Month: May 2017

Helen’s vision


Image credit: MAGGRAV

I was eight when my mother brought me to have my fortune read. It was a small shop behind Fu Lu Shou complex and the place smelled of incense. It was an earthy scent –like a blend of oak, sandalwood and citronella. The orange signboard read ‘HELEN KOH GEOMANCY’.

My mother told me, “Aunty Helen is very good with all these things. She studied geomancy so she knows what she is doing.”

I asked, “What is geomancy?”

***

We were ushered into a room where I was instructed to sit down. I sat facing Helen and she took my hand.

“Girl, the spirits are showing me that glass will cause your death if you’re not careful.”

Helen furrowed her brow, and then continued, “I see snowfall, and you are shivering… You need to be wary of snow. It will chill your bones.”

Other than that ominous warning, I didn’t remember anything else in particular. I was too young to comprehend the gravity of her words, but my mother took it very seriously. My family avoided holiday destinations in the winter, and I was persuaded to avoid handling or being near glass whenever possible.

When I turned twenty four, I told my mother that I wanted to go work in America. She was convinced that it was a bad move. To her, it was the land of guns, gangs and rampant racism. Worst of all, it snowed there.

As a child, I went along with my mother’s wishes. However, I grew increasingly weary of letting what I perceived to be my mother’s superstitions constrain my decisions.

I went ahead with America anyway. A prophecy made by a woman who consulted some spirits in a stuffy shop was not going to stand between my dreams and I.

***

“You need to be wary of snow.”

I was twenty eight when I died. It was not winter when it happened, but it had been snowing all year.

The snow came in the form of fine powdery whiteness. Coke. I nearly smiled, thinking that Helen could have told me that “Coke is not good for you” and my mother would have prevented me from drinking soft drinks. Either way, we got it all wrong.

“I see snowfall, and you are shivering.” I burned up and shook violently as waves of nausea crashed against me. I desperately needed to turn to my side, but my limbs no longer belonged to me. I was still lying on my back when I began to vomit. I choked and struggled against the vile liquid sloshing back against my throat.

Glass will cause your death. Glass. That’s what they called it around here. Not meth, just glass.

My lungs were on fire.

My vision blurred with patches of brightly-coloured circles. The colours bled into one another until a rich blood-orange blend resulted. It was nearly the same colour as Helen’s shop signboard.

It was the last thing I saw as I drew my final breath of air.

The art of looking at Instagram

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Recently, I attended a film screening at STPI on John Berger’s The Art Of Looking. It is part of their current installation featuring Kim Beom and how artists interrogate perspectives. Watching the screening rekindled my interest in Berger’s works and I spent the weekend watching all four episodes of Ways of Seeing (stills from this post are taken from the videos). Berger was a curious observer with a keen sense for insightful perspectives. His inquiry into how visuality functions as a language reveals certain surprising conclusions.

In Episode 1, Berger brings in the significance of photography and the camera with respect to traditional art. It allows for reproduction of art, making it available in different places and for different purposes. A single artwork can be framed differently by different agents, with emphases placed on different aspects. A picture of Mona Lisa on a postcard would have a different meaning from when it is placed in an art history textbook, accompanied by descriptions and commentary. When incorporated into a video, different movements and music can be used to invoke different feelings and hence, skew interpretation and meaning of the artwork. This allows for fragmented meanings different from the original.

Unlike the original nature of oil painting which can only be viewed when an eye’s visual field comes into contact with it, photography expands the possibilities for ‘seeing’. I pondered further on this, and thought about social media feeds. What might Berger have to say about Instagram? It seems to me that his points can also be applied to the use of Instagram. Instagram pictures are a subjective expression of the individual. Two people at the same scene might take very different pictures –they might frame it in certain ways (by cropping certain things out or focusing on different aspects), apply different filters to evoke different feelings, and post different captions that would alter the meaning of each image.

