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Making an Exhibition,
with Other People,
and No Money,
During a 

Feb 2022

Edited & Proofread by Lyn Ong

 

Pandemic

1. Introduction    

 

This brief report is the result of my reflections on making an exhibition during the Covid-19 lockdown (2021 - 2022) in Kuala Lumpur, titled All the Time I Pray to Buddha, I Keep on Killing Mosquitoes. It’s a subjective impression of a semi-complicated project by a rookie writer. Written for those who are interested in the making of an exhibition from the perspective of an artist.

 

There are many reasons for making these 2 videos and staging this exhibition. The 3 that are relevant to this report are:

Creating a catalyst for conversations on art and art-making.

Providing entry points for art appreciation by sharing my art-making process.​

Contributing to the existing pool of resources on local art through the dialogues and this report.

2. Project brief

 

TKG is a single-channel video installation that was first exhibited at *The                  Bazaar 2020 Vol.2 (KB2020) in Yokohama, Japan. Made during my online KB2020 artist residency. It is a meandering video essay on contemporary art and art-making from an artist’s point of view. Based on recollections of conversations about art and art-making, with various people I met over the last 2 decades of my creative practice. It’s about art cliches, policies and the inter-relationship between people. From which I believe, much of contemporary art comes into existence.

 

All the Time I Pray to Buddha, I Keep on Killing Mosquitoes is a 5-day video installation exhibition to re-stage an adaptation of The Koganecho Gesture (TKG) and it’s progeny, CITIZEN. The title is borrowed from a haiku by Japanese poet Issa Kobayashi. It is used in TKG to represent humanity’s persistent reach for an ideal while dealing with the realities of life. A contradiction that mirrors the conditions most contemporary artists work in.

 

2 Video Essays & 4 Dialogue Sessions

Koganecho

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*The Koganecho Bazaar (KB) is both an artist residency and an annual art festival started in 2004. It is situated in a former red-light district in Yokohama, Japan. KB2020’s theme is Community & Artists.

koganecho.net

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Photo by Pow Lai Xiang

 

TKG is also a proposal for a direct collaboration with the audience of KB2020. Through an open call within the video essay. TKG received 8 applications from its open call. 1 one was chosen. A story by Makarim Salman or Mac in short. Mac is a British physicist turned financial analyst who became a tour guide and resident in Tokyo. In his own words, CITIZEN is a story of influence and connection across space and time. And in my mind, it's also a story about making connections and expanding our identity beyond race, religion, and nationality. 
 
The 4 dialogue sessions with different speakers were organized to further the conversations on themes in TKG & CITIZEN. These included technical aspects of video making, the different approaches in art practices, and the challenges in producing an art project. A big part of the dialogue is to hear different perspectives from speakers from diverse backgrounds who play different roles in our art scene.

3. Exhibition

 

The Initial Proposal

 

The only way I could do this show is by convincing others to finance it. And this opportunity to work with JFKL came unexpectedly. So, the initial proposal was made quickly within 3 days. In my youth, drafting a proposal was a major stumbling block. In fact, anything having to do with paperwork was challenging. I think the last few years of applying (mainly unsuccessfully, my current record is 2 successes in 25 attempts) for artist residencies abroad has helped. It’s an ongoing learning process and will likely change in time, but I’ve identified a set of required information, and developed a simple workflow to draft one.

1. Define Project Clearly

2. Compile & Create Information

3. Sequence Information

4. Layout Information

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Staging Plan A

What I had in mind when drafting the proposal for JFKL.

(Please refer to the actual proposal available via this clickable QR code)

      

  • I believe brevity is a virtue. The idea is to make complicated things simple, but exciting. Prioritize the fluidity between different information and media. 

  • I pay attention to the sequencing of information and media. First an image then a particular set of text, followed by another image and so on. It’s a bit like video editing. The key is to find an edit that makes sense.

      Lean and clean.

      

  • I don’t write with a flourish. It would be nice but I don’t think it’s necessary. I don’t use Art Speak or Corporate Speak either, because I want to sound like a human. 

  • It should be a document that is easy to read. The main thing is to communicate the what, why, when, who, where, how much, and what my partners get in return.

 

Keep sentences to the point. And in simple English. 

      

  • I use the                  method whenever possible. I don’t feel a need to impress the reader with design/layout. Not that I can even if I wanted to. That’s what the Portfolio section is for. And why I regret not taking good documentation photos of my earlier projects.

 

Keep the tone and aesthetic clean and in high-key (bright).

 

Use interesting images. 

  • But within a simple layout and just enough to generate interest.

*K.I.S.S

Keep it Simple & Stupid

 

Recently, writing and making proposals have become a way for me to think through and organize my thoughts. It is both a tool and process, and not just about producing a product/document I share with others. 

