Category Archives: Singapore

Dreaming in Light Leaks: Reflections on a Quasi Experimental Research and Mentoring Programme with Underprivileged Teenagers in Lengkok Bahru, Singapore (2016)

By Mohammad Khamsya Bin Khidzer and Sim Jui Liang

[Editor’s note: Mohammad Khamsya Bin Khidzer is a sociologist with an interest in race, religion, public policy and migration. Sim Jui Liang is a Research Associate (Special Project) at the Institute of Policy Studies, Singapore.]

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Article Summary

In 2014, a group of friends started mentoring nine underprivileged teenagers who lived in public rental housing in Singapore. We started by introducing them to the basics of photography. The idea was for these teenagers to capture what they felt were important elements in their neighbourhood of Lengkok Bahru and their lives, rather than having us capture what we imagined to be representative of life in a public rental neighbourhood. We distributed film cameras to the teenagers and deliberately gave them ambiguous, open themes that they were supposed to creatively interpret and capture on film. They were: 1) Everyday Life, 2) My Spaces, 3) Family and 4) Important Stuff. Five months in, we collected over 400 photos, some of which were eventually used in two public exhibitions at SCAPE, a non-profit youth organisation, and Artistry Café in 2015. In the text below, we reflect on the issue of representation in structuring photography programmes for underprivileged groups as well as the politics which undergirds the curation of a photography exhibition.

Inequality, Representation and Photography

Photographic representations do not just shape people’s perceptions of a subject but also affect the subject too. For instance, photographers’ expectations of poverty often lead them to ‘force the frame’, pushing photographic subjects to behave or appear in accordance to pre-conceived notions of what poverty entails. But some of these ‘subjects’ contest such framings of despair, even negotiating for greater involvement in representing themselves in photographs. Some photographers have in fact collaborated with them.

The very idea of incorporating photography into our quasi academic inquiry of class inequality was inspired by this turn in photography to include the ‘subjects’ as participants in the process of constructing the narrative. The main idea was to upend the inherent unequal dynamics in the practice of photography and to grant agency to the human constituents of photographic images. To that end, rather than capturing subjects in their ‘natural’ environment or constructing a narrative to represent them, the photographer facilitates the shaping of how they wish to be presented to the public either through co-organising an exhibition or giving them cameras to take their own photos, which was something we did for this project.

In this sense, we appear to be ignoring the photographers’ right to project their own interpretations of what they feel to be relevant in their artistic field. In fact, some would argue that this very process of interpreting and creating a narrative is what defines photography as a craft. It is indeed a valid concern. However, we feel that the whole poverty angle has been grossly overplayed, even fetishised to a point where such images do a disservice to not just the people they’re supposed to represent but also to the discourse on inequality. We view the shift in how photography is being practised – especially when dealing with vulnerable subjects – as an important step in quelling the expropriation of photographic narratives which, more often than not, lead to crass poverty porn. Ultimately, we feel that the answer to the question ‘who stands to gain from the production of images?’ should somehow address the issues raised by our young collaborators from Lengkok Bahru and by this, we don’t just mean parroting the clichéd ‘raising awareness’ argument. Beyond that, we believe that the programme should at least instill confidence in the participants and hopefully link them with opportunities brought about by their participation.

Going Old School with Film

Going in, we had to decide what the programme participants would be using to take the photographs. For a start, we didn’t even pretend to be experts in photography. Sure, we knew the technical basics of DSLR photography – ISO, aperture size, shutter speed. After a 10-minute tutorial on YouTube, we knew the basics of photo composition. But we didn’t want the technical aspects of photography to overwhelm the young participants and displace the storytelling aspect. One of us had the idea of using vintage point-and-shoot film cameras. They could be had for cheap and were pretty easy to use. The only difficult part was refilling batteries and of course, the film. Apart from introducing them to vintage photography equipment, we also thought that it would be interesting to expose the participants to the non-immediate dimension of film photography; sans the ability to review and edit the photographs, we hoped to be able to elicit the rawness of youth in the captured images and deliver a more impactful narrative. The lack of review capability and limited exposures (24 per film roll) however would force the participants to put in more thought in the composition of frames to be captured.

