Selected Ambient Work #6: Soft

I’ve always been stuck in reveries. Often my actual life and my dreams meld together in one ambient landscape. I’ve always been a daydreamer, living as if every experience was a scene in a movie – not necessarily with me as the main character but, still, as if it were all a stage and I could take on roles at will. I’ve lately come to realise that dreams form the core of who I am. 

*** 

A few nights ago I was walking in the street alone at night. Not anywhere too far or for too long – just down the road to the 7-Eleven to buy cigarettes. I had this light, bouncy feeling as my paces picked up speed and the wind blew my hair back, like Shu Qi in Hsiao-Hsien Hou’s Millennium Mambo. There was something in the air, something light and thrilling, I felt like nothing mattered since i was here, taking big strides down a black street in the middle of an anonymous city, in full awareness that I will never be this young again. This was around 9pm and I knew there was a party going on somewhere. I thought about you, I hoped that you would come, just pop up out of the night and turn it all into magic. I never thought of myself as an optimistic person but I realised lately that I am; I’m always hoping, always dreaming, always anticipating delirious surprises just around the corner. I’m always sniffing out the night, waiting for magic to happen, waiting for romance to bloom, waiting and dreaming, walking down dark windy streets to the little 7-Eleven at the end hoping it’s a dim closet into Narnia, then having my bubble burst by the drowsy-looking, bad-tempered night cashier, but it doesn’t take much for me to get back in the mood again, and no it’s not drugs, it’s never drugs, I’m just simply high off my own youth fantasy… It’s dangerous, all my friends would be shocked if I told them, but don’t worry, I’m always aware of my surroundings at the back of my mind, but I’m a writer, so all of the elements of this scene just blur together into the story. The story and its telling always come first. 

*** 

Someone else, looking in on my life, might say that it’s extravagant and indulgent. Don’t worry Mr Hypothetical Third Person, because whatever you’re thinking about me is something I’ve thought about myself many, many, many times already. I always sink back in, because I’m a person of dreams, and alcohol is a way of bringing dreamtime down into real-time. When I’m sober, I feel awkward, guarded, sluggish, and everyone around me seems boring. When I’m three beers deep, the night starts to feel like a funny little strategy game, and I weave through people while sparring with my tongue, making pirouettes and backflips and other cool tricks with our shared banter. I feel like a magician, I feel so cool and funny and correct. The other night at a big art opening, I was talking with S and Z about the awkwardness of the entire affair — caterers kept butting into our conversations to tell us not to smoke — and they have a phrase for this social discomfort, they call it “not being in their bodies”. Z wonders at how I can do all this schmoozing and art-ing as my day job and then for my free time to consist of the same. When, he wondered, do I ever get time to be “in my body”? And I told them, I feel the most like myself when I can make people laugh. The answer surprised them so much that they just laughed in response and went, “Wow, huh, okay!” And I laughed too. It’s a corny answer, it’s the type of thing that you expect a stock character in a Disney or Marvel movie to say. But it’s true, and that’s really the thing about me, I love to make people laugh, I love to say things that surprise people, I love to dream and hope, and make everything as fantastical as possible.

At the right amount of alcohol, the world starts to feel like a dream where anything can happen. But of course this is not a practical state to be in all the time. The world still needs to be managed in the daytime, so that the nighttime’s alcohol reveries can be light and dreamy, rather than tormented and addictive. The Mr Hypothetical-Third-Person looking in might say that this is already the addiction talking but I think, like another famous alcoholic writer once said, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Too much of sobriety and control is also an addiction, a denial of the breadth of human experience. 

When I return back to reality (i.e., when I wake up the next day with my head throbbing), I begin the task of parsing through and analysing all the memories that gradually start to return with the day. The task is to sort out which part was a dream and which not. The days after the weekend are spent looking inward and catching up on emails from my internal administrator. My internal admin asks, was it him that told me he went to the same school as X, or was it the other guy that I met at the venue after that? And I search my memories for the answer. Wondering if I really did blow kisses at that person, or did I just think I did. Wondering, did I really ask someone to his face what his name was, even though I knew already? And what was that all about, what was I trying to say or prove with that? It’s like Freudian dream analysis, but on the plane of the real. I invite the memories back, I let them in while telling myself not to dwell on them too much. So this is my life, bouncing between dreams and reality, and trying to draw out meaning from the gaps between the two. Some people have much more normal hobbies I guess, they go hiking or furniture-shopping or they walk their dogs or cook dinner for people they love. Me, I pick apart my memories for everything beneath them, I play with memory’s shadow figures and direct them in the stage of my mind. I dream and create stories. In order to live. 

