Episode 9: thesupersystem


A question that has surfaced prominently is how will we live alongside or in communion with our non-human counterparts? This relationship is often fraught and complicated, and is often centered around human perspectives. There might still be room yet to move past this —to think like trees, grow like bacteria, and move like fungi.

All this makes thesupersystem’s research project, Alam Se—Kita, incredibly prescient. For this episode, we speak to thesupersystem about posthumanism and the different turns the project has taken thus far.
Originally Aired: 21 July 2021




Transcript

Object Lessons Space
A question that has surfaced time and time again is how will we live together? The answer to this has become so significant within design thinking that it is at the centre of the current Venice Architecture Biennale. Living together with one another is a delicate and multi-faceted issue, and often brings multiple things to mind.

Key to this are discussions around how we might live alongside — and perhaps even in communion with — our non-human counterparts. This includes trees, animals, fungi, and bacteria. This relationship is fraught and complicated, and is often centered around human perspectives. There might still be room yet to move past this —to think like trees, grow like bacteria, and move like fungi.

All of this makes the work of thesupersystem incredibly prescient. Thesupersystem is the moniker of designer Heider Ismail. Heider’s long term research project, Alam Se—Kita, is interested in just the question I’ve outlined above. He approaches the topic through multiple points of entry. Most recently, his research has even taken the form of a traffic control system.
Thesupersystem
Design was created by humans. Everything that was done in the name of design was done specifically for humans. Without design, humans won’t be around — society itself, civilization and all that. Design isn’t just a tool. It has something to do with society itself, and how we think. But that’s the thing. Design was just solely done for humans, but not for the benefit of animals or the things around us.
♪ Podcast jingle ♪
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.

Alam Se—Kita is a design initiative that intends to redesign human-centered spaces into poly-species environments through post-human methodologies. It is a long-term project of Heider’s, and has taken on multiple forms. In its most recent reincarnation, Heider examines interspecies relationships by way of traffic control systems. As Singapore urbanises rapidly, the natural habitats of various animal species have come under direct and immediate threat. As we push these animals into shrinking pockets of space, run-ins or conflicts are bound to ensue. An example of this is how prevalent traffic accidents involving animals are. As animals cross the road in attempts to get from one side of the forest to the other, some unassuming creatures become victims in hit and run accidents. In response, Heider developed a traffic control system that would send warning signals to animals who might be crossing, alerting them to the fact that there are oncoming vehicles. Heider worked on this as part of his MA degree, and is currently pitching this technology to the relevant government authorities.

Instagram has become Heider’s dissemination tool of choice. On the Alam Se—Kita Instagram account, Heider creates lengthy posts to foreground his research methodologies. Across carefully thought out image carousels, data and information is visualised neatly in the form of charts and mindmaps. Taken together, these graphics demonstrate relationships of cause and effect, creating points of connection between various entities.

