Interview with Choy Ka Fai

AAA's Enoch Cheng and Janet Chan spoke with the Singaporean artist Choy Ka Fai about the evolution of his practice, his interest in insignificant histories, and his use of new media technology as a way to speculate about variations of our future


AAA: You are a visual/new media artist as well as a dance and theatre director, the latter of which you became when you were only in your 20s. What led you to dance and theatre? And what then inspired you to become a video artist? How do these different practices inform each other?

Choy Ka Fai (CKF): I have always had an interest in drawing and received visual art training from a young age. I made my first foray into theatre when I was 18, performing a movement theatre piece in 1998. At that point, I fell in love with the performing arts and began to experiment with various aspects of theatre production, from making props and designing sets to creating video works. 

In 2002, I saw the performance Memorandum by DumbType (Japan) and was totally mesmerised by the sensory experience. I began to recognise the sensorial potential of multimedia when performing with the body and aspired to create similar experiences. I then decided to focus on video while studying at Lasalle College of Art in Singapore and there I began to use video and performance art as the basis for collaborative explorations. 

At Lasalle, I worked with the artist collective KYTV (Kill Your Television), a group of visual artists who are dissatisfied with being categorised solely by their choice of study. As artists keen to make interdisciplinary explorations, KYTV creates works that straddle the spaces between visual art and performing art, creating experiences rather than objects of art. 

These different practices allowed me to exchange ideas with dancers, musicians, and theatre practitioners. They expanded my communicative and creative language, and laid the foundation for my current cross-disciplinary practice.

AAA: As an artist who uses new media technology, such as augmented reality, in your works, do you see yourself as a prophet or a zeitgeist, or neither?

CKF: I think new media technology has many possibilities for artists, and I believe that it has the unique ability to alter our perception of reality. I am currently interested in a new technological area, synthetic biology, where the design and construction of new biological functions and systems not found in nature is now possible. New technologies allow artists and designers to speculate about variations of our future, and to present possible versions of this future for consideration. 

I do not think of myself as a prophet, but as one who is interested in finding out about the future of emerging technology and where it will lead humanity. 

AAA: You work on numerous collaborative projects. Who do you usually collaborate with and how do you find these collaborators? Do you work with any programmers or do you do your own programming?
CKF: It varies from project to project, depending on the research topic and project genre. I normally collaborate with dancers, sound artists, writers, architects, and/or lighting designers. Long-time collaborators include Singapore-based sound artist Zukifle Mahmod, playwright Robin Loon, and choreographer Joavien Ng. Usually, we have a common interest in our work, which makes it easier to work together. The first part of the collaborative process is always a workshop phase where we exchange ideas. Then, we move on to research and creation over a 6 to 9 month period before the actual production. 

I always try to work with a programmer, as working on complex programming is a long and tedious process. Over the last few years, though, I began to learn programming to improve my ability to experiment as new ideas arise.

AAA: In the presentation of some of your multimedia works, you are concerned with space and how audiences are supposed to view your works. I assume that theatre audiences are very different from visitors in a gallery. What are some of your major concerns when making work in these two settings?

CKF: I suppose the main difference between the gallery setting and the theatre is time. Most of my works happen within a theatre context, as I like the immediacy of the audience’s attention and responses. In a theatre, the audience is trapped in a space to experience all sensorial aspects of the artwork, thus fulfilling my intention to create intense experiences in a compressed time frame. In a gallery context, the audience is allowed more time to engage with the work and, thus, more time to focus on the conceptual and visual narrative and its interplay with audience interpretation.

AAA: Let’s talk about Crossing Borders (2010), in which you clearly delineate the invisible boundaries created during the act of photo taking in public spaces. ( How was this project conceived? I know that there is another part to the project in the form of a street experiment. Can you describe that project?

CKF: Crossing Borders was a project developed in a workshop at T-Mobile Creation Center in Berlin as a joint exploration with the department of Interaction Design at the Royal College of Art ( Through this project, I adopted critical design methodology to create a design probe in order to research digital etiquette. I then collected research material through experiments in public space. Using a mini laser lens attachment prototype, I was able to capture the outline of individual camera-framing trajectories. The end result was a video speculating what the future might look like if everyone owned such a device and was able to amplify private digital space into the public sphere.

AAA: Your projects are very ambitious and require significant research. Rectangular Dreams (2008), for example, is almost a documentary, but it is also an installation, which interrogates Singaporean public housing policy through historical events, stories, and ideas. What prompted your interest in this subject? When you reflect on this work, what are some of the core issues that remain with you?

