Early Internet Art in Malaysia 4

In the introduction to his profound work on the cinematic image, Signatures of the Visible, Fredric Jameson writes, “The visual is essentially pornographic, which is to say that it has its end in rapt, mindless fascination.” Explicit pornography is thus the acknowledgement of the true nature of the filmic image, a “potentiation” of its call to “stare at the world as though it were a naked body.” There is no doubt in my mind that, from the perspective of the Traditional School (with Coomaraswamy and Guenon as exemplars), that the visual abjection that Jameson attributes to cinema is simply the culmination of what one might refer to as the ‘ocularization’ of human civilization in the course of Humanism, the Enlightenment and Modernism.

Exemplified by the entrenchment of single-point perspective as the representation of reality (indeed as reality itself!) in art of the European Renaissance, this ocularity has permeated all aspects of social, cultural and political life in the mainstream of our civilization. Jameson orients his critique towards the centrality of images in consumerist society, wherein our very sense of being in the world is first and foremost visual. He says, “our society has begun to offer us the world … as … a body, that you can possess visually, and collect the images of.” It is this very photographic and pornographic ontology that Marcel Duchamp had earlier articulated and developed through his oeuvre. In all his work, be it his readymades, the Large Glass and most profoundly, in Etant Donnes, this obscenity, inherent in the image is both indexed and exploited.

This critique of visuality and the nature of the image is the impetus for my own The Failure of Marcel Duchamp/ Japanese Fetish Even! (1996). According to Tyrus Miller, underlying the various senses of Duchamp’s use of the word ‘delay’ in connection of the work The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even is that the glass of the so called ‘ Large Glass’ is a medium in which and through which ‘delay’ is realized and manifested, “by virtue of its material properties of transparency, reflectiveness, and refraction of light, and hence, by implication, the splitting of a present act of seeing into temporally different streams, ranging from maximum to minimum delay in the passage of light.” Indeed, I saw the slow download speeds of the early WWW as a vivification of Duchampian ‘delay.’

Further, like Jameson, I saw that the fight about power and desire had to be brought to that place “between the mastery of the gaze and the illimitable richness of the visual object.” In making The Failure of Marcel Duchamp/ Japanese Fetish Even!, I took my own object to the site of Duchamp’s notorious diorama, Étant Donnés, and made an intervention and a photograph. My image was later digitally composited with a pornographic one appropriated from the internet and offered as an online presentation which was inaccessible without the conscious intention of the viewer. If the viewer chose ‘to proceed,’ this gave rise a slow download of the new image, delayed by the bandwidth of the Internet of the day! The first commercial modem, was introduced in 1962 by AT&T and had a download speed of 300 bits per second. By 1994 speeds had reached at 28.8 kilobits per second and in then 1996 the 56K modem was invented. Very slow in comparison to speeds we are familiar with today. For instance, my provider in Vancouver offers fiberoptic data plans with 75mega bits per second (MBPS), 940mbps and 1500mbps download rates.

Also of note is the fact that in January of 1996, 5 years after Tim Berners-Lee published the first ever website and also the year in which The Failure of Marcel Duchamp/ Japanese Fetish Even! premiered at ISEA, there were, according to one source, only 100,000 websites (unique hostnames) on the World Wide Web (an alternative figure for that year is 257,601 websites). Today (as of August 2021), there are well over 1.5 billion websites. Of these annual numbers, 75% are believed to be inactive sites or parked domains.






Early Internet Art in Malaysia 3

In 1993 I made my first trip to New York. My wife Jane and I were living in London and had bought a Hoover vacuum cleaner. As part of the infamously disastrous (for Hoover) promotion of the time we got two free tickets to New York. I had, as an artist from Malaysia practicing in the London art scene, been working with found objects and performative interventions as a means of making a Janus faced engagement with the Modernist canon. I had already identified the ceramic bedpan as the the key readymade in my growing collection of objects – a pastiche and/or parody of the primordial Duchampian readymade. I sourced a plastic version that would be more suitable for travel and planned the performative action. Jane and I left for our holiday with an exciting itinerary that included a visit to the Twin Towers, a Cecil Taylor concert, a William Dafoe one-man theatre performance, a personal tour of the Electronic Arts Intermix archive, a social visit with pioneering avant-garde pianist Margret Leng Tan and an intervention planned in the space of Duchamp’s Étant Donnés installation at the Philadelphia Museum of Art…. The photograph featured in the The Failure of Marcel Duchamp/Japanese Fetish Even!  was taken by Jane as documentation of this intervention.