 

List of software I used to draft the proposal and in this project.

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Organization

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Roles & Responsibilities

Organizer

Japan Foundation Kuala Lumpur (JFKL)

  • Main funding. 

  • Official correspondence.

  • Accounting.

  • Publicity.

​Venue

Petaling Jaya Performing Arts Centre (PJPAC)

  • Venue.

  • AV Equipment.

  • Technical Crew.

Artist

Gan Siong King

  • Artwork. Conceptualize exhibition. Prepare project brief.

  • Curate, prepare and produce pre and post-project related materials ie: project brief, budget, dialogue sessions, report, etc. 

Producer

Kyoko Kugai, Wong Tay Sy

  • Implement project’s brief within budget & schedule.

  • Identify, recruit and manage personnel.

Speaker

Makarim Salman, Isazaly Isa, Junya Utsumi,

Mark Teh, Kyoko Kugai, Wyn Hee, Wong Tay Sy

  • Participate in dialogue sessions on various topics related to and about the project.

Moderator

Zan Azlee, Carmen Nge, Rahmah Pauzi

  • Moderate dialogue between Speakers for their respective sessions.

Editor

Lyn Ong

  • Prepare press-release.

  • Edit and proofread other related texts for the project.

Essay Writer

Azzad Diah

  • Prepare and write a post-event essay of the exhibition.

Designer

Yap Wik Kee

  • Create the visuals for marketing collaterals.

Photographer

Pow Lai Xiang

  • Capture images of the exhibition and the 4 dialogue sessions.

Technician

Nazreen Nana, Sam, PJPAC Crew

  • Ensure the technical aspects of the exhibition runs smoothly, ie: sound system, video display, etc. 

Production Assistant

Alison Khor, Arianna Billy Holyday Kennet

  • Assist the Producers

  • Provide support during the exhibition, ie: front of house, crowd control, registration, etc.
     

Decision-making Workflow 

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This project started with the project brief and followed a straightforward workflow. I tried to define everyone’s role and responsibility as clearly as possible. But encouraged everyone to participate in discussions whatever their roles are.

 

Decision-Making

No team members are completely responsible for any aspect of this project. I am responsible. But what I want from them is to be productive and creative members of this project. To have a sense of ownership of the project. But micro-managing people only makes them dull. And worse, afraid to take any responsibility. An unthinking and insecure robot is not good for a creative project. My belief is including members in the decision-making process, giving them space to do their thing helps. But they must take responsibility and be accountable. And it’s easier said than done.

I noticed people prefer to have a draft of something to develop, rather than to make something from scratch. The ability to quickly generate working drafts that get things moving helps. Whether it’s a proposal, visualization, schedule, budget etc… I’m not an expert in any of those things. But, the trick is to know just enough. And the internet can be a great teacher. 

I treated everyone in this project as a potential collaborator. A loaded word I know, but I definitely don’t treat them as a contractor by default. Meaning they have my ears if they have ideas to share. And I try to include them in my decision-making process. I’m always on the lookout for ideas that will have an impact on the project. And somewhat disappointed when there aren’t any.

But of course there are those who just want to be told exactly what to do. As far as they are concerned, I’m a client, they’re a contractor and not a collaborator. So checking their and my own expectations is important. My hope is that most of the people on this project will work with me again on future projects. I think collaborations are better, or more meaningful when it extends beyond a single project. So, we’ll see.

 

 

Pre-pre-production

Thinking Aloud
This usually takes place when I’m alone. Thinking aloud and dreaming things up, interpreting and translating them into a form that others can understand. And more importantly, something they can be excited about. Usually they become text and still images in the form of a proposal. Lower cost. 

 

My initial proposal had 3 different setups. Expensive, reasonable, cheap :). It has become a habit of mine to imagine different ways to stage my artwork. Part of it is to provide different solutions. But part of it is because I see my exhibition stagings as versions and drafts. If I were to present the same work again, I want to do it differently. 

 

Words and Writing
I’m still amazed that I started working with text (of any kind) so late. Words and writing is an effective process in clarifying my thoughts and uncovering new possibilities. It’s very much like the act of making sketches or drawings. They can be both a process and a product. And it’s partly through words that I began thinking of exhibition as a medium. For me, words connect ideas in ways that visuals cannot and vice versa.

Exhibition as a Medium
Making exhibitions presents other opportunities to be creative that are different from my paintings and videos. It’s also an opportunity to expand my role as an artist. Where finishing the artwork is just the beginning of the process. To be honest, I’m in unfamiliar territory, because what constitutes an exhibition? I have some thoughts, but no clear answers, which is why it’s exciting. But I do know it involves other people.

