Public Panel: Writing Under Pressure (Summary)

LASALLE College of the Arts, F202
25 May 2019, 11:30am

For the Writing Under Pressure public panel moderated by Bilqis Hijjas (Malaysia), the following three pressure points were pre-identified for discussion:

  • What are the ethical implications of writing about an arts scene that one is also making art within?
  • Is there a future for ‘embedded’ criticism, where productions and/or festivals invite critics to observe them from ‘within’ over an extended period of time?
  • Is there a natural obligation to write positively about the art that they have experienced, especially in arts scenes that are less developed?

From the self-introductions of the four panelists (Sadanand Menon (Indonesia), Katrina Santiago (Philippines), Corrie Tan (Singapore) and Fasyali Fadzly (Malaysia)) alone, two potential inclinations for self-censorship already became apparent. Firstly, their work with arts writing generally and inevitably involved critical commentaries of the political, social and cultural contexts that they were situated within. Secondly, there was a fear of souring relationships with the artists that they were writing about – some of whom were also their colleagues and/or friends in the arts community. In response to these two inclinations to self-censor, Fasyali and Tan shared that they would tailor their styles of writing on a case-by-case basis (depending on whose work they were writing for), such that there was room for artists and audiences to reciprocally engage with discussions in a way that is most accessible to them. Santiago and Menon, on the other hand, made a case for the importance of consciously keeping a distance when it was time to critique the work – be it temporarily avoiding contact with the artists during show openings, or being mindful not to include personal opinions about the work that is being presented.

The topic of embedded criticism was then broached, with a focus on the following two types of ‘embedment’: 1) watching and reviewing every single show presented as part of a festival; and 2) observing and commenting on the behind-the-scenes creative processes of a single production. The panel unanimously agreed that there was nothing fundamentally wrong with festivals or productions hiring writers to provide coverage from ‘within’. Menon and Santiago, however, expressed their concerns over the danger of embedded criticism becoming a facade for mere publicity plugs for such events, especially since such critics would typically be paid to do so. In response to Menon and Santiago’s concerns, Tan reflected on her experience as an embedded critic for Emergency Stairs’ Southernmost Festival in 2018, and stressed that it is important for the critic and the festival/production to have clear discussions about what the embedded criticism is for. Is it to help the artists reflect on the process of making the work? Or is it to engage with audiences and help them make sense of the final ‘product’? Most pertinently, is the festival/production receptive to the embedded critic publicly writing negative things about the work?

The panel concluded with a discussion of the pressure on critics to write positively about the art they engage with. Across the panel, it was apparent that this pressure was especially pronounced for critics writing about arts communities that were ‘small’, and that the pressure did not differ much between critics writing on behalf of mainstream media outlets and those writing independently. Fasyali opined that for him, the pressure to write positively came mostly from veteran artists who were selective about the works they engaged with and hence were not so plugged into how modes of artmaking have evolved. Notwithstanding, the panel was in agreement that dissenting opinions towards a piece of work are valuable, and that as long there is no malicious intent, critics should not shy away from expressing them. As Tan succinctly said – “You can have a fierceness that is a fierceness of the love that you have for an art form.”