Selected Ambient Work #4: Out of office

Trying to be a good sport in Penang and dutifully check out all the things that people tell me i should check out, but failing, because i am just such an incorrigible city girl that if there isn’t a 7-11 or Starbucks within arm’s reach i start to feel a little unmoored.

Whenever you tell your friends you’re going to Penang, they start telling you all the things you should do (most of those things not being things that you can’t do in KL anyway, in some variation or another), they gush over how charming it is and ask you to pass their regards to x and y and z. After two years of being KL-locked, I had forgotten how much pressure there is in travelling. On a two-night solo trip out to Penang, I rediscovered the unique pains of being an out-of-towner and “away from keyboard” all over again. It’s as if work is so important that people want to know that, if you’re taking time off it, then you’re really living your life to the max–that being the only viable excuse for taking leave.

When you’re in George Town, it’s frowned upon (among my hipster friends, at least) to book the five-star hotel, so I dutifully book the boutique hotel. May god forgive me, but I felt a pang of regret the instant the booking went through – why did I listen to my hipster friends? Deep down, what my soul really ever longs for is the carpeted hallways, the air cons going at full blast, the white towels, white bathrobes, white sheets, the heavy glass bathroom doors, and the concierge in uniform. It’s as if by going for the boutique experience I was already giving in to the pressures of ‘making the most of my time’ by discovering ‘hidden gems’ in Penang. Perhaps in rebellion to this initial failure, I then declined to book a flight into Penang, against my friends’ advice, choosing instead to travel by bus. My friends think I’m ridiculous (and poor), they say that by flying you can reach the island in an hour, whereas a bus ride wastes 5 hours of a day. But what they don’t understand is that a holiday, for me, is the luxury of wasting time. Luxury comes, sometimes, in the form of physical extravagance — the five-star chain hotels — and sometimes it comes in the form of the low-class and meandering, such as by taking a bus instead of flying. Once, I was in an artist crit session where the artist kept talking about how he tries to “optimise” his working process as much as possible, and I felt so revulsed.

My first night here, I panic about what to eat. I’m wandering around, I walk out to the Esplanade and I see many Malay families loitering around and being lackadaisical near rubbish. I see a newly-wedded couple and their entourage traipsing around the Whiteaways Arcade and taking wedding photos. Teenagers zoom by me on beam electric scooters. I go out to the edge, where there’s a Malay food court overlooking the sea, and where P and I once had a nice afternoon sharing beer on the seawall. The part overlooking the sea is boarded up now. It was bad enough before when there was just trash everywhere, and young children playing around in it, but at least you had the redeeming view of the sea. Now children play in a playground against a backdrop of blue hoarding. I walk out, out, out, getting in a weird funk whenever I have to navigate the crossing of traffic.

I reach a little enclave down a dead-end road where there are motorcycles parked. It’s the continuation of the sea wall, a little part of it that hasn’t been boarded up yet. The ground has sparse patches of grass, like the spiky sweaty short hair of a Chinese boy. Young Malay and Indian families are sitting on the few metres of wall. I’ve been the only Chinese person I’ve seen for a few minutes now, walking from the Esplanade over to here. Down below are craggy rocks with rubbish all in their crevices. Some fishermen are out there, casting sad lines into the shallow waters. Crows hop from rock to rock. I lift myself up on the sea wall, feeling weird, and a lizard starts crawling towards me except it’s not like a typical lizard you’d find at home — its back has a dark petroleum sheen and it is totally, utterly smooth. It’s like a cross between a worm and a lizard. I smoke until I’m lightheaded and the rocks below look a bit too possible.

For dinner, I think, OK, fine, I’ll take up a recommendation so that I can honestly tell my friends that I did at least one thing they told me to do. A friend recommended a Nyonya restaurant, saying the food there is “bombbbbbbbb”. It’s clearly a restaurant meant for families only, and all the tables there seat a minimum of 4 people. I order fried rice and, feeling bad for only ordering a single dish, a petai omelette. The omelette is extremely fragrant and the fried rice very good, the petai is spicy and offensive, just the way I like it, but everything is entirely too much, and I have nowhere to plant my eyes while I eat. All I do is eat, eat, and keep eating. It’s like that Method Man song. (Yeah, torture, motherfucker, what? I’ll fuckin’, I’ll fuckin’, sew your asshole closed, and keep feedin’ you, and feedin’ you, and feedin’ you, and feedin’ you.) They have seated me next to the toilet. The family at the next table over is eyeing me and probably wondering about me, and one of the women there is missing an arm. Imagine how I must have looked, struggling to finish my family-sized dinner, for a woman with one arm to pity me.

