Every year we speak to a diverse range of people in an effort to develop and promote our local creative discourse. For 2018, 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. For 2019, we gathered perspectives on our zine and art book culture, along with the possibilities of self-publishing today.

Library Conversations for SGABF2020:  Display Distribute THEBOOKSHOW Robert Zhao  A Closer Look for SGABF2019:  wares infoshop library The Convergence of Digital and Print Publishing Basheer Graphic Books Currency Syaheedah Iskandar Supernormal Zulkhairi Zulkiflee Zines Then and Now Norah Lea Divaagar  21 Creatives for SGABF2018:  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

Display Distribute

Photo: A corporeal reading performance, by Elaine W. Ho for Display Distribute, 2016

OBJECT LESSONS SPACE (OLS): Hi Display Distribute! Let’s start with the first question stemming from your selection of Kate Rich's Feral Trade project. This project is an exploration of the "carrying power" that people possess as travellers and moving bodies and the bodily involvement in transporting objects. For her, the organic quality of what is transported is part of the appeal, and she had claimed that "it would be much harder to ask people to carry something inert, like rocks or books".

How do you see the relationship between books, specifically art publications, and its movement across space both in its production and distribution process? Do you see an aesthetic quality about this network of distribution that you have set up via LIGHT LOGISTICS, or is this a matter of resistance, organization, and possible ethics?

DISPLAY DISTRIBUTE (DD): The Feral Trade project is a crucial point of reference for LIGHT LOGISTICS—so funny that you've happened upon this particular reference from Kate! Would be nice in light of that if there was an opportunity to see how she would reflect on our project. But in this context of being transported as illicitly carried goods (the question you have probably heard before at check-in: ‘Has anyone asked you to carry any extra items on board with you today?’), I’m not sure if I agree with the fact that the question of organicity contributes to appeal. The paranoia of a glass bottle of olive oil possibly breaking in my suitcase sounds quite unappealing, actually. But whether the carried items are books or cheese, the fact of being packed into checked luggage or shoved into a backpack actually points not to the qualities of the object itself, but to all the movements which flow with and around the cargo, and this is where the question of organic is much more interesting. Are capitalism, outsourcing, baggage handling, industrial food growth, our own bodies travelling thousands of kilometres for work or pleasure organic? The way we relate to objects is inherently mediated, but as the coronavirus pandemic has put into such stark clarity, things and certain ways of doing we previously took to be natural can suddenly come grinding to a halt, and human activity on earth can engineer ‘novel’ forms of organic transmission.

Display Distribute 『CATALOGUE』No. 4, initially intended for production in Guangzhou but by a stroke of luck reverted last minute to Hong Kong, courtesy of Display Distribute

Of course not everyone who is helping to courier a zine or bag of coffee beans will reflect to these scales, but for LIGHT LOGISTICS at least, there is a psychogeography at work which intends to make use of a ‘voluntary surveillance’ as a practice of observation—for a courier, who may for a delivery have to go to a part of the city he/she has never been before—and a question of revaluation: what metadata, or what stories, constitute a logistical record? Why should those working at the small-scale get ousted from participating in transnational, critical dialogues with other (semi-)autonomous practitioners?

Beyond the basic understanding of logistics as ‘moving people and stuff’,  documentation and evaluation are the mechanisms which move together to make logistical operations work. This, to answer your other question, is both an aesthetic and an ethical question, and as a framework, platform and loose infrastructure, you could say perhaps that its aesthetics and ethics are premised upon modes of social, political and artistic organisation.
OLS: The way you look at organicity is really fascinating. Perhaps what you mentioned about putting oneself up to "voluntary surveillance" is a way of resistance by reclaiming agency from surveillance as an inevitability in today's age. Your project Shanzhai Lyric can be read as a reassertion of autonomy as well: understanding it through a post-colonial lens, it is a way of rewriting authenticity and cultural imperialism through challenging language. Display Distribute runs from Hong Kong, in which the operant languages include English, Mandarin Chinese, and Cantonese ‑ your website uses both English and Chinese as well, and as a bilingual reader the differences which emerge from translation are really interesting to me.

What is the importance of language and translation in your work?

DD: Resistance is certainly a considered factor, although I don't think it is possible to heroicise our couriers so much in the vein of how they call food delivery workers ‘frontline personnel’ these days. Travel is after all a privilege, and we have been piggybacking upon it, so to speak. But the attentiveness to movement is something that can be read in so many ways—as reconnaissance, instituent practice, or Situationist game, even mindfulness, and that diversity is something that becomes manifest in the project over time, in seeing the various ways that routes are documented, because every courier will attend to it differently. Even myself, having been a frequent mule—what I see and choose to record depends greatly upon the energy required to take notice via images or sound or words. Everything is framed within the banal structures of logistical time and place positioning, but so many things are left out and so many unimportant other details put in. This instability of the data is perhaps part of that resistance you mentioned.