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We felt compelled to highlight the extent of inequality in Singapore. But we didn’t feel that presenting heart-tugging images of hardship would be the most effective way of doing so. Inequality is an extremely complex issue and what is often lost in the discussion are the voices of the very people who live it. Letting the youth participants dictate what they wished to capture was one way of empowering them to highlight the ordinariness of life in public rental housing. At the same time, we wanted the audience to be able to identify the nuances in the photographs, to consume the images not just as representations of something alien (which often lead to the fetishisation of the poor) but also as symbols in a life world which, while constraining by normative standards, form part of the everyday routine for these individuals. Focusing on the life world of the programme participants was one way in which the seemingly polarising objectives of empowerment and the presentation of inequality could be achieved. We assigned them four interrelated themes to work with: 1) Everyday Life, 2) My Spaces, 3) Family and 4) Important Stuff. The process was as interesting as the photos that the youth participants took. Every week, we gave them a new roll of film and we collected the spent film roll for processing. We repeated this for about five cycles. Because it was the first time they actually used film cameras, the first few cycles yielded poor photos. Some of the exposures were totally unusable because the curious teenagers had tinkered with the cameras, leading to overexposed photos. Eventually, they learned to maintain the cameras well and produced great photos over the span of four months.

Organising, Interpreting, Curating the Exhibition

Essentially, curating an exhibition requires the act of interpreting ‘data’ in the form of images and presenting them in a way that relays an idea or message. As such, curators can be said to inhabit a position of authority vis-a-vis the audience and in this case, the producers of the images. Although we started out with the intention of including the Lengkok Bahru teenagers in the selection of their photographs, we were constrained by prohibitive deadlines. There just wasn’t enough time to train them in the basic qualitative method of identifying and surfacing (inter-connected) themes from the myriad of photographs. Naturally, the task fell to us as facilitators in the programme. As we went through the hundreds of images appearing on the projector screen, some questions were raised: How do we avoid over-interpreting the significance of some of the images? How do we move away from transposing our preconceived notions or even ideals in these photos? Does the photo of a goldsmith shop front reflect the participants’ sensitivity towards their low socioeconomic status and/or their aspiration towards material wealth? Is the image of a milk carton in the fridge supposed to inform viewers of the photographer’s awareness of nutrition?

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Our immediate response to this problem was to return to Lengkok Bahru to talk to the teenagers. It wasn’t that we hadn’t spent enough time in Lengkok Bahru. We were there quite frequently. But we realised that we were so absorbed in the execution of the programme that we missed getting to know some of these participants and more importantly, how the photographs connected with their lives. Fully aware that some of these teenagers were reticent, we probed them gently to uncover their motivations for taking certain photographs. We learned more about their lives, daily routines in the neighbourhood and, most importantly, their dreams. Through this approach of triangulating data, we felt that we managed to bridge the interpretive gap and better represent the images and the biographies behind these images. Eventually, we arrived at three overarching themes for the exhibition: 1) Lengkok Bahru, our Home, 2) Strategies and 3) Aspirations.

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The theme of ‘Lengkok Bahru, our Home’ is rather self-explanatory with the participants focusing on the physical landscape of their neighbourhood, such as the façades of the housing blocks that they stay in and the stairwells. Some participants also invited us into their humble abodes, through the images of clothes hanging in the kitchen and a set of exercise dumbbells left on the floor. Contrary to the stereotype of impoverished families as dysfunctional, many of the photographs portrayed close-knit ties among family members and neighbours. A crowd-pleaser among visitors to the exhibition is a photograph featuring a participant’s adorable cousins strumming the guitar on bed. Even the neighbourhood’s cat made an appearance in the photographs. In visual ethnography, images provide viewers with a brief insight to the thinking of the photographer; in this case, the capturing of such intimate spaces, all of which mean something important to our photographers, represent the everyday spaces they utilise. In documenting these images, the photographers indulge in place-making, creating associations between identity and place.  It is here that we truly discover the malleability of the idea of ‘home’ and its connectedness with a variety of other appropriated spaces seen in the pictures – the corridor, the street soccer court, an empty bus, the community centre, the study space at the void deck or the library. Home for these photographers ceases to be a mere place of dwelling and expands to include public spaces, which can be privately appropriated for however long they deem comfortable or possible.

