The Singaporean artist speaks to Doretta Lau about tigers, ghosts, algorithms, and life after celluloid film
In 2013, Ho Tzu Nyen began conducting research at AAA for his project The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia. The question he posed was so complex that the project required a few years to reach fruition, culminating in an exhibition in AAA Library that began this past March (ends 19 August 2017). The work on view, The Critical Dictionary of Southeast Asia, Vol. 1: G for Ghost(writers), is "an interactive Internet platform and 'infinite film,'" which he created in collaboration with Sebastian Lütgert, Jan Gerber, Yasuhiro Morinaga, and Bani Haykal. This conversation has been edited and condensed.
Ideas: The starting point for this project was the question of what constitutes the unity of this region. Over the last few years, how has your thinking and your research changed the answer to this question? What have you discovered over this time?
Ho Tzu Nyen: I think that the intuition I had, the so-called answer I had to this question a few years ago, which was more or less a kind of intuition of what it could be, pretty much remains the same now. It's just that right now, after a few years of work on it, what has sort of deepened, I hope, or intensified, is my own understanding of many of these specific things that were covered under the rubric of the dictionary as a whole. It's an intensification of knowledge about particulars—particular strands, or particular terms. But my picture of the project as a whole—the project as a whole is my vision of South East Asia as a whole—pretty much was still the same as what I had a few years ago.
In your talk earlier [see video below], you spoke about these threads you were finding. What are some of these threads that you've identified during the course of your research?
The first thread that I started with was tigers. Tigers are an obsession I've had since 2005. I've made many different works in different fields about tigers, so I've had the opportunity to research on this quite a bit in the last few years. I always thought that the tiger was a unique figure in the sense that if we think about tigers, they distributed themselves across South East Asia almost a million years ago, before Homo sapiens. So they were there before humans and then they have also adapted and evolved into a subspecies in the region. In a way, if you track the tiger, the tiger almost forms a certain kind of map of South East Asia.
I never thought of the other terms as being these motifs or maps. But what I found over the last few years was that almost everything that I'm really interested in could extend themselves into these kinds of strange mapping devices. For example, just thinking about relationships to water in different parts of South East Asia, like the different kinds of irrigation systems used for agriculture but also the different kinds of politics that came together with irrigation, which very often meant fixing the population in space because they became sedentary. They now have to plant and grow rather than to have a slash-and-burn agriculture.
You start to see this was something that went on in South East Asia across the region as well. Every one of these terms started becoming more like a thread. Before this, some of the terms were like icons, while some were like threads. The icons were more rooted to a specific area but gradually, everything just started moving across the borders.
The other thing that I started thinking a lot about was that what interests me in these threads, or the terms which are threads, is not just that they spread across different areas but that each of these threads was in itself a kind of metamorphic element. That this thread itself was in a process of transformation.
So what fascinates me with tigers is not that they are just pure otherness . . . but tigers were vehicles for ancestral spirits. So the humans and the tigers are always kind of mixed up, and the tiger could transform itself into a human, and there were humans like shamans who could transform themselves into tigers. And then with the annihilation of tigers after the colonial period, the tigers returned as language. They were very often used as epithets. For example, for describing the Japanese general [Tomoyuki] Yamashita. After that, the Left, like the Malayan Communists, were also referred to as tigers. So the tiger transformed—before this, it was a transformation between tiger and man, but then I think the tiger started to transform itself into a metaphor. It now existed in the realm of language as this abstract thing.
A lot of the motifs I'm interested in—for example, the term for "H," which was humidity, I was interested in actual water. But water itself is the prime element of transformation and metamorphosis. Humidity is the gaseous state of water, so if we think about the early control of water through irrigation in agricultural societies, like in Singapore now, which is the least agricultural of places, we see water being controlled in a very profound way. Our drinking water is our recycled water. We created this intense, intricate system for recycling water. And at the same time, air conditioning, which is the regulation of humidity, the control of air. So the control of water in these highly agricultural societies has now become an even more pervasive form of control, which is the control of air itself in Singapore. The motifs transform. They migrate, but they also transform in themselves.
