In which I can’t figure out whether I’m a conformist or a contrarian.
2 months into Malaysia’s third movement control order. All economic sectors are (allegedly) closed except for essential services.
I turn 25 this year. Since the announcement of this third iteration of a full MCO, I have, for some reason, just conformed and followed all of the government-issued directives not to leave my house except for essential matters. I’m so busy with work – it would be more accurate to call them “tasks” – that I’ve just lost the will. Most days, I feel bewildered and confused and tired.
I’ve not really been in physical contact with anyone for months now. I’ve been trying to figure out why it is that I’m so willingly conformist, maybe it has something to do with my childhood. I think that I’m still a child, and I’m scared that with this lockdown in place I’ll never grow up. Something about the atmosphere is weighing me down, telling me it’s not the time. Something about the world outside seems bizarre, freakish, and out-of-bounds; it seems stranger than what I thought I knew.
I’m not used to rebelling, and I don’t know how to do what’s right or how to act in a crisis. I’m scared of Twitter and scared of the news. Each new piece of information does not seem to make sense with the existing pieces; I have no idea what’s going on. These days it feels wholly possible for people to just drop dead. There’s a sense that time has run out. Somehow, I’m still alive.
Am I the only one who feels embarrassed to be working during this time? Whenever people ask me whether I’ve been busy I say yes in a vague way, I tell them I’ve been “getting jobs”, but that could mean anything. My approximate schedule these days, for anyone who’s been trying to reach me:
- Wake at 12pm
- Get out of bed by 2pm
- Fix lunch by 2.30–3pm
- Idle from 3–6pm
- Have dinner at 6pm
- Idle at 7pm
- Work from 8pm to 3am–4am
- And then I sleep.
I don’t like people knowing when I’m working or what I’m working on because I’m embarrassed by all of it. I’d rather they think I don’t work than know what I’m working on. What is it that I do? Well, most days I struggle with myself, I berate myself, I push things too close and I miss deadlines, miserably, pathetically, childishly. On Instagram, I only post about movies I’ve been watching. I’d rather let people think I’m caught in some state of suspended childhood, whiling away my time watching movies, listening to music, and reading books, than for them to know that I’m actually trying to be an adult and trying to work. So, I tell people that I’m OK, just chilling at home. Why would I want to advertise how much I am struggling to grow up.
One thing that never fails to surprise me is how willing and polite most artists are when you ask them for an interview. The ones who are willing are always polite, and the ones who are unwilling just don’t reply to my email; nobody is ever mean or contemptuous. I have one of those temperaments that flinches in the face of friendliness, that always lives in anticipation of being shouted at and cussed out despite never, in fact, having been shouted at or cussed out in my life. Knock on wood. Most artists are so kind and gentle, they never want to do anything wrong by you, they treat each interview like it’s some big opportunity. Yeah, an opportunity for me to make some money. I always felt that interviewees should be paid, especially for pieces that are almost entirely dependent on them. But the people in art are so good-natured. They congratulate me, tell me that people like me are “necessary” in the art world. I flinch. “Necessary” is not a word I’d ever use to describe any piece of culture writing. What I do is an elaborate and subtle form of – more or less – lying.
Do I ever dare hope that they need me as much as I need them? Highly unlikely, but their compliments give me brief moments of gratification.
Art has taken a serious L this time round. I’m not sure whether it’ll recover. Everyone is just off doing separate things. Anyone writing about art during this time is just telling bold-faced lies.
The premier art institution in our country, ILHAM Gallery, launched an open call for their inaugural ILHAM Art Show 2022, a triennial open-call exhibition programme.
During the application period, I helped four different artists to prepare their artist statements. This made me feel like a sort of contributor for once, rather than a talentless leech on the art world. Of course, artist statements are mostly also a form of lying, but at least I’m servicing artists this time, and not using them to service a pay check for myself by writing some article that maybe 12 people read. Throughout this lockdown, I’ve been both anxious and relieved about the state of the art world – nobody has asked me to write any art-related reviews or articles for over a month now. Anxiety: Nobody in the art world wants to hire me anymore. Relief: Considering the (non-)state of art these days, I don’t want to write about art-related matters anyway. These four artist statements allowed me to feel some kind of relevance. Either the art scene is ending, or I am. Worse, both.
I find out through secondhand sources that a local artist who seems to be going thru it has started a new series of works in which he makes wojak memes out of local art world gossip. Coincidentally, I had just a few days ago noticed that this artist had unfollowed and removed me as a follower on Instagram. At the time I thought it was weird and I felt a stab of guilt at having potentially committed some unknown wrong against him, but in the end I figured that, whatever his reasons were, at least he had the decency to remove me as a follower too. It is surprisingly rare for people to display this kind of courtesy. After this new piece of information though, I’m thinking that maybe he’s going to make a meme about me, or about people close to me. This is somewhat titillating to think about, but I can’t know, since his profile is private. The plot thickens. I guess this is what idle people in lockdown occupy themselves with, him and me both. Then again, one of my favourite celebrities is Azealia Banks. It could be interesting to watch this play out.
There’s movement in the streets. For a long time now, discontent has been brewing. People are losing their jobs, small businesses are closing; there are maybe more fundraisers than operational businesses now. I can’t fathom how anyone is still alive and, of those alive, still working.
