Community Building in the age of the Pandemic: Building Space Through Digitisation

by Jenson Gabriel Tan

Discussion, 30 May 2020 

Chand Chandramohan is a Singaporean artist who discusses the complexities of racial and class mobility and gender politics. Her work involves performance art and collage, intersecting within notions of satire, marginalisation and social commentary. Her investment in the ideas of performativity was recently poured into An Actual Mama Shop, a pop-up installation that investigated levels of accessibility, gentrification of spaces and reframed South Asian immigrant narratives.

In this discussion, Jenson speaks to Chand about building communities, developing and sustaining labour. They look into stop signs and forced digital migration presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the added visibility of inequalities and privileges that have been impossible to ignore – on the state and community level.

Read the full conversation with Chand Chandramohan here

We are under lockdown from the pandemic.

Singapore’s population of 5.7 million with a land the size of 721.5 km² often see us grappling for space. Yet redevelopment plans are consistently underway – from new residential and commercial buildings to the development of more nature parks and park connectors. On the other hand, living spaces in public housing seem to diminish in size as the years go by. In the midst of its rapid growth, It does seem that even a small city-state like Singapore has displayed major gaps in social behaviours and policies, where heightened xenophobia, the lack of social space, and an increase marginalisation of transient workers have all taken place. It was no surprise that the elephant in the room took on one of the major political and social pushbacks in 2019 – it was none other than our long history with race and racial inequalities.

As a male Chinese Singaporean, an ethnicity that makes up about 76% of the country’s entire population, I am seen as a majority citizen and the systemic nature of my gender allows me to sit on the upper privilege strata. Thus, in every sense of this case, I’m not trying to educate anyone about race, but to look for answers to questions in my head. As a citizen who might not be as exposed to such discourses and as a local creative, I am curious about space and how the ongoing lockdown has further reflected divisions in our socioeconomic statuses, and how access to digital technology motivates or affects ways of community building.

I turned to Chand Chandramohan, a Singaporean artist of South Asian descent. I was thrilled to visit her mama or mamak shop, a convenience store typically run by South Asian communities and commonly found on the ground level of public housing (the void decks of HDB buildings) in Singapore. When looking at her work, I observed her translation of the vernacular of the shop into the SAD Bar of The Substation, an arts space that previously put out an open call inviting applications to interrogate the use and rights to public space. Chand’s application was amongst the three projects selected to take place.

Photos of  An Actual Mama Shop, taken by Michelle Lim, first published on Plural Art Mag
The interiors of her shop were filled with Bollywood and Kollywood movie posters, snacks from India like Badam drink or Murukku. The shop also included articles on immigration histories, gentrification and recipes of Indian dishes that one could download through QR codes, or if you were observant enough, they were also hanging at the entrance. She observes that digital technology serves to create a rift and increases the disparity of access by education and socioeconomic status. A QR code does not come as naturally to many, and by choosing to use this as a medium, she sparked a conversation within the mama shop about the divides reflected through digitisation and the racialisation of digital spheres.

She explains further that a lot of brown migrants basically use Facebook and WhatsApp for self-entertainment or to contact their families back home. Their current isolation in their dormitories and separation from the larger Singaporean community, they have turned to TikTok for their self-entertainment and keep their families updated. While Chand and I collectively agreed that it was great that there are more digital platforms available to marginalised communities, the reality is still far from ideal. No doubt, access to technology between different communities is evident. Quora, as Chand observes, is extremely prolific in India as opposed to anywhere else in the world.

During the operating hours of her mama shop situated in the city area, Chand’s weekday patrons were mainly blue collar workers (mostly workers from the nearby construction site) who sought a quick respite from the outrageous heat. They were surprised to see a shop selling familiar snacks at cheap rates in the middle of an expensive city centre.

“For all sense and purpose, I’m going to call it a shop. Because for them, it was a shop. That’s how it performed their basic needs – having a space so they can have aircon and conversations with me about how affordable and necessary this was for them. I was providing them a service as they were giving out information to me.” — Chand Chandramohan

The clear separation of demographics through her work was deliberate. The performativity spoke to different groups of people of different socioeconomic status. The accessibility of the shop aesthetics was considered familiar to some, yet alienating to others. I had considered the shop to take on a maximalist aesthetic, an environment very different from the sterility of large shopping mall supermarkets. Chand suggested that white cube spaces often excluded such visual representations and access to these spaces have been mainly catered to a certain socioeconomic group.

