Boon Hui Tan is vice president for global arts programming at the Asia Society in New York. Before delivering a keynote address entitled “How Do the Arts Appeal to Local Crowds in a Globalized World?” at a Zócalo conference in downtown Los Angeles entitled “What Can the World Teach California About Arts Engagement?” he spoke in the green room about utopian cities, the art of slowing down, and Pac-Man’s appetites.
I like your tie; where’d you get it?
I bought it—it’s a Topshop tie—in the age of Atari, Space Invaders.
Were you into first-generation video games?
I was! I still like all the pixels. I like the fact that it’s very simple, it’s very direct. And I think we’ve reached a point now where it’s very nostalgic. Because in those games there’s no ambiguity, right? It’s, “Pac-Man eats what?” “Space Invaders destroy bad alien!” That kind of environment doesn’t exist anymore.
Do you think the arts take video games seriously enough? Should they pay more attention to video game culture?
I think they should, but not in terms of appropriating it or aping it, or trying to get inside it, in the sense of trying to make it high art. I think it is what it is. It’s an expression of a kind of media-saturated popular culture, and that’s very important in terms of stimulation. But I think the high arts need to pay attention because they need to respond to what are the kind of hooks in this type of popular cultural expression that move people. The internet has produced a culture where people are very imagistic and very impression-laden.
What are you reading for pleasure right now?
Oh my god, I don’t read for pleasure anymore! I did read Crazy Rich Asians, because everybody says you should read that. I am actually re-reading Robert M. Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. It’s a book I read decades ago. It’s a cult book, but I know a few people who, after Pirsig died, started reading that book again. Reading it decades later, I think age helps you understand a little bit more of what he was saying. It’s a book that is trying to ask you to slow down and reflect. And I think that’s very important, because we’re in a time where it’s all about hurtling down the road.
You lived in Singapore and now you’re in New York. What example does Singapore offer us about cities or urban design?
It’s one of the kind of examples of a utopian city, of a city that is created out of lines on paper and the dreams of a small group of people’s minds, that was built out of nothing. But yet, looking back 50 years later, after independence, then you realize that this dream actually was a kind of resuscitation of expansion upon very old historical trading routes and cultural structures. So it’s utopian yet it’s not plucked out of thin air. It’s also a very planned city. They’re planning for their airport 50 years ahead. There’s a sense of very long-term planning beyond the term of the current government. Of course it’s due to very particular political circumstances.
Do you play a musical instrument?
I used to play the trumpet—a long time ago!
Do you want to take it back up?
I think it would be too stressful at the moment. I used to be in a school band and we used to compete, so it was quite stressful, because in Singapore, you must win, your school must win.
If you could time travel to any time, past or future, which would it be?
I would definitely want to go to the Renaissance, to Milan, to Florence, to see the Medici, not just with all their magnificence and all the terrible things they did, but also leaving behind this incredible artistic heritage.