The next morning, while having breakfast, two coloured-hair Zoomers (the only other guests I’ve seen in this boutique hotel) walk by the breakfast window and wave goodbye. I feel lost. The night before, I went out on a walk around the neighbourhood to shed some of the fullness from my stomach, but I kept spiralling and I couldn’t find my hotel. It was only after walking up and down the same street with an illegal bar and Indian men of all ages smoking and drinking on the sidewalk outside five times that I realised I had to turn a corner. For dinner that night, in order to avoid a repetition of the night before’s fiasco (of putting myself in an awkward situation where I eat too much, and of not being able to recognise the streets at night) I just bought some nasi kandar takeaway and ate it back in my hotel room, OG style with my hand — because they didn’t provide cutlery.

Passing through the streets in a Grab, I see things. The motorcycles swerve by a little too close. On two separate occasions, I pass by people performing prayers and burning offerings out on the street. I see heads in windows, bent over work. I see a lot of weathered people, people on bicycles and people wearing old polo t-shirts and threadbare cargo shorts. Despite all my initial reservations, there is most definitely a charm to this island life that can’t be found in Kuala Lumpur. There is sincerity and directness in the way people go about things here. It doesn’t seem like there’s much regret to be found around here; each day comes to an end and then the next one begins again. The streets are quiet after dark, but without the apparent threat of danger. I think it could be easy to find meaning and structure here, but it also seems just as easy to start spiralling.

I try to be a Zoomer. At a cafe within a warehouse, with gravel on the floor and plants growing to the ceiling, I’m getting the full Zoomer experience, I’m being served bright dishes by people who look younger than me. My French toast comes garnished with flower petals. I can’t help comparing my servers to my barista back home, who has a beard and thick dark glasses, and not the cheap wiry metal K-pop-inspired ones that these guys have, nor their soft brown highlights. Every single person working here (and some of the diners) is wearing Converse.

There are two guys sitting at different tables who look like twins. Both wear the wiry circular glasses, both have half their heads bleached silver. Both are wearing generic graphic t-shirts and pastel shorts. What I like about this place is that they give me water with the table service, but the glass they give me for the water is as small as (and perhaps is) a shot glass.

Selective rust, IKEA stools (pale pine and white), random plants that keep dying, and exposed ceilings. Cement. Don’t get me wrong: for all the disdain in my tone, I actually like this place. My elaborate french toast is good, and so is the coffee. Such cafes are invariably a part of the Zoomer experience, the Zoomer architecture. They are places where you can go, alone or with a friend, to have something in one hand that you can keep sipping on while you scroll your phone in the other. Such places invite you to take pictures and talk about mindless nonsense or to click away on your laptop feeling a little productive. At the family-style restaurant of two nights back, I wouldn’t have dared to bring out my laptop, even if I had had it on me. There, the son was waiting tables and his mother was doing accounts at an unoccupied table.

I feel very at home in places like this cafe. Their toilets are clean, but because of the current mood, I feel like I can only allow myself to enjoy these things at an ironic distance. But the truth is that I like this setting, I like all the tropes that are familiar to my age, I like the bleached highlights and the scuffed-up Chucks, I like my iced coffee and I like the caramel syrup on the french toast, I like that everyone is so busy on their own phones to pay any attention to me alone on mine. I like these places to disappear and zone out in public.

Even though I am not staying at the chain hotel nor having coffee in the Starbucks, the spectres of these institutions are deeply felt within the contemporary architecture of George Town. The boutique hotel still has room cleaning service, hot water, and a rule against smoking indoors; the cafe still has its Instagrammable elements. They are the same things updated for the local context. A certain degree of old-world charm is good for the soul because it reminds you that things haven’t always been this way, that the possibility exists for the present moment to be radically different from what it is. But sometimes I just want to go somewhere and let the overwhelming and unstoppable (and therefore comforting) tide of globalisation (the IKEA-Instagram complex) consume me, unburden me of the pressures of discovery.

Blogging with two balls

White Pube-ism

I used to be an angry kid, I used to think I could take on the whole world, I used to think I wanted to. I used to feel so resentful. I used to get so upset when people glanced past me, people who didn’t bother to get to know me. I used to get so upset, I used to feel so uncomfortable. I used to want to show them all. I used to resent people who had money and flaunted it, I used to resent collectors, I used to resent money in itself, I used to feel so fragile and I used to be amped up with some weirdo adrenaline of juggling both a superiority and an inferiority complex at the same time. I used to angrily question the whole thing and it used to all feel so empty to me, so superficial, so confusing and alienating.

