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March, 2015 Monthly archive

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This new body of work is very different from the usual Edwin Koo style of gritty black and white. Aren’t you too old to be having a mid-life crisis?

On the surface, Transit is very different from Paradise (2013), my black-and-white work on Swat Valley, Pakistan. But the modus operandi is the same. For Paradise, I went to Pakistan to experience and search for paradise. For Transit, I ventured onto train platforms, that strange territory, to experience and search for the meaning of ‘transit’. For me, style is not a matter of having a cookie-cutter approach in aesthetics, but developing a persistently personal way of seeing different things in life.


Are we seeing an artist struggling to find a new path or this is the real you?

This is as real as you can get of me – I don’t think I have changed. Even though this work seems very ‘deliberate’, how it started was as organic as all my other works. The works I produce actually ‘happen’ to me, meaning that I react to circumstances and try to say something with photography.

In 2011, when I saw how crowded Singapore’s MRT trains have become, I started to photograph the situation out of a sense of frustration and alienation. I was protesting against the system. When my anger died down, I realised that there are interesting things I could observe from the frozen moments at the train doors. Each scene presented a glimpse into the Singapore we live in today.

For a long time, all I did was haunt the stations, looking for the story I wanted to tell. To find the answer, I tried many methods. I set up 120mm cameras on tripods in front of train doors. I tried photographing among the rush-hour crowds with a DSLR. I also tried boarding the first and last trains for the day, and mapping out stations to see when the sunlight would stream into the platforms. Eventually, I came back to shooting the train doors. Each time they open and close, they present to me a theatre of daily life. Strung together, they become a collective portrait of commuters in Singapore today.

You seem to be saying that the trains are always too crowded. Have you ever written complaint letters to LTA and SMRT? Or do you actually think your images will do a better job of communicating the problem?

I don’t think LTA or SMRT can do anything about overpopulation or our plan to have a 6.9 million population. And I’m not the type to write a complaint letter. I don’t even think my images say anything about overcrowding. They are intentionally taken at peak hours so that I can have my protagonists at the front of the door. If a train carriage isn’t crowded, no one stands near the door. If no one is standing at the door, then it is an empty stage.

Who are your protagonists?

Basically any peak-hour commuter who has the potential to say something in my photograph. For this series, I only photographed during peak hours so that I have a ‘stage’ full of ‘actors’ at the train doors. The frenetic buzz and the crowded conditions bring out certain human emotions, intensified and amplified by the discomfort and energy of the rush hour.

Often I ‘talent-spot’ an interesting commuter and then he or she disappears into the carriage instead of standing on the edge of the doors. Then I just have to stick to the same doors and shoot, and hopefully something interesting happens. In this way, I allow myself to be surprised. The basic rule of photography applies: If you already know what the photograph will look like, why bother photographing at all? You have to let the scene surprise you, you have to let something unexpected happen in the photograph.

Someone is bound to say, “But your pictures all look the same!” What’s your response to that?

Agreed, all trains look the same, but I don’t really have a choice about that.

But the people inside are almost never the same. The things they do are never the same. Their reactions are never the same. The lighting inside the trains can also vary from stadium-like ‘washout’ bright to ‘creaky elevator’-like luminescence. So I get very different results each time.

The beauty of photographs is that you get to linger on them and find new meanings each time you look. I believe if you take time to study the photos, you will see that they are all quite different. It’s about seeing beyond looking, and being aware of what we are seeing.

When I photograph, I switch on this ‘hyper-aware mode’, which can be very draining. But because I become so aware of every pindrop and flicker, I can observe things that I would otherwise gloss over.

At times, I choose to stop being a photographer and become an average commuter again. Then I see nothing. All the train doors look the same again. Honestly, if I am not photographing them intentionally, my eyes glaze over the scenes just like anyone else.

Let’s talk train metaphors for a bit. Most of the riders don’t think more about where they are going, because they assume that the trains will always take them to their destinations. Agree?

