Selected Ambient Work #1

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.

Recent writings

My writings have been going elsewhere and in exchange I’ve been getting money.

Back in September, I was selected to participate in an Arts Writing Masterclass by the Cultural Economy Development Agency (CENDANA) and Akademi Seni Budaya Dan Warisan Kebangsaan (ASWARA). The masterclass began as a weekend-long event of four sessions with four different writers and journalists, and then 12 participants were selected to embark on the next phase, which is a sponsored, 5-month writing programme. Every month, I’m asked to write between 2-3 articles, each of which CENDANA-ASWARA pays me for in what I believe (I may be mistaken) is decent compensation for someone who’s writing they’re obliged to accept anyway even though many of us aren’t professional writers. It’s been going well. There are ways that I could complain, but overall I think just having deadlines set externally for me has been a good incentive for personal improvement (the problem with most writers is that they just need to get over themselves and actually write), along with having a sponsored mentor who gives you constructive feedback. You can judge the quality of the work I’ve produced so far for yourself; in order of newest to oldest:

  1. Alone in Bangkok: Ise at A+ Works of Art (Part I)
  2. Fadilah Karim’s Endless Decade
  3. Inside the Ellen Lee Collection
  4. Tale of Two Tomi’s
  5. The Theological Thorniness of Instant Café Theatre’s CMCO Nadirah
  6. Izat Arif vs. the art world
  7. Curatorial meanderings in Fergana Art’s Se{SUMPAH}
  8. Look East Gone West: Ho Rui An @ A+ Works of Art
  9. Reminders of death in Dhavinder Singh’s Tagistan

(I still have two more articles pending publication, and four more to produce as a mentee in this Masterclass. I’ll post future updates to my “other places” page.)


I’ve spent the past week like a distracted rabbit burrowing through the digital warren of Singapore Art Week 2021 in order to produce this review of some of their online art stuff. I only covered a fraction of Singapore Art Week’s digital offerings, and then an even tinier fraction of what Singapore Art Week has to offer in its entirety, including all the physical stuff. I’m telling you, if you look through their website or Instagram or booklet you might go mad. It’s just so much. I genuinely can’t imagine that half the stuff they have listed (a lot of live-streamed artist and curator talks) would have more than 10 viewers. I really don’t get it, like who is it all for. Maybe there’s a quota I’m not aware of.

This push to digitalise or virtualise art arises from a push towards “accessibility”. The idea is to make art more accessible to… “more people”. If I knew more Lacan instead of the mere froth I’ve managed to skim off third- or even fourth-hand references made by other writers and Twitter users, I would make some sort of comparison here to a Big Other whom all this is supposed to be made accessible to. Or perhaps it was for people like me, under lockdown, restricted from travelling — even though I wasn’t even thinking about SAW before I was asked to write about it. I’m just a slacker… And yet, I was the one who went through it all, and my takeaway is that it was just too much — every event had its own dedicated website (all beautifully-designed btw), its own fluently-written exhibition text, and all the artist bios were in the right places with the right formatting. So much text, damn! My brain was frizzing out; I clearly don’t know how to use the Internet like a normal person. Which of course made me wonder what a “normal person” is, and if I’m so inept at getting the hang of all this, then who is the one who’s actually adept, and who is the one who shuts their laptop feeling pleased, fulfilled, and enlightened from all they’ve learned about Singaporean contemporary art, thanks to the accessibility of the Internet? Who is this normal person who’s supposed to parse through all this in a normal manner instead of their brain frizzing out like mine, and whose experience will thereby justify the sheer volume of it all???

Anyway. Read it here: A Malaysian under lockdown reviews Singapore Art Week 2021

In the review, I propose that this is all just a marketing strategy to leave me with FO(H)MO (Fear of Having Missed Out) at all the Great Stuff that’s happening out there, despite not having managed to parse through all the Great Stuff and critically dissect whether it was all actually great or not. Forest > trees and all. Well, on that note, there is an exhibition I’ve just been made aware of that I wish I was aware of earlier: In Our Best Interests: Afro-Southeast Asian Affinities during a Cold War (“In Our Best Interests”: another very Big Other-y headline! Who’s “our”? Guess I’ll find out). Although, this looks text-heavier than anything I covered in my review, so maybe it’s best to have been unaware. With the Internet, processing time gets short-circuited.