Published OnlineEdited and Accepted Articles

Interfaces and Intentionalities: Adjacent Practices of Urban Media Arts in Singapore / Kristy H.A. Kang


Kristy H.A. Kang
Assistant Professor, School of Art, Design and Media, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

Email: khakang@ntu.edu.sg

Web: http://www.kristykang.com

Reference this essay: Kang, Kristy H.A. “Interfaces and Intentionalities: Adjacent Practices of Urban Media Arts in Singapore.” In Urban Interfaces: Media, Art and Performance in Public Spaces, edited by Verhoeff, Nanna, Sigrid Merx, and Michiel de Lange. Leonardo Electronic Almanac 22, no. 4 (March 15, 2019).
Published Online: March 15, 2019
Published in Print: edit
ISBN: edit
ISSN: 1071-4391
Repository: edit

Abstract 
This paper explores how urban media arts transform Singapore’s public spaces into an urban interface – one that allows people to discover different intentionalities towards an understanding of ‘place.’ Sociologists Nicolas Gane and David Beer conceive of interfaces not as discrete technologies but as cultural devices and mediators of everyday experience, power infrastructures and space. Public spaces are also inherently cultural devices and mediators but they are latent, waiting for activation. They are the hard, infrastructure of the city. What urban media art does is activate public spaces, transforming them into an interface for discovering different conceptions and critiques of ‘place’ or the soft, socio-cultural layers of the city. This paper examines how Singapore’s public spaces are transformed into sites for discovering an understanding of ‘place’ – one of belonging or alienation. It looks at how official and unofficial urban media art is used to transform public space into different narratives of belonging by examining the work of independent street artist Samantha Lo and the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s iLight Festival and related projects. Each transforms public space into an interface for understanding the relationship between the (social and cultural) soft city and the (infrastructural) hard city.

Keywords:  Singapore, social interface, urban media art, place making, national identity, curating public space

 

Introduction 

In Soft City, a personalized account of London life in the early 1970s, Jonathan Raban offers an alternative to the idea of the city as a rationalized system of mass production and consumption. He proposes that the city is not static but ‘soft’ and pliable. According to Raban,

Cities, unlike villages and small towns, are plastic by nature. We mould them into our images: they in turn, shape us by the resistance they offer when we try to impose our own personal form on them. In this sense, it seems to me that living in cities is an art, and we need the vocabulary of art, of style, to describe the peculiar relationship between man and material that exists in the continual creative play of urban living. The city as we imagine it, the soft city of illusion, myth, aspiration, nightmare, is as real, maybe more real, than the hard city one can locate in maps and statistics, in monographs on urban sociology and demography and architecture. [1] 

Whereas the hard city can be understood as the architectural, infrastructural and statistical systems that underpin a city, the soft city can be understood here as the socio-cultural expression of the city through the everyday human traces of urban life. Raban describes the continual relationality, negotiation, the ‘moulding’ and ‘shaping’ that occurs between the soft and hard city, between “man and material” in urban space. Today, the ‘hard city’ has extended from concrete, glass and architecture to information networks that include mobile technology and urban screens in public space. As Scott McQuire argues in The Media City, the public sphere is no longer just spatial as large urban screens and mobile media devices allow media consumption to occur in public space. [2] As media proliferate in our public spaces, McQuire envisions the potential for new forms of public interaction that have the potential to change our relationship to urban space and the social relationships in that space. What are these new forms of public interaction? How does the soft city speak to the hard city today? How do they interface with each other? Interfaces are understood here to extend beyond the technological. Sociologists Nicolas Gane and David Beer conceive of interfaces not as discrete technologies but as cultural devices and mediators of everyday experience, power infrastructures and space. [3] Interfaces are not only cultural but social as well. Adriana de Souza e Silva describes the “social interface” as “symbolic systems that filter information and actively reshape communication relationships, and also reshape the space in which social interaction takes place.” [4] Public spaces are part of the hard, infrastructure of the city and they are, inherently, cultural devices, mediators and social interfaces that reshape spaces of social interaction. However, they are latent, waiting for activation. What urban media art does, is activate public spaces, transforming them into an interface for discovering different intentionalities, conceptions and critiques of ‘place’ (the soft, socio-cultural expressions of the city). Moreover, when public spaces are regarded as social interfaces, then questions arise on freedoms available within the space, for citizens to potentially engage, challenge, and reflect on their sense of place and belonging. 

This paper explores how urban media arts transform Singapore’s public spaces into an urban interface that allows people to discover different intentionalities towards an understanding of ‘place’ – one of belonging or alienation. It discusses how official and unofficial urban media art acts as an interface to tell different narratives of place-making in Singapore by looking at two case studies. The first is the Urban Redevelopment Authority’s iLight Festival and related projects in the Marina Bay Precinct that show how the state uses urban media art to educate and engage the public about Singapore’s development, growth and global ambitions. The second is local independent street artist Samantha Lo who uses the city’s public spaces to critique overdeveloped technological urbanism in Singapore and the alienation it creates. Her work can be described as a situationist form of urban art that makes us reflect upon the habitual use of mobile technologies in public space in order to reengage viewers with their everyday environment. Whereas the first example of urban media art aims to educate the public about urban development and infrastructure, the second aims to critique them, asking the public to reclaim space and be more self-aware of their habitual consumption of technology and the disconnected distraction it creates among inhabitants.

