Changing ideas of the future of Malaysia and beyond

  • Arts
  • Sunday, 16 Apr 2017

The Complete Futures of Malaysia (Chapter1) is part of a generative research and creative project aimed at investigating changing perceptions of the future in Malaysia. Photos: The Star/Ibrahim Mohtar

If we have learnt anything from George Orwell’s prophecy for 1984, Stanley Kubrick’s for 2001 and Marty McFly’s 2015, it is that humanity remains fairly unchanged in the future.

Just take McFly’s futuristic world as depicted in Back To The Future 2 – produced in 1989 – he may be whisking around town on a flying skateboard but our favourite Hollywood time-traveller is still fighting school bullies.

The research-installation piece The Complete Futures Of Malaysia (Chapter 1) in the Escape From The SEA exhibition at Art Printing Works (APW) in Bangsar, KL evokes the same sensation. And with our near future – (the now delayed, deferred or defunct?) Wawasan 2020 or Vision 2020 – taking centre stage in the work, the sense of nostalgia is unmistakable.

Perhaps, it is fitting, since the team behind the installation comprises Five Arts Centre’s artist and researcher Mark Teh and regular collaborators Ali Alasri, Faiq Syazwan Kuhiri and Wong Tay Sy, who are known, together or individually, for their diverse art projects that engage the issues of history and memory.

What is the future, anyway, queries Teh, 36: “The future has a history and past. It does not exist context-less by itself but in the context of its relation to past, present and changing attitudes.”

This processual art project is part of the Japan Foundation’s group exhibition Escape From The SEA, which also has an accompany­ing show at the National Visual Arts Gallery in KL. The entire Escape From The SEA, which focuses on issues of identity, belongingness, and history through the politics of borders in this region and beyond, runs daily at both venues until April 23.

The public are invited to not only trawl through the collection, but also contribute their own objects, images, thoughts and ideas of Malaysia’s futures. Photo: Mark Teh

Equating his group to a team of seismographers trying to detect tectonic shifts, but in the world’s perception of the future, Teh says the research-installation is the beginning of their generative series of creative projects aimed at investigating the changing ideas of the future in Malaysia and beyond.

“What we are trying to do is to zoom in on the different clues and patterns in the perceptions of the future in Malaysia while zooming out to analyse them against the changes or trends of the future in the world,” he explains.

This Chapter 1 is designed as a “library” with a trove of materials related to Malaysia’s futures, and the installation’s simplicity belies the complexity of the subject. In fact, in many ways, the artists have effectively made concrete a very amorphous and abstract entity.

The “visions and versions of Malaysia’s future”, which include books, newspaper clippings, magazines, childhood drawings, maps, plans, music videos and memorabilia, are arranged in categories like Akan Datang, School Days of Futures Past, So Many Malaysias, So Official, Revisions and Alternatives, A Time of Headlines: 1991 to 2017 and Everywhere I Go, I See 2020 and Kawasan Wawasan. This puts the notion that is a clutter of blank or cloudy bubbles for many, perhaps more so now than ever, on traceable tracks.

The public are invited to not only trawl through the collection, but also contribute their own objects, images, thoughts and ideas of Malaysia’s futures, in categories that have been broadly divided into near, mid and far futures.

“We hope people can do their own research, imagine and have conversations about Malaysia’s possible futures at our ‘research lab’ in AWP,” says Teh.

After all, it’s a shared future, he points out, “We have all gone through the ‘indoctrination’ on the future with campaigns like Vision 2020, and now we have TN50, so here we want the ‘future’ to be participatory because the idea of Malaysian futures have always been initiated from top-down.”

To foster the sharing, three public events that focus on specific aspects of the future were planned: ways of framing the future; science fiction scenarios of Kuala Lumpur; and proposals for future Malaysias.

The first event was held on Feb 25, with a panel called Framing The Futures, which saw “future” experts Datuk Dr Mazlan Othman (Akademi Sains Malaysia), Ibrahim Suffian (Merdeka Centre for Opinion Research), Julian Ng (BFM Radio) presenting different methods and frames of envisioning Malaysia’s future. The Speculative Scenarios: Sci-Fi Lo-KL on March 12 saw various local sci-fi writers talking about their visions of future, as depicted in the their writings.

‘The future has a history and past. It does not exist context-less by itself but in the context of its relation to past, present and changing attitudes,’ says Teh.

Next Sunday, Future Ministries will see 24 artists, activists, thinkers and citizens take on different ministerial portfolios and propose their visions and ideas for change for the year 2063.

What is clear from the installation and discussions, or Chapter 1, (of The Complete Futures of Malaysia), is how Malaysia’s ideas for the future are very much incomplete.

“And it is not just in Malaysia, everywhere today people are asking: What is left of the shared future as we knew it?

“And for all we know, the future will really be no different from the present,” says Teh. “Perhaps all our gadgets will be more canggih (sophisticated) but everything will be the same, we will still have the status quo.”

He adds, “The future painted in Vision 2020, for one, wasn’t futuristic and well-thought out anyway.

“If you look at (the former Premier) Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s speech in 1991 launching the campaign, you have to admit it wasn’t particularly imaginative or revolutionary.”

This Chapter 1 exhibit is designed as a ‘library’, or resource hub, with a trove of materials related to the nation’s futures.

With a week left to the Escape From The SEA exhibition at APW, Teh and gang are already keeping an eye out on the future chapters, and future collaborators, in their project.

Chapter 2 is already up, until July 2, at the Mode of Liaisons exhibition at Bangkok Art Culture Centre in Thailand.

There, the work is a photo installation of empty billboards around the city.

“We noticed there is suddenly a mushrooming of empty billboards around the city.

“Billboards usually promote new things or events to come. When they are empty, not advertising, what are they? What do they mean for our future?” poses Teh.

Meanwhile, they are also working on Chapter 3, which will likely be a documentary performance at an arts festival in Germany in October.

So the future of this little “future studies” exercise is turning out to be as what the artists discovered in their research: not only “fragmented, and full of ironies and contradictions,” but also fluid, overlapping, non-linear and borderless.

The Complete Futures Of Malaysia (Chapter 1): Future Ministries is on at the Escape From The SEA exhibition at APW Bangsar, 29, Jalan Riong, Kuala Lumpur at 1pm on April 23. Donations of future materials and Wawasan 2020-paraphernalia welcomed. Facebook: Escape From The SEA.

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