A collection of conversations with a diverse range of local and regional creatives

Library Conversations for SGABF2020
We examined the systems that support art book making and independent art book publishing in Singapore and the region.

Queer Reads Library and Queer Zine Fest Display Distribute THEBOOKSHOW Robert Zhao

A Closer Look for SGABF2019
We gathered perspectives on our zine and art book culture, and discuss the possibilities of self-publishing today.

wares infoshop library The Convergence of Digital and Print Publishing Basheer Graphic Books Currency Syaheedah Iskandar Supernormal Zulkhairi Zulkiflee Zines Then and Now nor Divaagar

21 Creatives for SGABF2018
We sat down with 21 creatives of various disciplines to learn about their practice and asked each of them to fill up a blank page in a notebook.

Hanson Ho Samantha Lo Liana Yang Charmaine Poh ASPIDISTRAFLY Teresa Lim Sobs Karen Tan Michael Ng Mary Bernadette Lee Deon Phua Janice Koh Ruben Pang Rebecca Toh Liao Jiekai Berny Tan Luca Lum Cyril Wong Atelier HOKO Lee Chang Ming Jacqueline Goh

A collection of conversations with a diverse range of local and regional creatives

Library Conversations for SGABF2020  ︎

A Closer Look for SGABF2019 ︎

21 Creatives for SGABF2018 ︎
Photo Credit: wares infoshop library

SGABF: Firstly, can you tell us more about wares?

WARES (W): wares is a reading library and an infoshop project holding open space for people to study, rest, gather, share, and agitate together beyond the impositions of capital. A big motivation for us is the breaking of isolation and alienation that defines so much of life today, towards building capacities for collective autonomy and care.

Apart from sharing through social media reading material on emancipatory thought and praxis, wares has been physically nestled at the collaborative project space soft/WALL/studs since 2018. There we use a library room shared with the host group’s own library, so when you visit us you’ll encounter not only our collection of books, zines and printed matter but also a range of literature reflecting diverse creative interests and practices, which together is kept open and cared for by volunteers.

We have been experimenting with publishing, live events, and online projects, connecting with friends both here and beyond these artificial territorial borders who are working along similar lines for life in common. In June, while preparing new material including stickers, posters, and zines for SGABF, we will be announcing a semi-regular gathering framework Loose Assemblies and also opportunities for our visitors and friends to volunteer with caretaking and other kinds of support.

SGABF: How would you describe the people who enter wares?

W: We’re thankful for everyone who makes the trip and dwells with the library! If speaking only in terms of occupation, it’s been a mix of mostly students, artists, researchers, but really varied; people who are interested in text, reading, art, critical theory, an autonomous politics, or just a sense of freedom afforded by a space not demanding a “minimum spend”. Some enjoy the quiet space to work on things, some are simply curious and visit after hearing about it, and others know what’s up and return bringing friends who are looking for connection.

When we hosted the live ambient music nights Against the Disquiet, more people came through who might not have, probably due to a friend playing or the novel suggestion of quiet listening and reading, and it helped build our confidence to try other things to meet more people. This follows from the otherwise we’d like to cultivate, rejecting the tendency of interacting with spaces as mere consumers of commodities and experiences. Admittedly it’s all still a very small subset of people who live and work in Singapore, with evident gaps in physical, affective, and language accessibility, and not even engaging with folks in the local area.

Photo Credit: wares infoshop library

SGABF: Being in a physical space, how does wares select what goes into the infoshop library? What are some publications wares focuses on in the process of curation?

W: We haven’t quite run out of space just yet (we may need more shelves!), so that’s not really an issue when it comes to selection. Money though, for purchasing books and paying rent, and finding time and volunteers to keep the space open, are more pressing limitations to what we’re doing.

We select publications based on their content and relation to what we want to imagine, see, and build. We have also received donations that reshape what is relevant, broadening what we think of as interesting. Most of our library has to do with anti-capitalist autonomous politics, but weave in and out of various subjects, styles, and concerns, intersecting with queer and trans life, abolition and decoloniality, struggles for justice, non-state futurity, hidden histories, visual cultures (including self-publishing), and so on. We are definitely looking for more material from this part of the world, things that break from normative society, things that confront race, gender, ability, health, biopolitics, logistics, work, nationalism, and authoritarianism.
SGABF: As a collector of zines, is there a sort of belief that this printed format is an economical means of expression to be obtained? How might this have changed from the past and today?

W: Yes, because it’s still possible to print cheap, even if selling cheap is determined by more than that. The fanzine is historically defined by a sort of defiant spirit of making do with what one has, and that was made possible by the affordability of reproduction by photocopying. But what’s more vital is that this made it possible for pretty much anyone to publish, to be making, to be creative, to be in conversation with a friend or community through this physical medium. Which means zines were also typically distributed at cost or traded for other zines within such informal networks.

There’s a kind of understanding that their making and circulation are intimate and protected from a market or profit logic, like a gift economy, because often the content within is not meant for anyone outside the network anyway, which also accounts for aesthetics that are experimental and not necessarily marketable. To be clear, the technology is just a vehicle for that spirit; many people are still committed to such an ethos but may not deal with zines per se.

If things have changed, it might be that the internet has offered access to an effectively free platform for publishing and sharing with practically no limits to reach or scale, and digital technologies, be it technical tools for photography, image and video editing, print layout, and so on, have proliferated along with the knowledge to use them (and the burgeoning “creative industries”), creating situations where a self-published object could rival the formal qualities of professional mass-productions of the past. It’s also allowed more people to learn about the zine as a subcultural form, to use it on their own terms. But if a “zine” now looks and feels “professional”, should it fetch a “commercial price”? Should we call every book that is saddle-stitched a zine? How does it relate to historical lineages? How do such changes shape how the form is used and understood in future?

