On freelancing, Heart of Darkness, and finding an exit strategy
Freelancer and weekend food delivery rider, 25 June 2021
—What have you been doing for the past 18 months?
—During the circuit breaker, I did two months of Grab. I'm now doing Grab again.
—So you’ve gotten back to doing Grab? You got a bicycle?
—Yeah, only on weekends lah. I did. I know my legs cannot take all the abuse. I need a normal job I guess. —So what do you do on weekdays?
—Job hunt, hang out with my girlfriend. Nothing much ah. Yeah. 18 months is a lot of time to encapsulate. I guess I had a lot of different things going on.

—Have you been taking up gigs and doing work?
—I think inside the 18 months, I had a project—that wrapped up in April. I also had a teaching gig which also finished around April or May. So the same question you ask me, I also want to ask you. 
—Don't want! I've just been working lah.
—Anything else? Did you have any epiphanies in these 18 months?
—Oh, yeah, a lot. In March 2020 just as the pandemic was gaining momentum I was also coming out of doing freelancing work. So the freelancing was dying down. And also I was at that stage where just as that happened, I was actually trying to figure out the next steps for myself.

—Haven't full-time yet lah?
—Yeah, I haven't gotten a full time job. I was doing this job one day a week but I knew that they were going to renew my contract for at least two days a week in May. So I knew I still had that job to tide me through. So yeah, I had a lot more time to myself and it was really a good way to reevaluate a lot of things. It also gave me time to process my feelings, about not just the past year of work, but also in general the past five years of freelancing. So processing all that and then trying to figure out what I needed to do to keep things healthy for me. —I think your answer better than mine.

—Whaaaaaaat? But I also started doing kinda like meditations. I don't like to use the word 'meditation'—I call it breathing.
—No, no, no, I totally get it. The moment you call it meditation, like whoa. So what's the routine?
—Not very regular. But I think that helped me a lot also. So I had this one experience in 2019 where a friend invited me to this meditation session—like a very short one, nothing serious. So I went. I thought the facilitator was shit by the way.—What about it was shit?
—So she was doing the whole guiding you through the breathing exercise. And after that, she was asking everyone how everyone felt. And everyone was like, "Oh, so good, felt relieved and relaxed"—very positive things to say. But I told her that I felt a lot of anxiety. Like, for some reason through the process, all of the anxiety in my body suddenly just came through. She said, "oh wow, so powerful" and just moved on. But anyway, a couple weeks ago, I was thinking a lot about how I feel now during these breathing exercises versus how I felt then. Back then, that feeling of anxiety was everywhere. And compared to now, I feel a lot more centered, and a lot more grounded. I mean, granted, not all the time.

—But you can sense a more stabilized trajectory? Like "I'm better now"?
—I'm job hunting. I just applied to be a library officer at NLB and streetscape officer at NParks.
—How do you choose to apply for those jobs?
—The first thing is that I'm a diploma holder, so that cuts off a lot of options. And after that: the description of the job must be something that I can live with, it has to make sense to me. Actually, you know what? All things considered, I'm still very lucky: I am this choosy and I'm not hungry.

—But why are you applying for a job?
—Why am I applying for a job? Because I need money lah.
—But I mean, there are other options? Like applying for an NAC grant?
—Yeah, yeah, you're very good at finding the question.
—Is this like an exit strategy?
—Yeah, it is. Okay, the flippant response is that I don't want to be in the arts anymore. But the more optimistic one is that "art is everywhere", at least in my very high minded ideal, so it doesn't matter what we do. And to be clear, I guess art will forever be part of my life whether I like it or not. But right now, the concrete pie-in-the-sky goal is a house to walk around naked in. Do you hear me?

—Yeah yeah.
—I'm also not good at writing grants; doing paperwork and forms gives me anxiety.
—What other hurdles or challenges do you face in continuing in the arts industry?
—Myself lah. Well, I've not had regular income for a long time.
—You've been freelancing for 14 years.
—My knee jerk reaction is just to say I'm unemployed.
—But you were working everyday—cos you went to the studio almost everyday.
—I wasn't generating income. It was like, "Then have. Then don't have. Then have... then don't have". So a regular job is like "Have—every week!".

—We talked about this in our last conversation, on how monetary value is how you gauge productiveness. And so you kinda blamed your situation on this perceived sense of laziness...
—But it's the only metric that underlines everything. I mean, obviously there's other stuff like "expression blah blah blah" and all that kind of stuff—that's cool. But the marker used to underline those numbers is thick. I'm gonna come off as an asshole in this interview, but I'm just finding a way to survive in this system—play the hand that you're dealt with. I also don't think I'm a great artist and I figured that out and I'm ready to admit it. I've given it my shot and the universe is telling me "eh, go do something else lah".
—So you don't consider going to the studio and tinkering and playing a form of work?
—It's having fun... I don't know. I would like to think so. I cannot find a way to be a little bit more charitable to myself. If I go and play in a studio—like say I have a cymbal and find different ways to make noises—who gives a fuck? It's just fun. The major premise for going to Lasalle was so I could have fun for a living. So now I decided to embrace the system I'm in—to have a job, CPF, qualify for a house and a loan. I couldn't do that earning the amount that I did as a freelancer.

