Hope: Women Artists' Project was held from
15th january to 17th february. Midway through this event, near the end
of january, came a call from national arts council that management had
complaints that one of the works was too scary/extreme quote/unquote
and wished us to remove it. We were asked to modify the work. The work
before consisted of a L-shaped passageway (echoing the arch of the door
called the Gate of Hope) made of wooden framework covered with white
fabric. This stood at the entrance via victoria/bras basah road. There
was an entrance with white pleated curtains, covered with red ribbons.
within are dolls wrapped in blue or red material and hung vertically.
There are text words such as love etc.
Modification took two forms: the vertical hanging was changed to
horizontal (like the sarong cradle)and more ribbons added all over the
exterior of the passageway.
Management having viewed the modified work wihtout artists present, was
not satisfied and reiterated instructions. The artists wrote a letter
asking for discussion with management and with tenants who complained.
The management did not respond to this request but reiterated their
instructions. Artists then sent a letter protesting their decision,
and stating disappoinment by the lack of communication. At all times,
no face-to-face meeting took place.
Deconstruction by artists on that site took place after this, The work
was altered by what i would call disembowelling. Sawed-off or
dismantled remnants were carried to other sites. There was still a
reconstructed artwork left when deadline on 3rd february passed.
Management then took steps to remove it themselves after a verbal
refusal to take steps to remove it was given.
The response of the chijmes managment to the concerns of the tenants is just so predictable. Also predictable is result of the artists attempts to save their work -- with no real bargaining power, the battle is lost before its begun. It seems that one can never win when one is fighting against the opinion of paying patrons, and the conservative public, whose sensitivities we are always asked to respect, even when these sensitivities have no respect for the sensitivities of others, such as artists. People who are easily offended, and think that being offended gives them a right to shut others up -- they are the ones with truly offensive behaviour. Also predictable is NAC's role in this. once again, instead of protecting the interests of the artists, they speak on behalf of whoever is unhappy with the artist. when I was in secondary school, the conduct and effectiveness of our student body was such that, in any issue that called for negotiations between the teaching staff and the student body, I felt that our views were always represented, that the student council existed as a middle-man between school and student, with the interests of the students as first priority. more often than not, when there's conflict of views/interests between an artist body and another party, It seems to me that NAC's first priority is not to understand the artist position, but to act on behalf of the other party to curtail the artists right. No clearer illustration of that than the nac's decision to withdraw funding from all performance art when a coupla of events ran afoul of the govt.
A suggestion: write something simple, explaining the situation that the work and the artists are facing, and asking for any viewers who might want to support the work, or who do not see the need to remove or alter the work, or even, those might be against the removal of the work, to leave a short note. place this prominently near the artwork. Provide writing materials so that its convenient for any member of the public to just write something. The aim is to show that for every member of the public who are against it, there are those who support it or see nothing wrong with it. The public's voice (esp if a paying customer) is always more influential than an artists voice when dealing with commercial authorities. If we can use their voice, we gain more bargaining power. Though I make this suggestion, I seriously do not know how many members of the public will bother to help. There is also a question of verification. How do we convince the management that it wasnt the artists who wrote those things?
I have mentioned before that sometimes artists do want to detach themselves from issues pertaining to lobbying, advocacy and all other things political, and some see it as a kind of diversion from their work--that its aesthetic 'purity' (if there is such a notion) is contaminated by external forces that have nothing to do with the intimate dialogue between the artist and her public/audience, mediated by the artwork. Noise, static, the crackle of a bugged telephone. But when things of this nature happens (the censorship exercised by Chijmes over the 'unsuitability' of an artwork in commercial premises), then we have to wake up to the reality that in Singapore, politics is often grafted onto a piece of work and it is something we have to confront--this foreign element that has become somewhat embedded--and as artists we have to decide if this relationship with this element is going to be symbiotic, commensal, parasitic etc... Of course the other argument is that every piece of art is inherently political and a product of historical materialism yadda yadda, (Adrienne Rich has remarked once in one of her poems that if you want to write a poem about a woman braiding her hair, then you have to know how it is braided, why it is braided, and what else happens in the country where that woman lives) and maybe this is something that needs to be acknowledged or rediscovered. That when censorship encroaches upon an artwork, what happens is not so much a set of politics attaching itself perniciously to an apolitical body, but a work which already possesses its own sense of politics--with this recognition, then we open up an arena where we can have room for negotiation. Here I am not talking about the kind of negotiation that has been refused by the Chijmes mafia but one which is perhaps internalised within the work itself. The artist and censor made intimate within the work--clashing, struggling, fucking, etc... Like spy, I was also trying to figure out the different avenues for recourse available for artists caught in such a predicament. Evidently, the NAC in this case does not seem to be on the side of the artists at all. I find it appalling that its role as a mediator is slanted so flagrantly towards the Chijmes management, and I wonder how long this kind of corporate cocksucking will continue before NAC realises that it is gradually denigrating its credibility as an agency that, in an ideal situation, is supposed to be championing or at least protecting the rights of artists. If only there was any kind of conscience operating in NAC that recognises that the violation of the rights of artists is an unacceptable act, then maybe certain unscrupulous corporate bodies like Chijmes might be put under a blacklist, ie, NAC will not support any future Arts activities conducted within its premises. If only. If only money didn't talk so loud. What outrages me most, however, is the refusal by the Chijmes pricks for any kind of negotiation, thus making them unaccountable for their actions. How long can we put up with such profane disregard for decent human communication? And my guess is that they are not committing themselves to