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Berger also argues that the tradition of European oil painting was a medium which celebrated private possessions. It depicted the tangibility of objects representing affluence and power (e.g. land, gold, feasts, portraits etc.). He then looks at the modern context of publicity and advertisement. According to Berger, the oil painting symbolises the wealth of the owner. The person commissions an artist to immortalise his/her possessions within that frame. The publicity image on the other hand, shows not what we have, but what we might buy. In Berger words, the city of advertisements is “papered with dreams which invite us to enter them.” It represents not who we already are and what we already have, but who we can be with ownership of said objects. His conclusion is that the tradition of European oil painting and modern publicity images are both about ownership and status, but function in slightly different ways.

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Like oil paintings, many Instagram images document what we have done and the objects we are proud of – e.g. Flatlays of shopping hauls, shots of fancy cars and houses etc. Instagram images can also function as a publicity image when people use Instagram to advertise certain products. Suppose we thought of publicity images and traditional oil painting to be two different ends of the ownership and power imagery spectrum (image representing and surrounding what you [the owner] have –> representing what the people surrounding the image don’t have, but could).  Instagram embodies both poles of the spectrum, but cannot be reduced to either.

Hidden beneath the curated collection of images on an Instagram feed is a subtle art of visual communication. This is not just in terms of material possessions but also experiences (e.g. parties, exotic holidays, exclusive events) and social networks. Like the ubiquity of advertisements (and unlike the nature of traditional oil paintings before photography), the nature of Instagram is such that images are widely and heavily diffused. It is a marketplace not only in commercial dealings as an advertisement platform, but also a marketplace for social dealings. Likes are traded, followers represent network reach, and images communicate social status.

Like the publicity image, Instagram images portray objects of envy that exclude the viewer. Ownership and status of the owner as communicated through an Instagram image is always in relation to other Instagram users –the multiplicity of eyes that take in this image. It involves a discourse on human desire – It suggests what you are not, but can and want to be.

Every image on the feed is disembodied. It has no relation to the previous or the next. In the endless visual stream, it is a single fragment, juxtaposed against all other fragments. It also has a voice that competes to not get drowned out by other sounds. Yet, each image does not hold equal power. Some have louder voices that yell: “Look at me, I am what you are not.” They tempt and seduce us into buying things we do not need, pursuing experience after experience in the chase for a distant dream that is never truly within our grasp.

I acknowledge that with everything, it is nearly impossible to have an absolute position. Certainly not all Instagram images work at the same level of seduction.There will always be exceptions, anomalies and empirical cases that do not quite fit.  I am not suggesting that all Instagram does is to trap us in our desires and deceitfully play on our inadequacies. I am also not arguing that there is anything inherently insidious about how Instagram might be used. What this post does is to point out the dangers of the constant stream of images, and the subconscious work it does to manipulate our desires and actions. It (hopefully!) provokes one to think about how we use Instagram and how it influences us.

Ways of Seeing Episode 1
Ways of Seeing Episode 2
Ways of Seeing Episode 3
Ways of Seeing Episode 4

A soft place to land

TODAY

I walked past the same spot where the stairs had been but it had mysteriously vanished.

****

TWO MONTHS AGO

The first time I met her parents, I wore ‘appropriate clothing’ just as she suggested –long sleeved shirt to conceal my full-sleeve tattoo, formal pants, and sensible shoes –but her family had already formed their judgments from her Facebook pictures. Despite my best efforts to please them, they loathed seeing their daughter with me. I could see the disapproval in their eyes as they regarded us. I did not suit her family’s conservative, upper-class, elite image. I was a struggling musician cum producer with no stable income while she was a financial consultant with Citibank drawing a five-digit salary.

 “Aren’t there lots of good, successful men at Citibank?” Her parents hinted.

After three years, we eventually broke up. She cited the reason of ‘irreconcilable differences in our personality’ but I knew that it was because of her family. To cope with the grief of loss, I drank excessively. One night, my best friend Andrew came over and found me lying on the sofa next to an empty bottle of whiskey. There were lines of white powder on the table.