*** 

I feel like I know you now. I feel like the fantasy we had momentarily shared has been shattered (by my own hand, by a desire to take control over the shared fantasy). You’re not as free as I thought you were, you still hold strong to certain principles and responsibilities, and I respect you for that, for not getting distracted. I’m just a distraction, a wisp of cloud. I don’t think we can ever overcome this chasm that has opened up between us, but perhaps we can help and understand each other from a distance. it always hurts to be reminded of the distance between people, the awful fact of each person’s individuality, when you had thought there was none. People perceive me as someone who gets along with everyone, who always seems to be having a great time, who seems so chill and easy-going, who is always surrounded by friends who call out my name everywhere I go, I’m the girl who says she just wants to make people laugh, but i do have a core, a still centre, just like anyone else – I have a B-side, a verso, a locked door, a “place that you dare not look” (I just finished reading Dune), just like anyone else. This doesn’t mean that I have depth per se, or secrets, or anything corny like that! This means that the lightness and the fun are my personality, that it doesn’t get deeper than that, nor is my personality as shallow as that. The hurt arises when people think i do this unseriously. As if I would forget so easily, as if making people laugh is just something that comes out of nowhere, rather than something that gives me deep, philosophical pleasure. As if the drunken revelry is all forgotten by the morning after — I tell you now, it is not. The dreams, the alcohol-poison: as it is in Dune, the spice-melange is a way of heightening vision and consciousness. I do not forget. When I wake up with the melange-headache, I plunder and I plunder, for material, analysis, and understanding. For foresight. 

One day it’ll start to make more sense to me why I did what I did. Nevertheless, what has transpired between us has helped me clarify something, about you and about me. 

*** 

(Side B) 

In your head everything seems so complicated and you balance so many indulgences of vanity, thinking that you’re hiding it all very well, and you secretly (so secret it’s even a secret from yourself) manipulate other people to match your idea of the world. The Prufrock dilemma… is it better to force a situation to a head or to let things be? I used to think the former but now, perhaps, the latter. The emptiness, the lack of anything, can also be a lesson, a sign from God. 

I’ve been running my mind in circles, trying to discipline myself into letting fate and time run their course, while also tempering my utter impatience and itching suspicion that all I need to do is just to Will things into existence. I take every failure and disappointment so personally as failures of will on my part. If I had just tried harder, if I was nicer (always this), if I was prettier (this too), if I had more initiative, if I worked harder, then it wouldn’t have turned out this way. But then, when I think of all my regrets (and as a plunderer of memory, my life is nothing if not a laundry list of regrets), I find that I don’t have as many regrets for the things I don’t do as much as for the things I have done. 

Something I have to learn to do is how to live outside of my mind, and how to follow the thin thread of all my actions to their diminishing consequences. 

*** 

In Whit Stilman’s The Last Days of Disco, everyone is always falling in love with each other at the wrong time. Nobody is ever falling for someone at the same time as that person is falling for them – nobody is ever able to keep up with each other in the valleys of love. Sometimes one person is at the peak, while the other is still taking the view from the plateau below, and once the other has reached where the first person was before, the first person has already started descending.  Always missing love by about an inch. You have to get so lucky. 

Selected Ambient Work #5: Brittle

Kuala Lumpur is a dirty city, an ugly city, full of shoddily maintained malls, plain women, and immigrant waiters who talk to you in a hazy druggy mumble and avoid your eyes in a manner dripping with both insecurity and contempt. When did it become so difficult to buy something at a 7-11? I ask for a MAL-BO-RO RED, a MAL-BO-RO ME-RAH, I point at it behind the cashier’s shoulder, and he turns around, pats the Chesterfields, the LMs, pulls out a Marlboro Gold. Why do none of the people who work there know what to do anymore, and why don’t they look like me? I’m not inclined or motivated to improve myself in Kuala Lumpur. The roti canai I just ate at the mall’s franchise mamak makes me want to shit instantly. In the female toilet, I’m crouched forward and pushing out little turdlings, and some fellow woman is shitting in one of the other stalls, gasping out diarrhoeac spurts. She’s blasting some Tamil programme on her phone, no earphones, just blasting it out to the whole toilet.

