How do we see a city? From skyway, bus, car, train, or taxi? On foot? How do we consider the smaller units of the city? Parks, neighbourhoods, malls and markets? Are they experienced as discrete units or do we think about the intertwining aspects of they way we ambulate, the way we commute beyond the quotidian?
Estate Frequencies is a brand new project that I’ve written and voiced (at least for this first season) that offers a through line to experience neighbourhoods in a city, connecting history, culture, art and people together in the form of an audio walking tour encompassing narration, interviews and poems that can be experienced in person or remotely.
The first neighbourhood that’s being featured is Tiong Bahru, Singapore’s oldest housing estate. One might say that it is almost inevitable given the compact size of the estate, its pre-war beginnings and the many visible layers of ‘storying’ that are part of its landscape; from its much-photographed architectural style to the iconic market and its penchant for being part of social media backgrounds.
But Estate Frequencies is also after the invisible, i.e. the people who make up Tiong Bahru. They represent, in many ways, a sounding board for the estate, one that reverberates at a different frequency from the ubiquity of the community centre as a kind of faux nexus for communal life.
Estate Frequencies: Tiong Bahru is a three-episode series that encourages the listener to walk the street in real-time, adding a spatial dimension to the narration and soundscape. The latter, composed by Saturn Sound Studios, takes in the diegetic sounds of the neighbourhood and intersperses it with specially composed soundtracks for the poems. Poetry also offers a different way of seeing the estate, one that isn’t marshalled by the immutable aegis of government agencies and the throes of late-stage capitalism. They offer a space to imagine and wonder, even as we wander the streets and backlanes of Tiong Bahru.
‘Nations are invisible lines that people assign meaning to.’
Geralt of Rivia in The Witcher, Season 3
This little nugget of truth dropped in the latest season of The Witcher. Geralt is nobody’s citizen. He waltzes across borders and kingdoms, holding fast to his creed and clan. His people. And where he allies in common cause, he will shed blood and sweat to defend or obtain what he deems as justice. Or what viewers deem as swashbuckling muscled heroics. It says something too that these seemingly reductive tropes of good and evil continue to persist, or even determine the shape of lives. And the geography of our politics does go a long way in encompassing how we think about our relationships with each other and with earth.
During the pandemic, there was a lot more decisive engagement with nature. With everyone on lockdown, going out for a walk was both necessary and also a chance to engage in the relative solitude of nature. Some countries called the lockdown a ‘shelter-in-place.’ I really liked that, because it made me think about this idea of place and what it means to derive shelter from where we are. Shelter is so much more than having a roof over our heads. It is also safety and comfort. But this injunction, born out of necessity and fear, allowed grass to grow wild on sidewalks. Bushes went unpruned. Rewilding became the province of nature, not man. Hardly any cars were on the roads. The air grew fresher. The malls loomed empty like scenes of apocalyptic abandon. And then, a year on, when vaccines had kicked in, we inched our way back to the full-blown consumption that marked our lives before 2020.
But the pandemic had also, for a while, erased those lines that separated us from our neighbours. We were truly vulnerable together as a species. It’s tragic that it took a virus to bind us together. But collectively, we did, for a while, live a little more in sync with the earth, feeling its rhythms over and under the buzz of a silenced city.
The Earth in Our Bones is not a book about being an eco-warrior or a climate change activist. It is a book that sees our essential selves as complicit with the ground beneath our feet, considering skin and sand and glass and concrete as part of the body. It is a book that sees the self, laid bare and offended, but also redeems the self under the aegis of the natural world. Not a call to arms, but a call to link arms, to observe, remind and acknowledge us, and the land we inhabit.
Book launch: 29 July 2023, 5.30pm, Seng Poh Garden, Tiong Bahru. RSVP
In many ways, humanity’s basic needs have not changed for centuries. Survival is still paramount for large swathes of the population, while it is only a minority who can think about higher order wants. But it is also worth noting how the necessities no longer solely encompass food, shelter, water, and sanitation. There is access to the digital world, material and immaterial desires and longer arcs of thought about the future that, arguably, affect everybody.
The classic pyramid that Abraham Maslow envisioned is now filled with other things, things that consume us in ways that terrify us if we stepped back from ourselves to consider how and why we prioritise citadels of the self against the vaster city of time we live in. The urge for the new is the distaste for the old. Anything acquired becomes obsolete. We purchase and immediately set forth on the next conquest.
