MEPAAN: The Air Bandung Conundrum

Dr Shahril Salleh reflects on the challenges and rewards of intercultural collaboration in the Singapore Festival of the Arts 2022’s opening show, MEPAAN, using a beloved local drink as an analogy.

The opening commission for the Singapore International Festival of the Arts (SIFA), MEPAAN, (meaning always in the Kayan language), features a collaboration between the Singapore Chinese Orchestra (SCO) and the Tuyang Initiative, a Borneo cultural agency. MEPAAN’s premise of an inter-cultural performance experience between two arts groups from different countries and different cultural forms is ambitious for two reasons. Operationally speaking, the work is borne out of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown period with strict safety management measures limiting the type of interactions and rehearsals that can happen between the collaborators. Secondly, the artistic process of curating a final aesthetic form is a complex negotiation process, one that is a veritable mine-field of sensibilities borne out of how we and others see and understand decoloniality and orientalism.

I unfortunately found MEPAAN’s ambitious premise not quite fulfilling its intercultural potentiality. I’ll use these two points I mentioned above to elaborate why this is so, and also why I feel that MEPAAN should not be judged as the finalis of a project, but rather a starting point for future opportunities for intercultural collaboration. 

L to R: Tsung Yeh of the SCO and Adrian Jo Milang of Tuyang Initiative. Image courtesy of Arts House Limited.

Operationally, putting the show together during the lockdown period of the pandemic, I imagine, must have been difficult for the performers, and the director, Natalie Hennedige. The SCO, led by the esteemed maestro Tsung Yeh, had faced several restrictions to rehearsals. This involved excluding the woodwinds from rehearsals, and a limit to the number of performers at the rehearsal venue and on stage in the first few months of 2022. A further impediment was the global travel restrictions that prevented Tuyang from being in Singapore, in the same space with SCO, making such a collaboration difficult, to say the least. Whilst platforms such as Zoom allowed communication to happen, no platform is capable of facilitating a synchronous rehearsal without internet latency. These restrictions only eased in April 2022, and those involved did not get much time to work through the proof of concept and staging.

That being said, I am in awe of the musical and technical finesse of the SCO. They have executed each and every note with panache, precision, and sensitivity, which is their hallmark. I also consider the use of different visual elements in abstraction, such as the costumes designed by Max Tan, to be aesthetically pleasing. The elliptical stage, and the waved backdrop, designed by Wong Chee Wai with lights by Andy Lim, also provide a wonderful visual anchor to the show. 

Singapore International Festival of Arts Opening Night performance of MEPAAN. Image courtesy of Arts House Limited.

However, a fair amount of my own concerns about MEPAAN’s cohesiveness as a work lies in the venue. The Pasir Panjang Power Station, as its name makes clear, was originally a power station, having only made its presence known as an events space in the last two years. The venue’s urban industrial aesthetic is derived from the retention of much of its original structure and new fittings. Herein lies the problem: the design of the space lends itself to a more visual angle rather than the auditory. I reckon it must have been very challenging to make the actual venue work for this music-focused performance. To be clear, I think there is a wonderful potentiality to transform Pasir Panjang Power Station into a dynamic performance space. Yet, its current form detracts and limits the performance in many ways. From where I sat, the venue’s air-conditioning system not only barely cools the venue, but it also produces a loud continuous noise that detracts the audience’s aural experience. I would like to think that this space is new territory for SIFA and other performing artists, and the community has yet to have a grasp on how to make such large (and perhaps unwieldly) spaces work. 

The next aspect to the tentative cohesiveness of MEPAAN as a performance is the meaning-making and inter-cultural negotiation within the performance. As a practicing musician and a sociologist whose work deals with cultural formation, I found the intercultural aspect of MEPAAN to occupy its greatest premise, yet also, its most telling failure. 

I often use the analogy of the bandung drink to teach my students about the idea, synergy and collaboration within intercultural works. Each of the drink’s composite parts, that being rose syrup and evaporated milk, has its distinct taste. When added together, the composite whole has its own unique taste. True bandung connoisseurs also know that there is a proverbial sweet spot of balance – too much rose syrup makes it too sweet, yet underwhelming; too much milk makes it creamy, but bland. 

