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Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

COVID-19 and the arts: There is a light

By Nabilah Said
(1,720 words, 7-minute read)

To sum it up in a nutshell, what we need is a place with soul.

– From Tan Tarn How’s The Lady of Soul and Her Ultimate ‘S’ Machine

My back has been killing me, so I have resorted to doing yoga via YouTube tutorial. Turns out my dining table and chair aren’t set-up for those long hours of WFH. And while I don’t agree with the hordes of people rushing out for a last-minute shopping trip at Ikea, I can kind of understand. Staying at home 24/7 means I am suddenly hyper aware that my home space could be better for living in. But what does that say about how I’ve lived so far? 

A calming voice tells me that “as you exhale, let all the negative energy out.” This modern-day soothsayer asks me to check in mentally with myself. It reminds me of the Instagram questions I’ve been asking my friends in the last few weeks: 

How are you feeling? 

Anyone else vacillates between extreme productivity and extreme numbness?

Anyone turning to art to make sense of your feelings? 

Everyone, it seems, is baking banana bread. More people are trying out TikTok (I set up an account but don’t dare post anything). Like the rest of the world with a Netflix account, I finish Crash Landing on You. Whilst before I would consciously try to cut down on my screen time – I once injured my thumb from scrolling too much – now I let myself indulge in YouTube, Instagram, Twitter and the like. 

Yesterday I watched National Theatre’s One Man, Two Guvnors, which won James Corden a Tony. At 150 minutes, it was way too long to take in one sitting, so I watched the YouTube video while doing chores, switching from TV to mobile screen as I made my way around the house. 

This is the first play I’ve caught online since theatres closed in Singapore. I think a part of me was delaying it for as long as possible, because I was in denial about what theatre might start to become. One Man, Two Guvnors is a hilarious comedy play, obviously made for a white, upper class British audience, but it makes me ache for the specificity of Singapore theatre. Next on my list is Good People by The Necessary Stage. 

I read online that many people around the world are feeling something akin to grief, facing a major loss in their lives they don’t know how to recover from. My response has varied from being a useless lump on my sofa, to excitedly brainstorming ideas with friends and finding causes to support to mitigate any personal feelings of helplessness and guilt. I feel alternately hopeful and hopeless. 

Luxury or otherwise, I have been writing poems daily since the start of the month. April in Singapore is known amongst the literary circles as Singapore Poetry Writing Month or SingPoWriMo. As one of the senior moderators of SingPoWriMo this year, I’ve observed that participants are more formally experimental than ever. Twine, a tool to create interactive, non-linear stories, has been particularly popular – perhaps a commentary on how poets, as microcosm of the larger society, are looking to rewrite our narratives, even as we are still living through them. Suddenly Black Mirror doesn’t seem so dystopian.  

I even write a poem about a Zoom meeting. Incidentally, the Zoom meeting screenshot is now tied to one’s creative capital: Zoom meeting as performance, as the new “you can’t sit with us”. 

That’s a cynical take, but it is also fuelled by something larger. If I’m being honest, my Zoom envy might crystallise my fear of how some people are going to get this digital thing better than me. They are going to get more organised, more resourceful, be more hungry. The theatre that I’m mourning, that I was part of, that I got – might take a while to return, and probably won’t be the same when it does. 

Just 4 short weeks ago, I watched actors Chanel Ariel Chan and Hafidz Abdul Rahman treading the proverbial boards of the Arts House with academic and translator Nazry Bahrawi, in a hybrid lecture-performance piece we had created together, performing in front of a live audience. Not long after, I catch my last show: The Village Idiot, a contemporary wayang kulit performance by BronzAge Gamelan and NAFA arts management and theatre students. Both these shows, which were formally and conceptually inventive in their own ways, left me feeling hopeful for the future.

We didn’t realise then that that was a privilege. That everything would change in a matter of a few short weeks, most visibly manifested with the cancellation of SIFA 2020. If an institutionally-backed behemoth can fall, so can we.  

While I mourn the closure of theatre spaces (and here I also include the closure of Centre 42/42 Waterloo Street, which will soon be revamped and reconstituted), I also acknowledge that we are finding new and meaningful ways to form communities online, even if it’s going to take some time for us as an industry to get it right. 

