In bahasa Melayu, the term mesra denotes the closeness two people share. Within the culinary context, mesra also describes the interaction of two different ingredients to form a new state or achieve a new consistency — “think making pancake batter, how different ingredients are put together and mixed to form the batter,” says the sound artist Bani Haykal. For Bani, who is passionate about working with text and music, mesra suggests “a process of transformation and of absorption, which is such a useful definition, in the way we think about being intimate that is not just a process of being close, but something which relates to change.”
“My childhood was maybe a bit strange. I had difficulty fitting in and relating to school,” says Bani, who spent time as a child obsessed with cardboard, morphing the material into a variety of things. He would hunt for supplies, collecting discarded, large refrigerator boxes or abandoned ones from an electronics store in his neighbourhood. His ensuing creative contraptions ranged from Ghostbusters-like weapons to pushcarts. “Cardboard was my canvas, my material of choice. It is just sturdier and more exciting than paper,” he says. “This sort of carried on for a while."
From left: Part of Bani's artwork, Dormant Music (2013), constructed during a residency programme at Platform3, Bandung, Indonesia; an excerpt from a project, titled "sifrmu," written in Pure Data.
It was the process of disintegration and reassembling which appealed to him, a tendency he has leaned into with age. He began his practice writing songs with the experimental Singaporean rock band B-Quartet, founded in 1999 under affiliation with Aging Youth Records. “All I wanted to do for a period of time was just that,” he says. “Then of course, National Service happened and the band sort of was put on hold, and during this period I began to just focus on the text component of songwriting.” He participated in poetry slams, doing performance poetry and published his first poetry book titled “Uberpoetry” (2006). “I got a bit bored with just reciting poetry, so I decided to focus on just the musical and sonic aspect without having to write songs. It was at this stage that I started reading and learning more about what it meant to just work with sound as material, through a short-lived group called Mux,” he says.
In 2011, Bani was given a two-year residency under The Substation’s Associate Artist Research Programme, where chosen artists are given curatorial, financial, and administrative support to pursue and develop their art. “I moved away from expressing myself through previous forms and started thinking further about the instruments I’m using to create music,” he says of the support from the programme, which allowed him to develop a different approach to working and thinking about music. “So, I guess, I just kept branching off and kept threading, piecing things together that relate to text and music.”
“Necropolis For Those Without Sleep” (2015).
In 2015, Bani collaborated with a robotics engineer and a game designer-developer on a project titled “Necropolis For Those Without Sleep.” The installation, which exhibited at the Singapore Art Museum, played out a game of chess between two machines. “I learnt so much collaborating with them, from unpacking this notion of ‘intelligence’ to how we can bend and manipulate information,” he says. “It was then that I started teaching myself how to code.” Prior to this project, he had stayed away from digital and computer music. “But from this point on, I became interested in this relationship I have with the computer. Years later, it has become clear to me that the computer is an extension of me, that I am reliant on it to run various tasks and even for creative expression,” he says. “I’ve been very much obsessed about this relationship and attachment — this ‘prosthetic’ that most of us have."
The foundation of Bani’s practice, as a sound artist, is text and language. Engaging with language, specifically Malay, and crossing it with various technologies, he seeks to explore the intersection between novel spaces and dimensions. He deals with subject matter like cyborgs, the meshing of human and machine. “I began by thinking about this relationship, this intimacy that we share. Intimacy as a concept was useful to think about how information is shared, how we understand and sense one another,” he says, “but I wanted to clarify this layer of closeness — is it really just about being close or affectionate?” Ultimately, he hopes to offer ways to think about the future, utilising language as a lens to observe and unpack ideas and concepts which could use some reimagining.
Excerpts from Bani's latest work, titled "sifrmu" (2020).
Currently, Bani is exploring human-machine intimacies further, “the kind of relationships and transformations we go through together with our personal machines from smartphones to laptops, how we sort of ‘evolve’ through our interactions.” And the next phase for him is to examine people’s relationships with public infrastructure — like elevators, smart streetlights and even the robotic hound, Spot, from Boston Dynamics — and what it means to be living amongst these devices.
But in the bigger picture, his next step is chiefly personal growth: of “not repeating the errors, mistakes and faults of the past. And also, sleeping more.”
I visited Bani’s home in July this year (after Singapore’s Covid-19 social distancing rules loosened to allow home visits) and spent time in his makeshift studio, which he built over the stay-home period. It is a hybrid space — at a corner beside the windows sits a desk loaded with sound equipment (two analogue synthesisers, an electric piano, two mechanical keyboards, effects pedals, an electric guitar), a laptop, and books (“Augmented Intelligence Traumas” by Matteo Pasquinelli, “Weapons of Math Destruction” by Cathy O’Neil, and “The Code Book,” by Simon Singh). An adjacent rack holds clothing randomly categorised but still done so neatly. Most of the room is open space, which his four-year-old daughter, Inaya, invaded mid-conversation and conquered as playground that morning. “There are no weird things in my studio, only weird relations between things and people,” he tells me. “If you catch it though, there’s an empty bag of Cheezels with a binder paper clip tucked in here.”
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