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Whither Performance Art? A Look at the Singapore International Festival of Arts 2021

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To be a performance artist, you have to hate theatre. Theatre is fake: there is a black box, you pay for a ticket, and you sit in the dark and see somebody playing somebody else’s life. The knife is not real, the blood is not real, and the emotions are not real. Performance is just the opposite: the knife is real, the blood is real, and the emotions are real. It’s a very different concept. It’s about true reality.”

Marina Abramovich

If you’ve ever wondered about the dividing lines between performance art and other art forms such as theatre, dance and music, you aren’t alone. Performance art often sits closer to what we understand as ‘fine art,’ and it’s a curious liminal space often associated with the museum and gallery-going crowd. Genres like theatre and dance, on the other hand, tend to occupy categorical spaces which are – on the face of it anyway – far more distinct. Marina Abramovich as seen above,  chooses to draw a distinction between the “fakeness” of theatre and the genuine emotions which underpin performance art. Take a closer look however, and these clear delineations start to fade away.

The Singapore International Festival of the Arts (SIFA) has always been known to showcase diverse works that span across the realms of theatre, music, dance, film and visual arts. This year’s edition manages to cross boundaries in the most mind-bending of ways, not only in terms of geographical scope, but in terms of medium and genre as well. Presenting over 300 performances and 60 shows live and online from 14 – 30 May, SIFA 2021 promises to intrigue by incorporating technologies that allow real-time audience interaction and collaboration across transnational borders. The result? An international arts festival that pulls together local and international collaborations for the enjoyment of audiences both local and abroad (via the inaugural launch of SIFA On Demand.

Here’s our selection of some of the events which prompt new ways of thinking about interactivity and engagement in performance art, and the interdisciplinary nature of art forms such as these.

1) En route

 En route is a walking journey presented by Melbourne art collective one step at a time which will take place in multiple sessions over the course of 14-30 May (the dates are set out below). Participants will be guided by text messages and hidden clues in and around the streets and back-alleys of a vibrant neighbourhood in Singapore, one which will be revealed to ticket-holders only. Through audio clips on personally-issued headsets, snippets of narrative and musings, sound and song will intertwine with the participants’ wanderings, observations and encounters.

Participants being immersed in en route, when the work was presented in Seoul, South Korea.
Participants being immersed in en route, when the work was presented in Seoul, South Korea.

In this work, every experience can be thought of as a unique piece of performance art, one which marries personal perspectives with a formal framework for exploration. As a spokesperson for one step at a time puts it, “(Singapore) will become the set for the work, and its people the performers. The soundtrack will draw on local independent music which will (hopefully) generate an intimacy between the audience and their city.

There is little contrivance here, and the theatricality of the experience is entirely in the hands of the performer-participants. En route may particularly appeal to the art lovers amongst us who remember Singapore artist Ang Song Ming’s 2014 work Silent Walk. Ang’s “group exercise” saw participants listening to the sounds of their immediate environment, taking turns to lead their respective groups for five minutes each. In Ang’s work, participants walked in silence in any direction, pausing as they wished and with mobile devices switched off. In a similar – albeit socially-distanced – vein, en route seeks to “create a private ‘bubble’ that carries you through the city.”

Dates and timings:

14-16 May, Fri-Sun

19-23 May, Wed-Sun

26-30 May, Wed-Sun

11am, 2.30pm & 5pm for all dates above

14-15, 21-22, 28-29 May, Fri – Sat

6.15pm​

Venue: Central Singapore

Price: $35

Duration: 1h 30 min – 2h, no intermission

To book your tickets to en route or find out more, click here

2) Cosmogony

 If you fancy a jaunt to Switzerland after your journey facilitated by a Melbourne art collective, Cosmogony presented by Swiss contemporary dance group Cie Gilles Jobin, might be right up your alley.

In his work, presented over 14-16 May, choreographer Gilles Jobin harnesses the use of motion capture technology in such a way that dancers based in Geneva are able to respond in real time to the environment and passers-by located in Singapore.

Dancers József Trefeli, Susana Panadés Diaz, Rudi Van der Merwe, pictured during rehearsals in their Geneva studio.
Dancers József Trefeli, Susana Panadés Diaz, Rudi Van der Merwe, pictured during rehearsals in their Geneva studio. Image courtesy of Gilles Jobin Company.

