Mindspace is a conversation series that charts the conditions of various technology-informed art practices and practitioners in an attempt to present a working history of media art in Singapore.
Our Mindspace series begins with a conversation with Dr Tan Kai Syng, an interdisciplinary artist-researcher that works through installation, performance, drawing, critical text and curatorial practice. Her practice-led research investigates the body and mind in motion as a metaphor to reimagine the world that is in motion around us. Kai’s works are informed by the collision of a range of philosophies and practices from disparate disciplines and characterised by layering and wordplay. Teow Yue Han, Urich Lau, and Samantha Yap of Hothouse speak to Kai Syng about her encyclopedic impulse, Singapore’s media art scene in the 2000s, productive antagonisms, and future possibilities in education.
With the pandemic, there has been a heightened consideration of digital formats employed as an alternative to physical presentations. In our own early conversations, we were thinking about how digital formats have always been part of our visual vocabulary and that they can be meaningfully traced to the early 2000s. We were keen on engaging and documenting long-running practices that meaningfully engage with media and technology. We were also trying to get a sense of what the conversations around technology were like, in that time when you were actively practicing and teaching in Singapore.
To start off this conversation, was the period you were active in Singapore between 2007 to 2009?
Yes, I was in and out of Singapore for a period between 1998 and 2009. I first came to Slade School of Fine Art between 1994 to 1998 for my first degree. I taught when I went back to Singapore. After that, I went to Japan to do my Masters. Between 2005 to 2009, I went back to Singapore to teach again. That was also the period where you were referring to in terms of seeing some of my work. Since 2009, I have been back in the UK.
When I was back in Singapore, I was always teaching, but at the same time, there was also a high level of production. For most people in Singapore, you cannot really survive just on teaching. You always need a parallel career and most of us tend to move towards academia. That was a period where I was showing work at the Singapore Art Museum, and doing exhibitions overseas. A lot of that work was very much about thinking about my place, whether as a woman, or as an artist, in Singapore and in the world. At that time, my work was responding to the fact that there was a lot of development in Singapore, with the casino being built and so on. With my work, it became a kind of framing myself as someone in a theme park.
The work for the Singapore Art Museum was a video installation of me running around . Working as a commissioned artist I often had the luxury to play with different formats. These ideas from back then followed me to the UK where I continued thinking of the same questions such as the systems and ecology of things, and where art fits in relation to other things in the world. Also, I was thinking about power in relation to money, to socio-political economic players and other players.
Between the time you were active in Singapore, the global media landscape was also booming. The iPhone was introduced in 2007 and Facebook hit a major milestone in 2009. What was the media art ecology at that time and did you feel like these developments shaped interests then?
That's a good question. As you know, Singapore is always positioning itself at the forefront of technology. At that time, a lot of my work was framed around video art. Historically, video art is always positioned as a critical response to how technology is used. I was very much part of that discourse. That was also how I was framing what I taught my students at the time, which was distinct from the curriculum at the film schools at Polytechnics and so on.
It is important to come up with a kind of a framework, thinking about film video media, in a way that is critical and creative and not just engaging with it as a consumer. So I’m talking about using technology as a medium to play with, the same way you would use bronze or wood if you are a sculptor. At that time, Singapore's media art discourses and practice was not as advanced as that in countries like Japan or Taiwan. It was around that time too that there were a lot more artists using media, even though artistic critique of media, video and so on have been around since the 1970’s. You had artists like Matthew Ngui but they were from a different generation of players. It was a small scene of people starting to use video and film in a critical and creative way. There was also more consumer level technology available as well as YouTube getting more widely accessible. You don't have to go to an art school to have access to historical films and ground-breaking video art. That was an interesting moment in history persisting till now. Of course, now with the pandemic, everyone is a video artist, everyone is a digital artist, and everyone has their 15 minutes or 15 seconds of fame (literally, with TikTok).
When we reflect back on the early 2000s, it felt like the media art scene was much more active and vibrant. Video art or even AI technology had bursts of popularity, and much of the second or third waves that we observe now can be traced back to this period.
