Episode 2: Tulika Ahuja, Reza Hasni and Siah Tiong Hong


As we navigate through our pandemic-altered, digitally-saturated reality, most artists and cultural practitioners have been scrambling to adapt their projects for the screen or the online space.

Not Tulika Ahuja, Reza Hasni and Siah Tiong Hong. Reza’s solo digital exhibition, titled CENTRE FOR ALTERED TOGETHERNESS, is conceptualised as six virtual worlds. In this episode, we speak to Reza, Tulika and Siah about our relationship to the digital, and the imaginative possibilities of the Internet.
Originally Aired: 8 December 2020




Transcript

Object Lessons Space
As most of the world is sheltering in space, spending a lot more time indoors, and consuming copious amounts of content online, how can the show go on?

Artists and cultural practitioners have found a solution to this dilemma in the form of digital exhibitions and showcases. Digital exhibitions are all the rage, and they can take on various forms. Some digital exhibitions recreate the space of a museum or a gallery online, allowing users to explore the hallways and artworks virtually and from the comforts of their own home. Others lean into the possibilities afforded by the webpage itself, using it as a blank canvas to create interactive works that are meant to be encountered via the screen.

In this episode, we’re diving headfirst into our digitally-saturated reality. Whilst some artists and cultural practitioners scrambled to adapt their projects for the online space, Tulika Ahuja, Reza Hasni and Siah Tiong Hong, or Siah, were well prepared. Reza’s solo digital exhibition, titled CENTRE FOR ALTERED TOGETHERNESS, or CAT World for short, was launched amidst the Circuit Breaker, or lockdown period.
Reza Hasni
Everybody is molded to do this thing and this thing in society, so it’s for once like you don’t really have to do whatever that you’re supposed to do, but just be yourself, and then just explore the whole thing, and then like have this feeling of like wanting to explore, or you can even choose that you want to fly, or do whatever. You can even stay there for seven hours, nobody’s going to tell that, oh your time is up, yeah, and that you have to log out.
Tulika Ahuja
Or you have one or two lives, you know, like it was really just about the journey. And that’s why it’s important that this was launched during the Circuit Breaker, when everyone was feeling very stuck, and very attached to one place, but also the mind was travelling so many places. We wanted to go in there, in the mind, a little bit.
Reza Hasni
It’s like your safe space, or Shangri-La in your mind, you know?
♪ Podcast jingle ♪
Object Lessons Space
Hello and welcome to a new episode of Mushroomed, a podcast hosted by the Singapore-based online platform, Object Lessons Space. Object Lessons Space is an art historical archive and platform that documents conversations with artists, writers, and curators. My name is Joella — I’m the Founding Editor of the platform and your host for this podcast.

CAT World is quite an experience, and can be accessed online at www.c-a-t.world. The homepage of the exhibition presents users with a choice. Users may pick out any two colours to form their own unique avatar, and these colours can be selected from a colour wheel, or using a specific RGB, HEX or HSL code.

Once you click on the button that says “Go”, you’re immediately transported into a portal-like tunnel. At the end of the tunnel, a bright open space flashes — beckoning the user to travel towards it. A straight pathway lies between where the user is and the light at the end of the tunnel. Flanked on either side of this pathway are symbols and motifs that change every time you enter the website. Some of the images you might see include columns with spinning stars at the top that move up and down, angular building blocks, steps that lead to nowhere, and human figures that resemble mannequins. The way in which these features are arranged on either side of the pathway recalled, for me, these large and ceremonial architectural arches.

You can navigate through the virtual realm using the keys “W” “A” “S” and “D” — a function that users who game would be familiar with. At the end of the tunnel, users arrive at Mid Earth. Mid Earth is laid out in the form of a map that users can move around in and explore. From there, users can visit six other virtual worlds — Mother Earth, Fantasy, Lost Harmony I, Lost Harmony II, Soul Searching, and Yin Yang. Across all six worlds, users are shown slogans such as “explore beyond the walls” or “don’t look back”. The overall colour palette is vibrant, and shapes are constantly moving — either up and down, spinning or left to right. A couple of recurring symbols include architectural elements such as mazes, planetary objects, and mannequin-like human figures. To put it simply — the experience is a visual whirlwind and provides a unique take on the notion of a digital exhibition.

