Episode 25

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Published on:

26th May 2021

Episode 25: Su-lin Ngiam-Agents of Hope

CSCW EP 25: Su-Lin Ngiam - Agents of Hope


Threshold Questions & Delicious Quotes

What does the ArtsWok Collaborative do?

I like to say that we're agents of hope. That we're really here to inject hope in society, or at least we try to, and it's about the bridging difference be it between people or ideas or uncomfortable topics.


How do your very public arts practices advance your issue-based community work?

…we want it to be out there where people can see, they can hear --- really bringing a taboo issue out into the open, making what's invisible, visible, unheard, heard. And the arts are great for doing that and creating spaces that can do that


What is Go-Li?

It's (Drama Box’s) inflatable theater … we have used that structure in our projects as well, … It's tour-able, so you can bring it to different communities, and you pop up and cause you're not allowed to be there permanently, then you deflate the structure, and you move on. And it becomes some kind of an icon as well.

People recognize it, and “Oh, okay, these guys are here. The artists are here.” And it's about creating safe space as well because it's open, but it's covered, but yet you can walk in and out so you can have conversations about difficult things or people can be vulnerable.

What is Both Sides Now?

...we have presented this project for seven years. …essentially, we're out there engaging community saying, "Have you thought about death?" …it's an important part of living to think about that. In fact, it's very much two sides of the same coin. …
how we live our lives will determine how we end. So, it's really all quite related, but of course, it can be quite taboo, and it's a painful topic. Loss, in general, is hard to talk about, but I think that's something we really need to talk about more as societies.

 

What role does negotiation play in the cultural life of Singapore?

We are artists. We are here to question and provoke. And having said that, we have things like censorship in Singapore in terms of, so, all our scripts, plays, have to be submitted for a license. … there is a process of negotiation that, as artists, we then undergo with the state or with authorities, and it's that process of dialogue.
And whether or not we choose to, to then, adapt our place or our work or choose another creative way to talk about it or present it. That's up to the artists, But I think what is meaningful is that process of negotiation and how we negotiate, and that impacts the way we practice, and it makes us more creative in a way. Then it is about finding the vocabularies and being patient. That change takes time.

 

Transcript


Bill Cleveland: New Year's 2014 in Singapore, the year of the Horse

What is Singapore, a city-state, a very small, very well-off multi-ethnic country, an unlikely nexus of community arts innovation? For those, like me, who know the place from some personal experience and some very fine Singaporean friends, it's all of those with a promise of much, much more. And that promise, for me, has been personified by one of those friends I mentioned. 

I met Su-Lin Ngiam at an international community arts conference In the Spring of 2010 hosted by the St. Louis Regional Arts Commission. She was there with her long-time collaborator Ko Siew Huey. In that encounter, I came to know one of the most striking characteristics of Singapore's notable capacity to punch far above its weight. Which simply translates as "learning is sacrosanct" and "knowledge is power."

The country's dramatic rise from a post-WWII, post-colonial basket case to global economic power is certainly a success story fueled by incredible discipline and a belief that Singapore's greatest asset is its people. But, the Lion City, as it is sometimes called it, does have a sketchy side. Like the US, Singapore is classified as a "flawed democracy" in the Economist Magazine's well-respected Democracy Index. One aspect of this means that Singapore keeps a pretty tight hand on internal criticism.  

Nevertheless, over the past decade and a half, it has spawned a robust community of artists who are very committed to nurturing the incredibly wide range of Singapore's stories.

Su-Lin heads an arts-based community development organization called ArtsWok, whose work she describes as being "agents of hope." That agency has made an indelible mark on the Singapore community in dozens of neighborhoods and venues. She shared the ArtsWok story with me in the Spring of 2021, just as the Covid cobwebs were beginning to melt.  

This is Change the Story / Change the World: A Chronicle of art and community transformation. My name is Bill Cleveland.


Part 1: Making Space in the Wok 

BC: [00:00:00] Okay. Hello, this morning.

Su-Lin Ngiam: [00:00:02] I think it's way too early for you. Isn't it?

