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Per°Form Open Academy: An Interview with Ong Keng Sen on the development of public space for dialogue and exchange

T:>Works Artistic Director, Dr. Ong Keng Sen, sees a multitude of problems all around him. The cost of living for one, has gone up, and weighs down on everyone’s minds. The brain drain and mass exodus of intellectuals who can no longer stand living in Singapore, seems to be a widely accepted fact. And in a post-pandemic world, where everything seems fleeting and temporal, the idea of permanence seems to be a fantasy of the past.

And that is why Keng Sen has decided that the only solution is to put his foot down, put down roots, and put his faith in ideas of fellowship and education, brought to life in the form of T:>Works’ Per°Form Open Academy. Taking place from 13th to 16th April 2023 at 72-13, Per°Form Open Academy of Arts and Activations is the inaugural live gathering of 14 Per°Form Fellows from the Global South and its diaspora.

What that means is that Keng Sen has invited 14 Per°Form Fellows to Singapore, each one sharing about their unique practice and research over the course, and facilitating a culture of open exchange and interdisciplinary learnings. As a kind of ‘alternate university’, Per°Form also invites members of the public to participate in the events, and in the name of accessibility, are all for free.

“As a private citizen again, I feel that I am now able to pioneer something new,” says Keng Sen. “We changed our name to T:>Works because for some time now, we’d already been producing work outside of theatre alone, and that gives us the freedom to explore everything from dance to film to visual arts. We are here to engage with what we feel the scene is lacking, and I saw a lack of responsibility for this public space and what we’re doing as artists. I thought, do we want to be stunted and intellectually underdeveloped? We cannot wait for the government to do something about it. So it is up to us to develop the public space for discourse.”

The Per°Form Open Academy is in no way a whim, and Keng Sen has long been carefully considering the trajectory and state of the local scene before launching the project. “Back in 1988, my focus was telling our own Singapore stories as opposed to the norm at the time of doing Western work. Now, the scene has changed again, and you can see so many people telling Singapore stories, and that’s why we need to push towards a new direction,” says Keng Sen. “One thing I’ve realised for a while now is that in Singapore, we don’t really have new narratives coming in. Yes, we’ve got shows that address important issues, but rarely do they take on larger topics around the world, whether it’s the Russo-Ukraine war, or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Compared to a global city like say London, Singapore feels so unengaged, and you won’t see active discussion or involvement in such issues here.”

This isn’t Keng Sen’s first time exploring such issues of education, and the Per°Form Open Academy harkens back to his days running the Flying Circus Project, which explored creative expression in Asia, taking artists from around the world to new sites to present performances, screenings, conversations, laboratories, workshops, talks and engagement with local. It was an opportunity to engage and connect, space to share strategies and practices, and always, looking towards the future.

“Education isn’t always linear or top-down, and people can be educated in other ways, such as through exposure. With the Open Academy, it becomes non-hierarchical, where we learn from each other rather than relying on experts,” says Keng Sen. “The intent is for it to develop into a more porous space, where we focus more on the spaces in between and opportunities for labs, compared to how Singapore likes to focus on the idea of always going for a ‘finished product’, and I want to reintroduce the idea of labs into the ecosystem. Essentially, I want to create a zone of learning that’s more hospitable, to pioneer adventure and curiosity, to create this open picnic and space of hospitality.”

To this end, the Open Academy embraces alternatives to such a route, implying an openness which opposes hierarchical learning, refuses elite membership, and ultimately unpacks the institution into a porous space. The Per°Form Open Academy aspires towards planetary consciousness.

“In the wake of a pandemic, it is an opportunity to rethink the way we do things, and start on a clean slate. Thinking about the future of 72-13, we want it to be a space for education, inspiration and dialogue with the world. Now as an academy, we’re not SOTA or Lasalle, but a space of trans-discipline education, a space for ideas,” says Keng Sen. “The arts in Singapore is heavily surveyed and I really don’t see much free space here. We have control at the cost of innovation. I think about how we’ve lost the pre-war houses, the shophouses, and I see the same thing happening in the arts. We can no longer afford the narrative of ‘if you don’t like Singapore, then leave’. All you have left are people you can control and regulate, who play by the rules. We can no longer be so insular and live in our silos, and we need to break the brain drain cycle.”

For Keng Sen, all of these issues are exacerbated by the rising cost of living, a paternalistic government, and in general, a rigidity within tried and tested systems that discourage innovation. “The rising cost of living curtails the spirit of adventure somewhat, and our programme costs a lot, but it is thanks to our donors, and especially the late architect William Lim, who donated a generous sum,” he says. “He saw something in this, and I hope we can continue to push for more curiosity, more learning about the world, and put funding into travel grants for research and practice, where artists respond to what’s happening in the scene. We are thinking of what’s urgent, and thinking about our personal responsibility. It is not political, but about telling and sharing our personal stories, and listening to each others’.

How often does one get to meet a person, let alone an artist, from Havana or Burkina Faso? Capitalising on this rare opportunity, Keng Sen has also set up a buddy system for the Fellows, pairing each of them with a local artist, curator or thinker, facilitating greater exchange and exposure. “Engaging with the unknown is important, and I do think the academy will attract young artists and thinkers. It’s about developing new ideas, to listen and hear these radical new ideas on thinking, and even try it out,” says Keng Sen. “It is through these interactions that authenticity is revealed, where each of these artists share their search and their journey, and we are no longer alone.”

Beyond the workshops and keynote speeches that will be happening, central to the Per°Form Open Academy of Arts and Activations is a marathon on 15th April stretching from 11am to 1am the next day. As daunting as it sounds, audience members need not stay the entire duration, and the entire marathon ends on a banquet, to decompress, rest, and gather. And in many ways, that sums up the point of Per°Form – a chance to gather, to engage, and to be with each other. This is a chance, post-pandemic, to think together, and physicalise the thinking process together.

“I feel like that’s why I came back to this. It is a chance to do something physical, on-site. Singapore has been lobotomised and gone through a time where the average person wants something similar. Life is expensive, and we need a shock to the system to find new ways of enjoying together,” he concludes. “We need the hospitality, hence the banquet at the end of the marathon. When you create pleasure and space for the enjoyment of food and drink, that’s when the questions and ideas begin to flow, that’s when people become relaxed enough to talk as they eat, and that’s when we become generous.”

Per°Form Open Academy of Arts and Activations runs from 13th to 16th April 2023 at 72-13. Register for free at Eventbrite. Full programme lineup available here

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