I Am LGB

Ng Yi-Sheng

August 25, 2016

It’s been a week since this performance—a show I’d been warned not to review too thoroughly too early, because I’d be spreading the spoilers—and I don’t know what to say that hasn’t already been said.

It’d be redundant for me to give a blow by blow account. Quite by coincidence, I was in the same group as Corrie Tan, who’s given a detailed description of the course of events on her blog (I was actually “liberated” from the game one round before her, so her view of events is in fact more complete than mine could be).

Meanwhile, Akshita Nanda’s already touched on the ludic aspect of the whole thing—how this is a Real Escape game that parallels the actual quandary of Singaporeans, trapped in a peculiar rat race.

What can I say that’ll add to the conversation? Nothing essayish with a thesis statement. Instead I’ll try and fill in the gaps, noting what others didn’t manage to get round to.

And I’ll start off with a misapprehension: I’d initially thought this was a work of gay theatre. I Am LGB = I Am Lesbian Gay Bisexual.

The production team soon corrected me about this—LGB’s linked to the name of the fictional Chinese immigrant artist Lan Gen Bah, invented by the American immigrant artist Ray Langenbach. But there’s queerness at the root of it still: not only are several of the creators openly gay men, but Lan Gen Bah herself is an example of gender and racial drag.

I Am LGB is in itself a work of drag: it’s ideological drag, with the artists doing a heightened, insincere recreation of pseudoscientific brainwashing. Langenbach’s actually done this before: he preached as a Mormon missionary for months despite being atheist; he defended the Iraq War as a peacenik.

All the costumes and rituals—the way we had to wear labcoats at all times and sign waiver forms and get toilet passes—they’re camp. Just like the mascara and fishnet stockings on a drag queen.

And just like mascara, they’re applied with real dedication and love. Did you know the team specifically did the right kind of risography printing on the textbooks so the smell of the ink would evoke the worksheets and common tests of our school days? What joy.

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This isn’t a passive drag show, either: we’re forced to participate, following a schedule, sorting tchotchkes based on colour, actually doing a Common Test based on algebra and logic (I got twelve upon twelve!!!), improvising choreography, lying on the floor of a tiny, steamy dark room, being forced to discuss the confluence of Nat King Cole, P. Ramlee and the Cold War (they really do come together in the cowboy fantasy scene of Labu dan Labi)…

Always facing the threat, or having the option, of being “liberated” from the room. There’s pressure to stay in the group, perhaps out of a desire to be the last (wo)man standing and being crowned the next LGB, perhaps from a simple kiasu fear of not getting our $20 ticket’s worth.

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Not to mention the constant mentions of death. Their principal metaphor of society is after all an iron room, from which no air can escape, and the quandary is whether to wake our neighbours from unconsciousness before we suffocate.

Returning to queerness: we might not be getting indoctrinated to support alternative sexuality—that would be anathema to the MDA—but we do find ourselves engaged in alternative ideology. Even when we’ve been liberated, Langenbach comes to us in the upstairs exhibition space and quizzes us, and we realise we’re still on another plane of the iron room…

Photo by Wang Zhong Hao

But this isn’t simple, one-dimensional satire. What’s being mocked isn’t just the MOE, but schools of all sorts: movements in art and philosophy and politics, from Maoism to poststructuralism.

This is why we had to endure such sesquipedalian babble from the LGB Society of Mind about the artist’s theories and family history. This is why we had this erudite name-dropping about how she and her parents had rubbed shoulders with intellectuals in the both the east and the west, from Lin Biao to Marvin Minsky. Such eloquence is essential if you want to capture that realness of people who believe.

And this, I think, is why the work feels weirdly inconsistent. There’s a fair bit of disorder amidst the order: the instructors can’t always keep the air of dignified know-it-alls about their persons. (I’m not even sure if they have completely thought through how the group ideology correlates with their individual practices in dance, multimedia, etc.)

There is also sincerity amidst the irony: the artists clearly want to educate you about the truth of what happened to art in Singapore in the 1990s. They’ve given themselves monikers after key artists of the period who experienced state suppression (Josef = Singaporean performance artist Josef Ng; Weng = Malaysian-born curator Lee Weng Choy; Lucy = Swedish-born artist and educator Lucy Davis; Sharaad = Malaysian artist-turned-radio personality Sharaad Kuttan).

At one point, Loo Zihan shows us a letter that Langenbach received from his students in 1994, demanding that the school no longer allow him to teach subversive topics like performance art. And the entire upstairs exhibition is dedicated to the history of this era, when pioneering avant-garde artists clashed with a nervous government.

Not that they explain all this to us, though. Not that they give most of us enough time to carefully examine the documents in the exhibition.

We too are unsure of how much to buy into the principles of the game: we go from treating everything as a joke to using the opportunity to speak freely about our own histories of trauma.

The whole thing’s kind of difficult to handle. Ironically, my drag queen friend Eugene Tan / Becca D’ Bus just annoyed by how much he had to do and left.

And that’s OK too. This kind of four-hour-long interactive art isn’t for everyone.

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Still, it does work for me. And I was honestly saddened to see that the chairs from the performance are going up for sale already. (Buy them now for $10 each on Carousell!) There’s evidently no plans to restage this, despite the fact that it was sold out. Perhaps they figure once the spoilers are out, the jig is up. No use continuing the weird experiments on the public, especially when the whole thing’s so logistically complex.

But what about all the unfamiliar faces who might be exposed to this ideological drag for the first time? The arts community is growing and absorbing younger generations every year. Surely the experiments must continue.

Photo by Wang Zhong Hao

Whatever the case, I Am LGB is precisely the kind of Singaporean show Keng Sen wants to support with SIFA: works by emerging and/or veteran artists too weird and/or too ambitious to be staged independently.

And this was wonderfully ambitious, with its two stories of absurd wonders, its live video feeds and its coat check rooms and instant photographs and compulsory code of sanctimonious language amongst all its facilitators.

And it was divinely weird. Not for the mere sake of aesthetics, but with the goal of pricking people awake, gadfly-style, making us question the little Hunger Games rat race of our lives on this island.

Perhaps it was even, in a sense, moving. In spite of its cerebrality, it brought audience members together unexpectedly with friends and strangers, staring into one another’s eyes and grading one another’s test sheets, sharing our thoughts and sorrows, voting for our top (wo)man to be the next LGB…

The LGB Society of Mind may be fictional, but it does create a community of sorts. A gathering of friends, all awake in the iron room.

Perhaps, against all hope, we can discover a path to liberation after all?

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  • 2016