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Chaos to Order #3: A Dialogue with Ci Xuan, Shaw & Xuemei on Seeing the Obvious 5th Edition

Interview by Amanda Yeo

Edited by Lin Shiyun

Seeing the Obvious (STO) is 3Pumpkins’ annual community action project that highlights the invisible social dynamics and relationships that are often taken for granted or unnoticed in the neighbourhoods. This year marks the fifth edition which began with the curiosity of investigating how children and youth find ways to cope with stressors in their lives. Titled A Young Person’s Guide to Surviving in Singapore, this co-creation project explores how young persons in Boon Lay creatively use the limited resources they have—from money, clothing, to body movements—as tools to self-regulate and to care for their peers.

The project brings together three bodies of work each led by artists Chew Shaw En, Han Xuemei and Lim Ci Xuan in collaboration with Tak Takut Kids Club (TTKC). The works are: unsuspecting guardians cutting a path through dust, Road to Success, and Pillow & Garbage Fashion Studio respectively. The project is presented as a walking tour around Boon Lay Drive over two weekends in July, where the works are showcased in various locations. As visitors roam from location to location, they can refer to a map titled A Map to Feeling Better in Boon Lay to learn more about places that children and youth frequent in order to improve their mood.

In this interview, Amanda chats with the three artists who have each spent at least one year engaging the community regularly to understand what A Young Person’s Guide to Surviving in Singapore is all about, and to uncover how each artist-led longitudinal research has evolved and culminated in the final presentation. Since such a format is unprecedented in past editions of STO, this interview also hopes to reveal insights on the collaboration processes and relationships between each artist and the TTKC community.

'A Map to Feeling Better in Boon Lay' also includes quotes from children and youth of TTKC who co-created this map with the STO team.

Image by Wildcard Agency, Inspire Design 2023, Ngee Ann Polytechnic School of Film & Media Studies.

Amanda: To begin, Xuemei, can you tell me about how the whole project started?

Xuemei: The initial idea and how the three of us were brought together resides more in Shiyun (3Pumpkins Founder & Executive Director and Producer of STO) and her overview of the development of different artists and our engagements on the ground. In my initial conversation with Shiyun about what I wanted to explore, I observed that the children and youth have their own ways of dealing with what adults and other people would consider problems. For instance, when I had a conversation with Ash (11 years old, not his real name) about where he would get money to buy a new bicycle and other things he desires, he told me he would sell his older bicycle. But you can’t just sell the whole bicycle because nobody would buy it, so you have to sell the parts. From conversations like that, I became very curious about how they are so resourceful: why do they know about things like that, where do they learn these things from, and how do they deal with the everyday life and situations they face? Then I started thinking about how to frame that curiosity, and one night the inspiration for something like ‘A Young Person’s Guide to Surviving’ just appeared in my head. I felt that it captured my curiosity, so I proposed it to Shiyun. Perhaps the project I want to look at is about how young people survive, yet it shouldn't be didactic like an adult teaching a young person. I want the relationship reversed, where the young persons are the ones guiding the adults.

Amanda: Ci Xuan and Shaw, how did Shiyun speak to you about this?

Shaw: It was very sudden, like “Do you want to do this?”. Contextually, I feel like my own project journey started independently of the idea of "a young person’s guide to surviving”. As a Getai* facilitator, every week I’m thinking about how to develop my own facilitation language as the community engagement experience in TTKC is very unique. With the STO project, I saw it as an opportunity to use an artistic process to better understand what it means to be a facilitator or simply an adult here; to better understand and practise different things I probably wouldn’t have the space to on a regular programmed day. If I’m here at TTKC and it’s not for Getai, what am I drawn to?

*Getai in TTKC is a weekly community open-mic routine where children and youth gather to perform song, dance, stand-up comedy and anything that they love to be seen by an audience.

