On 20th August 2017, four friends, Wong Tay Sy (TS), Chang Yoong Chia (YC), Tan Sei Hon (SH), and Gan Siong King (G), came together to record a conversation about some of the art projects they collaborated on 15 years ago (circa 2000 - 2004). Below is an edited portion of that conversation.
TS: When G talked about studios, other than a space where you can see an artist’s artwork, what else is there? Then, I actually remembered how I met YC. Although the both of you (YC & G) studied in MIA (Malaysian Institute of Art), I didn’t meet you guys until…
YC: KBU (Kolej Bandar Utama).
TS: I met you (YC) in KBU, but I only saw you la. We “really” met through G’s studio. I think that was when we were forming SpaceKraft. I think G mentioned YC used to work in a gallery, so he’s (YC) got some experiences to share. With SH, I remembered very clearly. It was through Hoy Cheong. G was helping Hoy Cheong, and you (SH) came because you wanted to assist Hoy Cheong right?
SH: Yes, that was actually very interesting.
G: Actually he (SH) just wanted to talk to Hoy Cheong and was forced to help as a precondition …
SH: No la, actually it’s like an industrial training, I did mine in Sarawak (Unimas), it was with an art teacher. Basically, I just didn’t want to do much la y’know. So, I followed this teacher, did a bit of mural painting and just enjoyed the whole period of industrial training la. And then my lecturer, Hasnul (Saidon) said, “Why not you do a short thing with Hoy Cheong?” and contacted him. Hoy Cheong said that he’s got a team of people working for him. So, he (Hoy Cheong) pointed me to your (G) place. That’s how I met the rest of you. What about you (YC)?
YC: We (YC & G) were classmates from MIA and I met you (SH) and TS at G’s studio.
TS: I remembered once, we (with SH) took a bus to G’s house. Do you know why I remember that journey till today?
TS: On the way, we talked and somehow we touched on our Chinese zodiac sign. So I said “Oh ya, G, YC and me are rabbits,” and then SH said he is also a rabbit. So I looked at him and thought, “You (SH) can't be (born in the year of the) rabbit, you can't be 12 years older than me !?”
TS: I thought he (SH) was older. Then he said he was born in 1975, and I was like, “You are same age with me?” That’s why I remembered that journey.
SH: That’s also what he (G) thought the first time he saw me, “Who is this old dude wearing teenager's clothes?” and with that sideburns… (!)
TS: Coming back to the idea of studio, I remember G intentionally opened up his studio for people to do things. So I thought that having a space without claiming it as a… common space for Spacekraft, it became that.
G: But I’m no longer interested in sharing my studio.
G: You can come hang out on weekends, but don’t come and work in my studio.
SH: A lot of stuff that I was involved in was through Spacekraft, through that studio. A lot of stuff also happened when you guys were doing your projects (Spacekraft), that’s where I met Joe Kidd…
TS: Chow Kit Fest!
G: The troubadour gang, right? But that’s the spirit of Spacekraft la, we try to create a platform and generate some hype and then anybody can come together and just do whatever they wanted. I think the genesis for Chow Kit was also like that. Because prior to that, we did more exhibitions, The Comic Show, In Limbo and some workshops and then I was like, “Ok la, let’s just do a multi-arts festival and have fun.”
TS: Actually, so how does a collective sustain itself when there’s no space? I felt like for us, in a way we already had a space in G’s studio. Although we didn’t use this space for exhibitions but it was a meeting point. Because when you have a space, you need to fill the space with programs. That’s where members are forced to come out with ideas and be committed to it.
G: We had a space in Benteng (near Central Market), remember? We did one show there and “lost” that space, but, I was like, “Ya, we've been uprooted but we can still do things right?” Like what we call “pop-up” events nowadays, I remember thinking this could work in our favour.
SH: Space-less kraft.
G: Maybe I’ve come a full circle. Prior to having that studio in OUG, I was cooped up in this house on a hill (Taman Zooview) and I was just doing my own stuff for three years. I wasn’t really interested in engaging with anybody. I think a big part of moving (to OUG) was… I felt the need to change. I wanted to do things with (other) people, I wanted an opposite. Till today, engaging people is not my most natural instinct. Half the time I’m very self-aware, I’m not really having a great time. But back then, I thought it was important for my creative process to engage with people for a few years. And through that studio in OUG, I’ve met many people and collaborators.
