Conversation: Discussing Spectacles

A conversation between Syar and Liy on the conversation between artist Sharon Chin and curator Sze on 20 February 2016.

Their conversation:

“(Goh) Sze (Ying) interviews Sharon (Chin) about taking part in APT8 (8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art). This is a sharing and dialogue session in the form of an interview between Sze and Sharon. You can listen quietly or take part in the conversation. You’ll be seated around us (pretty close! See drawing in the event photo)” — from event description

Event photo— with time, date, and venue
(Goh) Sze (Ying) menemubual Sharon (Chin) tentang penyertaanya dalam APT8 (8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art)

@Szeee

Sze (b. 1983) is a visual designer who has had many disparate roles in the areas of art, design, and urbanism. Her work is predominantly concerned with the relationship between aesthetics and politics in urban spaces. These days, she is mostly researching for an upcoming exhibition under the aegis of the Japan Foundation’s Curators’ Workshop Programme 2016/17.

@theSharonChin

Sharon (b. 1980) is an artist and writer living in Port Dickson. She’s made all sorts of things in all sorts of places, from museums to city sidewalks. In 2013, she bathed in public with a hundred people for ‘Mandi Bunga/Flower Bath’, a project at Singapore Biennale. ‘Weeds/Rumpai’, a series of paintings of weeds on political party flags is currently showing at Queensland Art Gallery as part of the 8th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art. Right now, she’s working on stuff that combines illustration and journalism. www.sharonchin.com

This conversation:

Friends and collaborators Liyana Dizzy and Syar S. Alia get on Telegram to discuss their experience of the conversation between Sze, Sharon, and other attendees. The conversation has been restructured for clarity and edited minimally. 

@Liy

Liyana Dizzy is a freelance writer, Biawak Gemok zine distro co-person, Cambridge-certified English teacher, and voiceover talent. She’s lived in Kuala Lumpur her whole life. She also writes instant poems through her offstage performance series #GeraiPuisiSegera.

@SyarSAlia

Syar S. Alia is a writer, editor, and currently works in arts administration. She works as a freelance rapporteur and facilitator for and with many local and regional women’s rights NGOs and was formerly one of the managing editors for ISSUE Magazine.


 

Liy: I have a question I thought I could ask first. You initially said that you weren’t planning on writing about the conversation. What changed?

Syar: I think once the conversation went into discourse on local Malaysian art amongst Malaysian artists and writers, I became more aware of my positioning within the audience as someone who does have the capability to write about it. By capability I just mean, inclination and prior experience of writing about similar “cultural” events. Someone with the existing tools/skillset and general interest/time to invest because of said interest. It brought to the forefront an awareness of who else wasn’t in the room who might have wanted to be. I think once they started talking about writing about art, I was suddenly interested in writing about that conversation. Were you always planning on writing about the talk? What were your expectations as to what the talk would be?

Liy: That feeling of being more aware of your positioning within the audience – There were many ways that happened for me too, and that those ways stuck with me after the conversation. Sharon Chin is one of my favourite artists, but I would have already committed to showing up just for two women in the arts talking to each other and nothing else.

Syar: Exactly. That was my reasoning for the art talk I went to last year for Katakatha and that was how I framed the way I wrote about [that talk] as well.

Liy: Some naïveté in me supposed that everyone else there would be there for the same reason too.

Syar: Mhm, I get ya. That they would share that same conviction or awareness of the special quality of having that for a talk about anything lol

Liy: I also like showing up to not be anyone important in the audience. I have no investment, directly, I suppose, in the arts scene compared to others there. I was a minority in the room in that way.

Syar: Oh okay, I have a point about that! Related back to what you said about being made aware of your positioning. Because at one point, one of them, maybe Sharon said, prefacing a point, that many of us here are artists or represent arts institutions. And I went hazy on that before going into sharp focus about my day job which is in fact, working as an arts manager at an arts institution. This time last year, I wasn’t part of this world at all.

Liy: Did you then feel you were representing Rimbun Dahan? Or rather that others there would see you as that, even if you didn’t see yourself that way?

Syar: In some ways! like disclaimer: Sharon is going to do a Hotel Penaga residency in May!* and Sze has applied to do one at Rimbun. I was absolutely aware of that when I attended, and I have attended similar events purely because a resident (or a resident to-be) was part of it. But I did feel more that others might see me there as “Rimbun Dahan Arts Manager” more than I did myself, yeah. I also again was made aware of my positioning like, is there anything here I can bring back to my job, to my boss, to other artists.