 

Place-making and Singapore

How do inhabitants create a sense of place? Among the substantial scholarly contributions to the subject, philosopher Edward Casey argues that place is where we inscribe personal meaning. [5] Similarly, Edward Relph describes places as “territories of meaning” that arise from everyday experiences, familiar routines, people and the knowledge one accumulates from these over time. These meanings “involve a sense of being someone who belongs to this specific place and whose own identity is irrevocably tied to its landscapes and activities.” [6] Marc Augé defines place as “relational, historical and concerned with identity” (whereas a space without these characteristics would be a “non-place”). [7] These definitions imply that a certain amount of recognizability and stability is necessary to create a shared sense of place among inhabitants, for how can one create a sense of identity, history and accumulated understanding of an environment if it continually changes or shifts? Though we may inscribe meaning, a sense of belonging and identity to our everyday environments in order to create a sense of place, cultural geographer Doreen Massey points out that our sense of place is never stagnant but rather, in a constant state of becoming. [8] In other words, for inhabitants to create a sense of place, there exists a tension between the desire for a sense of familiarity and stability in our everyday environment and its evolution, growth, and inevitable change. Singapore, like other rapidly developing urban cities, is in a constant state of becoming – a global city that exemplifies plasticity while concerned with cultivating its national identity through urban and cultural renewal and development. However, because of its rapid urban re-development its territories of inscribed personal meaning and its landscape are unevenly and rarely fixed or stable. As such, it provides a useful case study of a city that is in a continual process of urban renewal while endeavoring to simultaneously cultivate a national identity and sense of place for its citizens.

An independent island city-state in Southeast Asia that is 716 square kilometers, Singapore is less than half the size of London. Though an island, its land reclamation projects have increased its total size by 23 percent and its urban planning projects continually re-shape the city, creating a sense among its citizens, of relentless progress that often neglects to retain meaningful traces of its past. Central to this effort is the Urban Redevelopment Authority or URA – the nation state’s central planning and development organization, which was founded in 1964, a year before Singapore became an independent nation. It began as the Urban Renewal Unit as part of the Housing Development Board whose primary mandate was to provide public housing for residents at a time when much of Singapore was comprised of ‘kampongs’ or villages. [9] Singapore is largely unrecognizable from what it was over five decades ago and its rapid renewal creates a certain anxiety and sense of placelessness among its citizens. For example, a recent article in Singapore’s national newspaper, The Straits Times, critiques the “generic city we call home,” unabated urban development and the endangerment of vernacular post-independence architectural heritage in Singapore, challenging the state to preserve a sense of place and belonging for its citizens rather than continually serve the interest of private development. [10] Though architectural heritage as place-making is endangered on the one hand by urban development, Singapore has made efforts to support the development of an arts and culture infrastructure as another form of place-making and national identity. The idea is that cultivating an arts culture would create a sense of identity for the state. 

 

From Soft City to Software City 

Singapore has long fashioned itself as a global city that has elevated its status in the world through development of its urban and cultural infrastructure. Geographers Lily Kong, Chia-Ho Ching and Tsu-Lung Chou have discussed how the city-state’s cultural strategy for developing an arts infrastructure reflect both a desire to be a “global city for the arts” while simultaneously contributing to “the construction of national identity.” [11] They acknowledge that global cities have a world-class cultural infrastructure and that Singapore has fashioned its ambitions along these lines through urban development projects that have attracted international arts. However, an arts infrastructure that privileges the global and fails to adequately nurture the development of local, indigenous arts is detrimental to the development of a national identity. They state, 

While acknowledging that global cities have world-class cultural infrastructure, the arts community in Singapore argued that providing the ‘hardware’ (infrastructure and facilities) without concomitant attention to the ‘software’ (creative development) would be regressive for the development of local/indigenous arts … In as much as a global city is not only about hardware, it is also not only about showcasing the works of international artists. No global city is worth its salt if it does not have a strong base of indigenous works that express local flavors and national identities. [12]

