Deja Vu: Planet of the Apes 2

In my pervious post titled Deja Vu: Planet of the Apes I discussed the imprint made on my mind by the violent chase scenes in the said film. This impression was revived by the recent border patrol images coming out of Del Rio, Texas. I noted in that post how this is one of two images brought forth in me, the other being that of the “historical injustices suffered by black people in the US..” Upon further reflection, however, I have come to realize that these two images are infact one and the same. Urko and his fellow gorillas are literally black, while the regressed, abject, Yahooesque humans are Caucasian. This seems to be an artistic inversion of the historical image of the American slave patrol and I suggest that it is in this very reversal that the power of these chase scenes lies.

May be an image of one or more people, people standing and outdoors

I wonder if the authors of this filmic scenario were conscious (I would like to think they were) of the Slave Patrol predecessor of their image, and further, if they intended a progressive parody or if it was merely a reactionary pastiche. However, regardless of this authorial intent, I am convinced that this recurring image is etched into the American psyche and is sublimated in all that is now referred to as ‘structural’ in that nations institutions.

Writing on Juneteenth 2020, Phillis Coley cites historian Gary Potter’s three functions of the Southern slave patrol –
(1) to chase down, apprehend, and return to their owners, runaway slaves;
(2) to provide a form of organized terror to deter slave revolts; and,
(3) to maintain a form of discipline for slave-workers who were subject to summary justice, outside the law.

She goes on to note that the use of these patrols to capture runaway slaves was a precursor to the formal police force in America and its ethos has persisted as an element of policing role even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.


Deja Vu: Planet of the Apes

The images coming out of Del Rio, Texas of US border guards on horseback charging at a group Haitian migrants, using horse reins to threaten and, seemingly, to strike them brought two thoughts to my mind. The first was that the image of white men in western hats using horses to threaten and herd dark skinned Haitians carried “echoes of the historical injustices suffered by black people in the US.” The second was something I could not quite pin down. It seemed like something I had already seen, a Déjà vu image from my own childhood experience. And then it came to me in a flash – The Planet of the Apes! I was struck by the cruelty of the chase scenes in that movie when I first saw them on our black and white TV as a child in Malaysia. I am equally struck by the cruelty signified in the recent images from the USA. I hear the horns of the film’s soundtrack blaring again!



Electronic Art in Malaysia

‘Traces, Legacies, and Futures’ is a live-streamed conversation on electronic art between Hasnul Jamal Saidon and myself, mediated by Ropesh Sitharan. It will take place at 9pm (MYT) on 30 September 2020. It will be accessible on –
Facebook Live

The practice of art is contextual in that it is responsive to, or critical of, the time in which it is performed. Especially a work of art that invites us to foresee the possibilities to come, akin to a message that tries to teach (some say warn) future generations. In this sense, an artist is not someone who mimics the ordinary for a palatable outreach, but who is ready and willing to use their talents to challenge norms and shift perceptions. This casual conversation with Hasnul and Niranjan probes such significant efforts of ‘shifting’ in their art practice – what we have come to refer to as ‘new media art’ today. It will address the diversity and the various trajectories in their practice that have substantially contributed to the ongoing conversations about art, culture and technology in our lives today. Indeed, it is hoped this conversation on past ideas, expressions and arguments by them will help preserve their legacy and launch critical inquiry into the future of electronic art in Malaysia as these ideas find their way to the relevant institutions. 

Dovzhenko’s Mammoth Sunflowers

In Alexander Dovzhenko’s last silent film, his masterwork titled Earth (Zelmya) 1930, a tragic and violent narrative of the Soviet collectivization is set within a lyrical rural mise-en-scène and realized in profoundly poetic cinematography. In one of its many shots extolling the Ukrainian landscape, is featured the Mammoth (Russian) Sunflower. Apparently this glorious, or perhaps even monstrous, anomaly was cultivated in Russia and was brought into North America in 1880. It produces a single golden flower that grows up to 10″ across and is filled with edible seeds.

