Arts reimagined for the heartlander

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Instead of  trying to reach out to the man in the street with populist fare, this year’s Singapore International Festival of Arts will attempt something new. It will provide a bridge for the heartlander to appreciate the so-called heavier items.

With a programme that includes a 50-hour performance art piece, a K-pop inspired reworking of Greek tragedy Oedipus Rex (in Korean with English subtitles) and Shakespeare’s “Troilus and Cressida” reimagined in a native American setting, it would be easy to write off this year’s event as heavy in content and esoteric in outlook.

“SIFA 2014’s return marks the debunking of the misconception that the world of arts is exclusive or inaccessible,” says Lee Chor Lin, chief executive officer of festival organiser Arts House Limited. The rhetoric of the Singapore International Festival of Arts launch preview on April 8 certainly emphasised the concepts of education and accessibility.

The arts world has always been mindful of appearing too exclusionary, with numerous attempts such as arts workshops aiming to take arts to the “heartland”.

However, festival director Ong Keng Sen is skeptical of such approaches. Instead of add-on workshops or “crowd-pleasers” such as face-painting, he feels instead that festivals need to provide the public with the means to contextualise the works in the festival.

“Anything is elitist if we’re outside; how do we build insiders?”

Ong stresses that the target audience of the festival as a whole is ordinary Singaporeans – “People who live in Singapore; getting to see things we normally don’t get to see.”

This year’s festival will thus see a more formalised approach to public inclusivity, in the form of a pre-festival public initiative programme. The O. P. E. N. (Open, Participate, Enrich, Negotiate) will run over a period of 17 days from June 26 to July July, about a month before the festival proper starts on Aug 12.

Through O. P. E. N., Ong aims to provide context to the works shown in the actual festival, and so equip audiences with “background knowledge” to understand and enjoy the works of the festival.

Nothing wrong with this novel way to develop and grow a fan base.