BC: [00:00:04] Actually, I normally wake up at that time. To do my writing,

S-L N: [00:00:08] you have coffee, right?

BC: [00:00:09] I do. Yes, I'm going to be jumping up and down here. Yeah. I'm just gonna dive in with my questions. My understanding is that Singapore has handled the world pandemic catastrophe better than most. Is that a true thing?

S-L N: [00:00:25] I guess if you're looking at it, in terms of numbers, then yeah. We have a fairly low infection rate and very few deaths compared to many countries. So in that sense, yes. But we did have a situation with the migrant workers and the dormitories here. About 105,000 were infected because of the kind of living arrangements, the virus spread really fast.

So that was our crisis. It was contained to a particular kind of population or demographic. But it also surfaced a lot of issues with regards to how we how we treat our migrant workers, their living conditions, and so on and so forth.

So yeah.

BC: [00:01:03] so I remember when I was there, that was one of the just beneath the surface issues that was there. And as has happened all over the world, the stress test of the pandemic has surfaced. The cracks in society, the places that aren't, aren't working as well as they should. My first question is really one of self-definition. You've been at this work for the past seven years. Very intensely. So when you're sitting across the table from people who are new to Arts Wok, how do you describe your work in the world?

S-L N: [00:01:42] So we would generally say that we're intermediaries. So that's the word that we use. We work in the field of art space, community development, so I'm ABCD as you know it. And essentially, we're here to bridge people, ideas, resources; a lot of the work is about facilitation and bridge-building.

And Apart from that, we also do creative producing work. So, we actually design projects and programs with communities, with stakeholders. We implement them with artists, and then we look at evaluating them. In a nutshell, that's what we do, but it doesn't sound very Romantic, or it's not.

So I guess it really depends on who I'm meeting. But I like to say that we're agents of hope that we're really here to inject hope in society, or at least we try to, and it's about. The bridging difference be it between people or ideas or uncomfortable topics.

And essentially, I think without hope, we can't survive; we can't progress. We can't, actualize and I think we, we need a lot of that right now in our world. And it's hard work. It's difficult work. So, self-care becomes crucial as well, so yeah, I guess if you look at the work itself, we're intermediaries, we're producers, we're doing this because we want to create a more hopeful society,

BC: [00:03:01] So you work with a broad range of constituencies. Could you describe your community?

S-L N: [00:03:07] primarily, we work with a lot of artists and creatives designers. They are the core of our practice, and who we engage with the most then, of course, depends on what kinds of work we're doing. So, if it's with a direct geographical base community, for example, then we work with a residential community.

We also work with issue-based stuff. So, like a project, we do call it both sites. Now we look at end-of-life and seeding the importance of having end-of-life conversations and planning. So, then the community is much larger it's anyone in Singapore. But of course, then you have the health care system.

You have the social services; you have policymakers and funders. So, it really cuts across the entire ecosystem. It really depends on what the program or the project is about where our interests are

BC: [00:03:58] so one of the things, a sort of a picture that I have that people who are not familiar with Singapore It might find enlightening is when you talk about geography, which is quite small. And actually, it goes vertical because so many people live in what we would call public housing, but which is basically all, almost all housing in Singapore. The people of Singapore basically live in high rise apartments

S-L N: [00:04:25] Yup.

BC: [00:04:26] That's a different landscape.

S-L N: [00:04:27] And sometimes that makes it harder to do work in the communities only because when it's high rise and is vertical, then in terms of, how you can use space or how you can design those sorts of interactions kind of changes because we don't have a lot of public space, even within a residential community, we have parks and all of that, but it's quite dense.

And so sometimes it's hard for us to find suitable spaces, to do our public engagements because we genuinely do installations. And this is a certain scale to what we do because we want to evoke curiosity. And when you want to invite larger groups of people, you need space. And sometimes that becomes a challenge.

But I guess it's about thinking creatively then about how to engage vertical communities versus, horizontally and everyone can see each other. And so, it's just a different approach to the work. Yeah.

