The best time to catch pigeons in action is when the sun is up. Like us, these diurnal birds carry out most of their essential activities under the sun. When it sets, they retreat back to their warm and hidden shelters. Pigeons are also very hardy and are known to be unfastidious when selecting their homes; almost any spot that provides them with some kind of temporary cover, such as roofs, trees, and building ledges, will suffice.
I used to always find excuses whenever friends asked to come over to my place after school. After I turned 18, I gradually stopped turning up at family gatherings. Even after five years of being in a committed relationship with my then-partner, I would quietly sneak into his bedroom by climbing through the window from the corridor whenever we had a sleepover. I wished everyone would have stopped asking why our families weren’t more hospitable to us. If only we were not so poor. Visibility and light are commonly associated with safety for the majority who fit in, but certain lights illuminate more intensely on some than others. For people like me (queer, brown and poor), exposure comes with a fair share of risk and a lingering sense of shame. It was often the gentle shade and not the glaring light that offered me security when I needed it, especially in environments presumed to be safe, like around my family.
Shapeshifter(s) is the title of my first film.1 I shot it using my iPhone 11 in my neighbourhood of Boon Lay in Singapore. I’ve always wanted to make a film—not a big one like those screened in the cinemas, but modest, just for me to make sense of the recent pivot in my practice. In hindsight, I feel this shift from working with objects and sculptures to recording footage and the voice only intensified my desire to resist defining what I make based on the medium I use. Instead, it helped me focus on finding meaningful ways to echo the veiled lived experiences of my community—who are misrepresented by the mainstream media—through a more mindful approach which is itself coded and opaque. In the film, flora, fauna, objects, and sites take on surprising roles with multiple shaded layers—the pigeon an undesirable protagonist, the light an exuberant antagonist, and everything else in between. In the work, feral pigeons are portrayed as stunning birds up until the point when they become a nuisance because of how we see them and the spaces we reluctantly share with them.2 These birds also appear in the form of masks, a relic from my earlier series of works titled pigeon (people like us).3 I used a welding mask—an object used to protect one’s eyes, face, and neck from flash burns, ultraviolet and infrared light, sparks, and heated objects—as the base for the pigeon masks. This gear was sourced from a workers' supply shop in Boon Lay, and I embellished them with rhinestones so that they would appear fabulous, especially in the shade.4 Up close, other elements on the masks reveal themselves to be objects that enable safety—road reflectors, blindspot mirrors, and handrails. I was drawn to the ways in which light can be subverted and used strategically in disadvantaged communities: repelling, shielding, and diverting instead of disclosing. The extravagant appearances of these masks offer a kind of opacity by acting as an unassuming decoy. You are less likely to see a person who wants to remain hidden, all you see is a bedazzled mask. This is crucial for the survival of marginalized folks because visibility for us could invite unwanted attention and violence.
The policing of marginalized people, like the culling of pigeons, requires subjects to constantly and precariously navigate and code-switch between desire, shame, and restraint under surveillance in a hostile environment.
A monologue, voiced by yours truly and inspired by the frequent mass extermination of pigeons in the neighbourhood, accompanies the film. My voice then slowly digresses, weaving in several sub-topics concerning other kinds of overlooked modes of surveillance. The pigeon population is constantly monitored to prevent them from breeding. This is done primarily by the authorities, who install bird spikes and give them poisoned bird feed, to name some tactics. In one scene, an awkward eagle emoticon, moving but not flapping its wings, enters the frame abruptly and glides above a shot of freshly washed sarongs in my apartment.5 This figure represents my mother. It is important to note how surveillance is also prevalent in private spaces such as homes. In my tight, three-room apartment, the proximity between my fifty-eight-year-old conservative mother and myself is a constant challenge, partly due to the fact that I’m not out to my family about my sexuality. (It is not entirely unknown, but nobody talks about it—I am the elephant in the room.)
When designed to work against you and presented as harmless and necessary, such as in family and intimate settings, safety and security can, paradoxically, feel ominous. The policing of marginalized people, like the culling of pigeons, requires subjects to constantly and precariously navigate and code-switch between desire, shame, and restraint under surveillance in a hostile environment. In the years following the first case of HIV infection in Singapore in 1985, streetlamps were installed to illuminate the paths after sundown and bushes were pruned to deter cruising activities in local parks. These gestures recall the aforementioned bird spikes, installed at sites where pigeons regularly gather. Public displays of affection by both queers and pigeons are frowned upon by the eyes of the authorities. Though not widely enforced, the section 377A penal code which criminalises sex between consenting male adults still stands firm today in Singapore. The code reads: Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or abets the commission of, or procures or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 2 years.6 In fact, just this morning, I woke up to the news headline: “Court of Appeal dismisses challenges to Section 377A, law criminalising sex between men to stay.”7 Beyond our intimacies, this also greatly affects many other aspects of daily life, including our representation in the media, education, and access to housing and healthcare. Queer folks are well aware of this condition of helplessness and I know many who have accepted this fate of living life this way, albeit grudgingly.
