ila on Conversations As Maps, Disrupting Artistic Encounters and Establishing Intimacy Through Care
ila is a visual and performance artist who works with found objects, moving images and live performance. She seeks to create alternative nodes of experience and entry points into the peripheries of the unspoken, the tacit and the silenced. With light as her medium of choice, ila weaves imagined narratives into existing realities. Using her body as a space of tension, negotiation and confrontation, ila creates work that generates discussion about gender, history and identity in relation to pressing contemporary issues.
We first met ila through her work with Asian Film Archive’s recent State of Motion: A Fear of Monsters. She has since worked with OH! Open House and two of her works are currently on display at Arus Balik – From below the wind to above the wind and back again, an exhibition at the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore. ila opened her house up to us on a Sunday morning, where we spoke about some of the things that have inspired her over coffee and green tea.
For our conversation, you’ve picked out a huge variety of things ranging from stories and dreams, to texts, maps and even exact moments in a documentary. Walk me through what that thought process was like for you when you were putting these things together.
I started looking at the body of work I’ve produced so far chronologically, and the sort of things that I found inspirational whilst creating those works. It really expanded from there, because I don’t see these things in a linear manner but in a more interconnected and relational way.
Putting this selection together was as much about looking back into the past as it was about realising that there were certain things that have stuck with me throughout the years. For example, other than the documentary Grizzly Man that I picked out, there weren’t any other pop culture references that came to my mind. I really enjoyed a particular moment in the film (40:12) where the protagonist, Timothy Treadwell, would leave his camera out running and photographing empty landscapes. I related to that because that’s how I usually document or go around shooting photographs as well. When I’m shooting, I usually wait quite long periods of time or visit the same spot multiple times. A lot of this was inspired by that particular scene.
Most of these things have stayed with me for a long time, and particularly with the stories, I’d end up retelling some of them again and again. Stories are really important to me because there’s that element of narrative to them.
I find it interesting that the stories you collect stay with you for such a long time. Apart from having a personal connection to them, do you find yourself revisiting them because their meanings change in relation to the seasons of your own life?
When I archive these memories or moments, their meanings are usually quite fixed. Of course things do happen along the way to change your perspectives, and this becomes evident naturally or organically when you retell these stories again.
I was in Bandung once, where I met this bapak who asked me about where I’m from and what’s my make up. I said I was Malay, and he asked, “Yes, but a Malay from where? Where are your grandparents from?” After I told him about my grandparents, he asked if I felt more Javanese or more Bugis. He asked if I looked at bodies of water whenever I felt stressed, because that this was relative to being Bugis. Until recently, I would stop the story at this point. I often work around the sea, so I’ve always felt a strong connection to my Bugis heritage. But as I was working on Arus Balik, I felt that it was important for me to expand on what it meant to be Javanese as well. I started to remember the later part of this conversation, where I asked him what being Javanese meant. He said that the Javanese love travelling, and I had never revealed or given much thought to this part of the story until recently.
I see these stories as carrying me through certain moments. With a story, there are always going to be certain things that didn’t feel as important before, but this could be due to the fact that those aspects of the story weren’t ready to carry you just yet. With the appropriate forms of scaffolding, these stories can develop yet another layer.
As you were describing the process, I had in this image my mind of the knowledge already buoying you along but subsequent small waves coming along to just push you further along.
Yeah. If I was tuned in to both aspects of the story I just told you about from the beginning, perhaps I would not have been able to travel as much between these moments of realisation. Yet because I travelled along with one particular facet from the story before being pushed further along by another, I was able to work through and develop my understanding of it that much more. That’s a nice image.
When you engage people in these conversations, are there particular aspects of their stories that you find yourself being drawn to exploring? This could be in terms of their personal background, their family histories or even what they do for a living at the moment.
A conversation is like a map, in the sense that a map shows you all the possible ways in which you could get from one point to another. It really comes down to which route you’d like to take. For me, the routes I’ve taken have always been fluid.
I consider the time I spent in Bandung doing my first residency as being amongst the most formative I’ve had, mostly because I learnt so much there. I was doing research into the lives of illegitimate children, and I found it difficult to focus on specific human narratives. I was working closely with an NGO based there, and time and time again they’d remind me to be aware of how I was conducting my research and to make sure it wasn’t exploitative in any way. The work had to be framed in an objective manner, and I had to be respectful and to distance myself from these stories.
