The Future is Here. Am I Ready?

By Reena Devi

In her final piece for GRC, Reena Devi delves into the spaces of the imaginative, the creative, and—as is inevitably the case for any writer, the personal. Spanning her experiences and stumbling (writer’s) blocks in the past eight months, she takes us through her creative odyssey and arrives at a revelation of the unknown.

From the Earth to the Moon by Jules Verne, Henri de Montaut, 1868. Image courytesy of Wiki Commons.

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In August 2019, I was invited to write for The Substation’s Good Review Circle (GRC), a critical writing programme exploring the theme of public space. Around the same time, I had arrived at a crucial juncture as a Singaporean arts journalist and critic, where I was beginning to realise that writing about the Singapore art scene could not possibly be all I ever did for the rest of my life.

Don’t get me wrong—being an arts journalist writing about the local arts scene has been one of the most layered and fruitful experiences of my life, leading to the kind of personal and professional growth I would never have dared envisage. Yet, from 2017 to 2019, as I moved from senior reporter at TODAY newspaper to Yahoo Lifestyle Singapore to writing freelance for established regional art media ArtAsiaPacific (AAP), something felt amiss.

By 2019, I was working on exhibition content for Hatch Art Project, an art gallery in Marina Bay, just so that I could get by financially, while writing freelance for AAP. Even though I had written a major analysis piece titled The Fall of Art Stage amongst various other critical pieces for the Hong Kong publication from 2018 to 2019, I was being advised to reconsider my options.

Being an independent arts journalist did not seem like a viable and sustainable option.

My critical writing regarding the local arts scene and my pushy approach as a professional journalist made me very few friends and brought even fewer sustainable opportunities in Singapore. (Although, a talk I was invited to give in July 2019, hosted by Post-Museum and Coda Culture, about writing The Fall of Art Stage was surprisingly well-attended and well-received.)

Instead of throwing in the towel, I decided to think bigger, shifting my focus beyond the Singapore arts scene. I wanted to write about the regional and international art world for overseas media.

I agreed to write for The Substation’s new critical writing initiative mostly because I was allowed to explore global public spaces and the international art world, instead of focusing solely on local issues. By the time the announcement was made about the GRC initiative in September 2019, I was on my very first work trip as an arts journalist, covering Art Jakarta, Indonesia’s biggest art fair, for New York based, established online art media Hyperallergic.

The press trip to Jakarta was a professional awakening of sorts, opening my eyes to the kind of dynamism and organic growth available to people who work in visual arts and even those who write about it. Writing the analysis on the art fair and clearing it with my editor in New York was a different story. It was one of the most grueling, challenging, and come-to-Jesus moments I ever had about my writing.

Around this time, I wrote and submitted my first piece to The Substation about art exploring the online space, featuring an interview with Dr Ros Holmes, the curator for the Ugly Chinternet exhibition at CFCCA, UK. It was a straightforward write-up exploring contemporary Chinese artists and their take on the distinctive Chinese online space, with as little of myself in it and as non-contentious as possible. I was hoping to do the same for my aforementioned Hyperallergic piece. I thought, instead of slicing and dicing my way to the heart of the matter with my words as I typically would, in order for me to get by as a journalist and critic on an international level, I would try to play it safe.

I was so wrong. In the end, I realised what my Hyperallergic editor really wanted was incisive honesty and fresh insight unique to my perspective and experiences.

When I wrote my second piece for GRC in October, exploring private power in public space through analysing the practice of research group Forensic Architecture, I was not afraid to imbue my own voice a bit more in the observations about the struggle for power and status quo happening in well-known cultural institutions on distant shores.

It also helped that around this time I was starting to write for CoBo Social, a Hong Kong based media platform focusing on the art world. Writing for this platform gave me the opportunity to cover the art world extensively, gaining tremendous insight in the process. I was writing news roundups, in-depth interviews and year-end pieces about the art scene in Indonesia to Hong Kong to Shanghai to New York. I was transported intellectually to places and cultures and societies far beyond my family’s flat in Bukit Batok. (Best of all, I was able to sustain myself on this work.)

When I wrote my final 2019 piece for GRC, I adopted an open and personal tone writing about art and spirituality and its relevance to our current society. I found that I could dig deep with ease and comment confidently on art as part of a larger phenomenon, even throwing up speculative possibilities about the roles art and spirituality could play in our future. It is one of the few pieces I am truly proud of writing—most of us writers tend to think everything we write is generally garbage.

Even then, I thought this was as good as it gets. Then, in January this year, I was assigned to go on another work trip. I headed to Taipei to cover the art fair Taipei Dangdai for CoBo Social and the Asian Art Biennial in Taichung for Hyperallergic. Every city I have visited in my life has impacted me viscerally, and these places were no exception. I rewrote my first 2020 piece for GRC when I got back.

In the blog post published in February, I finally owned a part of myself I have been dancing around for the longest time, the part of me that sees the future, constantly analysing and computing outcomes of diverse possibilities based on current and past situations. Foresight has always been the real and true engine behind almost all my analytical, critical, and investigative work thus far. It is essentially how I process and understand the world around me.

My GRC piece, The Future of Public and Private Space, reads with even more uncanniness now, given the social distancing and travel restrictions happening globally due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Foresight and futuristic insights are by no means fool-proof. We are all bound to get it wrong at times, especially in the case of a millennial know-it-all like me, but when we get it right, it can be damningly prescient.

My second last blog post published on 24 March 2020 titled Spaces of Transformation and Discovery charged ahead into the future once again, charting a journey from Guggenheim’s exhibition on rural spaces to an Instagram solo traveler’s adventures to deep-sea exploration, before coming to pause around the idea of “power spots” and its future possibilities.

I have finally come to a point in my personal and intellectual journey where I feel ready to walk into the future and grasp it in all its totality. Yet facing the future is not enough. Talking and writing about it is equally important. Discourse is the key to understanding what lies ahead.

Writing the second last blog post reminded me of the greatest futurist of modern history, Jules Verne and the courage it must have taken to put his otherworldly ideas out in the open for people to contemplate or attack. I only hope I have the courage to think even bigger, to envision a future we dare not even begin to contemplate right now, and most importantly, to write and talk about these ideas through art and the art world.

After all, if there is one lesson I learned from the past eight months, it is that we consistently need to think bigger, especially in a world that is disparate, disruptive, and rapidly changing.

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