As a child, Singaporean up-and-comer Muhammad Ibnunordin’s rebellious spirit had nowhere to go. His compulsive creativity and stubborn refusal to accept the status quo did not go down well at school. Ironically, it was his stint of national service that gave him an outlet and a focus when he ended up on the film crew of Singapore’s Civil Defence Force (SCDF). There he found himself filming the fire department as they extinguished blazes and covering ministerial visits and creating corporate videos. After his two years were up, he needed to find somewhere to truly flex his creativity – and he stumbled upon hotshop UltraSuperNew one Friday afternoon as he walked home from prayers. He checked them out online and pestered them again and again and again and again… and again… until finally they gave him a shot with an internship. Nearly two years later and Muhammad is still there, having evolved into a one-man media art department of sorts.
He’s also one of those enviably self-motivated people whose creative tendrils prod everywhere. He designs and makes men’s Noragi jackets (taught by his grandfather), he’s designed accessories (check out his fierce fanged men’s jewellery), – and that’s all before you get stuck into his filmmaking. LBB’s Laura Swinton caught up with Muhammad to learn more about this restless and driven creative talent.
LBB> What sort of kid were you and was creativity and film a big part of your childhood?
Muhammad> I grew up in a considerably conservative Malay/Muslim household, and went to an Arabic religious school for 11 years.
I was an unruly child, so on the family side of things, I feel like they started off worried that I wouldn’t know what to do with my life (as every parent would), and later they worried about how I’d be able to get a job and sustain financially in the creative industry (also as any parent would). Whatever it is, they love me, so it’s all G.
On the school side of things, the general consensus was that I was the ‘rebel kid’. I constantly challenged and questioned the notion of how the status quos and rules were being held almost to a religious level, and yet personal issues and concerns or individuals were easily dismissed and overlooked. Also there was no support for any artistic endeavours aside from select cultural arts that they favoured. I’m guessing that’s just how the education system works probably, nothing place-specific.
It was a very frustrating phase. I was just developing my creativity, faced with disapproval and attempts to shut down any development by most (not all, some were really cool and inspiring) people around me.
But to be fair the place taught me about being disciplined and basically every religious thing I know and am very much still practising today, so hey, you win some you lose some.
After I left for tertiary education, things got a lot better. My parents could worry about my progress less, and I had much more space to create. Still not a fan of exclusively depending on formal education when it comes to creative work, but you gotta get that paper to get somewhere, am I right?
Film wasn’t really something I picked up until much later, it was a lot of music, graphic design and making and selling tees and stickers. Art school kid things.
LBB> How did you end up in the film crew of the Civil Defence Force? Was it something you sought out or was it a random assignment?
Muhammad> It starts off as a (kinda) sad story.
I initially wrote down that I wanted to join the creative team of the force, or whatever the equivalent is. But being fit for duty, was shortlisted for section commander, one of the highest ranking positions (therefore highest paying… man’s gotta eat) you can get to as a recruit in the force. During the day of trials, I succumbed to an old injury after about 15 minutes of running around with gear and doing push-ups.
My arm just buckled and I couldn’t continue, resulting in a disqualification from the course.
Luckily for me, the very next day the headhunters for the film crew came down to our camp to scout people. As I had a relevant diploma I got interviewed along with about five other people.
Eventually landed the spot with two other people from my camp. A ‘one door closes, two more open’ kinda situation.
LBB> And what sort of things did you work on during that time?
Muhammad> The film crew does everything from event coverage videos of ministerial visits, to filming fires or accidents that the firefighters and paramedics attend to and creating major corporate videos that go out to the public.
I started off by making posters and design collateral. Luckily there was a big event coming soon so I was recruited into the crew, to prove myself. Note that at this time I didn’t have any extensive knowledge on video and photography. I couldn’t even operate a camera with manual settings.
As time passed my officers-in-charge and mates there taught me how to operate equipment, how to edit videos from scratch, and I went on shoots as a general grip assistant, setting up lights, carrying things around… I also made a lot of side-trips to good food places in between shoots because everyone in there was a crazy foodie. Office canteen food wasn’t really the best.
