These days, fostering audience ownership is as vital as curating the performing arts. The upcoming Singapore International Festival of Arts demonstrates its cutting-edge vision.
TEXT BY PAMELA HO
Published on 8 June 2015
TEXT BY PAMELA HO
Programming a festival can sometimes be like tossing items into a shopping cart. “I think this is where the problem often lies in the performing arts, where you just fill a programme like you fill in slots, rather than curating a kind of perspective — shaping and sharing it and consequently having a dialogue with the audience about the theme,” observes Ong Keng Sen, festival director of the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) 2015.
There is a subtle but definite difference between ‘programming a festival’ and ‘curating a festival’. “People feel that the performing arts can only be programmed, that curators are only for the visuals arts,” Ong elaborates, “but what distinguishes programming and curation for me is the idea of a theme, and the accountability to the theme that affects choice, as well as the transparency of the choice-making process.”
He believes that curators are taste-makers, but at the same time, also have to “create taste by enabling the audience to understand why they choose certain programmes as opposed to others.”
“So curating a performing arts festival is about taste-making and opening the space for dialogue and understanding of choices made within that process.”
In his process of curating SIFA 2015, Ong selected works based not on their merits alone; he selected them for a collection based on the theme, ‘POST-Empires’.
Even in curating the 12 Singapore commissions, Ong nurtured proposals by the invited theatre companies in such a way that they discussed POST-Empires and had a relationship with POST-Empires. Ideas were negotiated and amended to fit a collection.
But what is POST-Empires? “For me, the theme began as a feeling that the world we live in cannot continue as it is. It’s going through massive changes and we’re dealing with these changes everyday, and then we’re left with the question, ‘what comes after?’
“This question became very clear for me with Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s passing because it does illustrate we are in the POST-Empire moment. We’re in the moment of massive change when our founding father has left. How do we continue after?” Ong reflects. “So POST-Empires is not a futuristic statement. It is a statement of the here and now.”
In the main Festival, which runs for seven weekends from 6 August to 19 September, this theme is explored under four clusters of ideas — Archives, Transformation, Playing With Post and What Remains After — with the various shows adding different perspectives to these ideas.
But even before the main Festival, these groups of ideas would already have been explored in greater depth during SIFA’s pre-festival, The O.P.E.N., an acronym for open, participate, engage, negotiate.
Held over 19 days, from 16 June to 4 July, The O.P.E.N. is a pre-festival of ideas that connects the public to the themes and issues of the main Festival. It’s presented across five platforms: concerts, exhibitions, film screenings, performances and talks.
“Engagement is what The O.P.E.N. is centred on,” explains Noorlinah Mohamed, director of The O.P.E.N. “Because SIFA is conceptualised as a curated festival — strong on ideas as the epicentre — The O.P.E.N. becomes an engagement bridge to prepare, to initiate and to offer a window into the workings of the Festival.”
To dig deeper into SIFA’s theme, ‘POST-Empires’, events lined up for The O.P.E.N. follow two major lines: The Young and the Restless and Augmented Reality.
A tip on navigating The O.P.E.N. is to look out for clearly-marked tags — for example, Archives, What Remains After, Augmented Reality — in The O.P.E.N. Guide. You will find them at the end of each written synopsis, printed in yellow. These tags allude to some ideas central to the main Festival.
For instance, the photography exhibition The Price of Neglect by Chinese photographer Lu Guang, which explores the impact of industrial pollution on human lives and what happens after, falls under the tag, What Remains After. Following this tag, you may choose to next attend The O.P.E.N.’s Keynote Insight, The Role of Tomorrow’s Architects, by Japanese architect Toyo Ito, who initiated the project Home-for-All after the 2011 tsunami.
When the main Festival comes round, you may then want to check out Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó’s Dementia (by Proton Theatre), which highlights what happens in post-socialist Hungary when a psychiatric hospital is on the brink of being shut down. This theatre performance also explores the idea of What Remains After, but offers yet another perspective on it.