When I have a conversation with someone, I consciously try not to probe too much. I let them lead me through the conversation. If they open up, that’s great. If they don’t, it’s completely fine and we can talk about other things. It’s about exuding comfort and care when you engage with someone. When working with communities, there is always this risk of taking from them and not giving something back in return. When I volunteered at AWARE Singapore, we spoke to women who had lost their jobs after becoming mothers or women who were caregivers. The intent behind this questioning was have the grounding for which the organisation could suggest better and more protective policies to the governments. However, these sessions were often very intense and the interviewees would come out of them feeling fatigued and exhausted. That experience was really helpful, and it allowed me to grow in sensitivity towards someone else’s hesitance to share. As I said, the map is already there. My role is to listen intently and see how I can insert myself gently.
It is interesting that you say these conversations are like maps to you, because you picked out a couple of maps for our conversation as well. On a personal level, I’ve been trying to unlearn the authority I’ve come to associate with maps. When we look at maps of Singapore that date from the nineteenth century, we see our land mass and shorelines shifting. They shift because we’ve stopped respecting our land by drastically altering our physical landscape.
The two maps you’ve picked out are exact reflections of this because you see parcels of land or rivers disappearing. When you look at maps, what do you see and why do you find yourself coming back to them?
There’s a website that collates all of these street maps, and it’s a great resource because you can really see how the landscape of Singapore has changed over the years. In the examples I’ve picked out, you can see that Pulau Mengalu in the Kallang Basin disappeared completely within a span of less than 10 years. The whole of Bendemeer used to be the Kallang River as well, but now there is no trace of the river whatsoever.
I’ve always done a lot of walking. When my partner and I were dating, we’d pick out a random place from a street directory and just walk there. That probably was the start of my relationship with actual maps. As a person, I’m actually quite allergic to maps. I get lost rather easily. Maps freeze the landscape of an area at a particular point in time in a well calculated image, but unless you are a researcher yourself, chances are you wouldn’t question the image’s authority. My fascination with maps begins with me charting the sort of emotions I feel when I look at conventional maps, and looking at the changes, removals or absences. It is about disrespecting the land, and of course I was affected by it. We don’t always know what happens to parcels of land when they disappear or are absorbed. What was on the land, or who was staying there? I’m attached to physical maps precisely because of this scarcity of information and the gaps in our knowledge. It allows me to speculate, and to bridge these gaps in my own headspace.
When I worked on Spirit of Echoes, it was really about mapping through stories of hauntings. These ghost stories do, in a way, bridge these gaps. They existed well before these maps did.
Let’s talk about Spirit of Echoes. Stories, and particularly ghost stories, can be, for lack of a better descriptor, slippery and hard to grasp. Mapping, on the other hand, you associated with a very firm and controlling hand. Did you see these two elements as sitting in contrast to each other? If so, how did you navigate and resolve these differences in impulse and language when putting together this work?
I had a text that supported the exhibition, and it was Susan Lepselter’s The Resonance of Unseen Things. The book talks about people who have been abducted by aliens, and how the author herself goes about collecting stories. In the book’s introduction, Lepselter talks about apophenia, which she describes as a “way of seeing things that have become invisible”.
I didn’t want to be too fixed or concrete in my methodology, and I was also thinking a lot about this idea of resonance — what is resonance? How do stories resonate? When we think about the sound of these stories, how do these sounds resonate? I named the work Spirit of Echoes after these sounds. When the stories were introduced into the space through two speakers. One of them was a hypersonic speaker. When you move through the space, it’d feel as if the sound was coming from behind you. It’s a directional speaker, and that was playing from one side of the room whilst the main speaker was positioned at the opposite corner. You’d have voices coming in at the same time, and I wanted this to reflect how these narratives go against each other.
With my work, what I’ve always tried to do is to disrupt the act of seeing or the act of listening. When I set works in a dark place and viewers have to squint in order to look at them properly, it forces the viewer to spend more time within the space. My works have always been this way. They always force viewers to take time to look or take time to listen. If a viewer wanted to sit and listen to the actual stories that were being narrated, they could. Yet, that can get exhausting pretty quickly because of all the different voices that are being layered on top of each other at the same time.
