Organised by Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore, in collaboration with National Gallery Singapore.
Cities are fertile ground for experimental cultures and communities. From Gutai group to hip hop and from punk to Dada, disparate forms of self-expression have organically emerged from the cultural and ideological ruptures of the urban fabric. While the enhanced notion of freedom, anonymity and greater diversity of population are traditionally perceived as facilitating circumstances to a more liberal and democratic urban atmosphere (Jacobs 1961; Young 1990; Sennett 1994), these empowering possibilities have become increasingly contested under growing surveillance, gentrification, privatization and social inequality.
Existing scholarship on subcultures and countercultures provides insightful studies especially on youth cultures and their subversiveness towards establishment and consumerism. Yet their attention is often limited to a specific contemporary form (e.g. zines, punk, fashion) while the otherwise insightful contextualization neglects the possible historical connections and parallels with other cultural forms, such as modern and contemporary art. By taking undergrounds as the conceptual lens, this conference seeks a more holistic understanding of experimental cultures, their interrelations, past traditions and current, even apolitical, positions and (non-)spatial adjustments in the urban environment. Building on the perceptions that challenge the existing paradigms of alternative cultures’ ability to resist neoliberal market economy and the empowering forces of anonymity and diversity in cities, the aim is to critically analyse the intricate sociopolitical and cultural dynamics that continuously reposition undergrounds in East and Southeast Asian cities today. Given that the geopolitical and sociocultural circumstances are continuously changing, the questions of whether undergrounds can survive in conditions of strengthening censorship, or whether they are needed after a change of regime are ever more timely. Besides spatial and ideological strategies, attention is also given to the formal and stylistic dedications of undergrounds. Further studies on the processes of conceptual situating across temporal and spatial scales can illuminate whether undergrounds today are to be understood as alternative tangible spaces with limited access, as vernacular radicalism (Duncombe 1997), as a cultural philosophy to exist outside of the mainstream (Graham 2010), and/or as a form of cosmopolitanism urbanism (Martin-Iverson 2014).
To critically re-examine what kind of social, ideological, cultural or conceptual significance undergrounds may still have in East and Southeast Asian cities today, this conference seeks new methodological and theoretical approaches that decipher the trajectories and narratives of undergrounds in relation to the geopolitical and sociocultural transformations and their impact on the urban environment. Questions to be addressed include but are not limited to the following:
- What sociopolitical and cultural circumstances have historically contributed to or are currently transforming the changing position of undergrounds in East and Southeast Asian cities?
- What kind of conceptual, theoretical or formal validity might undergrounds have amidst the changing geopolitical circumstances in the region and growing transnational forms of collaboration? Can undergrounds be both apolitical and subversive at the same time?
- How do current ideological frameworks, social dynamics and individual aspirations manifest themselves in and benefit from the urban environment? What kind of driving or hindering forces are produced by current cultural policies, urban redevelopment and transnational mobility in cities?
- What kind of novel spatial, formal and aesthetic strategies are underground communities employing in order to maintain their activities, interact with audience and negotiate with the local authorities? Is it possible to be both independent from official / institutional support and avoid commercialization?
- How do underground spaces, co-operatives, collectives and cultural forms position themselves in response to (local) cultural policies to circumvent possible (self)censorship and to expand their networks across the national borders? What kind of Inter-Asia connections are emerging?
In collaboration with National Gallery Singapore, a one-day film seminar of curated screenings, talks and panel discussions will follow the conference on Saturday (27 October 2018) at the gallery.
Easily reproducible and disseminated, the medium of the moving image was adapted by artists working with readily available video or digital recording equipment, and making experimental or subversive work in response to shifts in cultural and political climates. The term ‘underground’ in film (Vanderbeek 1961) has been consciously adapted by those seeking to express aspects of countercultures, the marginal, and transgressive in the face of hegemonic value systems represented by mainstream cultures. Meanwhile, the notion of the avant-garde focuses on self-conscious use of the film medium, drawing upon radically dissenting techniques that include fragmentation, multiple interpretive possibilities, non-linear narratives, and esoteric approaches.
Moving image works primarily from Southeast Asia and wider Asia will be shown, accompanied by talks and panel discussions. Possible issues and points of query include the following:
- What are limits and possibilities of representation and experimentation in the medium of the moving image, and how do these innovations in form relate to the lived experience of subversion? Did notorious ‘underground’ practices shift towards the mainstream due to the reproducibility of the medium?
- What are productive ways to investigate relationships between the globalised form of expression that is the film medium, the international tendencies of the avant-garde, and the role that cinema has played in fostering group or national identities? Is it possible to write a history of experimental film nationally, or even across the region?
- With reference to Steyerl’s ‘poor image’ (2009), how did underground film practice and the circulation of images evolve from the mid-20thcentury until today, against the backdrop of a progressing technology and affordable distribution possibilities such as VHS, DVDs or the internet?
Curators: Sam I-shan, Silke Schmickl, Seng Yu Jin
Curatorial Programmes: Tamares Goh
SUBMISSION OF PROPOSALS
Paper proposals should include a title, an abstract (250 words maximum) and a brief personal biography of 150 words for submission by 25 May 2018. Please note that only previously unpublished papers or those not already committed elsewhere can be accepted. The organizers plan to publish a special issue with selected papers presented in this conference. By participating in the conference, you agree to participate in the future publication plans of the organizers. Hotel accommodation and a contribution towards airfare will be provided for accepted paper participants (one author per paper).
Please submit your proposal using the provided template to Ms Tay Minghua at minghua.tay at nus.edu.sg. Successful applicants will be notified by 11 June 2018 and will be required to send in a completed draft paper (5,000-8,000 words) by 14 September 2018.