This episode takes the form of an interview with Reza, Tulika and Siah, and throughout the course of our conversation, we manage to chat about topics such as our relationship to the digital, and the imaginative possibilities of the Internet.
♪ Transition music ♪
Object Lessons Space
I wanted to begin our conversation by taking some time to speak to the networks that we find ourselves embedded within, and this is a question that I'd like to pose to all three of you: what would you say your earliest or most formative experience with art was? And maybe we can start with Reza, since I’m going by the order I see the video call in.
Reza Hasni
My first experience was probably in art school, because I was taking experimental drawing. I was doing graphic design, but I also had other classes in experimental drawing, and figure drawing, and stuff like that. That was when I knew which direction I wanted to go to. I wasn’t really interested in going into advertising, so I was more into creating my own body of artworks. At the time, I was creating a lot of experimental drawings and stuff on my own. Only after school, I started venturing more into animation and stuff like that. That’s when I got inspired by the 1900s, Surrealist artists, stop-motion, artwork collaging, the Dadaist movement — so that’s when I realised which direction I wanted to go. I only started showcasing my works that I did over the last six years. That’s actually when I started having my voice in translating what sort of artist I wanted to be, or what kind of works I wanted to showcase to other people.
Object Lessons Space
It’s so interesting you talk about Surrealist artists as well, because I can really see a huge element of that within your work, and particularly with the exhibition that we’re focusing on as well. I was wondering if there were particular people whose work you gravitate towards, or if it was more of the ideals of the movement itself that you gravitate towards?
Reza Hasni
More of the movement, or its entirety, that I gravitate towards. Because in that day and age, they were going against the other side of the fine arts. They were more experimental in a sort of way. In this day and age, the internet comes in and stuff like that. Painters and stuff probably don’t see me as an artist because we’re already doing crossovers with the digital world. We’re in a borderline whereby we’re smack in the middle of the art world and the commercial, digital world.

I like the concept of it, but if you ask me about artists that I’m inspired by from that movement, it would probably be Suzan Pitt who’s one of them, and Salvador Dali, and all those Dadaist artists.
Object Lessons Space
On that note about counter-culture, it’d be good to hear from Tulika as well as to what your experiences — especially something that you found particularly formative in terms of art, and even experiencing or encountering it. And maybe whether or not that was something that came into the conceptualisation or putting together of MAMA MAGNET as well.
Tulika Ahuja
Ooh, this is a huge question to answer, but I mean I guess because we were talking about Surrealism, [Alejandro] Jodorowsky was a huge influence for all three of us. I think we bonded over the scenes from The Holy Mountain. For those who are not familiar, Jodorowsky is a Surrealist Chilean filmmaker. He’s one of those cult filmmakers who got really big in the seventies and the eighties, and then he tried to make Dune. He storyboarded it for many years, and then it never happened, and he made [The] Holy Mountain. He has a crazy iconography, and he’s still alive, and still making works. So we kept going back to images of his sets, like his film sets, that he reproduced in the eighties. So we were like, hmm of course this can be done digitally, and how can we put our own spin to it? Like taking some of those concepts.

Your second question was how, if this influenced MAMA MAGNET in any way? I guess another big one of my formative experiences with art came through my work at Kult Gallery, where I was a curator. The pace of work, and the pace of churning out new ideas, was so quick over those three years. You would do five to six exhibitions a year, whether it was for clients, or whether it’s for the gallery. And to me, some of those ideas, I think, were very personal. But because you had to churn them out so quickly, it was kind of like, okay on to the next thing, and okay on to the next thing. For MAMA MAGNET, it was really about how can I preserve some of those ideas and leave room to build on them later if it feels like it’s still relevant? So the idea for starting MAMA MAGNET was really just an archive, like an internet archive, of public programming, counter-culture public programming, whether it’s curated by me, or whether it’s curated by people in the community, like-minded people. From there, I think someone asked me the question, do you see MAMA MAGNET as — and at this point it didn’t even have the name MAMA MAGNET — but somebody asked me: do you see it as a project, or do you see it as a company? And then I was like, that’s a really good question. I guess I’m trying to do too many things again by also trying to start a company and doing this archive thing on the side. So then I was like I think they both have to be the same thing. And then that’s how it came about.
Object Lessons Space
It’s so interesting that, you know, it’s almost put at odds with each other — this idea of a company versus an archive. And maybe we can come on to this later as well, but it’d be really good to hear as to how that journey has been for yourself, and how, you know, throughout the whole entire process of working on the company/project, and also working on the exhibition, how that has come to, I guess, fruition in some way, or whether that has been refined as well for you.

I’d also like to pose the same question that Reza and Tulika have been speaking to to Siah. I was wondering if you could spend some time maybe talking us through an experience that, you know, comes to mind for you when you think of something that was formative, or a really early experience with art.
Siah Tiong Hong
So I went to art school here, I went to LASALLE College [of the Arts], and we had this module called “Contextual and Contemporary Studies”, if I remember correctly, and through that, and of course through the coursework, I was introduced to ideas like culture jamming. So I’m not sure whether you’re familiar with — we were talking about counter-culture earlier, and these are people who would go around, they would hijack billboards, and basically put anti-authority messages up on billboards so they would subvert all of these messages. And of course, I was introduced to ideas like psychogeography. So Reza was talking about the Dadaists and the Surrealists informing his work, and similarly these ideas were — so I came by the way of the whole [question of] how do you relate to an urban landscape and the vernacular visuals that you see in particular cities, and so on? Like how that gets subverted and how that is even a medium itself, right?

And I think what attracted me to all these topics — more than design, branding, and all those very official ways of looking at it — is just that there’s this idea of wit and there’s this idea of subverting something, like you get to have fun with it, and also you can sort of stick it to the man, kind of thing. So that was sort of like the formative ideas in art school that I sort of latched onto, and I did my own research, and also I eventually did my BA thesis in as well. Yeah, so that’s the thing I’m coming from lah.
Object Lessons Space
And this idea of like sticking it to the man, I think, if there was any kind of way or platform for doing so, I think the internet allows for that in a way that, perhaps more “traditional” forms of art like painting or sculpture perhaps have to shed more baggage in order to have that wit or humour embodied in them.