You brought up Matthew Ngui previously. I was wondering if you can share more about how he, or other artists you were following then, had influenced you?
So many artists influenced me! The first group of artists that really made an impact on me was The Artist’s Village. I was very young then. I also saw Josef Ng’s infamous performance just before I left for the UK. When I first started to know about The Artist’s Village and Tang Da Wu’s work, around age 14, they were really influential for me because that opened my eyes to, first of all, how art can connect with society and politics. Secondly, how art is not just drawings or paintings. Even though I was in the Art Elective Programme back in the day, I didn't have that exposure. Mind you, those were the pre-internet days!
Matthew Ngui was someone I looked at, as well as what was happening with Theatreworks (now known as T:>Works) with Ong Keng Sen who have always been at the forefront of doing ‘weird’ and experimental things, and instigating conversations about cross-culturalism and globalism before those terms became buzzy in Singapore. Down the road, I managed to work with both Ong Keng Sen and Matthew Ngui, who was a curator for one of the shows I did at the Singapore Art Museum. I also got to meet people like Vincent Leow.
At that time, when you were making art in Singapore, did you work with any of your contemporaries on channelling technology in art? Or did you feel like you were kind of outlying, paving your own approach?
I don't think I ever saw what I was doing as unique at all. A lot of sharing was done through exhibitions, panel discussions and through teaching. Very much so through teaching. Artist Toh Hun Ping was an ex-student, so was filmmaker Bertrand Lee who was an ex-student at Ngee Ann Polytechnic. I don't think I saw myself as isolated, although I didn't always make collaborative work when I was in Singapore. That only started when I was in Japan. However, there were always ongoing conversations with other people. I very much saw my work as part of the video art and fine art tradition and I was focused on playing with video as a medium.
Thanks for sharing with us your impressions at that time. I think this will lead us well into the next question and one of your works which we find really interesting. That is, The Rather Terrible Slaughter of the Tour Guide (2007), which was a series of tours that addressed the relationship between the “local” and the “global” and questioned the validity of Singapore identifying itself as globalised. We noticed a few layers to the work, first being the tension between global and local in the parody of a tour guide trying to unveil the city in an enticing way. Second, encountering the city through the footsteps and trajectory of another. Third, identifying the arbitrary project of embodying an urban metropolis. Lastly, the format of watching these tours in a video format that arguably has the capacity to move local content into global circulation. Could you share more about the conversations surrounding art and technology at that point of time?
I appreciate that level of analysis! I was exploring the tension between the global and the local because that was the rhetoric in Singapore at that time. At that time, I was hopping from one global art show to another, like going to the Biennale of Sydney, the Guangzhou Triennial and so on. All of which were funded by the state or invited by museums who were interested in ‘Asian people’ or ‘Asian art’! I was very much part of that and a lot of my work critiqued that position, and was satirising and parodying the aesthetics and rhetoric of aspirational Asian economic powerhouses that also do art. You know, we are not just authoritarian and money-making, we can do creative stuff too. I was part of that and getting paid for that — so I was part of the theatre.
Thus, I framed myself as being a player, exhibitor and conspirator of the theme park. The Rather Terrible Slaughter of the Tour Guide says, “Oh, welcome to Singapore. Welcome to this shiny city. I’m part of this performance and set-up. Let me show you around!”, mockingly. I think that’s the larger trajectory of my work that is also shared with many Singaporean artists who interrogate their relationship with the state.
With what you mentioned about the burgeoning interest in Asia at that time, we wanted to take some time to think about the relationship between an artist’s background and their work. Often, there is a tendency to project difference in an exoticised manner so that the background of an artist who is regarded as foreign informs the reading of their artwork in a way that can be limiting and singular, especially in an international circuit or context.
That always happens, how someone else, perhaps the audience, imposes, or superimposes, or projects another narrative onto you. As curators, you would do that too and create frameworks, narratives. That can be blatant, inaccurate, reductive, and so on. For instance, Asian-Europe Dialogues was the name of a ‘blockbuster’ type exhibition which I participated in. I toured Germany, Poland, and then China. That was not an uncommon ‘packaging’ at that time.
