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Thursday, 18 July 2013


Roopesh Sitharan, Niranjan Rajah, Me, and Tengku Sabri, at MMU, June 2013.

Notwithstanding the frantic effort to finish-up papers and presentations as well as all the probing discourses and 'intellectual' mumbo-jumbo that I went through for the past few weeks through two back-to-back programs - "Aliran Semasa" at the National Visual Art Gallery of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur (25-27 June, 2013) and "New Media Art From South East Asia" at the Bandung Institute of Technology, Indonesia (July 1, 2013), the main highlight is still a memorable re-conciliation of a friendship with my long-lost friend (after about thirteen years), Niranjan Rajah. Friendship and love transcends space and time.

But before we go to that, here's a brief on "Aliran Semasa":
This week-long program aims to assemble new media practitioners from diverse background; to discuss common concerns, nurture professional network and instigate collaborative projects. It also serves as an experimental platform for creative and theoretical research presentation that could potentially generate “localized” epistemology - for the articulation of cultural practices that intersect between art, culture, media, technology and capitalism in Malaysia.

Various fringe events such as talk, screening, mini exhibition and performance are organized as part of the program. These events are kindly hosted by Malaysian Institute of Art (MIA), Multimedia University (MMU), University Science Malaysia (USM) and Kebun Rupa, Museum and Gallery Tuanku Fauziah (MGTF).

An essential part of the program is the collaboration between Networking and Education Department (NVAG) and academic institutions (MIA, MMU, and USM). It is hoped that this collaboration will cultivate a progressive and sustainable breeding ground for future New Media artist.

List of events:

22-29 June 2013 - [Rearview Forward} exhibition, with opening performance and video art screen on 22 June 2013 from 2.30pm to 4.30pm KLEX, 4.30pm -5.30pm Video Screening, 8pm-10.30pm Performance @ MIA College Gallery, Kuala Lumpur

25 June 2013 - Panel discussion on "Media + Education" by Assistant Professor Niranjan Rajah (Simon Fraser Uni.), Associate Professor Hasnul Saidon (USM), Tengku Sabri Tengku Ibrahim (MMU) and Roopesh Sitharan (PhD program, Goldsmith College) from 10am to 12pm @ Faculty of Creative Multimedia (FCM), e-theather, Multimedia University, Cyberjaya.

27 June 2013 - Talk and Presentation by Professor Wan Zawawi Ibrahim (UBD, Brunei), Asst. Prof. Niranjan Rajah, Saubin Yap (MMU), Roopesh Sitharan from 10am to 5pm Balai Seni Visual Negara, Kuala Lumpur. Moderator: Dr Izmer Ahmad (USM) and Associate Prof. Hasnul Saidon.

15-25 June 2013 - Rintis Shift 2013 annual exhibition @ Nadi Centre, Building D18, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang.

I have to congratulate Roopesh Sitharan, young, intelligent and restless, perhaps intellectually itchy (if not occasionally annoying) writer-curator-artist-Phd candidate now based in Goldsmith London, and Tan Hui Koon, a persistent, hardworking and passionate curator at the National Visual Art Gallery of Malaysia, for steering the project from a working draft many-many months ago to its completion recently. 

Both of them were the main drivers of the program. Luckily too, they managed to rope in Yap Sau Bin to provide some advise and critical input. 

I came to know about the program when the proposal was presented to the Board Members of the National Visual Art Development for approval.  Yes, I am in the board, and ya, of all the places I thought I would be thrown into.

I suspect, the proposal was largely penned by Roopesh, with Koon taking on the project manager role. Initially I was reluctant to get too much involved, preferring to take on an advisory role or as an observer. I thought that would allow me to have a critical distance in gathering pertinent data for my own research. Rather selfish, ya I know. Had to be stingy about where and how to invest one's energy as one gets older.  Whattodo?

Both Roopesh and Koon initially obliged. But after failing to get few suggested super-star names from our hot-list to be panel members and moderators, I had to jump in to help. In addition, I had to consider how hard both Roopesh and Koon had worked in getting my old colleague Niranjan Rajah all the way from Vancouver, Canada to come. Plus they managed to rope in Dr. Wan Zawawi, all the way from the University of Brunei.  Dr. Wan used to be Niranjan's boss (mine as well) in UNIMAS (Universiti Malaysia Sarawak) back in the late 1990s.

Getting big names is usually not easy, and sometimes risky too. So, have to commend Koon and Roopesh for their gut. Perhaps, I'm biased here. Koon used to be one of my students back at USM before. Roopesh, together with Koon, used to be a significant member of a Youth Art Camp called Sonneratia that I directed with Sooshie Sulaiman back in 2002 and 2003. Sonneratia still carries a special meaning to me. 