Another point to note would be that almost everyone who may make (or read) a zine now lives with the precarity of the so-called gig economy. The economic conditions that allowed for “free time” to make a book without turning a profit may well be over (and likely never existed for many, many people) (though if we look at online media like memes, vines, or youtube essays, clearly cultures and voices exist anyway without expectation of pay). So that’s something to grapple with – how to reclaim time and life from the monetisation of everything while not falling into the oversimplified trap of thinking selling equates to capitalist.

Photo Credit: wares infoshop library

SGABF: The purported distinctions between different print forms such as zines and art books, and how aestheticisation reflects a fetishisation of material and visual form over content, was previously discussed. Can you elaborate more on this?

W: To be clearer, we were talking about "artistic" or aestheticised zines, and how the problem with them isn't that they're artistic (which suggests a forced binary between the artistic and the "radical", or what’s intellectual and not, or shallow and deep), but rather lies with how art is perceived and practiced here (and many other places heavily shaped by capitalism and associated processes), how it represents the foreclosure of life and possibilities, masking and distracting from urgencies.

What we mean is that, behind the book object, fair, exhibition, or aesthetic theory, regardless of whether something positions itself as “high art” or whatever, what function do these play within the particular society we happen to inhabit? Is art itself being framed in a way to prevent us from asking questions, from even thinking about them, much less acting on them? Is art simply resigned to being an insulated space for distant contemplation, and then despair? A space to create and reify value, pacifying through beauty, with material excess literally declaring, “everything’s fine”?

We could even look to the labour that keeps all that vibrancy afloat: if everyone’s tired just producing to survive, not even in conversation about anything other than the producing, what is any of it even for? This is part of a critical position we’ve been developing alongside the counter-spectacle counter-event #NAWartweek and want to extend as a basis to the things we do.

If fetishisation of form occurs, it’s probably because it’s simpler, quicker, more competitive, fitting in with consumptive habits and the political context. Which is to say, it’s culturally expected that form is privileged over content. Maybe this is cynical, but the bottom line is this isn’t sustainable or inspiring. We should see art as an industry producing media content (that other sense, as in the content farm), competing with anything else visual and experiential that as a whole maintain a continuation of things. From lightshows to street parties, biennials to lifestyle festivals, zines and independent publishing shouldn’t be reflecting or extending this paradigm, but smashing it.

So when we talk about being a reading library, maybe there’s another dimension to it too, which is that we want to make space to collectively learn how to read situations and currents so that change can be strategic. In a way, this is about not judging a book by its cover – how do we read art, advertising, grand spectacle, the city, polish and quality, valorisation, the “first world”, and so on. Behind the surface, what’s going on structurally? How are these things enabled, what ideologies do they reinforce, what are their effects on lives? Like when we look at a street demonstration, we can’t just assume that displays of “people power” is simply a good thing, as we know this is a form that’s also used by nationalists, reactionaries, and people who want to preserve a status quo.

Photo Credit: wares infoshop library

SGABF: Have zines today been co-opted by capitalist modes of thinking, altering what is produced or their final forms? We think about why certain institutions might stock zines and whether the values they serve stem more from their position as aesthetic pieces of consumption as opposed to their social contents, nullifying their positions as pieces of rebellion. In a sense, resistance cultures have been subsumed by material cultures.

W: This is a really big question. To follow from before, certainly the material conditions and social relations mediated by capital shape how we do things and why. Capitalist logics, even when it takes the form of liberalism (like when people say democracy is about the freedom to make individual choices, which parallels how “politics” is often thought of as choosing parties of management), maintain scarcity and seek accumulation and competition. These are reflected as costs on choices. 

No doubt there are institutions with resources collecting and archiving self-published printed matter and zines, which shouldn’t be an issue regardless of whether that’s done as an overview of a form or guided by topical focus. After all, they are not buying up the supply or altering the content, the rest of which can still reach their intended audience. They should do more, of course, if they truly cared about support. But when capitalists – individuals, corporations and institutions alike – begin commissioning the making of zines and other media, tapping on the image of the cool and “artisanal" co-opting the language of autonomy and liberation, as has happened recently with a huge luxury fashion brand, there’s a danger where the available pathways in which people make or speak (or are able to be seen and heard) become monopolised.

It’s not that their money may be “dirty” (isn’t all of it?), or that it’s “selling out”, but more about the enclosures that are thrown up, arbitrarily shifting what “viable” or “acceptable” means, limiting options and choices when survival is at stake. Brand partnerships may present themselves as opportunities to sustain an artistic career, but they are where artistic labour is further put into competition, weaponised and depoliticised, perhaps driven by interests of property and image – as art-washing and “woke”-washing for entities that are very likely exploiting labour or gentrifying elsewhere. In Singapore, the state itself is a big enabler of such arrangements.

Artists as art workers need to make tactical decisions regarding who they choose to work with and who they will sell their labour to, as well as be in positions to negotiate what they might use those platforms and resources for if they do. Those doing the commissioning may deploy platitudes like “biting the hand that feeds you”, which would tellingly reveal what kind of power they hold. Can we imagine a world where the only way we can have time to make or say anything is when those who have money would pay for it?

But there’s also another kind of power, found in the forming of communities based on mutual aid and cooperation, sharing of resources, distributed authorship, and collective struggle. Here, one also doesn’t have to be an artist to make something, nor an activist to have a voice. This is going to be something vital as media content and communication-consumption platforms are consolidated and legal frameworks hardened, how people can overcome those costs and enclosures.

SGABF: The zine has a history of being an object of counter-culture and political campaigns. How do you see the purpose of zines evolving from past, present to future? Has the dominant capitalist system already altered this idea of an object of counter-culture as a form of resistance?

W: We’re not researchers of publishing culture, so we can’t speak to just how an entire form or practice has shifted. For that, check out this piece by Display Distribute charting histories and types of independent publishing closer to this region.

