Awaking to the Different International and the Different Local




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Awaking to the Different International and the Different Local

Keng Sen Ong, artistic director of TheatreWorks and founder of the International Curators Academy in Singapore

Artistic director of TheatreWorks and founder of the International Curators Academy in Singapore, Keng Sen Ong, on returning festivals to their origins and reconsidering their international and local lenses in a post-pandemic “new normal”

Photos by Keng Sen Ong

Julian Wirth

Mar 14, 2021

Since we crashed into the iceberg of the pandemic, our worlds have been incessantly talking about “the new normal.” How will this new normal affect festivals in particular?

Festivals began in many parts of the world as gatherings of humans coming together to celebrate, grieve, and discuss. In Asia, where I come from, the festival is inextricably linked to rituals: human acts to express the self, the community, and our place in the larger cosmos of both the visible and the invisible. These human acts communicate in different ways, but most of all, they are small actions of personal agency contributing to a desired or needed transformation in the world of the living. These rituals are often about the world of the living coming to terms with death, the death of the body, the death in nature, as well as the arrival of new life, regeneration, and sustenance.

Today, our festivals are often about ticket sales, festival subscriptions, city fireworks, opening night gala events, professional management models, and the networking opportunities for stakeholders. In 2019, when I attended a gathering of aspiring festival managers and directors, I was struck that the vision of the successful festival had been reduced worldwide to a generic formula of audience numbers, event count, and box office as the main performance indicators. This permeated down to the projection of the festival through its video advertising or end report, designed to convince all eyeballs of its success. As a former founding festival director, I have also been embroiled in this game. It is a challenge to intervene and supplement with other considerations.

The pandemic can be a cut that allows us to rethink, reimagine, reconnect the festival back to its ancient roots of human gathering, as well as the power of human beings and their personal agency to affirm life, transformation, and sustainability. This involves us shaking off the superficial trappings of festivals we have accumulated thus far. A useful series of questions to rethink the future internationalization (and the new localization) of a festival can be:

  • What does the international bring to your festival? Why is it vital for your festival? Or is it window-dressing, a status symbol?
  • Due to the challenge of international travel during pandemic times, you have only one to three opportunities for international interventions in your next festival (overall, the pandemic means a much-reduced international curation for your festival). How will you prioritize the international elements necessary for your festival? Do you have a mission statement or a manifesto of values to guide this set of priorities?
  • How can you suggest shifts to your local curation to open it up as a comparative study of other local contexts? Can the local be a renewed and porous lens for future international exchange, for instance, an international festival consisting of diverse and multiple local contexts energizing each other? In this way, perhaps the post-pandemic festival can avoid the inevitable brand names which circulate and dominate international arts festivals.
  • In general, can the future internationalization of festivals interweave with local contexts to create a braid of the international and the local, each informing and nurturing the other? How can this interweaving be vitally installed in the DNA of the festival, from its inception to the manifestation?
  • Can the digitalization of parts of the festival and some of its processes enrich this interweaving discourse between the new international and the new local?

Inevitably thinking through the international and the local also involves decolonizing the festival from either the international market or the local politics. The colonizing forces of the “international standard” homogenize local expression to insist on a global product rather than an approach that defines localities, communities, histories, archives, and traditions. Conversely, the colonizing forces of “the local” limit and censor the community through fear, rather than airing viewpoints through differences, multiplicities, and discussion that the international may bring. This expanded perspective of colonization asks: “How can we be vigilant to the constant process of decolonizing, for colonization is never a thing of the past but continues to insidiously bore itself into our very beings?”

Is there perhaps a way of decolonizing the festival through cultivating audience ownership as audiences are by nature different and singular, amongst a plural “we” rather than a “we” denoting an exclusive identity?

It is definitely a race against time, as the vaccine begins to be rolled out in 2021. Will the vaccine render all of the questions above moot? Perhaps the real value of the pandemic has been the non-production, the process, the hesitation, the questioning, all that is deemed inefficient, non-efficacious. Once jolted, we can never be the same again.

Keng Sen Ong is an artistic director of TheatreWorks and the artspace 72-13 in Singapore. He is also founder of the Arts Network Asia, a micro-grant peer organization, and the international Curators Academy focused on the synergies between contexts and curation in Asia.