Chand Chandramohan on Building Solidarity through Collectives, Decolonisation and a Horizontal Approach to Dismantling Exploitation


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Slow Conversations
Issue: On Unruliness

Filed under: performance
Chand Chandramohan (b. 1992) is a multidisciplinary artist hailing from Singapore.  Interested in ideas of performity within frames, her two most worked disciplines of performance art and collage intersect within notions of satire, marginalisation and social commentary. She is part of joke artist groups such as desigirl69, horizontal denglong and many more to come. She graduated from LASALLE College of the Arts with a Bachelors of Arts in Fine Arts in 2014. Notable shows a solo presentation in Hue, Vietnam; performances with Chicks on Speed at Art Science Museum (Singapore); The Rejected Proposals Showcase at Coda Culture (Singapore); The Lands Of at The Reef (Los Angeles); organised Performance Art Resource Orchestrator (PARO) with Yuzuru Maeda in 2018; as well as curatorial efforts in both Singapore and Bangkok. She also curated From your eyes to ours at Coda Culture, the first art event to feature all contemporary South Asian artists.
The recent months have been eventful for Chand. In the first week of the Circuit Breaker, we caught up with her over Zoom against the backdrop of planes flying noisily across a darkening sky.

Let’s begin with the fact that you chose a lot of theory for your selection, which is really interesting to me. What do you see as the place of theory in your work?

Admittedly, after ten years of practice, I find it very difficult to translate visual references into my process. I feel this discomfort over accidentally co-opting visuals if I draw too heavily from them. In most of my work, theory is a way for me to form my conceptual intentions. I see my work as a method of making inaccessible theory accessible to most people. My intention and hope is that the viewer need not have privileged or gate-kept language in order to understand my work.

¹ The Darker Side of Western Modernity, Global Futures and Decolonial Options, Walter D. Mignolo

I want to talk about one of your latest works, An Actual Mama Shop. In an interview about this work, you had said that your stand this year is that art is useless because of an inherent classism, meaning that only the privileged can afford access.

One of the books you picked out for our interview, The Darker Side of Western Modernity, Global Futures and Decolonial Options, takes a much more optimistic view that the cycle of colonialism is coming to an end. So do you see these two views as compatible? Do you also think that classism, specifically in art, can be simultaneously dismantled?

Ever since I got the book, The Darker Side of Western Modernity has been a key point of reference in a lot of my works. The optimistic conclusion actually follows from the many arguments against the fallacies of capitalism and the need to decolonize every step of the way. Decolonisation and De-westernisation is a main method of dismantling prominent systems. In the interview for An Actual Mama Shop, I said that art is useless because I don't see steps being taken here to decenter the white person's interests from artistic production or social policy. I really like this quote in the book, from Marcelo Fernández Osco, an Aymara intellectual, sociologist, and cultural critic:

Indigenous protests and mobilisations are not merely about opposition or resistance to specific policies or political leaders. Rather, they express an indigenous episteme, a system of understanding the world that has a completely different basis for thinking about socio-political relations and practices based on a model of horizontal solidarity that extends not only to all humans but also to non-humans in the natural and cosmological world. In contrast, mainstream knowledge, rooted in European colonial understands of the world, is structured along vertical, hierarchical lines. That is, certain groups of people and certain ways of acting and thinking are deemed to be superior to others. This difference is the key to understanding Andean politics, because it is in the indigenous episteme that the concept of (an)other autonomy is located. The versions of autonomy currently understood in mainstream politics (and promoted by nation-states) provide indigenous groups limited opportunities for decision making but only within the same body of laws that existed before. This notion of autonomy for indigenous peoples places them under the same subjugation that they have been experiencing since colonisation.

I see that as a very key method in decolonizing and de-westernising prominent systems of thought here. We are a colonised world and we do operate on colonised modes of thinking; until we stop regenerating colonial hierarchies in art systems here, the problems remain very cyclical, and the marginalised person is reduced to the narrative of just being angry. I think it isn’t about whether I think classism can be dismantled, but rather how we can actually approach dismantling efforts. My hope is that we can take a horizontal approach.

