An open letter to Dr Yaacob Ibrahim, Minister, Ministry of Information, Communications and The Arts (Singapore)

Dear Dr Yaacob Ibrahim,

The Venice Biennale is unequivocally the most highly visible and important international stage for contemporary artists at work today. Since 2001, the Singapore Pavilion at the Venice Biennale has been an important platform for Singaporean artists to introduce and share their diverse and multifaceted practices to the world. An opportunity to present their work in Venice has spurred our artists to challenge themselves into conceptualising, developing and executing artworks of enduring critical, historical and global significance.

We, the undersigned, are therefore writing to you to express our utter disappointment in the National Arts Council’s (NAC) decision to withdraw Singapore’s participation in the 55th Venice Biennale in 2013, and to formally request that this decision be reconsidered.

Each subsequent edition of the Singapore Pavilion has borne witness to ever greater sensibility and sophistication in the quality of works that our artists have produced. Also of significance and no less important is the way in which Singaporean curators have learned to navigate and negotiate the process of communicating the work to a wider audience. While we recognise that Singapore’s participation in Venice need not be the determination of artistic worth for Singaporean artists, the fact remains that it is one of the most important and invaluable channels through which Singaporean artists can connect with the international art world on our terms.

There are also other important issues at stake beyond that of artistic excellence. While a country’s participation in an international event like Venice need not and must not be reduced to a matter of cultural representation, the visibility of participation in such a significant international art event affords us an indispensable channel through which to negotiate issues of how we represent ourselves to the world – something vital to our on-going national conversation about the direction and development of Singaporean identity. Just as we cannot afford to be parochial in our economic development, so too must we not allow culture and community to be interpreted in narrow provincial terms that preclude the engagement of Singaporean art with global movements and discourses. Indeed, greater community involvement in the arts does not, should not – and need not – be at the expense of artistic excellence.

While we respect the NAC’s decision to “critically re-assess Singapore’s long-term participation at this event to ensure optimal benefits to visual arts development”, we are alarmed and perturbed by the sudden decision to withdraw from participation as a means of exercising this critical review. We seek to understand how the NAC arrived at this conclusion. The NAC has stated recently that it intends to pursue greater dialogue and engagement with artists, curators and the arts community in Singapore; this abrupt and unilateral decision to withdraw Singapore’s participation in the 55th Venice Biennale is very much contrary to the spirit of consensus and engagement. It should be reconsidered.