I used these echoes as one element of the work, but I was also thinking about images. I had two projections in the space. One projector was clearer and of better quality, and the other was a cheaper projector that produced images of poorer clarity. I wanted these images to almost layer over each other within this very dark space. There are multiple ways in which we can record or encounter histories, but it is the overlapping layers of history that resonate most with us. It’s really about how we tease out the particular aspects of histories that we want to receive.
When you talked through the sort of techniques and equipment you used for Spirit of Echoes, there are definite and clear resonances there with the act of mapping and cartography. Despite the air of confidence around historical maps, in particular, I think most of us have stopped taking them at face value. These maps end up becoming another layer of narrative, and another version of reality.
Everything is now mapped out with GPS, and sometimes I think we can get too reliant on it. The dot that tracks your location on that map can suddenly disappear, or the map might not have small roads or alleyways marked out on them.
This is the case with terrain as well. You don’t get a sense of sloping or undulating roads.
There is this sense of flattening — literally. How do you approximate terrain? You can approximate distance visually, but how do you show how that distance would feel like with an incline?
With this notion of measuring things up, it can sometimes come from a compulsive need to categorise or structure. Is that only way of knowing or understanding something? It also brings up questions of how we can undo that impulse to hold things up to a standard.
It’s definitely a form of control, and especially with the context of the smart technology we live with today. We use it to navigate or orient ourselves, and it is almost as if we’d die without this information at our fingertips.
Something else you picked out ahead of our conversation was Mierle Laderman Ukeles's Manifesto for Maintainence Art, 1969. It is a piece of writing that was written way ahead of its time, and is still relevant to contemporary discussions we’re having today about what it means for a woman to be working and creating work. What was your response to this text, and how have you seen that response reflected in the works you’ve since made?
I began to see others pigeonholing me into being a “female artist”, weirdly, after I got married. Prior to that, it was just me doing my own thing. There was no emphasis on it being the work of a female artist, or being seen through the lens of women’s issues. Minteo, who runs Ketumu Project Space, invited several artists to be a part of the exhibition, Merayakan Murni (Celebrating Murni). Murni was a progressive Balinese artist who was pivotal in the development of Indonesian contemporary art. Balinese art often features depictions of women with their breasts on full display. Her work takes from that but features both phallic and vulvic imagery. There is a lot of violence in her images, and she flattens them in the Balinese Pengosekan method. Murni uses bright colours, and her works comment how pleasure and pain can be merged. Murni’s practice was the first I considered in such detail. She was raped by her own father when she was 10, and that took over as the public perception of her. People framed her as a rape victim who used art to heal or as a form of therapy. When you actually look into her life, there was a lot more complexity to her than that.
I was thinking a lot about labour, particularly for women artists, and how we’re always in a position of vulnerability. I was newly married, and I was now doing a lot of domestic work for two people. All of this was fine, but I had to navigate around myself and my time in a new way. I wanted to see if I could visualise this sort of labour through an artwork, so I conceptualised a three-part work in response. The first part of this work was RUANG, and in it I put on Murni’s costume in a space filled with strobe lights. Only one viewer was allowed into the space at a time. The performance would last for four hours, and during this time I would be doing warm ups and my make up. I wanted to use strobe lights to critique how performance art is seen as a spectacle. Performance art will either open or close an exhibition. It will never run throughout the exhibition because it is not static. With strobe lights, it gives viewers the sense that still images are being created throughout the performance. I wanted viewers to get a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to create the work, and to ask if they could sit with me. About 75% of the audience were intimidated by the performance, but a small percentage of them shared that intimate space with me and stayed for a while.
My awareness of being a female artist was really heightened during this residency, which ironically was three months after I realised I was pregnant with my daughter, Inaya. I place such an emphasis emphasised on care because it's something I want her to have in the environments she will be placed in. I feel we've grown so apathetic now that we’ve forgotten how to feel for others, or have been conditioned not to. Because of that, our city is breaking down.
