What is... ‘Radical Productivity’?
Art works never exist in time, they have “entry points”1
Redza Piyadasa, 1978
In one of our early conversations, when the curators were sharing the premise(s) of Negentropic Fields and we were getting acquainted with my past and current preoccupations to tease out and chart potentials for an engagement, I was reminded of an abandoned project of mine, that although never saw the light of day, I felt was appropriate to share: entry points.
In my last year of college, amidst the haze of piling submissions from various modules and classes, my classmate and peer, Fadhil Naseer (who was later involved with the artist-creative collective PEER2), introduced the Are.na platform to me. For the unfamiliar, Are.na3 is an online platform that sits somewhere between being a multi-media hosting website, an online media moodboard, a social network, and a creative and collective research platform. I was delighted to be directed to such a tool, as we were in the middle of working on our respective thesis papers (we were both coincidentally working on theses that overlapped on some tangent points4), and this meant that we could creatively share resources we encounter that might be useful for the both of us. I was working shift work regularly for self-sustenance at that point of time, which meant that we would rarely be able to find time to sit together and have discussions in person, so a platform like Are.na where we could collaboratively (but separately) engage with in our individual ‘junktime’5, mitigated the difficulties in sharing in ‘real time’. I became more and more enthralled by the platform over time as I continued using it.
In the platform, you are able to create ‘blocks’ (and this, could be a string of text, an image, a video, a URL, or even a PDF) which you are able to connect to ‘channels’ that you’ve created. The ‘channels’, which you are able to name, act as folders for these ‘blocks’. The beauty of the platform is in the fact that any user is able to connect ‘blocks’ (both theirs and other user’s) into ‘channels’. ‘Channels’ are also simultaneously connectable to other ‘channels’ within your account and across other users. It also includes a feed, where you’re able to scroll through your interlocutors’ activities: what blocks they upload, and what kinds of connections they make between block-channels and channel-channels. The platform then becomes this rhizomatic network of knowledge that is webbed by nodes of ideas and connections.
A few months after introducing me to the platform, Fadhil, together with Tristan Lim (another member of PEER), and I somehow got into talking about the potentials of working together on putting up Entry Points, an ‘exhibition’ we imagined to be realized on Are.na. The early ideations stemmed from our desires to organize, and the platform proved to be one that could help us circumvent our limitations as young creatives who had no access to physical space or the financial resources to rent a venue. Beyond that, part of the thinking was that such an approach also spoke to our motivations to attempt to dispel the organizer-artist hierarchy, where the conceptual underpinning and premise for an exhibition would be something that is collectively shaped together. We imagined this to happen by way of an online ‘residency’ — also in line with thinking if non-institutional entities such as a creative collective could also offer a kind of network somewhat akin to those of institutional residencies, but here, in the form of an idea network instead — where both organizers and artists would partake in using the platform to connect each other’s blocks and channels if they find that it resonates with any of their respective current preoccupations. Unfortunately, due to the lack of capacity owing to our respective individual work commitments post-graduation, the project was never realized.
In my experience of using the platform, I have had on many occasions found new thought lines emerge from looking at (and learning from) how other users connected with my blocks or channels. The way they categorize it being tend to be very different from the perspective I had of my blocks or channels when I’d uploaded them. This intersectionality in ideas and perspectives was also evident in shared channels (you are able to make your channels open to public or for specific collaborators). For me, this is potent, and that it moves the notions of collaborative knowledge building and mapping affinities out of being just mere rhetoric, into something that is visceral, seen and felt in its literal sense and manifestation. What is striking is also that the platform is built on an effort that is ground up: a platform for the people by the people. The platform is ad-free, supported by its members, and even hosts its community of users on Slack6.
I sensed that the spirit of collaborative/collective knowledge building that was imbued by the platform and its community was aligned to the propositions of Negentropic Fields. In the Manifesto for Platform-Art_Archive-of-Archives, the curators had probed questions pertaining to what it means to archive art, how such processes can be oriented towards the common, and how can it be a necessary act that not only stores the past, but creates a collaborative future7. This is quite present in the process as well, of which I was fortunate to have been involved in at some parts, and I recall the participating artist, bani haykal, in one of his conversations, having raised the potentials of using Are.na and Roam8 as tools to facilitate a networking of the fragments from respective artists that were involved. This exercise was in some ways manifested, albeit in a different method and permutation, but is visualized on the INFO platform as the plot, where the audiences of the project can view and inspect the constellation of interactions between all actors. What then do we make of rethinking these tools and can they transport us to new fields?
TRADE OF THE TOOLS
The direction of this ‘engagement’ text also lends itself to, and was influenced by conversations that occurred in the process of getting familiar with the organizers’ and the project’s ideals. In the early stages, Melvin of Currency (the team behind the whole project’s design efforts) had described to me that the idea for the design of the platform’s website will take visual cues from productivity apps such as Trello and Slack. This was also to be extended to the way that the copy will be written and to the overall writing tone (a play on the snappy, articulate, ‘soft-sell’ slant of marketing lingos prevalently mobilized by contemporary productivity apps). The design was to also emulate more recent forms of information design and dissemination, where just-in-time updates replace ‘finished’ and ‘completed websites’, populated in notification tabs or sidebars. This design direction, in my mind, also gave a nod to the visual language and design systems of the zeitgeist, of version control (think Github repositories9) and source management (think Tumblr reblogs10). This fell into place with the curatorial premise of the project, which envisioned a jettisoning of the ‘objecthood’ of art and an embrace of art-as-fragments and the emancipatory potential of such an approach to allow for meaningful, constructive possibilities of recombination, appropriations and hybridization11.
