No dial tone: photographer captures the sad demise of public phone booths

Chong Kok Choon's '1' (digital print on archival paper, 2018). -- Chong Kok Choon

"Telefon ini boleh digunakan" (this phone can be used), says the sign - except not really. The phone isn’t even there.

It was not that long ago when telephone booths were not just everywhere, but a public amenity that was put to good use. Today, you would be hard-pressed to find one, much less one in working condition.

Photographer Chong Kok Choon (aka KC) knows this better than most people; he has spent the last five years taking photographs of public telephone booths around the country, in various states of disrepair and neglect.

The 44-year-old Chong's efforts are captured in a series of photographs at The Species of Spaces, which is Suma Orientalis gallery’s pop-up exhibition at Ruang by Think City in Kuala Lumpur. The pop-up exhibition is part of the Kuala Lumpur Architecture Festival (KLAF) 2019.

“I am fascinated with forgotten objects and lost memories. If there is a puzzle in front of me, I am most interested in the space where the missing piece fits. During my travels, I notice that the telephone booths - which was once where romance were built around and long-distance communication was made possible - are now standing in an awkward position in society,” says the KL-based artist.

Chong's Pudu (digital print on archival paper, 2015).

Thanks to the advancement of communication technology, these public telephones no longer serve their purpose and are no longer needed by the majority of the population, most of whom have gone mobile.

“Most telephone booths, after being abandoned for a certain time, become the target of vandalism so they are defaced and bills are stuck everywhere. The telephone itself has gone missing, either for the scrap value or the intrinsic value in the vintage goods market.

"Telephone booths seem to be the last vestiges left behind by modern day town planning. They are the embodiment of lost memories of a generation that has moved too fast for nostalgia,” he adds.

Wawasan Perdana Utama (digital print on archival paper, 2018).

After his previous solo show, Lost Soul (2017), where he zoomed in on discarded dolls in abandoned factory in Chiang Mai, Thailand; and Sacred Rivers (2016), which focuses on polluted rivers in India and Bangladesh, and the community which depends on them; The Species of Spaces brings him back to local sights and sounds.

Each work is named after the street where the phone booths are located.

Visually dissimilar to the two earlier exhibitions, it is striking to note that the forlorn and forgotten theme is retained in this new show.

A photograph titled 1 (digital print on archival paper, 2018).

In his documentation, he includes photographs where existing telephone booths have been repurposed by vagrants as storage space or taken over by insects or creatures who call it home.

No dial tone, no problem.

Chong's examination of spaces looks at how this void has evolved into a universe of its own.

To him, every abandoned phone booth has a story of despair behind it.

1_77c (digital print on archival paper, 2018).

“I seek to evoke a conversation about the forgotten pockets of public spaces and how society has inadvertently interacted with them. In a small, private discussion, we questioned why telephone booths have not been removed entirely by the authorities.

"But looking at my photo-documentation, how could you remove the private wardrobe or the mini kitchen cabinet of a homeless person, or the shelter for a stray cat, without a tiny bit of empathy?” he questions.

Through this exhibition, he would like to remind the audience about how communication has never been about the tool, but its content and intent.

“As we move forward with faster, easier communication, how often do we take the trouble to listen wholeheartedly? How much time do we make for people who are just a phone call away?” he concludes.

The Species Of Spaces is on at Ruang by Think City, No 2, Jalan Hang Kasturi in Kuala Lumpur, till July 7. Opening hours: 10am to 6pm. Closed on Mondays. FB: Suma Orientalis

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