Thursday, 31 July 2014

The Palazzo F.- : lost in time and space? (Venice Architecture Biennale, Swiss Pavilion, 2014)

Recently I went to work at the Venice Architecture Biennale along with a dozen other Design Interactions students from the Royal College of Art. We were there to produce a project on the future of labour at the “summer school” as part of the larger Swiss Pavilion. At the end of our week at the Swiss Pavilion, our projects went into a small grey box which went into a larger archive.

“Following Burckhardt’s and Price’s critique of the traditional university system, Lucius Burckhardt and Cedric Price – A stroll through a fun palace will function as an architectural school under the leadership of Italian architect Stefano Boeri with Lorenza Baroncelli. It will welcome and connect students in a worldwide network of thinkers, schools and researchers, enabling them to reflect on how the contemporary landscape is changing.”


Hans Ulrich Obrist, February 2014: “At the centre of the project will be the archives of drawings of Cedric and Lucius, of which different aspects will be revealed throughout the Biennale. ‘A stroll through a fun palace’ in collaboration with architects and artists will present a laboratory where the ideas of Cedric and Lucius can be toolboxes to invent the future.’


As an “archive”, the materials in the Swiss Pavilion meant to be “programmed according to a time-based dramaturgy, creating a changing mise-en-scène and an exhibition in constant motion.” Models, materials and other archival objects were wheeled out periodically, moved around, shifted on to chairs, taken out at different intervals. The projector came on, songs were sung, sounds were sometimes played, boxes rearranged by curators. And in the middle of the open space, the slightly confused visitors on a mild summer’s day in Venice wandered through these fragments and tentatively, hesitantly sifted through a few at random.

Whilst I was extremely grateful to have had the opportunity to spend a week inside the Biennale, “absorbing” the Biennale, as it were - I had some issues with the actual execution of the pavilion itself, perhaps because I had imagined something quite different from having read the texts which described it.

While you can indeed aim to curate an exhibition which consists of multiple points of view where it is forever impossible for the viewer to have a complete overview or to see the entire story in full, whether by physically or by time durations, the question for me is whether such an approach can be aesthetically compelling, or able to hold together when executed? Will it show enough of the narrative to pique the interest, to encourage one to open up this “toolbox” and to unpack its ideas and engage with it, especially for one who might be encountering all of this for the first time? Or will the toolbox remain nothing more than a conceptual toolbox out of reach, a pretty idea without immediate action or application?

This is not to say that I don’t think that there are many useful lessons to be learnt from Cedric Price and Lucius Burckhardt; the Fun Palace is indeed a great if unfinished idea - a place where the building remains flexible and changing with its users having to complete it by making use of it. But in its execution, the exhibition seemed to induce or reinforce the audience’s meandering behaviour of floating around like a confused, constantly distracted, itinerant museum goer, “sampling” archive materials at random like how a shopper might taste a few proffered food samples at a supermarket - but so noncommittally. In my opinion, the Swiss Pavilion turned out to be a space in which I saw the spectacle of the “confused and lost gallery-goer” - the everyday camera/smartphone-clutching mobile spectator, instagramming the scene before understanding it, itching to flick to the next page, unable to focus on something with any concerted engagement - lost and floating in space. I began to wonder, with my limited understanding of the forces that had produced this situation, how I came to be sitting here in the pavilion - who was the intended audience at an architecture biennale? A random venice traveler? Architects or architecture students working on some other portion of the biennale? Seriously, who were all these people? What force had produced this massive architectural extravaganza, and for whom? And who were we really hoping to engage with this "toolbox of ideas"?

So often “participatory” shows which involve introducing people to the ideas of “great visionaries” approach it from the viewpoint of somewhat didactically showing the audience how their lives could potentially be enriched through these great amazing ideas. I have no issue with something educational, but I think that if it is done without truly getting people to go through it thoroughly - and without demanding that they should fully give these ideas completely new forms on their own at the end of these interactions - then it is clearly more a pedagogic exercise rather than a true reciprocal exchange of ideas. I suppose my problem with it is mainly that I find that the moments at which true interaction can occur here seem so facile and fleeting.

