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Beginnings: To reach a port, we must set sail

By Corrie Tan | Writer-in-residence

December 4, 2021

The Singapore Art Museum’s (SAM) new space at the Tanjong Pagar Distripark smells sharply of sawdust and fresh paint. Everything here is white, shiny, swept clean. No smudges or fingerprints on the windows or the walls. It feels like we’ve been hermetically sealed into a white cube gallery, or in some kind of sanitised spaceship hovering on the fringes of the tedium of industrial labour, trying to blend in. Outside, the Singapore port stretches in both directions, an interminable terminus. We are separated from the port by an inch of glass and a foot of concrete, and a thin barbed wire fence that warps in the wind.

Most of us have been isolated on this island for the past 20 months, but the containers stacked up in the no-man’s-land of the Singapore port have continued to make their way around the world. As the performers and creative team filter into the echoey meeting room, our voices bounce off the walls and concrete floor, and we linger by the long series of windows that offer us a tantalising panorama of the port.

The artists involved in Loading/Unloading (working title) are here for three things today:

  1. to get acquainted with each other and the role(s) we will play over the next six months,

  2. to collectively witness and reflect on the Singapore port as a site and space of performance and/or choreographic movements and gestures, and

  3. a lecture on Singapore’s maritime histories and movements by architectural historian, Dr Imran bin Tajudeen, followed by a group discussion.

After a round of introductions, P7:1SMA artistic director and choreographer Haizad offers us our first exercise of the day. We are going to carry our plastic folding chairs out onto the tarmac facing the port and sit there for 20 minutes as we encounter a ‘performance’ of human, machine and other organic labour. He frames it as an observation exercise, to open our bodies up to what we see, hear and feel as a process of embodiment. It’s also an invitation to think of the site as a collaborator, a way of building a relationship with our immediate environment.

As we file out of our institutional spaceship, a procession armed with notebooks and chairs, the warm wind whips around and above us, sending dust and litter into the air in small spirals. We each try to find a nook or vantage point for our 20-minute experience, eventually settling into groups of four or five in shaded pockets of the verandah and carpark. The towering container cranes—and anyone in them—seem impervious to our minor incursion, but the four dock workers who had been taking a languid smoke break slip away, quietly and immediately. It’s a hot day, and we are the most significant human presence on the tarmac. Almost everyone else is cloistered away in crane cabs or in the pick-up trucks, buses, and larger eighteen-wheelers rattling across the road. What is left is the detritus of previous human presences: discarded cigarette boxes, empty kopi cups, snapped cable ties. We are the interlopers here, as is SAM. Around us, the massive port machinery moves in time to choreography on an enormous scale: up and down, backwards and forwards, side to side. Everything here feels modular—things are assembled, or broken down into their constituent parts, like an enormous game of Lego or Tetris. Everything is lifted, shifted and set down with effortless efficiency, so much so that I initially cannot get a sense of the sheer weight of each object moving across my field of vision. Eventually I realise I can recognise weight by how it translates into sound, the way both empty and laden trucks amble across the uneven tarmac. The lighter vehicles rattle more; the heavier vehicles introduce a deeper, rhythmic bass. Above this bassline, warning alarms sound off at various pitches, frequencies and rhythms, telling us that something is about to move forward or retreat.

For many of us on the hot tarmac, this marks our first material encounter with the gestures of import and export on a macro scale. We are all unfamiliar with the semiotics of this industrial space. These are processes masked from us. We are the recipients of the goods that arrive at this port, but our interface is not the clang of metal and steel, or the invisible man-hours of low-waged workers in the burning heat—but the soft click of keys and trackpads as we ‘add to cart’, the crinkle of plastic wrapping deposited at our doors. This brief glimpse of this specific labour is exotic to us; this dalliance feels almost too fetishistic, a toe in the water, a polaroid of a tiny moment in time. At the same time, there’s something astonishing about unleashing a dozen artists in a new space and inviting a kind of porosity to the physicality and psychogeographic imprints of the environment. Later on, as we take turns to share our observations with the rest of the room, I’m struck by how we are beginning to piece together our shared experiences. Some sit alongside each other, others intersect and overlap and reveal the ways in which we process these encounters. Here are some verbatim fragments from those observations:

Syimah Sabtu (performer): “The wind excited me more than the machines. The rotation of the wind and how it lifts up the item and pushes the item. If you put it in context with everything happening at the back, things are being lifted and moved. The other thing that excited me was thinking about what’s within the container, in-between the containers... the space in-between. I was trying to imagine the air being pressed when you put down the containers.”

Hasyimah Harith (company manager): “Stones, sun, skin, writing, motor, sky, weight, fence, I lock you in or I lock you out, or you are locked out? Wind, kite flying, where are the humans, empty buses with nobody, where do you come from? What is inside all these containers? Cascade. The fence has lines like fishing nets... Within them, plants growing.”

Chong Li-Chuan (sound designer): “There are a lot of textures or gestures in soundscape study. The gestures, of course, are iterative sounds. Over time, it numbs your senses and becomes a texture. The gestures can become textures once they’ve gone beyond a certain point. There are textures you don’t really notice until you shut the door, like the hum of the air-conditioning units from different containers forming a chorus that’s constantly there. There was a distinctive G-A note drone. On top of the drone there’s an alternating arpeggio going on.”


If our first experience with the port focuses on the physical and the tangible, architectural historian Dr Imran bin Tajudeen’s lecture invites us to dwell with the abstractions around what we know to be true—but also what we speculate and reimagine about our personal and regional pasts. He prefaces his talk with a caveat about history and the now, and how the past is always a foreign country: “We only know what we can directly experience. We can reconstruct the past all we want, but we won’t know it the way we know the present. Whatever we reconstruct of the past is informed by our biases and what we’re interested in.” What ensues is a whirlwind, whistlestop tou