BC: [00:05:15] It brings to mind. And I'm wondering when I was there. There was a project that had produced a pop-up arts venue. It was a blow-up venue. Is that still there? Is that still being in use?

S-L N: [00:05:28] Do you remember what it was called? Was it called Go-Li?

BC: [00:05:31] Yes, I think so.

S-L N: [00:05:32] Yeah. Yeah. It's their inflatable theater that they got specially made by. I'm designing this in the UK. It was the collaboration. It's still around. It's currently deflated because they're not really supposed to be doing large-scale public engagements at this point in time.

But yeah, Drama Box are close collaborators. In fact, we present the end-of-life project, Both Sides Now, together, and this has been for seven years. And we have used that structure in our projects as well, but. They use it for other work that they do. That's an excellent idea, yeah. Cause limited space. It's tour-able, so you can bring it to different communities, and you pop up and cause you're not allowed to be there permanently, then you deflate the structure, and you move on. And it becomes some kind of an icon as well.

People recognize it, and Oh, okay. These guys are here. The artists are here, and it's about creating safe space as well because it's open, but it's covered, but yet you can walk in and out so you can have conversations about difficult things or people can be vulnerable.

So that's really nice. Yeah.

BC: [00:06:28] So, just a statistic, how many people can fit into that and to Go-Li

S-L N: [00:06:34] That's a good question. They have three; I think the smallest one we fit about 60 to 80 and then the largest one I think goes up to about 150 200.

BC: [00:06:44] Yeah. It's an extraordinary thing. You're probably used to it, but I think there are probably many artists listening, mouth thinking. Ah, So I'll make sure that all your contact information will be. Available at the end of this podcast so that we can put people in touch with you who are interested in more information.

As you said, seven years before that, you were doing interesting things as well. What is the path of your journey from an inquisitive, creative person to doing what you're doing now? --- in essence, running, at least, what I see as the preeminent arts-based community development organization in Singapore, right?

S-L N: [00:07:24] Thanks, Bill. I'll accept that. Yeah, the journey. I come from a family where my parents are educators and social workers. So that, that's like the family I was born into, and that's really influenced my beliefs, my value system and just seeing what it means to have a higher purpose, with one's life and giving back to one's community, and realizing that one has the agency to make a difference, no matter how small. But even more powerful with others. So, that's really influenced me.

I have to say also, growing up; I've been part of uniform groups. So, I think you guys have that in the US, the (Girl) Guides and the Boy Scouts. Yep. Yep. So, I've always been part of some kind of community. So, I was in the Brownies as a kid, then I've gone to the Gold's Brigade. And that, so, this idea about again, being part of a community where you learn and grow together and you do life, but you also give back, and like your life is a service, right? So that's influenced me.

I guess a big turning point also was, realizing my sexual orientation as a gay person, and I'm in Singapore, that's still criminalized. So, in, in terms of our penal code, sex between two men is still a crime. Nothing mentioned about two women, but nevertheless, it's still largely frowned upon. And we have strong religious groups here, conservative, who don't support that. So even though there's the law, but the government, our courts say that they won't prosecute, but nevertheless, the law being there already says a lot, and it does play on people's minds, and basically you're seen as illegal in that sense, even though you're not prosecuted.

And so, my family is Christian, and I was I'm a Christian myself. And I think a big part of my journey was reconciling that right. Being gay and being Christian. And what does that mean? Why I have to hide a part of myself. So that's really influenced this idea about the importance of bridging difference of being able to Really encounter someone else and be open and nonjudgmental, .and to listen deeply.

And how do we celebrate that diversity, not just tolerate it? And then, how do we work together? How do we collaborate, and how do we sit with that tension, or the discomfort, but yet seek something higher, or transcend ourselves, so to speak? But anyway, that, that path led me to do theological studies, and counseling, and all of that.