What we have observed, and based on assumptions too from Singapore, is a growth in recent years of the aestheticised object, of zines and light publications focused on photography and visual work. As mentioned earlier, this has to do with technology, but is probably also shaped by what gets taught, promoted or seen, coloured by an already existing general void in critical engagement with the social and political in the visual field. There is a separation of worlds, making possible absurd situations where established designers making “zines” are surprised to learn about the existence of punk zines from 2000s Singapore. Even then, rebellion ends up being treated as a look, like a surface aesthetic to dress sneakers, in the same way zines are understood as a form, divorced from history and ripe for misappropriation as cultural capital.

It’s still encouraging to see people experiment with self-publishing and small-scale print art, to the extent where art book fairs are popping up everywhere, but we have to wonder if it’s plateauing, who’s gatekeeping, and what barriers of entry look like. These are still after all marketplaces, and that means one either needs to make things that can sell and turn a net profit, or support the effort with something else. What skills and looks become trendy, and what falls off the map?

Our attention, and what we’re excited by, is on folks exploring different and fresh aesthetics for politically-driven zines, making cute shit that has teeth, subverting established aesthetics of resistance, using the internet in tandem for visibility and to reach those in affinity. Like there’s some great stuff on disability, health autonomy, mental illness, prisoner support, care networks out there. So we hope to see the form used for more, combining the critical, poetic, personal, antagonistic, and moving, the visual and textual, maybe even the aural and tactile. We also hope that there can be space and interest for these to circulate and be in conversation (another thing we’d love for wares to be supporting). The object is just a form, it is up to whoever makes it and uses it to give it its content and context – and if it stops being useful, we probably should find better forms.

SGABF: If we look at the zine as an object of socio-political consciousness, do you think it has been an effective medium in doing so? 

W: What is effective really depends on what the goal at hand is. Then there are small steps and large leaps, and we need to know, based on communication and understanding, how and when to make them. In any case the zine as a form shouldn’t just stand on its own, but supplements other media and scales of action. Perhaps its usefulness comes in being accessible, still novel, intimate, inconspicuous, and mobile. When we talk about the political, it’s about an emancipatory horizon, about figuring out how life can be shared and held in common. Not just resisting capitalist catastrophe, but to overcome and thrive. There, we will need to have art around for healing, contemplating, educating, and sharing, which can be collective and generalised, happening alongside other needs and interests. We should start imagining what that could be like, together with how to get there and the things we can be doing right now to bring that into being.

SGABF: You talked about how the way we perceive things stems from how capitalism and its structures have effectively skewed the ways we think. In your opinion, what is the alternative or ideal space?

W: This sticker should give an idea of what we’re down with, but come through our space (or table during the fair, we’ll be bringing a selection of stuff from our collection for browsing) and find out more!

Photo Credit: wares infoshop library

SGABF: What are some actions you feel that organisations, platforms and spaces like SGABF should take to reach out to the wider public? How do you perceive the role of wares in the larger society in general?

W: We can’t speak for SGABF, but we hope it can remain an open platform despite the pressures of economy, be an intermediary taking on negotiation with the propertied class and government (for space, patronage, logistics, and protection from the potential policing of content), help amplify creative and critical voices and platforms that have been marginalised in this crap place, and also not be alone in doing so.

wares may not be oriented in the same way, especially not in engaging with institutional bodies, but we’d like to be a node that leads to more – not numerical growth as a collective, but more like a spreading of seeds and spores into networks and autonomous infrastructures. We’re toying with ideas of mobility, exploring how to appear outside formal and safe zones, how to translate and speak with, ways where we can facilitate collective making, publishing, editing, printing, and the sharing of skills, developing languages and aesthetics, to meet and traverse the world together as accomplices.

SGABF: Finally, can wares recommend up to 3 zines/art books/publications in your collection?

W: It’s tough to pick from more than 300 items, but alright!

Sick Woman Theory, The Broken Teapot, Inhabit

wares is a reading library and infoshop project collecting a tapestry of books, zines, and other printed matter. Part material and part virtual, it carves out new potentials for collective gathering, study, agitation, and autonomy beyond capital.

With the proliferation of zines, books and long form journalism, the Internet has become one of the most democratic spaces existing today. Internet users continue to construct their own identities through free interactions. Yet, new media censorship laws over the years have consistently challenged the idea of the internet as a ‘free’ realm. What are some costs we pay in producing and disseminating information online?

The tendency to publish works and carry out discussions on digital platforms have led to assumptions that the printed matter has migrated online. Digitisation is a complex phenomenon. It brings to the surface various reasons why people rely on digital and print formats. As opposed to seeing the two formats as single entities, it is imperative to evaluate how their collective functions have enabled new practices and mediums. we discover how two different groups, Singaporean zine publisher Your Local Newsstand and independent publisher Temporary Press, share similar processes in their use of new technologies to produce and distribute their printed works. 

Photo: Zine collection by Your Local Newsstand, Courtesy of SGABF

The Internet has made it faster and easier for makers to propagate ideals, beliefs and their respective cultures. For Your Local Newsstand, technology has condensed the process of finding photographers from all around the world, constructing (or deconstructing) their identities via printed matter. Huda Azzis, founder of Your Local Newsstand says:

“We try to get stories that have a place in our current society, and reflect the cultural state of a particular area. It doesn’t have to be political. It can be personal. We have stories from Gambia, Spain and London… It’s a very exciting time.”

Your Local Newsstand made their very first zine, Portraits of People, in 2018 where pictures were taken of people all around Singapore aged 10 to 60. For this project, the team went around asking people about their aspirations in life. “What’s quite interesting about that project was that we realised that people don’t stop dreaming. You have a 58 year old man still harbouring dreams of opening his own restaurant. It’s a very universal concept,” recalls Huda.

Through the digital circulation of these photographs, Your Local Newsstand caught the attention of readers and other zine makers on Instagram – successfully making use of the online platform with high connectivity to spread the message of their work.

