It was a balmy evening in late July. We pushed open the sliding doors wide to usher in a faint breeze that issued from the Straits and offered some light relief from the sticky breath of Singapore’s summer. It was always summer on our unchanging equator, the same stuffy humidity closing in at a temperature as constant as the straight, stiff latitude that moderated it. And we were used to it. We muttered complaints, but it didn’t really matter. Singapore was home.
Dinner was a steaming pot of stir-fried seafood beehoon for a few close friends. We gathered cross-legged over wine in Chinese tea cups, then launched into heady discussions – all the latest. The guys debated how the challenges of blockchain outweighed its benefits, another friend told of a project to equip installation art with sensors for a “smart” shopping mall, another mused how our bodies naturally become sites of data, our gait an unexpected, unique fingerprint for identity recognition — the topics swerved. At some point in the evening, when the warmth of the wine and the sea-wind began to rise, we alighted on the issue of surveillance.
I smiled and looked around the room as the questions hung tense. Some, like my partner, were nervous about their personal data, their passwords and crypto wallets. And then there were those of us who were resigned, “It doesn’t matter what measures you’ve put in place, in one way or another, each of us has already been hacked! Have you tried www.haveibeenpwned.com?" Then it was my turn... “What do you think, Christina, are you concerned that our city lives are all inside-out... exposed?”
“Well, come to think of it now, I... don’t think of it. I got nothing to hide!” I exclaimed.“That’s such a Singaporean thing to say,” Adeline replied.“But it’s true! I’m not a threat to the nation, so why would the government take notice of what I’ve got? And even if they do, I don’t really care if my data is being looked at,” I went on in defence of my naivety, and then slowed down as my thoughts collected.
Why had I never cared more about the security of my data? It was an abstract thing, sure, but maybe data security mattered more to people in the West who had a stronger sense of individualism or boundaries and human rights?
Or was it also something about the city — our Singapore — that had permeated my mindset, leaving it unaffected and cushioned from the wily ways of the Internet? I remember how strange it was when I first noticed the dozens of cameras newly installed outside the train stations — how self-aware I first felt, seeing myself on the large screen of the CCTV feedback, looping a digital version of me passing through the electronic gantry. Time passed, and I guess I soon accustomed myself to being seen by the all-seeing eyes, the same way I had acclimatised to the ever-present humidity. Had I just become numb to an invisible city that I knew was stalking me?
These and many more questions began to unravel, as our first Issue for so-far took shape: Smart Cities. Adeline and I agreed that the topic was critical and worthy enough to attend to for a 6-month period, releasing a chapter every month, beginning with this one. The chapters will include dialogues, essays and interviews with multidisciplinary artists, curators, social scientists, media theorists, web programmers and technologists.
This introduction sets up the Issue, as we think about the personal and cultural paradigms surrounding privacy, agency and our relation to machines and devices. The philosophies and beliefs that are inscribed on the imagined, inner walls and (Insta)stories of our cities are unpacked by post-Internet artist Howie Kim, media artist collective INTER—MISSION and futurist Noah Raford. Then we establish the official narrative with video artist Charles Lim Yi Yong’s dialogue with head of the Smart Nation initiative, Tan Kok Yam.
Chapter 2, “Intelligent Island”, digs into the research of media theorist and curator Kenneth Tay, on the seeds of the Smart Nation policy in Singapore. We retrace a timeline by computer scientist Stephen Wolfram, surveying how civilisations, then governments around the world began to adopt city-mapping technologies. We sit with Teow Yue Han, the interdisciplinary new media artist whose research on Smart Nation was instrumental in bringing the topic to our attention. We also excavate the pre-Internet memories of the island with tech-artist Debbie Ding in dialogue with former GovTech director Liu Feng-Yuan .
Chapter 3 further enlightens as we probe, “Where is my data?”, asking web developer Thomas Gorissen to explain how data packages physically and virtually move through the Internet. We bring sound and glitch artist Yuen Chee Wai, UX designer and rave organiser Sant Ruengjaruwatana, and sound designer Aqilah Misuary together to hear how open-source data has profoundly shifted the music industry. Then we flip things around by researching how Jeremy Bentham’s Panopticon has been resurrected in the architecture of the web through big data.
Chapter 4 encircles the globe “From Singapore to Toronto”, providing a comparative look at emerging smart cities in the United States, Canada, China and the Emirates. We receive insights from Microsoft’s National Technology Officer Wei Qing on the actual business of executing smartness. Further on, creative writer Sihan Tan spins us into an imaginary dimension, a speculative future that could either be Singapore or another uncanny island-city.
This is when the artists take over, as they propose ways of coping, remembering, peering through loopholes and gaps, or even undermining the smart city in Chapter 5, “Urban Resilience”. Photographer Noh Suntag writes and documents from a small village in South Korea that is overshadowed by US military surveillance systems. Artist Luca Lum speaks with urbanists from the Urban Technology Interest Group (UTIG) about Geylang, a notoriously unpredictable zone in the otherwise clean fabric of Singapore. Artist and curator Kin Chui documents his excursions to post hand-written letters to now non-existent socialist sites. And curator and writer Kathleen Ditzig investigates cryptography, hacking, piracy and other disruptive virtual activity.
Luca rejoins us and concludes Issue 01 with a poignant piece on vulnerability in exposure, within what she calls a “sensorium that delimits our sense of possible actions and futures”. Finally, I return to my initial position in Chapter 6, knowing now that “I got everything to hide”, acknowledging my own agency and core humanity with newfound understanding.
Adeline and I hope that you will enjoy following our exploration of smart cities, as we debut the so-far platform to you, our curious readers and creative minds. Each article is bookended with 14 Singaporean and international artists we have discovered. In addition to those mentioned in the features above, we also present the exciting work of Burçak Bingöl, Urich Lau, Erwin Windu Pranata, Krister Olsson and lhtttt. Three of these artists have suggested further fiction, academic and other readings to complement the Issue, which we will release every two months under the column, so-far reads.
Stories and dialogues can only tell so much. As art begins where words end, it’s only meaningful that we bring the art, and the rigour of thought that goes into its creation, back into the investigation of these pressing contemporary issues. Presenting our curated selection of artworks is our way of supporting the artists who have inspired us to think and converse differently, who add intelligent value and breadth to our otherwise naive perspectives.
Thank you for reading!
Christina J. Chua
Chief Editor, so-far.online