Teow Yue Han, excerpt from Performing the Smart Nation, 2016 - 2017
17 February 2019
Interview • Issue One • Chapter Two
Performing the Smart Nation:
The Evolving Practice of
Teow Yue Han

Teow Yue Han was probably the first artist in Singapore to critically examine the Smart Nation policy when it was first introduced in 2014. That same year, he was undergoing his Masters in Fine Art at The Slade [1] in London and later developed an iterative series of performances and installations for his thesis that he titled Performing the Smart Nation. It was Teow’s sensitive and reflexive studies that were responsible for bringing the issue to our attention when it seemed very few others were looking at how technology was softly seeping into the deep infrastructure of the city-state.

so-far spent an afternoon with the artist to understand how his practice has developed since he was an undergraduate into what it is today: a fascinating research-rehearsal at the interstices of contemporary dance and choreography, performance art, video, web technologies and installation.

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Teow Yue Han, Performing the Smart Nation, Installation view at Slade School of Fine Art, 2016

Christina J. Chua: The first time I witnessed your work performed was in 2010 at the Substation as part of R.I.T.E.S. [2] It was a kind of literal take on Freud’s “psychological projection” [3], and I recall it being a bit awkward confronted by the peering camera in the dark of this crowded theatre. Your work delves into the social, perceptual and psychological dimensions of technology. When and how did that series of Projections begin? How did you build the first device? 

Teow Yue Han: It started off as a series of photographs that I did for my first undergraduate assignment [4]. I was interested in projecting my face onto the people around me. My drawing teacher invited me to do a performance at Post-Museum [5] in 2009, and I was challenged to re-contextualise the photographic exploration into a performance.

It was at first very primitive. I captured my face going through different states of emotions and then I projected that video with a big projector in a very clunky way onto the audience at Post-Museum. 

At that time, Urich Lau was performing before me, and he was doing his Life Circuit video goggle piece, stumbling around the space. When he wears the video goggles, he can’t see because the video goggles are actually capturing images from outside the camera and they play on the two screens, so when you look at it you’re actually seeing a reflection of yourself. It’s kind of like a flipped version of a VR goggle. We started talking about our artworks, and that was quite an important moment and connection — he liked my work and he said, “Why don’t you build some kind of contraption that can do a live stream?” That was when he invited me to perform at the Substation and he kind of helped me to conceive that.

Teow Yue Han, Performing the Smart Nation, Installation view at Slade School of Fine Art, 2016
the most important part to me is this relation — this performance of the technology — that we are constantly reenacting, constantly shifting both sides and trying to find a balance. 

Chua: You were still in university completing your first degree. Did you have any idea that your work would go in the direction of performance?

Teow:
Not really. I was very interested in film, in the kind of aesthetic of directors like Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze and so on. I was also interested in video and performance artists like Bruce Nauman [6], and exploring performance in a way that I could use my body in the work, so I was kind of finding a balance between that. The idea of performance was always there, and I was a dancer as well so that kind of informed my work. I think the move into performance was pretty natural, but without that challenge of my drawing teacher to put me in that situation, it wouldn’t have sparked off this development.

Chua:
Since then, how has Projections expanded?

Teow: I was using simple CCTV cameras at first. But as the technology improved, I changed it so it could also take in sound. Now I’m thinking of building a new version that has an actual wireless Internet Protocol (IP) camera. Some modifications are made, but it’s more or less still the same harness. That consistency in the hardware is very necessary, because every time I perform with it, the contexts, environments and audiences change the work. It used to be just me in silence, performing in a very visual way. But as time passed, I started having some conversations with the audience, I started to make it more relational, sometimes even moving and dancing with them. Most recently, when I performed with my collective INTER—MISSION, it was the first time I offered the harness to the audience so they got to wear it. That was quite fun to observe how they used the device in different ways — it completely took the work away from my body. So with the consistency of this device, I am able to build and push each performance in new directions.

Chua: Will you still continue to use the harness?

Teow: Yes, I normally work in series where I think up a new situation, and the idea is tested as a performance. My first series is Projections, and I will just keep doing iterations of it. It will still continue to be an exploration. I am thinking of making a film documentation with me traveling around with the harness.