Interns of Hong Kong art space Para Site busy with post-production deconstructions of  『CATALOGUE』No. 4 at the opening of Bicycle Thieves, June 2019; Photo Credit: Lily Yi Yi Chan for Para Site

I cannot speak so much for Shanzhai Lyric as I am not involved with that project; Display Distribute operates as a sort of multi-headed hydra whereby we are not all working on the same things, but as we tried to linguistically experiment with here in a little redux of another to be crucially acknowledged initiative, the Minor Compositions imprint of Autonomedia, there is a kind of ‘gobbledygook’ which we are weaving and wading through and manifests the somewhat perplexing and/or evasive totality. And that is simply to say that there is no such totality, and no centrality as what you point out with the language plays at work. The Chinese and English are not always one-to-one but hopefully they can take on certain forms of nuance for each of their bodies of readers. These shades of Canto-Manda-English that appear are a crucial part of the Pearl River Delta vernacular that has given rise to phenomena like parallel traders and Display Distribute, and with text and textuality being a crucial part of many of our practices, language does become one of the central playing fields. The border between Hong Kong and the mainland is also the first threshold of translation that inspired the initial projects of Display Distribute, and as we’ve seen ongoing since the handover—most recently with the 4/17 Statement by the Liaison Office of the Central People’s Government in the HKSAR and increasingly threatening interpretations of Hong Kong’s very fragile Basic Law—language, the subtle things that get left out and the various ways of manoeuvring through syntax cannot not be considered.

OLS: The process of playing with or navigating language—disseminating texts, copying, pasting, and then perhaps reposting—can then bring about really interesting divergences, and it brings to mind chain letters – which was something you picked out for this conversation as well. Chain letters were a hallmark of the 2000s and early 10s, they continue to exist today in the form of copypastas, but the possible distinguishing factor is that of the encouragement to share, either through motivation of a reward or a threat.

With the various strands of Display Distribute in terms of ideas, performances, exhibitions and partnerships, would you say that the projects have been working towards a more emotive or collaborative mode of transmission that rallies against mainstream or neoliberal modes of consumption? What do these possibilities look like?

wear journal number one, courtesy of HomeShop

DD: Oh, I’m really happy you brought this up again! I have been thinking about chain letters recently simply because they seem to have made a pandemic era resurgence, sped up for 2020 internet in that it seems—from the perspective of my inbox at least—to have only been a few weeks-long revival. I come from the last mega-transition generation of the world before the Internet (when it was still spelled with capital ‘I’). So those years when chain letters were circulating widely were a time of both naïveté and seriousness in that we took the threats and rewards seriously because it was all so simply new and the repercussions were not calculable. I’ve brought it up again as a point of reflection for Display Distribute because it is an immensely poignant example of the use of affective relations in a networked economy that links money, OL/IRL connections and partial anonymity by way of the simple orchestrated parlance of text. Scenarios are set up for someone to enter into a pyramid scheme, interest group or superstitious belief system, and the end results can never be fully confirmed, but we participate anyway. LIGHT LOGISTICS works in a similar way, juxtaposing voluntarism, contingency and chance with the real tracing of networks and affect. There may be a concrete result in that a book reaches point B from point A, but that is not even the most prized value of the project for us. While we are still running a logistical operation so ‘aim to deliver’, I will still vouch instead for storytelling, cracks in infrastructure, and inefficiency.

OLS: On that note of meandering and subverting, it brings to mind something else you picked out for our chat — the prevalence of book pirating and the presence of pirate archives all over China and Southeast Asia. What do you make of the term “piracy” when it comes to its relationship to ideas such as legitimacy and autonomy? Often, there is a certain image—that of being polished or almost immaculate—when we think of how official archives or museums present our histories. How can making things ourselves (piecing images, texts, and sources together ourselves) serve as an effective counterpoint to the role of said institutions, especially in the context of the internet and the democratisation of access?

DD: Piracy seems to have always been associated with a kind of irreverence for societal norms, notions of propriety  and property, which can in many ways be upsetting to any one of us who may have a claim upon something of potential value, whether we are the ones who ‘created it’ or not. If we look into the lineage behind this impulse, there is a history that traces back to the question of the commons and movements of enclosure from 15th century England. But looking from our perspective here in the East, it does beg the question of whether our own forms of ‘legitimacy’ and so-called ‘autonomy’ can only be ultimately defined from these pre-capitalist roots in ye olde England? A number of scholars have attempted to retrace alter-genealogies to this question, and one very articulate and grounded reference I can recommend is Lawrence Liang, Prashant Iyengar and Jiti Nichani’s  How Does an Asian Commons Mean. Another is Byung Chul Han’s Shanzhai: Deconstruction in Chinese, one of the volumes in our SECOND(hand)MOUNTAIN(fortress) series, a funny edition that has been scanned by mobile phone and Google translated from the original German. The official English translation came out later than our edition, which we do intend to incorporate into further printings, but for the time being, if an English reader needs, we’ll send the new PDF as well.

One crucial thing that Liang, Iyengar and Nichani remind us is how the first pirates emerged in fact because they were dispossessed from the commons, and as these ‘outcasts of the land’, it was the pirates who ‘would mutineer against the conditions of their work, and create an alternative order challenging the division of labour and of capital’. So this links forward to the latter half of your question, where we re-examine what may have been viewed as piracy and looting and reconsider what can actually be self-initiated, alter-practices of survival and knowledge-testing. DIY publishing practices will always, by virtue of being the testing of ideas in the public sphere, represent microscopic visions of what alternative orders can be created to challenge hegemonic structures. There is a great line from an essay I recently read which says, ‘The little magazine had been and remains, at least for a time, the single most efficient path to the deictic claim that says “we're here, too.”
OLS: Now that we’re speaking directly to the possibilities a do-it-yourself attitude can afford us, particularly in the realm of publishing, could you please expand a little on what book making means to you? How has your understanding of or relationship to book making or the book form evolved over time?