From what I see in art systems here, we still operate on very vertical and hierarchical lines, which we now know is clearly exploitative. We have addressed it a lot, but there is a limit to addressing problems within a system where we still fall into the vertical approach. We need to completely dismantle it from the ground up. I think a very big question is how do we even approach dismantling? How can we even unlearn how we dismantle?
² An Actual MAMA Shop, Chand Chandramohan
2020, Installation View at The Substation

Photography: Michelle Lim/Plural Art Mag

³ Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance, edited by Shannon Sullivan and Nancy Tuana

You've also mentioned the collection of essays titled Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance. The collection explores the ignorance underpinning racism as an epistemological oversight. The notion of contemplation is one that is rather important in your work Wokeshop: Strategies for Creating and Maintaining Space. Do you see contemplation as an alternative way of dismantling or as a subversion of dominant systems of knowledge?

One idea from the essays that really stood out to me and stuck inside my head is that purposeful ignorance shackles the marginalised person into the angry narrative. We have to ask: how many times has violence been excused under ignorance? Active ignorance is the most direct method to remove autonomy from marginalised people. All these dominant lies occupy a more valid space than marginalised experiences. For me it is not merely about subverting.

Wokeshop: Strategies for Creating and Maintaining Space started as part of Divaagar’s The Soul Lounge. I created it as part of his programme line-up, in alignment with the work’s focus on the marginalised space, and on safe spaces for marginalised experiences. In the first iteration of Wokeshop, we actually employed a racial quota that a person of higher privilege — meaning White or Chinese cis-bodied person — has to only come in accompanied by a brown person. We always employed rules to limit the interaction between the majority and minority. It was very important because such was the only way that safe spaces could happen, that we could confide our experiences in one another. It also becomes like a method of disengaging from how we are being treated, and an act of solidarity with each other. It is a turn from individualistic trauma towards collective solidarity.

However, at every iteration of Wokeshop, a person of higher privilege has always came in to disrupt. Always. Every single iteration someone has come to disrupt. At Wokeshop, we don't invite Chinese people into the room. Yet that clearly does not stop them from engaging in a conversation they're not invited to and from making a space unsafe. They feign ignorance of the violence that they are perpetrating. When a majority of brown people in the space are directly saying to a Chinese person that they are feeling unsafe, and when they are told to leave, the Chinese person act confused about why we want them to leave. They are then active perpetrators of violence.

The idea of safe spaces is really important. Contemplation is very central to the process of being in a safe space. For a lot of marginalised people, numbness is almost a way of being at this point. Solidarity requires contemplating over your intimate histories and the habitats that you endure in, which also diversifies the emotional labour among brown people. We can then collectivise our various privileges to help one another.

How do you see the relationship between reclamation and resistance? How do you approach the notion of safety?

Reclamation serves as a locality for resistance.

It rewrites rejection and resistance into prevailing systems of thought, and systems of social policy and interaction. It is not merely about opposition or resistance. I think reclamation is a system of understanding that is completely different; it is a different basis of understanding the spaces that we, specifically, have to navigate. Part of the Indian experience is the particular way that we have to navigate spaces, which includes brown spaces.

Sometimes reclamation requires us to remove ourselves from that space before we can re-join the conversation, to directly address what we need and describe what our experiences are. As I said before, numbness is a way of being. In the last Wokeshop that we held during From your eyes to ours, when I asked the brown participants — and it was mostly Indian participants at this workshop — how they navigate everyday violence in their lives, everyone said that they’ve become numb to it. The answers were so repetitive. Everyone ignores it. Everyone just hides inside themselves to the point where they cannot even, where we cannot even see and address it for what it is. It is very important to see and address such violences because it allows for confrontation of these prevailing modes of thinking, which, again, are centered around whiteness and racial hierarchy.