1. Suzann Victor, Artist (Singapore Pavilion 2001)
2. Heman Chong, Artist, Curator and Writer (Singapore Pavilion 2003)
3. Francis Ng, Artist (Singapore Pavilion 2003)
4. Tang Da Wu, Artist (Singapore Pavilion 2007)
5. Vincent Leow, Artist (Singapore Pavilion 2007)
6. Zul Mahmod, Artist (Singapore Pavilion 2007)
7. Ming Wong, Artist (Singapore Pavilion 2009)
8. Ho Tzu Nyen, Artist and Filmmaker (Singapore Pavilion 2011)
9. Lindy Poh, Curator of Singapore Pavilion 2007, Venice Biennale
10. Tang Fukuen, Curator of Singapore Pavilion 2009, Venice Biennale
11. Emi Eu, Director, Singapore Tyler Print Institute
12. Ong Keng Sen, Artistic Director, Theatreworks
13. Tay Tong, Managing Director, TheatreWorks
14. Noor Effendy Ibrahim, Artistic Director, The Substation
15. Chew Kheng Chuan,  Chairman, The Substation Limited.
16. Graham Berry, Board Member, The Substation
17. Sabapathy Thiagarajan, Lecturer, History of Art
18. Peter Schoppert, Member, International Association of Art Critcs (AICA); Member of the Board, The Substation
19. Joselina Cruz, Co-Curator Singapore Biennale 2008
20. Russell Storer, Co-Curator Singapore Biennale 2011
21. Trevor Smith, Co-Curator Singapore Biennale 2011
22. Rudy Tseng, Collector
23. T. Sasitharan, Director, Intercultural Theatre Institute
24. Chong Tze Chien, Company Director, The Finger Players
25. Sean Tobin, Head of Theatre, School of the Arts, Singapore
26. Tan Wee Lit, Head of Visual Arts, School of the Arts, Singapore
27. Jacquelyn Soo, Artist and Chairperson, Singapore Contemporary Young Artists (SCYA)
28. Woon Tai Ho, Founder & Creative Director, The Green Orange
29. Aun Koh, Co-founder, The Ate Group; formerly Deputy Director Visual and Literary Arts, National Arts Council Singapore
30. Lim Qinyi, Curator, Para/site
31. Karen Lim Li-Ching, Asst. Director (Curatorial), NUS Museum
32. Lonce Wyse, Director, IDMI Arts and Creativity Lab, National University of Singapore
33. Dr Charles Merewether, Curator and writer
34. Professor Tony Godfrey, Director, Equator Art Projects
35. Lee Yew Leong, Editor-in-chief, Asymptote Journal
36. Suzzana Chew, Owner of Artitute.com
37. Amelia Abdullahsani, Gallery Owner, Lu Magnus
38. Valentine Willie, Gallery Owner, Valentine Willie Fine Art
39. Benjamin Hampe, Gallery Owner, Chan Hampe Galleries
40. Audrey Phng, Art Consultant, Asian Art Options
41. Wahyuni A. Hadi, Objectifs Centre for Photography & Filmmaking
42. Woon Tien Wei, Director, post-museum
43. Jennifer Teo, Director, post-museum
44. Amanda Heng Liang Ngim, Artist
45. Milenko Prvacki, Artist
46. Delia Prvacki, Artist
47. Ana Prvacki, Artist
48. Jimmy Ong, Artist
49. Michael Lee, Artist and Curator
50. Ang Song Ming, Artist
51. Charles Lim, Artist
52. Genevieve Chua, Artist
53. Ho Rui An, Artist and Writer
54. Alvin Pang, Writer
55. Choy Ka Fai , Artist
56. Robert Zhao Renhui, Artist
57. Donna Ong, Artist
58. Tan Kai Syng, Artist
59. John Clang, Artist
60. Erika Tan, Artist
61. Dana Lam, Artist
62. Tara Tan, Creative
63. Sherman Ong, Artist and Filmmaker (Singapore Pavilion 2009)
64. Tan Pin Pin, Filmmaker
65. Wee Li Lin, Filmmaker
66. Fran Borgia, Filmmaker
67. Jeremy Chua, filmmaker
68. Yeo Siew Hua, Filmmaker
69. Adelene Kwan, Producer
70. Sylvia Tan, Producer
71. Melanie Chua, Editor
72. Yuen Chee Wai, Musician
73. Susie Lingham, Writer and Artist
74. Alan Oei, Artist and Curator
75. Dr Lynn Lu, Artist and art educator
76. Tang Ling Nah, Artist, Curator and art Educator
77. Hazel Lim, Artist and art educator
78. Urich Lau, Artist and art educator
79. Debbie Ding, Artist, Archivist and Writer
80. Susie Wong, Artist
81. Vivian Lee, Artist
82. Yvonne Leow-Lee, Artist
83. Gilles Massot, Artist
84. Melinda Lauw, Artist
85. Jying Tan, Artist
86. Joel Ong, Artist
87. Lynette Tan, Artist
88. Brendan Goh, Artist
89. Tan Guo-Liang, Artist
90. Ang Song Nian, Artist
91. Kah Kit, Artist
92. Tay Bee Aye, Artist
93. Weixin Chong, Artist
94. Godwin Koay, Artist
95. Geralding Kang, artist
96. Samantha Tio, Artist
97. Cheong Sze-Yenn, Artist
98. Ho Zhen Ming, Artist
99. Kin Chui, Artist
100. Yen Phang, Artist