This statement advocates a need for indigenous and vernacular arts to flourish in order for the cultivation of a national identity that is globally distinct. It also extends Raban’s notions of the hard and soft city to the hardware and software of the city. The vision of Singapore’s urban arts infrastructure is metaphorically upgraded to hardware while the software of the city is its creative development by communities of indigenous artists and practitioners. What, then, is the urban interface by which the software and hardware of the city connect and communicate with each other? It is useful here to extend the understanding of the interface beyond technical devices into conceptual devices in order to allow for a broader definition that includes cultural communication through a variety of points of contact that include urban place. Nicolas Gane and David Beer claim that “interfaces order and facilitate information access, and enable the reproduction and consumption of culture in particular ways and in particular places.” [13] They argue that understanding the role that the interface plays in processes of connecting between worlds (organic and inorganic or physical and informational) is crucial if we are to allow questions to be asked about ‘the politics of informatics’ and how information can reside in points of contact between bodies, networks and cities. I propose that in Singapore, public space is an interface, a latent point of contact between inhabitants and the state, between culture and infrastructure. Urban media arts can activate this latent interface between infrastructural ‘hardware’ of the city and the expressions of cultural ‘software’ where visions of place, identity and belonging can be displayed and potentially discussed. However, there are very different and perhaps contradictory visions and intentionalities for what that sense of place is. One focuses on globalization, technological advancement and modernization. But the danger in realizing this globalized vision is to inadvertently homogenize specificities of place – to smooth out the vernacular cracks and idiosyncrasies that often distinguish a place and its peoples. The other aims to make visible the diversity of voices and identities that comprise a more heterogenous vision of place that might appear uneven, messy or at odds with the aims of modernization at times. This intimate human vision can easily be marginalized and is typically more fragile. Urban media art can act as an interface that activates public space and displays these different visions to the public, allowing the space itself to become a node of communication between artists, the state and its inhabitants to exhibit and even try on diverse understandings of place.

 

Projection Mapping and Light Festivals as Urban Interfaces

As cities and citizens vie to claim their sense of their place in a global economic and cultural network, the city itself becomes a screen onto which aspirations of technological advancement and global belonging are projected. In Chris Berry’s discussion of public screen culture in Shanghai, he states, 

Public space is contested space, and screens participate in attempts to regulate and smooth our public behaviors. But their ability to perform this function is dependent on the screens’ ability to engage spectators amidst all the visual clutter of contemporary public space … an important factor of enabling this engagement depends on an element of ‘secular enchantment’ bestowed on moving image screens by relocating and remediating the magic of the moving image from the cinema. [14]

Creative industry practitioners are utilizing technologies like projection mapping to create the kinds of spectacular, large-scale architectural light show performances we have come to associate with site-specific projection events. While these performances are appealing in their ability to transform architecture into a spectacle of moving image magic and ‘secular enchantment’ of the kind that Berry identifies, they typically act as a form of ephemeral entertainment designed to display technological prowess. They often reduce architecture into a screen to display the latest forms of abstract data visualization animations. Projection mapping, if developed with site-specific content that engages the voices of its citizens and cultural specificity, could potentially be much more. In the case of Singapore, light festivals and projection mapping are one form of urban media art that activates public space into an urban interface. In this section I will describe two examples – one is by a local design studio who transformed the façade of an historic building into a projection mapping spectacle and the other is an annual light festival managed by the Urban Redevelopment Authority. Each example uses media art to transform public space into a point of contact between the state and its inhabitants – an interface that allows communication between the hardware and software of the city. Each creates an interface for the public to view an official narrative of Singapore’s development into a modern city and understand its vision for energy sustainability. 

The first example discusses projection mapping content created by Hexogon Solution – a design studio founded in Singapore in 1997 and which has since expanded their operations to Taiwan, Japan, Thailand and Hong Kong. In 2009 Hexogon established an Effects and Technology Department specializing in video mapping technologies and related media. Hexogon creates a range of content for their clients from retail and commercial trade shows to events and performances including for Singapore’s 50th birthday celebrations in 2015. They received a commission to create a projection mapped animation for the historic Fullerton Hotel, built during the British colonial period and used as the General Post Office before being converted into a luxury hotel in the late 1990s. The animation tells the story of Singapore which is presented as a narrative about industrial development and growth. The façade of the Fullerton becomes a screen onto which the story of modernization is projected. Silhouettes of animated workers traverse the levels of the building to re-create the architecture of the hotel itself. The animation culminates by transforming the hotel into a giant birthday cake celebrating Singapore’s 50th as “one people, one nation.” [15] Hexogon’s tranformation of the Fullerton Hotel into a screen narrating the infrastructural history of Singapore as a rapidly developing global city is an example of the kind of public spectacle catering to a wide audience that includes local and international viewers. However, it reduces the complexity of Singaporean cultural identity and heritage to a narrative about modern development. It reinforces the belief that rapid urban growth has only positive outcomes and this is how Singapore has evolved from a post-colonial nation into a global, cosmopolitan city-state. It impersonalizes the narrative of the Singaporean experience and does not leave room to reflect on any feelings of disenchantment towards relentless growth that may be experienced by its citizens – especially those who have witnessed its growth but who no longer recognize their own city and feel alienated from it. Though this may be the case, this site-specific projection mapping performance is ultimately a demonstration of Singapore’s ability to create its own home-grown forms of ‘secular enchantment’ for the global market and a demonstration of its own creative industries. As media scholar Stephanie DeBoer states in her essay on media, location and global place-making,

What is particular to the contemporary interface between media and urban space is its frequent mobilization toward the establishment of ‘creative’ media capital … Promoted widely as the most prescient form of urban development, creative industries, as they have most generally been articulated around the globe, work to link ‘creative personality’ with ‘organized production’ for the purpose of engendering profit and prestige for the city. [16]

DeBoer highlights the conflation of urban development and urban media arts as necessary in the establishment of creative industries that foster the reputations of global cities such as Shanghai in her case study. The conflation between urban development and urban media arts to create a sense of place as well as prestige is similarly practiced in Singapore through projection mapped animations such as the example I have described as well as through other forms of urban media art – the iLight Festival. 