These provocations had compelled me to attempt with this engagement text, an unpacking of an area of interest that I had recently developed. I had noticed over the recent years, especially so with the unfortunate global pandemic, that there had been an uptick of artists and creatives (in fact people from all walks of life) appropriating tools created for ‘productivity’ and remodelling their end-use. And these instances vary widely, from the frivolous ZOOM ‘raves’, to the unconceptualized but paradigm-shifting use of Google Sheets for nationwide collective mutual aid organizing. But of course, I would be mistaken to say that such a black swan event12 is a phenomenon that has sprunged out only recently.
For me personally, these kinds of interventions that hinted at early reimaginations of the use of tools for productivity, was something that I had observed happening even as early as in the early to mid-2000s. This was a period in time where a lot of subcultural and common interest groups were organizing (locally, regionally and internationally) on the internet that was transitioning from web 1.0 to web 2.013. My favourite jaunts back then were to the DIY hardcore punk forums, specifically LIONCITY DIY (Singapore) and Collective Zine (UK). The threads on these forum boards would ricochet between banal discussions on the latest releases from bands and banter over what falls in or out of a certain genre; to threads discussing global geopolitics or threads where these online communities would organize and plan out how they could occupy and disrupt global coalition events such as the G10 forum. Although at this juncture, forum boards were considered more of a platform for communal placemaking in the digital space, and could hardly be considered as a platform for increased productivity; it marked the first sequence of this strange tango between platforms as tools for agency and autonomy, and platforms as productive tools for growth under a market capitalist logic.
After the mid-2000s, internet forum boards somehow began to lose their traction. They slowly and excruciatingly became an endangered species14 and its format became subsumed into the entanglements of peak productivity. We see this co-option in how companies began to embed the format of forum boards into their customer relationship management, where FAQ and technical support responsibilities are outsourced to the community to take ownership of and provide answers for on company hosted open forum boards (textbook neoliberal capitalist tactic of privatizing profits and socializing costs)15. We see this in how digital platforms such as Slack — targeted to companies for more streamlined, lean, and productive working arrangements — assumes the form of a forum board on steroids, crossbred with IRC styled features and third-party app integration capabilities. Unknowingly, a trade-off happens, where perhaps in trying to cling on to the hopeful nostalgia of the agency of the forum boards of the noughties, we subscribe (metaphorically and literally) to its upkeeping and reformatting into the ‘productivity industry’16.
But perhaps some trade-offs are more strategic than others? Could there be a point on the trade scale where one can balance a cognitive dissonance when being ‘complicit’ in utilizing productivity tools? Could the potentials from radically usurping a tool far outweigh the drawbacks of ‘submitting’ to a productivist logic?
It is not the intention of this text to, by any way, ‘inventorize’ displays of this usurping, so to speak, but it would prove useful to touch on some activations in that vein, for us to begin to mould this understanding of what ‘radical productivity’ could potentially be. For one, I had been following closely for quite some time the work of the good people at Trust17, especially so during the pandemic lockdowns where I spent much more time facing my screen than before.
One of their regular activity as a group was this session they called Plotting, where they would collectively learn together through a game plot and play. For the setup to technically work (where four people needed to be able to simultaneously control a shared dashboard), their inventive approach towards collective learning had to utilize Figma, a web-based collaborative design tool created for a more seamless and speedier design process. What was especially striking for me, was this multi-level meta role reversal, where a tool and platform designed for productivity, was reappropriated for an unproductive act of play, but where the play actually transforms into a productive exercise of knowledge building and sharing....
Similarly to this unexpected feedback loop, Wares Mutual Aid18, a community-run spreadsheet hosted on Google Sheets, had as well met with unanticipated result. The effort was set up to connect individuals or groups of people in Singapore with needs, to individuals or groups that was in the capacity to render support. Unexpectedly so, a simple and modest intervention of a Google Sheet document had opened up the discourse around the failures of systems of state support, communal trust, and alternative ways of caring for and supporting each other19.
