Weekend at The O.P.E.N. with the 89pluses

Noorlinah Mohamed - Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Images by Olivia Kwok
Text by Koay Yi Ling

For the weekend of 5 and 6 July 2014, The O.P.E.N focused on #Digital Legacies and more specifically, on the ‘89plus’ – those born on or after the year 1989. The year 1989 was a watershed year in the political as well as technological worlds. In fact, many have dubbed it the ‘Year That Changed the World’, or rather, the world that many have come to know.

Major events that occurred that year are now imprinted in the historical consciousness of the world, and not to mention, multiple textbooks. Some of the significant political events are, the fall of the Berlin Wall that led to the eventual end of the Cold War; Tiananmen Square protest; the rapid development of technology with the World Wide Web and the consequence of internet culture and living digitally. The concentration on the 89plus generation is aimed at understanding how these events have shaped the psyche, thinking and practice of the generation born within that period.

5 July 2014, Saturday

Space 3 awaiting the Brunch Talk with Ho Rui An and Matthew Claudel with Being 89plus.

Matthew Claudel (left) and Ho Rui An (right): The first session on #DigitalLegacies. Brunch at The O.P.E.N: Being 89plus began.

Ho Rui An, an artist and writer, discussed how themes such as nationalism, knowledge, space and social cultures, have influenced his
work. Art and artists are indeed part of the community, not apart from it. 

Matthew, a designer and architect, presented the projects he has done in Singapore under the MIT Senseable City Lab. Some of the amazing stuff that he has done with big data: Link Twitter post patterns with people's state of emotion and a bicycle wheel that will foster the realization of green cities.

Q&A session was very lively with many pertinent questions asked.

5 July 2014, Saturday

Ho Rui An curated two panels for The O.P.E.N.

Panel #1: Local/Knowledge with panelists art critic Lee Weng Choy, cultural research specialist Brigitta Isabella, film-maker Grace Teng, writer Amanda Lee Koe and architect and researcher Matthew Claudel. Moderated by Ho Rui An.

Local / Knowledge convenes some of the most exciting protagonists of the 89plus Generation — the generation born in or after 1989 — in a panel that investigates what it means to produce knowledge around the concept of the local. Focusing on longitudinal and collaborative modes of research carried out by key members of the 89plus Generation in Southeast Asia, it looks at how a younger, more mobile and more cosmopolitan generation negotiate their relationship with locality, whether through the construction of new corpuses of knowledge, the practice of forms of fieldwork and ethnography, or the development of new tools and technologies.

Ho Rui An began the panel with Lee Weng Choy. Art critic Lee Weng Choy discussed the ways art locates us within today's globalised art world dominated by large-scale biennales and festivals.

Brigitta Isabella, a writer and researcher from Yogyakarta, tackled the ways through which youth is politically constituted as a demographic category in contemporary Indonesia.

Grace Teng showed a film about a musical performance by Singaporean students at the University of Pennsylvania featuring some elements of Singlish. This is followed by a dialogue with Amanda Lee Koe on the notion of language, identity and social transformation. 

6 July 2014, Sunday    

Panel #2 Commentary was led by Ho Rui An, with a panel of speakers Tan Zi Hao, Fahmi Reza, Netwit Chotiphatphaisal, Pumiwat Rangkasiwit and Raksha Mahtani.

Commentary investigates how the 89plus Generation — the generation born in or after 1989 — engages with new forms and avenues of socio-political critique. What are the roles and responsibilities of the critic in today's networked environment, where “comment is free” and where opinion does not just respond to but also increasingly shapes the contemporary moment? Focusing on Singapore and the wider Southeast Asian region, the panel further examines how online media has been mobilised for the production of critical discourse and is changing the form of political agency in the region.

Zi Hao, a multidisciplinary artist from Malaysia, was the first to speak. His performance-lecture covered the theme of human relation, both emotionally as well as the physically. 

Fahmi Reza, a self-taught graphic designer, arts worker and political activist from Malaysia was next. He discussed the use of social network platforms such as Facebook in organising political participation and information dissemination in Malaysia.

Ho Rui An moderating a discussion with Thai students activists Netwit Chotiphatphaisal and Pumiwat Rangkasiwit (far right) with a translator Pimsiri Petchnamrob. 

Raksha Mahtani read out her poetry to a very attentive crowd.

The entire panel gathered to interact with the audience during the final question and answer session. Moderated by Ho Rui An.

Watching and Learning about Bertolt Brecht

Noorlinah Mohamed - Friday, July 11, 2014

Bertolt Brecht in 8 Steps
By Nora Samosir and Sharon Frese 
Response by Charlene Rajendran
Corresponding SIFA show: Peter Pan by Berliner Ensemble
Contributor: Koay Yi Ling

Within 10 minutes of the house opening, all seats were filled at the performance space of 72-13. Students could be seen with notebooks perched on their laps, ready to scribble down whatever wisdom they could tease out from this performance. There were also educators and several perennial O.P.E.N. Pass holders, those die-hard fans who have attended all most every single O.P.E.N. event since it opened on 26 June. They were in for a treat, dished out by two of Singapore’s most established theatre practitioners – Nora Samosir and Sharon Frese – in Bertolt Brecht in 8 Steps.