How difficult is it to choose one word to describe these concepts?
Extremely difficult. Which is why I keep trying to cop out of sticking to one term. Which is why I had all these resonating terms. But at the same time, I had to kind of limit myself. So then I chose a form which says, all these resonating terms had to all start with the same letter as well. So it's always about creating some kind of constraint for myself, and then at the same time, struggling against too much constraint. It's just about finding this balance.
But out of this struggle between these two poles comes a very interesting thing—with humidity, I was looking at hydrography, hydrology, and hydraulics, which are different forms of tracking water movements. Then I built this thousand-word essay out of these four different treatments of water. That grew out of these constraints.
As the dictionary progresses—so I think of "G" for Gene Z. Hanrahan—but I also think about "G" like "ghost." Ghosts are a very pervasive element in the landscape of South East Asia. So that is about combining Gene Z. Hanrahan with ghosts, and then the "ghost writer" was kind of a good spot for it. But as one thinks of communism, a famous line from the Communist Manifesto is, "A spectre is haunting Europe—the spectre of communism.” So the notion of the language of ghosts and communism was also inherent in the Communist Manifesto.
All these configurations determine, eventually, what the contents were. My mind unfortunately is one that lends itself very often to these associations. How I work is I have these views of associations. I always have to find a way to control these associative patterns. But rather than remove them completely, it's about finding a way to kind of sculpt them. The South East Asia that will come out of this dictionary comes out of this process.
With the progression of the way you've been making video—from very controlled, rehearsed videos that have a definite parameter, almost a script to them, to creating this work with the found footage and editing, and then now choosing to leave it to chance with the algorithm—you had said it was the fantasy of not having to edit anymore. I'm not even sure where I'm going with this. Is this a direction you want to keep going in?
Yes. Don't worry about not being sure where it's going, because it's what the dictionary does for everybody. [Laughs.] So it's very natural.
A very key part of my practice as an artist working with moving image is the historicity of the tools that we are using. So it doesn't usually show up in a very obvious way in the works, but this is always my question, of the medium we are using. So in the past, I have shot films and I've done videos, but I've always actually been very disturbed by the fact that I am using the video as though it was film. So using this digital tool that I was born into, in a way that was available to me in Singapore, but a lot of my early films came out of an aesthetic which is really cinematic. The important makers for me were the great art filmmakers of the seventies, the sixties to the eighties, like [Andrei] Tarkovsky. It's always been a question for me—we almost use video as a cheaper substitute for celluloid, which is why, in the last few years, I actually stopped making films, stopped using the camera. It coincided with my move to Berlin.
In Berlin, I started working on two things. The first was computer graphics. I worked a lot with CG and CGI, computer graphics, which is a way of generating moving images without a camera, without the photography, getting rid of the photography bias of image-making. With the photography comes a whole constellation and set of prejudices, which is this idea of the nostalgic.
When you use the video camera to film something, it's like this moment of time passed. You always kind of have this nostalgia of the magic of that moment. But to me, this is all an aesthetic that came out of the photography aesthetic, which is that of the direct imprints of light on film. Whereas the digital is doing something completely different, because it's converting all these images into nothing but numbers. It seemed to me that doing computer graphics was a much more pure way of working, because one is creating images by using just numbers.
Then the other thing that I did in the last couple of years was make found footage film, which were all materials that I downloaded illegally through the Internet. Which means that the source of my materials is also already digital and numbers. So this was what I was working on the last couple of years. So now, doing this dictionary, to me, is the extension of that process, because it is now about writing the programs, finding a way to author the program that would write the films. So it's like this getting deeper into the numbers. I'm not sure if anything good really comes out of this language—I don't imagine this is the truth of moving images, but it's just kind of like my own trajectory. I've always been obsessed with medium. This old, very outmoded, modernist question of medium specificity.