The iLight Festival is “Southeast Asia’s leading sustainable light art festival” – an annual light festival comprising public media artworks that serve both as temporary exhibition and as a public service initiative promoting energy sustainability. [17] A project of the Urban Redevelopment Authority or URA – Singapore’s central planning and development agency – the festival started in 2010 to activate the newly developed Marina Bay precinct after business hours. Once a body of water, the Marina Bay precinct was developed on reclaimed land and was designed to be an extension of Singapore’s Central Business District, becoming the city’s newest downtown financial and civic center. It includes landmarks such as the Gardens by the Bay, the Moshe Safdie designed Marina Bay Sands Casino and Hotel and Art Science Museum, and features a floating stage where the National Day Parade is annually held. Singapore is comprised of several precincts which are managed by different government agencies. The Marina Bay Precinct, historic Kampong Glam and Singapore River are collectively managed by the URA under the Place Management Department. Formerly called the Marina Bay Development Agency, the Place Management Department was formed in 2006 during the development of the Marina Bay precinct. Its focus was not just to promote business and finance but to create an idea of place that would transform the precinct into a dynamic 24-hour live work and play space. This vision required the department to create cooperation with stakeholders and a style of managing public space conceived and described as “urban planning as the hardware and place management as software.” [18] Here the infrastructural ‘hardware’ of the nation’s urban planning agency simultaneously takes on the role of creative producer of cultural ‘software.’ In other words, the place management department acted as facilitators of public art programs that create an interface between the built environment and the people who inhabit it, acting as mediators of the interface between hard state and soft city, between hardware and software city. The case of the iLight Festival acts as an interface for conveying the message of energy sustainability to the Singapore community. The idea of sustainability emerged as a primary motivating factor during the early planning stages of the Marina Bay precinct because sustainability was important to address in the architecture and design plans for the new district. The iLight festival sought to reinforce this position by encouraging artworks in the festival to incorporate the concept of sustainability in their designs. Reinforcing energy sustainability even further, the festival includes a program called ‘Switch Off’ where building owners switch off their lights and turn the temperature of air-conditioning up to encourage the practice of energy efficiency. The month-long festival has steadily grown in popularity with the general public. When it started in 2010 it attracted 430,000 visitors and was a bi-annual event until 2016 when it became annual. By 2017 the audience had grown to 1.5 million visitors, most of whom were locals. [19] In this case, the iLight festival is a curated public media art spectacle designed to activate a new district after office hours, enchant and entertain the local public while simultaneously educating them about sustainability and encouraging energy efficiency as a civic practice. The intent of public space here is to be temporarily transformed into a pedagogical platform for learning about energy sustainability through an urban media art exhibit and festival.

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Caption: Figure 1 – Transistable Plastic, Luzinterruptus, 2018. iLight art installation made of plastic waste. Photograph by Kristy H.A. Kang. © Kristy H.A. Kang, 2018. Used with permission.

Whereas the public media art of Hexogon and iLight creates an interface for the public to celebrate the city and learn about Singapore’s narrative of modern urban development or sustainability, other independent media artists transform public space into a different interface – one in which the public can learn about the lack of place and belonging that is a side effect of rapid urban development. Whereas Hexogon and iLight celebrate the possibilities of development, artists like Samantha Lo offer a critique of it. The intent of such work expresses an alternative intentionality – to make transparent the impact of urban development on its citizens and the sense of placelessness that rapid modernization can create.

 

The Urban Interventions of Samantha Lo

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Caption: Figure 2 – Champion Colloquial, Samantha Lo (SKL0), 2012. Part of the “What is Our Culture” series (2011-2012). © Samantha Lo, 2012. Used with permission.

Among the artists working in contemporary urban practices in Singapore is Samantha Lo, known as SKL0. In a series of urban street art interventions made between 2011 and 2012, Lo appropriated the visual codes of official street signs in Singapore to create her own signs, made as a gesture of re-claiming places “to feel more like Singapore again.” [20] Lo attempts to re-claim public space by inscribing a sense of neglected public agency and belonging onto its surfaces. Part of a series entitled “What is Our Culture,” Lo spray painted the words “My Grandfather’s Road” onto the pavement of Telegraph Street in Singapore’s downtown Central Business District and “My Grandfather’s Building” on the wall of a realty center in the city. Lo subsequently made headlines in 2012 when she was arrested, charged with vandalism and subsequently sentenced to 240 hours of community service after paying for the cleaning of the signs she and her colleague spray painted. Supporters of Lo’s work created an online petition calling for her release and her arrest sparked a series of debates both in media and in public talks on censorship and the arts in Singapore. During the debate, Lo was given the nickname ‘the sticker lady’ in reference to the series of stickers she created that were designed to be inconspicuously placed on pedestrian cross walk buttons throughout the city. Replacing the normally blank buttons with statements such as “Panic Button,” “Press to Teleport,” and “Press Until Shiok,” (Shiok comes from Malay and means ‘fantastic,’ ‘delicious,’ or ‘enjoyable’) Lo playfully disturbs our complacent and prescribed understanding of public space, asking the audience to be more conscious, self-aware and critical of the ways in which we are made to understand the city’s infrastructure and our place in it. 