In 1995 Jane and I moved to Kuching so that I could take up a teaching position at the Faculty of Applied and Creative Arts at the Universiti Malaysia Sarawak (UNIMAS) which had been established in 1992 as the newest University in Malaysia. Its founding coincided with Malaysia’s sophisticated Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) strategy of the 1990s and we had a cutting edge Internet infrastructure and a commensurate technology centered academic programme. I had been practicing my art in the space between material objects, text, image, performance and the physical placement of the work in space. I had found myself developing a critical practice wherein context became part of the work. As I stated in an Interview with Roopesh Sitharan, it was when I joined UNIMAS that “I was introduced to the WWW, and most significantly, I met Hasnul who was already teaching there and in the early stages of developing an art and technology agenda initially envisioned by the visionary artist and theorist Ismail Zain. Hasnul encouraged me to consider the new media and I quickly realized that the new user friendly, ubiquitous, hypertextual, multimedia Internet was a medium that I had been waiting for – more and more my installation works had been yearning for a transcendence of materiality, geography, narrative hegemony and context – and this transcendence is what the WWW appeared to offer, even embody in its very ontology. I made ‘Failure of Marcel Duchamp’ in 1996”.

When this web work was presented at Explorasi, the inaugural Faculty of Applied and Creative Arts exhibition at the Petronas Gallery in 1997, I also presented a set of four framed 8.3 x 11.7 inch computer prints (in a single edition). Each print represents one key stage in the interaction of the website. The last print was framed with a frosted section in the glass to veil the pornographic element in the print. This website went offline after some years and was reconstructed and temporarily revived for the Relocations exhibition curated by Roopesh Sitharan for ISEA 2008 in Singapore. It was hosted on the 12 Gallery website during the period of the event. What remains of the work today is just the bare bones as archived without images on the Wayback Machine website. In this light the framed set of prints is the only tangible residue of what is slowly but surely being acknowledged as the first online artwork in Malaysia and Southeast Asia. In considering the print version of my work, I am obliged and honoured to acknowledge Ismail Zain’s Digital Collage series. If Digital Collage applied Robert Rauschenberg’s flatbed aesthetic to the computer mediated remix, my The Failure of Marcel Duchamp/Japanese Fetish Even! composited its remixed image in a live download from servers at disparate geographical locations. This print set was exhibited again as part of Rupa Malaysia curated by Reza Piyadasa in 2001.







Early Internet Art in Malaysia 2

In 1996 I made a web work titled The Failure of Marcel Duchamp/Japanese Fetish Even! which is the first Internet art work in Malaysia and, as far as I know, also in Southeast Asia. This work was both an admiring tribute and a harsh parody of Marcel Duchamp’s Étant donnés (Given: 1. The Waterfall, 2. The Illuminating Gas) which is installed at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In this meticulously realized work, Duchamp cleaves from logos, an abyss of eros. I suggest that it represents the culmination of the humanist trajectory in the philosophy of being, as in its presentation, the visual perspective of the ‘eye’ is fused, or confused, with the ‘I’ of the anthropocentric worldview. In this hypostatization of the ontology underpinning photography, sculptural form and visual image are rendered indifferent, arguably heralding the end of the retinal orientation in the art of the West and the birth of conceptual art. Étant donnés is a paragon of visibility, a par ergon of reality, a hyperreality even!

My own work remixed an image appropriated from a Japanese bondage site, an erotic or pornographic element, within the photographic documentation of an intervention I made at the site of the Duchamp installation in 1993. The erotic element would have been unacceptable on Malaysian servers and so was isolated from the rest of the image and located, with the help of media artist Paul Sermon, on a server at the The Hochschule für Grafik und Buchkunst (Academy of Fine Arts) in Leipzig. Part of the aim of the work was to address territoriality and cultural difference in the Internet. The work underscored the fact that information that was then becoming globally accessible is not universally acceptable. Another aim of the work was to reify, in the context of what was in the mid 1990’s, the ‘slow download’ of the Internet, Fredric Jameson proposition that the visual Image is, in Itself, essentially pornographic. With the advent of the mass access to computer mediated communications brought about by the World Wide Web, Duchamp’s delayed image was no longer an esoteric encounter. It was becoming democratically accessible (Given:) as the slow download (The Waterfall?) on a personal illuminated screen (The Illuminating Gas!).

The The Failure of Marcel Duchamp/Japanese Fetish Even! was launched at a poster session at ISEA 1996. That presentation, from which this post has been developed, was titled Locating The Image In An Age Of Electronic Media .


