“Are there cicadas in Singapore?”
I posed the question to the modern-day digital assistant, Siri.
There are six known species of cicadas living in Singapore. Here is a cicada that is most commonly found in our forest.
I had begun to notice that, for the past few months, the humming of insects from the small remnant patch of secondary forest right next to where I live had started to grow louder and more noticeable. These sounds had never penetrated my consciousness prior to the pandemic. I suspected that it had something to do with the sudden decrease in human activity, and I had no complaints. I turned my attention to the freshly-cut flowers I had just bought from the neighbourhood grocer in a bid to brighten up my foul mood.
“Can you propagate baby’s breath from its own flower cuttings?”
Cuttings from Gypsophila should each be about 3 to 5 inches (7.6 to 13 cm) in length. You can plant several stems but be sure they aren’t touching. Dip the cut end of the stems into rooting hormone, then plant the stems in the moist potting mix of about 2 inches (5 cm).
What would I do without my mobile phone and its technological capabilities?
Evidently, technology has, for some time now, mediated our understanding of and experience with nature. It was this very line of inquiry — amongst other resonant ones — that I dwelt upon in my text message correspondence with Indonesian artist Bagus Pandega. Bagus is a Jakarta-born and Bandung-based contemporary artist whose work confronts the relationships between objects and their audiences by way of emphasising the notions of physical space around the latter. His artistic practice involves employing electronic systems — old and new — as “modules”, and an assembly of various materials such as voice recorders, cassette and record players, lamps and electronic circuit boards, to name a few. Usually taking a sculptural or installation form, his works often involve — whether in passive or active modes — the interplay of movement, sound and lights. The following transcription, lifted from WhatsApp, is a record of our slow conversation.
RA: For an outsider like me, Bandung seems synonymous with nature. The thought of Bandung conjures scenes of tea plantations, mountains and volcano lakes. It’s quite fascinating for me that you went to art school in Bandung amidst its natural environs, while your practice revolves around new media and technology. Could you share a bit about how you began working with technology? What are your thoughts on the “dichotomy” of nature and technology?
BP: Yes, Bandung is quite well-known for its mountainous nature. I studied at the Institute of Technology Bandung, which is mostly known for its leaning towards science and technology, and I got my degree from the art and design faculty. It felt strange being in university around that era, though. The school was really conservative, so the art and design students were kept separated from the technological and science faculties of the university. I just followed the flow until I graduated with so many strange ideas growing in my mind.
After university, I felt like I had the freedom to do what I really wanted. I started to mix and combine my sculptural studies with electronic experimentations. As a fresh graduate specialising in sculpture, I needed something more dynamic than a monolithic sculpture. I had been fascinated by Ujino Muneteru’s work during university. He had been invited to exhibit his sound sculptures with several other Japanese artists in Selasar Sunaryo Art Space in Bandung. His work was quite a game-changer for me.
Consider how oil is more valuable than freshwater, how carbon dioxide makes more money than natural oxygen, or how rainforests with a diversity of plant and animal species are worth less than a single species of oil palm.
Nature and technology are related to each other. All the technology we experience now is a result of a long history of research into nature, for example, the light bulb with its origins in the sun or the moon, and electricity with its origins in lightning. But its use stems from human greed and our exploitation of the existence of nature. Consider how oil is more valuable than freshwater, how carbon dioxide makes more money than natural oxygen, or how rainforests with a diversity of plant and animal species are worth less than a single species of oil palm. The growth of technology is correlated with the growth of the economy. And to achieve the economic goal, nature has to be sacrificed.
RA: Your analogy is quite illuminating in terms of how nature and technology are interconnected, and how in some ways, nature is the very source of certain technologies. I recently learned that some of the technology that goes into shoe construction is very much influenced by biomimicry. In the early 1950s, ASIC’s founder, Kihachiro Onitsuka, created an innovative sole grip technology for his first shoe, which changed the basketball shoe market. It was spurred by this crazy idea of mimicking the suction cups of octopuses on the soles of his shoes. We’re surrounded by and introduced to so much new technology these days that we tend to forget and fail to see the innate relationship between the two.
BP: For the collaborative work with my partner Kei Imazu ( Artificial Green by Nature Green , 2019), our basic idea stemmed from our interest in orangutans and how they are constantly losing their habitat as a result of human greed revolving around technology and economy. Originally, they were considered one of the indigenous species that inhabit the rainforest ecosystem, but they are now viewed as pests due to the human-made palm oil business. It will become a sad story for our future generation if, in the name of technology, we have lost the planet’s richness. Orangutans are also facing extinction in the name of green technology such as biomineral gas mining.
At the current rate of the Earth’s destruction, what I think will happen in the future is that nature will be an artificial part of human life.
I don’t think green technology will help much with curing this planet. It is definitely a good thing to raise awareness about alternative energy, but it doesn’t create profit for the human economy as it is expensive, requires a lot of space and actually creates less energy. It is however a good way to spread positive energy… Green technology needs to start from the awareness of the fact that the majority of humans rely on Earth for its nature. At the current rate of the Earth’s destruction, what I think will happen in the future is that nature will be an artificial part of human life. We would rely on artificially-produced oxygen instead of fresh rainforest air and distilled water instead of natural mountain spring water. Basic needs will become an ultimate luxury. We have to admit and believe that climate change is real and it is happening.
RA: It’s interesting that you brought up Ujino Muneteru’s work as an early influence. What I draw from his work is this tendency to combine and juxtapose both new and old (perhaps even “outdated”) technology, but there’s also this sense of unspoken unity. Nothing appears awkward to look at; for example, a repurposed household blender from the 90s alongside a more modern digital projector or a Technics turntable all form the artwork. And this approach is something I picked up from your work as well. The older materials that you employ — gramophone heads and electronic relays — don’t sit oddly with newer materials like Arduino chipboards. Is this something that you consciously consider, or does it happen naturally?