I wanted to take this opportunity to also speak to how this collaboration came to be, and also, I guess, given the context of it going live during the Circuit Breaker, or lockdown period, in Singapore, whether or not the project took on different nuances as a result of this shift in how we began to relate to the digital?
Tulika Ahuja
So the collaboration came about, and feel free to jump in here, it came about because Reza lives in Berlin, and he got stuck in Singapore — I guess “stuck” is not the right word, because it turned out to be a blessing, but he was in Singapore because of the pandemic. He was back here, and he couldn’t go back to Berlin, and I really wanted to do a show with him, but I was like, hm, maybe I should wait until I’ve found my footing a little bit, because I was a little bit nervous to ask him like, hey, do you want to do a show? The pandemic happened and one thing led to another. I was just like, hey, would you like to do a show? And maybe we have to do it online. And he was like, yes, okay. And we figured we need a collaborator who knows the medium really well.

Enter Siah. We reached out to him through Instagram. I had been following Siah’s work from a couple of years ago. He’s an illustrator, like I knew him as an illustrator first, which was a really long time ago, but only through Instagram. Sometime last year, his Instagram feed started getting very interesting with a lot of web-based stuff, so I just messaged him, and then he was a fan of Reza’s work as well, so he was like, “Yes, I’m down to collaborate.” And then three of us just hit it off, and everything happened completely virtually.
Tiong Hong Siah
In fact, we met after the show concluded right? For the first time.

For me, this show is sort of like a, it became a conscious response to the lockdown situation. In the sense that, I think at that time, a lot of people were just scrambling to bring physical things online, but they saw it as sort of like a — how do we make this same thing happen online? I kept bringing this into the discussion, that you know, now that we were doing this on the web, there are actually things that are possible on the web that are not possible offline. And I sort of threw in some ideas there as well, so I think that is really the focus of my practice now where I see the web as this asynchronous medium, you know like how you can leave a message, and another person can see this message at their own time. It’s not like a real time communication kind of situation, like I mean let’s say emails, or Facebook comment threads, that kind of thing. But at the same time, real time communication is also possible, and that’s how we came up with the idea of, we subvert the idea of the online exhibition where you are experiencing that thing alone and you don’t get to see other participants or even interact with the artist. Whereas for our case, we were like, wouldn’t it be cool if you can see other participants, and interact with them, while looking at the work? I remember us having that kind of conversation as well.
Tulika Ahuja
At that time, we were also going into lockdown. So I remember Reza and I met just before the Circuit Breaker hit, and at that time, there was the rule that only ten people can meet. So we were asking ourselves questions like, can we have more than ten people gather on the internet? And then this was obviously a response to, first, the fear of going into lockdown, and then after that, while being in lockdown, that was when all the creation happened. And even Reza’s artwork was a response to all of that.
Object Lessons Space
There’s also something that I suppose I really wanted to talk more about, particularly this idea of a digital exhibition. Because there are so many ways this could go, right? There are people who’ve done an exact recreation of a museum hallway, for example, onto the webpage. So what you do is that you can just wander these hallways just from the comforts of your home, which is obviously a very straightforward way of thinking about this, and I suppose in many ways, also rather unimaginative.

And I also wanted to talk about, I guess, the sort of relationship you guys share with the internet and how the digital space has been something that has been a productive grounds for thinking, making, producing, and how you would describe your relationship with the internet.
Reza Hasni
The internet, for me, is more of like collaboration, it’s made possible as well, because you don’t really need to be physically in the same place to work together on something. We can just do everything online. We don’t really need to have a physical space as well, because everything could be translated and done online. It’s just that there’s a blurred line whereby we just need to figure out a way how to have this experiential thing. In the physical world you have the experience and stuff like that, so we need to bring that same feeling into the virtual world as well. So that’s very challenging, but it’s exciting as well, because there are a lot of new ways or new possibilities that you actually can do with the internet, and that’s shown in most of our practices as well, like how we try to collaborate with other artists and other people who are doing other cool stuff online that can bring a totally different experience for the people who are going online and seeing your works and stuff like that.
Tulika Ahuja
Did your relationship with the internet change before and after CAT World?
Reza Hasni
Before that, I’ve only seen it as a way of finding an inspiration and stuff like that, or talking to other artists, learning practices, and stuff like that. Then I realised after this that COVID-19 is actually a blessing in disguise for me. I realised that there is a new way of showcasing a gallery kind of space, but you bring the people into this environment or the world that you’ve created, and then they get to experience it like escapists from the real world, or relearning back the experiences they have in the real world, but online, virtually. 
Object Lessons Space
I think for many of us, we grew up as users of the internet. Like I remember really — just as babies on the internet — with all of these different games and all of these different sites. I guess I was wondering if you know, for example, for Siah yourself, as somebody who works a lot with the back end of things, has that relationship changed from a user to someone who sees the more back end of things as well?
Siah Tiong Hong
Yeah, so I think the internet is so many things to all of us, and I think in our, maybe childhood or teenage-hood, depending on how old you are, you had things like Neopets and GeoCities and Angelfire — you know like, sort of the era where everyone just discovered these amazing new connectors, right? And then you just want to put everything up there, and so on, and you just see that evolution. These days we have siloed places to hang out, so to speak. You have Instagram, you have Zoom, and so on. But also I think for me, also due to my personal curiosity towards things, so from a very early stage, I sort of meddled with HTML, like how to customise your Friendster profile, that sort of thing. And from that point, I started to learn all these things about the back end and all that stuff.