Zainub Verjee

Zainub Verjee: From Signifier to Signified

Zainub (Untitled)Zainub (Untitled), Leraian, Draft image for Silver-Halide Dye Print,  Niranjan Rajah

Zainub (Untitled) is part of a set of twelve images that comprise the upcoming  Leraian ( Denouement) series of my Koboi Project. The overarching narrative of the Koboi Project can be summarized as follows – The diasporic Koboi returns home to Kuala Lumpur from Vancouver. He looks to his Tamil origins while acknowledging his own miscegenation. The Koboi returns again with an understanding that his home is constituted in relationships.  He stakes his claim in Southeast Asian art as an Indian Malaysian artist. The Koboi reflects on his migration to native Indian land in the Americas. He critiques the relationship between Malaysia and British Columbia in the context of global LNG investments. He explores Canadian art and the cultural mosaic. He finds he is at home in both his places. He reveals the underpinnings of his work.

In Zainub (Untitled), I celebrate Zainub Verjee as a friend, as a guide in my diasporic wanderings and as a prominent figure in the Canadian Art landscape. I met Zainub in 2004 soon after I had immigrated to Canada, and while I was developing an International Conference at the Vancouver Art Gallery for the New Form Festival. She was Senior Program Officer Media Arts at the Canada Council for the Arts and was supporting the conference in that capacity. In the course of New Forms, I was able to develop and apply a new post-traditional theory whose framework informs my work to the present day. This engagement with Zainub confirmed for me the indispensability of enlightened art administrators to the cause of alternative and critical approaches in the arts.

In my consequent encounters with Zainub I have learned that she is a highly professional administrator, a generous provider of networks and an astute participant in critical discourse. Working with as much regard for the center as for the periphery, her modus operandi has been one of promoting counter positions for the different constituents of the Canadian artistic community, thereby enabling a transparent and ethical framing of the whole. In her own words “it is always a question of building coalitions and alliances.” Zainub has always managed to give effective voice to innovation and dissent,  while directing the attendant energies towards attaining a degree of functional harmony.

Ecoute, S’il Pleut Video Still 1993. Zainub Verjee

Zainub was part of the seminal Vancouver Conceptualism of the 1980’s and 90’s and has shown her art at the Museum of Modern Art and the Venice Biennale. The epitome of Zainub’s enmeshment in the avant-garde milieu of her home on the Northwest coast is the inclusion of her video work Ecoute, S’il Pleut (1993) (Listen, if it is Raining) in Road Movies from a Post-colonial Landscape in 1997. This exhibition was curated by Judith Mastai at the Portland Institute of Contemporary Art. Zainub’s piece transposes the poetics of water and space from the inner courtyards of Islam onto Montreal’s urban gardens. She evokes the sense of the space of text on the page and at the same time alludes to the fundamental extrusion of the nation upon the native landscape. This exhibition was the British Columbia component of a three part Traversing Territories series, the other two parts being centered on Washington and Oregon. These exhibitions explored developments in contemporary art on the West coast that were emerging outside of the institutional frame. Traversing Territories II comprised work from Zainub and nine other artists including the luminary Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham and Ian Wallace.

In 1997 Zainub produced a 4 channel video installation titled Through the Souls of My Mother’s Feet. It was presented within the precincts of the Jamatkhana Ismaili centre in Burnaby. This work was centered on the idea of ‘nomadic architecture’ or the physical and social structures that peoples carry with them to maintain communal coherence over space and time. It was developed over the period of four years beginning in 1993. Zainub used auto-ethnographic methods that would become the norm for reflective subaltern artistic practice throughout the 1990’s. This is what Hal Foster had theorized as the ‘ethnographic turn’ in a paper titled ‘The Artist as Ethnographer?’ This ‘turn’ was understood in terms of notions like ‘fieldwork’, ‘the politics of representation’ and a ‘dialectic with globalization’.  As an artist, Zainub seems to have been moving with both regional and global currents.

Having made her mark as an important emerging Canadian Artist in the 1980’s and 90’s Zainub shifted the emphasis of her contribution to the administrative and policy arenas of art. Indeed, in the latter half of the 20th Century Canadian arts administration was a field of ideals, excitement, contestation and intense activity and it is here that Zainub found her niche. The impact of her work must be set in the context of postmodern developments in art practice and theory which meant the end of the innocent or unreflective art object. As the nexus of artistic production moved out of the object and into the process, the installation, the performance, the concept and ultimately, into the institutional framework, curatorial and administrative imperatives began to take on a more overt creative function. There emerged an interpenetration of the workings of administration, politics and aesthetics and an attendant interoperability of their levers. In all her good works Zainub has brought the creativity and insight of an important artist to bear on the task of raising the individual talents as well as the collective profile of Canadian visual and media arts.

lum_img1_v1000 (1)Entertainment for Surrey Video Still 1978. Ken Lum. Collection Surrey Art Gallery and Vancouver Art Gallery

