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.

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?

HH: I don’t really like to proclaim that design can have a big cultural impact. It will definitely have some sort of impact but I don’t think it will "save the world". However, I think what’s more important is the acknowledgement that design is important, that design thinking is important and that having good taste is important — good taste in a broader context, not just dressing well and looking fashionable but having a healthy mindset that imagination, creativity and diversity as a way of life is important.
Design has undoubtedly influenced Singapore. I mean, everybody has become more image-savvy because of mobile devices, globalisation, access to all kinds of media and magazines, and different brands that have landed in Singapore. Singaporeans appreciate design a lot more now than when I first started. They do see the relevance of design, and that it’s not something that is frivolous.

Photo Credit: H55

SGABF: Finally, SGABF2018 aims to provide a space for artists, designers, creatives, and consumers to think critically about art — in its various forms and formats. When it comes to critical thinking, what sort of questions or ideas do you hope people will hold in minds when engaging in a festival like that?

HH: Hopefully it will be, in a way, disruptive to how they would normally think about things and also to realise the importance of publishing. I hope the younger generation don't see art books as a kind of sentimental object because in a digital age, people see print, polaroids, photography, film photography, vinyls, as a nostalgic, sentimental thing. Hopefully, they see it as processes or a means that can help them to not just generate new ideas but question things that they always thought were a certain way; to disrupt the way they think and to see publishing as a kind of validation to self-existence. Because ultimately that's why people publish. It's not a sentimental thing like keeping a diary or a scrapbook, it's more than that. It is to validate that they are different. Whether you're publishing something into a book or on a website doesn't matter. We have to embrace diverse viewpoints and this can be expressed through publishing so that you can share these ideas with people.

H55 is an award-winning Singapore-based design and communication consultancy with a reputation for conceiving relevant, engaging and effective ideas. Since its establishment in 1999, H55 has been independently owned by award-winning creative director Hanson Ho, who continues his hands-on attitude towards design and project management. Till this day, H55 remains as a light and compact office so as to be creatively sustainable, focused and dedicated to a select range of clients. H55 has worked with a variety of clients ranging from government ministries, museums, public-listed companies, small-to-medium-sized enterprises, new startups and individuals. 


Photo Credit: SGABF

SGABF: Having been an artist and creative for the past 10 years, how do you think Singapore has progressed in terms of our appreciation for the arts? How would you describe the culture where we are now?

SAMANTHA LO (SL): I think that a lot more money is going into art festivals and the like. There are going to be more festivals in the future to look out for and more opportunities for the public to be exposed to various art forms, that’s the optimistic side of things. It also promises more artists to show their works, which is great. Overall, the exposure to arts has increased quite a lot over the years but the understanding of it will come later on. I’m hoping they will start to form a proper understanding and appreciation for the arts rather than just appreciating from afar — to take one more step to understand and be better educated about it.

There will be people in or closely related to the community who will have discourses that will bring a deeper understanding of the arts. More of such discourses have to take place. In order for that to happen, we need to have more people talking about art — having debates and discussions about certain art forms, artworks, or artists. A good start will be to generally keep the conversations going. We need a lot of things to change and to make it more encouraging and nurturing for arts to flourish in the first place. The thing is, I can’t say for sure what it is we need but I would say education plays a big part in it, not just in schools but everywhere else.
It’s how we are going to get them engaged and interested in the first place, right?

The point is to actually start some place but once we hit a plateau, we shouldn’t just keep doing the same things, we have to start finding other ways to keep relevant — to try and reach a new demographic.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Artist

SGABF: In what direction do you hope to see the arts in Singapore move towards in the next 10 years?

SL: The government is putting more money into the arts and I would like to see how this pans out in the future. Right now they are focusing on engaging and exposure through social media. In time we can only wait for more institutions who will help build on this. Maybe it means making art a compulsory thing, I don't know. Our focus has always been the economy so we have to see if this whole state is making art a viable source of income that can sustain people's careers and actually make sense; to show that there is a new economy out there that helps creative work flourish. Just like how design has been monetised, it can be the same for the arts. If the government recognises that, then perhaps they will create an environment that would be able to even all of us out on the playing field, and hopefully it will become a social norm that artists can actually sustain themselves and not scrimp on everything.

