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The Echo Chamber: An Email Exchange with Lai Yu Tong

Christina J. Chua has an email exchange with artist Lai Yu Tong on our addictive consumption of social media and the 24/7 news cycle.

SO-FAR studios

Everything is absolutely alright, and perfectly fine (nothing is wrong)

Lai Yu Tong, Everything is absolutely alright, and perfectly fine (nothing is wrong), 2019, detail. Photograph courtesy Chua Chye Teck

One late evening around 11 PM, while walking home in the dark, I thought I made out the shaggy-haired silhouette of Jeremy Sharma, an artist and friend. I beckoned over to him to exchange hello’s, and he invited me over to his nearby studio to share a drink and a cigarette. Jeremy said that him and a few friends were just jamming. That was how I met his then student and now bandmate, the emerging artist Lai Yu Tong. 


Amongst the shelves and stacked paintings, Jeremy and Yu Tong set out their records and chose a few to play. We spoke about music, galleries, and LASALLE College of the Arts, where Jeremy was teaching and Yu Tong was studying fine art. I asked Yu Tong about his work. He told me he was developing a series of paintings based on the news — newspaper paintings. I remember asking him if he worried about deep fakes and fake news. I can’t recall if he gave me a firm answer. After some quiet lulls between the records, and a few more cigarettes, the artists began to play guitar. 


Many months later, I received an email from the young artist, informing me that he was opening his first solo exhibition titled “It’s strange I feel like I’ve seen this one before” at the photography gallery DECK. What ensued was a chain of late night missives that looped around confessions of our addictive consumption of social media, the trial and error of smart phone purges, and our struggle to break the cycle, feedback loop, or echo chamber of image-ad-news-image-ad-news. 


It’s-strange-I-feel-like-I’ve-seen-this-one-before-installation-view-DECK-2019

It’s strange I feel like I’ve seen this one before, installation view, DECK, 2019. Photograph courtesy Chua Chye Teck


Lai Yu Tong / 7 September 2019 at 12:59 PM:  Dear Christina, I’ve been working on my first solo show that will be presented by DECK later this month and would like to invite you to the opening on 24 September or to visit the show on a quiet day. I would also like to ask if so-far would be interested to review the show, if the works align with the focus of so-far. 


The works in the exhibition address image culture and are informed by photography, but are made without the use of a camera. Recently, my working process has simply been about being conscious of the things that I consume or ingest (be it images or fast food) and the exhibition specifically focuses on critiquing everyday forms of media and asking what they tell us about Singapore.


Let me know if you have any questions or if you’re interested in working on something together. 


Christina J. Chua / 15 September 2019 at 10:05 PM:  Thanks Yu Tong. 


As you know, so-far focuses on the intersection between art and new technologies. If we cover this, it would have to be framed somehow by the way technology is shaping consumption, and how that push to digitally market loops back into the news in a really terrifying way through algorithmic bias that fuels racism, extremist movements, fake news, etc.In other words, AI systems now feed me my preferences and likes — what I’d buy, who I’d vote for, what I’d watch or read — and this convenient, consumer-focussed technology is fuelling an increasingly bifurcated world, pushing us into very distinct camps that barely overlap or speak to each other.


Have you watched The Great Hack ? It’s on Netflix. Maybe we can begin this conversation there, by drawing a line between the media and the market.


Lai-Yu-Tong-Newspaper-Painting-No.-21-and-44-2019

Lai Yu Tong, Newspaper Painting No. 21 and 44, 2019. Photograph courtesy Chua Chye Teck


Lai / 21 September 2019 at 2:01 AM:  I’m really, really sorry for the late reply.


I have watched The Great Hack , and it is fascinating and worrying. It affirms some guesses we already have made about the dangers of online communication and social media. Personally, I do not feel too protective over my data. It’s silly, but I don’t feel like I hold that much importance within the world. 


However, the works I am presenting do address the experience of being constantly bombarded by ads, information and images throughout daily life, and aesthetically I try to convey how these things pop up mysteriously and confront us against our control. I do worry about how our political views and consumerist habits are swayed by the media, even as I constantly try to avoid letting these things control me. 


