Going onstage (www.esplanade.com).

Visual Arts

Insights: Debbie Ding

Excavating and reinterpreting histories through virtual reality and machine learning.


Published: 20 Sep 2023

Time taken : ~10mins

Presented in the group exhibition Evolving Currents at Jendela (Visual Arts Space) from 13 May to 4 September 2022, The Collector by Debbie Ding was inspired by the disastrous voyage of the Fame in 1824. The Fame was a company ship hired to bring Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles and his family from Singapore to London at the end of Raffles' long tenure in the East Indies. During his time in this part of the world, Raffles had meticulously collected and documented an extensive array of native flora and fauna. Tragically, the ship never made it to London as every item onboard was destroyed in a fire soon after it set sail.

This historical account is the starting point for Ding's project which considers the value and relevance of lost collections. Current research on the Fame has been primarily limited to historical studies and the realm of natural history. With technological development, what could be excavated or recreated through machine learning or predictive and visualisation technologies? How could art and technology aid research processes and enable different ways of understanding historical accounts? The Collector adopts a speculative approach to exploring the Fame's lost collections. Ding's research methodology involves collecting, labelling and categorising information on commodities traded in Singapore in the 19th century. She harnesses technologies like virtual reality (VR) and machine learning to interpret and re-present the data in ways that allow alternative bodies of knowledge and interpretations of history to emerge.

This work is a present-day re-enactment of the Fame's journey and re-collection of what the tropical imaginary could look like. Ding has constructed a world manifested in formats ranging from interactive VR game experiences on discovering the Fame's collections, to a projection that simulates the VR gameplay. Videos of hands sorting through artefacts build upon the idea of discovering and processing bodies of knowledge and information. Completing the installation is a backdrop featuring fiducials—markers that are a point of reference in Ding's constructed VR metaverse.

The Collector allows the viewer to move between different dimensions from the physical world to virtual reality. The viewer is the protagonist, symbolised by a pair of disembodied hands, who navigates the world and participates in the sorting of commodities which have taken the form of digital tokens. This world deftly straddles the fictive and the historical. The work makes reference to actual items traded in Singapore over a century ago while following a narrative woven together by Ding. Through it, the viewer and the artist become interlocked in a re-interpretation of a historical episode whose influence continues to reverberate in the present.

Interview with Debbie Ding

The Collector

Your practice is concerned with excavating cumulative records and lesser-known narratives. What got you interested in the story of the Fame and what were you looking to excavate while working on this project?

I have always been obsessed with lists and inventories and somehow I became interested in looking at the manifest of ships, which were actively moving cargo and commodities in and out of Singapore in the 19th century.

One of the well-known 19th century shipwrecks involving Singapore was the sinking of the Fame. It was the company ship specially hired to return Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles and his family from Singapore to London. There is a striking lithographic print of the Fame on fire in the National Museum of Singapore's collections. There are also vivid accounts of how Raffles had originally turned the Fame into a veritable ark of flora and fauna, with stacked tiers of boxes of live animals and plants, meticulously collected and documented by Raffles during his long tenure in the East Indies as British salesman, government servant, and keen explorer and naturalist. Unfortunately, every single item onboard was destroyed in a fire soon after the boat set sail.

This is a timeframe which is still within the realm of what we can imagine as having existed but this is also fairly far removed from contemporary life as we know it today. Once, I was able to go to the British Library and it blew my mind that I could so easily request to see some of the original letters and documents from that period. I could access the very papers upon which these lists and letters and manifest of ships were recorded upon—ink smears and marginalia and all, on physical paper that I could hold.

'The Collector' features a world you have created that re-enacts the journey of the Fame and re-imagines what Raffles’ collection could have looked like. Why did you choose to adopt a speculative approach to interpreting this historical episode?

A lot of the current research on the Fame seemed to be largely limited to historical studies (including a historiography of natural history), but I wanted to take a more experimental, speculative approach in exploring the idea of lost collections.

It is hard to articulate the kinds of human knowledge that is lost over time. It could be small and simple as a personal memory being forgotten. There could be problems in translation and record keeping, or even changes in the languages that we speak.

In The Collector, I wanted to have people play this game and try to sort the commodities in their own way, although there is not really any 'right' way to sort them either. Through the game, you get to experience that gap in understanding as you try to categorise things in your own idiosyncratic way.

Installation view of <em>The Collector</em>, Debbie Ding, 2022.

