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Singapore is a city that is reputed to have the only public transport system in the world that makes money. Its landmass has increased from 581 to 700 square kilometres since independence in 1965. Kitchener, Hindoo and Syed Alwi are all street names in the Little India district. True or false. Ask Boxcopy.
After committing to learn as much about Singapore as possible, members of this Brisbane ARI (Artist Run Initiative), launched BPCOS, The Boxcopy Publics Carrying Office of Singapore, a courier company offering to make deliveries for no charge. Their project, entitled The Knowledge after the famous knowledge test once taken by London cab drivers, was presented as part of ‘Invisible Structures: Australian artist collectives in Tokyo, Singapore and Yogyakarta’ which was developed by Asialink in association with Next Wave. This suite of residencies followed on from the 2010 Next Wave Festival program, ‘Structural Integrity’, which involved eleven Australian and international Artist Run Initiatives. Boxcopy was hosted by Next Wave participants, Jennifer Teo and Woon Tien Wei of Post-Museum, which generated the first delivery requests through its Food #03-BenBino’s deli-bar.
The Knowledge is a work which afforded many of the satisfactions of life and travel. Each day promised a mix of accumulating routines and ventures further afield—of moving up, down and across, of feeling useful and taking pride in a job well done. In a prospering city with a labour shortage there was no issue with BPCOS competing with local businesses. As Singaporeans avoid going outdoors during the hottest hours of the day, cyclists comprise a fraction of the traffic. Crisscrossing the CBD and its adjacent older neighbourhoods by foot, bicycle and public transport, when BPCOS couriers cycled they joined those of lesser means and the elderly Aunties and Uncles who act as neighbourhood custodians.
With the ideal of service at its core, The Knowledge was not another ‘dudes on bikes’ project. While several of the artists do identify with cycling sub-cultures, their project avoided the counter-cultural tone of projects that link the outsider status of (non-lycra) bike riding with raised political consciousness. In contrast Boxcopy’s project was dependent on learning the courtesies of doing business and living locally while not foregoing the liminal joys of riding a bike. Boxcopy improvised upon the routes and markers laid out by the city planners, got lost and frequently disappeared off the radar.
In their two months in Singapore, these artists traversed the discursive, physical and virtual spaces of the city. Having conceived a work in which ‘the network’ was subject, methodology and medium, one of the challenges was to refine their project so that it was distinct from the many works currently informed by ideas about networks. Their project was an excellent match for a city which is flat and compact and in which traffic moves steadily. It also complemented Post-Museum’s mix of theoretical and pragmatic aspirations expressed through its description as ‘an independent cultural and social space which aims to support a thinking and pro-active community’.
Boxcopy has reported that the ‘level of engagement was deeper than expected’. Teo and Woon have advised that work which is ‘project-based as opposed to object-based’ is not widely experienced in Singapore and have cited The Knowledge as an important counterpoint to the recent Art Stage Singapore Art Fair, which occurred at this time. Woon also views Boxcopy’s project as a stimulus for his own interest in the networks that are associated with peer-to-peer and open source technologies.
In the Australian context there is more discussion of this kind of work and of how to evaluate it. When assessing whether the relationships in such projects have integrity, artists and curators are increasingly borrowing from the kinds of evaluative criteria used in disciplines and spheres beyond the arts. Teo and Woon report, however, that such cross-fertilisation between the arts and other disciplines is still rare in Singapore.
Post-Museum’s commitment to a more porous view of the arts and society is reflected in the way that it accommodates projects as diverse as its Cafédirect business, the Cat Welfare Society and the Singapore Contemporary Young Artists Society alongside its artistic programme. Teo and Woon have an ongoing concern to stimulate cross-fertilisation between disciplines and sections of the community and to work with process-orientated groups such as Boxcopy. This places them at odds with two of the central tenets of Singaporean society—accreditation and technological enhancement.