Projections was a way for me to look at how ideas can be externalised on a very visual level, what happens when a conversation is visualised when two faces meet. At the same time, there is this externalisation of the self onto a screen and that screen can change to be a person, an object, a surface. That’s when I use the idea of projection quite loosely and it’s not always about technology, but about this idea of how we externalise our selves. That was also what brought me into my new body of work which deals with the “interface”.

It’s what I call digital movement, how a simple gesture can relate to streams of digital information, how it enters into this network, and how it is transmitted into another place. 

Chua: So what is the “interface”?

Teow: The “interface” is a form of relation between two or more distinct entities. It was coined by an engineer in the 19th Century to describe fluid dynamics [7]. It was this defining boundary that controls or dictates fluidity, that will find a symmetry and balance between the two sides. It has a lot to do with action, separation, augmentation. That is what the interface means to me, and the most important part to me is this relation — this performance of the technology — that we are constantly reenacting, constantly shifting both sides and trying to find a balance. 

And when different interfaces come together, they form an apparatus or a network. This network is described by some philosophers as the “dispositif” [8]. It’s the disposition of certain interfaces. It captures many gestures...

Chua: How did you connect these philosophical ideas to dance? 

Teow: Some people refer to choreography as a kind of dispositif [9]. It’s a set of rules or different frameworks for movements that intersect, and that is when a dance piece is conceived. So choreography is also a system of relations.

People like Loie Fuller, Isadora Duncan, and Rudolf Laban [10] were trying to notate movement itself — how we can capture the essence of a dance and make it transferable onto another body. In a way, Labanotation was an early form of motion capture. So these ideas of the interface and the dispositif brought me to look at how technology is assimilated in gestures, and implemented in dance and choreography. 

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Teow Yue Han, Performing the Smart Nation, Installation view at Asia Now Paris, 2016

Chua: Can you elaborate on what you mean when you say technology is assimilated in gestures? 

Teow: You know when you’re on the bus, and you see everyone glued to their phones — it’s like they’re just massaging their phones. There’s this kind of tactile, physical generation of movement. I’m interested in how that movement is measured or quantified, and how it actually translates into the digital space. It’s what I call digital movement, how a simple gesture can relate to streams of digital information, how it enters into this network, and how it is transmitted into another place. I guess you can imagine the interface like a cockpit — a machinery that you control that affects the way the plane moves. There are many kinds of interfaces that evolved, and now the technology sits in our hands. It still maintains that same idea of that fluidity, because it is about us sort of dancing with and seducing the phone, and within the device there is something that responds to us. The interface that we know of now is how the screen is designed, and the design of how we respond to it. 

the state is always concerned about its citizens’ performance, in terms of KPI’s (Key Performance Indicators), management strategies, organisational performance and things that quantify how productive we are.

Chua: And how did the smart city come into the picture? 

Teow: I was in London at the time completing my masters, and I was trying to find a way in which my research into the interface could be contextualised. That was around 2014, and I realised that Singapore was working on Smart Nation. 

Around the same time, I also read Ray Langenbach’s thesis Performing the Singapore State. That paper opened up my reading of what performance was. He was talking about how the state is always concerned about its citizens’ performance, in terms of KPI’s (Key Performance Indicators), management strategies, organisational performance and things that quantify how productive we are. He also commented on how Josef Ng and other performance artists were in opposition to the state [11]. 

Chua: Of course, because a performance artist can be one of the most unproductive, “counter-performing” individuals!

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Teow Yue Han, Performing the Smart Nation, Installation view at Asia Now Paris, 2016

Teow: Yes. I wanted to reference his paper, so I named this new series Performing the Smart Nation. I started looking at how certain movements are performed repetitively and subconsciously, as we walk through the urban environment, past sensors, past surveillance cameras. These are all intersections and interfaces that are intercepting our bodies and gathering movement data. I’m trying to understand what that does to our body, and our performance within such a system of the smart city, and conversely what do we do to the city and the environment. 

So what began as a very visual projection is no longer that explicit — it’s more subtle than visible. It’s not so much wearing the apparatus, but it’s become something that is fully embodied. 

Chua: How does Performing the Smart Nation look like, when performed and danced? 

Teow Yue Han, Performing the Smart Nation, Installation view at Slade School of Fine Art, 2016
It's no longer fatherly discipline. It's all about participation. Everything is participatory!

