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A Conversation with Ong Keng Sen and Fellows on The Per°Form Open Academy of Arts and Activations

Fourteen Global South Fellows from across Africa, the Arab World, Asia-Pacific, the Caribbean, and South America.

Fourteen Global South Fellows from across Africa, the Arab World, Asia-Pacific, the Caribbean, and South America. A fourteen-hour long marathon of presentations, and five public workshops. 

This is the lineup for T:>Works’s youngest brainchild, the Per°Form Open Academy of Arts and Activations, which will be hosted live at performing arts theatre 72-13 from 13-16 April 2023. Billed as a “porous” space for knowledge creation, it’s hard to tell, at first glance, what exactly this platform is. For one, it’s certainly not a conventional art exhibition. Neither is it a performance festival; the programme copy dutifully substitutes the word “performance” with the more nebulous “activations”. 

Helmed by veteran artistic director Ong Keng Sen, Per°Form’s aims are entirely in keeping with his ethos of “creating nothing”—that is, of leaving artistic processes open-ended, and fostering fertile spaces for dialogue and collaboration. 

The platform draws on Ong’s long-running Flying Circus Project (1996–2013), an itinerant platform which spurred cross-cultural exchanges between artists, performers, musicians and dancers from different countries in Asia and beyond. With “conversations, laboratories, workshops, talks and engagement by visiting artists in localised sites”, it’s not hard to see how the FCP might have set a precedent for Per°Form. 

To better understand this promising new venture, I spoke with Ong about the genesis of Per°Form, its aims, and what we can expect from its inaugural live edition. Keren Lasme and Rah Naqvi, two of the fourteen artists, also shared more about their plans for the showcase, which will unfold over the weekend. 

Artistic director of T:>Works (formerly TheatreWorks) Dr Ong Keng Sen. Photo by Jeannie Ho.
Artistic director of T:>Works (formerly TheatreWorks) Dr Ong Keng Sen. Photo by Jeannie Ho.

Nourishing artistic practices

In a country obsessed with KPIs and deliverables, Ong’s vision of a transdisciplinary platform for brewing ideas—but not necessarily making anything definite—might seem puzzlingly airy-fairy. But it’s precisely against market-oriented modes of artistic production and consumption that Per°Form is conceived. 

“There is very little space in Singapore outside of a festival context,” shared Ong when I asked why T:>Works initiated Per°Form. “There is a kind of a showcase mentality, and there is also very little inspiration for an artist, a working artist after they leave school.”

“This kind of work, which the Open Academy stands for, is more like what you would do when you’re in school, be it whether you’re doing your BA, MA or PhD. There’s a constant flow of nutrients into your practice.”

In Singapore, where “finished products” are prized above all, “our practices tend to be quite insular,” explained Ong. Per°Form offers an alternative space for reflection, resisting the drive towards constant production. Instead, the Open Academy aims to cultivate spaces for reflection and comparative study. 

“I think that it’s very important, as an artist or a practitioner, to be both inside and outside of your own practice—to be aware of what other people are doing, and to reflect a little bit about what you could be doing, or should be doing. How does it stand together side by side? This kind of polarity is a very valuable asset for any artist to have,” said Ong.

A 14-hour-long marathon

The various segments of Per°Form are designed to facilitate these open exchanges. Alternating between forty-minute presentations and ten-minute breaks, the Open Marathon will see the fourteen Global Fellows adopt different approaches and media while sharing their practices. 

Rah Naqvi, an Indian-born artist currently based in Amsterdam, shared their plans for the Marathon presentation, which will include a vocal performance, a 2021 video work titled How Does One Say Queen in Islam, and a stop-motion animation addressing Indian politics.  

Working across song, drag, writing, video art, textiles and traditional craft practices, Naqvi creates art in response to the “growing tensions in the country […] and the rise of fascism”. As a brown, queer Muslim, their practice centres around softness and care—relational strategies of resistance against a hard, patriarchal society. 

In keeping with the spirit of Per°Form, Naqvi tells me that their plans for the presentation aren’t quite set in stone yet. And I think that’s what’s exciting about the programme—the sense that anything could happen, and that the usual boundaries between genres and disciplines might turn permeable.