A lot of my work is about reclaiming identity. In my personal work it is about directly resisting white hegemonies through reclaiming features like dark skin or hair. Whereas in group projects, it is also about directly resisting white hegemonies but as a collective, where you don't feel alone in your experience. It’s almost like you're being gaslighted by society when you're told that you don't have the right to feel the way that you do. When you are actually collectivising with each other, your experiences are validated. I can say no. When I say that I hate my hair, it is because society has made me hate my hair. When I go to Watson, there are no products for my hair. The only way I can take care of my hair, or look presentable, is to straighten my hair. It's the same experience with a lot of brown people, and especially a lot of Indian people, where curly hair is hated, and dark skin is hated. Some problems that we have, like pigmentation, cannot be completely addressed without bleaching. There is such a problematic history with bleaching within Asian society. If our only method to deal with hyperpigmentation is through bleaching, it kind of puts us in a corner such that we have no methods to move forward. We can only absorb this violence and just shut up.

Could you elaborate on the importance of collaboration to you and your practice?

This is a question that I was most excited to answer because collaboration has been a very key method in my artistic process. I see all my works as collaborations whether I'm the main actor in it or not; collaboration has been a key component in my work from the past three years.

One of the things that I needed to address in this system of artistic process, which is essentially an artistic hierarchy, is that when there is a designation of “main actor” in a project, it results in a competition for space. Borrowing from Osco, it is a system of vertical hierarchy. This very antiquated approach about determining who is the best, and who deserves the space, is very inherently incompatible with my artistic gesture. In my practice, collaboration enforces a horizontal approach. The energies are very collective.

Everybody has an investment in the process and each one has to be accountable for their own contributions and expectations. It is a movement towards solidarity and safety.

One thing that is very important in collaboration is to be very clear about what you expect from other people. In projects where a single artist is the main actor, there's a lot of exploitation of labour that goes on. One example would be the exploitation of young artist’s assistants, who may not be paid for their labour. Various violence and exploitations like that tend to happen easily and a lot of efforts also tend to be erased.

As brown people, we are already marginalised in artistic spaces. You have to negotiate taking up space and end up being tokenised. When you are tokenised, it is put upon you that you speak for all brown people, when there is no such thing as one brown person who can speak for the entire brown population, or even just the brown population of artists in Singapore. It becomes very violent in the brown community itself because everyone's competing for the same spot. There being not enough space makes it inherently very exploitative and very violent. I have had personal experiences where, because I was taking too much space and I was getting too much recognition for my work, some brown artists felt threatened and threw me under the bus publicly or tried to ruin my career. This is the kind of thing that regularly happen in the art world. We just don't talk about it, or only in secret conversations.

Collaboration is a move towards solidarity. Within collaborations, we name each of the artists individually, but we don’t say who came up with the intention, who is the leader of the performance, or who contributed what. We don't evaluate exactly how much each person’s contributions are, as you have to be accountable for yourself. For all the things that we have put out, especially under the branch of the contemplation/reclamation performance, like Jiwa: A Performance or The Sun Rises in Molten Gold, it is about the collective vision. It's about having a lot of brown bodies, taking up space and not being ignored.
⁴ contemplation/reclamation, Chand Chandramohan, nor, Div, Diva Agar, ila, Priyageetha Dia and Vimal Kumar

Photography: Joseph Nair

Black Looks: Race and Representation, bell hooks

I can see that kind of intention in the exhibition From your eyes to ours, which you also worked on as part of a collective. You cited the bell hooks essay, Black Looks: Race and Representation, in which she said that there is power in looking. You had said that her theory of the oppositional gaze informed your curation of the group show at Coda Culture, which is the first contemporary art event in Singapore with an all-South Asian line-up. How do you see the relation between vision and agency?

So in Black Looks: Race and Representation, bell hooks describes gazes as sites of agency. Within the gaze, therein lies autonomy in looking. Most of us involved in the production of From your eyes to ours are educated in the arts, and part of any art student’s starter pack is John Berger’s Ways of Seeing. Invoking that, having the power to look is also possibly having the ability to confront and reclaim. When we first came together as a group to discuss possibilities, it became clear very quickly that there was a need for such an event to happen. The investment was individual but the need was collective. The idea came to us very early on to subvert everything that we were disenfranchised by. Sight as agency was needed in this event to subvert what is traditionally seen as the South Asian experience.

