Know Thyself

Directed by M. A. Thirumugam and starring M. G. Ramachandran and Savitri, the Tamil film Vettaikaaran (The Hunter) was released in 1964. The song Unnai Arinthaal is from this hit movies soundtrack. The music is by K. V. Mahadevan, lyrics by Kannadasan and the unsurpassable singer is T. M. Soundararajan.

உன்னை அறிந்தால்
நீ உன்னை அறிந்தால்
உலகத்தில் போராடலாம்

Unnai Arinthaal
Nee Unnai Arinthaal
Ulagathil Poraadalaam

Know thyself
If you know yourself
You can take the whole world on

Chennai, a place in between

I am happy to note that Jane Frankish has had her essay, Chennai, a place in between, published in the Liberal Studies Journal ,Simon Fraser University hosted within the Ormsby Review. This short piece tells the story of our family’s migration from Malaysia to Canada through the lens of a visit to Tamil Nadu we made on route.


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desktop VR
virtual reality
Niranjan Rajah pictured during a session as guest at the CyberForum, Art Center College of Design, Pasadena in 2000

One of the highlights of my days as an early Internet artist in Malaysia is being invited as a guest at Michael Heim’s (author of The Metaphysics of Virtual Reality) virtual world Cyberforum as a guest in 2000. Other speaker that year were leaders in the field – Cliff Joslyn, David Weinberger, Howard Bloom, Francis Heylighen, Bruce Damer, William J. Mitchell, Lev Manovich, Carol Gigliotti, Brenda Laurel, Katherine Hayles, and Peter Lunenfeld, so I was really excited at being invited to participate.

Even with my high expectations the session was not a disappointment. Michael’s pioneering Virtual Worlds Theory and Design team began hosting chat interactions in avatar worlds at the end of 1999. with the aim of researching the dynamics of these spaces as sites for the exchange of ideas about digital technology. I was both a speaking subject and an object for observation in this encounter. Among the outcomes of this research for Michael Heim was an important paper about what he calls ‘flow; in virtual world interactions. The paper was titled The Feng Shui of Virtual Reality. I myself gained great insights about web based virtual reality and the nature of immersion. I incorporated a desktop VR representation of the installation, when La Folie de la Peinture (1998) was presented at the Substation, Singapore in a show titled, Layers … Reality … Memory in 2001. I also incorporated these ideas into a paper titled From the Aesthetics of perceptual Objects to the Metaphysics of Interactivity which was presented at the 15th International congress for Aesthetics in Tokyo. This paper won an Asian Scholars Award from the International Aesthetics Association and the Japanese Society for Aesthetics (this paper is not available online).

CyberForum was built in Active Worlds and was accessible using the Eduverse 3D browser. Active Worlds, was an early Virtual Reality community on the web that let users builtd, visit and chat in 3D worlds in millions of square kilometers of virtual territory. The log of my CyberForum session is available on the Wayback Machine.

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Between 1997 and 1998 Dr. Raman Srinivasan of Chennai and I collaborated to build, theorize and install a virtual temple on the Internet. The Temple was built in VRML in Chennai and located on a server in Sarawak. It was presented to the international interactive arts community in a paper titled Sacred Art in a Digital Era: Or the Internet and the Immanent Place in the Heart at the 2nd Consciousness Reframed conference at the University of Wales College in Newport (not available online).

The VRML temple was based on sketches of the Hridayaleeswarar temple, an existing physical structure in Thirunindravur about 20 miles from Chennai. According to the Sthala Purana or founding legend of the temple, it was in fact erected by the great King Kadavaraja based on the proportions of what was initially a virtual temple built in devotional meditation by the sage Poosalar. Some years after our project ended and the website was taken down, I returned to the VRML model to make a 3D print of its central Icon, Lord Shiva Nadaraja. This image was sent to Chennai from Vancouver where it was consecrated by Srinivasan’s father and used in domestic worship.

At the heart of this project was the integration of the traditional and the technological relationships of the real to the virtual. There was first, in the sthala purana, a movement from myth to physical architecture and then, in our VRLM/Internet project, from the actual architecture to the virtual model and, finally moving from the VRML model to the physical 3D print. This work was grounded in the belief that as the World Wide Web makes the Internet globally accessible, it must become a medium for the living sacred traditions of the world.

