Monday, January 16, 2006

SG: Fun Capital or Cultured City?

I went to a though-provoking talk on Friday at Hong Kong's Fringe Club, part of their 10 day City Festival that features exhibitions, performances, music, discussions and (of course) food from Singapore. Some events continue through to next week-end - check it out!

The talk I attended was titled "The Remaking of Singapore - Fun Capital or Cultured City?" The key-note speaker was Prof. Kwok Kian-Woon, Head of the Sociology Division at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences of Nanyang Technological University (Singapore) and the talk was moderated by Benny Chia, Artistic Director of the Fringe Club.

Singapore's push towards creating a vibrant arts and culture hub was explained as stemming from two realizations: 1) "fun & funds" - i.e., there's money to be made from art and culture, particularly if it is pop-art and pop-culture; and, 2) the belief that there may be a link between creativity as a catalyst to modernity and overall wealth - 'creative' cities tend to attract brains.

From the practical considerations of 'return on cultural capital' several studies were commissioned by the government resulting in the implementation of policies that have turned Singapore into a city that today boasts a large variety of theatre, movie, painting and music exhibits relative to what was on offer 15 years ago. Many of the activities are on the 'fun' side of the spectrum (i.e., silly musicals that are lucrative today) while attention is also being placed to 'cultured' activities (i.e., the symphony and other art shows that may foster a more creative society - long term dividends).

Critics in the audience pointed out that the development has still been confined, if anything due to the fact that virtually all funding is provided by the National Arts Council, which itself tends to be the primary recipient of all the available local corporate grant money. Large projects such as The Esplanade (its developers apparently had no idea that locals would rename it 'The Durians'!) have come at the cost of hundreds (if not thousands) of small 'off-braodway' type productions.

While I took note of the challenges and frustrations presented by Singaporean artists in the crowd, I couldn't help but wonder if Singapore was none the less a few steps ahead of Hong Kong in terms of developing itself as a city of arts and culture. For one, Singapore has a coherent plan for the development of a regional arts hub, while Hong Kong has no credible plan and is too busy accomodating developers wishing to participate in the development of West Kowloon.

Singapore took a big risk in commissioning an iconic project in the form of The Esplanade. While it's hard to quantify the pay-off, my impression is that it is succeeding in making many visitors come to Singapore expecting arts and culture. Can the same be said of Hong Kong? Singapore has a well funded arts council and is placing centres of learning in the middle of its city - steps to encourage the local population to be participants and creators within the arts scene as well as other industries. Is Hong Kong at a public or private level doing anything comparable?

I couldn't help thinking that having this talk in Hong Kong was appropriate. In spite of their many differences, Hong Kong and Singapore do share many similarities and concerns. How will these cities succeed in attracting and retaining the most creative and productive minds? Where is the hinterland of skilled and creative people that these cities will tap, and how will HK and SG succeed in presenting themselves as more attractive than Shanghai? Which city will be the most fun in 20 years and enjoy the richest cultural activities? Is the future.... Macau?! :)


Anonymous said...

Can art really be organized or does it often have to first rise from a more chaotic environment? Perhaps it can be organized if it isn't organic but imported?

Anonymous said...

Rather than art as a product, I think the value of art lies in the process of creating it.

I'm not so familiar with either Singapore or Hong Kong, but I think that clues about the true views about the value of art can be seen in the education system. Is there any place for it? Is there any way to legitimate the value of the process, which necessarily includes a messiness, a searching, a transitional space that also leads to learning?

D.W. Winnicott writes that "There is a direct development from transitional phenomena to playing, and from playing to shared playing, and from this to cultural experiences...Playing is inherently exciting and precarious. This characteristic derives not from instinctual arousal but from the precariousness that belongs to the interplay in the child's mind of that which is subjective (near-hallucination) and that which is objectively perceived (actual, or shared reality)."

