David Wilkinson/Empirical Photography

Podcast 88: Critics Live: The Journey by Scott Silven at SIFA 2021

Critics Ben Valentine (US), Kathy Rowland (SG), Michael HB Raditya (ID), Sharmilla Ganesan (MY) chat about The Journey by UK-based illusionist and mentalist, Scott Silven. The performance took place from 18-30 May 2021 as part of the Singapore International Festival of Arts.

Critics Live! is a critics-led programme series created by ArtsEquator to give arts audiences an insight into how critics formulate their responses to performances. Through Critics Live!, critics will share their experiences watching the show either in-venue or digitally, and discuss how the artists’ choices shape these respectively.

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Kathy: Good evening everyone and welcome to ArtsEquator’s Critics Live! I’m Kathy Rowland, the co-founder of ArtsEquator. Thank you very much for joining us. So this programme this evening is part of the Asian Arts Media Roundtable at SIFA 2021, which brings together critics from Southeast Asia, from Japan, from the UK and from the US together to really engage with the works that are being presented here as part of SIFA, which is the Singapore International Festival of the Arts. If I’m not wrong, SIFA this year is actually one of the first and largest international arts exhibitions, art festivals that’s opened since the pandemic has hit. And we’re really pleased that we can have you, audience members, join us from Singapore and from elsewhere, as well as with our panel of international critics here this evening. 

Critics Live! itself is an open conversation, right? It’s a platform where several critics get together and discuss a recent work, because we understand the different people respond differently to works of art. And so this is a way for us to open up that conversation and open up the critical space to different views, diverse views, sometimes conflicting views about a single work of art. And we hope that you, those who have joined us now either on Facebook or on our Zoom platform, will also share with us your views and your questions, because we’d really love to draw you into the conversation. We’re not just here to talk but we’re also here to listen. 

The format is very straightforward. The critics – we’ve got four critics here today and four of us will share for a total of about 30 to 35 minutes. And we’ll then take questions and comments from all of you and you can post your comments either on Zoom or on Facebook Live’s comment section depending on where you’re joining us from. 

So this evening, I’m joined by three colleagues, all of whom happened to have written for ArtsEquator. Ben Valentine is a freelance writer and curator who has spoken about arts and culture at South by Southwest and was a staff writer at Hyperallergic as well as in South San Francisco Arts Quarterly. He used to be based in Cambodia, but is now back in the U.S. Michael HB Raditya is a researcher, critic and writer from Yogyakarta. His articles have been published in Tempo, in Gelaran and in Salihara. He’s edited over 14 books in arts and culture and is a respected academic and critic on performance in Indonesia and in Southeast Asia. Sharmilla Ganesan is a radio presenter, cultural critic and a writer from Kuala Lumpur. At BFM 89.9, which is a business radio station, Sharmilla hosts programmes on current affairs, on arts, literature and on pop culture. Her articles have been published in The Atlantic, in the South China Morning Post and on New Naratif as well. Sharmilla, Ben, Michael, thank you for joining us. Welcome.  

Sharmilla: Thanks for having us. 

Ben: Thanks, Kathy. 

Kathy: Kaykay, if we can have slide number one? This evening, we’re going to be talking about Scott Silven’s The Journey, which is a narrative-driven illusionist performance, I think is what we’re calling it. The panel watched it on two different nights and the work takes place on Zoom with a very small limited audience between 20 and 25 people. And it’s participatory, it’s interactive, where the audience at various times are tapped to either provide an object, a comment, or share a bit of personal information, which then serves as the basis for the illusion that follows, and also as a way to move the action kind of forward. So I think you know, we’ll just dive right in. And maybe I could ask Sharmilla. Maybe we can start with you. What did you think about The Journey?


Photo: David Wilkinson_Empirical Photography


Sharmilla: So this was an interesting one, right? I’ll say right off that I am a fan of illusions, illusionists, magic shows. But I wouldn’t have thought of them in the context of arts and the arts festivals. So it was interesting to see it being staged on that platform. And I think that kind of framed the way that I looked at it, and the way that I thought about it. I have to say that on some levels, it worked really well. On some levels, I think it falls back into some of the limitations of what it is – an illusion show. 

I think I just wanted to point out the two things that I thought worked really well. One was this idea of holding a narrative, having a narrative kind of threading all of the illusions together, I think that gave the performance a little bit of an edge and possibly elevated it to perhaps what you could call arts or a performance that qualifies as something artistic. But more than that, I think significantly, this was a really good example of how to use the online form and the online platforms. This is a show that I think was very clearly conceived to be viewed and experienced online. I would even wager that it might not work as well in person as it does on the online medium, which was very interesting for me.

Kathy: That’s right. I mean, as you say, it’s kind of, illusion, it’s magic tricks. And so much of this really depends absolutely on being there, being there in person, so that, you know, there’s no way that we can dismiss some of the acts as camera tricks or editing or kind of clever ways using technology. But this work actually did seem to work despite the limitations. Right? You know, one of the things Ben, you’ve mentioned that he’s a mentalist, and he’s an illusionist that has already built quite a reputation. Still not, you know, the kind of mega famous levels of people that we’ve mentioned, for example, David Blaine. But he’s, you know, his reputation is growing. And it’s very much been about live shows. But he was forced onto the online space, as we know, because of COVID. And you’ve got a particular response to this work and how you see it within the COVID pandemic context. Can you tell us a bit more about that?

Ben: Yeah, thanks, Kathy. I think it’s important because, there’s a lot of artists, especially performing artists, kind of considering right now: how do we deal with a lack of physical audience and being able to meet in person? And there’s artists all over the world struggling with this right now. And I think it’s important to consider this performance in the context of the pandemic. It was kind of framed as such. “How do we connect? I’m stuck in my-” He was saying, “I’m stuck in my home here. And I want to reach out with you all.” So we all had to bring a special [item] and kind of share it with each other and try to make that connection across and he used his illusions, to try to kind of reach out and touch us and build these connections. 

