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What's in a Platform?

Curator and co-editor Jing Yi Teo introduces us to Issue 4: Platforms.

Engines of Creation — Future Blossom

Flavian Berar, Engines of Creation — Future Blossom. Image courtesy the artist.

Since I’ve been based abroad, the centrepiece of communication within my family has been food. Recipes, kitchen hacks and close-up photos of our home-cooked meals are staples in our WhatsApp group chat, along with the occasional new kitchen equipment and craving strikes. Food is a wonderfully easy way to convey affection, and provides a tangible sense of upkeep on that very day. Left to my own heedless devices, I would have been lost on how to initiate a conversation from continents away. Sending a voice note asking for a recipe of buttery bread — the kind of softer, sweet dough variety sold at neighbourhood bakeries in Asia, compared to its European counterparts with more ‘bite’ — simply rolls off the fingers more briskly than a message saying, “I can’t wait to be home.”

Our attention is up for grabs, and you’d be cynical not to enjoy the offerings that come in exchange.

When my mother sends me recipes, they’re mostly videos from the usual suspects: YouTube food channels for soundtracked recipe videos, Facebook groups for baking trends of the moment, and for recipes that have been in my household for nearly a decade. I receive photographs from my mother’s green recipe book, its stained, smudged pages filled with instructions in her impeccable cursive. Some time in late 2020 though, a new player entered our WhatsApp archive of links: Xiaohongshu, a Chinese e-commerce site. It took some adjustment, but functioning as a social media platform quickly made sense — the more time you spend engaged on it, the more likely you are to convert a “like” into a purchase. It’s a strategy that’s all too quotidian in our platform-dependent lives. Our attention is up for grabs, and you’d be cynical not to enjoy the offerings that come in exchange.

Flavian-Berar-Engines-of-Creation — Aero-Solar-Docking-Bay

Flavian Berar, Engines of Creation — Aero-Solar Docking Bay. Image courtesy the artist.

But this Issue will not focus on the attention economy, at least not from the outset. When the SO-FAR team suggested that I co-edit Issue 4: “Platforms” with Yin Aiwen, an artist, designer and theorist whose research on platform design would provide the Issue’s backbone, I wanted to seek out the specific language of different platforms — their intimacies, fun, materialities and ephemeralities — beyond overarching strokes of opposing theories such as the attention economy and surveillance capitalism, of course, without forgetting or diminishing the weight of those criticisms. I borrow confidence from Yin’s six essays on communicative labour and productive architectures in the digital space, which will kick-off each chapter, framing the space for tangential issues to be explored.

The six chapters that unfold are titled after keywords from the tech sector. As a cultural instigator in the incubator-startup space, I sometimes find myself in the precarious situation of speaking International Art English[01] to corporate executives, or conflating the Silicon Valley term “user” with “viewer” when speaking to artists about their projects. My own personal solution is yet to be proven effective in my young career, but it’s my best bet at the moment: expunge ambiguous vocabulary in favour of more astute alternatives when the necessity arises. As I describe as follows, you’ll find that these are words that are undeniably overused and yet unabashedly vague, but this Issue is a chance at redemption as each one is turned over and written anew, explored in every corner of its possible meanings by contributors from myriad geographies and domains. 

To think about what platforms do for us, it is urgent that we start with what we can’t accomplish without them, and even ask ourselves whether or not those tasks were necessary in the first place.

Chapter 1: “Vibe” is a prelude to the Issue. It begins with the first essay by Yin, who introduces the structural changes in the ways that communication is organised online by recounting her experience on online fan forums and blogs in a pre-Instagram time. The shift from subject-centred to persona-driven spaces has led to the disappearance of a distinctive vibe once present in online communities, reflected in the work of artist Xiaoxing Sun, Speed Show: Drift Internet Cafe . Next, SO-FAR’s Chief Editor and Co-Founder Christina J. Chua reviews Age of You , an exhibition exploring the changing sense of individuality within this data-enabled present, curated by Shumon Basar, Douglas Coupland and Hans Ulrich Obrist, presented at Jameel Arts Centre in Dubai and MOCA Toronto.

To think about what platforms do for us, it is urgent that we start with what we can’t accomplish without them, and even ask ourselves whether or not those tasks were necessary in the first place. Chapter 2: “Flow” muses the blurred lines between the role of the platform and the role of the user. Yin presents a case-study on the rise and fall of RSS, an overlooked but critical technology at the cornerstone of a decentralised Internet as communicative capitalism continues to grow. Curator Germano Dusha probes artist Aslı Uludağ and Giberto Vieira, Co-Founder of a data and narrative laboratory in the Maré favela in Rio de Janeiro, on their respective hyper-local projects, tracing the gaps and possibilities in methodologies of communication via platforms. K. Allado-McDowell, curator of Artists + Machine Intelligence (AMI) at Google, returns[02] to SO-FAR by tracing the practice of research, design and art collective Metahaven, from their earlier propositions on the interdisciplinarity of platform communication to more recent weavings of philosophical inquiry into digital superstructures.