The archive trolleys used to move and rearrange materials reminded me of the gravestone trolleys I saw in the Cimetere in Venice’s Isola di San Michele - inert gravestones inscribed with distant names, shuttled from place to place by its caretakers - large mute memorials exiled to a floating isle that was to be their grand funerary palace... I guess it is another kind of Palazzo F.- ...?

Maybe I say this because I am now beyond "toolboxes". They are useful, and even a review of the "fundamentals" of architecture like the bigger Giardini show is also worth going through, but I no longer want to play with toolboxes and dictionaries, its almost like just stalling time; I think we ought to be spending that the time writing and making completely wild and new things.

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Second Life Adventures: A Lonely Dinosaur on the Dancefloor, Deconstructed Architecture in the Metaverse, and Hopper's Diner in Space

I've been having internet issues the last few weeks - being in a flat in Venice with no internet and no mobile data, having intermittently poor internet here in Berlin. Once every few months I recall that I have a Second Life account. Last few nights I found that - shock! surprise! - I could actually clamber online after hours late at night, and what do I do online? The really important work I need to do online?... No, instead, I found myself wasting time on Second Life once again.

People unfamiliar with Second Life often ask me, "What can you do in Second Life?", "Aren't all these virtual worlds dead already?". So here is a list of things you can do right now in SL - or rather some of things I've done this week:

1. Walk through some abstract wastelands


Lots of half-built places with strange lighting that look like a cross between a glitchy p-model music video from the 80s, a seapunk animated gif, and someone's incomplete rhino 3d project. But don't get me wrong, most of them are less interesting than what I've just described. A lot of them are very mundane as well, like reproductions of grassy hills and boring houses with boring normal furniture inside them.

2. Walk around in the prehistoric world of dinosaurs


Went to Prehistorica, the Dawn Kingdoms, where they also have a collection of very convincing dinosaur avatars for sale!

3. Become a dinosaur

I decided to become an apatosaurus (also known as brontosaurus), largely because it was just about the BIGGEST.

Screen Shot 2014-07-25 at 9.43.30 pm

4. Become a Dinosaur and and walk around "London City"

"London City" is a sim which looks like London but is set by the seaside, merging some of the elements from London with a seaside town. I tried walking around making loud roaring noises and growls and stamping sounds but no one seemed to take notice. Some other avatars skittered around underfoot, trying to figure out how to operate the free go-karts in this parcel...

Screen Shot 2014-07-25 at 11.00.43 pm


Screen Shot 2014-07-25 at 11.02.08 pm

Screen Shot 2014-07-25 at 11.04.39 pm

Sadly, as I was still a gigantic Dinosaur, I was too big to go inside the Tesco and Tube equivalents in "London City Pier". Its hard being a dinosaur.

5. Become a Dinosaur and walk around a beach - almost

Screen Shot 2014-07-25 at 10.44.01 pm

I also wanted to go to the beach in Jamaica but they had a compulsory swimsuit policy. That meant that I couldn't go to the beach because I didn't have any dinosaur-sized swimsuits to wear there. Again, its hard being a dinosaur.

6. Go to a party as a Dinosaur

Screen Shot 2014-07-25 at 10.57.13 pm

It's lonely up there, being a big dinosaur, and dinosaurs can't dance because all the other people are too tiny and its impolite to step on them...

7. Become an Android and do taiji in a japanese pavilion by the seaside

I was bored of being a dinosaur by this point, so I switched to being an anime style android. Utilizator makes really excellent full mesh avatars. This is the Rikugou A; Utilizator also makes the popular Kemono avatar, of which there are endless mods it seems, all very professionally constructed (except that I don't really want to be a furry...)




8. Fly through outer space

I visited Ars Simulacra: NMC's SL Artist Showcase Island, which can always be counted on for a good experience. All of the following images are from Ars Simulacra's MediaMorphosis.


9. Wander around immersive landscapes





I should like to rent a large plot to build something on this scale one day just so I can experiment with it slowly! How much of these effects are "accidental" or intentional designs? I believe that a lot of what looks impressive is sometimes very simple in its underlying construction. And looking back, I'm surprised to realise so much time has passed since I first saw these kind of spaces. I've already been on SL as nothing more than a casual user for over 7 years now. It has almost been 3 years since I stepped into Kuru Kuru World. This type of floating, deconstructed space has been in the metaverse for so long; its nothing new but I still wonder if we can learn anything from it and apply it back to architecture in the real world.