With the professionalisation of art, “we start to create artificial borders,” when in fact “our daily lives are very, very transdisciplinary because we wear all these different hats,” reflects Ong. “The platform of the Marathon puts us into this kind of flow, where we are enjoying what’s actually happening.” 

With audiences entering and leaving the shared spaces of 72-13—where hammocks and cushions beckon and visitors are free to fall asleep and dream—the Marathon intends, ambitiously, to open up a different order of reality, stirring imaginings of alternate worlds where art, literature, performance and music bleed into one another. 

The lineup will begin in the morning with a focus on the curatorial, before shifting towards visual culture in the afternoon and performative presentations in the evening. All this will culminate in a communal dinner, a time for informal sharing where audiences can ask questions, mingle with the Fellows, and feast on a prepared banquet.

What to expect

Over 14-15 April 2023, several Fellows will also be hosting free workshops which are open to public registration. The aim, of course, is to bring audiences, who might be artists themselves (Ong notes that the roles of artist and audience are very much interchangeable), into a “communicative zone.” Here, participants are invited to engage with the Fellows, “telling different stories, and inventing this as a strategy of rethinking the world.”

One of the workshops, titled Activating [Archived] Knowledge: Kokoba, a study session, will be conducted by Keren Lasme. Born in Ivory Coast, Lasme grew up in France, in a predominantly white environment where she had little access to African culture. It was only in university that she encountered the field of cultural studies, rediscovered African literature and philosophy, and fell in love with it. 

The title of her workshop, Kokoba, is a word in her mother’s language that refers to a griot—a West African storyteller and musician who carries the mantle of transmitting communal traditions. “It’s a whole lineage of people who’ve mastered memory,” shared Lasme. “This knowledge that [the griot] has been passed down from generation to generation, from the founding member of the family or clan.” 

Lasme’s ongoing project was inspired by an essay from Alice Walker’s In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, which exhorts the Black revolutionary artist to pay heed to “our old and ancient poets whom renown has ignored.” 

“The idea was really to meet writers who don’t necessarily have visibility in the contemporary literary arts scene,” said Lasme, explaining how she documented their interactions through photography and interview recordings, accumulating an archive of forgotten knowledge. Tapping on this archive, Lasme uses “fiction and imagination as tools […] to recreate an identity that was lost, or invisible, or hidden.”

During her workshop, Lasme hopes to share and discuss the knowledge that she has gained through Kokoba, by “introducing elements of fun, pleasure, and intimacy” into the process.

“I want to see collective reading or education as something that doesn’t have to be serious,” she said. Looking at literature’s uses beyond the printed page, Lasme has also curated a playlist of praise poetry and lullabies from different parts of Africa for the study session.

Art Pals 

In addition to the Marathon and the Workshops, the Open Academy will also be pairing the Fellows up with Art Pals from Singapore, who will meet the Fellows remotely before their arrival. Many of the Art Pals are familiar names: graphic artist Sonny Liew, drag queen Becca D’Bus, playwright-poet Alfian Sa’at, molecular-biologist-turned-artist Isabelle Desjeux, and artist-researcher Zarina Muhammad.

Curated by theatre artist Noorlinah Mohamed, this buddy system intends to foster cultural exchanges between the artists, heightening existing resonances between their practices. For instance, Naqvi, who has been exploring the barbershop as a space for gentle intimacies which are often denied to men, has been conversing with Singaporean visual artist Aki Hassan, whose practice dissects non-binary identities and trans kinships.

“There are different degrees of work, of interfacing together with the Fellows,” said Ong. “We have the more intimate Art Pals, then we have bubbles or clusters with the Workshops, and then we have this public space [with the Marathon].”

Reorienting the gaze 

Structured to prompt meaningful exchanges between the Global Fellows and artists and audiences in Singapore, Per°Form aims to spark a wider “planetary consciousness”. Central to the platform is the desire to generate alternate ways of thinking about and relating to the world, be it in envisioning different models of ecological sustainability, or in dismantling colonial matrices of power.

