Signs of Life

Day 4 of Malaysia’s third movement control order. All economic sectors are closed except for essential services.

Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes (including boiling the pasta)
Movie run time: 2 hours
Eating time: < 5 minutes
Cleaning up time: > 5 minutes 

And so it goes, the interminable self-subsistence that will last for at least another two more weeks (most likely longer, perhaps months longer) as the nation enters its third (or is it fourth?) “full” lockdown.

Well, it’s not all bad. I get more time to sit in bed reading before I start work for the day. (If I do indeed start work at all.) I get to watch more movies and amuse myself with little new interests like, for example, Shakespeare. I’m currently reading James Shapiro’s The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606, after having watched Akira Kurosawa’s Ran, Ian McKellen’s King Lear by the RSC, Roman Polanski’s and Orson Welles’s productions of Macbeth, and a local production of King Lear on Zoom by the KL Shakespeare Players. I like to watch interpretations of these two stories over and over because their poetic violence offers so much for actors, directors, and stage designers to work with, and I also tend to like things where everyone ends up dying. One interesting thing I discovered from reading the Shapiro book is that, even as late as the 17th century, people were still disembowelling traitors in public and sticking their heads up on stakes, exactly like in Roman Polanski’s production. I had thought that his version of Macbeth, made in 1971, was just particularly violent because the 60s was over and his wife and child had just been slaughtered, and that Macbeth’s 11th-century setting had offered him an excuse for barbaric catharsis, when in fact people still retained all these medieval rituals even up till the 1600s. Next on my watch list is Throne of Blood.

I was never taught Shakespeare in school, and I’m discovering that Shakespeare is one of those perfect things to get lost in when you’ve got way too much time on your hands, because there’s already such a glut of content related to him, from the extensive original source material to the ever-expanding amount of interpretations. When people ask what I’ve been getting up to, I tell them I’ve been watching movies. When they ask what sort of movies, I say samurai movies. Saying that I’ve been watching a bunch of Shakespeare productions sounds not only nerdy but also kind of juvenile: oh, you’re only having your Shakespeare phase now? 

Anyway, aside from that I just bought one of those ergonomic laptop stands, the ones that will prop up your laptop so that you can look straight at the screen instead of bending your neck too much. I got it in pink, just to feel something. It cost RM 7 on Shopee, it would have been more with shipping but I used one of Shopee’s infinite free shipping vouchers (their vouchers are an entire stable of gift horses, and it feels immoral). It hasn’t arrived yet, but, buying it, I felt like a total loser — buying anything ergonomic feels like a concession to techno-capitalism’s global enslavement. I wish I could be a hot underaged TikTok star and never send an email or open a laptop ever again.

Two weekends ago, I ordered fried chicken and it arrived in an oily mess, the fries had spilled out of their fry holder and gone everywhere, they were crushed. I didn’t ask for a refund, but I did write a review on Grab: “Received in an oily mess. Fries everywhere. Unsure whether fault of driver or vendor.” It doesn’t and won’t do anything, but I am running so short on feelings that I just pick up on any little thing, just to hold on to it for a moment. Just to talk to someone, maybe. The other day, I sent an email to an editor of a newspaper, which I’ve never done before. I feel like a deranged castaway, marooned on a desert island, turning over rocks to talk to the insects. 

People have written about the depression of lockdown, the one that stems from being separated from the emotional support of your friends for a long, unnatural period of time, and people have also written about their experiences of paranoid anxiety at the thought of re-entering the world again after lockdown, but I haven’t stumbled upon an article yet that combines the sentiments of the two to talk about how lockdown, whether you support it or not, actually creates a depressive ecosystem that makes you never want to re-enter the world again. Not for fear of the virus. I guess a separate article doesn’t need to be written about it, because this is an obvious defining feature of depression, which is a dull cycle. All it takes is not leaving the house for a few days for you to never leave the house again, to not even be capable of imagining leaving the house again. It’s as if you’d been born here, and you’d always been here, really: everything else, all the other moments had just been lies, fantasies to help you cope, when the truth is that you’ll always be here even if you’re somewhere else, and eventually you’ll realise this, stop chasing all those illusory elsewheres, and give in to your fate, which is here. Sometimes I feel bad because I haven’t made any effort to check up on any of my friends since this lockdown started, not even by replying to their stories. But then I realise that nobody’s asked for me either, and I feel a sense of relief.

I actually like lockdown, I wanted it. When the cases were climbing up to 5000, I echoed what many people in the comments section on The Star’s Facebook page were saying, that the country should go into lockdown until the case numbers come down. Isn’t it the case that you always want things to be another way, and then when things go that way, you wish they could go back to the way they were before, etc. I never learn from all this. But I’ve experienced enough lockdowns to know by now that I’m an inconsistent dumbass and I should just admit that I like lockdown, and I enjoy this stagnant depression too, it’s calming and mechanical. Days pass without event, sometimes I go an entire day without saying more than one or two words. My brain is a gentle confused fog. I have more time to read books, watch movies, and to just spend time alone with myself. I don’t feel anything towards any piece of breaking news or fresh conflict happening around the world, I don’t have “takes”. I’ve really cut down the amount I post to my Stories now. There’s not much I care to say. 

Before the lockdown, I went for a last cycle with P — gentle P, another friend of the abyss. We get along well because, at the end of the day, we’re both very lonely. Sometimes a successful relationship just depends on understanding that, and not asking anything from each other beyond that understanding. 

