We invited Debbie Ding (Meimei Chen), a young visual artist from Singapore to Pioneer Salon in October. She shared her creative experiences and thought and discussed some topics such as archaeology and future, digital technology and body senses, and virtual reality and the construction of city culture.
Debbie’s multimedia works reflect on the entanglement between “data” and “diaspora”. In her digital works, concepts like “sea”, “travelling” and “mental picture” are particularly outstanding. They form a winding road and invite us to wander in the labyrinth of contemporary culture with Baudelaire’s “flaneur”. Debbie focuses on the construction process of maps and narration, especially their connection with concepts like “history” and memory” in this digital age.
This article recalls the colloquium in the textual format and discusses the topic about how artists establish and examine their identities and stances in this big data era.
Debbie, who studied English literature, has always been passionate about visual arts. For Debbie, poetry and literature are probably the closest to visual art, though she didn’t have the opportunity to take related courses in school. During college, Debbie taught himself Flash animation, and worked in advertising and design after graduation. “Working in advertising is kind of like studying in my design school,” she said.
A few years later, Debbie was awarded a Visual Arts Scholarship and finally had the opportunity to go to the Royal College of Art in London, where she chose to specialize in design at the Dunne & Raby studio. Founded in 1994, Dunne & Raby Design Studio takes “speculation” and “speculative design work” as the foundation of creative ideas, aiming to promote cross-industry artists, designers, and engineers’ reflections and discussions on the interplay among new technology, society, cultural life, morality and ethics.
You Press The Button, 3D Animated Film，2022
“Ultimately, I am an artist with a background in design. I create art with my design thinking.”
Debbie’s installation works extensively apply the logic of “interaction design”, emphasizing the creative concept of audience interaction and participation, leading the audience into a surreal world full of fantasy and possibility. In the absurd experience of surrealism, one side is attraction by the design, but the other side is rejection by the reality. This coexistence of invitation and alienation reflects Debbie’s constant thinking about the form and content of visual culture.
Map: The Trajectory of Life, the Navigation of Creation, and the Imprint of Dreams
Maps are the foundation of Debbie’s creations and the source of her whimsical thoughts.
Debbie walks the Capital Ring (75 miles)
6 Days (Averaging about 20 miles a day)
Debbie said that some of the maps she made were purely for fun, while others were practical, in other words, for daily navigation. When she first settled in London, Debbie drew many small maps to help her find her way in the city.
The maps are not only the trajectory of daily life, but also the navigator of artistic creation, as well as the imprint of dreams.
Dream Syntax, Book, 2013
Debbie’s 100 “Dream Maps” reveal her thoughts about how to “translate” the invisible dreams into a visual expression. The concept of “translation” is very fantastic. It not only points to the transformation between the written narrative and image communication, but also expresses the close but elusive reality of dreams, as if they are always outside language system.
And how can maps capture something other than narrative?
Debbie said, “I often wonder why I don’t express them directly through visualization since dreams are visualized when they appear in my mind.”
100 Dreams of Dream Syntax, Book, 2013
A Story of a City and a River: What Is a Scallop? And What Is Singapore?
Debbie’s fascination with urban space is presented in her works from two perspectives. The presentation is at two extremes of cognition.
On the one hand, Debbie uses “walking” to perceive the relationship between the surroundings and herself, and uses her body to measure the streets and alleys of the city. Exploring in the metropolis where reinforced concrete and high-rise buildings stand, human bodies are regulated and restricted by the surrounding urban space, and the city is also changed and reshaped by the bodies. On the other hand, Debbie likes standing on the top of the building and looking down at the overall urban space. When the buildings in which we usually live shrink to almost unrecognizable, the sense of strangeness and alienation brings new perspectives of thinking.
Singapore Street Directory, 1954
Therefore, such a self-contradictory way of cognition brings a sense of spatial depth to her works, and highlights the tension of exploring the structure of knowledge. One site is down-to-earth field research, and the other site is looking up at the starry sky, jumping out of the physical boundaries of the body, and challenging the boundaries of human cognition.
A few years ago, Debbie became very interested in finding her ancestral homeland and tracing diaspora history. “Where does my family come from? Maybe southern China? My father’s family is from a newly built village in Perak, Malaysia, on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia.” She stretched out her arms, gathered four fingers and gestured in the air, trying to use her body to depict a road where generations pass.
But the homeland is hard to find, and the complete story of the ancestors is even more difficult to write. There seemed to be some helplessness and relief in the smile. Debbie admitted, “Actually, it is already very difficult to trace back to this village in Malaysia.” In this process, there are many language barriers to overcome, English, Malay, Chinese, and the Fuzhou dialect that Debbie can’t speak.
So, what is this lost homeland? And what about Singapore?
When she was a child, Debbie often asked such a question, “what is a scallop?” No matter who she asked, she always got a different answer.
Wikicliki, National Gallery Singapore, 2021
"Here the River Lies", The Substation, 2010
In Debbie's installation Here the River Lies, the two questions: “what is a scallop” and “what is Singapore” meet at a philosophical level, interwoven with reality, fantasy and memory in a cognitive gap.
