Light / Dark mode

“A Commitment to Life”: T:>Works’ Per°Form Returns for Its Second Run

It’s been a year since the inaugural edition of Per°Form Open Academy of Arts and Activations, a platform for interdisciplinary art practitioners, brought a stellar cohort of Global South Fellows to our shores for three days of intensive artistic activity.

This April, Per°Form is back and bigger than before. In addition to participatory workshops and an overnight marathon of presentations, the 18-day programme will include two new components: a rave and an open studio. 

Leading the charge is seasoned theatre-maker and artistic director of T:>Works, Ong Keng Sen. Having covered the first edition of Per°Form, I sat down with Ong for a follow-up chat on how the platform has developed since.

Fellows of Per°Form Open Academy of Arts and Activations 2024. Image courtesy of T:>Works.

Leaving traces

One of the first things I wanted to know was if last year’s Per°Form had given birth to anything new. “The big thing was that Yale’s Theater journal published a number of the lectures that were given last year,” said Ong. 

“The magazine was curious as to what could be an alternative type of festival, where it’s not about touring or circulating productions or exhibitions,” he said. 

With its ephemeral nature, Per°Form lives on in written documentation and scholarship. This year, the event will be documented in three e-zines by Chidumaga Uzoma Orji, a visual artist from Nigeria who participated in the inaugural Per°Form. 

Process and presence

Imagined as an “open society” that facilitates creative exchanges between diverse, multidisciplinary artists and audiences, Per°Form sidesteps the usual exhibition and biennale models. In place of finished products, it centres artistic process, leaning towards the spontaneity of the “happenings” that grew out of the New York art scene in the 1950s-60s—these were multidisciplinary, often impromptu or unscripted artistic events which involved elements of performance and audience interaction.

A large part of this is also about rejecting the production of spectacle for its own sake. In an economically privileged country like Singapore, theatre and exhibitions can easily become a route to mere consumption, Ong explained. 

“One of the things that we decided to do with Per°Form was to re-gather not to consume something, but [before] an empty stage with a projector, so you don’t traffic in the art object. You don’t see big, monumental shows.”

“This still has some kind of necessity in Singapore. We’re not competing with digitality, with Netflix, through more and more budgets to make epic shows. But we are investing in the lived experience of the individual and the live moment of such a story being told or being shared.”

Alternative forms of community

Kicking off the programme was a brand new component billed as “durational rave theatre.” Led by the collective Endless Return, the event, titled 4LLEN, featured performances by butoh practitioner XUE and composer-producer Mervin Wong, an avant-garde gamelan soundscape by Rosemainy Buang, and two acts by Filipino DJs Teya Logos and obese.dogma777.

The idea of bodies writhing to electronic rhythms in the darkness of a rave seems about as far from the white cube as it gets. But as it turns out, Endless Return’s pop-up parties have everything to do with art. Melding memes, metamodern irony-slash-earnestness, and Deleuzean/Nietzschean philosophy, the collective carves out alternative spaces for creative energies that don’t usually have a place within the strictures of everyday Singaporean life.

Photo courtesy of Endless Return.

Referring to XUE’s practice, Ong reflected on how butoh, an avant-garde dance theatre form, took shape in Japanese clubs in the late 1950s and 60s. “The club itself or the rave [became] a site for certain communalities to develop,” he explained.

“Of course, ephemerality is the foundation of Per°Form,” said Ong. “There is a strong sense that it disappears. But at the same time, live performance is also about what remains: what remains through the engagement with that community.”

Care and repair

Facilitating organic exchanges between artists and audiences remains central to Per°Form’s mission: to imagine alternative ways of living in the world and being with one another. 

This is in line with Ong’s vision of the artist as one who actively engages in “care and repair,” addressing social injustices by presenting proposals for a more “liveable” society.

Many of the Fellows who will be “activating” T:>Works’s space in the coming weeks will be bringing with them community-based practices. 