Aside from promotion and outreach, it might be true that digital platforms provide an attractive solution to the hefty cost of physical printing. However, the process of turning to digital mediums isn’t merely just about transposing printed content on a website. According to Gideon Kong and Jamie Yeo from Temporary Press, “It doesn’t really make sense for us to publish a book in a similar fashion on print and digital. Instead, we are more interested to approach them differently and not directly adopt what works in a physical book or object for something that exists digitally.”

Photo Credit: SGABF

Similarly, Your Local Newsstand find themselves having to juggle the parameters of digital and printed formats. “Printing photographs on a zine means that the narrative is likely to develop in many different directions depending on how you curate and sequence them on the pages. That’s something that most of our photographers enjoy exploring – how the significance of their work changes on print as opposed to keeping them on Instagram.”

Photo: Zine published by Your Local Newsstand, Courtesy of SGABF

In Singapore, printers are beginning to notice that publishers and producers are becoming more self-reliant by handling their own print production. This has paved the way for newer forms of collaboration between printers and makers. For example, printers are now more open to adapt their requirements on a case by case basis if they see fit. Traditionally, each zine edition (comprising 30 copies) Your Local Newsstand produces would be considered too low. “However, when we approached our printer, he allowed us to print a variety of different zines, as long as they were able to make the minimum order quantity of 100 collectively,” Huda clarifies.

Even though small publishers and producers have found a way around conventional requirements, printing is still considered a challenge for others. For Temporary Press, turning to risograph was borne out of economic concerns. “It allows us to produce low to medium quantities without the cost of offset printing, while also  having the freedom to explore and expand possibilities the machine,” explains Gideon and Jamie.

Photo Credit: SGABF

Even for them, interacting with printers involves a process of negotiation. “I think the process of working with printers may be more collaborative overseas but we are not entirely sure given our short experience as a press/studio. We observed instances where the printing expert sometimes take on a similar role to the designer, or come into projects as advisors and take on a key role in book production. For us, we generally try to develop a close relationship with printers in working towards more collaborative possibilities in the future.”

However, digital expansion isn’t just about greater collaboration or reliance on tools. Sometimes, it is about breaking the system of traditional modes to advance into new forms of creation. Gideon recalls, “We recently met a French artist who ‘hacks’ large inkjet printers and modifies their production capabilities to create works. For me, this questions how daily tools govern the way we produce, similar to how we are sometimes unaware of the ways digital softwares affect our work processes and even outcomes.”

Photo: Studio of Temporary Press, Courtesy of SGABF

A bigger problem arising from the availability of digital resources is the degree of creativity exercised. This is a common dissatisfaction expressed by practitioners, particularly across art and design fields. Digital processes reduce time, but may end up limiting the work when one chooses to jump on a software and launch into creation process immediately.

As Gideon points out, “The Interior Design department of Glasgow School of Art wanted to put together a book containing models made by students. What we did was to print all the photographed models as double-sided loose sheets and “bind” them together with just a fold at the center, held together with a paper band. This format allows readers to reshuffle the pages and find unexpected pairings or create different model permutations. We wouldn’t have thought of this idea if we started out developing the book straight from InDesign.”

Today, the independent publishing scene has acquired its own standing away from commercial publishing. As compared to traditional publishing houses, independent makers are more attuned to using technology to reach out to specific audiences through collaborations and creative and social media marketing campaigns. On the other hand, traditional publishing houses continue to hold access to opportunities for greater financial investments and wider circulation around the world. In that regard, independent publishers find themselves having to straddle between both avenues until they find a satisfactory model that works.

Photo: Zines published by Your Local Newsstand, Courtesy of SGABF

“The mainstream route is totally different. We are dealing with different levels of overheads as compared to a big publisher. For the first zine that we published, we produced 100 copies. The quantity is too high for a scale like Your Local Newsstand. The current edition of 30 per zine works for us because we don’t have the luxury of storage space. Independent producers have to figure out what’s good for them based on their circumstances and goals,” Huda advised.

With a practice that also produces occasional work for commercial clients on top of initiatives like Temporary Press, Gideon and Jamie’s operates using a different model.

“We agree that generally, commercial presses have to consider profits but it is the same for us. We also hope to make things sustainable for both our collaborators and ourselves. There is often a general assumption about the divide between the ‘commercial’ and ‘independent’ regarding the quality and types of work. However we might label or define them, there are bound to be both ‘commercial’ and ‘independent’ publishers/presses occupying the broad spectrum of good/bad quality or interesting/boring works. Probably the difference for us is that we are able to pursue less conventional approaches or subjects that might seem to be too risky or specialised for larger commercial presses, though not all.”

Photo: Collection of books by Temporary Press, Courtesy of SGABF

The convergence of digital and print has trickled into the way we plan and work. By providing users with the power to access knowledge from a wide pool of resources, the digital sphere has changed our principles drastically. When challenged with new rules, traditional gatekeepers can no longer dominate spaces, communities and industries in their own capacity. This brings upon structural changes in publishing and media consumption, where the roles of producers, publishers, librarians and curators expand over time. Similarly, niche positions such as designers have stepped up to become authors. Such opportunities allow individuals to broaden their disciplines, creating a cyclical nature for new practices to manifest.

Photo Credit: SGABF

SGABF: What usually goes on at Basheer Graphic Books?

ABDUL NASSER (AN): The selection of books takes up time here. It largely depends on what my customers are asking for. I always pick up on their requirements, and from there begin to source the titles. We have a very strong focus on architecture, graphic design and interior design books.

Being in the business for 26 years, we know the buying culture quite well. Our selection of books and what sells depends on customers’ tastes as well. These days, there’s a huge demand for publishers such as Sternberg Press to boutique publishers specialising in niche titles. More curators and artists are coming up, and people are more informed on what’s going on in places with a strong printed matter presence, like Berlin, London and New York.