In the brand logo launched by Singapore Tourism Board in 2010, squares of various colors and sizes form the background, and the slogan “Your Singapore” is in the middle.
Debbie felt that this symbol which represents Singapore's tourism culture was a bit absurd. “For non-Singaporeans, it may be difficult to understand what this geometry image is. In fact, Singaporeans know that it is an abstract geometric map of Singapore when they see it, but if you have never been to Singapore, how can you know? And it’s an icon designed for travelling.”
Your Singapore, Logo, 2010
The brand logo triggers a series of reflections on the meaning of “Singapore”. For Debbie, “Singapore” represents the “black hole of meaning”, and people are always trying to give it various meanings.
As the cultural symbol of the “Lion City”, the Singapore River is the source of Singapore’s economy, modern society and history. At that time, British colonists landed here and established colonial cities and trading ports. Singapore’s identity is to a large extent created by the Singapore River. But by the river, there is not much information for people to know the history of the Singapore River. “Even the signboards by the river are blank. Every time I pass by, I see that they are stuffed with garbage,” Debbie said. She also mentioned that Singaporeans were unaware of the river’s relation to the city and other bodies of water, and much less their own connection with the river. As the cultural center of Singapore, the Singapore River is like a blank signboard, leaving only an empty shell in people’s cognition and memory.
“Whenever I ask people to draw the Singapore River in their minds, they will draw something completely different.” Here the River Lies presents Debbie’s exploration of the Singapore River as Singaporeans perceive it. The imaginary Singapore River is “translated” into a map full of personal styles.
"Here the River Lies", 2015
Looking at these completely different personalized maps, Debbie wants to draw a larger map to represent the Singapore River as a “psychogeographical faultline”. She hopes viewers will be able to tell their own stories, “I totally accept that people understand the Singapore River as something completely different so that I can allow viewers to tell their own stories. It is OK whether these stories are true or not, or fictional legends and myths. I want to collect all the stories about this river.”
“I got some very humorous stories. The story was called ‘Lee Kuan Yew’s Ark’—‘The far-sighted city builds an ark to cope with the rising sea level.’ Another story is called ‘UFO’. The author thinks that the building looks like an alien spaceship.”
Here the River Lies ends up being a constantly changing interactive map that carries stories, real or imagined, or it can be said that the Singapore River is a landmark river only four kilometers long that actually exists in the city, and it is also a broad imaginary river that can breathe and grow continuously in the cultural cognition of Singaporeans.
2016 version commissioned by the Culture Academy, National Heritage Board.
Pulau Saigon: Lost History and Fragments in Display Cabinets
Among the stories collected in Here the River Lies, there is one story that Debbie never forgets.
John Miksic, the author of the story, is an archaeologist who have been working in Singapore for many years. He discovered 14th-century pottery fragments at a construction site on Pulau Saigon in the Singapore River. To Debbie’s surprise, this island no longer exists, and there are no details about the island in historical records.
Pulau Saigon used to be located in the middle of the Singapore River, but it has long been filled up due to silt and erosion and merged with the mainland. The island can still be seen on the maps from the 1970s, with a train station, warehouses and two metal bridges spanning the Singapore River to the mainland. During World War II, the city of Singapore was bombed and burned, and the fire spread along the bridge to the island. Not to mention Debbie’s generation, even her parents’ generation didn’t even know the existence of this island. It’s weird that so much of the island once remained, and yet such a geographical feature disappeared so quietly. “No one knows its historical origin, let alone why it is called Pulau Saigon.”
Therefore, Debbie decided to go back and look for traces of this lost island.
The New Paper, 17 August 1989, Page 3, Singapore Press Holdings/National Library Board Singapore
Pulau Saigon ruins were first discovered by Mr. Koh Lian What, an amateur archaeologist. Interested in collecting artifacts from the Neolithic Age, he was sensitive to the value of cultural relics in the Pulau Saigon site, and immediately notified universities in Singapore to investigate. During the investigation, Debbie also found a catalogue about the archaeological excavation of the site, and got in touch with the author in London.
During the process of excavating the Island, “It is also worth noting that in Singapore, archaeological work is not given priority over construction work. Any archaeological excavation must be completed within 2 weeks. Because the lack of funds and the limited time, they can only dig out all the artifacts out of the ground as quickly as possible.”
Even in such a limited time, Koh Lian What still made a lot of detailed visual records during the archaeological excavations then. His notes preserved the rubbings at that time, and he also observed the fragments from different angles, drew “strange” sketches for these fragments, and tried to put these fragments together to decipher their purpose. His way of trying to make sense of lost history inspired Debbie a lot.
Sketches by Mr Koh Lian What (1980s)
However, Debbie couldn't help but be disappointed when she saw the artifacts from Pulau Saigon in person at the National University of Singapore. Those archaeological fragments are so ordinary that they are inconspicuous.
“Even if I saw them, it was really hard to see what I was looking at. A lot of things were dilapidated and rusty. When you see these artifacts, you can’t feel the shock. On the contrary, you may say ‘That’s it? This is too common!’” Debbie exaggeratedly exclaimed, “they even look a bit like the gadgets that children throw into the river.”