It slowly transitioned to handling bigger shoots and projects until my two years of service ended and I had to leave. I still work with my mates from the film crew on self-initiated projects together, or hire them as freelancers on USN jobs.
LBB> I love the story about how you came across UltraSuperNew! You were walking home from Friday prayers, passed the office and decided to look them up and ask for a job… What was it about the office that caught your eye and made you stop and look in?
Muhammad> Geographically, it was because it’s on the way from the mosque. Visually, the slanted pink logo felt like a dead-giveaway that USN is not yet another dry, hierarchal, cold advertising agency. It’s also kind of a startup in Singapore so there was a higher chance of it being cool. (Also it was from Japan, and being the pseudo-weaboo I am, I just gravitate towards anything Japan related. It was a given.)
The gallery space USN has at the entrance also looked like a pretty neat thing to have.
LBB> They ignored you for three months but you keep persisting! What motivated you and kept driving you?
Muhammad> The vibes.
To be honest I didn’t really know much about the work USN did (I even mistook a Puma ad they produced for an Adidas ad during the interview) nor did I know much about the industry at all. I was just very sure it’s the kind of ever-evolving place I wanted to be a part of, and help bring places. Also it was just about one year young then, and the potential to build it up together with the crew was just very, very, very exciting, I couldn’t pass on it. I didn’t even name a figure for my salary. It was a case of: ‘I just wanna be on board take me I won’t let you down promise!’
LBB> And what do you think it was that persuaded them to give you an internship in the end?
Muhammad> I’m guessing the persistence I showed went from being initially annoying, to being useful once it was proven that I wasn’t all talk. I pulled a lot of all-nighters, was putting out videos for brand pitches much faster than usual (a skill accidentally acquired from the pressure of working with the skilled editors of the SCDF Film Crew) and jumped at every opportunity to make cool stuff.
LBB> Looking at your personal website, I love the variety of projects you throw yourself into, from product design to graphic design and video. Often people, even creative people, get stuck in one medium – how do you keep your approaches fresh and why is it important for you to keep exploring new areas?
Muhammad> There’s always a fear of failing spectacularly when you do something new and different from whatever you’re used to, and it’s a valid cause of anxiety. Sometimes a spectacular failure is the very thing that leads to being ‘shut-off’ from trying new things.
At the same time there’s also the rut of monotony and jadedness you’ll fall into when doing the safe, same thing over and over again.
What I do a lot is throw myself into things I’m unfamiliar with and don’t really know how to go about, putting me in a difficult spot, until it comes to a point where I have no choice but to figure it out somehow. Without the risk and high stakes situation I set for myself, I feel like it’s easy to fall into the comfortable embrace of irrelevance and false self-delusion that I’m doing good work.
LBB> I love the fang cat logo you created for yourself on your site – can you tell me about him?
Muhammad> It’s actually two creatures simultaneously: a lion and a cat. I created them back in 2012 for my album cover, the original illustration originally looked a lot more detailed. The illustration was of 1) a cat wearing the pelt of a lion he killed, 2) a severed cat head in the mouth of a lion.
It was a play on the Schrödinger's cat theory, but in this case you don’t know the fate of the cat because of the one dimensional plane you’re seeing him from. Did the cat kill a whole damn lion? Did he get his head severed by the lion?
It’s an open-ended paradox, never settling on just one answer, ever-evolving with every new piece of new information and knowledge gathered. It’s a state of self I aspire to reach the heights of and embrace artistically. If that makes any sense.
LBB> I’ve got to ask about Project Noragi and the clothing designs you’ve created – how did you get into that, and please can you tell me about the influence that your grandfather has had on you in that area?
Muhammad> Like many of the personal projects I work on, the inspiration comes from a simplistic, mostly uncool reason.
So here’s the Project Noragi story: I was out one day looking at expensive arts-and-craftsy stuff at one of those hipstery upmarket stores, and chanced upon this really nice minimal Noragi [a traditional Japanese workwear jacket] that costs around $200 SGD. I wanted to get it. But I couldn’t afford it.
So I figured I’d make one.