Have to admit though, I can' help but feel a bit proud or beaming with pride as I witness Roopesh and Koon 'flapped their wings'. Of course, like a normal older 'brader' (not father ok, I'm still young ma!), I occasionally whacked them. Roopesh for sometimes over-intellectualizing things, and Koon, for sometimes being too hasty and naively overwhelmed by her own sentiment.  

The talk and seminar went well, including the fringe or accompanying shows at MIA - Malaysian Institute of Art (based on the pictures and verbal testimonies). 

At the Multimedia University (MMU), I had a wonderful re-union not only with Niranjan, but also with Ling Siew Woei, who used to be our student back in UNIMAS days. It was the first time the three of us managed to get together after she graduated in 1998. She even brought her kids to see us (we are grandpas already!). 

Niranjan came with a cowboy attire, complete with the hat, all in black. He was 'wearing a culture', a term I used in my presentation that day. He even showed a childhood photo of him in a complete cowboy attire as a starter for his presentation. Of course, he was playing with the post-structuralist's deconstructive stance in contesting easy stereotypes. 

Cowboy balik kampung
Cowboy and his old friend.
Roopesh, Niranjan, Me and Siew Woei
Siew Woei, reminiscing her UNIMAS graduation day with her friend Helena, Niranjan and I back in 1998.
It was also a re-union of some sort between Niranjan and Tengku Sabri@Engku (who performed as a sporting and generous moderator during the talk). All the panels were given ample time to present their cases. Thank you Engku.

I was very pleased to see young artists who only used to know Niranjan by name and by reading his essays such as TC Liew, Kartik (all the way from UNIMAS in Sarawak), Hamidi, Suzy, Fairuz Sulaiman and Syafiq who came to our talk at MMU and then at the National Visual Art Gallery of Malaysia. Kyoko from the Japan Foundation was also there, with two staffs from the Yamaguchi Center for Media Art, Japan. They are working on few new media art projects and workshops with Suzy and Fairuz Sulaiman. Kudos to Sau Bin and his colleagues at MMU for dragging many students to come to the talk, and for being a very helpful host (Sau Bin volunteered as my power-point assistant!). Thank you also for inviting Niranjan and I to share our views on the Faculty's proposed and promising new program.

Niranjan meeting with TC Liew.
We talked about the state of new media art education with Niranjan using his experiences at the Simon Fraser University, Vancouver Canada as his case examples. He articulated the challenges of fusing critical theories into the framework of techno-centric new media education. He spoke about the 'meta' aspect of information technology and the imperative of having access, better understanding and comprehension of such meta-structure to avoid from being just mere users. He connoted the capitalist framework working behind new media technology and how one has to be fully aware of such framework in dealing with the technology. 

'Performance' by me (and Sau Bin on the power-point)
I presented my students' works at USM to articulate my paper "Who Am I - Wearing Culture in the Cyberia of the 21st. Century". Central premise of my paper is the impact of new media technology towards its active users - young people. The presentation looked at how they actively make their own choices in wearing and performing 'culture' via new media technology, thus contributing towards their own notions of individual and collective cultural identities. Here, the notion of culture as a state of constant becoming and arriving was emphasized. I though that my presentation was rather more fitting and complimentary to Niranjan's later presentation at the National Visual Art Gallery, but still, I guess it was ok for the predominantly students audience at MMU.  

Roopesh used a project called "Upload-Download" to put forward his points on the potentials, pro and cons of online space in dealing with educational challenges of new media technology. 

Few questions were raised during the Q&A, including from Suzy Sulaiman on the relevance of working within formal institutions in dealing with the educational imperatives of new media technology. I guess we can wait for the proposed follow-up publication of "Aliran Semasa" for further details.

True to Malaysian tradition, 'makan time' after the talk, this time, Briyani.
Cowbow with his semi-tobat rock kapak friend, hanged-out from noon after the talk at MMU till night at a stall behind the National Visual Art Gallery. Lots to talk about, after a lapse of about thirteen years.
The mini seminar at the National Visual Art Gallery (NVAG) also went smoothly except for early hiccups when Koon could not find Dr. Wan at the hotel. Dr. Wan was probably in a different time zone since he just came back from a conference somewhere half across the globe.  It was also very nice to see Dr. Wan after few years. The last time I saw him was when he came to my solo show at the Chandan Gallery, Damansara, back in 2008. Dr. Wan gave me a new book "Social Science and Knowledge in a Globalising World" which he edited.  I'm reading it. A good read indeed.

Thank you Dr. Wan for the book.
Seen in the front row, Dr. Izmer, Niranjan's mother, Tara and Durga, Niranjan's daughters.
At the NVAG, Niranjan reunited with Dr. Wan Zawawi and Rachel Ng (of Rouge Art, who used to be Niranjan's Art Management student at UNIMAS). Niranjan's daughters and parents were also there.