BP: In my work, the combination of old and new technology is done consciously. Current technologies like Arduino and other programme-based processing simplify the technical problem I want to address when creating an artwork. Although I can produce the work in a pure old-fashioned way, it will be very complicated, and space and time-consuming. Some of the old technology also does not translate into what I envision. For example, when working on Artificial Green by Nature Green , we needed a device that was able to translate energy from a living organism — a living palm tree. We got it from a product called SCÍON, the latest modular synthesiser manufactured by the synthesiser specialist company Instruo. What’s interesting about mixing new and old technologies is that with older objects, the concepts of history and memories are manifested. The Arduino and other microprocessors, however, relate to the current time, and the result is something we use to consider our future.
RA: Your approach to using parts of new technology due to the functional limitations of older technologies brings to mind this adage: “form follows function”.
I’m curious to know about your relationship with functionality because your work sometimes imaginatively re-appropriates certain objects outside of their original function sets — whether with the inclusion of webcam eye-tracking systems as triggers for the kinesis in your work, or the use of musical instruments and even traffic signal lights lined up in place of a screen. What do you make of the adage, and do you think it is necessarily true in art? Can you elaborate on how you approach the idea of function in your practice?
BP: Form follows function — this phrase is really common in the fields of architecture and product design, but art, for the most part, does not follow this rule. A chair with a cushion and angled ergonomic shape is designed for rest, a chair with a perpendicular shape is for concentration, but a chair as an artwork erases its functions. My practice plays with both sides. With the SCÍON for example, I used the main function of a device, which acts as a synthesiser, to receive data from a living organism, but I did not generate any sounds and beats from it. Instead, I modified the electric output to generate machine movement which translates into painting — axis movements, brush strokes and liquid drips.
Sometimes I like to modify the actual function of a device, like what I did earlier in my artistic career, where I made a traffic light function as a unit meter for sound volume. The traffic light became a noise pollution detector. I was interested in how the noise produced by the heavy traffic on the streets of Jakarta is one of the main psychological problems of urban city life.
Most of the time, I begin with technical research on a device I’m interested in working with, and then generate an idea from what is happening in my daily life. And because the technical aspect is really important in my practice, I need to know how a device fully works. My idea then becomes fluid without encountering any technical issues, but during the process of making the artwork, there will always be problems and that’s the next step for me. I have to continue to problem-solve and with time I will gain more experience.
RA: It’s interesting that the technicalities surrounding technology are starting points for your ideas and concepts. What comes to mind is the idea that designers solve problems, while artists create problems. You seem to sidestep this dichotomy, maybe even dance around it… What are your thoughts on your role as an artist in the context of society at large, and in mediating technology?
BP: Artists are creative thinkers and makers that provide their communities with joy, interaction and inspiration, but they also contribute critique on our political, economic and social systems. They constantly push communities to engage thoughtfully and make steps toward social progress. Many artists see opportunities to engage through technology, but for me, an ideal artwork doesn’t necessarily involve cutting-edge technologies with mesmerising visualisation. How an artist combines content, sense, connection to society and the right amount of technology is what matters. An artist should recognise the multiple possibilities of technology, and also work towards thinking outside the box as a form of artistic exploration. I believe an artwork still needs a human touch. RA: Regarding human touch, I noticed that recurring motifs reveal themselves in your work and they often tend to point to the human. They take on the form of human lips, or eyes, whether in 8-bit or LED format. Why do these human-like elements recur in your work? Could you also expound further on, as you’ve mentioned, the need for the human touch in a work?
I’m interested in how we interact with each other as humans, and how every interaction comes with an output: both small and big decisions, coincidences formulating other connections, where even the slightest interaction is capable of building a complex social network.
BP: The forms of anonymous eyes and lips have to do with interactions — how we use our mouths to speak and our eyes to see (although nowadays modern human interactions mostly happen through our smartphones, by texting and the like). I’m interested in how we interact with each other as humans, and how every interaction comes with an output: both small and big decisions, coincidences formulating other connections, where even the slightest interaction is capable of building a complex social network. It also seems like our life is built and generated by random statistics — details like our birth country, nationality, school, university, social network, idols, etc. Our social environment, even within the smallest circle, is complicated and complex.
I find having a human touch in an artwork as essential, possibly because my artistic foundation was built upon my sculptural studio practice, where the use of hands plays a really important role. There is something about imperfection that I find alluring — when something is not fully fabricated and manufactured by machines. Human skills can possibly reach the perfection of a machine, but a machine could never replicate the imperfections of human touch.
A secondary forest is an area which has regrown after prior inhabitation or harvesting, so much so that the intrusion is no longer evident.
Institut Teknologi Bandung, https://www.itb.ac.id/
“Story of Our Founder,” ASICS, http://corp.asics.com/en/p/mr_onitsuka
Kei Imazu (b. 1980) is a Japanese painter who works mainly with oil paints. See Kei IMAZU | 今津景, http://www.imazukei.com/. Also “Kei Imazu,” Ocula, https://ocula.com/artists/kei-imazu/
See Arcus Foundation, Extractive industries and orangutans https://www.stateoftheapes.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/Extractive-Industries-and-Orangutans1.pdf
“Arduino is an open-source electronics platform based on easy-to-use hardware and software.” “What is Arduino?” Arduino, last revised February 5, 2018, https://www.arduino.cc/en/Guide/Introduction
“SCÍON,” Instruo, https://www.instruomodular.com/product/scion/