We invited the panelists of Exhaustion and Exuberance to contemplate upon the ideas in the text as a way to come together and develop tactics to counteract the pressure of ceaseless availability and pressure to perform. From 2014 to 2016, Vera and I worked together on establishing a new residencies programme, where we found ourselves in conditions where the curatorial came hand in hand with pastoral care. Buying bedsheets and stocking up on laundry detergent were as crucial as developing research and curating public programmes. In these moments, Federici’s reproductive labour came into play, where continuity of knowledge production relied on the continuity of invisible organisation and maintenance work. The notion of the I Care went beyond simply loving what you do, loving became an imperative. In Notes from a de institutionalization, Mey responds to the ideas in Exhaustion & Exuberance through a personal account of her experiences working in and around Southeast Asia.

– Shona Mei Findlay


Exit

The first point is from the position of exit: an opting out, a stepping off the production treadmill of exhibition making and art thinking. I say this in earnest as someone who is deinstitutionalising after working as a curator at the NTU CCA Singapore and has decided on a kind of hibernation in the form of a PhD programme and returning back to the History of Art and its much older and very unfashionable handmaiden - archaeology. It is weird going to the primordial past to seek truth. I know this is very untrendy, but partially comes from the exhaustion of being a curator of a Residencies Programme, where over the course of two years of our inauguration, hosted 54 artists, curators and writers. Being on a small island, the world's second busiest port, an Asian tiger city, tax haven and responding to the research needs, anxieties and loneliness of foreign artists, many of whom was their first time in Asia, was emotionally depleting. Our role was the task of cultural mediation in a country once guided by the maxim "poetry is a luxury we cannot afford" which was said by the nation’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew. This immediately lends itself to the need for a very tangible and real manifestation of artistic knowledge production. In the context of a residency we could give time in exchange for things - we need to see what you are doing and how you visualise your thoughts. After all, time is money.
 

1. Amanda Heng’s studio at the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore 2015 .jpg
Amanda Heng’s studio at the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore 2015

Excuse     

The second response is a position of excuse in taking time out from the constant emotional labour that art demands, in order to build a position of mutual debt. A close colleague and I were discussing both the constraints and potentials of working in what is too often regarded a ‘developing’ context and the many debatable terms used to (inaccurately) describe the art scene in Southeast Asia. We talked very politically incorrectly about what we deemed the third world curatorial. This space is one that is constantly negotiating itself amongst what Saigon-based curator Zoe Butt would define as an ‘ecology of cultural lack’1. This ecology is characterised by: a dearth of state (or any) funding; active historical amnesia through destruction of memory—archival, architectural or otherwise; visible and violent impoverishment; freedom of expression in public existing as a real threat with political ramifications and not just something debated in the comments section of a review. When there is funding available from state sources it is as if biting the hand that feeds—how can we continue to be critical whilst being state endorsed by problematic governance? Due to these constraints, a working methodology of friendship and dependency ensued. Friends relied on each other to help make artworks, to learn things, to build institutions, to get things done. 
 

Excuse     

The second response is a position of excuse in taking time out from the constant emotional labour that art demands, in order to build a position of mutual debt. A close colleague and I were discussing both the constraints and potentials of working in what is too often regarded a ‘developing’ context and the many debatable terms used to (inaccurately) describe the art scene in Southeast Asia. We talked very politically incorrectly about what we deemed the third world curatorial. This space is one that is constantly negotiating itself amongst what Saigon-based curator Zoe Butt would define as an ‘ecology of cultural lack’. This ecology is characterised by: a dearth of state (or any) funding; active historical amnesia through destruction of memory—archival, architectural or otherwise; visible and violent impoverishment; freedom of expression in public existing as a real threat with political ramifications and not just something debated in the comments section of a review. When there is funding available from state sources it is as if biting the hand that feeds—how can we continue to be critical whilst being state endorsed by problematic governance? Due to these constraints, a working methodology of friendship and dependency ensued. Friends relied on each other to help make artworks, to learn things, to build institutions, to get things done.  
 

2. Max Ernst, The Entire City La ville entière (1935:36) .jpg
Max Ernst, The Entire City La ville entière, 1935/36

Again, working within a context where there are severe restrictions on what is publicly permissible within the exhibitionary, dependency on each other and forming a tribe becomes survival. The mythology of the lone artist would not work there. As a caveat to modes of working within or beyond institutions, I observed distinctions between friendships and ‘networks’; particularly the difference between heavily infrastructured art scenes and necessarily informal ones.  On the one hand this environment was ripe for the best curatorial practice; indeed, a substantial amount of funding was prevalent in a context that needed more spotlighting. The art and content was already there; it did not need to be found, it just needed further exposure. Over the few years I spent in Singapore, I witnessed the encroaching colonising apparatus of international projects, which aimed, and still aim, for the circulation of globalisation in a world where research is something sandwiched between the arrivals gate and time spent by the swimming pool. This approach mirrored ‘discoveries’ of ‘forgotten’ artefacts, like the French uncovering of Angkor Wat as if a world had been hiding all along. The external perception was a scarcity in local discussion. The reality was a lack of foreign translation. Trying to find tools to navigate a new terrain, I realised I was in a place where the alternative becomes the mainstream. I encountered a scholar, surprisingly based in Singapore, who introduced me to the concept of the undercommons. As a method of practice on the black radical tradition, Stefano Harney and Fred Moten describe the action of study as positioned within the undercommons2. Jack Halberstam describes this space of activity as ‘a wild place that is not simply the left-over space that limns real and regulated zones of polite society; rather, it is a wild place that continuously produces its own unregulated wildness’. He further elaborates that ‘the undercommons is space and time which is always here. Our goal—and the “we” is always the right mode of address here—is not to end the troubles but to end the world that created those particular troubles as the ones that must be opposed.’3 It is a plea for space within and beyond institutions, using the language of the oppressor whilst also trying to subvert and dismantle it. Learning from each other through the concept of debt and indebtedness, the undercommons is a place to empower the sharing and building of ideas with the caveat that with the acquisition of knowledge comes great responsibility. We learned a codified language to escape the censoring eyes of culturally policing local authorities; there resounded a sentiment somewhat righteous in its appeal. It was not uncommon to return to the studio for the first encounter of a finished artwork rather than through exhibitions. We heard about work being made in secret, such as Htein Lin’s sculptures of soap, carved during his time in prison in martial law Myanmar. Or, having to cross borders to view films by Singapore filmmaker Tan Pin Pin or Thai artist Apichatpong Weerasethakul because their home countries remained inhospitable to their politically poignant content. The proviso of burn after reading was metaphorically real. Everything here felt like it mattered more. 
 

