delivered by Kok Heng Leun, 13 April 2016
Let me declare my interest: I am the Artistic Director of a theatre company that is very much involved in creating and curating socially relevant and community engaged art, and a member of the examination board of the Intercultural Theatre Institute.
In 2011, the Arts and Culture Strategic Review (ACSR) Report was unveiled. It outlined a vision for 2025. I quote: ‘...a nation of cultured and graceful people, at home with our heritage, and proud of our Singapore identity’.
To achieve this vision, two strategic directions were identified:
- To bring arts and culture to everyone, everywhere, and every day.
- To build capabilities to achieve excellence.
In response to the report, the government committed 270 million dollars worth of programmes under three master plans, rolled out over 5 years from 2012 to 2016. This would mean that come 2017, we can look forward to a comprehensive review of what has been achieved.
This review will be an important document to help us determine the approaches we should take for the next 8 years as we move towards 2025.
Hence my two cuts will deal with these two strategic directions for the future.
Cut No. 1:
The community engagement master plan that was rolled out since 2012 has seen a proliferation of art programmes organised by People's Association, National Arts Council, National Heritage Board and National Library Board. It has increased the number of art activities and brought the arts closer to our doorstep.
This has provided livelihoods for some artists who are very committed to working with the community.
Going forward, I would like MCCY to look at the following issues: (1) Engagement on a deeper level
Let me share about a project entitled Unseen: Constellation which is currently being exhibited at the Chapel Gallery of Objectifs along Middle Road.
Initiated by artist Alecia Neo, Unseen: Constellation involves seven students living with visual impairment from Ahmad Ibrahim Secondary School. Over two years, under the guidance of mentors from a diverse range of professions, the students were immersed in a very deep process of discovery, which resulted in them creating works that explore their lives and dreams. The various art works now displayed at the Objectifs gallery comprise music videos about friendship and discrimination, a short film about vulnerability of love and boyhood, a motivational speech, a symphonic band composition, amongst others.
In the motivational talk, the student Dallon Au revealed his insecurity as someone with impaired vision, and how he had to overcome it to pursue his dream. Dallon shares his two years long journey with ConversationsCircle trainer Allen Lim, who has introduced him to the art of listening.
“Many times I just feel like giving up and killing myself. This is so unbecoming of a motivational speaker, right? You have no idea how many times people have said this to me. ‘If you cannot even keep yourself motivated, how are you going to motivate others?’ Believe me, I agree. But I am working on it and I am getting better.”
Through the work, you can see how these students had learnt so much about themselves through a highly engaged process, facilitated by very thoughtful and sensitive artists and mentors. The process has resulted in the creation of art works that are moving and of high quality.Unseen is deeply engaging and impactful, both for the audience, and for the students and artists.
Such engagement is deep and life-changing.
As we move towards the future, we should encourage more of such deep and engaging work. The depth and process will result in profound learning experiences for the community that is creating and participating in the process, and will also result in artistic work that is aesthetically rich. It moves the audience, changing their sensibilities, by making the invisible visible and the unheard heard.
(2) Development of Intermediaries
Facilitation and organisational skills are specialties that not all artists possess. Artists need a different set of skills to encourage and inspire community participants to express their creative selves. At the same time, artists may need to organise and mobilise resources from different agencies to make the project happen. For example, a project on end-of-life issues may require the involvement of the Agency of Integrated Care, hospitals, nursing homes, and caregiver communities, amongst others. Many of these agencies are not familiar with art, hence when artists partner them to create community work, dialogue and process are important so as to avoid miscommunication and distrust.
This requires specialisation, an intermediary role that bridges artists and communities. A good example of such an intermediary would be the group ArtsWok Collaborative. Artswok facilitated and produced The Rite of Spring, a dance performance choreographed by Cultural Medallion recipient Angela Liong of Arts Fission, one of Singapore’s premiere dance company. The performance was presented at the Esplanade Theatre and featured elderly performer-dancers from AWWA Seniors Activity Centre, AWWA Community Home for Senior Citizens, NTUC Eldercare and Henderson Senior Citizens' Home, as well as young performers from Arts Fission's Children Dance Programme. To accomplish such an intergenerational work, a lot of facilitation and organisation is required.
