Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Monday, May 31, 2010
Blog written by Patricia Zimmermann, Shaw Foundation Professor, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and codirector, Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
7,000 fire pots cascaded from banyan trees, metal spheres, and garlands attached to trees and then anchored in the ground from the waterfront park in front of the Asian Civilisations Museum, part of the heritage trail, in Singapore.
The smell of burning wax permeated the air. The humidity commingled with the heat from the fires.
I had wandered over to the installation with Stewart and my NTU colleagues Sharon Lin Tay and Adam Knee. On the way, we stopped to listen in on a Filipino cover band doing a cover of Jason Mraz pop hit, I'm Yours. They were good-- in fact, so great that at first we thought they were not a cover band at all but the back-up band for Jason Mraz himself-- but we kept walking anyway. It was a warm, lovely, sultry night.
At first, we spotted a couple of fires in pots along the river. Then, as we turned the corner, a massive spectacle of fire and metal machines engulfed our senses. Sleeveless white men’s t-shirts hung from metal poles, illuminated like ghosts from charcoal suspended beneath the shirt. They evoked the custom of drying laundry on bamboo poles hung outside here in Southeast Asia.
Near the bridge, a large vertical metal machine, referencing the coal industry in 19th century Europe, bloomed huge plumes of smoke intermittently, moving up and down. Under a white tent with flames poking out of small hanging globes, experimental music from a single bassoon player laying tracks into a looper in a Erik Satie-like fantasia drifted through the park. We were startled. We kept getting drawn deeper into the installation—it was massive.
A forest of fire burned through the Empress Place Precinct and the Esplanade Park, the opening kick-off event of the first weekend of the Singapore Arts Festival.
Called Invitation to Dream—A Fire Garden Installation, the fiery sculpture garden was produced by the Compagnie Carabosse from France, a group that concocts a sort of public space alchemy by combining street art, circus, experimental music, sculpture. It was easy to spot the artists –wearing black pants, sleeveless white t-shirts, suspenders and black hats, they looked like chimney sweeps. They tended the fires and pumped the machines. And sweated.
Running for a month from May 14-June 13, the Singapore Arts Festival started in 1977 as a way to celebrate local arts emerging from Singapore’s different communities—Chinese, Malay, Indian. It’s now grown to a month of inspiring, must-see events that include dance, music, theater, multimedia productions, and street buskers with a focus on Asia but also conversing with the rest of the globe. It features 34 premier productions from 20 countries/regions. Part of the festival is ticketed, and part is free.
Almost every show has some kind of audience talk back session. It’s really heartening to see how many people stay and how perceptive the questions are. The lack of pretension (compared to what I often encounter in the snobby Northeast arts and intellectual scene in the US) and the embrace of the works and the artists is notable, and refreshing.
We didn’t know what to expect, but we were swept up into a feeling of awe, whimsy, delight, surprise—and shock. Everywhere we turned out heads, a maze of simple yet eery machines and fire. Was this avant garde, edgy cauldron of fire and music happening in public in Singapore, a city renowned as much for its strict rules about not littering and not assembling as a group in public as it is for its chilli crab and laksa?
This massive installation had to be probably the most extraordinary arts experience I have had in Singapore. Or, really, anywhere.
The sheer daring of fire everywhere is hard to imagine in the US, where insurance and liability issues certainly would constrain something as expansive and bold as this. If it did happen, my guess is that it would be cordoned off, and spectators would watch from a safe distance behind a fence. Since this is Singapore, there were fire specialists roving around the half meter expanse of the installation, but they were so unobstrusive at first I just thought they were artists in different costumes.
Here, people strolled around the fire pots and the pipes billowing fire into the night. A lot of families posed for snapshots by the fire structures, especially around the big 20 foot high globe-like orbs decked with pots of fire.
Malay families with children in strollers roamed around. Young hipster Singaporeans with tight low slung pants and even tighter t shirts, with so much hair product their heads shimmered in the light, caroused in groups. An Indian family had not one but two older members in green and purple saris in wheelchairs. Ang mo (white) tourists from the hotels ambled around in their Patagonia shorts and Tevas. One Chinese Singaporean boy, about four years old, danced around one of the pots of fire at the base of a statue. I spotted just about every age and ethnic group imaginable, all mixed together, communing with each other around the fire.