The film’s sound was constructed in collaboration with my comrade berukera.8 Aside from the monologue, we wanted the sonic elements of the film to emulate the various personalities in the neighbourhood, so we settled on a combination of '90s Bollywood soundtracks, Dangdut hybrid beats, siren and alarm calls, and flamboyant techno. My monologue (read in my mother tongue Bahasa Melayu), paired with the disparate sounds collected by berukera, complicates the legibility of the film’s aural experience.9 There were also instances where I deliberately used colloquial languages such as emoticons of, for example, eyes, an eagle, an eggplant, and sparkles. This mode of communication is alien to my mother who reads predominantly in her mother tongue and speaks very limited broken English. This trans-languaging approach, interwoven with the unruly shifts in visuals, emoticons, sound, and subtitles as a whole mimics acts of flocking, congregating, bedazzling, and cluttering, as observed in the behaviour of pigeons.
That appearances can be deceiving is true in both the natural and urban world. Glossy neck feathers that shine with a beautiful purple-green iridescence is one of the many signs of a healthy pigeon. However, they are instinctually inclined to conceal their ailments to avoid appearing sick by perking up, since dull pigeons are easy targets for predators. When they are no longer able to effectively conceal their illnesses, they are usually seriously ill. Flocking, too, is a strategy that protects against predators; being in a flock decreases the time each bird spends looking out for hunters, and consequently increases how much time they have for feeding or other life-sustaining activities. This organizing is an act of solidarity and collective care. Nonverbal communication cues such as the way we appear, move, and react are so intertwined in the ways we engage in our everyday lives. My height of six feet, tan complexion, stubble, and male-coded clothing are some of the absurd things that have inadvertently masked my sexual identity from the eye of the public. As long as I don’t move, I am pretty straight-passing. On top of that, because I live in a residential area which comprises mostly poor families, there is also an assumption that I am not highly educated or that I cannot conduct myself in a professional manner, whatever that even means.
This feeling of constantly being watched from above and behind feels oddly familiar.
Since moving into Boon Lay in 2018, I have often seen brahminy kites—a common bird of prey—hovering just above the buildings, causing the pigeons to behave erratically.10 These sky raptors are barely visible from the ground as they glide against the clouds, obscured by the glaring sun. But do not be deceived: their wingspan measures between forty-three and forty-nine inches long. They are not the only ones hovering among the clouds. Every now and then, a balloon-like silhouette appears in the sky. I have even spotted them from the corner of my eye when lounging in the living room at home. When I first encountered one, I thought it looked like an inflated toy, partly due to its non-threatening appearance. In fact, these are helium-filled blimps launched by the Republic of Singapore Air Force from their nearby military air base.11 Each one measures fifty-five meters long and hovers around six-hundred meters above the ground. It can detect hostile threats from as far as two-hundred kilometers away, double the distance covered by ground radars. The blimp is a surveillance radar titan, creeping through the sky so quietly that it renders itself almost undetectable. This feeling of constantly being watched from above and behind feels oddly familiar. It was recently declared that Singapore expects to have in excess of two-hundred-thousand police cameras installed by no later than 2030, over two times the current number across the island state.12 The CCTVs, the blimp, my mother, the kites—they’re always just right there watching us, in our void decks, stairwells, elevators, and even in our homes.
As I mentioned earlier, light and visibility are often associated with safety as the former aids the latter. But at what cost and at whose expense, when the very same act performed by people with different access to social status, power, and economic abundance could be perceived in a completely different light by the eyes of law? I am one of many other Pigeon People out there who are in constant negotiation with light. A friend once shared a story about how he had to bail on his colleagues, who were meeting for dinner at a fancy restaurant, by lying that he was feeling under the weather, when in fact he was broke and someone on Grindr had asked to rendezvous at his place.13 As he was about to leave home, his devout mother (the eagle) asked where he was going. He replied that he was going out for a night walk. He returned home later that night, sweating after committing the crime (and sin) of queer intimacy, to his mother watching television in the dimly lit living room. She didn't ask him anything then but I believe that deep down, the eagle knows. That he is a pigeon.
Orang macam kita kena pandai sesuaikan diri; kadang2 kita ungu, kadang2 kita hijau.
People like us adapt and code-switch, sometimes we are purple, sometimes green.
Kita orang dengan burung merpati pun tak banyak beza.
We are not so different from the pigeons too.14