Andrew shook me awake to make sure I was alive, and then yelled at me, “What the fuck do you think you’re doing, Kurt?”

The living room was littered with beer cans, empty liquor bottles and pizza boxes. There was cigarette ash all over the floor. He got a large plastic bag and started clearing up my trash for me. “Wake up for Gods’ sake, I can’t help you if you don’t help yourself.”

I crumbled. “What am I going to do, Andrew? I can’t find work. Jamie left me because I’m shit, you know that? No talent, no money, no future in the music industry…I am a failure.”

Andrew softened his tone. “Look, you’re not shit. You just…lost your way while finding your path.”

***

ONE MONTH AGO

Andrew was the only one who knew about my down-spiral into the abyss of self-loathing, and he frequently checked in on me. He also offered me a place to stay when I moved out from Jamie’s place.

I embarked on a gradual process of healing. With Andrew’s encouragement, I began looking for job opportunities and long-term contracts.

None of them got back to me.

“Don’t worry so much. Life has a way of working itself out.” Andrew said.

I recall when we were both students studying in Boston. We met on an app – He was the first to say ‘Hi’, and we met up shortly after. That weekend, I confided in Andrew. I told him about how my parents disapproved of my choice to study music. “Even though it’s something I really want to do, I have to make it pay the bills somehow.” He replied, “Life has a way of working itself out. You’ll get through it when the time comes.”

I was a music student, and he studied statistics. Superficially, the things that we studied seemed very different. It was Andrew who pointed out the similarities. “We both look for patterns, and appreciate the elegance of these patterns.”

I thought about how every song I heard would automatically be dissected in my head. Like a poet who subconsciously analyses every poem line by line when reading it, I could never hear or enjoy songs in the same way others did. “I suppose that’s right,” I said.

Andrew continued, “We also borrow or incorporate these patterns into our own work. It’s an art.”

Art. Were the mysterious workings of the universe that made life work itself out also art?

I thought about Jamie again, and then Andrew. They possessed pragmatic and specialised university certifications and were drawing top-dollar for their expertise. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Jamies of the world ended up together with the Andrews of the world. Yet, the universe had it such that Jamie and Andrew met someone like me. Did we gravitate toward one another because unlike poles attract? Or are there really fundamental similarities and points of convergence despite the illusion of difference?

***

YESTERDAY

It was around seven on a Saturday morning and I couldn’t sleep. Noticing that Andrew was still asleep, I got up as quietly as I could and tiptoed out of my room as I left the house.

Sunlight had just begun to warm the streets. I strolled aimlessly until I came to a flight of stairs.

This flight of stairs was not like others.

It was clear that the stairs were part of an overhead bridge, but the middle portion of the bridge was missing. There were only stairs on one side of the road, leading to nowhere. It was an eerie sight in the middle of Ang Mo Kio. There was something disconcerting about the stairs in a city so well-planned – It served no function in a rational, utilitarian space with buildings in neat rows and pavements that always led to somewhere.

bridge 4

Image credit: Stomp

The entrance of the stairs were cordoned off but I felt compelled to proceed. I stepped across the tape and began to climb. Step after mindful step I ascended.  When I reached the top, I stood at the edge of nowhere. Gazing serenely at the trees on the opposite side of the road, I noticed that the area around me was strangely deserted.

There was nobody on the pavements, and no cars were on the road. The world had come to a standstill for this moment. I was truly alone in a silent neighbourhood.

I felt every bit as incomplete and out of place as the bridge that I was on. It wasn’t even a bridge. It was a staircase to nowhere – the pedestrian who climbed it would be greeted with nothingness at the top.

Several thoughts flashed in my mind.

I thought about my ex-girlfriend and how the hurt was still lingering in the background. I thought about my career and the seeming futility of my degree in Singapore. I thought about Andrew, and how he never failed to be a pillar of support for me…

The thought was truncated when my phone buzzed. It was an email from one of the studios I had sent my portfolio to. They were interested in meeting me to work something out.

