A Conversation of Reflection and Thoughts
Nelly: So this conversation is recorded on the 28 November, 5.47pm. We have Wayne Lim, Marcus Tan, Kiat and Yang and Casimir Simon and Van, and myself, Nelly at the table. So, Yang, would you like to start? How has this process, coming from a design background, influenced looking at art versus design?
Yang Han: I guess when I think about design, it’s something that’s always ready to be reproduced. We are quite eager to do something can be made in many copies and editions like magazines, brochures, stuff like that. Even with that little bit of Product Design background, we think about manufacturability as a design consideration. It is really the way we are trained and taught. For this exhibition, I think what has occurred to me is that art is best looked from a different perspective, because when I think about art, it is something that should ideally not be made with reproducibility as a factor, as there is authority and value in its exclusivity. So that’s about the reproducibility of it. I also think art is often very expressive, whereas for design it’s very objective.
Nelly: Has that changed?
Yang Han: I think it hasn’t changed, but it has made this difference much clearer. I’ve become more aware of what art and design is now. Like in the past, if someone asked me if I do art, design or whatsoever, I don’t know how to answer because I didn’t know what the difference is and so I can’t find the word for it. But at least now, after given this opportunity and through the process of doing this exhibition, I feel that as a designer, my vocabulary has definitely widened, and I am able to define certain things better. It has definitely opened my eyes and world about the practices.
Kiat: I wouldn’t say I had a strict design background, my background is in photojournalism and other facets of communication, with my practice revolving around photography, film and text. After enrolling in Lasalle’s BA (Hons) design programme, I started to do design work, or incorporate design in my photographic and art practice. So, I’ve only had formal training in design for two years or so. My understanding of design is very methodical and theoretical. When you design, there is structure or a grid, a system in place, a brief, and ultimately you answer the brief. In a way, a designer is communicating or answering to something, and at times even manufacturing works for mass consumption. For “art”, you’re inventing a work as an extension to yourself, and as a vehicle to carry your intent. Art can be used as a form of expression for your own conceptual ideas, with you injecting your own emotions and desires. Design however, is repurposed or reproduced to answer guidelines or a specific brief, with a “bigger picture” in mind. Initially, my practice was very exploratory, experimental and “self” in nature; I was producing works on topics related to contemporary issues, self identity, and culture. After starting my education in design, I realised that I started to become fixated with a methodical approach. I think the whole ‘design in art-making’ process brought me back to what I started out with, producing works with my own intentions.
Marcus: I think for me, because I come from very strictly design-related background, as Yang says, everyone answers the brief. For me, personally me, I work with very commercialised briefs, where everything is created by a company, where we answer strictly to the brief. So you are not really, I mean, we have our own agency to put in our own design ideas, but at end of the day, it still answers to what the client’s strictly wants. So coming into this particular exhibition I think it’s an interesting way to see what we can do as designers or as creatives. More as creatives, how this different experiences as designers or with your experiences and your feedback as an artist can help through create works that may or may not answer to anything. But, in terms of blurring the line between art and design, personally I wouldn’t know if it has done that until we see the show. But it has been an interesting process to go through something like that; where we tried to go through a very design-centric process and put works out there that very design-related, but with your feedback into how we can make it more artistic? I don’t know if it’s the right term, “artistic”. But to place work like that, I think it will be pretty interesting to see as a whole.
Wayne: I’m not sure what was discussed before I came on board, but I think…
Nelly: Just to cut in and also to explain, Wayne was the last addition, cause, when the others came back to me with their process and what they were interested in looking at, I realised that Wayne’s work could fit in very well, and it would be really nice to have as well this one single artist coming in to contrast with the design aspect.
Wayne: I think that’s the thing, I think in the end it will be hard to tell. I mean, I came on board late, but I was also very much reacting to the brief as well, in a way. If we look at it very dogmatically, you know like we all have to go through schools and we have to follow a certain set of concept brief and what is the outcome. I mean they are two very different disciplines in terms of techniques, but I think for this exhibition, or at least what I’m foreseeing, is that the gallery space will very much define and blur the line between design and art, because at the end I don’t think it’s all that conventional in the sense that you know, we go to school and study design, fine arts, you know, methods and techniques are completely different. But when it’s set up in the gallery, there is always certain rules, you know like white cube space… You follow according to that….
Nelly: How to install the works…
Wayne: Yes, exactly. It will very much adhere to that sort of style, like stylistic manner. And then, that goes back to what Yang mentioned how design is supposed to be objective but it’s not. If we look at it more critically, even Casimir’s work with the typography, we’ve already seen that is not objective at all, when someone tells you that is not even the proper Tamil that is used. And that is the floor in. I don’t think that is just a design floor, it’s also like that in art, we are trained to be extremely aware about these things, objective or not.