DD: Looking back now, I think it’s possible to say that the trajectory of my relationship to publishing has run what could be considered a counter-productive course relative to the modernist call for expansion and commercialisation (Bigger! Better! Faster!). Part of my educational background is actually in fashion design, an obviously commercial industry dominated by surface aesthetics and big money, and that collided with the beginning of my work as a so-called artist practicing in China, not academically trained yet with access to the optimistic possibilities of material production available at the time (meaning the years immediately before and after the 2008 Beijing Olympics). This was the period in which we began our own DIY publishing practice in the form of an independently produced journal for the artist-run space I was active with at the time, called HomeShop. It was not a zine, neither handmade nor photocopied, but beautifully offset print with multiple carefully chosen papers, somehow aesthetically still in resistance to commercial appeal but by virtue of being a factory-made production, perhaps it could be considered a way in which a small-scale, marginalised project seeks to stake a claim upon its validity within the archive of contemporary art. We were also saying, ‘We’re here, too’.

But while independent publishing and zine culture has grown in mass appeal over time, China’s rising economy combined with narrowing freedoms means that the space for content ‘at the margins’ or ‘between the lines’ is being squeezed out. In recent years, I have been refused as a client both by low-cost digital printing shops as well as offset factories, the former because my order (different colours of covers for different titles) veers from the producer’s cost-efficiency standard (too 麻煩 mafan!), and the latter because printing sensitive content would risk the factory being forcibly shut down by authorities.

So in a way, our status as pirate, smuggler and hacker is exactly as was written above, where we have been ousted from the market and accessibility to resources diminished. To continue doing what we would like to do, it seemed to make sense that we should in that very old school, Marxist sense, ‘take back the means of production’ ourselves. So that means trying to make more books ourselves, to try to reconsider the balances between the material craft of book production and its content without being nostalgic or trying to glorify the handmade. To go back to the initial reflection of counter-productivity, this means that over time, our print-runs are getting smaller and the whole process from start to finish is slower. But as with LIGHT LOGISTICS, obviously we don’t have a problem with that.

Digital print-on-demand copies of the Display Distribute ‘SECOND(hand)MOUNTAIN(fortress)’ imprint

OLS: We’ve touched on quite a few ideas throughout this interview including small batch productions, inefficiency as an alternative framework, and the allure of DIY culture. There are so many strands of inquiry to your work with Display Distribute, and these research questions or interests are constantly evolving. To wrap up our conversation, could you please speak to whether there has been a philosophy, a praxis or even an attitude that binds all of these interests together?

DD: How about answering your question with a praxis of the question itself? The diversity of inquiry can on one hand simply be the distractedness of many interests, many references and/or inspirations, maybe otherwise simply giving space to the multi-headed hydra of collaboration. But a most general formula is simply beginning from the question itself—questioning everything, second-guessing all. It’s a possibly painfully ambivalent route, but it’s also the starting point for trying things a little bit differently, imagining and practicing another possible way.

Display Distribute is a thematic inquiry, distribution service, now and again exhibition space and sometimes shop founded in Kowloon, 2015. Seeping via the capricious circulation patterns of low-end globalisation into other subaltern networks and grammars, recent activities include the experimental infrastructure LIGHT LOGISTICS, poetic research and archival unit Shanzhai Lyric and a peripatetic radio programme of hidden feminist narratives known as Widow Radio Ching.


OBJECT LESSONS SPACE (C): Hi Song Nian and Leanna, thanks for having us with you in your studio today. Let’s begin with talking about your first selection, Picture of My Life. This is a self-published book, which is handmade by artist Junpei Ueda through a workshop titled Photobook as Object. It contains photographs, illustrations, and folded pieces of written correspondence with his parents. Do you see a particular physicality that comes with books and bookmaking?

SONG NIAN (SN): Pictures of My Life was immediately interesting to me because it doesn't really fall into the typical categories. It doesn't fit with how people typically think about photobooks or coffee table books. Pictures feels like an encapsulation of several different materials which the artist has put together as a book. It mainly contains paintings and photographs – some of the photographs are taken by the artist himself, others are earlier photos of Ueda's childhood taken by his father. The artist also incorporates into his book these texts in Japanese, along with their English translation.

Pictures of My Life, Junpei Ueda. Image Credit: Junpei Ueda

SN: Beginning with the cover of the book, you are immediately confronted not with a photograph but a painting – a portrait of the artist's younger self. What is revealed to you through the book is the artist's memories of his childhood, followed by the passing of his mother and then the passing of his father. After his mother had committed suicide, his father, not being able to deal with his grief, followed suit. What you can see is the artist trying to make sense of the situation. Towards the end of the book, there is a photograph of Ueda, his wife, and their two daughters. I had spoken to the artist particularly about this, and he said that this was his way of putting forth a reassurance both into the world and to his parents who had passed.