Oh boy, was it a treat. I call this a Brechtian performance of Brecht Theatre – dual layers that reinforce the attributes that define Brecht Theatre. Everyday items were used as props; placards to demarcate scenes, a wooden walking stick as weapon, a mug as a phone and a shawl signified a baby, a dog and other objects. The use of music and multimedia, coupled with Nora and Sharon’s imperfect singing, awkward marching and didactic speeches at the podiums, provided visual and auditory examples of what their dialogues were trying to explain.

The two actresses were clearly having fun on stage and with mentions of ‘Gestus’, ‘Verfremdungseffekt’, ‘Gesamtkuswerk’ and ‘4th wall’, students in the audience could be seen hunched over their notebooks. For me, this was a good refresher course on Brecht; the first encounter being my first year at university six years ago, with Nora Samosir as the class tutor no less! Bertolt Brecht in 8 Steps is a preparatory programme for the performance of Peter Pan on the 11th, 12th and 13th of September by Berliner Ensemble at the Singapore International Festival of Arts. It is worth mentioning that Bertolt Brecht and his wife, Helene Weigel, were the people who established the Berliner Ensemble in 1949.

Nora and Sharon’s performance lasted 45 minutes and was followed by a response from the brilliant Charlene Rajendran. She spoke on how Brecht’s influence can be seen in the plays and theatres of Southeast Asia during the ‘60s and ‘70s – from Kuo Pao Kun to wayang kulit in Indonesia. The event ended with a Q&A session that would have made Brecht himself beam with pride. As the panel on stage was rousing to what might have become a heated discussion (with Ken Sen shouting from the side “It IS Brecht!” to Nora’s “No, that isn’t really Brecht”), Noorlinah cut them off, saying that the event has concluded.

The Legacy of Violence & The Post-Apartheid South Africa

Noorlinah Mohamed - Wednesday, July 09, 2014

By Jay Pather

The issue of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission has generated much public debate and some apprehension… what this issue raises is how we deal with a past that contained gross violations of human rights – a past which threatens to live with us like a festering sore.
Nelson Mandela, as part of his 100 Day Speech to Parliament in 1994

Nelson Mandela’s legacy in the context of a colonial legacy of abject violence and economic deprivation is a double-edged sword, one that epitomises the bristling dynamic in South Africa that continues to make it a land of so much contestation. Even in talking through issues of reconciliation and forgiveness, Mandela nevertheless never stopped reminding us of ‘a past that threatens to live with us like a festering sore'. Thabo Mbeki, who succeeded Mandela, would later go on to talk of the legacy and continued existence of ‘two countries’, one for the historically advantaged and another for the historically marginalised and disenfranchised.

Memory and legacies of violence play an important role, then, in the shaping of the new country. Whether it is acknowledging that Independence after Apartheid was not a clean cut from the past, nor was it a revolution that ensured the redistribution of land and wealth, the weight of a negotiated settlement has brought with it economic asymmetries and societal stresses that continue to plague thesociety.

Annie Coombes prefaces much of her authoritative work Visual Culture and Public Memory in a Democratic South Africa (2003) with references to such contestation. Interestingly, she begins with recalling Neville Alexander:

The strategic-political and ultimately moral-historical question is how to move towards understanding without ever forgetting, but to remember without constantly rekindling the divisive passions of the past” (Coombes 2003: 1)

Coombes agrees with Alexander, suggesting that the state of cool reason and acceptance is the higher plane that we should all aspire to. However, in South Africa, the unchecked continuities in economic distress and dire material circumstances ensure that the remembrances of such acts of colonial violation and economic deprivation have clear reference to the immediate present. In an article titled South Africa's Unfinished Revolution, Anne Applebaum, editor of the Economist and The Washington Post, writes:
While South Africans dealt brilliantly with the racial and historical legacy of the apartheid state, they have dealt less well with its corrupt economic legacy and the legacy of the security institutions created to repress the majority of citizens. (Applebaum, 2013: n.p)

Following these comments, then, as well as current statistics of unemployment [1] and poverty, a lack of change in material circumstances makes it crucial to witness, reimagine and resurrect the past time and time again, even though many who benefited under apartheid would wish it to simply go away. Recourse to ‘what happened’ becomes less about nostalgia, confession, confrontation and closure (suggested by even such institutions as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission) and more a harrowing journey to explain and affirm one’s current economic distress and wretchedness, and to simply understand the discrepancy between one’s labour and one’s absurdly dire material circumstances. An invocation of memory in relation to apartheid then becomes an active dialectic, a reflexive meditation, what is constantly alluded to by critical theorists Jacques Lacan, Paul Ricouer and Michel Foucault: that the act of remembering is a preoccupation with the present.