*The owners of Rimbun Dahan also own and run the residency at Hotel Penaga in Penang, which I help manage with regards to applications and liaising with artists. I should also note though that I had known about and been interested in Sharon’s work before she applied and got accepted – Syar

Liy: Ahh. On my end, I assisted Sharon Chin for two of her exhibitions/performances: Weeds at Merdekarya and Mandi Bunga at the Singapore Biennale a few years ago. That’s when I became far more exposed to her work than just casually seeing them at exhibits.

Syar: How did those experiences impact your impression/engagement/relationship with Malaysian art and the art scene?

Liy: I realised how accessible art can be. I really like how Sharon brings art to the public, which is why I wanted to hear her talk about her process. Her approach to me has always been to zoom out, which appeals to me a lot. So as I mentioned earlier, I was there because I wanted the experience of two women talking about the intersection between artistic process and the art industry, than say “thinking about power and money in relation to art” or any of the “come if you are” reasons listed on the event.

Syar: Yeah, I agree – I was very much invested in that intersection too.

Liy: And now that we’re talking about being suddenly aware of positioning AND that I am looking at the Facebook events page for a rough idea of what to expect, I wonder if positioning took up more of the conversation than it should’ve.

Syar: Mmm, good point.

Liy: The conversation was very much about the Biennale at first. But within half an hour it became about how Sharon even ended up at the event, and then within 10 minutes it descended to an analysis of her privilege and access to the event. By 4:40pm we were wondering who could write about art, and positions of knowledge and experience regarding curators and artists.

Syar: Yeah, it really did feel like it was going to be this deep macro/micro focus on the experience of being a part of APT8. I thought it went beyond her individual experience to “ART IN MALAYSIA BY MALAYSIANS” almost immediately. The trajectory was pretty – idk what the word is, but it definitely moved far from where we started, and splintered.

Liy: I do think their decision to let their audience have some sort of power to set or change their conversation’s dynamics lead to what Sze later called chaos I suppose.

Syar: The convo panned out on Saturday the way it did because of the audience. With another group (or maybe even venue, like geographically) it could’ve been different. An interesting thing might have been to have this talk multiple times, in different locales, different audience every time.

Liy: I totally agree. And Sze’s tweets! said a lot after the talk didn’t it

Syar: Okay so my q about Sze’s tweets (if I can remember it) – “Two makes a conversation, any number beyond ten makes a performance.” From the poster and the social media promotion of the event, I was expecting a performance, actually, which I didn’t articulate to myself until after Sze’s tweets. Which isn’t to say I was expecting artifice, or high drama but that preoccupation with positioning you mentioned

Liy: How so a performance?

Syar: I felt like, something that structured – substantiating the seating arrangement in relation to the discussion, thoughts about audience engagement before (the FAQ Sharon did) and during – that’s a lot more thought than most people put in events, first of all. And secondly, it reminded me of theatre. So while I wasn’t expecting Sharon or Sze (who I’ve never seen speak before) to put on different personas or put on a play, I thought that the persona of Artist speaking to Curator was positioned from the very start and there’s a performative aspect to the meeting of those two labels.

Liy: I see what you mean, especially about how it was framed setting up my expectations. I think I expected those personas from the setup, and coupled with the expectations I brought from home to see two women make their own space and visibility from their own ends of the art industry as Artist and Curator. I felt like maybe I was going to be listening in on a work lunch conversation, you know? Maybe that’s why I felt uncomfortable about their alternative to a Q&A format – I think talking events are a bit over this Q&A format these days and are still tweaking out ways to talk with their audience without losing the center.

Syar: I hate Q&As so I get the reservations.

Liy: Sharon is definitely an example of an artist who wants people to come and take center and participate, but I only know that from her art. It’s a different thing altogether to have them do that IN your process, like your thought or conversation process for a dialogue.

Syar: Yeah, I didn’t think it would be so casual, considering how careful they were (or considering the care I perceived in the information given before the event)

Liy: If you were one to value your train of thought and want to protect it and grow it out to its meant-to-be length, offering some part of the driver’s seat to the audience can be anxious. I feel Sharon does that protecting, and then opens up her art like a hug to share with everyone.