Granted, Winnicott's research and writing center around the world of psychotherapy, but his ideas of play might be useful in locating this idea of the "creative" that seems inherent to ideas about art and its value. (I'd be curious to hear more about Prof Kwok's #2--creativity as a catalyst to modernity and overall wealth...)

The process of learning--knowing, then questioning and not knowing, only to reach a new state of knowing is one that everyone goes through in learning, but one that artists experiment with and really push (refine?) to the limit. Isn't it always about creating a new way to see, to understand, to express...

Is this process, at the heart, at odds against an educational system where mastery of topic is the key (i.e. as in a system of exams and testing) and a society where art is seen as separate from life? Something that only a few and perhaps priviledged can do? Where is the art and play in the everyday? In the everything that we all do? And when do we begin to see life in this way? As adults? Younger?

Anonymous said...

On the seashore of endless worlds, children play.


Dave and Stefan said...

Thank you. Thought-provoking questions and comments... and difficult for me to answer, though I can offer some speculation:

The panel indicated that the SG government ultimately still sees itself playing a role in what can be 'published' and the speakers suggested this is partly achieved indirectly via funding policies that favor some venues/artists over others and corporate apprehension to sponsor an artist that hasn't already been vetted by a government body.

There was clearly some anxiety during the talk of what could be said and not said, with some panelists asking for seemingly innocuous comments to be "off the record" and another asking for all recording equipment to be switched off.

Singapore prides itself on its incredible transition from third world to first within 30 years. This transition was centrally planned and meticulously directed. In this context, the desire to make the development of the arts a 'controlled explosion' is understandable, though controversial and difficult.

Can art be organized? Can a nation transition from 3rd to 1st world in 30 years? I think the answer to the latter question in SG explains the confidence the government has in being able to achieve a creative society. How this will be done in context to the anxiety I mention above? I don't know...

Importated art probably is part of the imperfect 'solution' to quickly give SG a veneer or 'artsiness', although I think it also genuinly plays a role in its effort to catalyze a local discussion and connect this to a global dialogue.

Your point about the educational systems and the willingness to allow for a creative process is good. There's a lot of talk in SG and HK about addressing this in their educations systems, though I'm not in a position to know of its effectiveness.

Prof Kwok did not really elaborate on this issue (creativity --> modernity), as - at face value - it seems to be largely accepted in these two cities.

But another question, which I believe addresses your comments, was asked: "Can a creative city thrive on the dominance of instrumental rationality?"

Anonymous said...

Question well said/asked. I wonder if true creativity (whatever this might be) is ultimately at odds with "instrumental rationality" because it involves a measure of critical thinking and questioning which at some point would lead to questions about the rationality as well as questions about who is creating/defining it.

Thanks also for including the info about how questions and comments were asked to be off the record. So surprising, but on second thought, makes perfect sense. In some ways, this "reality" answers the question indirectly--how can one be creative when one feels one is watched, when one feels there is always a powerful judging audience, when the reality is (for some) that one's thoughts and expressions can have very real consequences.

Just heard about a new novel on the radio--the premise of the book is that since all the best artists have tortured lives, that in order to cultivate more artists, the people in power decide to select struggling artists to torture. The selected get a letter in the mail with something about how they've been chosen to never have a happy day in their life.

"There are no exact guidelines. There are probably no guidelines at all. The only thing I can recommend at this stage is a sense of humor, an ability to see things in their ridiculous and absurd dimensions, to laugh at others and at ourselves, a sense of irony regarding everything that calls out for parody in this world. In other words, I can only recommend perspective and distance. Awareness of all the most dangerous kinds of vanity, both in others and in ourselves. A good mind. A modest certainty about the meaning of things. Gratitude for the gift of life and the courage to take responsibility for it. Vigilance of spirit." (Vaclav Havel upon receiving the Open Society Prize awarded by the Central European University in 1999, trans. by Paul Wilson)

Dave and Stefan said...

ha! First good laugh of the day! The novel you mention sounds hilarious!

Thank you for your posts. The Vaclav Havel quote is great - had to read it out loud.