I think the internet is just this huge technology. So my favourite analogy, right, to talk about the internet, is when people first had the movable press, you know, like the Gutenberg press, and back then, the press really disrupted the so-called economy back then. Because you had these scribes copying out the books, like the religious books, and those sold for really high prices because they were manual. And then you have this press which introduced mass production to information. So if we take that frame of mind, that context, and you apply it to us, like when the internet came out, it made a lot of exclusivity or scarcity disappear. So I think, to me, the internet is this feeling that I always relate to. And also of course because I work so much with the technologies that are related to the internet, it’s sort of like this Lego set that I know how to play with. And then when people come to me, I can say, actually, you can put it this way, or, we can do this, and they’ll be like, what? So to me, the internet is this thing lor.

In fact, so I’m not sure if you guys are even familiar with this science fiction author called Robin Sloane. So he wrote this book called Mr Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore. So actually Robin Sloane, he calls himself a media inventor, and of course he’s one of my idols, and I read the book. He writes a lot of speculative science fiction, but he also created this app in the early days of app making, when if you can make an iPhone app, people think like, wow, you’re like a god, like you can do this, you know? He created an essay, but he put it inside an app, and the app was called Fish, if I remember correctly. Basically he was talking about how these boundaries are dissolving, and new boundaries are forming. And by way of “the medium is the message” right, of course the book is the iPhone app, which took some wrapping your head around. For me, I think Robin Sloane is like, how do you say this, my guiding star? Or one of my references lah, of how the internet as a medium or as a practice is, of course it’s a valid creative medium and you can have a practice on the internet, but also it’s so many more things to different people. I get very excited when I talk about it lah, so yeah.
Object Lessons Space
Yeah, I mean — can completely hear the excitement! I was also wanting to ask Tulika, as well, like what would you say your relationship with the internet is, and also just to throw it in there, whether or not that has also changed with the real advent of social media, and how that has overtaken, in many ways, the ways in which we consume content?
Tulika Ahuja
I think my relationship with the internet before social media was very functional, or like, entertainment-based. But I think as a curator, in my work, Instagram is very important. It’s how I keep up with artists, and it’s how I talk to them, communicate with them, connect with them, but also see what’s happening in the world, in a way, with a visual lens, you know?
Object Lessons Space
I guess just to turn the conversation to CAT World in particular, I wanted to talk to the worldbuilding that went on in the process of making the exhibition. And I suppose a good way of describing how I felt just exploring it was really strange, disembodied, and also yet really drawn in by the sort of colours and the artworks that were being displayed. I wanted to, I guess maybe spend some time talking to particularly Reza, and how you approached the process of conceptualising these worlds, because they all have a very distinct quality, or even personality, and way in which you navigate around them as well.
Reza Hasni
The way I built this world was, I was thinking about COVID-19 and when the pandemic started, everybody is restricted, we can’t group together in groups larger than five people or ten people, and everybody’s complaining about it. Or we can’t go to certain places, or they can’t travel. So the way I do it was that I decided to set it really free. It’s like boundless. You can fly, you can do whatever you want inside there. So there’s absolute freedom to roam about inside there.

There’s also this part of me whereby I also want to include, there are a lot of other things around the internet, so I want to gather or collect all of these collages of good things or things that everyday people do to learn something about themselves inwards and upwards as well. You can’t do certain things on the physical world now, but actually you can just go into this online world, and then have a open mindset and positive view, and you can actually go to, for example, one of the worlds is about nature, and explore, and have this exploration kind of mode, or feeling for them to go around.

There’s also, in other places, whereby there are social worlds and personal worlds as well. For personal worlds, for you to feel, to know, and to just wander around, and then to have self thought, and think about where you want to go, or what you want to do on a day, or be. Or the social worlds, you can even chat to other people as well inside there, to just say hello or just greetings, because some people got quarantined alone at home, and then they feel a bit lonely. You can’t see another person physically in the physical world, but online you can actually see some people moving around as well.
Object Lessons Space
Yeah, like some form of digital intimacy in some way also, right?
Reza Hasni
Yeah, it’s like uploading your consciousness. It’s like uploading your consciousness and trying to live, and trying to bring everything good in the physical world into this online, virtual world.
Object Lessons Space
I think a huge part that I was also struck by was the different layers to, I guess, not just the worlds, but also in particular to the sort of works that were being shown as well. I think it really is probably encapsulated by the name of one of the worlds: Yin Yang. I wanted to spend some time maybe getting your thoughts on how, I guess, dualities or the relationships between two different — not ends of the stick — but two different entities, inform the way in which you approach your work, and whether or not it’s something that is constantly, is more like a philosophy for yourself, or it’s something that you were very interested in exploring particularly for this CAT World project.
Reza Hasni
It’s a very personal thing as well. The dualities can also be a part of this, of CAT World as well. Whatever that you go inside this virtual world, it’s actually to relearn back about your physical world as well. Did you forget? You know, sometimes the physical world, you just tend to take things for granted, and then you forget about certain things. So in this virtual world, they’re actually reteaching whatever that you have already experienced in the physical world. It’s just reminding yourself that, hey, you can actually do this and do that.

