By Corrie Tan | Writer-in-residence
February 4, 2022
When we first see what set builder and metal fabricator Tay Ining has brought into the Rumah studio for us to play with, the metal structures look a little bit like deconstructed pieces of scaffolding, the kind you see wrapped around buildings under construction. Two rectangular frames and two connectors, laying flat on the sprung floor. We’re in the studio today for the first of two mini explorations of material for set and sound design.
I’m not quite sure what I’m supposed to be looking at, or how it’s supposed to be assembled. The frames are moveable at the joints, and sound designer Chong Li-Chuan points out later that when Haizad manipulates them, they almost resemble an Ames window illusion. Ining brings out two large plastic containers filled with wrenches, bolts, nuts and nylon nuts, and begins teaching us the minimal assembly required to turn these modular pieces into a design inspired by Da Vinci’s self-supporting bridge:
As in the image above, the modular design can be extended and raised almost infinitely with little to no tools required, and not a single nail. Ining points us to another point of inspiration, a tessellation pattern she’s interested in exploring when it comes to the modularity of the structure, the “mammoth” she’s building for the piece:
This excerpt from the (very technically titled) book Hinged Dissections: Swinging & Twisting (2002) by Greg N. Frederickson redirects us to a text by the late architectural scholar Alpay Özdural, who did a study of Islamic ornamental geometry based on the late mediaeval Persian manuscript referred to above. Özdural argues that mathematics played a major role in Islamic architectural practice and ornamental design, and his posthumously published book (which you can download here!) is a meticulous interpretation of these geometrical constructions with his own drawings and step-by-step construction methods. We find ourselves circling back to Dr Imran Tajudeen’s lecture on the interconnectedness of the Malay archipelago, and the tessellations that operate on a material and physical plane, but also on an intellectual and conceptual plane. The modularity of this metal prototype that Ining is building feels like a metaphor on several levels: for the tessellations of the port and the machines and containers it houses, as well as the conceptual patterns and philosophical connections that exist throughout this maritime region through trade and exchange across millennia.
As the four of us in the room begin to put the metal structure together, it’s clear that Ining’s movements are practised and precise. She can talk to us while paying close attention to her tools at the same time; the wrench and its torquing motion in her fingers, hands and wrists embody a kind of effortlessness that comes with repetition and familiarity. Haizad, attempting to do the same thing, is all focus and nerves. He weighs a wrench in each hand, mimicking Ining’s gestures. We pick up her tools, each worn in different ways. “I love the wabi-sabi feel,” Ining says, turning over a wrench in her palm. There’s a lovely aesthetic to the slow discolouration of the object in parts where she’s handled them thousands of times before. She can tell at a glance if Haizad is using a wrench too large or too small for the bolt and nut. It’s a manual dexterity and specific embodiment that P7:1SMA isn’t accustomed to; Hasyimah points out that the materials the company has worked with before, like batik or the sapu lidi, are very different from the metal we find ourselves handling now. When Haizad changes positions to get another bolt in, he’s momentarily confused from inverting his perspective and has to reorient himself so that he’s tightening, not loosening, the frame.
Hasyimah adores the jagged grrrrak grrrrak grrrrak sound of the ratchet wrench required to tighten various nuts and bolts. But Haizad is concerned about the length of time it might take for the performers to assemble the metal structures this way, and is considering a fast-release system instead, where frames can just snap onto each other in seconds. They haven’t resolved this yet, and it’s a playful and affectionate disagreement that fascinates me, a little preliminary pas de deux before the actual dance takes place.
The studio echoes with the clang and thud of metal on sprung floor, and metal on metal. Hasyimah reassures Ining, who worries about the stains and scratches the metal is leaving behind: “The sprung floor is meant to absorb pain and suffering!” I think of all the knees, toes, feet and fingers that have scuffed these surfaces and left matching bruises on both floor and skin. A significant proportion of every conversation is dedicated to safety. Would the performers have to wear steel-toed safety boots? How much weight can the frame take? What if someone catches a finger or thumb in a metal axis or joint? Safety becomes a prerogative, and I’m reminded of all the warnings—both visual and auditory—dedicated to safety and caution at the Singapore port during our last visit, through beeps and alarms and signs and fences.
I’m also surprised by how sturdy and grounded the bridge feels when I stand on it. It bends slightly under our weight, but everything feels evenly and gently distributed. Haizad takes this a step further, testing the give and the bounce of the structure as he spreads and warps his body and limbs across the prototype. Ining has a few rolls of bandage tape in her boxes and Haizad is curious about the interaction between both materials; he’s played with tape before in his solo work Delay, where he explores the bodily gestures and stances of deference associated with ‘tumpang lalu’, the act of requesting to pass or asking a question as politely as possible. He begins to tape himself to the metal structure, wrapping the bandage around his limbs as one might a splint or tourniquet. What is the skin of these structures, I wonder, as the bandage wrap begins to peel, degrade and shed with Haizad’s movements—the way a snake might slough off its skin.