There is this particular kind of institutional critique popularised by art world-adjacent early Zoomers/late millennials like The White Pube in particular, and art world meme pages like Jerry Gogosian and Freeze Magazine. We can probably also throw Diet Prada’s vibe into the mix. The White Pube is Gabrielle de la Puente and Zarina Muhammad, a pair of critics from Liverpool and London respectively, who began The White Pube website with the intention of posting reviews and criticism of exhibitions around the UK, but have since branched out to also cover movies, tv shows, video games, and more. They are also internationally renowned, having been invited to speak and conduct art criticism workshops at different institutions all around the world. Their art criticism (on both their website and their Instagram) tends to have this devil-may-care attitude to it that’s very infectious.

The White Pube are also known for name-tagging all the artists, galleries, curators, and spaces whose exhibitions or works they review. They take pride in having built up their platform and following through sheer verve, hard work, and directed name-tagging, without having ever resorted to spammy hashtags. There is something I can respect in that.

The flippant, jokey tone adopted by The White Pube and their imitators (the lingua franca of memes and onlineness) allows the critic to sidestep the responsibility that comes with being taken seriously, yet by mere virtue of critiquing (as opposed to just being silent or giving a false opinion), they are demanding to be taken seriously. This style of call-out critique follows a Marxist tendency to view society—in this case, the microcosm of a locale’s “art world”—as divided up and categorised into roles and jobs, which are extrapolated into “classes”. It makes assumptions of the bank accounts and spending power of random figures (how rich and powerful they are) based off first impressions and gossip. They confuse job positions for financial power, assuming that anyone in a high-ranking position necessarily has easy access to money or, conversely, that an intern or other low-ranking position is necessarily subordinate and therefore oppressed. They also don’t seem very inclined to see themselves as ACTIVE players capable of developing their own INFLUENCE within their particular group / microcosm. It’s difficult for them to conceive of manifesting power for their own self. In short, they are bitter.

The White Pube style of criticism is perhaps easily imitable, but difficult to do well. It’s easy to copy because anyone “in the scene” with an ounce of bitterness within them towards “the scene” can believe that their bitterness is justified, that simply feeling oppressed is proof enough of material oppression. Once you already believe this, all you need to do is make a post that’s as funny and simple-minded as a fart joke, tag the artist/gallery/curator you’re talking about, and wait back as (you hope) people applaud you for your ballsiness, for using your personal page to express ~what everyone is thinking but nobody is saying~

Now here’s the thing. The White Pube has been hugely influential on my own earliest “art writing” and the way I understand my own position within my local art scene. Both of them were and still are good critics and good writers generally. (Caveat: I haven’t been following their reviews for over a year now.) In many of my past writings, I still thought that, in order to really stand out, I had to go straight for the jugular and pull it all off in a funny, arrogant, Kanye at the VMAs manner. But this is not what The White Pube do, or perhaps it’s what they sometimes did but have matured from. Not everyone who attempts to make art world jokes are always able to pull it off with the same grace.  The White Pube writes even-minded, critical and thoughtful reviews. Some people, some imitators, like my earlier self, think that all it takes is the attitude, as if being ballsy and chaotic enough to say the first thought in your brain is a virtue in and of itself. 

Jasper Johns, Painting with Two Balls (1960).

The people who ride on the coattails of Instagram meme page White Pube-style criticism underestimate their own existence in the world; they minimise their own selves without anyone forcing them to. I used to be so bitter when I first started out, but what I think now is this: the things you say and do and put out into the world still exist, they still take place, no matter how small you think you are. No matter how much the writers of The White Pube may underestimate their own positions within the UK art world, they still wield massive influence. And even if they were smaller — even if they were, say, individuals simply posting rants and tedious self-made memes, for example, on their own Instagram stories, as a hypothetical1 — they’re still emitting energies and thoughts out into the world. They are engaging with society’s fabric.

And I find it preposterous that I even need to say the following because it’s so obvious, but here goes: the contexts of The White Pube (based in an art world capital of a first world country that up until the last century was a global empire) and some struggling art non-scene in a backwater third-world country like Malaysia are totally, totally, utterly different.

(Bitch, what are you even talking about — elitism and wealth in the Malaysian art world?

Have you even seen any of our collectors lately? I say this with much affection but, they’re all just a bunch of old dudes who would rather be farmers or gardeners instead!

These are the people you’re so scared of???? These are the people whose condescension (most likely just a case of old age and blur-ness) has wounded you so deeply?????? Like… just leave the conversation then??? Like??)

I find that my perspective on things shifts the longer I work in the scene. Just like how this no-holds-barred supreme bitch attitude felt like it could propel me through anything when I was younger (I had no other spiritual brick to anchor me then), I’ve arrived at a rather consoling realisation that an attitude of confidence can also guide you through anything. The older I get, the more layers of not-giving-a-fuck I unlock, and it feels beatific, zen-like. 