I clenched my phone as waves of gratitude hit me. It was time to go home.

When Andrew heard the news, he leapt up from his chair and hugged me. “I told you things would work out somehow.” Stunned, I awkwardly placed a hand on his back and hugged him back.

Perhaps I had finally found a soft place to land.

Reflections on Siem Reap

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Over the weekend, I went on a trip to Siem Reap. This post documents some of my thoughts, observations and reflections from the trip.

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Anxiety and introspection

This trip marked my first time flying, transporting myself to and fro airports, and spending a day/night alone in a foreign country by myself. For most of my peers, they would say that it’s no big deal – especially for people who have gone on exchange. I’ve also been told that it is liberating to be able to wander as you please, but for someone like me who has been plagued by anxiety problems over the years, unfamiliar environments are generally far from liberating.

I am someone who mentally rehearses a food order while waiting in line and I get nervous when I have to talk to strangers for an extended period of time, so you can imagine that this trip was a real step for me.

The anxious individual is always a crucible for worry, with thoughts situated in events of the past and scenarios of the future. Unfamiliarity of the territory makes every dark alley more sinister and every stranger more scheming. It amplifies the need for well-thought exit plans and contingencies. The dangers need not be an objective reality, but a subjective one clouded by our fears and clinging to attachments e.g. wealth and health etc. Despite taking precautions, there is that big ‘what if’ lurking in the background.

Even when I was wandering alone, I still texted some friends and kept in touch with my family along the way. I think this connectivity was really helpful in alleviating my anxiety. Yet, why do we turn to the external in the face of anxiety? So that we feel less alone? What’s wrong with being alone?

When you fully immerse yourself in the present moment and the impermanence of what we perceive as our reality, it brings comfort. Yet, it is so much more difficult to practice this than to simply revert to the tried and tested habit of finding comfort in other things and other people. Instinctively, we turn to the flicker of our devices by scrolling our Instagram feed or typing a text to a family member.

Why do we struggle to find comfort and contentment introspectively?

Image may contain: one or more people, people standing, sky, cloud, outdoor, nature and water

Restlessness

This trip has also revealed the true restlessness of human nature. We crave travel, we thirst for adventure. But even when we are on an adventure, we still derive instant gratification that comes with the flickering screen of our devices, a symbol for connectivity. We are restless souls that cannot be in the present. We consume endlessly and forget how to be alone with ourselves in the present moment.

When HC left for Phnom Penh, I wandered the streets alone – ate my meals alone and did not attempt to make conversation with lone travellers. I was made aware of what it truly means to be comfortable with being alone. It is not just surviving (physically) by yourself, but also being at peace when you let go of all the tethers to your social networks.

When you are on holiday, everything you do is outside of your regular routine. Flux and changes in stimuli from moment to moment become dizzying. Michael Brendan Doughtery asks us to recall the last time “there was no itch in your hand to reach for a mobile device, and you felt like the wind and sky around you had nothing to disclose to you other than the vast and mysterious sympathy of existence itself.” Can you enjoy a sight without immediately whipping out your phone to post it on Instagram? Can you savour a meal without having to document it on Snapchat? Can you people-watch without texting a friend? Basically, can you focus on one damn thing at a time?

No, you cannot.

I too, cannot, but I will try harder.

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Transience and beauty

During this time, I also observed the transient nature of tourists.

I was at the Night Market/Pub Street area and it was filled with tourists. They are a collective of individual lives and stories but together, they form the body of people that is indifferent to the specificities of each human life. In the crowd of both locals and tourists, I blend in, and yet I do not belong. Who truly belongs in that space? Who gets to decide the criteria for belonging? There is something humbling about being by yourself in a place that is not truly your own; where your presence/disappearance is insignificant.