I arrived late, I left my house at 10 when I said I’d arrive at 10. When we set off, it was probably already approaching 11. Right behind P’s house is an entrance into the sprawling Kwong Tong cemetery compound, and we walked our bikes up because the incline of the hill leading there is way more than I’m capable of. Sun was out, no sign of rain on the horizon: a late morning that’s testament to how nice the weather must have been just a few hours earlier, if only I’d bothered to wake up earlier. 

The cemetery is the biggest Chinese cemetery in Malaysia, acres upon acres of headstones as far as the eye can see; and then the Kuala Lumpur skyline beyond a horizon of trees, with the awkward, brutish PNB and TRX buildings sticking out. Yap Ah Loy is buried here, and he has a great big black marble commemoration plaque where his grave is. The graves have pictures of the deceased on them, some have many Chinese words on them, some have illustrations that represent the Twenty-four Filial Exemplars. Some of the graves are larger than others, practically pavilions really, and better maintained. Some other sections are just thickets of tall grass and weeds that scratch you when you try to walk through. There’s a narrow road for cars, and it’s fringed with a number of interesting trees and shrubs. Frangipani, hibiscus. I’ve been to the cemetery multiple times with P, but each time I feel like I discover some new section of it that I don’t remember noticing before. Near the edges of the cemetery, where it opens up onto the Japanese War Memorial and Alice Smith School, there’s a building that looks like a ramshackle old mini mansion, seemingly unoccupied, except that there used to be a little cafe operating from the corner where some friendly Chinese folks would sell you cold beer in bottles. It was called the “Graveyard Bar” on Google Maps. That bar is closed now though the building still stands, and dogs fill the compound, barking at you if you cycle too close. I just followed P blindly and I still don’t really know where all everything is, and we were the only living people around except for the occasional Foodpanda rider. 

It’s hilly and bumpy up there, with a bunch of minor potholes. Each time I pushed myself up a slight hill I would be rewarded with the smooth decline on the other side of it, and then P would turn around because we’d reached some dead end, and the decline that had been my friend now became an inimical incline. We made a few circles before I ran out of breath, and the entire time P hardly broke a sweat. I love cycling, and up in that cemetery among the mottled sunlight and the rows of still grey stone, utterly alone, I felt like I was in Studio Ghibli’s Ponyo when the moon-change of tides turns the entire city into a Paleolithic forest. It was peaceful and regenerative, the breeze upon my face felt clear and pure. 

To tell the truth, the intermittent lockdowns have hardened my heart, and I go through the days not feeling anything except boredom and some low-level despair. I don’t miss seeing my friends much, my soul is too tired to miss anything or to hope for anything. But I miss cycling. 

Signing off for now, ‘As a cyclist’,

Capsule Reviews: Art exhibitions, David Fincher, Lana Del Rey

Art these days is enervating, uninspiring. Nothing really seems worth the time or the effort to visit. P has gotten into farming and social work. Another one of my artist friends has plans to move out of KL to the coast, his slow method of ejecting himself from the art scene. Nobody has invited me to anything interesting for over a year now. There’s hardly anything on with thought in it, while the few that do seem somehow out of joint with the current time, like relics from a different era, and I can’t seem to feel anything. Among galleries whose programming I would normally look forward to, A+ has been doing group shows for the better part of last year and ILHAM has been running the same show for nearly a year now. It’s not a good time for showing art; as if now that the borders are indefinitely shut and there’s no one but fellow Malaysians to show art to, the galleries have just shrugged and given up. Contemporary art’s lustre has faded — its hints of international exchange and foreign glamour — its titillating minor scandals surrounding big shows, especially at Balai — the wine glasses, the roundtables, the smoking sections, the catalogues with inane essays — the curator of indeterminate ethnicity flying in, the mysterious rich kid art history grad at a European university returning home … No one is really trying to impress anymore, not like they used to.


CAPSULE REVIEWS

PAUSE 202X, iterations 1 and 2 @ Tun Perak Co-op
12–28 March; 9 April – 2 May 2021

I can’t with any honesty say that I was a fan of either iteration of this PAUSE 202X KL series, organised and curated by Sharmin Parameswaran. I really wish I could have more generous things to say about it, because many of the artists featured are my friends, and I think that generally all of them want to do good work. It’s just that you wouldn’t be able to tell from this showcase.

Located at Tun Perak Co-op, a relatively new and hip art space located near Masjid Jamek in the centre of town, PAUSE 202X comes on the heels of “May We…”, another recent group exhibition curated by Rebecca Yeoh. The primacy of installations in both exhibitions reflects the current trend in the type of art that’s shown in non-commercial gallery spaces in Kuala Lumpur (as if the people who run these spaces only understand three-dimensional art objects). It’s as if these spaces — many of which are refurbished heritage buildings — have some secret aura that compels curators and artists to only create installation artworks, even if the medium doesn’t come naturally to them. It’s as if they feel challenged by the space, challenged to be another type of artist, one that they never even thought about being. I think the space is haunted by the spectre of Instagrammability, just like all heritage places are these days. The Insta-apparition slides into these young artists’ consciousness, feeds off their insecurities, and makes them create works that they, in truth, probably don’t feel all that comfortable creating. Maybe, in their heart of hearts, they would just like to exhibit a single, perfect picture, but the hollowed-out former-kopitiam interior of Tun Perak Co-op urges them to do more… MORE!… To justify taking up space in a heritage building older than them, to answer to why its architecture should be supporting their artworks. The Insta-apparition that haunts the building swoops up to their ears and whispers to them, “Don’t you know what a big opportunity this is?”

