Understanding the concepts of the works at ‘Space Oddities’

19 August 2019

This investigative exhibition at The Substation navigates the complex relations of cultural differences and the politics of space. It centres the power dynamics and the idea of ‘public’, providing viewers with a direction when deliberating the usage of spaces and public spheres in Singapore. Taking cues from concerns on spatiality of human life, Space Oddities gestures to various types of spaces where occupants contour themselves into shapes and postures - less easily definable than the discourse they may represent, or participate in.

Visual artist Divaagar presents a soft yet cheeky commentary on the restriction of free love in Singapore is for Lovers. A rest stop surrounded by lush greens, a velvet cushioned wall and a washroom cubicle decked out in pinks, soft textures and fragrance exude a nurturing sense of warmth and acceptance. All these spaces encapsulate areas available to the public and a safe ground for quality time, with certain inaccessible physical or systemic demarcations in mind. Divaagar prompts viewers to rethink what it feels to live and love freely in a society that balances on a tightrope of passive-aggression towards the queer community.

How do you define a ‘public space’?

DIVAAGAR: Wikipedia defines the term ‘public space’ as a — just kidding.

It’s increasingly difficult for me to define what public spaces are, especially in considering what the term ‘public’ means to us. I think the definitions between public and private are blurred and sometimes hard to distinguish, when the term ‘public’ is intertwined with entities (government, corporations, collective public opinion) that impose what activities, bodies or behaviours are permissible within it.

I think this is most exemplified in the ‘Liquor Control Zones’ enacted in places like Little India and Geylang where there is “higher risk of public disorder associated with excessive drinking”. These places are frequented by and most associated with minority (and foreign) communities locally. Even the smoking ban at Orchard Road that aims to create healthier environments for shoppers has been speculated to have been a charade for tourists in order to maintain Singapore’s clean and green image.

If you can imagine cities as homes, you could consider public spaces as living rooms. It’s a good lens to look through – public spaces are supposedly accessible, used and enjoyed by its occupants. To probe this analogy further, I think it’s also important to ask, to whom does this living room belong to? What are the house rules? Who is welcome?
Something that struck us in your installation was the narrow spot you have created within the Random Room. Was there a particular reason, or a type of realisation or feeling you intended to recall in anyone who tries to enter the area?

D: The Random Room was interesting, spatially. When I was first asked to propose a work within it, I took notice of the qualities of this room. The two entrances/exits, two windows but with one paved over, a foldable sofa bed and the carpeted floor were just among the many things that made up the space.

It wasn’t difficult to find inspiration for this room; establishing a passage within the space the path drawn by the positions of the doors, and just looking outdoors, where a newly paved road (re)hosts a botanic garden, I decided to create a park connector with a little twist. 

In simple observation of the way we navigate cities, we can recognise that paths for walking are demarcated with concrete and the vegetation next to it facilitates a barrier between spaces of passage for bodies, or vehicles. However, sometimes these paths that are planned to the users of these demarcations create inconveniences to one’s intended routes, and desire paths are created. In this work I wanted to create this space of desire, where if one deviates from the path between both doors and followed the flamingos, you’d find a small, private pink garden.

Thinking of public cruising spaces as planned and curated spaces is incredibly idealistic. In looking at them, or even artists who have previously used them as subjects, the deliberate definitions of the spaces are an integral part of creating un-surveil-able pockets. That is also why the motif of the labyrinth is a very common one within many works that deal with this subject.

Between painting furniture to match the pastel rose of the walls, to creating a tight squeeze towards this secondary space with raised garden beds, it was planned to exist both in plain sight but also to be entered by those who were in tune with their surroundings, much like the people who cruise utilise guiding cues to navigate these grounds.

Were you also exploring the relationships and non-relationships of objects and settings? How does this relate to your personal discourse with the availability and use of spaces in Singapore?