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Caption: Figure 3 – Champion Colloquial, SKL0, 2012. Part of the “What is Our Culture” series (2011-2012). © Samantha Lo, 2012. Used with permission.

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Caption: Figure 4 – Champion Colloquial, SKL0, 2012. Part of the “What is Our Culture” series (2011-2012). © Samantha Lo, 2012. Used with permission.

She states, 

In today’s fast-paced and ever-changing landscape, where surroundings appear more homogenous and the people who inhabit these spaces experience a change in dynamics in terms of progression, the question of the existence of the Singaporean identity evoke vague answers from the very people who call themselves citizens to this country – which brings us to the next question- what makes one a citizen of a country? What is home, and what is the significance of recognizing what feels like home? It is not just the roof over your head – it is the feeling of comfort, of belonging, of the natural responsibility that comes with that very bond. But with rapid progress and increasing indifference, globalization, the rise in outsourcing and focus on economic gain which come hand in hand with the shiny new building facades and new technology, have we forgotten how it feels like to feel at home, like how we remembered it? [21] 

Lo uses her street art to transform public space into an urban interface that expresses an alternative narrative to the possibilities of globalization and economic growth. Her work articulates instead, the limits of globalization in engaging its citizens. While Singapore has fashioned itself into a model of urbanism onto which aspirations of technological advancement and global economic belonging are projected, its citizens struggle to identify with its vision of growth and have become disengaged and indifferent instead. Globalization and technological advancement in this case has created a sense of alienation, lack of agency and resulted in a homogenizing sense of identity for its citizens. Yet a homogenous identity contradicts the indigenous culture of Singapore which is inherently hybrid. This hybridity is utilized in Lo’s street sign stickers, which were designed to celebrate a distinct form of Singapore’s hybrid cultural identity – Singlish. 

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Caption: Figure 5 – Champion Colloquial, SKL0, 2012. Part of the “What is Our Culture” series (2011-2012). © Samantha Lo, 2012. Used with permission.

 

Between A Hard and Soft Language

Singapore is known for having four official languages that represent the facets of cultural diversity on which its national ideology and independence is founded. When political independence was achieved in 1965, Singapore declared itself a multiracial state in their constitution. This formalization of multiracial diversity was instrumental given the presence of different Asian communities and its geopolitical situation of being the only country in the Malay region with a majority Chinese ethnic population. [22] At the time of independence Singapore had a residential population comprising 75 percent ethnic Chinese, 17 percent ethnic Malays, 7 percent Indians and a small category of ‘Others’ that included local born Eurasians and other mainly White individuals. The CMIO scheme, as it is called, refers to the Chinese, Malay, Indian and Other types under which each Singaporean is officially racially categorized. And though English, Chinese, Tamil and Malay are the official languages, the Singaporean national anthem is sung in Malay, in recognition that Malays were constitutionally the indigenous people of the state. [23] People will notice when exploring the city, that public signs are often written in four languages. The multi-ethnic linguistic landscape of Singapore is visible in the official street signs and their names. Moreover, this heterogeneity is audible in one of the city-state’s more distinguishing aspects – Singlish, which is a form of local creole that mixes phrases and terms from Mandarin, Malay, Tamil and English. At one point, this form of vernacular language had been actively discouraged by the government. This was most evident with the establishment of the 2001 “Speak Good English” campaign designed to “encourage Singaporeans to speak grammatically correct English that is universally understood.” [24] This particular form of hybridity, perhaps, was seen as detrimental to the vision of Singapore as a modern, global place. It also showed the state’s efforts to create an institutional policy for smoothing out and regulating the rougher edges of Singapore’s cultural expression through vernacular language. Here language became the node of contact between hard and soft city where national identity was contested. But attitudes towards Singlish have started to change. This was made evident more recently during Singapore’s celebration of its 50th anniversary in 2015. During the National Day celebrations and performances Singlish was featured and even celebrated as a distinguishing contribution to national cultural identity. Moreover, in 2016, 19 Singlish words were added to the Oxford English Dictionary. [25] Evoking this contested linguistic identity, the work of Samantha Lo deliberately uses Singlish in her street signs as a means of re-inscribing public spaces into something distinctive to Singapore, using an indigenous language that locals would be familiar with but that does not appear on the official street signage in the city. She states,

… I started using Singlish phrases, and things that reflected Singaporeans. I wanted to try to break through that indifference. To make people see that there is more than just the 9-to-5 grind. Street art was perfect because the public space is the medium. Also, street art is a very strong statement. It is the act of reclaiming spaces. And that, in itself, is what I wanted to do. I wanted to take back spaces, and make them Singaporean again. [26]

