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13 Dec


“The Japanese call it shibui, simplicity devoid of unnecessary elements. Only the good stuff, the object of desire itself. Everything else gone, empty air, the space between. The very things that disturb about Japan, the tight fetishistic focus, the easy compartmentalization, the love of ritual and precision, are also the things I love – especially when at the center of the frame, or ikeban style, slightly to the left or right of it, it’s something extraordinary.” – Anthony Bourdain


Nostalgia on Repeat

3 Nov

Why do we feel nostalgia? And are infinite entertainment choices changing the way we look back?

Certain problems never disappear. Sometimes that’s because there’s no solution to whatever the problem is. But just as often, it’s because the problem isn’t problematic; the so-called “problem” is just an inexact, unresolved phenomenon two reasonable people can consistently disagree over. The “nostalgia problem” fits in this class: Every so often (like right now), people interested in culture become semifixated on a soft debate over the merits or dangers of nostalgia (as it applies to art, and particularly to pop music). The dispute resurfaces every time a new generation attains a social position that’s both dominant and insecure; I suppose if this ever stopped, we’d be nostalgic for the time when it still periodically mattered to people.

The highest-profile current example is the book Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, written by the British writer Simon Reynolds (almost certainly the smartest guy to ever earnestly think about Death in Vegas for more than 4½ minutes). Promoting his book on Slate, Reynolds casually mentioned two oral histories he saw as connected to the phenomenon (the grunge overview Everybody Loves Our Town and the ’80s-heavy I Want My MTV). Those passing mentions prompted writers from both books to politely reject the idea that these works were somehow reliant on the experience of nostalgia (nostalgia has a mostly negative literary connotation). But this is not the only example: The music writer for New York magazine wrote about this subject apolitically for Pitchfork, essentially noting the same thing I just reiterated — for whatever reason, this (semi-real) “nostalgia problem” suddenly appears to be something writers are collectively worried about at this (semi-random) moment. The net result is a bunch of people defending and bemoaning the impact of nostalgia in unpredictable ways; I suppose a few of these arguments intrigue me, but just barely. I’m much more interested in why people feel nostalgia, particularly when that feeling derives from things that don’t actually intersect with any personal experience they supposedly had. I don’t care if nostalgia is good or bad, because I don’t believe either of those words really applies.

But still — before a problem can be discarded, one needs to identify what that problem is. In my view, this dispute has three principal elements. None of them are new. The central reason most smart people (and certainly most critics) tend to disparage nostalgia is obvious: It’s an uncritical form of artistic appreciation. If you unconditionally love something from your own past, it might just mean you love that period of your own life. In other words, you’re not really hearing “Baby Got Back.” What you’re hearing is a song that reminds you of a time when you were happy, and you’ve unconsciously conflated that positive memory with any music connected to the recollection. You can’t separate the merit of a song from the time when you originally experienced it. [The counter to this argument would be that this seamless integration is arguably the most transcendent thing any piece of art can accomplish.] A secondary criticism boils down to self-serving insecurity; when we appreciate things from our past, we’re latently arguing that those things are still important — and if those things are important, we can pretend our own life is equally important, because those are the things that comprise our past. [The counterargument would be that personal history does matter, and that the size of one’s reality is the size of one’s memory.] A third criticism is that nostalgia is lazy, lifeless, and detrimental to creativity. [The counter to this would be that even those who hate nostalgia inevitably concede it feels good, and feeling good is probably the point.] There are other arguments that can be made here, but these are the main three; if you’re “pro-” or “anti-” nostalgia, a version of your central thesis inevitably falls somewhere in this paragraph. And in all three cases, both sides of the debate are built around that magical bridge between art and the experience of being alive. It’s always based on the premise that we are nostalgic for things that transport us back to an earlier draft of ourselves, and that this process of mental time travel is either wonderful or pathetic (because that’s certainly how it feels).

But what if this is just how we explain it? What if nostalgia has less to do with our own lives than we superficially assume?

What if the feeling we like to call “nostalgia” is simply the byproduct of accidental repetition?