Teow: The dancers have a smart phone in their hands which is connected to Google Hangout. At the same time, I’m orchestrating which feed from Google Hangout the audience sees on the screens. The phone is an extension of the dancers’ bodies, but it’s also a certain restriction to their movement. My dancers say that when they try to channel the energy out, it hits the phone when they see an image of their own reflection, because they have to dance in selfie mode. The image of the selfie mirrors their movement back, so there is a kind of resistance that reorientates their body. It’s this kind of constant feedback that I’m interested in, whether there are certain movements that we tend to perform with the phone. 

But the backdrop is really Singapore’s Smart Nation, where we have this general sense that our movement is constantly being collected. So instead of having this network or system that governs our movement by tapping on movement data, I’m allowing the dancers to explore how they can push or resist the current state of technology through different kinds of mechanisms of feedback, in an installation setting.

The space is a collaborative testbed of sorts — it tests embodiment in a mini, slightly dystopian version of the Smart Nation. The installation is mobile and the dancers are free to interpret it with the handphone holders, selfie sticks, they can push it around, or express their own forms in this environment. I see it as a rehearsal space — rehearsing how we can perform, or how we can have agency in this kind of environment. Smart Nation is something that’s very invisible, but I’m questioning how does that affect the way that we move bodily, and if there is anything we can do to change the way that we perform in the Smart Nation. 

It's no longer fatherly discipline. It's all about participation. Everything is participatory!

Chua: In our conversation with Noah Raford, you mentioned how we have moved into a Deleuzian model. Can you explain how this relates to your research on performing the Smart Nation? 

Teow: There’s been this transition from Foucault’s “disciplinary societies”, to Deleuze talking about how it’s no longer the individual, but it’s rather a division of your self into samples, masses, data, distributed into the market, banks, etc [12]. It’s almost like you are dispensing your self into many small little packets of information and data, like tweets, Instagram stories, Facebook posts. Then of course, computers quantify and control this — they try to look for patterns of normality and if someone deviates from that, or causes a spike, then it’s a cause for concern. 

Deleuze sees the self as almost digital. It’s no longer fatherly discipline. It’s all about participation. Everything is participatory — contribute to the Singapore Memory Project [13], for example! There is this constant sense of engagement, but does it amount to anything? Is it just another form of tapping on our data? You can do all these things, but at the same time, what is the cost and result of participation? That’s my concern — what are some of the major implications of being smart? Ultimately, I was trying to interrogate the idea of Smart Nation through the dispositif, thinking about choreography as another system of relations that could potentially be fruitful for proposing ideas on how we can perform in the smart city. 

That's my concern — what are some of the major implications of being smart?

Chua: You’ve performed this piece in London and Singapore, which are both very smart cities. Have you ever performed in collaboration between the cities? 

Teow: Yes. I’ve used Inter/face and live video chat to allow contemporary dancers in Singapore and London to collaborate and perform simultaneously in two different spaces. There were certain exercises where I got the London dancers to send self-taken videos they shot of their choreography to Singapore. The work that was shown at the Barbican was choreographed specifically for that form of interaction through the phone.

Chua: Do you ever see doing a performance with web technologies like Snapchat or Instagram Stories?

Teow: I’ve been asked to incorporate that and that could be interesting, seeing how this additional layer of information can be mapped onto the face. I do challenge my students to use that aesthetic. In class, I show them all these things about Smart Nation and then I ask them, what does it mean to be a video artist now? 

Chua: You mean, when everybody uses video?

Teow: Yes. We need to reinvent the 16 x 9 frame, because now everything is filmed in portrait mode, and everything is 10 seconds. The whole language of film and video has to be reinvented. 

Chua: Is that frustrating? 

Teow: Not at all! It’s very exciting. I try to look at social media to understand the logic of how we use video in our daily lives, and then I see how I can transfer that into a performance, or sculptures, or in the way I edit a video. Social media is a major challenge for all artists to update their visual language — not in terms of just ordering or editing videos, but also in their use of materials, their use of movement. 

