Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Thursday, June 17, 2010
Blog posted by Patricia Zimmermann, Shaw Foundation Professor, Nanyang Technological University, and codirector, Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
Meet Shannon Castleman
HDBs (Housing Development Buildings) define the Singapore urban landscape. Public housing designed by the government, HDBs transformed Singapore from kampongs to one of the world’s global cities in less than 50 years. The majority of Singaporeans live in—and own—their HDB flats.
Installation artist and photographer Shannon Castleman, an American living and teaching in Singapore, has created a multi-channel installation exploring the lives, languages and lessons of HDBs through an innovative collaborative process that engages the residents in the production of the piece. It exemplifies and embodies an open space aesthetics and ethics.
Castleman (USA/Singapore) has been an Assistant Professor in the School of Art, Design and Media at Nanyang Technological University since 2006. Before joining NTU, she taught at Dar Al Hekma College in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. She was the recipient of Murphy Fine Arts Fellowship from the San Francisco Foundation in 2003. Castleman has worked as a freelance photographer for clients and publications including Ray Gun, Rolling Stone, Alternative Press and Workman Publishing.
Castleman's work has been included in a number of exhibitions, both in her native United States and internationally. Most recently her series entitled “Hanoi Ve Dem” was included in the Viet Nam! From Myth to Modernity exhibition at Singapore's Asian Civilizations Museum. In June 2008 she was commissioned by the Substation to produce a video installation in conjunction with SeptFest 2008. Her project “Jurong West Street 81” was featured in a solo exhibition at the Substation Gallery.
Jurong West, the installation, will be exhibited at the Open Space/Singapore/Southeast Asia section of the forthcoming International Communcations Conference in Singapore June 22-26, 2010. For more on Jurong West, visit http://web.me.com/twistedneg/projects/Jurong_West_.html
Patricia Zimmermann: Can you share your artistic trajectory, and how it led you to working in video installation?
Shannon Castleman: When I first began conceptualizing this project, I was thinking it would be done photographically. I was interested in getting a community to simultaneously work together to create a reproduction of the building that would included themselves in the photo.
However, once I chose the location and spent some time there, I quickly realized that I wanted to create more than just that brief second it would take for everyone to take the same photo. I quickly realized that with video I would be able to uncover more layers to each story with the inclusion of sound and would also be able to achieve my original goal of getting a group of residents to simultaneously interact with each other.
PZ: Jurong West(your installation that will be mounted in Open Space) exemplifies a collaborative, participatory and community process. How did you develop this idea initially? How did you construct your working relationships with the residents? What were some of the opportunities, challenges, and unexpected situations and ideas that emerged in the production and exhibition process?
SC: Like most works of art, the piece coalesced from several points of interest. As a photographer who is often inspired by urban architecture , when I first came to Singapore and saw the Housing Development Board flats (HBDs) I spent a lot of time thinking how I could photograph them. Since architectural photography of large building always ends up with an unnatural perspective I thought about how I could achieve a more realistic perspective if I were to collage together from images shot from each residents' window.
Around the same time ,I showed the film Rear Window to one of my classes. I was very surprised by the reactions to the film. They said they didn’t really pay attention to their neighbors. This inspired me to conceive Jurong west. I wanted to give people permission to watch their neighbors -- and maybe possibly they would get to know them a little better.
Getting the residents to agree to participate in the project was very difficult. I knocked on at least 144 doors before I got 8 pairs/ 16 flats to agree to participate. This success was achieved with the help of a small army of multilingual student volunteers who helped to persuade the residents to participate.
I think the biggest surprise was how much the student volunteers got out of the process. They each went into the homes to set up the cameras and take them down at the end of the project. They all were quite touched by the experience and forged connections with the residents. This process was something I tried to duplicate when I did a similar project in Cuba. Again I worked with students from the local university. The students did a wonderful job explaining the project to the residents.
PZ: How does an installation with multiple video monitors contribute to your idea about exploring the residents of HDBs, as opposed to a single channel projected project?
SC: By having each of the flats shown in its own monitor, I am able to make it a self-contained unit which when put together with the other monitors almost allows me to reconstruct the building. Also, so much of the really interesting stuff is very subtle and can only be seen when you are looking the pair of adjacent neighbors together. By putting them in separate monitors side by side , you can better follow these interactions (or lack there of) between the neighbors.
PZ: Projects that engage real people as participants always raise the issue of reception. What have been some of the responses of the residents to the final installation?
SC: For the first incarnation of Jurong West was at the Substation Gallery in Singapore , we invited all the residents and even provided transportation to and from the gallery for the opening. Sadly, only one family took us up on our offer to attended the opening. I think he finally understood what I was trying to create and why I was doing it when he saw the entire installation. He and his family were quite touched by the installation.
I had the same experience when I created a similar work in Cuba. I am sorry more residents don’t come to see the final work. I am not sure exactly why they didn’t come to the opening. I suspect that they are just busy and don’t really understand why I am creating art about their lives, which don’t seem that interesting to them. It may also be the discomfort of seeing their neighbors after they hear what they may have said about them in the videos.
PZ: Have their reactions and responses changed the way you mount the installation?
SC: When I originally showed the work, I didn’t subtitle the piece because I didn’t want them to feel discomfort at the exhibition opening seeing their words in text. Since then, I have added subtitles to the work. Now I worry a lot less about how they are going to feel with their neighbors reading what they said.
PZ: Has your work on this project led you to new directions in new projects?
SC: It was always my hope that this work would be one of many. The second project I produced in Cuba was done utilizing the same system. It is quite interesting to see how different the interactions are in different cultures. I hope that the projects will continue and that with each work I might also be able to improve the production value. Getting access to so many video cameras can be difficult.