How I became an accidental artist – Eugene Soh, TEDx talk Transcript

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I graduated two years ago from an art school here (Nanyang Technological University). Yes, there is an art school here.

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The Last Kopitiam (2010)

You know like, if someone goes to an art school, you think “Oh, he is going to be an Artist”. That wasn’t the case for NTU. Most of the graduates here end up going a non-artistic kind of route, they become designers or something skill based. I wasn’t any different, I was on track to becoming a programmer, a game programmer, in an arts school. So, how that happened, was because of this picture [The Last Supper image].

I am very glad that I had a lot of free time in NTU. Despite what you think and what art students will say, “Oh they have so many projects, oh this, oh that”. The truth is that we have tonnes of fun [Art school is the funnest school. There was a lot of free time because we could always bullshit our way through assignments that didn’t really interest us and still have a chance at an A.. the “Subjective & Contemporary” kind of assignments.] So, I did this piece in year one, outside of school.

Being open to opportunities

This was in collaboration with Campus Magazine, they are not affiliated with any school, their name is actually called “Campus” and they had a center fold page in the magazine.
They asked me, “Hey Eugene, you are a photographer right?” and I’m like “Yup”. “Do you want to fill it up with your work?” I was a freshman and had this attitude of opening my doors to opportunity, I said yes to everything. I said “Yes” and went to browse my portfolio of photography works.
I wasn’t impressed with myself. it was all like pictures of the shadow of the lamp post on the floor, I thought I was so deep! [Laughter] but those were not suitable for the center fold.

I decided that I wanted to do something epic like the last supper, whats more epic than the last supper right. So here is a picture of them on top of each other [Laughter and applause] Thank you

The photo was shot at Maxwell hawker center with the actual hawkers and it was impossible to get all of them down at the same time. So i shot them separately and later had the headache of Photoshopping them together.

The Accident

So after this, I went on to choose my major to become a computer programmer, the photo was on the web, it was online for two years, I forgot about it, nobody cared about it then it suddenly went viral.
I was already programming, making games and having fun then an image from my past goes viral on Facebook?

And that was how I accidentally became an artist – a stroke of luck, accidents.

Galleries were contacting me saying hey, “Lets do a show”, “When are you free?”, “Can we have coffee?”, [Laughter & Applause] little did they know that this (The Last Kopitiam) was a one off thing, it was the only one. [Laughter]

Sunday Afternoon

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Sunday Afternoon on the Island Of Singapore (2014)

So the programmer had to do more – once again becoming an artist and I always want to out do myself so I went around googling the most famous paintings and came across this one.
This one has plenty more people [laughter] And I really like it too.
Then later on, i was kicking myself through the whole process because the location I chose had no one! [Laughter]

Unlike the previous work where i could go to the location and say “You, you, you” come and be in my picture. This place had monkeys and a jogger or two. I had to gather up my friends to come down to model for me. I positioned them saying “Okay, maybe you can be number 1, come down and be in my picture please!”

The place was inaccessible too, there was no bus. At that time, i had a small car and chauffeured them around. After six months, I had plenty more people. I was editing through the whole process, slotting my models in and thinking, “Hmm, maybe this person’s clothes were not right” and re-shoot again.

In the end I got this picture [Sunday Afternoon image] [Applause] Thank you

Owning Your Identity

I made plenty more pictures after this. When I was asked to do this talk, I thought about why I do the things that I do. Hence this quote came to mind:

“If something is said about you, prove it right, whether it is good or bad.”

[laughter] It seems counter intuitive – if someone says something bad about you, you prove it right? What does that mean?
and this wasn’t like some grand old wizard passing on wisdom to me, I heard it… I eavesdropped it from a friend, who was telling another friend and i was just eavesdropping. So I heard this from him and he doesn’t even know that he told me [Laughter]
So, be careful at the Kopitiam next time; you might be changing the lives the guy at the next table [Laughter]

Okay let me explain what this quote means and what I got from it. Lets say someone calls you fat and you don’t like it. You can do what Meghan Trainor did.
She know she fat [laughter] and she made a song about her being fat, she made it her brand, and no one can laugh at her anymore.

It is an option, you don’t have to prove everyone right all the time, there are other options like; You can do it the Singapore way – someone says something about you, you sue them in court! [Laughter]
You crush them with your money [Long Applause] yea! This is how we do it here. Lets own it.

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Human Caterpillar (2013)

But since, I don’t have a lot of money [Laughter], i can’t bring people to court, people say, “this Eugene, he is crazy!”  Well ahead of you guys, man. [Human Caterpillar image] [Laughing]

I made this picture in my bedroom, my ex-girlfriend shot it for me. That’s my actual butt.
You can imagine the scene in the bedroom. I bring her to the bedroom and start taking off my clothes, then shes like “Why is there a camera here? why are you getting naked? “, ” Are we shooting a porno?” [Laughter]

I am very proud to say that this picture was hanging at the national museum [Laughter & Applause] So my butt was hanging at the national museum, who can say that?