Ultimately, I felt like that was kind of hollow. It felt like the same illusions. And this really intensely isolating moment and scary moment in history, were kind of used as a kind of weak narrative to put his magic tricks upon, which kind of felt really kind of self-centred in a way. I was thinking about a New York Times article I read, right, when the pandemic was coming out. That was about performing arts and “does it matter?” “do we need this?” and it talked about, in London, during World War Two. There was this famous performance by an orchestra that went out and risked getting bombed and just did this big performance and everyone came out and really, like, risked life and limb. They needed to feel connected and they had been so isolated and scared for so long that this performance, this orchestra really brought them together. And they all went out and enjoyed it and this really is kind of bold, defiant, and also coming together despite limitations. So that’s not pandemic but I was kind of thinking about this performance in comparison to that and how it felt like, my very special object was just a ruse for a sleight of hand trick. If that makes sense. 

Kathy: Yes, no, no, it does, because I think one of the ways that the show was kind of put forward, and a large part of what Scott kind of shared with us was a story or a narrative that takes us through the eyes of a young boy named Callie, right, who moves through a very desolate Scottish landscape. And through his journey, through this landscape, you know, moves through time. And then he was building a link between this young boy’s narrative, who I think the young boy is kind of an avatar for Scott, it seems to imply that he was, was then a connection to us spread across the world, watching this show, and our relationship to time, our relationship to being separated and our relationship to being isolated. But you’re saying that, with all of this setup, the weight of the reality that we’re living in in the moment, the work didn’t match up to it. Is that what you’re saying?

Ben: Yeah. And I mean, I think he imposed that problem on himself. He’s saying, “right now we’re all like, isolated in our house, and how do we connect?” And “I want you to come to my home, and I’m going to reach out through technology, and we’re going to really build this connection together.” Like, okay, did you? And I share a really important special thing to my heart, and it becomes this sleek little sleight of hand trick. So I didn’t feel that.

Sharmilla: If I can just quickly jump in. I wanted to say that I think if he hadn’t hammered that over our heads so many times…

Ben: Right.

Sharmilla: The intimacy of what was happening, I actually felt this. You know, because they projected all of the different audience members onto the walls behind him. You know, we got to almost listen to and talk to people who are in all sorts of different places around the world. He didn’t have to keep pointing it out. I think the pointing it out, started feeling very hokey and almost cheap. If he hadn’t, it would have felt more subtle and sort of like, letting us feel it rather than him just, yeah, going too hard on that point. 

Ben: Completely agree.

Kathy: Michael, you actually, you kind of felt that the narrative works, right? You enjoyed parts of that.

Michael: Okay, first, I would like to start my turn with thank you, and congrats to Scott Silven on this piece, The Journey. The duration of this performance is 50 minutes, I watched his performance on May 18, I think about 10 days ago, at home in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. It was like Scott Silven in Scotland, and you are in Singapore, Ben in America, and me in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. So thank you SIFA and the Asian Arts Media Roundtable for making this happen. 

In my opinion, the performance is very challenging, at least for a critic or writer like me, because I have two points – first the audience expectation, and the second one is my reflection. The first is the performance made me rethink the basics of watching and the negotiation of expectations. Yes, this performance made me realise audience expectation – it reminds me about the classic idiom like, are we watching a performance like carrying or borrowing empty glass to the stage, or are we always watching the performance with a full glass or half and so on? In my opinion, it’s like this thing is a resonance to our sublime or satisfied resonance while we watch the performance. I know this performance is artistic, but it would remind us of all the things that is important to us. Like “this is magic.” and “what is the performance”, like Sharmilla said in the beginning. 

Then I have my reflection which is that I have a little note for the performance. Like for me this performance has a rigid structure. You start the performance with the story, turn and then participation, turn and back, and this happened about four or five times. For me it’s too rigid. I have a problem with that. Because the structure allows me to guess the show’s plot, like what’s next. Like oh, this is participation or this is a story and that is like – for me that’s the problem and in my opinion, Scott Silven needs to rearrange the flow and participation format. Because for me, he placed the show so well, but it’s not playing with people. In Malay language, it’s “main-main”. I cannot lie if he’s successful with playing with our memory like at the moment, Ben with the ring, and you Kathy with the earrings. But he can do more like playing with his magic and playing with the show itself. I think that it will be astonishing, especially when we talk about contemporary art.

Kathy: So it’s really interesting because on the one hand Ben is kind of pointing to a kind of hollowness or a lack of sincerity in the work. And you’re kind of pointing to, although you enjoyed it, you also think that it was the rigidity. You know there was a lack of playfulness with it. So for those of you who may have not been part of the show, and we’ll be avoiding spoilers, but what happens at various points of the 50 minutes is that Silven engages with the audience flawlessly. I mean, there were just, you know, in terms of time lapses and so on, it was just perfectly managed. You didn’t really feel the lags that, you know, may even be happening now. But what happens is then he invites the audience to share, let’s say, an important item, which we were prepared before we went on. So it happened that Ben shared a wedding ring that had been made by his father-in-law. And I was then called, and it happened that I had shared a pair of earrings that had belonged to my mum. And Ben, am I right, that we both shared quite personal stories, because we were invited to share personal stories. Right?

Ben: Right. And I don’t know about you, Kathy, but if we, like, meet in this international space, and it’s so amazing, to have like you said, Michael, this really different audience together in this room, and we’re about to share these really intimate items with each other. And then it’s like, “okay, and next! And behind door number one is…” You’re just like, “Oh, I should have just, you know, shared a random thing.” Like, it didn’t seem to really make a big difference. It just moved on so quickly. 

And I wanted it to work. Right? And, as you said, Kathy, I’ve put on a lot of online events, they’re really hard. And he did it flawlessly. And it was a really complicated online event, before even the magic – all these screens that were popping up and moving, and it was really well done. So I don’t want to be completely negative, it was quite impressively organised. But yeah, there’s a lot of bells and whistles for not a lot of substance in my mind.

