Episode 7: On Psychogeographies

Our understanding of physical space is often mediated through maps. Mapmaking and cartography are often seen as precise sciences today, yet their methodologies have historically favoured particular knowledge systems over others.

This episode unravels the thought process behind the newest issue on Object Lessons Space. How might we gesture at alternative ways of following the contours and meandering through space?
Originally Aired: 12 May 2021


Object Lessons Space
Our understanding of physical space is often mediated through maps. Mapmaking and cartography are often seen as precise sciences today, yet their methodologies have historically favoured particular knowledge systems over others. This episode unravels the thought process behind the newest issue on Object Lessons Space. How might we gesture at alternative ways of following the contours or navigating through space?
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Object Lessons Space
Hello and welcome to another episode of Mushroomed, a podcast hosted by the Singapore-based online platform, Object Lessons Space. My name is Joella — I’m the Founding Editor of the platform and your host for this podcast.

In this episode, we’re going to be introducing you to our newest issue on Object Lessons Space. We publish new articles on our platform once every two months, and this episode gives you the low-down as to the thought processes behind each issue and how everything comes together.

Our latest issue on Object Lessons Space is titled On Psychogeographies. Instead of merely thinking through maps and charts, psychogeography asks if we might be able to move through and experience space by way of walking, playing, exploring, and drifting.

This issue features a total of five artists whose works and practices have touched on notions of space, place and migratory networks, and is now available online at www.objectlessons.space. This episode meanders through how our understandings of space can be stretched, condensed, corrupted, reinvented, or amplified. You’ll hear from myself, and from the artists we interviewed for this issue.
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Object Lessons Space
Maps function as documents, charts and surveys, and they find their roots in the making of cosmological charts. These charts were made with the intention of understanding the night sky and facilitating navigation. As such, maps were important tools for exploration and eventually became indispensable to the enterprise of colonisation and conquest. To make this more concrete, we can look at how this played out in the context of Singapore. The Jackson Plan is an 1828 colonial map of the area around the Singapore River made by Lieutenant Philip Jackson, the colony's engineer and land surveyor at the time. In this map, Jackson marks out areas for the Chinese, Indian, Bugis and Arab residents of the time. Notably, these settlements are a distance away from another area marked as a “European Town”. Though this was an incredibly early map of Singapore, the plan was already carving out spaces and reinforcing power dynamics by positioning the local residents as separate to the Europeans and as lieges of the Crown.

For our latest issue on Object Lessons Space, we spoke to the artist Cian Dayrit. His work investigates notions of power and identity as they are represented and reproduced in monuments, museums, maps and other institutionalized media. In our conversation with the artist, we spend some time speaking to how maps function as political documents and how counter-cartography might offer alternative perspectives to this hegemonic imposition:
Cian Dayrit
Before we try to unpack what the counter-cartographic means to me, there's a little bit of room to unpack what the cartographic is, or what is mapping, or what are we trying to counter. Broadly speaking, it is these power structures, the hegemonic power structures that would usually come from positions of power — looking at the dynamic of North and South, and East and West, and Orient and Occidental, capitalist or otherwise. At the same time, hegemony isn't exclusive to like the global north or Western power structures. If anything, it's omnipresent in contemporary society, particularly in the global south with puppet regimes and fascist states that are part and parcel of a greater scheme of basically profiteering, and accumulation brought about by corporate greed. All of the above is what we're countering. If counter-cartography or counter-mapping challenges the hegemony in these spaces, as authored and dictated by positions of authority, I am interested in challenging any and all forms of meaning making that are being used to impose dominant narratives. It’s not exactly black and white. It's more like recognising contradictions and recognising gaps within broad strokes of the machinery that is employed by dominant power structures.
Object Lessons Space
Another way of approaching the counter-cartographic is by way of the fictional. Counter-cartography can also encompass personal memories and intimacies.