Of course, the scariest thing is that we are trapped in echo chambers that affirm us constantly. I’m told a certain side of things that I already identify with and I’m forced to engage with people who have similar opinions on these things. For example, lately I’ve been addicted to the news on the Hong Kong protests. I do take a clear side. Now that I’m not there in the city anymore, I am only fed news and images on my Facebook that aligns to this side that I am on. 


For these matters, I hate my phone, social media, and technology so much, but I’m afraid to admit that I’m so terribly addicted to them. I do think we all to varying degrees have such strange relationships to these platforms and technologies, and that baffles me all the time. I feel like I’m mostly floating around helplessly, attracted to screens like flies attracted to light, while the screens and images float around us as well.


I hate my phone, social media, and technology so much, but I’m afraid to admit that I’m so terribly addicted to them.


Chua / 21 September 2019 at 2:12 AM:  I totally agree. For me, what was most frightening about The Great Hack was that I started to question my own belief system. How much of it has been induced, reinforced and concretised by these algorithms, completely unconscious to me? 


I’m wondering though, have you ever tried to experiment with different ways of detaching from the tech or the devices themselves, or even from your own paradigm? Maybe it could be through a phone cleanse, or trying to read news that is pro-China for seven days straight, or other methods? 


I myself have never been confident enough to wade through Fox News. I always give my conservative mother sh*t for being a Fox fan!


Lai-Yu-Tong-The-Weather-Report-2018

Lai Yu Tong, The Weather Report, 2018


Lai / 21 September 2019 at 3:33 AM:  Wow, I think of these two things all the time too!


Social media is really like feedback looping in music, where your speaker faces your microphone and sound goes through the mic and then plays out from the speaker, then goes back into the same mic and comes back out from the speakers in an endless chain of loops. The end result is one huge amplified, ear-piercing, sharp feedback that we hear quite often in gigs, public rallies or during karaoke. Then someone usually rushes to stop it by pointing the mic away from the speaker. This escalation and amplification is a super fast process that produces the sharp sound. Maybe it’s much like the speed of the Internet — shooting away.


I don’t think we can prevent social media from socialising us with certain beliefs as we are inherently social beings. We perform to please others and echo other people’s thoughts so that we can feel a part of a group. Even before social media, this behaviour has always existed — it’s the herd mentality. I have never felt like I am truly an individual, but always a result of socialisation. It sucks, because I feel like I’m just performing all the time, and never really thinking original thoughts.


As for my relationship with my phone, I try these phone cleanses very often! I’ve attempted so many things. Just yesterday, my newest measure was looking for a cheap, simplified phone with very few functions. Just WhatsApp will do. Before that, I have deleted many apps multiple times. I think everyone I’ve spoken to has tried this, though many fail. Another strategy is just switching off my phone from time to time. A rather good way is to broadcast to everyone — of course, on social media too — that you are tuning out. This works well because you have all these people to hold you accountable to your tech-cleansing attempt. I’ve even heard of this method where you voluntarily log into China’s firewall for your digital detox. That sounds quite effective.


I also have a new Instagram account that functions like a shop where you can browse my stuff, but you can’t follow the account or ‘like’ anything. It’s been good for me because that way, I feel less like a performer, performing things that I feel people will like, and soliciting ‘likes’ to give me little serotonin doses. When Instagram created the Stories function, that was it for me — I knew they had got me. I knew I would be addicted, because now I could watch images flash past me infinitely in autoplay mode. This was opposed to Instagram’s early days, where you would run out of content to scroll on your feed and have to wait for someone to post something new. I was so depressed watching all these silly, mundane images flash past me that I never needed to see but was looking at them anyway.


When Instagram created the Stories function, that was it for me — I knew they had got me.


It’s all so absurd and scary that digital detox is even a thing. It’s like we’ve created this monster and do not know how to get rid of it. We know there’s something wrong with our relationship with these platforms, media, and technologies, yet we’re not sure what exactly — and how to stop being addicted to them.


I haven’t been reading pro-China news or Fox News. The only kind of pro-China or anti-Hong Kong-protest news I get a lot is from somewhere much closer to home: The Straits Times. It’s strange, I get so many pro-protest articles on my feed by the South China Morning Post. I heard there are also some articles on the site that are more anti-protest, but I never get fed any of these. I guess it’s also common for media outlets to have articles catered for both sides, and to direct certain articles and hide certain articles to and from certain audiences, to maximise their readership.


