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Ugly Muse: Part 1

Dedicated to Colin, my host, who invited me for ideation brainstorming and asking, ‘What if?’

I just returned from an extraordinarily intense and thoroughly mindboggling trip to Asia. Within the span of nine days, two of which were swallowed by painfully long flights, I visited Singapore as well as two cities in China. The contrasts between the realities I found in the three locations inspire this ensuing reflection.

Some time ago, I was invited to Singapore to spearhead design and development of their first University level art, design and media school. Thereafter I was engaged as a consultant overseeing design and launch of a yet another School of Technology for the Arts. In addition to which I also consulted on creative projects and initiatives of all kinds and sorts. Thus over time, for better or worse, I became known as a creative, innovative thinker, ideator and concept designer spawning unusual, well off the beaten path perspectives on potential challenges and prospects. It seems now that my reputation as a Mentor and ideas instigator has not faded away in the passage of time. Thus, some years forth, a Singaporean company invited me back to observe and then extend my unusual perspectives on ways they might position their roles and scenarios on several projects they are asked to vie for as means of contributing their expertize to China.

The landing in Singapore felt astonishingly smooth, comfortable and soft. As I exited the plane an instant puzzle formed in my dazed and swirling mind. Was this due to the pilot’s professional skill or rather the densely thick and almost impenetrably smoky smog concealing and utterly encasing the island? From my not too distant Singaporean life I swiftly recalled a once a year periodic haze instigated by an annual palm trees burning in not too distant Indonesia. Yet, in the four years I did spent on the island, I never saw anything even slightly reminiscent of the vast soup like cloud I now found myself diving into. While admittedly less reddish in its tint, grit or grinding aftertaste than the toxic vapors I had a very dubious pleasure of experiencing while living in Beijing, this one had no cause to feel inferior in any way, shape, form, aroma, color or flavor. It extended to each and all a shockingly stirring 4D immersive experience.

I was graciously treated to a stay at the famed Marina Bay Sands Hotel. And so, despite feeling the effects of sleep deprivation, with my body aching from the effects of being trapped, contorted and mutilated by a plane seat, in which I was entrapped for 19 hours, and with my disjointed mind still floating in route somewhere over the ocean, I could not resist treating myself to a brief tour of the world renown roof top. Representing one of several landmarks Singapore prides itself on, it unveils a radical design which swells and expands, exclusively for the hotel guests, a stunningly impressively extensive swimming pool which literarily hangs over the edge of the three conjoined-by-it sky scrapers. I must admit that despite the thick smog stretching all around and beyond visible horizons, the panoramic view it unveils is superb. Yet exposure to such a feast for the eyes, however polluted, was never the actual objective of this voyage.

According to diverse views expressed to me, back when I lived there as well as during the most recent trip, and insights gained as a result of the several meetings I had over the few days there, in the seven years since my departure from the island, under the governmental supervision, many various new plans have been embarked on. Yet from my much too transitory stint, I sense that the manufacturing and production mentality, which transformed the island into a mighty economic and financial success, is still prominent and pervading, potentially handicapping their tenacious strive for seeding creativity, ideation and innovation. Genetic fear of mistakes, risk aversion, customary in Asia, plus the habitual governmental guidance, whether there or in other such regions of the world, still impede free will, experimentation and what some describe as unorthodox or bohemian tendencies. While truly admirable, initiatives launched under separate oversights form their own silos which, intentionally or not, preclude accidental cross-pollination and unexpected collisions which have often been known to spark original ideas, invention and innovation.

“Design thinking” philosophy that has been embraced by many countries, is dominant. So is reliance on advanced technologies as the mighty oracle capable of generating answers to a variety of problem solving. In my view, what both of these tactics overlook is the very Origin, the womb of all ideation, invention and innovation. Imagination! I deem that without it there can be no “design thinking” or mighty technology.

I have derailed my thinking, for this is not the intended topic of this reflection. And so, after the several ensuing and interesting meetings intended to seed tasty promises for future creative or mentoring collaborations, we take off on a red eye flight to the developing regions of China, which some define as the 3rd tier cities.

Based on my time spent there, China signifies an awakening goliath. As it is becoming acutely aware of the disparaging effects and multifaceted lapses in its development, many such instigated by Mao’s Red Revolution, China is becoming deeply cognitive of the severe need for not just catching up with the West, but overcoming it, eventually. Based on their 5,000 year history, such a dominance would not be unheard of. While learning from the pitfalls of the Western world perplexed by struggles and disputes ensuing from the multi-party political systems, freedom of speech, democratic elections enabling periodic ideological shifts and turns, unlike the West, China draws upon firm benefits of the Communist system. It extends absolute control to the central government ruled by a single undisputed party whose decrees are not to be questioned, at least not yet. I have heard some claim that without such a consolidated rule a country as vast and as extremely populated as China would not be functional, or likely fall into a state of disarray and eventual break up. Having experienced pros and cons of both, Communism and Capitalism, I deem that humanity has yet to conceive a system that fuses the best of both into an improved formula.

Acutely aware of it epitomizing the greatest and most desirable market of the world, this awakening giant is just beginning to stretch and flex its abundant, highly muscular tentacles, already stretching far beyond its own boarders. In a manner similar to parallel processing, economically and politically savvy, while seeding investments aimed to gain it future influence worldwide, it simultaneously strives to satisfy its intense internal hunger, such epitomized by a potent desire for a better standard of living. As a result of this process, China is undergoing an unprecedented and highly accelerated economic evolution, be it cultural, educational, industrial, architectural, financial or any other such…all one might think of. 

To offset its transitory shortcomings, while accelerating its developmental processes, China is vigorously seeking industrial, innovative or entrepreneurial experience from the Western world. Due to such needs many Western companies, expertize and interests are invited to contribute their ideation, technological, academic, industrial and entertainment knowhow to China. On occasions, due to unavoidable clashes of cultures, interests or interpretations of laws, discourses arise. Yet aware of the irresistibility of its huge markets, China is very assertive with the cards it is dealing, such swelling its sway in the world’s arena.

Thus countries as huge as the US of A, and as tiny as Singapore, vie and compete for enormous markets and opportunities represented by China. Western Universities are skillfully launching and landing their academic satellites all over China. Ownership of a German automobile denotes a notable status symbol.

While China is rapidly becoming a prevailing power player on the world’s stage, the numerous provinces within China itself are actively vying, and aggressively competing for their own influence and a spotlight on the home arena. “Money makes the world go round” hence extensive investments are being embarked on all over China. Even in the so called 3rd tier cities of China, where English language is hardly spoken, funds are being poured into economic, manufacturing, industrial or cultural initiatives and developments.

I recall a Chinese scholar stating to me that in ten years China advances as far as Europe in a hundred.

During this trip I learned that as many as nineteen entertainment theme parks are being constructed in China, concurrently. And while Singapore is launching one new impressive Museum of Contemporary Art, China is launching some five hundred museums of all kinds and dominions. And this is only the tip of the iceberg. With its increasing growth, accompanied by economic expansion, the sky is the limit. And since I mentioned the Sky, China is also aggressively injecting itself into outer Space research and explorations.