Stare at a photograph of someone you dated long, long ago. The emotional reaction you’ll have (unless you’re weird or depressed or kind of terrible) is positive; even if this person broke your heart, you will effortlessly remember all the feelings you had that allowed your heart to be broken. This is real nostalgia: You are looking at something that actively reminds you of your past (and which exists solely for that purpose), and you’re reimagining the conditions and circumstances surrounding that image. But you’re probably not judging the quality of the photo. You probably don’t think, “You know, it’s impossible for me to tell if the composition and framing of this picture is professional, because I remember too much about the day it was taken.” You probably aren’t concerned with overrating the true inventive prowess of whoever snapped the photo. The picture is just a delivery device for the memory. This is why thinking about old music (or old films, or old books) is so much more complicated and unclear: It’s not just that we like the feeling that comes along with the song. We like the song itself. The song itselfsounds good, even if we don’t spend a second thinking about our personal relationship to when we originally heard it. Yet we still place this sonic experience into the category of “nostalgic appreciation,” because that seems to make the most sense.

Except that it doesn’t.

It doesn’t make sense to assume any art we remember from the past is going to automatically improve when we experience it again, simply because it has a relationship to whatever our life used to be like. We may not even remember that particular period with any clarity or import. These things might be connected, but they might also be unrelated. Obviously, some songs do remind us of specific people and specific places (and if someone were to directly ask you “What songs make you nostalgic?,” these are the tracks you’d immediately list). But so many other old songs only replicate that sensation. The song connects you with nothing tangible, yet still seems warm and positive and extra-meaningful. It’s nostalgia without memory. And what this usually means is that you listened to that particular song a lot, during a stage in your life when you listened to a smaller number of songs with a much higher frequency. It might have nothing to do with whatever was happening alongside that listening experience; it might just be that you accidentally invested the amount of time necessary to appreciate the song to its fullest possible extent. What seems like “nostalgia” might be a form of low-grade expertise that amplifies the value of the listening event.

Here’s what I mean: For at least one year of my life, I had only six cassettes. One of these was Ozzy Osbourne’s Bark at the Moon, which (as an adult) I consider to be the third or fourth-best Ozzy solo album. But it’s definitely the Ozzy release I’ve listened to the most, purely because I only had five other tapes. It’s entirely possible I’ve listened to Bark at the Moon more than all the other Osbourne solo albums combined.

Now, the first song on side two of Bark at the Moon is titled “Centre of Eternity.” It’s a bit ponderous and a little too Ozzy-by-the-numbers. It means absolutely nothing to me personally and doesn’t make me long for the days of yore; until I started writing this essay, I hadn’t listened to it in at least 10 years. But as soon as I replayed it, it sounded great. Moreover, it was a weirdly complete listening experience — not only did I like the song as a whole, but I also noticed and remembered all the individual parts (the overwrought organ intro, how Jake E. Lee’s guitar was tuned, when the drums come in, the goofy sci-fi lyrics, etc.). There may be a finite amount one can “get” from this particular song, but — whatever that amount is — I got it all. And this is not because of any relationship I’ve created between “Centre of Eternity” and my life from the middle 1980s, most of which I don’t remember or even care about. It’s because the middle ’80s were a time when I might lay on my bed and listen to a random Ozzy song 365 times over the course of 12 months. It’s not an emotional experience. It’s a mechanical experience. I’m not altering the value of “Centre of Eternity” by making it signify something specific to me or my past; I’ve simply listened to it enough to have multiple auditory experiences simultaneously (and without even trying). The song sounds better than logic dictates because I (once) put in enough time to “get” everything it potentially offers. Maybe it’s not that we’re overrating our memories; maybe it’s that we’re underrating the import of prolonged exposure. Maybe things don’t become meaningful unless we’re willing to repeat our interaction with whatever that “thing” truly is.

And this, I think, is what makes our current “nostalgia problem” more multifaceted than the one we had 10 years ago. This process I just described? The idea of accidentally creating a false sense of nostalgia though inadvertent-yet-dogged repetition? That’s ending, and it’s not coming back.

