TwentyFifteen Interview 15/20: Sit Weng San & Colomba Cruz Elton speak to Leonard Goh

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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