Diamantina Arcoiris, a fashion designer from Bogatá, presents an opening keynote on 17 April. Her project, Redesigning Ourselves, facilitates spaces for marginalised individuals to “bring their energies together in redesigning themselves, and then redesigning their communities.” 

Instead of designing clothing for fast-fashion stores or boutiques, Arcoiris works with social outcasts—homeless individuals, drug addicts—to build reparative spaces which Ong likens to “halfway houses.” As part of her presentation, T:>Works’s space 72-13 will be transformed into a fashion atelier.

Arcoiris’ work space in Bogotá. Image courtesy of Diamantina Arcoiris.

Like Arcoiris’s work, many of the Fellows’ artistic practices are woven into the fabric of daily life, “allow[ing] for something that’s normally commercial to become un-commercial, [and] more involved in care and therefore repair.” 


In thinking about care and repair, it’s also worth asking: where does the damage and injustice stem from?

Decoloniality, the theme of this year’s Per°Form, offers us some ways to begin thinking about this. Decolonisation refers to the process by which colonised peoples gain independence from occupying powers, and is often tied to a specific historical moment. Decoloniality, on the other hand, refers to the ongoing struggle to undo colonial matrices of power—-that is, structures of oppression, be they social, political, or ideological. 

“Decoloniality is a topic which, I think, is much broader than the historical colonisation that most people talk about,” Ong reflected. “Decoloniality is about the everyday now, and how we have to liberate ourselves from these power structures.”

Excavating history

Questioning history is one way of undoing repressive power structures. Drawing on her experiences of growing up in post-Soviet Uzbekistan, filmmaker and artist Saodat Ismailova imagines alternative narratives that resist totalitarian versions of history.

Mythical beings, young and old women, animals, landscapes, and natural phenomena like wind and fire coalesce in her dreamlike narratives, which gesture to realities beyond the visible realm. 

Still from “The Haunted” (2017). Image courtesy of Saodat Ismailova.

Her presentations at Per°Form will centre on The Haunted, a film which she describes as a “farewell letter” to the Turan Tiger. A species native to Central Asia, the Turan Tiger was hunted by Russian occupiers who arrived at the end of the 19th century. It eventually went extinct in the 1960s due to the mismanagement of land and water resources in the region. 

“Through the film I try to speak about all these layers [of history]: the colonial past, loss of language, loss of a spiritual bond to landscape, to our ancestors, and also of course, the ecological environment,” said the artist.

Ismailova’s works have garnered critical acclaim at major international platforms including the Venice Biennale and Documenta. But here in Singapore, rather than simply screening her films as she would on the festival circuit, she will delve into the research process behind her practice.

Saodat Ismailova working behind the camera. Image courtesy of the filmmaker.

As part of a new component of the programme, the Per°Form Open Academy Studio, the artist will be unpacking her film archives. Audiences are invited to listen to interviews which aren’t in the film, and to examine ecological themes through texts and other archival materials.

“For me, what is most important is to create parallel narratives,” Ismailova shared. “Art was always an ideological tool in Central Asia.” Against the strict stylistic conformity of art under Soviet control, Ismailova’s work embraces a sort of poetic ambiguity when it comes to storytelling. 

“Decolonisation is about seeing reality in many, many, many possible ways,” she explains. “Through my work I try to create narratives, knowledge, or sensorial experiences that propose another type of space.”

Sites of memory

Ismailova’s use of archives as a means of reimagining dominant histories resonates with many of the artistic practices featured at Per°Form this year. 

Working with film and installation, the Egyptian artist Marianne Fahmy excavates the past by weaving new narratives around old spaces. Some of her recent research has revolved  around the ancient and immense network of underground waterways in Egypt. Due to safety concerns, many of these reservoirs are no longer accessible to the public. 

Marianne Fahmy, “What Things May Come” (2019). Image courtesy of Sharjah Art Foundation.

