5.

SUPERNORMAL




Photo Credit: SGABF

SGABF: Hi Kian Peng and Ivan, can you tell us more about your work at Supernormal and your design practice, Modular Unit?

IVAN (I): I take on a number of things, such as post-production, print and ceramics.

KIAN PENG (KP): Ivan does more than that. He is a ceramist and is part of the ceramics collective Weekend Worker. Modular Unit is a design studio we both founded. We do a range of things, such as publications like the one we recently created for Singapore Design Week. We also work on branding and websites. Modular Unit also specialises in exhibition designs, interactive installations and motion graphics.

I’m a designer and an artist. Ivan usually handles more of the print aspects of design while I take on the digital side of things. We both teach on the side. Artistically, I focus on media art and new media, seeping into the work we do at Modular Unit and our gallery space, Supernormal.

SGABF: What is the value of zines and self-published materials to you?

KP: To me, there is something quite precious about self-published zines in a way that’s similar to B-grade movies. Self-published zines have no commercial pressure to perform. They are more about communicating and expressing certain concerns we have. They have a unique voice that is very pure and focused, as compared to other zines that might serve vested interests.

I: I think different sentimental values exist for self-published materials, depending on the underlying message. There isn’t a brief to answer, and it’s more of a freeflow approach. Self-published works can, however, be quite stressful if you are looking at producing something really comprehensive that takes a longer time to produce. In short, it’s about the value and how much you want to put into it. I personally find self-published zines more realistic in terms of content.

KP: Design wise, there’s also a lot more freeplay. Looking at Rubbish Famzine by family collective Holycrap, the things they do might never be approved in a commercial context because it is so crazy and totally nonsensical to produce. Yet, for them it is about the process and a family undertaking that creates value. These things are typically not commercially viable unless it is part of a really special advertising campaign.

SGABF: We are interested in the delineation of Modular Unit and the Supernormal space. What was the initial impetus behind the creation of the latter and how might that have changed over the years? Ideally, what do you want Supernormal to become?

KP: Ivan’s friend was blasting a message that there was a free space and wanted to find out if anyone was interested in doing anything with it. That led us to viewing the space at 333 Kreta Ayer Road, which eventually became the first location for Supernormal.


Photo: Café CUP by Atelier HOKO, Courtesy of Supernormal

I: We went down without the intention of renting the space. We just wanted to see it.

KP: We felt that there was potential and approached the architect renting out the space. We suggested that people didn’t really have a reason to visit the block, which might explain why it’s difficult to let the space out. We thought of doing a series of pop-up shows to drive traffic for the place. After about a month of doing it, we decided to continue because the experience was quite valuable for us. The ethos is similar to the creation of self-published zines – existing as a platform for alternative and emerging makers who might lack access to more established spaces. The short answer is: There was no initial impetus for Supernormal. This is something I find common among independent and artist-run spaces in Singapore. Things just happen.

We don’t have a clear five or ten year plan. Our hope is that it will one day grow to become a mid-sized museum or gallery, like spaces in Korea and Japan. That is already an upgrade from artist-run spaces. We would love to build a design studio at the top floor. However, this is still a faraway dream. Currently, our focus is on the ground activities and events. We aren’t so interested in being a commercially-viable space at the moment.
SGABF: A significant ethos of the Supernormal space seems to be a desire to present experimental and offbeat projects. How do you determine works like these?

KP: We don’t have a specific guideline. A lot of it is based on gut feeling. We want to show experimental and newer ways of approaching things because design and art in Singapore feels very safe, most of the time. Those who are often experimental are marginalised, especially in design. A common thread across different institutions, at least in the schools Ivan and I have been in and taught in, is that experimental works are somewhat discouraged. There is a lack of focus on process, whereas results are prioritised. The space tries to promote and encourage process-driven works locally.

I once received a question from a student from my time at Nanyang Polytechnic’s School of Interactive and Digital Media. It was casual, but left a strong impression on me. I was teaching an experimental module and a student asked me, “We learn all these things, but where are we going to show them?”

That got me thinking about how we lack spaces to display such works in Singapore. For artists, even though the landscape isn’t fantastic, there are still spaces to work with. However, there are no specialised spaces that encourage experimental, off-beaten or new genres for design. This is the same with magazines and publishing.

SGABF: A number of shows organised by Supernormal have explored the intersection of technology and art, namely your collaboration with SAND Magazine in 2018 (Technology in Art) and Adaptations at Gillman Barracks as part of the 2019 Singapore Art Week. Why the interest in this area and how do you think it has affected the nature of zines, self-publications and other mediums?