Photo: David Wilkinson_Empirical Photography


Kathy: Right. So that kind of then takes us kind of back to what I think, Michael, what you’re saying, which is structurally if you’re-  And I’m speaking for myself, I mean, I went through the gamut of affects and emotions, right, through it. I mean, from suspicion to cynicism, to “Oh my god, how did he do that?”, to “Oh, my God, he’s the devil”, to, you know, “that was amazing. And I’m so engaged. And I love this.”, to, “Okay, well, you know…” But I think, if you really pay attention, it did feel it flowed beautifully, visually. It was stunning. 

But you know, if you do pay attention, then you realise that it is very structurally very, very clear. Everything is: engage with the audience, get something out of them, perform a really mind-bending illusion. And, you know, in that he again, I think he was incredibly skillful. And, it really did evoke wonder. But then what happens then is, then there is narrative, and then we move on to the next audience engagement, followed by illusion, narrative, and so on. And that was that kind of rigid structure. So which do you feel served what, right? I mean, do you feel that the illusions served the story, or the narrative, or the narrative served the illusions?

Sharmilla: So that’s the complicated question at the heart of this, isn’t it? Because at the end of the day, he’s an illusionist. The show is about the illusions. I mean, I guess maybe, because that’s what I went in expecting, I was a lot more forgiving of that, “hey, this is what I’m doing.” Or, you know, “look here and then look here I’ve produced this.” Because that’s what a magic show is. 

I think when that gets complicated is again when it gets packaged as a ‘more than that’. And I’m wondering whether if I had watched this at any other platform, if I had just watched it as a magic show, and not as part of SIFA, maybe I wouldn’t be as questioning. I’ve seen a magic show that’s structured around the seven sins or biblical miracles. I didn’t have a problem with it not having a philosophical undertone, right? But in this one, I did want more and I don’t know whether the wanting more is because it’s been sold that way. And it’s also being sold, actually, as Ben said, as a time to connect. And ‘let’s try and sort of work through some of the feelings that we’ve been having over the last year’. So maybe in that sense, it sets its own expectations a little too high and at the wrong place.

Kathy: Right. So it kind of feels like the emotional engagement that the show asks of us, in a way, doesn’t really feel earned. By the end of it.

Sharmilla: And I’m wondering whether it even exists in this genre. I mean, does this genre  -will this genre ever be able to be more than just, trick, trick, trick, with something holding it together?

Kathy: And I mean, I don’t think that there’s any shame in being, you know, trick, trick, trick? 

Sharmilla: Oh, no. 

Kathy: Right? I mean, so that’s, in a way, kind of I- Yeah, I just want to kind of make it clear, that it seems as if- We’re not being snobbish about it, we’re not kind of putting a benchmark for what is high art and what is low art. But it’s more just that kind of, you know, if you’re going to cloak yourself with a particular kind of legitimacy, then we would like for it to be delivered. We’re going in quite a–I think, it appears as if we’ve all been quite negative about it. But can we talk a little bit, I think: two things I want to ask you. What did you enjoy of it? What experience did you take away that was really good? And then Michael, I want to cue you to talk about, a little bit- you’ve talked about this idea of magic, right? And magic within the Indonesian context. So maybe Ben, you can kind of tell us a little bit of what you felt really, really worked and Sharmilla, and then we’ll go to Mike.

Ben: What really worked? Yeah, I have not been to magic shows. And I kind of always felt like they’re hokey. I tried to, like, embrace the illusion and I want to- but I always know that there’s a like, that it’s not magic. That there’s a trick and I don’t see it, and I’m impressed. But yeah, I can’t explain how he did what he did. It was impressive. And then the technology that he managed to, all customised I believe, really- And my fear for him was that the illusions were just going to get so much weaker, because it was online because I felt like, I mean, it’s so easy to cut angle or something and just make it seem like such an obvious sleight of hand. But it really felt just as impressive as I imagine seeing it on the street or in a live person event. So I’m very impressed with how he managed to translate this medium into this context. It’s quite impressive.

Kathy: Sharmilla?

Sharmilla: Oh, I wholeheartedly actually enjoyed it. I didn’t mean to give the impression that I didn’t. I was wowed. I was- when I was done, I was texting a bunch of friends saying “I don’t know how he did that!” I almost believed in magic while watching it. So I mean, if I took off my critic’s hat, if I took off my ‘I’m doing a panel on the show’ hat, I think it was great entertainment for an afternoon. But yeah, I think that’s what I really enjoyed. And I think there is something to be said for that. At a time like this when actually being on a video call or a Zoom call is actively a pain for me. I didn’t mind this at all.

Kathy: That’s a good point. And Michael, you said something. You were talking a little bit about the context of magic.

Michael: Yeah, I think that– yeah, the magic. It means like, it relates with my previous point about audience expectation. Honestly this was so difficult for me to watch a magic performance. For your information, I’m Indonesian and magic or illusion shows are often shown on television. The people of Indonesia have been presented with the annual magic competition on television, The Master. There are regular magic shows on Indonesian television, like there are many, many magicians here. It happened in 2009 to 2012, I guess. 

And then several years earlier, we have known David Copperfield – he’s the King. So that’s my history of watching magic shows, these things have impacted me. So the prejudice that can be imagined when watching Scott Silven’s performance, I tried to throw it away while watching him. But I can assure you that there is a spectacular effect while watching Scott Silven’s performance. For me he’s a cool illusionist, I guess. 

And Kathy asked us about what’s the good point of this performance? I think that I realised that there is a keyword in performance, I believe we know it already. Because he said the keyword not only once, but several times. It is “connected”. In the context of COVID-19, the time of connectedness is essential, especially the livestreaming context, I guess. We are far apart, but he tries to connect us with the materials of objects that of course are around us, like slippers. I believe the audience has the experience with those objects, I guess. And with the magical powers, he did it with an audience participation format. 