 

 

None of You Have Heard This Work
Is what I told the team when I heard murmurs of concerns that I’m compromising because of budget. I’m glad that I took the decision to simplify everything. Leaving the audience with nothing but an empty space and a big screen is risky. But I believe it allows the visual and sound to come into its own. And this staging came close to how I experienced it when I was editing. There were moments in my past projects where I didn’t trust my instinct and revert to what seemed reasonable. Thank goodness I didn’t this time.

Be in the Present
Throughout the 5-day event, the team was always in the present. Making observations and providing suggestions and solutions to things they thought didn’t work. And these included further edits to the video essay themselves. I appreciate this very much, and it’s an attitude that I will bring to my next project.

 

Filling Gaps and Extending Conversations
All 4 dialogues have moments when it worked. And I’ve received compliments and requests for more. I felt collectively they filled some of the gaps, and extended the conversations on the issues brought up in the video essays.  But I think all 4 could’ve probed deeper and encouraged more audience participation. It’s unsatisfying in those terms. Time is one of the biggest barriers. Both in the duration of the actual dialogues themselves, and that it’s designed to take place only during the run of the show. I’m currently thinking about ways to do dialogues in other forms. Particularly as an interactive webpage that can extend beyond the duration of the show. Where more details can be presented, and the audience can take their time to digest and the conversation can continue long after the show ends.

Like most things, public speaking requires practice. I’m nowhere near good, but after doing a few of these, I’ve lost a lot of the fear. And if you’re an artist I urge you to give it a go. It’s more useful to your creative practice than you think.

 

Phantoms
There were some people who registered for a seat and didn't turn up. A friend suggested I charge a RM20 fee to book a place and refund it when they turn up to help people commit. Sounds like a good idea to try for my next project.

Post-production

 

Another Writer
For this project I introduced 2 other items to the deliverables. An essay written by an external writer, Azzad Diah, a curator and artist, on his experience of the exhibition. And a project report, the one you’re currently reading. I want to formalize and document in some way my reflections of my project. I believe it’ll be useful to me, and hopefully others.

 

For Your Reference
As with most projects there are all kinds of paperwork required to make an exhibition. When I was younger, paperwork was always a major obstacle, and I wished there were references available. Particularly on projects done locally. Which is why I’m making most paperwork from this project available as reference.

Pre-production

The Damn List
This project was conceived and organized in the shadow of various types of lockdown. Which made things difficult. The uncertainty of postponement or cancellation lingers. But the team morale is unexpectedly positive, as far as I can tell. I think part of being creative is finding solutions when things become challenging. For as long as I can remember, my art-making has been about dealing with incomplete information, limited technical know-how, a lack of resources, and so on. The pandemic is just another item in the damn list. I’ve learned to keep calm, and I’ve found ways to continue.
 

Just Be a Rich Artist
Upon JFKL’s approval of the budget, the project also benefited from the unexpected generosity of PJPAC, the venue and equipment sponsor. My expectation was to secure a partial sponsorship from any venue operators. For me, an exhibition is also a content and therefore has monetary value, although rarely quantified. Even if the exhibition has nothing to sell and admission is free. Giving my content and paying rent to someone sounds wrong to me. Most spaces I talk to are open to discussions, but what I got from PJPAC is far more than I hoped for. 

I got lucky. And I’m very grateful. 

The truth is, my initial budgeting requires those that I want to work with to take a big pay cut. And I have a feeling I’m running out of goodwill. Resources are limited, especially for art projects that don't generate any income. Removing commerce from an art project is trickier than most would assume. My solution is to make the cost attractive to funders, and the workload lighter and more fun for the team. 

But I was told the best way is just to be a rich artist, somehow.


Work Culture
This project was planned in between the various types of lockdown in 2020 - 2021. I noticed people forgetting things, I forget things. The uncertainty and isolation doesn’t help. Patience, understanding and a genuine desire to work with others do.

Although I wanted a more inclusive decision-making process, I’m aware of the danger of the “design-by-committee” method, which I have tried and don’t subscribe to. If everyone is responsible, then no one is. It’s my responsibility to ensure all decisions are based on, or run parallel to the project’s objectives.

Maybe it's the pandemic, maybe it’s my age. I no longer want to work around the clock. Late night texting and unstructured discussions are not ideal for the decision-making process. I believe project-related matters should be limited to working hours on weekdays. Because I think I make the best decisions this way. 

I think this is also true for the team. Problems and questions should be compiled and worked on in a structured manner. An hour or 2 of focused work is better than 2 minutes here and there throughout the day. I tried implementing this way of working in this project. Some success, but more can be done. 