So they end up doing odd things, like throwing k-pop lyrics into their artworks, or tacking up pages from their diary onto the walls, or presenting their videos on low-definition — but “vintage” — television sets. It doesn’t have to be like this.

What’s Left for Gathering, Tan Zi Hao @ Mutual Aid Projects
13 March – 10 April 2021

The most recent exhibition in independent curator Eric Goh’s programming for his temporary project space in Wisma Central, Tan Zi Hao’s What’s Left for Gathering was somewhat testament to the fact that, if you’re going to attempt an installation without wanting to commit to it anyway, then the best spot to do that is in a plain white room, far away from any heritage elements or Insta-apparitions. Instead of trying to fill up a room and its creaky heritage floorboards, it’s better to just have a table with some of your references on the side, so people can understand you a bit better as an artist. This element of exhibition design is a tried and true method — ILHAM has done it, OUR ArtProjects has done it, The Back Room has done it, A+ has done it (although you weren’t actually allowed to touch the reference material then), Ahmad Fuad Osman’s biggest work in his recent Balai survey, his “Enrique de Malacca Memorial Project”, was literally just a presentation of his research materials.

This allows there to be room — but not too much room, otherwise it might be awkward — for Tan’s real works: his fine, elaborate drawings of imagined species of carrier shells and household casebearers. One can really get lost in his drawings, fall into their mysterious spirals and soft pencil marks and end up one of the gathered artefacts on these creatures’ shells. His imagined casebearers in particular fixated me: casebearers for words, for micro-beads. So colourful and intricate, these things that I peel off my walls and throw in the bin. There was one casebearer in a small, square, mint green frame — a real casebearer, that Tan found in his house, with a mint green halo about it, I forgot what his explanation was for why it was like that.

There was some connection to migration, about carrying things on one’s back, about travelling & picking things up along the way. But on the whole, it was what I would, not without affection, call a “nerd exhibition” — Tan seems much more invested in these casebearers and carrier shells as creature specimens, rather than with their symbolic possibilities, just as how Ahmad Fuad Osman, in his Enrique de Malacca project, seemed much more interested in the actual work of research than in the research’s conclusion. The overall feeling, especially with the artist and curator there to act as guides, was more like a visit to an underfunded but interesting little laboratory. I often wonder about these research-based “nerd exhibitions” (I’ll repeat: not without affection) and the extent to which they potentially obscure art’s transcendent quality in too much explication. Still, the drawings were really very exquisite and I left having learned a lot about sublime forms of life.

Mank (2020), directed by David Fischer. Netflix

Like most things that are these days nominated for Oscars or produced by Netflix, Mank was yet more easy and digestible content. Of course, it was entertaining to watch. Gary Oldman was fabulous as an alcoholic, unrepentant screw-up writer, and Amanda Seyfried in general looked fabulous, but the movie cannot live up to its subject. People used to write and direct movies like Citizen Kane, and now they just write and direct biopics about the people who wrote and directed movies like Citizen Kane. Feature films these days inch ever closer to resembling documentaries, more often than not drawing from true stories of dead people, and the cinematic art seeps out of the mainstream, only to be attempted by more independent productions.

Chemtrails Over the Country Club (2021). Lana Del Rey

What can I say that will be objective? It’s yet another lush banger from LDR, the container in whom I pour out all the emotions and longings that I’m too clogged up to express myself. This ones a little less sweeping and poetic than Norman Fucking Rockwell!, the album that preceded it, but it still puts me in that same twirling, dreamy mood that only LDR can achieve. It’s a little white girl unhinged, with song titles and lyrics drawn from Pinterest quotes. “Not all those who wander are lost”. “Wild at heart”. She reveals the sultry undertones of suburbia, puts the breathy “desperate” into “desperate housewives”, goes against the girlboss agenda by showing that domestic desperation also has its fun side in a form of unhinged feminine freedom. In theory, I love it.

Signs of Emergent Life

We’re in the evening of the vaccine, which, like every palliative gesture before it, we’ve been quick to equate with full freedom. I think this shows how desperate we’ve become, and just how silly humans are, that we just rush right into every glimpse of freedom we get. When the CMCO and RMCO were announced last year, we returned straight to acting like things were normal again, like waking up from a bad dream and forgetting all about it by the time you’re brushing your teeth. As such, everyone who’s been cautioning that the vaccine may not be the end of the pandemic we hope for is just stating the obvious fact while ignoring the obvious pretence, which is the definition of being a party pooper.  People will believe whatever they want to believe. We are all such silly and stupid creatures who never really learned our lessons, not after burning ourselves on the hot stove-top the first time, nor the second time, nor the tenth or hundredth time. Throw us in confinement and when we come out, we’ll still be the same unrepentant, juvenile children who just want to run around and be free. So let us be free. 


The weather has been unrelentingly hot lately, washing everything in bright white. A few weeks ago, I bought myself a bicycle off a friend, and I’ve started going cycling with P in a local park during off-hours, when everyone’s at work and it’s too hot to be out anyway. I barely have a job now. I’m just hanging real loose, but of course these types of people are the ones most tightly-wound, but more on that later. The more spiritually anxious I am, the browner my arms get. 

