Bart Seng Wen Long
I was born and bred in Singapore, and currently based in London. My practice spans across the photographic, the moving image, literary nonfiction and performance, and at the center of it is the affectionate insistence on uneasy tensions located between the intersections of themes I am drawn to or have a personal stake in – these include fetishism, queerness, contemporary appearance, (post-)racial politics, media & genres, aesthetics and the comfortable smother of neoliberal capitalism. These tensions can be both abstractly theoretical and viscerally human, and I want to handle them with care, humour, complexity and poetry.
With anything I create, my hope is always to synthesise and subvert the schizophrenic sensibilities of our increasingly complicated times through conceptual interrogations and sincere satires, so as to reveal unexpected modes of feeling and being, desiring and labouring.
Q: WHAT WAS YOUR ROUTE TO YOUR CURRENT ARTISTIC PRACTICE?
I grew up obsessed with fictions, mythologies, otherworldly characters, freaks, geeks and losers. I realised at 14 (after watching Goodfellas) that I am in love with the cinematic medium, and that I want to make films because I love telling stories and I am excited by the deeply affective possibilities of the filmic form.
But making films in Singapore is a bit of a Sisyphean torture, and so I decided to put that in the backseat while I explored a different but similar, yet slightly more accessible medium in photography. I love photography but the world of images has since outgrown any one traditional medium. Organic and colloquial strains of imageries can now come much closer to the truth than what puritanical photography can do. Thus, my aim now is to synthesise and subvert the schizophrenic sensibilities and multi-media aesthetics of our contemporary times to make works that speak to and speak for – albeit in a mangled and strange dialect – the metropolitan people of my generation.
Some things don’t change though. At the core of my practice, it has always been about an affectionate, almost stubborn insistence on uneasy tensions and conflicts between concepts, fantasies, thematics and reality. Aside from that, the beating heart and soul of my work will always be the consummate outsiders, the low-resolution losers and the minor genres.
Q: CAN YOU IDENTIFY ANY ELEMENTS OF YOUR COMMUNITY OR COLLABORATORS THAT HAVE HAD A STRONG INFLUENCE?
I am inspired daily by the flow of interactions that happens within the social media villages of communities I find myself a part of. This includes the exchange of memes, discourse, anger and celebration. There are so much to unpack even in these minute social exchanges, and how every group (be it the Asian diaspora, the queer community, the kink community, or any intersection of all of them) ultimately is related to wider realities or thematics. It is in these moments of interactions between individuals within groups within a polity that somehow always manage to spark some new idea or new image in my thought process that I pick and choose to work through.
As for my collaborators, I can unequivocally say that they are some of the most talented and most empathetic range of people that I know. Oftentimes it is a difference in opinion or a disagreement in aesthetics that would push me to consider blind spots and alternative ideas. If anything, I believe it is the diversity of the people who I work with that keeps me open-minded and challenges stagnant clichés I might unconsciously lean back on.
Q: HOW IS YOUR PROJECT TIED TO THE CIRCA X DAZED CLASS OF 20:21 THEME OF ‘COMMUNION’?
In my film Lonely Prayer for an Ornament, which is partly a form of self-portraiture, the protagonist’s position atop a spinning pedestal recalls Lazy Susans typically found in Chinese restaurants and thus teases it being consumable, but it also references the privileging of ideal sculptural forms in art canon. The gaze is short-circuited here, being both object and subject, the ornamental figure (borrowing from Anne Anlin Cheng’s theory of Ornamentalism) finds itself in an ambiguous space of contemplation and lyricism. Within this space, Chen Yi-Wen’s poetry (translated and read by Audrey Tang) plays like a prayer for one but also a prayer meant to be shared aloud, especially for the different communities of people that I hope the work relates to.
It is an intimate yet inclusive communion between a self in its very specific modes of being and the viewers who will form a society. The communion is for wisdom, growth, affirmation, healing and transformation. Those are the central themes and aspirations that are mediated on; while the ornamental and assembled body of the lonely protagonist provides a canvas for the imagining of a new way of feeling, being and relating.
In a more subtle way, it is also a private communion between me and Maggie Cheung’s titular role in Olivier Assayas’ Irma Vep. My film is an oblique, conceptual continuation of his film’s exploration of a fetishised Asian woman negotiating her own multivalent identity and desires, and her capacity for affective labour. Not as a repudiation of Irma Vep, but I was wondering what it would be like if these themes and problems are approached by someone who’s closer to Cheung’s character, almost like her spiritual descendant in contemporary times and with more identical lived experiences.
Q: HOW WOULD THE CIRCA PRIZE OF £30,000 IMPACT YOUR FUTURE PRACTICE?
It will certainly go a very long way in allowing me to experiment with new ideas and new technologies in radical ways. It’d also help build a sustainable art-making ecology around me and my collaborators.
Art-making in a capitalist system isn’t cheap, and it is really stressful balancing a good life and being able to make good work when money is a limitation. The prize money would afford me enormous freedom to make work and also to experiment extensively with ideas that I have had to put in the backseat due to feasibility issues. Furthermore, burgeoning technologies are more and more inaccessible to most young people without financial backing. The money from CIRCA PRIZE will allow me to stay very close to these technologies and materials that are shaping our current world – not so that I can replicate them with technical precision and mastery, but so I can use them to more innovative, critical and conceptual ends.
Besides that, the talented people that I collaborate with remain unfairly underrated in their recognition or has a precarious relationship with their capacity to make work. As much as income isn’t a primary aim of my practice, I firmly believe in fair payment for the value of artists’ labour. This means that one of my biggest hopes in the near future is to be able to fairly compensate collaborators, to work with more people who always bring something special to their expertise, and to foster an equitable and ethical collective of art-workers with similar ethical convictions who would then work together so as to go farther together. I think that commitment to collectivism and community has to be a key part of my future practice.
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