This is kind of late – the show opened last weekend as part of #WORD The Cooler Lumpur Festival. The festival’s over, but the exhibition goes on till July 14, so couple of weeks left to check it out.
I began tracking books banned by the Malaysian government in 2007.
There was a list on the Home Ministry’s website that was available on and off – now you saw it, the next day it was gone. I decided I needed to build my own database and entered every book on the list into a spreadsheet. Based on the titles, I put them in categories: Sexuality, Religion, Counter Culture, Politics and Race.
I sent the list to my best friend, a civil engineer who helps me do all my math. (One day I’ll show you trigonometry calculations she did when I had to scale tiny model sails into room-size ones that I suspended from the pillars of a building.) She analyzed the data, making tables and line graphs.
Collecting and organizing all this information about censorship gave me a feeling of power and control. Instead of getting outraged each time another banned book was announced, I calmly entered it into my spreadsheet.
Later I took the shapes of the graphs and turned them into buzz wires that people could play with. A simple game – if the metal hoop touches the wire at any point, a screeching buzzer goes off. Can you get to the end of the graph without setting off the sensor?
Here’s the list as a downloadable Google doc spreadsheet, it’s updated to 2013 and includes charts: MALAYSIA BANNED BOOKS 1971 – Current
Making things has always been my way of thinking through what’s happening and overcoming my passivity. The buzz wires aren’t anti-censorship statements. They don’t take a stand on freedom of expression. They’re perverse toys that attempt to give the invisible beast of censorship a shape. Just a small part of the beast – maybe a hoof, or a single tooth. In the big scheme of things (like unlawful detentions, deaths in custody, limits on freedom of assembly), book banning can seem pretty minor. But it’s one of the few tools of oppression that can be tracked clearly, over time.
Shapes are things we can grasp, hold, see, play with and learn from.
Things without a shape seep in and take on the shape of others. This is how censorship infects our societies, eventually becoming part of our culture, emerging as dark forces like intolerance, conservatism, and moral policing of fellow citizens.
To understand and overcome the shadow, give it a shape!
P.S. – Art is good for that.