Finding this sweet spot is the challenge. 

There are many de-colonizing movements within music and cultural performance, and their concerns revolve around how the voice of the indigenous culture is situated in the performance when synthesizing a new collaborative work. Situating the indigenous voice is a complex and often contrary process. Its contrariness is predicated on who is collaborating and how the collaboration is done, as well as addressing the dynamics of power imbalances between the collaborators and its subsequent ethical considerations that stem from said power imbalances. 

Like the balance of bandung, the reception to these types of collaborative works also depends on the sensitivities of the audience and how they understand the work, on stage before them, and the process through which it has taken its specific shape.

I find that the core matter in addressing these ethical considerations is preserving the authenticity of the cultural sources, whilst synergising to create new artistic material. I ask the following questions: Who wields the authority in artistic decision making? Who synthesizes the artistic material? Where are the Kayan representatives in the curatorial process?

The answers to these questions weren’t clearly fore-fronted in the show proper, and are embedded in web and media material of SIFA. This itself presents a problematic issue. If the audience members who attend the show aren’t themselves acquainted with the back stories, how will they then consume and understand the performance they see before them? By saying this, I’m not situating a locus of failure per se, but rather attempting to posit how embedding a short explainer of the curatorial process would have given audiences a better grasp of seeing the intercultural strength of the work. 

Having spoken to several fellow audience members, there was a shared concern that the way the performance is presented both essentialises the indigenous folk culture and material, and somewhat muffles the narrative of an intercultural dialog under the syntax of the Nanying oeuvre. 

What the audience saw in the entire performance was the Kayan performers, sape master Mathew Ngau Jau and storyteller Adrian Jo Milang, occupying a very peripheral position within the show. The performers either occupied a box at the end and top of the stage, or moved along the elliptical stage whilst SCO performed the meat of the performance.   

Furthermore, there is a lack of synergy of the projected visuals—featuring the work of Singapore photographer Sean Lee and Sarawak-based indigenous film-maker Harry Frederick, put together in the video medium by Brian Gothong Tan—with the live music performed. The video of rolling forests and ethnic prints, plus the  movements, chants and music, could, in some ways, be unfortunately read as an orientalising enactment of the indigenous form. This sense of orientalisation comes out of the way these images and sounds are presented without any embedded context about the semiotic and cultural meaning held by the indigenous persons, and how the use of these visual and movements contribute towards the narrative of the performance.

MEPAAN on stage. Image courtesy of Arts House Limited.

I understand that there had been extensive consultation with the Tuyang Initiative team and the composers Eric Watson, Kong Zhixuan, Tang Jianping, Koh Cheng Jin and Wang Chenwei, who scored each movement within MEPAAN. In order to help the audience gain more perspective into the process of making the performance,  perhaps some snippets of this process could be incorporated into the presentation proper.

 I also wonder how perceptions of the MEPAAN’s narrative would be transformed if the show started or fore-fronted the interview of the unidentified female elder, instead of placing it in the middle of the performance, as was done. I do understand that that visual was linked to the anointment of the headdress movement by the dramatic performers. However, a reprise of the video would perhaps have helped establish both the flow of the narrative, and the voice of the indigenous culture.  

In reflection, I feel that to critique MEPAAN as not quite achieving its intercultural promise is both unfair and unhelpful. There is much work to be done in making intercultural collaboration work. We also need to understand that intercultural sensitivity is often a moving goal post for those who dare embark on this challenge. For me at least, the work here also allows us to enable our audiences to see that such processes and outcomes are works in progress – we all need to start somewhere, and I am glad that MEPAAN has dared to start on this perilous journey. I would hope that we can discern the potentiality for future, tighter intercultural works coming out of Singapore and SIFA from this experience, rather than only seeing how we may not be there (wherever there is!) yet. 

Singapore International Festival of Arts(SIFA) goes on from 20 May to 5 June. This production took place on the 20 – 22 May. For more happenings and must see events from SIFA, click here.

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