Thursday, 31 May 2012

The Sun Cycle (Documentation of New Work)

Screen shot 2012-05-31 at AM 06.52.55




By Debbie Ding

In the rear-view mirror appeared Tezcatlipoca, demiurge of the "smoking-mirror." "All those guide books are of no use, "said Tezcatlipoca. "You must travel at random, like the first Mayans; you risk getting lost in the thickets, but that is the only way to make art."
- Robert Smithson, "Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan" (1969)

In 1973, the land artist Robert Smithson was in a plane overseeing the site of his new work Amarillo Ramp in Texas when his pilot collided into a mountain, killing them instantly. It was a tragically prophetic death for a man who once said that the physical and the mind are in a "constant collision course". For in the process of making of his work, he had inadvertently ended the physical possibility of himself making the work. And for those of us who are deeply interested in land and spaces, and in places, the physical impossibility of being in more than one place has always been a quandrary.

For me, the most striking realization of traveling from Mexico to Singapore is the physical distance from Singapore. I marvel at being able to sit in a plane that flies across continents and oceans, according to the map on your inflight screen, and finally lands on the opposite side of the globe… And then to pick up and to hold in my hand a seemingly inconsequential rock on the ground in Mexico... These rocks, stones, soil, and dirt have been a silent but constant audience to man’s numerous movements and interventions around the globe.

I saw numerous artefacts at the Museo de Antropología e História de Toluca, at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico City, and in a small bookstore here I also saw miniature replicas of some of these ancient sculptures - from the iconic coiled feathered serpent of Quetzalcoatl to the Aztec Sun Stone, which is also frequently simply labelled as "Mayan Calendar" in small shops. As an artefact, the “Mayan Calendar” is visually arresting with its detailed glyphs and symbols. The calendar round itself is made up of 3 interlocking cycles made up of 365 days, 20 names, and 13 numbers, and the names of the dates are designated according to the alignment of the three cycles. 52 years will pass before the three cycles will align in the same way again. The origins of these calculations also came from the way in which the earth aligned with the sun and the other stars and planets. Although we think of time as a fluid abstraction, it is marked by observable changes in the position of physical matter – the very physicality of the land and earth that we are on.

Automatic translation with Google Translate:


Por Debbie Ding

En el espejo retrovisor apareció Tezcatlipoca, demiurgo del "hábito de fumar-espejo". "Todas esas guías no sirven de nada", dijo Tezcatlipoca. "Usted debe viajar al azar, como los primeros mayas, corre el riesgo de perderse en la espesura, pero esa es la única manera de hacer arte."

- Robert Smithson, "los incidentes de espejo de Viajes en la península de Yucatán" (1969)

En 1973, la tierra artista Robert Smithson estaba en un avión que supervisa el sitio de su nuevo trabajo Amarillo Ramp en Texas cuando su piloto chocó contra una montaña, matándolos al instante. Fue una muerte trágicamente profético para un hombre que dijo una vez que el físico y la mente están en un "curso de colisión constante". Porque en el proceso de elaboración de su obra, sin darse cuenta que había terminado la posibilidad física de sí mismo haciendo el trabajo.

Para mí, la realización más notable de viajar desde México a Singapur es la distancia física de Singapur. Me maravillo de poder sentarse en un avión que vuela a través de continentes y océanos, de acuerdo con el mapa en la pantalla durante el vuelo, y finalmente aterriza en el lado opuesto del mundo ... Y luego para recoger y sostener en la mano una apariencia roca intrascendente sobre el terreno en México ... Estas rocas, piedras, tierra y suciedad han sido un público silencioso pero constante de numerosos movimientos del hombre y las intervenciones en todo el mundo.

Vi numerosos artefactos mayas y aztecas en el Museo de Antropología e Historia de Toluca, y en una pequeña librería aquí también vi réplicas en miniatura de algunas de estas esculturas antiguas, desde la serpiente enrollada icónica emplumada de Quetzalcóatl a la Piedra del Sol Azteca, que También es frecuente, simplemente etiquetados como "Calendario Maya" en las tiendas pequeñas. Como un artefacto, el "Calendario Maya" es visualmente con sus glifos y símbolos detallados. La ronda del calendario en sí se compone de 3 ciclos entrelazados compuestos por 365 días, los nombres y los números 20, 13, y los nombres de las fechas se designan de acuerdo a la alineación de los tres ciclos. 52 años pasarán antes de los tres ciclos se alineará de la misma manera otra vez. Los orígenes de estos cálculos también vino de la forma en que la Tierra alineada con el sol y las estrellas y los planetas. A pesar de que pensar en el tiempo como una abstracción de líquidos, que se caracteriza por cambios observables en la posición de la materia física: la corporalidad misma de la tierra y la tierra que nos encontramos.



