16 September 2003

Performance art no longer banned in Singapore

Oh, the enlightened folks at the Censorship Review Committee decided to give everyone a break, so from next month onwards, performance art and forum theatre are no longer banned, and will be considered for arts funding from the National Arts Council. In addition, there will be more film categories so that Singaporeans can watch more films without a trigger-happy censor butchering kissing scenes. Let us all bow down to the Ministry of Information and the Arts, which continues to lead Singapore into its vision of a Renaissance City, and throws little scraps to placate an increasingly liberal population every 10 years!

Now, time for me to sink my daggers into this target =D

Firstly, I lied in my entry title. Forum theatre is not banned in Singapore, it just wasn't eligible for arts funding since 22 February 1994. Performance art, or conceptual art, has indeed been banned from the same day onwards.

The reason? On 31 December 1993, local artist Joseph Ng and other artists were involved in various performance art pieces where they drank their urine, and Joseph snipped his pubic hair in protest against the press' sensationalisation and demonisation of homsexuality. Oooh, what a long time ago it was, since the Singapore media is nowadays very pro-gay, or at least alot more sympathetic to the issue.

Things to note: Joseph Ng's outrageous performance had nothing to do with forum theatre. Unfortunately, it was caught in the cross-fire, probably because it was deemed subversive to our anal-retentive authorities. According to their official statement on 21 January 1994, the Government...

"is concerned that new art forms such as 'performance art' and 'forum theatre' which have no script and encourage spontaneous audience participation pose dangers to public order, security and decency, and much greater difficulty to the licensing authority.

"The performances may be exploited to agitate the audience on volatile social issues, or to propagate the beliefs and messages of deviant social or religious groups, or as a means of subversion"

None of this was apparently acknowleged in the announcement to reinstate Performance Art and Forum Theatre last week. Not a "We Did A Stupid Thing", not a "We're Sorry", and definitely, as most Singaporeans will swear, the Government is still very allergic to admitting any wrongdoing.

Also, note that Joseph Ng and his collaborator Shannon Tham were banned from performing ALL art in Singapore. Ng has since become a successful museum curator/administrator in Thailand, at the forefront of Asian Art. Nonetheless, nothing was ever mentioned last week about rescinding the life-time ban on Ng. Less was even said about how the removal of funding caused the Artists Village and Fifth Passage to close down. The arts cannot survive without funding, so a neat way to destroy art without banning it would be to stop funding it.

So, what's the big deal about Performance/Conceptual Art? It's a freaking big deal, since it is now one of the most profitable, notorious, and critically acclaimed wings of modern art. Last millennium, some artists won both fame, notoriety, awards, and probably money, for exhibiting preserved cow carcasses in museums. And, posing as mannequins in store displays. And so on. Forum theatre? Audience interaction and intervention in plays is still a valid performance practice in avant-garde and modernist theatres around the world. So, Singapore missed its boat at being the forefront of exciting global art just from the banning.

Now, if you attended school in 1994, chances are your wonderful teachers and "guides of future generations of Singaporeans" would have done their patriotic duty, by insisting that "Four Legs Good, Two Legs Bad."

Ooops, wrong book. But at least in my junior college, my teachers had the compulsive urge to stress in every lesson, especially to us Unruly, Subversive, and Useless Arts Students that "Performance Art is NOT ART. What Joseph Ng did is NOT ART." And so on.

Of course they were just taking their cue from our great leaders, the National Arts Council, and the Judge presiding over the case to prosecute Ng and Tham for indecent conduct.

Now, the National Arts Council should know better than this. Both Performance Art and Forum Theatre, where the artist integrates the audience into the action, have an honourable history. When the grandparents of the bureaucrats running the NAC were still in diapers, Performance Art was born in the 1920s, inspired by the Dadaists, Absurdists, and the post-WWI modern art movements. Originally conceived as a protest against the apolitical and purely aesthetic ideology of pre-WWI art, performance art and forum theatre aimed to
1. offend aesthetic sensibilities (as in art must be "beautiful" and "pleasing")
2. provoke and involve the audience into thinking, and engaging in debate with the art as it unfolds.
3. engage the audience in social commentary, on social issues that are not often raised, or deemed safe to raise.

Performance Art was already OLD STUFF when Yoko Ono went to New York and became involved in cutting-edge arts groups. Performance Art was when Yoko Ono staged a "Love-In" to protest against the Vietnam War; when Yoko Ono started calling up random numbers from the phone directory as a guest on a talk show, to tell the lucky (?) receipients "I Love you. There can be peace in the world."

So we have a bunch of uninformed, philistine bureaucrats running the National Arts Council, who have nothing on the history of art, and probably can't tell a Warhol from a Lichtenstein. Oh, why am I still mad at them, after the assholes graciously decide to un-ban stuff?

Oh, the devil is always in the details. Artists will be tolerated and scripts do not need to be vetted if they do not raise sensitive issues. Now, if the bureaucrats knew ANYTHING at all about Performance Art and Forum Theatre, they would rather have either retained the ban, or removed the silly controls completely.

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