In their seminal article, Symbolic Closure through Memory, Reparation and Revenge in Post-conflict Societies, Brandon Hamber and Richard Wilson comment:

The South African TRC has, in the interests of national reconciliation, muted feelings of vengeance and replaced them with what it calls a more restorative model (2002) 

and conclude that:

The nation-building discourse of truth commissions homogenise disparate individual memories to create an official version, and in so doing, they repress other forms of psychological closure motivated by less ennobled (although no less real) emotions of anger and vengeance. Claims to heal the collective unconscious of the nation therefore mask how truth commissions both lift an authoritarian regime of denial and public silence, as well as create a new regime of forgetting which represses other memories and forms of psychological closure (2002 n.p.).

The need for material witness, for the actual accounts by individuals as opposed to a generalised and expedient national project, signals something far more important than the already huge task of achieving material equity, housing and land restitution. The need to materialise this intangible abnegation and disempowerment is erupting through the cracks in a variety of ways, many of which are violent. The lack of vehicle or form or even place for this perpetual, satisfying witness that is able to connect past and present is plain to see and mired in a range of absences and subjectivities. Disenchantment, graphic re-enactment and spontaneous threats of violence from parts of the nation, along with denial, amnesia and erasure from others, and the arguable failure of politically expedient projects such as reconciliation, national unity and social cohesion mark a difficult and complex terrain.

These areas of Memory and Legacy form key themes in the talk as well as that of the Body as Waste and the Human, Race, and Elusive Futures to sketch out a country that continues to exemplify its resilience in the face of its desires for erasure and its debilitating legacies. Ultimately, with audiovisual aids, the talk illustrates how this landscape provides a context for the work of artists such as, amongst others, Mamela Nyamza, Boyzie Cekwana and Zanele Muholi.

Other relevant texts:

• Adebajo (A.), Adedeji (A.) & Landsberg (C.) eds., SOUTH AFRICA IN AFRICA, The Post-Apartheid Era

• Alexander (A.) ed., ARTICULATIONS, a Harold Wolpe Memorial Lecture collection Durban, 2006
A collection of sixteen of the lectures presented in the Harold Wolpe Memorial Public Lecture Series. Also includes reviews of the lectures by activists and academics.

Includes "Fanon, Marx, and the New Reality of the Nation: black political empowerment and the challenge of a new humanism in South Africa" by Nigel Gibson,
"Keeping it in Their Pants: politicians, men, and sexual assault in South Africa" by Charlene Smith,
"Democracy and the Importance of Criticism, Dissent, and Public Dialogue" by William Mervin Gumede,
"An Incomplete Freedom: the state of the media ten years into democracy" by Ferial Haffajee,
"Slow Delivery in South Africa's Land Reform Programme: the property clause revisited" by Lungisile Ntsebeza, and
"Ten Years of Democracy: a review" by Patrick Bond.

• Zulu (P.), A NATION IN CRISIS, an appeal for morality; Cape Town, 2013.
Paulus Zulu examines the tension between justice and democracy and analyses what he sees
as a lack of public morality in South Africa nineteen years after liberation.

[1] According to Statistics South Africa (May 2013), the unemployment rate in South Africa increased to 25.20 percent in the first quarter of 2013, from 24.90 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012.    

A Window into South African Dance History

Noorlinah Mohamed - Tuesday, July 08, 2014
By Adrienne Sichel

South African contemporary dance has a remarkably rich and complex history.

Several teachers, dancers, choreographers, artistic directors, administrators and activists have driven this movement for the past 40 years. The resulting, now internationally-recognised choreography draws on cultural traditions, rituals, various techniques (imported or developed), forms, styles, rural and urban influences, as well as current realities and issues.

Who these pioneers were (and are) is part and parcel of democratic South Africa’s socio-political history. South African contemporary theatre dance has been, to a large extent, evolved out of acts of political defiance and activism in reaction to the race laws of apartheid South Africa instituted after the Nationalist government came to power in 1948.

These draconian laws which underpinned the separate development policy (we could all practice our cultures – separately) were the Immorality Act and Separate Amenities Act. Black South Africans, including people classified as Coloureds (mixed race) and Indians, were prohibited from performing on certain stages, in whites-only theatres and in certain venues.

The segregated theatre law was lifted in 1978. Till then, dancers of colour who were trained (technically against the law) at the University of Cape Town Ballet School (one of the origins of contemporary dance training founded by Dulcie Howes in 1934) had to leave the country to dance professionally. This included Vincent Hantam (who had a long career with the Scottish Ballet) and also affected Christopher Kindo, who returned to his homeland after 1978 and made history as a virtuoso dancer, inventive choreographer and teacher.