I went on to develop a framework for the rapprochement of digital technology and sacred tradition in papers like the following –


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In 1999 Hasnul Jamal Saidon and I founded the pioneering Eart ASEAN Online portal which, as the text on the homepage used to say, was an “interactive resource for electronic art in Southeast Asia. This site consists of a comprehensive Database of new media art including profiles of artists and samples of artworks, a Journal dealing with the historical development of electronic art in South East Asia, theoretical and critical issues related to the use of electronic media in the visual arts as well as reviews and analysis of electronic artworks, a Forum for online discussion as well as Links to related websites worldwide and a space for developing and hosting Webart by Southeast Asian Artists.”

The Webart  section of Eart ASEAN set out a criteria for web art and a theory of how online art works might be integrated within the physical infrastructure of offline world. Integrating Peter Anders notion of cybrid space, which involves the complete coalescence of the virtual and the real, and Jochaim Blank’s problematization of the presentation of net projects in physical space, I outlined a curatorial agenda for our own ‘Cybrid Spaces.’ The call for submissions read – “CYBRID SPACES aims to promote the assimilation of the Internet into Southeast Asian art practice. More specifically CYBRID SPACES will facilitate Internet art works and projects that engage with the various institutional and physical spaces of mainstream Southeast Asian art. CYBRID SPACES will work with artists (offline and online) in the region bridging communication gaps in the arts infrastructure of the region. CYBRID SPACES invites projects proposals (send to from artist practicing in the region”.

This first presentation under this rubric was a set of web works that explored this new ontology. These were all works, that featured in the Virtual Curation exhibition at the Ipoh Arts Festival and they were linked via the curatorial essay I wrote for that event. This was the inaugural presentation of CYBRID SPACES and many of the works, particularly Ting Ting Hook’s Tortoise Zone, exemplified the proposed agenda. Sadly, there were no further presentations in this section as, having given it our all for a couple of years, both Hasnul and I moved on to other things.

It must be said, in this regard, that the Eart ASEAN Online portal was clearly ‘ahead of its time.’ This was both, the measure of its success and the cause of its ultimate failure. The project may have arrived at a time when the Malaysian electronic art scene was too well rooted in the analog realm to envisage the benefits of virtual community (this was well before the advent of social media) and dissemination. Also, it seems that the majority of those becoming involved in the new media were more in tune with industry and, although we had incorporated the the applied dimension of the arts into our programme and welcomed them, we could not induce much participation. Most significantly we had set out the geopolitical framework of ASEAN for the project and most of the states involved – Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand, Brunei Darussalam, Viet Nam, Lao PDR and Myanmar and Cambodia would take some years before gaining the Internet infrastructure and capacity to participate. Nevertheless, Eart ASEAN laid out the theoretical framework and exemplified the social networking and platform development any such endeavor would have to involve, even today.

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Tortoise_Zone” by Ting Ting Hook.

In 1999, I curated the first exhibition of online artworks in Malaysia for the ‘4th International Ipoh Arts Festival.’ The artists in the show were all students and faculty from the Faculti Seni Gunaan dan Kreatif (FSGK), Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS). Indeed, between 1995 and 2000 Hasnul Jamal Saidon and I had worked to established FSGK as a leading new media hub in Southeast Asia. My own art work during this time was web-based and our students were encouraged to explore and integrate this newly accessible interface to the Internet into their art works. The exhibition in Ipoh presented an array of computers each featuring one web art work, in an effort to integrate the private online experience into the more public offline space.

The show included Prasembah 2000: An Antologi La…! by Hasnul and Rainmaker by John Hii, both of which are not available on the Internet archive. There are two works for which fragments are still available on the Archive. Below are sections from my curatorial statement for the show

In Tortoise_Zone by Ting Ting Hook explores the relationship between interior and exterior in human consciousness in terms of the notion of ‘place’. Using the conventions of painting and installation art as points of departure for an Internet work, he invokes a slightly hallucinatory mode as the viewers disembodied impressions of a virtual place impinge on his or her encounter with an analogous physical site. The differences between the outdoor site in Kuching, Sarawak, and the online interactive domain increase with time, as the intense tropical climate rapidly takes its toll. Eventually the physical place is left as a residue of an event, a ‘marked site’, a scar even! While the virtual site, remains unweathered and unchanged in perpetuity. Documentation of the real site was uploaded to the website as the event progressed.