Tara Fatehi Irani makes art, writes, and performs. Her practice explores the ephemeral interactions between memories, words, bodies and sites through performance, text, videos, music and dance. We spoke to Tara about her year-long project, Mishandled Archive, for our latest issue:
Tara Fatehi Irani
Through the year-long phase of the project, I carried seventy in my bag and no one could stop me. I was carrying these photographs of people — some of whom were dead, some of whom had never physically crossed international borders, or if any of them ever did cross international borders, they were always questioned, given a difficult time, had to take some steps, or go through really intense processes in order to cross these borders. Then I am now carrying them or holding them in a more, let's say, conceptual way, but still, I am holding one form of their body in this envelope that I am carrying with me. And in this case, I am the only one who's being questioned about, you know — Where are you going? Why are you going? I was really interested in — how far can I take these objects? And of course, the irony is there because yes, these people could not travel themselves. But when they turn into photographs, or eventually when they turn into a book or as a book, I can just send them in mail, and their stories travel much wider and further than they could ever travel. This thought of border crossing through this project was always present when I was when I was making it.
Object Lessons Space
The collecting, amassing, and arranging of materials also draws the practice of another artist into focus. For the recent issue on Object Lessons Space, we spoke to Debbie Ding. Debbie is a visual artist and technologist who has maintained a note-taking wiki since 2008. Her work researches and explores technologies of perception through personal investigations and experimentation:
Debbie Ding
What I find quite interesting is the fact that there are all these things that are next to each other, and maybe they have no relation to one another, but being forced to be put together, it's kind of strange — that juxtaposition of everything together also transforms all these different pieces of information, even though they're very ordinary notes — some notes are super ordinary. Even by presenting these notes visually, this table is quite important. There are hyperlinks that hyperlink, and which I can click on, but then also thinking about the proximity of which ideas are closer to others as well.
Object Lessons Space
The way in which Debbie thinks about physical collection, relation, and the points of slippage between all of these materials comes across as being both seamless and intuitive. Debbie also spent some time talking about the spatial exercise of categorising and making categories:
Debbie Ding
I think a lot about tagging and categorizing as well, and whether my categories are enough. But over time, I've come to accept that the whole point of my work is also to interpret it for someone, so what people see is not the ultimate. As a designer, you do qualitative research, so there is the formal way to do it as well, which I'm also well aware of. Maybe that's the difference between treating it as an academic researcher in history or in the social sciences, as opposed to someone who's an artist interpreting this kind of material. Having myself also categorize them, this is another filter which still has my input — it makes it clear to people that this is a translation, and that also they themselves should be doing a translation after they see this. It's not to be taken as the truth of it.
Object Lessons Space
Debbie’s thoughts recall the multi-faceted practice of Malaysian-born and London-based artist Mandy El-Sayegh. In particular, I’m thinking of her work, TBC - small grids. TBC - small grids is a wall-hung, life-sized, portrait linen canvas. The surface of the canvas is covered by a red net-like, grid pattern. The grid squares are small, tight, but uneven. Beneath the net are fragments - doodles, washes of colour, snippets of newspaper articles, and blurry images.

About this series of works, El-Sayegh has remarked, and I quote —
“A simple structure like a primed white surface and a net on top, for example, is a consideration of these fragments of linguistic material and how they can disappear into the composition. I'm thinking about erasure. What I've done over the last few years is when there's a certain relation, I'll introduce another element so there's more matter that takes longer to erase or bring forward.”
End quote.

As the artist herself quipped, “It can be really nonsensical stuff, but naturally it becomes loaded when you put it on other material.”

El-Sayegh was born in Malaysia to a Palestinian father and a Chinese mother.

The way she relates to different languages also shares similarities to the way in which Singapore-based artist Boedi Widjaja thinks about language, and I quote —
“It's about how words can take on their own life, independent of the message they're conveying, and that mutation can have its own surrealist logic — it's also about treating language as a kind of material; treating language as mutable and plastic.”
End quote.

Driven by first-hand experiences of migration and diaspora, the multi-disciplinary practice of Boedi Widjaja articulates subtle reflections on memory, spatial relations and cross-cultural hybridities:
Boedi Widjaja
Language is interesting for me, because I don't really have a first language, in that sense. I was born in Indonesia, and Bahasa Indonesia remains, till today, a very deeply embedded language in my heart, but I wouldn't say that I know this language intimately. Because I left the country when I was nine years old, I never could deepen my relationship with that language in that sense, although I still speak it within my family. Chinese is another problematic language because it's not a language that I have mastered. In fact, I would consider myself to be rather poor in that language, but I feel a cultural closeness to the Chinese language, simply because I grew up having to think about it a lot. It is a language that is so tied to my cultural identity growing up in Indonesia. It was underscored, in that sense, through the socio-political condition that I was in at a time. And English is the language that I am most proficient in. However, I somehow can't forge a very deep relationship with this language either. I do not really feel for it. It is a language that I simply could use, among the three, the best in expressing my thoughts. But having said that, I think about ideas in English, but when it comes to the deeper sentiments, deeper emotions, I think they are either in Chinese or in Bahasa Indonesia.
Object Lessons Space
Beyond an interest in language and its ambivalences, Boedi’s practice also deals with what he terms “place imaginaries”. An example of this is the rivers and lakes, or 江湖 (jiang hu) in Chinese, and how it has emerged in his practice consistently across multiple works and projects:
Boedi Widjaja
The context that I wanted to think about had a lot to do with the sense of displacement and the uneasy feeling that I sometimes would feel when I enter into a new place. In fact, in Chinese we have a phrase 水土不服 (shui tu bu fu), which is a kind of unease, a kind of incompatibility with your physical environment that leads to physical discomfort or sometimes illness or  —it's something that affects you physically.
Object Lessons Space
Boedi’s perspective on place imaginaries is not too different to that of the character Marco Polo, as fictionalised in Italo Calvino’s short novel, Invisible Cities. In telling the great Mongol ruler Genghis Khan about the cities he has visited, the khan finally asks why the Italian traveller has yet to speak of his home — Venice.

