[iDC] Interview with Wolfgang M ü nch

Trebor Scholz trebor at thing.net
Tue Apr 5 13:47:55 EDT 2005

New Media Education in Singapore

Interview with Wolfgang Münch (adjusted by Trebor Scholz)
As part of WebCamTalk1.0

Trebor Scholz:  Singapore has a considerable focus on vocational training
that is in contrast to notions of solid, balanced education. New media
education programs that were presented at the Multimedia Art Asia Pacific
Conference 2004 followed the objectives of trade schools focusing for the
most part on an industrial skill set. Do you feel that these skill sets will
be of lasting help to students?

http://molodiez.org/singapore.pdf (28.2 MB)

Wolfgang Münch: Singapore does not focus much on the arts per se but makes
big steps towards the development of media industries. Singapore is a very
small island of four and a half million people. Survival means to bring in
money while faced with the absence of native resources. Singapore develops
and sells its specific expertise to the rest of the world. The bright
digital vision of Singapore's leaders is outlined in a number of
initiatives, one of them is called "Media 21: Transforming Singapore into a
Media City."  Having a strong industrial emphasis at new media conferences
in this country is understandable if you read this document. For people from
other cultural backgrounds this commercial impetus may seem a bit strange.


TS: The criticism of merely teaching vocational skills is in line with
business interests. Just-in-time knowledge such as specific animation skills
will not equip the young media artist with a variety of skills that is
divers enough to accommodate a dynamic market. What if students do not get
their first job at Lucas Film' new facility in Singapore? What if the
orientation of the market place changes? How do you train students to be
able to pick up ever evolving skill sets? A combination of vocational
skills, and knowledge in the humanities would position Singaporean students
better. They would not be low-end tech workers in an animation factory.

WM: This is precisely the challenge. Who introduces students to conceptual
thinking? Who trains people in creativity? Can creativity be taught at all?
In our courses at LASALLE-SIA we emphasize both critical thinking and
technological skills. That makes our media art programs quite unique in
Singapore. Many students have no real sense of what critical thinking means.
In Asia the more common model is that students are listening, and then
repeat back to the teacher. Traditionally, education was much less about
ideas expressed by an individual. We need to help the students to unlearn,
to try and open up to collaboration, for example. All these efforts aim at
making students more competitive. The main educational challenge in
Singapore is to show students that there can be value in a project without
immediate commercial outcome, which is not always easy. But discussions
about this can be quite charming, and you can convince people. In general,
students are very open to new ideas and with a bit of initial input, and a
fair amount of patience-- they can go far.


U.S. American academia moves towards the corporate model that favors science
over the humanities but here things are somehow opening up for the better.
The country is open to new media art practices. It is increasingly easier to
get funding from the state, also for a wide range of art projects.
Singaporeans experience a new kind of freedom. A good example for this new
approach was a recent conference at which Jeffrey Shaw, among others from
the University of New South Wales, presented his research program.
Collaborations between programs such as iCinema, and Singaporean education
and research institutes are planned and encouraged by the local authorities
such as the economic development board (EDB).


TS: I wonder if this all so sunny, embracing moment allows for the
introduction of Free/ Open Source Software. Are there plans to introduce
Linux and Open Source software on a similar scale that we currently witness
in Brazil, and partially in Germany and France?


WM: From my experience, Linux does not really play a significant role in
Singapore yet. And I am not sure this will change any time soon. Singapore
likes big companies, big brand names from overseas like Microsoft, or Apple
Macintosh. Singaporeans look over the ocean and think: these are good,
powerful corporations. But I think that research communities will make use
of Open Source software in the future.

TS: What should we know about new media art practices in Singapore? Is video
today's new media of choice in Singapore simply because it is more readily
available than, for example, net-worked computers?

WM: Singapore is a very good place for video and animation. Cameras are
cheap and there is an emerging TV and Film industry here. Many Singaporeans
come back after having made a name for themselves in the United States or
Europe. The government welcomes them wholeheartedly as they bring back much
know-how. But what we call 'new media' here is not exactly what you may
think of as new media art in the United States or Europe. There is a very
strong influence of Japanese manga animation, for example. Manga animation
has a big market and Singapore wants to be part of that. Many short films
are being produced here and new film schools flourish. We are starting our
Film School this year at LASALLE-SIA, too. Many film businesses are
currently set up, including Lucas Studios. Also iCinema may collaborate with
local institutions. In general, new media in Singapore is still mainly about
film and animation.


TS: The web-based work of the media art collective Tsunamii has some
visibility in Europe and the United States.


WM: Yes, they are Singaporeans. And since its a small country, you can meet
them quite easily. There are only few independent places where artists meet
in Singapore. Such places include SubStation, which also plays an
educational role. But artists like Tsunamii are somewhat less prominent at
home than they are abroad.


TS: Do you think that a lack of access to the internet is a reason for this?
Are cellphones the more widely used means of communication?

