Thursday, 4 April 2019

The Last Meal: Hawker dishes in the future (The Substation, 29-30 March 2019)


The documentation of this project, "The Last Meal", comes a bit late - although perhaps a little fittingly because a number of food-related ailments seemingly kept me from being able to work at my maximum potential.

Earlier this year, I was fortuitously brought together with Chef Ming (of JAM at Siri House) - by The Substation - and thus began a collaboration to reinterpret local/hawker fare into a kind of anxiety-provoking menu. A disturbingly uncanny trip up and down and around memory lane! A speculative vision of our human weakness fondness for nostalgia meets hard future utilitarian compromises! An experimental work for the palate! It was truly an pleasure and honour to be able to work with Chef Ming who took it on with so much energy and so many ideas to take it further, especially the start of the project coinciding with a period of severe fatigue for me.

I had recently sought treatment (CBT/Exposure Therapy) for what has been a lifelong affliction of emetophobia (a completely debilitating fear of vomiting) and an unreasonable aversion to acidic or vinegary foods (a difficult thing to explain at times, because it can sound absurd to preemptively tell everyone "NO VINEGAR PLZ" in the off-chance that any unknown dish might have vinegar). And I had also seen an endocrinologist to ask if there was anything to explain my ridiculously tiny appetite and aversion to cold temperatures - and was subsequently diagnosed with hypothyroidism (so said all the tests, despite me being an extremely hyper person). And finally, the biggest factor of all that had triggered this intense self-examination was: pregnancy! SHOCK! HORROR! Yes folks, the Ding and South are unexpectedly multiplying (stay tuned for a documentation of this new long-term project), and this meant that for a period of time during the first trimester I developed an strong aversion to my favourite food of all - eggs! This was very hard to live down indeed, compounding all of my food anxieties despite my attempts to deal with them head-on like an adult by following up with all these medical investigations. So all of this was in the background as we began discussions for this food project....

The starting point for our conversation had been one of my past projects from a Healthcare Workshop with the Kyoto Institute of Design x Royal College of Art, whilst I was doing my MA at Design Interactions (RCA). In a way, that workshop's premise was already a bit like smashing two worlds together: you had that base of a historically practical and functional Japanese approach to researching and designing for elderly care (I remember our Japanese collaborator bringing to us these booklets of amazing innovative mobility aids and novel healthcare aids designed to assist in every aspect of elderly care) - meeting the provocative, parallel realities of a speculative future (as students from our Design Interactions programme used to call it, ahem, a more "DI" approach).

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Kyoto 2014: Kyoto D-lab held a Healthcare Futures Workshop centering on robotics in collaboration with the Design Interactions Course at the Royal College of Art - led by Professor Anthony Dunne and James Auger and D-lab’s Professor Julia Cassim.

Me, Calum Bowden, and Hiroko Narasaki worked on a project imagining a scenario where a robot was to prepare your "last meal", having collected a lifetime of data of your food preferences, being able to robotically prepare the food you wanted in a texture that you could consume despite all your age-related changes in chewing and swallowing physiology. We discussed the ways in which factors such as end-of-life, food preferences, and necessary food modifications could be determined, and surveyed Japanese people on a list of foods they liked most. (Obvs this was also borne from our common interests in eating lots of good food in japan and spending a long time in supermarkets and food halls looking at all the beautiful plastic foods and gorgeous food packagings...)


At the time we also thought that there might also be the issue where a meal is the sum of many parts and that people develop habits for eating certain foods together with others. But when we collect the data about the meal, the essential connections between unusual connections could also be broken - and odd pairings might be made. For example, in this case someone told us they loved foods such as Annin Tofu, Premium Niigata Rice, and Ashirari Decorations (to liven up the plating of her food). But in reality, no Japanese person would logically make a menu of Annin Tofu (Almond Jelly) together with Rice.

This was the starting point of the conversations we had to develop The Last Meal in Singapore, and to engage with a wider set of concerns facing the food industry in the near future (and specific to Singapore). Rather than to capture nostalgia in a perfectly rendered dish, the idea was to invoke the sense of the uncanny through subtle means. A twist of presentation, an unfamiliar texture, a physical constraint. The amount of alienation had to be right, and it was good that Ming kept us all on track by focusing on elements that would be universally recognisable by all Singaporeans.

