There are some things here which I suspect they just put on for western tourists so we can gawp in shock. My favourite example is the café named after its most popular dish; Frog Porridge (Roald Dahl invention or a genuine foodstuff?)
Singapore is fascinating, it’s an incredibly young country and Asia’s fastest growing economy. Everything is run like a very efficient business and there was no arts scene at all until the late 80’s. One local friend tells me that her government-sponsored scholarship to school there ensured she was never allowed to choose any arts subjects throughout her school years. The system may have progressed since then but I did see a large sign hanging in a school library which reads ‘Non-Fiction Makes Us Smart.’
Our very international delegation of arts festival organisers are here for a week to discuss and reassess how we make festivals. We are also here to see Singapore and are shown the impressive arts scene that has emerged in the past twenty years. The Esplanade Arts Centre by the water is one of the most impressive structures, it is shaped like a durian fruit and encompasses two indoor and one outdoor stage. This is where the annual Singapore Arts Festival is held. We were taken to a glorious, almost filmic outdoor Japanese performance called ‘When a Gray Taiwanese Cow Stretched’ as part of the festival. The set backed on to the river and was dwarfed by the city’s skyscrapers. The show was beautifully choreographed but so text-heavy (projected on screens alongside the stage) that it’s distracting from the action. I’m not sure if this feature is typical of the director, or of Japanese theatre or just the way it seems in translation and I am once again reminded of how unfamiliar I am with Asian cultures. We speak (through two interpreters) to the director, Yukichi Matsumoto after the show, who is great and gracious but Japanese formality means that by the time we hear an answer I can no longer remember the original question. After this came my favourite part of the evening where the show’s lighting designer DJ’d and we danced with the cast who seemed to mostly swim breast-stroke and slap each other.
The following evening we were taken to Theatre Works –a small theatre, where one of our delegation works. It was a relief to see a structure which isn’t brand new and vast. This place is a converted warehouse and here we hear a panel of Asian Arts Festival organisers discuss programming Arts within their own contexts. The Indian Dance festival organiser in the audience asks how the panel define Asia–after all the discussion entirely excluded Indian arts festivals. One of the panel, a representative of the Asian Festival Association explains that excluding India is not intentional and the boundary is considered as far east as Japan and as far west as Palestine, and Turkey, and maybe Israel, but that has a large question mark of course. I wonder why the question mark is there.Israelis not the only Asian country to illegally occupy another. It may be the only one to participate in the Eurovision Song Contest, but I can’t imagine that’s criteria for exclusion. It may also be a matter of self-definition… I wanted to ask the question but the discussion moved on and I was reluctant to take it back there because I suspect the answer will be ill-informed and I would find it frustrating to begin to talk about Israel/Palestine with people who have been to neither.
The discussions which emerge in the following days unravel a huge series of issues. The support and questioning we offer each other and which are offered by our team of mentors is vast, despite (and in certain instances, because of, the diversity of our contexts) The job of a festival, it is posed. is to capture a particular moment in time and place, and create a framework which allows us as producers to dig a little deeper, go a little further than we might outside of a festival. Considering JBW in this light, I immediately saw the moments when this happens. For instance, the events where the conversation takes us, and maybe the speakers to unexpected and fascinating places, or the conversations which have not yet taken place in any other Jewish context in the country. But I also realised that our festival is often far better at approaching the sombre and occasionally meaty, rather than the celebratory. That’s a challenge we’ll have to confront at our 60th anniversary next February.
Constraints obviously varied according to the divergent contexts. Several of our group faced hurdles of censorship –the fascinating aspect was that after growing up with a climate more strict than the current one, many couldn’t always see the levels of censorship in which they worked until they presented it to an international audience and noted the surprised response. We also had to deal with wildly different budgets. Many of the Western European festivals were able to explore new avenues and remain well supported, whilst the other end of the spectrum was also represented, such as the Imaginary Festival in Jakarta which featured imagined original paintings from Da Vinci and world-class music events including a shoe-string orchestra.
I have returned brimming with inspiration and so many questions, such as: do festivals exist to please the audience or develop their curiosity? If audience numbers are not the only measure of success what other measures can we use? Could we have a poet in residence? Or a rabbi in residence?
The idea of exploding the idea of the remit of a literary festival is also enticing. I’m overwhelmed with the ideas I’ve heard so far, such as the photographer who creates giant flickbooks of the people he meets in the city that day, or the all night texting session which relayed text messages as they came in on giant panels across three floors.
I’m looking forward to bringing it all to life.