I am license
…Or why I think licensing performance art is not necessary.
I made 2014 New Year Resolution that I will not present performance art in Singapore under the compulsory need to apply for a license.
2014 is 20 years after the event of Artists General Assembly (A.G.A.). An event held at “5th Passage”, the artists’ run space in Parkway Parade Office block’s fifth storey between the lift lobby leading through a concourse both that opens out towards an adjacent spiral car-park building. The event was organized by artists from the collectives, 5th Passage and The Artists Village. Taking the inspiration of the 24 hours TIME show that was held on new year’s event of 31 January 1989 to 1 January 1990, at the original site of Lorong Gambas, the A.G.A. expanded the idea to that of an eight days event inviting contemporary artists who were embarking on cutting edge or contemporary practices in art making within the Singapore context to convene in exhibition, exchange and dialogue. The event was held together with self-motivated artists and responsible anarchy where we pitched together each other’s ability and when the sun rose on 1 January 1994 to the sounds of the trio, “Non-Sex”, led by under-rated musician Azmi Hassan that played their own take on “Shine on you crazy diamond”, it felt like the finale to a week long initiation rites to the Brave World we were all helping to create.
But we had a shock of our lives when we got news of how the event was brought to attention on the front page of the tabloid which completely threw all our good intentions into that of suspicion and almost stereotyping our lot as rebellious enemy of the people. The pandemonium added on as our inexperience at dealing with the media that seems to checked all our efforts to correct the negative image with slanted quotes and added to the confusion of artists as divided self-promoting individual egos. The recent exhibition of “Ghost: The Body At The Turn Of The Century” at the Sculpture Square curated by the courage and vision of it’s new director Alan Oei held at the end of last year, gave a plethora of the darker side of Singapore’s claim to fame as art centre of note this side of the Global Village. Amongst the stories most likely to be swept under any red carpets of shining Singapore Paradiso or the official utopian image of most propaganda media do is the work of the artist Loo Zihan. Loo changed his trajectory as a narrative documentary film maker into performance art, whose research for his Masters program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 2011 gave us the re-enactment of the infamous “Brother Cane”. As a follow up he presented ‘Artists’ General Assembly – The Langenbach Archive’ a comprehensive survey of the archive material from the said event of 1993-1994 that allows us to look back with care again and it gave us much food for thought. A small group of us gathered at its closing on 31 December 2013. I came away with mixed feelings, asking myself a bunch of questions that still left to be desired.
There are many things beyond one’s control, and although you and i may know the facts are plain as the light of day yet sometimes we would still find it hard to say. For my love to speak truths for the people, for this society is as pure as I may claim to be as Wahab’s honey and yet when offered them forth it still surely to find some tongues tasting them like the bitterest poison as if they were verses from hell. Thus i find myself going over my quandary and setting them apart to two or three sets.
1) Questions I can make a decision now and carry them forth as that is my insignia for the battle of the present state of affairs, the ground for my negotiation, and to invite my friends to ride with me. Full battle speed, like Andre Stitt say: “Either you are on the bus or you are off”, i welcome all passengers, young and old, short term or long term, even my enemies! But “don’t stand in the doorway, don’t block up the hall…”
To make the resolution I considered for ten years. In the first place I did agree to it for a good ten years, at least since we did go into it with our eyes wide open when the proscription on the funding of performance art was lifted in 2003.
It had been ten years after it was first implemented by the National Arts Council. With Tommy Koh as the Chairman, that had cast a dark shadow on performance art. It resulted in it becoming almost forever spoken here like a dirty word or in the same breath as any other inexplicable actions most of them of derogatory leanings arousing adjectives veering towards wrong doing, trouble maker, stupidity and non-sensical rather than the possibility of poetry and philosophy.
In fact, the question of having gone ahead with accepting the requirements of grantees to play according to the rules of the game was asked to me by one of the speakers in our very own public forum during Future Of Imagination 2, held at the Sculpture Square.
My contention was that: after weighing the pros and cons, I still think that there were pros that far outweighs the cons.
Furthermore, we had been knocking on the doors of the arts council for the past ten years, since the traumatic aftermath of A.G.A. in 1994. Now that they open the door I must enter although it may not be comfortable.
But I had from the beginning sounded out the problematic list of do’s and don’ts on the licenses and have said so before. As with my first performance in the first “Future Of Imagination” series of international performance art event that I had initiated and organized, I had the license conditions read out loud while I made my actions.
If anyone had taken notes they would have immediately find many of them have been broken by me already, although they may not be breaking other more serious laws per se.
Here my contention was and still is, that if that were the case, then the only need for us organizers and artists to do is that to observe the law; and not necessarily a whole bunch of other regulations that are too indicative of impossible controls that can only hamper our freedom to create, without over looking our shoulders every step in fear of being an offender ever before doing a thing. As a performance artist, I find myself stumped in my flow of imagination every time I stop to consider its legality. And worse still to host international platform of ‘world class artists’ embarrassingly I apologetically ask them to forgive my shameful country whenever I invited them. For my only wish is to show their works of purest creation. To ask me to continue after ten years of tolerating such humiliation can only mean I am willingly agreeing to partake in the Republic’s hemlock laced cup of poison offered to Socrates but here seen as due procedural necessity of civil decorum.