So, after graduation, I worked in the arts for about six to eight years doing company management and arts management. But then, I went on to do theological studies and counseling. And, that part of my life for three years was very much about reconciling my faith, my sexual orientation, who I am, and how do I be coherent? And how can that, then, help me serve?  I guess when there's more coherence, you can do better work. You're not afraid; you're doing something about your fear. So, then I worked in the only LGBTQ church in Singapore for another about two to almost three years after I graduated from theological college. And that was really rewarding. But then, I found that limiting because when you do work from your position on religion, sometimes more doors close than open. And I think, also being an LGBTQ church in a kind of society like Singapore, it's hard as well.

People don't really give you the time of day, or they don't take you as seriously. And I always wanted it to work. And the LGBTQ community is very important to me. I also want to look at a whole range of issues and communities.

And if saying, I'm the pastor of the Free Community Church. It is going to close more doors than open them. Then that's not really the position from which I'm going to work. So, I moved on, and that's when I started ArtsWok. And this was with Huie, who you've met as well, Bill. So, she's currently on our board, but when we started ArtsWok, we were both running the organization.

And we've grown over the years from two. We are now a team of five, and you have interns and trainings for about eight of us at this point in time. But yeah, thanks for listening to my story. All those experiences have shaped me and motivate me.

And so, ArtsWok really is, my vision of combining my passions, my disciplines, my sense of purpose to the arts and culture, and community development, and spirituality. And that has given birth to Artswok. And it's an ongoing journey in terms of what that work actually can look like and its impact in society.

BC: [00:11:50] One of the images I got when you were describing this was the journey, as you say, to feel safe and free in a place where there's not necessarily a direct path. And I was thinking about, literally Go-Li or some other stage where you have a place that is a safe space for making sense and meaning of a world that is complicated and, in some cases, restrictive, but it gives you a new way to have your voice be present in the world. Does that make sense?

S-L N: [00:12:28] A lot of sense. And that's why it's ArtsWok as well, okay. Like the Chinese cooking walk because the wok is that. Safe space, that container, it's that circle, it's a safe circle. And it is about than bringing different people or ideas or resources, and we're creating something in that wok something hopefully delicious and nutritious and yummy.

BC: [00:12:51] Yeah, I could definitely say my culinary adventures in Singapore were some of my best

S-L N: [00:12:57] You love

Transcript

Episode 25: Su-Lin Ngiam - Agents of Change

Bill Cleveland: New Year's:

What is Singapore, a city-state, a very small, very well-off multi-ethnic country, an unlikely nexus of community arts innovation? For those, like me, who know the place from some personal experience and some very fine Singaporean friends, it's all of those with a promise of much, much more. And that promise, for me, has been personified by one of those friends I mentioned.

s conference In the Spring of:

The country's dramatic rise from a post-WWII, post-colonial basket case to global economic power is certainly a success story fueled by incredible discipline and a belief that Singapore's greatest asset is its people. But, the Lion City, as it is sometimes called it, does have a sketchy side. Like the US, Singapore is classified as a "flawed democracy" in the Economist Magazine's well-respected Democracy Index. One aspect of this means that Singapore keeps a pretty tight hand on internal criticism.

Nevertheless, over the past decade and a half, it has spawned a robust community of artists who are very committed to nurturing the incredibly wide range of Singapore's stories.

tory with me in the Spring of:

This is Change the Story / Change the World: A Chronicle of art and community transformation. My name is Bill Cleveland.

Part 1: Making Space in the Wok

BC: [:

Su-Lin Ngiam: [:

BC: [:

S-L N: [:

BC: [:

S-L N: [:

So that was our crisis. It was contained to a particular kind of population or demographic. But it also surfaced a lot of issues with regards to how we how we treat our migrant workers, their living conditions, and so on and so forth.

So yeah.

BC: [:

S-L N: [:

And Apart from that, we also do creative producing work. So, we actually design projects and programs with communities, with stakeholders. We implement them with artists, and then we look at evaluating them. In a nutshell, that's what we do, but it doesn't sound very Romantic, or it's not.

So I guess it really depends on who I'm meeting. But I like to say that we're agents of hope that we're really here to inject hope in society, or at least we try to, and it's about. The bridging difference be it between people or ideas or uncomfortable topics.