D: Public spaces are created for utilitarian purposes, which I think is right on brand with Singapore’s missing sixth star: the ideal of pragmatism. Art, on the other hand, can be frivolous, decorative and idealistic in the sense of its purpose to the state in the frames of productivity and purpose. I think of my own practice as finding itself rooted between these realities as productive impracticalities.

Singapore is for lovers was conceived through several interventions, to imbue comfort into existing spaces, using coded and campy performative objects, and to create potential spaces for cruising. Within this series, I had the opportunity to work plush, textural elements into environments such as the toilet cubicle and the “coffin” in the corridor, which I hadn’t really pushed prior to this work. Cruising spaces are often spaces that are utilised for unintended purposes.

The work doesn’t necessarily facilitate but creates comfortable environments and cares for its otherwise unwanted occupants.

The public sphere is also a system of communication between the state and civil society. What more can be done to break down the restrictions of spaces, and enabling members of the public to utilise these spaces more effectively – in the process reshaping and overcoming the city’s experience and history of being policed in public spaces?

D: I believe in softer movements, misbehaviors and interventions – at least locally, where expressing dissent is often difficult, and potentially illegal. To reference the desire path again, the collective deliberate act of walking through grass to lay out alternative passages is, in itself, a resistive act. Sometimes the ground, after the grass is flattened to bare soil, could be paved over with concrete.

Seeing embellished (’zhng-ed’) motorcycles is common in the nightlife of Singapore’s suburban areas. It’s obnoxiously loud yet endearing with its unbridled declaration of self. However, in trying to maintain the peace and harmony among the general public, these attempts in self-preservations of one’s identity and interest in modifiying motorcycles are clamped down and shunned.

Multidisciplinary artist Zhiyi Cao explores the modifications and presence of e-scooters in Singapore in 2272 Open Report, and questions the capitalisation on these subcultures that were initially borne out of sheer authenticity by bigger companies who simply reduce these subcultures to a point for profit. The work was accompanied by various readings that shed light on the usage of spaces and manipulation of subcultures. 

How do you define a ‘public space’?

ZHIYI CAO: I see it as not just a physical space or void but any platform that isn’t privately owned and can be occupied by public presence – physically, spiritually, bio-medically, emotionally. A hardwarezone forum is as much a public space as a hospital as the flight of stairs behind your block where young couples make out. It’s a space that allows situation by actants of society, a place people (technically should) have equal access to, although these terms ought to be constantly negotiated during and after the anointment of a public space.
It’s interesting how you used Impound Yard, Geeks, MOPs and sociopaths in subculture evolution and Keller Easterling’s Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space almost as precursors to your installation.

How did these readings inform your installation at Space Oddities?

ZC: Impound Yard is actually an e-mail correspondence I had with someone from LTA during my first round of research about impounded e-scooters. This conversation is pretty telling of the relationship we have with urban authorities, where we are often asked to contribute our opinions and ideas when it is needed or convenient (think Punggol Digital Districts Ideas! submission), yet turned away when other information is requested. This asymmetry in access to information is something I’m constantly trying to work around. There’s also a juicy quality to screenshots. The very format marks the content’s transition from existing in a private space to the public sphere (words that were meant for a certain individual become, just words).

As for Geeks and Extrastatecraft, they are readings that are extremely formative to the conceptualisation of 2272 Open Report. Geeks specifically on the sociality of and within a subculture, the invisible forces of inclusion and exclusion within a scene and the life-cycle of a subculture. Extrastatecraft, on the other hand, helped form the basis of how I approached describing the relationship and hierarchy we have with legislative street authorities.

