(In reference to "I AM", an audience-participative public installation at George Town, 2009, by Iranian-born and German-based international video artist, Shahram Entakhbi)
“I AM…” as a form of production, research and curatorial methodology, can be read as cultural studies in action, especially in regards to language, culture and identity.
Language has long been taken as the core of cultural studies. It does not only mirror an independent object world but constructs and constitutes it. All cultural forms can be analysed like a language (Barthes, 1967, 1972). They are said to work like language especially in regards to identity. The discourse of identity, which was the central category of cultural studies in the 1990s, was held to be social and discursive construction (Barker, 2000).
Following Derrida (1976) and a good many cultural studies writers following him, deployment of binary relation between signs in structuralism was ‘deconstructed’ by the notion of the instability of language, meaning and identity (Barker and Galashiski, 2001). Cultural studies then swung from the structuralism’s study of texts to the post-structuralist’s exploration of audience. Consequently, meanings in language, as in identities, were taken to be unstable. They are nevertheless regulated and temporarily stabilised in social practice into pragmatic narratives or discourses.
Discourses, especially after Foucault (1972, 1977, 1980) refer to language and practice that are regulated as ways of speaking about a topic. Meanings, including those pertinent to many the notion of multiple identities, are relational and formed within ‘language games’.
Cultural studies read multiple identities as products of signifying practices. To unveil Georgetown as a zone of multiple identities is to explore how meanings attached to it are produced symbolically through the signifying practices of language and representation. Similar to meanings in language, identities are produced by active human agents.
Derrida’s influence has underpinned the widespread adoption of anti-essentialism, social construction and textual deconstruction. Such adoption has sparked further theorisation of identity as an unstable description in language, that the notion of identity is more a state of becoming rather than a fixed entity (Hall, 1992, 1996). Such adoption can be traced in the discourse of gender (Nicholson, 1990 and Weedon, 1997); and post-colonial theory (Bhabha, 1994). It has also lead to a proposition that all forms of culture and identity are zones of shifting boundaries and hybridisation. Such proposition reads multiple identities as to be wholly social, political and malleable cultural construction, not necessarily biological and universal all the time. Consequently, cultural studies now entails a process of ‘listening to people’, the active interpreters of signs and constructors of cultural identities.
“I AM…” looks at ‘self-identity as a reflective project’ (Barker and Galashiski, 2001). It surveys how the many notions of self, both personal and collective as well as cultural are narrated by the public at large, in this case the living dwellers of Georgetown’s ‘street of harmony’. As indicated by the ‘findings’ of this project, the many notions of self-identity (and even of Georgetown and Penang) are not necessarily given, universal, homogenous, fixed and frozen. They are rather ‘performed’ and appear to be in a constant state of ‘becoming’.
“I AM…” also epitomises the spirit of ‘listening to’ instead of ‘talking to’. It marks a shift from ‘institution/state-dictated’ to ‘people-defined’, while simultaneously returns to the spirit of interdependence, inclusiveness and participation in dealing with issues that are pertinent to the interest of the whole. Notwithstanding UNESCO’s official recognition of Georgetown as a heritage site, the more substantial meanings of heritage, of belonging and most importantly of becoming are best constructed, re-constructed and performed by the citizens of Georgetown. Despite concerted efforts by many ‘experts’ to define Georgetown (and perhaps its citizens) along the line of its unique multi-cultural heritage, the actual ‘living experience’ of ‘multi-cultural’ identities belongs to the people of Georgetown themselves.
“I AM…” reiterates several key principles that can be traced in many forms of eastern traditions such as modularity, non-linear, simultaneous, impermanence/ephemeral, communal, interdependence, convergence, cross-disciplinary, cyclical, audience-centered and many more. These key principles have also been deployed as the constant guides for Muzium & Galeri Tuanku Fauziah (MGTF), Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM) in advocating sustainability as it steers itself into the challenging terrains of the increasingly globalised world.
MGTF is honoured to be able to work collaboratively with the internationally renowned contemporary artist, Shahram Entakhabi, the indefatigable Joe Sidek, students of the School of the Arts and the blessed citizens of Georgetown for this very special and meaningful project.
Hasnul J Saidon
Muzium & Galeri Tuanku Fauziah
Universiti Sains Malaysia
For further reference, click on
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- Barker, Chris and Galasinski (2001) Cultural Studies and Discourse Analysis – A Dialogue on Language and Identity. London: Sage Publications
- Barthes, R.(1967) The Elements of Semiology. London: Cape
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- Derrida, J. (1976) (trans. G Spivak) Of Grammatology. Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press
- Foucault, M. (1972) The Archaeology of Knowledge. New York: Pantheon
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- Hall, S. (1992) ‘Cultural studies and its theoretical legacies’, in L. Grossberg, C.Nelson and P.Treichler (eds), Cultural Studies. London and New York: Routledge
- Hall, S. (1996) ‘Who needs identity?’, in S.Hall and P. Du Gay (eds), Questions of Cultural Identity. London: Sage
- Nicholson, L.(ed) (1990) Feminism/Postmodernism. London and New York: Routledge
- Weedon, C. (1997) Feminist Practice and Poststructuralist Theory. Oxford: Blackwell