And I believe also that balance is really important as well. There always has to be good and bad, and then you have to balance it all out together. Because it cannot be all good, like nobody’s one hundred percent angel, right? So you just need to have a bit of, maybe a bit, a percentage of faults somewhere, but that makes you a bit more humanised. So that’s when the good and the bad will always try to balance it out, one another, because you can’t be either horribly, or one hundred percent bad, or one hundred percent good, right?
Object Lessons Space
I was also really struck by similarities between the exhibition, and kind of like a computer game of sorts? I was very struck by the way in which it referenced, or leaned upon a lot, in certain ways, the, I guess, visual language or the ways in which you would navigate through all of these games with like world maps, portals, spaces that you would come back to, and then can travel in and out of, and then the ways in which we could use the keys to navigate around the space as well.

I mean, obviously, I wanted to also speak to the point of worldbuilding as a game design function, almost, but also how did that collaborative process between Reza and Siah work out? How did these conversations feed into one another such that, you know, the illustration informed the interactive design, and vice versa? How was that feedback loop like for you guys, and how was that collaboration something that, you know, you guys approached as well?
Siah Tiong Hong
Yeah, so I remember when Tulika and Reza first approached me with this project, I’m like, wait a minute. Because as someone who has always played computer games, if you know Minecraft, or even older Super Nintendo Harvest Moon farming simulation, that kind of thing, I’ve always been a gamer, so I had all these ideas. When I saw Reza’s work, and it’s so rich in symbolism. You know you have very visual depictions of inner minds and also auras, or even like emotions, visualised. And if you think about it, you don’t really have a lot of video games that talk about these things. Video games are always full of action, and you always have a goal, you always have to be somewhere. So I thought, oh ok, it’s interesting that now I can actually build a so-called game, or like an experience, where people can really just focus on these things that Reza’s artwork is talking about.

And also by adding that interactive layer, I mean you hit it spot on that it really does function sort of like a video game, with the idea that you are sort of trying to map a physical location digitally, like you have the open field where you can travel to different portals, and then in the various portals, you have some things you can do. So yeah, so all that are really informed by video games, but sort of with a reference back to Reza’s message, essentially, with his art. Yeah.
Object Lessons Space
Yeah. Reza, how was the process of thinking about the artwork turning almost into a game-like experience for yourself? 
Reza Hasni
It was interesting for me, because it was the first time I was working with Siah, and we were just discussing how to, on a normal gaming thing whereby Siah was talking about how this world becomes like a game as well sometimes. It’s like everybody’s trying to gain extra brownie points for this and that to get access to another world, or get access to something a bit more higher, or something like that. So but we want to do something a bit more, much more free, much more open kind of concept, whereby maybe it’s like even, we initially had thought maybe you could even send vibrations out from the crystals and stuff like that. Probably even the human doesn’t need to be human anymore. Maybe we can actually change it into minerals, or crystals, like just energy kind of things.