And essentially, I think without hope, we can't survive; we can't progress. We can't, actualize and I think we, we need a lot of that right now in our world. And it's hard work. It's difficult work. So, self-care becomes crucial as well, so yeah, I guess if you look at the work itself, we're intermediaries, we're producers, we're doing this because we want to create a more hopeful society,

BC: [:

S-L N: [:

We also work with issue-based stuff. So, like a project, we do call it both sites. Now we look at end-of-life and seeding the importance of having end-of-life conversations and planning. So, then the community is much larger it's anyone in Singapore. But of course, then you have the health care system.

You have the social services; you have policymakers and funders. So, it really cuts across the entire ecosystem. It really depends on what the program or the project is about where our interests are

BC: [:

S-L N: [:

BC: [:

S-L N: [:

And so sometimes it's hard for us to find suitable spaces, to do our public engagements because we genuinely do installations. And this is a certain scale to what we do because we want to evoke curiosity. And when you want to invite larger groups of people, you need space. And sometimes that becomes a challenge.

But I guess it's about thinking creatively then about how to engage vertical communities versus, horizontally and everyone can see each other. And so, it's just a different approach to the work. Yeah.

BC: [:

S-L N: [:

BC: [:

S-L N: [:

But yeah, Drama Box are close collaborators. In fact, we present the end-of-life project, Both Sides Now, together, and this has been for seven years. And we have used that structure in our projects as well, but. They use it for other work that they do. That's an excellent idea, yeah. Cause limited space. It's tour-able, so you can bring it to different communities, and you pop up and cause you're not allowed to be there permanently, then you deflate the structure, and you move on. And it becomes some kind of an icon as well.

People recognize it, and Oh, okay. These guys are here. The artists are here, and it's about creating safe space as well because it's open, but it's covered, but yet you can walk in and out so you can have conversations about difficult things or people can be vulnerable.

So that's really nice. Yeah.

BC: [:

S-L N: [:

BC: [:

As you said, seven years before that, you were doing interesting things as well. What is the path of your journey from an inquisitive, creative person to doing what you're doing now? --- in essence, running, at least, what I see as the preeminent arts-based community development organization in Singapore, right?

S-L N: [:

I have to say also, growing up; I've been part of uniform groups. So, I think you guys have that in the US, the (Girl) Guides and the Boy Scouts. Yep. Yep. So, I've always been part of some kind of community. So, I was in the Brownies as a kid, then I've gone to the Gold's Brigade. And that, so, this idea about again, being part of a community where you learn and grow together and you do life, but you also give back, and like your life is a service, right? So that's influenced me.

I guess a big turning point also was, realizing my sexual orientation as a gay person, and I'm in Singapore, that's still criminalized. So, in, in terms of our penal code, sex between two men is still a crime. Nothing mentioned about two women, but nevertheless, it's still largely frowned upon. And we have strong religious groups here, conservative, who don't support that. So even though there's the law, but the government, our courts say that they won't prosecute, but nevertheless, the law being there already says a lot, and it does play on people's minds, and basically you're seen as illegal in that sense, even though you're not prosecuted.

And so, my family is Christian, and I was I'm a Christian myself. And I think a big part of my journey was reconciling that right. Being gay and being Christian. And what does that mean? Why I have to hide a part of myself. So that's really influenced this idea about the importance of bridging difference of being able to Really encounter someone else and be open and nonjudgmental, .and to listen deeply.

And how do we celebrate that diversity, not just tolerate it? And then, how do we work together? How do we collaborate, and how do we sit with that tension, or the discomfort, but yet seek something higher, or transcend ourselves, so to speak? But anyway, that, that path led me to do theological studies, and counseling, and all of that.

So, after graduation, I worked in the arts for about six to eight years doing company management and arts management. But then, I went on to do theological studies and counseling. And, that part of my life for three years was very much about reconciling my faith, my sexual orientation, who I am, and how do I be coherent? And how can that, then, help me serve? I guess when there's more coherence, you can do better work. You're not afraid; you're doing something about your fear. So, then I worked in the only LGBTQ church in Singapore for another about two to almost three years after I graduated from theological college. And that was really rewarding. But then, I found that limiting because when you do work from your position on religion, sometimes more doors close than open. And I think, also being an LGBTQ church in a kind of society like Singapore, it's hard as well.

