The legacy of Ong Keng Sen as SIFA’s founding festival director: An artist who redefined accessibility and engagement

779

By Phyllis Lee

The media flurry about festival director Ong Keng Sen leaving his last edition of the Singapore International Festival of Arts (SIFA) in disappointment due to the festival’s lack of independence casted a shadow over a more important topic – the legacy of how he revived a national arts festival led by artists within the span of just four years.

The first edition of SIFA in 2014 saw 20,000 people attending the festival, already an improvement from the old Singapore Arts Festival that ended its 36-year run in 2012 due to low attendance numbers. With Ong helming the festival, this year’s audience figures, with the inclusion of those who participated through online platforms, grew steadily to 218,000.

Unlike the previous national arts festival, majority of the SIFA team also came from the arts practice.

During an interview on Thursday (12 Oct), Ong told The Independent:

“The national arts festival began in the 70s from the bureaucrats. The team were mostly civil servants up to 2012, but the festival they created, Singapore Arts Festival, was acknowledged to be a failure by 2012 and closed down. In the final years of the Singapore Arts Festival, they tried to do everything for everyone, but they ended up doing nothing for anyone, achieving very little in globalised Singapore.”

“There is a realisation that the civil service is ill-equipped to deal with the cultural and artistic changes in Singapore. For me, it is important for the new SIFA to look at this changing landscape and actually try to respond to it, to compliment what is existing rather just duplicating,” the 54-year-old artistic director of arts company TheatreWorks added.

As an art practitioner, Ong has always looked at communication with the audience as a top priority. This meant that the new SIFA team placed engagement and accessibility above numbers.

“One of the problems I observe is that the arts leaders who are parachuted in by government agencies are often thinking about performance indicators. Sadly, not all of them are trained in the arts or arts management, so they don’t trust the arts,” he said.

The arts can be accessible

As one of the newer societies around, Singapore is not very deeply rooted in the arts and self-expression. Hence, Ong believes that the society is disconnected in many ways.

He said: “In China, people are just listening to folk opera on the streets – it’s everyday life for them. But here, art becomes framed and is very expensive. There’s no organic relation to art. It’s cut off because people were removed from kampungs and put into a little air box 50 storeys high.”

This was why SIFA had to deal with a “poison in the air” when it first started – the popular belief that art is not accessible.

“We need to protect art, which was why we had to start by saying that the arts can be accessible. How can you expect to bridge art to the public if you’re saying it is elitist in the next breath?”

To counter the “poison”, Ong decided to reshape the whole festival by starting off with a pre-festival of ideas, titled The O.P.E.N.

“We had to re-calibrate and start to create a space where people could talk freely again. It’s important to talk about the role that art can play in the society,” he explained.

Harnessing technology without comprising on intimacy

“To me, accessibility is having a kind of intimacy. It’s about really taking care to lovingly give the message to the public.”

Accessibility of the festival to the public was made easy this year through the use of Facebook Live to stream programmes from SIFA and The O.P.E.N. – namely Open Homes, O.P.E.N. Inspiration: Kamal Mouzawak and O.P.E.N. Kitchens – in their entirety to those who cannot be at the event in person.

Said Ong: “We decided to look at how digital accessibility is important, and how to domesticise art-viewing with smartphones. On the ground, we still keep the intimacy of being in somebody’s private kitchen or living room. At the same time, simple technology is harnessed to bring it to as broad-based an audience as possible.”

Other ways to amplify accessibility  

Casting away the typical three-liner programme descriptions, SIFA meticulously put together a festival guide with longer copy that sought to fire up the readers’ imagination.

“I hate picking up a brochure which tells me what the show is about in three lines, because I don’t understand it. As artists, we took time and care to guide our audiences into the show, so their expectations are tuned and they can enjoy the experience more fully,” Ong said.

Another unique point about SIFA was the organic fusion of engagement, local and international arts. There was no categorisation or separation between the types of art presented at the festival.

Ong also kept the ticket pricing low enough for everyone to afford. An early bird’s student ticket went for $20, allowing the holder access to more than 60 shows.

Achieving an open society through engagement

Apart from his view on accessibility, Ong also highlighted SIFA’s unique perception on engagement – which is critical to achieve an open society.

“We have a large reach, but at the same time, our engagement is handmade. Engagement is about having a depth of encounter, where you’re not just passing through,” Ong said.

Engagement is a two-way process, a dialogue and an interaction that is deepened by all parties involved. It is not only a tool, but an entire philosophy that impacts SIFA’s curation, communication and interaction with the public.

This is also why The O.P.E.N. was designed as an engagement initiative.

Several programmes were created with engagement in mind, such as O.P.E.N. Kitchens, where 26 home cooks shared stories behind their dishes and participated in communal cooking with the audience.

Ms Anita Kapoor, SIFA’s Facebook Live host for O.P.E.N. Kitchens, talking to one of the O.P.E.N. Kitchens cooks Joshua Tang. Photo: Singapore International Festival of Arts, O.P.E.N. Kitchens, SIFA 2017.

This year’s Facebook Live uploads also provided a platform for engagement with the audience.

Additionally, there are year-long bespoke engagement talks and workshops that SIFA holds for the public.

Adding the new but keeping the old

Through SIFA, Singapore managed to see and imagine the arts in a different manner.

“Arts was not demonised, but allowed to be itself. What SIFA’s first four editions did was to open up the imagination of what a festival can be. It’s not just a spectacularisation or having good shows. For us, art is about dialogue and porous spaces for an open society,” said Ong.

“There will be many leaders with different visions who will come and go in the festival structure. Everybody should be contributing something new, but it’s also important for the new management to think about the legacy that was created and try to maintain some of these legacies.”