3. Htien Lin, Soap Block (detail), 2015, installation of soap bars, 120 × 360 cm. .jpg
Htien Lin, Soap Block (detail), 2015, installation of soap bars, 120 × 360 cm

4. The White Building where Sa Sa Art Projects resides  .jpg
The White Building where Sa Sa Art Projects resides
 

On thinking about different modes of being and learning from each other I visited Sa Sa Art Projects in Phnom Penh, Cambodia and was intrigued to learn that it was founded by a group of four artists who initially met on a year-long photography workshop. They formed the collective ‘Stiev Selapak’, which loosely translates as art rebels. From diverse backgrounds, including working for NGOs or print journalism outlets, they founded a space in a historic residential block known as the White Building. Their mandate was to cultivate local audiences in the wake of NGO culture and foreign ownership of artistic spaces—as well as a dearth in art education. The White Building was a government initiative once dedicated to housing artists and public servants. Currently, post Khmer Rouge, it is known as a low-income housing area. Guiding their own practice is the sentiment that ‘empathy is central in the work of the four artists’4, a value that is hard to teach and formalise. Sa Sa Art Projects’ philosophy was embedded within a notion of continuing to learn together rather than the school being a means to an end. When one member of the collective attains new knowledge, there is an energetic impetus that it becomes everybody’s knowledge.

Exclusion     

The third response is looking at this notion of working from a position of exclusion. Of course, with this kind of exclusion comes its inverse, through the form of privilege, we build these alternative systems because we have no choice, we do not have the privilege to opt out. We begin from a situation and context that is historically already exhausted from an aftermath of war, thus we begin at the starting line exhausted. The only analogy I can make here is through a notion of time as existing differently according to this privilege, many immigrant parents will sacrifice their lives in low income jobs knowing that they will be exhausted so that their children won't be. From a position of diaspora this is common practice. There is a different expectation of time and different timelines of karmic balance. The notion that somehow life is not supposed to be exhausting is a privilege in itself. As the central Buddhist tenet explains: life is suffering.
 

5. Buddhist Mandala from Thailand.jpg
Buddhist Mandala from Thailand

Exorcism     

The fourth response is a position of exorcism: a reminder to remove the ego from the decision-making process that is the yes or the no, and how these are constantly positioned as binary opposites. Yes, no, exhausted, exuberant, self and other. Of course, there is space within this for an in between, something which I cannot find an equivalent for in the English language. The natural opposition, within Buddhism, is that the opposite of the self is not the other, but the non-self, a construct built to remind that there is no such thing as the self in itself. In Khmer or Cambodia yes is a gendered word; men and women have different words for yes. In Singapore a common response to a question which begged a yes or no answer in ‘Singlish’ is not to say yes or no, but rather "can" or "can not" and it is said in a way which revokes the personal pronoun in its entirety. Similarly, in Indonesian, as a negative there is bisa, which is similar to can and belum, something translatable as "not yet". For example, when asked ‘are you married?’ A common response is not to say no, but rather ‘not yet’. This leaves a kind of possibility that a no can become a yes, a certainty that it may not happen now but maybe later.

Exceptionalism     

The fifth response is exceptionalism in the form of love. How, within this position of lack of translation, not only around the bare bones of language but in the very concept of exhaustion itself, do we continue to care for each other and what does that care look like. I don't want to over-romanticise the conditions of production in Southeast Asia. Of course, like everywhere, the market fuels our desire and our consumption and encroaches on our capacity for true love. However, in many instances, where there is no professionalisation, this is only through the bonds of friendship as there is no valour to the position of the artist genius. Is it possible that we continue to exhaust ourselves, and find our exuberance, out of and for love? 

6. Amanda HENG, 20 Years Later (2015).jpg
Amanda Heng, 20 Years Later, 2015

Let’s not envelop these gestures of love into a sick game of the scathing capital of critique. Is there not a way for compassionate criticism? That somehow we can work across the exasperation and lack of understanding of the translation of context and remember the universal exceptionalism that traverses our contexts? It is here, I return back a Maori proverb from my place of birth in Aotearoa New Zealand, He aha te mea nui o te ao, he tangata, he tangata, he tangata, which loosely translates as "What is the most important thing? It is people, it is people, it is people"5

April 2017