These sort of spaces still remain as some of my favourite kinds of spaces in SL to walk around in. I realised the image I had in my head for a proposal I had written recently (to be built in real life) comes a lot from my fondness for such spaces in SL.

What's interesting for me is the use of video on the 2d planes which are used to create structures. In such a world, "light" or more correctly "colour" also operates completely differently. A media "texture" with glowing white elements appears as a bright light that reflects off the faces of the avatars, and the shifting transparency in these moving image layers also produces unexpected diaphanous and complex-looking waves, especially when you cam around them. Much of these are housed inside huge megaprim domes with "infinite" seamless interior textures, which only reveal their underlying structure when you fly about and cam out as far as you can.

10. Visit a replica of Hopper's Diner



An obvious landmark to reconstruct in a virtual world, and famous for having been used as a visual reference for the "future noir" style of Ridley Scott's Blade Runner. Where Blade Runner faithfully reproduces the colour tones of Edward Hopper's "Nighthawks", here the lonely diner itself is faithfully reproduced as a physical 3D space to wander in and around. I feel a bit strange walking around it, standing outside looking in, sitting inside looking out - I wonder, by spending more time in the virtual Hopper diner, will the diner eventually appear in the maps of my dreams...?

Friday, 11 July 2014

The Act of Rationalising the Destruction of Books: Singapore's National Library Board pulps books!


Today I had a walk around Mitte in Berlin, and I went past Bebelplatz.


On 10 May 1933, in this open square next to the opera house and Humboldt University, over 20,000 books were burnt in the square after Joseph Goebbels gave an incendiary speech to a crowd of 40,000 people and students. The entire library of the Institut für Sexualwissenschaft (Institute of Sex Research) was first to go; dragged out on the streets and burnt to ashes. Books by numerous Jewish writers and pacifists were also pulled out from nearby public libraries and burnt. These included works by Heinrich Mann, Heinrich Heine, Stefan Zweig, Karl Marx, Albert Einstein, Kurt Tucholsky, and Erich Maria Remarque.

The Institut für Sexualwissenschaft was a non-profit foundation which conducted research on sexuality with regards to medicine, psychology, and ethnography. The Institute also had been an early advocate of sex education, contraception, and had been campaigning for the civil rights and acceptance of homosexual and transgender people.


The Book-burning Memorial by Israeli artist Micha Ullman - consisting of an empty subterranean library that could have held 20,000 books

10 JULY 2014, STRAITS TIMES, SINGAPORE: Three children's titles recently removed by the National Library Board (NLB) as they were deemed not "pro-family" will not be put back on the public libraries' shelves. The three titles are: And Tango Makes Three, The White Swan Express: A Story About Adoption, and Who's In My Family: All About Our Families.

In a press conference held at the children's section of the Toa Payoh Public Library, Ms Jasna Dhansukhlal, assistant director of NLB's public library services, said the books will go through a "discarding process" where they will be pulped...

Pulped! One would reasonably expect that a library is a place where books will be kept safe, and where they would be a champion of freedom of information and speech. Yet this is not the case at the National Library Board; who after receiving a petition requesting for the books to be reinstated, instead announced that they decided that they would stick with their "pro-family" stand, and would be in fact pulping the books!

The pulping and destruction of literature because it isn't aligned with a particular set of values is something that a library should never be engaged in. Even with the way Singapore is generally thought of to be conservative, never did I expect that they would say that they would pulp the books to be withdrawn. Were we even talking about the same place where I spent hours and hours reading in the reference section as a young teenager? With one fell swoop they were going to stain all my happy hours there with the horror of imagining all the unknown books they may have withdrawn and destroyed over the years due to some conservative and religious complainants. At some point I had outgrown the National Library and had wondered why its collections in its public sections were so sparse and unrepresentative of the vast literature out there, and I thought it was likelier to be from a failure to acquire the books, rather than the possibility of there having been a slow but systematic culling of books along the way. But now even we cannot be sure, because we do not have the numbers.