For this episode, we speak to thesupersystem about the importance of posthumanism within his approach and the different turns the project has taken thus far.
♪ Transition music ♪
Object Lessons Space
With most of our interviews on Mushroomed, I always begin the conversation by trying to speak to the networks that we're all embedded within, and I wanted to get a sense of what you would say your earliest, or most formative, experience with art was.
thesupersystem
Before I started thesupersystem, I was doing a lot of photography and a bit of design. I did a bit of art here and there under my own name, but I was still exploring my own style — like who am I, and all that. It all started when I was in LASALLE [College of the Arts] when I was doing my diploma. I started doing posters for bands. My friends and I used to organize shows at Home Club, and I’d just help out with doing posters. Slowly, I started doing BMX photography. That all led on to thesupersystem after a while, because I got exposed to a lot of different forms of art in Singapore, especially the graffiti scene over here. I started thesupersystem from there.
Object Lessons Space
Before we get into the project that you're currently working on, I wanted to also talk about thesupersystem, both as a moniker for yourself, but also the sort of projects that you've been interested in doing as part of thesupersystem as well. Could you tell me a little bit about how you would describe the sort of projects that you're drawn to working with when you work under thesupersystem, and what drew you towards working under a moniker or nickname as compared to just working as an artist using your own name?
thesupersystem
I came up with thesupersystem because it started out as a graffiti project. I was interested in doing graffiti back then, and that was in early 2012. It wasn't just graffiti, but also the influence of cyberpunk culture. From there, I got interested in other stuff — slowly, as I got older — especially posthumanism, which I am exploring a lot right now. From there, with the influence of other artists, I started — on an individual level, a personal level — I started exploring my own culture — Malay culture. I call myself thesupersystem because I am influenced by a lot of things. My art itself says a lot. It seems very scatterbrained and it seems like it's everywhere. I think it's always a work in progress. thesupersystem is always a work in progress because of external influences that intrigues me all the time. I started off doing graffiti, and I moved into posthumanism over the years, after eight or nine years. These things affect the way I do art and the topics I'm interested in.
Object Lessons Space
I also wanted to come on to your recent and current project as well, Alam Se—Kita. I wanted to get a sense of how you would describe the project to someone who might not be familiar with it. Could you also share a little bit more as to what sparked this project off for you, and why you felt it was important to embark on something such as this?
thesupersystem
In layman terms: Animal Crossing. This project started off as part of a school project, back in LASALLE whilst I was doing my master’s there. I have always been interested in nature, the environment around us, and the natural landscape. Before I started this project, I spent a lot of time hiking in Indonesia and I climb mountains. In 2017, I climbed seven or eight mountains. This exposed me to a lot of the natural landscapes around Southeast Asia, especially in Indonesia. To climb mountains, you need to train. I used to train by going hiking, and I started encountering animals in the jungle — from snakes to spiders, and just different types of animals, and different types of monkeys also. Alam Se—Kita basically means environment in Malay, so it's a wordplay. It comes from the word “alam sekitar”, actually. “Alam sekitar” means our natural environment. I use “alam”, and “alam” means space. “Sekitar”, in the spelling for this project, is as one, “se—kita”. I wanted to start this project to inform people of how we humans play a huge role in affecting nature, and how we have totally influenced and molded the landscape around us without considering the importance of these ecosystems, especially in Singapore. We’ve seen a lot of animals going extinct. From there, I started exploring posthumanism. Posthumanism plays a huge role in my project, and different parts of posthumanism has influenced it — especially the dismantling of the ecological hierarchy. Humans have always put themselves on top of the chain, so whatever below isn't as important. From there, I started exploring local issues especially sambar deers. Sambar deers in Singapore are not well documented and not well studied, and we have around 20 to 30 of them out in the wild. There have been a lot of recent encounters with these deers, and it's interesting because I get my data through Facebook. A lot of people love to post their encounters with sambar deers online. Just by joining a group on Facebook, you can get a lot of resources, and then you can start interviewing them by asking them, “Hey, where did you see this?” So most of these deers actually live around Mandai. I'm still trying find someone to work with me on this project. I’ve been working on Alam Se—Kita forclose to four years, so what I presented for my master’s program is just a small part of Alam Se—Kita. I designed a traffic network system that actually communicates with wild animals and not just humans. LTA (Land Transport Authority) and NParks did a collaboration on this roadway system called the Novel Roadway System, but the thing with the Novel Roadway System is that it only warns motorists, but it doesn't warn the animals. There’s a bit of unfairness when it comes to that because animals don't know any boundaries so they can just hang around the road. If they are not alerted as to incoming danger, they might get into accidents.
Object Lessons Space
It’s really interesting that you say that. This must have just happened a couple weeks back. I was along the road that's nearby Macritchie Reservoir, and there was a really bad a roadkill situation on the road. In many ways that brought to mind previous conversations we had about what you were thinking of with this particular traffic system, and signaling not just to drivers, but to animals as well. Now that you've mentioned the Novel Roadway System that NParks and LTA have co-funded, I wanted to get your opinion on that system itself, especially because you've looked at it quite extensively. I know that you've already mentioned the fact that the system only wants human drivers and not our non-human counterparts, but in your opinion, was there anything at all that the system got right? Or was did it just miss the mark altogether for you?
thesupersystem