101. Regina De Rozario, Artist
102. Bruce Quek, Artist
103. Joshua Yang, Artist
104. Alecia Neo, Artist
105. Chan Sze-Wei, Artist
106. Vladimir Todorovic, Artist
107. Mike HJ Chang, Artist
108. George Wong Yung Choon, Artist
109. Liana Yang, Artist
110. Valerie Oliveiro, Artist
111. Kent Chan, Artist and Filmmaker
112. Daniel Kok Yik Leng, Choreographer and dancer
113. Joavien Ng, Choreographer and art educator
114. Lim How Ngean, Dramaturge
115. Lok Meng Chue, Theatre practitioner
116. Michelle Tan, Theatre practitioner
117. Jason Wee, Artist, Curator and Writer
118. Shubigi Rao, Visual artist and writer
119. Seah Sze Yunn, Artist and Designer
120. Jackson Tan, Artist and Designer
121. Sean Lee, Photographer
122. Jing Quek, Photographer
123. Ian Woo, Artist and Art Educator
124. Adeline Kueh, Artist and Art Educator
125. Jeremy Sharma, Artist and Art Educator
126. Betty Susiarjo, Art Educator
127. Karen Mitchell, Art Educator
128. Tan Peiling, Art Educator
129. Karen Yeh, Educator
130. Philip Holden, Educator
131. Shirley Soh, Art Educator
132. Ng Yun Sian, Educator
132. Dr C.J.W.-L. Wee, Academic
133. Dr Warren Liew, Academic
134. Dr Lilian Chee, Assistant Professor
135. Dr Margaret Tan, Fellow, Tembusu College, National University of Singapore
136. Jeremy Fernando, Jean Baudrillard Fellow at The European Graduate School
137. Jay Koh, Founding director, international Forum for InterMedia Art
138. Chu Chu Yuan, co-director, international Forum for InterMedia Art
139. Isabella Chen, Media Co-coordinator, United Nations
140. Jeremy Tiang
141. Jeannine Tang, Art historian, Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College
142. Paul Khoo, Art Historian
143. Syed Muhd Hafiz Bin Syed Nasir, Curator and Writer
144. Joleen Loh, Curator and writer
145. Daniela Beltrani, Curator and artist
146. Eliza Tan, Curator
147. Josef Ng, Curator and Writer
148. Loredana Paracciani, Curator
149. Nurul Huda Binte Abdul Rashid, Assistant Curator, NUS Museum
150. Eva Ella McGovern, Curator, Valentine Willie Fine Art
151. Traslin Ong, Arts Administrator & Program curator
152. Ben Slater, Writer
153. Justin Zhuang, Writer
154. Teh Su Ching, Writer
155. Darryl Wee, Art Writer and Translator
156. Louis Ho, Writer and Critic
157. Raksha M., Writer and Editor
158. Joycelyn Ng, Producer and Writer
159. Yishan Lam, Design Researcher
160. Angelia Poon, Academic
161. Amanda Lee, Editor
162. Nazry Bahrawi, Critic
163. Apple Lee, Gallery manager, Valentine Willie Fine Art
164. Teng Yen Hui, Gallery assistant, Singapore Tyler Print Institute
165. Richard Lim, Registrar assistant, Singapore Tyler Print Institute
166. Mervyn Quek, Arts Manager, TheatreWorks
167. Hafiz Osman, Exhibition officer
168. Tan Li-Jen, Manager, Museum Programmes & Outreach, NUS Museum
169. Aishah Abu Bakar, Programming Manager, Moving Images, The Substation
170. Annabelle Felise Aw, Programme Manager, Visual Art, The Substation
171. Chelsea Chua, Marketing Manager, The Substation
172. Nur Khairiyah Bte Ramli, Programme Manager, The Substation
173. Chris Ong, Programme Manager, The Substation
174. Ann Mui Ling, Museum docent and art collector
175. Clifford D. Mallory
176. Kay Vasey
177. Jeremiah Choy
178. Meena Mylvaganam, Collector
179. Oon Shu An, Actor
180. Madelyn Yeo, Designer
181. Darel Seow, Illustrator
182. Jessica Anne Rahardjo, Arts Publications Executive
183. Tiara Johari, Arts Manager
184. Teresa Fu, Arts Manager
185. Nicole Ho, Arts manager
186. Low Zheng Yi, Admin Coordinator
187. Joyce Teo, Arts educator
188. Seah Tzi Yan, Arts organiser
189. Wirashery Fangiono, Arts freelancer
190. Jo-Anne Lee, Health Administrator
191. Jolovan Wham, Social Worker
192. Chris Williams, Manager
193. John Solomon, Graduate Student
194. Nigel Jon Sing, Student
195. Sarah Lee, Student
196. Au Yeong Yeen, Student
197. Kim Tay, Student
198. Wong Binghao, Student
199. Elvis Wang, Art Student
200. Ang Siew Ching, Student
201. Debrah Jiang, Student
202. Hajar Abdullah-Anjong, Student
203. Wesley Aroozoo, Student
204. Loe Chek Siang Kenneth
205. Joanna Ng Shuhui
206. Sarah Yap
207. Joscelin Chew
208. Justin Lebrun

