In Conversation: SIFA Festival Director, Ong Keng Sen

Law Xiao Xuan

March 28, 2017

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Image courtesy of Jeannie Ho

In this three-part interview series, I head behind the scenes along with fellow interns Anusha and Yuen Ting to have a quick chat with the people behind SIFA 2017.  

To kick-start the series, here's a conversation I had with our Festival Director, Keng Sen.

XX: Enchantment was derived from Jane Bennett’s The Enchantment of Modern Life. How did you happen to come across Bennett’s idea of Enchantment and why does it resonate so deeply with you?

KS: I first read Jane Bennett’s book about Enchantment at the end of 2014.

At that time, I was doing my PhD in New York University. It was one of the texts that I was reading, and I felt very much drawn to her idea that Enchantment is needed for political life. Meaning that you have to feel engaged with life and to not be disillusioned or become cynical because in a way you have to fight for a better world. So, you have to believe, and through believing I think that you have to continue to be enchanted, not in a Disney way but enchanted with your life enough to fight for something.

At that time in New York, Occupy Wall Street was happening and all these were my research topics. I was at Wall Street and I found myself very drawn to both students and individuals who were fighting for a different world. And they were still obviously enchanted enough with life to fight for it.


KS Quote 4

XX: You once mentioned in an interview that Enchantment is the antidote to cynicism, what attitudes do you think the audience should bring with them when they watch a show or participate in a production in SIFA in order to experience this ‘antidote’?

KS: SIFA in my time as Festival Director has been very involved in public education. In 2015, we commissioned The Lesson, and that was about land use in Singapore - what would you as a citizen give up if you want a new train station in this packed and full geographical landscape?

And I think that in this year, we hope to have more public  education in The O.P.E.N. because we see The O.P.E.N. as a pre-festival of ideas, it’s one of the biggest changes we have made to the Festival, because the Festival has always been more about consuming, and consumerism, and value-for-money for your tickets, while we have given more of a focus to being open, participatory, engaging and negotiating.

XX: You are an extremely busy man, what do you do to unwind and recharge when you need a break?

KS: I think I don’t do enough of that, mainly because being Festival Director has meant that I travel a lot. I mean I always travelled a lot, even when I was working as an artist I would spend 8 months out of Singapore working out of a suitcase. But then, I had more time. If I was working as an artist in Copenhagen I would have time over the weekend to go to a café, maybe be more relaxed in the day and go to the museums. But now as Festival Director I tend to sometimes just drop into a city for a day.

I remember a disastrous trip where I had to spend 3 days – one in Berlin, one day in Munich and one day in Amsterdam. It was like – morning, fly in, see the show, and next morning, you fly to another city. So, I think that I do not get enough breaks now because it is harder to justify staying just to relax, while as an artist, let’s say if you have 2 weeks of work, the weekend is free.

However, I think I tend to eat a lot when I am free because I like to have conversations over food, which is why we have the project called Open Kitchens as well. I do believe that through these conversations you get to know a lot about the world. I tend to believe that as citizens of the world we need to be in constant dialogue with different people. Sometimes it’s with a restaurant manager, sometimes with a waiter or waitress. Last night I went to a new Chinese restaurant and I just started talking to the staff there - Where are they from, what are they doing here, and what do they think of Singapore?

KS Quote 3

XX: Jane Bennett also mentions that Enchantment entails a “surprising encounter”. You might not have had many opportunities to take a break, but in your four years as Festival Director of SIFA, have you had a ‘surprising encounter’ which has left you enchanted?

KS: I think very often I encounter really interesting people in cabs, in taxis.

I especially remember an encounter from a few weeks ago, when I was in Warsaw. Very often you get suspicious of taxi drivers who drive you around and they want to get a tip and they just give you a quick tourist tour in the city. But this taxi driver was very openly talking about change in the city, from living under Moscow, or Russian rule till now, after the wall came down and being part of the EU. I suspect that he is probably in his 40s, so he probably was a teenager or young adult when the wall came down, meaning he was really cognisant of the world before and after the wall. It was really pleasant.

I like to begin itinerant conversations with people and through that to get to know their world view. I think that is the most important, as a Festival Director you really need to have time to talk to people and know what they think, what your audience is perceiving, what they feel about things like ticket prices and even maybe whether the toilet is clean, things like that.

You really have to be very open as a Festival Director and as a director and understand the material you are dealing with or else the work is in a kind of shell. You are in a glass castle in a way because art can be quite removed from daily life if you look at it like going to the museum and theatre. But I think it’s about the world and the people living in the world.

The festival strives to look at what it means to live, dream and create in Singapore. Of course, I think it is important in SIFA to invite international shows. But I also think SIFA is a very important festival for creation as well. Not just importing work but to create new works and continue to talk about life and to actually dream of a better Singapore for all of us here. 

  • 2017