By Felipe Cervera
(1400 words, six-minute read)
Be future-ready: that seems to be one of the maxims of this country. The meaning of the adage varies. It means having strategic plans in place, contingencies identified ahead of time, having enough resources (or more than enough), educating not to cater to the job market now, but to make the job market of tomorrow, and so on. Singapore is good at being a Cassandra: seeing the future and being prepared for it. And it is indeed a funny paradox that a country that does not have enough resources to guarantee a future of its own, banks on its future-readiness to sustain itself both financially and geopolitically in relation to the world in general and to Southeast Asian region more specifically.
Emergency Stairs is a young Singaporean company of intercultural and experimental theatre that, to my reading, is thinking about these questions, specifically as they could be expressed and answered through performance. The company has an impetus towards researching and refining their own brand of intercultural and experimental practice, and its staple yearly festival, Southernmost: Journey to Nowhere, is indeed starting to shape as the space where they can do so. After having attended the 2017 and 2018 editions of the festival, I see the company evolving, and I am hopeful towards their future in the local ecology.
Could they be the explorers of new interculturalisms in Singapore and potentially in Southeast Asia? Perhaps.
But being future-ready also comes with a social contract. In the arts, this contract entails, among other things, the instrumentalisation of the moment for the sake of the timeline. That is, the administration of time has to be such that every moment is invested into the future — or a future at the very least. This is not always the case, of course, but in the case of theatre and performance, productions are often accompanied by several additional messages that justify its existence in relation to a “social” concern or discussion. Indeed, in Singapore, performance needs to be justified, and here is my main response to the 2018 edition: Southernmost: Journey to Nowhere is not the exception to this norm, even when it claims that its justification is not to have one at all.
Upon entering the black box, the first thing I encountered was a wall covered with A4 sheets of white paper. The sight reminded me of another spot in Singapore: the car park entrance at Marina Bay Sands. There, a wall of hanging metal sheets offers a moment of “nothingness” or “nowhereness” to the careful observer whenever the sheets move randomly as the sea breeze passes by. I have experienced “nowhereness” standing in front of that carpark. Moments in which I remember that I am on an island (and am one myself), that there is an ocean in front of me, and that I can have the time to experience that just because — no justifications needed. I had a similar moment at Southernmost. Like the metal sheets, the paper sheets were also moved, not by sea the breeze, but by that other Singapore identifier, the air-con — two very similar experiences of the ineffable.
Framed by that space of timelessness and nowhereness, Southernmost: Journey to Nowhere was thus imbued with the sense that we urgently need to free the ineffable from its codified restrictions. The biggest of these restrictions, and also the central signifier of this journey to nowhere, is the initial reference to the National Arts Council’s SG Arts Plan 2018-2022, and the use of its primary thrusts (“Inspire Our Future”, “Connect Our Communities” and “Position Singapore Globally”) as titles for different sections of the performance.
This reference makes us appreciate the performance as something that exists in spite of several restrictions that impede its full potential. These restrictions are shown everywhere: in how the black box is being used, in the references to NAC’s strategic plan, in the black three-piece suits donned by the performers and the way they negotiate the restrictions imposed by these attires as well. It is as if the performance was hijacked by the limits of the institutionalised cultural policy. This intended syntax is not entirely cogent in the show, but I let that lack of clarity go under the assumption that the associative nature of the performance intended to evidence the cracks, as it were, of the strategic plan that loomed as its meta-narrative. Here, I appreciate the questioning of NAC’s plan via traditional forms, particularly as an example of the future-planning frenzy in this country against performances’ necessity for the past, the now, the fleeting moment, the unresolved, the mysterious, the ritual, and so on. However, in hindsight, I do wonder about the extent to which the use of the SG Arts Plan as the umbrella signifier for the bodies on stage masked in fact, an intercultural identity crisis.
That is: “we are meeting because institutions fund us but institutions do not allow us to actually work together as we are bound by the constrictions imposed by the same institutions that control and legislate culture and the arts but we need those institutions to meet in the first place so what we do is to use the institutionalised platform to undermine the institutions by showing how we can’t really perform our encounter”.
Could it be that intercultural practice has become the norm itself? Perhaps, too.
I do see what Xiaoyi is doing, and I think there is a way forward for him, artistically speaking. However, I would encourage a closer inspection of the politics in and of the bodies that he and his company are bringing together on a journey to nowhere. If we have learned something from the interculturalisms that appeared in global theatre forums in the second half of the 20th century, is that we cannot perform culture without performing politics. Nget Rady’s monkey dance is mind-blowing, for example, and fills the room in a unique way, but why is the meaning and intention of his performance constricted by a Singaporean policy framework? How does that relate to regional identity politics? Are we saying that NAC’s plan is a plan for the future of Southeast Asian Performing Arts? Or are we using NAC plans as a naïve (or not so naïve) synecdoche of policy in general?
Reviews belong in journeys to somewhere. Responses, on the other hand, are not necessarily future-oriented. In that logic, and as it may be evident by now, I wonder whether reviewing the show is actually what the show needs, given that it is framed by the experiment of making an arts festival for the future. Perhaps then, in journeying nowhere, all we can do is to ask questions about the journey, even when this becomes the usual teleology of intercultural performance making. In these spirits, and after allowing myself time to sit with the show for a few weeks, I have the following questions/responses, and I look forward to the production’s 2019 iteration to see whether they would be useful trigger points for the company’s research:
– What is the relationship between investment (or time, resources, life) and journeying to nowhere? Can we afford that journey?
– If the company is invested in interrogating NAC Arts Plan 2018-2022, what is Emergency Stairs 2018-2022 Plan? What are the company’s creative, artistic, and research strategies for its future? How is the company journeying towards its brand of intercultural performance?
– How is the company thinking its spectator?
This last point is essential. During the forum that followed the performance, the discussion veered towards the possibility of engaging spectators as part of the journey to nowhere that is implied in process-oriented performance making. However, we should not forget that time is not something that is commonly afforded by people living in Singapore. Indeed, time here is a luxury: the time to sit and think, the time to sit and watch, the time to sit and eat during a long-winded conversation, to go to the theatre. Simply, to lose time and to expect nothing out of it. If we are hoping that the spectator can come in during our workshops and to witness the process of doing work, or come in and watch a show that offers little in return of watching it, would we be comfortable being at an accountant’s office and watching them crunch numbers or delivering their end-year budget presentation? Admittedly, we don’t have the time to do that, so why should we expect them to do the same?
Southernmost: Journey to Nowhere by Emergency Stairs was staged at Centre 42 Black Box from 10 – 11 November. It featured the following performers: Andy Chia (Singapore), Didik Nini Thowok (Yogyakarta), Ee Vian Loi (Singapore), Elizabeth Chan (Singapore), Kanji Shimizu (Tokyo), Nget Rady (Phnom Penh), Soultari Amin Farid (Singapore). It was part of the Southernmost: One Table Two Chairs Project 2018, which included open rehearsals and a forum, among other activities. Find out more here.
Guest Contributor Dr Felipe Cervera is a Mexican theatre and performance maker, lecturer and researcher based in Singapore since 2012. As an actor and director, he has worked and toured extensively in Mexico, Argentina, USA, UK, France, Egypt and Singapore. His academic work centres on the intersections of performance and performance theory with science and technology, having published numerous articles in scholarly journals. He is a lecturer of theatre at LASALLE College of the Arts, where is also the lecturer-in-charge of the BA(Hons) Acting. Felipe is the associate editor of the international peer-reviewed journal, Global Performance Studies (GPS).