Street vs. Art

Spray painting on road allegedly by street artist SKL0

Spray painting on road allegedly by street artist SKL0

Over the past few months, pedestrians in Singapore may have stumbled upon one or more curious round stickers pasted above buttons at traffic lights, featuring captions that include instructions to “PRESS TO TIME TRAVEL” and cheeky admonishments of “PRESS ONCE CAN ALREADY”. Most have responded in delight to the stickers, variously calling them “witty” and “thought-provoking”. The artist behind these interventions, who goes by the tag of SKL0, is apparently also responsible for spray-painting the words “MY GRANDFATHER ROAD” on several streets in Singapore. On 4 June 2012, the said artist was arrested on suspicions of vandalism. As reports of the arrest poured in, the reaction online was almost immediate, with netizens both within and outside the arts community responding with outrage at what was perceived as a draconian measure crushing a seemingly harmless act of creativity. A petition was launched within hours of the news and digital stickers in the style of SKL0’s creations were springing up by the dozens across social media, sporting messages that expressed solidarity with the young artist. Such a vehement reaction can be seen as just one of the many expressions of resentment against a technocratic state perceived to be governed by automaton-bureaucrats with no appreciation for humour or creativity. In the words of one netizen, “CREATIVITY SHOULDN’T BE PUNISHED!” Indeed, creativity is important for society, and so is wit, but amidst the clarion calls for “creativity”, “freedom”, “spontaneity” and “humour”, rearing its bloated, cumbersome head is another word that has not received an audience of such size for quite some time now: “art”.

“But is it art?” was the question raised almost over a decade ago in light of the controversial 1993 performance by artist Josef Ng, in which the artist snipped off his pubic hair in protest of the police entrapment of gay men in Singapore. The question, asked then with raised eyebrows and looks of incredulity, at times disgust, has most fascinatingly resurfaced today in the paraphrased form of the indignant proclamation, “THIS IS ART”, uttered in a near-unequivocal chorus, no less. But while it would be most desirable to be able to read this as a sign of progress, of the public’s increased enlightenment towards the arts, the reality is far from the case, showing instead that artistic discourse in Singapore still builds itself upon an outmoded and essentialist rubric that draws arbitrary lines between art and non-art, or in this instance, between art and vandalism. Indeed as the debate rages on, the untenability of the argument reveals itself, with the slippages between the terms becoming too obvious to ignore.

Spray painting on wall allegedly by street artist SKL0

Spray painting on wall allegedly by street artist SKL0

For instance, a number of supporters point to how SKL0’s works are “aesthetically pleasing” and “not unsightly”, referring plausibly to their clean-cut aesthetics. But this argument ignores the fact that both historically and in contemporary times, much of street art has never aspired towards aesthetic appeal. Street art, having emerged from the sixties to seventies counterculture movements in New York, has for most part of history served as an instrument for political resistance, with imagery meant to provoke rather than “to bring a smile to one’s face”. The works produced in protest of the 2003 Iraq War and the wider War on Terror by street artists worldwide is an exemplar of this, and it bears mention that Singapore was in a small but significant way a part of this movement, with the garden wall of the Substation, an independent arts centre by Armenian Street, used as an “approved” graffiti wall. The messy scrawls of angst-ridden messages accompanied by strident anti-war motifs often seen in such instances of street art are a far cry from SKL0’s crisp aesthetics, thus rendering the criterion of visual appeal used to justify SKL0’s works as art spurious. In one notable instance, one particular netizen posted on Facebook a photograph of “MY GRANDFATHER BUILDING” sprayed in a noticeably hasty fashion across a wall, claiming that the police should be catching the person who did this instead, unbeknownst to the fact that the very same artist he was supporting, SKL0, is also behind this very work. Herein lies the absurdity: the method for discerning between art and vandalism rests solely upon the choice of font.

A stencil on concrete graffiti piece by the Buenos Aires-based Cam BsAs, created to mark George W. Bush’s visit to the city in 2006

A stencil on concrete graffiti piece by the Buenos Aires-based Cam BsAs, created to mark George W. Bush’s visit to the city in 2006

But why do all these slippages concerning the definition of art matter, some may ask, as long as the intention is to exonerate SKL0? But the fact is that such careless pitting of art against non-art serves not only to rouse the chagrin of art theory pedants, for it does ultimately exert a real-world impact upon the kind of art we are sanctioning as a society. The safeguarding and propagation of carefully defined notions of art would eventually serve only to protect some works under the privileged cover of “art” at the expense of others that fall outside the circumscribed boundaries. Already we are beginning to see such acts of exclusion happening. On 6 June 2012, publichouse.sg posted on its Facebook page a photograph of “legalized graffiti” in Singapore, featuring a large and elaborately rendered male human figure spray-painted onto the walls of the former premises of cultural and social space, Post-Museum. The response by those who commented was lukewarm, with one netizen dismissing it as “nice but [lacking] the local connection”. He was rightly rebuked by another netizen: “if it doesn’t connect with you, it doesn’t mean it doesn’t connect with others”. One naturally wonders if the same statement cannot also be applied to SKL0’s creations. Granted, one can contend that SKL0’s works are widely popular, but surely mass appeal cannot be a definitive criterion for aesthetic judgement? Clearly, using an aesthetic argument to defend the works of SKL0’s is deeply problematic.