I think the intention was there. They had genuine intention to actually protect these animals — whatever we have left in this small area of land that we have. The intention is there — it's very genuine, it’s very pure — but the problem is that the way it was approached — it wasn't done right. I feel like it could have done better. How it works is that the Novel Roadway System will detect the animal. For example, it was tested out at Thompson Road. That area has a lot of Raffles' banded langur, and there’s also about 20 of them out in the wild — really, really beautiful creatures. They were the main stakeholders for that project, I believe, and monkeys. The problem was that, in February, there was a traffic accident along Thompson Road that involved either a snake or one of the local monkey groups. I can’t remember which breed it was. I think the way they approached it could have been better if they tried to create a system that actually warns everyone.
Object Lessons Space
Something that I'm also intrigued by is the fact that it's incredibly intuitive for you to think about communication as a two-way street, not just communication to our non-human counterparts. The way that you've approached these questions is by way of design, which is also of course, your training. But it seems like an incredibly natural choice for you. I wanted to get a sense of how this framework has really shaped the project. I was wondering if you've thought of the ways in which design or design thinking has opened up generative avenues? This is in particular regard to considering how humans and non-human beings interact with one another and share space, which then feeds into the name of the project itself.
thesupersystem
Design was created by humans. Everything that was done in the name of design was done specifically for humans. Without design, humans won’t be around — society itself, civilization and all that. Design isn’t just a tool. It has something to do with society itself, and how we think. But that’s the thing. Design was just solely done for humans, but not for the benefit of animals or the things around us. The way I'm approaching it, through posthumanism design, is changing the concept of design where we don't design only for humans, but design for the environment itself — for everything — from the smallest animal to the oldest tree in Singapore.
Object Lessons Space
That makes so much sense. I’m wondering, because you mentioned that design is human-centered, in some way we teach design with the intention of bettering the lives of our fellow humans. But now that you're thinking about it in terms of animals, in terms of flora and fauna, were there particular things that you felt you had to maybe dig deeper into, or maybe even unlearn or resist when it comes to certain impulses, or when approaching these questions by way of design? Especially since the discipline is rooted in this very human-centered way of questioning and approaching issues and concerns we have.
thesupersystem
I had to unlearn human-centered design. It's one of the main design approaches that has been practiced a lot lately by a lot of designers, where everything in design is basically catered for humans, including urban planning and all that. I had this debate with a friend of mine, He is very focused on human-centered design. I did question him because his recent research is on ethics in design. I asked him, “If etiquette and ethics is very important, why is design only catered to humans and not for the environment or everything around us? Wouldn’t that be more ethical than just focusing on just one species, or on one particular species? We've been having this ongoing debate for quite a while.
Object Lessons Space
That's a really interesting debate actually. In many ways, it shows itself in the way in which you've been approaching the various facets of Alam Se—Kita. I wanted to get a sense of why traffic control systems? There are so many ways you could think about how humans and non-humans occupy space and interact with one another. We’ve been talking about road accidents between animals who cross the road, and drivers who are unaware of the fact that animals are on the road to begin with. I was wondering if there was a particular event, or even a series of events, that lead you towards investigating this by way of traffic?
thesupersystem
For me, it was a common occurrence. When I go for meetings, when I take public transport, the bus, I’d see a dead pigeon. In the papers itself, all these news start to surface again, like the deers getting hit, or the motorist getting kicked by a deer at Thompson Road. Then you start questioning yourself: what's going on? Why is there a sudden influx of animals appearing in the news, and all of them are involved in accidents? For example, the recent one where the monkey climbed into the house at Bukit Timah or Hillview. You can see that we've encroached so much into their natural spaces, their habitats, to the point where they are forced into spaces that are being built by us. And then we get angry. Is it fair? Basically, we are just colonizing the land.
Object Lessons Space
I had a wild boar crash into a train station door near my place a couple of months ago. It was wild because we didn't know there were wild boards in the area. But it made sense when we began thinking about it. You're completely right. They are forced into and squeezed into these corners, and then we get upset about the inconvenience that it poses us because now we have to redo a glass door. But I guess the question is why are we encroaching on their space as well? I also wanted to come on to what some of the references that have been foundational to how you think about this relationship. Earlier on in our conversation, you spoke about how you draw from and pull from a lot of different places, and so the way in which you approach things, or the way in which you think about making work, is very multi-faceted as well. I was wondering if you could expand on some of the references that you've come across that have been very important for you, or that have served as important touch points to the way you approach the project and the idea of shared ownership.
thesupersystem
There's Cary Wolfe, who wrote about what posthumanism is. There’s Rosi Braidotti, where she did the posthuman as well. These were the two books that I read and got influenced by. Rosi Braidotti is one of the main philosophers for posthumanism. She talks about feminism and breaking down the ecological hierarchical system — converting that into a more circular ecology so that we can live and coexist with the things around us. Her book was one of the main ones that influenced me. I've also been reading a lot about tribes in Sarawak and Sabah. They live as one with nature. There is this one tribe where they live off the land. For example, there's a palm sago palm tree. Instead of cutting down the entire tree, they'll just cut down a part of it, and use that for food. They’ll make sure that it’ll be fine and that it won't get destroyed. They always do prayers to thank nature for that, which is very interesting because all these practices, these old practices by all these tribes, can be applied into our everyday lives and how we approach nature. We can use them for our daily practices.