SN: Pictures of my Life feels less like a book and more like an artefact that is put together with different materials which reveal different parts of his life. While going through the book from front to back, it doesn't feel static or linear; there are pauses in the book that allows the reader to take a step back or retreat with the artist into where his mind is, and to listen to what he wants to tell us via the text. That is why I think that the book has such a strong emotional power, which is why I wanted to share this work.

OLS: What do you see as unique to the book both as a medium for art, and as an art object?

LEANNA TEOH (LT): I think the most important thing about the book, both as an art medium and as an art object, is its portability and longevity. Having a book is like having an exhibition that lives beyond the space; you can view it at any time and any place, with a unique intimacy. Unlike an exhibition, you won't be interrupted by other people viewing the work at the same time. The book is a very intimate object.

I don't really know what, for me, is the difference between the book as a medium and as an object. What we are trying to advocate is that the book is a mode of expression, and that it is different from, for example painting and photography, because you can propose a narrative within the medium. 
SN: When we look out for photographic works, we look out for works that somehow—I don't want to say they only make sense as a book, but in particular when it is being produced as a book or publication—demonstrate that the concept or message of the work is able to extend beyond merely working as images; be that in a frame, a slideshow or a projection.

Back to the physicality of the book, the way a book is crafted matters. All these elements—from the design, the cover, the layout, and even the end pages, the binding and inserts—lend layers to the way we experience an artwork in the book medium.

OLS: What do you see as the importance of print to photography? Do you see photography as adjacent to or contained within art?

SN: Gaining acceptance for photography in the art world has always been an uphill task. Fortunately, in the last ten to fifteen years, we have seen an improvement in the way photography is being perceived in the art world. When photography first started to be mass produced, it was used for a very specific purpose in editorial work, journalism and newspapers – in terms of disseminating messages. That is what people saw to be the main role of photography. I think we see photography coming up slowly with this medium being explored within various art disciplines.

The relationship between photography and print is related to that of performance art and video, which also have always been very close and very strongly bound together. Performance work needs to firstly exist by itself, but for it to continue to exist, or for people to know that it has once existed, it then depends on the video work that was done during the live performance.

There is another whole conversation that can be had about the movement from painting to photography. There has always been a painting-versus-photography dialogue going on, of, for example, which one is better. Within the art world, photography gained traction at a slower pace, possibly because it was produced in editions. As the number of editions become smaller, we start to see it becoming more accepted by collectors. People also become more willing to buy photography work as fine art. Print will always be important to photography, even as we start to see photography work in other presentation formats. I'm quite hopeful about the acceptance of photography in the art world. It's changing, just slowly.

OLS: How do you see THEBOOKSHOW’s role then, as a mediator or bridge of sorts?

SN: I think we are coming up with ways to firstly enable people to produce content, in terms of the programmes, exhibitions, open calls and workshops. We are also finding ways to bridge the distance between those making the books, and everyday people, who also otherwise access photography on a daily basis.

This project is still very young - we started in 2014. Prior to THEBOOKSHOW working more actively, we did observe some efforts by other groups or initiatives pertaining to the photobook but there is no prolonged effort in looking at the photobook medium. In terms of providing opportunities for people who create, we have also started several initiatives such as open calls, which lead to exhibitions, which lead to prizes and awards. In terms of showcasing books, we also actively promote at international art book fairs and work on partnerships with collaborators from overseas to disseminate or to exhibit. A healthy exchange would be one where we show books from overseas, then have our books shown there too.

There are a lot of things we're doing at the same time, all with the hope of growing the appreciation of the photobook as a medium of art.

OLS: One such award was the Steidl Book Award, in which THEBOOKSHOW had helped to put together the finalist showcase. One of the winners was Robert Zhao’s A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, which you have also chosen as part of your selection. Tell us more about that.

A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, Robert Zhao. Photo Credit: Institute of Critical Zoologists

SN: A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World was initially self-published. Subsequently, Robert Zhao submitted it to the Steidl Book Award: Asia Open Call, which was when it was selected to be one of the eight books to be published by Gerhard Steidl. The edition that Steidl published is slightly different from his original self-published version. If you look towards the back of the book, there are many of these smaller booklets that are included in the box, which were not in the first edition. I selected this book because it has particularly received quite a lot of attention internationally; I think the main reason for that is because many people are already aware of Robert's work and his practice. I feel that this is the pride and joy of Singapore's self-publishing efforts.
What we see with A Guide is not a typical book with bindings; it makes a lot of sense for the book to be presented in a plate format. This is also in line with his practice, as he had also come up with the Institute of Critical Zoologists (ICZ). We see plates used in scientific journals. That's the kind of terminology and format that they use in the scientific process. Robert uses that kind of reference heavily such that his books have the aesthetics of research reports. I think that's why people find this book to be a breath of fresh air, compared to the usual art books and photobooks one usually encounters.

OLS: This is originally a self-published book. In many of your open calls, you specifically ask for self-published or unpublished work. What is the importance of and difficulties in self-publishing?

LT: I think the biggest hurdle is cost, especially in Singapore where printing is a lot more expensive than in other places. For example, the cost of maintaining the printing machines themselves is already high, because we must get technicians to come in from overseas, which drives up the base price. Other than the cost of printing, it really depends on your network to get the book out into the open. Most of the time self-publishing artists market their books either through competitions and open calls like ours, or they show their work in fairs. These are the venues through which readers find out about artbooks, other than at bookstores. To participate in a fair also generates additional cost. The cost of printing and marketing are the hardest things; it's everything to do with cost.

