About Singapore: Inside Out’s narrative and ideas
The Singapore: Inside Out multidisciplinary creative showcase was launched in 2015 as part of the country’s Golden Jubilee celebrations. It travelled to three cities — Beijing, London and New York City — before making a homecoming to Singapore. The second edition happened last year in 2017, travelling to Tokyo and Sydney.
You were involved in both editions, first as the art director in 2015, and later, as the creative director. What do you think were the differences between the two editions in terms of the cities that the showcase travelled to and the types of local audiences who experienced Singapore: Inside Out?
Firstly, the 2015 edition had a different context. It was a key project of SG50, against the backdrop of an unusually amplified national conversation about nation building and national identity, as we hit a historical milestone. These topics were impossible to avoid as we conceptualised the 2015 edition. For 2017, I can only speak for the Tokyo edition as that was the showcase we worked on. It was much freer in the themes and expressions we could explore.
Also, for the 2015 edition, we had to design for four different types of audience and across four different cities, which significantly influenced the way we presented the showcase. For 2017, we designed the showcase for our target audience in Tokyo only, which allowed us to be more playful with the nuances of the showcase’s design and messaging.
Each city’s audience had a very different profile and we had to be sensitive to the local norms and culture. We also had to be aware that each city has a different relationship with Singapore and different preconceived notions of what Singapore is like.
What would you describe as your biggest challenge as well as your greatest joy in working on Singapore: Inside Out?
The greatest challenge working on the Tokyo edition was balancing the micro-universes of each artwork within a singular interior space that was not purposefully designed as a white cube gallery. There were multiple considerations of overall narrative versus individual narratives, visual composition as a whole versus individual aesthetic of each artist, technical intricacies of mounting each work, audience’s emotional journey versus logistics of event management, and the halo effect of the project for its different stakeholders beyond its event dates.
Understanding all these separate ingredients was crucial in the process of fusing them into a great show. That whole process of balancing, calibration and conjuring was like chemistry, and this is what I really enjoy.
You have progressed as a designer since — from being a freelance designer to being the co-founder of a multidisciplinary design studio, in the wild. Do you think your design practice has changed and did you notice this change when you worked on the Tokyo edition?
My design approach has definitely changed as I grow and mature as a person. You cannot divorce the two. Design is sort of like alchemy to me. There is a risk in creation that we do not often talk about or ponder over. It takes a certain calmness and confidence to constantly encounter and bear with these risks and uncertainties.
By bearing with the risks, I do not mean to create life-threatening unstable architecture or toxic products for people to use, but to understand that in the process of creative experimentation you will definitely get a whole bunch of wonky bad designs, especially if you deviate from templates and lazy copying. You need to know how to toe the line without tipping over; it is like a dance. You have to be responsible for your design. In this digital era, people have become too irresponsible with imagery.
Singapore: Inside Out has been described as an “international cross-disciplinary showcase of the dynamic contemporary arts and design scene in Singapore”, a showcase of Singapore’s creative talents. The showcase was commissioned by the Singapore Tourism Board, and I assume it had key performance indicators to meet, which is fair enough and also for accountability purposes. But what did that mean to you as the creative director? How did the layered objectives affect the curation of the showcase experience and the selection of artists? How did this affect the artists, their creation process and the artwork that they put out?
I sometimes hesitate to talk about how institutional objectives are part of the creative process because people tend to jump to conclusions based on which camp they come from. It is so loaded with baggage and things left unsaid or unresolved from so many different places and time that it becomes almost impossible to just plainly talk about working with creative integrity in a corporate commission. Many times, this happens when people start to view each other as binary. You are either black or white. I am here and you are there. We forget that humans are inherently dynamic.
As the creative director, it was my duty to observe the objectives of the commissioner, the objectives of the commissioned and the objectives of the audience. Only in understanding the nuances of these objectives could I find their commonality. Only in distilling this commonality could I then begin to design a narrative for my audience.
In the context of Singapore’s art commissioning process, artwork is viewed as a commodity to trade (you understand our city’s inert language is one of trade and commerce). Hence, the artist is viewed as the “brand” of the commodity. Now I am going to leave that as a neutral observation because to debate about whether that is right or wrong is another conversation. This runs contrary to the way many artists practise in Singapore. The term art practice itself shows that it is a continuous process of practising the body and mind. There is no end product to ship or no app launch date maybe until the artist dies or decides to stop.
The closest analogy I can think of is the athlete who continuously trains his or her body. Here, the gym is the city. Practising in a city that is resource scarce and detached from materiality encourages non-material outputs, and that informs a large part of the art language in Singapore. Again, I am going to leave that as a neutral observation, but we can already see that the two are mismatched at multiple points.
Where they agree on is that the value is in the “brand” or the artist. The artist here can refer to the whole group or an individual. Again, for the sake of brevity, I am going to omit the debate on brand as a separate entity versus a complex and very human artist.
On the global art scene, we have yet to have a truly household name. This is not to say it is impossible, look how well our pop culture is doing. When faced with a bigger challenge, it is an advantage to have a team. Probably a lot more fun too; the Avengers are way more fun than a solo Superman flying around. For that reason, Singapore has always adopted the strategy of “hunting in packs”. The bigger brand here is Singapore. When I say Singapore, I am not referring to only the government. I am referring to the people who make up Singapore. For an artist practising here, the dream is always to have a much bigger playing ground and an audience beyond Singapore; there is a lot of groundwork to prepare for a hunt. And I am going to assume professionalism from all parties, no childish hidden meanings or motives. These to me are much bigger and more important agendas that inform who we approach to work with and which works are presented.
The process of being commissioned and working closely with the commissioner is actually beneficial to the practice of artmaking. No one creates in a vacuum. I find what affects artists and their presentation the most is working with an extremely distracted audience. The short timeline adds a lot of unnecessary constraints that could have benefitted from a more cost-effective solution that requires a longer gestation period. Pitching for a work like this is also extremely cumbersome as we need room for the artists to develop their concepts without doing free pitch work upfront. But the nature of a pitch is such that we have to explain the ideas with visuals and be articulate about the design.
Singapore: Inside Out has since travelled to five cities. How far can we stretch this narrative and mode of presentation?
Very far, if branded and presented with a longer-term plan. From a tourism perspective, it is strategic to have a tourism product that reaches out to the audience instead of baiting them from afar. That is the nature of evangelisation to new audiences. From a content perspective, we have so much to share, so much to bring to a global creative conversation. The Singapore Tourism Board understood this and that understanding was the foundation to a great partnership with equally invested parties, which has made the current editions successful. Marketing Singapore as an arts and culture destination is quite new. More insight into the actual creative tourism behaviours and spending in Singapore is important feedback.
But Singapore:Inside Out must not fall into the trap of being a trade show, advertising our artworks on a slideshow, which is logistically much easier as it does not require design and is more cost effective to execute. That would be a detrimental representation of the art and, therefore, of the brand’s perceived value by its audiences. This is highly likely to happen if there is a lack of sophistication in the design process and understanding of how the arts work. If we are already viewed as efficient and unimaginative by overseas audience, they definitely do not need to be reminded of that.
Where would you like for Singapore: Inside Out to pop up next and why?
For purely personal preferences, with no consideration for where our largest tourist markets are from, maybe Nepal. It probably would not work well, but I think it would make such a fascinating contrast, between two very young republics (Nepal abolished its monarchy in 2008) with such wildly different backgrounds, history and context. We always obsess over how ‘young’ our nation is and sometimes use it as a convenient excuse to avoid difficult discussions. Nepal is not a young country by any means. Maybe that contrast will strike a chord with both audiences.