People don't really give you the time of day, or they don't take you as seriously. And I always wanted it to work. And the LGBTQ community is very important to me. I also want to look at a whole range of issues and communities.

And if saying, I'm the pastor of the Free Community Church. It is going to close more doors than open them. Then that's not really the position from which I'm going to work. So, I moved on, and that's when I started ArtsWok. And this was with Huie, who you've met as well, Bill. So, she's currently on our board, but when we started ArtsWok, we were both running the organization.

And we've grown over the years from two. We are now a team of five, and you have interns and trainings for about eight of us at this point in time. But yeah, thanks for listening to my story. All those experiences have shaped me and motivate me.

And so, ArtsWok really is, my vision of combining my passions, my disciplines, my sense of purpose to the arts and culture, and community development, and spirituality. And that has given birth to Artswok. And it's an ongoing journey in terms of what that work actually can look like and its impact in society.

BC: [:

S-L N: [:

BC: [:

S-L N: [:

BC: [:

S-L N: [:

BC: [:

S-L N: [:

BC: [:

Part 2: Both Sides Now

BC: You have so many chapters in your work, so many constituencies, so many iterations of the work in your community. Are there one or two stories that really rise up that you would tell someone else, "This is really what we're up to. This is how our work is powerful."

S-L N: [:

And then this project fell on my lap. So, I really believe there's a larger kind of force or powerful universe at work. And we have presented this project for seven years, and essentially, we're out, they're engaging community saying, have you thought about death, and you've thought about dying, cause everyone eventually goes through that, some sooner than others.

And it's an important part of living to think about that. In fact, it's very much two sides of the same coin. And if you haven't, if you can't accept that, we're all going to leave one day, then, in a way, how we live our lives might be really different knowing that there's going to be an end.

And, also how we live our lives will determine how we end. So, it's really all quite related, but of course, it can be quite taboo, and it's a painful topic. Loss, in general, is hard to talk about, but I think that's something we really need to talk about more as societies because it's not just about dying.

It's about the loss of health, loss of dreams, of work, just loss in general, and it really humanizes us. And I think we don't we don't talk about these difficult things enough, which can be a great way to connect us as well. So anyway, this project, so, we've been engaging in different geographical communities and encouraging people to think about dying, what are their values, what's important to them?

What are the relationships in their life who would they want to talk to in terms of? Making plans, what kind of wishes do they have? What's the kind of legacy they want to leave behind, unfinished business?

Kenneth: I know that, for instance, right now, at the age of 40, I do not want to be put into an asylum. I do not want to be tube-fed. If I cannot eat would just go. I know that if I did not articulate that decision and I left that decision to anybody else who loves me, they would want to sustain me in the hope of getting me better. And sometimes this might be the eventuality for the next ten years. And this might be very hard to accept as well. So, it's much better if I make that decision beforehand. So, I am saying this into the camera. I am making a recording, and if one day you take this film and show it to my wife if anything should happen to me, it's a statement. And she will know that she has made the right decision if she watches this recording.

BC: That was a man named Kenneth speaking in a video that he made with Both Sides Now called Message to My Wife.

S-L N: [:

And in terms of seeing the vulnerability in people, but also then the strength and the beauty, It's amazing. And we don't have enough spaces to talk about these things in our everyday lives. We're also busy making a living or getting entertained. But I think increasingly we don't take enough time and space to really examine these really crucial things in our lives and for ourselves and with others.