The text in A Modern Hierarchy of Needs apprehends the pyramid with new eyes and populates it with a different way of being. But the pyramid is also the precursor to a mode of thinking about art making. I have noticed a tendency in my own creative practice to utilise an adaptive reuse of ideas. Adaptive reuse is a broad, interdisciplinary concept that is usually connected with significant changes resulting from conversion to a new function (Remøy & Van der Voordt, 2014). Adaptive reuse as design practice in architecture is often seen in the way churches, power plants and other abandoned or disused buildings are refurbished and adapted to become art galleries, performance spaces or museums (Pieczka & Bogusław, 2021).
If we extend this to thinking about artistic ideas, what could it possibly look like?
The origins of A Modern Hierarchy of Needs began as a casual conversation in Hong Kong in 2016. At the opening of an art gallery, I met Sudhee Liao, a choreographer and dancer from Singapore. We found common thematic strands in our work and expressed an interest to develop a collaboration. This slowly took shape over the next two years and eventually settled on a series of movements that responded to text. The process was iterative, and the final product was a short film comprising ten vignettes, filmed in various locations in Hong Kong in 2019. That film was called Handbook of Daily Movement.
In 2020, commissioned by The Arts House in Singapore for Textures, a literary festival, we adapted the film for the stage, working with Mantravine, a musician, and three other dancers to realise a fuller production of text, movement, and music. To layer ideas of eco-fragility and push back against wasteful consumption, some of the costumes used for the production were created by set designer Audrey Ng out of kombucha. We also published a zine containing the text of all the pieces.
The current exhibition keeps the text as the fulcrum of meaning but adapts it once again for the screen, this time with a collage of images as the background. The ephemeral nature of the text coupled with how it loops becomes an objectified exemplar of how an idea becomes embodied in different ways, from movement and narration to a performative expression and back to the screen as moving text. This process was not intentional. There was no grand creative arc of production. The work morphed and shifted through chance encounters, conversations, and opportunities.
A Modern Hierarchy of Needs screens on ten screens that typically display movie posters but have been adapted to play video. The exhibition, presented by Intersections Gallery, is held in the nostalgically named BladeRunner Ballroom, a circular space in The Projector X: Picturehouse. This is a pop-up initiative of The Projector. Taking over the empty cinemas of Cathay Cineplex, the Projector X is itself a temporary intervention. In a city where land scarcity necessitates constant renewal and the optimal use of space, it is unsurprising that ideas, too, should live on and gain new forms of being.
Pieczka, M. and Bogusław W. 2021. “Art in Post-Industrial Facilities—Strategies of Adaptive Reuse for Art Exhibition Function in Poland” Buildings 11, no. 10: 487.
Remøy, H. and Van der Voordt, T. 2014. “Adaptive reuse of office buildings into housing: Opportunities and risks”. Build. Res. Inf.42, 381–390.
I’m in a group photography exhibition at Objectifs! It’s a little different because I’ve never been asked to only exhibit photographs before. It’s always been in tandem with text or responding (often with text) to another artist’s photographs. My one solo exhibition, Slide & Tongue, in 2018 was a series of photohaiku, where the haiku was integrated into the body of the image. Maybe poetry has been a kind of refuge, an easier way to ‘read’ the image by providing an entry point, so when Ang Siew Ching, the curator of this exhibition, asked me to only send over images, I really had to trawl through my archives to find images that would fit into the theme and that would work without the safety net of poetry. The images cohere broadly to the idea of the liminal, juxtaposing the mundane with a kind of temporal humour located in object, emotion or action. I’m excited to see how my work sits alongside and dialogues with older, established artists as well as architects and film-based photographers.
The exhibition opens on 7 May. There’s an opening reception (sans F&B), from 4-7pm. I’ll be there to hang out and answer any questions about the work. As a satellite event to the exhibition I’ll also run a version of PhotoWrite, my writing/photography workshop, on 21 May at 4pm. Details forthcoming.
I’m very stoked to be a featured author for NLB and to get a chance to discuss the thinking and process behind some of my books. Do join me for two book clubs where I’ll be discussing Vital Possessions and Spomenik as well as a chat with Ng Kah Gay, my editor at Ethos Books, where we’ll be discussing my travel poetry. All of these are going to be online, so there’s no restrictions on attendance.
I have a love affair with site-specific work. There’s something fundamentally challenging with responding ekphrastically to a found scene or image. So many factors are in the mix: chance, the time of day, the presence of unexpected elements and, of course, how inclined one is to linger or go off the beaten path into the back lane (or the country road).