Cycling has been a great respite, I mean insofar a respite as a novice like me can get from cycling around and around the same park a couple times per week. Since I never really cycled before, my skills are still pretty rusty, and I can’t go up slopes yet or make very narrow turns. Sometimes when the sun feels like it’s hanging right above me like a personal vendetta, and my sunscreen starts melting into my eyes, and my legs get like jelly, sometimes I still lose control of the bicycle and swerve into a DBKL-tended shrub. My legs are now a constellation of bruises. Soon enough, I’ll just turn yellow-green from the waist down. But when I’m cycling, I get to enjoy the freedom of acceleration (all the kids out there who grew up riding their bicycles will read this and think, “duh”) in a way that’s different from being in any other vehicle, where you’re just transported along without having the direct bodily connection to the accelerating energy. It makes me think that the real fusion of man and machine happened way before the advent of modern technology, and that the Futurist perfection had already been attained in the form of the bicycle. (This also reminds me of that Black Mirror episode with Daniel Kaluuya where they have to power their Matrix by cycling on a stationery bicycle.) But I suck at driving anyway, so it’s not like I would know about being “at one” with one’s car. 

Even though we start our cycling sessions early in the morning, it always turns into a whole-day affair. Once we’re done cycling, I’m famished and lightheaded, so we go get lunch somewhere and end up drinking a lot of mango milkshakes and talking and just existing outside of normal time. The stragglers we encounter at the park in the noon sun, the people dining alongside us at whatever odd hour we’re eating, I imagine they’re all strangelings like us, lost in time and untethered from society. I usually get home around 2pm, and I shower, and then I have a nap, and before I know it it’s already evening time, even though my day started at 8am. 

I know it’s very uncouth to say as much, but the truth is that I haven’t been making much money lately. It gets so tiring to answer when people ask how I’ve been doing and whether I’ve got any new work on the way, because the truth is that I don’t, and I could just be honest about it when people ask me, but the problem isn’t that I think people will judge me but that I just don’t want to talk about it. I can’t stop thinking about money, I’m obsessed with money. The other night, I saw someone I hadn’t seen in a long time and the first thing I blurted out was, “Hey man, how are your stocks doing!” To which she replied, “My stocks are not doing too well honestly, but my crypto’s pretty good right now.” I have no idea. A few nights before that, I was with a group of much older, approaching-middle-aged men who were playing cards and talking about their Stocks and it made me really anxious; one guy was like, “Hey, there’s this stock I think you’d be interested in. It’s called Fuho.” [Fito? Futo? It was called something.] And the other guy took his phone out to look at it on his stock app, and said, “OK, I’ll buy it when I get home,” like he was talking about making a ciggie run to 7-11 or something. The only people I talk to regularly are all unemployed or freelancing unsuccessfully, like me. These are the only people I can have sustained conversations with. Right now I can’t relate to employed people nor care about what they have to say, since I’m too anxious that they’ll start talking about stocks or some other topic that reminds me of how ephemeral the value of money is. It’s not them, it’s me: if your stocks fluctuate that much, then I, who can barely even understand what you’re talking about, must be some worm.

One day, a friend called me while he and his friend were tripping and asked me to come get him because he was feeling really uncomfortable. I went over and got him and his friend and we all went back to his friend’s place, where they just lounged about while I walked in and out between the balcony and the living room, smoking bored cigarettes. It started to really pour, with great cardiac-arresting thunderclaps, but my friend just stood out contemplatively in the rain, getting drenched, in a meditative pose with his hands clasped behind his back, while his friend just laid on the floor tapping his feet vaguely to the music playing. As someone who’s basically only a conservative when it comes to sex (I’m a monogamy supremacist) and drugs (they’re a social menace!), I didn’t find this even an iota enlightening. One of them told me to go buy them a “vegetarian soup” and I went to the restaurant downstairs and bought them a noodle soup with fish and chicken in it because that was the only thing around, and when we got back to their flat, he poured it all out in a bowl and took one sip of the broth, without touching the noodles, before going back outside to stand in the rain. Lately, more and more of my friends seem to be on substances. I can’t remember the last time I talked to a sober person. Well, and also a few nights before this incident, my lockdown-sobriety low-tolerance ass got drunk way too fast off Tiger and this Malaysian whiskey called Timah, and I started yelling at a guy almost twice my age. It’s a good thing I’m surrounded by people who are mostly better people than I am. I had to go walk up and down a few flights of stairs until I cooled it. Anyway, lately more than usual, everyone is getting drunk and getting high to unknown ends. 

I had ordered them the soup noodle, and a tray of pai tee for myself. When we got back to the flat, I motioned to my friend’s friend to come eat, and I said to him, “Hey man. Look. Pai tee,” and he said, “Ok,” and just laid down on the floor next to the food without touching any of it. And I just ate all the pai tee for myself — it was really good, with a warm, savoury, umami taste. We stayed in our respective positions for a long time. I just sat on one of those colourful tiny IKEA kids stools and read a book I’d brought, and intermittently texted with another druggy friend to ask his advice on how to deal with druggy friends who are having a weird trip. I just shuttle from one druggy friend to another to ask them to explain the various mysteries of human behaviour to me. One thing I can say for drug users is that pretty much all the ones I know are really kind and understanding people, maybe even the kindest out of all my friends. Not like me at all, with my boozy jokes and outbursts. 