The ideal environment for an artist in Singapore is to not have to worry about things like rental, or finding a space they can practise in. Sure you can make money and sustain yourself in this industry but you have to compromise on a lot, the government can only help so much. Right now they are doing what they think is right, but I don't think they really know for sure what the issues are. I won't say it's bleak at this point because at least we have some government funding, which is great.

SGABF: Your work Progress: The Game of Leaders engaged with people from various walks of lives since its creation – and not just in Singapore. If you were given a choice to weed out or build on a particular category that forms our idea of society progression, what would it be and why?

SL: That work was reflective of the different traits of first world countries, which were all very practical things. If I could add on, it would be an understanding of the arts and culture, and to have more humanity-driven work. Although that wouldn't fit into the concept so much because chances are, it will only stabilise the structure and not cause it to fall.

For example, studying literature in school is so important in expanding our understanding of the world. If we really look into more humanities-related subjects and continue building the curriculum from there, it will be able to instil in the younger generation and their parents that there is a possibility in the arts. I think parents just need to be convinced that there is longevity in these plans and there has always been some truth to the fact that it is easier to pursue the arts if you come from a comfortable or privileged background. There is a lot of truth in that because people actually leave the arts to go into other careers because they can't feed themselves anymore.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Artist

SGABF: There seems to be a very unspoken, maybe even unknown gap between the "creative industry" and the "general public".  What do you think artists like yourself can do to narrow that gap?

SL: A lot of people have been going into community art. For example, statutory boards want to get the public engaged and they always think of workshops and community art — which is great, to a certain extent. It teaches people new skills and gets them involved in the creation process. Not everyone understands art, but the point is to make an effort to learn.
The barrier entry is going to be a lot higher if we don't make it accessible; people won't even want to be a part of it. They think art is pretentious and that whole attitude has got to stop.

It's going to take awhile for them to understand art but the whole point is we don't have that discourse yet as to whether or not we understand an artist's works. The discernment comes after the discourse. If we can discern if this is good or bad art, at least we'll know what we like and dislike — and that's the whole point. You have to know what you like and don't like, rather than looking at a piece of work and registering in your mind that if you pretend to know and understand it, you will "score well". For all you know, you don't like it or understand it, but you cannot validate your thoughts because you think that language is only reserved for pretentious people who are in the arts.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Artist

SGABF: How do you think initiatives like SGABF can help to further advance the arts in Singapore, not just as a career option but as a way of life?

SL: It’s a very niche category, but since it’s a passion project that the festival director thinks is worth it, then I’m sure she knows and has already considered the risks and benefits it will bring to the people. Which means art books will have more exposure — not just towards the public but also a lot of people in the community. Essentially, these things will only catch on with time.

Sam Lo (aka SKL0) is a self-taught Singapore-based artist whose work revolves around social commentaries fuelled by daily observations of her surroundings and research into the socio-political climate. Her intrigue with the concept of culture and bold execution in some of her earliest forays into street art got her dubbed the ‘Sticker Lady’.


Photo Credit: SGABF

SGABF: Your works deal with the quirks of the human experience. In examining sex as a visual language, why did you choose to specifically draw from what society deems as discomforting?

Liana Yang (LY): I won’t say it’s always about sex but rather sex is used as a reference or starting point. The sexual references often seen in some of my works functions more as a subversion in which I question the human condition. Moreover, intimacy and passion are linked to love and desire too.  

My main interest is really about relationships. I am extremely fascinated with human interactions and emotions.  More specifically, human interactions and the ambiguity and duality of it. For the past 4 years, I have been exploring what modern romance and love are about by trying out online dating. I am also very fascinated with the triviality in life - the mundane things we take for granted. The references to sex might seem trivial, but at the same time sex is also a compelling way to draw the audience in.