KP: The nature of our self-initiated showcases usually comes about from our perspective of technology. Before Modular Unit was around, we were part of an audio-visual group, PMP. That was an audio-visual performative collective that used technology, audio-visuals and live music, which then eventually led to Modular Unit. My own practice also explores the intersection between art, design and technology.

With Supernormal, we wanted to highlight the idea that technology is very much a medium like paint, and can be adopted as a form of material for art-making. A lot of Singaporeans still see technology as a concept belonging to the fields of science and engineering. It’s confusing for them to see technology being used in an artistic context.


Photo Credit: Courtesy of Supernormal

That’s because the world we live in is becoming more and more technologically-driven. Everything we see, hear or converse with is becoming very mediated. As artists and designers, we need to start getting our act together. There tends to be an over-romanticisation of the print medium that we fail to see the potentialities of technological mediums. With the Technology in Art and Adaptations, we were basically trying to showcase works that used technology in meaningful, poetic and contextualised ways. I think there are a lot of works using technology just for the sake of it, even in the arts, so our aim is to present a different perspective to this whole phenomenon.

Today, we have the luxury of perusing aggregated content from social media channels. The greater volume of content changes the way we look at things. Because of that, we need to start looking at what we want technology to do for us, and understanding how it works in order to have control over what we are trying to produce. Otherwise, we would be caught in a perilous situation where users are being  manipulated with all these information. For example, the only source of news for many people is Facebook. That is very dangerous because a lot of this news can be biased, and fake, or entertainment news which is very rooted in a journalistic kind of approach. When you do that, your perspective starts becoming very narrow. This also applies to zines.

Online zines are becoming more common. These days, many people are looking at whether zines are even a thing anymore. That’s because of the way content is being served. Blogs and websites are essentially zines, format wise. To truly determine the future of physical zines, a lot of testing and understanding of various concepts around content circulation and consumption have to be done.

I: I think about how online and offline retail might function in the future. Both platforms have to work hand in hand. How will zines negotiate with this relationship? How can makers coordinate the content in both ways? I recently shared a conversation with a friend – we were discussing book designs and formats. Can a book be displayed in newsprint? Perhaps a toilet roll with one column to read? Whatever it is, they still possess the same function of delivering content.
SGABF: The advent of technology can bring about a destabilising feeling, with things being in constant flux and change. Some practitioners choose to veer away from it, revelling in more ‘primitive’ forms and methods while others have actively embraced it.

KP: I think there has always been this phenomenon since the Industrial Revolution. The Luddites refused to acknowledge and adopt technology as part of their lives. Of course that didn’t work out too well. I think what some practitioners really enjoy is the process of printmaking and the tangibility of the format. That is also not to say that technology is entirely rejected. In a way, there is still a lot of room to negotiate around that. The other school of thought is integrating the idea of zines into a more technocentric society. These are two completely different ideas that might eventually form into something else.


Photo Credit: Courtesy of Supernormal

Zines might adopt a new term in the future, where content is served in a completely different way and exists in a virtual world we don’t know of yet. For many years, magazines have struggled to tackle such the dialectic between online and offline. Many magazines have closed down because of the lack of sales.

I: Personally, the physicality and materiality of objects really enhances the sensations of touching, flipping or smelling these items. I think practitioners continue with their approach just because they can’t let go of such feelings and emotions associated with these sensations. Perhaps they find that worth preserving. I think about QR codes and hashtags that are now printed in physical books. These would not make sense in the past. This might be a way to keep these two forms intact – online yet retaining the tangibility of the physical format.

KP: Digital formats, too, are struggling to achieve the same kind of emotional quality. It’s like writing with a pen and typing on a keyboard: these are two completely different modalities that affect our reading behaviours. The focus and perception of the content changes as a result. The people in tech are still trying to figure out how they can reconcile the digital experience with print media.there have been many attempts to research and execute tangible media. As of now, there is still no viable replacement for the print format.

SGABF: The Internet serves as a free or inexpensive space to upload any form of content whereas the cost of printing might prove to be a barrier for printed matter. However, some makers have found that there is a form of layer that filters through, resulting in greater thought put into the production process.

I: That is true. Since the production of a book is expensive, one might practice reducing unnecessary information in the printed form. That leads to a collection of useful, functional content that is being circulated. In comparison, online content might be less digestible for readers due to the large pool of information.

KP: Keeping in mind that the way we write online is different. Curated websites depend on linking. In print media, the ethics and approach of writing switches up. Writers and curators have to exercise a lot more thought with their content. That said, newer generations are looking at how they can gather and generate online writing in a similar fashion to print.