Only just today in this interview, I had a realisation from deep within that I like to work with younger children who are 7 to 10 years old and even younger ones like those small children who follow their older siblings to TTKC. I like to work with this age group because they just want to touch things, touch people, talk to you, just play around. This is the way they make sense of the world around them. “I don’t know what I want yet. Who can I talk to to just explore something?”. I’m very drawn to kids who are in that zone.

In relation to my project unsuspecting guardians cutting a path through dust, I’m interested in small gestures and the kinetic foundations of everyday life. If I’m on my deathbed and reflect upon my life, those are the moments that add up to a meaningful life. What are the small, fun, interesting and meaningful interactions we have that just happen in a flash and we don’t see again? They happen because the environment allows them to happen—these are moments that the five murals capture. This is in contrast to other spaces where adults interact with children without much freedom because there is a syllabus or preordained programme to follow. So I hope what people can feel from the murals is that these moments of small and meaningful interactions are possible in TTKC and are what’s special about TTKC.

Ci Xuan: What’s the question again? (laugh)

Amanda: I know that each of you started out with an inquiry for your project, but it took different turns. How did your project start and how did it evolve?

Ci Xuan: When I spend time in TTKC, something that stands out to me is people taking care of one another. We usually see younger siblings attached to older siblings because their parents are not at home. When I work with someone like R (13 years old) who has to take care of her younger brother while wanting to focus on her own things at some point, I see other people step up and say, “I can take care of your brother for you”. I’m interested in how this community cares for one another because I think the interdependency is quite high. For example when A (22 years old) needed help with her rap, she could find ten different peers and befrienders in ten minutes to work with her. There are these little pockets of interactions where you don’t have to spend so much time with one person because there are others who can look out for them as well. So I’m interested in these various gestures of care within the community.

Why costumes and clothing? There’s this activity in TTKC called I draw you, you draw me where people take the time to sketch portraits of one another, and I think costumes work in a similar way. When I first came to TTKC, I was interacting with Cindy (12 years old) and she would keep designing clothes for other people. I thought, “How can someone design so many things in a day!? How does she design so fast?”. I find that interesting because through looking at what she designs for other people, I get to understand how she sees other people. Initially when I asked her why she designed a certain look for someone, she would reply “I don’t know, it’s a vibe”, but gradually she started to be able to articulate her impressions of specific persons and what she thought they needed. So my project started with this early process of understanding how each of us worked. Another group of children that I worked with are those who are responsible for costumes and make-up for Getai. For example, Zay (13 years old) helps to dress up other kids every week and I think that is a huge gesture of care.

Xuemei: I remember you also did something about researching the children’s sleeping habits, finding out why some of them cannot sleep, before evolving into a hair braiding station.

Shaw: It was such a journey…

Amanda: I think the small group sessions are helpful for the youths because they got to work on their creations accumulatively. I also observe that sometimes in the moment they are not aware of why they made certain decisions or are unable to articulate it yet, but when there is a dedicated space for them and an adult voice to accompany and encourage them, they can go deeper into reflection.

Snippets of the three artists' community engagement at TTKC as facilitators.

1: Xuemei hosting a session of forum theatre with befrienders and children, 2021.

2: Shaw joining a practice session with TTKC Malay Dance Club, 2022.

3: Ci Xuan practising a song with A, 2022.

Photos by 3Pumpkins.

Amanda: I’d like to point out two commonalities between all of your processes that I’ve picked up on. Firstly, all of you have clear ideas of what you want to work on with various TTKC kids because you’ve spent a significant amount of time in this space as a volunteer or facilitator. I think that’s quite key to this project and different from projects with an artist like Rizman Putra who has no close relationships with the kids and works with them from a certain distance. Secondly, there are constant changes throughout each of your processes because you were inspired by different kids. The idea of responding to something you spot in the children or letting them guide you in your next steps. Let’s talk more about your work processes.