Syar: Yeah, other people are very present in what I know of Sharon’s art and it’s part of why I enjoy engaging with it and find it something pleasurable and meaningful to access. It makes sense for this talk to be, in some way, an extension of that/her process (which I know less about) and she outlined this ethos very early on when she brought in the point about artists talking to other artists, artists documenting their work and other people’s work. The need for the process to be public and participatory is part of that.

Liy: I think it’s possible that we felt the performance-y expectations of it because of how further apart away we orbit from those who spoke up in the audience. Maybe they just felt they were hanging out in someone’s living room lol – “Let me just chiiime in”

Syar: Lol maybe! Maybe they don’t have my hang ups about speaking in a group, which is fair enough.

Liy: Without a doubt I feel that [alternative Q&A] decision lead me to walk away with a very different memory of the talk. And before talking to you about this, I was flipping through the cute zine Sharon made for everyone and the last pages had graphs and stuff. I LOVE DATA – I feel cheated out of data.

Syar: YES agreed

Liy: Because we ended up navel gazing about whatever the audience wanted to talk about.

Syar: I may not love graphs, but I wanted more process talk for sure.

Liy: I get that we want to be zen and say maybe there’s no wrong way of having the event or something like whatever happened was meant to happen…

Syar: I may have zoned out at the slides of other art but that didn’t mean I didn’t want Sharon to talk us through APT8 and her experience. I don’t think our critiques of what didn’t happen vs. what happened is supposed to condemn the entire event or how it was run. It ultimately was what it was and we still got something out of it. It was like what Sharon said when she was talking about language, about how in Malaysia maybe we are trained to be able to extract meaning even in situations where we literally do not understand the words because at some point or another, or rather often, that’s going to happen. Any participatory talk/event is going to be susceptible to the whims of different people’s agendas.

Liy: I also really appreciate how much time was spent on the different ways of saying no or rather the rationale behind different kinds of nos and being strategic about them.

Syar: Ohh that whole part about refusal. That part stayed with me too. And then Sharon demonstrated!! in how she engaged with some of the audience, which was………..beautiful. I mean, I went into 2k16 thinking “This is my year of continuing to say no” so that really resonated. There was a page in the zine (we both doodled in our zines) that had two column of words, that were antonyms of the other and I did a little pairing exercise for fun, and I connected refusal with power

Liy: In my event notes I wrote that Sze asked “Refusal can be an exercise in vanity. How do you say no and continue the conversation?” Which to me parallels what you matched up! Power to will a response or conversation that you started, yknow?

Syar: Yeah, I wrote down that same part.

Liy: For our reference, here is what Sze tweeted after the talk:

  • Inclusion is chaotic
  • (tho chaos is not necessarily bad)
  • Questions do not always reflect curiosity
  • Silence is a way of participating
  • She wishes she could see thought bubbles
  • Anticipation is impatience
  • 2 makes a conversation
  • 10+ makes a performance
  • Format =/= process.
  • The script is debilitating.
  • Anxiety is a force to be reckoned with.
  • How to work with instead of around it?

Syar: “Questions do not always reflect curiosity” – that was a big one. Maybe loops back to what you described as your naïveté, of thinking that other people at the talk were there for similar reasons to yours, which is something I experience a lot too

Liy: Yes it totally does, I really thought people would be psyched to see this TYPE of event, self-initiated by two women and that alone would merit some concentration and some idea to not interrupt????

Syar: IKR!!!!!! Cuba syukur sikit

Liy: She shared an article later from feministkilljoys sampling the quote “Treat your first reactions as pedagogy.” A great thing to be reminded of when thinking about this talk right now lol

Syar: Omg I was gonna bookmark that but damn it looks like a #megalongread

Liy: The Priya thing that was happening on Twitter at the same time as the talk* was referring to a kind of event cliche we’re all familiar with, no?