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The home-place-space dynamic is closely tied to their socioeconomic status. Living in relatively small and spartan public rental flats where they don’t necessarily have access to their own space, luxuries such as air-conditioning, WiFi, computer or even quietude, the Lengkok Bahru teenagers actively look for ways to appropriate usable spaces. They spend countless hours engaging in outdoor play, strumming the guitar, singing and mingling with their friends at the common corridor. A photograph of a boy lying on the corridor exemplifies this agentic stretching of the limits of home. Other photos depict the façades of the neighbourhood’s library and community centre; they do not look aesthetically pleasing but to the participants, these places afforded them luxurious spaces to complete their school assignments. Finding ways to overcome the challenges imposed by their physical living environment and socioeconomic status could be equated with ‘Strategies’. The teenagers’ spirit of improvisation is aptly portrayed in a photograph of a construction cone standing on a parched field. The construction cone was used by the soccer-loving teenagers as a makeshift goal post.

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Perhaps best encapsulating the theme of ‘Aspirations’ is the photo of two pairs of cleaned soccer boots perched securely on the window ledge, left to sun. No surprises here – the photograph’s creator harbours hopes of making it big as a soccer player. Another photo features two rows of dancers – mostly females – clad in colourful traditional Malay costumes and striking elegant poses. They might be part of a dance group in school but to the photographer, it symbolised her dream of performing on a bigger stage.

To a large extent, these themes are in line with the objectives of this project – to make visible the rather invisible experiences and narratives of individuals living in public rental housing in Singapore and to debunk some of the stereotypes and myths associated with poverty. For instance, in a society that prizes meritocracy, individual attributes (such as a lack of ambition) rather than structural impediments have often been highlighted in the discussion on income inequality and social mobility.

At the same time, we were wary of the possibility of unintentionally generating the effect of poverty porn through the photos exhibited. It was imperative that the photographs selected, while raising awareness of the challenges faced by the participants and their families, also illustrated the human agency and empowerment as embodied in the teenagers. This explains the exhibition’s emphasis on the participants’ aspirations and strategies. Given the sensitive nature that the issue of income inequality poses to some people, the representation of Lengkok Bahru and its residents is intertwined with ethical considerations as aforementioned. Initially, one of the photographs selected under the theme ‘Lengkok Bahru, our Home’ featured the father of one of the participants. When the exhibition date drew closer and as we were unable to obtain permission from him, we decided to err on the side of caution by removing the photograph from the exhibition.

Of Light Leaks and Dreams

For any other exhibition, to showcase photographs which are out-of-focus, poorly composed or over-exposed is tantamount to committing career suicide. Yet quite a number of the photographs we chose to exhibit had these ‘flaws’. Rather than rejecting them outright, we decided to embrace photographic ‘flaws’, incorporating them as a central feature in the overarching narrative. The purpose wasn’t just to invite the audience to reflect on art accessibility and cultural capital as crucial to producing art, but to also rethink the ideals of photography and art. Do light leaks necessarily mean that the camera needs better sealing? Or are they symptomatic of photographer-related idiosyncrasies? For our mobile phone-dependent participants, using the film camera was a novelty that quickly became a source of anxiety. Unsure if the film had been properly locked in the camera and whether the images had been captured on film, some of the participants actually opened up the film compartment to reassure themselves. The result: yellow-hued spots which engulfed parts or all of the images. Of course, there were purists who remarked how our presentation of these overexposed pictures as ‘artistic’ had degraded the craft. If so, they had completely missed the underlying message we were trying to present: that the medium, flawed as it may be, is the message. We wanted the audience to be able to accept this amateurism and use it as a starting point for interaction with the photographer’s life world to better understand a different side of Singapore.