In addition to that, I faced a lot of discrimination when I was pregnant with Inaya. I was told by a male curator that getting pregnant was the death knell for my career because it was proof I wasn’t serious about being an artist. After Inaya was born, there were many people in my life who told me to just focus on my child. At the same time, I was being told by non-mothers that the works I was now making should address motherhood. It's a strange position to be placed in, especially when my partner experiences none of that. It is also offensive for him, because he is as much of a parent as I am. In fact, his practice has shifted because of Inaya's presence whilst mine has remained somewhat the same. I wanted to challenge this notion of gendered labour. I wanted to examine how we could see beyond that individuated role and move towards more communal approaches in the distribution of labour.
I read Ukeles’ manifesto after creating RUANG, and my perspectives shifted from wanting to create vulnerable spaces to a place where I was thinking more about care, inclusion and alienation. Vulnerable spaces could still function as a spectacle, and I wanted to see how I could talk about maintenance. When we talk about emotional labour, it doesn’t just refer to women having to be mothers. It also brings up the question of how you care for someone and how you can extend that care. I’ve been thinking about that for the past year or so, and that has grounded much of my performance work since. I no longer want to create something that creates distance between the artist and the audience, where the audience feels complicit yet removed. When I read the manifesto, it got me thinking about care as a way in which intimacy could be established. Complicity is easy, but empathy is difficult.
Later, I met Chand Chandramohan who is part of the group that did an amazing performance titled contemplation/reclamation for I.D. (The Body’s Still Warm). There are a total of nine people in the group, and everyone is on the same page when it comes to providing care and carrying each other’s weight. We did another performance at DECK recently titled Jiwa, and that was really nice as well. We’re constantly looking at how we can expand on this idea of care.
Let’s also talk about the reading you picked out by Mario Perniola. In his book, The Sex Appeal of the Inorganic: Philosophies of Desire in the Modern World, he discusses the sex plateaux and the idea of moving away from a single orgasmic point towards a neuter.
In your email to me ahead of this interview, you said that you’ve also been working towards this neuter. The notion of a neuter is quite neutralising, and it’s often defined in relation to what it is not. When you talk about moving your performative works away from a single climatic point, why have you taken on the neuter as a direction you’d like to move towards?
When we talk about the context of a performative work, there might not always be a physical stage in place but audiences can still feel the presence of one anyway. This creates a distance that will be further emphasised if the performance just had a single orgasmic point. Audiences would feel an emotional high, and then immediately come down from there into nothing.
I’ve been trying to neuter this because I don’t want my performances to have that convenient peak. I want my performances to create a space where my audiences are allowed or enabled to feel a whole spectrum of emotions. It isn’t so much about providing multiple points of entry as it is about providing different possible ways of processing that emotion.
I’ve always been aware of the subjectivities involved in all performative works, so I’ve started to give agency to the audience in a very direct way in more recent projects. These ideas began when I was doing a residency in Perth with pvi collective, Drama Box and Ekamatra. Han Xuemei, the resident artist at Drama Box, conceptualised an experience titled MISSING: The City of Lost Things. She asked audiences to carry suitcases and gave them instructions through a phone. This meant that the audiences were performing actively in the work. I was so inspired by her work that I asked Xuemei if I could base a work off it, and that’s how my work for OH! Open House was conceptualised. Because I’m such a control freak, it was difficult relinquishing control over the final work, so a large part of this is me neutering that control as well. The audiences are free to do whatever they like, and this allows for a certain level of fluidity in their experience.
Working collaboratively is something that features prominently within your practice. It is always exciting to explore ideas collectively, but some artists do find themselves getting lost amidst a collaborative effort as well. What are some of the ideas or thought processes that you’ve been able to better refine through partnering with other creatives?
There are two main ways one can work collaboratively. The first is when you collaborate with someone in order to create work, and the other is collaborating with someone else in the sense of sharing spaces, thoughts and critiques. I thrive better in the latter, where the collaboration is more long-term, fluid, and without the pressure of producing a work at some point in the near future.
When I work collectively in a group, we always begin our meeting by sharing how we feel and where our headspace is at the moment. From there, we see whether there are particular thoughts that intersect with each other and what sort of ideas we’d like to play around with. In these instances, my role is usually to shape or tighten the concepts that are being forwarded.