Casimir: I think for the longest time since Poly and through various internships, A lot of the works that I have produced have been centred around answering a certain brief whether it is from a freelance client or a creative superior in the agency. With this going on for quite some time, it was easy to get used to the flow of “objective specific” work. Causing me to lose some sense of creativity and free play in my approach to this brief that was left open to interpretation. Embarking on this exhibition allowed me to break away from that sort of thinking. Taking on a more personal approach to it, the process of self-reflection on my cultural roots allowed me to venture into approaches that I was unfamiliar with. It allowed me to change the way I approach design, almost like a creative reboot that I needed. Looking back at an earlier conversation I had with Yang a few days back, I was reflecting on how I would never use oriental approach to my work. This exhibition however, allowed me to work with Chinese as a typeform and to see how I could manipulate it to get my message across to the viewer.
Wayne: Why though?
Casimir: Coming from a mixed race family, I’m always caught in this neither here nor there. I have friends who speak Chinese at home, whereas in my home, English is the main means of communication. Sometimes it seems to me like I am half here and there when it comes to my cultural roots. Using an earlier experience (when he was checking a Tamil phrase with Shivram, our Creative Director), I had absolutely no idea how to read that word! I was never exposed to the Indian language and culture, other through food. With my Chinese side, the strongest I ever felt rooted to it was in Secondary School, where Chinese was used as my second language, because my mother is of Chinese descent. Following my time in the National Service, where most of my friends were Chinese, the use of the language became rare or almost none at all. I do however celebrate more Chinese festivals than Indian ones if anything. This exhibition gave me the opportunity to better appreciate and explore the possibilities of being from a mixed race families and the struggles that I have sometimes faced. And at the same time, getting insights from practicing artists like Nelly, Wayne, and Gerald (who he spoke with about the history of painting) and understanding the way they see things in a somewhat different way from us designers. It gave me a really wholesome experience.
Nelly: What I find very interesting is how all of you are so considered about briefs. Well, for four of you, who are based with background and design, at least. For us I feel like it’s just a different word. I feel like, for Wayne and I, it is proposal, when we propose, we actually do have KPIs to meet. Let’s say, we propose to NAC for grant money we have to explain to them why we need this money, tell them exactly how we’re going to use this money and what is the outcome of them giving us money. And to use your word, they have to be very wholesome outcomes. And it’s not so much of like, this is different, but I think it’s some way I can see the similarities, in a way we are answerable, like Wayne said, to the space that we show the work in…
Wayne: It’s generally to a public, I would say.
Nelly: Yeah, we’re answerable to the public who come to our show, we have to take their criticism of our works.
Wayne: Yeah, especially with concepts we are dealing with, they have to be culturally sensitive. Say even if you want to do something is provocative, I supposed as an artist you need to know what exactly how much you can push it, because it could go very wrong.
Marcus: But I think that is part of why and what differentiates art and design as well, where you guys are willing to push the boundaries…
Casimir: But we’re not
Marcus: Yeah, we are the ones that have to be safe
Nelly: I don’t think so
Marcus: Because if you are looking at, let’s say, UltraSuperNew where you come up with really crazy ideas and all that, sure. But if you’re referring to a broad general sense of advertising or design work in Singapore, you’re kind of play it pretty safe. For this work, we were given a space to really experience and try. But if you’re doing it purely for design, we usually play it very very safe. Because we’re answerable, like what you said, to a lot of people.
Wayne: But there is a high level of design flaws these days, especially when it answers to a client and the client very often corporations and companies to seek profit, and that’s when you kind of look at this, whether they are typography or advertising, whether they are actually doing ethical thing at all. You know, so objective. I’m not sure.
Nelly: You know, I think one thing I’m very interested in, is now I feel like you guys are more aware of, hey, these are so many possibilities that happen in the arts, how would you all be using them to inform your own design practice? Are there subtle ways you see your own practice shifting or changing when you use certain fonts, certain words, certain images? Have they shifted?