Teow Yue Han, Performing the Smart Nation, Installation view at Slade School of Fine Art, 2016

Footnotes

1 The Slade School of Fine Art, University College London is one of the UK’s top art and design institutions. 

2 R.I.T.E.S. or Rooted In The Ephemeral Speak was held from 2009 to 2011 at the Substation, Singapore’s first independent contemporary arts centre. It was an initiative that showcased sonic, time-based and performance art pieces “informed by visual aesthetics, technological integration and conceptual integrity”. Teow Yue Han performed at R.I.T.E.S. #3, curated by Singaporean pioneer performance artist Lee Wen and Teow’s collaborator Urich Lau. “About”, Rooted In The Ephemeral Speak, accessed 27 December 2018, https://rootedintheephemeralspeak.wordpress.com/about/.

3 Sigmund Freud conceptualised psychological projection as a defence mechanism of the ego in which an individual projects their own motivations, anxieties or desires onto someone else, and in doing so, denies or avoids their own weaknesses. 

4 Teow received a Bachelor’s of Fine Art in Digital Filmmaking at the School of Art, Design and Media, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore. 

5 An independent cultural and social space in Singapore, Post-Museum had a physical presence in Little India from 2007 to 2011. Teow performed at “Release - Daily Life Action in Singapore” in 2009. Today, Post-Museum is a nomadic artistic, social enterprise and platform. “About Post-Museum”, accessed 27 December 2018, https://www.post-museum.org/about.html.

6 Bruce Nauman was an influential artist who was active from the 1960’s onwards, working with a broad range of media including sculpture, video, performance and more. 

7 Branden Hookway, Interface (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2014), 59. 

8 In his conversational piece “The Confession of the Flesh” published in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings (1980), Michel Foucault defined the “dispositif” as a “heterogenous ensemble consisting of discourses, institutions, architectural forms, regulatory decisions, laws, administrative measures, scientific statements, philosophical, moral and philanthropic propositions… the system of relations that can be established between these elements. Other thinkers who have described this idea are Siegfried Jäger, who called it a “Gesamtkunstwerk”, and Giorgio Agamben, who wrote in What is An Apparatus? (2009) deemed it as something that had “the capacity to capture, orient, determine, intercept, model, control or secure the gestures, behaviours, opinions, or discourses of living beings”. 

9 Susan Melrose speaks of the dispositif in choreography as “multidimensional frameworks and mechanisms, juggled and brought into timely intersection by the artist…” See “Expert-Intuitive Processing and the Logics of Production: Struggles in (the Wording of) Creative Decision-Making in ‘Dance’”, in Contemporary Choreography: A Critical Reader, ed. Jo Butterworth and Liesbeth Wildschut (Routledge: 2009). 

10 Dancers Loie Fuller and Isadora Duncan were pioneers of free dance in the late 19th Century. Dance theorist Rudolf Laban’s work in the early 1900s laid the foundation for dance notation and movement analysis. His notation system was later developed into Labanotation, which uses abstract symbols to describe the direction, duration and dynamic quality of the body’s movements.

11 Performance artist Ray Langenbach’s doctorate thesis, fully titled “Performing the Singapore State: 1988 - 1995” and written in 2004, surveyed performance art in Singapore as forms of contestation and divergence from the nation-state’s dictum on performance. He also detailed Josef Ng’s controversial performance Brother Cane (1994), where Ng protested the media coverage of an anti-gay operation. The performance led to the National Arts Council banning all funding to unscripted performances, a rule which was only lifted a decade later. 

12 In 1990, only a year after the Internet was founded, Gilles Deleuze predicted a profound shift from what Michel Foucault called “disciplinary societies”, the enclosed environments of the 18th to 20th Centuries: the family, the school, the military barracks, the factory, and culminating in the prison. Deleuze proposed a new model, “societies of control” where these spheres co-exist in undulating and open networks, and where control is distributed by computers.

13 The Singapore Memory Project is "whole-of-nation movement that aims to capture and document precious moments and memories related to Singapore" complete with an online memory bank where citizens are encouraged to upload texts, audio and video files, and images of their memories. "About Us", Singapore Memory Project, accessed February 16 2019, https://www.singaporememory.sg/Help-Info.

Teow Yuehan’s latest performance in his "Inter/face" series, entitled“Alice, Bob and Eve”, will be staged at School of the Arts Singapore in collaboration with contemporary dance company Raw Moves from 22-23 February 2019. For more information, click here.

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