject the loop, alter it in any way? In being able to anticipate what is to come, we are imbued with intuitions that chart direction, whether they be positive or negative. I think what many readers don’t actually notice is the moon going backwards (as though setting) at the beginning of the book. I include several backward sequences as well, particularly those of excavators removing foliage from the site. I suppose that is my quiet way of asking: 1) What was the meaning of the site before the start of construction? 2) Who and what are shaping land use? 3) Can/should these actions be undone? and 4) Is there an alternative to provide more visual breathing space that I feel we badly need?
KT: Might this be why the book contains these pages of lustrous black ink in between the images? Well I remember our earlier conversation about this. And back then I hadn’t noticed that the book was structured somewhat in reverse. Looking at it again, what strikes me now across the pages is the question of rhythm. Here, I’m thinking of Henri Lefebvre’s work on rhythmanalysis where he makes a distinction between cyclical and linear repetitions. The former refers more to cosmic rhythms such as the seasons, natural or bodily rhythms; the latter refers more to mechanical, routinised behaviours that are typically socially imposed on us to discipline human activity (we can think here of the notion of a “nine-to-five” routine, for instance). The motifs of the moon, the dance between men and machine, they may be thought of as examples of both cyclical and linear repetitions respectively. And in between these two, we need to acknowledge the very presence of you, the artist or the pseudo-rhythmanalyst, oscillating perhaps between the two rhythms.
To this end, I’d like to describe the work as a measured response. Not in the quotidian sense of the term which would imply that you were merely a passive observer with a critical distance, but rather one where your own (embodied) rhythm was part of the scene. Rhythms, after all, are always relative. And you were, as Lefebvre would have insisted, your own metronome. Snaps after snaps. There’s a pulse to the work that is punctuated by black blank pages in between. And these punctuations appear more frequently where I felt a quiet but palpable sense of acceleration towards the end of the book, before arriving to your text which, it must be said, is a whole bundle of rhythms too in its metre. It is also no surprise that you should be sensitive towards rhythms in a place like Singapore. Considering our population density, Singapore is reverberating with a cacophony of over five million bodies moving to the schedules of public transport, moving and sweating under a relatively monotonous climate.
GK: Speaking of density, I’d also like to conclude by sharing some thoughts on my recent visit to Penang. On returning to Singapore it finally hit me why I feel nauseated here, and why empty or natural spaces mean so much for my eyes. Despite the rising sprawl of residential shophouses and skyscrapers in Georgetown, I felt relieved just being able to gaze onto dark green hills in the distance, towering still above the tallest buildings. A sign of the horizon and a mark of restraint, something left untouched for our minds to look at. The fact that no natural form competes with our endless concrete mass sometimes makes me breathless knowing what we have let loose, and to a large degree that Singapore doesn’t exactly have a choice. Therein lies my own helplessness; to be home sometimes means to alter my rhythms, if only to stay quiet and focused under the vibrating heat.