It is important to note that South African theatre and theatrical dance was historically split, not only stylistically and in terms of audiences, but by funding. The Nationalist government’s arts policy was for white South Africans only. The prioritised European art forms were opera, ballet, contemporary dance from 1988, orchestral music and drama. Since the mid 1960s, permanent full-time drama, opera, ballet, dance companies and orchestras were attached to some of the opera houses built in Pretoria, Bloemfontein, Durban and Cape Town in the 1970s and 1980s. The companies and institutions were part of the Performing Arts Councils, which were finally disbanded according to the terms of democratic South African policy post-1994.

Activist initiatives like Dance Alliance became part of the pre-1994 Arts and Culture Task Group, which helped lobby for a new cultural policy to benefit all South Africans and arts forms. The formation of the Department of Arts and Culture and the National Arts Council (NAC), serving the now nine provinces, developed out of this process. Through legislation, certain theatres and opera houses are funded as national institutions. They have transformed from production houses to presenting houses without resident companies and production budgets.

Another important part of this history is the international cultural boycott. This action formed part of the anti-apartheid movement which targeted sports relations between South Africa and the world. In 1963, writers became involved and later, playwrights, filmmakers and choreographers as well. The boycott was lifted in 1994 after the first democratic elections.
In terms of the development of South African contemporary dance, the negative aspect of the boycott was that we were denied access to what was happening elsewhere. Through cultural diplomacy, certain handpicked dancers and teachers from townships and cities were sent to festivals like the American Dance Festival.

The positive part of the cultural boycott was that, in isolation, South African dance-makers were forced to create their own forms of expression, methodologies, and aesthetics and develop hybrid fusion forms such as Sylvia Glasser’s Afro-fusion. Enterprising dancers, teachers and choreographers (such as Cape Town’s Jazzart collaborative of Alfred Hinkel, Jay Pather, Dawn Langdown and John Linden) also looked beyond the prescribed legal racial barriers to collaborate.
Black children were officially denied arts education but cultural groups, youth clubs and numerous community-based training initiatives, such as Arlene Westergaard’s Zama Dance School in Gugulethu (where 8-year-old Mamela Nyamza started ballet), proved the power of the arts to empower and educate. 

A major turning point was the introduction of the Dance Umbrella, at The Wits Theatre, in Johannesburg, in 1989, as a free, democratic, national platform for all forms of new South African choreography. This ranged from traditional Zulu dance to classical ballet. This festival, now directed by Georgina Thomson, has developed an international and African profile. It has also nurtured generations of dancers, choreographers and audiences as well as producing a unique repertory.
Post-democracy, the formal political activism and community spirit of volunteerism has largely died, as companies and independent artists compete for shrinking funding and resources. Critically-minded innovators depend on foreign commissioning and funding as well as local opportunities from Dance Umbrella (which is at risk of closure) and other festivals to continue making art. The NAC’s dance company funding has been reversed and companies have ether collapsed in the past two years or are about to die.

Yet, this hasn’t deterred visionary dancer-choreographers, teachers and administrators from persevering to continue an extraordinary legacy.

Biomedicine, Bioethics, and the Arts: Promises, Fears, & Fiction

Noorlinah Mohamed - Monday, July 07, 2014
By Prof. Paul Macneill

There is a fascination with science, biomedicine and promises of biomedical advances. The promises include a ‘cure’ for aging that banishes all the diseases and maladies that come with it.

The promises go beyond realistic expectations — far beyond science fiction — into hype. Even people within biomedical science, and within bioethics, take the fictions seriously. Some of them are harmful — causing people to destroy the fabric of their lives in chasing elusive dreams. The fascination with biomedical mythology is, of course, fuelled by fear: the fear of our own and our loved ones’ deaths.

There is another approach to these promises, fears, and fictions. They are quest myths —the stories of human vulnerabilities and desires. The antidote is in accepting that understanding and wisdom come from many sources. It is not only through science and rational debate that we gain knowledge, but also through music, painting, literature, dance, film, and theatre. In the arts, feeling, sensitivity, and awareness of beauty and pain are taken seriously as the stuff of our lives. It is not a quantitative measure — the length of a life — that matters, but the quality of the life we live.

Biomedicine and Bioethics

Biomedicine in defined simply as “the branch of medicine concerned with the application of the principles of biology, biochemistry, etc., to medical research or practice” [OED]. Bioethics is defined as “the discipline dealing with ethical issues relating to the practice of medicine and biology or arising from advances in these subjects” [OED]. I have taken a critical approach to bioethics, however. As stated in the Preface to Ethics and the Arts (Macneill 2014):

I have been teaching ‘bioethics’ in medical schools in Australia, and now Singapore, for the last 22 years. The major influences on bioethics — a sphere of applied ethics in medicine and other health professions — have been philosophy and law. The field is overly theoretical, philosophical, and legal — if not downright juridical. Even practising clinicians, who publish in bioethics, are obliged to pay respect to philosophy and the law, rather than found their views on clinical experience. For some time, I’ve been dissatisfied with this approach and prefer more practical methods of research — including watching what physicians actually do. These observations have led me to a conviction that medical practice is an art form. Whilst it is a truism that medicine is an art and a science, there is little substantive material on medicine as an art. It is not easy to research or write about. So much of this art is a synthesis of theory and practice, individual nous, and the experience of dealing compassionately (as most doctors do) with real patients in the midst of life’s crises. (p.viii)