Marcus: I’ll say yes. But this is also quite relatable to what we have been doing in school. I mean, LASALLE anyway, they try to get us to do things are relatively similar in terms of practice, where you are not fixated on a certain aspect of the brief. They try to get us pushed on what can be done in design. So in a sense, we are applying a more critical thinking as well. When you’re talking about different types of concepts and how it can be visualised. I think that is quite applicable to both design and art, especially in art where you guys have concept and then you create artwork whether it’s formative or whether it’s a sculpture or a painting. You know it’s all very interpretative to the artist and the viewers itself. In that sense it’s also quite applicable to design, but in terms of design, it’s a bit more strict, I would say, because it has to be very clear of what the message is. It’s not about, in terms of art, how different people can interpret your output differently. That is completely fine for your audience to takeaway, I would think. But I think in terms of design it has to be pretty clear cut that the message is that. But I think in terms of practice, it did change quite a bit when we apply.
Nelly: I would also like to hear from Kiat, cause I know like your works, to be very honest, I was actually quite very worried for your works, and you know why as well. Because of that fact that we are Chinese, we are privileged, and you were talking about certain notions. I know you are always interested in this but, has anything changed in the process? Like are you more critical or aware or sensitive of whatever it is?
Kiat: I would like to think that I’ve always been very aware and critical of issues surrounding us. I read, I research, I form opinions. A majority of my work being exhibited explores the notion of nation building. Before this exhibition, I was doing research about class, power, privilege, political correctness in Singapore, and I think my research gave me a strong backing to explore design and art-making with these notions in mind. I think everything gelled together at the correct time. Looking at contemporary issues within Singapore’s landscape has led me to explore how ideals of a “one nation” state relates to my own identity and culture. All my work for this exhibition also acts as a form of self-reflection and satirical mediation on national identity. One example is “Idealised Nation”, a photo series of six photographs envisioning singapore as a “perfect state”. I think nothing much (in me) has changed in the process. I still am very opinionated and aware of contemporary issues in Singapore. I think the only thing that might have changed is that I’m willing to push and step out of my comfort zone. But, that only comes about when I have sufficient research, adequate knowledge, and proper conversations and interactions with people before exploring certain topics.
Nelly: I think with Yang, what I find interesting is also how does bio-politics play into your whole design process. Because design for me has always for me been pretty pictures from, to use an artistic term: formal aesthetics, composition, you know, type, and these are all formal aesthetics. And then when you came in with bio-politics, I was like, how does this designer come up with this and how is he gonna fit this into his design practice. This is something I have not understood, even though I really love the work.
Kiat: Oh, I just want to add on, sorry to just cut in, regarding the question just now, I was speaking to a few artists and curators recently, and a few of them told me that in retrospect, maybe the work you produced now, you may not see as problematic, but perhaps two to five years from now, you look back and you realised that shit, maybe the work I did back then was problematic.
Wayne: Well, I have a very good example: Russel Peters.
Kiat: Yeah, there are a lot of examples of it.
Wayne: Yeah, when you look at it back then, it was quite funny, but now it’s like mm….
Kiat: Yeah, what I’m really trying to say is – me or us producing works revolving around the nation state, or works that may be deemed “controversial” in nature, maybe a year or 5 years from now, I’ll look back and I’ll be like “god dammit what was I doing?” I would question: “My works were really problematic because I didn’t really think it through before executing it, and I did it as an immediate response.” I wouldn’t say this approach is OK, but I think it’s a process that we learn and grow from.
Yang: So about bio politics and how I bridge it to design? Well, now that I was given a space to explore how the concepts of bio-politics can be actually expressed in ways other than traditional design methods, I guess I was looking at medium, and how I could best express this sort of, I would say, has a very deep underlying context that I feel could not really be expressed and communicated just by typography or design centric mediums. Which is why I started looking to sculpture and stuff like that. But I think if we look at the gallery as a space, it charges the exhibited works with meaning. When the public comes to the space to look at certain things, they would already have expectations that you are working towards something and they will look towards finding that communicated idea. And I think that has, in a sense, just maybe see how space and medium itself can actually play a very big part of making meaning. And like what you guys were talking about boundaries, I think that’s the boundary that design might be confined by. So think being aware of all these things, it opens more door to explore certain options that you may not be able to do in design.
Nelly: I feel this entire thing has been really fun for me. Thank you so much, each of everyone with for making it so easy. I had so many questions for myself, like, ‘Why the fuck am I doing this” number one, number two “Are you fucking sure you can pull this off? You have no idea how designers work at all?”. And it showed.
Marcus: Three days before deadline we chiong.
Nelly: (laughs) Yeah, then I realised like, “Aye shit”, you know I forget that you guys are designers, not artists, which is why I also brought that up. Thank you very much for coming on board, and taking a chance. I hope that you guys had fun. I don’t know about Wayne because he never has fun (Wayne laughs), he’s serious all the time.
Marcus: Shouldn’t have come, come here get shat on.
Casimir: Should have made her wait more. (group laughs)