There are also a few separate issues at stake here: (1) BIGOTRY: Can our national library be allowed to be openly anti-LGBTQ? should the library be allowed to impose a moralistic "pro-family" (anti-LGBTQ) policy over its public access collections and withdraw those books which do not reflect those so-called "community norms"? (2) CENSORSHIP: Can our national library be allowed to play moral watchdog and censor materials at will? Why should they be allowed to define what is an acceptable family structure, and why is it defined in such a narrow way? and (3) ACCOUNTABILITY & TRANSPARENCY: Can the library can be trusted to make the right decisions when it has shown that it is not accountable and transparent in its actions? Should a library be empowered to quietly withdraw books from their collection at will if a single individual with his or her personal moralistic/religious agenda complains about a book?

We do not have a Freedom of Information act in Singapore, therefore there is no official instrument with which to request for NLB to make the list of books which they have withdrawn public, unless they decide on their own to make this information public. The government-citizen relationship in Singapore is still largely a nanny-state in which the government exerts power over the people by withholding data and information, and by doing so restricting people from making autonomous decisions. For example, the belief that the government controls everything continues to influences people's behaviour, as evidenced from how opposition parties still have to reassure some voters that nothing bad will happen to them if they vote for the opposition.

A few days ago the government also announced that they would not be bringing Article 5(2A) of the Constitution into force, which means that it can make amendments to our Constitution without having a vote. The reason they cited was that they might want to make refinements to our tax system and the basis on which the Government can draw on net investment returns for current spending, so being able to amend the Constitution would save Singaporeans from the process of a potentially lengthy and protracted national referendum.

The issue then, is whether you trust the government to do exactly as they say, and whether you trust that the Government will truly be able to do everything in the people's interests.

Unfortunately, this is not a perfect world that we live in. I am always suspicious if I hear someone tell me that they know what's best for me - assuming that they must know better than I know it myself. As a logical and thinking individual, I would like to be able to make the decision for myself, instead of letting someone else summarily make the decision for me. It is not that I am being contrary for the sake of being contrary, but it is simply that I would like to understand how everything works for myself before I have an opinion, and to have the autonomy of making choices for myself. For me, this autonomy of choices also forms the basis of a democratic society, in a space where we can have open and honest discourse.

It is interesting to note how the destruction of those books is often very carefully rationalised by those who are homophobic; in all the reports, the suppression of the books is always described as a kind of positive action on the part of homophobics to stem the "pollution" before it "infects children". They describe the complete eradication of books with any representations of LGBTQ people (and penguins) as a way to attain a better society with better values, with none of that terrible corrupting gay influence.

The Nazis also used a lot of propaganda aimed at educating children and students about the so-called corrupting influences of the Jewish and gay people, to the point where the burning of libraries became a way of showing support for the government. They also had a War Manual, the "Kriegsbrauch im Landkriege" (The Usages of War on Land), in which they formally justified terrorising civilians and destroying the cultural capital of their enemies as such: "War cannot be conducted merely against the combatants of an enemy state but must seek to destroy the total material and intellectual (geistig) resources of the enemy."

In "Libricide: The Regime-Sponsored Destruction of Books and Libraries in the Twentieth Century", Rebecca Knuth writes an account of how the Nazis even made a point of their tactics of cultural warfare by completely destroying the same Louvain Library in Belgium not once but twice! - during both world wars, even though they had already been rebuked and widely deplored the first time around, and the US and Britain had spent considerable effort trying to rebuild the library only for the Nazis to destroy it for a second time.

I am disappointed to see so many people who have graduated from my alma mater National University of Singapore, saying such terrible things and supporting NLB's destructive actions in the name of so-called "pro-family values". In all of my years of education in Singapore, I was never taught to hate and discriminate and to force my views on to others! What happened to make so many Singaporeans so ignorant and intolerant of differences in views?

Has there been a lack of exposure to the outside world and the realities that exist outside it? Do these people know that many countries around the world recognise the human rights of LGBTQ people and ban all anti-gay discrimination? In countries such as UK, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Iceland same-sex marriages and same-sex adoption have been legalised as well. Those countries are all doing pretty fine and nothing much has changed, except that more people now have their human rights recognised.

To me, it seems that Singapore's public libraries and education system have completely failed if all they have done is to produce so many ignorant and intolerant people today who cannot think for themselves - people who would rather let the state control and define what their children can or cannot read, because they are apparently afraid that their children will become corrupted by a single book - presumably because they feel incapable of thinking for themselves after years of being told what to do - by their religious leaders or by the government.

