Malaysian 3D graphics artist, architect, and designer Chong Yan Chuah is a visionary who weaves intricate narratives at the intersections of technology, society, and the human experience. After studying architecture at Newcastle University and the Architectural Association (AA) in London, Chuah’s work often serves as a stark warning about the potential consequences of a future where technology is prioritized over people’s lives.

Particularly in his piece, TOWKAY’S HORIZON, Chuah explores what it would mean if the world’s food supply were monopolized and controlled solely through technological means, reflecting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals of Zero

Photograph of Chong Yan Chuah. Image courtesy of The Star.

Chuah's TOWKAY’S HORIZON is a compelling glimpse into a dystopian future where Malaysia's food supply is controlled by a privatized monopoly. In this cautionary tale, residents are compelled to trade their personal data and digital cache for survival, relying on enteral feeding tubes from what was once a Kopitiam, a typical Southeast Asian neighbourhood coffee shop that has now transformed into a server farm. 

This piece draws attention to a scenario where access to necessities becomes contingent upon the surrender of personal data, asking viewers to imagine what would happen if their access to food were determined by their digital footprint. This brings to mind the importance of digital equity and the potential exacerbation of societal disparities in a technology-driven world, a world that disregards basic human rights in the name of capitalism.

TOWKAY’S HORIZON by Chong Yan Chuah, exhibited at Muzium Telekom, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Image courtesy of Chong Yan Chuah’s website.

Set in 2042, the residents of TOWKAY’S HORIZON are modeled after real people from Chuah's Malaysian community. This means that viewers can perceive that the people within the piece are not just virtual avatars in a virtual world, but are real people navigating a very real landscape where the privileged few control the commodities essential for life, a not-too-distant reality since the Encyclopedia of World Problems & Human Potential can already chart Unilever (Anglo-Dutch), Nestlé Alimentana SA (Swiss) and Coca-Cola (USA) as the world’s largest food monopolies. By being so, they offer high prices on food to their customers, while paying extremely low prices for raw materials, exploiting people whether they are customers or producers.

This sentiment is further underlined in the piece’s title, TOWKAY’S HORIZON, where Towkay is a Southeast Asian term reserved for business owners and bosses (especially those who are Malaysian Chinese or Singaporean Chinese), a representation of the elite few who control the economy which invites Chuah’s viewers to contemplate further its dangers. 

A viewer explores TOWKAY’S HORIZON by Chong Yan Chuah with the help of a video game joystick at Muzium Telekom, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Image courtesy of Chong Yan Chuah’s website.

Chuah's TOWKAY’S HORIZON is also part of a larger trend in digital art and activism, where intentional virtual realities are constructed to challenge prevailing narratives. In a technologically driven landscape increasingly dominated by corporatized virtual experiences, artists instead, choose to engage in virtual worldbuilding to amplify marginalized voices and draw attention to pressing contemporary issues like food monopolies. 

Chuah’s ability to harness the potential of virtual landscapes as a narrative tool is also evident in the immersive and evocative nature of TOWKAY’S HORIZON. Viewers explore the artwork as they would a video game, with the help of a functioning joystick. This creates a poignant and immersive social commentary in a way that engages the viewer’s senses, hence making their awareness of the advocated issues more lasting

TOWKAY’S HORIZON by Chong Yan Chuah, exhibited at Muzium Telekom, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Image courtesy of Chong Yan Chuah’s website.

Chuah’s background in architecture is also evident in TOWKAY’S HORIZON, as it is not just an aesthetically striking piece, but also a carefully crafted exploration of the intersection between physical environment and fictional worlds. The incorporation of real-life elements, such as familiar restaurant design and furniture, adds a layer of authenticity to the dystopian narrative, making its immersive game-like nature all the more poignant since it alienates the familiar. Showing how much technology can alter human life.

Here, the takeaway message becomes clear, TOWKAY’S HORIZON urges viewers to confront the potential consequences of unchecked corporate control over essential resources like food, something that already exists today as small family-run establishments are becoming rarer by day, replaced by large global chains. 

Through TOWKAY’S HORIZON, Chuah prompts his viewers to consider the implications of unchecked technological advancements on essential aspects of their lives. In addressing the global food monopoly crisis and the economic inequality brought on by technology, his art becomes a mirror reflecting the potential consequences of unbridled techno-capitalism and the importance of ethical considerations in the digital realm. As humankind navigates the complex intersection of art, technology, and society, Chuah's creations offer both a cautionary tale and an invitation to imagine alternative futures where inclusivity and equity prevail.

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