Eventually, one of my friend’s friend’s housemates came back from work, and I took that as my cue to head out. Another sober guy was finally in the joint and everything was cooling out into a soft balmy mist, the rain had stopped, and it seemed like the high was making its slow way out of their brain-fog. I stood up and announced my departure and everyone thanked me. Later that night, my friend texted me to say, “You’re my saviour.” I literally had not done anything except for everything they’d told me to do, like buying soup, which they only sipped at once. The part of me that’s a sneering, conservative old man was thinking, “These drugged-up hippies, man” on my way out, but the part of me that’s the nice old lady keeping the old man in check was thinking that these times are so shitty and all drug users are really just vulnerable children who want to lie on the floor all day and tap their feet to some invisible beat and look up at what their inner vision is projecting onto the ceiling. 

I find myself these days getting more and more absorbed into the minutiae of capitalist variety. You know like how one of the “checkmate, communists” arguments for capitalism is that it promotes diversity and “innovation”, an argument that commonly uses food as an example, like how we have so many cool restaurants and ten thousand fast food chains now under super cool capitalism whereas the stinky Soviets only had their workers’ cafeterias where they’d eat their daily rations of the same un-branded bread. These days, I’m so bored out of my mind that I allow myself to be absorbed by these detritus of capitalist “innovation” which are like a child’s idle imaginations — strange but nonsensical things that just float up out of the ether, but which, unlike a child’s imaginations, actually materialise themselves as commodities. My infrequent grocery store visits are prolonged by the time I spend just looking at all the weird and unrecognisable things on the shelves, like multicoloured vegetable pasta, or durian-flavoured milk tea, or “health chip” flavours in lentil, kale, black bean, and quinoa, and all the kinds of cereals and peanut butters that exist. Except it’s not really like a child’s mind at all: when a child daydreams, they imagine seeing dinosaurs with swords terrorising the skyline outside their window, but when adults daydream they just try to fit all the pegs into the same hole, like any health food just gets turned into a chip flavour now. I bought a bag of kale chips, because I am such a gullible loser, and they tasted so bland and awful. I’m hypnotically drawn into watching the surreal grotesquery of capitalist variety play out, like when I was a kid and found out about medieval torture devices or the Bermuda Triangle for the first time.

At one point I got really bored and just downloaded a bunch of phone games and deleted them after playing a few minutes of each, but I kept two idle games which have long lost their fun but which are alright to distract myself with every few hours or so. You realise real soon that the whole point with these games is just to watch ads and click a few things, and each ‘gaming session’ really only lasts 10 minutes max. before you run out of things to do (another thing to add to my intermittent “phone breaks” which I imagine as taking just 5-minutes — just enough to watch a couple Instagram Stories — but which inevitably turn into an hour-long affair). To get money on these games, you literally just have to watch ads. So maybe about 1.5 minutes of every 5-minute fidgeting you waste on the game is just spent watching advertisements; that’s the real point of the game. Advertisements for phone games/apps are also another world unto itself, another hamlet of surreality and bewilderment in the slums of capitalist variety. Most of the time, I click on the button for free coins and once the ad starts playing I leave my phone to go pee or something, but sometimes I end up watching the ad and then, if the game seems really weird, clicking through onto its app page to read the reviews about it. I do all this for no reason. When the world is caught in limbo and there’s nothing to do, all I have left to explore are these corners where dirt has piled up. The Internet allows you to go fast while staying in the exact same spot for months on end. I’m just like some guy turning over all the dead leaves on the road hoping to find some interesting garbage; a lumpen Adam Curtis. 

In the same vein, I’ve also started reading more human interest stories in The Star and tabloid outlets like Says.my, whose articles make everything sound so simple and straightforward. The other day, I read about how a guy in Labuan started seeing blood dripping from his ceiling, and when he called the cops, they discovered that his upstairs neighbour had died, and that the decomposing body was leaking fluids, including blood. In The Star, there was a really grisly picture where you could see blood and pus in thick swirling pools all around the dead man’s apartment. It gave me this creepy feeling like those experienced by the protagonist of Bret Easton Ellis’s Less Than Zero, who comes back home from his elite boarding school and spends the summer reading creepy articles about violent murders and accidents up and down Los Angeles. I read articles about husbands who strangle their wives and them hang themselves, about pedophiles, about bizarre car accidents that happen in the dead of night the same way I watch the advertisements for random phone games, wondering about the type of people who’d make these games or commit these murders, and then the people who are drawn to them, and how boring or bad things would have to get before something would happen to me. The real trip is realising that you live in a world full of other people who are also grotesquely alive. 

Articles for CENDANA-ASWARA Arts Writing Masterclass

Update [7 Apr 2021]: I’ve completed the masterclass now, with 15 articles in 5 months. This gave me a good excuse to make the effort of visiting more exhibitions around the city, and then to discipline myself into responding to each of them in what I hope was a thoughtful manner. I also hope this can contribute somewhat to the existing pool of discourse on Malaysian art.


Here’s a list of articles I’ve written for the masterclass I’m in, which I’ve previously talked about on this blog. Dates in bracket refer to when they were published.