Books and the dissemination of information through printing and technology are the very things which have enabled us to create and share ideas of identity, individualism, human rights, and even the idea of a nation. These are all potentially ideas and notions which different people may have very different views about.

How can a National Library be allowed to pulp books based on a single complaint without further consideration of other people's points of view? If it can pulp few children's books like this, how can it be trusted to manage the National Archives of Singapore, which moved under the National Library Board in 2012? A library that continues to promote intolerance, bigotry and destroys books should not be managing our National Archives, or the archive of books deposited by Singaporean authors by legal deposition.

Today as I walked around Bebelplatz, I was accosted by endless streams of young American and British tourists in huge numbers, distinctly audible from their accents, which made me bristle with the annoyance I frequently get in a place overrun by tourists and generic packaged tour groups; the pre-packaged, simplified narrative that tour groups invariably assign to hot tourist destinations. There was a tour guide standing close to me giving a description of the square to a dozen teenagers, talking about the significance of books and why the burning of books was such a terrible atrocity that should never be repeated again.

To me, it sounded so obvious and logical that his statements came across almost trite. Likewise I also find that my entire article is nothing more than stating the obvious. Yet as obvious as it seems, in the end it is a lesson that many still have not learnt.


Das war ein Vorspiel nur dort
wo man Bücher verbrennt,
verbrennt man am Ende auch Menschen
- Heinrich Heine 1820
That was only a prelude, there
where they burn books,
they burn in the end people.
- Heinrich Heine 1820

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

On Censorship and the withdrawal of access to books which are not "pro-family": National Library Board needs to clarify their position on how they handle their collections!

Screen Shot 2014-07-08 at 1.34.47 pm

This morning a post from a "pro-family" (anti-lgbt) group “We are against Pinkdot in Singapore” by Facebook user "Teo Kai Loon" made the internet rounds. It contained the following letter from Ms Tay Ai Cheng, Assistant Chief Executive & Chief Librarian of the National Library Board in Singapore: (Original screenshot image here)

Thank you for your email. I would like to assure you that NLB takes a strong pro-family stand in selecting books for children. We take a cautious approach in identifying titles for our young visitors. Besides going through the contents, we also refer to synopses, reviews and other books written by the authors.

We have withdrawn the books Tango Makes Three and the White Swan Express following your feedback. We have a collection of more than five million books. While we try to sieve through the contents and exercise our best judgement, it is an arduous task to ensure complete adherence of details in the books to our pro-family stand. However, when library visitors like yourself highlight to us any conflicting content within books, we review such books thoroughly and withdraw them from circulation.

Warm Regards,
Ms Tay Ai Cheng
Assistant Chief Executive & Chief Librarian
Public Library Services Group
National Library Board

I was extremely disappointed to see this letter and the use of a "pro-family stand" to justify the censorship of books - a withdrawal which was only demanded for only by a few individuals with an agenda of intolerance! This is a slippery slope we are headed down and how can a nation's library policy of including or not including books be dictated by a few individuals with narrow views on what can be represented and what cannot? I wrote a response to the issue but my facebook post quickly vanished as the original post I had shared was taken down - the result is that now I am even more angry. I've rewritten it now and made a screenshot of it above just in case....

The books which were withdrawn were:

And Tango Makes Three is a children's book based on the true story of two male penguins who were observed to have formed a couple whilst they were in New York's Central Park Zoo. They were later given an egg to raise which another couple could not, and they hatched a baby penguin named Tango.

White Swan Express is a children's book about adoption, and how families can come in all forms of shapes, sizes and arrangements. It traces the journeys of four very different North American families who travel to China to adopt a child, but even though everyone is very different, they are all not so different because all the families are bound together by love.

I hate how the term "pro-family" is often used in Singapore. They aren't really "pro-family" if they do not agree that every human has the right to have a family irregardless of sexuality and gender. They are only "pro-heteronormative-family", and "pro-fixed-gender-stereotypes". In fact, "pro-family" has now become a thinly veiled way of saying that one's views are anti-LGBT without coming right out to say that you are actually homophobic / intolerant of LGBT people!