Exactly. We all think we know where we want to go. We force ourselves into a metal box full of strangers who also think they know their destination. But there’s a difference between where you want to go, and where you want to be. For many people, routine has destroyed our ability to know what we truly want. I mean, we can imagine ants or sheep going through the same routine without complaint, but human beings?

So we start to find ways and means to desensitise ourselves to this experience of ‘getting there’, because the Destination (the one programmed into our mind) is more important. We anaesthetise ourselves against this painful process of transit.

And most people never think about the choices they actually have. I mean, they can take the bus or walk, right?

They can even cycle, kick-scoot, or skateboard. Segways and electric unicycles are also viable alternatives.

What are some of the rules you make for yourself? Do you look for a particular kind of look in the women you photographed for this?

Haha, why do you only mention women and not men? I don’t discriminate between men, women, old, young, local, foreign and any types in between. All is fair game in Transit.

Basic rules are: peak hour, closing doors.

When I started, I was actually looking for the ones that stand out, a bit like how Diane Arbus would look for freakish or weird subjects. I also looked out for people who wear loud or colourful stuff. I would stalk them, wait for them to enter the train and pray very hard that they stand in the front row at the edge of the door. Eight out of 10 times, it doesn’t happen – they usually disappear into the crowd.

In the course of doing this series, did you run into a ‘stranger’ more than twice?

Oh yes. No matter where I intend to go, I have to start with my own station, Kembangan. Between 8 a.m. to 8.45 a.m., that’s the ‘crush’ hour. I remember seeing the same woman three times, of which I photographed her twice. Unfortunately, she didn’t make the edit.

What’s the funniest response you’ve received from the people whom you ‘preyed’ on?

‘Funniest’ is very open to interpretation. Let’s say ‘most surprising’. It was this white-collar type whose lips curled up in a vicious snarl, which I didn’t even notice until I reviewed the photo.

I’m surprised at the way my presence amplified and intensified the emotions that presented themselves at the train doors. If the subjects were happy with me photographing them, they would play up to the camera. If the subjects were angry, upset, or bewildered, their emotions were also amplified by both my presence and the camera’s impending action of recording.

I assume you people-watch a lot, so tell us, what do you make of Singaporeans? Are we a happy or sad bunch?

From the photos I’ve taken over the last four years, I would say Singaporeans range from being sad, angry, depressed and clueless, to being happy and hyper. The last two are extremely rare species. These kinds usually don’t have to force themselves on crowded trains, probably because they know they have a choice.

You mentioned a while back that you are looking for some kind of paradise. Please don’t say it exists underground, and in Singapore.

I think the idea of paradise exists in everyone’s head, but this idea is probably very different for everyone. But to get to paradise, you need to take a journey – to be in transit. For many office workers, going back to home-cooked food at the end of a gruelling day, is a sort of paradise. For some of the commuters, watching Bae Yong Joon’s Korean drama on his or her iPad is paradise. As John Milton wrote, ‘The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.’

This series is entitled Transit – where are you off to next?

To the next story, I guess. I see my life as a relentless pursuit of stories. There are a few projects in my mind, and one of them will take place in China. Let’s see if that works out.

Would you rather be known for one style or as someone who is capable of changing?

I would like to be known as an artist who evolves and adapts. Style can be misconstrued as ‘specialising’ in black-and-white photography, or sticking to certain subject matter. That is the surface of things. How many people remember that William Eggleston and Alex Webb shot in black and white? But they adapted later to colour and became known for it, because colour was a language that suited their work.

A photographer has to look at the work at hand and decide which medium to use: film, digital, 4×5, 120mm, monochrome, compact camera, mobile phones, even drones. There is a medium for every kind of work, and it also depends on what you want to say in your work. I don’t think one should repeat a formula for everything – unless the work you do calls for it.

For Transit, I felt that colour was very important. The colour of the light conveys a certain mood, and the colour of the clothes and belongings inform us about the photograph. I used a compact camera because for one, I don’t get in trouble with authorities too much, and also, it’s less intimidating than say, a DSLR or a 120mm.