The last high-profile case of vandalism or, as some may say, street art, to happen in Singapore was the case of Swiss national Oliver Fricker in 2010, but as the incident involves the contentious issue of a foreign national acting on Singapore soil and the far more serious offence of trespass, it will be difficult to compare it to the case at hand. But slightly over a year before Fricker’s incident was the case of an unemployed, middle-aged Singaporean man by the name of Koh Chan Meng, who was caught red-handed scribbling “Hi Harry Lee. I love you.” on the wall of the Parliament House. On another occasion, Koh had also wrote “Go sue me Lee Kuan Yew Go Gavin Son” and “Shammugan can you play your own orgams” at the same site. From the outset, the acts committed by SKL0 and Koh cannot be more different. The former was a planned project with a thoughtfully designed aesthetic and identifiable by an icon equivalent to that of an artist’s signature and the latter, a putatively spontaneous act, performed by a man either out of vexation or lunacy.

Graffiti by Koh Chan Meng at Parliament House in 2009

Graffiti by Koh Chan Meng at Parliament House in 2009

As it seems, SKL0 is an artist and Koh, a vandal; one should be in a gallery, the other, a prison or an asylum. But are the distinctions really as stark as they appear? Sure, while Koh can hardly be called an artist and I suspect neither did he harbour any intention of being one, his “offence”, like that of SKL0, is in a way also an individual act of expression that has left its marks upon a public site. One of the arguments that has been tossed around lately defends SKL0’s works by claiming that they reflect our culture and society; can the same then not also be said about the scribbles of Koh, which however unthinkingly inscribed, reflect a prevailing sentiment of a certain underclass of Singaporeans saddled with financial and social woes? Can one go even further and claim that as a spontaneous act, Koh’s scribbles, as compared to the works of SKL0’s, bear even greater authenticity as expressions of a current social climate and as such, are more legitimate acts of intervention upon a public space? Granted, given that Koh was later ruled to be mentally unsound, one cannot take his acts so seriously, but scribbles like those of Koh are not uncommon. For instance, a friend once recounted to me how he found scrawled beneath the screen of a TVMobile television the words, “Stop Chinese Shows!!”. Acts like these cannot be written off simply as instances of mischief, but are instead, in their own small but pointed ways, forms of civil resistance that can only find expression through clandestine channels in an authoritarian society, away from the surveying gaze of the state.

Graffiti as seen on a TVMobile television

Graffiti as seen on a TVMobile television

Of the many proposals raised online in response to the episode of the “Sticker Lady”, some have called for “less restriction” to be imposed on street art, which in effect is calling for existing laws on vandalism to make an exceptional case for street art. However, if implemented, such a move would run against the very ethos of the medium itself. Street art, at least that particular strand that we are concerned with here, exists at the margins of society. Through their interventions upon a public space, street artists seek precisely to transgress established orders, either for the purposes of critique, or simply for the sheer kick of doing so. Should laws change and margins shift, street artists will too shift their location of operations, following wherever the margin goes. Street art like those by SKL0 can never exist within the law. To do so is to be simply absorbed into the kitschy fare that dominates much of legalised street art in Singapore, seen in the most cheesy manifestations in state-organised youth festivals and as marketing gimmicks undertaken by opportunistic corporations. As a matter of fact, most street artists around the world recognise the “barely legal” (to use to the title of the 2006 show by British graffiti artist, Banksy) nature of their practice and understand that the onus is upon them to cover their tracks to evade arrest or to work in legal grey areas, as artists who practise “reverse graffiti” do.

As such, if the law on vandalism really ought to be amended, it should be done to protect “vandals” like Koh instead who require such immunity more so than street artists who seek precisely to test the limits of the law. Street art claims the street as a site for art-making, but prior to the legitimisation of street art as a serious form of artistic practice, the street has always been, more generally speaking, a public platform for all forms of personal and cultural expression. In principle, the streets belong not just to artists, but to us all. Whether a piece of graffiti is “creative”, “witty” or “aesthetically pleasing” is besides the point, for the value of the streets as a shared public space is its ability to give visibility to any idea, opinion, sentiment and memory that is being suppressed by the powers that be, especially precious and necessary in a tightly controlled society like ours where most channels of public expression for the everyman – from print to televisual media – are blocked by the hand of the state, and the dominant socio-political climate is one of fear and self-censorship. Hence, street art like SKL0’s are important not because they are art, and certainly not because they “bring a smile to one’s face”, but because they reclaim the street as a site for everyday forms of civil resistance.