You think you’re better than this, you think your shit stinks less and like your shit comes out cleaner, like it comes out on the same silver spoon you were served with, but you’re not, you’re all stuck bent over in the same toilet, and the odour of your shit wafts up to meld with the odour of her shit and everyone else’s shit, indistinguishable. We’re all in the same shit soup that is Kuala Lumpur.

When you’re bent over and pushing waste out of your body, there’s no difference between you and the person doing the same exact thing one stall over. I smell this woman’s shit and I wonder why I’m here, how much of my recent life has just been pure escapism, and how when you step out of the gallery, out of your little bourgeoisie bubble for even one second, you find yourself back in the world again. Back with ordinary people again. Back in the same shit soup that is Kuala Lumpur. You’re not above this just because of who your parents are or where you went to school.

***

April is over, we’re past the first third of the year, we’re past the time of hope and brightness and descending in a downward spiral into the months of stagnant sticky debauchery. It’s too late to pull yourself up. Despite April having been the holy month of fasting, and despite my many scoldings to myself during the month that “this needs to change”, I have broken all the resolutions and i am left worse off than when I began.

At a friend’s birthday, I consume: three beers, two negroni’s, a shot of something, and someone pours Bombay Sapphire down my throat for three seconds. The next day, I wake up without a headache, but feeling like a caveman, or some wild predator: brain dead, but murderous. I’m bone dumb, but my body feels tense, like I could pounce on anything and rip it apart for its innards. I put a stop to this by going to eat some extremely meaty noodles later that night, with slices of raw beef, pork, and duck, and as I masticate the extremely beefy beef, I feel like I’ve made peace with my inner Neanderthal.

And everything else about the rest of April has been like this – not so wild and chaotic as to be reckless, but enough to be worrying. I slide ever more into what Camille Paglia called a chthonic, Dionysian swamp. Every decision is made in haste, made in and for a specific moment, and entirely for myself. I’m not thinking properly, and the brain fog of all my body’s demands colliding in my head makes it difficult to create or produce anything. My period this month feels as if it’s come back with a vengeance. Anyone who claims that there isn’t any innate difference between men and women is entirely, manipulatively wrong: there is a difference, and when we are on our periods, us women are animals, or worse. We’re muck, we’re dirty rain, we’re something deeper and grimier than silt, we’re worms, we’re the unnamable things living under rocks and in crevices.

In April, I’ve worked on four separate exhibitions/projects, and had weeks where I was out of the house every single day straight, only coming home to crash into my bed before I’m off again the next morning. This intense and insane period of activity makes me feel young and alive, and all of my body’s nerves feel alight, and I’m speeding through life blind and dumb with the feeling like I can do anything. I’ve finally unlocked something that I never understood when I was young, which is the question of why so many of my classmates were obsessed with sports and athletics. Now that my body has been activated, I understand that sports is a supreme way of working off raw energy and bloodlust.

But alas, when the body is activated and stirring, the mind is idle and frozen. The physical activity and fatigue make me feel alive, more alive than I’ve ever felt for a very long time, but I’m sluggish in creating or producing anything. And that seems to be the catch: you’re either active and awake, but stupid, or you’re cerebral and considerate, but constantly tired. And it’s also making me rude, which I understand now must be the reason why jocks are so competitive and combative. Lately I’ve been speaking out of pocket; words just fly out of my mouth and smack people across their faces. Lately there’s this feeling of, if I can do it, then why can’t other people? Who’s better than me?

Look, if there’s anything that my adult years of life have taught me, if there’s anything that I never want to forget, it’s that actions always have consequences, and every decision has a price. Sometimes the bill comes later rather than sooner, but it always comes in the end.

So I’ve been thinking about balance and control. In particular, how to allow energies to flow naturally and for charm to work its way and bring forth new opportunities, but also how to recognise limits and how to reign in bad weather before it turns into a tempest.

***

I watched The Batman (2022), a long winding movie with many things happening and also nothing happening at the same time. Robert Pattinson’s Bruce Wayne/Batman is a very brooding fellow, though I’m not quite convinced that all his perceived troubles are serious enough to justify such a deep, brittle voiceover. Suspenseful music played, as the camera panned over to reveal… a question mark in latte art? Like, what? The relevance of The Batman’s situation to mine: he considers how to do good for his city and finds himself in conflict between the forces of slow corruptible equanimity and unhinged, equally corruptible aggression — is the answer to be found in the electoral process and NGO-industrial-complex black lady mayor or through vigilante action played out immediately on the streets? Should I be the bigger person, kind and fair, or should I lean into enmity and say exactly what I’m thinking?