One thing that was clear was that when we imagined someone eating these foods in a near-future post-apocalyptic bunker, the person in the bunker was very specifically us. A Singaporean, here in the present. It wasn't a baby from the future who hadn't had the chance to gain the lived experience of enjoying hawker food in the form that we eat right now. It wasn't someone from a foreign country being introduced to Singaporean hawker cuisine for the first time. It wasn't about exoticising or fetishising our nostalgia for hawker cuisine and 'heritage foods'. It was instead about transporting a Singaporean living in the present into a distant, uncertain food future where perhaps food security was an issue; where automation and efficiency was top priority to the extent of influencing hawker practices, where alternative proteins had become widely accepted in an era of land scarcity; where steady state foods would be commonplace backups; where a rapidly aging population would seek out enzyme softened versions of favourite foods to recapture the tastes of olde...

DONT BE SAD, HAVE YOUR LAST MEAL WITH US! Tickets selling fast. Join us on 29 & 30 March for an interactive art experience with a four-course dystopian take on local hawker fare, designed specially by chef Ming Tan (@maehng), in collaboration with visual artist and technologist Debbie Ding. SAD: The Last Meal addresses Singapore's obsession with nostalgia, by looking at the alleged death of the Singaporean hawker, and the anxiety around losing a facet of heritage that this country holds so dear—our local food culture. Our 7pm slots are nearly sold out, grab your tickets for the 9pm slot at Tickets are $35 per person. #thevanishing #citieschangepeopledie #subafterdark #hawkerculture #sgfood #singapore #nostalgicsg #heritagesg #nolstagicpanic

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Somehow this also needed to be rooted in reality, so we planned to shoot a series of audiovisual stimulation aids to excite (or confuse) the senses and stimulate (or deflate) the appetite. With the help of Cain and the sub team, we shot Ming in his kitchen at Siri House cooking up the originals of the dishes that were about to be reinterpreted (or as Ming likes to say, that we were about to try to knock off the pedestal...)





Although we had recorded sound on site in the kitchen, the original sound was not usable - it held the sound of a living kitchen with food being prepared and a restaurant during service. If I had used that original sound, it would feel like you were a disembodied spectator looking into some other space when you listened to the video like that. But I wanted the cooking to sound like it was actually happening right front in front of you. LIVE SOUNDS in whatever space you were in. So the sound had to be totally manufactured from scratch....

I suppose sound design for a video to be played back in an open space is always like putting on overly-dramatic stage makeup so that the details can also be seen under harsh stage lights and from a distance. So I did make some of the sounds very extreme and almost comedic. For example, for a bouncing fish cake, I decided to use some exaggerated bouncing balloon sounds that surprisingly seemed to work. And I cut up a lot of juicy leaves (actually they were leftover strawberry tops and stems) and swished about a lot of polymorph beads and mic-ed everything up painfully closely to get the most goosebump inducing foley sound.

I was inspired by the foley sound I had heard on the documentary Fruit Hunters and a show about Chaoshan cuisine that has been on Netflix recently, Flavourful Origins. And I guess you could say I made it all in the spirit of ASMR videos.

These were to be screened in front of the audience as they ate the new reinterpretations of dishes... I am a little shy about showing the final mix in isolation online because it truly was a bit over-the-top (I also have to confess that I did some of the final edits in the controlled access machine room with two operational laser cutters and their giant extractor fans whirring noisily in the background so my working conditions were also less than ideal) but I might make a trailer mix when I have more time over the weekend.


Some pictures behind the scenes...


Chef Ming peeks through the curtain to see what guests we have for the night


Chicken Rice in Kueh Form


Chef Ron doles out the secret sauce (cucumber)



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Retextured Carrot Cake, first lovingly batch-cooked in a wok with two different varieties of chai por, then brutally blended so to allow it to be hygienically and efficiently reheated in retort pouches; all to be squeezed directly (or sucked up) into the mouths of the audiences.


Laksa in a dried form, vacuum packed for longevity and easy long term storage.



A special Laksa rempah coating the puffed rice, ready to be rehydrated at a moment's notice to produce a seriously authentic tasting laksa soup.

Now that I am writing out this post I realised I forgot to take a picture of dessert - the tau huay!

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All of the production of this food was entirely undertaken by the amazing Chef Ming (and his assistant Chef Ron), who are both extremely knowledgeable and superbly skilled and inventive with the food they prepare. The actual realisation of this project completely wouldn't have been possible without Ming's professional and gastronomical expertise and his willingness to do something quite so daring with the food. For most chefs would rather make a pleasing menu, rather than one that draws gasps of shock from an audience; a menu that manages to bring the audience to relook their food with a critical eye. I am not qualified to cook the food and serve it to a public audience for I have not the required basic food hygiene training accreditation to do so, nor do I know the intricacies of how to organise or run a service! My role in collaboration felt much smaller; because ALL the props has to go to Ming's efforts and hard work to make this experience a reality! I only provided the idea and brain fodder for the project, but all of the amazing food (and food innovation work!) was the Chef's work! It was really my honour to be able to work with Ming.