  1. Participatory Utopias (5 Apr 2021)
  2. Rapkot and Imaniac’s Fiery Debut (19 Mar 2021)
  3. The Internship Archipelago: A Millennial’s Thoughts on Free Labour in the Arts (11 Mar 2021)
  4. January of Discontent: Wawasan 2020: Townhall and May We… @ Tun Perak Co-op (3 Mar 2021)
  5. Yes, you’re alone! Now what? (24 Feb 2021)
  6. How to leave town in a diseased world: Ise at A+ Works of Art (Part II) (17 Feb 2021)
  7. Alone in Bangkok: Ise at A+ Works of Art (Part I) (2 Feb 2021)
  8. Fadilah Karim’s Endless Decade (25 Jan 2021)
  9. Inside the Ellen Lee Collection (18 Jan 2021)
  10. Tale of Two Tomi’s (11 Jan 2021)
  11. The Theological Thorniness of Instant Café Theatre’s CMCO Nadirah (22 Dec 2020)
  12. Izat Arif vs. the art world (14 Dec 2020)
  13. Curatorial meanderings in Fergana Art’s Se{SUMPAH} (7 Dec 2020)
  14. Look East Gone West: Ho Rui An @ A+ Works of Art (23 Nov 2020)
  15. Reminders of death in Dhavinder Singh’s Tagistan (11 Nov 2020)

Artists mentioned: Dhavinder Singh, Ho Rui An, Syafiq Mohd Nor, Leon Leong, Azam Aris,  Jehabdulloh Jehsorhoh, Korakot Sangnoy, Che Ahmad Azhar, Izat Arif, Tomi Heri, Alvin Lau, Mark Morris, Jerome Kugan, Hoo Fan Chon, Chye Pui Mun, Fadilah Karim, Roslisham Ismail a.k.a. Ise, ANJU, Adam Ummar, Kara Yong, CC Kua, Liflatul Muhtaroom, Kentaro Yokouchi, Jun Kitazawa, Andita Purnama Sari Putri, Shamin Sahrum, Ali Alasri, Paul Nickson, Sharon Chin, Lith Ng, Lostgens’ Collective, Wong Hoy Cheong

Musicians mentioned: Rapkot (producer), Imaniac (rapper)

Spaces mentioned: Annexe @ The Zhongshan Building, The Back Room KL @ The Zhongshan Building, White Box & Black Box MAPKL @ Publika, A+ Works of Art, Tun Perak Co-op

Strange Days, 1995–2021

Strange days have found us…

Mark Fisher-pilled

In the short span of just two decades, we survived the Y2K apocalypse only to face another apocalyptic year that draws to a close, but this time without the delirious end-of-the-world partying. When 1999 bloomed into 2000, I was just 4 years old. I have no memories of it at all. What I won’t ever forget, however, is standing on a rooftop at midnight on the 1st of January, 2021, and hearing total silence except for a bunch of people yelling, “Where’s the fireworks?!” Finally, at around 5 past midnight, one or two illegal, desperate fireworks burst up at some nearby street before quickly crackling out as we ushered in December 32nd, 2020.

I was pretty depressed that night. After midnight, I walked around with a beer in my hand and a deep scowl on my face. I’ll never forget it. You can cynically tell me that New Year’s Day doesn’t mean anything, that nothing ever changes and everyone always forgets their resolutions and optimism within the first week, but I’ll still remain a savage caveman: I need this ritual in order to confirm that time is actually passing. After a year that began with Vision 2020 being deferred and proceeded in the fashion of other such non-events — including COVID-induced cancellations, but also the struggle over COVID-19 itself, which some claim is an unprecedented, life-changing Event, but which others claim is no worse than the common flu — after a year of non-events, the failure of New Year’s Day 2021 to arrive seemed to confirm what many experts had warned us at the beginning of the pandemic, which is that this stasis could last indefinitely. That time had stopped, indefinitely.

Now approaching midnight…

A conversation in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot:

ESTRAGON: I can’t go on like this.

VLADIMIR: That’s what you think.

Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will? Or pessimism of both?

But history didn’t end on December 31st, 2020, did it? What cultural theorist Mark Fisher termed “the slow cancellation of the future” is a process that begun years before I was even born. So when exactly did history end? If you follow Francis Fukuyama’s theory, you might say that history ended the moment the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, proving the eventual default to capitalist liberal democracy. When communism no longer existed as a viable alternative, when the remaining communist states started to seem repressive and backwards, and “capitalist realism” (a term Fisher coined) became the dominant reality principle.

According to Mark Fisher, history ended around 1985, when the Miner’s Strike in England was crushed by Margaret Thatcher’s government. It was the end of a certain era of revolutionary hope for the future and the beginning of neoliberalism’s dominance, with its tentacular grip that squeezed meaning out of everything, leaving the world full of hollow objects and figures who continued to ape their symbolic purpose in deference to a simulation of reality, but whose purpose was ultimately void. Reality became “reality”. Prime Ministers and politicians became public relations managers. Fisher’s entire oeuvre can be characterised by this sense of melancholia over a future that never arrived, a melancholia that’s not to be mistaken with nostalgia for a time passed, although the objects that precipitate this melancholia are the relics of a cultural past. Nowadays, everything in culture is pretty much recycled, and the nostalgia mode is the dominant influence of cultural production under capitalist realism. Nobody really seems to remember much of anything nor be capable of attaching a sense of time to any cultural artefact, and the styles in fashion, music, and art that initially burst into the scene in the 60’s, 70’s, 80’s, 90’s often re-appear as novelties in present-day culture, and nobody knows any better to say, “Hey, hasn’t this all been done before?” And to rub salt in the centuries-old wound, we are constantly sold the idea that we live in the most technologically-advanced society in all of human history, and yet 21st-century “technological progress” no longer makes the revolutions in culture or communications that it once did. Sure, some new Emojis are added every now and then.

