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Thursday, 25 July 2013


  • Sometimes, our 'lifestyle' has been too 'naturalized' to a point we forget that it is actually a lousy 'alternative' to what is really 'natural'(fitrah). This Ramadan, I've been struggling to put that ghost of my 'alternative' past away for good. 

    For the past few days, I've been probed to response to the rhetoric of 'alternative' and 'independent', yet again. This time, for an up-coming solo show of Sooshie Sulaiman in Singapore. 

    Despite the 'artist' side of me empathizing with such rhetoric, the 'academician' side of me is always suspicious of it. I guess that gives a good balance. 

    I hope this can somehow put away for good such rhetoric from the mental scape. I think its about time we get over it.

    We should move into what Huxel used to term as 'trans-humanism', being humans, yet able to transcend him/herself. There are more to discover within our 'inner-net', that mind-space within our two ears, with "13 billion-cell supercomputer in our noggin" (I'm quoting here). That is our 'inner technology'. Its time to explore our neural pathways towards transhumanism, through mind expansion by embracing 'connectivity'.  

    Anyway, before I start to babble, here's an excerpt from my response to 'alternative'.

    Hi ? (name erased)

    Generally I have no problem with what you have written. I think it is a sensible and balance take on 'alternative' and Sooshie's positioning regarding the discourse of alternative. My view is mainly to remind u and Sooshie not to gloss over too much on it, especially in making sweeping statements that can be contested.

    One example is the opening remark "the lack of support for contemporary art from the government and public institutions is often bemoaned". Another example is "local contexts ‘largely apathetic to the cultural value of creativity’. These are lazy sweeping generalizations that can (and should) be contested. Personally for me, they are tired cliches or superficial 'problem statements' that do not ring well with our increasingly hyper-connected post-capitalist, post-information age where everybody and everything are increasingly inter-connected and inter-dependent. To always take a lazy presumption that this is a by-default situation in Malaysia, or all over the world even, is also counter-productive and not healthy for the art ecology. Unless, we are talking about taking an exclusive position for 'alternative' creative practices, which I will touch a bit later.

    Perhaps my 20 years or so experience in the arts under so many different capacities, fronts, spaces and contexts can be helpful. I had encountered situations where the very people in the contemporary art who liked to bemoan had received supports (financial, sponsorship, etc) from government and public institutions. In fact, I believe that I used to be one of them, well, I am working for a government institution. But I have always been critical and always been lamenting about lack of support to art from them. Yet, the works of these people (including mine) have been generously purchased and included in the national collection, or exhibited in major shows inside and outside Malaysia, published and reviewed generously in books and catalogues; their shows hosted or sometimes even partly sponsored, with supplementary artists' talks and other supporting programmes. I can cite several examples where creative practices and their proponents who were deemed as 'alternatives' or 'marginalised' before have occasionally been co-opted into the mainstream.

    In a society increasingly dictated by a 'post-structuralist' visual culture and information infrastructure, easy dichotomy and lazy semiotic binary does not work anymore. But, such easy dichotomy and lazy binary have inflicted many 'players'  in the contemporary art scene, regardless of whether they want to position or align themselves with the 'government and public institution' or not. In a small art ecology like Malaysia, creative people work in and out many different 'spaces' and 'fronts', alternative or what not.

    For me personally, I'm always suspicious of such easy generalizations, even though I can understand and even empathize with such generalizations. Another cliche statement if I may add is "the society does not appreciate fine art well enough". After 7 and a half years of running a university museum and gallery, I somehow found that the situation is mostly the other way around, "the artists or so-called creative people are too 'special' and too 'alternative' to understand their society well enough".

    Perhaps, such cliche problem statements can be a form of strategic positioning, especially in soliciting empathy and eventually grants or financial supports from non-governmental bodies, individuals, international NGOs with their local proxies, international bodies etc. Perhaps.

    The phrase ‘temporary autonomous zones’ coined by curators Sharon Chin and Eva McGovern is another 'gloss', ya, big words. Again, it sounds appealing to my sentiment. Yet, it can also be misleading. A crime lord can apply it to justify their chosen crime scene as a 'temporary autonomous zones'. Ok, I know, that's over-imaginative. But the phrase can also be taken as 'temporary exclusive zones - only for members of the club' who's notion of creativity and artistic 'taste' does not conform to the 'general population or public at large'. A 'temporary autonomous zones' can also be zones for a small pool of 'specialized' audience that may not represent the general population.
    The "focus on the work of lesser-known artists", and "archiving and exhibitions" that can "engage with audiences beyond art circles" have been done by government and public institutions, nothing 'alternative' or unique about that at all. Even the much glossed 'community art' has also been engaged by many museums and galleries around the world including in Malaysia, often using non-conventional approaches to art in their efforts to engage wide range of audience or public, including from outside the art circles. Many 'intervention' and 'community outreach' programmes by government and public institutions have been organised, including roping visual artists or people from the creative industry to connect with different sections of the public at large. For examples, you can refer to several books and other online materials by the Muzium & Galeri Tuanku Fauziah (MGTF) USM which I used to direct from 2005-2012 to understand my point. 