When public representative public bodies such as NLB say that they are "pro-family" what does this mean? Does it mean that the National Library of Singapore can officially refuse to allow the public access to certain books if they happen to include stories from the viewpoints of LGBT people? Really, Singapore? In this day and age? Isn't this tantamount to thought-policing? A National Library shouldn't be "pro-anything" - and if anything at all, its prerogative should be to be "pro-freedom-of-information!"

It is important that we demand a public clarification from NLB on their policy on how the books and materials in our national libraries (whether in public access or reference sections) will be handled - now and in the future.

See also:
NLB: Recommend titles to be added to the public collection:
NLB public feedback form:
My Post on FB
Straits Times: NLB removes two children's titles after complaint that they are not "pro-family" National Library Board apparently banned two children’s books as they are deemed not pro-family NLB removes two children’s books after complaint by anti-LGBT group
Yahoo News COMMENT: Kirsten Han - NLB should not define ‘family’ and censor books

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Arriving at ZK/U / Baugips Casting Experiments / Moabit and Behala Westhafen

A few days ago I got to ZK/U in Berlin (finally) where I’ll be doing a residency for the next two months. I’m also going to try to catch up on a lot of backlog on documentation and writing here.

On seeing a sink in my studio, I decided it was as good a reason as any to experiment with something horribly messy and wet, like plaster casting. So far I’ve only had one other experience trying to use plaster - earlier in the year I went to a two-day plaster casting workshop by Kevin Callagan at London Sculpture Workshop - it was great because it was more about making quick “sketches” in 3D through hand sculpted clay moulds and plaster casting - instead of drawing sketches, the idea was to produce quick 3d plaster sketches of visual ideas, which I really enjoyed doing - and which I want to do more of for “The Library of Pulau Saigon” project I’m working on.

One of my goals for the year is to improve on my model building skills - sadly I have never ever had to chance to do a proper wood/metal workshop/design & tech class, neither have I ever done a foundation art course, so I am generally very clueless (and completely lost) when it comes to what is the proper way to build something. I mean, I build things because I want to build things, but actually I don’t know what I’m doing really....

I found a bag of ‘baugips’ (building plaster) and ‘modellgips’ (modelling plaster) in the communal material shelf, and I happened to chance across some squishy ‘plaster mixing pots’ for 70 cents in a hardware shop along Turnstrasse, so...


First, I made some moulds to cast the plaster in. I wanted to make some of buildings; the end result turned out to be gross renderings of what I imagine to be ‘berlinesque’ buildings and also the Behala Westhafen building which looms in the distance from my window. I found some blue foam in the communal pile - it is also so easy to work with and make into prototypes! Good thing is that blue foam is a perfect material for plaster casting, and for me it feels less wasteful than using clay, which can quickly become messily inpregnated with shards of plaster, rendering it unusable after a few uses.


The actual view of Behala Westhafen from the terrace of ZK/U

I wanted to add a note on the Behala Westhafen - it is easy to forget that technically speaking Moabit is an island, bordered by the River Spree, the Westhafen Canal and the Berlin-Spandau Navigation Canal. Looming in front of my window view is the massive, red-bricked Behala Westhafen building, and the trains which come in ever so often, presumably hauling the cargo to be shipped to and from the Westhafen habour. Behala is the company that runs a harbour which ZK/U is right next to here in Moabit, built in 1914, forming Germany’s largest inland port. It is surprising to see the busy port in the middle of the land. You would imagine a sight like this should be at the coast or at the edge of the sea, but here the busy cranes and container port is right in the middle of Berlin!


I had half of cup of water in the container and poured in the plaster slowly, allowing the plaster to ‘absorb’ the water. It will make a distinctive sound... if "the sound of water being absorbed" can actually be described as a sound? Well you’ll have to hear it to know it. When the plaster begins to stop sinking and starts forming islands that stick out on the surface of the water, you can start to mix it. I am a lazy person so I got a discount rubber spatula to mix it with instead of my hands. Of course if you are a purist you should use your hands to knead out all the lumps, but without introducing too many bubbles.


Poured into the casts and left overnight to dry.


Ready to peel away from the mould


"Fish skeleton"






Some manner of a building facade - at this point I’ve realised I’ve done it all inversely by mistake! LET THIS BE A LESSON - is the feature sticking out on the building? To make a mould you should only be cutting out shapes representing each of the recesses, NOT the protuberances on the building! The next time I make a mould of Behala Westhafen I will do the cutouts in reverse.