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Acts of LifeActs of Life

Acts of Life
Four Key Questions

Structured to reflect the heterogeneity and multiplicity of the formats of exchange through which a critical research residency is manifested, Acts of Life sought to explore key questions of our time such as: What is the impact of technology on the environment, both urban and natural? How do artists respond to digital developments? And perhaps more fendamentally, how have changes in old and new technologies altered our contemporary senses of what it means to be post-human and what concepts of nature and culture will arise from it?
 

What is the impact of technology on the urban environment?

Technology and its impact on the urban environment - simultaneously disruptive, salutary and detrimental - is a major interdisciplinary concern. It dominates prevailing discourses on the city as the main mode of human living today. How are digital technologies used in current urban developments? What are its impacts on the city-scape? These are some of the questions asked by researchers at the Future Cities Laboratory, a think tank which is based in the high-tech city-state Singapore - an archetypal "Asian Future Space." Acts of Life residents were led on a tour of the Lab by Aurel von Richthofen, who provided an overview of the research methodologies that have been developed in an attempt to answer such questions, such as digital mapping, a research tool that involved compiling data and formatting it into visual forms. As Dr. Kristy H. A. Kang explained in her talk, digital mapping has been used in collaboration with urban planners and policy specialists to visualise the invisible histories of the built environment, thereby improving societal understandings of cities' overlooked peoples and spaces, and making an important contribution to the study of urban cultural histories.

Participants visited one such locale, often regarded as "marginal" in Singaporean public discourse, during a guided tour in the neighbourhood of Geylang by Cai Yinzhou. Geylang Adventures' website proclaims a mission "to overthrow the idea that Singapore is a boring and sanitised state." The neighbourhood of Geylang is home to the city-state's only legal red-light district, and the site of many "foreign workers" dormitories, i.e. low-income manual labourers, a social group that has been an acute source of government anxiety since 2013, when they rioted in a nearby district. Now intensely policed by closed-circuit television cameras (CCTV), Geylang is a veritable case study of the high-tech application of surveillance technologies to the cityscape. An unnerving symbol of the future city as quasi-Panopticon, the neighbourhood represents an uneasy contrast to the view of technology as enabling mankind to see into the future and do the impossible.

The insidious dimensions of "cutting-edge" industrial technologies were similarly palpable during a visit to the Philippines' Bataan Nuclear Power Plant. Built in 1985 under the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, the $2.6 billion plant was completed just one year before the Chernobyl disaster. Once fêted as the solution to the country's perpetual struggle to supply electricity to its massive population, the nuclear station was never used in the wake of the tragedy in Chernobyl.
 

What is the impact of technology on the natural environment?

What is to be done in the struggle to secure rights for non-humans? Perhaps one ought to look to pigs for clues as befits our avowedly Anthropocene era. During his workshop, philosopher and cultural theorist Dr. Fahim Amir advanced a post-human approach to animal rights, arguing that pigs' ability to emancipate themselves from capitalist exploitation demonstrates their autonomy as forms of living labour, and more importantly enables one to speak of animals as subjects in themselves, rather than as human-centred objects. The struggle to secure rights for non-humans was also apparent during artist Woon Tien Wei's tour of the Bukit Brown cemetery, a centuries-old historical site currently undergoing a politically controversial demolition. After some of the Acts of Life participants met with an interspecies communicator who "speaks" to the cemetery's trees and memorises their stories in order to preserve the hundreds of years of invisible knowledge they possess.

The programme also examined the increasingly blurry distinction between the natural and the non-natural. Participants attended a tour of Singapore's famous tourist attraction Gardens by the Bay given by Andy Kwek who revealed the technical innovations behind the creation of the Flower Dome and Cloud Forest attractions, from the temperature-controlled ground surface to the sophisticated systems that use digital technologies to carry precisely calibrated quantities of water to the plants, which come from climates scattered across the world. The department has also had to deal with the unexpected - and somewhat ironic - problem that the local plants themselves have become increasingly difficult to conserve since the introduction of imported plants into the local ecosystem. The Singaporean artist Robert Zhao flagged the existence of the same phenomenon during his guided tour of Gillman Barracks art precinct's micro-forest, where the rapid proliferation of migratory bird and plant species means that it is now increasingly difficult to speak of "authentic" habituation even within natural ecosystems.
 

How have technological developments impacted the visual arts?

What then of digital technology's impact on the visual arts? During a tour at the Nanyang Technological University's School of Art, Design and Media by Dr. Elke E. Reinhuber, residents visited the School's Digital Art Labs, which include a virtual reality, VR studio, augmented printing, 360-degree filming, and 3D printing facilities - technologies that increasing numbers of artists use in their practice. In addition, an interdisciplinary workshop at NTU was conducted focusing on debates over the methods and subjects of research in the digital age that constitute a unique area of inquiry: "digital humanities" only recently began to be seen as an academic discipline in its own right. A guided tour by Dr. Graham Matthews and Hedren Sum introduced the newly established Digital Humanities Lab at the College of Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences at Nanyang Technological University of Singapore.

Local particularities also needed to be understood, and Acts of Life residents accordingly visited Manila's Makati arts precinct, a recently established arts precinct housing galleries, independent spaces and artist-run initiatives, for an introduction to the Filipino contemporary art scene. Yet, it was equally important to go outside Manila for a fuller understanding of artistic production in the large, archipelagic country. Therefore, residents were flown out of the capital to Roxas City in Capiz Province for the 15th VIVA EXCON, which attempts to link art communities across the Visayas islands, and is one of the Philippines' longest-running biennials.

Critically assessing the impact of media technologies in aesthetic production was a central concern to Dr. Yvonne Volkart. She argued that ecological art disrupts existing techno-natural scientific methods of data recording, such as those utilised by alternative or activist measuring cultures. Activist art has the unique ability to sensitise publics to ecology, as its narratives, subjective emplacements and visceral emotionality, provide new forms of affective intimacy across species-specific divides.

Less studied, however, is the relationship between digital technologies and the so-called traditional arts. The talk by Dr. Welyne Jeffrey Jehom provided necessary insights in that regard. Dr. Jehom is developing an application that will help preserve Pua Kumbu, the patterned multicoloured cotton cloth used by the Iban people in Sarawak, Malaysia, for ceremonial purposes and which forms an integral part of an intangible indigenous knowledge that also extends to the triber's oral history. The application will enable users to read patterns in the fabric more easily - monkey figures, for example, become more clearly visible when the application is used - but also preserve the tribe's textile tradition and perform the role of heritage conservation.
 

How have changes in technology altered contemporary senses of what it means to be human?

Digital technologies have the power to disrupt and transform existing patterns, ways of knowing, and social structures. These innovations are changing the ways we practice and conceptualise social relations, the political sphere, human/non-human/post-human ethics, and cognition. It is crucial, therefore, to reflect on how the digital is transforming what it means to be human. The dangers are clear. Marian Pastor Roces flagged exactly this concern during her workshop when she demonstrated how anti-drug addict hate speech generated by troll farms have dominated Filipino social media, and supplied a degrading iconography of the dead that has strengthened public support for the unlawful killings so integral to President Rodrigo Duterte's chilling war on drugs.

Text by Sara Ng

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