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story | Adam Lau, Guest Contributor
photo | Justin Ong
When you see a STOP sign, do you stop? Why did you stop? Who made you stop? Did you want to stop? A STOP sign is an instruction by the Land Transport Authority (LTA) for motorists to stop when there is no safe path ahead. It also delineates the space in which public entrance is accepted and not.
Recently, I placed a STOP/GO Sign outside the library that has caused people to hesitate when they are walking in. I did it because I wanted to raise questions. We are conditioned to stopping whenever we see a STOP Sign, yet we know that we can enter the library. When faced with The Sign, we are confronted with a conflict between what we can and cannot do.
What complicates the scenario is the GO on the other side of The Sign. When we see GO and we continue moving, are we moving because we want to and we will or because we are told by The Sign that we can? Whose authority does The Sign represent? The LTA’s? The library’s? Is it the authority of the person who placed it? Or is it just your own?
I wanted people to consider the dimensions of authority in their lives. Who gives you authority to decide what can or cannot be done? The short and direct answer is yourself. You decide. You have the agency to choose what you want to do. You decided that you wanted to go to the library to study. You decided you wanted to further your education. But why do you do what you do? Is our education for ourselves, in that we value the pursuit of knowledge? Or is our education for our parents, that in doing so we honour them for what they given us? Or is our education ultimately for ourselves such that with the eventual degree we can find a “better” job in the future and earn money to be self-sustainable?
Amongst these questions, some people have asked, is The Sign considered art? To them I say: that is not important to clarify, and let me now prove that it is not.
The most immediate theoretical explanation for why The Sign could be art can be found in Marcel Duchamp’s legacy of the readymades. The Museum of Modern Art explains readymades as “A term coined by Marcel Duchamp in 1915 to describe prefabricated, often mass-produced objects isolated from their functional context and elevated to the status of art by the mere act of an artist’s selection and designation.” A famous example is his Fountain, a porcelain urinal signed “R.Mutt” (the artist’s persona for this work) that he placed in the exhibition held by the Society of Independent Artists in 1917. The point of the work was to criticise and expand the boundaries of what art could be. It was heavily condemned for its lack of skill but in an anonymous article, Duchamp defended his work by saying, “Whether Mr Mutt with his own hands made the fountain or not has no importance. He CHOSE it. He took an ordinary article of life, placed it so that its useful significance disappeared under the new title and point of view — created a new thought for that object.” Duchamp became then known as one of the pioneers who explored the possibility of an object’s role in addressing thought rather than just appealing to the senses. Today, we understand that to be the popular contemporary conceptual art.
Duchamp’s Fountain and The Sign are similar in that they both do not exist to be art. Fountain existed as an opinion of what art could be. The Sign existed as an opinion of what authority could be. Both Fountain and The Sign exist to challenge an idea. Duchamp did not “make” the work because he wanted to make art, I too did not “make” the work because I wanted to make art. We wanted to first challenge thought itself. Whether The Sign is considered art or not is inconsequential, for the fundamental point of The Sign was to provoke thought, not for it to be appreciated as art.
At this point I wish to address another similarity between Fountain and The Sign, and that is the anonymity of their “maker”. Anonymity in this instance is paramount because it dissociates the made from the “maker”. Like Duchamp, I remained anonymous for a period because the point of the work is to instigate reflection, not to glorify who put it there. Now that you know I am the one who put up The Sign, you will not be able to detach your knowledge of who I am when viewing it. You might glorify me. But at least in that period of anonymity, I had stressed that it was not important who expressed the opinion, but that the opinion was expressed. The original intended meaning of The Sign will necessarily change. You might become bolder when interacting with it now that you know I only hold as much authority as you. Or you might completely disregard it because you personally dislike me. In any case, I welcome your action.
Over the past week, The Sign was moved multiple times, flipping between GO and STOP, moving from side to side. I like that. Because it means people have made a decision, voluntarily, to shift The Sign as they deemed fit. They authorised themselves to move The Sign. And I am not upset it was moved because I placed it in the public sphere, and in the public sphere everyone should be allowed to do what they want. Similarly, I did not consult other authority when I procured The Sign, or when I placed The Sign there. I also authorised myself. Too often we have been censored by “authority” (who decides, really?) such that we are conditioned to self-censor. Even though we are critical thinkers who might be intellectually familiar with the authorship and censorship discourse, we have not been expressing what we feel and want.
I want to challenge you to go one step further. Speak out without self-censorship since we have that luxury here, and if in that conversation you realise that you feel strongly about something, do something about it. The establishment of Yale-NUS College is not accidental. I believe our college came together for many purposes, and one of those purposes is to challenge and clarify the boundaries of censorship in Singapore. And, make no mistake, the only way to clarify the nebulous, enigmatic, impermeable laws of Singapore is to understand how much we have to do to reach or breach them by simply doing. Go then, and don’t Stop.