As you had mentioned, this is the first contemporary art event in Singapore that featured an all-South Asian line-up. Since the beginning we wanted to negotiate everyone’s investment with empathy, which resulted us in giving agency to the artists involved, including the choice of whether they wanted to respond to bell hook’s theory of oppositional gazes.

But the key aspect of this exhibition was that it is an experiment in solidarity, to see whether it is possible to create an environment where we can support our own. So it was important that we had the agency to curate the way we wanted. There was no hierarchy involved. Even though Seelan Palay was the gallery owner, he did not claim that title. He was one of the artists as well. It was a collectivised approach. There was no hierarchy that set out who was the curator or who was the gallery owner. Every step of the way, it was about subverting what it meant to be a gallery owner or be an artist. It was important to Seelan that we included everyone who wanted to be part of the of the event, regardless of age as well. Eleven artists are included in the line-up of the visual exhibition, Yes I Speak Indian. There were very young artists, who are still in school; and there were artists who are not art educated, where this was their first exhibition. And then there were prominent artists as well — people such as Seelan, Divaagar, and Priyageetha Dia and myself — who have had years of experience. The hierarchy was removed because everyone was put on an equal level. It didn’t matter if you had experience in art because we curated the exhibition such that every artwork was placed on an equal level. No one had more power or autonomy than another person. Everyone could choose their space and how they want their work to be exhibited. I would like to think that there was no politics involved in terms of special interest. We help, but we don't control what happens.

A lot of your solo and group performance work explores resistance centred around the notion of identity. Do you see the medium of performance, with its physicality and immediacy, as one which is able to give a particular response both to the call of resistance and identity?

I've always worked in the medium of performance, and in my years of practice I’ve never actually expected a certain response with regards to the kind of work I'm doing, because I see it as part of the validation that the brown experience exists or the brown body exists. It’s about taking up space because we can.

Performance art festivals are generally really important to the practice, but within them are really exploitative politics of allowing space for certain people. For example, there are practices where young girls have to sleep with artistic directors so that they can get a space to perform, or they have to be assistants for famous artists. These exploitative practices are something that I’ve had to disengage from. I knew that I could never benefit from it, and would never be allowed to benefit from it. The question was never about whether I am disengaging, I am just removing myself from the space that has already removed me.

This disengagement transforms into reclamation, and a key point for this came in the form of contemplation/reclamation three years ago held at I.D. (The Body’s Still Warm). I had used my privilege of being his friend to get a space. When I was included in the line-up it was still very early on, but in the temporary line-up it was already obvious that everyone was Chinese, which was not a surprise anymore. I worked with this idea of taking up space in the smallest room — the storeroom — and cramming in as many brown bodies as possible. I've always been disenfranchised from taking up space, so I wanted to take up space in the most subversive way I could. In the smallest space possible, I refused the gaze of Chinese eyes. During the performance, every time a Chinese person wanted to look into the storeroom to view what was happening, he had to view it through brown bodies. You can’t ignore our bodies in here. For you to view our production, you have to view it through our bodies, and you have to view it in bits and pieces. We are dismantling your gaze through our brown bodies.The physicality of performance art is important for the work that I do.

The spaces that exist in the arts, whether it's underground or institutional, have been ignoring the brown body for so long.

It’s basically a big fuck you. You have to look at us now, you can’t ignore us now.
Yes, I speak Indian (Part of From your eyes to ours)
Installation View at Coda Culture

Photography: Divaagar

⁷ 7.35% (Part of From your eyes to ours)
Installation View at Coda Culture

Photography: Divaagar

I suppose there is this obvious connection between performance art and space, and you also work with the ideas of taking space, reclaiming spaces and safe spaces. How do you see the idea of space?

This is such a complicated question to answer because it involves so much theory that I've learned and so much of my personal experiences and conclusions.