Xuemei: For my project Road to Success which explores the topic of money, the impetus came from realising that while we know some children in this residential estate come from lower-income backgrounds, yet very little is discussed or understood about money amongst the TTKC youths, at least from my own interactions with some of them. So I wanted to see whether this project can offer an alternative way to understand what money looks like in their world or how they experience money. I also wanted to understand how they are affected by money, whether they have or don’t have it, and how their ideas about money then influence other decisions they make about finances or other areas of their lives. I wanted the project to showcase young persons’ perspectives about money because people tend to make many assumptions which often don’t reflect reality.

'Road to Success' key visual, 2023.

Image by Han Xuemei.

In the process of the project, my medium was essentially talking. I set out wanting to do installation but I couldn’t get away from the talking. I think that was partly influenced by my participants and partly due to my theatre background such that somehow, a performance aspect would make its way in. What has been interesting for me was thinking about how to conduct each session with them such that it could allow them to respond to my questions in ways that they don’t normally express. For instance, based on my prior engagements with them, I anticipated that if I simply asked them, “Hey, what is your perception of money?”, I probably wouldn’t get anywhere beyond generic answers or “I don’t know”. I thought about what are some prompts that could break down this concept for them? I started off with the most straightforward one: give me a list of things that you spend money on. Then we went through each item and talked about them, and this process was where some of their personal stories emerged from.

One thing I discovered through the process was that the relational dynamic of the pair helped the project move forward as opposed to when I worked with them individually. The existing relationship or friendship they share, from being primary schoolmates to staying in the same residential block and the fact that both of them are more fluent in Mandarin, resulted in a dynamic that I recognised was unplanned yet constructive to the sessions. Basically I didn’t need to talk sometimes because they would talk to and question each other, and I got to learn things from observing them on the side. This dynamic was an important discovery because it also informed me of the ideal format for the final presentation: a group class setting which can relieve them of the burden of facing an audience alone. Moreover, it is best that they conduct the class as a pair because they are just too funny together.

Another thing I want to share is in the process somewhere, I got stuck with thinking about how to deepen my understanding of their perspectives and how to get them to reveal a little bit more of their embedded value systems. How can we see more of things like their values that are either inherited from family or formed through ways unknown to us? In response, I thought of moving beyond asking them questions in the present frame of context and decided to try out a speculative exercise with them. In that session, I let them imagine that I was interviewing their future self who is successful and rich. I discovered that through seeing how they project themselves to be in the future, I was able to learn more about them through discussions about money from different entry points.

One discovery I made about them is that even though they have certain imaginations of what a successful life could look like for them, like staying in a condo or being rich, but when I asked whether they have any plans to achieve that success, their general response would be, “哎呀,想这么多做什么,将来到了再想。” (Translation: “Aiya, no need to think so much now, when the time comes then I think about it.”) This is a similar approach they have, but I haven’t fully understood…

Amanda: …is it some sort of a contradiction?

Xuemei: Hmm, maybe it’s not a contradiction. Using the analogy of a “road to success”, they have an imagination of their destination, but how to get there is by taking one step at a time. So it’s not a contradiction but more of—

Amanda: —something that you’re still curious about?

Xuemei: Yes. I’m still trying to understand the young person’s frame of mind around “don’t think about everything now, worry about it later”.

Work-in-progress of 'Road to Success' with youth participants Aden and Lucas.

1: Aden and Lucas discuss how to conduct the Masterclass, 2023.

2: Masterclass rehearsal with test audience, 2023.

Photos by 3Pumpkins.

Amanda: Ci Xuan, what was your process like with your project participants?

Ci Xuan: Initially I didn’t know how to engage them in a three-hour session. I can summarise how a typical session looks like: usually in a discussion, Zay would be the one talking the most because he is very articulate and always able to answer my questions; Cindy would say, “Oh my god, I cannot talk” but the trick with her is to talk about small things and when she goes on a tangent that’s when you catch her to discuss relevant points; Si Tong (14 years old) sits there and designs wonderful stuff but she doesn’t talk, and gets moody sometimes. Cindy can only last one hour so I need to cram whatever I need to work with her in that time, or I’d ask her to meet us one hour later. Over time, the group dynamics between them became quite fun and they are sensitive to one another. They each have their own quirks so I had to find different a language to work with each of them. For example, Cindy in her free time loves to make animated clips for all four of us and would design us as Demon Slayer characters. That is her language and what I use with her to understand her better.