Essentially, what I am exploring is much deeper and there are many more layers to it. Sex is just one of the many facets, because it is a mix of passion, desire, and love. If you examine these individually, they are all unique.
But when you lump them all together, the end product is usually sexual, so to speak. There is something very animalistic about it but it’s that complication and tension that I find interesting and worth exploring. These days, modern romance and relationships have become a minefield, like how it could mean one thing but also another. There is something very transactional about sex and how we handle relationships these days too. Coupled with what we see on social media which is constantly shaping and trying to project an ideal lifestyle in a certain fantastical way. But what is an ideal relationship or ideal happiness? It leads us to crave for certain things that might not be that important or useful.

From the experiences and the people that I meet through online dating, I gather information and try to see how I can create new work. Sometimes, friends would jokingly ask if the guy that I am dating is going to be my next “new project”. However, it is important that the ‘man’ or the 'subject matter' in my work is always anonymous. This is crucial as I want the audience to inject their own narrative and experiences into my artwork.

Photo Credit: SGABF

SGABF: What’s most important in image making to you?

LY: It has to convey a certain feeling and ambiguity. That is why I like working with photography. A photograph doesn’t disclose the full truth even though it’s an equipment of documentation. Image-making to me has to work around what I am exploring. There is a certain fleeting and lo-fi quality to my work because it is also voyeuristic in nature. As each narrative or work is my invitation to the viewer to indulge in their own personal experiences.

Photo Credit: SGABF

SGABF: Have you ever had to deal with your works being deemed as too ‘provocative’ in your career? From your experience, is that more of a setback or distinctive trait that does more good for artists like yourself?

: Perhaps yes and no. As mentioned, I weave a mix of truth and fiction into my artworks. Take for example, one can never tell where the exact location is - if it's my bedroom, someone else's, or a hotel room, and who the person is exactly. Nobody really knows for sure if it is staged, or did happen or not.

SGABF: When faced with an installation, the viewer connects with the artist through his or her work. When putting your works up at such shows, how do you mediate this form of connection or conversation with the viewer for yourself?

: I try to create an experience instead of showing static images. How I incorporate my work and use the site for my work are very important. When viewers go into my show, it is the experience that I want them to take away. Apart from just images, it can be a combination of sound, videos and even scent. The human senses are not just limited to vision, it’s a combination of everything. Hence, I try to show works so that allows the viewers to experience something a bit more.

SGABF: Beyond installations and gallery shows, do you think there’s room for platforms like Singapore Art Book Fair to bridge tangible connections between viewers and visual artists like yourself?

LY: Definitely! The art book itself is a very critical piece of art object because it brings longevity after the show. 
I’ve always believed in that, which is why I create books and zines myself too. It’s something you can hold and cherish. In a book form, the viewer also get to experience the work in a different angle which is curated and edited by the artist. So yes, the art book is very important, it acts as a portable vessel or vehicle to show a body of work in a different way.

Photo Credit: SGABF

SGABF: Where do you hope Singapore will be in terms of our arts and culture in the next 10 years?

LY: I hope for it to be more critically engaging, in terms of approach and understanding, as well as having more interesting spaces available to work in and to showcase work. There is definitely increased support for the arts, but there is still a lot to be done with education. I am not trying to say that there should be more provocative works but rather, increased education on how the public could approach other types of artworks because education seems to be focused on more family and community oriented works. The provision of more unique spaces is essential to challenge how artists can produce and showcase works that are out of the usual whitewashed walls, as well as catering for a different meaningful audience engagement.

Liana Yang is rarely motivated by direct beauty, but rather by the aesthetics of social and sociological interactions. She is drawn to the trivialities and oddities that we encounter in our daily experiences. This includes the enigmatic and unseen aspects of relationships, as well as explorations of memory and associations in our contemporary culture.