It’s a great question, in terms of being exoticised or not. I think we can also do it ourselves too, to strategically respond to funding calls! Those who are able to do this are privileged, and have the luxury to be flexible about our positioning and to optimise these dynamics the way we need to. Identity politics aside, the ability to reframe the narrative of your work is a testament to how rich your work is. You can’t wing it, you can’t bluff it — so I’m not talking about false advertising, fake news etc. If your work is expansive and multilayered, there will be different dimensions you can tease out! On a more strategic note, doing this is about playing the game. So, get the funding, get the show — and then use that privilege to interrogate the space — physical and otherwise — and the politics that you are within, pull the carpet from underneath.
An argument I am currently developing is around the need to be in the same space to critique that space, and to do so in a clever, creative way and I call this an ‘artful’ approach — ‘ artful agitation ’. You need to get your foot through the door, not only make noises from the margin, in order to meaningfully unpick and subvert that which you are questioning — and actually be heard doing that, provoke a response, get into a productive discussion, and effect action and change. This is my approach for my current work with anti-racism, diversity, and neurodiversity. That was also already being shaped when I was in Singapore, as articulated in the analogy of the theme park in the body of work I made then.
It needs to be strategic, how we engage with state funding and how we try to create the conditions for making and presenting work. You have a point about negotiating a way to make things happen.
Yes, you will need to have the strength to shove your way into the same space, and to do that you need to know what your values are. You need to speak the same language to be heard. An example is maybe the green movement. It used to be ridiculed, but now climate change has not only entered the mainstream, it is leading and dominating what and how we do things. Before, they were mocked for hugging trees, wearing sandals. Then they wore suits, shaved their beards. Yes, I’m simplifying things a little, but you get my drift.
Historically, artists and activists prefer to function and organise from outside, to be anti-establishment and so on, as David fighting Goliath, rebels fighting ‘the system’. The picture is often caricaturised into a dichotomous/binary modality — us versus them. The subject of attack however is not necessarily always clearly articulated. These days, the demon in question is the ‘neoliberal capitalist system’. But we are a part of it, not outside of it! To meaningfully stage an assault you need to be more nuanced and sophisticated. I’ve talked my tactic also in terms of ‘productive antagonisms’ — so not just being provocative for its own sake. So it’s not about making a splash or a show and that’s it — that’s easy — but critique through creative and critical engagement, which is slower. But culture change is takes time.
Loosely related to what you’ve brought up about being mindful of the contexts that we are operating in and what we are ‘inside’ of as you’ve put it, we want to speak of the conditions and connections that your work is made and situated within. On your website, we can really see how interdisciplinary your work is, and how it is always an encounter with a rich network of hashtags and keywords. It’s much like a living web of connections and you’re reflecting on so many things, like collaboration, research, academia, psycho-geography, and neurodiversity to name a few.
There is ISLAND HOPPING (2002-2005) and then RUN! RUN! RUN (2014-2020), a recurring engagement with island hopping and ideas of running, and the recent development towards ‘artful agitation’ which is also the title of your current website. You carefully document these different stages or phases of your sprawling practice, how do you organise and present this long-running development?
Well, my art is my life and vice versa. I'm very lucky to be able to do that and I will acknowledge that. It is a tremendous privilege, for someone from a working-class background whose parents left school by 16 without qualifications. I was lucky to have had full scholarships to pursue my studies in art schools. Mine was also very supportive parents, which is very unusual for Singapore. My father had three jobs, and we were dirt poor, and they were going to sell our flat to fund my studies.
In terms of how I have been explaining myself, well, I don’t! But if I do have to (such as for funding applications!), I’d say that my work is about using my body and mind in motion to process and to critique the world around me, which is also moving, which is also in motion. In doing that, I move across different boundaries, sometimes deliberately, sometimes just because I just don't have a sense of where I'm not supposed to go. That could refer to disciplinary boundaries, like what constitutes or separates art forms and the expectations of artistic practices.
As you trespass boundaries, you also open up new pathways. Colleagues tell me that my work has helped, motivated and/or given them permission in their pursuit of what and how they do things in their practice, research and/or life. That’s nice.