Jenny Holzer, always.

Sometimes I feel like a bat in a cave, awake in the dark, moving and brooding amid the things that skitter and scrabble, full of mystery. Other times, I feel like The Riddler or The Joker, ironic and smirking because everything and everyone is one big joke that’s not even funny. And yet some other times, I feel like a life of vengeance and punishment (action and reaction) is not what humans have evolved for; surely, the developments of human consciousness and the lessons of history should be enough for us to be able to choose to follow due process and inquiry; in these other other times, I feel like Inspector Gordon or Alfred. I want to live in grace amidst the maelstrom.

***

I watched Everything Everywhere All At Once (2022) and found it extremely well-crafted, but unbelievable — and no, I’m not trying to be a retard by saying I found a science fiction multiverse movie “unbelievable”. It wasn’t the sci-fi aspect, it was the kindness aspect. It was the catch at the end, it was Waymond (played by Ke Huy Quan) pleading with his wife to be kind. At the end of the day, kindness is the final things that truly matters, but how sustainable is that when you feel so much burning energy within you? It’s not good enough just to be kind, kindness doesn’t provide enough ventilation for all the trapped hot air.

Watching the movie, you can’t deny the difference between men and women. Waymond, being a loving but hopeless and emasculated man, can’t do anything except blubber, make jokes, and help out whenever his wife will allow him to. Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh) is a control freak multi-tasker (working women love to multitask) who lives too much in her own head, has the appearance of being busy all the time, yet never seems to get anything done. In the Wong Kar-Wai dimension where Evelyn is a glamorous movie star, Evelyn and Waymond sit in a rainy alleyway, contemplating the life they might have had together—all the ways they might have fulfilled each other, all the things they could have been—but in another time, another place… The most potent part of the film, the one that nearly set me off sobbing, was Waymond’s line [spoilers]: “In another universe, I would have loved to be doing laundry and taxes with you.” Once the main Evelyn understands that this universe is all that she has, this revelation leads to her choosing to repair her relationship with Waymond and to start improving her family life and their haphazard laundromat business. But in rainy-alleyway-Evelyn’s timeline, this was not meant to be — they part ways, as Evelyn pursues her film career and life goes on. Tears in the rain.

What I feel now is raw, conflicting forces compounding together to create a surging maelstrom within me — sometimes I’m brooding and moody, untouchable and tense, often I am happy, but the happiness makes me sloppy and insolent, sometimes I am confident that I have God on my side, sometimes I am angry and I say so. But the anger, the happiness, the irritation, the fatigue, the calculation: sometimes, all of it just makes me sad. While it is good and better to be kind, kindness is not something that I can turn into my entire modus operandi. Kindness is not an adequate enough theory to explain everything that I feel inside of myself. At least for now, kindness feels to me more of a prescription for unknown scenarios rather than a guiding principle. When in doubt, it’s certainly better to be kind, but kindness doesn’t explain all of myself, doesn’t explain the cravings I feel in my teeth and in my red organs. Kindness does’t explain why I feel sometimes the desire to rip into things or to put people down; it doesn’t explain or satiate the mental imagery I have of myself as a leopard leaping on and tearing into prey, or as a powerful drill penetrating a hard wall, defeating all resistances in my path.

A meme.

What I am seeking out is the control and the sense that will unite everything and bring it all into balance. What I am seeking is The Batman’s cold backward glance in the rain as he parts from Selina Kyle for the last time. At the end of the day, the stack of charisma Jenga, the pyramid of shot glasses, they all come tumbling down, and you have to find the courage and the will to say No, not again. You have to drag yourself up off the ground, clean up, and say, today I am going to create, I am going to produce. I am going to do all the things that I know I should do. Today, I won’t be needlessly kind, nor will I be needlessly mean. I will be at peace with certain directed acts of cruelty, because it may be what I need to do in order to push onwards. Even though it is impossible to rise above the shit soup, even if everyone finds themselves being flushed away in the downward spiral in the end, you must still try. You — I — must still try to leave behind something worthwhile, something more than just shit.

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.

Selected Ambient Work #3

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