But these are things that still kind of fascinate me, and I try to make my own practice engage with these larger questions, other than contents. So this has nothing to do with South East Asia, but just my own trajectory. But then I started thinking, all these algorithms and stuff like that is the big fetish of our time. Of course, it pervades our lives.
It directs how we live, how we encounter things that we read, what we watch.
Exactly. But at the same time, we see that in the arts, this is now growing into a big—it has already been, in many ways, one of the key obsessions of the art world. We start engaging with these questions. But I think it's precisely interesting to fold this with the postcolonial question, which is that all these old, unresolved questions of the imperial, of the injustice, exploitation—all these are the postcolonial, Third World questions.
This combination of these types of things with the algorithm is what is interesting for the dictionary. So how do we use these algorithms and start to do something with the questions of animism or the questions of Indian convict labour during British colonial period. In a way, these are concerns of a different kind of zone of people, but just bringing these two together, to see what comes out of the clash, is what I'm quite excited about. Just the thought of South East Asia and algorithms is an interesting montage in itself.
I was interested in this idea of the dictionary as this authority but at the same time, as you're creating the art component of this, it's almost as if you want to strip away that authority so that you're presenting findings, and allowing chance to communicate this, so that there's no judgments or values attached to anything after you've identified these threads. I don't know if that's one of the things, too, that's a part of this letting go, letting the algorithms and the numbers communicate all of the language and the thinking that's gone behind this.
Yes. That's certainly true, but I also think it only works if one proceeds with the idea that the dictionary is going to be complete, is going to be authoritative, yet to end up with the fact that it is not. If I had begun with the notion that the book is just going to be incomplete, it's going to be totally—it's not actually going to seriously answer the question of what is it that unifies South East Asia as a whole, then I think the project will lack a certain kind of—I don’t know, again, a very outdated word, which is authenticity.
Earlier, you asked this question about whether my point of view changed about this question of the unity of the project. So I started thinking about unity of South East Asia for a really, really long time. And now that I think back about it, at the beginning, some part of me was really looking for this answer. And now I find that I think I have an answer but the answer is not really an answer, at the same time. That's kind of the South East Asia that I have ended up with, and in the last few years, this was where—which is why I said [what I said about] the intuition—in the last few years hasn't changed that much.
So I think it's important for me to begin the project in almost this—what the existentialists would call "in good faith." That I was really going to find what unifies this heterogeneous region. But at the same time, be prepared that what I end up with is not going to give a very clear answer. And right now, what I find is that you have these loose threads, like this tapestry, which kind of is a South East Asia, but it's a kind of radically incomplete and torn and tattered one. Or that South East Asia is just this tone that comes out of the resonance of all these gongs. So there is a unity, but one doesn't quite know if that unity is that concrete. Did I answer your question somehow?
I was thinking as you were saying this, and the questions of at what point do you have to keep updating the video clips as they're being posted, I wonder if it's the issue that time continues to go on, and we continue to grow and things continue to happen, events continue to unfold, and the culture continues to shift, and that's why there's no end point for the project, because the question keeps answering itself in a different way—
—as time goes on. That might be the reason why you can't have closure on it, because it's not like South East Asia is a static thing, a static concept where people remain the same. It's that as everyone evolves, the answer has to keep evolving.
Yes. That's a nice way of putting it.
You may have encountered the question that informs your work for the rest of your life. The project will have these offshoots and you'll continue to explore different threads that you come across.
Yes. I think what you just described, this—change as the permanent state, I think that is essentially what it is. The source of my sorrow of the past few years [laughs], working on this project. Yes, it's interesting. This kind of permanent, continuous change. In a way, what unites South East Asia together is this permanent change. The togetherness is found in the transformation. Which may explain my long-time fascination with metamorphic things—things that can change or transform.
For me, the main function of the algorithms was to create this continuous change that every loop is different, that it never repeats itself. So at a smaller level, sometimes I think about it being the interest of montage, it brings together strange montages that will surprise me. So that's thinking about it in a smaller way. But at the bigger level, it is about this kind of universal becoming.
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