I will be forgiven for my immediate and hard-hitting disappointment when I was led by the friendly SIFA staff into the film screening room to begin the showing of Quantum x Remotes. A humble space tucked in the back of the Arts House, the room hardly felt appropriate for the “live multi-disciplinary installation” we were promised. Nevertheless, I had a review to write and so I gritted my teeth, sat down in the second row and hastily looked up the SIFA write-up again to see if maybe they’d made an amendment to the show’s format.
The show starts with footage from Remotes—a film by John Torres (Philippines)—a surrealist and at times horror take on what exactly I am not entirely sure.
There’s an app playing disembodied voices that is linked to the possession of several characters. A woman who may be talking to her dead sister(?) and who is gifted with inconvenient floating powers. A child inexplicably dies. A man gruesomely loses his head in a traffic accident. Somehow, this is all also a love story.
Image courtesy of Arts House Limited.
The mind works hard to piece this all together through the asynchronous cinematography and disjointed storytelling. Just as one tires of it and hopes for an elucidating crumb that will connect it all, a spotlight appears on screen commanding what seemed like the audience member in front of me to stand, and lead the rest of us out of the room.
Reader, I will not lie. I was thrilled by this.
After two years of not watching any live performances, this interactivity was what I came for. We were led by this audience/character—whose name we learn is Tessa— through the Arts House to the second floor, passing by sawn off chairs that appear in the dim light to have melted into the floor, foreshadowing that we were about to enter a magical collaborative space – that of Torres and Eleanor Wong (Singapore).
We were asked to sit in an intimate bedroom set belonging to a new character, an amalgamation of the character we had just seen in the film named Aunty E, and a character that felt quite autobiographically, Wong. She’s a lawyer and a poet on a tight deadline, who is reminded by a disembodied male voice—Torres’—that she needs to write the poems for the show. Wong’s stream-of-consciousness approach here is meta and not conventionally poetic. It rambles in a way reminiscent of American poet Anne Bowyer, and feels like a departure from Wong’s usually conceptual-heavy poetry. There are light moments, like when the stream breaks into associative singing of pop songs, and a short reverie over the then potential candidates for Singapore’s next Prime Minister, but ultimately the dread of negotiating work and personal life is keenly felt.
Image courtesy of Arts House Limited
The narration is well complemented by the contemporary dance-like movements of the actor who plays Aunty E (not credited on the SIFA site, likely to keep the surprise?). Her agility and ability to make visible the tension and stress of Wong’s character is beautifully translated.
Snarky as this may sound though, as a performance poet who has also staged a meta show at the Esplanade one year for the Singapore Writers Festival—in which I played myself and writhed on my bed over not being able to write poems for deadlines—and having seen this trope performed by other poets in smaller shows in the past, I must say this presentation made me both groan and relate. Groan, because I wondered when would we get over the difficulty of making art and just make it (myself included), and relate, because why shouldn’t we make art about the art? Birdman (2015) is ostensibly about that and it won an Oscar.
We were then led out again to the Chamber of the Arts House by Tessa and greeted by a spectral bed. There was much smoke emanating from this bed reminiscent of a scene in Torres’ film segment where a possessed character rubs what I assume is Vicks Vapour Rub on his chest and falls asleep while smoke subtly emanates from his body. Through some lighting wizardry, Aunty E appears supine in the bed, floats up and is suspended, as if to suggest this collaboration too is up in the air. While a visual spectacle, I can’t say that I enjoyed the music for this portion which was vaguely pop-ish, and took me out of the show’s world. I would have preferred a continuation of the atmospheric mood of the Remotes film portion to complement this liminal visual.
Image courtesy of: Arts House Limited.
What possesses Remotes x Quantum is the spirit of collaboration. Of introducing images from different minds with different interests and cultural contexts on a sort of artistic play date. Torres and Wong riff of each other but do not entirely produce something cohesive. And that is fine by me. Cohesiveness may be overrated. If anything, this lack added to the experimental and experiential feel of the show, which I suppose, is on brand for a SIFA production.
Torres’ supernatural take on the reliance on technology could have become quite on the nose with mechanics of how it all works, but instead, he focuses on character development, which is appreciated. Wong’s more introspective approach is familiar – it is very Singaporean to be quite self-possessed and anxious about performance, whether of ourselves, our loved ones or even politicians.
That said, to me, this show is far off on its aim to reimagine the future, as advertised. Where Torres does speak of imagined futures, Wong speaks of the present and its anxieties and heartbreaks. Together, they produce a conversational piece that speaks more to SIFA’s general theme of ritual and performance.
Its approach to discussing society in Singapore and the Philippines is to turn more personal and meditative. I am not sure if the critique on its respective societies is fully developed or evenly executed, but I enjoyed its theatricality.
About the author(s)
Jennifer Ann Champion is the author of two collections of poetry and has been published in The Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore, The Straits Times and Esquire Magazine. Her interests also lie in textile art and songwriting. This is her first review for Arts Equator.