To this, Marco Polo says, and I quote —
“Every time I describe a city I am saying something about Venice. [...] Memory’s images, once they are fixed in words, are erased. Perhaps I am afraid of losing Venice all at once, if I speak of it. Or perhaps, speaking of other cities, I have already lost it, little by little.”
End quote.

This would be a rather apt juncture to bring the practice of Mona Hatoum into view. Mona Hatoum is a Palestinian Lebanon-born and London-based artist best known for her provocative large-scale sculptural works. As a result of her sustained and dedicated practice, she was conferred the Danish Sonning Prize in 2004, placing her in the glittering and illustrious company of Mary Robinson, Simone de Beauvoir and Hannah Arendt.

One of Hatoum’s best known works is Hot Spot III. In Hot Spot III, a globe is rendered as a spherical steel cage. The world’s countries and terrain lie against this backdrop, outlined in red neon lights. When presented, the work often sits in a darkened room — the red neon world pinging, pulsing, and buzzing with light and heat. It is a work that draws you in and holds you tight in its grip, a quality that Hatoum is well aware of.

About the work, she once said, and I quote —
Hot Spot has a very beautiful, delicate aspect to it because the neon is very fragile but at the same time it feels dangerous. I made the first Hot Spot in 2006, when it felt to me like the whole world was up in arms and that conflict was no longer isolated to certain borders in the Middle East. It was affecting the whole world.”
End quote.

This act of setting the world on fire, metaphorically speaking, finds its roots in Hatoum’s own background. Born to Palestinian parents who fled their home in Haifa during the Arab-Israeli War, Hatoum was born when the family eventually settled in Beirut. During a later trip the artist took to the UK in 1975, the Lebanese Civil War broke out. As a result, Hatoum’s stay in London could no longer remain a temporary arrangement and the artist was forced into exile.

Having said that, Hatoum has been firm with regard to reading her works primarily through this lens.

She has resisted containing her work within the confines of the merely autobiographical, and I quote the artist —
“I think artworks are rooted in one’s history and life experience. So inevitably there is a sense of conflict, threat and instability in my work, but it is not meant as an illustration of my own experience.”
End quote.

Hatoum’s works look steadily into varying terrains and contours. Whilst some of her works, such as Hot Spot III, touch on the overtly geopolitical, her later works have traced the faultlines of domesticity, femininity, and homemaking.

Mapping in both a figural and literal manner is something that artist Melissa Tan shares with Hatoum. Melissa makes works that are based on nature and the different ways of mapping, and her recent projects revolve around landscapes and the process of formation. During my interview with her, we spent some time talking about the way in which she works with maps, and how she works with frustrating and inaccurate inconsistencies:
Melissa Tan
So what I would do is —I would take the map and superimpose it, using a projector, onto the wall, and I would actually trace the patterns and the topographic patterns out. I also used Photoshop to layer each map and to get them to line up accurately, but of course, it never could. The landmarks would be irregular or askew, so that was quite frustrating. On top of that, I would have to cut the styrofoam typography, and then place another material over —which is plaster of Paris — and that adds a bit more depth to it. It was very difficult to get it completely accurate. What I did was, I used certain points like Bukit Timah Hill, and I used that to check the overall map, and to see if that lined up nicely, because there was so much change that occurred. Even the shape of Singapore was not accurate, because the boundary grew as well. I used things like the high points, and I tried to align them in that form. I tried using even the water bodies, but they didn't seem to line up as well, so I thought the best would be the high points and, and I worked with what I could.
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Object Lessons Space
We opened this episode with a short prelude about psychogeography. Circling back to that again, psychogeography presents us with the possibility of experiencing the urban and built environment differently. Whether or not the artists we interviewed had these notions in mind when making work, questions around how various places and spaces can make us feel remain pertinent across all of their practices.

If you enjoyed this deep-dive into our latest issue, the full articles — and the transcript of this episode— can be found on our website at 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. Thankyou so much for spending time with us today.

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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