Countless thanks must also go to The Substation: Annabelle and Si Min for facilitating the entire process and helping to take care of all of the small details, as well as all of the Substation staff (and interns Ariel and Celine) for all their help. Without the help of so many people this wouldn't have been possible!

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Some highly observant audience members asked me on the night why there wasn't ice kachang and nasi lemak on the menu. I was puzzled about the specificity of this question until I realised that they were referring to the image they had seen on the promotional material drawn by the designer, which ended up being printed in an unexpectedly huge size and mounted on the wall on the night of the event. Well, the answer is that at an earlier stage the shortlisted dishes originally included ice kachang and chicken rice so that was drawn into the flyer. However, the chicken rice was in a pyramid shape that could have been easily interpreted as the pyramid of a nasi lemak as well. Well spotted y'all.


In case you were wondering yes to the credit of the designer the portraits did have a rather uncanny likeness...

In the Press...

Plural Mag - The Hunger Games
The Peak Magazine - SAD: The Last Meal art exhibition serves up dystopian versions of beloved hawker dishes
SG Magazine - This is how local chef Ming Tan interprets dystopian hawker cuisine
CNA Lifestyle - Kitchen Stories: Fighting insecurity and emotions to prove himself to older chefs

Monday, 1 April 2019

The Art Space as Signal Processor: Sub-monument, a digital woodcut (Lasalle Praxis Gallery, 5 April 2019 - 5 May 2019)


"Sub-monument visualises the art space as a signal processor which removes or amplifies specific features of the received signal to generate various artistic manifestations. For the art space to keep on running, this absurdist hardware requires a physical building and constant upkeep from its devoted programmers - the hybrid artist-programmers who translate and parse source material into shamanic code and thaumaturgical scripts inscribed upon oracle bone - in order to resurrect uncanny cultural apparitions from the years before, invoking an eternal cycle of audience and practitioner sighs."


“[Monuments] speak on your behalf, they require your symbolic death.”
- from Janadas Devan's "Is Art Necessary" (Art Vs. Art: Conflict & Convergence: the Substation Conference, 1993. Singapore: The Substation, 1995)

About a year ago I agreed to work on a show in 2019. THEN A YEAR FLEW BY. AND ALL OF A SUDDEN THAT TIME HAD COME WITHOUT ME REALISING! So... I had to quickly produce the work during my (fortuitously timed) week off from work. I already knew from the start that I wanted to produce a large woodcut using lasercut because I had access to an awesome lasercutter of considerable size, and I imagined it to be a cross between an architectural drawing, blueprint schematic and alchemical scroll...

I wanted to make a mysterious diagram, depicting an arts centre as a kind of haunted machine, or diabolical signal processing hardware; a machine into which all the ideas and intentions of the artists and arts programmers and artistic director trickled into... or maybe not so gently. Maybe the energies of all these artists and programmers and art workers were being uncontrollably sucked up into, brutally chewed up, and then this big machine spat it all out as art, scattering it randomly into the sky, broadcasting it far and wide, without total control on how it rained down or haphazardly drizzled upon the audiences.

What keeps the arts centre runnning? What kept the artists going? Where did they come from? How was it that there were always new generations of artists and programmers returning to feed it and keep it going? Was it simply the insatiable hunger of the arts machine demanding to be fed more fodder? And as time wore on, I want you to imagine the frightful sounds of the wear and tear on the various essential parts of this strange hardware: the groaning from the repetitive motion of gears, and the creaks from all the pressures of delivering this non-stop service, the echoes of lost voices within this highly emotional social space...

One of my favourite books is a very slim volume - Paul Scheerbart's The Perpetual Motion Machine: A Story of an Invention, wherein he documents two and a half years of his life which he dedicated to his foolhardy attempts to build a perpetual motion machine, complete with 26 illustrations of his prototypes and accounts of his building process, accompanied by countless grandiose digressions into the potential futures he imagined that would follow after he had finally invented a working perpetual motion machine.

His apparent lack of experience/aptitude for physics and most forms of mechanical or practical engineering seemed to be of no deterrent to him, and he approached the challenge of constructing and designing a perpetual motion machine with a kind of fanatical enthusiasm and earnestness that might be read as either sheer genius or complete idiocy. Perhaps what had induced Scheerbart’s literary prolificness (and his endless tinkering) was the fact that then whenever he met with technical difficulties, he would allow himself to mentally leap over all these impediments and go straight to dreaming up fantastical futures with his perpetual motion machine.