SGABF: What are some of your strategies to keeping customers informed?

I try to find out what other bookshops around the world are selling. These connections are important. Art spaces such as Whitechapel Gallery have unique selections that we try to add to our collection of titles too.
That said, we cannot compare places like London to Singapore. In places like that where there’s a strong printed matter culture, they categorise their titles and diversify them to appeal to customers. Whereas for us, we have new people coming in all the time and getting introduced to these books. It’s a different way of educating consumers about art books here.

Photo: Reinventing Print: Technology and Craft in Typography by David Jury, Courtesy of SGABF

At the end of the day, I’m neither an artist nor a practitioner. I depend on feedback from my customers, observe what titles they are drawn to and recommendations from the publishers we stock. Basheer Graphic Books is here to provide what people need. Buyers always surprise me as their habits can be unpredictable. We tend to invest in huge exhibition catalogues and artist books that are well curated too.  

SGABF: In the early days, you sold books door to door in the Central Business District. Were people particularly interested in getting art books then? 

AN: This was before the digital era. We would knock on the doors of agencies and companies that specialise in design and creative work. People wanted books with strong visuals to get ideas and come up with unique concepts for their projects. Now that information is widely accessible online, and people are showcasing their work on digital platforms more frequently, fewer people depend on books. For a business like ours, it’s no longer just about running a physical shop. Customers need to know what we have instantly, and that’s where the online store comes in. Secondly, customers who come in don’t want to carry heavy books. After some time we realised that we have to give them an incentive to buy more books – by allowing them to leave their loot here and have them delivered. 
It boils down to supply and demand. Since buying habits can be unpredictable, it can be tricky to gauge what people are looking out for. Some books that we bring in may be higher in demand than we expect. The opportunity gets lost if we bring in too little. Similarly, if we end up buying too many books, they end up stuck on the shelves. Ultimately, it’s the confidence we have in each and every title we bring in. Publishers are constantly looking for ways to reach out to more people too, such as publishing materials related to cultural icons. An example would be the Virgil Abloh book published by Sternberg Press and Harvard University Graduate School of Design.

SGABF: You’re also known for supporting students who are regular customers of the store.

Photo: Mr Nasser’s Recommendations, Courtesy of SGABF

: There is a shift in the things we can do. In the past, we used to sell books on credit to students. This was when we first started selling books in institutions in the mid 80s to 90s. We would visit these schools, and collect money from the students at the end of the month. We did so with agencies as well. In order to keep track of the loans, we recorded the transactions on a notebook. This model worked because not many people could afford to buy expensive books at that time. Some people even had to split it into two to three payments. Though, it can be inconvenient for us at times, especially when agencies change their addresses.

SGABF: How has customers’ interest in specialised books shifted over the years?

AN: We have always attracted students. These people grow up to be designers, architects or take on other professional roles in creative circles. Others are curious about alternative titles beyond literary publishing. There are a lot of hobbyists too who are interested in photography and craft. That means we have to bring in more of such titles to cater to their needs. Lately, I’ve noticed that titles like Granta and Lapham Quarterly are doing well. People seem to be more interested in art books or publications with a literary focus.
Overall, people are definitely more open to such books today. Before, people who pursued design or art were considered to have taken them up because they didn’t do well in school. Nowadays, due to commercial successes, more people are encouraged to take on creative practices. We have the collectors as well. These people are willing to pay prices as high as USD $1,000, for out of print architecture books. Books that sold for a mere $80 when they were first published. I guess you could say that’s the price that people are willing to place on printed matter today. The value just keeps going up.

SGABF: What do you think can be done to deepen the appreciation of art (and art books) now that digitisation is so widespread?

AN: Social media is inevitable. We are hoping to develop our digital channels as most of our customers are getting informed through these platforms. Just the other day, I had four copies of a title sleeping on the shelves for more than ten days. The books sold out after we posted about it online. People are not visiting bookshops as frequently as we’d like them to but they tune in to social media every day. That’s how they browse these days. At the same time, we can’t be promoting every title on the Internet. We have to be very selective about what we put up so people don’t get turned off. Online presence is important for community engagement too. It’s a great way for us to be connected with our customers overseas, especially with titles that are internationally recognised.

Basheer Graphics is a specialised bookstore home to a myriad of design books and magazines related to architecture, interior design, graphics, typography, photography and more. Over two decades, it has attracted the likes of many students, professionals and readers who enter the store in search of a leisure read or resource for creative works.


Photo Credit: Currency

SGABF: Can you bring us through the principles of Currency and the studio dynamic? How has the studio dynamic and design practice of Currency evolved?

MELVIN (M): When the idea of starting something independent first started, the idealism that comes with collaborative models that favour flexibility and avoided any sense hierarchy. This led towards something sustainable hence a more "traditional model of a studio". The team and dynamics have grown. With that also the design practice and a different model of attending to each other's strengths and interests. Today, our work fundamentally lies in dedicated process in developing strategy and good ideas, the developmental process is team-driven where depending on strengths, we add value to different aspects of projects.

SGABF: When tackling a brief like SGABF, what were your considerations when you first took on the visual identity in 2018 and how is it different this year?

CHARLIE (C): The design phase started a lot later in 2018. This year, it feels like there has been a lot more time to ideate and develop the direction so our considerations are shaped less by pragmatics and time constraints than they were before.

M: The brief that we got for SGABF2018 was to, first and foremost, create an entirely different impression from the previous editions. We worked alongside Renée to rethink what a book fair can look like on an international level. As much as we wanted to challenge how an identity for a fair can look, we always discussed how the eventual design had to draw a crowd that was and still is interested in alternative forms of books and printed matter.

An art book fair is often quite eclectic so we came up with a concept that hinged on two things – using different typefaces or versions of a font to capture that  sense of diversity and adopting an expressive ribbon that encircles around a book spine or bookmark for the key visual. It captured the fun nature of an event like SGABF while remaining dynamic and easily adapted across different sizes.