2) Questions that for the moment we leave them on the shelf but we must not forget they are there. The road to freedom and justice is a long road. We may not yet arrive at victory in our life time, but so long as we keep asking them and not let the cobwebs of greed and selfishness cover them up into oblivion, our cause is not yet lost although we may have conceded the battle. To me grand failures do not count. They only count if they are important to be in the memory shelves to be fought again when the time is right otherwise throw them out. For they only collect dusts and that is just decorative masks, not the real face that will last.
Looking at the evidence, as far as licensing goes, the A.G.A. event was licensed too and it did not prevent this to happen because none of us knew then that any law would be broken. To me even when looking back at Josef Ng’s performance, there was no crime discernible. There was nothing either intended nor actually could be seen or unmistakably discerned by anyone who saw the live performance, or even the video documentation.
As I understand from readings the justice system is implemented to protect the citizen’s rights and I am just by asking questions hereby asking for these rights to be secured for me as an artist who practices art and just as any other individuals who swears allegiance to the flag and the nation.
From discussions with many including artists and organizers involved in the event what transpired seemed to be showing us a different understanding that perhaps there were other considerations that led to it’s eventual notoriety, or even ‘clamming down’.
1) there was the internal security question of performance art being a possible threat to public order.
2) there was a need to slam down hard as the performance not only questions the news reportage of the punishment on gay behavior but also seem to advocate protest.
3) it was to keep at bey the propagation and proliferation of homosexual behaviour in Singapore.
Being a patriot schooled and imbued with the Rafflesian spirit, even though I call myself a born again hippie, I like to think that all these are mistaken conjectures that arose merely because those of us who are concerned citizens have looked closely at the evidence if not even seen the actual performance itself and cannot see any evidence in the presentation to have anywhere come close to something we categorically call pornography or an obscene action not even one that is erotic in a artistic way. The only close to fault if any, was that of the words being said by the artist himself to the effect that he was going to cut his pubic hair and after which it was done without any direct revelation of such an action. The artist then went to stand facing a far end wall from the space where the majority of the audience was. He showed a little of his buttock as he lowered them apparently to cut the pubic hair. He then turned around to walk back up towards the audience and put some of the hair down on the floor over some tofu. Then nervously looked around randomly and asked for a cigarette, as he probably was looking for a way to end the ritual. After a few puffs, in the silent tension he put the burning cigarette out on the square of his left shoulder saying the words: “Perhaps a silent protest is not enough.”
Clearly such actions all have nothing obscene about it and would even add that even IF the artist had cut his pubic hair in full frontal view I would still not find any of these sequences of actions anywhere close to obscene or pornographic actions. However what some have explained to me is that the law says the act of cutting pubic hair is obscene in itself hence it is not necessarily have to be seen.
However should we not reconsider some changes after all if really the law on obscenity was supposedly meant to protect public decency and by all means some of us find it obscene by just thinking of it. But I believe ours is to be a sophisticated society that should be serving us all and not only those of lesser tolerance to actions deemed less commonly seen as normal. Especially when performance art is now accepted officially and the fact that it could be re-enacted by Loo Zihan in a theater ticketed event all the more added more reasons for us to review and to recast it again.
Otherwise I shall remain an artist of shame for I carry in my heart an allegiance I had pledged to a society that I believed in the possibility of a system of justice that protects us all. That includes creative thinking individuals who speak up for the suffering of others in poetic actions, in provocative actions that may include the unusual use of the body, situations in public interactions or agitate in purposeful confrontations but still allowing, nay, in fact demanding each and all in the audience to decide with responsibility what is the correct course of action, but in fairness let the artist be free. What Josef Ng did in 1994 was indeed just that. He courageously spoke up for the suffering of others by innovative re-inventing the new language of performance art with sensitive responses to local contexts. We punished him, and also the artist Iris Tan, who merely took the blame as she was handling the admin work. The way I see it today, I am equally responsible and I am equally guilty for their crimes if at all any crime was committed. I am proud of Josef Ng for what he gave us and Iris Tan who suffered humbly, quietly, a duty-bound giving us her name and time as a service to art and artists, forgoing her own chance to also be directly practicing as one. (I know Iris well, she was glad to contribute her hair to my A.G.A. cupboard installation but I remember hearing her talk to us working on our installation where I could detect a subtle envy beneath her humorous words of encouragement and praises to our work. She sacrificed her own artistic inclinations cause somebody needs to do the paper work and she got charged and found guilty for it and no one even bothered to call her after)
And no I don’t blame the government. I don’t blame the P.A.P. and don’t mention my mother but I blame my country. Yes I am still ashamed of my country. And this country includes you and me. A country who put good art and artists on trial and make them criminals. And now after 20 years say let’s move on!, the world has changed.
Not yet changed as it should if you ask me!!
But it should.