Community and Space Building Concerns, in discussion with artist Chand Chandramohan

Interview by Jenson Gabriel Tan
29 May 2020

This conversation accompanies the discussion, Community Building in the age of the Pandemic: Building Space Through Digitisation

It begins with her recent installation and performance work – An Actual Mama Shop, which investigated levels of accessibility and gentrification of spaces. Her setup took cues from mama or mamak shops started by early Indian immigrants in Singapore. The shop saw blue-collar workers stopping by for affordable snacks, using it as a public space. In this work, she navigated her ongoing discourse about South Asian immigrant narratives and those of marginalised communities in our society and arts circle.

Let’s start with your practice, observations and work surrounding community building.

My works have mostly been performance-based for as long as I have practised since I was 18, so it has been about ten years now. I’d also say that a lot of my performances are rooted in my personal experiences and intimate conversations from immediate life and surroundings – family, friends and how I navigate through spaces.

I don’t generally use theory in my work because I find myself very alienated by it. I don’t need these texts to describe how I’m feeling in a certain situation. I don’t need to know all these terms – I just know that something is wrong and if it is a problem that affects a community of people, we should address it.

Theories that speak of the global North, South…

All these are just words basically. Because of my own experiences with being alienated in many academic and art circles, I stand by the belief that you don’t need access to all these theories to understand my work. If you are interested, you can learn more but I see it as my job to make the language from theory (if I do use it to inform my work) accessible for the viewer.

Like in your latest work, An Actual Mama Shop. Can you tell us more about the research that went into it and how those readings supplement your work? Most of them covered gentrification and the impact of capitalism on spaces.

There is a reason why the readings were quite separated from the actual performance – because accessibility was the key component of the work. To make it accessible to everyone, and not just a certain cube or space of people – especially in conversations like gentrification and social or class mobility, and also migrant mobility. Most of the research that went into the work came from a personal place; my mother’s navigation of Singapore as an immigrant who came to Singapore in her late 30s.

I placed the theories digitally through a QR code because it is, from my experience, most accessible for the middle class and above. A lot of the things that we use, like apps, are very inaccessible to others, like my other for example. Basically, how people use the Internet varies according to our socioeconomic status (SES). A lot of migrants use WhatsApp and Facebook on their phones, and this applies to the older generation too. Some of them, like my cousins in India, don't know Instagram. It’s not just a generational gap. It is also related to our race and the countries we are from. For example, in India, the English educated people use Quora a lot. They use Facebook… Instagram too, but perhaps not in the way that Gen Zs and millennials in Singapore use it. Every country, every SES, every age group uses the digital space differently, and it is determined by policies enacted by each government. That was why I wanted to have a clear separation between the ideals in the information that is given to people.

The patrons of the mama shop were mainly blue-collar workers, whether they were staff at Timbre or workers from the nearby site. They were my regular patrons, using the space for what it was. 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 (away from the heat) and conversations with me about how affordable and necessary this was for them. I was providing them with a service as they were giving out information about how they negotiate their needs to me.

So your work was a performance in itself, to cater to different SES groups.

Yeah, basically. There were many factors in the mama shop that translated to what was actually accessible to different SES. For example, aesthetics – why do we not consider the mama shop as an aesthetic in the context of a white cube art space?
Photos of  An Actual Mama Shop, taken by Michelle Lim, first published on Plural Art Mag

It is an aesthetic of its own. Maximalism is an aesthetic.

Yes – you see, we, in art and academic circles, have the words to describe it. But when it comes to a white cube space, particularly institutional spaces like The Substation where everything boils down to curation – what does that even mean? What modes of curation are we performing in?

The posters in the shop were not a visual symbol of an arts space. They were a visual marker for an accessible, public space. This was a shop for anyone. The calendar on the wall, the movie posters – we often forget the most accessible form of media is pop culture. These things needed to be more visible than the theory that goes behind it. The readings were placed on a Google Drive through a QR code, which I don’t really have to explain how to use to Singaporeans of the middle class and above. I wouldn’t know how to translate that to the workers who came into my ‘shop’ because of my ignorance and privilege. The performance was catered to regular patrons of my shop through storytelling and asking them what they needed including pricing the produce extremely cheap.

