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.


NORAH LEA



Photo Credit: SGABF

SGABF: Hi Norah, tell us a little bit about your work.

NORAH LEA (NL): I’m a multi-disciplinary artist. Photography is my main medium but it usually goes with my performance and spoken word pieces as well.

SGABF: What are the greatest challenges about being an interdisciplinary performance artist?

NL: Image-making comes first. I usually see performance as a way to drive conversation for a work that I’ve already done. To me, the biggest challenge is toeing the line between letting the performance exist as a work on its own or have it support an original work.


Photo Credit: Rifdi Bin Rosly

It’s a constant struggle. I need to be sure that whatever I’m doing isn’t distracting. There were instances where the performance had nothing to do with any existing work yet it was still relevant – just a completely different body in itself. I used to be very interested in giving power to the audience, allowing them to decide what they’re going to do with my performance and how closely they want to interact with me.

Lately, I’ve been looking at taking the power away from them. How can I shift this dynamic? When you watch me, are you giving me power or am I giving you the power to see me? I need to know who’s coming into the space, first and foremost. Sometimes I wish that someone would say or do something to interrupt the flow. There hasn’t been such a situation, which leads me to feel that I’m still in power most of the time.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Artist

SGABF: How do you navigate that form of power from within?

NL: Siapa Dia Norah Lea, which I worked on between 2017 to 2018, involved getting people to assign an adjective or noun to me or who they thought I was. The images were created in response to these opinions. Within the installation itself, I placed pieces of paper hoping that other audiences would carry on the interaction. In this case, the power lies in not having people see my work the way that was intended.

SGABF: Why did you create the zine, In Love?

When I first showed the photos in school, my tutor immediately told me that I should make a book. I decided on the zine format instead of an art book as I felt that it represented the independent spirit of youth culture. The fact that I shot everything on disposable cameras too. I didn’t want the photos to be too polished, like what you’d see in a glossy photo book.

Zine: Courtesy of Artist

There wasn’t a need to be completely systematic with this work. The function of a zine allows the maker to break out of the traditional structure. That said, I don’t think In Love as a zine is experimental in nature. There is still a linear narration, unlike the exhibition at Coda Culture.

SGABF: How did the zine allow people to navigate themselves throughout the exhibition space?

NL: The idea of making a zine came before the exhibition. There was a delay in the production as we couldn’t get through with the printers in the beginning. The exhibition wasn’t even supposed to happen. We had intended to host a zine launch at Coda Culture but the founder, Seelan Palay, suggested transforming the space.

The exhibition gave us free rein to put up more images. With how it all unfolded, there was more power given to the audience to navigate their experience and the queer subject. On the other hand, I somehow got to decide on the zine experience. With the layout, I get to choose when you see me as a woman. Some questions that the zine presents include, is this person still a woman without all the makeup? The experience that one gets at the exhibition is more free-flow.
I gallery sat at the exhibition, so I was able to find out how people felt upon seeing it. It was a really scary experience because this work demands a person to enter a vulnerable space. Most people came out feeling the same way and even felt compelled to tell me their most personal stories. The thing is, I’m not emotionally equipped to respond to these reactions. Most of the time, I didn’t know what to do. That being said, it’s completely fair for audiences to observe or find parallels to their own lives.

For one of the pages in the zine, a friend pointed out that I was ‘in love but still wanted to be in power’. Based on such reactions, I’d think of ways to portray the images in the exhibition.

Photo Credit: Munn Iskandar

SGABF: You mentioned the printers were wary of your zine In Love falling into the Undesirable Publications Act. Should printed matter (in particular zines and art books) be regulated, and why?

NL: I’m a firm believer that there should be a committee to regulate the circulation of discriminatory or hateful ideas. We have to be wary of what we present to minors as well. Works with themes like paedophilia or revenge porn can have serious consequences in our society.

SGABF: Do artists and printers run the risk of self-censorship if regulations become too heavy of a concern in the process of making?

NL: To convince the printers to go ahead, I called up the IMDA to ask about the censorship of zines. I found out that the publishing of zines is usually self-regulated and does not require further permission. However, if public concern is raised, the work might be questioned or even withdrawn.

I think it’s both a state of anxiety and a validated way of thinking. It’s just the system that we grew up with. Personally, I practised a certain level of self-censorship when I decided which photos to place in more obscure spots within the exhibition space. I thought, what if children entered the space? How would parents make sense of those images?
Knowing the audience you’re serving helps a lot. I wouldn’t show these works in a religious country, for example. It’s also important to ask yourself if the current topic is worth discussing with certain groups of people. Sometimes, the emotional labour is just not worth it. My self-censorship ensures that I do not have to deal with additional baggage afterwards.

Going back to zines, I do like the spirit of rebellion and enterprise when we have to get around certain laws. Many works that have been published are resilient as a result of our strict regulations. If there weren’t all of these systemic rules, these works might not have been created at all. The issue with zines today is that people demand a level of finesse that I feel isn’t necessarily in line with the idea of counter culture. It seems like we are treating the zine as a commodity in some cases.

Photo Credit: Rifdi Bin Rosly

SGABF: Should makers be concerned about the commodification of works?

NL: Commodity enables accessibility, in terms of benefitting a large group of people. I don’t stand for the type that causes demand for productions that are exploitatory to communities. For example, some queer stories are mandated by what the cisgender consumer wants to see. This happens when queer trauma sells. I think a balance can be struck through affirmative actions, such as deciding when the spotlight should be placed on content that may not necessarily be the most profitable or in demand but that it’s urgent and important.

The culture of commodification is such that the original makers don’t get to decide what does well. Sometimes, what’s profitable is more detrimental.

SGABF: Finally, can you recommend up to three zines/art books that you’ve read or collected?

NL: Take Care of Yourself by Sophie Calle, An Aromantic Manifesto by Yingchen and Yingtong, My Name is Veron by Rhyhan Astha

Norah Lea is a multidisciplinary artist whose works investigate the performative aspects of our identities. Her work is rooted in self-portraiture, exploring themes such as gender, sexuality and ethnicity through photography, film, performance and spoken word.