People were participating, engaging with the sculptures and the fire. As Adam pointed it, even though this was a very experimental art installation, its sheer vastness and the number of people milling about on the grass and on the sidewalks made it feel like a community event. Sharon observed that Invitation to a Dream was like a circus of ideas and embodied art. Yes, it was spectacle—how could 7,000 pots of fire not be?—but it was also human-scaled, approachable, interactive, a puzzle of sight, smell, body, tactility, and conversations about what it all meant. It was magical and provocative.
At the other side of the installation, I heard post-rock music with an electronic beat drifting through the thick, smoky, humid night air. I thought it was a band, and dragged my companions over to the tent.
A guitarist, dressed in a white sleeveless t-shirt and black pants just like the artists, played riffs into some kind of synthesizer. He jabbed continuously at several computers, which I assumed were also laying down tracks into this haunting yet alluring soundscape. The music was soothing yet had a beat, demanding yet accessible. It was completely seductive and mesmerizing. Maybe it was the night. Maybe it was the fire. Maybe it was hearing experimental rock outside by the river in Singapore.
The almost primordial feel of the fire—both visual and physical—contrasted with the expanse of the postmodern cityscape on the other side of the Singapore River.
On the grass just across from the rock musician, large metal tubes spouting fire filled up the small grassy area like fossilized cornstalks. You could only see the patterns of Chinese characters carved into the tubes when the fire shot up and billowed out.
The next Monday back at my office in the School of Communication and Information at NTU, I was chatting with my colleague Fernando Paragas, a Filipino scholar who studies transnational migration and new technologies, about the Invitation to a Dream-A Fire Garden Installation. He, too, had meandered around the Empress Place Precinct amidst the fires over the weekend with some friends.
Fernando revealed that his friends noticed that the words carved into the pipes spelled out the Chinese characters for good fortune and good luck.
Sunday, May 23, 2010
Blog written by Patricia Zimmerman, Shaw Foundation Professor, Nanyang Technological University and codirector, Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
In the final throes of the Suharto era in the 1990s, the underground art scene in Indonesia incubated alternative spaces repressed in the rest of society. Art, politics, and activism commingled. And now, thanks to the Indonesian Visual Art Archive, this history will be accessible online.
This combustion between artistic necessity and historical urgency propelled one of the most exciting national art movements of the last 15 years. By 2010, Indonesian art—painting, performance, installation, DJs, sound artists, new media collectives, video, documentary—populates galleries and festivals from New York to Singapore to Dubai. And these works command high prices from collectors eager to invest in this vibrant southeast asian art movement.
The history of Indonesian experimental and visual art did not start with reformasi, the people’s movement that brought down the Suharto regime in 1998,although it was intricately linked with these politics.
In the 1970s, Gerakan Seni Rupa Baru (New Art Movement), inspired by Fluxus, sought to make breakthroughs in contemporary art through performance,video and installation through the use of everyday objects and concepts. The movement rejected Western ideas about art and sought an Indonesian artistic identity. A key figure of this period –and a towering figure in contemporary Indonesia art--is F X Harsono, recently featured in a large, stunning major retrospective at the Singapore Art Museum in a show entitled Testimonies.
But Indonesian art involves a much more complex history than the 2002 art boom or the current international auction market eager for new discoveries.
Enter the Indonesian Visual Arts Archive( IVAA), founded in 1995 as an outgrowth of the Cementi Art House galleries in Yogjakarta. Despite the explosion in art practices, no institutions in Indonesia were archiving these movements for the historical record. Artists also were not documenting their work with photos, reviews, and other written materials.
IVAA set out to retrieve and archive these materials ranging from letters, catalogues, publications, proposals, posters, pamphlets and audio interviews. Researchers, students, and artists use the archive to learn the complex histories of Indonesian contemporary art. The board of directors is composed mostly of artists, including Agung Kurniawan, Mella Jaarsma, and Yustina W. Nugraheni.