And in the last chapter of Ethics and the Arts:

I... am dissatisfied with the predominant normative approaches, particularly because normative ethics does “little to promote an inner sense of mastery in acting well in relating to others”. I have turned to the arts to look for qualities that may have potential application in promoting acting well — or acting ethically in relation to others — and in ways that go beyond normative approaches. To this, I add: acting in ways that bring delight — and acting from a recognition that the most important change may be in the quality of affect rather than in achieving some instrumental purpose for an encounter. (p.259)

I concluded Ethics and the Arts with the statement:

Normative ethics is a necessity in many circumstances. Not all situations can be left to the moment and some prior considered agreement between participants, to cover what ought to happen, is often needed. Nevertheless, even within those constraints, there can be a fluidity and lightness, a crispness and delight in the performance. There is no music in dull, rigid following of the score with each player absorbed in getting it right. The arts can illustrate what it means to relate with pleasure and joy in full and cooperative engagement. (p.260)

Macneill, Paul. 2014. ed. Ethics and the Arts. Heidelberg, New York, and London: Springer.

Fish Have Fear - understanding emotions through experiments on fish

Noorlinah Mohamed - Monday, July 07, 2014

By Assoc. Prof Suresh Jesuthasan
An addenda to his Brunch Talk at The O.P.E.N. on 28 June 2014

For millennia, philosophers, poets, writers, artists and scientists alike have puzzled over the complexities of human behaviour. Desire, anxiety, ecstasy, aggression and madness have long inspired both poetry and prose, music and lyric.

What would it mean for the sciences – and the arts – if we could definitively locate the source and cause of emotions like fear? The possibilities for further scientific exploration and literary extrapolation are endless.

To gain a better understanding of emotions and behaviour, scientists have observed humans, of course, and other animals as well.

In 1938, famed Austrian ethologist Karl von Frisch published his first report on a substance released through the skin of an injured European minnow: he called it 'Shreckstoff' – which translates literally into 'alarm substance' – and postulated that this substance caused fear in other fish. Indeed, the affected fish would dramatically change their swimming patterns - either darting away or freezing in place - in response to this 'Schrekstoff'. 

Subsequent experiments by other scientists have confirmed that many freshwater fish display the same pattern of behaviour. The release of 'Schreckstoff' results in affected fish demonstrating all the classical hallmarks of fear, including physiological changes such as an increase in blood cortisol levels.

Associate Professor Suresh Jesuthasan and his team in Singapore's Institute of Molecular and Cell Biology have focused their research on the zebrafish – a tiny tropical fish whose brain activity is particularly easy to observe because of its optical transparency in its larval state. Although fish may seem different from humans, with an insignificantly small brain, many processes controlling emotional responses are similar.

In the process, they have partially cracked the mystery of what constitutes 'Schreckstoff'. Unexpectedly, one component of the 'fear' substance secreted by the zebrafish was found to be sugar molecules which break off when a fish suffers injury to its skin.

But how, you might ask, do the fish sense the alarm substance? Through calcium imaging, Jesuthasan's team have identified regions that were activated in the olfactory bulb of fish – indicating that fish actually do 'smell' danger in the water.

The greater the amount of the alarm substance, the higher the level of fear. This reflects a fundamental property of the brain, which is its ability to create a response that is optimal for any given situation. What makes this possible? Brain imaging has led the scientists to a obscure region of the brain, called the habenula.

Do we smell danger, as fish do? And do we give off pheromones that might alert others to the presence of something to be feared? In this talk, Professor Jesuthasan will discuss several aspects of fear, including what modifies the intensity of the emotion, and what brings it under control.

Stepping In, Splashing Around, Sinking Deep

Benedict Leong - Saturday, April 12, 2014
The O.P.E.N is about the audience,
For any to pass through.
Neither a symposium nor a conference,
The O.P.E.N is about you.

The O.P.E.N provides the insights,
To issues, ideas and themes.
Open in our dialogues,
To journey ‘behind-the-scenes’.

The O.P.E.N seeks to engage you,
Both to play and participate.
Peppered with excitement and fun,
To enrich and educate.

The O.P.E.N is a platform,
To negotiate points of views –
That informs, transforms, reforms or conforms,
When you let your voice come through.

So step into the O.P.E.N
And join us on this journey.
Beyond the mise en scène,

Into the emerald sea.




- Tabitha Loh, an O.P.E.N. Fellow

Knock, knock; the door is O.P.E.N.

