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M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2019: An Interview with Loo Zihan, Creator of Catamite (Preview)

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For most readers, the word ‘catamite’ is likely to be an unfamiliar one. To unpack its meaning, one would have to go all the way back to ancient Greece, where it originated. The archaic word comes from ‘Ganymede’, a word that doubled as the name of the most beautiful mortal man in Greek mythology. With its original meaning referring to the pubescent boys involved in a pederastic relationship, a performance lecture titled as such naturally, would involve itself with queer issues.

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Queer Objects

Created and presented by Loo Zihan, Catamite is set to receive its world premiere as part of the 2019 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival this January. Going beyond its original meaning however, Loo unearthed a more modern interpretation of the word, as used in the early 1900s. Says Loo: “Catamite is an obscure word that’s fallen out of use. Back in the 1930s to 60s, it was used as a British colonial term for male, boy or transgender prostitutes. When I was doing some research and excavating a legal case from the 1930s, there was a judge who used that term to describe a witness, and that particular case, between a British male officer and a male prostitute, was one of the first high profile cases where 377A was invoked, and I was interested in how both parties ended up getting very different sentences.”

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Queer Objects

377A of course, refers to Penal Code 377A, a Singaporean legislation that criminalises sex between two mutually consenting men, and is interpreted as a form of legal discrimination against gay men. Over the years, it has been contested a number of times, but today, still stands. Says Loo: “A lot of people don’t actually understand the history of how the law, or 377A came into being in Singapore. We have this vague notion of it being inherited from the British when they colonised us, but the clause itself came from 1939, which is a relatively  recent amendment. What Catamite is looking at is the historical cirumstances surrounding that amendment and calling into question why it was at that point the British chose to introduce this law.”

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Queer Objects

Catamite is in a sense, a sequel to one of Loo’s earlier works – Queer Objects: An Archive for the Future, an installation piece that was in turn a response to the Lecture, This Way Project (2015). Exhibited in back in 2016 at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, Queer Objects imagined a future where Section 377A was repealed, and Loo gathered a collection of objects that would then act as a hypothetical Singaporean queer archive with their historical or personal significance as seen through a queer lens. Says Loo: “In my installation, I originally hoped people would be able to contribute their own objects to the installation, but I encountered certain issues with that. Now, I hope to create a controlled environment where we can interrogate the possibility of contribution, and have audience members consider if they had to contribute an archive of your existence to such a collection, what would these objects be?”

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Queer Objects

Catamite itself will be split into two parts during the performance – it begins as an artist lecture and dialogue where Loo shares his experiences of staging Queer Objects, before the intimate group of audience-participants (limited to 20 per session) gathers for a series of participatory activities and conversations to reflect on identity and the potential of objects. On how he took the theme of Still Waters and brought Queer Objects to the next level, Loo explains: “I saw Suzann Victor’s original artwork as occupying the interstitial space between the inside and outside, public and private, and in my performance, hoped to explore those boundaries and transgressions of space. 377A itself for example, is built on a foundational basis – to pass judgment on a private act, how and where do you draw the line legally with regards to it coming into the public eye, and I wished to extend this to the idea not just of acts but of objects as well.”

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Queer Objects

On how Catamite will continue the conversation he began in Queer Objects, Loo says: “While the installation was very broad and people placed a lot of attention on the more sensational objects, I wanted to use this opportunity to shine a spotlight on the more mundane objects that have very interesting narratives. If you look at the publicity images, you’ll see that I’m holding a watch. It’s a Swiss brand, made in Japan for a European market and has a little swordfish on the back. I hope that people take this watch as an example, and use it to think about how other objects may also have hidden narratives that can contribute to an archive they may never have thought about.”

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Queer Objects

Knowing how difficult it can be to get Singaporeans to participate in a performance, or even deal with how they might be intimidated by the idea that it’s a lecture, Loo assures us that he’s prepared. Says Loo: “I’ve always been interested in pedagogy and teaching, and for me, I know I need to scaffold different levels of participation for different audience members. There’s a large part of the piece that comprises very personal, individual exercises, and a lot of them will help to break the ice and move audiences from passive spectator into active participant. They do get to decide what to share about themselves, I’m not going to coerce them into anything, and it’s almost like this entire show is a kind of post-show dialogue, where people should feel comfortable about their level of participation and contribution towards a healthy discussion.”

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Queer Objects

On his responsibility as an artist, Loo explains: “My purpose as an artist is to provide information and knowledge, but present it in a different way while crafting a narrative. Audience members then would decide for themselves whether to take the information at face value, or to question their own interpretations.”

“In a sense,” he concludes. “You could say that I’m here to provide you with the full range of knowledge required before you decide to buy into a story so you can make an informed decision on where you might stand on a certain issue.”

Images from Loo Zihan

Catamite plays at the Centre 42 Black Box from 25th – 27th January 2019 as part of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. Tickets available from SISTIC. For more information on Loo’s exhibit Queer Objects, visit his website here

M1 Singapore Fringe Festival 2019: Still Waters runs from 16th to 27th January 2019 across various venues. For the full lineup, visit the website here. Tickets available from SISTIC

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