So it was quite interesting because we don’t really necessarily think what we want in the physical world to be in this virtual world, because I was telling Siah that we can just construct this world to be whatever that we want.
Object Lessons Space
There’s such a spiritual element to this that I’m getting also from our conversation, and I think it replicates in some way my experience of going through the exhibition and also feeling like, because I guess when you encounter a digital landscape such as this, your thought process often is to gravitate towards, okay, what is the quest here? What do I have to do in order to unlock — is this a box that I have to jump on in order for something to pop up? You know there’s like a jack-in-the-box idea where, you know, there is a surprise at the end of it. But it was a lot of searching, and a lot of exploring, and a lot of navigating. And I was wondering the role of that whole entire process of, I guess, existing in this in-between space of looking, to the whole entire process of thinking about the user’s experience in, within the exhibition itself. How was that, was that something that, you know, was kept at the forefront of your mind, or was that something that came kind of like, it just so happened that that was something that followed on from the list of things that you guys were looking at doing?
Reza Hasni
It’s more like a limitless kind of feeling. We don’t want people to be so, like everybody is molded to do this thing and this thing in society, so it’s for once like you don’t really have to do whatever that you’re supposed to do, but just be yourself, and then just explore the whole thing, and then have this feeling of wanting to explore, or you can even choose that you want to fly, or do whatever. You can even stay there for seven hours, nobody’s going to tell you that, oh your time is up, yeah, and that you have to log out.
Tulika Ahuja
Or you have one or two lives, you know, like it was really just about the journey. And that’s why it’s important that this was launched during the Circuit Breaker, when everyone was feeling very stuck, and very attached to one place, but also the mind was travelling so many places. We wanted to go in there, in the mind, a little bit.
Reza Hasni
It’s like your safe space, or Shangri-La in your mind, you know?
Siah Tiong Hong
Yeah, I think what struck me during the process of the creation of this project is just how the three of us were so aligned in terms of the so-called emotional impact we wanted the project to have on the visitor. Because, you know, I think not everyone can — the idea of a meditative space, especially digitally, is not something that immediately clicks with everyone. But funnily enough, the three of us were just, I don’t think we even talked about it, it’s just that we were there already when we started the project, that we were thinking about this digital meditation kind of world that we wanted to build.
Object Lessons Space
Yeah, like everybody’s vibes seemed to just line up, like really, just aligning.
Tiong Hong Siah
Yeah, it was very, very easy to just get on the same page, and — oh, what can we be playful about? Or what can we do that is interesting for the visitor? So earlier Reza was saying you know you have public spaces, social spaces, and you also have personal worlds inside of the space. So in fact if you went to some of the portals, even though someone else is in the same portal at the same time as you, you wouldn’t be able to see them because that space is meant to be meditative. So these are the small, so-called easter eggs, or functions that we built into the experience.
Object Lessons Space
A really interesting point of the exhibition is the chat box function, the avatar plus the chat box function, which reminded me so much of Habbo Hotel, which is a game from, I would assume the 2000s, where everybody had a little avatar, and we can just inhabit different worlds, party with one another, talk to one another, and dress our own avatars up.

I was wondering how the chat box was something that you all hoped — how you saw it functioning in the context of the exhibition — and what you all hoped it would add to experience of being within this space, especially with, you know, these formations of digital connections that we’ve also been spending some time talking about, within the context of the Circuit Breaker, and within the context of the fact that some people might feel particularly lonely or left out in being so isolated?
Reza Hasni
It’s more of human touch, actually, on the digital world. Like we initially thought of putting vibrations out, like good vibrations out, but we didn’t, we thought maybe chat function would be really good, because if we just do vibrations, then they couldn’t really interact with other people. So it humanises the cold space a bit sometimes. So hopefully that helps with some people who are going in there, you know?
Tulika Ahuja
It allows you to put a bit of your personality in it as well. At first we were thinking that the chat function should be Emoji, and then we figured maybe it’s better to just let — if they want to use Emoji, sure, then they will know how to copy paste and put it in. But the main point is just being able to connect with strangers online.
Siah Tiong Hong
Yeah, of course I’ve played Habbo Hotel before, and other games where you can talk to each other. And I think if you were a part of these experiences when they first came out: real time communication that is sort of attached to little avatars. The first time you experience it, it’s like, oh, I can’t believe I’m talking to this person from the other side of the world, and you guys can go on quests together, or like you guys can just talk about random things, you know? And for me, personally, even those kinds of communication, eventually, they grew into offline friendships as well. So for me, it’s very straightforward that when we wanted to build this world, I think just having people be able to see each other is not enough.

The whole idea of going to an art exhibition as well is that you can talk about it with your friends. So if you go to the museum or the gallery with your friend, you would be able to — the experience of looking at the artwork and even considering the artwork is different when you have a friend with you versus a solo journey, right? So I think for me there was that bit where to make it a true shared experience, you do need to be able to speak about it as you are experiencing it. So I was sort of like tapping on that sense of immediacy as well lah.
Object Lessons Space
Coming on to the exhibition, I was wondering if, you know, because it’s so unique in its execution and conceptualisation, I did feel like sometimes the term “digital exhibition” didn’t really cut it in terms of describing the project and what it set out to achieve. And I was wondering, you know, Tulika, from your point of view, whether there were particular things that within the context of, perhaps, physical exhibitions that you were hoping to, I guess, really lean into and, maybe not so much recreate, but more of amplify in the context of a digital space, whether that be, you know, the connection you feel with interacting with an artwork, the connection that you have with other people seeing an artwork together, or whether this was something that, you know, was very unique in terms of its conceptualisation, and maybe the term “exhibition” itself might also be rather limiting in describing the fact that this project went above and beyond mere showcase of artworks, I suppose?
Tulika Ahuja
Oh, that’s a great question.