The Actual Sun Stone which I went to see at the Museo Nacional de Antropologia in Mexico City...

Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Don Porfirio - El Senor de la Bestias

On our first day in Toluca, I noticed this face on a wall. And then it just kept reappearing...





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We were told that the artist of the faces was a homeless man in Toluca known as the Don Porfirio / Lord of the Beasts (El Senor de la Bestia) and he had been drawing these faces around Toluca along with a rambling political text for some time. He was frequently seen with his many dogs following him, hence the beasts, and I wish I knew how to speak spanish because we eventually met the man himself on the street in front of Los Portales... He asked me where I was from. I said Singapore, but then he asked me to list some other cities and went off on a tangent about the China and eventually Vietnam War. Due to my poor (ie: nonexistent) Spanish I did not know what he was going on about...





To be honest when I was first told that the place where we had been standing at was "Los Portales", I thought of "lost portals" like these were gateways to mysterious places elsewhere. I also wondered why he asked me to name some other random cities near Singapore. Perhaps it was all the same to him, whatever country I might be from did not really matter. Or perhaps it is all the same to him, all the countries have evil people in them that need fighting against, that there will always be stories to be told and drawn in the countries. Or perhaps there is no complex story, this is just the mad ravings of an artistically inclined homeless man in Toluca. Who knows? Its amazing to find his drawings in small corners, on walls, everywhere in Toluca...

Another mystery is the stereotypical asian features of the characters. Although I could not seem to find out from him why they looked asian, and some others told me he was not drawing asians but the stereotypical small mexican person, this one in particular seems to suggest that he is infact consciously drawing a chinese character because he writes "Chinese Monk" on top of this one drawing:


La Pulqueria (San Fellipe Tlamimilolpan)

"Pulque, or octli, is a milk-colored, somewhat viscous alcoholic beverage made from the fermented sap of the maguey plant, and is a traditional native beverage of central Mexico. The drink’s history extends far back into the Mesoamerican period, when it was considered sacred, and its use was limited to certain classes of people. After the Spanish Conquest of Mexico, the drink became secular and its consumption rose. The consumption of pulque reached its peak in the late 19th century. In the 20th century, the drink fell into decline, mostly because of competition from beer, which became more prevalent with the arrival of European immigrants." (From Wikpedia)

The other evening, Luis flagged a taxi for us and asked to find a pulqueria. The very kind taxi driver took us on a ride away from the city conurbation and into the more "country" parts. Surprisingly after not more than half an hour of driving out, we were no longer in a city.



Soon we were on unpaved roads. Asking around also revealed that there were supposed to be very few if not no more pulquerias around the place and we were in a corn field. It looked a bit sketchy...


Corn fields in San Fellipe Tlamimilolpan

... until we stopped finally in a place where they said they did pulque. At first they were suspicious of us, but later one of them invited us in. And so we came in to their house, and they gave us pulque in a clay earthernware. It was cold and delicious. They said they were preparing it for a big soccer game in a field nearby, when they would sell this pulque.


Our taxi driver with the owner of the house. You would never have a taxi driver in Singapore agree to randomly take a few hours detour and a long stopover at some random stranger's house for a few hours to have some fermented cactus juice. It was very nice of him to accompany us and indulge us on our adventure... They seemed to have a good conversation together as well to the extent that for some periods of time I forgot he was our taxi driver whom we had simply flagged down on the street.


On the wall, there hung an old drawing of jesus, which looked almost like a chinese wayang character to me because it was so ornately decorated. There was a bit of a rain outside and there was a cat hiding in the house with the dirt floor. It was making a meow sound every few minutes.


Another customer came in. He was a "regular customer". He claimed to have been drinking for 6 days in a row, and we could almost believe it since he kept lapsing into self-doubting and hand-wringing phases of "I don't mean any disrespecting!" inbetween taking a shine to me (becoming almost slightly creepy and repeating "I... LIKE.... YOU" in espanol to me, while pointing to me and pointing to himself and repeating this). He said he would drink for one more day, and then stop after the 7th day of drinking. In his strangely white trainers and bright modern printed shirt, it was hard to imagine where he had really come from, or what he had been doing, or what was going on with him or why he kept talking about respect and not wanting to disrespect others.



Clay pottery keeps the cold stuff cold, and the hot stuff hot. Its great. Plastic and metal sucks. I went to the Museo the other day and the clay pottery was all intact whereas the metal artefacts were corroded badly. Now that we are in the era of plastic, nothing will last like that clay that we started off with.