But for Debbie, these ordinary pieces are full of potential. Debbie decided to use these fragments to rewrite this lost history and reshape the island’s past.
In The Library of Pulau Saigon, Debbie invented “The Unforgetting Machine”. The machine constructs an “unforgetting” process where people can input the name of an item and the machine produces the corresponding item. Through the concept of “not forgetting”, Debbie wanted to emphasize, “we realize that there is no way to really remember these things, because we have no idea what Saigon Island is like, and there are no records about its actual appearance. Therefore, the only thing I can do is try not to forget it.”
“Not to forget” is a challenge against the forward movement of time, a struggle against the current in the torrent of history.
Debbie does ‘prototyping’ for the entries recorded in the catalogue of those artifacts in Pulau Saigon. Take asbestos as an example. Debbie searched all the pictures of asbestos on the Internet, coded it into a model sketch, and tried to formulate a parametric form for this object. “If I change a parameter in the code, a new slightly different version will be generated.” Through this programming, Debbie transformed the outlines of many archaeological objects into 3D model sketches, and finally made them into real objects with a 3D printer.
In this process, as a “promoter”, the artist uses technology and cooperates with the machine. Debbie keeps asking, “what is at the core of how things look?” Whether it’s scallops, the Singapore River, or archaeological fragments from the island, as we try to explore the deep meaning behind the names and appearances of things, we uncover a part of the information network, trying to explore the so-called essence and the “prototype” of things which is the most primitive form. Is it possible to find the real “prototype” within the knowledge system constructed by various media? This process of searching is the art that Debbie insists on.
The Library of Pulau Saigon, 3D Printed Sculptures, 2015
“Instead of me telling a story about a place where I don’t really know what it is, how about we have a ‘library of objects’ that people can come to visit, to enjoy, to think about what Pulau Saigon really is. As an artist, I feel like I'm playing the role of investigator, trying to figure out the plot of the story and fit these pieces into the story of this island.”
Prints in progress
Collectors in the Colonial Period: Deconstructing Colonial Logic and Shaping Their Own Discourse
In 1819, the Englishman Stamford Raffles arrived in Singapore and contracted with the Sultan of Johor to set up a trading post. Singapore became a distribution center for goods during the expansion and aggression of the British Empire. In 1824, Singapore became a British colony.
A few sentences seem to sum up the beginning of British colonial rule in Singapore. However, no matter how many lines of text, the trauma and blood and tears caused by colonial aggression cannot be written.
In the immersive interactive game “The Collector”, Debbie applies the technology of virtual reality to rethink the continuous flow of goods in the global trade chain during the British colonial period and the invisible colonial labor behind it. Debbie's original inspiration came from a shipwreck in 1824. Stamford Raffles and his family took a ship named “the Fame” to transport a large number of animals, plants, artworks and cultural relics collected by himself from the colonial areas of Southeast Asia to the UK. Unexpectedly, the ship caught fire midway, all the cargo was destroyed, and finally the ship sank to the bottom of the sea. In order to recover the loss, many craftsmen were hired to repaint and restore the collection on the ship.
The Collector, VR Game, 2022
On the one hand, “the Fame” had been an integral part of the global trade network established by colonial powers through commodity circulation and transportation since the 19th century. On the other hand, the ark also symbolized the enthusiasm and imagination of the western world for the tropical culture and art of Southeast Asia. The disastrous ending seems to confirm that the colonial imagination of “Southeast Asia” is a doomed dreamland.
The Collector explores the important position of “commodities” in the context of interconnected and interdependent globalization, enabling game players to more directly experience the process of colonists discovering, collecting, and sorting artifacts, thus reflecting on the knowledge system constructed by colonists and the hidden capital and power structure. From the Trading Consequences database, a big data project in the humanities open to the public, Debbie extracted the data of tropical commodities circulating between countries around the world since the 19th century and built a material library, and then integrate Google Images to generate game tokens with corresponding textures. The Collector invites players to participate in completing “impossible tasks”, and put these game tokens of different materials into classification boxes marked with different absurd names: “Life Buoy”, “Futurism”, “Stone Collection”...
The Collector, VR Game, 2022
These boxes carry all kinds of absurd fantasies and imaginations. They are like a reverse “Pandora’s Box”, guiding players to re-examine history with imagination as the source and analyze and deconstruct colonial perspectives and logic. The logic of this game brings serious thinking about history. The “unfinished” text in the game invites game players to construct their own words in interactive cooperation and conflict.
In another scene, on “the Fame” in the game, players can use the “not-to-forget” machine to generate different items. “But in this game, the challenge you are faced with is that if you generate too many items, the ship may capsize or even sink, and everything you generate will sink to the bottom of the ocean.”
There seems to be a lot of contradictions in Debbie's creation, but these contradictions just come together to form the core of Debbie's artistic creation and philosophical thinking.
While making “prototypes”, she was exploring the meaning behind things. While focusing on the body’s perceptual perception of space, she was using the most abstract machine language to summarize the knowledge system. While tracing back to history, she was inventing the most far-fetched sci-fi machines.
That's probably what Debbie is.
Drawing a map while dreaming.