Yesterday I managed to get a sneak peek of Noorlinah Mohamed's 15 Stations, one of the key commissioned works for The OPEN! Its an augmented reality tour of the old Tanjong Pagar Railway Station!
For the benefit of non-Singaporean readers:
Tanjong Pagar Railway Station is a lovely art deco train station that opened in colonial Singapore in the year 1923. It used to connect our harbour to a railway line that extends northwards through Malaysia, all the way to Bangkok.
After independence, the railway company plus the bits of the railway line in Singapore and the station itself remained Malaysian property. It took fifty years of negotiations before the whole thing got sorted out, by which time ridership had declined dramatically, turning the whole building into a fabulously run-down relic.
So, in 2011, it was that it was announced that the station would be shut down. The station was besieged with nostalgia-obsessed hipsters and Instagrammers, and a big send-off party bid goodbye to the last train to leave the station (I was there!) and its gates closed, because no-one had (and no-one has to this date) quite figured out what to do with that gorgeous old ruin.
And for the benefit of non-techie readers:
Augmented reality is when you hold up a smartphone or tablet or something and instead of a plain old camera view of the world, you get to see reality overlaid with computer graphics. Not virtual reality goggles more like a virtual reality monocle.
In this case, you've gotta download an app that'll give you instructions on how to interact with the surroundings of the station, triggering images, animations and short films.
(That's my thumb in the pic. It's hard trying to take screen grabs of augmented reality. You're capturing what's there and what's not there at the very same time.)
The production team was still setting the whole thing up when I came; it opens officially next Wednesday. And I don't wanna give away too much of the show yet, but here are my three main observations:
1) The content's pretty "safe".
Considering how most of the OPEN consists of avant-garde postcolonial works, you might think this piece would have a political edge. It doesn't really. It's more of a journey through the histories associated with the site, some dramatised, some presented through archival material.
Nothing angry, nothing counter-cultural. Nothing really spooky - Noorlinah said she'd hoped to add in ghosts, but the animations cost too much. Speaking of which:
2) The technology's still a little wonky.
The downloadable app didn't always augment the reality around me quite as it was supposed to - I had to keep shifting my camera to reset the scanner, or stepping back, for things to work. The result was that I got some glorious images of glitches:
The stuff that does work is interactive on a pretty basic level as well - jerky animations, point and click to find out more. The point of this project isn't the tech, after all.
3) There are a lot of different voices working together here.
Even though the show's billed under Noorlinah's name, you've got to be aware that she's basically serving as a curator for a number of young, emerging creative folks, each of whom is bringing very different perspectives to the project.
As such, you don't get a polished, unified aesthetic experience out of the whole thing. Instead, it's much more of a patchwork, or a collage. And that's okay. You just have to go into the show with the right expectations.
So save the dates:
By Noorlinah Mohamed
Opens 17 June 7pm - 10pm
18 June through 4 July
Tue - Sat: 12 noon - 10pm Sun: 12 noon - 6pm
Tanjong Pagar Railway Station