So did the world really end at midnight on the first of January, 2021, or have we been in a prolonged state of melancholia over something that died a long time ago? Are we the last man of history standing right at the precipice, or have we long reverted to something ancient and savage within ourselves, huddled among the trash heap fires of a purgatorial dead world, simulating the motions and emotions of everyday life as a way of clinging on to them, though they have long lost their meaning? (And yes, it is either one or the other. There is no third option where I still see myself only at the beginning of a wide expanse of future. None. But I welcome any attempts to try and convince me otherwise.)

What happened when the fireworks of the future failed to arrive that night was a disappointment personal to me, as someone born in 1996. Maybe for many people, the world ended a long time ago. Maybe for some, they can’t tell that the world has ended, because they’re still high on an inexhaustible but exhausting supply of past-culture being re-sold to them as a contemporary identity or ‘alternative’ sub-culture. On that night, it really dawned on me how tired I was of being cynical, how tired I was of indecision and distrust — you know, contrary to my dreariness, I actually WANT to trust people, I actually WANT to be ambitious and hopeful for something, I actually DO respect the ideas of government and mass media in theory, and I wish I could trust them in practice to lead me — on that night, it dawned on me how badly I had wanted some symbolic rupture with a year full of stasis and discomfort, so that I could start hoping again for the future. Now I write at the end of the end, in the final days of January 2021, and things have mostly gotten worse (if you measure better/worse by the metric of how many new COVID cases there are every day), so.

Strange Days

In director Kathryn Bigelow’s and writer-director James Cameron’s 1995 vision for the end of the world (projected into the then-future of the last days of December 1999), Los Angeles is a paranoiac police state filled with decadent street revelry and violence, soundtracked by a strange mix of gangster rap for the homies and Hole-esque grunge for the ladies. Note that a police state doesn’t entail Orwellian totalitarianism like you’d expect, but is rather continuous with a hyper-stimulated decadence that doesn’t give a shit if anyone lives or dies — in fact, they’ll pay to have the death caught on tape.

The film revolves around Lenny Nero (Ralph Fiennes), a disgraced and dishevelled neo-noir Neo(as in Keanu)-inspired but more Deckard-looking disc-jockey-cowboy who trades in the black market for simstim discs that simulate the perverse desires of their buyers. But this is no AR shit. Real-life actors, usually prostitutes or assassins, are paid to act out these desires and record their sensations via a device worn on the head, like a metal skullcap, that jacks into their cerebral cortex. (The movie’s slang for simstim addicts is “wire heads”.) Most of it is porn, but you can occasionally find snuff films caught from first-person-shooter POV. The movie follows two parallel murder mystery plotlines. The first mystery is to identify an actor in a snuff film before he kills his next target, and the second mystery is the murder of a high-profile gangster rapper who was a revolutionary voice unifying black Americans. (The film eerily presaged Tupac Shakur’s murder by a year.)

One murder leads to the other, but though the killers are not the same, both murders are a feature, not a bug, of a decadent society. Los Angeles at the turn of the millennium is a Bacchanalian free-for-all so far beyond any stable point of reality or morality that it’s more like a collection of individuals rather than a functioning society. It’s a 90s movie that’s really a post-60s movie. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like, ever since the 60s ended, American culture and politics has subsequently just been an attempt at dealing with the fallout of the unleashing (others might say “liberation”) of the individual self, and all its attendant emotions, in the hysterical and militant 60s.

In Strange Days, the streets are a war zone littered with an ethnically-diverse cast of human trash. The war is raging between blacks and whites, between the rich and the poor, between the police and everyone else. The 60s promised a freedom, if not racial- or class-based, then at least the personal liberation of the mind and the soul. And look what that freedom has begotten: a city of “liberated” whores, “liberated” pimps, “liberated” gang-bangers and thugs, “liberated” swindlers, and an even more repressive police force that’s certainly at liberty to do anything they want to a population that mirrors back their Bacchanalian violence. No one in the movie has a “real job” except for Lornette “Mace” Mason (Angela Bassett), one of Lenny’s only friends in the world. It’s every man for his own free self out there.

This decadence is also what allows for the film’s intoxicating delirium. The plot, while certainly captivating enough, can be boiled down to the typical, Dostoyevskian elements common to noir (disgraced cowboy/ex-cop/scumbag with a good heart tries to save an angelic prostitute who represents his salvation from the silt of society), so it’s not just about the story. It’s about the atmosphere, the sense of garbage time, the vertiginous first-person perspective shots that are almost nauseating in the jerkiness of their movements, the amphetamine rush of numerous well-paced, high-impact action and chase scene that don’t hold back on gratuitous collateral violence (thus making the chaos more palpable, instead of the usual stuff where just a few people fall over). The citizens of this city may not act like a society, but they’re perfectly capable of acting as a crowd, as a fizzing, undulating force whose general amphetamine rush could easily go off the edge into paranoia and violence at any moment given the trigger. The streets are the over-ground, and then there is the Bacchanalian underground, which looks like the backstage of the world’s theatre: everyone in costumes, from punk/grunge to BDSM leathers to rainbow-haired drag to lolita babydolls to eyeliner’d gothick boys to lioness strongwomen to sleek, un-charmable, black militants: a nation spazzing out on the question of individual identity, where it’s just so easy to be whoever the fuck you want to be. Limousines roll through streets alongside military tanks and drivers apathetically flash their licence at numerous police roadblocks before rolling up at the underground sex-dungeon-rave-club. Only in a decadent society — a society that has lost all conception of a common social good — can these extremes of fascism and permissiveness exist side by side without contradicting each other. Here, on the streets of Los Angeles on the cusp of the millennium, the police state doesn’t mean repression in a totalitarian way, but repression in a sexy way — they’re the sadistic daddies that add an edge to the whole thing and justifies its nihilistic thrill.