Photo Credit: SGABF 

SGABF: Earlier this year, you created a photo series revealing the rituals of Singapore’s working women, called All in Her Day’s Work. How powerful a medium do you think photography or art is when it comes to empowering people and bringing about changes pertaining to societal concerns/conditioning?

CHARMAINE POH (CP): To be honest, I don’t know if photography itself can change anything. I know stories help people empathise but I don’t think it’s guaranteed or only limited to one medium. The job of a storyteller is to connect different groups of people, make empathy sort of visible. It’s not really about just the medium itself.

Personally, the camera offers me a way into people’s worlds and a way of both connecting with someone and disconnecting to protect yourself. Because in the end, as an image maker, I have to step outside of the situation, to literally frame situations and understand it. Photography allows that.
Writing is different — you experience something and often you pull the experience in your mind, but then you go back and write about it. But you can't do that with photography. You act within the moment itself at that period of time and it’s something you have to be a part of. Like for documentary photography, the image cannot happen if you don’t live that life. You have to put yourself in that situation and talk to those people and make yourself part of the story; change your own life to make that image.

Photo Credit: Charmaine Poh, Close Enough

SGABF: When photographing people, what’s your approach when it comes to making sure that the process is comfortable for your subjects?

CP: The approach differs from people to people. For some, especially if you know it's going to be published and a message for the public to view, then it’s very important to let them know from the start. Sometimes, you have to spend time with them for a while. You know when people are comfortable with you. Often that means you’re feeling comfortable yourself and try to give them that confidence that you can be trusted. Eventually, they do let their guard down.

There is always a need to have a certain kind of conversation. A lot of my work is quite intimate so I cannot do it without the conversations. For Room, I spent a lot of hours just sitting with them, chatting. The images you see are results of all those hours. From the moment I say “hi” to when I start shooting, the entire process matters.

Photo Credit: Charmaine Poh, Room

SGABF: Where do you think Singapore stands in photography – in terms of quality, culture, and viability as a long-term career?

CP: It’s really great that we have a couple of institutions that integrate photography. Those have really created some kind of ecosystem and I’m really grateful for that. At the same time, being the small industry that we are, there will always be a disadvantage in terms of expecting a wider audience and financial viability. I think there should be more galleries that focus on photography. The state of affairs for documentary photographers now is kind of lacking. You don’t have an equivalent of The New York Times here where they hire freelancers to write or photograph; it doesn’t really exist here.

SGABF: How do you think initiatives like the Singapore Art Book Fair can further advance the culture of photography in Singapore not just as a career option but also as an art form?

CP: I just had a discussion with a friend about censorship and I think if we keep accepting that censorship is okay and keep telling ourselves that it’s needed because the general public does not understand and we keep divorcing ourselves from this elusive "general public", nothing else will change.
We will always be stuck in this position until we recognise that we are part of that community and we have to own up to it. We are part of the general public. As much as we seem to be avant-garde, we belong to the citizen base. So it doesn’t really make sense to separate yourself from that entity. We need to acknowledge that there are certain principles that we have to stand for and weare the ones who need to cut everything open and pave that way for the "general public".

Photo Credit: Charmaine Poh, Close Enough

We are more complex than we think so why limit ourselves to absorbing information in just one way? Everything stems from this position of informing and educating, everything starts from there and it’s self-perpetuating. People did not come out from the womb to be a philosopher, an author or an art historian. It doesn’t work that way. I mean, sure there are people who have more academic inclinations but in the end, it’s still the environment.  So, pushing that boundary, whatever that boundary looks like, is always a good thing.

Charmaine Poh (b.1990) is a Chinese-Singaporean artist and documentarian. Her work concerns memory, gender, youth, and solitude. Specifically, she is interested in the performance of self, and the multiple layers of identity we build. She often works with the form of narrative portraiture. Focused on issues in Asia, her work has been recognised internationally.


Photo Credit: Clifford Loh

SGABF: In your opinion, do you think that the trend of following trends has watered down the art of music?