The Mammoth Sunflower is no innocent incident of nature. Being ‘man-made,’ it occupies the space between nature and culture. Despite its beauty, however, it is no mere vanity, it is a food crop. I suggest that, in Dovzhenko’s Earth, it is the perfect or complete symbol. It represents, the ethos of the narrative, at the same time, standing for nature per se as well as for its cultivation, its industrialization and even its collectivization, in the course of human civilization.

Incidentally, Dovzhenko is the only early Soviet era director whom the great Andrei Tarkovsky cites as a predecessor, “If one absolutely needs to compare me to someone (in Soviet cinema), it should be Dovzhenko. He was the first director for whom the problem of atmosphere was particularly important.” It must be said, in the context of this notion of ‘atmosphere’, that Tarkovsky himself eschewed the ‘symbol’ in cinema, and spoke instead of a more open and less intentional cinematic ‘image’ which he defined in terms of the notion of the metaphor, “A symbol contains within itself a definite meaning, certain intellectual formula, while metaphor is an image. An image possessing the same distinguishing features as the world it represents. An image — as opposed to a symbol — is indefinite in meaning. One cannot speak of the infinite world by applying tools that are definite and finite.’ (Interview Le noir coloris de la nostalgie with Hervé Guibert in “Le Monde”, 12 May 1983 )

In my own view, symbols are as malleable and as variable as the mind and worldview of a given viewer or community of viewers. As such Tarkovsky’s dichotomy, essential though it is to our understanding of art, is not an inevitable duality. An image must, in my understanding, contain many symbols that come forth as the viewer, or artist, determines, or designs. If, like Tarkovsky, the viewer finds that the ‘image’ satisfies in its latency, then it will be left unread and no symbol will arise. However, perhaps as a result of having more of an intellectual than a poetic inclination, I see symbols in all images. I see them even as I relish the ‘atmosphere’ of Tarkovsky’s own indefinite images! I suggest that, in art, the question – ‘image or symbol,’ is less about the essential quality or nature of the work and more about the perspective of the viewer or the approach of the artist.

May be an image of flower, twilight and outdoors
May be an image of standing, flower and outdoors

This Sunflower was grown by Jane Frankish on our allotment in the plot shared by members of the Jonathan Rogers gardening collective in Mount Pleasant Vancouver, Summer 2021.

Post-tradition in Canadian Politics

The revivification of religion in contemporary society leaves me with a sense of foreboding with regard to the future of humanity. There has been a resurgence of religious values in the politics of the 21st Century as theocratic and quasi-theocratic modes have made an impression, even in what were once staunchly secular democracies. The Christian right has brought socially conservative positions to the forefront of the politics of the USA. The Hindu right has turned India’s avowedly secular democracy into a nation-state steeped in Hindutva (Hinduness). Before these developments, there were the theocentric formulations of Islamic fundamentalism and Zionism. Tragically, all of these ‘post-traditional’ hybridizations of religious truths with modern politics have resulted in the division and alienation of peoples.

There are, however, examples of a more integrative incorporation of religious values at the forefront of human affairs. Canadian politician and leader of the NDP (New Democratic Party), Jagmeet Singh, is an exemplar of this more inclusive post-traditionalism. In a 2017 interview with GQ magazine, he articulates his religious approach to contemporary secular society, “My Sikh spirituality … influences my political style. We strongly believe in social justice as an element of our founding philosophy—that there is one energy and that we are all connected, kind of like the force. So if I see someone else suffering, as a Sikh I see that as me suffering. There’s this morality that flows from this idea that we are one and connected, and we celebrate diversity and people of different backgrounds, cultures, and religions..” He underscores his point by citing a Sikh mantra that wishes for the “betterment of all humankind.”

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 movie’s 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

“If you want to know what you are you cannot imagine or have belief in something which you are not. If I am greedy, envious, violent, merely having an ideal of non-violence, of non-greed, is of little value. But to know that one is greedy or violent, to know and understand it, requires an extraordinary perception, does it not? It demands honesty, clarity of thought, whereas to pursue an ideal away from what ‘is‘ is an escape; it prevents you from discovering and acting directly upon what you are.”

J. Krishnamurti

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.


Early Internet Art in Malaysia 12

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.

Early Internet Art in Malaysia 11

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 –


Early Internet Art in Malaysia 10

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.