This practice is a mainstay of my Instagram photohaiku practice, where I impose two control elements. All the photographs are taken, unposed, on the street. The second is that the poetic form is the haiku. These constraints enable me to create a consistent, coherent body of work that is concerned with how content speaks through form.
But beyond this practice, there are also various larger, collaborative projects that I’ve done in the form of walks and tours around various estates, such as Yishun, Tiong Bahru, Kampung Gelam and now… Katong. The latter is a rich site that blends commerce, history, migrant stories, food and Peranakan influence into a tapestry that sits beneath the ever-present spectre of gentrification that seems to have consumed Katong and Joo Chiat today. Change is the inevitable consequence of growth, particularly when we build on top of things, both literally and metaphorically, but we should also not completely forget the things that made us who we are. An awareness of older stories and traditions are invaluable in shaping the nexus of our identity.
And art is a more amenable entry point than the didactic dictates of history. So it has been a pleasure to work with fellow artists Mark Nicodemus Tan (tour guide, lyricist and singer), August Lum (composer), and Valerie Lim (dancer) in devising this musical performance tour that blends the lived history of Katong with imaginative elements of other seasons, places and times. More importantly, it leads us to question this whole trope of identity that seems to consume us as a nation. We don’t promise you the answer in this tour, but maybe, it is a way of coming to be, and become.
Katong Dreaming opens on 18 Feb 2022 and runs to 27 March 2022. Tickets available at katongdreaming.peatix.com Use pintupagar for $20 off the full ticket price ($68).
So you are expecting a poem to fill in the struts and seams of your blueprint, poem poured like prayers from the concrete mixer of mellifluous words, proud in the casual confidence of a twin block, 30-floored monster of maximum acreage. A poem that hews to each sinew of square footage, that is angled to catch the sun and has a rooftop pool where scantily-clad haikus can lounge. Poem that rises from the surrounding foliage, transported from a willing nursery, poem planted right when the foundation stone, with its own secret epitaph of importunate child gods and incantations, was laid. Poetry is not your bitch to build upon, to lay your grandiose profit margins on, it is not your marketing device, it is not as opaque or esoteric as you might surmise. Poetry doesn’t want a penthouse at your property, it is not a blue sky, greenfield fantasy. A poem is not truly a joy if it doesn’t hold some sadness or irony, though you deem architectural poetry as a compliment, imagining a poem is the apotheosis of your construction, the apex of your belief (provided the poem keeps up with conservancy fees). The poem justifies slantwise, line breaks on every other floor, imagery leaks through unfinished rhymes on rainy nights. And what of the stanzas, the spaces to breathe? The poem asks only to be told in one breath: as fire alarm and basement parking, as drowsy security and rooftop garden; freehold fantasy.
I am jogging down Havelock Road,
eyes set on the pavement
as it hugs a curve into Outram.
On my left, the hotels are dark,
unsighted beasts who have lost
their purpose to live and have chosen
to hibernate in resignation.
Some days I imagine they are chasing me
and it makes me run a little faster.
The day is at the cusp of dusk, between light and darkness, when the hues turn misty-gold and the sky unlocks in Pantone possibilities. Today it is a spread of soft vermillion, peach and pink, a painter’s improbable background when so much of what we remember of the sky is an intense blue, searing, bounded by skyscrapers.
Down the unblocked length of the road,
a vista opens up and I slow down
to be serenaded. It is not every day
that I get to see the sunset, after all.
And that is when I see her. A young girl, standing on the traffic island, a shrubbery-strewn, overgrown triangle bordered by a low barrier. She stands on the uneven sidewalk, a brown paper bag on the ground a short distance from her. She is holding up a large, pink heart, perfectly shaped, clearly hand-cut. She is wearing a sun dress that’s the exact colour of the heart. Facing the Holiday Inn hotel, she moves forward and backward, trying to hold up her sign to show the writing on the other side. I make out the word ‘love,’ briefly. It is impossible to see who she’s waving her heart at.
The hotel has an impenetrable brown facade,
giving nothing away. The windows are tinted
by distance and long hours, where leisure
turns into labour and the hope that one
always has breath and the strength
to look out for love. And now I stop jogging
completely, because this is all at once touching and futile, this gesture of kindness as fleeting as the sunset. But this feeling is kind of pink, the same pink as the TraceTogether token that nestles in the waist pocket of my shorts, a small, rectangular beeping pink that connects me to everyone else, reminding us of the city, its closeness and how we are never far away enough from each other, except when we are separated by the width of two roads, hotel windows that won’t open and a sunset that comes too soon.