A young woman got put in police lock-up. For 5 hours. She posted a testimony about its traumatising effect on her. She was advocating for a mass gathering during a pandemic when new cases are nearing 20,000 per day and the Delta variant is rampant. The youth vanguard up and down the nation is making TikToks to recruit new cadres and explain why protesting now is good, actually. The young activist leader who got put in lock-up for inciting an illegal activity during a pandemic said that she was traumatised from spending 5 hours in lock-up. Said that the police made her strip down to her underwear…to change into their lock-up clothes.
Forget Netflix and chill, it’s time for TikTok and trauma. It’s not fair to compare, maybe. I can sympathise with her; the concept of the police just generally scares the shit out of me (look, artists already scare the shit out of me, and they’ve never even done anything). But I’m not a leader and I’m not telling anyone it’s their civic duty to do anything. I think I’m going to die alone and I’m trying very hard to live with the fact that I may never be more than a depressive, weak, lying loser. In some other parts of the world, in a different era, people trained their cadres to go on hunger strike, to take beatings to the face, and to withstand torture. In a different era, pity was not equivalent to respect; in fact, it was the complete antithesis of respect.
I’m sorry for her, sorry that she was launched into something she wasn’t prepared for. Sorry that everyone around her kept making her out to be something that she perhaps wasn’t able to be. Sorry that she wasn’t able to handle 5 hours, because she was raised and surrounded by people who operate on emotions like pity and anger, rather than cold nerve and respect.
It can be just as useful to assess what the police don’t do as it is to notice and pick apart everything they do. The fact that all this was allowed to proceed, the fact that the police stood silently by and followed basic procedures, the fact that they did not implicate themselves in any way at all is probably significant. The dialectical relationship between the police and civil disobedience – between the activists who need the police to ‘take the bait’ and react in order to justify their cause, and the police who need activists to wild out so they can depict them as troublemakers or snowflakes – is probably significant. For better or for worse; till death do us part.
If you want to silence a movement: let them do what they want, and ignore them. This is a proven parenting method that has led many children to grow up into troubled individuals.
The other day, in a casual Zoom call, I got carried away. Got heated up about something and felt this burning need to keep defending my position to the four other people there, who all could not find any sympathy with my position. I got carried away, I could feel my adrenaline pumping. Threw off the Zoom call’s entire vibe.
The problem with me is that I’m obsessed with words. I can’t go along with things if I don’t understand what someone is saying. And I can’t swallow contradictions, I can’t ‘go with the flow’, because I cannot feel the flow for all my brain is trying to process the words. Some people would say that some things don’t have to make sense, that regardless of all its internal issues, some things are absolutely good. That you should just support the movement anyway, because it is more conscionable than doing nothing.
In a time like this in Malaysia, where despair is rampant and cabin fever has reached itchy levels, people have started saying that it’s our civic duty to protest, and to donate money, and to get vaccinated, and to etc. etc. etc. Every act is charged with a political and moral weight. Among my friends, the people who signed up earliest for the Astra-Zeneca voluntary vaccination programme are the same ones who say the world is overpopulated and that they’d rather kill themselves than get old. Many of my younger friends cannot wait for the loosely-defined “boomer” demographic to die off.
There’s a difference, I think, between free thought and being a contrarian, but I’m unable to see it. For some reason, I enjoy pushing back against everything. When I’m the only one in a conversation persisting with an unpopular position, I feel my adrenaline rising. I have to keep pushing it until it makes sense to me. Maybe, when I was younger, my father entertained me for too long when I played the “But why?” game. Maybe that is Why.
They are thanking them for protesting, they are calling the protestors brave for taking on the risk of contracting Covid-19 in order to fight on behalf of the country. In a news reel I watched, the protestors mostly seemed lost. They peacefully sat in socially-distanced rows on the road by the Masjid Jamek train station, since the police had closed off Dataran Merdeka, where they were initially supposed to gather. People were turning their heads, looking around everywhere, photographing things. They had their funny placards. Cars passing through the road were made way for, and the protestors shouted at these cars as they passed. It seemed like everyone left when they said they would.
My friend who had been idling around the protest area texted me at the time, “I’m getting food and going back. Peaceful protest is for pussies. I’m going back to eat and nap and will wake up if I smell burning cars”
Maybe I am not alone? Will God grant my misery company?
A vow of silence doesn’t seem like such a bad idea, as far as ways to honour the moment go.
I’m a cruel person and I will die alone. Last year, after a very brutal takedown on my part, the same friend had told me, “It has been taking a toll on me to tell you how I feel since yesterday, and your message successfully killed any possibility for me to be able to look you in the face again. Thank you ellen.”
I feel very cold and detached sometimes. The videos and photos of the protest make me want to cry, in fact, for some inexplicable reason. I feel like things will never get better. I feel that I will never understand what people really want. I feel like I grow further and further each day from the people who could save me, and once this distance reaches a certain limit, they will simply stop caring. I always have the feeling that I’ve misplaced something, like I’m going through life forgetting to do something very important and urgent, but I can’t remember what it is.
It’s too late for anything, it’s always been too late.
Header image: Lynn Davis, Iceberg #23, Disko Bay, Greenland, 2000, gold-toned gelatin silver print