Flavian Berar, Engines of Creation — Cathedral of Culture. Image courtesy the artist.

Within the critical media discourse, there is no consensus on what to term the “life” that occurs while disconnected from the World Wide Web, wherein the routines that structure our online lives are much more universally understood and predictable. IRL (in real life) perpetuates a misleading binary between the physical and the digital, and denotes that life online is not real[03]; AFK (away from keyboard) simply ignores the shift from desktops to touchscreen mobile devices; anyway, are you really offline when you meet a date — at a brick-and-mortar bar — that you connected with through Tinder? 

AFK (away from keyboard) simply ignores the shift from desktops to touchscreen mobile devices; anyway, are you really offline when you meet a date — at a brick-and-mortar bar — that you connected with through Tinder?

Part of the result of this semiotic disconnect is that the outcomes of platforms have transcended the interfaces through which we understand them. Thus, Chapter 3: “Growth” extends from the methods of platform design to unfurl their effects after the finger leaves the screen. Yin charts out the design minimalism behind some of Big Tech’s most ubiquitous user interfaces, elucidating the philosophy that dominates the world of digital design — and our offline lives. Performance researcher and writer Oxi Peng reminds us of the ancient etymological origins of platforms, and proposes Virtual Reality (VR) as an embodiment of platform-ing having experienced a bewildering dance in the cyberspace of Markus Selg’s VR choreography. Diasporic art collective Keiken joins Kathryn Lofton, scholar and professor of religion, for a curious conversation moderated by SO-FAR’s Deputy Editor Ang Kia Yee on building synthetic realities and inventing systems of belief out of contemporary pop culture and socio-political obligations. But how to ride the tide back in the everyday? Curator Sarp Özer appropriates surfing terminology and its “highs” to the experience of doom-scrolling, offering tried-and-proven personal strategies for writhing out of an immaterial Net.

Flavian-Berar-Engines-of-Repair — Microtopology

Flavian Berar, Engines of Repair — Microtopology. Image courtesy the artist.

Chapter 4 is titled “Churn”, but as in the tech sector, we might as well be talking about user retention. Borrowing what sociologist Erving Goffman termed “frames”[04], Yin zooms in on what goes into the social network ecologies that each platform crafts and provides for every one of their users. These “frames”, combined with quick access to filters, templates and other reproducible rhetorics, have made contemporary social network platforms a series of de facto “aesthetic generators”. We then step into the world of gaming. Or more precisely: worlding through games and gaming through the world. I prod fashion foreign policy consultant and writer Nels Frye on QAnon’s efficacy for community and ideology formation through gamification of the platform’s interface. Curator Rafi Abdullah observes gaming platforms as stages that navigate political realities, thus situating agencies and the potential for knowledge-building through gaming.

I chose to accompany this introduction with stills from Engines of Creation , a digital film by Flavian Berar that feels like a game otherworld — and yet is much more. When I spoke to him over a Zoom video call, he told me about the necessary balance in his densely rendered, sprawling landscapes. The immersive film portrays a high-tech, ephemeral, post-anthropocentric world that appears to be neither future nor fantasy, revealed to the viewer ever so slowly when its architectural magnificence suggests swift executions at incredible pace. Chapter 5: “Scale” hinges on the balance that supports the megastructures of platform-enabled societies, and listens to the cautions about them tipping over. Yin argues that user-centred design inevitably befalls alienation in a web architecture optimised for exploitation. I speak to artist Thiago Martins de Melo and curator Germano Dusha on variations, vibrancy and vastness in the ecosystems documented on their digital platform project, Animal Crepuscular . In one of the more thorough investigations into the sector, our Chief Editor and Co-Founder Christina J. Chua learns about the Internet infrastructures of China through e-commerce and marketing strategies in a dialogue with Alibaba’s Director of Global Key Accounts Sharon Gai and artist Jing He. Finally, writer Sharmini Aphrodite covers the gig economy with the help of artist Tara Kelton in an extended conversation on the artist’s recent practice since her contribution to Issue 2: “Artificial Intelligence”[05].

Flavian-Berar-Engines-of-Repair — Bio-digital-Flesh

Flavian Berar, Engines of Repair — Bio-digital Flesh. Image courtesy the artist.

After all of the wringing and stretching we would have done to the fabric of exchange and research by contributors all over the world, we come full circle to where we started — four Issues ago. Don’t think we’d forget it: SO-FAR is, after all, a platform too. This term has become such an all-encompassing umbrella, a hybrid. SO-FAR in its own form revels in its admitted hybridity, as a publication, a gallery, an artist incubator, and there’s more to come yet

SO-FAR in its own form revels in its admitted hybridity, as a publication, a gallery, an artist incubator, and there’s more to come yet .