I met up with Farah Wardani, executive director, and Pitro Hutomo, the archivist mounting IVAA’s digital archive, on a recent trek down to Yogjakarta. After a 20 minute taxi drive through streets crammed with motor scooters in black, purple, red, and green, I ended up at their office on Jalan Patehan Tengah. It’s a quaint street with low rise, open air shophouses and lush tropical greenery in the district surrounding the Kraton, the Sultan’s palace. Entering IVAA’s office, the first thing I noticed was floor to ceiling plain bookshelves crammed with art books. Various Asian art magazines and journals perched on the large tables.
It seems logical that IVAA is located in Jogja, as the locals call it. Jogja is the center of the arts culture in Java. Rather than marginalizing artists, traditional Javanese society accepts artists as part of their culture. Javanese are not confrontational with modernity; rather, according to Wardani, they blend with it but do not forfeit their values of respecting the land. A smaller city than Jakarta, it is cheaper for artists to live and work in Jogja.
According to Farah Wardani, who has lived through and participated in the turbulent politics and arts movements of the last two decades, the period of the 1990s propelled a very politically driven artistic practice. The Suharto regime was very repressive, the media were controlled, and the right to assembly restricted. Art functioned as a safe zone where people could gather. An artistic language rich in metaphor developed as a way to circumvent repressive measures and constrictions. Art—and the spaces that emerged around it—gave space to make statements prohibited—and dangerous—in Indonesian society.
In 2006, another boom in Indonesian art erupted. According to Wardani, it got ugly: the heartless, acquisitive art market exploited young Indonesian artists. They were not prepared to mount their portfolios for the international market—many did not have a resume nor had they saved reviews and catalogs of their work.
IVAA helps artists by maintaining the historical record, as a throughline, a touchstone, and a community. And , because the universities do not engage art or visual theory, IVAA also functions as an alternative learning center for theoretical work. For 2010-2011, the archive will focus on four key areas: women and gender in art, environmental issues in art, urban marginal communities, and mapping the creative industry in Yogjakarta. The archive is also reaching back to collecting materials from the 1940s, the period of the Indonesian “old masters” of contemporary art.
Archivist Pitra Hutomo, with help from Engage Media, the nongovernmental organization in Australia and Indonesia working to making new technologies accessible, is the behind-the-scenes expediter of the online archive which features documents, a library and video.
As we drank thick, black and complexly flavored Javanese coffee, Pitra and Farah explained the differences between the artists from the reformasi period of the 1990s and the younger generation raised in a more open society with more access to technology. The younger artists (which Pitra, younger than Farah, identifies with) see the older generation as too didactic. The older artists view the younger generation as not sufficiently engaged with politics. The younger generation embraces new technology, pop references, and urban culture. Urban art activism in places like Jakarta proposes to make social interventions into urban space.
IVAA sees arts education, dialogue and convenings as important fulcrums for the development of arts discourse and community. More than just a repository for exhibition catalogs, reviews and other documents, the archive also programs discussions, workshops, and seminars on Indonesian contemporary art.
In 2009, IVAA published video activist and artist Krisna Murti’s Essays on Video Art and New Media: Indonesia and Beyond, an absolutely essential book for anyone wanting to understand the context and debates in Indonesian new media in a more nuanced way. Describing numerous new media collectives like the House of Natural Fiber, Bandung Center for New Media Arts, and ruangrupa and various festivals in Indonesia with their myriad contentious debates, the book jolted me into the rather discomfiting realization that so much scholarship on documentary, video art and new media operates on a latent and rather unexamined Euro/American axis.
Even though FLEFF has programmed several small political documentaries on environmental issues about the pollution of the coasts from chemicals and overfishing over the years, the gaps in my knowledge led me back to the IVAA website and archive for repair and rehabilitation.
CODA: Farah and Pitra will be presenting about IVAA at the Open Space/Singapore/Southeast Asia sessions I've helped to curate for the International Communication Association conference at the end of June here in Singapore. See you there!
Sunday, May 16, 2010
A pounding rock beat mingled with the sinuous repetitions of Javanese gamelan drew me across the green plains and extreme,mind-numbing humidity enveloping the 10th century Prambanam Hindu temple complex.
I was in Yogyakarta, in Indonesia, about a two-hour flight south of Singapore, for a long weekend. Stewart and I flew the budget airline, Air Asia, then stood in immigration, sweating and thirsty, for over an hour to secure a tourist visa and get finger printed. The largest muslim country in the world, Indonesia’s size and complexity is staggering, with over 17,000 islands and 500 languages and dialects. Java has active volcanoes and rice paddies.