“All [the Fellows’] practices are trying to surmount the challenges that face them—the erasure of histories, the loss of memory,” said Ong, reflecting on the shared concerns that animate the Open Academy. Many of the artists seek to recover forgotten practices which could “connect us to the earth or to other ways of being, other values.”

“Because of the way in which Singapore is a market hub, we know a lot about American and European artists. But we know very little about what’s happening in, let’s say, Venezuela or Brazil—about women, for example, who have been creating work at the same time as these well-known performance artists in New York or Berlin,” said Ong. 

Noting that Singapore tends to orient its gaze towards the Global North, where residences and learning opportunities seem to abound, Ong asserted that “it is an opportune time for us to look to other sources to be re-educated, or to unlearn what we have learned.” 

“We have reached a time where climate change has escalated so much that this [extraction of resources] can no longer be unquestioned,” said Ong, highlighting how imperialist attitudes viewed the land as a commodity to be exploited. Singapore’s view of her surrounding islands, such as Pulau Ubin and Pulau Semakau, as subsidiaries of life on the mainland, for instance, echoes a colonial model of centre-periphery relations, explains Ong. 

“The reclaiming of different practices is an approach which I think the Global South gives. It is a race against time because the world is transforming so quickly and in a way we can’t undo,” Ong said.

“We have to turn our gaze elsewhere, and to allow ourselves to become more porous to other ways of thinking.”

Per°Form sees art as intricately entwined with life itself, and to this end, advocates for more holistic notions of art-making which integrate practices across disciplines. Artist, dancer and land-artist Ladji Kone, for instance, works with his community in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, bringing together choreography, architecture and gardening to develop sustainable relationships with the land. 

Venezuelan feminist dance artist Nirlyn Seijas, who will be presenting her research on eleven Latin American female artists in a workshop titled “The Latinas Grandmas Oracle,” works not only in the realm of art history, but also in activism. Through a women’s centre in her community, Seijas organises workshops which reflect on these historic artworks, while opening up safe spaces for women to process the violence that they may have experienced.

Per°Form thus moves away from the kind of art that is created solely for museums or theatres. Instead, the platform situates the act of creation in relation to urgent social issues. As Ong puts it,

“Art-making is completely connected to survival, to daily life.” 

Seeding long-term connections

While the inaugural edition of Per°Form sounds incredibly rich and exciting, the platform’s far-reaching, “planetary” ambitions certainly go beyond the scope of a single weekend of activity. I was curious as to Ong’s plans for the sustainability of the programme. 

“When you’ve made an authentic link or a connection, this will naturally continue,” Ong responds, noting that sustained relationships between people lie at the heart of any project’s development.

Ong recalled how Arlette Quynh-Anh Tran, a member of the Ho Chi Minh City-based Art Labor Collective, was formerly a translator for the Flying Circus Project. At the time, she wasn’t an artist yet—but the FCP’s open-ended model of collaboration has clearly had an impact on her present work in the collective, which seeds and cultivates long-term projects in a non-linear, non-hierarchical fashion. 

Art Labor Collective will be presenting a keynote lecture at Per°Form this year and will return in its next edition with a performance commission. 

Immeasurable as they are, long-term relationships between artistic practitioners are the backbone of any successful project. That Per°Form looks towards seeding these connectivities is, in my view, valuable, as is the platform’s commitment to leaving artistic processes open to unexpected developments. 

Per°Form’s orientation towards the Global South—and not just towards Asia or Southeast Asia, as is often the case with such large-scale artistic endeavours in Singapore—is also refreshing and urgent.

It unsettles our strange relationships to colonial and capitalist paradigms of resource extraction, asking us to instead consider our responsibilities in undoing the harms that imperialism has wrought, not just in this region, but across the globe.

The Open Academy is a project full of potential. Whether it can deliver on these promises remains to be seen. But I’ll be there to see what this “porous” platform can really be. 


Per°Form Open Academy of Arts and Activations will run from 13-16 April 2023 at 72-13, Home of T:>Works. Click here for more details. 

Header courtesy of T:>Works.

An earlier version of this article made a reference to the programme running solely on 13 April 2023 and that Lasme was forbidden to speak her mother tongue. The references have since been removed.

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