WM:  Access to the Internet is widely available in Singapore. There is a big
cable going in and out of Singapore. Prices for broadband access are quite
low but fairly large parts of the population do not want to spend the extra
money and may indeed not have Internet access at home. The setup of society
is quite different to Europe or the U.S.. Chinese families, for instance,
have very strong ties. Students mostly live with their parents until they
get married, usually sometimes between the ages of 20 and 25. And
state-supported flats do not necessarily have broadband connection. That may
be one of the reasons why there is a lot of cellphone use. But people in
Asia are crazy about mobile phones anyway. Contacting students by email, for
example, is usually not entirely successful. You have to call them or text
them. Then they will immediately respond. Cellphones are definitely a great
area of artistic inquiry but I am not aware of art projects using cellphones
here in Singapore. At least I can't think of any right now.

TS: You also taught in Hong Kong. What is the state of new media education

WM: I taught a 'master class' in creative media at The Art School / Hong
Kong Art Center. In general, the situation in Hong Kong was a bit bleak in
terms of media art. Even the film business has some problems now. There are
many highly skilled people in this extremely commerce-centered metropolis
but very few of them have the intention to make media art. But there are art
initiatives and festivals, such as videotage/microwave and the Asian Art
Archive. But many artists seek their successes abroad. I have been at an
international panel discussion about the creative industries, new media and
art in Hong Kong. Right in the end, one person in the audience said there is
no point in debating creative industries as there is no creativity in
Hong Kong. Nobody said anything against it and the event was over. I was
stunned. But this describes the situation somehow and not too much seems to


The future for media art seems to happen rather in Singapore than in
Hong Kong. For mainland China the situation is completely different. If 1.3
billion people decide to make economical changes- that will have a major
impact. They have cities with more than 5 million people in each of them and
we have not even heard of their names. These cities, mostly unknown to
people outside of China, have large universities. There are over 200 art
colleges in the bigger cities in mainland China alone. The emphasis is on
the fine arts and music, not so much on new media. Unfortunately, China is
not paying teachers very well, so there is little financial incentive for a
teacher from the U.S. to work in China. And the Chinese government still
does not invest much in this kind of art education. But I think that this
will change in the near future. They have to get some people from the
outside into the country. This will start most likely in the context of the
Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008.


In Thailand there are attempts to bring media art into public awareness with
the Chiangmai Media Festival and the Thailand New Media Arts Festival in
Bangkok. So far such festivals are much less polished than their European
sister programs like Ars Electronica or Transmediale because they are
underfunded and quite new. Thailand starts to understand that there are
possible markets following cultural events like that. With the Switch Media
Festival, Chiangmai tries to become the IT capital of the North. Indonesia
has a growing and interesting arts scene specifically in video. One thing is
missing throughout Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, Cambodia and all these
countries that are situated between India on the one side and China on the
other. There is a lack of a transnational network of people who work
together on new media initiatives. There are all these small yet very
different countries and unfortunately there is very little unity. But there
are attempts to network media artists of the Asian-Pacific region, in an
initiative with UNESCO and SARAI in Delhi. In the Western world such new
media network was an amazing advantage 15 years ago.


TS: My last question relates to situated media criticism. Much of new media
theory is written and published in the United States or Europe. While these
materials are unquestionably important, their use in the context of Asia has
a connotation of cultural colonialism. Texts may not speak to the local
situation. Are there Chinese or Singaporean media critics?

WM:  Not all Singaporeans read Chinese. And Chinese books have a sufficient
readership in their own country. There is no desperate economic need for
them to be translated. What you pointed out about Western text is quite
crucial. For the most part Western media critics speak to a Western
situation. But in Asia, books from the outside are perceived as somewhat
better, and it is very hard to change that perception. A new mind set that
matches their own cultural background needs to be developed here. For
example, a group of students wanted to address structures of fascism in
their project, and they locate their discourse immediately in Germany in the
1930s. I ask them why they are using something about which they know hardly
anything. Do not they  have their own local massacres to work about? If you
set out to work about such topics, why do not you look at dictatorial
structures in Asia?

To summarize: Singapore is a very pragmatic country. People here locate a
problem and then they are trying to solve it. Many students are of that same
spirit. And this peculiar pragmatic mixture of business, technology and art
could be something that Singapore can contribute to the international new
media scene. I am curious if this will be perceived as a new approach to new
media. We may have this old fashioned approach to the artist as a lonely
maniac who dies at the age of 28 because of an excessive life style: one
person against the rest of the world. Singaporeans come from a different
point. They have new technologies at their avail and they will be open to
use it for artistic ends. Maybe there is a new idea coming out of that,
which might be different from what we see in Europe or the United States.
Lets see whether it is possible to combine artistic with commercial agendas.
Wolfgang Münch studied fine arts in a pre-computer era, worked at ZKM, was
teaching interactive media in Stuttgart, Hong Kong and Singapore, has been
artist in residence at ZKM, AEC and IAMAS, and is currently dean of media
arts at LASALLE-SIA in Singapore.

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