He’s an architectural designer by day and an illustrator, musician, photographer, sculptor and writer by night, among other things. Just don’t call him an artist.
Can one be a jack-of-all-trades and a master of all of them? That’s debatable, though a quick glance at A Whispering Campaign’s portfolio might leave you feeling hard-pressed to agree with that idiom – even if Kit might not agree with your compliment. His illustrations and large-scale murals have exhibited all around the city-state, and you might have even seen one or two of his works at Singapore Changi Airport without realizing it. The enigmatic designer takes us through the importance of art, our perception of beauty as the social commentary of our times, and romanticising the stories we tell ourselves.
Why did you decide on “A Whispering Campaign” as your moniker?
I used to play in a band called And They Whisper in Silence and I had the idea to use A Whispering Campaign as a collaborative music group thing but never really got interested enough to do it. I ended up using it when I had to create some sort of fake company name to do my creative work. I was practicing as an architect for 3 to 4 years after I graduated and I took a break from work because it was too much. I think it’s very hard to go up to people and say, “Hi, I’m Wai Kit, can I do some of your illustration stuff?” when you’re slightly older, so I wanted to build some sort of fake thing to skip past all that. A lot of people thought that it was a collective but it’s just one person. I started A Whispering Campaign basically to do nonsense projects because I have interest in many things like illustration, photography, music, designing stuff, and once in awhile sculpting. So I needed to put all my nonsense together under one package.
I think it’s very hard to go up to people and say, “Hi, I’m Wai Kit, can I do some of your illustration stuff?” when you’re slightly older, so I wanted to build some sort of fake thing to skip past all that. A lot of people thought that it was a collective but it’s just one person.
Was architecture something you were drawn to from a young age?
Not really. I wanted to do fine arts when I got out of secondary school. Because of financial reasons, I decided to go to Singapore Polytechnic for a diploma in architecture since it was one of the only creative courses in polytechnics. NAFA was still private at that time and right now it’s subsidized, but previously it wasn’t. My sister was already in [NAFA] so it was a financial thing. I think I got lucky because I think it’s a good mix. Otherwise, I probably wouldn’t do well in school at all. With regards to architectural design and study, it’s more my thing and I don’t think there were any other courses around in NUS that I could actually take. So a good fit la, I got lucky.
You once said that “Architecture is more design than art, and design is based on providing answers to problems. Art is about asking questions, it’s an entirely different role and function.” When you work on your art, what kind of questions do you think about?
The reason I said this is partly because I rarely consider myself an artist. Sometimes, you know, for the sake of it. I’m mainly an illustrator and I draw whatever you tell me to draw. I have works that I do, like all the naked girls that I draw, and those are mainly for my own interest. If in any circumstances I’m considered an artist, those would be the artworks that I would refer to. Most of my works are predominantly illustration and design works, so this is very rarely related to art.
What is art to you then?
When people need to do art, it’s because they have something to say that cannot be expressed otherwise, regardless of what it is. When I look at art, I try not to put too much emphasis on what the artist is trying to say. If I see something beautiful, I appreciate it because I think there is a need to create things that are beautiful. To me, that’s enough. These days you get so many contemporary artists and people from art schools who come out and have a huge philosophy about what they’re doing, which is all fine and well. But I need very little. As long as you desperately need to create something beautiful, that’s enough regardless of your internal motivation. The kind of work that’s produced during a person’s time is relative to the general things that are happening around them. If you map out all the major architectural and art movements, it’s a screencap of that point in time. So regardless of your motivation, there’s some value by just creating the work itself.
When I look at art, I try not to put too much emphasis on what the artist is trying to say. If I see something beautiful, I appreciate it because I think there is a need to create things that are beautiful. To me, that’s enough.
What do people [who don’t understand art] often get wrong about art?
It’s hard for me to answer this kind of question. To me, when I put my stuff out there and nobody likes it, it doesn’t hurt me because the work is already done. But I can understand why people are sometimes not interested in all these things. I guess sometimes it looks easy. In a way — and I don’t think that way — they can see it as a bit self absorbed and very inconsequential to do art. If you don’t think there’s a need for beauty, then that work doesn’t really mean anything to you. But it’s important to me because you’re telling people what is beautiful in this day and time.
How is it important?
Because it’s a commentary about our perception on things, right? If I’m able to draw naked women so openly, it means certain things about society. It’s very telling from a historicism perspective. Certain things, movies, themes, or aesthetics can only happen now. There are people who do art based on social media and I think it’s rubbish, but it’s also very telling of the time. You know people who just screencap Instagram and they frame it up and say it’s art? I think that’s bollocks and it’s a degradation of our time, but it’s telling something.