Haizad is interested in this moulting process on a larger scale: what’s left behind when we travel, he wonders aloud, what might this residue look and feel like? Might the performers leave behind smaller pieces of these larger metal structures as they move around the Singapore Art Museum space? How are these pieces reassembled—or perhaps they aren’t? He’s preoccupied with these various layers of visibility and invisibility. The collective effort of the performers will be clearly visible, he says, “the lifting, shifting, transferring, stacking, fixing, bouncing.” But what can’t we see? What degrades, tarnishes, oxidises?
12 February, 2022
We’re back in the Rumah studio with sound designer Chong Li-Chuan today, who brings an entirely new dimension to the work. He’s been back at the Tanjong Pagar Distripark for his own site recce for long stretches of time, to observe the changes to the ecology of the port over an entire afternoon and early evening, and to also get a deeper sense of the sonic landscape and the sounds he is most drawn to. He recalls one of the large container cranes, numbered “404”, which we’d collectively anthropomorphised during our site trip with Dr Imran Tajudeen because it was the most active crane at the time. 404 has continued, by Li-Chuan’s observation, to be the most “hard-working” crane closest to our performance site:
“It was lowering a container, and it made this loud ‘KUNG!’ sound—and then it set down the container a second time, even louder, ‘KUNGGGGGG!’ And I thought, that’s what 40 tonnes sounds like! It’s very uncanny that it tried to lower the container twice while I was recording.”
Li-Chuan, enthralled with the sound of the almost unfathomable weight of containers being set down, is hoping to find a way to incorporate it into the work. Like Haizad, he is fascinated with what is invisible—or in his case, the sounds we have desensitised ourselves to. If last week’s explorations dwelt with the unseen, today’s grapple with the unheard. Li-Chuan points out that we are constantly subject to a variety of sounds and noises such as the constant low hum of air-conditioning condensers that we’ve tuned out in Singapore’s dense urban environment; we only notice the sound when it’s gone and its absence remains. He then introduces us to a range of noises, including: pink noise, Brownian noise, white noise and hypothetical black noise. White noise, for instance, is a noise containing a very wide range of frequencies and is the harshest of all the noises, with no distinctive pitch. (Pitch is when something oscillates at a particular frequency, the way an orchestra might tune up to the specific note A.) Black noise is hypothetical because it is the theoretical absence of all noise.
As urban residents, we navigate cascades of sound every day and become attenuated to these overlapping soundscapes, where attenuation is “the reduction of the force, effect, or value of something”. Noise and sound begin to lose their effect on us. Even as I write this now, from my home, I am thinking about the raspy whir of the old standing fan next to me as it turns its rusting neck, the distant sound of a drill or a grasscutter elsewhere in our HDB estate, the low rumble of vehicles filtering through the blocks from the main road, or the rolling wubber of planes passing overhead. Li-Chuan considers what it means to work in conjunction with the port environment and what it has to offer at the time and across the duration of each performance. Understanding these contributing factors might help to aurally choreograph a “keynote sound” for Loading/Unloading, an anchoring sound that helps to establish the site. What might it feel like to bring sounds and sonic reminders from the outside world of the port into the gallery space (a loud “KUNG!” puncturing the clean, starchy museum site?), or the gallery space into the port (the sudden melodious tone of a lift arriving at the right floor?). What might it mean to tune back into what is already in the environment that we’ve unconsciously tuned out? What might the dis-attenuation and the re-attending to the force of a noise compel us to feel, or do?
These attentions to both the absence and presence of certain types of sounds and noises reminds me of the work of Black scholar Tina M. Campt, who discusses silence, quiet, erasure and exclusion when it comes to Black, enslaved, dispossessed and oppressed communities in her book, Listening to Images (2017). Here, she beautifully knits together the silent banality of what appear to be everyday acts and interprets them as practices of escape and possibility, ways of doing things unseen and unnoticed—where deftly dodging both visual and aural surveillance allows for a kind of quiet liberation.