Object Lessons Space
It’s really interesting that you touch on all these different facets of your research. Something that I also wanted to pick up on was the fact that you've been documenting your progress, but also things that you’ve found along the way, on Instagram. The way you've done this is through flowcharts and a lot of informational diagrams. These graphics illustrate connections and create systems, but I'm also interested in why flowcharts have become a way for you to organize the sort of information you've been looking at, and the sort of data visualization that you're doing as well. There are so many different ways you could be thinking about packaging the information and ideas that you have. You could do bulleted lists, you could do articles, or you could do visual essays, and all of these things would also be effective in some way or another. I'm interested in why you've decided to use flowcharts and diagrammatic elements as well.
thesupersystem
Because of school. From there, it opened up to diagrams. I never looked into diagrams until I started school, actually, and I enjoy creating diagrams. I love looking at diagrams. There's this Instagram page called Institute of Diagrams, and it's amazing. From there, I realized that it is so easy to communicate using diagrams. People can understand them easily. There's a flow to it, from point A to point B. Even if you get lost, okay, just go back to the first point. It's so much easier. I find it more interesting because it creates this whole ecosystem. There’s line work, and how it goes from point A to point B, and then it goes back. It’s mostly because of the influence of school.
Object Lessons Space
This is really just an open-ended question. I'm also wondering whether or not, at any point, you found distilling information into diagrams, limiting in any way? I'm also thinking about the fact that for diagrams to work in a punchy and very digestible manner, text has to be quite minimal. Are there any circumstances under which you found portraying all of this research into diagrams a simplification of the things you've done, or reductive in some ways?
thesupersystem
It helps to simplify the amount of content I've gone through over the past few years. But it also is very limited, especially because I'm using Instagram. It's a square box, so there's only a finite amount of information I can put it in. From there, I have to slowly filter out the important ones and then put them together. It takes a while for me to update, because to create these diagrams, they're not that easy, to be honest. As much as I love them, it's just a very slow process.
Object Lessons Space
Every post has a maximum of 10 slides, right?
thesupersystem
Yes, yes, yes. I enjoy it, it’s just a little bit slow — that’s all.
Object Lessons Space
I wanted to get a sense of how you would describe where you're at with the project now. As you've mentioned previously during this conversation, there are so many trajectories that you see the project going off on, and this is also just this particular iteration with the traffic control systems is also just one particular manifestation of a much longer and more sustained interest in nature, in ecosystems, and in how we live with nature as well. What do you see this project evolving into, and where do you see yourself moving into next?
thesupersystem
I think I'll be working on similar projects — maybe not traffic systems, but other small stuff that is related to the entire idea behind Alam Se—Kita itself: how we can coexist with nature? I had a few projects in mind, but I don't think I will share them anytime soon because it’s too soon — I need to finish this one first. For this traffic system, I'm still training a bit of the AI model. The process to train the model takes a while because of you have to manually do the boxes to tell the computer, okay, this is the part that looks like a deer. On top of that I am writing the script, basically the code, for this system. It’s quite lot of work, and also designing the hardware. Talking to organizations and working with government organizations, they have to go through a lot of levels. To get an answer from them, takes a very long time.
Object Lessons Space
That is a really huge undertaking and of itself so it makes complete sense that it will probably be taking a while. Before wrapping up the conversation, I’d liked to ask a question that hopefully throws the net wider by bringing us to a more speculative realm as well. I know you've done a lot of work into this topic, and you've really done so much research into the different books and the different readings as well. I was wondering, personally for you, having thought about this and having created systems around our spatial and urban environments, what is a spatial environment that's made with both the human and non-human in mind? What does that look like to you, or what are some of the elements of or ideas that underpin such an urban plan?
thesupersystem
Have you read Dinotopia? To be honest, it's one of the books that influenced me, ever since I was a kid, where humans and dinosaurs coexist together. It's a very old book, and it has amazing illustrations. But it portrayed this world where humans and dinosaurs coexisted together, and they work together to actually live in a thriving society. It’s around there. When it comes to designing spaces, what I hope to see in the near future, when we design spaces is that we actually consider the impacts on the native animals. For example, building a housing estate. If we take away this jungle, how can we provide the native animals a safe space, instead of pushing them to a smaller area like the central catchment, for example? It has to be included into the whole process of designing spaces.
♪ Podcast jingle ♪
Object Lessons Space
Thesupersystem is the moniker of Heider Ismail, a designer that explores the intersection between posthumanism and malay culture.

If you’d like to learn more about Alam Se—Kita, you can visit the Instagram account https://www.instagram.com/alam.se_kita/.


Thankyou so much for spending time with us today. As usual, we had a lot of fun with this conversation, and I hope you’ve enjoyed sitting 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. 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.


︎︎︎ BACK TO ALL EPISODES

︎    ︎    ︎    ︎    ︎    ︎
About     Issues     Contact     Support     FAQs