These tourists stream in after dark. Like what Kazuo Ishiguro writes in Artist of the floating world and its pleasure quarters, “the best things… are put together of a night and vanish with the morning.” The transitory nature of the night has bittersweet nodes – beauty can be captured in particular time-slices, but it is also ever-drifting. It is the same with sightseeing spots. People desperately try to immortalise their memories using cameras and paintings, but perhaps that misses the point of its beauty. Can beauty ever be eternal? In these spaces, we are all pretenders – pretending that the beauty is indeed eternal when it is in fact fleeting and fragile.

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It was a really short trip, but it gave me much loads of food for thought and inspiration. I think I have raised more questions than arrived at conclusions, but if anything, it has shown me that there is still much self-improvement to work on.

The rage room is in our heads

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Image credit: Jin Xing Ye via The Artidote

Today, I was alerted to an actual business enterprise called The Fragment Room where people can ‘wreck and throw stuff for cathartic effect’. I feel very disappointed by this development and am compelled to write a short opinion piece on it. In this piece I will touch on two broad points: Why this enterprise seems beneficial, and what (I think) is wrong with it.

Firstly, complex emotions are part of the human condition. Rage is one of them, and we are no stranger to the blind fury that consumes us. It inspires violence and force, but does not necessarily result in such. That is because every individual processes anger in different ways. This is influenced by different life experiences as well as cultivated habits and responses to situations. For instance, Person A might react to anger by hitting another person. In another case, Person B does not hit the person – he has conditioned himself into restraint because he does not want to go to jail. The Fragment Room offers Person A a serious alternative that does not hurt other people (i.e. he does not hit the person), and also guarantees Person B an outlet for violence without the threat of legal prosecution. It appears to be beneficial for people dealing with anger and are in need of an ‘outlet’.

The Fragment Room encourages the expression of anger in a particular form that has been suppressed by the state in the form of legal prosecution. Basically, it operates on the premise that violence in itself is not harmful –it is only harmful insofar as other people get hurt/ it goes against state laws. Here, I contest that assumption by positing that allowing for that expression of violence is harmful in itself even if nobody is physically hurt.

Earlier on I mentioned the differences between the reactions of Persons A and B. Both have an instinct to react violently and negatively, but one controls its manifestation out of fear. I suggest that Person B is actually similar to Person A because he/she still forms that desire to react negatively. It may not manifest in terms of violence, but mentally, Person B is still affected by the violence enacted in his mind.

By removing the threat of legal prosecution and potential of hurting others, The Fragment Room still does not tackle the root problem of how people can deal with strong emotions like rage without turning to violence, whether or not it manifests as action. In my view, the rage room is not a physical place where one can go to ‘vent’, but it exists in our heads and that is equally dangerous. I suggest that harm should not only be conceived in material terms, but also mental. This is a strong and controversial claim. It means that restraint of physical/manifest action is insufficient, but one must also learn to develop healthy mental practices as an internal reaction to anger.

Summed in a diagram:

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To me, The Fragment Room is a misinformed enterprise that does not have a clear grasp of what truly benefits people, especially those who are trying to break out of cycles of blind habitual, and violent reactions. Even for people like Person B, these rooms give people the space to affirm their destructive behaviour, feed their violent reactions and reproduce cycles of negativity.

I have included Person C to suggest what I think is the correct way of processing anger. It is unrealistic to expect that the feeling of anger does not arise at all, and also unrealistic to think that humans can stop violent/negative thoughts from arising. However, what we can do is to form the mental practice of understanding that emotions are part of being human, and realising that reacting negatively (internally) can also be very harmful. It also involves understanding the subtle ramifications on our environment and the people around us when we react in ways which are not physically violent but violent in other senses (e.g. harsh words and angered tones). This does not mean that we should be suppressing anger or negative thoughts. Instead, we should acknowledge that it is part of what it means to be human, and respond to it in non-negative ways internally and externally.

These mental habits take long years of work and practice. But through it, we develop an awareness of what it means to be at peace. It does not mean that we no longer experience chaotic, complex emotions. It simply means we are no longer afflicted. We also learn that it is not the external circumstances which cause us to react in certain ways, but our habitual responses to particular feelings that create and reproduce negativity.