Why do you think it’s bollocks?
There’s no craft to it. There are thought processes, but it’s just thought processes. The act of doing something is also very important to me. In a way also a bit old school la, but the hardship you need to dedicate to just trying to shade something, versus you know, a screencap. I mean, can la, give it to you, it’s art.
And that’s their definition of art.
Yeah, and there are so many of these kinds of people these days. It’s interesting. It says something. Of course you shouldn’t be so old-fashioned to say that you cannot use that as art. But I like a little pain to go with art. I like the struggle, and I think because there’s the struggle, you tend to appreciate it a little more. That’s why a photograph of a sunset is not as impressive as an amazingly drawn or painted picture of a sunset. It’s like you click a button and then you spend like 5 hours drawing it.
Of course you shouldn’t be so old-fashioned to say that you cannot use that as art. But I like a little pain to go with art. I like the struggle, and I think because there’s the struggle, you tend to appreciate it a little more.
You often have women and animals as your subject matter in your illustrations. Is there a reason for that?
I assume you mean all the pencil drawings. Those are basically what I started drawing when I really wanted to draw again. It only started about the same time I was travelling alone because I had more time, and in a way, drawing is like fast food for me. As an architectural designer, a project takes very long and it stretches out to years. And I needed to do a quick relief. Most architects design chairs; I just draw naked women. When I draw them, they’re basically visual exercises. These are my own experiments about how to put two objects together, to compose them in a way where it seems like there’s a story behind them, and there might be no story behind them. I don’t tell those stories because I think it’s more interesting when people interpret them. Basically, these are exercises on a visual narrative.
Do you see yourself transitioning [from architectural design] to [A Whispering Campaign] full-time in the future?
It depends on the situation. I’ve been so fucking lucky because a lot of my projects are because someone saw it and liked it, so they contacted me. Or from a few good friends who keep pushing jobs to me, so yeah. The only reason I would quit my job as an architectural designer would be because there is consistency in the freelance route.
What do you think makes good architectural design?
I think architectural design is in a way very narcissistic, and to like architectural design is to like a person’s ego. When you’re a designer, your role is to tell other people that this is the best way to use certain things because design always starts with a problem. If there’s no problem, there’s no need for design, right? So the role of a designer then becomes the guy who tells everybody you have this problem and this is the best way to do it. It’s either you really know or you are stubborn that is the best way to do it. And sometimes people are like that. To me, interesting places are normally the way that it’s used. It’s interesting to think about because when you see bad design, it makes you laugh. At some point in time, somebody made this decision. Everything you see around you is designed by somebody. There are bad designs everywhere. It’s bad design, but it’s funny.
To me, interesting places are normally the way that it’s used. It’s interesting to think about because when you see bad design, it makes you laugh. At some point in time, somebody made this decision. Everything you see around you is designed by somebody.
Since we’re surrounded by bad design all the time, how can we nurture a taste for good design?
I don’t think the ownership is on people who use the design. I think it’s the designers who really need to do their job properly. This is my own opinion when it comes to design work. Because I observe all these things, I must do my job properly, therefore good design is a product of my work. And if every designer thinks this way, there would probably be less bad design. I don’t think I’m a great person or I will be able to change the world with my designs, but if I do my job properly and everybody does their job properly, then it’s fine.
You wrote in an online post that objects themselves have no intrinsic meaning and it’s the way objects exchange hands that give them meaning. What kind of meaning do you ascribe to your exchanges when it comes to Project Wayward Pigeons?
There’s a story behind why I said that. I do a lot of travelling on my own — not to sound so #wanderlust — and during one of my first trips to New York, there was an interesting old man whom I attribute a lot of my own philosophies to. His name is Lazarus and he’s a homeless old man. I brought my guitar to New York thinking that I would busk for lunch money — not that I was poor, but I didn’t want to spend too much money. So I met Lazarus and we had a really good conversation and started hanging out a lot. I think we talked about music and he said he had a ukulele. I told him I had a guitar so we could do something and have fun of the streets.
When I met up with him that day, he brought his beautiful pre-war Martin ukulele with a hole and everything. It was broken but he was still playing it because he’s homeless and couldn’t buy a new one. So I decided to give [him my guitar] because he needed to ask for money more than I did. And I felt very good about it. So I rationalised it by thinking how I got that guitar; I bought it from a shop in Singapore at Plaza Singapura where the guy wouldn’t even want to be there. I got that object because I like the guitar, but it has no real meaning other than being a nice instrument to play with. But when I passed the guitar to this man, I felt like the guitar has a meaning of exchange and it symbolises a very nice experience that I had. I think it applies to many other things, so that was how I concluded to that point of reasoning.