—So you've accepted that you're not a good artist? Do you feel like there's a competition or an expectation to be exceptional? Just that sometimes I do feel it is difficult to do good work when there is also this expectation to continually produce work. I just feel it's hard to develop ourselves and our work when there's such pressure to produce and be constantly visible.
—...If I don't find a job right... I might just have to go back to the arts. Dum-dum-dummmm!
—Oh no! The horror, the horror...
—The horror, the horror! Thanks for sending me the Arts Resource Hub—I must look into it.

—Eh, I wonder if there's something there, with the Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness reference?
—You keep on referencing this book ah! Ok, you tell me what's the parallel? —So basically this guy goes into the jungle... ... he goes into the jungle and... oh! It is an analogy for the people who go into the arts. So this guy called Kurtz had this idealistic plan to bring enlightenment and civilisation to the people in the deep jungles of Congo. So he starts off starry-eyed, but eventually he becomes corrupt, or has this like corruption within him, and disappears into the jungle. So this guy Marlow is sent to find him, he journeys down the river into Congo talking to people, and has this image of Kurtz and what he must be like, as this idealistic person who like wants to bring civilization and light and justice—but he finally meets Kurtz, who is just sort of rotting and decaying. And then towards the end Kurtz whispers, "the horror, the horror".—Is this Martin Sheen?
—Not Apocalypse Now lah.
—It's basically an adaptation what. So what's the analogy here?
—The arts industry is the heart of darkness lah.
—Woah, wow! [laughs]
—And all of us are Kurtz when we first go in.
—But he's a singular figure, whereas the arts industry eats many, many, many, many people...
—It's a metaphor lah. But you have to also understand that in the book, the heart of darkness is not Congo and it's not the jungle—it's actually London.
—Whaaaaaat? So explain it to me... but he goes into Congo?  
—Yeah, but in the book, he describes London as the heart of darkness. So it's almost like a foil to each other. Kinda also wanted to delve a bit more on the precarity of being a cultural worker in Singapore.
—I want out of the arts—very precarious lor.
—How did you survive as long as you did?
—I spend very little, I eat at home, I enjoy my little luxuries, then do Grab... did I do anything else? I got the teaching job. I proved myself to the capitalism monster that "right, I can function as a teacher in your capitalistic society. I'm useful. I can generate value too." But no, "we'll give you only four months out of the 12." "Ok can, I'll take it."

It's definitely a luxury that I can stay in the arts for as long as I did. One big factor is because my parents. I don't have to worry about them. A lot of it is down to them not needing my support. Maybe it made me lazy lor...
—There you go again!
—Yeah, I spotted that as soon as I said it. I knew you would pick it up. Are you trying to suggest that I'm actually not lazy?

—Yeah, of course. You're productive, just not in the way that society accepts.
—Maybe I don't see that because I'm not walking in my own house naked—metaphorically. This is my prediction—once I work for, say, five years straight, and I get my own place—because I'm in my own place, I will suddenly want to become an artist again. I am so sure this will happen. Because I have my own space. I can do whatever.—I feel we touched on something we didn't the last time which is 'space'.
—I regret—space is so precious that if you feel like you could have used it more, but you didn't use it while you had it, for example, Aliwal—I regret now. I should have done so much more. I felt like I didn't make use of the space.

—But you did right?
—I went in to relax, and also do other stuff that somehow didn't become projects. I went to play—it's a playground.
—Not everything has to be a project what?
—[laughs] That's not what everything else is telling me. I feel like I'm complaining and I don't like that feeling. So this goes back to that lazy thing again. When I hear myself complaining about how things should be better for me—I don't like it immediately for myself. It's very weird. I'm not built to like, "oh things didn't work out. And it's fine. We tried."

It's more like, "things didn't work out because you never tried hard enough lah cheebai." Everything around me is pointing towards like, "oh, you should have tried harder." Now I feel like that tragic figure, which I reject. I don't feel that way also—just circumstances come and then you work with it lah.
—But that's neoliberal capitalism right? It tells you that if you work hard enough, you will make it, and if you don't make it, that's because you didn't work hard enough.
—But neoliberal capitalism is all-encompassing enough that I don't know what's the other alternative what? How else am I supposed to think about it? But wah, this one another thing already. —Something I really wanted to touch on was how we've known each other for quite a while. And for as long as we've known each other, I've always said that I wanted to quit the arts and being a curator.
—Yes, yes. Funny that I'm the one openly rejecting... but you're still considered in it right?

—I don't know...

Let me ask you this very simple question: Have you quit being a curator?
—I think not... What is this weird irony? I thought I would be the first to quit the arts between us.—And I bet you right, somewhere down the line, you will curate an independent show that you want to.—I hope so!
—I'm very sure—ah, see now is "I hope so". Last time it's not this.
—Last time will be "Ah, fuck ahhh. Fuck lah, don't want lah."
—[mimicking] Fuck laaaaaah. You don't quit the arts, the arts quit you.
—I've been wondering about how the arts is really not sustainable if everyone is off finding a day job to sustain their work and practice. It's hemorrhaging people... then I also wonder if it takes a certain type to continue in the arts, in which case, are we seeing a very specific pool of people staying on, and is that pool a narrow one lacking diverse representation?