In the year 2011, I don’t know why anyone would listen to any song every day for a year. Even if it was your favorite song, it would be difficult to justify. It would be like going to the New York Public Library every morning and only reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Music is now essentially free, so no one who loves music is limited by an inability to afford cassettes. Radio is less important than it used to be (which means songs can’t be regularly inflicted on audiences), MTV only shows videos when no one is watching, and Spotify is a game-changer. Equally important is the way modern pop music is recorded and produced: It’s consciously designed for digital immediacy. Listen to the first 90 seconds of Rihanna’s album Loud — if you don’t love it right away, you’re not going to love it a month from now. There’s also been a shift in how long a critic (professional or otherwise) can be expected to hear a product before judging its value. This is especially true for albums that are supposed to be important; most meaningful responses to Radiohead’s The King of Limbs and Kanye and Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne happened within 24 hours of their embargoed release. When someone now complains that a song is being “played to death,” it usually just means it’s been licensed to too many commercials and movie trailers.

Now, no one can irrefutably declare that this evolution is bad, good, or merely different; it seems like it will (probably) be negative for artists, positive for casual consumers, and neutral for serious music fans. But it’s absolutely going to change what we classify (rightly or wrongly) as “nostalgia.” It won’t eliminate it, but it will turn it into something totally unlike the way things are now.

Of course, if you hate nostalgia, this seems like good news. “Excellent,” you probably think. “Now I won’t have to listen to people trying to convince me that Pearl Jam’s No Code is awesome, based on the argument that they used to listen to Pearl Jam in high school.” From a practical standpoint, there’s no historical loss to the genocide of self-made nostalgia; the Internet will warehouse what people’s minds do not. (Since the Internet is a curator-based medium, it’s also a naturally backward-looking medium.) People won’t need to “remember” Pearl Jam in order for Pearl Jam to survive forever; in 500 years, we will still have a more complete, more accurate portrait of Eddie Vedder than of Mozart or John Philip Sousa or Chuck Berry, even if no one in America is still aware that a song titled “Jeremy” once existed. It’s uncomfortable to admit this, but technology has made the ability to remember things borderline irrelevant. Having a deep memory used to be a real competitive advantage, but now it’s like having the ability to multiply four-digit numbers in your head — impressive, but not essential.

Yet people will still want to remember stuff.

People enjoy remembering things, and particularly things that happened within their own lifetime. Remembering creates meaning. There are really only two stages in any existence — what we’re doingnow, and what we were doing then. That’s why random songs played repeatedly take on a weight that outsizes their ostensive worth: We can unconsciously hear the time and thought we invested long ago. But no one really does this anymore. No one endlessly plays the same song out of necessity. So when this process stops happening — when there are no more weirdos listening to “Centre of Eternity” every day for a year, without even particularly liking it — what will replace that experience?

I suspect it will be replaced by the actions of other people.

Connectivity will replace repetition. Instead of generating false nostalgia by having the same experience over and over, we will aggregate false nostalgia from those fleeting moments when everyone seemed to be doing the same thing at once. It won’t be a kid playing the same song 1,000 times in a row; it will be that kid remembering when he and 999 other people all played the same song once (and immediately discussed it on Twitter, or on whatever replaces Twitter). It will be a short, shared experience that seems vast enough to be justifiably memorable. And I don’t know what that will feel like, and I don’t know if it will be better or worse. But I’m sure it will make some people miss the way things used to be.

(via Chuck Closterman)

Sunlight as a Disinfectant

2 Nov

Truth be told, when you’re working, you are the most a-lone.
The world waits for no one, much less you.

(via Frank Chimero)

Self-serving Blather of the Irrational

1 Nov

Intuitively, there are always two sides to a story.

But it is counter-intuitive to actually listen.
Listen to the depths of a soul, not mere surface irregularities.
What good are humans if they have no soul to a surface.