“Why do we consider the mama shop aesthetic as not an aesthetic beyond the white cube space? We have the words to say that but when it comes to particularly institutional space where everything is down to curation, it’s like what does curation even mean anymore? What modes of curation are we performing in? [The shop] was not a visual symbol of an arts space. This is a visual symbol of a shop for anyone.” — Chand Chandramohan

Back to the pandemic. We have seen how digital platforms have been utilised to bring the community together for good (no, not you singing and cheering by your window). One of the first media personalities to get the ball rolling were Preeti Nair and brother Subhas, together with their team launched a fundraiser for HealthServe and TWC2 – non-governmental organisations serving the needs and advocating for the improvement of migrant workers’ welfare. To date, they have raised more than $300, 000 in total. Amongst many other groups of people helping marginalised communities during this period is wares mutual aid – an initiative that has exemplified community solidarity by making it open for anyone to help and seek help, and promoting care rather than viewing the vulnerabilities of people through the lens of charity. Other individuals who have stood in solidarity with migrant workers include former NUS professor, Prof. Mohan J Dutta, and activist, Kokila Annamalai. Both have tirelessly raised issues concerning the welfare for migrant workers and campaigned endlessly through research papers, public speeches and through Twitter and Facebook.

Other fundraisers and community initiatives started to activate, and reached out to members of the public based on the visibility that these platforms and organisers afforded. Corporations such as IKEA and Procter and Gamble had also displayed their social responsibility by giving out care packages and in-kind donations.

As we undergo the current digital migration, Chand and I recognise the lack of empathy on social media and online forums. A Facebook page highlighting some of the most vile, racist, and unkind remarks displayed in the comments section of our national newspaper platform shows how some people feel entitled to behave or react however they want because it requires little to no physical accountability. When asked where she thinks this empathy would eventually arrive at, Chand shared that it would be when we actually listen to each other. Can we even listen to each other as human beings?

Representation is often boasted by pop culture, media and advertising. To that, Chand questions if they actually truly care about giving her community their due representation in Singapore. Gallery sitting for a show she curated last year, From Your Eyes To Ours, she feels that we are not ready to talk about representation in art spaces without reducing it to the angry Indian narrative, a borrowed trope of the angry black person in the Western society. When discussing the solidarity offered by spaces, she recounts that the labour of finding space, making space, and pushing for representation still falls on them – artists and curators of South Asian background. At the same time, she deems it important to participate in this labour for now as active spaces reflect and decide on how they want to move forward. To engage and listen to marginalised communities, or continue partaking in opportunistic tokenism and superficial diversity?
Photos of  7.35% performance at  From Your Eyes To Ours, taken by Gerald Goh
Then, what is the solution for non-tokenistic representation especially in the actions of the majority community? She states the importance in ensuring that the space is safe for the person you invite into, and having them preserve their sense of agency in art-making and their reactions without forcing a cultural narrative. Institutions and space makers who aim to show a South Asian artist for the sake of having a cultural aesthetic or motif is inevitably falling into tokenism, creating the objectification or exoticisation of the culture and heritage. Ultimately, it’s not about taking the lead. It’s about offering the spaces that these communities require.

What about community building through digital spheres? While she thinks that there is a possibility of that helping to pave the way forward, many digital spheres are racialised. “A lot of these spheres for marginalised people means violence,” she explains, referencing migrant workers being dismissed from job searches publicly because of their physical attributes and background. There is a gap in policies that are failing the people. When asked about the weight between both, Chand deems governmental policies as more significant towards change than societal attitudes.

“A lot of the policies pushback towards effort to help migrant workers is rooted in racism. How do we even begin to address that?”
— Chand Chandramohan

Since access to technology is so divided, those who are enjoying streaming content, digital discussions, watch parties are undoubtedly the privileged ones. The culture of influencers, where their lavish lifestyles have certainly displayed a deep segregation in socioeconomic statuses and mindsets. Needless to say, this is definitely not the representation we need in this moment. Art spaces are digitising and showing online content, but are they exactly making their spaces available to those who need it? From the discussion with Chand, it is evident that starting a space is a privilege that comes with a great deal of labour and need for self-reflection that not many seem to recognise. Using accessible forms of digital platforms to create spaces and bridging communities sounds great, but how can we reach out to communities with no knowledge of access to this technology?

To counter the deeply racialised and segregated digital spheres, becoming an influencer might be Chand’s next venture. “I do have a few ideas that I’ve been wanting to workshop -- creating self care videos on YouTube under the guise of being an influencer,” she says, due to the accessibility of this particular identity. It all boils down to her performativity to spark crucial conversations. She agrees that this group of people should empower people who don’t share the same level of visibility. Even then, she admits, when you’re a very visible brown person there’s a lot of violence thrown at you. 

The ongoing conversation beckons, how do we tangibly empower those who should have it? 2020 has cancelled many activities but brought up many areas needing change. When all this is over, how are you going to move forward?

Jenson Gabriel Tan is a corporate creative strategist. He believes in manifesting change and consistency.

© 2020 sand magazine and the author