January 10, 2020 – In its third iteration, the Southernmost Festival has been brewing quietly. It is an event that barely blips on Singapore’s theatre calendar, its esoteric nature requiring bigger marketing funds to grow an audience and even more critical discourse to bridge meaning and value. Yet, this festival provokes: it is proposed as an “art festival for the future”.
Since 2017, every year Emergency Stairs’ Liu Xiao Yi gathers a group of artists to meet in Singapore for Southernmost, most of them with a highly regarded traditional performing arts background. The festival is most often placed within an intercultural frame, but I would like to argue, that the lines are bit more blurred, and better understood that way.
For example, without the context of Hong Kong, Indonesia, Japan, China, Thailand, Singapore or Cambodia, without theatrical signifiers that shape, perhaps tyrannically, how the audience is to receive and interpret a performance, engaging with the work is a free fall. One becomes reliant on the charm of the performer, novelty derived from the beautifully dissonant electro-design, and sheer will to engage with a minimalist showing. Watching the performers in the darken Black Box of Centre 42 can be lulling, yet, a lot more meaning can fill the space if we look beyond this experiment as a simple contact between different cultures.
Thus, I found myself asking a nagging question – Why should a handful of international artists gather, spending our carbon footprint, to verbalize and analyse the experience of meeting the Other?
As an observer of Southernmost and writing this response essay, I need to situate myself within my own encounters with Southernmost and intercultural practice. An observer is not free from his own biasness.
My entry point into directing were Arianne Minouchkine, William Teo, and Danny Yung’s practices. For me, their practice inspired my interest and guided my foundations of working with the Other: other cultures and other times. Theirs was a time where borders were becoming ever more porous as ideas and histories flowed freely between new air routes and information highways, fuelled by an urgent desire for post-war harmony. Globalism was abuzz.
The performer’s curiosity and a desire for staging ideas prompted me to participate in the masterclasses in Southernmost’s inaugural year, in 2017. I took a combined masterclass between Indonesian dance master Nini Thonok (Yogyakarta), Kun opera master Wang Bin (Nanjing),
Since then, I have deepened my friendship with the Bangkok theatre community, engaging in my own inter-city work with contemporary theatre-maker, Jaturachai Srichanwapen (Open Waters, 2018). I am also creating in more spaces outside of Singapore, most recently in France and Portugal, while trying to shift my work into inter-disciplinary modes.
What I have found, in working between different disciplines, Times, and with Others, harmony is beautiful to see but a process that is too harmonious rarely births anything meaningful or interesting.
At least to me.
I propose two frames in this essay to help deepen the analysis of my question: 1) Tranculturalism; and the more cynical sounding 2) clash of civilisations.
The “trans-” in transculturalism refers to transcending, and is correlated to the demise of a civilisation (Klimenko, 2003): an awareness of one’s own culture developed only when a civilisation is in an era of decline. Being able to see one’s own culture is akin to seeing a spectre of a civilisation that has passed or is passing. The blinding scales only fall from our eyes, allowing us to see culture only when we find it dying, or going amiss.
Svetlana Kilmenko quotes Russian scholar Mikhail Epstein, the originator of this paradigm, in her essay, Shakespeare, Chekhov and the Emergence of the Transcultured Self in Denmark:
“The most important moment in the transition from civilisation to culture is the eruption of an internal split, not unlike an individual’s ability to see him- or herself from without. … Thus, culture is civilisation that has realised its end and embraced its own limit in the perspectives of self-destruction: political opposition, economic crisis, environmental catastrophe, or a cultural metalanguage capable of using ‘civilised’ language in a practice of self-analysis or self-critique. The feelings of pain and death at work within civilisation express its potential for becoming culture.” (2003)
Theatre, thus, presents a unique forum where culture can be used to transcend culture (Kilmenko, 2003). It serves as a site where transculturalism can be physically embodied, because “theatre, more directly than any other form of cultural self-expression, or any other genre, offers us a multidimensional, continuous space, and a site of intercultural interaction” (Kilmenko, 2003).