But the other thing that I also really love about the project is that we do it in public space. We didn't want to just do it in some closed-door space, but we want it to be out there where people can see, they can hear --- really bringing a taboo issue out into the open, making what's invisible, visible, unheard, heard. And the arts are great for doing that and creating spaces that can do that

So, I remember there was one year, it's multidisciplinary, so, we have installations and film. We have theater; we have photography; you know, you have images. And so, one year, we installed a coffin, smack it, so you talked about the high-rise apartment blocks. And so there was an open space beneath the blocks. And it was like two basketball courts that we installed our structure. And we brought in a coffin. So, it's quite unusual to see a coffin right out there in the open. But, nevertheless for seven days, and that was just one of the installations. And basically, we were inviting people to lay in the coffin, and we had recorded soundscapes and stories.

So that was piped through the coffin as you lay down. And, of course, it's part of a larger installation. So here, I guess we are slowing time down, asking people to pause from your daily life. "Come in and be transported and have a transformative experience." And so there was this young girl, she was probably was like maybe 16.

And his story sticks with me because her mom had basically told her, don't go for that exhibition or the installation because they're talking about dying, and it's bad. And if you go, maybe something bad will happen to you. And so, there's quite a bit of superstition around it as well. But she was so curious that she didn't tell her mom, and she came, and she wanted to challenge herself in terms of her fear about death or her curiosity, and just wanting to explore what it means for herself.

So, she interacted with the exhibits and watched the performance and all of that. And then when she came to the coffin, she really wanted to get in, but she couldn't. So she walked around it, she stood at a distance and observed it, but she couldn't do it.

So, she left and then she came back again the next day. And then, the next day. And what we did was, cause we installed it like four to five days in one community, then we moved to another community. So, by the end of four days in one community, she still couldn't do it. She came, she traveled to another part of Singapore where we set up again to try again.

Long story short, at the end of about eight days, she still couldn't lay in that coffin, but she wanted to. But for me, the fact that she kept trying and she kept coming back, and she engaged with us, and she was really tussling with the issues. It, it shows me like the importance of just creating opportunities like that.

In terms of difficult topics or what is uncomfortable for people to encounter for them to define what is their own safe space for them to define when they're ready to engage in when they are not. But nevertheless, there is a community of sorts around them supporting them, creating that safe space.

We have volunteers who facilitate conversations. But it's all very gentle. So it's not about telling people what to do, or this is what you need. But it's really community building from the ground up. And it's seeing the person in front of you for who they are and what they need and being patient.

So we do a lot of deep listening. And that really signaled to me that, actually I think what we do that's really important is being able to work with time. And space. We can literally slow down time for people by the type of spaces we create, and the way we facilitate what happens there, the way we show up, the way we engage, and that alone can already impact someone so much.

They have their own solutions to their problems. They can realize what they need. But, we all need people to come alongside us. And I think that's. Been harder, and there's a lot more noise and distraction every day now. And so, as artists, as creatives, I think we are like great manipulators of time and space.

And we create those spaces for play because we don't play as much anymore, as well. And there's so much that can happen when we play. And, we learn, we engage, we connect, we Imagine. And all those are things that artists can do and where everything is becoming virtual and online and isolated, and where we're just watching stuff by ourselves or, just not activating our whole bodies, this whole.

The embodied experience is getting more and more divorced. And I think Covid has just really made it like so many times worse, and so much quicker than in that sense; I think there's a great urgency for finding alternatives in terms of how we connect.

BC: [:

S-L N: [:

We were meant to go into a new community here and do quite a lot of engagement and programs, and that got shelved or postponed. And we present an annual youth theater festival called Esplanades. We've been presenting this for five years. And so, we invite young people, in schools or communities, to create original devised plays to be staged.

Youth theater Participants:

Young Actress 1: I learned to be a lot more empathic and selfless and learned to speak when I need to and listen when I have to.

Young Actor: This journey has given me a sense of hope. There is one line in our performance, "It's our turn to do our part." And this is something that means a lot to me.

Young Actress 2: Through the conversations that I had with my friends, the conversations that I had with my family, a lot has changed. And I actually bother to look around me to notice what is happening around Singapore.

BC: These students were:

S-L N: The entire festival had to go quickly online. So, we had to scramble in terms of making sense of what does it mean to create work where we're all embodied in our own spaces, but we're not. Collectively embodied in the same space and to devise from scratch. But you're not just working with a set script. You're literally creating something from scratch in different spaces.