Fifty years down the road, people will look at this body of work and say …?

Did people actually have to take trains to travel to their destinations?

   

The portrait of Edwin Koo was drawn by Flee Circus; and Leonard Goh, who anchors all the interviews in this series, is a co-founder of Platform.

To purchase a copy of Transit by Edwin Koo, please visit:
http://twentyfifteen.myshopify.com/collections/photographers-folios/products/transit-by-edwin-koo

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Transit is based on the intra-city railway system in Singapore, the Mass Rapid Transit (MRT). Built in 1987, it is used by close to 2.8 million people daily.

I started photographing the MRT in 2011. I had come home after living in Nepal for two years and I was surprised at how crowded our trains had become. During the 2011 general elections, transport became a hot potato issue. When I couldn’t get onto the trains myself, I photographed people who were forced to the edge of the train doors to show how dire the situation was. These photographs were born from a sense of frustration and alienation.

When my anger subsided, the mental imprint did not fade away. What I saw from my first photographs intrigued me. I started looking at the seminal works done on trains – Bruce Davidson’s Subway (1986), Walker Evan’s Many Are Called (1938), Michael Wolfe’s Tokyo Compression (2010), just to name a few. What could I add to this narrative?

Eventually I returned to photographing train doors during peak hours. The crowded trains presented an ever-changing theatre each time the doors opened and closed, revealing interesting protagonists, diverse lives and a myriad of emotions. The camera gave me a chance to see what my eye would have missed – a collective portrait of Singapore, always in transit.

As commuters today, we distract ourselves endlessly with our smartphones or iPads, to anaesthetise ourselves from the unnatural and uncomfortable experience of transit. We create private spaces for ourselves in the most public of spaces.

As commuters, we observe an unspoken rule not to stare at each other’s misery.

As a photographer, I broke that last rule twice over – I recorded the stare, and continue to be amazed by what the stare reveals.

To purchase a copy of Transit by Edwin Koo, please visit:
http://twentyfifteen.myshopify.com/collections/photographers-folios/products/transit-by-edwin-koo

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How did you end up in Los Angeles? I mean, is it really a place to be?

COLOMBA: We both came for graduate school at CalArts (California Institute of the Arts). I did an MFA in Graphic Design and San was in the program for Photo and Media. We both agree that LA took a while to get to know and it can be intimidating for a newcomer. But we have both grown into it and had a great experience.

As artists, LA has a big emerging art scene where there is a good mix of museums and alternative art spaces. This provides lots of opportunities for experimentation and dialogue among artists who are making very diverse works. And of course, who doesn’t love the California sunshine?

Colomba is from Chile and San is from Singapore, and both of you are good friends. How did that happen?

SAN: We both knew each others as strangers looking to live outside of Valencia, the suburb where CalArts is located. Living outside of the suburb allowed us to see Los Angeles and we were able to learn more about its diversity. That’s where a lot of the conversations started during our daily commute to school together.

C: Being kind of ‘forced’ to see each other a lot, we got into in-depth discussions of our experiences and ended up ‘sharing’ friends and community. This is how the idea of the book started, after long hours in the car sharing and talking about each other’s cultures, where they meet and differ.

S: We’re glad we haven’t killed each other.

How do you usually introduce Singapore to foreigners? Please don’t say you tell them it is the country where you can’t chew gum.

S: Most of the time, I introduce Singapore by demystifying their idea of Singapore: No, Singapore is not part of China. No, you can chew gum and not get caned for it, just that you can’t buy it on the streets (but I really do think that we should update this law). No, we do speak English in Singapore very often. I try as much as possible to give multiple perspectives of Singapore because I feel that my own subjective opinion is limited. Colomba too started taking up the role of being our ambassador, introducing Singapore as a place where we are all highly passionate about food, and as a city that is a tiny red dot on the map.

Do you really miss home? What do you miss?