Photo Credit: Currency

Structurally, the identity for this year shares a closeness to the previous one. This year, we expanded on the central part of SGABF that is the word ‘book’. We like how the double ‘O’s can resemble two pages of a spread out book and move away from the fixation on book covers.
SGABF: The identity and design focus for SGABF2019 seems more graphic-based, whereas last year’s seemed to touch more on typography. What were the factors that motivated or contributed to the current approach?

SHENG YONG (SY): To bring out the collaborative spirit of SGABF, we thought it would be wise to get different people to express their interpretations of the word and its possibilities through motifs. Surely it’s more visually driven at one glance from the content created by collaborators. However, it’s a framework that makes the identity more content-driven and our graphical contribution actually takes a backseat. What we’re doing is putting the makers and creatives at the forefront.

M: The actual event itself doesn’t actually take place for a very long time – only three days. The identity focuses on campaign content. We established channels of communication that are key to how people understand the fair before it happens and it needs a consistent presence online because of the open call period and campaigns prior to the festival. That’s when we realised that the approach should be centred around that. It’s important for the audience. I think every edition will get better as we identify what works and what doesn’t. It’s important for us to explore and experiment with different strategies, and find out what makes the biggest impact.

SGABF: The idea for the motifs came from the desire to expand conversations and possibilities – a key principle of the Art Book Fair. What were other reasons for implementing them? Has the progression of this element so far met your expectations as to how it would inform audiences about the event?

M: I enjoy how the features as part of A Closer Look are sometimes a very intimate read and in other times, revealing. It aligns with what we are trying to do for the design – ensuring that the contributor or the feature is kept central. I think that’s the beauty of having a structure that’s purposeful, as a gateway to align everyone together. It’s representative of the art book fair, where multiple practices share a stage but what brings people together in that single space is the format of books.

SGABF: Currency emphasises on process and strategy first in design. How has this principle informed your work?

SY: We have a principle of not taking aesthetic at face value. We start by thinking around the needs of the project and expand on that before going into the visual aspect of what we do. We spend a lot of time communicating what we think is best for the brief. When everything approved comes together, we hope that the outcomes we create are sharp, appropriate and relevant. Visuals and graphic style wise, we are known to be quite experimental for some but overall, our works are quite diverse.

Photo Credit: SGABF

SGABF: Does the consumer part of you inform the design practice?

C: Being a consumer makes us think, as designers, about what people are looking out for. We end up having quite a strong idea about what stands out, and what would pique people’s interest. It’s not just the visual aspect or an effort to increase clout, which is quite telling about our principles and ideals that we try to bring into publications.

M: As much as our outcomes may hint at certain approaches, we usually start by asking a lot of questions, sussing out the audience and purpose of project. In some ways, we are servicing our clients when responding to a brief. However, we consider strategy and are also open to very experimental or non-conforming ideas. We enjoy the process of experimentation, especially when it feeds into the purpose of the project. The important thing as designers is that we don’t end up proposing something that is way off.
C: That’s right. I don’t think we do experimentation for experimentation’s sake.

M: We don’t usually begin designing very early on in the process. We refrain from jumping into the aesthetics from the get-go. I don’t reckon it’s always about problem solving either. I think we need to figure out the tone, ideals, objectives and consider if design can help.

SGABF: How do you deal with the concern of authorship as designers? Would you say that’s a major setback in your process?

M: The questions that come about with the discussion of independence and authorship as designers include: how much influence do we have in the outcome? How are we engaged as service providers? For example, the procurement process for many jobs centers on the extent of application. With a starting point like that, talking about your own personal interest or ‘authorship’ is close to irrelevant. 

Photo Credit: Currency

SGABF: So ultimately, where does autonomy lie in design practice?

M: At Currency, the autonomy lies in the fact that we are a small studio, and the quality of our output depends on how we put our heads together. An idea can come from anyone in the studio, myself, or from the client. Ultimately, our sense of autonomy and independence lies in  our approach and derives from our learning process. With the pervasiveness of digital technology and given the accessibility of various digital resources, there is also a problem of iteration.

C: This is one of our principles – use anything that we find online responsibly. We don’t want to rip anything off. Obviously it’s something you can’t skip out because resources can be inspiring. But I think there are standards that we set for ourselves – how inspired are we by a certain thing that we see online, for example? How many degrees away we should be from our inspiration is something that we’re very conscious about, whenever we look at something and find it interesting. And that’s something you can empathise with as well – if you notice your work inspiring something else. As a designer you do value that, if you can see that the person has strived to not completely rip off your idea, or done something a bit further removed.

M: I think looking at references is one small area of our process, if we’re stuck creatively. A lot of the time, we don’t. Perhaps, once in awhile, when we do encounter a creative block, or maybe when we’re just not sure. Our turn to references is usually prompted when we’re not sure how should we style a certain aspect or element of a project. We look at how people do it to know. It helps to accelerate that process and raise more necessary questions that we have about something we’ve not done before.

C: It’s the same as looking at a physical book. We’re constantly playing around with layouts, hierarchy, images, seeing how it’s done, referring to the books that we have lying around. Actually we do that more than Pinterest. Usually our search is very specific, like how is this done in a certain way? And then we see a possible approach, and we do a version of it in our own way or in a way that’s responding to the brief. 

Photo Credit: Currency

SGABF: Based on Currency’s practice, experience and observations, how would you describe the characteristics of a critical graphic design practice – especially in the context of a landscape like Singapore?

M: I’ve talked to a few friends about critical design, or ‘critical’ as a term. I feel that there are many ways to define or characterise it. Everyone has different interpretations to critical design. Sometimes it’s a style or the nature of design practice. It’s difficult to talk about a term that is subjective or continuously evolving, especially if we see it as an approach.