On the way home there was a bit of rain, and subsequently it flooded for a while. When we returned to the centro everything was silent and closed at night. People go to sleep early here I reckon... I am going to do the same and wake up early instead. I can still hear the distant strains of a mariachi somewhere... probably at the Portales...

Vamos a la Mexico

In a sudden twist of fates, I have come to the undiscovered country of Mexico, to teach a workshop at the Facultad Artes, Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México (Toluca, Mexico) along with a few other Singaporean/South-east Asian based artists/educators. Much thanks must go to Luis and Anne-Marie for putting the amazing trip together, and I've also been learning lots from them and Andreas who taught a workshop about Pure Data, which I am very excited about now.

Mexico is brilliant, it resembles a mix between the clamor and chaos of Indonesia (visible signs of poverty and high income inequality) and a bizarrely European style (colonial buildings and Spanish speaking population) and European weather. The weather is hot in the sun during the mornings (22 degrees and more) but as the sun ebbs away the weather can fall suddenly (to 10 degrees or lower). You can put your milk carton outside your window. And leave a pack of crisps on the table and find it still amazingly crunchy on the day after.

We are currently in Toluca, the capital of Mexico State, and the UAEM (our host) is a public university, meaning that students aren't paying private fees for all the facilities in this art school. And a fully-fledged art school it is! Smelling of paint, with a great computer lab for both mac and pc (the only problem is the spotty internet), a large traditional printmaking studio, outdoor sculpture areas, sound recording studio, film studio with professional lights, rigging, rails, etc. Impressive for a public school to have amassed so much!

One of the important criteron for whether I would seriously learn a foreign language would be whether the language itself already has a large body of literature, and in that respect Spanish is a language I would love to learn. A visit to the bibloteca and the bookstores here in Centro Toluca show no paucity of literature and poems to be entertained by. I have made some puerile attempts to learn spanish along the way, enough to hire a taxi to places and back or ask for food, and found some poetry books by Toluca's poets. Maybe eventually I will be able to read them!

Here is what it looks like to me:













See all images in my Flickr Set: Mexico

Soon I will post more on: Following the trail of the El Senor de la Bestias, our trip to a surreal Pulqueria in a small village called San Fellipe Tlamimilolpan, Mayan Calendars and the Aztec Barcode, and Pedro Infante....

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Ruby on Rails / How to use Slidedown to make HTML5 slides in Markdown

Last weekend I attended a railsbridge session which was hosted by newcontext at their amazing office; Desi from Devchix, along with many other helpers guided a roomful of girls through a workshop on building and deploying our first Ruby on Rails app. I think its great that they have female-focused programming classes because there are really not so many girls doing programming! And it was good because I needed that little push to get me over the main hurdle (ie: INSTALLING RUBY ON MY MAC) and then the rest was really a breeze. I'm excited to build more things in Ruby and to get more acquainted with running things on the command line on my mac!

For more information on railsbridge check out:
- Installfest Guide - how to install ruby
(do note that for mac 10.6.8 the instructions are slightly outdated, you will only need GCC-10.6 instead of Xcode)
- Railsbridge Curriculum - the lessons we went through

My own notes are here.

I noticed that they were using an interesting html/jquery based presentation tool which was called Slidedown, and since I will be teaching a workshop in Mexico next week I thought I should try to use that instead of using Prezi or some other random desultory method.

I went to Slidedown on github, downloaded the package, and puzzled for quite some time over what to do with it. HOW WOULD ANYONE NEW TO THIS EVER FIGURE THIS OUT WITHOUT THE INTERNETS! Anyways, the inside of this package didn't look exactly like the file structure of the Suggestotron example that we built during the class (as the package came without a Gemfile). But there was a .gemspec file inside, which was the clue that I googled for. And this is eventually what I figured out:

How to install a gem in ruby

Screen shot 2012-05-16 at PM 06

If there is a gemspec file inside the folder, this is what you should run in terminal:

gem build gemname.gemspec
gem install gemname-version.gem

That was just an example. Replace gemname with the actual name of your gem. So, in my case, after downloading the slidedown gem from github, this is what I actually typed in (VERBATIM):

gem build slidedown.gemspec
gem install slidedown-0.2.0.gem

After I installed it, it generated my html for me inside the command.

Screen shot 2012-05-16 at PM 06

I hope this post will help someone who might be sitting at their computer puzzling over this embarrassingly noob question that also stumped me... "HOW DOES I INSTALL A RUBY GEM???"

