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The 2017 edition of the Singapore International Opening of the O.P.E.N. kicked off last night with the opening event Art as Res Publicae, or roughly translated from latin – art as a public good. Designed as a panel discussion themed around the value of art in society, the first edition of Arts as Res Publicae was titled Some Complexities Surrounding Pluralism In Singapore, and surrounded the topic of pluralism, acceptance and arts role in all of it. Prior to the event beginning, audience members were asked to fill out a survey that indicated their opinion on various statements about the arts and their role in society, including how much authority should be given to the individual and the government.

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The event kicked off proper with a dramatic reading of Eleanor Wong’s 1995 play Wills & Secession, the second play in a trilogy following the life of respected gay lawyer Ellen Toh leading a double life in Singapore and London. In this reading, Ellen was played by Tan Kheng Hua, while her sister Grace was played by Checkpoint Theatre’s Claire Wong. The excerpt chosen from the play involved the two sisters engaged in heated discussion over Ellen’s return to Singapore for Grace’s wedding and choosing not to sit with the family, while Grace herself was embroiled in a crisis of spirituality, when her husband was suddenly ‘called upon by God’ to embark on a mission overseas, with Grace expected to follow. The sisters battle out their differences with angered words, resulting in a heated, but perhaps, better understanding of each other in the end.

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Armed with the topic of plurality, the session then segued into the discussion portion, where 6 commentators were chosen each to comment on the idea of plurality and the arts from specific standpoints. Reverend Miak Siew of the Free Community Church started the ball rolling with a call to rethink on interpretations of art beyond the first impression, using the example of Serrano’s Piss Christ, before passing the baton on to lawyer and co-founder of The Online Citizen Choo Zheng Xi, who talked about legislations surrounding art and our reception of it. Dr June Yap then took to the mic, speaking from a curator’s point of view, before writer Alfian Sa’at spoke about the need to preserve private, uncommon spaces beyond the confines of the law to find extraordinary experiences untainted by authority. Finally, interfaith activist Imran Taib spoke about diversity in the arts, before cultural anthropologist Dr Ad Maulod ended the presentations on a thought provoking note, raising the need to re-examine histories of oppression and privilege before enforcing exclusivity and warped values.

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From here, a group of discussants pre-selected from the public and who had gone through two training workshops beforehand were given the opportunity to raise questions to facilitate further exploration and discussion of the topic of pluralism in society before taking a break. Audience members were asked to fill up the same survey as they did as the start of the event, and results were tabulated, showing whether opinion had changed over the course of the night, and no surprises, there was very little movement. After the break, the discussants also presented their views on various pre-selected controversial and often damning statements/comments and to what extent these statements should be monitored or censored in the arts or in the public sphere.

Delivering the closing coda, founder of Intercultural Theatre Institute T. Sasitharan summed up what the entire night really felt like: preaching to the choir when there was no convincing to be done, because the majority of the audience were already part of the same cause, understanding that there was a need for increased plurality and that there is value in the arts. What Art as Res Publicae did tonight then, was offer a form of reassurance that yes, the fight for representation and increased acceptance and plurality continues even today, but certainly highlighted the need to move beyond the echo chamber of our familiar art spaces and arts-inclined audiences, to learn about and become inclusive of others with diverse and even directly opposing views. Art is a medium that cannot exact change directly, but can certainly influence the right people to exact change if done correctly.

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Did Art as Res Publicae achieve its goal? While it didn’t necessarily move mountains in real life, its intentions were all there, aimed at making us rethink and re-evaluate our own perception of the arts in society, with baby steps forward towards making actual change. Kudos to Ong Keng Sen and his team for kicking off the O.P.E.N. with a thought provoking workshop that certainly makes us believe in a positive future for Singapore’s arts scene.

If you’re interested in being a part of this workshop, Art as Res Publicae continues tonight, with a discussion will surround the topic of ageing and the future of long term care, with a screening of Kornel Mundruczo’s Dementia to act as a starting platform for the discussion. Come in with an open mind, ask questions that will create food for thought, and wash away your disenchantment with a renewed belief in the power of art as a public good.

Art as Res Publicae‘s second edition will take place at 72-13 (72-13 Mohamed Sultan Road, Singapore 239007) on 29th June. Limited single tickets available on the door, or buy an O.P.E.N. Pass from SISTIC that will allow registration for all events. 

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