Benedict Leong - Saturday, April 12, 2014
To me, The O.P.E.N. is a platform for people to connect with performing artistes, not to find out what they do, but what drives them to do what they do. The issues, ideas and themes that will be discussed through this platform are linked at various levels to the performances showcased during Singapore International Festival of the Arts (SIFA). The O.P.E.N. provides people a context, while SIFA offer people stories. When one attends both events, their mind forms the bridge between the content of a story and the ability of the performing arts to convey them.

We are all familiar of the definitions of 'open', 'participate', 'enrich' and 'negotiate'; with The O.P.E.N. and SIFA as my context, I decided to break them down according to what happens after these definitions have been applied.

[ Trying in spite of fear, preconceived ideas, uncertainty, etc. ]

Being 'open' suggests that prior to being so, one was 'closed'. I look at being 'closed' similar to standing behind a wall; this wall is our pre-conceived ideas, our fears, our suspicions, uncertainty, doubts, etc.




One can want to accept or engage in new ideas, suggestions and people, but that 'want' has to evolve into a 'try'. Once one is 'trying', I consider one being 'open' to the variety of influences around them. A person who attempts to scale the wall will have decidedly more experiences than someone who, convinced of its difficulty or pointlessness, does not.

[ Exchange of ideas, thoughts, opinions, etc. ]

If we say participating is a form of communication, whether vocal or physical, the crux is on the sharing and exchange of personal and/or factual information. A conversation that is one-sided does not suggest healthy communication.



[ Adding layers to a personal impression ]

What makes an experience enriching? Anything, really. I believe an enriching experience is memorable, and memorability for a fact or situation is like the design for a school bag: you need it to carry your books, but having Batman on the flaps is going to make carrying it to school a lot more enjoyable.




[ Agreeing to disagree, a (positive) form of compromise ]

I think negotiating is a process, but also that it need not come to a dramatic conclusion of only one right answer. Agreeing to disagree with each other is a wonderful way of cultivating an environment that is encouraging and stimulating for people in general. You may have personal judgements but unless it's been called for, there seems to be no harm in letting an opposing opinion simply exist beside your own. It might even be a refreshing, not having to limit one's point of view to one single opinion.




Of course, that may not always be the outcome. Between two differing perceptions, sometimes a compromise must be met for amicability.

Think about the word of 'compromise'; people have regarded it as a result in which people have made 'concessions', giving up something for an amicable end. Why doesn't anyone consider the benefits of a compromise instead? Rather than focusing what both parties lost, how about what they've gained? A new insight is as meaningful a gift as any! This brings in the previously mentioned concepts of being open, communicative and participating; perhaps being amicable comes naturally from the enlightening rewards each party has received. That would be an enriching experience, don't you think?

Words are important to me, and I have been writing long enough to know that one of the best ways I can express them is in poetry. So here is one of several poems dedicated to the festival and it's many events; may it be successful in cultivating an open-mindedness amongst Singaporeans, be they performing artistes or not.

Let The Door Fly Open

Knock, knock.
Who's there?
Opportunity who?
Opportunity is not a lengthy visitor.

And what is with the “who”?
Why does it matter who
stands at the door, would you
slam it shut if the “who”
didn't think like you?
Don't shoot
the messenger just because his shoes
don't touch the floor, his eyes are two
different shades,
his clothes smell of the mountain plains
and sunsets on another country's lake.
People who breathe with open ribs have a tendency to fly
the wind catching on their lungs and their wide open minds.

Let your doors break loose
from everything you never knew;
let the unknown and the unheard come crashing through.
I know there is a chain
with questions and doubts and notions, hanging like charms
on a bracelet. It loops around your ankle
like a grenade pin ready to be pulled,
so let us be the crash and the airbag when the bomb is thrown,
throw out your fears so you'll see your soul:
there is strength and courage just waiting to be worn
like a warm scarf and a thick coat.

No one said you're going to meet a rainbow,
and you might just catch a storm.
Maybe fear and uncertainty trails behind you;
maybe the loop around your ankle will slip off.
But you'll meet ugliness and beauty
and cry for both; you'll
find companions in both friends and enemies,
and shake all their hands.
You'll know how to point out your views,
and make yourself stand
for anything you believe in; you will give a damn.
And you'll live in the clouds
above houses and buildings,
above locked doors and closed windows;
you'll see the best and the worst of the sky
all because you opened a door, and
you tried to fly.




 - Amber Lin, an O.P.E.N. Fellow

Ong Keng Sen, Festival Director of SIFA, in a quiet moment with
The O.P.E.N.

Kheng Hua Tan - Saturday, April 05, 2014

We grabbed SIFA Festival Director, Ong Keng Sen, straight off a plane, into the joyful madness that was The O.P.E.N. Call on February 15 at 72-13 Mohamed Sultan Road, and then to this quiet moment where he shared some of his more personal thoughts about The O.P.E.N.

1. What was the genesis of The O.P.E.N.?

OKS: Very often, when we go into the theatre, we go in without any context as to what we are going to see. And so I sometimes feel as if the experience is very reduced. It’s like chess. If you don’t know the rules of chess, you can’t enjoy the game. So I think if you don’t know the context of the performance you are going to see, you are only enjoying the theatre experience up to maybe 50%. 