‘Islandhopping’ is useful as a metaphor. That was a body of work I did when I was in Japan. I was physically travelling around different islands and making films with my video camera. It was from my point of view as an Islander (as someone from Singapore) going around to different islands in Japan, which is an archipelago of different islands. The island metaphor is powerful because it can make a point in relation to your earlier question about whether I work with other people or not. You are autonomous, but you can also join forces with other ‘islands’, other people, and team up as a group of islands, and acquire a different meaning, as an ‘archipelago’. So this is about allyship, a community of practitioners, co-creators, collaborators etc.
And there’s always motion and mobility in my work. It’s a restlessness, an insatiability, expressed through the physical and metaphorical processes of running, swimming, or running around in a room or rolling around in a room.
I want to do cycling next. I have been commuting to work as a cyclist for all my 16 years in the UK. A lot of people who retire from running also turn to cycling! There’s a huge trajectory of writers and musicians who use cycling. For instance, the German band godfathers of electronic music Kraftwerk. There’s also Arthur Conan Doyle, he also wrote about cycling.
Haruki Murakami also notably runs marathons and he has a book, What I Talk About Running When I Talk About Running (2007).
Indeed. Murakami has discussed running through the lenses of ageing, and how it is a response to the sedentary nature of his work as a writer. You would have to be physically fit and exercise, to have the capacity to sit down and write for long hours.
What surfaces over time is that there are so many different moving parts and movements that characterise these stages of your life and artistic practice. This includes many different projects and collaborators across various durations. We also can see how one thought, project or engagement leads to another. How do you see your way of working evolving across the years? How do you decide on collaborators or which networks to be involved in?
I have a very clear plan on a spreadsheet. No, I don't, I can't do spreadsheets. I'm dyslexic and I’m allergic to those lines and boxes. I don't have a clear plan, things happen by chance, and/or by careful crafting. It was a bit of both for the work that I did two years ago, with a psychiatrist, #MagicCarpet. For the past ten years, I have been collaborating with more members of other species besides artists. And that time, I wanted to work with people in neuroscience and the sciences of the mind and the brain because I’ve never worked with them and wanted to learn about how they think.
So, it’s a mixture of organic and serendipitous encounters and choreographed collaborations. I applied for and received funding for #MagicCarpet. It was not enough, but I left a permanent, full-time position, a city and a relationship and returned to London to focus on the project. It was one of the best decisions that I made. Moving out my comfort zone opened up new worlds for me and brought such rewards intellectually and creatively — though not financially!
As I get older, the desire to do more, and work more with people I haven’t worked with, and in new ways, grow. What I do may not be identified as ‘traditionally’ ‘artistic’ in terms of conventional metrics like outputs or exhibitions. One way to put what I do into a box is to frame what I do in terms of social practice or socially engaged art. I work with people. I work with students and have been for a long time as part of my academic career. and I work with ideas — my own, other people’s — and another box to use to frame this could be ‘research’, or ‘conceptual art’ (or, to update this term to the 21st century, the ‘post-conceptual’, as an art historian once labelled me). I work with money too, because everyone needs to earn a living.
I enjoy working with young people, including mentoring them. I do a lot of pro bono work, with organisations and individuals whose work I find interesting. I work closely with young women, people of colour, disabled colleagues and so on. I will always make time for people and organisations I care about. Recently I discussed about how young people will change the world — think Joshua Wong, Greta Thunberg and many in the Black Lives Matter movement. So I’m excited by how young people can feel equipped to do things in academia or in the arts.
Your answer highlights a deepening focus on working with people that have become one of the main keystones in your practice but it also maps how your practice has grown over time. Could you elaborate more about the greater trajectory of your practice and your impulse to archiving them so thoroughly on your website?