SN: That aside, we felt that the network and infrastructure for helping people with self-publishing was almost non-existent in Singapore. That's what we want to do - we see ourselves as a platform. We started out with that idea of wanting to provide more opportunities for people. As the years went by, we realised that apart from the cost, it's also about getting access to the right kind of designers and printers. Apart from budget, and access to the right kind of people and network, we found that storage and dissemination also play a key part. You can self-publish a hundred copies, three hundred copies, a thousand copies - but how are you going to move the books? I think this also proved to be quite a challenge when it comes to self-publishing.

Of course, there are things like kickstarter campaigns, but those are also slowly getting saturated and losing their novelty. There have been some successful cases, for example Dark Cities by Shyue Woon, which was also part of our project First Draft. He won a $5000 sponsorship by Allegro, a local printing company, through First Draft. In addition to that, he also launched a kickstarter campaign, which I felt was rather effective. Dark Cities is now onto a second edition, which is again aided by a kickstarter campaign.

If we look away from the perspectives of people creating the work, there are also challenges from a publisher’s point of view. That is something that THEBOOKSHOW is experimenting with. What we find to be a challenge is having access to a sufficient amount of works to select from and to publish. In alignment with the kind of publishing work that we are slowly planning to do, we have to also put in motion avenues, channels, or initiatives to encourage people to make more works. The fact is that if there's nobody making, there's no one for us to publish. Since we focus on Singaporean artists, we have a smaller pool to work with. It's then even more important for us to get the momentum going. Only if the selection pool gets bigger, then we are able to really sieve out the works that are of a higher quality.

One such work would be The Mountain Survey by Marvin Tang, which he published in a very small run in 2016 as part of a show of the same name. Marvin's practice relies heavily on research. For this project, he started with looking at the Xiao Guilin quarry landscape. He then realised that granite, as a resource, played a pivotal role in the narrative of nation-building. He found out that Xiao Guilin wasn't the only one, that there were other quarries and that Singapore sits on granite. That explains why it was also one of the more common resources that was being used in building.

What I was captivated by was the mix of research materials that he found, which he used to really inform different parts of the book. We see different types of images. Some were very formal representations of the landscapes in these decommissioned granite quarries. Others show people just staring at the landscape. I found that to very impressive – Marvin’s observation didn’t end with simply looking at whatever was in front of him. He saw what really makes up the landscape. He realised that people were spending such a considerable amount of time at these places, staring off into the distance at these fake mountains, with their backs to the world. There were all these different kinds of traces people left around the vicinity. It's not just a monotonous presentation of all the different granite quarries, but also showed the way people behave, respond and react to these landscapes, that are now being positioned as a place solely for recreational enjoyment, which is held in stark comparison to all the exempt historical purposes that these granite quarries used to serve.

Mountain Survey, Marvin Tang. Photo Credit: Marvin Tang

OLS: The production process that goes into a work seems to be very important to you. Your workshop project Dirty Laundry especially focuses on this process of bookmaking, and the notion of what makes something "suitable" or "good", or "ready" to be published.

LT: Dirty Laundry was made to involve people who were not "in the know" of the art world. The workshop starts with the topic of how to assemble a book and the more technical aspects of bookmaking. During the process, we also try to subtly instil ideas of what a book can be, and talk about how to view and understand a book. All our programmes are geared towards educating the public about the book and how it can be a form of art.

SN: Dirty Laundry was set up as a workshop which involves contribution by and from the participants. In this edition, we capped it at twenty participants. Each are asked to bring between thirty to forty images, printed in whatever kind of format they prefer, as long as it's smaller than an A4 size. Everyone will come in with images that they deem to be "bad", and we start the discussion from there. In this day and age, with the way we use photography in social media, we can't run away from the fact that people always want to present the best side of things; they always try to show how much they're enjoying their lives and how good they have it. I feel that there are a lot of images that have fallen through the cracks. I also think the concept of a "bad" photograph is quite problematic. What we are after in Dirty Laundry is the intention of the image, of what it is really meant to convey or say. That's why we decided to invite people to bring in what they think are "bad" photographs.

At the start of the workshop everyone will lay their images on the table, and they will talk about their images and why they think it is a "bad” photograph. Through that sharing, participants will start to realise that everyone's interpretation of "bad" is varies. Looking at each other's photos, sometimes they will find that the photos is only "bad" from that person's own perspective.

After they take the time to look at and hear about the images, participants are then given time to put together a zine or a book with the images that belong to everybody. It's a free-for-all kind of approach, where you are allowed to use not just your own photos but also other people's photographs.

The name Dirty Laundry comes about because everyone brings in their bad photos to the table and share about it openly. Though we definitely hope for some profits from this project, we started it not specifically to earn money, but instead as a project of content-production or creation. It is a way for us to collect images of the vernacular, which comes from participants of different groups, ages and backgrounds. The images that they provide are all taken by themselves. We found that to be a good way of building up an archive of images of the everyday, not taken by artists or photographers, but coming in from different walks of life. Dirty Laundry has slowly evolved to be something that's very central to what THEBOOKSHOW does and what we believe in.