I think that we weren’t trying to mimic the physical world at all. We were just trying to see what boundaries we could push with the digital space, and it was the first time for all three of us. So personally, me, I went in with the intention of bringing Reza’s art to people, and getting — and seeing Reza’s potential to create these worlds so that people could live in these worlds. And when we went to Siah with this idea, we weren’t imagining what it turned out to be. We were just imagining his art, in a digital space, maybe like very flat layered, like you’d go in a bit, but not so much, and then it was Siah who was like, because of his background with gaming, etcetera, etcetera, he was like, no, I think people can really walk through his worlds, we need to do that. And we were like, okay cool. So then it kind of just built on from there. We weren’t trying to mimic the physical space at all. But I guess what we were trying to do was to make art, and more spirituality or unseen energies, more accessible and more relatable, especially when everyone was experiencing them alone.
Object Lessons Space
Yeah, and the site came under an attack on the day it launched as well, and I was wondering if this was something that we could spend some time talking about, particularly with regard to how was everybody feeling about that whole entire experience, because I think it caught everyone by surprise that it even happened in the first place, right?
Siah Tiong Hong
Yeah.
Tulika Ahuja
Yeah, it was surprising, it was a little bit disembodying — I’m going to reuse the word you used — this was disembodying for us. But then in a couple of hours, it was like chill, like okay, what’s the worst that can happen, you know? Okay, cool, we’ll just fix it and then it’ll be fine. But I think Siah felt the pressure most amongst all of us.
Siah Tiong Hong
Well, I think what was interesting for me was how you guys fed off the fact that the site was under attack. So I remember Reza did a couple of response pieces in response to how — so when the site was under attack, what really happened was it’s called a DDOS attack: Distributed Denial of Service. So, this is going to get a bit boring, but feel free to cut it out. So what happened is that there are these spam bots that keep requesting, like sending requests to our servers, and they do so at such a large volume that legitimate users are not able to access the website. And what that sort of appears to us is that, you know, the world loads so slowly that things get of order, and then you have different worlds clashing into each other as a result of the attack. And, I mean, yeah I felt the pressure to fix it, but also at the same time, I was like, wow, Reza really like chill, right? Like all the way. Because he just did a response piece to that. I think it was just really cool that we are not just, you know, not just — we’re really open minded about it, we’re really not trying to be in control about the whole experience other than how we have already set it up to be. So I think that also feeds into the whole world building idea where you create this space for the experience to happen, but you don’t create the experience, because the experience is for the visitor to create for themselves. Yeah, so I think that was my takeaway from the DDOS that, you know, or, you know, even just the idea of entropy or accidents in forming the work. So I guess that speaks to the Dadaist part of it as well.
Object Lessons Space
How were you so chill about it, Reza? Like, worlds colliding into one another!
Reza Hasni
I had a friend who was telling me that, hey, it’s like the worlds are colliding, is there something wrong? And then I was looking at it, I was like, hey, actually it looks pretty alright, it looks like the real world itself as well. Some days are good, some days are bad. Eventually, this virtual world is also the same thing, like you can’t control so much things. You just have to experience it. If the attack is going on, you can just enjoy the experimental works that’s being mixed and matched, and then you can screen capture it or whatever, and you can come back again, and it’s a different world, so it’s like it just keeps on refreshing. I was quite relaxed about it, I was like, Siah, take your time, it’s okay for me, it’s okay that it’s clashing like that, you know?
Tulika Ahuja
Yeah like for sure presenting work on the internet, we knew that there’s a lot of unknowns out there that we’re really opening ourselves up to. Of course we didn’t know the extent of it — now we do — but the fact that, like Siah said, the fact that we were open to it, I think, with CAT World, the journey was really important to us because so much happened even while we were building this virtual world, like literally our physical world was in chaos, and our work was a response to that. And then the journey kind of continued. On the opening day, people came in from different parts of the world, people were chatting, interacting, people were selecting different coloured avatars, they were exploring worlds. So there were so many unknowns, and then the spam bots came, the attack happened, we took the site down for a while, and then it got back up again, and this media covered it, and then these people are talking about it, so it’s kind of alive all the time. And we just accepted that fact about the internet as a medium, I think, that’s why we were so chill.
Object Lessons Space
Yeah, and I mean like it opens up these possibilities that also just creates a whole entire new thing that perhaps wouldn’t have been otherwise possible as well.
Tulika Ahuja
Actually it’s interesting that you say that, because between Reza and Siah, the way they were riffing off each other was, Reza was constructing, Siah was deconstructing and constructing again. And then when these spam bots came in, they deconstructed it further, to which we constructed it again. So it was like a ping pong of energies throughout, and maybe it still is, you know? The show is still on, who knows what can happen again?
Siah Tiong Hong
Even the entrance to the show, when you come to the website, you are going through this tunnel, right? And even that tunnel, if you come to it at a different time, it looks different, because the elements that make up the tunnel are randomised. So we actually have different, I think like, twelve different components? That everytime you come in, it will just be a different combination of things. So it looks different to everyone who comes to the show at the same time. So I think, yeah, that is already the idea behind the show and it just further — it’s just another thing to riff on when the attack happened. Yeah. But it was amazing, yeah.
Tulika Ahuja
It was Siah’s first DDOS attack, right? In your how —
Siah Tiong Hong
Yes, I think so. In my whole career of building very boring websites, but yes, this is the first one.
Reza Hasni
It’s like the storm in the internet.
Object Lessons Space
Milestones.
Tulika Ahuja
I really think it’s because I put the link on the Arca Discord server.
Siah Tiong Hong
Probably someone was jealous that we had a show.
Tulika Ahuja
Yeah, probably someone was like, oh, they look like they’re having too much fun, let’s fuck it up.
Object Lessons Space
Like, it looks so good — why, why?
Tulika Ahuja
But to be honest, don’t know what they were thinking lah.
Siah Tiong Hong
But I think it was completely random. Yeah, it’s just completely random, it’s not related to the fact that we had an art exhibition.
Object Lessons Space
I also wanted to touch on something that Tulika mentioned, which was the role that MAMA MAGNET plays kind of like as an archive as well of sorts. Add I was wondering if you could expand on that thought a little more, where that impulse came from, and also how you see CAT World fitting into the oeuvre of MAMA MAGNET?
Tulika Ahuja
Cool. I see myself as a cultural worker, as a curator. If I’m putting out shows like this for people, my community to enjoy, and if these shows are a response to our current time, then somebody should be recording them, so that we can pass this information and knowledge on to other people who want to do this work, so that together, as a society, we can progress. I know it sounds very loose, and airy-fairy, but I feel like things like the DDOS attack, for example, they’re going to go up on the website.