The notion that transculture is inevitable, like a star collapsing on itself, provides an intellectual and existential safe-haven to frame the dramaturgy of Southernmost. Spaces like these allow us to hypothesize and extrapolate, through play, the absurdity of culture. As a nation obsessed with identity and standing on the world stage, hosting Southernmost in a building older than Singapore itself takes on additional meaning and purpose – we can transcend this obsession with identity, and we can free ourselves from the burden of culture. We can step off the star, to see the star, before the star collapses.
Kilmenko (2003) quotes further:
“Transculture is not a field of knowledge, rather, it is a mode of being at the cross-roads of cultures. Liberation from culture through culture itself and its endless diversity is the fundamental principle of transcultural thinking and existence …The transcultural world lies not apart from, but within all existing cultures, like a multidimentional space that appears gradually over the course of historical time. It is a continuous space in which unrealised, potential elements are no less meaningful than ‘real’ ones. As the site of interaction among all existing and potential cultures, transculture is even richer than the totality of all known cultural traditions and practices.”
However, it was hard to ignore that the presence of the Singaporean body in the Southernmost headliner, Journey to a Dream, pales sharply in comparison to the other non-Singaporean players on stage. It is tempting to wave the Singapore flag here and ask where is the Singaporean voice? Surely a Singaporean festival should have a more prominent Singaporean voice? However, the discomfort here, I think, presents a further depth to this discussion.
In an editorial piece Huntington’s Disease published in The Economist (2020, January 4 – 10), the author cites Samuel Huntington and Christopher Coker to argue that the 21st century will see deeper clashes between the civilisation-state, where “the state protects (and projects) an entire civilisation rather than a mere nation” (pg 20). The “civilisation-state” has become a popular term to describe the rise of dominant world powers and the alliances they have built since the 20th century. Such an article points to an interesting Zeitgeist of this age.
Here, the idea of power in culture, through the politics of national sovereignty (“the state”), is introduced. Culture is preserved through aggression or protection, and its civilisations seek to transcend borders and history, providing politicians with ideological justification (The Economist, 2020). “The term [civilisation-state] is in vogue” and it is not hard to imagine why this editorial is slotted into an issue, with a cover title “Poles Apart, China and America and the planet’s biggest break up,” that runs a few weeks into the escalating tension between Iran and Trump’s US Administration. Borders between Nationalism and Civilisation blur as the World’s economic and military powers grapple with sovereignty, pride and preservation against a backdrop of humanitarian crises and climate change that dominated the headlines in 2019.
Why, then, should a handful of international artists gather, spending our carbon footprint, to verbalize and analyse the experience of meeting the Other? How do we fit into this Zeitgeist?
As much as theatre can be a projection of a transcultural space, it can also be a space of where civilisations clash. In Southernmost, this friction is played out in the dominance and subjugation of Hong Kong and Singapore, director and actor, master and apprentice, performer and audience, funder and artist, idea and action, beauty and boredom. The by-product of this friction, I hypothesize, is culture.
It must be noted that the two frames used in this discussion are of the early 2000s. Perhaps in a deeper critical review, these two frames may prove to be flawed, for example, when placed within a post-colonial reading of intercultural theatre. However, I propose these two alternate frames to answer my question of “why” because Transculturalism challenges the distinction between cultures while seeing intercultural theatre as a clash between civilisation-states acknowledges the cultural friction inevitable in theatre.
I think, this is the potential of Southernmost – to allow and encourage alternate frames to encounter the Other; to allow contact and contradictions to stimulate new ideas. Southernmost would be a waste of potential if the lie of multicultural harmony dominates the conversation, where the sentimentality of theatre-making and forging of inter-city friendships dominate. It would also be an opportunity lost if it attempts to consciously forge a Singaporean point- of-view, an attempt at articulating culture and identity when it is already being done.
The author was an invited observer of Southernmost Festival 2019. No remuneration was received.
Huntington’s Disease [Editorial]. (2020, January 4 – 10). The Economist, Charlemagne, 20
Klimenko, Svetlana (2003) Shakespeare, Chekhov and the Emergence of the Transcultured Self in Denmark. Language and Intercultural Communication, 3:2, 151-157