It is my birthday! [ARgh. No, it is not. I did not actually finish this in time. Two days late. But I did spend my birthday writing it!]
I swore to myself that I’d finish the Mandi Bunga epic blog by my birthday. Not for any special reason except maybe people would want to be nice to me and would probably read it if I asked them, compared to any other day. Also, because I know, with a terrible certainty, that if I don’t do it by today, I won’t do it at all.
So! I give you the epic Mandi Bunga blog, that’s turned out to be not really epic, but a collection of 10 fragments, sewn together by luck and sweat into something meaningful. When I think about it, that’s exactly how this project happened. It is the opposite of monumental.
1. Super Mind Enzyme
Somewhere along the way, I stopped keeping proper sketchbooks. I can probably trace it back to when I started telling myself I couldn’t/didn’t want/didn’t need to draw.
For Mandi Bunga, I picked the cheapest blank notebook with a hard cover lying around and used it throughout. It became the single most important tool I had, a super enzyme for my compost pile of a mind. Scraps of ideas, doubts, anxiety, fear of failure, fear of success – the notebook took it all, and broke it down into little nuggets of useable gold.
2. Lynda Barry, or, Farewell Art World, Hello Myself
I went to her work again and again, a thirsty hyena looking for water, and drank deep from two books in particular – What It Is and Picture This. It looked and felt like the art I wanted to be making, bringing back all the excitement and wonder that my 7 years in the art world had sucked dry. I rediscovered drawing, not as a proof of talent/skill, but as a way to access what she calls ‘the unspeakable mind’ – that well of pain and joy that makes us who we are.
The realization that I’d spent years making art defined by the dry artspeak of project proposals and curators’ essays was devastating to me. Why, why had I done that? Because it’s what I learned in art school? Because that’s what the ‘art industry’ is, and I’m just a miserable worker making its cogs go round and round, in the hopes that one day I’ll rise to the top?
It was like waking up from a long, drugged sleep. It helped me to understand why participants in my workshops were so afraid to pick up their brushes and paint. It mirrored my own estrangement. I swore I would not spend another moment making things that pushed people further away from art and themselves. I held on to the feeling that Lynda’s work gave me, and used it as a guide to shape everything.
Commas & Industry is a PR and events agency started by my ex-housemate Ying, and manned by a fantastic motley crew: Stephanie, Liy, Maryann, Sue and Julia. It is small but mighty. I hired them to help me with WEEDS, which was the first time I admitted I needed proper help and actually did something about it. The result: holy sweet working chemistry, Batman!
There’s incredible value in working with people who are exactly your wavelength, but not necessarily from your field. It has to do with different tracks of thinking coming together to produce unexpected solutions. The reality is, without Commas, Mandi Bunga would still have happened, but it would never have achieved the same polish and coherence.
It’s like hitting a target. All artists know that every artwork will only ever be an approximation of their vision. You never hit the bullseye. You only hope to get as close as your skills and resources allow. This time, for various reasons, I got as close as I could have. One of those reasons is Commas & Industry.
4. Repeat after me: only ever an approxmation…
I had the idea for Mandi Bunga way before I was asked to be part of Singapore Biennale. It was dreamed up for the streets of KL – people were to stand side by side and pass water, bucket brigade style, from point A to B. It was to be the most public spectacle imaginable, open to any person from the public to take part.
Early on, Zedeck predicted that I if I did this project at Singapore Biennale, I would struggle mightily with its context – the limitations, requirements and politics that come hand-in-hand with such a government-backed, institutionally-run blockbuster art event. Sure enough, I did.
The venue changed from a public park away from the city center to the lawn of the National Museum, a stone’s throw away from Singapore Art Museum (SAM), both right smack in the CBD. I wanted to bring it out of the center, where it would encounter more communities, but I failed.
I wanted people who are less visible in society to take part, like the elderly and migrants, but I also failed. I’d been allocated 20 days in Singapore. No time to meet people, no time to go to the ground. I pushed it as far as the parameters would go, but in the end, the context defined me and my work.
Still. To be able to walk in a parade, waving a yellow flag, on the streets of Singapore… I think of that, and a satisfied smile creeps over my face. This wouldn’t have happened if the National Museum wasn’t so close to SAM. Honor for choosing the right site goes to my friend and comrade, Biennale co-curator Khairuddin Hori. Sometimes the context gives you something you never dreamed of, and you’re left standing in a tiny, momentary space of freedom that wasn’t there before.
5. The Network, or, Mandi Bunga beats Facebook’s Edgerank
We launched the project online with a call for participants, focusing almost exclusively on Facebook and Twitter. There was no Plan B, and without participants, Mandi Bunga basically… wasn’t going to happen.
Facebook’s Edgerank algorithm ensures that what you share will only reach 15 percent of your subscribers. For the privilege of being connected to your own network, you must pay. I decided that we were NOT going to pay to promote the open call. No, I’m not a masochist. This isn’t about ego.
To me, the Network is more than the number of my FB fans. Like cycling and gardening, it’s a tool that bears the seeds of a peaceful and permanent revolution – one that’s not based solely on political victory, but on developing living, breathing connections.
When we pay for connections, we exploit human relationships as currency – all that matters is that there are eyeballs attached to the person on the other side of the screen. Instead of being the great leveler, the Network becomes another place where the rich get more and corporations grow fat.
I needed to know that the Internet isn’t just another media outlet controlled by new corporate gatekeepers who are mining our human attention spans like raw minerals.