Hong Kong graffiti artist, Tsang Tsou-choi, also known as the King of Kowloon

Hong Kong graffiti artist, Tsang Tsou-choi, also known as the King of Kowloon

But ultimately, tinkering with legal apparatus is inadequate, serving only to draw even more arbitrary parameters, as if we don’t already have enough of that to deal with in existing statutes. How can one definitively distinguish between acts of civil resistance from those that are plainly a social menace – the familiar “O$P$” sprayed by loan sharks, for instance? Can the law possibly draw a clear line between acts of creativity or resistance and those of plain destruction?

Indeed, any attempt at “regulating” graffiti through legal means is bound to be tricky, for graffiti, or any created object or rendered mark, art or otherwise, can be said to possess a life of its own beyond its maker’s, thus rendering the central legal concept of intentionality inapplicable. For one, consider the example of Hong Kong’s Tsang Tsou-choi, otherwise known as the King of Kowloon, a garbageman-turned-vandal-turned-artist whose works have over time grown from being perceived as obnoxious acts of vandalism to being inducted into the canons of “outsider art”. It is important to note that Tsang’s works arose from what can only be described as megalomania; his graffiti, identifiable by their distinctive calligraphic style, are filled with messages that proclaim himself to be the “King of Kowloon”. Yet, over time, his obsessive markings have gained such a ubiquitous presence that they have become part of physical landscape and cultural imaginary of the city, and in 2003, the inclusion of Tsang in the Venice Biennale cemented his status as an art world legend. Evidently, when dealing with a figure like Tsang, any attempt at establishing a satisfactory legal definition of “creative” graffiti against “destructive” ones is completely frustrated.

“FREE STICKER LADY” digital sticker presently being disseminated through social media

“FREE STICKER LADY” digital sticker presently being disseminated through social media

Every society has its laws, but as restrictive as they must necessarily be, spaces for manoeuvre within the law do still exist. In other words, one does not need to change the law for society to recognise the value graffiti can hold for a city. Just like how some street artists circumvent existing laws by seeking alternative tactics of intervention that work not with the law but through it, the public should also find ways to support and embrace street art (and more generally, graffiti) beyond that of seeking legal recourse. In fact, such is the case for most cities with a thriving graffiti scene. In Melbourne, for instance, despite the fact that graffiti continues to be illegal, the city’s graffiti-filled laneways have been heavily promoted as tourist attractions, with calls also having been made to consider them for heritage protection. The current “micro-movement” of sorts of producing and disseminating stickers across social media calling to “FREE STICKER LADY” can also be considered a positive instance of this.

To end, perhaps it is important for me to state clearly my stand on the arrest of SKL0, should any misunderstandings arise. If all the information circulating presently is accurate, then yes, I believe that in the eyes of the law, SKL0 has committed a crime. But of course, as most will know either from experience or history, the law is not always an authority on matters of right and wrong, or in this case, on how we use and share our public space. I concur with the general opinion that leniency should be exercised in her sentencing and chances are that it probably would. (Claims that she faces the maximum three years imprisonment are, it must be said, wildly exaggerated. In fact, as of yesterday at least, SKL0 has not even been formally charged.)

But what is more important in the current debate is not how we need to “set art free”, but the more critical issue of how we need to set our streets free. The street is in way the physical counterpart to the Internet, and if the Internet in Singapore has been so hailed as the bastion of democratic expression, the same can be said also of our streets, for they are not just spaces for the traffic of branded cars and Chingay floats, but also nexuses where ideas, opinions, sentiments and memories of the everyday Singaporean converge and are exchanged.

This essay has been revised from an earlier version that was first published on 8 June 2012, the main revision being the addition of a new segment on Hong Kong graffiti artist, Tsang Tsou-choi. The essay has also been published on New Asia Republic.

Arts Engage: The Bigger Conversation

Censorship isn’t working: regulate instead.

Censorship isn’t working: regulate instead.

Lately, I have wanted to write something in response to the arts community’s ongoing campaign against censorship, but have hesitated since there was little I could add to enrich the conversation. The campaign tagline (“Censorship isn’t working: regulate instead.”) probably doesn’t sound as snappy as expected, but this is perhaps a reflection of the curious position the paper takes as a whole. In fact, at first glance, the definition of censorship and regulation against each other would raise some eyebrows.

It’s a really fine line we are treading upon, which is why much of the paper is dedicated towards differentiating the two policy directions and in the process, identifying the latter as desirable to the continued development of the arts. The dwelling on definitional particularities comes across as a little belaboured and my worry is that it would lead only to a technification of the two terms. Furthermore, the claim that regulation entails a “disinterested classification of content” is largely an ideal, for both censorship and regulation will always involve the drawing of arbitrary boundaries. There is no litmus test available when it comes to making decisions on what rating a work should be given. And in many cases, “regulation” may even provide a euphemistic veil to cover up acts of censorship.