We hired a driver, loaded up on bottled water to stay hydrated in the heat, and set off to see the two major temples, the 9th century Buddhist temple of Borobudur, the largest Buddhist stupa in the world, and Prambanan, a Hindu temple rediscovered in 1811 by surveyors working for Thomas Raffles, a key figure in Singapore’s (colonialist) history as well.
Yogyakarta, nicknamed Jogja by locals and Southeast Asians, has functioned as an arts hub for centuries, before the concept creative economy wormed into international arts policy as a plan for recovery. Art is not something precious, confined to museums and exalted for its unique individualist expression.
In Jogja, art infiltrates and mingles with daily life, where the line between handicraft and fine art, between amateur and professional, between performance and audience, evaporates. In this context, it makes sense that some of the most innovative contemporary Southeast Asian art and multimedia has emanated from Jogja since the reformasi democratic movement in 1998.
Wayang kulit, shows of shadow puppets accompanied by gamelan, abound at different times in the Kraton, at art institutes, at restaurants. It’s a psychedelic experience to absorb all the brown and blue patterns of batik pouring out of the shops along Jalan Malioboro. We took a becak, the ubiquitous bicycle-powered taxi unique to Jogja, to the Purawisata Theatre to see the Ramayana ballet accompanied by a full gamelan orchestra, with Vishnu, Sita, and Hanuman adorned in complex batik patterns overlaid on top of each other, golden crowns, and highly expressionist, mask-like make-up.
I have always been drawn to the meditative, trance-like repetitions of gamelan. It’s a music that has influenced minimalist composers like Steve Reich, and post-minimalists like the composers involved in Bang on a Can with its complex percussive rhythms, polyphonic structures, and pentatonic scales. Softer and slower than Balinese gamelam, Javanese gamelan, as our Prambanan guide Edys explained, is not explosive music. Its harmonies are designed to calm the soul. They express the tolerance of Javanese culture.
So I was surprised to hear gamelan combined with a rock and roll drumming at Prambanan. Edys walked us over to the pavillon where a gamelan band played. Six male dancers moved in the center of the circle. There were no tourists in the circle of people except us. Edys commented that very few Americans travel to Indonesia. Although Indonesia is a huge country, Singapore, a speck in comparison, attracts nearly double the number of tourists. I asked Edys if he thought American tourists avoided Indonesia because of misconceptions about terrorism. "Terrorism?" he responded. "No, not terrorism. They stay away because of provincialism."
Edys said that the gathering was a ritual celebration meant to induce trance in the dancers. A sinden, a female singer, chanted over the celem pung, saron demung, rebab, dedug, gong ageng, the percussive instruments of gamelan. A young man in a Nirvana (the rock band) t-shirt ripped out beats on a western drum set.
Intense, enveloping, mesmerizing, the combination of “western” rock style drumming with the gamelan was compelling and intoxicating. A lot of academics I know might analyze this cultural mix as an example of either hybridization or colonialization, but for me, being swept up by the sound, the heat, the humidity, the temples, it felt like neither. It was music that washed away separations between mind and body. It was inviting.
Edys, who shared it was his spiritual calling to be a tour guide to the Hindu temples' history, offered some insight. He observed that western ballet and dance involves flying, leaving the earth, while Javanese dance embraces the earth, grounding all movements in the lower body. More ecological and human-centered, with the center of the universe not the gods but the people, he claimed. Edys was worried we wouldn’t appreciate the gamelan. Western music, he said, moves forward with melody. Gamelan, he countered, invited the listener in to a space that did not move forward but around, defined by rhythm.
This principle of tolerance in Javanese culture infiltrated the soundscape of Prambanan Hindu temple. As Edys recounted the story of the Ramayana imbedded in the intricate reliefs of the Vishnu, Brahma and Shiva temples, the late afternoon chants of the muezzin wafted from a nearby mosque. It made me think, hybridity seems like too facile a concept to describe the complex heterogeneity of sounds and experience here, which, in some ways, replicated the intricate patterns of batik.