Although we had lofty ambitions for the project, we really didn’t expect much given the circumstances. Without any financial support at the beginning and juggling full-time jobs, we were never able to fully commit to the programme. But the enthusiasm showed by the teenagers willed us on and as we continued working with them, we realised that there was so much that we could achieve together. So even though the teenagers weren’t directly involved in the selection of the pictures for the exhibition, they contributed through other ways such as availing themselves as docents at the exhibition, addressing the audience in the question-and-answer session and the creating of the exhibition space. On the eve of the two-day exhibition at Scape, some of the young photographers brought along cherished belongings such as a soccer jersey and a tournament trophy to be displayed alongside the photos, thereby adding personal touches to an otherwise formal space. Throughout the whole process, the participative element remained intact and this happily coincided with our objective of instilling confidence in the participants, who narrated their biographies within the context of Lengkok Bahru through the photos.

Their interaction with the public wasn’t at all scripted. Rather, the teenagers spoke earnestly and very honestly of their circumstances. Now this may seem like a normal occurrence one expects in exhibitions but the fact is that these teenagers are very shy and not used to being given a platform to be listened to. Thus to see them seize the opportunity to tell their stories to strangers filled our hearts with pride and joy. It was a poignant moment, one which reflected the potential that participative photography holds in effecting small yet very substantial changes to the lives of the participants. Inevitably, this programme has not eradicated the problem of economic inequality in society nor has it claimed to be. But, it is an important start; an essential experiment, one which marries the sociological paradigm, with its durable concepts such as social and cultural capital, and the visual medium of photography.

As a means of collecting data, photographs taken by the participants yielded more than we could have gathered through merely doing interviews. Photographs provide an insight to how these teenagers view their world, how they make places intimate through the appropriation of spaces and how they define home, family and success, beyond what they would usually describe in words. Furthermore, the images which were washed out as a result of the light leaks reflected the anxiety the teenagers faced as a result of dealing with old technology, which effectively denied them the luxury of immediate review found in cameras today. Somehow, the effect gave the pictures an attractive sheen, a layer akin to the rose-tint lens through which we often perceive youth and childhood. In a way, this is true. The images depict the rawness and innocence of youth, of dreams and aspirations which bask in accidental light leaks.  But make no mistake, dreaming in light leaks is precarious; indulge too far in this romanticism and the images disappear, completely washed out along with the stories and aspirations of the youths in Lengkok Bahru.  

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Singapore Photobooks and Zines Review 2017

By Lee Chang Ming

[Lee Chang Ming is a photographer and writer based in Singapore. He runs Nope Fun.]

Here are a selection of photobooks and zines by Singaporean photographers/artists:

Nguan: How Loneliness Goes

One of my personal favorite photographers for the longest time, Nguan’s How Loneliness Goes is 48 paged, cloth bound and features 27 pictures.

How Loneliness Goes documents life in Singapore, as seen through Nguan’s subtle and quiet aesthetics. Something about the images speaks about solitude, yet provides a sense of solidarity… perhaps it’s just like that Star Anna’s song, We’re All Alone in This Together.

The first edition of this photobook was published in 2013. This series is also currently being exhibited at FOST Gallery in Singapore. Perhaps an interesting comparison/exercise to see how the series translates across different mediums.

How Loneliness Goes

Marilyn Yun Jun: Like Buttermilk Sky 

Like Buttermilk Sky is a black and white Risograph photobook by Marilyn Yun Jin. Her cinematic and emotive images form a narrative into the inner worlds of those around her, retold through her lens.

She also co-founded a Risograph and publication studio called Knuckles & Notch, which is a great space for anyone who loves printed matter.Like Buttermilk Sky

Genevieve Long: Secrets 

Secrets is a palm-sized publication by Genevieve Leong. The 32-page self-published photo zine celebrates the quiet moments: unexpected geometry in high-rise buildings, blooming bougainvilleas, a moment of solitude.

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ND Chow: ROOTS 

Singapore-born Tokyo-based photographer ND Chow, perhaps best known for his portraits of cultural icons, re-looks his humble beginnings in this collection of images taken while travelling around the world for 2 years in his younger days.

Contemplative images with an undertone of yearning. Yearning for moments long gone; longing for genuine connection with strangers that perhaps only lasted for the split second when the shutter was pressed.

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As Quietly As Rhythms Go: Kenneth Tay in Conversation with Geraldine Kang (2015)

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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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?

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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.

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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.