The truth is we really love being in our echo chambers — it makes us feel great. But we fail to acknowledge that that means we’re choosing what we want to think or hear, and that’s not anywhere near pursuing the truth. Then again, if we are to talk about truth, as with any kind of representation, it’s never quite the same as reality.


Chua / 24 September 2019 at 2:04 PM:  I’m curious, how much time do you actually spend reading the physical print newspapers, versus online news on your feed? Why did you choose to make these paintings out of print? 


Lai / 26 September 2019 at 7:25 PM: I never had a habit of reading the newspapers, but I remember as a kid, I would just look at all the images. Throughout my whole life, I’ve never quite taken to text and I have a short attention span. I do read the news on my news feed, though.


Lai-Yu-Tong-Newspaper-Painting-No.-55-1-and-6-2018-19

Lai Yu Tong, Newspaper Painting No. 55, 1 and 6, 2018-19. Photograph courtesy Chua Chye Teck


One day, I was working on something in the studio that required me to lay newspapers down to protect the floors from getting dirty. I became so attracted to all the images on the newspaper that I stopped what I was working on to start cutting these images out and categorising them. Soon, I built up various collections of images, and noticed patterns and genres — images of the police appear often, landscapes tend to be of military exercises or natural disasters, images of people hastily walking out of the supreme court sulking, and in between all that, a lot of images of people smiling.


I think it made sense to work on the newspaper for several reasons. At the time, I was already transitioning from first being a photographer with a camera, to using more found images mostly from online sources. Someone had also just stolen my DSLR. The camera was a liability and it weighed me down, so instead I used Google images and screenshots in my work. I felt like I could fly through time and space. After those two modes of working, I next wanted to eliminate the need for printing, which was stressful and costly and really not fun. I also wanted to use my computer as little as possible, which is hard to avoid if you work with images nowadays, with the exception of analog film photography. Finally, it made sense to use something that was so common and democratised as the newspaper — something that people smear dog poo over. And my parents have been subscribing to the newspaper my entire life.


Chua / 28 September 2019 at 11:18 AM:  Coming at your work from a different perspective, it could feel like a distrust of the papers. I could almost assume that you, as a former photographer, would be more inclined to trusting the integrity of the images, over the writing. Do you ever worry about fake news? 


Lai / 30 September 2019 at 12:41 AM:  I’m not sure what I can trust anymore when it comes to the news, the media or even what people tell me. I often grapple with the fact that any form of representation or retelling is inevitably coloured by the photographer, artist, or journalist. How then can we get close to the truth? If anything, because of the nature of images being quite open-ended, I feel like they do not lie to me as much as texts do. While writings in the newspaper fill me in with more information and leave lesser room for uncertainty, they also tend to be prescriptive. There is someone who knows more than me, telling me something I cannot verify, telling me that it is true, and how I should think or feel about a situation. With images, there is always a necessity for the viewer to interpret. And interpretation is a process of reading things yourself. In that sense, I feel like I have more agency when I read an image rather than a piece of written news on the newspaper. The reading of images on the newspaper is also more akin to the reading of artworks. 


Lai-Yu-Tong-Everything-is-absolutely-alright-and-perfectly-fine-(nothing is wrong)-installation-view-DECK-2019

Lai Yu Tong, Everything is absolutely alright, and perfectly fine (nothing is wrong), installation view, DECK, 2019. Photograph courtesy Chua Chye Teck.


I worry less about fake news than the possible laws in our country that may misuse the term “fake news” for censorship. Of course, with the news there is definitely more legitimate, factual or objective news reportage than others, and fake news can no doubt be a threat. However, it is more scary to me that a powerful body that I am not sure I can trust that much can now decide what is real or what is fake, and what information, media and news the masses should have access to. 


With my work, I want to advocate for my audience to be more discerning of what we consume, even if it is news from a popular and reputable — but nevertheless still state-monitored — news outlet. We just always have to question the authors, the photographers, the reporters, and also the artists, and how they are trying to make us think a certain way.


It’s strange I feel like I’ve seen this one before  runs until 13 October 2019.