Dude’s Identity

What the quote boils down to is… as cheesy as it sounds… it is being true to yourself and owning your identity.
If the “bad” things people say about you is kinda true and very hard to change; instead of changing yourself, you can consider making that “bad thing” your brand/identity. Turn your weakness into your strength with confidence!

So I looked at myself and wondered: What are some aspects that I can’t change about myself? The most basic thing is that I am a dude and I am from Singapore, so that is where my website came from – DUDE.SG is my website, you can go check it out. [Laughter]
And I am wearing a dude shirt. [Eugene panting] Let me catch my breath [Pant]

I was very surprised that I could buy this domain “Hey, such a valuable website right? but no one bought it” so, I went to check all the other single worded domains that were available. There were plenty! Good.sg, Lah.sg and what I did with them? I bought them all! [Laughter Applause]

When i asked around, people told me they were available because they are .SG and nobody wants .SG. You are not proud of your roots?

The Web Art Movement

What I did with them was to put all of them on WebArt.sg and let anyone adopt them for free and do whatever they want. At the end of the year, I had 20 artists, who did wacky stuff with them and I promised them a show.
And because I already had one foot in the art world, I started having connections, I went around galleries asking “Heeeyyy, I have this cool project, do you want to show it?”
And they tell me “Heeey, this is a cool project but they cant sell a website” so i looked back at my own roots, and realized that I’m a programmer [laughter] Why don’t I make my own virtual gallery, and I have Gallery.sg also [Laughter]

So I made my own virtual gallery, I rented a server and did all the coding. i wanted to recreate the whole gallery visiting experience including the social bit – where you go in and talk to people and look at the art work. This is a screenshot from the opening.
I had the most people in there during the opening, then the gallery was pretty much dead after that. [Crowd goes “OOoh!”]
But that’s okay because I did it! I get a sense of accomplishment when I see personal projects through, especially huge projects like this.

New Perspectives

CCTV_Goggles_Installation_at_Singapore_Art_MuseumCCTV_Goggles_Live_View_Maze_Navigation

At the same time right, being an art student, I’m always looking for new perspectives and there was this one time at Tate Modern in London, they had a show called “Fresh Perspectives” or “New Perspectives” i can’t remember. I saw bizarre art works, they were good but it wasn’t quite my idea of what a new perspective was. I imagined a more literal; like an installation where i could look at myself from different angle.

So what I did in response to that was to make own art work, which is this one [CCTV Goggles], where I give people.. I don’t give them, i lend them a pair of video goggles. [laughter] they are really expensive, like SG$600 each… They put on the goggles and what they see is a live CCTV view of themselves. It is a third person view and an out-of-body experience for them.

This project was in Amsterdam last month [Applause]

I just came back from there. The thing about Amsterdam is.. they legalized marijuana, I got a real different response from exhibiting it in Singapore [Laughter Applause]

They put it on and go “WOOAH! DUDE!!! I’m trippin’ out! This is just like my high from smoking weed” Then I am over there like, “I don’t know what you are talking about. Don’t talk to my you EVIL person!” Because we have this law in Singapore, where Singapore citizens cant try anything like weed or drugs even outside of Singapore where they may have been legalized. It is like they are saying that we are too stupid/naive to judge for ourselves. So i don’t know what he talking about. [Laughter] No clue!

So after talking about all these project that I do… these are all black hole projects, they are fascinating, you put in your time, your energy and they don’t make any money. How do you survive? This is when it gets worse.

The Supreme Court

Old_Supreme_Court_app

You know being an artists, doing all sorts of nonsense, the supreme court calls me up one day and says “Hello? is this Eugene Soh? We are calling from the Supreme Court.” Naturally, I lost my shit! [Laughter] Oh boy, End of the line Eugene, that’s it, you’re going to jail!
But they said no hey relax, chill out. We saw Gallery.sg that you did, it was in the papers, and we want you do a virtual gallery for our old supreme court, the building that is going to be the National Gallery.

The thing about it was they wanted it to be on the phone, at that time I have not done a mobile app yet, I haven’t published one. But being a confident programmer, I said “Okay”… and I did it! This is a screen shot [Applause & cheer]
“Old Supreme Court”, you search it on your Android or your Apple, you can find it and play with it; It is my first mobile app. Here are more screenshots and whats special about this project was that I got paid! [laughter]

Another special thing is it was on TV, in the news and this is what they labeled me, “An artist and programmer” this means a lot to me because most of the time they just call me, a photographer or an Artist and they don’t realize that I actually do something else.
Most people want to put you in a box probably because of word count but you are usually this and something else. So,when they called me these two things, I felt alive! like Wow! someone recognizes me as two things! That’s amazing!

What’s Next?

So, Whats next? I am still trying to live the young and invincible Eugene Soh, still saying yes to almost everything. What’s next is my next solo show in February that I’ve said yes to. Thank you very much. [Applause]
My solo show, Second Coming ,opens 7pm, 18 February 2016 at Chan Hampe Galleries 

*I made some additions in italics – those were jokes and points I forgot to say during the actual speech.
I edited my spoken grammar to make it more readable too