CKF: I became interested in the notion of insignificant history when I created V.I.S.T.A Lab (2007), an artist workshop in which ten Singapore-based creatives worked together over six months at Theatreworks. The purpose of the project was to encourage cross-collaboration and dialogue between visual art, interactive design, sound art, text/writing/poetry, and architectural exploration within a performative context. The central purpose of the workshop was to research unofficial accounts of histories in Singapore. 

Rectangular Dreams was developed from some of the research material gathered during the Lab. The main sources of my inspiration were the fascinating stories from an independent group of architects and planners founded in 1965 called SPUR (Singapore Planning and Urban Research Group). SPUR published documents on its views of Singapore's development priorities and its correspondence with public authorities. I was intrigued by the ideas and criticisms SPUR offered, many of which were under-appreciated during the genesis of Singapore’s public housing development. 

In the documentary installation, I tried to create an alternative narrative of the evolution of Singapore’s public housing program, which had become the foundation of Singaporean political stability. My aim was not to highlight any discrepancies or unknown secrets, but rather to construct a parallel narrative that viewers could choose to engage with or not. The film’s audio narrative was projected through directional speakers within the installation, allowing the  audience the choice to stand in the line of the audio projection or to avoid it and enjoy the visual sequence of images of the high-rise public housing that defines the landscape of Singapore. 

The work is more like an observation of the everyday life of Singaporeans, posing questions about the notion of the Singaporean dream beyond material needs. The concept of insignificant history, its relevance and adaptation to the modern world, have remained in my work and I have been using it as a strategy to research the relatively short history of Singapore. 

Subsequently, I created Reservoir (2008), a theatre production about the histories and future possibilities for the existing ruins of a World War II (1942-1945) Japanese Shinto shrine hidden in the heart of Singapore’s largest nature reserve. After the completion of that project, I began to wander further into Singapore’s past, thinking about the stories of Singapore before Raffles arrived in 1819. This line of thinking led me to my research on the Lan Fang Republic (1777-1884).

AAA: In the multi-faceted project Lan Fang Chronicles, you looked at the history of the 18th century Lan Fang Republic founded by Hakka Chinese in West Borneo, which had only 107 years of history. In what way do you see this history as parallel to Singapore’s? And when did you realise the project required so many platforms, such as installation, video, theatre performance, and film?

CKF: One of the research findings that inspired me to create this project was the speculation by many scholars that, after the collapse of Lan Fang Republic, its descendants fled to Sumatra, Malacca, and Singapore. It is very possible that the founding father of modern Singapore was one of their descendents. While Hakkas are the minority in Singapore, it is likely that the Hakkas played an important part in Singapore’s development.

As I researched further into this history, I found similar patterns of historical events in both republics. For example, much like Singapore, Lan Fang Republic was run like a company (kongsi). Its main economy was gold mining yet, after the first 20 years, the republic became rich and shifted its focus to the cultural development of its society. Such a pragmatic approach to governing a republic is also evident in the first 20 years of Singapore’s history. By the 1980s, Singapore also began to realise the importance of cultural development. As well, there are similar juristic and corporal punishment systems recorded in both constitutions.

When I began collecting the raw material from archival records and present-day investigations, I became interested in creating my own archive of the Lan Fang Republic’s history. It was the nature of these raw materials that led to the development of various mediums of presentation. The main installation was presented as a film research library, with new archival documents, maps, photography, and video studies that mimic a private library collection. Other sections include the designs of speculative monuments in the form of 3D printed sculptures and the important events of the Republic’s history presented in a lecture performance format.

AAA: You are now studying in London. What new opportunities have opened up for you? How is working in London different from Singapore?

CKF: The main difference is in the many opportunities in London to engage with scientists and researchers from various disciplines. The collaborative culture between art/design and science is more developed in the UK, and researchers are more open to dialogue and collaboration with artists. In Singapore, researchers often become less interested when they realise that an artistic concept might not benefit their research or have economically viable output. 

AAA: What is your next project? Do you see Prospectus of A Future Body (2010) developing into a larger body of work?

CKF: Prospectus of A Future Body is my new research project, which will be developed into a series of proposals and experiments looking at the human condition in future technological spaces. Central to the project is the concept of kinesics (non-verbal body language) and how it might evolve, adapt, or re-condition the human body to our future world. The first project in the series explores the concept of muscle memory transfer, researching the possibility of muscle memory as a digital form for recording, playback, and real-time mapping of movement-based techniques.

As part of this series, I will present a demonstration performance in March 2011 at a dance festival in Brussels. The piece is inspired by the evolution of the history of dance in the last century. I will attempt to install digital muscle memory implants of iconic dance movement vocabularies into a body as it learns, adapts, and recreates movements within the multiplex of kinesic expression.



Sat, 1 Jan 2011

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