I don’t resent money anymore because I started making more of it. It’s the typical story, but typical only because it happens to more people than you might think. And I may continue to be in subordinate positions, but I respect self-respect and self-starters. I no longer care how much an artwork is, and I no longer care who buys it except in a very superficial sense in how it relates to my job, I hardly care either about the particulars of which artist, gallery, or collector has started venturing into NFTs, and I no longer care about being looked down upon, because if someone ignores me then that’s just another tedious conversation avoided. 

I enjoy working. I like to labour. There is a meme widely shared on Verso-adjacent Marxist meme pages that goes, “I do not have a dream job. I do not dream of labour.” But actually, I do. Against the expectations of many of my generation and against my younger self, I do Dream of Labour. Service gives me a strong sense of purpose and the satisfaction of new, previously unknown levels of self-sacrifice. I still find getting older a little scary, but the fear is moderated by the exhilaration of shedding off so much more nervous angst and discovering newer ways that I can be useful and transcendent to other people. At the risk of sounding like a total retard, there’s a scene in the third episode of jeen-yuhs, the Kanye West documentary, where Kanye expresses his desire to make things ‘for the masses’. He says, and I rewound the documentary just to find this, 

“I’m definitely straight, I’m straighter than straight. I’m good, like I’ve lived a thousand lifetimes, you know? I wanna make sure that everybody is straight. I’m not gonna be completely happy and completely satisfied until the world is completely satisfied. […] How can we take this and give this to the masses? If everyone is focused on helping everyone, everybody’s gonna be in a better position.”

Celebrities and artists always make empty talk about doing things “for the people”, but when Ye says it I believe deeply and truly in the sentiment. I contain and am emissary for this new desire to serve others, in practical terms, but also in personal, symbolic ones. I want to be the best version of myself that I can be, for other people: collective transcendence through personal struggle with one’s self. I’m talking in tongues, but I believe in it. 

What I would like to ask people who are so angry at the art world — to whom, even, the concept of an “art world” appears to mean so much to the point of oppression — is this: have you ever tried not caring?

By quite simply not caring, you can make just about anything disappear. It sounds caustic but it’s true. I used to care so much, but when I realised that I could simply just not care about the things I used to get so worked up over, then many of these things simply ceased to exist in my universe. It’s an elite level of manifestation and personal world-building.

Finally, I believe that The White Pube model of critique doesn’t work in Malaysia because we barely have an art scene or art market to begin with. I’m sorry, but many of the things that happen in the local art world are just too insignificant to merit any comment, let alone criticism. Most of the time, the people who are angriest and most bitter over collectors and “scene politics” come from money themselves, and they resent the fact that their gilded education and bank accounts haven’t been able to get them anywhere they can be proud of. Based on the little they share about their personal lives, the writers of The White Pube both seem to be working-class people operating in a ruthless, impenetrable, high-level art industry of a world capital. I (sometimes) get why they might be angry, but I don’t get why anyone would be angry in Malaysia. I understand TWP when they express their desire to see more artists being taken seriously and not having to prostrate themselves to inane open calls and whack-ass behaviour from curators and gallerists. But when it comes to Malaysia, the cold hard fact is that there’s no money in the art world. Most people survive on grants, external funding, and The Bank of Mommy and Daddy. The coldness of this fact reduces money’s lustre in the art world; flaunting money fails to be impressive, and the people who do it are pitiable but not worthy of the effort of hatred. No matter how much wealth you have, it’s not enough to really get you out of these backwaters, because willpower is often as important a factor in that regard as money. Many of our local collectors are stuck in the cul-de-sac of buying the same things and the same artists over and over again, so you shouldn’t be mad at them for they know not what they do. There is only so far that you can go in the Malaysian art world, and only so much money, so it’s inane to apply White Pube models of critique to anything that happens in this sweaty little struggling scene.

I continue to work in the art world because the professional relationships are good and relaxed. I love artists with all of my all of my allllll of my heart. There are some good works being made, some wild dreams being dreamt, though I rest uneasily wondering if they’ll go anywhere — not through the fault of the artists, but the limits of our context. I also find many of the people I meet to be charming and charismatic, on top of being creative. The professional relationships I’ve developed over time have given me strong proof that such things as charm and charisma do exist, they do work, and they fill me with more joy than money. 

By fixing your attitude, you really, truly can get the recognition and respect that you’re making yourself so miserable with wanting.

And on that note, following on from charm and charisma, the final, final thing I want to say about the White Pube/Instagram meme model of critique is: it only works if you’re actually funny

You may think having the balls to call someone out by name on Instagram is funny in itself, but it’s not. With a little less than all the due respect, you are just not a funny person. I be cringing, bro. 

1you know who you are.