The night before we flew out, we went to a restaurant on the outskirts of town recommended by the bellman at our hotel. When we arrived, the hostess asked us what kind of music we liked. We were confused. We craved some gado gado, the famous Indonesian steamed vegetable salad with spicy peanut sauce.
She said, we have different music in different pavilions so you can decide where you want your spirit to be while you eat. “Do you want classical, traditional or country?” she inquired. I asked, “which country?”, figuring, I don’t want to be a cultural imperialist and assume country music means Johnny Cash here in Southeast Asia.
She replied with one word: country. We picked traditional—it was a gamelan orchestra. Later, on the way to the bathroom, I peaked into the “country” open air pavillon.
With their stand up bass, guitars, and drums, the band played something I faintly recognized (unlike my colleague Tom over on the Mongolian Spaces blog, I have never really connected with American country music, even though Singaporean taxi drivers seem to play it constantly). After peeling back all the complex rhythms I discerned the melody, buried in the back: Take Me Home Country Roads. Unlike gamelan, which is played sitting down, this band stood up, wearing brown batik shirts. But the intricate polyrhythms and the soothing sound was Javanese gamelan.
Thursday, May 6, 2010
Blog written by Patricia Zimmermann, Shaw Foundation Professor, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and codirector, Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
Old Hollywood/New Hollywood
Old Hollywood operated on a proprietary monopoly on its stars. New Hollywood holds a proprietary monopoly on its computer code.
May the force be with you—but it better be highly encrypted, absolutely secure, totally secret, never released to anyone outside the company, and protected by security better than the United Nations.
That’s the lesson I learned from listening to a presentation by John Sanders, Head of Production Resources, from Lucasfilm Animation in Singapore. He was presenting at the Research Techno Plaza, a sort of new technology innovation hub here at NTU. Xavier Nicolas, General Manager of Lucasfilm in Singapore who has worked all over the globe, was also on hand.
In Singapore since 2005, Lucas Film Animation spells out computer code, animation, and special effects for films like the Star Wars franchise, Star Trek, Iron Man. George Lucas’ media empire might just be larger--and more complex--than anything the Warner Brothers could have concocted.
Lucas Film launched in 1971. Industrial Light and Magic, the special effects powerhouse that has worked on over 300 feature films, started in 1975. Skywalker Sound began in 1975. Lucas Licensing, the part of the company that controls copyright on toys, a highly lucrative enterprise and more predictable than the film industry, emerged in 1979. Lucas Animation commenced in 2003.
Lucas Films Singapore, according to Sanders, exploded from 20 to 400 employees in five years. It works on animation, visual effects, games, and features.
The New Code Warriors
But why Singapore, an entire ocean away from San Francisco, the pastoral home of the Lucas empire?
An appealing location in Southeast Asia, a growing talent pool, an English speaking country, and a developed business infrastructure drew Lucas to Singapore. But the biggest carrots were low taxes and intellectual property security, something rather, uh, elusive (I’m being delicate here) in China and India.
I really, really, really wanted to dislike these two. They were transnational capital, big media, purveyors of death and destruction, sycophants to the fantasies of teenage boys, destroyers of cinema with action films drunk on special effects. In short, the Darth Vaders of Cinema.
Instead, I liked both of them enormously. They were clear thinkers, smart, highly educated in art and cinema history, affable, gracious, intellectual, passionate. Their deep and complex understanding of cinema—commercial, art cinema, and experimental—should give any communications student who thinks critical studies, history, and theory are useless compared to hands-on production skills something to think about. Sanders was ABD in art history. Nicolas spent a lot of his free time in Singapore pursuing art cinema.
Sanders and Nicolas seemed at home in the university environment with their slickly produced powerpoint with imbedded clips of Lucasfilm action flicks, even though Lucasfilm corporate policy prevents them from revealing anything at all about the code, the software, the mathematical functions, the algorithms or the technologies Lucasfilm develops.
Multidisciplinarity and Innovation
If you removed the name of the company, much of what they discussed eerily echoes many higher education mission statements rolled out in the last decade.