Zainub (Untitled) is a re-make of the work of another major Vancouver artist with whom I have a connection. When I was studying for my MA Fine Art at Goldsmiths College in the early 1990’s, we had a visiting lecture from Ken Lum. It was exciting to see his deadpan post-pop, post-conceptual identity blasting photographic works but what really struck a chord with me, as an artist who was intent on divining his art in the gap between names and things, was his presentation and explication of a performance video titled Entertainment for Surrey (1978). In this documented performance Ken stood by the side of a highway for a number of days during the morning rush hour and at the end of the cycle replaced himself with a cardboard cut-out. The attention and honking responses of the drivers diminished as they became familiar with his presence on their route, and by the time he came to the cardboard substitution the responses had attenuated – Ken might as well have been a cardboard cutout and then … he was! While there must be issues of neighborhoods, immigration, identity and class being raised in the work , what got to me was the clarity with which he had achieved the marking of the transition of substance to sign.

zipZipLa Folie De La Peinture scrolling page from Internet (offline), 1998. Niranjan Rajah

In 1995 I returned to Malaysia to take a posting at the Faculty of Applied and Creative Arts, Universiti Malaysia Sarawak. It was a new university built at the height of Malaysia’s ambitious bid to be a centre in the burgeoning Internet economy. The World Wide Web had just opened Internet communications to the masses and we had world class infrastructure and information specialists at our University. I immediately saw the correlation between my photo/conceptual/installation aesthetic and the multimedia, hypertext and virtual geography of the internet. In 1996 I made The Failure of Marcel Duchamp/ Japanese Fetish Even! This work, to the best of my knowledge, stands as the first work of Internet art in Southeast Asia. Technically simple though it was, this piece articulated the time, space and textuality of the internet in order to effect a critique of the relationships between the local and the global. In 1998 I made a second Internet work, La Folie De La Peinture.  These works involved photo-performative actions at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and at the Parc de La Villette, Paris, respectively.  I feel that these works may have had their initial stirrings in my understanding of Entertainment for Surrey (1978). I am happy to say that I have since been able to develop a friendship with Ken in Vancouver and to apprise him of this debt.

08-ken-lum-rwUntitled (Zainub), Mixed Media 1984 Ken Lum. Collection M+ Museum for Visual Culture, West Kowloon Cultural District

I first met Ken in 1992 in London, and then met Zainub in Vancouver, in 2004. In 2011 Ken Lum had his 30 year retrospective at the Vancouver Art Gallery, and I went, with great excitement, to catch up with the wider body of his work. I was, of course, hoping the ‘highway piece’ would be on display. The route we happend to take through the gallery led us away from the video piece and, momentarily forgetting the search at hand, I began enjoying the show. Between this absorption and the underlying anticipation of finding the video piece, I was totally blown away when I turned around to see, larger than life, and younger than ever, my dear Zainub Verjee. My family was with me and we all relished this moment of defamiliarization together. Ken’s art, which had attained its status as such by parody, pastiche and inversion of everyday Vancouver kitsch, was itself turned around. In our collectively surprised and sentimental gaze, high art had turned into to the simple kitsch of – hey look its Zainub! And so was I, the jaded and astute artist, no longer in possession of my critical eye –my gaze had turned to a gape … it was a rare moment, and of course this moment is the genesis of the upcoming remake, 5 Zainub (Untitled).

received_1045929462208723Ken Lum and Zainub Verjee at A Matter of Life and Death, Art Gallery of Mississauga, March 2017

When I told Zainub of this encounter with her image in Untitled (Zainub), she was delighted and explained a deeper connection at this wonderful nexus of art and life. She and Ken had been very close in their early explorations of art, its politics and its aesthetics. They had been students together at SFU, both of whom were not art students but still gravitated to its expression and its critique. They have remain close friends.

In concluding this writing, I want to return to the semiological understanding I gained from considering Entertainment for Surrey. If the incremental familiarity of a body standing by the road turns its substance into a sign of itself, then it seems to me that renown and reputation might also diminish the capacity of a body to be a signifier of things other its person. When Ken made his Untitled (Zainub) it was early in her career and ‘Zainub’ seems to represent certain qualities: ethnicity, gender and by her dress perhaps, class and profession as well. The figure in the image takes on the quality of a ‘signifier’ for other qualities or concepts that are ‘signified’. While the title anecdotally informs us that she is a real person with a name (Zainub), she is not presented as a known quantity. Over 30 years have passed since Ken’s image was made in 1984 and ‘Zainub’ now has a strong identity within the Canadian arts community. She is known in a much wider circle than before. Given the accretion and sublimation of qualities into this identity, it appears that the slightly defamiliarized figure in the red Cowboy Hat in my Zainub (Untitled) can now only index the very singularly signified – ‘Zainub Verjee’.

Note: This post has since been developed into an essay for an important anthology of writings on Media Arts titled Other Places: Reflections on Media Arts in Canada.