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flockis part of pigeon (people like us), an ongoing exploration by Khairullah Rahim looking into tactics of appearance(s) and demeanour, specifically around the relationship between objects, bodies and community, and its e/affects on safety as a branching point. The project finds an uncanny parallel between pigeons and marginalised folks in their constant navigation and code switching between guilt, shame, and desire under surveillance in a hostile environment. Khairullah speaks to Yingbi Lee about the central themes of flock in relation to the spatial logics of public urban spaces and green spaces for Feral Neighbourhoods.

YL The idea of visibility is central to flock, and I found it really interesting given how pigeons are also one of the most visible animals in the city. Instead of staying around trees and grass, pigeons roam freely around the streets and nest on building ledges, and because of this they trespass on spaces that we see as being designated for humans. Even though the idea of being a city in a garden is heavily emphasised in Singapore, there is still an expectation of orderliness and for nature to stay within certain boundaries. You mentioned that public corridors and staircases have become hostile, contested spaces—do you think that there is the same demarcation of space, or ideas around ownership or allowance into public space that applies to marginalised identities or bodies in these spaces?

KR There is indeed so much to discuss as we think about politics of visibility and how it shapes the way we perceive and navigate our everyday lives. My recent exploration attempts to unpack some of my own personal relationships with visibility through re-questioning the multi-faceted functions of light and the complexities of safety. Pigeons have repeatedly made appearances in my works—I am so fascinated by them and their resilience to thrive despite all the hostilities we continuously throw at them. They are also ubiquitous and it is impossible to not cross paths with one when you leave the house. There is a common presumption about how marginalised minorities are often referred to as less visible because of scarcity but this is not entirely true. Marginalised folks are also often hyper-visible simply because they stand out; they look, sound, move, react and behave differently. You mentioned how there is an expectation for nature and urban wildlife to stay in order within certain boundaries and to assimilate and you were right. The vision to transform Singapore as a “garden city” with abundant lush greenery to make life more pleasant for the people was introduced in 1967. But that’s clearly conflicting with how nature truly works. Nature is unruly and has often proved to be unpredictable. For this reason, many of us see pigeons as a nuisance and we reluctantly share the environment with them.

I cringe each time I hear discussions about the “public” as though it is a singular entity. The way any given space can be demarcated often intersects more than one determining factor simultaneously i.e. function, ownership, power dynamics, safety and many more. And it gets even more complex when the space is shared amongst multiple (marginalised) communities and other non-humans. Several years back, during an artist residency with Taipei Artist Village, I did research on acts of cruising in public spaces. Amongst all the cruising sites that I observed, the most peculiar one was at a popular local bookstore which opens 24/7. The person who shared information about the site advised me to come at night and observe how the crowd mix would gradually transition. When I arrived at 10:30pm, the general crowd was predominantly families and children as expected, but by midnight, my gaydar was going bonkers.

YL I'm also interested to get your thoughts on beauty, hyper-visibility, and flamboyance. There are ideas of both passing and hyper-visibility in flock—passing by turning found domestic objects and tools of working class jobs into desirable items, hyper-visibility by making them flashy and sparkly. Pigeons are more visible in the city, but they also 'pass' in a way by being more dull and plain-coloured compared to the bright yellow and green birds that are fairly common in built areas of Singapore as well. This plays a role in how they are viewed in society, where we tend to value both plants and animals based on their utility to humans, or their perceived beauty. What are your thoughts on the tension between passing and hyper-visibility as strategies for survival? Do you think they affect the value that gets assigned to a certain body? Is it possible to pass and be hyper-visible at the same time?

KR As I have mentioned earlier, the context(s) of visibility really needs to be re-examined with regard to how it is being utilised. Beyond beauty as value, I feel that safety is an even more valuable currency here. Visibility and light are commonly associated with safety but this is usually more applicable for the majority who fit in. Therefore, people like us often have to reconsider and resort to other ways of using light. How can light and beauty be used together as a kind of defence mechanism that functions to distract more than expose. Light and beauty can also mask and shield.

YL I like that you mentioned the idea of making life, or spaces, more pleasant through greenery, because what gets allowed into these "green spaces" hinges on what is deemed "pleasant", including animals, plants, bodies and behaviours. I think just as pigeons are reluctantly allowed into "human" spaces, visibly minoritised folk are also reluctantly allowed into public green spaces in order to maintain this idea of “pleasantness”.

As for beauty, it’s often seen as something that draws attention. Can you elaborate a little on how beauty masks?

KR Precisely! Just think about it—what do you call a pretty white pigeon? A dove. There is in fact no difference between a pigeon and a dove in scientific nomenclature. This is why exploring how beauty, which seems so innocuous, can also function as a bait or decoy is so interesting to me; like how doves are used as props in magic shows. Beauty, in this sense, is deceptive, working undercover and concealing the artwork’s other hidden meaning(s). The flock series was made together with Angela Guo. Her knowledge and experience in commercial photography was truly an asset for our first collaboration together. I had no prior experience with shooting in a real studio with models (four humans and a ginger cat) and directing a photoshoot. Honestly speaking, on the day of the shoot, I did not know what to expect then. The images turned out to possess a certain man-made quality, almost plastic like—glossy, unnatural and rich. “Plastic” does not sound like a good adjective to describe an artwork but I truly felt that it reflected the sentiments of the work so effectively!

YL Another thing stood out to me was the inclusion of spikes in the sets, a stark contrast to the rest of the objects, which were either domestic or benign, or positively associated with recreation. The colours also add to a very idyllic portrayal of a typical Singaporean estate. Was there any particular reason for including the spikes alongside the other objects?

KR If you inspect closely, there is also a rat trap included as one of the prop objects in flock (During Halftime). Prior to the shooting of the series, Angela and I sat and discussed together and came to an agreement that what we both wanted was to subtly inject a sort of contradiction in the images; pairing leisure, rest, surveillance, beauty and labour together. The spikes you see in the series are also commonly called pigeon spikes. They are installed along nooks and corners where pigeons regularly gather such as hawker centres and building window ledges to deter them from perching. These hostilities can be found everywhere, but because of their almost see-through characteristic, many do not notice them.

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