*CONTEXT: Syar was on Twitter while she was in the audience of the talk. She saw tweets from writer, lawyer, vocal-woman @priya_ebooks addressing the court ruling that recording artist Kesha “cannot record music without Sony and her alleged abuser’s label while the abuse case is ongoing” which led to other tweets about men’s responses to the case and the commentary (specifically questioning Kesha’s claims of abuse) that zoomed out to how men participate in public discourse. Syar found this relevant to how she viewed some of the interruptions and input provided by the audience of Sharon and Sze’s talk, specifically the men in the audience

Syar: There was no way a convo about this convo can escape the derailment

Liy: Am I derailing by thinking about it lol crysmile

Syar: Haha no

Liy: The derailment stuck with me. And that is a fault of mine that I couldn’t shake it off to see the rest of the talk as clearly. A lot of my most keenly remembered reactions to it were framed as “What will Sharon say to this person talking right now?” and I felt like she too really took time to consider and re-word her thoughts. Even Sze’s list I feel mentioned the derailment without mentioning the derailment.

Syar: We’re bound to come to it but honestly I forgot everything those dudes said.

Liy: To be honest, the derailment’s contents itself don’t interest me.

Syar: I know, I guess I’m projecting to potential comments to whatever this [conversation we’re having] turns out to be, like “Well, what was said?” and tbh I don’t care and it was so inconsequential. “Some thoughts by dudes!” so basically, garbage we have too much of #MISANDRY. You are way more articulate on this than me so speak on it.

Liy: I felt like the event was a rare kind of event, that it wasn’t very common, that it was a deliberate attempt by two women to carve some space on their own terms. And we ALL know that is rare, we all know that interruptions and Q&A hijackings are far more common. I was annoyed that the rare became the common, even for a while. I agree with you that it’d be cool if this event is held many more times, even maybe by other women, about other topics, and on their own terms. And maybe we would be able to get to the back of Sharon’s zine, or at least see her process as she envisioned the format would reveal it.

Syar: But also imagine Sharon and Sze meeting say, five times to discuss the same topic with different audiences, then maybe recording/presenting/discussing what happened at each discussion. I think as an experiment it would be interesting

Liy: Yeah, THAT would be very performance-y.

Syar: True, but maybe they could subvert that by being aware of it and committing to having a conversation amongst themselves every night. Like after the talk kan someone made a point of how censorship ALWAYS comes up and that’s true.

Liy: Self-censorship, yeah

Syar: Self-censorship that then lead to just general censorship by The State, because that’s our context [in Malaysia].

Liy: But that’s the thing, self-censorship as a topic was not introduced into the whole thing by Sze or Sharon, but by an audience member. it was sorta wedged in there. And I can’t say that it was a totally welcome direction to go in.

Syar: So it’s almost like you can’t ever discuss art or expression without discussing in the same breath who’s gonna stop you.

Liy: Yeah totally, government trolls us every time lol and we troll ourselves using their trolling

Syar: I think I said something like – a writer like JD Salinger can refuse all interviews until he’s dead and people are like, “Oh stoic man writer with principles” but when women who are vocal about their work and thoughts etc are also vocal about what they hold back and why – often I see them being undermined for not being “honest” or “open” or (fuck this especially) “courageous.” I don’t know if that’s the most spot on comparison, but it’s like when you give up the silence you’re trained into as a woman, you’re then obliged never to shut up again (at the expense of your own voice)?

Liy: I think it also says something about a listener’s hesitation to interrupt or change their mode of participation, since Sze says silence is also participation.

Syar: This is related to the Kesha and Dr Luke case which lead to Priya’s tweets – people have been BANGING ON about how other female artists haven’t spoken up, completely railing on them for being silent while letting men and male artists get off scot free.

Liy: And even THAT is derailing into Demi vs. Taylor pulak tbh!

Syar: It’s all fuckin gross! And completely also disregards that these women COULD have a history or relationship with abuse and trauma that keeps them silent FOR A REASON/STRATEGICALLY/FOR THEIR PROTECTION I’m getting off on a tangent

Liy: I have an idea. If we operate on the idea that the talk might have been frustrating/anxious/disappointing in some ways or not entirely how they wanted it to have turned out then, maybe Sze selecting quotes and tweeting them individually is a way of reclaiming some of that power back over the situation, some curation so to speak. For a last conversation sprint, how about we look at each and think about it for a bit, the ones she time-stamped. I’ll number them. I feel it’s important that she chose them out of everything to take away.

  1. “Archive your work online. Social media doesn’t count.”
  2. “Artists should write: about yourselves and other artists.”
  3. “Invite someone along.”
  4. “Bahasa bukan masalah, tapi kenyataan.”
  5. “Communicate continuously.”
  6. Art circulates beyond objects and states.
  7. We should try not to resolve things.
  8. Wong Hoy Cheong quote

Syar: I guess it’s also a good time to remind ourselves that we don’t actually have proof that they were frustrated/anxious/disappointed about the turn of events, and we’re also projecting our own agendas.

