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Jul 08. 2015
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Southeast Asian performing arts curators share theri works and problems
As part of the recently ended second annual edition of The Open, short for “open”, “participate”, “engage” and “negotiate”, or “a pre-festival of ideas” organised by the Singapore International Festival of Arts (Sifa), the “Show Me the World Symposium: Curatorial Practice in the Performing Arts” was held over three days last month at 72-13, Sifa’s hub, with support from the Goethe Institut.
Delivering his keynote speech, co-founder and co-artistic director of Colombia’s Mapa Theatre-Laboratory, Rolf Abderhalden, showed an excerpt of a Heiner Muller play, which he staged with inmates in a theatre, and explained how it still reverberates decades afterwards. The next morning, independent curators Tang Fu Kuen and Melati Suryodarmo discussed how they divide their time between Southeast Asia and Europe. Another keynote presentation by Florian Malzacher, artistic director of Impulse Theatre Festival in Germany, showed how arts are crossing discipline boundaries more extensively than ever, especially in Europe.
Shorter yet insightful presentations by Southeast Asian counterparts, answering a question posted on the first day “What does it mean to curate locally in a global context?”, were given by Bun Rith Suon, adviser to Cambodia’s Ministry of Culture and Fine Arts; Ening Nurjanah, programme manager of Komunitas Salihara Arts Centre in Jakarta; Yola Yulfianti, Indonesian dancer and choreographer; Bilqis Hijjas, artistic director of MYDance International Dance Festival in Malaysia; Nyan Lin Htet, artistic director of Yangon-based Theatre of the Disturbed; Donna Miranda, co-founder of Manila-based Green Papaya Art Projects; Leonardo Carino, visual and performing arts curator and educator from Mindanao; Noor Effendy Ibrahim, Singaporean artist and former artistic director of the Substation; and from Thailand, B-Floor Theatre’s Sasapin Siriwanij and myself. 
It’s noteworthy that although many of our works cross paths and share common ground, we’ve rarely known what each other is doing before this three-day meeting in Singapore. Again, I questioned whether Singapore, being part of the developed Asia unlike her regional counterparts, is being the designated gatekeeper of the region. 
Another important lesson I’ve learned from this Open event is that, notwithstanding the gut-wrenching and nerve-wrecking problems mostly concerning existing structures, audience development, public, private and foreign support as well as censorship and restrictions, curators should always be playful in their work. In our sanuk culture, that shouldn’t be too difficult, should it?
Reflecting her experience a few days after returning home, Sasapin says, “I learned a good deal from this symposium. I discovered that each organisation from each country has specific directions and strategies in curation, despite the fact that we share many similar struggles, so it’s not an issue of imitating, but exchanging and networking.
“It’s also good to know that independent performing arts spaces like Democrazy Theatre Studio, Crescent Moon Space and B-Floor Room are not alone in this diverse region. It’s even better to be able to have this opportunity to share with them what we’re currently working on [as information on the actual scene of contemporary dance and theatre in Thailand is not widely available, even in the Thai language].”
Sasapin packed in her bags many copies of B-Floor Theatre’s company profile and annual programme to share with the symposium participants and audiences. I did the same, taking IATC-Thailand Dance and Theatre Review 2014 books. 
In his welcome speech, the Goethe Institut’s regional director Heinrich Bloemeke admitted that he wasn’t sure about the outcome of this symposium. I’m sure that he has now realised that in arts, as in life, many risks are worth taking. And while Sifa’s director Ong Keng Sen noted in his introduction speech that performing arts curation is under-developed in Southeast Asia, he might have already changed the verb to “developing”, which sounds more dynamic and optimistic.
The writer’s trip was supported by Sifa and Goethe Institut Bangkok.
  • Sifa 2015, on the theme “Post-Empires” runs from August 6 to September 19 at various venues.
  • For more details, check SIFA.sg. 

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