I think the programme this year is delicious - varied, with interesting and challenging choices. I was really excited about the use of the Tanjong Pagar railway station for dance programming (Maybe art could make a contribution to stalling the erasure and commercialisation of whatever Singapore has been), and the out-of theatre experiences like "It won't be too long" and the open homes series. I love that the dance programming focuses on Asian artists and includes both pretty movement and "interdisciplinary" and conceptual work. I've seen some great shows in the last two weeks, that tickled my senses and made me think, including Wall Dancing, Traitriot, and A Grand March. (missed Goh Lay Kuan because I wasn't back yet.)
Okay, tickets are a little expensive, but this is usually my investment for the year. The arts fest has been instrumental in helping me grow as an artist since I was a teenager. Maybe for that reason, I also carry some pretty high expectations not only of the curation but the presentation and the role of this event as a sort of public good.
Then I got a shock on 28 August.
I was at Tanjong Pagar for A Grand March by Zan Yamashita, and Some Experiments in a Decade and a Half by Natsuko Tezuka. With the unexpected bonus of some pre show dance films thrown in.
Even before the show, I'd been warned that the station was uncomfortable - too hot and limited seating. I figured, no sweat, I'm a dancer from the tropics. I made sure I dressed light and hardy (or as my mum in law would say, 'kum lar zar').
Yamashita's piece was staged on the railway track, strewn with debris. A powerful setting that suited the work visually and conceptually. We were encouraged to sit right in front of the set. Sitting on the tracks or damp grass was marginally uncomfortable, and many people chose to perch on the platform edges instead, even if that meant not hearing his text completely. Being still young-enough and spry-enough, I wiggled around on the steel track through the 40min piece and decided it had been worth it.
The shock was in the next piece, a lecture-demonstration by Natsuko Tezuka. Set up against one wall of the ticket hall, she danced, standing and lying, referred to and wrote on a wall projection, and spoke and responded to questions relayed through an echoey mic system. The audience was encouraged to pick up plastic chairs and arrange them freely in the space, which ended up in a sort of semi-circular lecture hall format around her of about five or six rows.
The view from the first row. Now sit down and put a lot of heads in your way.
I thought this was a very interesting work, with a unique vocabulary and investigation. But audience members began to stream out from about 15min into the 75min performance. After 40 minutes I began to question whether I would do the same - and this is something I very very rarely do.
My partner was fidgeting too. I told myself that I would decide on whether or not to stay, if two out of four of these criteria were fulfilled to make the time bearable:
1. If I was able to see the performer.
2. If I was able to see the projections.
3. If I could make out the dialogue.
4. If I could breathe.
1. Five minutes into the show, I realised that I could hardly see the performer's body, even though I had managed to pull up my chair in the fourth row, just next to the stage manager (who necessarily has a clear view). So I stood up and watched, and with some wandering around I managed to see a bit more. A bit of an endurance act to keep up for 75 minutes.
2. White text-on-black slides were projected to a ground-level screen, maybe 3x2m, made from a sort of reflective paper like the back of a printed poster. It clearly had to be ground level because Tezuka wrote on the screen surface with a whiteboard marker at several points in the show. The audience on plastic chairs from row 3 onwards would have been able to see only about half of the screen at a time. Visibility was better when I stood up, but quite a lot of the projected text wasn't big enough to read clearly. There were reflections on the surface from the lighting. When Tezuka started to add diagrams and text to the screen, the reflections made the visuals simply illegible.
3. Tezuka spoke mainly into a mic, but was not easy to understand. Part of this had to do with an adorably heavy accent. But I believe more to do with the fact that the sound engineering was downright awful. It seemed that neither the acoustics of the room or the sound system had been adapted or tested.
4. Air. Or lack thereof.
Got heat? How about stuffiness. I suspect that the combined discomfort was the main factor driving folks away. I think I spotted some box-fans at the entrance to the space, but I'm quite sure I didn't feel any during the performance!
At the 40min mark we bailed, and I started drafting this post in my head.
Was it limited resources that had forced such poor conditions for performance at the Tanjong Pagar railway station? In 10 years I've never experienced such disadvantageous conditions for an artistic work or for an audience at the Singapore Arts Festival. I might imagine something like this at the dance festival I've worked with in Laos and where sponsors and conditions change by the hour... but this at the Singapore Arts Festival?!
Poor ventilation, poor stage/seating concept and set up, poor acoustics,nd poor floor... On that evening the movement material wasn't very high impact, but the tiled floor is clearly punishing or even dangerous for any highly physical choreography. As an unfortunate contrast, I recall one of the earliest events held at the station after it was closed - a large scale Hermes pseudo-art installation show. The extensive structure built in the ticket hall was air conditioned and comfortable even in the day. Clearly it's possible to adapt that venue suitably with a sufficient budget.
Festival director Ong Keng Sen was there on 28 August, presenting bouquets to the artists. I wondered how he was able to account to them for these conditions - he didn't even choose to stage his own show (Border Crossers) at Tanjong Pagar. Did the festival get this venue for a song but not have the budget to adapt it? If so why did they choose to proceed? Was this mess one of the points of tension that rocked the SIFA team? I hope there's a reasonable explanation for what happened, but right now I can't imagine what it might be. That said, the other events that I attended at 72-13 and the SOTA studio were comfortable and seemed to have adequate technical conditions for the works. How did this slippage happen at Tanjong Pagar?
If it was a question of resource-shock..the evening wasn't done with me yet. On the way out I took some time in the considerably cooler station foyer answering a festival survey (apparently conducted this year by an external consultancy instead of the usual festival volunteers.) I paraphrase this question:
If there was a possibility that SIFA could not continue because of insufficient funding, would you be prepared to pay $100 for a ticket?
Me: $100?!!!! No. I'm an artist!
Would you pay $50 for a ticket?
Me: Probably not either!
So how much would you pay?
Me: I would apply to perform or to volunteer in the festival if that's what it took to see some shows.
(Lady says as she writes, "Not willing to pay more for tickets"
What is going on, folks? In 2014 the arts festival was reincarnated as a commissioned event run by a private enterprise (The Arts House Ltd). If I let my runaway imagination out on the expressway - Is the arts festival teetering on bankruptcy? Is it about to be privatised into a commercial luxury event?
I'm going for my next performance at Tanjong Pagar tonight. Oh boy.
I'm going for my next performance at Tanjong Pagar tonight. Oh boy.