It reminds me of his statement, “this is not a coincidence but the beginning of our journey”. I wrote it down. For me, the statement is remarkable. The narrative point, yeah, is so strong, and I don’t know, I enjoyed how Silven managed the space for all of us because we can see that from the pre-show video, there is a specific website that attracted us, like the website, there is a video and an audio, something like that. And when we talk about this performance, I think he also managed a space of imagination with immersive art I guess. And I think that he used the immersive art effectively, because there’s just only a little room there. And he can make the closed space into an open space for the imagination.

Kathy: Yeah, I think, visually, he did that, you know, through- maybe the technology might have been quite simple. But that was quite beautiful. Ben, you’ve mentioned that some of the techniques and some of the forms that he used, you know, are not new. I mean, these are old forms, that they’re old practices that have been present in new media arts for a long time. How did- Can you maybe kind of talk a little bit more about the history of that, and maybe kind of maybe tell us a little bit how you felt, you know, whether he used this and he uses it in ways that were innovative and were fit to purpose? Or it, you know, kind of really in the end didn’t work? 

Ben: Yeah, because it was considered or positioned in our context. Then I think that only worked to his disadvantage, like Sharmilla said. That maybe if he just embraced spectacle, that I would have liked it more. But because it’s in an art context, and I’m an art critic. I always think about things in art history. And, so yeah, I mean, it was a networked media performance. And so he connected a group of people from various locations into a room and shared this performance. And as I said, he did it really effectively, he used the technology really flawlessly. There’s a lot of pandemic performances right now that are pretty low budget, artists in living rooms. And there’s some sincerity to that, right? It’s like we’re all going through that. So I think that has value. But one thing he reminded me of, in a way, was Wafaa Billal, who’s an Iraqi American artist. And in 2010, he did this performance, Domestic Tension. So the American wars around the world were raging and he’s Iraqi. And he gets in a gallery and puts up, livestreams himself in the gallery for, I think, 30 days, and he’s living in this gallery, and there’s a paintball gun. And you can, people can get on this kind of chat room and move the paintball gun and shoot him. And it’s talking about media and portrayals of Iraqis and like distancing and othering of Iraqis in the media. And thousands of people got on and shot him. And he was, like, he was in this room, and it was really traumatic. But then people, his friends started getting on and they would, like, steer the paintball gun away from him when other people started trying to shoot him. So it became this really problematic, but very intimate and personal connection and really devastating commentary about American media and, kind of, colonialism. So, I mean, since the dawn of the internet, we’ve been trying to find ways to connect and artists have always been there pushing that media further out, so yeah. That’s one performance that came to mind, because it was in this room and people were all connected in a very intimate and problematic way.

Kathy: And that would have happened within the context of the emergence of early years of drone warfare, wouldn’t it?

Ben: I mean, super early. Yeah. Yeah. Was it.. it was 2010.

Kathy: With the distance from, it’s all kind of, there’s a distance to the killing, right? That it’s not up close and personal kind of killing.

Ben: Right. And he wanted to put that right in front of you, and kind of localised that into his body.

Kathy: So in a way, it’s kind of, I think, also comes back to this thing that we’re talking about, where, you know, what Sharmilla referred to as the philosophical intention of the art that seemed to be missing. But it’s not something that we would have expected it to have. Right? But it seemed to kind of want to assume that it did, and that was one of the issues. But Sharmilla, you found that the technology kind of worked. You liked aspects of it, because you felt that, you know, it allowed you to move into the work in a way that you don’t normally want to.

Sharmilla: So I’m not a huge fan of being called on to participate in live magic shows. I make it sound like I attend them every week. But you know, on the occasion that I have, I don’t necessarily like being called on to go on stage to be part of the act. And I think, within the context of this show, having it done in this way, where you’re just a face on a video call with many other faces on a video call, sort of makes it a little bit easier and a lot more enjoyable. I actually did get that sense of that thing that all of these performances aim to do, which is to make you feel like you’re somehow part of a space, which is very difficult to do on a digital performance. This actually did manage to do it, I don’t know whether it had to do with his set as well, which was very, deceptively simple, it’s beautiful. 

And then all the projections that he works with, and the fact that we are physically “situated in that space”, I think that helps. You know, he kind of introduces the room by the camera panning, and you kind of see the audience, all of these things, I think, work quite well. So yeah, the technology works in creating a sense of space. And it did also get me thinking on that line of what Ben was talking about. You know, TV magic events used to be a huge thing. I’m thinking about David Copperfield making the Statue of Liberty disappear, or, you know, David Blaine, and the suspended over the River Thames or whatever. I feel like this is actually just picking up that thread and taking it a step further in the sense that this idea of illusions being done on a screen. Sure, we all wonder, we all think, “ah, there must be 200 people we don’t see just beyond the frame making things happen.” But then we’re also fully willing to suspend disbelief and kind of believe that may not be the case. And so in some sense, Ben’s right, that this isn’t necessarily new, either from a new media perspective, or even actually, from a televised magic show perspective, but it’s sort of quite cleverly plays in a space that’s interesting for me, in terms of bringing the audience into the whole thing.

Photo: David Wilkinson_Empirical Photography


Kathy: And actually you’re right, because we’ve all been watching a lot of online shows. But that was one where you know what you miss, of course, is when you’re, for example, if you’re in a space in a theatre in the round and you know, you’re not just watching the action on stage, but you’re also watching your fellow audience reactions to you. And there was this beautiful moment when you know, all of us could see each other several times. And there was- I mean, the transparency of it made it actually even more beautiful for me, because there was a kind of, you know, insubstantiality to it, that reflected the way that we were experiencing it as well. 