“The links between The O.P.E.N. and SIFA are there, but they are not meant to be obvious because it’s not didactic. What happens is that when you attend the talks and performances, you can make that link. That’s the ownership,” declares Noorlinah. “We offer you enough to make the link, but it is also open to you to make other links.
“You can see The O.P.E.N. as a school for life, where the textbooks are the performances and talks,” she shares. “You don’t just get fed information. Information needs to be digested and then transformed through reflection and reformulated with other ideas to form new thoughts.”
The best way to experience The O.P.E.N. is to purchase the O.P.E.N. Pass ($45), which gives you access to all the concerts, films, salons and exhibitions. This offers you the greatest freedom and flexibility to explore the myriad events and ideas. Alternatively, SIFA 2015 has also introduced the O.P.E.N. Single Entry Ticket ($10).
Ong shares his vision of the role of SIFA and The O.P.E.N. for the Singapore arts scene. “SIFA is ultimately concerned about creating a sustainable ecosystem of the arts in Singapore. We encourage audience ownership of ideas, issues and themes through The O.P.E.N.
“Too often, an arts festival is like a U.F.O., which descends on a city and then leaves as suddenly as it arrives,” he reflects. “The O.P.E.N. — styled as a popular academy — hopes to collaborate with you, our audience, to transform attitudes, mindsets, knowledge and emotions by creating an inviting and inclusive atmosphere, a climate that will welcome the Festival and persist thereafter.”
What inspired some of SIFA 2015’s Singapore commissions and international acts? We speak to the artists and groups to find out.
SIFA 2015 returns bigger and better, with close to 65 events and shows lined up across the main Festival and The O.P.E.N., its pre-festival. Significant differences between last year’s festival and this year’s include a stronger emphasis on Singapore productions, with a whopping 12 Singapore commissions out of the 19 main productions. Another first: a dance festival within SIFA itself! Also introduced this year, the SIFA Network, which brings free performances to informal venues around the island, including the heartlands.
“In China, the Revolutionary Model Plays were a popular and dominant form of theatre supervised by Madam Mao during the Great Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). The world does not know very much about her. This production gives us a unique opportunity to revisit the figure and contemplate the relationship between politics and theatre arts,” says Beijing director, Wang Chong, who directs students of LASALLE Performing Arts Faculty in an ambitious production. This is part of SIFA’s aim to bring top international artists to collaborate with students from Singapore art schools.
This musical performance is by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists from all across Australia. “Of the hundreds of Aboriginal languages that were spoken before 1788, many have been irretrievably lost or are at risk of disappearing. Those recovered are helping redress the cultural dispossession suffered by Aboriginal Australia, and enabling the renewal of an oral tradition that is over 40,000 years old,” reveals Anna Jacobs, general manager of Black Arm Band, a collective of indigenous performers from across Australia. “Dirtsong is performed predominantly in indigenous languages, so a majority of audiences can’t understand the songs from the lyrics, but rather the universal sense that they elicit — a sense of place and heartlands, of connection, joy and sorrow.”
Inspired by the tumultuous lives of Singapore’s first-generation artists, this Chinese musical takes you back in time to the late 1930s, into the intoxicating world of art, poetry and song. “The story was inspired by my readings on the Nanyang artists. I started working on this project in late 2013, when my creative process involved continuing with my research on the Nanyang artists. Hence, telling this story on stage is purely serendipitous,” reveals director Alec Tok. “The characters are fictitious, although several events in the musical are related to real events that happened.”
Kumar transports stand-up comedy from nightlife venues into the heartlands with a series of free live performances touching on racial harmony, xenophobia and Asian values. Joining him are comedians Koh Chieng Mun, Zaliha Hamid, Sharul Channa and Shane Mardjuki. Discloses Koh, “No air-con and beer! No politics, no money! This is one of the most difficult shows I’m about to do. So I will have to rely on my looks, which I am very confident about.” Mardjuki adds, “Since the audiences are so close to home, they may be more willing to get up and leave. They may suddenly realise they’ve left the stove on and rush home to check. If we were out somewhere in town, they might be more willing to let the house burn down.”