    I think instead of glossing over 'alternative', the key word is 'connectivity' and 'dialogues'. But this probably requires another essay to explain.

    In summary, we have to take a precautionary posture to avoid from being blinded by the cliche rhetoric and discourse of 'alternative'.

    Peace be upon you..



    • Anyhow, could you share your thoughts about artist-run, alternative art spaces in m'sia, particularly KL?
      Do you think it's fair to say that these spaces have a hard time living up to these labels? (collusion with the 'system', private sector', etc...being 'alternative' for the sake of it.)

    • My main point is to raise some questions about that...a certain scepticism, but perhaps I'm being unfounded? My argument is that Shooshie, in contrast, is aware of the notion of 'the alternative' becoming a brand in itself, as well as wanting to work within the system, not 'in opposition to' it

    • Hasnul Saidon

      We are living in the age of hyper-connectivity, a post-information age, even post-institution. Everything is inter-connected, inter-dependent, nothing can claim to stand on its own. Asserting 'alternity' is just a binary play, a kind of structuralist semiotic twist, and ya, works well for branding or to assert a difference. I'm a post-structuralist, always suspicious of easy and lazy dichotomy. Hehehh.
    • Question

      Do you feel like it's fair to say that existing spaces in Kl, the way they operate, play on this binary for branding/strategic purposes? I also raise a point about them being in inaccessible locations (perhaps apart from annexe), which makes it easy to be 'alternative' rather than a viable, visible option to mainstream society.
    • Hasnul Saidon

      Ya, a good point indeed. Simplistic binary logic does not work in a post-capitalist and highly networked and inter-connected society. Several case examples have shown that 'alternative' can be exploited as a hip term to be different, superficially. Yet, when one looks closely, I mean at the fundamental structural and conceptual level, many things are still the same as the mainstream - money, money, money!

      Ironically, I have found many 'alternatives' emerged from the mainstream. I can cite many works that have been shown in the mainstream that I consider as highly 'alternative' in regards to providing visible and viable options to mainstream side of the contemporary art practice, ideologically. Some even subvert certain State-prescribed ideologies, openly.

      Then again, post-capitalism (sometimes even the gov. institutions) know how to absorb and neutralize 'alternatives' and turn them into profitable feeders for its system. Now many things that were previously deemed alternatives or even outright 'immoral' before have become accepted products and lifestyles - skateboarding, extreme sports, underground music, etc.

      I look at this as a play of languages and discourses, like a dialogue, where some subversion and diversion have taken place amongst different performers.
    • Hasnul Saidon

      One thing is certain here, at least for me. To come up with an easy and lazy dichotomy or binary between institutions (government especially) and the so-called 'alternatives' would be last thing I do.
    • Question

      Are there any particular spaces that you think exploit this situation? Examples that come to mind?
    • Hasnul Saidon

      Almost all. During a recent round-table talk with the proponents of these so-called alternative spaces, I discovered that in many ways, they have operated like an institution, with an appointed curator, a curatorial theme and guidelines for submission of work, acquiring sponsorship and financial assistance (by asserting 'alternativeness'), organisational or team-structure, vision and mission, objectives, all of which somehow appear like any other institutions.

      From my experience in ICOM (International Committee of Museums) UMAC (University Museums & Collection) and UM-NET (University Museum Network South East Asia), I can cite examples of modus operandi that are similar to the so-called 'alternatives'. Even the National Visual Art Gallery of Malaysia used to work together with several groups of graffiti and street artists. In George Town, alternative street art has been elevated to a higher status, incorporated into the heritage and tourism business and infrastructure. Several 'intervention' projects organized by museums and galleries around the world including Malaysia, deployed 'alternative' ways of engaging audience with contemporary art. The 'alternatives' have also began to dance with the capitalists, if not the government or 'institutions'. Some have even managed to secure generous grants from outside. Even Sooshie herself used to work in many projects with 'institutions' including the National Visual Art Gallery of Malaysia and several commercial galleries.
    • Hasnul Saidon

      My point is that we have to be careful not to gloss over too much on this 'alternative' discourse, especially in regards to Sooshie and her space.
    • Question
      Sure. in fact, that's why I propose this idea of 'alternate' space - that's interchangeable, but also evokes the intangible...and a nice play on the word 'alternative', which you almost expect to see/read instead
      the alternate, changing, unfixed nature of these categories of 'alternate' and 'mainstream'
      I'm also trying to underline the connection between the way she approaches these projects and her own individual work, or rather, the flows between the two.
      A sensible route?
      in your own opinion?

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