Culture Vulture

Imaginary artworks of random strangers

Over one weekend, random strangers dreamt up imaginary artworks and put their ideas on paper

One weekend earlier this month, I sat at a dinky camping table at The Substation, behind two home- made signs. One said: Anyone Can Be an Artist. The other sign said: The Writer Is IN.

From noon to 8pm on those two days, I manned my makeshift booth, asking people visiting the arts venue to make imaginary artworks with me. All visitors had to do was fill up a form, describing the artwork they dream of creating, and then rubber-stamp their handwritten or typed record into existence. We then filed these records away in a clear folder. And - boom! - they were done.

The idea was simple: to debunk the misconception that art-making was time-consuming or required talent, special skills and materials. I was also interested in how these imaginary artworks would morph over time. Captured from the realm of ideas, they are given some kind of physical form, in the, well, form that they are set down in as statements. They are made real and become an archive.

Imaginary artworks, to be clear, are not new. Hollywood actor James Franco started a Museum of Non-visible Art (Mona) in 2011, selling only descriptions of artworks. In 2014, a podcast perpetuated a hoax about an artist named Lana Newstrom (who does not exist) and her invisible artworks fetching millions of dollars.

Art-making is really about personal connections. One could do it on a large scale, painting or staging a work... Or it could be a brief, modest one, like mine - nothing more than a memory to the hum of the Substation air-conditioning.

"Art is about imagination and that is what my work demands of the people interacting with it," Newstrom was quoted as saying. "You have to imagine a painting or sculpture is in front of you."

On the first day, I sat nervously behind my stack of forms, fingers poised on my Olympus typewriter. I wore a name tag, had my hair in braids, and had a collection of ridiculous rubber stamps of ballerina bears and Hello Kitty. No one was going to turn up, I was sure. Or irate conceptual artists were going to storm in and smash my table, insisting that my project was too simplistic and an insult to all serious, committed artists. I felt insecure, like a kid selling lemonade - with no lemonade.

But then a lovely American artist-lecturer arrived and agreed to be my first "customer".

Susan began telling me about her dream artwork. It would be something of long duration, she said, to counter our technologically steeped culture today, in which people seem to be losing the ability to stop and look at something. She told me about the time she saw a well-dressed woman waltz into an exhibition at the Venice Biennale. "She didn't even look, just took out her phone and went click, and left," recounted Susan. "And I just died."

We talked some more and then she inked the statement I typed up for her artwork ("It's a bit like making a police statement, isn't it?" I joked, as she read it over). Somehow, given the philosophy behind Susan's art practice, my old-school analogue set-up was appropriate. Wishing me well, she left.

After Susan, a trickle of visitors came. My typewriter broke while typing up the third record. I didn't have enough pens for people to fill up the forms with. My brother and his girlfriend arrived bearing doughnuts. It was a nice kind of chaos.

An old friend came and told me that his dream artwork was to "cross paths with himself". He told me a lovely story about a woman who woke up one night to find the depressions of her footsteps in the old wood floors of her tenement apartment "relaxing" and coming towards her. We bandied about the idea of creating a whole exhibition entirely of these encounters with one's old selves: the bottling and uncorking of old farts, the sticking on of shedded skin.

I made new friends. Daniela told me that her dream artwork, where she went around asking people to look into a mirror, before smashing the mirror and sticking the fragments on her face, was going to be performed soon, at a book launch. She and a few other women sat around my table, chatting easily, despite having just met. They read one another's records and talked randomly about the exfoliating qualities of old coffee grounds. It was starting to feel a lot like a makeshift community.

The next day, a group of Indonesian and Filipino domestic workers visited my booth. They were on an outing to view photographs taken by other migrant workers, on display in the same gallery I was in, but stopped by. When I invited them to make imaginary artworks, they were very enthusiastic, flagging their friends down to pass them the forms and press pens into their hands.

"Okay, approve your artwork," I said when they were done. Giggling, tickled by the thought of affixing stamps for this purpose (perhaps, after having to deal with the bureaucracy of applying for work permits), they liberally stamped their forms.

"Congratulations," I said. "You're now an artist." They beamed - it was as easy as that! - and we took a group photo.

There were others who refused to participate, of course. Some took my form, promising to return, but never did. Others explained that they were feeling just too drained that day to create anything (fair enough).

But each encounter, I felt, was meaningful. When I tried to convince the cleaner uncle to make an imaginary work, he demurred, saying: "I'm not good at writing." We ended up having a discussion about the disappearing Thieves' Market at Sungei Road and how he used to live there, before migrating to Malaysia in 1965.

By the end of my shift on day two, I had collected 48 dream works. Among the dream artists who worked with me were Singaporeans, Australians, Spaniards, a Belgian and a Czech citizen; a chemist, a sociologist, civil servants, lawyers, students and art therapists. In making dream works, I had met people I would never have bumped into otherwise, much less spoken to.

The project has an afterlife. I aim to write short stories based on these artworks, which would transform the artworks yet again - into text, and eventually into a collected book form, an object we could hold in our hands.

Art-making, it now occurs to me, is really about personal connections. One could do it on a large scale, painting or staging a work that would touch a large audience at once, over centuries. Or it could be a brief, modest one, like mine - nothing more than a memory to the hum of the Substation air-conditioning, now that the camping table has been folded and stashed away.

But, hopefully, in describing their imaginary artworks to me, the project's participants would now be inspired to actually make them. If they do, I hope they let me know, so I can update the records.

Until then, I am content to be temporary guardian of this surreal paper museum.

•Clara Chow is a writer and co-founder of art and literary website

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 20, 2016, with the headline 'Dream works'. Print Edition | Subscribe