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Ma Shaoling






The coffee shop opposite the Substation



Memories Displaced

We are accustomed to think that there is a proper time to ask questions and a proper place to answer them. For example, we ask questions when we suppose there is someone to reply to them, and we expect to receive replies on the dotted line. Consultation scratches the surface of such proprieties and wonders if there is something beneath: whether there are stories that we have forgotten how to respond to.

There was something about Consultation's description in the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival's programme notes that raised my suspicion: how can an approximately 15-minute "consultation" session possibly culminate in a treatment that would actually benefit each of its many participants and, in turn, justify itself? It was with such doubts that I sat myself down opposite Paul Rae of spell#7, who conceptualised Consultation as part of the Resident Fringe Series curated by Zai Kuning.

We began quite simply. There were some straightforward instructions and the request that I take note of the time of our session. Rae first asked me to think of an island, and I gave him the name of our very own. He asked, "Why Singapore?" and I related to him the sense of ambiguity and imminent departure that I associate with the idea of an island. We subsequently discussed my neutrality towards Pulau Ubin and the beach in general, as well as my memories of Beach Road, Golden Mile Shopping Complex and old cinema seats, and I was surprised at how many personal associations were drawn out within the span of ten minutes or so. If it could be said that Consultation had a script - a script it executed with efficiency - it was not because the questions were easy or that one could answer them. Rather, it was because the odd strands holding Consultation together were none other than one's own experiences.

Paradoxically, the answers I gave were not simply a matter of what I could claim as my own. For, regardless of whether my interlocutor knew it or not, I discovered that these experiences, as I was recollecting them, sounded almost foreign to my ears. Furthermore, since I was required to keep a constant check on my watch, the specificities of time, location and activity became vividly marked out. Consultation highlighted these specificities and thus brought out the realisation that each session is an event as real and yet as ungraspable as all of the other events in our memory.

If I were to pick a turning point, so-called, in Consultation, it was when Rae asked my opinion of graffiti: whether I had seen any of it in Singapore and whether I thought people take notice of such impermissible writing. After I had recounted my experiences of graffiti, Rae revealed his. Apparently, there is a trail of graffiti that he has been following around the vicinity where he works, capturing it with his digital camera. It consists of writing, mostly in English and partly in Chinese, scribbled in white or black markers on faded posters and on the surfaces of those ubiquitous electrical boxes which power our island.

There is nothing vulgar or even spectacular about these writings. They merely tell of Singapore, of the people who came to this island only to escape to another, of the beaches at Ubin, of the foreign workers and fake branded goods along Beach Road and especially at Golden Mile. Despite how ordinary and mild a story the graffiti tells, apparently someone found these scribblings irritating and wrote back rather furiously, "f***-off nonsense". Perhaps this respondent found the graffiti's subject matter too familiar, too ordinary, and therefore offensive. Consultation was in no position to judge, however, for it too felt the urge to write. As our session drew to a close, Paul requested from me a prescription - anything that I thought would best allow him to respond to the symptoms the graffiti and its defacement represented. He noted, "The graffiti is symptomatic of something that is unwell in this island and, clearly, you share some of it too" and he passed me a piece of white paper. Facing this paper, this blankness that had been handed to me and was therefore a "proper" place for expression, I did not quite know what to do. I admitted that I was uncomfortable "prescribing", reacting to a problem which, however abstract, was shared by a nameless crowd. Nor was I exactly proud of my indifference. Perhaps after Consultation revealed to me the sense of foreignness I had towards my own memory, I too needed an impermissible, improper space to scribble on.

By asking each participant to respond to the photographed graffiti, the subject matter of Consultation was at the same time its method. It is possible that we all share more or less the same problem as the anonymous graffiti artist in that, sometimes, we simply do not know what to do with our memories and received experiences. And when we finally find a way to deal with them - by writing or otherwise recording them - we can only be "respondents", absent to the actual events and places. If there is any difference between me and the graffitist, it is that while the graffiti artist chooses to inscribe his experiences on surfaces not meant for writing, I made my mark by participating in Consultation, and I eventually had the privilege of re-inscribing them here in this review.

But should my writing be considered more "legal" and so more acceptable than the graffiti? Yes, I did eventually write something on the prescription paper - and the only detail I would like to disclose about my prescription was how I paused over the correct spelling of the word "graffiti" and had to ask Rae how to spell it. But when I finally returned my prescription - misspelled, inadequate - I realised that the acknowledgment of impropriety, whether of time, space or word, is an inevitable condition of any response; and Consultation embodied this condition. (As it turned out, Rae too was not quite sure how to spell graffiti either.)

If each session of Consultation varied according to its participant, such variety can not be a shortcoming but only a strength. After all, it was able to cater to my idiosyncracies and my perverse interest in reflecting on them. Although Consultation had a prepared set of questions, more importantly, each session had to negotiate with different participants whose responses could not possibly be anticipated. I cannot conceive of any other "treatment" where both counselor and counseled are "patients" whose "prescriptions" are symptomatic of the problem of memory and of the duty to remember. If there is one best solution to this issue, Consultation did not pretend to know it. Instead, it only pulled the rug of propriety from right underneath memory's feet.

"Consultation revealed to me the sense of foreignness I had towards my own memory"

More Reviews of Productions by spell#7

More Reviews by Ma Shaoling

Ratings out of 5, based on Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent / Rapturous;
**** = Crystal / Appreciative; *** = Transmitted / Thoughtful; ** = Vague / Unsatisfied; * = Uncommunicated / Mystified.