Lo recognizes that public space can be turned into an interface that can provoke engagement with people passing through – creating an intention to awaken awareness of a more democratic experience in public space that engenders a sense of belonging. While Singlish was celebrated officially during its national day ceremony, it seems contradictory that Lo was chastised by the state for her appropriation of Singlish, using it as a signifier of Singapore’s cultural identity. Furthermore, it is ironic that one of the outcomes of this particular curatorial negotiation between hard state and soft city was a public art commission awarded to Lo to create site-specific works in Sentosa – an island resort off of Singapore’s southern coast. This was part of a campaign called “Signs on the Loose” and commissioned by the Sentosa Leisure Group to be featured for Singapore’s 2013 National Day celebrations. [27] Lo describes these works as “keeping to my signature style of site-specific work, induced with some smart-ass commentary and Sentosa’s love for all things Singaporean, I present to you the People’s Republic and The Lepak Corner – my way of taking back spaces to share that inside joke, for the Singaporean to feel like home again.” [28] In this work, Lo mimicked public street signs and playfully subverted them. These signs displayed phrases like “Stop Looking At Your Phone” spray painted onto the pavement, informed viewers to “Get Out of the Sun if Your Skin Tone Matches This Sign” (the sign is red and features female and male icons), or simply displayed the word “Loading” below the familiar icon that appears on computer screens when information is being updated. Other signs were designed to mimic those used in case of emergency and featured a small metal box showing a replica of an iPhone placed inside and the instructions “In Case of Solitude, Break Glass” painted on the front of the display case.

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Caption: Figure 6 – The People’s Republic: Signs on the Loose, SKL0, 2013. Site-specific work. © Samantha Lo, 2013. Used with permission.

Lo’s appropriation and playful subversion of everyday public street signs expands upon De Souza e Silva’s notion of ‘social interfaces’ and ‘hybrid spaces’ created by mobile phones. She defines the mobile phone as a “social interface” – “a digital device that intermediates relationships between two or more users” and reshapes our understanding of physical space. [29] Mobile phones are mobile interfaces that allow people to connect with the digital world while moving through the physical world. De Souza e Silva contends that digital space and physical space are imbricated and not separate. [30] This is made most evident with the use of mobile technology which allows people to carry around the internet in physical spaces rather than be tethered to a personal computer at a fixed location. She defines this blurred boundary between digital and physical space ‘hybrid space.’ Sociability in public spaces is reconfigured because people move through physical space while simultaneously being connected in real time to others through mobile technologies. This is now true more than ever with the proliferation of people moving through public spaces engaged almost entirely by their devices. Lo uses the situated physicality of the street sign to communicate with mobile phone users – to create a moment of irony and to elicit a self-awareness satirizing the hyper-connectivity of the nomadic mobile phone user in hybrid space. Lo’s urban media art visualizes the blurred boundary between digital and physical space, relocating and layering the digital space onto physical space in order to challenge viewers to reflect on their behavior and sociability in public spaces. This is a departure from De Souza e Silva’s description of mobile connectivity in physical space where the individual is physically present in social and public space while simultaneously connected to a larger network of mobile connectivity and infrastructure. Lo’s work makes explicit and visible the ‘hybrid spaces’ that De Souza e Silva describes as blurry. But it also calls it into question and critiques the normalization of hybrid space, its taken-for-grantedness. For Lo, it is not a space of possibilities but a space of distraction and disconnectedness from the physical realities that constitute a sense of place. We may all be accustomed to hybrid spaces but there is a lack of agency, place or sense of belonging in them. We have become consumers rather than curators of the spaces we move through, whether physical, digital or hybrid. Public space has become a space of consumption rather than creation but as the work of Samantha Lo shows, this does not have to be the case in Singapore. Lo’s work makes visible the limitations of a public space that fails to engage its citizens and instead, promotes distraction through technological consumption rather than reflection. In questioning the limitations of public space to create a sense of belonging for its citizens, Lo reveals the lack of an effective public interface that makes visible cultural consumption and fosters communication between citizen and state.

 

Conclusion

By looking at these adjacent practices of urban media art I am seeking to articulate how their differences create the potential for diverse understandings of place and belonging. Like the projection mapping project on the Fullerton Hotel, the iLight festival transforms public space into something attractive and playful while promoting a narrative of urban development combined with technological innovation that is designed to serve the goals of modernization for the global city. Both are an illustration of Berry’s notion of ‘secular enchantment’ and DeBoer’s ‘establishment of creative media capital’ in that their intent is to utilize urban media art to promote a particular vision of national identity – one that is top-down, pedagogical in tone and designed primarily for passive consumption. This is in contrast to the urban interface in public space created in the work of Samantha Lo who asks us not to be passive but to reflect upon and question the alienation caused by rapid urban development and the culture of spectacle and attractions generated by the modern, technologically advanced global city. These adjacent examples of urban media art activate public space into interfaces that express different intentionalities towards the understanding of place. This interface can become a node of contact and communication where the possibility of dialogue can emerge between the artist, public and state, where all three may transform public space in order to convey meaning or a set of ideals. The case of the state commission of Lo to create public artworks in Sentosa shows an instance in which the artist’s work, combined with public support influenced the state into creating a unique urban media artwork by a local artist. Though one could argue that the state acted strategically in re-appropriating Lo’s work to perhaps soften its initial vindication of her work and placate the public in their defense of Lo, I would argue instead that this creates potentialities for imagining alternative urban interfaces that can engage the public to create a dialogue between city and citizen – between the hard and soft city. There are unimagined possibilities for creating a sustainable culture of support for indigenous forms of urban media art when the hard state becomes softer or when top-down forms of infrastructure meet bottom-up expressions of culture. It is this untapped potential of adjacent, coexisting and heterogeneous urban arts culture that may transform the public spaces of Singapore into interfaces that are truly representative of all its inhabitants and their diverse understandings of place.