Niranjan with Rachel Ng.
The auditorium was packed, not just by MMU students dragged by Sau Bin and Kak Mastura (Tengku Sabri's wife who is also lecturing at MMU), but also by MIA (Malaysian Institute of Art) students, dragged by my old friend Bibi Chew and newly-returned young artist-cum-hipster Aizat, both  lecturing there. 

There were also the forever-young Pak Leman (Sulaiman Esa), the indefatigable iron-women Beverly Yong and her 'co-editor in crime' Nur Hanim Khairuddin, and cool Nasir Baharuddin in the crowds. It was also a pleasure to see Daniel Chong, Noor Azizan Paiman, Fuad Ariff, Goh Lee Kwang, Sabina Arobiam and Wong Eng Leong (two Sonneratia alumnis).

Front row, Fuad Ariff, Fairuz Sulaiman, the forever-young and handsome Pak Leman (Sulaiman Esa), Noor Azizan Paiman, Hamidi Hadi and Nur Hanim Khairuddin.
Nasir Baharuddin (Nasio) from UPM and Alizam from the NVAG
Daniel, asking, "May I know why you pick Rajnikand instead of Jacky Chan?" to which Niranjan answered, "Because I'm an Indian la!"

Fairuz Sulaiman, the epitome of a new generation of media artist.
TC Liew and Syafiq Samat, whom I refer to as 'outcast-incast'

Kak Mas (front, left, blur) brought her MMU students.
One of my favourite low-profile artists, Bibi Chew, brought her MIA students, thank you madam.

The seminar was initiated by a poignant 'home-coming' performance-ritual from the returning 'Cowboy' Niranjan and his mother, followed by morning session presentations by Niranjan and Dr. Wan. The session was moderated by Dr. Izmer from USM.

Welcome home cowboy. The loving heart of Amma is your home 'brader', the bestowal of blessings, the site of return and constant arrival.

Niranjan, Dr. Izmer and  Dr. Wan in the morning session
Niranjan's presentation surprisingly for me, didn't venture into the ontological and spiritual trajectory of new media technology as I expected from him. Instead, he revisited the politics of diasporic identities and representation (or mis-representation, if not under-representation) within the framework of State-defined identity and the global cultural imperatives of new media technology. He gave a frank, open, and 'on-your-face' presentation on a reflection of his personal ethnic predicament, perhaps, in response to current post-election event and repercussions.  His on-your-face stance was perhaps analogous to his bulging eyes in his seminal "Telinga Keling" work, now under the collection of the National Visual Art Gallery.

By using his own self as a case example of such diasporic, trans-geography, trans-historical, multiple or even hybrid and layered identities, Niranjan re-visited the imperative of contesting prescriptive, definitive, homogenizing, neutralizing, marginalizing, simplistic and even discriminative (for many) construction of official and collective National identity.  Sounds familiar, 90s? 

Well, I thought Niranjan had got over this politics of identity already. I thought he is already deeply engrossed in the hyper-connectivity of post-information age, probing into the working of the human mind and consciousness.

Yet, and to be fair, I believe that he also problematized the irony of anti-essentialism stance and perhaps, lazy deployment of easy binary (Indian - non-Indian) as it may be exploited and abused when placed within local and international contexts. 

In some case, ethnic essentialism (exerting and fore-fronting one's ethnic root, Indian for example)  can paradoxically work well in exploiting the global market, media sentiment and mass mob. He cited several examples, including a Tamil movie hero, Rajnikand (not sure spelling is right or not). A deconstructive and anti-essentialist stance may ironically yield more essentialist positioning, that some refer to as 'strategic essentialism'. Of course, Niranjan's presentation can be further debated and questioned.  So, go for it, whack him back.

Dr. Wan's presentation provided a glimpse of reading new media art from a social scientist's perspective. Understandably, Dr. Wan's may not be a fluent expert and speaker in new media art, yet his presence would perhaps signal the imperative of synergizing theoretical frameworks from the social sciences with new media art practice.

Dr. Wan Zawawi.
Pak Leman and Fuad Ariff gave their views during the Q&A session. Pak Leman questioned the extent of impact of such seminar and discussion on the local art scene while Fuad questioned the validity of formal and critical articulation of new media technology as the only means of generating knowledge and values.

Pak Leman, giving his perspective. "What about the other 'non-Western' epistemological models?" to which Dr. Wan's answered "Well, I did mentioned Ibnu Khaldun didn't I".
Fuad Ariff, quoted Heidegger.