Modernism withdrew from painting the function of representing visual reality and gave it instead the role of constructing a pure aesthetic order. Painting became the “high” art form of an initiated intellectual elite. Each artist was considered a genius and each painting a unique object of aesthetic veneration. Mondrian represents the epitome of modernist aesthetic obsession and intellectual alienation. “Mondrian in Action! by Ling Sew Woei deconstructs this great icon in a simple online engagement with the “viewer.” “Composition with Red, Yellow and Blue” is extended into the third dimension and rendered interactive in VRML. As we pan, rotate and zoom in and out of the now sculptural copy, we overcome the passivity with which we would have approached the original. Indeed, we are able to manipulate the image from whatever remote location we happen to occupy. The “PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH” of modern painting is undermined in the ‘PLEASE INTERACT’ connectivity of the Internet.

Another early UNIMAS student work, for which fragments are available in the Internet Archive, was not included in the Ipoh show. It was however included in my INET 1998 paper presentation in Geneva and is described below –

My 12 Friends: Representation Less Reflection” by Tham Chee Chong uses the of the Internet to present images of boxes whose contents index the personalities of his friends. Initially the friends were invited to put something of theirs, something of themselves even, in the boxes. These were then marked with the names of the friends and installed in a grid in a public space in the community to which the friends belong. The shift from intimacy to the public sphere and then on to the anonymity of the Internet is an abstraction of sorts — from the meaningful to a situation in which reflection would yield no meaningful result. We are left with signifiers for personality without specific referents. Tham uses some of the particularities of the interface to engage the viewer in a playful movement from box to box that yields no conclusive result.

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I had begun my practice as an artist in the late 1980’s with a series of paintings and had moved onto a more self-consciously critical performance/ installation practice when, in 1995, I found the World Wide Web, with its capacities for instantaneous connectivity, hypertextual linking and multimedia convergence. I then transferred my practice to this new medium and between 1996 and 1998 made two web works and La Folie de la Peinture (1998), is the second of these. It is archived in fragments on the Wayback Machine.

At the center of this work was a remediation of a set of installation photographs, linked in such a manner as to represent movement through the space, with the experience of each ‘work’ recast as a multimedia experience (WAV, GIF, MOV and VRML files). The text (hypertext) was an integral part of this web work and in it, I set out some contextualizing ideas. These ideas were also presented within a wider theoretical framework in a paper titled Toward a Universal Theory of Convergence: Transcending the Technocentric View of the Multimedia Revolution presented at INET 1998 in Geneva. These points originally made in 1998 are presented below –

* With the emergence of abstract colour-field painting, the placement of works on the gallery wall became integral to the presentation and, in the light of this transient ‘installation’ aspect of the presentation, photographic documentation began to take on a new significance.

* While the ‘installation shot’ confirms the uniqueness of the ‘site’ of the installation, this photographic documentation leaves its own mass (mechanical reproduction) condition unindexed and has, quite surreptitiously, become the ‘extended’ medium, of installation art.

* As bandwidth increases and multimedia technology goes online, fluidly articulating the remote experience of image, moving image, text and sound in an interactive ‘virtual reality’, it will become increasingly difficult to differentiate between an actual place, person or thing from its image or representation.

* As the representations contained on the multitude of servers on the Internet exist in virtual proximity, ‘here’ and ‘there’ have been brought together in the ‘now’ of fiber optic connectivity. The instantaneous connectivity of computer mediated communication, appears to have eliminated geographical distance and the modern/ postmodern distinction of ‘site’ and ‘non-site’ is no longer be meaningful.

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One of the themes of my work in the 1990’s was a reclamation of the international contemporary art discourse from a national perspective. If postmodernism had displaced the hegemony of international of modernism with a disruptive array of regional, national and marginal discourses. While my own work was clearly located within the ambit of this postmodernist deconstruction, I had become disenchanted with its increasingly oppressive orthodoxy. Postmodernism promised an enabling relativity of signification but, by definition, it denied credence to all sign systems that acknowledged a transcendental signified. While this enabled alternative perspectives to rise over the overbearing horizon of modernism. it conflicted with contemporary approaches, like mine, that were grounded in the traditional world-view. As I worked on the protocols of a post-postmodern rapprochement of the traditional and the contemporary, I knew that my first obligation was to make a gesture of defilement.

