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ISSUE 35 : Nusantara: Signifier and Its Limitation
The Method of Projection: Notes of Misreading on Kota Bharu Video Documentary
November 15th, 2017Type: Art Production
Author: Wu, Chi-yu , Alex Ma (English trans) Editor: Rikey Tenn
Quote From: 群島資料庫Nusantara Archive
Note: For the collaborative publication project by artist Wu Chi-Yu in tandem with “Nusantara Archive,” the artist interviewed two independent bookstore owners – Zaidi Musa and Ezzmer Daruh – in Kota Bharu. After the trip to Northern Malaysia, Wu gathered the traces of “map projection”, what he had seen at the weekend market, and conversation questions like “where are you from?” as well as “where are you going”, and then rewrote the collective misreading of images and interpretation of experience regarding the faraway land, the past as well as the past of the faraway land.
A word map (Gall–Peters projection)

World Map

The world map captured through the lens seemed a bit deformed – Asia and Africa, especially the regions near the equator, were not as elongated as we would normally expect. There were many travel information and maps, including Redang Island, Perhentian Island, and this distorted world map, posted on the walls of the B&B we stayed at in Kota Bharu, the capital city of Kelantan. This B&B was recommended by Zaidi Musa, the owner of the bookstore Kedai Hitam Putih and the person we were going to interview. These maps had detailed information, but in contrast to our impression, the world map referred to as “Gall-Peters projection” corrected the issue of obvious enlargement of high-latitude countries in the more commonly seen Mercator projection maps, where European and American countries with higher latitudes were enlarged, which made other Asian and African countries located near the equator seem smaller than their actual sizes, further diminishing the importance of these countries that were already relatively weaker in terms of economic and political power.

Because such variation in sizes gave people different perceptions, Gall-Peters projection focused on correcting the surface areas of continents and fair representation, hoping that, after seeing the corrected scale of this map, viewers could have new perception and realization on the importance of different countries.

During our filming of the interview with the bookstore in the market, it had a table that displayed many books; some of the spectators were reading the books, and some were watching us. We did not know whether the interview affected its business or helped attract spectators? The table was full of books, but when Zaidi first started his business, not only there was no table, he had only one book to sell. Out of his love for leftist thinking, history, and literature, Zaidi began selling books that could not be found in mainstream bookstores in Kelantan at the end of 2006, with just one book; he wanted to introduce different reading materials into this already single-dimensioned reading environment. In the beginning, he was selling the ones he had read, and now he continued to only recommend books he was interested in. From history, literature, to leftist movement in Malaya, Zaidi had offered readers in Kota Baharu a focused and precise direction outside of the information available through mainstream bookstores.

The elongated Asia in the scene, at first glance, seemed to be an issue of using the wrong scale during post-production after filming; however, it was the result of using a different method of projection when converting the globe into two-dimensional map in order to create a politically correct and true representation of the world map, changing the shapes of continents to accurately reflect the sizes of the countries and continents. Consequently, regions near the equator were stretched vertically and became distorted. With the deformation after the adjustment of the continents, the Malay Peninsula became longer and narrower than we used to know. This so-called “accurate” projection had changed the look of the Malaysia I knew; the sphere-shaped globe could not be transcribed onto a flat surface without any errors; the interpretation and deciphering through the lens were just like the light source at the center of the earth during the making of a map, and the method of projection / filming, at the same time, was also changing the appearance of a place and reality. Should deformation required for “accurate” description to be considered as the appropriate way to get to know the world?

Street art at Medan Ilmu

At the Market

The night before, I read Zaidi’s new piece of writing titled “Ne’go” and prepared for the interview the next day. The writing was about the street vendor culture and the rise and fall of the markets in Kota Bharu. Every vendor began with one spot; with cheap rent costing only a few sylings, and they could easily find a suitable spot in the market. All the vendors had to compete for customers’ attention, and they continuously come up with new ideas to promote interesting and new products. The sense of marketplace freedom encouraged the entrepreneurial spirit within the people had gradually become a part of the local culture in Kota Bharu. His bookstore in the market was supposed to be the last lot, yet more vendors are flocking in and stretching the line further; however, the square at the heart of the city that used to host the largest market in the past had since become the largest mall in Kota Bharu.

“The market culture here is eroding our devout spirits. If we firmly upheld our beliefs, we would not need so many imported goods.”

Loud and provoking sound of a speech from the far end of the market could be heard; compared to the end of the market where the bookstore was, the tent where the speeches were taking place was where the market was. Animated emotions exploded through speakers and were broadcasted from the entrance toward the end of the market, heavily criticizing the over-reliance of the people in the market on material culture. At the intersection full of colorful mural art, a crowd of devout listeners sat by the white tent, forming a strong contrast with the scene of an attacking Apache Helicopter depicted in the mural art. The perfectly intact wall was painted with a hole resulted from war, and the fire and spark of the explosion, people of the Middle East running for their lives and some were injured, and tanks, bombers, ruins… all kinds of sceneries of the war in the Middle East were the theme that occupied the walls in the alleys and streets at the heart of Kota Bharu. Holding a bag of cultural jamming stickers that look like football club logo and multinational corporate logos, such as “Gather up, Muslims”, “Supporting Palestine’s Refusal of McDonald’s”, I was disoriented by the sense of place I was in.