The only reason I started drawing those postcards was because I felt bad for sitting at cafes and not doing anything. But if I start drawing, I can feel more useful to the space.
Before I started doing illustrations properly, I used to bring my drawings because I know that I will meet people that I like. Since I cannot cook or do anything for them, I would give them a drawing and that makes me happy. I try to create more of this because it’s actually very easy to give people stuff. After you’ve done like 70 postcards, not all of them mean something. The only reason I started drawing those postcards was because I felt bad for sitting at cafes and not doing anything. But if I start drawing, I can feel more useful to the space. I know that for the person who received it, it’s an exciting thing for them to receive a mail in this day and age. I’m happy to create that for you and it doesn’t cost me much. It doesn’t even have to be a drawing; you can just make something and give it to a stranger so long as you put in the effort.
It’s really cool that you built up all these experiences across the world.
Before all these things, I was also quite reserved. I wouldn’t talk to people if I didn’t need to. But you know at some point you realise that you’re going to die someday, so why not just have a little bit of fun? It also started with Lazarus where I decided that I would only take pictures of people I like. I know a lot of times it seems like I talk to people because I want to take a picture, but it’s not. I [take pictures] because it helps me to remember. How many people have you met while travelling that you forget? There’s a lot. So If I take a picture of them and post them on Instagram, I can look back if I forget.
I know a lot of times it seems like I talk to people because I want to take a picture, but it’s not. I [take pictures] because it helps me to remember. How many people have you met while travelling that you forget?
These people are very dear to me, and I guess because you probably won’t see each other so often, you tend to share more intimate stuff and you’re more open to sharing your point of view. But what’s interesting these few years is that I actually get to meet them again when I travel, and sometimes they come to me. If they’re passing by Singapore, they’ll drop by and say hi. Which I think is actually quite amazing, because these are people that I spent like 2 hours with. 50 years ago, that would be quite impossible because you can’t get in touch on Facebook. So yeah, that’s fun for me now. I just went to Taiwan and I met one of the friends that I met for a few days 3 years ago and it’s nice to catch up.
What motivates you when you’re going through the motions?
That I’m going to die. Because I know at some point, and this is probably the peak, right because at 30 plus —
You think this is your peak?
Another reason I went to India alone without buying a return ticket is because I know that when I’m 40 years old, I probably wouldn’t want to do it. It’s very difficult to get around places and you’re less likely to expose yourself to these kinds of “adverse” environments. If you ask me right now whether I’m interested in going to India for 2 months, sleeping on the streets and trains, probably not. And the same thing goes for art. Because at some point in time, your hand will start shaking. Sometimes you don’t feel as energetic and you can feel it even at 32 years old. So I just do the things because, what is the alternative, really?
I think the alternative is to stay in your comfort zone and not do anything.
Yeah, but this is my comfort zone. I guess it circles back to the point where I like to collect stories. If I do something interesting, maybe it might lead to an interesting story. I’m collecting stories so that I can tell my grandchildren. You’ll want to tell them interesting shit, not “I work 9 to 5 everyday and go back home.” I don’t know, for me, it’s important to collect stories.
But you also collect these stories for yourself.
It’s nice to remember things. I use this [quote] all the time: “They are the roses in December; you remember someone said that God gave us memory so that we might have roses in December.” The point of it is that when it’s cold in wintertime, when there are no flowers and all, you remember shit. I think I gravitate towards that. I wrote a short story in my publication writing about Lazarus and I used this [quote]as the opening line. The first time I saw [Courage by J.M. Barrie] was at a flea market in New York. I didn’t buy it and I don’t know why. Then I bought it the last time I went back to New York.
When I have to work really hard, I can remember the conversations I’ve had and the holidays I’ve been to. I think that’s why people travel as well — so they can remember shit. And sometimes you make it a lot nicer than it actually was. But that’s nice. You have to have some interesting stuff so when you are beat down, you can remember shit. At the end of the day, it’s not about what happens. It’s about what you think.
What’s your biggest fear?
Then I cannot do shit. I’m not a religious person and my belief system is that when you die, you’re gone.
But your memories will live on.
Does it? Does it matter?
Photographs and images courtesy of Kit