(Clockwise from top left) Unsettled Assignments, image courtesy of Vuth Lyno; The Unforgetting Space, image courtesy of Olivia Kwok; Opening Draft, image courtesy of Ho Rui An; On The Threshold Of Listening, image courtesy of Weizhong Deng; Sultan Ibrahim, image courtesy of Lantian Xie;
In convening this lecture and workshop series for The O.P.E.N. under the title For Lack Of A Better Word, I am responding to a contemporary condition characterised, on the one hand, by increasingly complex and uncertain political worlds and, on the other, by an impatience for the right words to pin down the emergent realities that confront us. One can read this in the seismic global events that have unfolded within the past year, broadly theorised by some as a “crisis of democracy”. Within a politics of rage, augmented further by technological mediation, direct access and emotional authenticity is privileged over the perceived digressions of criticality, even as the networked environments within which we move increasingly demand such detours for us to make sense of them. There is no time to defer the delivery of words by way of the reflexive stumble that is “for lack of a better word”. No time to dwell over the imprecisions. For in order to do things with words, one must speak fast, tough and rough.
To insist upon the speech act confessing to the lack of a better word is then an appeal for time in a time that seems to have no time. Its modus operandi is not suspension but expansion, working to loosen the tense-ness of our political present. Such is what runs through the modes of criticality pursued by the artists and thinkers gathered in this series. Their investment in such discursive forms as the lecture and the workshop is not just pedagogical, but also performs the more crucial task that philosopher Jacques Rancière calls the redistribution of the sensible1. That is, the rearrangement of the sense relations that govern what is visible, sayable and doable.
My own contribution, Opening Draft, approaches “for lack of a better word” as a situated utterance (or an utterance of a situation) by considering a closely related but in some ways opposed expression: “Let me tell you where I’m coming from.” The declaration is one of situatedness, often spoken by politicians as they offer some kind of authenticating ground upon which the people can assess their motivations. Like the former expression, it therefore also anticipates a perception of untenability. But as political theorist David Simpson notes, this speech act can also easily become an exculpating move “whereby the subject secures itself precisely in confessing its insecurity”2. The question then is how to prolong this search for a better word. Or one could say, refusing to settle.
In Lantian Xie’s Sultan Ibrahim, the difficulty lies exactly in knowing where one is coming from. For the artist who has spent most of his life in Dubai, the surreal city, where the vast majority of the population is transient, is less a base than where the very notions of origin and destination come undone. For this reason, the objects in the artist’s installations – cigarette butts, elevator notices and second-hand romance novels – are chosen for their disposability. Here, one thinks of how absence defines the diasporic experience. Engseng Ho, writing on the Hadrami diaspora, calls diaspora “a society in which the absent are a constant incitement to discourse about things moving”3. It is along this line that we can consider Xie’s movement into the lecture form. However, unlike discourses of diaspora that still harbour the fantasy of turning destination into origin – in a word, return – the artist here examines what it means to no longer have that want for assembly into land or country. Sultan Ibrahim, he tells me, is a fish found in the Gulf region. Nobody knows where the fish got its name.
In thinking between the two enunciative positions of declaring where one is coming from and admitting to one’s lack of a better word, what further comes forth is the notion of address, both in terms of a place and of speaking to an other. In Zou Zhao’s On the Threshold of Listening, she addresses the site of her performance itself: the old Parliamentary Chamber at The Arts House. Just as how democracy has of late acquired a bad name, parliamentary chambers across the world have seen some less than inspiring scenes. From squabbling factions in more polarised polities to ponderous recitals of more of the same in more controlled regimes, parliamentary chambers have become places of pure resonance, where one comes only to hear oneself speak. In response, Zou transforms the Chamber into a listening space, a rehearsal room for practising the task of listening. Converging the aesthetic with the political, she further explores what it means to listen in pleasure.
Two workshop and installation projects offer important channels of engagement where the participation of the audience is central. In Unsettled Assignments, Sidd Perez and Vuth Lyno draw upon their respective research into the history of American-Filipino relations and the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) to consider how violence can proceed by means other than war, may it be through popular culture or even in peacekeeping projects. Crucial to their workshop process is the collective incubation of a new critical idiom that goes beyond the established anticolonial and postcolonial models. For one, how can we talk about the South-South relations embodied by the children born in Cambodia to African fathers who served in the United Nations peacekeeping troops? And how can we understand the legacies of foreign military bases and camp-towns in Southeast Asia when often no official archive remains from the time of these temporary settlements?
We return finally to Singapore with Tan Biyun’s The Unforgetting Space, a participatory installation featuring old history textbooks used in Singapore, dating back to the 1970s, that the artist has collected. Tan imagines a future where, following a crisis that threatens the entire study of History, an operation is mounted to salvage these textbooks from oblivion. Crucial to this effort is a set of typewriters provided for audiences to type out historical episodes they believe should not be forgotten, based either on excerpts found in the textbooks or their own sources. An instrument of colonial administration that would later play a vital role in facilitating nationalist movements, finally becoming the apparatus used to write the nation’s founding documents, the typewriter, together with the history textbooks, is here repurposed to enable the reclaiming of histories by the public.
Of course, words alone are never enough. The contributors to this series of interventions know too much about the smokescreens of ideology to naively invest in a free play of signifiers. If there is space for poetry and freedom that follows my saying “for lack of a better word”, it is a freedom neither of wilful suspension nor of blithe indecision, but one that “outplays the paradigm”, to borrow literary theorist Roland Barthes’ reflections on the Neutral4. This means that in saying “not this word”, I perform not a rejection tout court but an opening for something else to come. The “lack” is a strategy of non-alignment that converts its dissatisfaction with the existing positions into a generative moment, allowing me to entertain (in all senses) “my own style of being present to the struggles of my time”5. By this token, it is a mode of critique that understands that we need more, so much more, than just “better” words.
1 Jacques Rancière, Aesthetics and Its Discontents, trans. Steven Corcoran (Cambridge: Polity, 2009), 19-44.
2 David Simpson, Situatedness, or, Why We Keep Saying Where We’re Coming From (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002), 28.
3 Engseng Ho, The Graves of Tarim: Genealogy and Mobility across the Indian Ocean (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006), 19.
4 Roland Barthes, The Neutral: Lecture Course at the Collège de France (1977-1978), trans. Rosalind E. Krauss and Denis Hollier (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 6.
5 Ibid, 8.