There are 2 kinds of people in this world

9 Oct

Those who leave without saying Goodbye

.. And those who say Goodbye without leaving

(Cairo, May 2010)

There’s no point taking one step forward if you take two steps back

8 Oct

A smile goes a long way

Also, it confuses people

(Hanoi, December 2009)

Enter the void

7 Oct

do u believe in alternate realities
they say there is an alternate reality for every permutation of choice available to you in any given scenario”

the grey area is fucked up la
no one can stay in it for long”

me: today. gragksgjsla 
“ok u just created a new word didn’t u”

go home also do nothing – stare at the wall and feel sad
don’t worry abt it
neverland is good
maybe u can show me around one of these days”

my mind tells me i have to be free 
in order to build my empire
no one builds an empire being distracted like this”

what’s there to think about
everything is nothing under buddhist teachings”

“Don’t worry. Even if your rent is due, it won’t happen all at once.”

28 Sep

“Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”

Talking to a glass wall, you hope for a reflection
A person agape
Hitting the ground, all it can do is swim
Except it asphyxiates
Doesn’t make sense? Life doesn’t make sense

“The Book of Disquiet”

18 Aug


(via Fernando Pessoa)



10 Apr

Lately, I revisited a recurrent thought. About how the system contorted me.

We were taught to go by the books. We were told if you don’t get into x school or y college, your life will be less than perfect. We were told that if you don’t go down z path, you will have no future. Really?

As long as you get satisfaction out of what you’re doing, I guess everything will be okay in the end. If it’s not okay, then it’s not the end. I shall save you from the gloom talk – here’s something light-hearted.

A few opening words: I’m such a sell-out. No, I don’t actually think i’m thaaat awesome, invincible or legendary. This clip was tailored for something that needed me to be though.

First time doing video editing so pardon my amateurishness (A note on misrepresentation: Recycled a series of images I did previously of my dear friend Oli – lazy to recreate one with my face ha ha)

/edit I forgot all about this since I didn’t hear from them. But waow 06.05.2011 is a great day – they want to meet me next week. I’m surprised, happy… and I’d better start thinking of what to say.

Square 1

16 Mar

You know that feeling? When you’re working on something, and you are getting better at it. Nifty finger work. Impeccable workmanship. You just keep on going. Seconds become minutes. And minutes turn into hours. Finally, it’s done. Happiness engulfs you. Wait… Did you forget something?

You didn’t remove your scapel before sewing up your patient!

Well, you suppose he could continue living with the scapel within him. Sooner or later he’ll just have to come back to you for another OP. Then rational thought hits you.

Hang on, that makes no sense.

Back to square one.

“What the Inside Should Do”

7 Mar

Today, I had the privilege of attending a talk by Matthew Godfrey, President of Young & Rubicam Asia. His illustrious career of 21 years saw him being nominated as a finalist for Media Magazine’s Asian CEO of the Year, as well as Marketing’s Agency Professional of the Year.

Asians should be happy. The world is shifting, explains Godfrey, and capital is flowing in Asia’s direction. In a world where Innovation outpaces Creativity, it is nice to know that Singapore ranks number 1 in terms of an innovating environment. Going forward, I feel that our government needs to loosen up, and resist chilling free speech. If not, the coveted number 1 spot may well be snagged by China.

Advertising has got to be one of the toughest jobs in the service industry. Not only does one have to react with the clients needs, one cannot compromise on creativity. Yet, this is what makes the industry unique – the perpetual flux of ideas and the never-ending tensions. Godfrey loves the randomness and vibrancy of the industry, and how it keeps one interested. Is being in the advertising industry more stressful than being a surgeon? Godfrey is on all fours with this statement. After all, no one argues with a doctor, and they are in total control of their time. In advertising, one is faced with pressing deadlines and skeptical clients. Sounds like the legal industry doesn’t it? But here lies the crucial difference. You can leave a mark or alter social thinking and ways of seeing through advertising. As for the legal industry, the same does not apply.

So how can one avoid being a ‘talented imitator’ and be an innovator instead? It is not an easy task and admittedly so. Innovation, which may take on forms and channels that are diverse and foreign, are often rejected as people fear the unknown. Godfrey utilizes the example of Steve Jobs’ initial iPod launch of 2001 that was greeted with much skepticism, and contrasted it with the ubiquity of it today. Jobs took the world by storm by challenging norms with his strong conviction and desire to constantly innovate. “Hunger, is what differentiates you,” aptly summarizes Godfrey.