There’s a shop near the area that sells fabric for $5 SGD per metre, and I got three. Went home, took apart this souvenir kimono I got in Japan, and figured out how the pieces were cut and put together.
Now my grandpa, the multi-talented person he is, helped teach me how to cut and sew fabric. All this happened that very day.
So we worked on the prototype overnight, got it done the next morning, went out and got it shot that afternoon, and listed it for orders by evening.
TLDR: Thing was made because couldn’t afford said thing.
From there it became kind of a daily wear thing, and I have more capital to work with, so I went for more expensive fabrics and got it sent to a tailor to make subtle tweaks and modifications to improve on the design.
I don’t typically make them to sell, but I’ll probably make a few pieces when I feel like it, and if anyone’s interested, sure, I can part with it.
LBB> Of the video projects you’ve been involved in, which ones are you proudest of and why? And is there any medium that you haven’t had the chance to explore creatively that you’d like to get stuck into?
Muhammad> Currently I’m really proud of 'Kokuhaku Part 1' because it felt very substantial, especially for a one-minute video, and was the most personal project I’ve done so far. I worked with some friends and my fiancée to get the writing and translations on point. I also had to work with clips I shot haphazardly three years prior (in 720p mind you), before I knew much or had good equipment, so that was especially a challenge. They were shitty shots and I was swearing at my past self for them during the editing process.
I’ve been wanting to make a part two of that but no time LOL.
I’d like to have a go at multi-media experiential design. To create in a space where people can come and interact with it and each other, and maybe leave finding out something new about themselves, or simply feel some sort of emotion in this increasingly cold world.
LBB> Who are your creative heroes and why?
Muhammad> They’re people you usually won’t see mentioned in the same sentence:
Kanye West and the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
Kanye is the type of person who takes crazy creative risks, doesn’t take shit from anyone, and pushes the envelope for himself, the people he works with, and, dare I say, the game itself. His musical and visual creative vision and ideas were well ahead of his time. Morality-wise, I can agree he’s all over the place and makes questionable decisions.
That’s where Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) comes in. I was named after him, simply ‘Muhammad’, meaning ‘praiseworthy’ in Arabic. The last (but not least) prophet in Islam, the literal embodiment of what a Good Person should be, Muslim or otherwise.
The goal is to find the balance between violently pushing for change to happen, and gently guiding towards that change.
LBB> So how long have you been with USN now?
Muhammad> I’ve been here officially for a year and five months, but since I walked through the door for my internship it’s been a year and nine months.
LBB> You are the sole member of the media art department! I imagine that keeps you busy – what does an average day look like (as if there is such a thing!)?
Muhammad> The media art department is not an actual department. It started out as a joke because I’m the only one in it. But being the company USN Singapore is, they play along with it, and now it’s the signature at the bottom of my official work email. Real classy stuff.
That said, it's kind of becoming a department wing anyway? The people I pull in for freelance jobs with us are my friends, and people I enjoy working with. So it's kind of a modular special task force kind of crew at the moment.
It’s a mix-and-match kinda thing, no truly average workday. There’s a lot of long-running projects that take weeks, maybe months, from conceptualisation to completion, and maybe two or three jobs overlapping on my timeline at one time. Sometimes I do 24-48 hour binge-editing or animating to meet deadlines. Sometimes weekend or holiday shoots. Sometimes a pitch video three hours to deadline. Sometimes nothing at all.
But every day I come in, I’m on aux control, to the amusement/annoyance of the guys at the office. Let’s just say my taste in music is very wide-reaching and somewhat questionable.
LBB> What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever had?
Muhammad> “If you don’t put your heart into your work, it will never truly reach anyone else’s heart.” Or something along those lines. I don’t remember exactly, haha!
LBB> What upcoming projects have you got on the cards?
Muhammad> Personally I have another music video project with the musician Idealism, ‘Kokuhaku Part 2’, a music video with my fiancée shot in Japan recently, random raps I feel like writing every now and then, and probably some apparel/fashion accessory design.
Workwise, I don’t think I can disclose it here. Just look out for the stuff on the UltraSuperNew social channels…