   

Author Biography 

Dr. Kristy H.A. Kang is a practice-based researcher whose work explores narratives of place and geographies of cultural memory. She is Assistant Professor in the School of Art, Design and Media at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore and was previously Associate Director of the Spatial Analysis Lab at the University of Southern California Sol Price School of Public Policy. Her research interests combine urban studies, ethnic studies and digital media arts to visualize cultural histories of cities and communities. She received her Ph.D. in Media Arts and Practice at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts. 

Kang was a founding member of the Labyrinth Project research initiative on interactive narrative and digital scholarship at USC directed by media scholar Marsha Kinder. Her works have been exhibited and presented at institutions including the Getty Research Institute, The ZKM Center for Art and Media, the Society for Cinema and Media Studies and received awards including the Jury Award for New Forms at the Sundance Online Film Festival. In 2018 she was co-organizer with Anne Balsamo (UT Dallas) and Stephanie DeBoer (Indiana University) of an international symposium on mediated public space “Emergent Visions: Adjacency and Urban Screens” (http://www.emergentvisions.org).

Notes and References 

[1] Jonathan Raban, Soft City (London: Hamish-Hamilton, 1974), 2.

[2] Scott McQuire, The Media City: Media, Architecture and Urban Space (London: Sage Publications, 2008).

[3] Nicolas Gane and David Beer, New Media: The Key Concepts (New York: Berg, 2008).

[4] Adriana de Souza e Silva, “From Cyber to Hybrid: Mobile Technologies as Interfaces of Hybrid Spaces,” Space and Culture 9, no. 3 (2006): 262.

[5] Edward S. Casey, Getting Back Into Place: Toward a Renewed Understanding of the Place-World, 2nd ed. (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2009).

[6] Edward Relph, “Spirit of Place and Sense of Place in Virtual Realities,” Techné: Research in Philosophy and Technology 10, no. 3 (Spring 2007): 18. 

[7] Marc Augé, Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (London and New York: Verso, 1995), 77-78.

[8] Doreen Massey, “A Global Sense of Place,” Marxism Today (June 1991): 24-29.

[9] Urban Redevelopment Authority, “History of URA,” updated July 28, 2016, https://www.ura.gov.sg/uol/about-us/our-organisation/ura-history.

[10] Amanda Lee Koe, “If This Is Home, Truly, It Should Look Like Home,” The Straits Times, April 1, 2018, https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/housing/if-this-is-home-truly-it-should-look-like-home.

[11] Lily Kong, Chia-Ho Ching and Tsu-Lung Chou, Arts, Culture and The Making of Global Cities: Creating New Urban Landscapes In Asia (Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2015), 20.

[12] Ibid., 93.

[13] Gane and Beer, New Media, 68.

[14] Chris Berry, “Shanghai’s Public Screen Culture: Local and Coeval,” in Public Space, Media Space, ed. Chris Berry, Janet Harbord and Rachel Moore (London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013), 110-111.

[15] Hexogon Solution, “Fullerton Hotel Celebrates its Golden Jubilee (SG50) with a 3D Projection Mapping Show,” accessed August 3, 2016, http://www.hexogonsol.com/hexogonsg/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=183:fullerton-hotel-celebrates-singapores-golden-jubileesg50-with-a-3d-projection-mapping-show&Itemid=104.

[16] Stephanie DeBoer, “Film and Media Location: Toward a Dynamic and Scaled Sense of Global Place,” in Framing the Global: Entry Points for Research, ed. Hilary E. Kahn (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014), 144.

[17] Singapore Tourism Board, “iLight Singapore,” accessed June 13, 2019, https://www.visitsingapore.com/festivals-events-singapore/annual-highlights/i-light-marina-bay/.

[18] Interview with Jason Chen, director of Place Management of Urban Redevelopment Authority of Singapore, May 25, 2017.

[19] Ibid.  

[20] Sheela Sarvananda, “Sam Lo Aka Sticker Lady: The Only Thing I’m Angry About Is…” singapore scene, june 12, 2013, https://sg.news.yahoo.com/blogs/singaporescene/sam-lo-aka-sticker-lady-only-thing-m-045040477.html.

[21] Samantha Lo, “Champion Colloquial,” accessed October 3, 2016, http://skl0.com/my-product/champion-colloquial/.

[22] Chua Beng Huat, “Multiculturalism in Singapore: An Instrument of Social Control,” Race and Class 44, no. 3 (2003): 58-77.

[23] Chua Beng Huat, Liberalism Disavowed: Communitarianism and State Capitalism in Singapore (Singapore: NUS Press, 2017), 128.