G: Obviously I’m biased, but I think Chow Kit Fest did inspire other multi-arts festival that came as a result of it. I know Urbanscapes (art festival) is one such project that directly…
TS: NotThatBalai (art festival) definitely.
G: So that’s two big festivals in the art calendar.
SH: I think we made some prototypes. It’s still rough, not so tested, and when other people see it, then they thought, “Oh, ok let’s do something better.” And the things they did grew to become something very polished like Urbanscapes.
G: Even Urbanscapes, when it first started wasn’t polished.
SH: Ya, I was involved and I exhibited my artworks in the toilet.
G: I think it’s the same with Art for Grabs, where it started as a small art flea market in Annexe. Now it’s an entity by itself. Consistency and sustaining something is important, but difficult.
SH: But I also think it has to do with our members la. We probably weren’t sharing the same vision. And our practices also… what we were doing were quite personal.
YC: About Chow Kit Fest, I thought perhaps at that time, there’s still this shadow about holding public events where if there’s a gathering of four people, the police can come arrest you for illegal gathering, which was a very prevalent fear at that time. But we did Chow Kit Fest anyway knowing it’s illegal and thinking the police might come. Maybe we were young enough or stupid enough to do it at that time, and I think it broke some kind of ground for other people to do their things as well.
SH: And we purposely sought out groups that were not mainstream. I mean, if you look at Urbanscapes, the focus is more on popular or mainstream stuff.
TS: Like, we invited Anarki (Punk Collective), Joe Kidd… and then on the film side, I remember Kino-I did the film screening and I was like, “Wah! Actually, Malaysia has so many interesting young filmmakers.” And I think this trying to build platforms and connecting with people who may not be very popular in their own fields to see what each of us can do together… that is actually a very interesting spirit for me.
G: I think at the point Spacekraft was about two years old… when we graduated we didn’t have any regional network…and even within KL, the various art disciplines weren’t really connecting, and one of my desire was that, to connect y’know. Getting people to meet and hoping something will happen, and a lot of things did happen, like some of the projects you guys mentioned.
TS: I find that the process, in anything, are always these kinds of exploration... discovering, networking and then trying la.
SH: I think we did talk about getting someone who could write, meet people, which we were not interested in doing at that time, but then you need to pay these people. And what we were doing at that time was not very financially enticing. It was not sexy enough for funding.
G: I remembered thinking a lot about the idea of collaboration. I think most collaborations that worked were those that are sustained and when there are some kind of personal relationship between collaborators. YC's involvement in Mark’s Baling (Membaling) could be traced back to Chow Kit Fest in a way.
G: And your (TS) work with Mark and gang could also be traced back to Chow Kit Fest. I remembered right after Chow Kit we did the Taman Medan project.
SH: For me the spin off was of course the music part. I met Joe Kidd, Pete Teo… then we had…
TS: KL Sing Song!
SH: I think we all got something from Spacekraft that drove us to do something else. That was probably a good thing, because if we kept on going as a collective, what would have happened?
G: But Spacekraft from its conception, wasn’t meant to last forever. I remembered we had a meeting early on and decided to do this as best as we can for 3 years and that’s it.
SH: But I think we didn’t last three years.
G: We did, after Chow Kit we did SENI: Homefront in Singapore, but you (SH) didn’t participate. I believe that was one of the last things we did. After that they (TS,YC) did the director’s workshop which became a Five Arts' project. Actually I want to know, why did you guys join Spacekraft? What was the motivation?
YC: I was bored working in a commercial gallery. I was doing archiving and hanging work.
YC: There’s a more selfish reason la. I wanted to exhibit, but I didn't have opportunity. So, in order to do shows I have to be a part of a collective and do other things.
G: But we didn’t do your solo show though.
TS: There was the CTRL + ALT + DEL show.
G: That’s a three man show. But we did help organized Wall Lizard's group show, which was your (YC) other art collective.
YC: I always feel that the work I do, I need to work on it alone. Like, Spacekraft was a weird time for me. Because I felt like, ahmm… I don't own it, it doesn’t belong to me. I’m just helping out, but I’m happy to help and happy to have helped. But it’s just not my work la. I still prefer to find a place and settle there, and just do my work on my own.
G: What about you SH? In regards to work, then and now. Because at that time we all just started our process.
SH: It’s very complicated.