If MAMA MAGNET serves as an archive of various different public programmings in the form of exhibitions, or articles, or stories, podcasts, whatever medium it may be, physical even, each thing that is archived, each event that is archived also exists as a growing archive of its own. So, for instance, CAT World also has like an entire timeline to it, where people can go see, like okay, the DDOS attack happened, and this is how you deal with it, or you don’t. You just have to accept it. It’s a fact if you want to do a show on the internet. Little things like that.

I just hope to keep putting things up on the website, but in a very simple way, so that it’s really an offering to people who are interested in the work, or in doing this kind of work, or just interested in knowing how artists are responding to living in the current time, because there’s really so much going on in the world.
Object Lessons Space
I understand that you guys are working on something as well that’s coming up after — CAT World will end on 31st December — and after that, I understand that another collaboration is on the way, and I was wondering if you guys could tell us more about that and also what you guys have up your sleeves.
Object Lessons Space
So, okay, again, this collaboration is all our, is a journey that the three of us are on from the digital world, and now moving into this hybrid physical-digital world. How do we take the experience of slowly coming back into this shaken world, a little bit, where all of us have had our own different experiences, and our own ways of connecting with the world, in isolation, how are we bringing it back into the real world, the physical world?

This is an exhibition that will be in January 2021, and it is themed on our relationship with nature. It features, same thing, like styles, concepts, Reza’s vision — he’s art directing this whole thing — and Siah’s interaction and participation. But additionally we have, like for CAT World also, sound was very important to us. So this time again we are working with a collaborator to do the entire sound design for visitors who are going to spend twenty, twenty five minutes in the exhibition space, plus we’re also working with a set designer, because now instead of using pixels to build worlds, we’ve got to use actual materials. So we’re getting someone who is an expert, her name is Tina Fung, and we’re doing this together.
Reza Hasni
It’s more immersive.
Tulika Ahuja
Yeah, did I mention AR? I can’t remember.
Siah Tiong Hong
No, you haven’t.
Tulika Ahuja
Okay, okay, then you go —
Siah Tiong Hong
Yeah so I think an aspect of it is how do we take what we’ve learnt for CAT World and how do we translate that into, you know, CAT World was about bringing the exhibition online and how do you not restrict yourselves to what’s only possible in the physical world when you do an exhibition online? So likewise I think for this exhibition we’re doing, we’re experimenting with Augmented Reality (AR). The idea is also the same. How do you do an exhibition offline, and you don’t limit yourself to certain boundaries, and we sort of blur the boundaries between the physical and the digital, you know, like what sort of augmentations you can bring to the experience, so you know like even layers of experience in the same physical space. So I think that’s sort of like one of the points of exploration that we’re going through right now.
Reza Hasni
It’s like deconstructing everything that we have previously as well, and then rebuilding it again in a physical space. So it’s like a collage of everything that we have already learnt, and then putting it in this space, and then how to let people actually see the unseen energies in a physical space, and be appreciative of whatever that’s around you as well, that you have now.
♪ Podcast jingle ♪
Object Lessons Space
Reza Hasni is currently based in Berlin, and his works are a contemporary reflection of our world and its unseen energies.

Tulika Ahuja is Founder and Curator of MAMA MAGNET, a counter-culture consultancy strategising and producing multimedia art programming about accessible themes.

Siah Tiong Hong, or Siah, runs Screensavers, an interactive and web design studio based in Singapore.

The exhibition we’ve been talking about is titled CENTRE FOR ALTERED TOGETHERNESS, or CAT World for short. It can be viewed at www.c-a-t.world until the 31st of December 2020.

Thankyou so much for spending time with us today. We had a lot of fun with this conversation, and I hope you’ve enjoyed tuning in. You can find more articles and transcripts from these podcast episodes on our website, www.objectlessons.space.

We also have a presence on all the usual social media platforms, including Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. If you like our work, we do have a Patreon page that you can check out as well.

Mushroomed is a podcast series hosted by Object Lessons Space, and produced in collaboration with the wonderful people at Singapore Community Radio. We’ll see you again next month!



 
Mushroomed is a series of conversations around art making, artistic networks and ecosystems. Sit in on conversations with artists and cultural practitioners. This podcast is hosted by the Singapore-based online platform, Object Lessons Space, and produced in collaboration with Singapore Community Radio.


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