So the first item of SIFA Shares was a Monday night screening of two films by Milo Rau, director of Five Easy Pieces, which is showing this weekend. Rau couldn't be present—he's prepping for a performance in Berlin in two weeks—but his dramaturg Stefan Bläske shared a few words instead.
Stefan: I’m really curious about your feelings about freedom of speech and the arts… There was no discussion scheduled for this evening, but if you like we could use the break.
(There wasn't actually a discussion during the break, mainly because people, including Bläske, were rushing to the cafe to eat a hasty dinner.)
The films in question were documentations of two of Rau’s past theatre projects:
The Moscow Trials (2014), which recorded a mock trial over the Russian state prosecution of various artists and curators, including the feminist punk band Pussy Riot,
and Hate Radio (2014), which was a reenactment of a broadcast by the radio station Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines (RTLMC), which served as the main vehicle for the instigation of the Hutu genocide against Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994.
And while there’s plenty to say about Hate Radio—the choice to use Tutsi actors to play the Hutu perpetrators, Rau’s interviews with journalists and witnesses in Rwanda, the unexplained logistics of performing this work in both Europe and Rwanda, and the frightening fact that the music and clothing surrounding the radio station was wonderfully catchy and hip—there’s so much more that connects us in Singapore to the saga of The Moscow Trials.
You see, what’s happening in Russia is that there’s a growing collusion between Putin’s government and the Orthodox Church. This is bad news for the idea of secular government and democracy—because how can you question the government once it’s considered sacred?
The key moments in the loss of secularism can be traced to two art exhibitions—Caution! Religion in 2003 and Forbidden Art in 2007, both of which were stormed and defaced by radical Orthodox activists, as well the 2012 anti-Putin demonstration by Pussy Riot inside the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. In all three cases, the artists and curators were tried and fined by the state, while the extremist vandals walked free.
The Moscow Trials, held in 2013, represented Rau’s attempt to create a conciliation by seeing what might have happened if the case had gone through a proper legal process. This three-day mock trial wasn’t binding, but the witnesses and perpetrators were all present: curators and artists and a member of Pussy Riot, the widower of Anna Alchuk, an artist who had committed suicide after becoming the scapegoat of Caution! Religion, the Orthodox activists who had begun or encouraged the vandalism, and various journalists and commentators from each side.
I’m amazed that Rau managed to pull something like that off. How do you convince an extremist to meet artists at the same table? But this is the kind of work he does, routinely.
When Keng Sen had described the project to me, he’d placed a lot of weight on the fact that the state intervenes: there’s a warrant to check everyone’s passports on the second day, and Cossacks come in on the third day to try and disrupt the proceedings. From what he’d said, I thought that they’d shut everything down. But the truth is stranger, and less satisfying.
What happened was that liberal and conservative participants in the trials banded together to insist that the trials continue. And they did, with more coverage than ever from the press.
And though the jury ultimately acquitted the artists of intent to offend (they were evenly split on the question of whether offence had been committed), it seems it didn’t create any pathway to peace. An epilogue reveals that governmental restrictions have tightened since 2013, and that right-wingers are moving still further to the right.
It’s all supremely reminiscent of the way religious extremism is creeping into Singapore culture, with the attempted Christian takeover of the women’s group AWARE in 2009, the movement to remove gay children’s books from the National Library in 2013, and the constant attacks on Pink Dot (turns out that one of the leaders of this was a genuine ISIS supporter)…
Books withdrawn from the National Library following religious demands in 2013
And though our government has claimed to assume a neutral stance in most cases, it’s never made a commitment to the ideals of freedom of speech. Hell, they just passed a sweeping contempt of court law yesterday. Us activists are still in shock.
During the screening, I kept wondering: is Singapore better than Russia? And the obvious answer is that of course we are, because we wouldn’t stand for mobs rioting through a museum without punishment.
But then The Moscow Trials would never have been licensed to be performed here…
But our licences apply to public performances. The trials in Moscow were a private performance…
But would our curators have dared to stage an exhibition of controversially religious-themed art in the first place?
Artworks at Caution! Religion
One way in which Singapore is distinctly worse off than Russia is that we don’t have the same depth of culture: we don’t have centuries of distinctive poetry and painting and architecture and cinema to boast of, nor do we have a population that celebrates these achievements regardless of class.
Does that passion for art translate into greater offence at art that shatters taboos? No, I don’t think so—across the world, when art is attacked on ideological grounds, its deeper content is irrelevant; nuance is reduced to whether or not it’s offends the sacred.
Defaced artwork at the Caution! Religion exhibtiion
I’m honestly grateful that our government is officially secular. My activist friends in Malaysia and the Philippines have forced me to understand that’s not something we can take for granted.
But secularism shouldn’t be about our Prime Ministers being atheists. It should be about them being humanists.
Do we truly have secular values to hold on to? Like freedom? Like dignity of the individual?