What is the relationship between quiet and the quotidian? Each term references something assumed to go unspoken or unsaid, unremarked, unrecognized, or overlooked. They name practices that are pervasive and ever-present yet occluded by their seeming absence or erasure in repetition, routine, or internalization. Yet the quotidian is not equivalent to passive everyday acts, and quiet is not an absence of articulation or utterance. Quiet is a modality that surrounds and infuses sound with impact and affect, which creates the possibility for it to register as meaningful. At the same time, the quotidian must be understood as a practice rather than an act/ion. It is a practice honed by the dispossessed in the struggle to create possibility within the constraints of everyday life. For blacks in diaspora, both quiet and the quotidian are mobilized as everyday practices of refusal. (2017, 4, emphasis my own)
This overlooked but deliberate repertoire of quiet refusal and defiance takes shape in the Southeast Asian region in other forms. Anthropologist James C. Scott, in a study of a class difference in a rural Malaysian village, observes how low-income villagers carefully perform the bare minimum of sincerity and decorum to indulge rich and/or extortionate landowners, where “forms of reluctant compliance stop short of overt defiance and at least conform to the minimal standards of politeness and deference that the rich are normally in a position to require” (1985, 26). He calls this, as per his book title, “weapons of the weak”: “foot dragging, dissimulation, false compliance, pilfering, feigned ignorance, slander, arson, sabotage, and so forth” as a means of silently undermining those who extract their labour, taxes, rent and profits while maintaining an air of social and cultural acceptability (1985, 29). What might the quiet weapons of Singapore’s transient and disenfranchised underclass sound or look like?
This forms a strong kernel of Hasyimah’s desire, to venture beyond “the other side of the fence” that divides us from the port and do interviewing or film work that could communicate or project other images of labour in addition to the dance activations. In our discussions, we transplant this proverbial fence into the unspoken etiquette of the gallery space, guided by lines and borders that keep the audiences away from artwork. The team is considering inviting participation in several ways, whether this involves the workers at the port, or the audience to participate with the work through metal and/or sound. How might audience members or spectators engage with sound or other materials when the artist’s bodies are not present? How might sound and metal occupy the gallery site? Are gallery sitters and docents gatekeepers of the exhibition space, or extensions of the invitation? Will our artwork be cordoned off by a “do not cross” line? What does it mean to look at the installation from a distance, versus bouncing on it or walking on it?
We wrestle with what it means to dis-attenuate attendees from the conventions of gallery spaces, and the gestures and movements these spaces dictate. Here, Li-Chuan echoes Dr Imran’s lecture, reminding us that “Tanjong Pagar”, the site of this artistic activation, is itself a palimpsest. If tanjung alludes to a cape or promontory, that headland has since been evened out by land reclamation and urban development. But the pagar or “fence” somehow remains in the barbed wire that lines the port, its name drawn from intertwining histories and myths—from the actual kelongs that made use of fishing traps of wooden stakes and cross pieces, as well as the tale of the budak yang berakal Hang Nadim, who advised the king to build a fence of banana stems to protect the coast from a vicious swordfish attack.
We’ve been meandering through these discursive concepts, and they are slowly beginning to take shape as tangible elements of the performance-installation. Li-Chuan likes the idea of sound offering a sense of weight (the “KUNG!” of the container landing on a hard surface) or a sense of time passing (the way sound and music function in silent films). Ining offers us the vocabulary of suspension to knit these concepts together—her metal frames will be (a) suspended from the ceiling, (b) suspended by their own weight, (c) suspended in space in a freight elevator. In the act of suspension there is a sense of tension (how heavy is this metal structure hanging weightlessly from the ceiling?)—but also release (if that structure were to fall, what is the deafening sound it would make?). I sit for a moment with the idea of these fences, these pagar, suspended in space, defying the conventions of the borders and boundaries we have erected and enacted.
As the creative team wanders into a conversation about the possibilities of interacting with these structures, they wonder what it might be like to wrap the structures in a material such as cellophane and have others rip them off. It feels like a different return to the end of our previous exploration session that thought through the skins of things. Just as the inner workings of our own anatomies are coated and covered by skin, and our entire bodies—their joints and circulatory systems—are fantastically complicated sites and spaces of transmission and travel, mobile ports in their own right. What are our bodies’ fences, boundaries and borders? What do our skins open ourselves up to—not only in terms of touch, but also in terms of how skin colour and race are situated in our visual fields? How are we attenuated to and dis-attenuated from one another’s personal histories, and what is the white noise that’s crept in to dilute these stories through the narratives we’ve repeated when it comes to our national histories? It feels like we are itching at something here, picking away at a scab to reveal the pink dermis beneath. What of our landscape, like our scars and skin, protects the wounds as they heal, and remembers what we’ve forgotten?
Campt, Tina M. (2017) Listening to Images. Durham and London: Duke University Press.
Frederickson, Greg N. (2002) Hinged Dissections: Swinging & Twisting. Indiana: Purdue University.
Özdural, Alpay (2003) Interlocks of Similar or Complementary Figures: Collaboration of Mathematicians and Artisans in the Islamic World, unedited full copy of the original book manuscript submitted to Supplements to Muqarnas.
Scott, James C. (1985) Weapons of the Weak: Everyday Forms of Peasant Resistance. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.