SH: After Spacekraft, I went into music. So, it involved a totally different group of people. And we were not just organizing gigs, we were performing as well. There was a need to step up to do publicity work, and you have to approach people and there are egos involved. Then, there’s also pressure that when you perform in public, you might suck y’know. Actually my main issue is about control la. From a very fluid way of looking and working on things, it became more focused. I found it easier to work that way. I only work with a few people that I’m comfortable with and I trust can deliver. For example, when I curate a show, I have full control over the space, the catalogue, the people involved in the project and that is ideal to me. I get to say what I want to say. Writing is my way of having ownership.
G: When did you start writing? I don’t remember you doing that in Spacekraft.
SH: Ya, actually I was forced to write to make a living because you guys had technical skills and did freelance jobs. I don't have the skills for those jobs. At that time there were people complaining about writers not writing correctly what the artist wanted to say. So I thought, ok la, I have training in fine arts, maybe I can be more emphatic towards artists, maybe I should try my luck and go into writing.
G: What about you TS, why did you stop making visual art stuff?
TS: I just don’t know how to find pleasure in showing works on a wall.
TS: When I say I don’t find pleasure in seeing my work hanging on a wall, ar…it's because my relationship with my work becomes so different. I think I enjoy the process of making, whereas a finished piece of artwork on a wall is so… fixed. I can appreciate other people’s artworks, paintings and all that. I can see growth and a lot of inspiration but for my own work, somehow, I can’t. If an artwork can somehow grow after it is done then maybe… I think theatre is like that, the work is finished by performing it, and every time you perform to a different audience, the energy is different. So it grows. This growing process in the work itself is important to me.
G: What about your organizing or producing work?
TS: I became interested in organizing art events. I really enjoy seeing how other people work and talking to them about it. I’ve always wondered if these artists' processes could be shared in a show, this joy of learning and making. There’s all these people around with passion in making things, and I might not like all their works but I appreciate their efforts in facing themselves everyday, to come out with something, because that was so difficult for me. So I thought what I can do is to help get these works out into a show. Now, I’m clearer of my role. I actually really enjoyed being in a group where people are working together towards something, a collective creative process. And I think the word “collective” is very important to me. I treat every art project as a learning process and… I really enjoy learning la. Anyway, I don’t know how to solve this problem of a fixed work on a wall, because I become very detached.
G: I was talking to a writer friend about drafts. If we look at the bigger picture, all our works can be seen as drafts. Like, Picasso’s early, more realistic works for example. They can be seen as drafts leading toward his later Cubist stuff. This whole…ways of working is something I’m interested in. Like, how do you let go and move forward? Accepting that this is the best that I can do at this moment. These are not my best works, as my best is still ahead of me.
G: Artists have to make money because artists also need resources to sustain their practices. It’s kind of a contradiction because it comes from a good place. There's... maybe self-loathing is too strong a word, it’s like deep down inside you feel that whatever you do, it’ll never be good enough to sell. I had that feeling when I was younger. My main concern for the last few years is to sustain the practice, everything else are just details. I think YC probably feels the same way?
YC: I completely agree with you.
G: When I was younger, I gave money too much power. The moment when money was involved, it meant something else, like I lost my integrity or something. But I have no regrets living that life for 15 years, not really caring about money… maybe it does mean something, I don’t know. But at the same time it was so difficult to work, I mean, it’s impossible for me to have an audio recording setup like this. Even this studio for us to have this conversation is something I have to work for, so there’s blood and sweat. It’s difficult to sustain my practice if I don’t have resources.
TS: I have that feeling too.
G: To be able to consistently practice every day makes a big, big difference.
TS: I think it’s important to be self-sustainable. To be free from money worries, to do what you want to do is a very important thing for an artist. If you ask me today, I fully agree with this idea because for me, if there’s no freedom, there’s no art. Well, at least you try to push the boundaries to be as big as you can, right? So, to be financially self-sustainable in a capitalist world is very important. Unless, you have an inheritance then you don’t need to worry about this. But for someone like us, we’re from a working class background, where we have to work for everything in order to continue our work.
G: It’s either you make money and become a whore or don’t make money and become an artist.
G: It’s framed in simple binaries, very black and white. But actually, it’s complex and grey.
YC: I was recently invited for a show. So, I loaned a work for the exhibition. The truck came, a very nice truck with a few workers… with bubble wraps and a conservator. He was there to check the work. So I was thinking to myself, “For this show, the truck driver, the conservator, the people who does the packing, the people who sold the bubble wraps, the lighting, the stickers and all that, they all get paid…”
YC: Ya, except the artist. Eventually that work was sold but that should be a different thing because that’s for getting the work, the object.