any answers, because whatever PR mechanisms they have to explain their actions will not be able to devise a lexicon that will disguise the fact that their decision was based on irrational, and even Fascist principles. What the hell is scary/extreme? Haw Par Villa has 18 levels of carnage and torture, and Primary Schools send their kids there for excursions. One day I will compile a dictionary of terms used to explain acts of censorship: 'cultural sensitivity' 'racially inflammatory' 'potentially seditious' 'damage the moral fabric of society' 'threat to national security' 'undermine heterosexual nuclear family unit' 'erode population pyramid' 'mockery of the government' 'arouses deep-seated repressed desire to masturbate in public' 'will unleash the Beast in all of us' 'has potential to incite mass unrest, mass hysteria, mass exodus/migration, mass orgasm' 'makes fun of unmarried civil servants with side partings--male and female' 'glorifies deviant behaviour like boycotting queues, spitting discreetly and not voting for ruling party' 'can result in profound changes to the climate, handphone reception, drinking water and the menstrual cycles of the local population' etc etc etc The strategies that I can offer can fall into two kinds of categories, both political. On the macro-political front, I would perhaps propose: 1) Alert press for article. Potentially sensationalist, so maybe they'd pick it up. Angle would be why patrons/tenants find the work objectionable. Denial of social realities? Interview with various people. Tenant: People come here to eat and enjoy, if they want to see abandoned babies they should go to Romania. Patron: I was hungry when I walked into Chijmes, and when I saw those babies I think it unearthed latent cannibalistic instincts, which I wasn't prepared to confront at that point of time in my life. I ran away, resisting the urge to get myself a blowpipe from one of those quaint little shops selling Southeast Asian collectibles. Housewife: Aiyoh! These type of things give nightmare only. Put here for what? Psychologist: Chuckyphobia, which is a rarely-documented fear of dolls, ranks alongside similar phobias of clowns and that Thing in the cupboard as infantile paranoid syndromes carried over to adulthood. The ubiquitous Anthony Yeo: Our teenagers don't know enough about sex, and it is our failure as a society that we find abandoned babies everywhere, even here. 2) Writing in to the press to highlight the incident. Implicitly demanding that the Chijmes management offer their side of the story. This would fall into the category of letters which are addressed to bureaucratic bodies when usually most channels are exhausted (ie, would Singtel, LTA, the Police care to comment on this?) What are their comments on why they think that the sight of babies are offensive. This is, however, assuming that the press is non-partisan. The person writing in could be one of the artists of the WAP. Or to provide some kind of ballast, as pointed out by spy, a 'non-partisan' member of the public, a Chijmes patron perhaps who is bewildered at the disintegrating facade of the work and demands some answers. This will perhaps be a launching-point for the artists to jump in with their account, inevitably drawing Chijmes into the discussions. They don't want a private dialogue, drag it out into the open. I can write in if needed, from the position of one wondering whether the act of 'vandalism' committed on the artwork (ie, deconstruction) was intentional, whether the management had made sure that it has not been tampered with by patrons, maybe suggest something really stupid in a kaypoh Singaporean way like erecting a fence around it to prevent such things from happening in the future, etc. 3) Documenting the process and putting it up at the censorship archives hosted by sintercom. Photographs, a written account, chronological journal, etc. Of course there is a degree of risk involved for the above, and it is up to the WAP artists to weigh and consider the repercussions on their future dealings with Chijmes. On the micro-political front, I would suggest that artists, being inherently cunning, devious, and self-empowering, incorporate the act of censorship into their work. Susie has already mentioned that the work had undergone some kind of deconstruction to illustrate that it has been mutilated. Now, one thing that excited me was that the original work (correct me if I'm wrong) was supposed to comment on the practice of leaving babies at the gate of the convent to be adopted by nuns. Now, we have a case here where the revamped (yet, 'conserved') convent has refused the adoption of 'babies'. Altruism, spirituality has given way to crass commercialism. Nuns are turning over in their graves under weeping stone angels. I think the work here gains an added texture and it would be interesting to see these dolls later reappearing in later works. Your babies' destinies as orphans have been inscribed on their foreheads by the false inheritors of the hollow shell of a convent. Who will now adopt them, adopt a cause--for me, the struggle is always not so much against shallow callousness, but deep-seated ignorance.
While some details differ, the core point is to write a letter and get it published/ publicised. May I suggest a clear, somewhat detailed, but nonetheless concise text explaining the exhibition, and explaining the events (the failure in negotiations, etc.) is written. Attached to this text should be a simple statement that singles out the NAC for their failure to engage artists and their interests. There are of course several conflicting interests at stake here. I think the strategy is to single out one particular conflict, and to rally support for the artists' position in this particular conflict. From reading the exchange of correspondence, it seems that focusing on the failure of the NAC to engage with the artists is the one conflict that can get the most support for the artists' position -- from the arts community at large, as well as the "general" public. CHIJMES management and their tenants have their concerns and while they too should have engaged the artists, they are arguably less responsible for attending to the artists' concerns than are the NAC. After this letter is composed -- with the explanation of events, with the simple statement that demands accountability from the NAC for their failure to engage the artists -- then we should canvas as many signatures as possible, and send it to The Straits Times, post it on as many web-sites as possible, mass email it, etc. And of course, send it to the NAC as well -- send it to Lui Thai Ker directly. The point is to not to spell out a detailed argument against the NAC in the letter, but to demand accountability, and shame them into engagement. A public forum should then be arranged, emphasising that the CHIJMES incident exemplifies the larger issues that are at stake (eg. what is the role of the NAC when it comes to these kinds of conflicts, and how have they performed in their role; what kind of leadership is the NAC providing the arts community?). The forum, in turn, should be reported about. Hope you find these suggestions useful. I'm sure the artists have a lot of support from within the arts community e-group, and it is precisely issues like these where we need to exercise our capacity to mobilise toward some action -- certainly a letter to the public, and a public forum with the NAC.