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Sand, Sea, and Algal Confusions

by Choo Yi Feng

Late last year, the Singapore government unveiled plans to create a long island off the shore of East Coast Park, achieving the dual purpose of creating new land for development while reinforcing our island-city’s climate adaptation measures against rising sea levels. As I let myself be lulled into the whimsical beach-going world of Sun & Sea one evening, I was drawn immediately to the materiality of sand — sand that entangles itself in our lives as its grains scatter into every loose crevice in our articles and skin, and sand that we in turn have entangled into our national story of a churning economic metabolism.

Described as “an ecological work to its very core”, Sun & Sea creates whimsy through dislocation, an effect achieved from its very design as a tropical beach embedded within the air-conditioned Esplanade Theatre, creating a productive and playful spatial distortion. The audience, dressed for an evening of appreciating the arts, finds themselves confronted by a cast of performers clad in casual beachwear. The usual decorum of a concert performance is cast aside with all the nonchalance of a half-used blanket, with no seating and no designated start or end of show. Instead, the choir’s songs rise in an overlapping, circular manner, repeating on the hour as one batch of audiences after another is ushered through this liminal, makeshift theatre.

These are songs that interweave concerns both frivolous and sombre — from a tourist vacation in the Great Barrier Reef complete with piña coladas (included in the price!), to the extinction of bees. The director’s message from Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė restates this juxtaposition in discussing the geography of the beach: “On the one hand, it is a place to have fun. On the other hand, the beach is both a potential desert and a potential flood.” This playful interpolation of the two might suggest frivolity, a devil-may-care sort of decadence. At times, the satirical tone of Sun & Sea seems critical of such an attitude, such as in “Wealthy Mommy’s Song”, where a woman sings about the “amazing sight” of bleached coral horns, ignorant of their physiological distress.

And yet, the work often resists a reading of pure irony by grounding itself in its performers’ craft. Disguised amidst the revelry of beach-goers is some serious dedication to technical mastery. In the moments when the performers’ voices synchronise – without the guidance of a conductor – the libretto coalesces into a sea of free-associating thoughts. The coexistence of anxiety about the climate and sunburn alike calls to mind the unconscious and intrusive state of our thoughts in 2024, a state marked by hyper-engagement and media fatigue. Is this indifference that we are experiencing, or is it a learned helplessness?

As a long-time dweller – spiritually, metaphorically, and physically – of coastlines, I resonate in particular with Barzdžiukaitė’s observation of the beach as a liminal and unpredictable space, both a potential desert and a potential flood. To make art by the shore is to make art at an interface, at a site of hybridity and hybridisation. Shores are sites of constant transformation, whether by storms, by tidal cycles where hourly immersion/emersion of sand bars and reefs take place, or broader hydrodynamic flows that induce erosion/deposition regimes. To make art at the shore, then, is also to make art in a space of incipience and contingency, of reticulate temporalities, of radical openness and vulnerability to the push and pull of cosmic bodies.

In such a space, confusion need not exist only to be clarified and eliminated. “The Vacationer’s Chorus” punctuates Sun & Sea at multiple key moments, becoming a motif that starts first as a warning (“you are strongly advised to stay on the shore”), and then evolving into something more ambivalent. Botanical gardens are flourishing in the sea, the chorus sings, and then adds almost as an afterthought: “Eutrophication!” This kind of a bold confrontation deviates from the carefree indifference of the earlier comment on bleached corals, attempting instead to transmute the water pollution responsible for algal blooms into a “slippery green fleece” that covers our bodies. In this manner, a form of playfulness arises within the ruins wrought by ecological unravelling.

How meaningful is this kind of ludic transformation in our age of widespread disengagement? This is a question that I’ve been preoccupied with, because if we are to be stuck here for a while (and we are), then it matters how we go about thinking about the environmental destruction that has been our bedfellow. This calls to mind a point made in an essay I read a while ago, “Bodies Tumbled into Bodies”: “Some kinds of stories help us to notice; others get in our way.” Noticing and witnessing the transformations taking place in the nonhuman world is a vital first step in our commitment towards life on a shared planet.

When I think of the pungent algal sea invoked in the final iteration of “The Vacationer’s Chorus”, I am led to think of one particularly ancient form of alchemy: photosynthesis. While it is true that algal blooms are usually read as signs of ecological dysbiosis, they are, in and of themselves, a peculiar marvel to behold, the transmutation of polluting particles into biomass using sunlight, on a scale no human technology can emulate.

In her director’s message, Barzdžiukaitė further states that the beach is a place where the fragility of bodies is exposed, bringing to bear the fragility of planet Earth itself. The second last song performed in this set, “Sunscreen Bosanova”, condenses the simultaneous gravity and banality of this truth, portraying an exchange where a sunbather seeks her husband’s help in applying sunscreen that offers protection for hypersensitive skin. What if, instead of using petroleum-derived sunscreen full of endocrine-disrupting coral killers, we were to swaddle our skins instead in the slippery green fleece of an algal bloom?

Listening (attentively, laterally, playfully) to the ways in which the web of life around us is unravelling is not pointless nihilism, but a necessary move towards a flourishing multispecies future. Sun & Sea offers a story that encapsulates our frivolity without letting us off the hook. Like the algae that blooms in our polluted waters, the heterogeneous, unequal flourishing we are stuck in is a sign of a troubled world. The confusions that we live with can be portals into new, livelier ways of thinking.

30 & 31 May 2024, Thu & Fri | 6PM, 7PM, 8PM & 9PM

1 June 2024, Sat | 2PM, 3PM, 4PM & 5PM
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