In our sessions, we talked about what are some things that other kids around them struggle with? They mentioned things like money, hostile parents and relationships, which are problems we realised that young persons cannot solve. But what they can do are little things like dressing up for themselves and others to feel better. So I wanted to tap on this vocabulary of self-expression to do a project with them.

My perception of artmaking is quite different from theirs. They are more intuitive so I wanted to learn from them. In one session, I initiated a discussion on what design elements like style and colour are to broaden their creative ideas, but I thought that didn’t work quite well because they fell back on the same preferences no matter what they designed. Zay would forever design a gown for you (laugh), Cindy would always design something suitable for sleeping or fighting, and Si Tong would always design cool streetwear for “cool kids”. I realised that each of them has a very strong artistic vision so I gave up on trying to open them up to different design styles.

Work-in-progress of 'Pillow & Garbage Fashion Studio' with youth participants Cindy, Si Tong and Zay.

1: 'Period Goddess' costume designs by Zay, Cindy and Si Tong (left to right), 2023.

2: Cindy, Si Tong and Ci Xuan doing work on the floor, 2023.

3: Cindy making their studio signage for the showcase, 2023.

4: The project team showcasing their works to visitors, 2023.

Image and photos by Lim Ci Xuan and 3Pumpkins.

'Pillow & Garbage Fashion Studio' key visual, 2023.

Image by loserwithdeadfish.

Shaw: After hearing from both of you, I remember starting off my project being self-conscious because I’m not doing small group sessions like both of you are, but then again the kids whom I like to follow around will not do well in a group session (laugh). I felt that the kids who are just action and no talk should also be engaged, and I do that by going to their realm, for instance having conversations with certain children using voices and improper sentences that they make. In the future, hopefully these interactions make an impact when they have the words to express themselves, when they have other worldly concerns beyond the non-verbal.

I was also bouncing between mediums. After hearing how Ci Xuan was inspired by Cindy designing clothes for others, I was very inspired by R (9 years old) and his creation of animations. He would be doing stuff on his own and they turn out to be so creative—and he doesn’t care. He would just leave his work lying around. Some other kids are similar too, they would make something so incredible and then throw it in one corner. I became very curious about these children, their imagination and mind space, and I wanted people to see that because many of us just don’t see this side of children, right? I feel like I’m a stalker. The kids are the artists and I feel very much like a documenter simply documenting their actions every moment and trying to figure out their strokes of inspiration.

That was also why I chose to use FlipaClip (a 2D animation-making app) to create my artwork which developed into the murals. I wanted to work with animation, not for it to set the final form of the artwork but as a medium to understand the children I was observing, much like using the medium of drawing to understand them. Even though animation is not what exactly people would see in the final presentation of my project, it does carry over into the visual element of the murals.

A process sketch on FlipaClip capturing a moment of play between a youth and child in TTKC, 2023.

Video by Chew Shaw En.

The mural at Blk 191 Boon Lay Drive that captures a similar moment of play between a different pair of youth and child in TTKC, 2023.

Photo by 3Pumpkins.

Work-in-progress of 'unsuspecting guardians cutting a path through dust', a series of murals located around the Boon Lay Drive neighbourhood, 2023.

Photos by 3Pumpkins.

Xuemei: When Shiyun brought all these different topics together and in our discussions to figure out how our three projects could come together, there was always a recognition that it is good that they cover a spectrum of topics. Going back to what you mentioned of children who don’t express themselves using words, they do have their own ways of finding a space where they can feel seen and heard. Interacting with these children is the very act of making something invisible come alive and become visible.

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