Lucasfilm Animation Singapore is a center for experimentation and innovation, what Sanders called “a petri dish.” They needed to reengineer themselves as multidisciplinary for cost effectiveness, efficiencies, and new ideas. Fast turnaround , compatible toolsets, and constant assessment are paramount. Their technological and computer code innovations need to be easily shared between studios in Taiwan and the US. Smaller than the parent company, agility and adaptiveness defines them.
Lucasfilm, Sanders and Nicolas argue, is not a technology company but a creative company. It’s international, multinational, transnational. It boasts a multicultural workforce of “artists” (they won’t call these folks computer animators or engineers) from around Asia.
Proprietary means Total Power
But horizontal structures for innovation aside, the DNA of Lucasfilm Animation in Singapore resides in proprietary software.
They build tools for their “artists” to make their jobs faster. It is important to remember that digitality in cinema restored power to the studios. The digital in the entertainment industry basically removes actors from the equation, standardizes labor, controls all aspects of production, and centralizes both creativity and business.
Sanders and Nicolas pointed out the production hierarchies in Lucasfilm: at ILM, everything is proprietary; for the television enterprise, off-the-shelf technologies are adapted. ILM's goal: to make images never seen before. Plus, work goes on 24/7 across the globe--sustaining efficiencies and profit maximization.
It’s a global pipeline of scalable and reusable innovation engineered to share assets across platforms. It’s hard for any independent or artisanal filmmaker to compete with this juggernaut.
About 40 engineers, scientists, and technologist from NTU attended the talk. They repeatedly probed about the code, the software, the technologies, the inventions. They also wanted to know how long it took to make the films and television shows. The answer: one minute of computer animation could take a month with many people working.
Sanders pointed out that he could not discuss any of these innovations—maybe five years from now, when they are no longer innovations but standard operating procedures, he could reveal a little something at a SIGGRAPH conference. The engineers were frustrated but seemed seduced anyway. Maybe it was all the clips of animated science fiction figures being sliced apart, blown up, dismembered, or maybe it was the sheer spectacle of details in computer generated imagery of hair, skin, eyes, and clothes in the incredibly violent clips. One of my colleagues from mathematical sciences , an Israeli visiting professor, commented to me that everything Lucasfilm showed glamorized violence.
Sanders explained that students in Singapore could apply for internships, or could join the Jedi Master’s Program, a special training initiative which he hinted was a pipeline to future employment with the company.
The Photoreal and the Stylized
Sanders and Nicolas offered an important distinction between the photoreal and the stylized. The photoreal was reserved for big budget films that went theatrical—films where the details of texture, surface, lighting, mise-en-scene glistened. These works require more time to produce. The stylized work was the mode for television with its rapid production timelines, where more simple, abstracted images are much easier to produce. These images blend together a German expressionist look with extreme lights and darks with Japanese anime.
While the digital animations dazzle and reinvent the cinematic, the underlying structure of prestige pictures with higher production values and B-pictures (a form which has migrated to television) with a quicker turnaround emulates the classical Hollywood studio system of the 1940s.
Although digital technologies change images, the underlying structures of production replicate the hierarchies of the old studio system. In the Old Hollywood, the coupling of stars and genre sustained efficiencies, economies of scale, and product differentiation. In the New Hollywood, code replaces stars and software programs replace genres.
The Dilemna of the Global Digital and National Identities
And just like the Old Hollywood, concerns about national identity in the midst of viral internationalization percolate through the cybersheen.
Singapore’s Media Development Authority has mounted an international animation fund, an initiative conceived to stimulate the creative economy of the nation state and to develop talent. It offers up to $5 million a project in production incentive funds. An April 15 editorial in The Straits Times called “Animate the Singapore Story as well” cautioned that all of this internationalization and commodification might overlook that animation is also a cultural product. The editorial suggests that “uniquely Singaporean” content should be promoted in these various co-production deals and schemes.
The force may be with the code warriors crusading for the New Hollywood. In the 1920s, as Old Hollywood acccrued power by controlling technology, distribution, and exhibition, many countries worried about a loss of national culture. Those gnarly issues about whether the globalization of cinema eats away national identity persist.
No computer program I know of (unless Lucasfilms or the NTU engineers are hording a secret prototype) can erase these necessary debates between corporate globalization and regional identities, a much more complex plot line than the good vs. evil narrative structures of Star Wars.