S: Yes, of course. Top on my list are definitely my family and friends. The simple joys of having breakfast with my parents, the birth of my good friend’s child and other moments that I can never experience once they’ve passed.

Also, the familiarity of places, cultures and languages, in a way that only someone who belongs will experience. Recently, my family moved out of the building that I had lived in since I was born. I had been dreading that day and regretted not being able to say my farewell. I have never felt so much about a physical space before.

C: Yes, of course I miss my country everyday. It’s such a big part of my life and how I define myself. I miss the family, and it really makes me sad to be missing the growing years of all my 10 nieces and nephews. My friends and the days of the ‘barbecues’, where we stayed up till 6 am talking about everything and nothing at the same time. I also miss Chile’s landscapes and the strong relationship with nature, the mountains, the beaches and the national parks, which are often pristine and untouched by civilisation.

What you are presenting can look very personal and complicated to others. Why should a stranger care about what you have to say?

C: The personal is often political, and hence, not confined to an individual. Our experience of being someone who is living away from home is not unique to us, but shared by many, in different forms and circumstances. Of course, it is important also to acknowledge that the attempt to represent where we come from from a particular vantage point is inherently complicated and flawed. All we can start to do is to perhaps open up a space to reflect on culture and history with multiple perspectives.


Is Los Angeles really a melting pot?

S: Yes and no. You can find people coming from literally all parts of the world and taste cuisine from different regions even from the same country. In school, we definitely benefited from having conversations with our peers and faculty from diverse backgrounds, and that was very inspiring.

C: However, having different ingredients together in a pot doesn’t mean that they necessarily melt. There are aspects of LA that can be very segregated, partly because geographically it’s so dispersed and we are in the car so much. For example, those living in Beverly Hills may have little reason to visit where we live, in Echo Park, and vice versa. The car becomes an invisible shield against what you do not want to see, such as homelessness, poverty, madness or simply something that is different. It almost feels like you’re watching a Hollywood film through the window of the car. Having said that, there are also many people who are very proactive in breaking down this boundary, by taking part in community events, by biking instead of driving, by starting community gardens and much more.

Tell us about your methodology.

S & C: We began the project by revisiting the conversations that we have had over the past two years, especially those about home and displacement, simultaneously also thinking about historical or present-day events or experiences that had taken place in our home countries. At a location in Los Angeles that resonates with these ideas, we photograph each other in a performative act that relates to it. Colomba will perform a Chilean story after explaining it to San, who frames and photographs the image based on the story she is told. The process is reversed when San performs a Singapore story.

The use of medium-format film cameras (a Bronica 6×6 and a Mamiya 6×7) is an important part of the process. Unable to rely on instant playback from digital cameras, the photographer can only imagine the image that the subject/initiator of the image envisioned through storytelling and visual description, adding to the final image her own subjective experience. Representations are thus continuously being deconstructed and recontextualised.

The texts and mapping next come in to make accessible some of what is in the image that is lost in translation, as symbols lose their meanings when seen through the eyes of someone of a different background and experience. While the images open up our imagination and are translated to texts, the mapping is incorporated to create an experiential space for the viewers.


Has anyone said that your pictures ain’t good enough and that is why you need lots of words and charts?

S & C: Not yet. This may be because this is the first time that both of us are simultaneously incorporating text, image and mapping into our work. Like the triangles in the title of the book, each of these components are interdependent on each other, each fails if left on its own.

I assume the two of you have creative differences. So what languages do you fight in?

S: Cantonese and Spanish. We curse better in our mother tongues. Only when we agree do we speak in English.

San, you have gone from a science laboratory to photography. Talk us through your journey.

S: I grew up in a family where I was told that we do not have any artistic DNA. After getting a BA in economics, I worked for 10 years in a company that manufactures and sells maintenance chemicals. Much of my time was spent in various industrial settings such as shipyards and factories demonstrating how to clean and prevent corrosion.