The O.P.E.N. is formulated to try to make up the other 50% by helping to create a context for you to experience and enjoy the festival at a deeper level.

2. How is The O.P.E.N.  doing this?

OKS: This year, The Singapore International Festival of Arts 2014 is programmed according to the theme of Legacy and The Expanded Classics. In The O.P.E.N., we are connecting the audience to the legacies of the 20th Century through a series of talks, exhibitions, film screenings, performances, demonstrations and discussions in an informal and casual way. 

I feel very strongly that how we live today is very much affected by how we lived in the 20th Century. The use of energy which has resulted in so many nuclear reactors. The climate change that has occurred. The racism that was institutionalised by apartheid. And this of course, came from World War II and what the Nazis were doing to the Jews and how the whole discrimination against minorities was very strongly institutionalised.

Connecting the audiences with these legacies of the 20th Century was the reason why The O.P.E.N. was created. And I believe you can only have open spaces in our lives if we open our minds and our hearts. And that’s how the name The O.P.E.N. came about. It is really, the process that we hope the audience will go through when they come join us. 

3. How did you feel today, when you encountered all who came for 
The O.P.E.N. Call?

OKS: I am amazed. Singapore has changed. I think Singaporeans are really searching to be more involved. They want to participate. They want to place themselves in the centre of the world. They want to understand the world by being there, by being in the centre. And in that way, they can localise what the world means to them. 

Today, in The O.P.E.N.’s first engagement exercise with the public, we were asking the public to come up and take their place in our space. And we hoped once they take the space, the world becomes clearer because it is contextualised to their position. We want them to know they can look north, south, east and west, because of where they are standing. I believe The O.P.E.N. can only begin when the audience says they want to stand here, in the middle of the 20th Century, and to see how it has affected them. And the fact that today, more than 270 people came, it really shows me that there has been a change in Singapore. That there are Singaporeans who really want to be engaged. 

4. What do you hope for when The O.P.E.N. is in session?

OKS: I would like to see the hunger of the Singaporeans who come to The O.P.E.N. satiated. There is a lot of hunger out there, a desire to know more and sometimes, I feel in Singapore, you can’t experience the answers for yourself. You are always learning from a textbook, or told the answers by someone else. What The O.P.E.N. does is to put you in the centre of it, so you are asked to make certain decisions about the issues and topics being discussed. What do you think about biomedical ethics? What do you feel about taxpayers’ contribution to Singapore’s biotechnology? What does this mean to me? Do I want to make a decision about gene profiteering, cloning? I recently watched a documentary about breast cancer, how a woman wanted to test whether she could get breast cancer from her mother and how her genes were being patented by pharmaceutical companies who are making money off her.  It was absolutely shocking.  These are all big issues. What is my position about the legacies of fear and violence in the 20th Century? Will I defend someone who has been victimised? When we attend The O.P.E.N., we will feel these questions coming at us strongly.  And for the people I saw today who are hungry to make a stand, to know more, to learn, I hope they will be satiated. 

What does ‘public engagement’ mean?

Noorlinah Mohamed - Wednesday, February 12, 2014
At a lunch meeting with several arts administrators in January 2014, someone at the table highlighted the recent arts policy shift in Singapore towards ‘engagement’, as opposed to ‘outreach’. Curiously I asked if there were any difference between the two. There must be a difference, insisted the next. Otherwise the change would only be cosmetic. But the catch is, ‘engagement’ is an oft-used word, easy to discuss but hard to implement. A few weeks later, while on a work trip in Washington D.C. visiting schools and arts centres, the word ‘engagement’ surfaced again. Keen to know what others think of public engagement, I made my rounds, speaking to organisers of engagement programmes. I wanted to know what and how engagement is perceived and organised. Here is a compilation of some key phrases that surfaced in the discussions:

Engagement . . .
  • is about communicating with other people;
  • getting people outside our normal circle excited and interested about the things we are passionate about; 
  • making something engaging and accessible;
  • a two-way dialogue, a possible exchange;
  • making connections between people, between ideas, between different ways of doing something;
  • bringing the topic, subject matter, out of its conventional domain and into the public realm;
  • negotiations between what you think you know and what you hope and yet to know;
  • advancing the knowledge and generating awareness, like advocacy. 

What is clear from this list is that ‘public engagement’ involves effective communication and negotiation. And it is both a tool and a process of extending knowledge from one field of expertise by bringing others beyond the field into it. If ‘outreach’ signals a one-way direction initiated by an expert-centred approach, ‘engagement’ suggests a communication process that hinges on dialogue, a conversation and possibly an exchange of ideas between one or more groups.

