The Monday Interview: Ong Keng Sen on the Role of a Curator

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It’s hard to miss Ong Keng Sen. Sporting his usual all black attire, complete with a snazzy pair of sunglasses, Theatreworks’ artistic director cuts an imposing figure as he strides across the lobby of the Intercontinental to meet us.

But there’s honestly nothing to fear about Ong, who greets us with a smile and a cool demeanour. If anything, the most impressive thing about him is his sharp intellect and observation skills, which, along with his impressive resume of accolades and work over the years, is being put to use in a whole new light with Theatreworks’ latest initiative: The Curators Academy.

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Arkadi Zaides’ Capture Practice, the opening presentation of Curators Academy

This January, Theatreworks will be beginning their run of The Curators Academy, a new initiative where curators from the entire region will undergo an intensive five day workshop with a strong focus on performance. Along the way, they’ll be watching some carefully selected performances and artworks, taking part in discussions amongst each other and international, acclaimed trainers to guide them through the process.

Says Ong: “The Curators Academy was set up in light of a post SG50 world. There’s a need to look at how curators should be framing the performing arts. Good artists are everywhere, but often funnelled out of the scene too early to get noticed. Meanwhile, nobody has really dared to call themselves a curator. We needed to set up this Curators Academy to legitimize the practice, showing that there is a set of skills you need and to educate our participants.”

“There’s a difference between being a programmer and a curator,” says Ong. “True curating isn’t just picking things up that are on an Asian tour and following the bandwagon, and starts from being more open minded. A curator is meant to act as mediator and communicator with the audience. We need curators to be critical and speak about the scene at large. A curator is able to identify the deficiencies and the needs of the scene, and not just be the gatekeeper for our arts scene.”

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Shermin Langhoff

In the second phase of the Curators Academy in 2019, there’s going to be real impact of these curators participation, and we can even expect the best proposals of the participants produced into three local festivals of processes. Says Ong: “We’ve got some very exciting trainers coming down during the first phase later this week. For example, Shermin (Langhoff) from the Maxim Gorki Theatre in Berlin works with post-migration theatre, collaborating with exiles and asylum seekers directly in her work. We can watch a show by professional actors all we want, but Shermin, in working with these real people performing themselves, brings a real sense of urgency to the table, making art have real meaning beyond just being art for art’s sake.”

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Still from Tsai Ming Liang’s No No Sleep. The filmmaker will be in attendance during the screening.

“The reality is that Singaporeans are not very interested in new ideas. As a nation, we’ve been trained not to think out of the box and Singaporeans like to follow the tried and tested path. But back in the 90s, Singaporeans were still searching and innovative, making our own musicals and art forms before they became overseas institutions, established and mainstream structures.”

Ong then raises the need for change in the system, and to dare to do more new work that is urgent and relevant. “Nowadays, there’s the sense that although everyone is doing the arts, there’s not real hunger. Everything is funded, so we we play within the lines of the funding. Singaporeans are not asking themselves who sets the parameters, choosing to play in the box that has been defined for them. But who defines this box? Curators who are knowledgeable and dare to challenge the status quo. Art is for everybody but not everyone is an artist, just like how medicine is for everyone but not everyone is a doctor. There needs to be more responsibility to the demand and supply of the arts scene, and we need to stop supporting mediocrity. ”

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Still rom K. Rajagopal’s A Yellow Bird

Ong then expresses his fear of how the current generation thinks, a change from artists and audiences of the past: “It’s scary how nowadays, young people are already safe and want to stay safe. Imagine an electric fence – years ago people were going up to that electric fence and getting zapped, but they knew they wanted to go beyond it, and try to find ways and means to go around it. But the generation today are so free and happy, they’re content with how things are without even going up to that fence and questioning it.”

“At a screening of Rajagopal’s A Yellow Bird at the Projector, someone asked ‘Why do you concentrate on such marginal characters in the film, they don’t seem real? Is it purely for the sake of being dramatic?’ And I was shocked at how sheltered and unaware she sounded, and how she’d probably never encountered anyone like the characters depicted in the film in her entire life.”

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Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s FEVER ROOM

During the academy, participants will be watching a number of carefully curated performances and art works that push the very definition of genre and medium itself. “The mission of curators is to consistently connect audience to artist, pushing both of them to expand the scene and their view of the scene. We’re showing Apichatpong’s FEVER ROOM for example, because it blurs the line between film and theatre, as there are no live performers onstage. A curator then needs to set the context and give information to garner interest in audiences.

Ong then re-emphasizes the need to build a community of curators: “With The Curators Academy, our participants don’t need to be established curators yet, they could be a producer or an artist, but they need to have the desire to mobilize and share and show that they want to be a part of the scene, whether artistic, media or managerial. Here, they are forming a community, sharing with each other as peers and gaining an opportunity to meet people from the region and figure out how they can work together.”

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Ultimately, the curator’s role isn’t to aggravate, but to enhance and improve the scene for everyone, both artist and audience. Ong concludes: “I went to a Van Cleef and Arpels workshop and saw how much effort they put into polishing a diamond. Before, it just looks like glass, but you keep polishing and suddenly, the raw diamond begins to shine. That’s the role of a curator – they make art shine because they have an urgency and precision and start to have a quality beyond art for art’s sake, and hopefully, people will be able to see and feel why it’s such a necessary role.”

Theatreworks’ Curators Academy runs from 24th – 28th January 2018. Ticketed events include FEVER ROOM and a Tsai Ming Liang Double Bill. For more information and the full schedule, including observable sessions, visit their website here 

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