The intermediary needs to be someone who is well versed in the process of art-making, but at the same time, understands the art of community engagement intimately. Many artists who work in community arts tend to operate as individuals, without the backing of administrative and organisational support. As such, to encourage more participation and engagement from the community, more intermediaries must be made available to facilitate fruitful collaborations between artists, related agencies and the community. I therefore urge the ministry to look into developing these specialists.
(3) Creative Place-Making
To bring art closer to the community, such that it becomes an everyday presence, we should begin looking at Creative Place-Making.
Creative Place-Making makes the arts a part of community living. It is not a place or venue management. It is not about presenting performances and programmes to create buzz.
The key word is Place.
According to Tuan Yi Fu, a well-known geographer, a place comes into existence when there is a ‘moment of pause’, which provides people within the space to reflect and connect with others around them. It is created not by transactional needs, but by relational needs.
In Creative Place-Making, art is an essential mediator that helps to bring the community together. It is also important for artists to want to be involved in place-making; they must want to see community engagement very much as part of their work.
Creative Place-Making will only be sustainable if it is ground-up. It must not be forced. It must not be 'hip'. It must not be short-sighted. If planned and executed properly, it will not only foster community bonding and identity, builds capacity in a community, empowering the community to action and change, it will also solve one of the problems that artists and arts group face in Singapore: the lack of physical space to work.
In examining the ministry’s key performance indicators, I note that there is an emphasis on the instrumentalisation of art: what art can do for society. I would like to thank the government for acknowledging that the arts can have such an extensive impact on society, which I hope will also help to convince more Singaporeans of the importance of having the arts as part of our lives.
But I would also like to recall a Chinese saying: 工欲善其事,必先利其器。 That is, to do a good job, the artisan must have the best tool to do it. In this case, the art must be good.
Besides having institutions to provide the best arts education for emerging artists, there must also be arts centres or venues that will help young and mature artists develop their craft without the pressure of market forces.
Institutions that pay attention to developmental objectives must be seen differently from, say, theatre companies that are committed to creating works. In the latter, theatre companies have a revenue-generating capacity.
But for institutions with a developmental objective, their focus should be on process over results, experimentation over tried-and-tested products. One is reminded of what the late Kuo Pao Kun had said before: “Better to have a worthy failure than a mediocre success.”
The Substation, founded by Mr Kuo, was such an arts centre: it provided infrastructure support and resources for young artists to kickstart projects, and at the same time, provided an environment to encourage artists to take creative risk. In other words, The Substation was a home for the arts, a place for artists to dream, a safe space within which they could venture to explore. Many young artists have begun their careers there, including filmmakers Royston Tan and Boo Jun Feng, and theatre director Goh Boon Teck. Artists like Lee Wen and Amanda Heng created some of their most interesting works there and these artists later became Cultural Medallion recipients, honored by the nation.
Institutions like The Substation, Centre 42, and Intercultural Theatre Institute, the up and coming Traditional Arts Centre are important in the development of Singapore’s arts scene. I hope there will be other centres that will support interdisciplinary and intercultural experimentation, developing ways of art-making that incorporate science and technology, as well as different kinds of genres and cultures. Singapore is in a unique position. Being such a globalised economy and a connector between different regions, we can take advantage of our status to be a facilitator for exploration and exchange.
I would also like to advocate for such institutions to have a different funding model. Currently institutions like ITI are funded under the 3-Year Major Grant scheme just like other arts organisations. The KPIs of these developmental centres are different from a typical arts organisation. I would urge MCCY and NAC to develop a different model for these institutions that will encourage experimentation, creative processes and learning.
The very fact that we have a ministry and affiliated agencies that look specifically at the arts and what it can do for society means that the arts and politics are not strange bedfellows. Yet, the arts should be viewed for its intrinsic worth, and not merely to serve political purpose. Here, I think it is apt for me to quote from the great author Lu Xun who spoke about the relationship between arts and politics:
惟政治是要维持现状, 自然和不安于现状的文艺处在不同的方向...... 政治想维系现状使它统一,文 艺催促社会进化使它渐渐分离...”
That is to say, briefly, that while the arts and politics are frequent fellow travellers because both seek change, at some point on the journey, they will take divergent paths. It is in the nature of art to examine change, to pursue truth. In doing so, art may raise uncomfortable questions, and may seem to divide, but it is through these questions that society can progress.
Thank you, Madam Chair.