So we’ve got a couple of interesting comments from members of the audience. And one, for example is from Katrina, who is a critic who’s part of- who has written for ArtsEquator many times. And she was on the night on the 18th of May, which is when Ben and Michael and myself were on. And it was true that on that particular night she says that on the one point our special objects being used- “on the point about our special objects being used and whether what was used, a bit of it was used in a superficial way. It might also be dependent on how familiar the audiences are with each other. The night that we watched, the majority of the people were familiar. And so we were kind of looking forward, I think, to each other’s stories, contributions and some extended connections might not have been manufactured by the performance itself.” I mean, I think that is a point because actually, in my case, for example, everyone that was called on the night that I watched with Ben and Michael, I actually knew. You know, so that was perhaps a slightly different experience from, let’s say, the average audience. It just happened that, you know, there were writers who had written for ArtsEquator, or people within the Singapore arts scene that we knew. But I think that this issue of- so obviously, you know, for Katrina, she felt that there was a connection and that there was – I hope, Katrina, I’m not misunderstanding your comments. But you seem to say that there was a connection, but that connection came really by happenstance, because there were people that knew each other, as well. 

Coming back to your point, Sharmilla, about, you know, and Ben as well, and to some extent, also, Michael, that, you know, some of the things that we’re talking about this is a magic show, it’s illusion, you know. It’s televised, or it’s mediated in some way, whether on TV, or you know, through– Asia’s Got Talent, I think they had a number of Indonesian illusionists. In fact, the winner was a young Indonesian, a fabulous, fabulous illusionist. Right? But I think one question, which I really love is from Max, who runs Arts Republic, which is another arts website in Singapore. And he says, look, he says, “I didn’t catch the show but I’m curious. What did the show do to make the audience share personal stories comfortably?” That’s his first question. And then his next question, which I’ll follow up with, but maybe someone can just share if you remember, what was it that- Why did we all feel compelled to bring our little objects and, you know, share so much. I mean, I overshared for sure.

Sharmilla: It was the pre-show instructions, right? We’re supposed to bring an object that means something to us. I think that was the brief. And to relate to what Katrina said, so I knew no one on the day that I was on the show. And when she said it, I’m wondering whether there’s something to what Ben pointed out, I think, because I didn’t know anyone. And it just so happened that on the day that I was there, nobody actually shared anything too personal. It was sort of maybe it was meaningful to them. But it was essentially, “this is a pillow that I hug when I’m feeling sad,” or “this is a ring that my…” and I’m sure the ring had meaning to them. But I also didn’t really feel like “Oh, they had shared this anecdote that was super heavy and deep. And then all he did was do a magic trick.” It felt sort of like yeah, okay, I get why they brought that, but I wasn’t particularly invested anyway. So maybe it entirely depends on- Again, you guys maybe felt a little bit more comfortable, because there were so many familiar faces. And so there was more of a sense of intimacy and therefore a cheap trick at the end of it.

Kathy: Yeah, I mean, I was invested in- you know, I kind of was both, you know, kind of wanting to invest in the process, because it appeared as if he wanted something personal, something that meant something to you. And so I thought he would pull out from that some kind of amazing revelation, which, of course, I was then going to be absolutely cynical about, right, because I got a bit of a cultish vibe from him in the pre-show when I was listening. You know, he’s obviously an excellent performer in that way. Michael, did you feel that the sharing of objects- Did you feel a connection with the other audience members?

Michael: In the moment, I brought this pen. And I just took it from like, around me, there was a pen and so I brought it. But I’m interested with the, you know, other stuff like, I remember that there is like an Indonesian participant in Asian Arts Media Roundtable, Mas Dinu, who you know, brought the guitar. So that’s why I’m curious with that. Because I knew many people there. So that’s why there’s like a connection, it was intimate like that.

Kathy: And I think the reason, I mean– I think to answer Max’s question as well, is that the reason that a lot of us did. Well, I know I did bring in something quite personal was that you know, half an hour before the show, you’re supposed to listen. Not just instructions to bring something but to actually listen to like a three-minute kind of very poetic, slightly hokey kind of, you know, kind of call to your emotional heartstrings about connection so I think that kind of sets you up. 

Max then also asked, because I think we’ve been talking and we’ve been skirting around this big question of, one, is it art? Which maybe is less of an interesting question. And then the next question is, you know, does it belong in a festival? Which, they sound as if they’re the same questions, but they’re really very different questions. But I think he’s also talking about- he’s asked a question: “Are works framed and constrained by genres?” You know, and that’s- “and are works framed and constrained by presenting platforms”? Does it make a difference that it was in the Singapore international Festival of Arts, which has built a reputation as being, you know, very prestigious, it is one of the largest arts festivals in Southeast Asia, if not in Asia? Do you think that we are damning it a little bit because it is not fulfilling our expectations of what a magic show should confine itself to? Are we being negative about it because it’s being a bit uppity? 

Ben: For sure. I hate the question: Is it art? I think like if someone says it’s art, that they made it and like, great, it’s art. But the question is, what was benefited by having it in this context or considered as art is a very interesting one for me. And I think that my criticisms are all strength– or made more severe by the fact that I came to it with a bit of an art context in this context. And I do wonder if I was invited to see an illusionist give a performance, and he just did magic tricks. If I were just like, ‘oh, that was really fun. I loved it’. I do think that he put that limitation, as Sharmilla said, like, he put that narrative on it. And he added all these things about connectedness. And yeah, that just kind of hurt himself. I wonder, like Cirque du Soleil or some of those bigger illusionists, if he just said, I’m going to do magic tricks for an hour. And if I would have loved it more, I think the answer is yes.

Kathy: Okay, but can I kind of just clarify, are you saying that you would’ve, you know- So is it because he included narrative in the work? Or is it because he included narrative, but it did not… it was insufficient to move you.

Ben: It was insufficient. Insufficient narrative that was only made worse by the arts context. So like, I wanted really good narrative, because I was approaching it as an art critic. I wanted more nuanced connections and relationships built, more intimacy, that weren’t. So if it was just “Hey, Ben, join an illusion.” And if he just did the magic tricks, I would have been completely entertained. But then that would have just been kind of mass spectacle. And that’s fine.