You document all your works in a very detailed manner, almost like an encyclopaedia of your practice. At one point in time, you were using the video hosting sites as part of your identity, like ‘This channel is no longer updated’ on your YouTube, and with Vimeo, there is a specific narrative you are pushing there. You bookmark your research and your website also has many hyperlinks and microsites. It is almost as if you allow your thought processes to unspool online. It echoes Henry Jenkins’s idea of drill-ability. In the sense that, if there’s anybody who wants to access your entire practice, it's all there. In fact, it did give us quite a lot of pressure to properly study your work and read up thoroughly about your projects before speaking to you.
We’re wondering, what's your relationship towards documentation and mapping out all these traces of your interests, thoughts, and projects? Also, what are the affordances of each format of documentation, whether that be social media or YouTube?
I didn’t know about Jenkins’ work, so thank you for referencing that. Yes, documentation is tedious. It’s hard work, I wish someone else could do it but documentation is important for work that is transient, gestural. You try to also make the documentation experiences in themselves. They should also be self-contained. I don’t code for the same reason I don’t do spreadsheets because I can’t do logic and causal relationships, but I wish I could! So I can’t compute A therefore B therefore C, as I think in terms of A therefore Z and then I come back to F and W. I discuss and use tech in my work, but learning to code would definitely really open my horizons, in the age of Industry 4.0 and all.
I wish I could code because I am deeply interested in hyperlinks and connections. My first online work was called mY uNofficial dUMPINGGROUND (mud). That was in the last century (1997), and I showed that for my degree show at the Slade. It has been removed, but it was a large hypertextual website with many links. The links keep transporting you to yet other texts. It becomes a labyrinth, or a giant rabbit hole of rabbit holes. You just keep linking and linking to other pages within mud and on the world wide web. That was during Web 1.0 or 2.0 days and there was a kind of fascination with what's going on on the internet. I created a lot of fake links too, so you click on them and you go to dead ends that would make fun of the situation. That was part of me trying to understand the vastness and limitations of the internet. It was a restless, psychogeographical exploration of the virtual world.
mud can again be related to the notion of ‘islandhopping’, where I was moving around in a physical space. mud was my way of making my own mark, marking my own place, on the www. It was also about finding my way or stumbling around the internet to see what’s out there. I worked with my tutors, who were people who set up the Slade Centre for Electronic Media. Susan Collins and Jon Thomson very much guided me to make that website.
Back to the discussion about documentation, yes, it is tedious, but you must do it and you try to not make the documentation second-hand experiences. The dominant belief is that real life is better. No, real life sucks. Look around us, we’re amid global crises. Racism is trendy. Inequalities and injustices are deeply-structural and — surprise surprise — human-made, as is climate change, etc. I won’t go on. When the internet was invented, there was much literature and discussion around the purpose and possibilities of the internet. There is a lot of idealism and indeed romanticism, and the language of paradise, ‘second life’ etc points to that. I don’t agree with all of that – obviously there are parallels with the rhetoric today around how ‘democratising’ the internet is and so on, ignoring serious issues around privacy, the dark web and so on.
I do find the discussion around how the internet frees you from your body and from the confines of “real” life by those who set up Second Life interesting. SL has been talked about as a very freeing platform for people who were disabled for instance. This relates to Sherry Turkle’s discussion in Rethinking Identity through Virtual Community (1995) about how, on the internet, you can be anybody. You can also be a dog, a troll, a fake news perpetrator and a power-hungry orange pig in a blonde combover inciting others to violence. But the argument put forward in the 90s, around how the internet is another space that doesn’t try to replicate real life, is interesting. Now that a lot of us are in lockdown conditions and we are trying to adapt. I do struggle a lot with online interactions. But I also prefer it to real life, which is the real illusion, as the Buddhists would have it, but that’s another story.
With the lockdown, many have pointed out it has brought about technological acceleration that would have taken decades. Now, a lot of art can happen online, higher education can happen online. Previously we had hierarchichised and set different values for that which is online and what is offline. The kind of value that we place on computer art does not have the same level of prestige or appreciation as a Liu Kang, for example.
You were outlining some of the media discourses from the 90s that were focused on a certain idealism of the internet as this new and emerging space with possibilities for autonomous expression. These were not ideas that you were completely agreeable with, and even now, when we think about the internet, it is also a space that holds potential for great harm and perpetuates different forms of violence.