A snake oil vendor near PCB

“Please cover your body properly.”

The PCB Beach situated not far away from Kota Bharu was a recreational beach full of people, and had various signs along the dyke. By the dyke, a crow surrounded a stand with piles of wooden cases, the man standing beside the cases was introducing in details the bottle of fluorescent orange liquid; he spoke fluidly with a microphone while his assistant gave a demonstration by putting Styrofoam into a cup filled with the liquid. At this time, the wooden cases on the ground were opened up one by one by another man, and the crowd’s thirst for spectacle was finally satisfied when they saw pythons slowly rising from inside the cases. When they looked back at the cup, the piece of Styrofoam already liquified in the rapidly bubbling liquid. The man continued to loudly promote the magical effects of the orange liquid, and the assistants by his sides were all busy trying to sell the liquid in small bottles to the onlookers; however, the people’s attention could not be easily distracted from the wooden cases, where the pythons continued to escape, and were shuffled back into the cases repeatedly. As all people were watching this escape show of the pythons, they were also listening to the various functions of this magical potion: it could be applied on your hand, or be consumed orally, but these had nothing to do with the pythons. On this stage at the PCB beach, a joint performance of mime and music was taking place, narrating different audio and visual stories, and weaving various perceptions, where the actions and images presented did not coagulate.


Where are you from?

Returning to Penang from Kelantan, where even the sign “7-11” was in Jawi language, the drastic differences in the surrounding environment made it hard to believe that it was the same country, and the scene of a Chinese elderly man and a Malay elderly man sharing the newspaper in a breakfast shop used to be a common social scene in Kelantan.

Malay Wakaf and Chinese Gazebo

At “Ke Timur,” another sharing session held in George Town, the projector over-exposed, and projected a strangely bright-colored and compressed image of the cover of Titih (meaning root or origin), a publication by a newly-founded independent bookstore, Kitartb. It was located in a multi-storey market in Kota Bharu, on a floor with little foot traffic. The man in charge, Ezzmer Daruh, passionately shared his journey of establishing the bookstore, his favorite booklist, and his take on life under the influences of Islamic culture. Hosting an array of activities, Kitartb is slowly becoming the gathering place for local young people who love cultural activities. Ezzmer believed that his bookstore is still missing a Wakaf (small hut), where people gather to have conversations, and this was the imagination depicted on the cover of Titih, which featured silhouettes of people gathering underneath a Malay pavilion at sunset. When people get together, “Where are you from?” was the best ice-breaker, and the conversation would continue onto discussions on our origins, waking up people’s awareness of own culture and history to re-explore identity and shape local culture.

“Root and origin” is a question about the past, so, should they also discuss how the future would look like? When people meet, they like to use the question “where are you from?” to start the conversation, could it also trigger a new question: “Where are you going?” Actually, the answer is no. Ezzmer brought up his two favorite books, the ones that inspired him to open his own bookstore: Melati Kota Bharu (Lily of Kota Bharu) and Orang Kota Bharu (People of Kota Bharu), which tell the past of the city that was greatly different from the present; one was about the 1940s and the other was about the 1970s, both had diverse cultural landscapes and literature scenes. For Ezzmer, even a native born and locally-raised resident would find the other Kota Bharu in the books strange yet interesting. The urban life depicted in the books had become the objective of this day’s event at the bookstore; through discussing and understanding the past, they aimed to reshape the look of the city.

"Ke Timur", a sharing session by artist Wu Chi-yu in Carbon

Perhaps as they were taking actions, this small publication Titih, does not ask “Where are you going?” due to difference in time periods, had gradually changed the cultural landscape of the city on today. Like a revival of publishing culture, even if the city today were to become the Kota Bharu in the 1970s, we would still call it the Kota Bharu of 2017; the Kota Bharu of 2017 with the cultural scenes of 1970s.

About the past, this experience exists only in records and was manifested through interpretation and imagination; the present was different than the past, and therefore, the action of returning to the past had in fact changed the present that was gradually becoming the future.

“Does your visit here have anything to do with the Southbound Policy of Taiwan?”

In the projected image of the cover of Titih, the sunset seemed especially red due to the lightbulb; most people from Penang present at the event had never visited Kelantan, and could only imagine the life on the East Coast based on the limited scene and colors provided. From asking “Where are you from?”, “What are you doing here?” to the last question of the sharing session, what the audience were really interested in was: “Why are you here?”

More and more foreign artists or curators, not just the ones from Taiwan, had come to Penang or Malaysia, engage in visits, exhibitions, or projects. Even earlier, organizations from Japan and other countries had already shifted their attention onto Southeast Asia, and imagined the south through respective perspectives. During the sharing session, the projector showed the various segments of our interview in Kota Bharu through its powerful light. I, Okui Lala, Hoo Fan Chon, and Wan Atikah, each of us was involved in the project to a different degree, and had different experiences of Malaysia and Kelantan (level of familiarity varied from Atikah, who was raised in Kota Bharu, as compared to me, who had zero experience of the city). Through the images and our explanation, we took turns to share various looks of the faraway land, the past, and the past of the faraway land, constructing an all new experience of misreading through our devoted interpretations and collective imagination.

See Also
The Reading List Project: Interview with Kitartb, the independent bookstore in Kelantan, Malaysia ,Wu Chi-yu, et al