These readings made me think deeply about what relics/objects/motifs can really represent what e-scooters and their novelty mean to our roads and psyche. Some of these elements include infinity signs that nod to the notion of eternal return, burnouts as a mode of marking space, the texts bouncing around the screensaver of e-scooter porn “are you ready for your Vice feature?” that gesture to an engagement with not just the e-scooter community itself, but with the surrounding discourse.
Apart from your research purpose, did you view the zhnging of e-scooters as an object set for a wider discourse on public spaces? How does this very element relate to the masses and consumers who inhabit our everyday spaces?
ZC: DIY modification culture is something you see everywhere, most apparently on vehicles and electronic gadgets, but also on everyday objects and happenings - think getting a tattoo, having a baby, and Meitu. If I may quote my own text Notes on Zhng,

“Just like Meitu-ing a mediocre selfie in the presence of a natural beauty who can afford to (and probably will) say the app makes you look fake; it’s not about that post-edit QQ skin, but the identification of such vanity and flights of fancy as what ground us as human. Zhng is about reclaiming the thirst to ‘do better’ in front of those who have already ‘done better’. A common lust for a better life grips us all, so why pretend that some decisions are more valid than others?”

It is second nature, this idea of self-improvement, this aspirational narrative, as displays of both material condition and individuality. I have no doubts about zhng’s relatability, it just exists in different forms, under different names, and Notes on Zhng was an attempt to theorise them into a more wholesome unit.
Personally, what connections do you see between the exploitation of subcultures to our public spaces and the usage or non-usage? Can we ultimately keep spaces (whether outdoors or infrastructures) free from exploitation?

ZC: I see a necessarily difficult connection. Once the space is used (often for what it was not intended) and noticed, the subject (often a subculture) becomes ripe for picking by various media platforms, artists and other members of public (MOPs).

There is no way to completely seal away or protect a subculture and public spaces from their eventual exploitation because no one has the capacity to own either of these things, precisely because of the nebulous ways they are accessed, disseminated and territorialised.

Without ownership we break free of the chains of exclusive access, but it also makes something susceptible to the forces of the free market, or rather ‘cultural mutation’, a term borrowed to describe the linear progression of a subculture joining the mainstream, appearing on t-shirts and then disappearing into obsolescence before peeking out again at some hyper-specific corner of history twenty years later.

An alternative strategy I’ve witnessed that can correct this is through state muscle, which is why I have such ambivalent feelings about the role of street authorities. A politician in Bangkok opened up a legal drag racing strip for young bikers to race in a regulated premise instead of going onto the streets, and immediately public highways and underage race buffs become partially protected, but at what cost?

Not just of public resources, but of the taste of authenticity and non-complicity. Are we really stuck between the binary of market forces and state regulation, or are we able to imagine a more liquid form of occupying public space I fantasised e-scooters will show us?
How do subcultures contribute to public spheres in relation to the spaces that are available to them? And how do these public spaces enable subcultures?

ZC: More often than not, it is subcultures’ semi-legality that forms the core of their existence and relationship with public spaces. The space and the corresponding culture are symbiotic as new communities give public spaces new reasons to exist. Just as I’ve answered in the previous question, you wonder if the term ’subculture’ has been sufficiently co-opted to become this poster child for mild (acceptable) resistance – nothing too radical or dangerous, just sufficiently deviant.

And I wonder if that is because public spaces are not sufficiently public enough, or is that just the natural end point of anything that becomes entwined with the cultural-entertainment complex.

The e-scooter community was born out of the belief that roads and walkways are public spaces and till now, their existence is still indebted to such spaces’ availability. As an amateur archivist for this community, you slowly watch bits and pieces taken away, first with the weight and speed limits, and now the ban in void decks. It always takes two hands to clap but just one to take it all away – maybe this community will migrate across the causeway to Malaysia for their night rides, perhaps resistance will arise from within the delivery industry. The nature of this community will inevitably change with the burgeoning restrictions, but it will also be a test of desire and willingness to deal with adversity.
In a metropolitan city like Singapore where land is scarce and more people are vying for spaces especially with the creative scene widening its reach, how else can public spaces be utilised apart from the usual festivals, street activations and pop-ups?

ZC: I would say, reduce the implementation of defensive architecture, bring your own foldable deck chairs to shaded areas just to chill because sometimes it’s the small things you can do in a space that matter. Also, if anyone has the power or ability to do so, turn more private spaces into public spaces, even if temporarily!

© 2019 sand magazine and the authors