“Something has shifted, it seems: this much is true. We are making new worlds faster than we can keep track of them, and the pace is unlikely to slow. If technologies have advanced beyond our ability to conceptualize their implications and revelations, then such gaps can be perilous, and it is less their fault than ours. One impulse is to pull the emergency brake and try to put all the genies back in all the bottles. This is, at best, ill- advised, and at worst, genocidal. Better instead to invest in emergence, in contingency, to bend our grasping toward its implications: to map the new normal for what it is, and to shape it toward what it should be.”12
Benjamin H. Bratton
In the television series Westworld, the story unfolds of a fictional technologically advanced theme park that is populated by android hosts who are cursed — not unlike Sisyphus — to repeat a narrative and actions that are coded on/in(to) them. This hardwiring, unbeknownst to them, is done for the spectacle and entertainment of the paying human guests of the park. In one particular arc, when the androids finally gain existential consciousness, a ‘door’ opens up and raptures the fabric of the world as they know it, revealing a new field within the doors from which they all began to jump into and migrate to. Could this be the case for us as well, when negotiating our reliance and relationships on technologies and platforms? Can we reimagine what they are able to offer us? Can we continue to meaningfully usurp their use-case(s)? Can radical productivity become a tool then, a key perhaps, to open the doors to a negentropic field…?
1 Caption stenciled on ‘Entry Points’ (1978), an artwork by revered Malaysian artist Redza Piyadasa, in which he had appropriated and framed within his piece, an oil painting of a Malayan riverside scene by another Malaysian artist by the name of Chia Yu Chian. Piyadasa’s statement was a proposition that artworks are not bounded by a chronological order of time, but rather, serve as entry points into a myriad of contexts existing in the past, present and future. For more on the work, see: Sidik, F., 2012. Karya Pintu Masuk Redza Piyadasa. Faizal Sidik, http://faizalsidik.blogspot.com/2012/07/redza-piyadasa-pintu-masuk-dan-situasi.html (in Malay).
2 PEER, currently defunct/on hiatus, was a short lived local collective made of artists and organizers. See: https://web.archive. org/web/20201031194509/http://peerspace.site/
3 See: https://www.are.na/about. See also: https://www.are.na/charles-broskoski/how-do-you-describe-are-na-at-a-party
4 Fadhil was looking into the increasing emergence of experimental art spaces by artist collectives/-collectivising, whereas I was looking into new institutional modalities. In our casual sharing sessions, I had postulated that — unsubstantiated as it may be — perhaps why artists were increasingly banding together and carving spaces with their respective modalities, was possibly because how art institutions work today no longer resonated. This line of thought also further spurred my interest in investigating ‘self-reflexive’ and ‘socially engaged’ (both highly contentious) ‘new institutions’.
5 Junktime is a loaded term to refer to a reimagination of time in an overly digitized reality. Hito Steyerl, in writing of junktime in relation to the totalizing ‘presence economy’ of art, describes it as time that is “wrecked, discontinuous, distracted and runs on several parallel tracks”. Here, I’m making reference to this fracture in standard time, where his delivered, seen, blue ticks, and my responses are not synchronized. See: Steyerl, Hito. “The Terror of Total Dasein: Economies of Presence in the Art Field” Duty Free Art: Art in the Age of Planetary Civil War. 2017. 40–54. See also: Conrad Therien, Troy. “Junktime” After Belonging: The Objects, Spaces, and Territories of the Ways We Stay in Transit. 239–245.
6 Slack is a proprietary business communication platform developed to offer many features such as notification systems, organized public and private chat groups, and more. This peculiar use, of business tools, for collectivizing and building communities will be something that I will attempt to look into in the next part of this text.
7 See: https://negentropicfields.info/Curators. See also: The topology of the HYPER-CUBE: what is “INFO” and “Negentropic Fields”. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1k-ERJFnjFSdRyVlGeWMhGz9fz-c-tvYB/view
8 Roam is a new note taking tool and word processor that allows for its user to make and keep tabs of connections between their notes. The tool, in my personal opinion at least, has a steep learning curve, but would make for a seamless thought connectivity tool if its user has coding literacy as ‘natural’ as say grammar literacy. See: https://roamresearch.com/
9 Github is an internet provider of software development hosting where one is able to trace the code for version releases of softwares or non-software repositories. See: https://github.com/
10 Tumblr is an online blogging and social platform where a user is able to look at the entire history of engagement, from likes to reblogs, of a particular post from its foonote. See: https://www.tumblr.com/
12 The black swan theory, popularized by theorist Nassim Taleb, refers to the metaphor of an event or phenomenon that comes as a shock, has major effect on things, and is often only rationalized after the effect with the benefit of hindsight. The term takes its roots from the first observation of black swans in the 17th Century that invalidated the fact that only white swans existed. See: Taleb, Nassim Nicholas. The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. 2010.
13 The web 1.0 is well regarded as the internet at its infancy, where it was a domain that was “read only” and there were very little ways for one to engage in a form of user interaction. The web 2.0 is regarded as the iteration of the internet where one is able to “read-write”, an evolution of the internet into a space where active interaction could happen.
14 See: https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/07/10/remembrance-of-message-boards-past/
15 See: https://www.shortstack.com/blog/using-a-community-forum-to-support-customer-service-efforts/
16 See: https://www.theatlantic.com/business/archive/2015/11/be-more-productive/415821/
17 See: https://trust.support/
18 See: https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1XzScy_hXVg7hVScZ_g6RBxq-ubkyvt601zD88w1IOo4/
19 See: Why Wares Mutual Aid? New Naratif. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6itcpir03cU&t=2402s
20 Bratton, Benjamin H. The New Normal. 2020.