Kathy: That’s fine. Yeah. So this question about, you know, works framed or constrained by the presenting platform. I mean, I did feel I didn’t have a problem with it being part of SIFA. Because, you know, SIFA is, you know, it’s a festival that includes all the genres. And every year there is always, you know, there is some element that’s very populist, you know, you have fire eaters, you have circus, you have beautiful acrobats, which are the– these often are the free events that everyone engages with, alongside works that are really pushing the boundaries. And I think that, you know, it has tried to, especially under the direction of the current festival director, Gaurav, who’s actually, in his last year, you know, it’s been a kind of balancing act of local commissions, international works, as well as with works that, you know, I guess could be described as quite populist. So, to me, programming The Journey was actually quite a clever move, because, you know, in anticipation of the fact that we might not be able to do some of the much more open free events that people might want to engage with. So I did think that it- I didn’t have a problem with this being there, alongside with, let’s say, something that was much more beautiful and much more difficult to engage with like Gardens Speak, which is a work about the Syrian deaths, for example. But did any of you, did any one of you have a problem with the fact that you were here invited in the Singapore International Festival of the Arts to watch a work that was essentially illusion work?

Sharmilla: So I think that SIFA benefits more from having Scott Silven on its roster than Scott Silven benefits from being featured by SIFA. So I think that SIFA and other arts festivals all need to do more to, for lack of a better phrase, and this is not a criticism about SIFA in particular, get off its high horse a little bit, because I think increasingly with the competition for content, and if we’re talking about an online space now, the competition for eyeballs, populism, populist entertainment rather, isn’t always bad entertainment. And it doesn’t have to be, and I also don’t agree with this high art-low art classification. However, I think that Scott Silven, on the other hand, might be saddled with the kind of expectation that perhaps his act doesn’t deserve. Because it’s on the Singapore International Festival of the Arts. Perhaps it’s not the worst thing because it will bring in a new audience for him. But yah, I do think the winner is actually SIFA. 

Kathy: That’s a good point. Yeah, Michael?

Michael: Yeah, sure. I don’t know. But I hope that I don’t make the condition worse, yeah? Correct me if I’m wrong that, if you see the website, I guess, Scott Silven, you know, the category of the Scott Silven performance is theatre. Correct me if I’m wrong. But I don’t have a problem with that. If Scott Silven, like I said before, if Scott Silven can ‘main-main’ or can ‘play-play’ and it will give a benefit for the contemporary arts in Singapore I think. I don’t have a problem with that.

Kathy: So just better dramaturgy. 

Michael: Yeah. Dramaturgy, yeah.

Kathy: I was thinking many years ago, I actually went and saw Ricky Jay, I don’t know if any of you are familiar with him. He’s now passed away. But he is like a master card trick mentalist, illusionist who was on Deadwood and was on, you know, has written multiple books about illusions and tricks. But a lot of his live shows were directed by David Mamet, you know. Who was a huge advocate and loved his work. And I was just thinking in some ways, there is- there are many elements of the, you know, the theatrical, of illusion. I mean, what is theatre but going into a space, and, you know, for two hours believing that, you know, a forsaken King will be brought to ruin by the greed of his wife. Right? For example, and we buy into it when we see the blood and we see the gore and we suspend all of our disbelief. And there is something about it, that kind of makes us be incredibly moved by it. Right? 

But, yeah, so I think that what, you know,  one of the things that Sharmilla, what you’re saying is that it’s almost like the disadvantage really was in Scott’s- I mean, it was his disadvantage in a way to be where he was. 

Photo: David Wilkinson_Empirical Photography


Kathy: Okay, I’ve got another question here. And this is from Weiliang. “Given the context of the magic show, I’m thinking how we as audience members are compelled to want Scott to succeed by default, because if he does slip up at any point it would make for interesting discussion for us. But it will be really awkward for him, especially since he’s doing it digitally. It’s hard to improvise, to react to a failed trick. And because the default experience is that he will succeed in carrying out his show as he planned it. Does it make it harder for us to critique the show? How do we retain that sense of spontaneity that usually happens when a magician/illusionist interacts with an audience in person?” 

Sharmilla: That’s an interesting question, because as you read that out, the show does create a lot of complicity right from the pre-show, watching the videos, in a way that maybe if you walked into a magic show live, you wouldn’t feel quite like “we’re all in this together”. But this show does do that. We’re all in this together. And I agree, I think the show does put you on the side of wanting him to succeed. You want… You want to believe in the magic much more so maybe then if you had watched it live.

Kathy: Yeah. Anyone else want to respond? I’ve got another question here. From Katrina, again. “Is it possible that the crisis is in the fact that as a performance, it isn’t really a very good performance?” I’ve actually got two other people who have mentioned this as well. “That it’s easy to mistrust him. And the way in which he performed was really as a magician with flourishes and his version of hocus pocus? Would it have been different had it been bound to elements of performance: plot, better characterisation and acting?” I think that’s kind of what, lot of us- I mean when you kind of take together the different strands of what we’re saying, that seems to really come to the crux of it, right? That, because it appeared to want to be more than the sum of its parts, we are then forced to judge it based on that. And in that way, it fails to meet up to what it tries to do. 

And I think this is quite an interesting point that this idea of, as critics, you know, never judge a work based on what you want to see, but rather judge it based on what the artist was trying to do. And part of the role for an audience member, as well as for a critic, is to try and really discern what was the intention behind the work first of all, and not kind of, you know, kind of put upon or weight it down by our expectations. 

Shu Yu says on that note about genre, “I feel like magic shows also come with its own set of performatives for both the audience (skepticism, for example) and for the illusionist (for example, speeding up during the reveal, sleight of hand, in brushing his hair) which makes this performance trickier to talk about I think, if we use conventional art criticism. It’s definitely a conversation on expectations on many fronts. Is it theatre? Is it art? So what if it’s magic that borrows a narrative? What was the audience expecting? And what is the audience’s instinctive response to magic, for example?” Would anybody like to kind of just take up that point? So is it theatre? Is it art? And so what if it’s magic that borrows a narrative? What was the audience expecting? Was it the audience’s instinctive response to magic? So this idea of like, what we bring to it? Right, you know, the skepticism. But did we bring only our skepticism, that this is going to be an illusionist, and my role as a sophisticated audience member is to try and understand how the sausage was made? Right? How did he perform his tricks?