THEBOOKSHOW is an avenue for artists to showcase self-published art books in exhibitions and art festivals. It connects the arts community through showcases and activities centering the art book and its presentation, moving away from the conventional form and bringing upon renewed perspectives of the medium.

Robert Zhao

Photo Credit: SGABF

SGABF: Hi Robert, thanks for having us over at your studio. What are you working on today?

ROBERT ZHAO (RZ):  I had a meeting with Gideon and Jamie from Temporary Press. They are working on the second edition of Singapore, Very Old Tree. It’s a project I did in 2015 in which I interviewed 30 people with personal stories of old trees. The content is very specific so I did not expect many people to like it, mainly because I thought trees made colder subjects than animals. I had the impression that birds and insects would seem more charismatic and trees were more difficult to relate to. Most of my books don’t sell, but this was one of those that sold. As it turns out, even after selling out, people were still asking about it. That is why I decided to republish it.

Singapore, Very Old Tree, Robert Zhao. Photo Credit: Tongue Journal

SGABF: How do you go about looking for a designer who resonates with your practice?

RZ: I try to look for books that I like locally and see how the designers work with the content. Of course the designer must also be interested in my practice. I leave the technicalities to them because I’m already working on printing and framing my own photographs. Most of my meetings with the designers at the beginning are about the concept; what the work is really about and what the book should be doing. After that I trust them to do whatever they want. You must have that chemistry; it’s important to find a designer that really understands your work so they can help translate it into a book.

As an artist, you’re always just talking to yourself. You’re thinking and doing everything yourself until you set up the exhibition, or you speak to someone who has no idea what you’ve been thinking for the last three months, then they ask a lot of What’s this? and What’s that? And you realise, Actually, I also don’t know. You’re forced to make connections that you perhaps haven’t thought about previously or that you’re trying to avoid. Once the book comes out, I guess you can be abstract in some parts but you have to be logical also. The narrative has to flow and the designers are usually quite observant about how the information flows. So that dialogue is very good for me.

SGABF: You have been making books for almost 10 years now, starting with The whiteness of a whale. How did you start?

RZ: The whiteness of a whale was created in 2010. Yes, it has been almost 10 years!

In 2010 I was doing a residency at the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, and I went to all the different sites that used to do whaling. I wanted to find out why the Japanese were still eating and killing whales. I had a lot of research, facts, and narratives so I thought these texts should be presented in a book. I could’ve included it in the exhibition but it places a big burden on the audience when they’re negotiating the exhibition. I didn’t know why but I just thought I needed to make a book, so I started to compile it myself. It just felt like a reasonable and meaningful medium for this body of work.

My second book was for my MA, and that was easy because I was a/the designer. I went to look at existing science journals and kind of replicated the design, the paper. I just tweaked everything into my own project. So actually a lot of my work is trying to mimic different forms — even the title for my book Christmas Island, Naturally is taken from an existing book.

Christmas Island, Naturally, Robert Zhao. Photo Credit: H55
SGABF: How was the progression from making zines to art books?

RZ: I started with zines when I was a student because that was all I could afford. The zine is much more economical because they go longer and further than exhibitions. More people get to see the work — which is also why I went on to make books. I started working with other designers as I became more aware of the need to be sensitive to the paper, the layout and the printing. As an artist, I’m already exploring ways of working within a space, how my artworks should behave, the framing and printing of the photographs, things like that. There are a lot of technical things I’m already trying to master. When it comes to the book, however, it’s a whole different ball game from an exhibition and there are designers who are dedicated to these experiences. It’s something I cannot achieve alone.

As I took on bigger exhibitions, I at least got paid so I started putting most of my earnings from art-making back into my work. I used the money to buy archives, old photographs and printed my books with them. Book-making is not a profitable thing, it’s not going to give me a 200% profit immediately; it’s a slow burn. But I’m very happy to see parts of my practice exist as books. My images are about ironic stories of human and nature that fall out of the mainstream narrative, not typical ones that are celebratory. It’s why I self-publish books; they are an expression of my art. No publisher would take on my books because it just wouldn’t sell.

Photo Credit: SGABF

SGABF: The Book and the Exhibition are both very different methods of presenting a body of work, both of which you are familiar with. How are the considerations similar or different from when you set up a show and when you make a book?

RZ: I think of my work in the form of a book, first and foremost. The exhibition is the last thing I think about because it’s abstract. The narrative is very important to me so the book provides a full sequence of everything I need to express in the project. Hopefully after I publish the book I have two to three months to reflect on the work because when you’re fresh out of a project, you cannot think very clearly.

From the book, I can see which parts I can extract and form footnotes that are crucial for the exhibition. There was a period when I tried to not have any text at all in the exhibition, but I realised it’s extremely tough because people are always looking for meanings. In the book I can be very precise and to the point but you don’t realise it’s actually fictional, so I’m just helping you understand as much as I want you to.

In an exhibition, I’m often more abstract with the text and work. The text doesn’t need to function literally as a caption. I try to give an abstract point of what the work could be about. People can make generalisations about your work with hints of facts from elsewhere. The text doesn’t need to actually be talking about the work you’re looking at.

