TECHNO-IMAGINATIONS: INTERNET LORE IN ASIA
My Malaysian Uncles are Reddit Conspiracy Lurkers
TEIK-KIM POK, Performance Artist, Writer, and Live Art Producer
I will be stitching together news, memes and conspiracy discussions that my 60-something elderly Malaysian relatives share on social media apps such as WhatsApp. I will attempt to reveal a patchwork of intercultural influences on their social interaction and reflect on how the extended Southeast Asian family grapevine navigates the boundaries of political discussion across cyberspace in the digital palm of their hands.
In an era where the phenomena of attachment to folkloric modes of sharing, algorithmically-skewered ideological echo bubbles and the ‘post-truth’ news cycle are interlinked, I intend to present an early development of this work to provoke greater discussion about the role of lore in this workshop
Recent events such as the Brexit vote and the election of Trump has been lamented as evidence of the body politic demonstrating a diminished ability to distinguish between contemporary examples of ‘fake news’ and verifiable information about policy – a diminishing ability that has been seen to undermine optimum conditions under which suffrage could be exercised in a Western political context- that is, by an informed citizenry.
While the creeping influence of hyperbolic news- spreading has been in stock-in-trade since the yellow journalism of the 19th century, the current environment of conflating of news and entertainment, the rise of celebrity as charismatic authority and social media as a dominant force in information broadcasting that has been blamed for being vulnerable to political weaponisation and fear-mongering, with companies such as Facebook expressing latter-day contrition for its role transitioning from uncurated platform to broadcaster.
2. Inciting Thoughts
At the same time, closer to home, a confusing picture began to emerge in my family’s social media network. Like 21st century Asian families whose connections have become more diasporic across the globe, our main mode of staying in touch has been through apps such as the Facebook-owned WhatsApp Messenger, a virtual kinship glue of sorts.
The newsfeed consisted of family travel plans, wedding, recipes, Chinese New Year arrangements and funeral announcements, as well as the odd meme amongst cousins. By 2016, they began to be replaced by forwarded news items from my older and highly-educated relatives that were unverifiable. They were couched in sensationalist tones and generally focused on either a) excoriating political bogeyman, b) overstated crime waves or c) spruiked questionable health fads. A number of these appeared to be monetised clickbait and a handful related to the American election, which had little direct relevance to my Malaysian relatives
That this was transmitted almost exclusively by the older generation was at first perplexing. Out of my cousins’ and my concern, we began to post debunk these posts with links from more reliable sources as well as ‘hoax-slaying’ sites such as snopes.com. The ensuing conversations ranged from head-scratch inducing to heated.
While I was initially tempted to write this off as an exercise geriatric ‘mis-fearing’ through sharing compelling stories of risk and danger (Sunstein, 2006), upon further reflection, I perceived the potential for a deeper unpacking of my relatives’ cultural cognition as a function adhering more to folkloric modes, rather than a conscious effort to perpetuate untruths.
It is from this point that I am cognisant of the disorientation wrought by the speedy evolution of communication channels that has given rise to
“culture-defining tensions of reason and faith in the post-secular phase, where societies, and the secular and sacred, are integrated differently...by way of dis-enchantment and re-enchantment are constantly pulling at each other” (McManus, 2013)
Simultaneously, the racial and economic rhetoric in Malaysia has hovered in divisive tones and at similar fever pitch to that in the West. Due to the graft and corruption case, the 1MDB strategic development fund scandal (Case, 2016) that has tested the resilience of Malaysia’s already-stretched public institutions, the atmosphere of instability coupled with distrust of the political classes has have invited an emphatic response from its citizens not unlike the populist trends in the West.
When Bascom names the basic paradox of folkloric function as providing ‘socially-approved outlets for repressions’(Bascom, 1954) wrought by conformity- enforcing cultural norms, it did not necessarily extend to the phenomenon of viral fake news as entrenching a crises of cognitive dissonance in 21st century participatory democracy.
3. First Stage Presentation
It is from this starting point that I will present at the workshop a 5 minute performative digital rabbit warren, inspired from discussions and archives of my relatives’ WhatsApp group, and invite participants to share their stories of managing their fake news-induced anxieties across familial networks.
Bascom, W. (1954). Four Functions of Folklore. The Journal of American Folklore, 67(266), p.333.
Case, W. (2016). Stress Testing Leadership in Malaysia: The 1MDB Scandal and Najib Tun Razak.
McManus, R. (2013). Death in a global age.
Houndmils, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.
Sunstein, C. (2006). Misfearing: A Reply. Chicago John M. Olin Law & Economics Working Paper, (274).
Teik-Kim Pok is a performance maker and live art producer whose work has sat in audience-activated experiences and speculative interactions.
His most recent work dabbles in conflating discursive, pseudo-therapeutic and popular cultural references. Kino Klink, which debuted in 2013 at the Underbelly Arts Festival on Cockatoo Island, was a mocked-up therapy space where audience members could choose to interact one of four performers to unpack Joseph Campbellian tropes explicitly demonstrated in Hollywood blockbusters they were familiar with as a source of life-coaching device. Part-film club, part speculative social practice, the work invites audiences to weigh up the mythic significance of our popular cultural artefacts in an embodied way.
I’m not a psychic, just a performer , a passive interactive installation which was exhibited in 2011 at the Tin Sheds Gallery at the University of Sydney, was billed as a horoscope rewriting exchange. Drawn from psychologist Bertram Forer’s 13 statements of validity, viewers were encouraged to anonymously compose horoscopic advice for strangers for which they could swap for prewritten advice.
On screen, he has appeared as the titular character in Alvin's Harmonious World of Opposites, a feature film by Platon Theodoris who won a Director's Choice Award at the Sydney Underground Film Festival in 2015. Teik-Kim has worked at Playwriting Australia, the national company for new play development, constructing access, mentoring pathways and eventual production opportunities for playwrights whose work sit outside the dominant Anglo/European model. Formerly a committee member of CAAP (Contemporary Asian Australian Performance) and with whom he collaborated on Lotus, an initiative focused on enabling the production of Asian-Australian theatre-makers on the Australian mainstage. As an arts writers, he is also was a regular contributor to RealTime, one of Australia's leading contemporary performing arts journals for 25 years.
In April 2018, Teik-Kim will graduate as a member of the inaugural cohort of MFA’s in Cultural Leadership at the National Institute of Dramatic Art, Sydney.