By Akanksha Raja and Ke Weiliang
(1,444 words, 6-minute read)
The inaugural Asian Arts Media Roundtable (AAMR) took place between 24 to 25 May 2019 at LASALLE College of the Arts, Singapore. Organised by ArtsEquator, the two-day gathering of over 20 arts journalists, critics, editors and members of the media and cultural industries from ten Asian countries served as a platform to build international ties and understand the varying terrain of the arts media landscape across Asia. We documented the entire event in writing and photographs, and in the process gained new insight on what it means to practice art writing in Asia, and the various opportunities and challenges it presents. In summary, here are some of our fly-on-the-wall takeaways from AAMR 2019.
→ “Decolonising” was brought up during some of the discussions in Day 2.
While arts practices in Asia and Asia-Pacific have long and rich histories, when it comes to arts criticism the research we refer to is still largely dominated by Western sources. This could be because there may be fewer texts on performance studies and arts criticism representing postcolonial concerns and identities coming out from this region. How can we build a database of texts and resources that are of Asian/local origin? Another factor is that “our lingua franca is English”. At one point, one of the delegates mentioned “inventing a new language” to decolonise the way we think and talk about the practice of arts criticism – that struck me. ArtsEquator’s co-founder and managing editor Kathy Rowland mentioned the Dhumba Wiiny Fire Talk facilitated by Yirramboi, an Australian First Nations arts festival organising team, that is one example of a new practice of arts criticism – a communal and democratic alternative to more formalistic kinds that are sometimes perceived as coming from a monolithic voice of ‘authority’. As Weiliang also mentions in his list of takeaways, translation would be a key aspect of this practice – on the second day there was a discussion about the need to translate texts not just into English but other Asian languages, which sites like Gelaran.id have been beginning to undertake.
→ Mentorship and training for arts writing.
Some of the discussion on Day 2 revolved around the need for mentorship to train young or emerging arts writers and to foster relationships between them and established critics. I learned there isn’t a one-size-fits-all solution to this need. Delegates from different countries shared differing models of training that would work best depending on the resources available within their respective contexts – for example, Myanmar arts writer Phoo Myat Thwe shared that due to the lack of mentors, an intensive five-day workshop would be effective whereas Cambodian arts manager Phina So felt a series of talks or discussions might work better in her country’s context. Singapore critic Corrie Tan also shared about her mentorship of two emerging writers for ArtsEquator’s Performance Criticism Mentorship Programme.
→ “Gatekeeping” in arts criticism – by qualification or by platform.
There’s a widely-held conception that arts criticism is something you’re only qualified to do if you’re been to university or have something to show for by way of an academic or intellectual ‘pedigree’, or that it’s limited to certain well-established broadsheets and media outlets. There’s the fear that some young and emerging arts writers have of “not sounding smart” because they haven’t gone to a certain school or been published on established platforms. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Arts criticism should be considered as something anyone can do as long as they keep attending shows and engage genuinely with art. It shouldn’t belong only to certain media platforms. Social media was brought up during the Roundtable as a broadcast platform for reviews and critique. For example, Malaysian radio presenter/producer Sharmilla Ganesan floated the question of whether Instagram stories can be considered an acceptable review format. I think a few people disagreed – or at least raised some eyebrows. But social media is already being used by many to share their individual responses to artworks; it’s a great part of people’s lives, and a bold new frontier for ‘serious’ arts criticism.
→ The accessibility of arts criticism to mainstream audiences in Asia remains limited due to language barriers.
On Day 1, selected delegates made presentations on the media landscape in their countries (Japan, Cambodia, Philippines, Indonesia and Thailand) and the different models that their arts media operated on (Japan, Singapore and Malaysia). While the ratio of arts criticism published in English against those published in non-English languages varies from country to country, a recurring observation was that writings published in English tend to be circulated more widely due to greater accessibility (in terms of readership) to the rest of the world. Whilst there is an encouraging emergence of arts criticism written in non-English native languages, delegates expressed concern over how nuances of cultural contexts that influenced the art being written about could be lost in the process of language-to-language translation. From their discussions, it is apparent that the need for such translation to be undertaken by writers with knowledge of the art-making process remains a gap to be filled in the Asian arts media scene.
→ In ‘small’ arts communities where everyone inevitably knows everyone else, arts critics may be pressured to self-censor even before the state intervenes.
During the Writing Under Pressure public panel moderated by Malaysian dance producer and writer Bilqis Hijjas on Day 2, three pressure points were identified. What are the ethical implications of writing about an arts scene that one is also making art within? Is there a natural obligation to write positively about the art they have experienced, especially in arts scenes that are less developed? 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? From the discussions that arose, it became apparent that the tendency to self-censor was generally rooted in the fear of souring relationships with artists, especially when negative criticism was involved. The comment of the session was arguably made by Malaysian playwright and critic Fasyali Fadzly, who humorously reminisced about how he used pseudonyms like ‘Vitamin – Supplement for the Arts’ in his earlier writings, so that he could write as honestly as possible without receiving personal backlash from the Malaysian arts community! However, when this topic resurfaced during other Roundtable sessions, delegates such as Jogja-based writer Nia Agustina shared that it was not necessarily a bad thing for critics to be practitioners within the arts scene that they write about. Given that such critics have an intimate knowledge of the art-making process, their honest insights can go a long way towards helping their peers better their craft.
→ There is a pressing need for mainstream media to take arts criticism more seriously.
Over the course of both days, several delegates pointed out the worrying trend of arts coverage being blatantly de-prioritised in the national broadsheets. For one, reviews of arts productions tend to be published as a factual recap of what was presented, rather than being a concerted criticism of the quality of the art-making or the cultural/societal issues explored. Even when such articles are written, they tend to be lumped under the lifestyle and entertainment sections (rather than having a section of their own), and are published only if they are deemed to have the potential to drive high readership amongst mainstream audiences. The harsh reality motivating these acts of de-prioritisation of the arts in the mainstream media? Money, money, money. How do we convince media owners and readers that arts coverage is a crucial part of any country’s cultural fabric and not just frivolous icing on the cake? In the meantime, how do we continue to develop new ways of monetising arts criticism, so that arts writers can continue to make a living out of what they do?
These fly-on-the-wall takeaways lead to one simple, yet oft-overlooked question: given the uniqueness of our diverse contexts in Asia, what would the function and form of arts criticism from this region look like in the future? Can we pool our resources together and build a unified database of arts criticism research? Can we find synergies with our Asian neighbours, and aim for a communal landscape of arts criticism, traversing national lines? The Asian Arts Media Roundtable is a first step in this direction and we’re excited to see where it may lead. Whatever your answer to these questions, the writing on the wall remains: we, as arts writers, need to constantly tweak our modes of arts criticism depending on who we are writing for, and reflect on why we write what we are writing about.
 Examples of ‘embedded’ criticism include Corrie Tan’s coverage of Emergency Stairs’ Southernmost Festival in 2018 and Ng Yi-Sheng’s coverage of the 2015 to 2017 editions of Singapore International Festival of Arts.
Guest contributor Ke Weiliang (also known as kewl, pronounced ‘k-yul’) is a recent graduate of the Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in Arts Management programme at LASALLE College of the Arts. He is enthralled by artistic practices that challenge hegemony, wade into non-binary grey areas and champion self-reflexive behaviour. He is the founding administrator of Channel NewsTheatre, a one-way Telegram channel that provides periodic updates on upcoming Singapore theatre shows and working opportunities.
Guest contributor Akanksha Raja is an arts writer and formerly ArtsEquator’s Assistant Editor.