My works are photographs that come with captions that are very important for the work. It’s not just a singular work, it’s work that comes in a series. I look for narratives and I use images to illustrate or capture these narratives. I use text to add another dimension to the images so when I sequence the images out, there’s a beginning, a middle and an end. All this can be controlled very effectively with a book. What I like about a book is that it’s always a one-on-one experience. You hold it in your hands, you open up, you look at the front, you browse — there’s a sequence in place, so my narrative is tightly in control with my audience. And I like that. I like to have that sequence with my audience. It’s also a lot more tactile. The papers, the printing, and the layout can kind of guide the viewer through the work differently. 

With the exhibition — and with the audience plonked into a space — you are at the mercy of how the audience wants to negotiate with your work. It’s very hard to control a sequence, for example. To a certain extent, you can, but not as well as a book can.
SGABF: Do you feel that one has aided or hindered the other? Do you consider them separately?

RZ: The book has helped me to consolidate all the information that I have into a format that is logical. Most times my ideas come off very abstract until I speak to the designer, who has to understand the work. The design process is very important because through it, I get a better sense of what my work is or can be about.

A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, Robert Zhao. Photo Credit: Courtesy of Artist

These days, my works take longer to produce because they are more research-intensive. I begin working on the book first before thinking about how the actual artwork will look. Book- and exhibition-making very much go hand in hand for me. It helps me as an artist to do the work at this point in time.

SGABF: You mentioned your work deals with a lot of fiction but the formats and mediums in which you work are very documentative and final. Nobody really questions the legitimacy of photography, for example. Does it affect how you work?

RZ: It’s very funny because what kind of art isn’t fictional? If I were a painter or a sculptor, people wouldn't always describe my work as a work of fiction. But because I’m a photographer and I make books, suddenly it tests the barriers of truth. Like a novel is fictional but at the same time so real, so you’re suspended in the state of wondering what’s real and what’s not; you’re negotiating between this boundary of world-making, fiction and truth.

A lot of facts that I uncover which are exciting for me are actually very boring for others. What I’m trying to do is narrate stories and make it exciting for the audience rather than purely present information, which would end up becoming a documentation.

I like photography because it’s so powerful that we don’t realise it at all. We become very naïve when we’re presented with a photograph. For example, pictures in advertisements and newspapers actually have very little to do with the product or story that they’re trying to sell. But we have become so comfortable with it. These images don’t have to have connections, they don’t even have to be genuine! I mean, some of us are more critical now, but in a general sense we are still quite flippant when it comes to reading images.

Artwork: Robert Zhao

SGABF: I was recently talking to Song Nian [from THEBOOKSHOW] and it seems like in Singapore it’s more common for photographers and designers to make books, rather than visual artists. Why do you think that is so?

RZ: I don’t think it’s limited to Singapore. It is generally very hard to find artists making books that are not catalogues. It’s not second nature for visual artists to make books because it is already so demanding to think of an exhibition. Perhaps a book to them has a utilitarian function, like a catalogue or a leaflet for the show.

As for designers, they already have the skill sets to work with the book format well. This language may not apply to artists. I guess you need a good publisher to translate artworks into a book too, like what Roma Publications does. They strive to create artists’ books that do not function merely as a catalogue.

The book as a medium needs to be handled well. It is easy to find a designer who can make a nice book but difficult to find one who can make a book based on a deep understanding of your work. A pretty book is easy to make, but a book that can translate your practice and work — that’s very hard.

The tones, printing and framing add to the character of the work, especially for photographs.  For that reason, the process can be difficult if one doesn’t dedicate a great amount of time to study the form of the book.

We generally don’t publish art books here because there are many hindrances: storage, start up costs, the ability to handle the medium, lack of distribution channels, lack of circulation points. I don’t even know where my books can go besides SGABF because it’s just so difficult to distribute.

SGABF: Aside from A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World which was only picked up by Steidl after you published your own edition, all your books are self-published. Wherein lies the value of self-publishing to you?

RZ: My books are published under The Institute of Critical Zoologists (a fictional scientific organisation), which is bodiless and formless. I like it when someone encounters my book, buys it from the website and ends up enjoying it. For someone to stumble on my fictional, real-looking website and then decide they want to partake in this institution by buying a book, or having a slice of this imaginary role in the form of a book, that for me is the best way for the work.

When it’s published by another publisher, it helps financially because I don’t have to pay for the publishing. But I’m not sure what happens to The Institute of Critical Zoologists because there is now another company involved in my work. I don’t know if it becomes more real. I like the strangeness that comes with the confusion and curiosity towards the fictional organisation, and the mysteriousness that’s still controlled by me. It’s important to have that relationship in my books. Also, without any publisher involved, I have no pressure of sales; I can slowly sell it over 100 years.

A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, Robert Zhao. Photo Credit: H55

SGABF: Lastly, how do you sustain an art book-making practice, if at all?

RZ: It’s tricky because some of my books have to be of a certain size for the work to make sense. So in the long run, it is barely sustainable as the production of my books are getting more and more expensive. For titles that are more niche, I try to print lesser editions and price them a little higher. And because I sell my books myself and through SGABF, I can keep my profit margins higher because there’s no distributor. So the one or two titles that sell better, like Singapore, Very Old Tree, sustain the rest that don’t sell as well.