Not everything has to be big. There is some comfort to be found in listening to an intimate play reading on Facebook, watching a music performance on Instagram Live, or playing a game online with your artist friends. These are some of the ways we can find new meaning together when life doesn’t seem to make sense. 

A couple of weeks ago, I ventured out of my home to meet a friend at Goodman Arts Centre. The industry was already reeling from show cancellations, but the sun seemed to shine brighter. Sure, we were trying to not to stand so close together, but more people said hello, and asked how the other was doing.  

Ok lah..!

Like that lah. 

The industry is putting on a brave face, because what else can we do? We have been through budget cuts, policy changes, a social media drama or ten, but COVID-19 is a whole new animal. 

As I speak to artists around me, there is a sense that we don’t know what this crisis says about our value. Sure, the rest of the world is turning to music, Netflix and books (yay art!), but no one can say when audiences will be ready to pay for local art again and you can’t blame anyone when everyone else is hurting too. Decrying capitalism might be the right thing to do, but it also opens up a whole can of existential worms, putting you and your place in the system in complete disarray. 

What am I, outside of the system? As a playwright, this is a question I have trouble grappling with. There are scripts I’ve written which have not yet been produced due to COVID-19, and may go unproduced – leading to creative frustration and feelings of invalidation. My worth has, for so long, been tied to a product. And I am not unique. There are stage managers waiting to manage shows again, directors reading through scripts and dreaming up new visions, art school graduates nervously wondering about the futures they were promised. 

I’ve put off writing this because the well-prepared Singaporean in me has been caught flat-footed for the past few weeks. Alice Saville from Exeunt writes eloquently about how everyone in the arts is looking to get back their sense of purpose: “Trying other stuff, I feel a bit bent out of shape.” At ArtsEquator, we feel this keenly. When there are no shows to review, when spirits are low, what is the role of a critic? A cultural commentator knows how to read the room. And what the room needs now more than ever – besides tangible support – is hope. We turned to reportage last week, in this Southeast round-up of how practitioners are doing, and found an unexpected source of solidarity. We hope to be able to continue to support the community through our platforms, and welcome your feedback and suggestions about our content. 

On a personal level, I do what I can: I write short plays, poetry, editorials like this. I reach out to friends online. And as the world is roiled, so too am I reckoning with my own privilege. I contribute where I can to help the people who are doing the heavy lifting on the front lines, or supporting those who are more vulnerable during this crisis, such as the migrant communities [here’s a collated list of various ways to help in Singapore]. I donate to arts companies, many of whom are going to be reeling financially for a while. To their credit, the Singapore government has stepped in with a generous budget, but there are bound to be some who slip through the cracks. We owe it to one another to reach out.

In Tan Tarn How’s 1993 play The Lady of Soul and Her Ultimate ‘S’ Machine, the search for soul is tied up in art, civil freedoms and liberty, as much as it is in policy-making, commerce and the making of image and mythology. While that was satire, I find myself now gravitating towards similar knotty ideas. If social distancing threatens to decentralise our souls to within the confines of our homes, where in the corners of this country can I locate not just its soul, but something even bigger than that? Could we aspire to a kind of collective consciousness?

I am thankful for this illuminating letter written by Diana Rahim of Beyond The Hijab about the power of collective hope: “we are only able to sustain ourselves when we have each other’s support…. what I am certain of is that to hope stubbornly together, we are already making the life we want right now in the present, bit by bit.” Collective hoping is embodied in many different ways. We see it in Papermoon’s IG Live interviews with puppetry artists around the world. We see it in Pasar Glamour’s latest fundraising efforts for the performing arts community in Singapore. We see it in #CreativeAidPH, where Filipino artists are calling on the government to allocate funds to the arts and cultural sector. This is a community of care in action. 

As we check in with ourselves and each other – our bodies, our homes, our families, our societies, our land, our planet – this is the best time for us to discover our humanity again. Instead of panic buying, considered consumption that benefits our local businesses. Instead of hoarding, sharing with others who have less. Instead of producing, pausing. Life is strange and the questions will continue to be existential. But there is something yet for us to do. The future is for our reimagining. 


Nabilah Said is the editor of ArtsEquator. To share any suggestions or feedback on content, please e-mail nabilah(at)artsequator.com.

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