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This essay is written in companion to the exhibition Heavy Rotations, on view until 2 Jan 2023 at Esplanade Mall, Level 3, at the Community Wall.
A specific moment when you enter a random store in a shopping mall and hear the calibrated volume of a past Top 40 hit from ten years ago blaring through generic commercial speakers that unseats an uncontrolled burst of nostalgia. You may not recall the contexts, but you may likely remember specific details—the white-shoed and pinafored recesses between book-heavy classes; the sneaky glances between friends as you committed a minor crime in public outside a club you did not bring enough money for; or perhaps, an ear-worm that popped up on YouTube which you let creep into your brain and heart for an unreasonable amount of time as you idly scrolled through social media.
Subtle creatures that circumvent the rationalising ego, these songs, guilty pleasures or not, trigger a sudden rush of memories that brings to the fore an acute and affective sense of history as it was lived. The body, as a site within which both the public and private dwell, rouses to an archival impulse. Threading together a notion of the past based on a narrative of the present, replete with the internal logics and hierarchies, situating the personal within a broader trajectory of the social. With the help of specific images, sounds, and sensorial cues, often shared across a demographic of similar technological access that has consumed the same content in individual orders and ways, a generation’s story is encoded and scattered, though legible nonetheless to its writers.
Expanding this mechanism of action, where inarticulable and sensuous compulsions have primacy over the distant outputs of intellectualisation, we develop an alternative framework through which the contours and typologies of the archive may be reconsidered. It is in this vein that Heavy Rotations aims to challenge the possibilities of how the archival may reflect affective and subjective truth, rather than that of the presumed objectivity of imperial bibliographic indexation. A proposal for how the emotive and the visceral could be regarded as the main register through which the archival and the historical are made recognisable to the individual self, this exhibition brings together the works of three artists—Jon Cuyson, Moe Myat May Zarchi and Miti Ruangkritya—that each probes at the vanishing boundaries between what is felt and what is thought.
In Tomorrow I Will Get Back To The World (I Thought) by Burmese filmmaker and artist Moe Myat May Zarchi, the sentiments and frustrations for an ideal reality irrevocable shattered by the ongoing military coup and the escalating local healthcare crisis spill out from beyond the frames of a TV screen, on which the core moving image work Tomorrow I Will Get Back To The World plays. An installational response to the confined but hopeful chatter between ten Burmese filmmakers on the possibilities beyond a post-pandemic return to normalcy that constitute the short video, Moe extends her thoughts and reflections, quite literally, onto the surrounding wall with a brittle free-association that increasingly blurs the line between field documentation and diaristic rumination in a collapsed temporality. Mimicking the standard desktop interface that constitute the central locus of experience on all computers, this work draws into view the fluid nature of text and images in virtual environments, and the muddied relationship between what is public and private media in the digital era, both of which speaks to the existence of a new mode of archiving reality that veers away from the prescriptive indexicality of formal record-keeping into the messy thickness of media content as a tangled and networked (a)historical object.
Adopting a more formal register, Filipino artist and filmmaker Cuyson’s video installation Mutya explores the valencies of desire and intimacy as both collective and individual through a narrative centred around the eponymous character: a young resort worker longing for and conversing with her lover who works in distant waters as a seaman. A patchwork of both original filmed sequences and segments from archival footages taken by actual Filipino sea-farers, Cuyson’s elaborations on the unclear separation between reality and fiction, between the universal and individual, speak to a queer sensibility befitting of our present hyper-connected modernity where our relations are as much performed externally as they are to an internal theatricality. Diaphanously shot, the soft, mute grey-tones of Mutya serve to enhance the nondescriptness of the story as a mundane, overlooked, and ubiquitous occurrence that surrounds our daily lives unnoticed. Staged behind a pair of half-open black curtains in a darkened alcove, Cuyson’s spatiality both adds texture to the experience of watching, almost bordering voyeuristic, and the experiences of being watched, where the delicate revelation of a secret ensconced the viewer into an uneasy but tender complicity that challenges the hegemony of monolithic history in favour of granular histories of the everyday.
Last but not least, Thai photographer and artist Miti’s Eric in Bangkok provides a timely injection of brevity that also serves as an incisive commentary on the politics and economies of circulation of images. Suffused with Miti’s characteristic wit, Eric in Bangkok traces former pro-football player Eric Cantona’s visit to Thailand during the Thai New Year in April 2018 as eagerly documented by the Thai public in a deluge that so fascinated the artist and prompted his reconsideration into the network and pathways of disseminating these images. Interlacing several strands of thought that reflect on Miti’s investigations into image production, distribution, and consumption, this work hints at the sardonic possibility that the imaginary image of celebrity and its associative effect has long since eclipsed the actual celebrity: in each fan-taken image, the figure of Cantona shows not the suave athleticism for which he is famed but a tired resignation to being a prop whose presence imparts a value that is not mutually constitutive with the subject of the image—the fans themselves. Likewise, Cantona’s body also becomes a narrative leitmotif that binds together disparate accounts from across Thailand, inadvertently forming a conduit for an archive of his fans through him, but not of him, as well as creating a (then) real-time map of crowd-sourced information that nestles the obsession of the fandom in a positive feedback loop.
Just as how songs are sampled, remixed, repeated, and cross-referenced, so are bodies, images, and stories. Referring to a standard practice found in the radio broadcast industry where each station would maintain a list of songs that would get the most airplay on any day and are carefully spread for maximum attention, Heavy Rotations speculates on a similar process for the media of the present and the recent past to undergo so as to assimilate into an archival schema of a shared and recognisable history—only this time the archives are no longer the climate-controlled vaults of colonial bureaucracy but a certain gestural notion; the pulsating bodies of those who write the history that writes them in turn. Like a speech act conjuring a motion, a response, through a trick of the mouth, the archive of the digital present and future is uncontrollable and uncontainable. Beyond the rigid physicality of its own material collection, it thrums with the exertions of our communal being—of care, of exchange, of agency.
Alfonse Chiu is a writer, artist, curator, and researcher working at the intersection of text, space, and the moving image. They currently head SINdie, an editorial platform exploring Southeast Asian film culture, and are a co-founder of the Moving Picture Experiment Group, a curatorial and research collective exploring the polyvalency of the moving image medium in contemporary practices. They are an Associate Curator with DECK, and the recipient of the 2021 e-flux journal fellowship.