31 December 1999. It’s not the end of the world. This isn’t an apocalypse movie. Everyone knows that time will continue, except nothing will change. So we might as well act and celebrate as if it’s the end of the world, because reality was shot dead in its sleep a long time ago, and time, just like happiness and morality and race and the government, is just another societal construct.

In the last days of the millennium, the only place where a form of society (which I’ll loosely define as a collection of people who intuitively understand the imperative of sacrificing individual pleasure and gain for the benefit of the larger community) can be said to still exist is in Mace’s world, amongst the persecuted black community. In Lenny’s world, he’s totally alone; even the side characters he’s friendly with all have a transactional and transient feel to the relationship. His only real, lasting friend who sticks with him even at cost to her own self is Mace, who has the austere beauty of a Nefertiti, a high-principled Apollonian queen surveying a nation of savages.[1]

Karmacoma

Plot spoilers ahead, but as I already said above, this is a movie to be watched less for plot and more for the atmosphere of “fin-de-millennium” decadence (to borrow a portmanteau from film critic Nick Pinkerton’s review of the movie).

The Rahab figure who needs saving is a prostitute-turned-rockstar called Faith (Juliette Lewis) who, despite her musical success, remains in the grips of her noided wire-head music agent, Philo Gant (Michael Wincott). Faith and Lenny have a history, and saving her becomes Lenny’s only guiding purpose in the ruins of his life, until his friendship with Mace enters a deeper level of intimacy. The movie ends with Faith being saved, but also conveniently pushed out of the picture.

Given where she ends up by the time the credits roll, she won’t be a trouble to Lenny anymore. Out of sight, out of mind. She was a promising young star and, in the light of Lenny’s graces, she was a free person. But ultimately, she and her friend Iris fail to rise above their status as common whores, the redeeming angels who cannot find redemption for themselves. The character of Mace is written as an alternative, tough-love saviour-angel, and it would be nearly unconscionable, against the background tumult of police brutality, for the audience to root for Faith, who starts seeming more and more like an opportunistic slut, over Mace. This even though there’s little to no chemistry between Mace and Lenny until New Year’s Eve, when she emerges in a glittery party dress that causes him to do a double-take, a plot device typical to corny romcoms that’s unnaturally transplanted into this cutting-edge noir thriller.

The prostitute is a central figure in cyberpunk fiction, acting as a female mirror to the noir cowboy. In her own way, she’s also an underground hustler, using her body and her charm (instead of geeky wires and machinery) to seduce her way into getting more information, or drugs, or tech. Sometimes she gets roughed up in the process too, just like her male counterpart. Mace is no cyberpunk figure. She’s fortified both physically and mentally, with a solid grounding in reality and a pair of arms like sexy boulders; she’s deeply bonded to her immediate and extended family; and she refuses to even try using “wires” (in the movie there’s a distinct but unspoken racialisation of this simstim technology — only the white people seem to be users). She’s the much-needed reality principle beyond the convoluted games of the cyberpunk underground; she’s not a gambler, she makes honest money, and therefore feels no compulsion to entertain, let alone participate in, the mindfuck-y networks of treachery and delusions that noir is built on, and which make it great as a genre. Cyberpunk’s “high tech, low life” vision of a future is one where lowlifes can flourish, but this does not make it a vision of equality. The institutional hierarchies remain, it’s just that there’s more opportunities to game them via modern tech.

The cyberpunk future is a decadent one. It’s not a vision of structured equality, but of total anarchy, in all its bacchanalian brutalism. After all, cyberpunk as a genre arose alongside visions of cosmopolitan disasterism, and the increasingly tight squeeze of the de-centralised market in the grips of vague, multinational corporate monopolies. Cyberpunk is a vision of moving harder, faster, and more unintelligibly than the market does; an underworld utopia where the individual identity can be preserved instead of succumbing to the anonymous brainwashed masses. In essence, cyberpunk is little more than a glorified criminal lifestyle, a techno-Ubermensch vision for those who have no past, no future, and no problems.

I love cyberpunk, and I maintain that the cyberpunk figure of Faith was got rid off way too conveniently (a writerly shortcoming that hurts both her character and Mace, who seems unconvincing in comparison), but I understand Bigelow’s bigger hand as director: the 60s/90s have to end sometime. The era needs to close, so that time can start moving forward again, instead of being trapped in a slum spiral regurgitating its own waste from bygone eras.

In 2021, I want time to finally start moving forward for us, too. At least in Strange Days they got fireworks.

Postscript


Depending on how you look at it, hopelessness can also spring eternal. In a COVID world, we envision the future as a return to the past: instead of moving forward, we long for things to return to the way they were before masks, social distancing, lockdowns, and this weird evil invisible thing in the air. Time becomes a production line of progressive worsenings, so that each new event makes us long for a lesser evil. Hindsight makes a lot of things seem better than we remember. So, in a way, the absence of fireworks was a true reflection of reality, a denial of denial. To have ended 2020 with fireworks would have just been a placating lie. Now that I know there’s no future, I can plan for the future. Now that I know I won’t have years to get it right, I can start getting right now. This is perhaps the real liberation for the millennium mind, what Jacques Lacan (h/t Slavoj Žižek) called jouissance.


[1] My ideas of the Apollonian and the Dionysian (or Bacchanalian) are drawn from Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson by Camille Paglia, a titan in cultural theory.