Room of Receipts: The Biennale of 2022

AICA Singapore Biennale 2016 Roundtable 3: Maybe it’s better this way, We’d hurt each other with the things we want to say [1]

“Tell me about the biennale you want to see”, was the question posed to the writers engaged in the third AICA roundtable on the Singapore Biennale, convened by Qinyi Lim. The result is a set of three speculative fictions by Kenneth Tay, Vanessa Ban and Hsu Fang-Tze, to be published on Arts Equator in three weekly installments.

To “tell” is to consider the premise and framing of the “biennale” — and for this roundtable of short speculative fictions, Singapore and Taipei were the points of departure. While both cities have assuredly adopted the mode of the 1990s biennale (which could be described as an exposition that has moved away from the historical Venice and Sao Paulo models of national representations and pavilions), nonetheless, critical questions regarding the aspirations of these biennales — be it education, accessibility, tourism, gentrification, political radicalism and even sustainability — still pervade. [2]

“Room of Receipts: The biennale of 2022” designed by Vanessa Ban is a first person account of experiencing the biennale in a speculative future where the language of contemporary biennales (networks, new audiences) are taken to merge with social media as a way of experiencing space and communities. – Qinyi Lim


Designed By Vanessa Ban

I remember back in 2016 being told that the generation that came after me were digital natives, that we 1989ers were the generational neuro-border between those who grew up living on the internet and those who knew a fundamentally physical “brain-based” self. I don’t know why I am remembering this as I look at the interface screen that will determine my experience of the biennale. Perhaps it’s nostalgia for a different type of exhibitionary interface and reality constructed from something other than my psychometric profile computed by an algorithmic system called “hotsauce4.0”.

The interface poses an existential question: Would I like to take a survey or would I like to give the biennale access to my Facebook to make an assessment of my preferences? I have to say I feel a little uncomfortable about the question. Ever since austerity measures meant that the nation-state stopped funding exhibitions, and corporations woke up to the potential of the exhibition as an occasion to product-test new developments while simultaneously surveying the landscapes of new market networks and demographics, it’s become too obvious for comfort that the biennale is another interface for different corporate interests. I might be willingly offering up my own agency to fit into some corporate strategy. But then again, do I want to stand here for 15 minutes taking a psychology test? — when an assessment could be instantaneous and who knows, without my own self delusions, more accurate. Perhaps a more authentic experience awaits.

The room is white. Its floors, walls and ceilings blend into one empty canvas. I just have the station before me. There are six other stations and individuals at each. It seems intimate like the limits of a nuclear family unit. We can all see each other and I wonder whether I want to be that one person who seems to be taking a little too long, clearly a luddite or, worse yet, a tinfoil-wearing conspiracist unwilling to share my data. I wonder if the Turing complete computers in my phone and watch that passively observe my movements and heartbeats have registered my hesitations. I don’t really have to be here. I could have just downloaded the app and experienced this at home but — call me nostalgic — I still believe there is something about experiencing “Art” in a physical space and experiencing it with other people. The Biennale does tout itself as a space for new social connections or configurations — though given the soft and hard infrastructures of it, I’m not always convinced its true. I’ve taken too long as it is. I decide to share access to my Facebook.

Back in the first decade of the 2000s, big companies like Google held conferences for machine thinking. They didn’t know what to do with the technology they had developed and hoped artists could come up with options that would lead to marketable products. I was always excited about them because it felt like it was an opportunity to break out of the petri-dish that was “Contemporary Art”. Today artists work together with corporates and the biennale is more like a trade fair offering up new products. It’s exciting though. The biennale feels like it has a real political and social effect. People have always demanded different things of art, whether it is edutainment, spectacle, social networking or some permutation of social good. Now based on your psychometric analysis you’ll see the parts of the 500 art projects that make up the biennale that most relate to your interests. I’ve been putting up some politically related posts on Facebook — I’m hoping it picks up in the analysis and gives me an experience that produces more of the utopian projects where technology and art come together to solve issues like AI rights or rampant youth unemployment. Those are reserved for the insiders in the artworld or those with the capital — whether cultural or monetary — to invest in the success of those projects. I’m hoping my network as an artwriter and designer checks out, though I’m not too hopeful. I’m just hoping that I don’t get stuck with some troll or worse yet some art school cynic using a fake parody account. The last thing I want to see is a painful re-hashing of early 2000’s vapourwave. Those forms of “style-as-art” were big in the mid 2010s for all of two weeks, as art school kids performed some sort of post-modern concept of the artist as the world set itself on fire with populist memes. Some people find it funny now as some cynical historical critique. It just feels like looking at a bad haircut from my teens.