The research for 'The Collector' involved trawling through records and data on commodity trading flows in the global economy in the 19th century. A lot of research that goes into your projects and audiences only have a glimpse of part of it. Could you share on your research process and methodologies? How did you distill the information gathered into the final format of the work?

Initially, I wanted to visualise the sum of the tropical imaginary that had been lost on board the Fame, but the project had a life of its own and somehow morphed into an exploration of the aesthetics of commodities.

When I was trying to find data on 19th century trade—alongside getting lost in examining Lloyd’s Register and tax/excise data—I found the Trading Consequences project, which had been a collaboration between commodity historians, computational linguists, computer scientists and librarians who text mined over two million pages of digitised historical records to extract information about 19th century commodity trade.

I cannot really represent or recapture the items that had been on the Fame, but I thought I could find another way to represent the items. Hence, I extracted a list of 1640 'commodity concepts' traded to and from Singapore from Trading Consequences data. From the list of 1640 items, I manually eliminated the most obvious text errors such as 'March April Hay' and 'Agar' (which in this case was a misspelling/erroneous keyword identification of Tanjong P-AGAR), resulting in a smaller list of 519 objects.

Image of developmental process.

Many of these objects had very evocative names and I wanted to find a way to turn them into tokens of themselves, in a way that the viewer could pick them up and examine them and form their own understanding of them.

Detail of <em>The Collector</em>, Debbie Ding, 2022. Image courtesy of the artist.

How did you arrive at the visual form the commodities would take in this work and why did you choose to represent them in this form?

For the visual form, I thought I would scrape google images for each keyword as part of the initial research. I noticed how the images grabbed from Google Images come in different scales. Some are zoomed in and show the commodity singularly (highlighted in red), some are zoomed out and show a group or multiples of the commodity (highlighted in blue).

I decided that would identify a Content image (Singular) and Style image (Group/Multiples) and then applied the style transfer on them to produce an image of the commodity that I could use as a texture. If the shape of an object is thought to hold a visual metaphor, it would obviously be a round coin. Round, because the first coins might have been so large that we had to physically roll them around. Round, because we round up and round down the numbers to understand them.

You work with various forms of technology like machine learning, predictive or visualisation technologies and virtual reality. How do you think technology and art could inform studies on historical events?

Some years back, as part of my day job, I took a technical course on Tensorflow. I always wondered what were the ways in which I could apply this kind of understanding back to the visual work I am making as an artist. I also realised that besides the technical understanding of deep learning that could be taught to anyone, one also had to have a clear problem definition, a meaningful problem that one really wanted to solve. For me, I just really wanted to understand and be able to explore these commodities visually.

Image of developmental process.

We are reaching the point where AI and deep learning models are relatively accessible to the informed hobbyist or self-taught programmer. You have also got things like DALL-E and Midjourney which can generate photorealistic images from any keyword that you want and the images they produce will be unique, unlike any other image in the world. There are some who are very cautious about this development and are concerned that it will be used to replace artists or illustrators, but I am very optimistic in thinking that it can produce new perspectives that artists can control and use to develop new works.

Detail of <em>The Collector</em>, Debbie Ding, 2022. Image courtesy of the artist.

In 'The Collector', the narrator says at some point: 'Our knowledge of everything is a construct and we live in a world of our construction.' Central to the work are reflections on knowledge production and transfer and making sense of data in our present day. How do you see the role your practice plays in this?

I believe in the potential for artistic practice to create knowledge. As both designer and artist I see it as two sides of the coin. In design, the goal may be to close the gap in understanding and to assure all parties that communication is possible. But in art, I feel like we acknowledge that there will always be that gap in understanding. There may always be something that is ephemeral and emotional and impossible to tangibly pin down, but it may be supremely important and fundamental to our shared human experience. We find ways to process it and make meaning from it.

Technology, data and information flows are interwoven into our lives so it makes sense that the art responds to that. I do not shy away from exploring different visual technologies to produce work, even if a lot of the works are experiments and may be forever works-in-progress that I am working on and improving. The artwork remains a living project which has its own potential to develop and iterate over time.


The Collector by Debbie Ding was presented in the exhibition Evolving Currents, on view at Jendela (Visual Arts Space) from 13 May - 4 Sep 2022.

You have 3 out of 3 articles left this month. Create a free Esplanade&Me account or sign in to continue. SIGN UP / LOG IN