Speaking of migrant workers, they are now most affected by the pandemic. We have seen how Preetipls has used her platform to raise more than $300, 000 for NGOs assisting migrant workers.

As an artist and researcher, do you think our community can better connect with and empower these communities through the digital sphere today?

Yes, there are many ways that spaces and privileges can be shared among the creative community. It can be used to empower marginalised people. People like Preetipls, and Shirley Soh who has been utilising Facebook to get people to make masks for migrant workers who don’t have access to them – what they have been doing are amazing.

Many communal efforts are going on right now that are empowering a lot of people affected by this pandemic but one thing that is very important to address is why is this extraordinaire labour necessary? It means that there are gaps in the policies and systems that have failed us.

There is a debate between which one comes first. What do you think motivates a greater impact – societal attitudes or governmental policies?

Governmental policies, definitely. We now have to wait for people to suffer before anything is enacted, which is very unfair. When you talk about vulnerable groups and how the government has completely failed them… people are vulnerable for a reason. Vulnerable groups are the ones who are the most affected when something like a pandemic happens. Do we expect them to suffer even more just so that policies can be enacted later on? Migrant workers are the most visibly affected because of reports of the cramped spaces that they live in. They are considered essential to the economy but don’t even have access to quarantine, much less face masks, to keep themselves safe. Just having the privilege of staying at home – they don’t have that.

From the lens of the global pandemic, these are the people who are left behind. The thing is, vulnerable people have always been left behind. We only recently found out about the deplorable conditions that construction workers are living in but the fact is, this has been happening but nothing has been done before. It takes extreme attempts to make these issues visible before concern shown towards these issues can happen.

How do you think that spaces and privileges can be shared in more tangible ways? Using the example of fundraisers for migrant workers, that in itself can be tricky. After getting the money, how are you going to translate that action when there is so much red tape?

Exactly. Again, there is a gap in policies and systems that are failing us. A lot of the resistant mindsets also come from people working with migrant workers, in this case. One example is the recent visibility of the conditions that workers are forced to face in their living and working situations. I saw an online comment regarding the criticism against what the government is doing, posted by someone who manages a workers’ dormitory. She blamed the spread of the virus among the workers on their hygiene and saying they need to be kept away in small quarters because we don’t like workers in our spaces.

There are so many gaps and disparities in the mindsets of people. A lot of the policy pushback in the efforts to help migrant workers is rooted in racism. How do we even begin to address such racist navigations within policies? It’s a long process and there are tangible ways, and most of the time we have to look at these conversations through empathy. Ultimately, it’s not so much about what I think but what I hope for.

How do you think this empathy will eventually arrive?

I think it will arrive at how we listen to each other. Can we even listen to each other as human beings?

Just look at ST Comments.

Yeah, exactly. We have been migrated to the digital sphere now but like I’ve mentioned, the inaccessibility on a lot of digital spaces including online forums like HardwareZone and Reddit where mindsets seem to be heavily rooted in misogyny and racism. 

Even Facebook, which is the most accessible platform right now regardless of your SES, is discriminatory. For example, advertisements that only feature white or mixed-race actors and still claim to promote diversity. It’s never a person with dark skin. When do you ever see one of us on these ads? This affects and informs low-SES people and the older generation who tend to consume content from the television. What kinds of ads are we seeing on TV and when we are commuting through public spaces? What kinds of visible markers are apparent to us when we navigate public space?

Migrants are also affected through Facebook, which they sometimes use to get jobs. I remember one instance very clearly where a worker posted on a job search group that his job had ended so he needed to get another to extend his contract. The comments on that post were about how black and dirty he was, how disgusting his hair and name was… He literally just mentioned that he wanted a job. When these kinds of spaces are red taped because of physical markers – you can’t even post your name without being given hate. Whereas white migrants are deemed expats and are free from this hate. It’s ridiculous to me how people think that the digital world is  public and accessible when there’s a lot of violence going on in many of these digital spheres.