Robert Zhao Renhui (b. 1982, Singapore) is a multi-disciplinary artist and the founder of the Institute of Critical Zoologists. His artistic practice addresses the human relationship with nature challenging accepted parameters of objectivity and scientific modes of classifications. Over the years, Zhao has appropriated codes and convention of documentary photography and museum display to compose compelling narratives. Amongst his more recent solo exhibitions in Singapore are The Nature Museum, commissioned by Singapore International Festival of Art (SIFA) and The Bizarre Honour, realized for OH! Open House, both in 2017. Zhao has undertaken residencies at the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, France, the Kadist Art Foundation, San Francisco, United States, and the Fukuoka Art Museum, Japan. He was awarded Young Artist Award by National Arts Council in 2010 and is a finalist of the 2017 Hugo Boss Asia Art Award.

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.

Photo Credit: H55

SGABF: You’ve run H55 independently since 1999. Why did you choose to stay independent after all these years?

HANSON HO (HH): Prior to that I hadn't really worked for anyone for very long. At that point, I was quite desperate to come out and be independent, not creatively but financially independent. I saw a dead end coming my way in the long run so I felt that the only way to propel myself and to accelerate my growth was really to set up my own studio. At the time I found that my predecessors in the industry were quite boring in the way they were being run. They were mostly brand consultants or publications designers who designed things like annual reports or newsletters whereas our counterparts in the West or even in Japan were doing a lot of things that were carrying independent voices — where their individualities were allowed to be expressed in their clients' works. I thought that this should be the way to go and since I couldn't win my predecessors, I had to change the game. So if I wanted to come out on my own, I had to do something that is more individualistic, rather than just follow the ways of operation which were already established in the past.

I operate in a less hierarchical manner. The studio is fairly small and for many years, I rented it on my own and my clients from a very niche market found it refreshing because they are meeting the creative, the owner, and also the accounts manager — all in one. In a way that’s what architects have been doing. To me, that's beneficial to the work rather than having too many people which might lead to miscommunication and also, having to bear the higher costs with a bigger team. So, the process is less formal because it’s less hierarchical. The relationship that I have with my clients is more friendship-based. With this, my work becomes more individualistic and more expressive.

Some say the studio has a house-style, which is something that was not allowed previously. The mindset was that designers should have different ideas and styles to cater to different clients. But for H55, we have a fundamental belief and approach, and clients come to us for that.
Graphic designers don't generally have a style, they listen to what the clients want. For us, it's different. Our work, by and large, has a spectrum of look and feel, and a way of thinking. The clients then come to us for that, and not the other way around.

In terms of ownership, it is still independently-owned and of course, that makes a lot of things easier in terms of the culture and decision-making. I basically have full control of the creative direction and finances. For me, that control is very important. It allows me to steer in different directions, whenever needed. There is more freedom, and when there is more freedom, the work becomes more creative.

Photo Credit: H55

SGABF: You spearheaded and curated many projects, including LTA’s Art-in-Transit Programme for the Downtown Line. Do you find that your approach differs when it comes to showcasing art on different platforms – from Biennales, gallery shows, to public spaces?

HH: We definitely need to cater to the collaborators' needs when we are working with someone but, by and large, the way of managing a project is the same for me. It's to identify and be extremely clear about the perimeters and limitations of the project and then brief the artists, designers, or myself to try and satisfy a number of checkboxes. It may sound very uncreative, but that's where the real creativity lies. Many designers or creatives say that a project cannot turn out well because of these limitations — money, space, etc. — but there are always escape routes and if you can find the escape route to every project, then all your projects will be portfolio material, works that you are proud to show rather than feel ashamed of.

I think it's about ignoring how people think it should be done. It helps to look at examples of good work or works that are good but not entirely relevant. For example, if you're designing a novel, it doesn't mean you can only refer to novels. You can look at magazines, posters, or even contemporary art, maybe that can inform the design. It is important that you don't have all these preconceived ideas, and you're not afraid or think that just because the client thinks a certain way, you have to do things differently. You can incorporate some of the client's thinking while showing them what other things are possible.

SGABF: What do you think is the current climate of Singapore’s design, and where do you see it going in the next 10 years?

: There are definitely more younger designers and smaller studios that have sprouted in the last five to ten years, but still not very many. When I first started out in 1999, I was probably the only one. Thankfully I also had peers like Asylum and Kinetic who did the same thing, which I think is a significant movement. It was encouraging for each one of us; to see each of us doing something different but interesting. Right now I would say we're at the low point of the wave, where the scene is pretty slow and stagnant in some ways and will continue to be like that for awhile.

I try to create a map for myself and my work; where it's going in 20 to 30 years' time. As I continue to map my way into the future, thinking of what I do, I explore deeper into the craft. The works need to become better and more significant. My interest from the beginning was always to intervene with the culture in Singapore. Which means that I need to engage with the correct types of clients and audience so that my work, books, logos or brands stay and survive as part of the visual culture around us. They should become monumental as time passes, and not get thrown into dustbins like brochures. I hope to create these epitomes of things so that when I reach a certain old age, they will all be floating around Singapore and other parts of the world where people can find and enjoy.

Photo Credit: H55

SGABF: How do you perceive the cultural impact design has on a place and society like Singapore?