Arguably, the personalised service offered by BPCOS had a nostalgic flavour, but its fresh approach to navigating the city and its relations also aligned it with Post-Museum’s contemporary positioning. BPCOS may have shared the labour-intensive and minimal capital attributes that have historically characterised migrant businesses, but it was not able to look to old world allegiances to get a foothold. The humanity of BPCOS and its dealings with the city was not lost on journalist Clara Chow, however, who wrote in The Straits Times of ‘the romance of being a postman’ bringing Boxcopy to the attention of the authorities for delivering mail illegally.
Away from their sites of engagement and back in the gallery, contextually-generated works such The Knowledge are extremely difficult to exhibit. The blogs, maps and recordings that are produced are often not as compelling when removed from the situation in which they were created. The dominant reading of these images and objects is that they are illustrative of something that happened elsewhere. These kinds of works are often reliant on processes such as searching, publishing and organising which are not unique to art making. New approaches to exhibition making which allow these emerging strands of practice to interpolate the discourse of aesthetics are urgently needed as curatorial strategies lag behind philosophical discussion about the relationship between relationally-orientated work and artistic considerations.
One approach could be to exhibit the work alongside previous work so that shifts that have occurred over time and that have taken place as artists have stepped away from the object-centred aspects of their practice can be appreciated. Artists might also consider exhibiting this work with additional new work which has the benefit of hindsight and which takes into account the spatial dynamics of a designated gallery. New work could incorporate additional documentation about the flows and transactions that underpin the work produced, but care is needed when representing the non-artistic participants of any project. Artists should also not neglect broadcast or mobile technologies, the temporality of which can underpin the performative and improvisary tendencies in relational work.
In galleries, there can be an enervating effect which often renders work like The Knowledge as ‘responding to’ rather than ‘arising out of’ its context. Viewers have a tendency to form coherent narratives when visiting exhibitions and this tendency is generally confirmed when relational work with humanist intention is on show. Exhibitions are framing devices that function to intensify the impression of artists’ competence, but the best have a counter effect as well. Of course, some of these projects are simply more amenable to gallery display than others.
In her texts accompanying the project, Ulanda Blair expands on the purpose of the Invisible Structures program which is to deepen the engagement facilitated by the 2010 Next Wave Festival. She points to the disposition of artists to attend to ‘ever-mutable and unseen structures’, which have the capacity to not only engender engagement but also impact on artists’ creativity and contribute to the renewal of localities. While it is not stated, there is the suggestion that the ‘idiosyncratic and ephemeral interactions’ which artists favour are often overlooked in formal diplomatic situations. As this network builds, it is timely to consider how its participants and funders are acting on the implications of the latest findings about how networks behave. One influential idea is that it is not just the depth but also the breadth of links within a network that matter. While strong links nourish networks it is the weak links—the random encounters, the friends of friends or ‘invisible structures’—which generate the less foreseeable opportunities so prized by artists. The exchange enjoyed by Boxcopy and myself as Asialink-funded Singapore residents is testament to this.
Boxcopy was begun by a group of recent graduates to provide exhibition opportunities for themselves and their peers. Since then, its Directors have become more and more accustomed to working in a generative way. Their participation in Singapore and its networks has given them more experience of the possibilities for ‘re-routing’ that can arise through developing a position beyond the confines of the art world. Their time in Singapore has heightened their awareness of what engagement might mean, of how its strong connections and weak links function, in both a local and regional sense, committing them to further adventures.
Boxcopy members, Joseph Breikers, Channon Goodwin, Timothy P. Kerr, Daniel McKewen and Tim Woodward, were hosted by Post-Museum during December 2010–January 2011, as part of ‘Invisible Structures: Australian artist collectives in Tokyo, Singapore and Yogyakarta’. This project developed by Asialink in partnership with Next Wave followed on from ‘Structural Integrity’ which was curated by Ulanda Blair and Jeff Kahn for the 2010 Next Wave Festival. Jasmin Stephens was a Visiting Curator and an Asialink 2011 Arts Management Resident with the ‘Singapore Biennale 2011’.