[24] M. Nirmala, “Buck Up, Poor English Reflects Badly On Us: PM,” The Straits Times, April 30, 2000, 4. 

[25] Lee Min Kok, “Shiok! 19 Singlish Items Added To The Oxford English Dictionary,” The Straits Times, May 12, 2016, http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/shiok-19-singlish-items-added-to-the-oxford-english-dictionary.

[26] Sarvananda, “Sam Lo Aka Sticker Lady.”

[27] Feng Zhengkun, “‘Sticker lady’ Samantha Lo to Bring Street Graffiti to Sentosa – legally,” The Straits Times, July 17, 2013, http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/sticker-lady-samantha-lo-to-bring-street-graffiti-to-sentosa-legally.

[28] Samantha Lo, “The People’s Republic/Lepak Corner at Sentosa,” accessed October 3, 2016, http://skl0.com/the-peoples-republic-lepak-corner-at-sentosa/.

[29] De Souza e Silva, “From Cyber to Hybrid,” 262.

[30] De Souza e Silva, “From Cyber to Hybrid.”

Bibliography 

Augé, Marc. Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity. London and New York: Verso, 1995.

Beng Huat, Chua. Liberalism Disavowed: Communitarianism and State Capitalism in Singapore. Singapore: NUS Press, 2017.

Beng Huat, Chua. “Multiculturalism in Singapore: An Instrument of Social Control.” Race and Class 44, no. 3 (2003): 58-77.

Berry, Chris. “Shanghai’s Public Screen Culture: Local and Coeval.” In Public Space, Media Space, edited by Chris Berry, Janet Harbord and Rachel Moore, 110-134. London: Palgrave MacMillan, 2013. 

Casey, Edward S. Getting Back Into Place: Toward a Renewed Understanding of the Place-World, 2nd ed. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2009.

DeBoer, Stephanie. “Film and Media Location: Toward a Dynamic and Scaled Sense of Global Place.” In Framing the Global: Entry Points for Research, edited by Hilary E. Kahn, 137-156. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2014.

De Souza e Silva, Adriana. “From Cyber to Hybrid: Mobile Technologies as Interfaces of Hybrid Spaces,” Space and Culture 9, no. 3 (2006): 261-278.

Gane, Nicolas, and David Beer. New Media: The Key Concepts. New York: Berg, 2008.

Hexogon Solution. “Fullerton Hotel Celebrates its Golden Jubilee (SG50) with a 3D Projection Mapping Show.” Accessed August 3, 2016. http://www.hexogonsol.com/hexogonsg/index.php?option=com_k2&view=item&id=183:fullerton-hotel-celebrates-singapores-golden-jubileesg50-with-a-3d-projection-mapping-show&Itemid=104.

Kong, Lily, Chia-Ho Ching, and Tsu-Lung Chou. Arts, Culture and The Making of Global Cities: Creating New Urban Landscapes In Asia. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2015.

Lee Koe, Amanda. “If This Is Home, Truly, It Should Look Like Home.” The Straits Times, April 1, 2018. https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/housing/if-this-is-home-truly-it-should-look-like-home.

Lo, Samantha. “Champion Colloquial.” Accessed October 3, 2016. http://skl0.com/my-product/champion-colloquial/.

Lo, Samantha. “The People’s Republic/Lepak Corner at Sentosa.” Accessed October 3, 2016. http://skl0.com/the-peoples-republic-lepak-corner-at-sentosa/.

Massey, Doreen. “A Global Sense of Place.” Marxism Today (June 1991): 24-29.

McQuire, Scott. The Media City: Media, Architecture and Urban Space. London: Sage Publications, 2008.

Min Kok, Lee. “Shiok! 19 Singlish Items Added To The Oxford English Dictionary.” The Straits Times, May 12, 2016. http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/shiok-19-singlish-items-added-to-the-oxford-english-dictionary.

Nirmala, M. “Buck Up, Poor English Reflects Badly On Us: PM.” The Straits Times, April 30, 2000. 

Raban, Jonathan. Soft City. London: Hamish-Hamilton, 1974.

Relph, Edward. “Spirit of Place and Sense of Place in Virtual Realities.” Techné: Research in Philosophy and Technology 10, no. 3 (Spring 2007): 17-25.

Sarvananda, Sheela. “Sam Lo Aka Sticker Lady: The Only Thing I’m Angry About Is…” Singapore Scene, June 12, 2013. https://sg.news.yahoo.com/blogs/singaporescene/sam-lo-aka-sticker-lady-only-thing-m-045040477.html.

Singapore Tourism Board. “iLight Singapore.” Accessed June 13, 2019. https://www.visitsingapore.com/festivals-events-singapore/annual-highlights/i-light-marina-bay/.

Urban Redevelopment Authority. “History of URA.” Updated July 28, 2016. https://www.ura.gov.sg/uol/about-us/our-organisation/ura-history.

Zhengkun, Feng. “‘Sticker lady’ Samantha Lo to Bring Street Graffiti to Sentosa – legally.” The Straits Times, July 17, 2013. http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/sticker-lady-samantha-lo-to-bring-street-graffiti-to-sentosa-legally.