The dancers’ movements create a whimsical wormhole across time and space – one that bridges the cities of Geneva and Singapore through the ground-breaking use of virtual and augmented realities.

A close-up shot of dancers Susana Panadés Diaz and Rudi Van der Merwe, during their rehearsals. Image courtesy of Gilles Jobin Company.
A close-up shot of dancers Susana Panadés Diaz and Rudi Van der Merwe, during their rehearsals. Image courtesy of Gilles Jobin Company.

From a philosophical perspective, the work conjures up romantic notions of time travel with dancers in a different physical and temporal space, sharing their raw and emotional reactions to the built environment of a city far away. As choreographer and director Jobin explains, “Motion capture and digital technologies are very inspiring for dancers and choreographers. It allows us to create situations that would be impossible in real life, such as having 35-meter high dancers, multiply(ing) them, hav(ing) multiple avatars or incredible sceneries. The virtual world allows us to escape the constraints of reality and move to an immersive dream-like world.”

It’s also something of a first.

Says Jobin, “It is a very unique project for a dance piece to be performed in real time from our studio in Geneva and seen by a real audience in Singapore thousands of kilometres away. (From) what we know, it has never been done in such a form.”

Dates and timings:

14 May, Fri, 6.30pm, 8pm
15 May, Sat, 6.30pm, 8pm
16 May, Sun, 6.30pm, 8pm

Venue: Esplanade Theatre

Price: Free

Duration: 30 min, no intermission

To find out more about Cosmogony, click here.

3) Demon States

From dance and immersive storytelling, we move swiftly on to music as a driver of performative fine art in SIFA’s commissioned work Demon States, by art rock and experimental electronica band The Observatory. This is an outdoor virtual reality experience that will take audiences to four locations around Singapore. With 2021 being their 20th anniversary, the band invites audiences to enter a virtual world inspired by new music composed during the COVID-19 pandemic, presented together with a heady combination of visual art, installation design and dramaturgical interventions.

This work, specially commissioned for SIFA explores the demons that plague us, and “dives into the dark waters of mental health,” in a time of physical and psychological lockdowns.
This work, specially commissioned for SIFA explores the demons that plague us, and “dives into the dark waters of mental health,” in a time of physical and psychological lockdowns.

Virtual reality performance works demand audience participation and their site-specific responses to space in both the physical and virtual worlds. While they are often seen as the technological future of art, their relevance cannot be overstated in these pandemic-ridden times, which call for social distancing in all real-life experiences. Demon States therefore offers a unique experience capturing the spirit of our times in both conceptual and substantial terms.

Dates and timings: 19 – 30 May, various timings

Venue: Various venues in the Civic District (see event page for more details)

Price: $10 for 2 installations

Duration: Approximately 10 mins for each installation

To book your tickets to Demon States or find out more, click here.

In addition to the rich array of live programmes to be experienced in-person, this year’s SIFA also introduces SIFA on Demand from 5 – 12 June 2021, where selected local and international performances may be accessed post-festival, from the comfort and safety of your own homes, anywhere in the world. With its format of live, hybrid, and digital programmes, SIFA 2021 leads the way in exploring what international festivals might look like in the future.

It’s also additional food for thought when considering whether there is any real fixed way to think about artistic presentations. You might choose to give primacy to the artists, respecting their own characterisations of their works, or you might trust your own personal experience, choosing to respond to and define the art – if you so wish – in whatever way feels instinctively authentic. Meanwhile, the expanded range of possibilities for enjoying these performances prompts us to think about new technologies and the evolution of art experiences over time.

If you’re interested in exploring these hybridities further and in questioning the very foundations of what you might consider as “art” outside of the traditional museum, gallery or theatre setting, SIFA 2021’s a great place to start. Check out the full range of programmes that SIFA 2021 has to offer here.

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This article is produced in paid partnership with the Singapore Tourism Board. Thank you for supporting the institutions that support Plural.

All images are courtesy of SIFA and Arts House Ltd, unless stated otherwise.

All information is accurate at the point of publishing. Please refer to the SIFA website for the latest updates, and do adhere to all safe distancing measures if attending events in person.

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