G: I think when it comes to art exhibitions, an artist’s participation is usually considered free. What happens if the work wasn’t sold? You get nothing.
YC: I get “glory” lah, that’s all. Because art is about “passion”.
G: This idea of “passion”, if you have no passion then there is no point in doing anything! Because we’re not working towards attaining passion, passion is a prerequisite.
YC: As if you have to prove your passion by not taking the money.
YC: As an artist, you have your work, your career and the selling. Career and selling are two different things. It’s ok to separate that, even though sometimes it's mixed together, and sometimes you do feel like you’re betraying one when you opt for the other. For me, I also felt whatever I do will never be good enough even till today. But that is in regards to my work, my art. It doesn’t have anything to do with the selling or my career. Because I’m just responsible for creating that image, and once I bring the work out to an exhibition in public, it doesn’t belong to me anymore, it’ll move in any direction…
TS: The work will lead!
YC: I have no authority over it after I surrender the work out there. That’s why I’m interested in doing solo shows more than anything else because right until the point the show starts, it’s still what I wanted, but once it’s opened to the public it’s not mine anymore. And I think it shouldn’t be mine anymore because I think my artworks should be whatever people want to get out of it, it shouldn’t be that you have to see it in a certain way. When I'm making it, I have to have control the way they are presented, but after that it doesn’t belong to me anymore.
G: Maybe that’s why among us, you’re the earliest to have a more sustainable career.
G: I struggled with this for a while, on hindsight.
YC: I think making art also takes such a tremendous effort that if you can just do that, it’s preferable.
SH: I’m quite lucky, because I don’t make art objects, so I don’t have to deal with this. But when it comes to my performances, then some issues come up because I feel like I have to be true to what I do. When I play music, some of the things I wrote are quite personal you see, so it’s like, “Can I be singing, feeling the same thing over and over again?” When it comes to writing essays I don’t have such problems because you can edit it. In a way it’s just information and we may disagree but it’s nothing personal.
TS: Actually my earlier works were a bit like that, it’s personal. That’s why it was strange to have to put a price on it. Because there’s some distance now, I can reflect and say this. But back then I couldn’t….
SH: Ya, if it’s too personal, it’s hard to resolve. However, is it true that we should feel this way? Or is it the romantic ideas we learnt from art historians, movies and popular culture towards the role of an artist? Because when we look at art we should always judge the artist’s intention. Is he doing it to be famous, is he doing it to make money or is he really sincere? That’s where I started thinking about the role of an artist. Why do we take it so personally, why is the ego involved when art is also about ideas? If I were to critique your work from an idea's point of view, it’s not a personal insult. But when you paint a picture of your dead cat and I say the work is not good enough, you might take it as a personal insult. So where do we draw the line? Should we be able to do something we like and sell? And make something political when the time calls for it? Will that be seen as not being a true artist? I look at our seniors and how they struggled with this over the years, I see that that is quite problematic, because we…
TS: We don’t really talk about it.
SH: We find it difficult to separate it or we don’t want to separate it. Actually, why do you (G) continue to do what you do?
G: Well, in a way I have no choice.
SH: Wah, that’s a very saleable line!
G: I am still painting today because of a series of decisions I’ve made consciously or otherwise over the years, and reacting to circumstances that I put or found myself in. It’s a story of survival fuelled by passion, but people are fixated on the passion part. In a way, I learnt to love what I do, especially painting.
TS: Or people think of art as an instinct, instinctive love.
G: I was using this analogy when I was doing my ARCUS residency in Japan. I don’t know about you guys, but when I was younger and when talking about love, woah it’s the berkobar-kobar (passionate) kind of love. As I grew older, I realized there are other kinds of love. I've seen older couples who are sometimes very annoyed with each other, but there’s a reason why they still stayed together.
SH: Ya, practical reasons la.
TS: They learnt how to stay together.
G: It’s not just about passion.… Process, history, habit, responsibility, respect…there’s all these things. Generally, people talk about passion, people talk about talent. People are fascinated with these things that exist in a rarefied place, away from the daily grind as we know it. Besides the artwork, looking at an artist’s process and history is also important. That's one of the reason I'm doing this Open Studio and recording this conversation… so you guys bila (when)?
SH: So anyway, have we got what we got?
G: Shit, it’s almost 4 hours.
SH: We’re gonna have a hard time editing this.
TS: As long as I’m not the one doing the transcribing.