But in all honesty, I can scarcely think of a more viable position to be taken, which accounts for my hesitation on speaking on the issue. Depending on how it is practised, the distinctions between censorship and regulation can be stark. Censorship involves the outright denial of content. In contrast, with regulation, access to a work remains available, but is monitored and managed.

But perhaps is the biggest head-scratcher for many is this: doesn’t Singapore already have regulation?

Yes, we do, but the problem is its coexistence with censorship, which the campaign hopes to obliterate entirely. In other words, what is being pushed for is an extensive refinement of an existing system, falling short of a complete overhaul. It’s a very clever position to take, particularly since we are dealing with an authority with a knee-jerk aversion to any signs of radicalism.

Answering the tough questions on art

However, in contemplating the relationship between the artist and the state, it is also necessary to look at the bigger picture, which involves an examination on the role of art in society and more crucially, the methods through which art is produced, consumed and distributed. There is a dominant perception within the mainstream that art emerges into the world complete and self-made, embedded with intrinsic meanings that form the core of its nature.

Such essentialist views towards art need to be deconstructed to give way to an understanding of art as a process in which meanings are constantly created, ascribed and transformed through complex interactions between the various stakeholders (artists, audience, curators, critics, the state, the market economy, the media and so on) and the art object within a specific context. Artists themselves cannot be imagined to be driven by purely missionary goals for they are also operating within a highly politicised sphere govern by the rules of the economy and society.

Essentially, art constitutes a becoming; and without a critical mass of stakeholders who is capable of discussing the varied methods through which art becomes art, it is almost impossible to speak of a system that aims to address the difficult questions on art.

An ongoing negotiation between the artist and the system is, in all senses, a structural necessity, but over-emphasising it would belie the greater complexities that govern cultural production and consumption. The nature of negotiation imagines a bifurcation of the stakeholders into two initially oppositional groups. Its ultimate intention is the attainment of consensus, or even more idealistically, a coalescence of the disparate fractions. But how attainable is this desired consensus? And why must consensus always be seen as the necessary end point of any reconciliatory endeavour? Has consensus, or even resolution, been overrated? Can something productive be generated out of a state of indeterminacy instead?

I say this because the attempts at negotiation thus far have not really culminated to any genuine form of consensus. Some interests are simply irreconcilable – a fact we need to contend with. What we can reasonably expect is a little give and take; in other words, a movement towards building consensus but never its attainment.

Until recently, the engagement between the artist and the state in Singapore has largely been that of a cross-checking and second-guessing of each other’s modus operandi. Both the government and the arts are only involved in a process of speculative self-calibration, not negotiation, keeping in mind of an unmarked threshold that each tries not to surpass. Occasionally, one side attempts to test these unidentified boundaries, only to frantically retreat upon realising that it has overstepped them. What is happening between the artist and the state is like that of an awkward dance between two dancers who are trying very hard to preempt each other’s next move.

I am, however, in no measure, trying to discredit the efforts of the ongoing petition. Consensus-building has its limits but it has definitely yet to reach its point of exhaustion in a country where the state has been engaging the arts in only monologic terms. But in the long run, to effectively grapple with the difficult questions that arise from “transgressive art”, we need something beyond a set rubric derived through consensus (which is primarily interested in the ends of production). We need a culture of conversation which is capable of a critical inquiry into the very methods through which works of art have come to be in our society. We cannot rely on a select group of cultural intellectuals in the academic world to answer these questions. Conversation needs to permeate society.

What is Conversation?

But how can we do this? How do we get people to make talk? It is an endeavour, which I believe, can only be achieved on the level of the individual. Institutional solutions are untenable when it comes to something as intuitive and organic as conversation. This is where I feel arts practitioners need to take the lead, which can take the form of a more self-reflexive practice or curatorial strategy. I say this particularly in the field of the visual arts, in which there seems to be a lack of both inspired curatorship as well as a developed critical discourse. Too much of contemporary art relies on performative mimicry, in which many works only strive to perform contemporaneity without engaging its internal structures. More projects in the likes of Curating Labs, the curatorial experiment and pedagogical programme seen last year at the Singapore Art Show, are needed to stimulate such conversations about art.