By afternoon, the crowd was cut into less than half. Niranjan himself, perhaps due to jet-lag, was already 'online' (he dozzed off). Roopesh and Sau Bin delivered interesting and complimentary presentations. Sau Bin presented personal takes of several Malaysian artists on new media technology and Roopesh, problematized the epistemological positioning of the term 'new media'. He called it, well....'it'. 

Afternoon session, Roopesh, me and Sau Bin.
Sau Bin' presentation reiterated how the new generation of visual artists in Malaysia have personalized and customized their approaches to new media technology according to their own personal expressive needs. Some would argue that they did not posses a critical distance with the technology, instead deploying the technology to create meanings pertinent to their own selves. They even invented their own working methodologies, thus creating their own epistemological or knowledge frameworks that for me, should be documented for future references.

Yap Sau Bin.
Roopesh's new media predicament (or enigma of 'it) would perhaps best explained through a mind or quantum model. But that would be risky, since it may confuse the audience even more. On the other hand, graphic illustrations on quantum probabilities would probably help to explain the notion of 'reflexivity', 'relativity' and 'based-on-the-observer' quantum paradigm, especially in dealing with the epistemology of new media art. One example is this popular image that shows both an old lady and a young women simultaneously. What we see depends on the choice made by our brain in collapsing the other probability (seeing an old lady for example) to only seeing 'one reality'(a young women) or vise-versa. Similar epistemological predicament was also brought up during the international seminar on New Media Art In South East Asia in Bandung.

Beware of "It"!
Roopesh, answering questions from the floor
While Roopesh and Sau Bin presented their papers, I had a strong comforting feeling that the future of critical discourse with new media and contemporary art practice is in some good hands. Now I can 'balik kampung tanam jagung'.

I have my personal responses to all the presentations, but again, we can wait for the planned publication.  
The show at MIA was assisted by Aizat, Hings Lim (who brought in his Lattalilat project, originally conceived in a course called "Expanded Media" which I guest lectured at UNIMAS) TC Liew, Dayana, Goh Lee Kwang, Wong Eng Leong and Kok Siew Wai (who brought in samples of video works from her KLEX series). Syafiq showed his sound and visual live capture installation based on a generative application her calls "Hingarmera: Spiralminute".  Wong and Goh produced abstract and minimal visual-aural works, while TC Liew re-exhibited his cctv 'chair'.

Here are some excerpts from t;postID=3676481168451688915he "Aliran Semasa" facebook site.

Wong Eng Leong & goh Lee Kwang

Kok Siew Wai

Syafiq Samat

Goh Lee Kwang's performance

I can't say much about the show because I didn't have the chance to see it. I also can't say much about the show at MMU for the same reason. Sadly, the fringe show at the NADI center in USM was too shabby for me to even mention. Plus, I didn't see any of the lecturers or students from the New Media Technology Program USM at any of the "Aliran Semasa" event. To be fair, the students works were better presented during RINTIS-SHIFT 2013, a final year show by the students from the School of the Arts USM. Regrettably too, the fine Art Department, Faculty of Applied & Creative Arts, UNIMAS which was approached to be a part of the fringe show, did not even give pro-active response.

TC Liew and Koon, preparing the show at MIA.
TC Liew's chair at the front of MIA Gallery, a silent witness that captured and relayed video images of passing-by visitors outside the gallery.

No, not Kosuth, not Beuys, not also Piya, its just one crazy chair by TC Liew that used to annoy some people at the School of the Arts USM, teased some audience at the Muzium & Galeri Tuanku Fauziah USM and re-appeared at MIA during recent fringe show for "Aliran Semasa."
Lattalilat work
Kok Siew Wai, presenting video works from KLEX, at MIA Gallery.

Aizat, cleaning up after the show. Thank you Izat.
"Aliran Semasa" also traveled to Ipoh, with Niranjan and Roopesh giving their presentations at Khizanat, a hip and creative space, thanks to Nur Hanim Khairuddin. I was not there, so I can't write anything about it. I was too exhausted after coming back from Bandung, and after few marathon sessions with Niranjan and Roopesh.

Other than the planned publication, few other follow-ups of "Aliran Semasa" are also being drafted, hopefully to be expanded to a regional level. Perhaps there will be a linking with the recently organized New Media Art from South East Asia in Bandung. 

We'll see what will happen. In the mean-time, we flow with time and dance with the Cosmic Will of the Universe.  

Enlightening reunion with my long-lost good friend and collaborator, Niranjan Rajah at MMU, lovingly witnessed and documented by one of our good students Ling Siew Woei (plus her 3 wonderful sons). We are 'datuks' already (one with a cowboy hat). Nina's picture at the back encapsulates my feeling. Thank u Roopesh, Koon and everyone who had worked hard for "Aliran Semasa" and making this happened. Its your turn now to 'be the light'.


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