The interface finishes processing my Facebook and asks how long I would like my biennale experience to be. I choose one hour. The interface asks me if I would like to be quick-matched with a community to experience the biennale. I do. I met my husband this way. We had an 81% personality match. He doesn’t care much for art so I’m here alone. As he is a corporate leader with a new synth album which just had a million downloads, I’m hoping our association means I’ll be quick-matched into a good group of intellectuals or investors. It’s really horrible when you get stuck with trolls. You just end up seeing bad art.

As I wait for my quick match, I can’t stop thinking about the neuro-border that I might represent and what it means to form a community of experience in this way, I wonder whether there is a yawning gap between me and the perhaps younger digital natives I may pair with. Back in the 2000s, Bruce Wexler wrote, “In cultural evolution, information is stored in the minds and behaviour of adult members of society; in cultural artefacts such as books, architecture, and works of art; and in social institutions including laws, customs, and schools”. He believed that the neuroplasticity of human brain development, and the power of cultural evolution that rests upon it, provides a new biologically-based understanding of the relationship between human beings and the environment; and that, furthermore, a homology is created between the external environment and internal structures because the brain shapes itself to the recurring features of the specific environment within which it develops. I think about this white box and the communities that form a biennale modelled on my Facebook psychometric profile, and by extension the necessary privilege of only being able to see what you want. I wonder whether art, and the taste in art that experiences like biennales perpetuate, are less an artefact and more a vicious loop network. I wonder if the artefact here is one that belongs to the younger digital natives growing up and forming themselves through the empty white reception of this biennale.

[1] George Michael (1963 – 2016), Careless Whisper, 1984

[2] See Charles Esche, “Making Art Global: A Good Place or a No Place?”, in Making Art Global (Part 1): The Third Havana Biennale 1989, Afterall Books, 2011, p. 11.

Vanessa Ban is a graphic designer, artist, and educator. Her work focuses on the cross-fields of contemporary art and design, with clients ranging from organisations, corporate companies and institutions to independent galleries, artists and curators. She is currently an adjunct faculty with the Glasgow School of Art.

The Singapore Biennale Roundtable is a three-part series organised by AICA SG (Singapore Section, International Association of Art Critics), and edited by Lee Weng Choy, President, AICA SG. The first Roundtable, convened by Dr Seng Yu Jin, was relatively straightforward, featuring students from the MA in Asian Art Histories programme at LASALLE College of the Arts. The second Roundtable, convened by Ray Langenbach, featured students from the Live Art and Performance studies programme at the University of the Arts/Helsinki, and it produced a less conventional discussion, as the multiple voices were never named, but just coded with symbols. This third Roundtable departs from convention further, featuring three pieces of creative writing from independent curators.

About the author(s)

Lee Weng Choy is president of the Singapore Section of the International Association of Art Critics. He was Artistic Co-Director of The Substation from 2000 to 2009. Lee has taught at such institutions as the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as done project work with various organisations, including Ilham Gallery, A+ Works of Art (both in Kuala Lumpur), the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore and National Gallery Singapore. In recent years, he has focused on the writing workshop, which he’s facilitated in Brisbane, Hong Kong, Kampot, Kuala Lumpur, London, Manila, Saigon and Singapore. He is slowly working on a collection of his essays on artists, titled, The Address of Art and the Scale of Other Places.

Qinyi Lim is an independent curator and writer based in Singapore. She completed the de Appel curatorial programme in 2012.

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