Godfrey expounded on three key factors crucial to advertising success. Media innovation, executorial innovation and strategic innovation. Briefly, here are some of the major takeaways.

First, media innovation. Look around you, what strikes you when you encounter bank advertos? I did not realize earlier, but thanks to Godfrey, I understand my confusion between UOB and OUB. I used to think it was just me being apathetic towards the banking sector. Now, I understand a more legitimate reason for my confusion – most banks lack a corporate identity. The portrayal of shiny happy people, the same old firm handshake and, oh look, yet another well-dressed man gazing into the future! Alas, they all look the same. How to break out of this? Be different. Like Axion, a Belgian bank which utilized banner concerts to connect with youth – done simply, by giving the space to youth.

Secondly, executorial innovation. An example was how they placed an art farm in a background shape of  a tooth to emulate how cavities will gradually eat away teeth, the same way ants tunnel through the gel. Interestingly, this series of advertisements found their way into the Guinness World of Records for the Largest Ant Habitat! Godfrey surmised that one way to assess if an ad is innovative and successful enough, would be to see if that Ad earned a place in the Guinness World of Records.

Lastly, strategic innovation. To illustrate this, he showed us dTac’s ad. Typically, in the telecommunication industry, the expectation is for consumers to be constantly connected. What differentiates dTac’s ad, is the smart tagline “Disconnect to Connect”. It makes one stop and think.

Another example of strategic innovation brought up: Diesel’s campaign. Diesel Sneakers – not made for running, great for kicking asses. Where attitude rules over functionality.

With these 3 ingredients, in Godfrey’s words, “will you be able to Rock-n-Roll!”

Godfrey was extremely approachable and stayed to respond to our individual queries. I was curious as to how one would be able to ‘stay in’ the industry (i.e. preserve one’s shelf-life), since the turnover rate for advertising industry is one of the highest. Godfrey’s thoughtful response to this was enlightening. Every company would face a crisis at some point. Staying on, and dealing with the company’s problems, would make one invaluable. Fleeing when the company is in need, just shows one’s inability to deal with problems – in addition to the lack of loyalty.

Godfrey has inspired change in the advertising landscape, and I am certain he will continue doing so and ‘leave the industry with [his version of] Old Spice.’

At the end of it all, 2 words he left with us lingered in my mind: Be New.

Thanks SM4P for organizing the talk

Smile/Don’t Smile – For the Love of Mona Hatoum

4 Mar

Mona Hatoum explores the dialectical opposites in life through her art. The ideas of placement vs. displacement, absences vs. presence, as well as boundaries vs. freedom all come through in her works. Employing a minimalist approach, she integrates the use of household objects, video art and a variety of other forms to distill the essence of the human condition.

Don't Smile You're On Camera, 1980

She chooses to use video installation to bring out the idea of surveillance in her works ‘Don’t smile you’re on Camera’ and ‘Corps Estranger’. In the former, she deals with the intrusion of private boundaries which she effectively does by turning the camera onto the viewers. The observer becomes the observed and this engendered interesting and vociferous reactions from the public. She was inspired by the workings of a CCTV and wanted to highlight to her audience that they were perpetually watched around the clock, Big Brother style.

Corps Estranger, 1994

‘Corps Estranger’ takes on a different approach. It deals with self-recognition and has to be the ultimate invasion of privacy since the inner workings of one’s body is explored. We are taken on an endoscopic journey that explores the orifices of her body, in a bid to educate us that despite our physical differences on the outside, we are all essentially the same from the inside.

This concern stemmed from the Renaisannace view which postulated that the body housed something ‘spiritual’.  Through her work, she turns the tables, and shows that the body is actually dispossessed, with no governing body. The vestigial reference she made highlights issues of feminism. As the endoscope traverses through the female body, the viewer is forced to view the female body in a different light. Notions of a ‘passive female victim’ or a ‘vagina dentate’ crop up and force one to reevaluate their preconceptions of the female stereotype.