In my web work of 1998, La Folie de la Peinture (1998), the ZIP‘ hyperlink took the user through to a photograph of an intervention I made in 1995 at the site of architect Bernard Tchumi’s work at the Parc de la Vilette, Paris. Speaking sculpturally, if the modernist work ‘occupies’ the physically empty, semiotically blank and ideologically neutral ‘non-site’ of the gallery or the urban plan, the postmodern work comes off the walls or blueprint and, arguably, ‘constitutes’ its ‘site’. There is no longer an object in view as the postmodern ‘figure’ becomes part of its own ‘ground.’ If the expansion of sculpture into the ‘site’ specific installation had deconstructed the institutional ‘white cube’ of modern art, the purposeless ‘red cubes’ of Bernard Tchumi’s‘ architectural installation, perversely articulate postmodernism’s negative ontology on a monumental scale. Conceived in collaboration with the progenitor of deconstruction himself, Jacques Derrida, and erected under the reactionary auspices of the French state, Tchumi’s follies epitomize the paradox of the 20th Century avant-garde – the inevitable institutionalization of its negative impulse. In my intervention at the site of this intellectually astute yet politically oblivious folly, I pissed on one of these futile structures and all that it seemed to represent!

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In 1998, I made my 2nd web art work titled La Folie de la Peinture (The Madness of Painting), fragments of which are archived on the Wayback Machine site. This was a comprehensive, if condensed, articulation of my critique of the movement from modernist abstraction, via conceptualism, to the photographic ontology of postmodern installation and performance art. My own practice had been evolving along this trajectory until, in the mid 1990’s, I found the World Wide Web with its capacities for instantaneous connectivity, hypertextual linking and multimedia convergence. La Folie de la Peinture was featured in the 2nd Multimedia Asia Pacific Festival (MAAP) 1999,: COLLAPSING GEOGRAPHIES online exhibition which was part of the Third Asia Pacific Triennial, Screen Culture and Virtual Triennial program.

The opening image of this navigational work was a direct flatbed scan of a bottle of Cuvée Tradition French wine that we had recently consumed. The two hyperlinked hotspots on the image that took the user through to the rest of the work were a ‘black square’ and the word ‘ZIP‘, references to the endgame in American hard-edged abstraction. Black square took the user through to a set of photographic images, remediated documentation, of an installation made at the Tower House Studios, Goldsmith’s college, London in 1991. These images were linked in such a manner as to enable a simulation of the navigation of the space and the experience of each ‘work’ in the new web ‘space’ as a reinterpretation in multimedia for online viewing. This part of the web work was augmented with physical objects from the original installation and a new desktop VR interface, when La Folie de la Peinture was presented at the Substation, Singapore in 2001 in a two-person show with Joe Lewis titled, Layers … Reality … Memory.

ZIP‘ took the user through to a modified image of a vulgar performative intervention I made in 1995. at the site of Bernard Tchumi’s architectural reification of the deconstructive ethos at the Parc de la Vilette, Paris.

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When the INET (annual Internet Society conference) came to Malaysia in 1997, I presented a paper titled “Art After the Internet: The Impact of the World Wide Web on Global Culture.” In this paper I analyzed how the Internet. was being shaped by various national and transnational forces and how esoteric postmodern theories were turning into everyday sensibilities. I presented examples of how artists were mapping the aesthetic, social, and political contours of the emerging electronic “terrain” as they made critical use of the World Wide Web to construct new arenas for their work.

This paper also set out the framework of Ideas that contextualized my web art work The Failure of Marcel Duchamp/Japanese Fetish Even! which had just launched in 1996. At the heart of this work was the new capacity to mix live (so to speak) images from servers that were geographically dispersed. I explained this extension of the modernist collage into the postmodern medium of jpegs, HTML, hotspots and servers as follows, “One of the artistic consequences of the mass circulation of printed images was the invention of collage. The artist no longer had to hand make an image but could now “cut out” two pre-existing images and combine them to generate another. The production of meaning was achieved by appropriating and recontextualizing found or ready-made material. Far from its esoteric origins as a mode of criticism, recontextualizing has now become the normal way of generating new content. In the popular music industry, the appropriated track or sample has been widely used for a long time and “mixing,” be it live or in the studio, is elevated to a form of art. With the availability of digital image manipulation and high resolution scanning, this approach now prevails even in the most commercial areas of the visual arts. With the development of technology acting as “frames,” the online textual, visual, multimedia “mix” is already happening”.

This paper is archived on its entirety on the Wayback Machine.