I love editing my wiki, which has a pared down mediawiki text format as well, but Markdown is even simpler and nicer - so I find it most excellent fun to make my presentation in Markdown before creating it in HTML. So simple and clean! This is the example of what the Markdown syntax looks like when you create something in Slidedown.


# This is my talk


## I hope you enjoy it

!SLIDE code

    def foo


Google is [here](


# Questions?

Click here to view Slidedown Example

Monday, 7 May 2012

The Singapore River as a Bow-shaped Canal

Recently, I read, with some incredulity, that the Singapore River was to be diverted for the digging of new MRT tunnels (Downtown Line).

ST Breaking News (28 April 2012) - Singapore River diversion a herculean task:
"The plan to divert the Singapore River may be the most ambitious part of the MRT Downtown Line project. The herculean task, to begin by the end of the third quarter, will reroute part of the river next to Riverside Point into a bow-shaped canal. (…) The river is being moved so that the Land Transport Authority (LTA) can bore two train tunnels under it for the Downtown Line 3."

ST Breaking News (28 April 2012) - Singapore River to be diverted for MRT tunnels:
"Part of the Singapore River, the site of Singapore's earliest settlements, will be moved so that an MRT line can be built under it. In the first undertaking of its kind, the Land Transport Authority (LTA) and Korean builder GS Engineering & Construction will dig a bow-shaped canal to divert the river. It will then clear the drained portion of age-old debris and fill it with a stabilising material before boring two train tunnels under it. The original path of the waterway will be reinstated after the tunnels are completed."

Screen shot 2012-05-07 at AM 08

Source: ST

Screen shot 2012-05-07 at AM 08

Map Source: OneMap. Annotation by Debbie.

The fate of excavated debris and soil is something I have puzzled over for some time now. What will happen to all this "age-old debris" after they dig it up? Do they use it to fill up other spaces? Do they bury it somewhere else? Do they give the soil to others to reuse in other landfills? What happens to the soil from (commercial) excavations?

It has been known that sometimes the government does allow a pause in these redevelopment/construction works to allow for archaeological digs. This has happened for a number of old sites around the central part of Singapore, such as the Old Parliament at Empress Place, the National Art Gallery (a very short spell though). But crucially, because this has not yet actually happened, there is still a possibility for a proper request for an study of the dig site at the Singapore River before it too has been built over forever.

Back in April, I made some notes about John Miksic's lecture on "Guerrilla Archaeologists and the Singapore Story" here on my other Documentations blog. When he spoke about the importance of archaeology particularly in areas which were endangered and about to be dug up, I also immediately thought of the Downtown Line excavations which are all in the town area. I'm interested in the DTL excavations around Sungei Road. But of course, now it appears, the Singapore River itself is also at stake.

What is the importance of doing an archaeological dig? Why is it important to study the Singapore River then? Well, I think one thing that is often eclipsed in accounts of "Singapore History" is the presence of a history before Raffles. These archaelogical studies, as well as the acquisition of the Beilitung Shipwreck (however much the ethics might be dispute) are reminders that Singapore is not only in existence because of its colonial history, but it has a much longer history as a place in this region.


Photo taken on 4th May - Around the River Valley Station Construction Site


Photo taken on 4th May - Around the River Valley Station Construction Site


Photo taken on 4th May - Piling works have already started as evidenced by photos taken around the site.


The part of the waterway that they are planning to divert.


This signboard has the list and phone numbers of all the agencies involved.

I suppose the first thing to do is to raise awareness of the value of an archaeological study in that area. Someone has already set up a facebook group here for starters - Singapore River diversion - Protect Our Heritage where they are asking for 6 months to allow the NUS team to study the site. Will this be acceded to? Perhaps we need more public support to persuade the authorities to allow this break in construction for an archaeological study. But after all, what is six months to study a historical site that might never be accessible again for all eternity?

It looks like I might have to update my animation of the changes in the Singapore River.... although by the way things are going, maybe I should have to wait to see if other parts of the Singapore River also gets moved about. It's already been shown that here in Singapore there are no sacred cows: there are no monuments, no heritage sites, no geographical features, and no buildings here that cannot be wilfully moved or destroyed. But this is an attitude that needs to change - or at least for people to be more educated about what will be lost from all this, and what we could have gained from it as well...

The Singapore River as a Psychogeographical Faultline

Another view of the River (from a screenshot I took in August 2010):

cte and river

This CTE tunnel is under the Singapore River. Do you think the drivers passing through this part of the CTE are even aware that they are actually moving under the Singapore River itself? Under the waters and the waves and the boats and everything? Its funny how these things are so central and so many people pass through this area but most people still don't really look at the things around them.