The initial sketch....

Naturally, one may make one's own conclusions as to which arts centre I am thinking of. It is a very beloved space indeed, yet one that surely many artists in Singapore have conflicting feelings about. This isn't even the first work I've made about it. Does my illustration or mapping of this schematic change anything about how the future will run? I'm afraid not at all. But I am still driven to make something at the end of the day; it unexpectedly surfaces like a recurring motif in a dream.

Production Process



On the practical front, Artfriend sells 35 x 24 in. MDF (approx 910mm x 600mm) which is suitable for the GLS Spirit Laserpro which I had access to. The Spirit has a normal cutting bed of 34 x 24 in. (860 x 610 mm) which can also be extended to 38 x 24 in. (960 x 610 mm). [In the print settings you may need to tick the option "Extend" to get the larger size]

Issues encountered when Laser-cutting large works:


Note the blurry finishing - a sign that it is out of focus!
If the line is not perfectly crisp, you should pause and relevel the machine!
Some of the lines above were cut twice hence the severe burn as well...

1. Bed or material is not perfectly flat: I do find that with such a large cutting bed there is a tendency for some warp-age which means that you have to level it several times to get an "average" level otherwise either the edges or the centre will be out of focus. Pat material down totally flat and make sure there are no stray bits of nobbly fragments pushing any corners of the wood up. If there is a focus problem, the "burn" will be more diffuse, you'll produce a smoky line instead of a sharp cut.


2. Material may not be uniformly thick. The first few pieces I cut were perfect but then I noticed that one of the pieces of wood was a different colour, probably from a different batch, with slight variance. And unfortunately, not all wood is the same. Measure it with callipers or just do it the simple way: lay all out the material side by side on a flat table and compare to see which one is slightly thicker. In my case I found that the offending sheet that gave me trouble was more like 3.2mm than 3mm!!!!). For me, I'd say the quick fix is to cut it with a thicker wood setting (eg: 5mm). If you try to cut over an already cut piece of wood, you'll cause a lot of burning and charcoal on the finishing as the cut edges burn for a second time.


I had to switch the cutting profile from 3mm plywood to 5mm plywood in order for it to successfully cut on the first pass.


This is what it looks like on the back of that experiment - and what it looks like when it hasn't cut fully through.

3. Excessive Burning on out of focus areas: If your first cut didn't work because it was out of focus, it may have seemed logical to put it thru a second pass. However, the cut becomes more and more sooty and dirty, as if more of the edge has burnt off! However, reassuringly, I found that you can still sand off the burns entirely if you still wish - it hasn't all turned to charcoal!




Assembly and hanging in progress...

Bachelorette machines

Artists: Debbie Ding, Goh Abigail, Vanessa Lim Shu Yi, Victoria Tan
Curator: Caterina Riva

Bachelorette machines brings together works by four Singaporean artists: Debbie Ding, Vanessa Lim Shu Yi, and LASALLE BA(Hons) Fine Arts alumni Goh Abigail and Victoria Tan. Inspired by the artistic concept of the bachelor machine, the exhibition highlights the ideas and physical labour of these artists’ works.

In 1913, avant-garde artist Marcel Duchamp made a reference to the bachelor machine as a jumble of mechanical implements and schematic diagrams. In the exhibition, the bachelor of this art-historical definition becomes the ‘bachelorette’, echoing the song written and released by Björk in 1997.

In the exhibition, the machine conveys the historical and imagined engineering tools which have inspired these four artists. Spanning Praxis Space and Project Space, the exhibition includes sketches and installations, offering different entry points into the artists’ working processes.

Goh Abigail explores sound through a series of automated sculptures and drawings. Made of ordinary materials and objects, Vanessa Lim Shu Yi’s system of perpetual motion is designed to stimulate the human senses and muscles. In a new series of screenprints, Victoria Tan captures the changing landscapes of temporary sites in Singapore. Debbie Ding presents a prototype of an arts space as a processor, which filters analogue signals in order to generate various artistic outputs.

Opens on 4th April 2019!

Date & Time:
Opening date: Thu 4 Apr 2019, 6:30pm-8:30pm
Exhibition period: Fri 5 Apr – Sun 5 May 2019
Opening hours: 12:00pm – 7:00pm, Tue to Sun (Closed on Mon and public holidays)

Praxis Space and Project Space
Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore
LASALLE, 1 McNally Street