The Devil (or God) is in the Details
I was concerned that team members will automatically revert to or insist on the easy formula that worked in their past projects. Without considering the details that are unique to this project. And the devil, some say god, is in the details. Thankfully I didn’t notice any that impacted this project in a major negative way.

The Plan is Not the Art
I noticed this curious phenomenon where the team and I become obsessed with planning and the plan itself. We’ve mistaken the scaffold for the building itself. I believe it’s a consequence of the multiple postponements due to the pandemic. While it’s good to think through things, the art is not in how good we can plan and execute the plan. Reality will always throw up unexpected circumstances that no one can foresee. So, a little humility goes a long way. The objective must always be about what’s best for the art. If we need to adapt and change, we do it gracefully. Instead of blindly submitting to the plan at the expense of the art.

 

Production

 

Process and Product
There will always be a gap between what I imagined and the finished project. My hope is things turn out for the better. This may sound unreasonably optimistic, but it’s more or less my video-making experience. And I think it's because of a few simple ideas I have about work.

Keep the main idea simple. 

  • So I can build and add things as the project progresses. Instead of something complex that I have to trim. Which can be creatively demoralizing.

 Don’t get too attached to any ideas.

  • Realizing that whatever I’m working on is not my last project. And keeping an open mind to allow left-field ideas, although the ratio of useful ideas from others is not high. But there are good ones out there for the taking. 

Treat problems as potential opportunities.

  • Writing is a good example. Up until 2016, I didn't write or consider it a creative outlet. Much less a thinking or working process. I feel a new creative dimension has opened up for me as a result of trying and learning to write. Thinking carefully about the sequencing of paragraphs, and the right word to use is more helpful than I thought.

The process can be the product.

  • Treating any plans or framework as a tool. And not some holy truth that cannot be changed. Be present and be prepared to adapt to realities on the ground. Besides the final product, I also care about process, experimentation and discovery. And making an exhibition with other people is something that interests me.

Different Tempo

 

Institutions operate at a different tempo. I assumed it’s because accountability is defined differently for them. Decision-making is drawn out. And always seem to lean towards the status quo, not radical experimentations. But that is not to say there's no room for innovation. I find workers for art institutions are often sympathetic to an artist’s concerns and interests. But, they are bound by the mission of the institute they worked for. 

Understanding what the institution is about and a willingness to engage them on what’s valuable to them is key. The willingness to absorb other people’s interest and make it my own helps. Being realistic about my expectations and articulating clearly what I want to do avoids wasting anyone’s time. 

Institutions usually work on multiple projects at the same time. I’ve learned to respond to their requests quickly, but be patient as they process the material I sent them. It seems like the only way to do things, because the other way round seems unlikely.

Losing Control

 

Currently, I divide my creative practice into 2 areas. Making art and making exhibitions. For the individual artwork, it’s by my hands, I decide the final outcome and how I get there. For an exhibition of these individual artworks, I work with others and I’m more open about how things get done. In fact, I encourage team members to take responsibility in making decisions on how the exhibition is made. But I do have detailed briefings with the team prior to this, followed by regular reviews throughout the process. And I still reserve the right to make the final call when necessary because the project is my responsibility.

Giving up creative control is scary to me. But my belief is, even decisions that I don’t agree with may add to my practice in the long run. Minor subjective creative differences or “taste” are less scary to me than creative stagnation that may happen from seeing and doing things my way. Having said that, there were moments in this project where I found myself micro-managing. Which is unnecessary.


My current attitude about collaboration is developed from my video essay projects. And it’s actually quite simple.


They participate, I’m responsible.


I discovered the trick is to listen carefully to others, which is harder than it sounds. And together, develop their ideas within the confines of my project’s brief. Most times I fail. But when it works, it’s a truly rewarding experience for all. The key thing is trust and respect, which is again easier said than done.

Other People

 

A big part of the video works and by extension, the exhibition, comes from a desire to connect with the art communities that I’m in. I believe it takes a community of people with different roles to sustain an artist’s practice. No artist can do this alone (and in this context, I define an artist as someone making a living doing art). So, it’s important to contribute back whenever and however I can. This is why, with the help of JFKL,  I am making this report available for free to all.

A PDF version of this report is available for free to download and print. It is not for sale. Some rights reserved.

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Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-SA 4.0)

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click.

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Report design by Wik Kee

 

Conversely, I’m aware that this report may not be useful to most. And that’s O.K. This report is the result of my interest in the potential of documentation and writing about art. Particularly those from the point of view of an individual artist. Writing this report is part of my extended creative practice. If you’re an artist, I  hope you’ll do the same for your project.

Thank you for your time and attention.

Written by Gan Siong King
Edited & Proofread by Lyn Ong