By Alfonse Chiu
In August, 2019, Brack took part in a symposium convened by National Gallery Singapore titled We Started Something: Collectivism in Art in Asia, which sought to explore the origins and growth of ‘artist collectives’ in Cold War-era Asia, tracing the impact of these collectives on the development of Asian art and cultural history. Brack was joined by two other collectives – Pangrok Sulap from Malaysia and Gudskul from Indonesia – for a day-long programme in which each collective shared a core element of their practice with a public audience.
Pangrok Sulap led a workshop on woodblock printing, and Gudskul facilitated a ‘knowledge market’ wherein audience members taught and were taught by one another. Brack facilitated a process of improvised world-building, inviting the audience to collectively envision and articulate what their ideal future would look, feel, smell, taste, and sound like, before thrusting them back into the ‘real’ world. This article is authored by Alfonse Chiu, who took part in the Brack-led workshop as a participant.
What does your idea of paradise look like? Does it look like mine? How does a utopia – mine, yours, ours – feel, how does it sound? Whose voice do we hear, do we want to hear, do we listen to, when we set out—if we set out—to build this ideal world?
These are some of the questions that run through my head as I sit cross-legged and blind-folded in a cold, alien room. Or at least I think it is a room; all I have for recollection is stepping over a threshold into a space, the chilled dry breeze of air-conditioning washing over me as I leave the humid embrace of a local day. Next to me – close enough to make out the still air that demarcates a person at ease, but far enough for me to know nothing beyond a presence – I know someone is sitting, just like me.
Around us, the soft sounds of waves dashing against a shore rise and ebb like the breaths of a planet. A voice invites us to contemplate a journey to the vast beyond, to build – with our words – a world close to home in spirit but much ahead in time. “What would,” the voice coaxes, “this future world look like?” What would you have this world be? Across the room another voice is quick to describe: “a dome.” From the opposite corner: “a luscious, verdant land.” Somewhere to my right: “a place where animals share the gift of our tongue.” Behind me: “somewhere that love is free, but consent is still needed.” Around us all, the sounds of a collective imagining for things yet to come. There are common themes that run through what each individual conceives of a as a better, softer world, yet there are also unspoken, seemingly vast gulfs that lie in the silence between each consensus.
Time to let go and return, we are told, as we are brought back to the stark reality of our times. We open our eyes and before us is a table of sand from which we are instructed to were supposed to pick out the bits that do not belong: beads of clear plastic, brightly coloured shards that were perhaps once part of someone’s toy, scraps of some kind of textile with faded patterns. We work in silence and before long, we notice that the table bears inscriptions, names, toponyms that speak of not so distant places (we spy ‘Singapore’ amongst many others). On the wall, a video shows a group of young people entangled in a net of debris as they struggle in the surf on the beach.
It is the end, we know, but how did we get here?
There is a certain fatalism embedded within the definition of ‘utopia’ that tends to go unnoticed in contemporary usage. Sir Thomas More, who coined the term way back in 1516, was himself cognisant of the difference in his proposed etymology: οὐ (“not”) and τόπος (“place”), forming Utopia, or Non-Place, as compared to εὖ (“good” or “well”) and τόπος (“place”), which forms Eutopia, or Good-Place, a homophone that has since found greater resonance in current discourse, but fell short of its original intended meaning. Far from being the aspirational socialist commons that are often visualised, More’s conception of a seemingly ideal society is also one that is by name – impossible, by practice – unfeasible, and by origins – imaginary.
While modern idealistic connotations of a utopian dream have acquired, in recent times, an oily sheen of irony (as imminent climate collapse, a potential third world war, and possible global recession loom in a not so distant future), the unfolding context also prompts an urgency that may prove to be fertile soil for new ways of envisioning a future that allows for the collective survival of humanity. More and more, we witness a renewed vivification of civic awareness, political agency, alternate forms of knowledge that seek to counteract the colossal damages that an unchecked neoliberal world order has wrought.
Given this ugly situation that we find ourselves in, it is important – now more than ever – for those of us who work in the arts and cultural sectors to reconsider the potential for creative expression to facilitate much needed robust public discourse. What are the avenues for mass education, collective reflection, and sustained action that might correct the many complex (and perhaps seemingly minor factors) that have accumulated in record time into something so bleak?
After removing our blindfolds, we sat in a circle to reflect on our experience of collectively building a utopian future world. Many salient points were raised about issues like consent, consensus, and collective decision-making. A poignant meditation that provoked more questions than answers. Even now, months after the workshop, I find myself pondering these questions long after: How do we negotiate dissent within a collective? How might we reconcile essential differences in our definitions and ideals? How do we create a collective process that considers those who cannot or will not speak up? How do we decide on the world we are creating?