Discussing and listing what others say about ‘engagement’ makes it an easy enough concept to understand. But the challenge is really its implementation. At a glance, an engagement programme looks no different from an educational or outreach event. It offers the same format: talks; workshops; free or low-priced performances; and bringing productions out of their walled arts preserve into public spaces. Generally speaking, it has all the similar aims, that is, generating awareness, advancing the knowledge of a particular topic or subject. But it is in the detail that the real shift is felt.

While in Washington D.C., I attended the National Symphony Orchestra (NSO) community engagement programme. The NSO, realising that it is increasingly hard to get people into the concert halls, decided to bring music to them. Called the NSO in Your Neighbourhood, the community engagement programme includes performances and educational activities staged in a selected community or district within the D.C. area. The orchestra performs in parks, schools, coffee shops, by the sidewalk, in markets, homeless shelters and even train stations. The aim: “to reach a wide audience” and “hope people of all ages will embrace classical music with the same excitement as we do at the NSO”.

The one NSO community engagement event I attended took place in an events hall of a covered marketplace. The audience of 200 was varied: some as young as 3 years old and there were tourists, passers-by and parents of NSO youth members. Several things stood out for me while I watched the NSO perform. Firstly, the set-up was minimal, the NSO made do with chairs provided by the marketplace. There was no microphone to amplify the conductor’s voice when she introduced the music. Secondly, the programme consisted not only of the usual performance of pre-selected and thematically structured compositions, but was accompanied by a mini demonstration and introduction of each instrument. The demonstration highlighted the origin, the history as well as quirky trivia only those intimate with their instruments would know. Thirdly, the orchestra comprised both senior professional musicians as well as youth members (the latter were students or past students of the NSO young talent division). Finally, not only do they play the music, they also offered anecdotes such as history of the piece of music, including adaptations and variations of the work, if any, across different musical types (pop, jazz and classical) and periods. All packed in a 45-min repertoire. It was quite a ‘dense’ and complex programme. Yet it was both informational and entertaining. It displayed expert knowledge yet presented in an accessible manner. 

One of the musicians commented later that the community engagement programme was not just about playing good music, but “making the connection that music relates to everyday life”. And the key to good programming is understanding how, in this case orchestral music, can be made relatable without reducing the fundamental quality and essence of the music itself. Hence showing that quality music can be played in unsuspecting venues like a train station or a marketplace is an important aspect of the NSO’s engagement endeavour.

The NSO believes that such engagement programmes not only foster public appreciation of orchestral music, but also enhance their musicians’ experience of communicating their love for music to the public. Indeed, the process of programming would lead the musicians to unconventional areas, connecting their musical knowledge with other fields. For the marketplace performance, the programmer not only researched music history but also the history of the community to connect the selection of music with the locale. And in another NSO event to young people, a musician spent 6 months programming an engagement event that made innovative connections between music and science, geography, nature, as well as technology.

But there is one thing I think is missing in the 8 bullet points I highlighted earlier. And that is openness. The NSO team, musicians and conductors, at least those I met, seem ‘open’ to making, or should I say creating time to build strong engagement programmes. But their openness is met with an equally curious and open minds and hearts of the audience, the very people these programmes are tailored for. The 'openness' on both sides requires time to nurture and sustain. Not only time, but also constant negotiation. Negotiating what is created and how they are created, negotiating comfort zones and learnt habits, negotiating perceptions and beliefs. It is not enough to make the public know what we want them to know – though of course it starts out with the one who knows more leading the way – but the goal is to go beyond telling, to dialogue, to enable experience, to inform thoughts and ideas of everyone involved in the engagement. What I am alluding to is that in an engagement programme there needs to be time and space for both the people involved in the engagement programmes and the audience to be partners of the ‘engagement equation’; connecting in a continuous flow of offerings, receptions and responses.

This brings me to Festival Director, Ong Keng Sen’s ideas for The O.P.E.N. He framed The O.P.E.N. as connecting arts making and thinking to the way we live. This is done by focusing on thoughts, ideas and concerns as central to the engagement process. All of us coming to The O.P.E.N. may not come from an arts background. But we all hold thoughts and ideas on issues that circulate globally. At The O.P.E.N. some of these issues are talked about, discussed and space is made for the public to converse and communicate their responses to the topic and to enrich the programme with their experiences. I am not sure if the tone and balance is set just right for this first installment of The O.P.E.N. But I am certain it can be developed. We can slowly invest in building a repertoire and vocabulary of continued public engagement, especially in the arts.

Let’s begin the engagement now: What is public engagement to you? And what would you want from a public engagement programme?

(a) The work trip in Washington was organised by the National Arts Council. I was part of a delegation of arts education specialists visiting schools and arts centres studying arts education initiatives.

(b) Public engagement in public policy and governance is not new. I will not elaborate on it here, but a useful article to turn to about public engagement in governance is Kenneth Paul Tan’s Public Engagement: The Gap Between Rhetoric and Practice (Ethos – Issue 11, August 2012).

Copyright 2014. Arts House Limited.
Unless otherwise stated, other images by Jeannie Ho