The subject of racism was also very apparent in the exhibition you previously curated, From your eyes to ours. From where you stood, what kinds of impact did you observe through the show – in terms of who came through and how they navigated the space?

I saw the show through curating and gallery sitting, interacting with a lot of people who walked through the space including the media. The conversations and impact were more immediate to me, and one thing I realised was that we are still not ready to have the conversation about representation in art spaces. I don’t mean to sound accusatory, but consider the majority lens that came with the exhibition – how we were reduced to the angry Indian narrative (when the show was so much more than that) through articles written by media outlets that didn’t even bother to attend.

The angry Indian narrative, which is a borrowed trope from the West.

Yes, and you can clearly see that in the articles that used the most Indian image they could find. It was this work about the saree. There’s this idea that if it’s a work by an Indian artist concerning Indian issues, it has to be about the saree. They’re still playing into the trope, you see. Even though this exhibition was about reclaiming our spaces and agency to exhibit and exist in the art space, they still forced us to be a trope because of how they put out the publicity.

There were very huge concerns when these articles using the same image were published around the same time. One of the concerns being, how are people going to know these are two separate articles – one of them I wrote (but didn’t choose the image), the other was a group interview. We wanted to differentiate my voice as the curator of the exhibition from the media’s narration of the event because the concept that went into this project was incredibly important, along with why we had to do it.

One of us needed to write an article determining our intention for doing this project because it was very difficult to have this conversation with other people, even during the artist talk. A lot of public events including performances, workshops, film screenings come with the framing that ‘this should be a regular thing’ or ‘we should do this together every year’. The labour again falls on us. Who else is going to do that labour? Yes, we can and we must do the labour for now but does that mean that the people who we need the labour from should become complacent? When will they do the work instead? Are they just going to go with superficial notions of diversity in art spaces, where an Indian or Malay person is invited but the space isn’t actually made safe for them?

The biggest impact that I got from the exhibition was the solidarity among the artists themselves and the consensus that we needed a space. We need spaces to exhibit because we do not get them. We, as Indian artists, are routinely rejected from grants, funding, group shows and every space imaginable in the art scene. Whether they are independent or institutional, you don’t really see a lot of art spaces representing Indian voices or faces. So how do we even negotiate this idea, when the people who are supposed to represent us don’t even want us? How do we actually negotiate every space that doesn’t want us? The only thing we can do is to create spaces in each other at the moment.

I wouldn’t say take the lead to create spaces for us but listen to us. Come to a point of empathy and respond to our need for spaces and give us the agency – that’s all we need, really. A lot of the work that was put into the conceptualisation of the show was about giving artists their agency to do whatever they want and react however they want to. They could choose whether they wanted to respond to the theory that was given to them. Eventually, everyone wanted to do work based on their individual experiences.
Photos of  7.35% performance at  From Your Eyes To Ours, taken by Gerald Goh

Do you think that art can solve this problem?

I don’t think art can solve the problem because, at the end of the day, we are visual makers. We kind of just make pretty things, really. That’s what it comes down to right? We talk about the arts, the industry and it’s really about the aesthetic and appealing to the public’s visuality.

That said, there is labour that needs to be more prominent in terms of how we negotiate art spaces in Singapore. The environment here can be toxic and exploitative, not just towards race, and gender, but also youths. It can be financially and mentally exploitative, too. There are so many gaps in policies in the arts that we haven’t even addressed. When art spaces form, is it in their mentality to create spaces that are diverse or do they just want a token of diversity?

How do you differentiate that?

It has to be in their intention when they create a space; when they say they want a diverse space. For example, there are spaces geared towards queer theory and queerness, but your queerness is male and Chinese. There are a lot of problems that intersect, and obviously, we can’t solve everything at once but with the emergence of independent spaces, it is important to evaluate the privileges that certain spaces have, and how certain spaces don’t have it – what I would categorise as marginalised and active spaces.

I would call Coda Culture a marginalised space because of the sacrifices that Seelan had to go through just to keep that space – as successful as it is now. The amount of labour that a lot of people had put into Coda Culture, and it’s not without its hang-ups. It takes active labour to make your space as safe as possible for the people who you are choosing to engage with.