A desire to express myself brought me to photography, thinking that the mechanics of a camera could help overcome my lack of abilities. (Of course I now know that’s not exactly true.) I started out trying to teach myself photography. I went to the library to borrow whatever books on photography I could find, took a few classes and participated in the Shooting Home programme in Objectifs, and simply went out to shoot whenever I did not have to work. I was fortunate to meet people who gave me pointers along the way.

The moment I knew I could get out of my job, I enrolled in a 10-month general studies course at the International Center of Photography in New York City and the next phase of my life began. I still wake up some mornings in disbelief and I feel extremely privileged to pursue what I am doing. I am now learning that my experience working in the chemical company has informed a lot of the work I am making by giving me the opportunity to see and interact with different aspects of society and to widen my own views.

What’s in store for the next five to 10 years?

C: This is a question that we are unable to give a clear answer to. There are a lot of uncertainties, but what we are sure about is that we are determined to continue committing to our practice while we find the means to pay our rent.

S:
I would like to spend at least 50 per cent of my time working in Singapore and/or other parts of Asia.

Has being away made you more Singaporean or Chilean respectively?

S: Yes, definitely. Or at least it makes me much more aware of my identity as a Singaporean. The project had given me the opportunity to learn more about multiple aspects of Singapore, our culture and history, both the ‘official’ narrative and the lesser known stories.

C: For sure, the distance helps you to recognise where you come from and how it has shaped you. It gives you a space to be critical and/or appreciate where certain habits and customs come from, creating a space to agree or disagree with them as well as to shape your life and your beliefs. Lastly, it has made me more aware of what is happening over there and what are my responsibilities as a Chilean living in another country, how I represent and talk about Chile to others.

Have you been told you speak and write good English?

S: Yes, but only by people who think that we do not study English in Singapore.

You really expect us to believe that Chile and Singapore have a lot in common?

C: There are as many things in common as there are differences, just as both of us have such different personalities and cultural backgrounds, yet we can connect in so many different ways. It is perhaps more productive not to try to define what is common or what is different, but to use the intersection points as grounds for understanding.

What does it mean to make a book like this?

S: In time, we will find out. The decision to collaborate on a book about Singapore with someone from Chile is a result of a realisation that we form our identity so much in relation to others and not in isolation. The actual process of photographing and writing further made us see how connected we are, the triangles of Singapore, Chile and Los Angeles.

C: It has been a long and intense process. For now, the book continues to connect and inform me about important issues that have happened in my country. In addition, I have gotten to know San much more deeply through understanding where she comes from. In time, I am sure more significant aspects of the project will start to unveil themselves.

San, your parents moved from Hong Kong, you grew up in Singapore, and you’ve spent an extended time in the USA. Which side of you are we dealing with these days?

S: I am a composite of all of the above, it is impossible to neglect my present experiences, just as growing up in Singapore and having a huge part of my family from Hong Kong has formed the foundation of who I am.

Are you sad that you are only part of the SG50 craze from afar?

S: Yes, and hence, I am very grateful for the opportunity to work on this project, especially having the opportunity to meet up with other Singaporeans to have our own SG50 craze here in Los Angeles. Also, I have plans to spend much more time in Singapore from 2015 now that school is over, which will probably allow me to join some of the celebrations.

C: I was away and missed out the celebration of 200 years of independence in Chile, which was a great sadness for me. I’m really patriotic when we celebrate, especially every year on Independence Day. I am happy to participate in SG50 from afar, although I would love to be able to visit Singapore, especially after doing this book.

   

The portrait of Sit Weng San & Colomba Cruz Elton was drawn by Flee Circus; and Leonard Goh, who anchors all the interviews in this series, is a co-founder of Platform.

To purchase a copy of Drawing Triangles by Sit Weng San & Colomba Cruz Elton, please visit:
http://twentyfifteen.myshopify.com/collections/photographers-folios/products/drawing-triangles-by-sit-weng-san-colomba-cruz-elton

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DRAWING TRIANGLES is a collaboration between Sit Weng San and Colomba Cruz Elton, a photo series of gestures performing migratory experiences. This project emerged from conversations they had as housemates living in Los Angeles, coming from two very different cultures; Singapore and Chile.

