Introductory talks for 89Plus given by American designer and architect Matthew Claudel (left) and Singapore-based artist and writer Ho Rui An (right) as part of O.P.E.N., at 72-13 TheatreWorks, Singapore, 2014. Courtesy Olivia Kwok. 

Jul 30 2014

Report of the 89Plus Project at The O.P.E.N.

by Melanie Pocock

Grace Teng (left) and Amanda Lee Koe (right) in conversation after screening of Teng’s documentary 10,000 Miles Away From Home, at 72-13 TheatreWorks, Singapore, 2014. Courtesy Olivia Kwok. 

89Plus during the O.P.E.N., at 72-13 TheatreWorks, Singapore, 2014. Courtesy Olivia Kwok.

The year 1989 is considered a pivotal moment in global history; it marked the fall of the Berlin Wall, the end of the Cold War and the birth of the World Wide Web. But what relevance did these events have in areas beyond traditional centers of geopolitical influence—in Southeast Asia, for instance? 

This was the central question posed by 89plus in Singapore: a weekend of talks and panel discussions curated by artist and writer Ho Rui An, which was presented in July as part of the O.P.E.N, the public engagement initiative of the Singapore International Festival of Arts. An iteration of the eponymous multiplatform research project, co-founded by curators Simon Castets and Hans Ulrich Obrist, 89plus sought to reflect on the historic moment and influence of 1989, through the lens of artists, designers and activists working in Southeast Asia—the majority of whom were born in or after that year.

Ho and American designer and architect Matthew Claudel kicked off the weekend with introductory talks that identified the creation of the internet, and its culture of networks, as 1989’s most decisive regional legacy. Referring to their respective strategies of drawing existing content and data to create new narratives and meanings, each speaker reflected on how the “local” is articulated by the “global.” The loss of individual subjectivity implied in this relationship provoked some trepid reactions from the audience, an ambivalence that also surfaced in presentations and discussions during the first panel, “Local/Knowledge.” While Grace Teng’s documentary-in-progress 10,000 Miles Away From Home revealed some interesting contradictions regarding notions of “home” and identity harbored by young Singaporeans living abroad, the panel’s interlocutor Amanda Lee Koe, seemed unsure as to what audience (and ends) such an exposée would serve. 

89Plus “Commentary” panel. (From left to right) Ho Rui An, Pumiwat Rangkasiwit, Pimsiri Petchnamrob, Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal, Tan Zi Hao, Raksha Mahtani and Fahmi Reza, at 72-13 TheatreWorks, Singapore, 2014. Courtesy Olivia Kwok.

Matthew Claudel giving a talk, entitled “Singapore and the Future of Urban Science,” during 89Plus, at 72-13 TheatreWorks, Singapore, 2014. 

By contrast, the second panel, “Commentary,” featured inspiring contributions from artists and activists known for combining physical and virtual platforms to spark debate. Tan Zi Hao’s performative lecture, “Xenophilic Handshakes, Xenophoric Shellpickers, artfully explained how the hand embodies a form of collective subjectivity, as a repository of bacteria amassed through previous handshakes. Speaking from the perspective of the pre-89plus generation, Malaysian graphic designer and activist Fahmi Reza’s account of the Occupy Dataran movement illustrated how Facebook facilitates grassroots activity through its immense popularity and horizontal structures. The potential of social media as a rallying tool was further explored in a conversation with Thai students Netiwit Chotiphatphaisal and Pumiwat Rangkasiwit, whose use of the internet, television and physical gatherings provided living proof of the effectiveness of multi-pronged strategies in advancing educational reform.

The most direct link between Southeast Asia and the year 1989—as pointed out by Ho in his introductory text to 89plus—was the rise of Southeast Asian studies in North America, following its invasion of Vietnam 30 years prior. It was this branch of studies, moreover, that first created the illusion of the Southeast Asian region as a single, coherent identity, reflecting the United States’ desire to “master” the area’s morphing Communism. Yet the panelists at 89plus seemed more intent on distancing themselves from any Western-centric framings, preferring other, more proximate points of reference to expound their practices. As highlighted by Indonesian researcher Brigitta Isabella, other years—such as 1998 (when General Suharto resigned from power in Indonesia)—are arguably more relevant to young people living in Southeast Asia now than 1989 is or ever was.

Melanie Pocock is a curator and writer based in Singapore. She is currently assistant curator at the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore.

89Plus at The O.P.E.N, Singapore was held between July 5–6, 2014.