Sharmilla: Not for me, no. Of course, for me initially, when I was invited to do this, my main question was, “Why am I reviewing an illusionist performance for SIFA?” So I admit, that was my initial– but I think the comment goes to that question of, ‘what are we actually reviewing in the first place?’ Because reviewing a magic show might be different from reviewing a theatre performance. Might be different from reviewing an online, I don’t know, magic trick review. And so it gets back to: are we even reviewing this as art critics? Are we reviewing this as people who attend magic performances? And all of those things would have different answers, I think, because as a magic show, it works really well. His finesse with his tricks and illusions are great. Does it matter if the narrative and the performance was kind of hokey? I’m not sure. If you went for a magic show, you probably wouldn’t care.

Kathy: So are we being unfair? Are we being unfair with- have we been unfair with our criticism because we’re kind of burdening, it we’re bringing to it- I think that’s the question that, you know, someone’s now posted. Should we question if performance/art criticism is appropriate here? Do we need to kind of ask ourselves, if what we’re, you know, the whole basis of our conversation is actually perhaps not fair?

Ben: I think not, because he really put the kind of, embraced the context of it being this personal connection. It was all about reaching across geography and connecting with one another and in this story of Callie, and how we’re all tied together in this intimate situation. So maybe I’m being unfair because I don’t think I would go to magic shows because I find them hokey. But I think that he kind of embraced the criticisms, or he tried to make the narrative such that it deserves critique. So he can… yeah. That’s my feeling.

Kathy: And I was just thinking about it. And I’m thinking that, you know, when you think about the emotional content, despite the soaring kind of music, and the beautiful kind of landscape, you know, all of these things, which are signifiers for kind of emotional– to bring up an emotional rise in you, when I think about the work and Callie’s journey from the young boy to finding himself as an old man, for example. 

I mean, I would say that the emotional content in the work actually was brought by the audience members. So it was Ben’s story, it was [Dendi] saying that the slipper, you know, which is the most innocuous of things, he held it up because it reminded him of his son. I think some of the audience members were very clear–when they were asked to mention dates or numbers, the numbers and the dates that they mentioned were attached to life changing moments, right? And so thinking that, you know, a lot of the items, our relationship to the items, the numbers that he used, brought, actually- I mean, so in terms of being a participatory work, you know, check. It works. Because we brought the emotional content to it. But then, in comparison, some of the narrative then could be seen as being quite vacuous. So I, yeah… 

Sharmilla: Surely he would know that, though? I mean, knowing that he’s asking people to bring items of personal value or moments of personal value. Surely, that takes some amount of planning and skill as well to know that you’re relying on your audience for your emotional content. But his narrative itself, in many parts, for me was very Instagram, emotional babble-type stuff. I mean, it’s fine, but a little cringy at parts. But yeah, I think that perhaps knowing that you are able to create these feelings in the audience is also a skill that a performer needs to have.

Kathy: Right. But if you call up these emotions, do you then have the responsibility of care to the audience?

Ben: Yeah, you do. And if you have to state it, then, like you show, don’t tell. And he kept telling us how we were supposed to feel. And yeah, instagrammable moments are very obvious emotions that were just tools to jump trick to trick, made them all the more hollow. I think of this early network– another network artwork by Aaron Koblin, it’s called The Wilderness Downtown, I think it was in 2010 or so. This was right when Google Maps came out. And it was, you just typed in your home address. And there was no context: join this piece, type in your address where you grew up, and press play. And it becomes this, this big performance and there’s multiple screens popping up. And it’s really chaotic and amazing. And then suddenly, it ends with this person running down the street that you grew up on. And this was right when Google Maps started. So like, it just blew my mind. And it felt like magic. It felt– because I had never seen Google Streetview in my life. And this was kind of my introduction to it. And that showed, it didn’t tell me how I was supposed to feel and that really used the technology, just cutting-edge technology, in a way that felt magic. And comparing to this piece that was like, I’m going to connect with you. And we’re going to build a relationship slash-

Kathy: Also, time. 

Ben: Yeah, time and across myth. So I think if we judge those or compare those two pieces, one really was quite successful. And I think of that famous quote, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”. So he was using these really advanced, really impressive technologies to display magic, but it never got beyond sleight of hand tricks for me.

Kathy: Actually, we’ve got a comment from Sukhbir, which actually talks about- so he says, “What struck me was that Scott was able to flawlessly perform his tricks because of his efficient stage crew from lighting, to sound to even possibly quickly creating the props based on the audience response. They possibly were the reason The Journey appeared real.” Yeah, right? I mean, okay. So clearly the kind of, I think I read that some of his stage crew had worked on things like, if I’m not wrong, you know, The Lion King. I mean, he had really a top-notch stage crew. So clearly there was a lot, but then I think that would be said about any big production. Right? That, you know, the magic that we see on stage happens, you know, with a lot of unseen hands, unseen expertise, unseen technology and unseen labour. 

But yes, I think definitely, I was just thinking, and we talked about that, right, how amazing this work was in terms of just the technologically and visually how flawless it was. But also, you know, he has access to resources. And I was just wondering, I mean, it just makes me think about what an arts group and artists might actually be able to do with that kind of technology, which kind of reflects a little bit what, you know, Ben was talking about. That a fantastic crew and technology and high production values can make a very enjoyable experience. But to really kind of touch you emotionally, it takes a little bit more than just that, right? 

Sharmilla: Oh, I 100% came away from it, wondering what it might be like to watch a “proper” theatrical performance, that had this kind of having the audience sort of projected onto the walls, or, you know, we’re all there by Zoom, but we can see each other’s faces. I feel like there’s much here to be learned in terms of creating that intimacy, which I have not yet attended many virtual performances that managed to create it as well as this one did. So I think there’s something to be said for that, magic aside, whatever, lack or not of his actual work aside. The staging and the technology and the interface, I think, so much opportunity to be used for virtual performances.

