Ah, Singapore, Singapore. Why you so postmodern? After two heartwarming, tales of community-based projects, Vertical Submarine served up a presentation of works as whimsically apolitical as a hipster’s moustache.
The presentation itself was a delight, though. Our interpreter Thet impersonated Joshua in English, while our interpreter Soe impersonated Fiona in Burmese – both reading from a pre-prepared script.
Thet: My name is Joshua Yang. I like the idea of subversion. I wanted to see if the word could subvert itself, making it Vert Sub, which expanded into Vertical Submarine, something that operates just under the radar.
Especially amusing when they started quarrelling over translations. (Joshua and Fiona Koh, the actual perpetrators cowered in the wings.)
But like I said: non-political works. A View with a Room, Planting Shadows and The Garden of Forking Paths are all installations that attempt to physicalise works of sub-canonical world literature (they reference Georges Perec, Chien Swee-Teng*, Jorge Luis Borges with a bit of Sun Tzu thrown in): optical illusions of fake mirrors and sunflowers painted in greyscale. Nothing wrong with that, but how on earth does it fit in with the themes that are criss-crossing our stay in Myanmar?
Anyhow, we were just finished our tour through the labyrinthine rooms of Garden of Forking Paths:
Thet/Joshua: We were told that our work had a narrative structure: we were trying to tell a story, but the only thing that was missing were the actors...
And then time was up. All three parties came up for the Q&A, including the genuine Josh and Fiona. KS asked for questions, and being impertinent and patriotic, I put up my hand and said please, Joshua, can you spend just 30 seconds describing your performance work?
This turned out to be rather good thing. Joshua spoke about Abusement Park, his installation-with-actors at the Singapore Art Museum’s Night Festival. (I’d thought he was gonna talk about Dust.)
Turns out Abusement Park was a conflation of the historical fact of everyday violence in 1960s-70s Singapore, combined with the contemporaneous popularity of amusement parks like Happy World, Beauty World, Great World, New World. Vertical Submarine therefore created a fairground where people could enjoy suffering: a shooting gallery where you paid to get shot, a coupon counter where you received tokens in return for being locked in the stocks – and these tokens were in themselves satirical subversions of old $2 notes, punks propagandizing to classrooms of hooligans while Che, Marx and Mao hovered in the background.
Yes, this took up more than 30 seconds. I was kinda pissed, because I thought it made Singapore look selfish. Maybe we ARE. But the point is, this brought out the weird hint of political subversion in their practice which barely registers to most viewers.
Alter U Participant: If you do something like that in our country, we would get a lot of trouble. How do you avoid that?
Joshua: I think we avoid doing things which are directly political. On the surface, it looks like a lot of fun and games.
Fiona: Regarding the violence of the 1970s: artists know about it. But the public, if they come into it, it’s just an amusement park with a twist. That’s how we get away with it.
KS had interesting stuff to say about notions of non-activist art, actually:
KS: NGOs always think you have to make something useful, and the “useful” is always described very very conservatively: you must give power to people hwo ware disempowered. You can see that with Vertical Submarine it’s about creating worlds in small rooms with wit, for great pleasure, to subvert these expectations.
In a way the Flying Circus, people say it produces nothing: it is not useful, artists meeting people who are interested in art around Asia. But we still do it, because we think usefulness is a restrictive way of thinking, if you think, “What’s the use of A or B or C?”
I ended up staying back for Vertical Submarine’s afternoon workshop, centred on their Logbook of Public Ideas, inspired by a friends who complained that they’d stolen her idea for the production Dust. It’s a book of ideas for performances, architecture, or simply poem-like ideas, all submitted by folks who love the fact that they’ve had these inspirations but don’t have the time to execute them fully (or at all).
We all sat around and wrote out our own ideas to contribute – though there’s attribution, these ideas will be from here on open-source, free for anyone to use without hope for royalties or recognition.
I wrote the synopsis for an unrealised short story for mine. Then I realized that my synopsis was basically a work of microfiction, so I withdrew it for my own selfish use.
Who’s subverting who now, buckaroos? BWAHAHAHAAHAHAHA.
* Chien Swee-Teng does not freaking exist. He’s a fictional Singaporean writer Vertical Submarine have invented to make their ideas sound more vintage and literary than they actually are. You see? Hipsters to the soy-latted core.