April Lee (AL): Every individual has their own personal perspective as to what is trendy. I personally enjoy music labels such as RVNG Intl., Mexican Summer and Music From Memory, who I think have given new meaning to the art of music, so I would define them as trendsetters.

SGABF: ASPIDISTRAFLY has performed in countries other than Singapore. In your opinion, do the cultures of different countries affect the receptiveness of your audience to your music?

AL: The Japanese audience, in general, have been the most receptive to our music since we first stepped into Japan 11 years ago, and that receptiveness has come from not just listeners but also artists, musicians, and even fashion designers who were first drawn to our music, then eventually becoming close friends and collaborators.
Several of them have contributed significantly to our past two albums as guest musicians, and are now currently working with us on our next album. Recently I've been working on our next music video with Japanese fashion label LAD MUSICIAN and director Daisuke Shimada. Last year, we were extremely surprised to find out that Goro Inagaki of popular Japanese group SMAP came to our show to watch us live, and later played our music at his radio show. This really brings the saying 'music transcends all boundaries’ to life.

Photo Credit: Christopher Sim

SGABF: As a musician with a niche audience, do you think there are enough venues and opportunities for you to play in Singapore? Is there an equivalent of SGABF for the music scene that ASPIDISTRAFLY would like to see being organised?

: Years ago in Japan, we were looking for a resonant space for our concert, which led us to discover a church in Tokyo that would be perfect for our of music. Any church organisation would've been apprehensive about hosting a secular event, but once they heard our music they immediately saw how it would fit into the space, and understood our need for a conducive setting where music could be appreciated quietly and attentively.
On the other side of the world today, a movement known as Ambient Church has been bringing together legends like Laraaji and Windy & Carl with current generation artists such as Weyes Blood and Visible Cloaks at a church in Brooklyn, for the same reason of allowing an audience to enjoy music in its most suited setting. This has always been our ethos, regardless of wherever we perform in the world. If there are not enough venues, we can create them at the most unlikely places.

Speaking of equivalents to SGABF, we performed at the Seoul Art Book Fair in 2013 where it was interesting to acquaint with other Korean musicians including Oh Hyuk, the lead singer of Hyukoh. Vice versa, I'd like to see the same cross-cultural synergy at SGABF someday.

SGABF: You have worked at fashion labels as a Senior Art Director. Has your personal taste for the arts influenced your work? Has working with companies that are not your own contributed or restricted your creative direction in any way?

: I co-founded KITCHEN. LABEL with Ricks Ang, a design practice and record label, working as an Art Director for 10 years for both the label and clients. In 2013 I left to pursue my interest in art direction for fashion, while still contributing on a project basis to KITCHEN. LABEL. This interest has eventually connected back to my personal work in the capacity of ASPIDISTRAFLY, for example, in art directing a brand collaboration shoot with NARS for their Sarah Moon collection.
At the moment, I'm working with local fashion label Love, Bonito (as the head of the creative department) which will unfold an exciting rebrand this year.

Photo Credit: Christopher Sim

SGABF: What do you think is the current climate of the arts and culture in Singapore? And how can events like the Singapore Art Book Fair help propel things forward?

: In an age of digital clutter I'm glad to see tactility and printed matter still being revered. At SGBAF 2014, I was booth neighbours with Nguan, a Singaporean photographer whose work I really enjoy, having been online friends for a long time. Seeing how far he's come shows that the international community has no problem recognising artists no matter where they're from, as long their work has substance.

ASPIDISTRAFLY was founded in Singapore in 2001. Taking their name from George Orwell’s novel “Keep the Aspidistra Flying”, the duo was formed by singer-songwriter April Lee and producer-guitarist Ricks Ang. The duo play a flickeringly filmic mixture of ambient folk with gossamer-like vocal harmonies and guitar-based drone wrapped in a delicate lo-fi haziness. Best known for her distinctively smoky low alto voice, April’s lyrical storytelling and artwork form the backbone of ASPIDISTRAFLY’s vision.