Common everyday objects were utilized in ‘Incommunicado’ as well as ‘Homebound’ and ‘Short Space’. Her sensitivity to various chromatic properties of objects affects the viewer in 2 stages. First, when they encounter it, and second, upon closer inspection – where their perception subsequently morphs into something unfamiliar.

Incommunicado, 1993

In ‘Incommunicado’, the base of an infant’s cot was replaced with knives which resemble a cheese grater. The idea of presence and absence is dealt with here as we feel the presence of the infant in the room although the emptiness of the cot suggests otherewise. This disrupts the viewer’s initial idea of a safe surrounding since the notion of a baby being sliced by the wire is a potentially threatening one.

Homebound, 2000

Through the use of a variety of household appliances in ‘Homebound’, she conveys the similar idea of disrupting the traditional of home as a place of nurturing. She allows electricity to course through the objects and this thermicity brings out a sense of perilousness. This parallels her vision of “challenging one’s assumptions of the world” and how we should not accept everything at face value. By taking something as recognizable as an infant’s cot or household appliances, Hatoum effectively transforms “something familiar into something uncanny” as she hopes for us to delve deeper into the surroundings we live in.

Thermicity is a predominant theme in her work. As aforementioned, the electricity coursing through ‘Homebound’ brings about an unsettling feeling. Especially with the penetrating buzzing sound, it seems as though it’s going to explode any minute which in turn conveys a sense of danger. Yet, the red, hot, pulsating energy is so alluring, we are drawn to it. Like how “moths are drawn towards light, yet they disintegrate when they reach it”. The buzzing in ‘Homebound’ (a result of an amplification of electrical current) suggests the similar idea of disintegration. She deftly brings out the sense of beauty amidst danger through her work. The viewer is left to reconcile the apparent danger he/she is in and beauty that co-exists in this world that should not be taken for granted.

Hot Spot, 2009

The recurring themes of fragility and vulnerability stem from her tumultuous background of being exiled from her country. Although dealings with the state of exile and instability aren’t “issues [Hatoum] would like to address directly”, they surface in her choice of materials, such as household objects, metal and cables which convey the instability of the environment we reside in.

Mona Hatoum’s choice of materials and usage of space in dealing with the human condition are unlike any other artist as they utilize her personal experiences to elevate her art to an all-new social level. Her employment of New Media is a commendable one as it allows her to deal with a variety of issues in an engaging way.

Line by line

10 Feb

Something as simple as a line, when accumulated, can form a mind-blowing piece of art. Carine Brancowitz’s works speak for themselves. Armed with an inexpensive biro pen, it is amazing how she makes space, colour and objects fall into place seamlessly.

This made me reflect on the different perceptions I had over time whilst creating art. At a younger age, when I got bored of working/looking at my drawing, I stopped. As the years went by, I found myself looking past the initial ugliness and just kept my hand moving – at times, unwittingly going into auto-pilot mode.

I used to tell myself, if I want to be better at what I am doing, I should follow the adage: “practice makes perfect”. To a certain extent, that made sense. But I have learnt that it is more important that you do not sweat the small things. The difficulty is in stepping back and looking at the bigger picture from time to time. Being able to stay calm and carry on even when sh*t happens is contingent on one’s level of maturity. Sadly, attaining maturity is not within our locus of control. It just happens.

What is within our locus of control is accepting that it is ok to make mistakes in life. Life is not a negatively marked test. You start from nothing, you end with nothing. There is nothing to lose. So why not take a leap of faith today.


Why are Softballs so hard

29 Dec

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I am a klutz. Compounded by the fact that Softballs seem mysteriously attracted to me, what results is often laughter or serious indentations.

Sometimes, I joke that I am on this earth to serve as a warning for others and to make them feel better about themselves. In a way, it turns negatives into positives.

If once in a while doing something accidental leads to a few others smiling for a few extra minutes each day, then I’m perfectly fine with it. I believe that the littlest of things can make the biggest difference, even if they are sometimes at the expense of…… yours truly.


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