Critical design does align itself to the idea of ‘ugly’ or ‘visually abrasive’ works. I think that if it’s appropriate, or if it answers a certain brief, then anyone may consider doing it. Especially in the arts, aesthetics can be a way of questioning established forms of looking and iterating and can be channelled to express beliefs, sentiments and political positions. Certain design elements can be treated in such a way, be it choosing design as a kind of conceptual gesture or artistically.  

SY: In the context of our landscape for design, I guess Singapore’s scene is still pretty young. There is still quite a lot of exploration to be done. People are still pushing boundaries. To a certain extent, not subscribing or conforming to the usual design practices might be seen as ‘critical design’ because it’s going against the grain.

C: I think we see more and more people having different takes on design. So they don’t necessarily want something that’s beautiful and conforms to the most widely understood definition of good design. They may want something that’s interesting and puts a different spin on design. That could be what ends up getting called ‘visually abrasive’. People’s tastes and the discussions that they are having about design seem to be evolving more and more.

M: I've visited quite a few grad shows recently and its exciting to see graduates go about rethinking design approaches here. It’s evident from the work showcased. It shows people are ready to talk about it. I still don’t have all the answers yet, even having read articles and had conversations about it. But then again, perhaps when it’s clear, it’s no longer worth talking about it as it won’t be a particular thing in itself anymore. That said, the fashion side of visual culture is always evolving and reprising. What can be considered critical design three years ago, a time when I hear the term said more often than now, may not be the case today.

SGABF: As collaborators of SGABF, what are some actions you feel that organisations, platforms and spaces like ours can take to extend more room to interdisciplinary makers and practices in developing their craft?

M: The platform that the SGABF provides help to motivate all levels of the book-making process. We have the artists, producers, designers and printers who are all integral to the form. An initiative like SGABF that happens cyclically imbues a culture of appreciation when makers know that there is a platform to showcase their work. It might motivate someone to develop their craft within that community.

SGABF: Finally, what’s the most interesting zine or art book you’ve come across?

C: Us Blah + Me Blah
M: Mould Map 3
SY: Notes on Ghosts, Disputes and Killer Bodies by Gabrielle Kennedy and Jan Boelen

Currency is a Singapore-based design studio that offers creative direction and content.Extending from a project’s theoretical underpinnings, Currency seeks to work through contextually informed approaches to produce novel outcomes with an experimental flair.

Photo: Courtesy of Artist

SGABF: Hi Syaheedah, for a start could you tell us more about your practice and what have you been up to in London?

SYAHEEDAH ISKANDAR (SI): I’m currently doing my MA in History of Art and Archaeology at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London. Before that, I was holding a full-time position as a Curatorial Assistant at NTU Centre for Contemporary Art (NTU CCA) Singapore from 2014 to mid-2018 before leaving for my studies. I was also juggling independent projects on the side from developing exhibitions to embodying another persona as a DJ.

I co-founded a female DJ collective, ATTAGIRL! in 2013 alongside Amanda Ang and Serene Ong as a platform for us to support women in underground electronic music as well as VJs, visual artists, music producers and performers. Though with so many things going on, I have taken a back seat in the collective for some time now, so I let the girls run the show without me. I would say everything is currently on a standstill. This was a decision I made when coming to London. I was at the point of exhaustion and needed to recalibrate. I wanted to feel like an audience again but more importantly, to have the time to just read and learn.

School has been challenging but absolutely enriching. As of now, my current research is thinking about modes of visuality within the Southeast Asian paradigm. I am absolutely grateful to be in this current state of mind now, so I am embracing these moments as they come.

SGABF: You were previously the Curatorial Assistant at NTU CCA Singapore. You’ve also curated If Home was a word for Illusion (2016) and Nyanyi Sunyi (2018). As a curator, what’s the most important thing to note in terms of joining forces with artists to put up their works based on your direction for the exhibition?

Photo: Courtesy of Artist, Publication Design by Fellow
SI: Not many people knew this but for the exhibition in 2016, it was the artists who approached me, and I was more than happy to take up that opportunity. To have that kind of support and faith, especially since three of the artists did not know me prior to the exhibition, is what I think builds meaningful communities.

To me, intention plays a huge role in that equation. In the Malay language, we call it “niat” which is always placed somewhere close with “ikhlas”. Ikhlas basically means sincerity. Sometimes we get caught in the process of trying to make the project successful, so much that we end up ignoring the hard questions on why we do what we do and to whom the project is for. It is in moments of disagreements or setbacks that I find these reflections (of niat and ikhlas) important for me.

Working at NTU CCA Singapore provided a different experience as opposed to working independently, and there were limitations on both ends, but I was aware of my privilege of being part of an institution. I had more access to resources but having worked in both the Exhibitions and the Outreach & Education departments, one thing that struck me was the challenge of sustaining organic engagement with marginalised communities – whether they are underprivileged, under-represented, physically or mentally challenged. A part of my job was leading tours for students of varying ages and backgrounds, and it shows by the questions they asked––their own accessibility to art depending on what school they were from. Coming from a neighbourhood school myself, I saw a clear distinction as compared to the elite schools. We still have a lot of work to do in that area. 

SGABF: Exhibition catalogues often provide context to curatorial perspectives and the works of artists. Having been involved in print publication work yourself, how do you weigh the prospects of printed matter coming together with exhibitions?

SI: Exhibitions do not necessarily provide solutions, but they can invite discussions on the issues that are presented by the artists or curators. Printed matter allows that discussion to take place as an extension of the exhibition that is no longer confined to the restriction of space and time. It is also a source of documentation which I believe is important especially for future research. You would be surprised by the number of exhibitions that have been put up in Singapore featuring the same themes over and over again. It’s unfortunate that these exhibitions rarely have the opportunity to speak to each other. This was something my peers over at Sikap (run by Zulkhairi Zulkiflee and Nhawfal Juma'at) realised too, which pushed us to do a joint publication launch for our exhibitions; RUANG(2017) and Nyanyi Sunyi (2018). It made sense for us. While these ideas may not be new, printed matter can help integrate new modes of thinking which is reflective of contemporary discussions. As archives, they can bridge old and new discourse for the future.