Through globalisation and the ease of movement of people, goods and culture, geographical boundaries are continually being broken down, However, becoming ever more prevalent are the boundaries constructed by ideas of nationhood, economics, power and race. San and Colomba seek to examine these boundaries, both imaginary and tangible, and the effect that they have on them as subjects of displacement. While living in the USA, they have a possibility of exploring their own cultures from an external perspective, while their homes are both absent and invisible.

Los Angeles, a city with its own charged history, becomes the stage for their work – within its myriad of changing landscapes and ethnologically diverse streets they search for places that remind them of home. For each photograph in the series, one of the two artists performs a re-imagining from a snippet of her own history, memory, experience or re-creations of recent events that occurred at home in their absence. The other artist frames the performance through the lens of the camera, not only documenting the act but re-framing it according to her own cultural imagination and subjective understanding. By interchanging the role of performer and photographer, inevitably the camera becomes a mediator of multiple fragmented interpretations and expressions of the artists, which converge within a time and space. The lens through which they view their experiences is informed by where they come from and often, how they identify themselves in relation to others.

The photographs become a language of listening, imagining and amalgamating, as well as a catalyst to the texts that accompany them. The texts are two voices that come through the reflection of the specific photograph; they in turn give context to the images, bringing out what is lost in translation and guided through the illustrations that act as a mapping tool.

DRAWING TRIANGLES is a result of a repeated process of de-construction and reconstruction of interpreted fragments. Memories of their homes in Singapore and Chile become intertwined with representations of Los Angeles. By creating mythologies that fail to provide a singular point of view they are able to gain perspective on the places that they come from. They also propose multiple imaginative realities of what could be, liberating the space where conflicting ideologies, race and national consciousnesses co-exist.

To purchase a copy of Drawing Triangles by Sit Weng San & Colomba Cruz Elton, please visit:
http://twentyfifteen.myshopify.com/collections/photographers-folios/products/drawing-triangles-by-sit-weng-san-colomba-cruz-elton

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SIT WENG SAN is a Singaporean artist who works primarily with still and moving images. She has a background in economics and worked for almost a decade in a maintenance chemical company, during which time she became fairly competent in stain removal and rust prevention within shipyards and other industries. That experience has led her to begin her practice investigations into systems and power structures that create the gap between representations and individual identities, which are often the foundation and reinforcer of deeply entrenched inequalities. These systems do not function in isolation, but are fluid intersections crossing between nationality, gender, race, the body, globalisation, resistance, mythologies and other themes.

Weng San has exhibited in Singapore, Los Angeles and New York City. She was a recipient of the CalArts Scholarship, the David Bermant Foundation Fellowship and Director Scholarship at the International Center of Photography. She was selected for the SOMA Summer residency in Mexico City (2013) and the SPARC (Senior Partnering with Artists Citywide) grant in New York City (2012), and won the UOB Painting of the Year Award (Photography Section) in Singapore in 2008. She holds an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts and is based in Los Angeles and Singapore.

COLOMBA CRUZ ELTON born in 1984 in Santiago de Chile is an interdisciplinary graphic designer, photographer and visual artist. Her work has been exhibited at Cirrus Gallery, Ooga Booga and the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA Museum in Los Angeles and in Common Center in Seoul, Korea. She was selected for the CalArts+Kookmin Design Summer Program in 2014 and for the Design Summer Workshop Otis University in 2013. In 2011 she won the Torre Iberdrola Artist’s Book Contest. Colomba holds an MFA from the California Institute of the Arts and a BA from University Finis Terrae in Santiago de Chile, where she also received the University Finis Terrae Award in 2006 and 2009. Colomba is the co-founder and patner of Kat+Colomba, graphic design studio based in Los Angeles.

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