Liy: Yes! I have faith in this talk format tho as opposed to waiting for organizers or larger themed events. They set it up so admirably low-key.

Syar: I think it’s something worthy of being developed and/or repeated.

Liy: Especially as a women-initiated way to get more space for their voices and conversation. Like, can women everywhere please normalise this, this talking about things you’re really good at?

Syar: Or things you’re really bad at tbh!!! Prioritize process. Prioritize broadcasting process.

Liy: I really want that stuff normalised, so I do get emotionally involved about how much I could access Sharon and Sze’s processes. I feel like what Sharon was openly rooting for in the talk (and what Sze selected out of that for Twitter) was stuff that facilitate different kinds of representation and presentation. That really energised me to get playful, to get experimental myself. Show off your work! Invite each other along! Talk to each other! Don’t let language barriers disrupt your shit! Remember art gets around! Embrace the idea of it being a continuous unresolved thing we work through together! I love it.

Syar: To me, everything that Sze outlined (which definitely are my personal highlights) emphasized community, emphasized mindful linkages. It reminded me of when I attended that talk that had Nadiah Bamadhaj, another artist who’s now based in Yogyakarta. She talked about her isolation in KL, having to drive so many highway stretches to get from studio to gallery to other gallery etc etc – the sprawl affects us and shapes relationships and absences. So to write, to record, archive, to refer, to stammer in languages you’re not comfortable in, is to constantly be trying to communicate to others.

Liy: I feel like our conversation is a bit messy but I’m happy we’re having it. I’m not sure if I’m focusing the bestest right now. How do you think we’re doing? Meta moment

Syar: We had a flow that’s organic and we might as well follow that as opposed to restructuring it to be neater. 

Liy: An attempt to weirdly zoom out – to me, looks like – a talk that’s meant to be about participating in the Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, by a curator and artist, making an event specifically as a space for people to access a conversation between them and possibly participate (in that order ‘you can listen quietly or take part’) – started out with an introduction of APT8 highlights, but after taking a few unexpected and sort of charged and anxious insidery turns, becomes a string of reminders to energise people to playfully participate and experiment with your community/friends/people. In a way, that reminder ‘defeated’ the insidery and I like that

Syar: That’s definitely a more productive perspective of things!

Liy: That’s probably the best thing you can get out of something that will be recorded and made public later after a turbulent middle bit takes away our chances to get to the end of the zine lol

Syar: I felt like the introduction of tension brought a different energy to the talk but also maybe even MORE energy. People paid attention to either the interrupter or to Sharon’s response

Liy: YES more energy

Syar: I did think that at no point did either of them lose control of their voices.

Liy: Sze’s response too, and even Sharon when she approved and seconded Sze’s response lol. I fiercely admire Sharon’s and Sze’s eloquence with that, their measure of words

Syar: Sze’s interventions were always articulate and purposeful, in marking the flow, sorting through what was unnecessary and very much going “We’re not talking about this because it isn’t the time and it isn’t useful.” A no that wasn’t a closed door. I think we didn’t get much of a chance to poke beyond the skin of what a biennale/triennale is (as a collection/curation of works, as representative of regions/spaces/schools of thoughts, as an Art Event) but they did introduce some very enticing seeds. For example Sharon bringing up the idea of a biennale that was entirely artist run conversations. Is talking about art also art etc etc

Liy: I also learned from Sze that when something is not clearly going anywhere, a good response to it is to say “the discussion will continue ad infinitum” because there are different ways to do art-making. I like that while the audience might get particularly fixated on the quality of the art, Sharon and Sze seem to be most keen that people do art at all. I need women like that in my life. I would drive to access their voices and process and feel like I am part of something emerging with them.

Syar: Okay I gotta wrap up yo, got a skype date

Liy: OOOH SKYPE DATE

Syar: With my best friend lol. Not that that’s not worthy of caps

Liy: Well I need to go run into the dark now too

Syar: Okay be careful. Wear something reflective

Liy: I will. So makcik I love it lol. Bye <3

Syar: Byeee


Check out Syar’s website and Sharon Chin’s website