Amanda Heng's Let's Chat (1996-2000), re-presented last year at Curating Labs

Amanda Heng's Let's Chat (1996-2000), re-presented last year at Curating Labs

Given its importance, it is also necessary to discuss what is the kind of conversation we should be striving towards. The problem with conversation in Singapore, whether is in the context of spoken or written form, online or offline, is that it’s either too instrumentalised or dismissed as frivolous chatter. There appears to be only two places where people make talk – either in the coffee shop or the official talk shop, may it be a governmental feedback unit or some other round-table discussion forum. The overriding notion that talk must lead to a particular end is stifling. There is, or would be a need for what one can call conversation for conversation’s sake.

First, such conversations are not driven by preset convictions but by inquiry. They are motivated not only by a thirst for knowledge but also a desire to understand the means through which knowledge is produced. A lot of what is seen in the local blogosphere, so hailed as the bastion of citizen journalism, entails not conversation but pure defence. People are more interested in driving their point across under the cloak of anonymity, instead of being committed to an interpenetration of ideas. Repartee is seen as a hallmark of discourse. We are valorised for our ability to single-mindedly safeguard our personal worldview and to squash that of others, instead of our receptiveness towards change. Go to any online discussion platform and you would see knee-jerk reactions flying all over the place.

Next, conversation needs to entail a respect for plurality. There is a need to appreciate instead of resist or rationalise any fundamental incompatibility of ideas and beliefs. I refer to the work of postmodern philosopher Jean-François Lyotard which asserts that consensus is inadequate as a process for validating truth and that it is effectively driven by manipulation and power. Lyotard’s philosophy is particularly marked by its opposition towards meta-narratives, which often aim to order disparate forms of knowledge and experience into one unified cultural narrative schema. The Singaporean mind is, unfortunately, structured on such narrativity. We are obsessed with originaries, trajectories and endings. We grew up learning about the Singapore Story even before we have figured out what Singapore is. Too many art exhibitions are also too fixated with narrativity, with little attentiveness to the act of narrativisation and what it constitutes. This is not say that any form of narrativity ought to be abandoned. Narrativisation has its value, particularly in understanding art-historical developments, something which our national museums are doing an excellent job in. But at the same time, weaving historical narratives is a project which is essentially methodological and not critical in nature. There needs to be less of that awkward insertion of works into an artificially drawn trajectory and a greater recognition of the inevitably pluralistic nature of knowledge production.

Classic Contemporary, held earlier this year at Singapore Art Museum 8Q, is a fine instance of a show which approaches the art-historical narrative with a level of criticality.

Classic Contemporary, held earlier this year at Singapore Art Museum 8Q, is a fine instance of a show which approaches the art-historical narrative with a level of criticality.

Finally, conversation needs to be boundless, endless and fearless; the last condition being the most difficult to fulfill. Too often is conversation truncated when we accidentally veer into the touchy areas. It’s like hitting the wrong nerve. We quickly gloss over them, unwilling to return to them for we fear its sting. Admittedly, such audacity is difficult and can even be dangerous. But we should still endeavour to imagine a conversational culture in which moments of tension and resistance are not blindly shunned. Instead, one rests in them and cultivates them, not for their own sake but for their potentialities.

In fact, there have been promising glimpses of such conversations happening within the recent past, and what is remarkable is the fact that while they were often not conceived to culminate in certain tangible, identifiable ends, they often end up doing so, if not by serendipity, then by the generative nature of conversation. Take the Artscommunity e-group set up in 1999 and still running today, which has spun several initiatives through the online discourse. The two “working committees”, The Working Committee (TWC) in 1999 and subsequently, TWC2 in 2003, are also cases in point. TWC2 was subsequently re-invented as an officially gazetted civil society called Transient Workers Count Too and continues campaigning the rights of migrant workers today.

But it is of no necessity that conversation needs to arrive at any decision, resolution or consensus. Its use value is intrinsic. Through conversation, we don’t need to reach any collective agreement on whether a work is good or bad, rapturous or repulsive. Instead, we can reside in a state of indeterminacy which entails giving space for irreconcilable disagreements in a manner informed by intuition of the most cultivated form. It all probably sounds pretty abstract and lofty at this point, but only because it presently resides in the province of imagination. But there is nevertheless a need to imagine, for it is imagination which propels change.

Censorship is an intellectual slaveholder. Moving towards regulation marks progressive change. But tinkering with institutional apparatus can only bring us so far. The toughest questions on art can only be adequately addressed on a personal level. Conversation thus must be driven by individuals, not bureaucracies. It can happen anywhere, anytime and with anyone as long as there is the will to make talk.

More than 1000 people have signed the petition to make censorship history. Read the position paper and add your signature today at http://sites.google.com/site/artsengagesg/.