How commodity flows and remains in the hands of the few also becomes obvious. We see the consolidation of capital, influence and power with something as blatant as Facebook extending its reach to Whatsapp and Instagram.
Reflecting a little bit on how digital life and experiences have changed or become even more cemented into the mainstream, how do you read this development?
For instance, something like WhatsApp used to be a safe(r) space because of its encryption. It has also played a role in starting revolutions and galvanising people to go on the streets. Now, of course it’s owned by Facebook, as you’ve pointed out. It does mirror a lot of what happens in reality and reminds me of gentrification, where artists start off going to cheap presumably unsafe neighbourhoods because the rent is cheap and then corporations and people come in to drive the rent up. This story repeats itself over and over and over again in different ways.
One way to fight this is to figure a way to be nimble and agile, to be a few steps ahead of them. To be slippery, to traverse in interstitial spaces, and keep outsmarting others, and keep innovating. To keep forming liminal groups that are hard to pin down and describe, which is what a lot of art and political activists are good at doing.
Something I’m observing is how the clever and interesting people are now working in tech, and creating ‘business solutions’, rather than art. If you’re academically smart, you would previously get headhunted or outfitted for a career in banking. These days they all go into tech, they will make dating and food delivery apps. They’re creating behaviours or rather speaking to our innate needs, then normalising that. Like online pornography (now delivered real time onto your screen; sex is a key human need alongside shelter and food etc; and others have talked about how pornography drives the internet’s innovation). Like human laziness (getting our other basic need, food, delivered to our doorstep; swiping right and left when choosing a potential date), etc.
Yeah, they’re changing the infrastructure of how we relate to one another. We see how Jack Ma is now going into education, so some of the progression for these technologists are also altruistic, with them thinking about new models for education.
The arts should (also) be a hotbed of the next generation of the boldest thinkers, makers and leaders within and beyond tech. As a socially-engaged artist and educator and ‘pragmatic idealist’, I do what I do because I’d (still) like to believe that art can be transformative. It would be important to embed critical, creative frameworks and discourses with any ‘next big thing’ in tech — what are the gaps and needs that these tech ‘solutions’ are filling and fulfilling? What, how and why we do what we do? Tech is not neutral, and discussions around this thrive in those in ‘tech for good’ and ‘serious games’. So we need to talk about ethics, human behaviour, philosophy, humanity and our values, the humanities, aesthetics, and so on, to frame the implementation and use of the inventions, not just as afterthoughts or as something in the periphery, or to only indulge upon when we have time to. And how artists use tech can help lead these conversations in witty, imaginative and engaging yet intelligent ways that, say, a social scientist, politician or theologist can’t. Nam June Paik did that with video in the 70s. This is also to say that, in the arts, we can’t just be cynical about developments in other sectors, especially if they command critical mass and have people’s attention (and private data, and money…).
In the start-up sector, there is also a renewed interest in creativity, such as possessing the suite of skill sets associated with creativity like ideation, conceptualisation, and then we have activities like hackathons. It’s a lot about problem-solving through creative processes. Over time, it would be nice to see more artists working with the technologists. What might be lacking in this more empirical way of doing things is embodied knowledge...
You’ve put it nicely there. It’s important not to just instrumentalise the arts into business. It is also important to protect ideas and blue-sky thinking for its sake. It’s important to protect big picture thinking. I think this is where the intrinsic value of art shines, not just the instrumental value of art and creativity. That’s also why you can do something without tying it to some quantifiable metric of success like 5 people benefiting from this or 5 billion people benefiting from it. The world will be impoverished if everything is measured in terms of ‘A therefore B’. We must celebrate A and its accidental, serendipitous and indirect consequences (to F, then A*, then A2, etc…). There needs to be a kind of balance.
It’s a powerful moment for us to think about art and media because there are so many interesting ideas we see but at the same time, a lot of arts and culture all over the world are being punished under Covid-19. There's no money for a lot of arts in the UK and Australia. But artists can still play the role of redirecting our attention to what matters — and that we thought didn’t matter.