Firstly, having space to talk about your issues is important. When you remove the agency from people to take up space, it becomes a very vertical, colonial approach to the conduction of the art world, the exhibition, the art festival. You have to play into the rules of that space even when it disenfranchises yourself. I’ve talked about disenfranchisement a lot, but what I haven’t mentioned yet is the individual trauma that comes from this disenfranchisement. It’s a lot of trauma that the brown body has to take — facing the refusal of space. We have to go through so much trauma and our collective mental health suffers just from working in art. Working in art in Singapore is already so difficult. Many people don't have the space to do what they want, and they don't have agency to formulate the practices that they want to have. On top of that, being brown doubles the difficulty. We face twice as much gatekeeping — intellectual, emotional, even representational gatekeeping. Having a space just to address things is important.

Coming back to Ways of Looking or Black Looks and oppositional gaze, people who are big players or big stakeholders in dominant systems are the people that benefit from it the most. Obviously they will have no investment in dismantling a system that benefits them directly. However, there is this move towards diversifying, which has almost become a trend right now. I’ve heard of it being referred to as a “brown wave”, where brown artists are coming up and there's a lot more brown representation. However, we have to examine it more closely. Yes, it is a brown wave, but what kind of brown wave is it? Who do you see most often, and does that brown wave even include Indian people? Within this brown wave, within this space that is afforded to us which we had to fight for, there is still an erasure of people’s labour and narratives through tokenism.

You must ask yourself: are you looking through the lens of tokenism, or are you actually looking to diversify your systems of power in your spaces?

The Indian artist’s experience is a very specific one, in sociopolitical terms and race dynamics. It is a big question whether we can even get jobs, be shown in spaces, get solo exhibitions. Many Chinese artists get solo exhibitions, but at what point in their career does an Indian artist get a solo exhibition? In the recent few years I've gotten a lot of traction for my work, but at the same time, it has been ten years. I think a lot of people forget that I have been in the scene for ten years because they choose to ignore it. It's not so much about whether I'm letting them ignore it, but they're choosing to ignore it. At this point when I do have space, I realised how necessary having space is in order to confront majority systems of thought.

The notion of having space and owning space is also one which is explored in Solange KnowlesA Seat at the Table. You have picked out her performances and videos, in which her distinctive artistic direction is notable. What do you enjoy about Solange as a performer?

Her work is mostly self-directed, but she also credits everybody that is involved. She views her work not as an individualistic process but as collaborative. A Seat at the Table took her seven years to complete, and there were a lot of collaborative energies that went into making it happen. What I enjoy about her as a performer is how she takes abstract concept like “a seat at the table” and translates it into something that becomes so palpable through her music. The idea is related to disenfranchisement and having the power to take up space and to direct the conversation.

Going back to space and why it is so important, the metaphor of having a seat at the table means that you get to direct the conversation of how you want things to form and be enacted. I like this quote from her:

We've always had a seat at the table. I think that title has a lot of different subtexts. I think one of the seats at the table is also saying that, you know, I'm inviting you to have a seat at my table. And it's an honor to be able to have a seat at our table and for us to open up in this way and for us to feel safe enough to have these conversations and share them with you. I think that, you know, so many times, black people — or any people who are oppressed — have to constantly explain to people what's right and wrong and what hurts and how to approach this. And I think that even me, I'm still learning so much about other cultures and I think that when you have the opportunity to learn from that, you are gracious and you are appreciative and you listen. And so that was also my way of saying I am opening myself up to everyone to have a seat at this table. We've been doing these listening sessions where we set up this literal table and it almost looks like the Last Supper. But the conversations that happen around the table and the sense of pride that happens --

Wokeshop was created for Divaagar’s The Soul Lounge, which was actually a pun on her name, Solange. When the album was released, it set the both of us on a different course where we were thinking about our spaces at the table — whether we even had a space at the table and how do we get a space at the table, but most importantly, how do we have our own table to have a seat at. It’s our table and we are inviting other people that we deem safe, and who will listen, and who are open enough to understand. You’re not automatically discluded from the table because you’re of a certain race or of a certain privilege. You can join the table, but you are having the conversation that we direct. So this idea of a seat at the table, and the album, are both very important in informing us in our practice how we think about power and spaces.

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