A lot of independent spaces today are visibly active spaces. They are doing shows after shows, are very prominent in the arts scene, and you know who’s involved in the space – most of them being Chinese faces, even in group spaces. Yes, you are visible because your Chinese face provides you with the visibility and access to your ideas being valid, and people take you more seriously because of your race. When these people want to put out works about race, equality and marginalisation – how do they even navigate that when I can’t even trust them to negotiate with me? How do I create works for your space, when at the back of my mind I’m wary that it might become exploitative?

I would like to hear your thoughts about how community building looks like for you when there are very little physical spaces that are accessible to your community. Do you see yourself eventually starting your own space?

No. The efforts involved in a space is a lot of labour, and it’s not just about starting it but maintaining the space. It requires a lot of self-reflection and group contemplation. I don’t have many great experiences with groups. One of the things that’s very important is whether a space knows when or how to dissolve. Problems that are not actively dealt with become very cyclical and you tend to repeat the same mistakes because there are limitations in people’s capacities whether it’s mental or emotional.

There’s this idea of starting an organisation, group or space, it becomes your baby and so you don’t want to let it go. It becomes very toxic when people hold onto their ideas of progressiveness without actually letting the space progress. If it means dissolving, I think it’s very important – for the sake of progress.

Will you then venture into the digital sphere for the ease and access to create spaces?

Yes, in very accessible forms of digital spheres. I do have a few ideas that I’ve been wanting to workshop, such as creating videos on YouTube under the guise of being an influencer. It is a performance in getting to influence people and having a very accessible identity. For people who have so much visibility on digital spheres, I think it’s up to them to empower people who don’t share that visibility. Even then, when you’re a very visible brown person, you get a lot of violence thrown onto you. Is that something that I can negotiate with and still push forward?

I find it funny how this year, just as I have gained more traction in my art, the world is cancelled. If the traction happened for me last year, I may have gotten a show by now. I may have three to four shows in the works right now. Even for someone who has had 10 years of practice, I find myself asking, what do I do now? What about those people who do not have as many years and don’t have that much visibility in the arts, to begin with? How do they continue their practice? What happens when this is over? Are we just going to forget about all the works that have been on hold and the people who have been doing important work up to this moment of cancellation? Are we going to move forward, or are we going to revert to tried and tested methods of representation through the majority lens?

Digital spheres are important, difficult as it is to forget how a lot of them are so racialised and where some digital spheres for marginalised people mean violence. Everyone’s emotional and mental capacity is already drained at the moment – is it fair to ask people who are already marginalised to take it upon themselves to push their narratives forward? What are institutions really doing? How are they going forward towards digital migration and make their spaces accessible through the digital sphere?

I’m hoping that we do move forward and this is just a pause. These conversations must keep happening. All the labour that a lot of South Asian and Southeast Asians have been doing – it’s important that we get to move forward and have our narratives pushed towards a point where it becomes in the consciousness of art spaces to programme with these thoughts in mind instead of an afterthought, or when they get called out.

Chand Chandramohan (b. 1992) is a multidisciplinary artist hailing from Singapore.  Interested in ideas of performity within frames, her two most worked disciplines of performance art and collage intersect within notions of satire, marginalisation and social commentary. She is part of joke artist groups such as desigirl69, horizontal denglong and many more to come.

She has graduated from LASALLE College of the Arts with a Bachelors of Arts in Fine Arts in 2014 and exhibited both locally and internationally since 2010. Notable shows a solo presentation in Hue, Vietnam, performances with Chicks on Speed at Art Science Museum (Singapore), The Rejected Proposals Showcase, Coda Culture (Singapore),The Lands Of, The Reef (Los Angeles); organised Performance Art Resource Orchestrator (PARO) with Yuzuru Maeda in 2018, as well as curatorial efforts in both Singapore and Bangkok. She has also had curatorial efforts in ‘From Your Eyes to Ours’ at Coda Culture as the first art event to feature all contemporary South Asian artists.

© 2020 sand magazine and the author