Despite Edgerank, the Network shared and spread Mandi Bunga. By the second day, the list of sign-ups was overflowing. The Internet had generated more than likes and retweets and bitchy blogs about things that don’t matter. It had helped me Make Something Happen.
6. Hey! Themesong time! The former Captain James T. Kirk will take us there:
Yes, Mandi Bunga was inspired by Bersih. The colour yellow, besides looking super cute and cheerful, is a direct reference to the movement. But people looking at Mandi Bunga as a political statement will be disappointed.
Hell, even I’m disappointed! I wish it WERE as simple as staging a Bersih-like demonstration in Singapore and getting away with it under the guise of art. Maybe it would have made politicians sit up. Maybe it would have caused more ripples than it did and made me a fucking famous controversial art-revolutionary.
The thing is, it wouldn’t have been very good art. Or good thinking. Or good politics. But most of all, it would have meant using over 100 people for my own ends without giving them anything in return.
My experience with Bersih left me both energized and confused. It called itself a people’s movement, but didn’t consult with the people. Instead, it had charismatic heroes and leaders who negotiated with kings – the ‘people’ were alternately the bargaining chip or trump card in a high stakes poker game. And yet, the experience of being on the street with a sea of fellow citizens was indescribable… a glimpse of human solidarity and brotherhood, mingled with the smell of sweat and blood.
For a long while, I didn’t know what to do with my contradictory feelings about Bersih. I was ashamed of them. I wanted the easy narrative. I wanted to be a Righteous Warrior for Urgent Change dammit!
In the end though, I couldn’t hide from the doubts. They ate away at me until I took them and turned them into Mandi Bunga.
8. People, Part I
“Despite the horse race elections, manifestos, and movements, the truth is most of the time for most people, political systems don’t mean much. For all activists and politicians see excitement and power in their bloodsports, most people, and probably the healthier sorts, prefer to get on with their lives regardless of who’s in charge. They spend their time with family and meeting friends for coffee and trying to understand what makes a good life. And it is these people, not the power players, who keep us fed and warm in winter and give us the soft curve of a ceramic cup in hand, who make the memory and fabric of a place. It is details and human labor that give the name of home to the cities and towns that earn that name inside of people. Society is mostly built away from power, by the politically distant and ideologically vague.” – Quinn Norton
9. Giving up ownership, not authorship* (*borrowed from The New Rules of Public Art)
One criticism of the performance was that it looked sloppy. It’s true, people kept coming in and out of the ‘sacred’ performance space, taking pictures and interacting with participants. In fact, when I arrived with the last group at the National Museum, I panicked a little when I saw the bathers weren’t neatly in position ready to perform – they were sitting around, chatting, selfie-ing, tweeting, laughing. I remember thinking for a split second: oh my god this does not look like an artwork.
But I came to my senses, and realized this was exactly what I had meant it to be.
Consider this: Sometimes ‘sloppiness’, open-endedness and lack of polish (I prefer ‘informality’) is not an accident, but an intended outcome. The thing looks the way it’s supposed to feel.
What does giving up ownership feel like? It feels like letting go of control. It’s risky and vulnerable and hard to trust people to make their own decisions. Like, what if people didn’t show up? Well, that’s that. Gotta accept failure as an outcome.
But it can also make things easy: people kept asking what would happen if it rained. I said: I don’t know. If it rains, we’ll discuss and decide together what to do. Somehow, this answer was enough for them, and for me. It helped us endure what none of us could control.
What does keeping authorship (I prefer ‘stewardship’) mean? To me, it’s this: doing your utmost to encourage the conditions and maintain the bonds that made people want to do this in the first place.
10. People, Part II
Have you ever watched someone making art? Their face changes. Concentration and relaxation comes over them at the same time. They open up, become easy to talk to.
Three observations from interacting with close to 140 people who took part in the sarong-painting workshops:
1. Most people (unless they’re working in the arts) have lost their relationship to making art. It’s unbearable to witness. Over and over, I heard things like: ‘I haven’t picked up a brush in 20 years, except to paint my house’ ‘I’m not creative’ ‘I don’t know how to draw’ ‘Never thought I’d be doing this’. Heartbreakingly, they felt the need to apologize: ‘Sorry *nervous laughter*, I’m bad at art lah’. I do not know how this has happened. It was like encountering a forrest that had lost its leaves.
We cannot know how this loss has affected our ability to relate to ourselves, other people and our world, but I will say this: almost every person who left the workshops told me it was ‘relaxing’, ‘therapeutic’, ‘I really needed that’, ‘I wish I could do this more’ and that it made them happy.
2. People are fragile and vulnerable. They get hurt and worried and anxious about everything, like… they don’t have enough time, or they’ve had a really hard year, they don’t know what they’re doing, their father has cancer, they want to spend more time with their mother, they’re worried about their daughter, they’re insecure about their body… it goes on. Does this sound like you? Hey! It sounds like me.
But they’re are brave and beautiful too, in the most everyday, ordinary way. They care. They hope. They abide. They’re funny.
3. It seemed to me that what was most important to people, besides themselves, was other people.
At the end…
There is a feeling that lies at the end of every project, that has very little to do with whether it was a failure or success. It’s a kind of satisfaction… a peace of mind. I’ve been chasing it like an addict for years. That feeling is what I live for, the moment when I can sit down and say: I did it.
This time, that familiar and beloved drug had a new dimension: we did it.
I’m only starting to grasp what that really means.