At the time of writing, we are two-months shy of two years since I first pitched an essay for the Weeklies column via e-mail. SO-FAR had enjoyed prime status at the top of my “bookmarks” bar, and although this is a lot clearer to me now than it was back then, as a young arts worker still finding her feet, it was the type of initiative I wanted to be associated with. SO-FAR continues to be the source I first look to when scouting for artists, writers or fresh opinion at the frontlines of technology, and I have the courage to compile this Issue not only thanks to the support I have received from the team in the process of its creation, but also thanks to the learnings I have taken from SO-FAR’s editorials and model of operation in the years leading up to Issue 4: Platforms.

But that’s the thing about platforms, isn’t it? Structurally speaking, platforms are open (at least to certain groups of people), democratic (things are shared with people otherwise unreachable), and empowering (the platform lifts you to a higher ground). And so they must be inherently good for everyone involved. Chapter 6: “Win-win” closes the Issue with a gaze keenly and care -fully fixed on the near future: what can platforms do to redeem their own definition? Yin rounds up her essay series with a proposal for cyber-urbanism, a framework to re-engineer the design of digital space for common-oriented purposes, where the sense of public and private is further developed for each stakeholder’s responsibilities. She makes a case for a fairer ownership model of communicative production towards communicative communism, where our relationships with one another are no longer in the stranglehold of platform capitalism. Then, she engages in a long conversation with Nika Dubrovsky, the artist and writer who leads the Museum of Care, the growing legacy of the her late partner, the anthropologist David Graeber. We leave you by closing the Issue on the edge of 2022 with a final interview that I conduct with SO-FAR’s Co-Founder, Christina J. Chua, to share some plans for our future and reflect on our milestones SO-FAR.

Both the ambitions and criticisms of platforms must not be confined to the hallowed successes of Valley corporations.

I’ve already made one reference to Instagram at the beginning of this introduction, but allow me another to close out. When my mother first introduced Xiaohongshu to me, she texted, “Download this app, it’s like the Instagram of China.” While the comparison to the pioneering photo-sharing app is a straightforward persuasion, you will find that this Issue features and mentions platforms that have originated and found popularity in non-Western parts of the world, including those from underrepresented economies that have yet to find ways towards the technology centre-stage in the media occupied by Silicon Valley. This is intentional. Both the ambitions and criticisms of platforms must not be confined to the hallowed successes of Valley corporations. And if by the end of the six chapters you’re left with the impression that we had, in fact, left out platforms from certain geographies or those that are indispensable to certain marginalised communities,  it is wholly within the ambit of this Issue to spark a sense that there’s more to tell. Write to us! Tell us about what you would have wished to see in this Issue, and perhaps we could tease out a corner of it, shake it up and feed it back to you. After all, what’s a platform good for?

  • 01.

    Read the compendium of art-world jargon by David Levine and Alix Rule here:

  • 02.

    Read "Towards a New Relational Consciousness", the dialogue between Brandon Tay, Christina J Chua, K. Allado-Mcdowell, Magdalena Magiera here:

  • 03.

    Nathan Jurgenson, "The IRL Fetish", The New Inquiry, June 28, 2012

  • 04.

    "Frame analysis" and "framing theory" analyses how people approach situations and activities. The concept is attributed to the work of the Canadian-born sociologist, writer and social psychologist, Erving Goffman.

  • 05.

    Read "Positive Externalities and Third World Problems", the dialogue between Tara Kelton, Malavika Jayaram, and Christina J Chua here:

Artists and Contributors

Flavian Berar portrait picture

Flavian Berar

Flavian Berar is an artist, architectural designer and storyteller based in London, UK. He has completed his studies at The Bartlett in London, where he gained a nomination for the RIBA Bronze Medal in 2014 and was awarded a Distinction for his postgraduate work in 2019. Flavian employs film, 3D animation and visualisation as a design methodology, whilst mediating between the real and the fictional. Within his work, time becomes the 4th dimension capable of unlocking new spatial and material realities that reconcile the qualities of the digital with those of the physical world. He is interested in the shift of the human condition and enjoys speculating on the direction art & architecture might take in the coming era.

Jing Yi Teo portrait picture

Jing Yi Teo

Jing Yi Teo is a curator and writer based out of Istanbul and Singapore. She is Co-Initiator of ArtBizTech, an innovation and strategy consultancy driven by interdisciplinary art, and is also Curator of bang. Prix, its non-profit arm supporting practices that intersect art, technology and science. Her work focuses on expanding artistic practices beyond traditional scopes and finding new actors to engage with. Jing Yi is the Lead, Incubator Programme of SO-FAR where she observes, documents and augments the artistic practices and careers of the brightest minds in the SO-FAR environs.