When I work with someone else on my own work, I approach it with the intention of including the essence of my collaborator into the work. For the works I exhibited at Arus Balik, I worked with Kin Chui. Kin and I have been working collaboratively for a long time, and we have a pretty testy or volatile working relationship. With Arus Balik, I didn’t have any video experience and Kin didn’t have any experience shooting a performance work. We’d be screaming at each other throughout the process, but not because we’re angry at each other. We wanted to get it to a point where the synergies and the magic happens. That happened by the third shoot or so, where we knew what we were doing and where we were going. At first, I wanted the piece to be completely silent. But after showing the images to my partner, Bani, he felt that the piece needed sound. Having heard what he created, it made sense to me and it felt necessary. In a sense, it’s also been about the sort of serendipitous encounters I’ve had and the responses people have had to the work.
For the work, I asked people to share their ancestral lineages with me. These thoughts were written on my back, and by the third shoot, some of these writings were free-styled. For example, there is a line “I dreamt of my grandfather’s land even before going there”. That came from the sort of conversations we were having throughout the shoot. At the end of the day, it’s really about how you seek help and how open you are to receiving it. I think that’s really important for me to keep in mind because when I work with someone else, it’s always for that person to fill up a gap that I’m unable to fill.
How have these participants responded to seeing their intimate reflections incorporated into the finished work?
I’ve spoken to about six people about the work since, and out of that, only two of them have seen the work. One of the two is Norah, and I worked with her and Fitri on a workshop titled Reclaiming Nusantara. We talked about the Nusantara, and tapped on an idea conceptualised by the artist Vimal Kumar, that of the Neo-santara. We wanted to think about the futuring of our identities, and where we will sit in time to come. We did a writing exercise where we got our participants to write a letter to the last Nusantara. This workshop was the second instalment in a series, and was more focused on how identities have been and can be deconstructed. From there, it is then about reclaiming what being of a certain ancestral lineage means.
When I first pose people questions about their heritage, most of the time they’re confused by what the question means. I’ll start to explain it to them through the angle of the story I mentioned earlier about the bapak I met in Bandung. I think this is going to be a continuous conversation for me, and I don’t think it’ll end with the work. In fact, I think this is only the beginning. It’s not about definitively capturing what it means in a myopic sense, but about expanding and exploring it to encompass the lived experiences of everyone involved.
Artists have approached the body as a medium in a wide variety of ways. Some use the body in a demeaning manner, and others in more exultant ways. Having worked with your own body as a medium or as a vessel across multiple works, are there still latent avenues of possibility that you feel like you’d like to probe at through this medium?
When I use my body in performances, I put my body through discomfort in order to allow my reactionary responses to naturally play out. I do try to remove all the connections except the primal. This was the case with bekas, and I wanted my body to move organically in response to that discomfort.
I’m not professionally trained to use my body, and I only do this as a process. I always say that my performance work is a process. It isn’t the work itself. These performances help me to understand certain things by putting myself through that rigour. Performances are also deeply transformative. When I complete one, I can really make sense of what the work has grown into and see where it can then grow to next. It’s really about stretching this embodiment as much as it can go. Because of that, I wouldn’t say that I use my body as a vessel. I see my body as a connector, pushing myself through the crevices of these pockets of knowledge that I have yet to access.
I’ll definitely continue to work with my body because I think there are a lot of places I haven’t gone to yet, particularly in terms of building thresholds, understanding discomfort, and breaking away from a single conclusive, climatic point. I want to see how my body can reach these points without it becoming a spectacle, and without it being objectified. I do carry the burden of being a female body. I can’t just bare it all like my male counterparts. There is that sort of conundrum and layer of restriction, so that’s something I want to push — not because I’d like to get into trouble for it, but because I really want to challenge our notions of the gendered body. My body can be a genderless body, even, it could be a shape. In bekas, I explored the body as a landscape or a geographical terrain. It was no longer a body, and that’s where I sit at the moment.
Arus Balik – From below the wind to above the wind and back again is now open.
The exhibition will run at the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art until 23 June 2019.
More information about the exhibition can be found here.