SGABF: What crucial observations have you gathered from the self publishing scene in Singapore, from your various interactions across the art and design communities?

KP: Arguably, zines started from movements such as Dadaism. Then, practitioners would create posters and magazines to address topics of interest. Today in Singapore, there is too much focus on ‘lifestyle’ – at least commercially. Many self-published zines I’ve observed tend to touch more on what young adults really care about. Publications such as SAND Magazine, too, tend to bring out these themes. Having these voices is important.

I think there is a confusion as to what zines should be about. We see many people who just want to make a nice looking zine, but the content is lacking. That also reflects the state of the design scene in Singapore. A lot of it is about making nice posters and aesthetically driven objects, yet not enough thought is put into context or process.

I: I feel that some designers lack in-depth research, which ends up with them producing for the sake of production just to demonstrate something. That changes the perception of what exactly a self-published zine is about as opposed to the initial intention of the Fluxus movement.
KP: I think generally they lack an opinion or a strong belief. Of course they are very much influenced by successful magazines like Monocle. The idea of the zine, as a result, loses its way over time. I think designers like Atelier HOKO should be celebrated more. They are one of the rare few practitioners that look at things in-depth from a design perspective. Designers in Singapore tend to gloss over a lot of things.

I: Today, it seems that it’s not about disseminating information or content but challenging who makes the nicest zine or book. Consumerism doesn’t help when the people who buy are generally attracted to aesthetics. It’s a two-way street. At times, the audience controls what is being produced by artists and designers by way of their reception to certain publications.

SGABF: In terms of taste and appreciation for visual languages, do you think the audience and practitioners should be on the same page? Should the practitioner, then, be devising new approaches to navigate the audience’s perception of design and art?

KP: I think it is possible for practitioners and audience to be on the same level. Practitioners need to be more firm and rooted to their beliefs, carry out and address certain things in the way they know best.. A lot of times they are swayed by audience commentaries.

I: Or driven by numbers – in terms of sales or social media clout. That changes the direction of how independent publications are produced, even.

KP: The whole idea of numbers driving design is a pretty big thing. While I think there are certain advantages to it, there still needs to be a human driven decision-making process. That is not something that can be statistically proven. In Singapore, we tend to have an obsession with numbers that is consistent in different fields. We feel the constant need  to be validated by numbers.

SGABF: Based on what we have discussed so far, how would you weigh the value of events such as Singapore Art Book Fair (SGABF)?

KP: I think such events are important to have. That said, I do think Singapore celebrates the festival culture quite excessively. These activities should still take place outside of large-scale formats and without the need for validation by numbers. I thought the addition of the pre-fair event ‘Deszinenation: Ground Zero’ before the fair dates in June by SGABF was really interesting. The exhibition wasn’t merely concerned about numbers but attempted to critically engage audiences.


Photo Credit: SGABF

I would love to see more individualistic actions happening within Singapore. At least in the art scene, there is an emergence of independently-run spaces. Students and artists are putting up their own shows. There are definitely more small-scale events popping up, and I would love to see that happening for design as well.

I: I think it is the nature of the business of design that does not allow for such practices. If you are a design studio like us that also explores art, that might change the language of communication. Design studios mainly operate on the business model of specialisation. If this change in focus can happen, it will switch up the entire scene.

SGABF: 
Numbers are used to determine how successful events, festivals and showcases are. Yet, it’s tricky to gauge how such initiatives are shifting perceptions. Some people think that outreach is important.

KP: It depends on the context. Reaching out is definitely a starting point. A lot of it depends on who is the initiator or parent is. When government agencies become the parents of initiatives, there is no real drive nor passion. I doubt there is any actual engagement with the audience. Small pockets of spaces and independent institutions, such as SGABF, engage with the people more intimately. This allows for real audiences to mature and carry out more constructive discussions. Exhibitions for entertainment’s sake rather than actual cultivation can be overwhelming.

Many designers in Singapore still think that design is a commercial activity, and fail to see the other aspects of design which could potentially take on other forms. That’s why the scene in Singapore is so different from neighbouring countries like Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan. These areas have room for activities that don’t necessarily ask for a tangible outcome.

I: Adopting matured approaches to information consumption is important. Having independent initiatives such as SGABF would bridge a more in-depth level of functioning, rather than bringing about a surface-knowledge understanding of things. We need more events and showcases that allow for development and growth, regardless of scale.

A project of design studio Modular Unit, Supernormal is an independent art space that strives to present experimental and offbeat works and projects, ranging from design to artistic practices, and the in-betweens. The gallery is known for providing a creative and experimental platform emerging to established artists and designers in Singapore.