SGABF: How would a long form publication (in a zine, art book or monograph format), for example, take shape in the context of curatorial projects and exhibitions? 

There is definitely more room for experimentation which I think a lot of exhibition catalogues today have started to embrace. The content is no longer confined to essays and research papers. Materials such as poetry, annotated essays, visual essays, handwritten letters are some of the unconventional content that I have integrated into publications from the artists and collaborators.
For Nyanyi Sunyi (co-curated with Kamiliah Bahdar), we had an amazing designer, Zachary Chan, who sincerely believed in our project. Some of the content was difficult to work with, but we trusted him anyway. His design bridged both textuality and visuality without losing its purpose as a post-exhibition publication. I have worked with designers on an institutional and independent level, and I find letting them roll with their own ideas often times turn out to be best collaborations.

SGABF: In relation to the previous question, how necessary is wide circulation of ideas and opinions from communities represented by these exhibitions? What inadequacies have you observed from creative showcases?

Photo: Courtesy of Artist

SI: It is necessary for sure, but the challenge is sustaining the conversation after the project ends. Being able to work in the creative industry for some peers who share similar sentiments as me is a luxury. We do not have the luxury of churning exhibitions after exhibitions. Creative showcases whether in forms of exhibitions or publications are expensive and requires funding to begin with. Conversations eventually die out, and there are many reasons for it – people move to other interests, projects, lack of funding, priorities shift, and so on. Publications get shelved.

I had a full-time job and supportive colleagues who allowed me to do my own projects outside of the institution. It also helped that my parents were emotionally supportive. Support systems such as mine were critical but what about those who do not have such accessibility? Igniting conversations is one thing, but does it necessarily provide solutions? Apart from publishing articles, we need more spaces where we are allowed to come together as communities to speak about these issues. We need diversity in voices as well. More producers, cultural workers, curators, arts professionals from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. Otherwise, we are stuck in an echo-chamber, speaking to the same group of people and leaving out opportunities to sharpen our own ideas further.

Personally, I consider myself part of the problem too – as someone who offer no solutions. This is an issue that needs to be discussed openly. Apart from providing spaces for marginalised communities, we need to re-strategise our modes of working given that climate change is the most urgent issue of our time now. Unsustainability is entrenched in our system. Art exhibitions are no exemption as they can be wasteful. With panel discussions and symposiums, if conversations are confined between the educated and socially mobile, is it really going to change anything?

The discussion on printed matter within the foreground of these issues has to start as well. I personally love print, and nothing beats the feeling of running your hands physically through a book. But we have to start asking the hard questions now. How do we move forward and celebrate print in the face of the biggest ecocatastrophe our generation will ever face? Our children’s future is being robbed in front of our eyes. It is more than just using recyclable materials for the sake of feeling better about ourselves.
SGABF: Have you had to go through a process of reflecting upon your past experiences in curation, art, music and writing in order to move forward with your current creative practice? What other processes did you have to go through that have informed your work and artistic beliefs today? 

SI: To be in reflection after being in production mode for so long was a tough adjustment for me. I do sometimes miss performing on the decks as it was a form of outlet for me. I have been working since completing my O’ Levels to support myself through my diploma and degree years. There were struggling points, but I am grateful for them. These experiences are not unique to me, and I know of many peers, especially artists who resonate with these struggles. Having had similar conversations with my peers, a lot of these anxieties also stemmed from not wanting to lose momentum or the fear of missing out. By 2017, I was burnt out. It felt empowering to tell myself that I needed to take a step back.

Being in London, (while observing Singapore from afar) in an environment like SOAS with a strong student union, allowed me to be an active participant in social issues and discussions––from climate change, rethinking new modes of decolonisation, tackling racism, class inequality, and so on. Although the future is uncertain for me at this point, attending these discussions have informed and made me rethink my own ideas and practice.

There were definitely moments where I wished I had spoken, wrote and done things differently in past projects but I have learnt not to dwell in it. If anything, those lessons, mistakes, failures were necessary. People can hold you accountable for your naivete, and that is okay. We are not infallible. If we can sustain conversations that speak to us passionately, our language will in itself will mature and develop into better tools of expression.

SGABF: Finally, can you recommend up to three zines/art books that have had significant impact on your practice so far?

SI: It’s difficult to pin down absolutes, and this is a fairly personal question to me. I remember someone asking me a similar question on my “current reading list” to which I responded by asking if she was trying to read my intelligence.

So instead, I would like to make a tribute to three of them that remain unread on my shelves. These were some of the few that were recommended to me by close friends within the past year or so. They will be read soon, I hope:

Lapdogs of the Bourgeoisie: Class Hegemony in Contemporary Art edited by Tirdad Zolghad, FIELDS: An Itinerant Inquiry Across the Kingdom of Cambodia edited by Charlotte Huddleston and Roger Nelson, Bubble Gum & Death Metal (BGDM) Issue 1: Sharing by Denise Yap

Syaheedah Iskandar is undertaking her MA in History of Art and Archaeology at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London and was previously Curatorial Assistant at NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore (2014 – 2018). She is currently researching and writing on visual theory within the paradigm of Southeast Asia. She is the inaugural Emerging Writers’ Fellow for the academic journal Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia, working on an article about ghaib (unseen) within the vernacular Malay world. She also embodies another persona as a DJ, under the moniker of Jaydah.

© Singapore Art Book Fair 2021. All rights reserved.
For further enquiries, please contact us at info@singaporeartbookfair.org.

Support the fair ︎
© Singapore Art Book Fair 2021. All rights reserved.
For further enquiries, please contact us at info@singaporeartbookfair.org.

Support the fair ︎