Kathy: Okay, so it’s nine o’clock, we’re out of time, but I think maybe just the last word, because I think a lot of people on the, you know, audience members actually kind of have responded quite well to the work. And you know, if you had to– Did you enjoy it? Let’s come back to this. Setting aside everything that we’ve talked about, is this something that you would go and see again, or you would tell a friend to go and see? Michael? 

Michael: Sorry, the question, what was the question? 

Kathy: For you personally, your emotional experience to the work – was this something that you enjoyed?

Michael: Okay. I enjoyed the technology, the management of the space, I enjoyed that. And then magic always makes me smile. And there are “spectacle” things there. And I enjoyed that. And you know, in the livestreaming era, artists – we know that COVID-19 makes us think about how to maintain the [liveness]. And then for me, as best I know, as a theatre or as a performing arts artist I enjoyed the technology and how Scott Silven brings the idea about connectivity. There is a Western philosopher, I guess, he said contemporary art talks about the darkness of each era. And I think because of the connectivity right now, I think it was special and so that’s why I enjoyed this performance.

Kathy: Yeah, I think perhaps that’s the right note to end on, you know, that performing arts brings about the connectivity, right? So thank you very much to everyone for joining us. And really, thanks very much, Ben, Sharmilla, and Michael, for sharing so generously. And I hope that the listeners have enjoyed the session that we’ve had. Please continue to post your comments on Facebook and on Zoom as well. 

I just have some small announcements to make. Thank you, first of all, very much for joining us. We really hope that you continue to follow the Singapore International Festival of Arts. They will begin the video on demand streaming from the 5th of June and it’s been extended to go on to the 20th of June. There’s some really fantastic performances and performances that are divisive, which is what every good art work should do. It should evoke strong emotions and you know should engage people into conversations. 

We would also like to thank–ArtsEquator would also like to thank the Arts House and the Singapore international Festival of Arts team for inviting us to be part of the programme through the Asian Arts Media Roundtable. And for putting together a festival that has really been able to bring for Singapore audiences a rare opportunity to go into live theatre and see amazing international work. And for international audiences, once the video on demand streaming begins, a chance to actually take part and to enjoy a little bit of what we’re at the moment, the rare privilege of actually seeing works at the moment. 

We’ve got three more Critics Live! sessions that are going on. One Critics Live! session on the work by The Necessary Stage called The Year of No Return. We’ve got another one, which is a collaboration between SITI Company and Nine Years Theatre, a production of Three Sisters. And finally, OIWA, which is a Japanese production. And these three productions will have Critics Live!, and three of these productions you can check our Facebook page for information of when the streaming of our Critics Live! will be held. And with that, I’d like to thank you. Thanks very much, Ben, for joining us. It’s early in the morning where you are. So we appreciate that you woke up early to join us. Thanks, Sharmilla for being with us despite the home emergencies. And thank you, Michael. It’s a pleasure to have all three of you. I’d like to also thank Kaykay Nizam, who is the tech manager, and Denise and Nabilah, who’ve been behind the scenes feeding us questions. Thank you very much, everyone, and have a great evening. 

Michael: Thanks so much.

The Journey by Scott Silven took place online from 18 to 30 May at the Singapore International Festival of the Arts 2021.

Critics Live! is a programme of the Asian Arts Media Roundtable (AAMR), which ran from 15 May – 12 June 2021 as part of a collaboration with SIFA 2021. 

About the author(s)

Michael H.B. Raditya is a researcher, performing arts critic, and writer interested in popular music studies, performance studies, dance studies, and anthropology of Art. In 2022, He commenced PhD program in the Faculty of Arts, The University of Melbourne, Australia. He is a founder of the Dangdut Studies Center (www.dangdutstudies.com), distributing research about dangdut. He also Published two books, titled Merangkai Ingatan Mencipta Peristiwa (Performing Arts criticism) (2018) and OM Wawes: Babat Alas Dangdut Anyar (Biography of Dangdut) (2020). In 2021, He published two articles published by Routledge, "The Popularisation and Contestation of Dangdut Koplo in the Indonesian Music Industry" in Made in Nusantara: Studies in Popular Music and "Revealing Cultural Representation in Indonesian Contemporary Dance" in The Routledge Companion to Dance in Asia and the Pacific: Platforms for Change.

Sharmilla Ganesan is a radio presenter/producer with BFM 89.9, where she hosts shows on the arts, books, film, and current affairs. She is also a writer and critic, with in-depth experience covering and commenting on Malaysian arts and culture. She was a features journalist with The Star for over a decade, where she wrote on the arts, books, and film. Her articles appear in, among others, The Atlantic, South China Morning Post, NewNaratif, and Critics Republic.

Ben Brooker is a writer, editor, and critic based on the unceded lands of the Peramangk people in the Adelaide Hills. His work has been featured by Overland, Australian Book Review, RealTime, The Saturday Paper, Meanjin, Kill Your Darlings, and others in Australia and overseas. Ben was an inaugural Sydney Review of Books Emerging Critics Fellow and was appointed to the board of Writers SA in May 2021. Since 2015 he has written about OzAsia, the preeminent festival of Asian arts in Australia.

Kathy Rowland is the Managing Editor of ArtsEquator.com, a registered charity that she co-founded with Jenny Daneels in 2016. The site is dedicated to supporting and promoting arts criticism with a regional perspective in Southeast Asia. Kathy has worked in the arts for over 25 years, working in the areas of critical writing and arts advocacy, with a special interest in media platforms for the arts. She is the Project Lead for ArtsEquator’s Southeast Asian Arts and Culture Censorship Documentation Project, launched in 2021. She has written extensively on censorship of arts and culture in Malaysia. She was a member of the International Programme Advisory Committee of the 8th World Summit on Arts and Culture, 2019.

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