Playing With & For The Community
In June 2012, the Singapore Psychogeographical Society conducted A Public Exchange of Ethnographic Fragments at The Substation Random Room. Society facilitators collected fragments from roads and pavements near construction sites, and displayed them in a small exhibition where visitors could come to see and touch the rocks – and also bring their own for exchange.
Most in the initial archive of rocks were collected from construction and excavation sites near Sungei Road, a popular open-air street market that first emerged during the Japanese Occupation between 1942 and 1945. For years, a “Thieves Market” flourished along the banks of the Rochor anal, where the poor and desperate could buy cheap or 2nd hand household goods and items. It acquired a reputation for being a distribution point for stolen goods, antiques, and other curios. To this day, the streets are used for selling and trading objects of all kinds.
In 2011, that land was taken back by the government. The new Jalan Besar MRT (Downtown Line DT22) station was slated where Sungei Road Market has occupied for the last few decades; construction for this station started in July 2011. Pasar Lane and Pitt Street were closed first, causing the stalls to become more and more compressed, and a system had to be devised to demarcate the spaces allocated to different karung guni peddlars so as to accommodate them within Sungei Road Market’s shrinking confines.
It became apparent that the physical road that so many had walked on and traded upon was going to be systematically broken into pieces and removed. In the construction process, the fragmented material from old roads can actually be recycled. It may be ground up as mineral aggregate (solid “filler” material) to make other roads and pavements, along with a “glue” (concrete or bitumen).
Once these fragments of asphalt are removed from the body of the road, there is a possibility that we might encounter this very same particle of ‘road’ again, but in the physical form of another. However, it would be very unlikely that anyone would know of the significance of that particular fragment as having been part of another historic road. It would blend, homogeneously, into the body of the new road, until the day that it is again dug up. To prevent the meaning from being forgotten, the rocks were taken from the site, wrapped in cloth for protection, and stored until an appropriate time arrived for them to be displayed as artefacts.
In this process, we also transformed the rocks into ethnographic objects. Through everyday objects, we can glean clues about the social meanings within the ordinary activities of people. Just as a walk through the vast piles of 2nd hand objects at the “Thieves Market” can reveal many things about Singaporeans, these man-made rocks—in huge quantities at construction sites all around Singapore—can also be a telling trace of the story of Singapore and the attempts to construct a Singaporean identity.
These objects examined are also known as “ethnographic objects”. Some may be too severely broken to be considered whole or complete, so we have chosen to describe them as “ethnographic fragments”. Singapore is full of fragments, whether physical such as the rubble from construction, or of histories and narratives. Ethnographic fragments are not only “fragmented” because of their physical state of being a part from a larger body, but also in the manner they are detached, defined, and made into objects; removed in time and space from their original site.
It is the narrative that transforms an object into being valuable for conservation and display—in other words, it is the story that enables it to become a “cultural artefact”, rather than the mere consideration of its aesthetics.
We value these man-made rock fragments as part of the physical fabric of Singapore. They may be man-made, and might all look the same, but they are part of the physical land on which we live and walk. It is literally, a piece of Singapore we can hold on to.
We encourage others to look at their urban environments, to examine the physical fragments of the land around them, and to stop and appreciate these little fragments of Singapore.
About the Singapore Psychogeographical Society
Since 2010, the Singapore Psychogeographical Society has been devoted to promoting a better understanding of the world through ludic adventures, independent research, digital documentation, and archival activism.
Through “psychogeoforensics”, it encourages people to construct/reconstruct their own narratives around the various physical traces, histories, and archives that may be overlooked or neglected in a fast-developing urban city like Singapore.
#6 in a series of written perspectives on how the urban and the body manifest in the other, in a running accompaniment to the visual art exhibition called, well, urban body. Nine artists present visual provocations—in a bid to expose and make tangible the cityscapes of our formed selves.
A published compilation of both art and essay will be available at the exhibition.
urban body runs 2 august – 2 september 2012, 6:30pm at the Orange Thimble, in Tiong Bahru, Singapore’s first housing estate. For details and updates, check out the event page on facebook.
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