To Read Collectively
Review by Clarissa Lim Kye Lee

A flurry of online reading groups began dotting the Internet waves in 2020. From artist Tiffany Sia’s Hell is a Timeline midnight performance-reading which dug through dense political texts, to Malaysia Design Archive’s monthly reading group Countercartographies, a new discussion space, BACA, emerged.

BACA is a Malaysian centric fortnightly architecture reading group, now 18 sessions old, and helmed by Haziq Ariffin, a practising architectural designer currently working in London. BACA is an amalgamation of multiple platforms, a new and necessary hybrid creature, spawned out of social distancing. It exists as a Discord group, an Instagram account which posts discussion summaries, and sometimes spills onto architectural students’ Facebook groups. Straddling Dessau, Glasgow, Johor Bahru, Kuala Lumpur and London, the voices travel between borders, Malaysian accents and time zones.

Originally inspired by BAU, a reading group I started in Hong Kong, BACA is premised on the practice of reading aloud. The sessions are voice-only, decorated with mostly Malaysian accents (with a smattering of Singaporean, American and others), during which we collectively read a few excerpts of a text, play or article together. BACA began with streaming a PDF document to read on our own before coming together; and a few weeks ago, Ariffin pioneered using a shared Google Doc where we could annotate and leave comments collectively.

I had a Google Doc conversation with him to learn about the hybrid medium of Discord-Google Doc-Instagram, and his reflections about BACA.

BACA’s instagram summary of To Build a City-State and Erode History: Sand and the Construction of Singapore by Sarah Novak from Eating Chili Crab in the Anthropocene (2020

What does BACA mean for you?

BACA means many things to me. To begin with, it was just a fun, casual and harmless way of connecting with friends. It was largely inspired by BAU! It felt like an “aha” moment. My friends and I collectively thought it’d be fun to try it out on (group-chatting app) Discord as a way to liven up the virtual living room. For someone with a history of short-lived passion projects, BACA has been a really good tool to build discipline and consistency. BACA has also been a great excuse for me to challenge my storytelling and Instagram engagement. I find a lot of enjoyment in trying to break down big things into bite-size pieces and have somehow stumbled on to trying to tell or depict a story through emojis on Instagram. It’s been a lot of fun!

To me, BACA has been a very safe space to share and read collectively. It is a respite away from reality, where I can navigate my critical thoughts with other people’s. Sometimes we come out as friends, sometimes it is just a fleeting interaction, but I’m incredibly grateful for the platform. What does it mean for you to read collectively?

I’m really glad you find it a safe space! I appreciate it a lot. Another one of our regulars told me that she saw a different side to her long-time friend, who had also been coming, and that it was really nice to see her come out of her shell more. I thought that was really sweet. Personally, having a safe space where people can feel free to share without feeling “lesser than” was important. I think it’s because I see inclusivity as the first step to creativity, critical thinking and honestly, it’s just more fun when more people are engaged!

A summary of Hannah Arendt’s The Human Condition on the chapter ‘The Rise of the Social’ (1958)

What are your thoughts about reading aloud?

When I read aloud, I try to find and appreciate the lyricism and rhythm in the words and sentence structure. There are moments when reading aloud gives the text a whole different sound than what I would hear if I were to read it in my mind silently. I find that I tune in more to the content of what’s being said when I’m listening to others. It’s also nice to pick up on their diction and pace – I find it very colourful. I really enjoyed the shift to Google Docs too. I was just trying to think of how to break through the space and create that closeness/proximity as if we were in the same room. As much as I enjoyed the ephemeral nature of it all, sometimes it was difficult when I’d come to work on the summary/reflection piece! Having Google Docs was a nice reminder of our discussions.

Haziq ended our conversation by asking me a question: Do you think you would continue to come to these BACA sessions once life returns to a more normal state? Or perhaps a different scenario, if it were offered as both a physical session (with some makan or minum) and a virtual one, would you prefer one over the other?

To which I replied that both formats almost complement each other. I feel a synergy between the virtual and physical. This brings me back full circle to BAU, which was first initiated as a physical reading club. It was centered in a university, a space to have extrapolated discourses. Having moved to Kuala Lumpur, I find the quality of the city interrupted by highways and horrible public transport, and to find a centre in which we can connect may be challenging. But to combine reading with our delicious cuisine would be an advantage … after all, Malaysians will travel far for a good meal!

For more on BACA, do follow them on Instagram for updates and links on how to join the sessions!

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Clarissa Lim Kye Lee is a writer under the CENDANA - ASWARA Arts Writing Mentorship Programme 2020-2021

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