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Tour Guidance: re:walk Telok Ayer by DOIT.SG X Secretive Thing (Review)

A meandering walk that’s less tour than it is video.

With the introduction of the STB-NAC Performing Arts Tours Pilot Grant, a multitude of arts companies have ventured into the realm of local tours, reimagining them with a theatrical twist and putting their own spin on the experience. The latest of these to emerge is DOIT.SG and ‘secret experience’ company Secretive Thing‘s re:walk Telok Ayer, which, as its name suggests, takes audiences around the Telok Ayer district to discover its take a walk on the ‘mild side’.

The crux of re:walk Telok Ayer lies in the art of meandering, wanting us to immerse ourselves in the environment as we walk and take in the possibilities of the space. Audience members are given a choice of two half-hour tours to embark on, going on either tour guide Tricia Lui or musician mm_mmatt en route from Telok Ayer Park to Telok Ayer Green, and either artist Lim Chin Huat or actor Timothy Nga en route from Telok Ayer Green to Telok Ayer Park. While there are ‘recommended’ combinations, all four tours are independent pieces, and whichever path audiences pick, they will end their tour at the same place they began.

In the current pandemic climate, large tour groups have become a thing of the past, and live tour guides will be hard-pressed to lead groups while maintaining effective social distancing. To circumvent this issue, perfectly in line with Secretive Thing’s style, each tour guide instead appears to us virtually, in a pre-recorded video walk we follow both digitally and physically via iPad.

But while this is an innovative means of going on tours, there are certain kinks that have yet to be worked out, hindering the experience. For starters, navigating with an iPad in hand takes some getting used to – it’s a bulky item, and having to plug ourselves in, watching the onscreen video to guide us where exactly we should walk can be distracting as we spend more of our time glued to the screen rather than taking in our actual surroundings.

On our tour, we started off at Telok Ayer Park, and began with a video tour by mm_mmatt, who talked about his own backstory growing up listening to 60s psychedelic music, which then led to his more experimental leanings as a musician. Along the way, we’re treated to his sounds, while he elaborates on the struggle of being an independent musician in Singapore today. Perhaps one highlight of the tour is when we enter a ‘secret’ location, given access to a space we’re not usually privy to, as we gaze out at the district from a different perspective.

When we arrived at Telok Ayer Green, we took a short break, before beginning our video walk with Timothy Nga, who shared his story and opinions about sharing space. As we walked the back alleys of Amoy Street, Tim shares a history of labourers who worked in the area, sharing laughter and stories after a long day of work. We’re introduced to the last well in Singapore, before we’re taken up Ann Siang Hill, sitting on the benches and gazing out at the buildings awash in air-conditioning units, and the city beyond it. Timothy shares an anecdote about working with late actor Lee Weng Kee and filming at Ann Siang Hill, speaking of Singapore bathhouse culture, and the men that walk past Ann Siang in the wee hours, a symbol of existing between worlds.

Both videos we watched were well-shot, and deeply personal. Yet when it comes to a tour, perhaps the video format simply does not gel with the idea of physically walking about – after all, isn’t it common advice not to walk while staring at a screen? Furthermore, if you’re looking for information about the heritage of Telok Ayer, neither of our tours provided it, and instead, seemed to involve more about the tour guides’ backstory and lives as artists, rather than taking the time to really appreciate the space. In that sense, re:walk Telok Ayer felt less like a tour, and more of an on-site, ambulatory video-watching experience, one that might have been better enjoyed from the comfort of home, rather than as a walk. Perhaps in future iterations, the organisers can find ways to circumvent these problems, and truly take tours into a new digital era.

re:walk Telok Ayer ran on 12, 13, 19, 20, 26 & 27 February 2022.

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