“What she does is to re-activate these spaces through writers and through filming the waterways and sharing them live with a group of people,” said Ong. Combining documentary footage and parafiction, Fahmy’s “video memory” maps the continued significance of the waterways. Water remains the lifeblood of civilisation, and Fahmy’s work approaches the circulation of this vital resource through the lenses of history, culture, and contemporary sociopolitics. 

Through the diverse works of the Fellows, the present day becomes a stage for layered histories, interweaving narratives, and competing actors. 

Chathuri Nissansala’s practice similarly unravels the multiple dimensions of coloniality. Having witnessed civil war, gendered oppression, and violence in a highly militarised Sri Lanka, the artist draws upon performance traditions to rethink culture, identity, and nationalism. 

For Per°Form, Nissansala will present a participatory play incorporating children’s tag games that were used for military training in Sri Lanka. Characters embodying unconventional motherhood and shifting queer identities will take the stage. Nissansala is also working with Singapore-based performance artist anGie seah, as part of a pen-pal system T:>Works has initiated between the Global Fellows and local artists. 

The play draws on Nissansala’s recent research into the term nachchi, commonly used by Sinhala-speaking communities to refer to transgender women. The artist, however, is interested in extending the term to a much broader queer community.

Chathuri Nissansala performing “Nachchi Samayama” (“නච්චි සමයම / Time of the queers”) (2024). “Samayama” refers to ritualistic time. The interactive performance aimed to create an alternative space where participants could share their narratives about belonging and acceptance.

“I’m working on a performative series based on mapping [queer] sites and the community,” she explained. “The problem here is that later generations of queers don’t know their past,” she added, highlighting the erasure of LGBTQ+ histories from mainstream, heteronormative narratives. Homosexuality is criminalised under the Sri Lankan Penal Code which, like Singapore’s Section 377A, came into being under British colonisation. 

The nachchi, however, have long existed in Sri Lanka, often performing in ceremonial dance practices intended to cure the sick by exorcising evil spirits. The intricate masks and costumes that Nissansala uses in her performances recall kolam, a folk-theatre tradition in Sri Lanka, in which masked actors play kings, demons, deities, and animals. 

Incorporating song, dance, drama, and costume making, Nissansala’s practice marks a continuation of the kind of artistic multidisciplinarity that animates South Asian cultural traditions. By excavating hidden histories and activating local art forms, Nissansala— like Ismailova, Fahmy, and many more Fellows—stages her resistance against the lingering vestiges of colonialism.

With these incredibly rich and diverse practices in store, this year’s PerForm looks set to fulfill its mission—to create a fertile space for the “arts practitioner as a thought leader engaged in care and repair, actively engaging histories, the precarious present, and world-creating.” 

Performance remains

Picking up on what director Ong Keng Sen had said about performance’s lasting impact despite its ephemerality, I wanted to know what “remained” of last year’s run. 

“It’s much easier to get an audience,” Ong responded. “Last year nobody understood what it was. But this year there are people who are wanting to come back.”

“I think that we’ve come to a point in Singapore’s development where there are many people who want their lives to become a little bit more open,” he reflected, looking back to when he first started making theatre in the 1990s. 

“We find that the audience is very responsive. They tend to stay on, they want to talk, […] and not just ask questions, but to share,” said Ong, his voice lifting with hope as he recalled how audiences last year had remained even after the 15-hour performance marathon ended at one in the morning. 

“30 years down the line, people are much, much more confident,” he mused. “They’re looking for some kind of commitment to life.”

“I found that quite enlightening — that there seems to be a hunger for a space like this in Singapore today.” 


Per°Form Open Academy of Arts and Activations (POA) is the live gathering of 15 Per°Form Fellows from the Global South—Africa, the Arab world, Asia, and South America. The programme runs from April 13–30, 2024. More details here.

Quotes have been edited for length and clarity.

Header image: Per°Form Open Academy of Arts and Activations 2023. Image courtesy of T:>Works.

Support our work on Patreon