What does it mean to then present that online and engage our audiences online? Where we hope for responses, and we hope for dialogue. And the festival had about three to four different works. So, it's not just about creating one work. We had artists who are amazing. The festival's focus was on disability. And then that had to shift online. So how do you work with Zoom with someone who's blind, and how do you work with zoom with someone with an intellectual disability. So, it was adaptation times many times. It was harrowing. But we had really good responses, and we pulled through right, as artists usually do. I probably grew older by five years within that one, many more white hairs, but a steep learning curve.

Yeah. But I guess it is hopeful in that. I do think that connection can happen online. It's just a totally different form in medium and a different kind of process that needs to be engaged. So, it's not impossible to connect and do good work and still be impactful. But having said that, I think nothing replaces in-person connection because there's just something about human energies that cannot be mediated by a digital form.

Something gets lost and diffused. And, if this goes on for a long time, I wonder how it would change the human brain. I wonder how it would change. Us and it's scary actually mean when you think about it. Yeah.

BC: [:

BC: [:

Okay.

S-L N: [:

Having said that, I would say, be very clear why you're occupying this role and why are you doing this work? So that kind of self-awareness and flexibility is really important.

And then I would say, read widely, it's interdisciplinary work. It's not just about the arts. It's about social issues. It's about urban planning. It's about politics and sociology and so on and so forth. Read widely.

And I think the strength is where the disciplines meet. And that's the value that, that as intermediaries we bring to the work, how do we translate across languages and disciplines and create new.

Part 3: A Process of Negotiation

BC: [:

S-L N: [:

BC: [:

S-L N: [:

I think it's about being strategic, definitely, but also knowing where the boundaries are and then navigating them in a way that is not alienating. So, it sounds a bit abstract, but we can talk about difficult things here, and we can stage difficult work or be controversial, and, to some extent, that's expected.

We are artists. We are here to question and provoke. And having said that, we have things like censorship in Singapore in terms of, so, all our scripts, plays, have to be submitted for a license and all of that. So that, that still exists, but there's a, there's a. Big area where we can play and where we can negotiate.

So maybe that's the word I'm looking for that a while it can be difficult and sensitive, and sometimes, you're not allowed to stage something or do something, there is a process of negotiation that, as artists, we then undergo with the state or with authorities, and it's that process of dialogue.

And whether or not we choose to, to then, adapt our place or our work or choose another creative way to talk about it or present it. That's up to the artists, or we might decide to retract the work and say, "No, if it's not going to be like that, then I'm not going to do it." All of that's within our right.

But I think what is meaningful is that process of negotiation and how we negotiate, and that impacts the way we practice, and it makes us more creative in a way. Then it is about finding the vocabularies and being patient. That change takes time.

And how do you advocate for change, and how do you create change within a specific context and a society where oftentimes actually. It's not necessarily the state that is against something, but it's the wider society or other communities that are not ready for it. And the state is just being. Cautious. Because we have had situations where the state tells us well, actually, if those other communities are okay or they're ready then. Okay. But it seems that it's a lot of pushback—for example, the LGBTQ issue from the conservatives, the Christian or Muslim.

And if those communities aren't ready, then the state's not about to agitate, and so that's not their role. So, in fact, a lot of our work is the groundwork is engaging with other communities. Those that are different or have different values or belief systems.

And so, that is also then our role to, to engage. And so, from the ground up, create change, So it is very complex. So back to those safe spaces, what are the safe spaces that need to be created for ground-up change? So, if it's not revolution, then what is it?

BC: [:

S-L N: [:

BC: [:

S-L N: [:

There's a lot of overlap, but just, for example, community development can mean so many different things to different people and how to do community development. So, a lot of it then is in the unpacking

BC: [:

S-L N: [:

BC: [:

S-L N: [:

BC: I can honestly say, at this point in the manic, upside-down movie we have all been living in, I wouldn't mind pushing the pause button on elections, just for a bit. Right now, though, we are going to punch that button on this episode and, in doing so, say thanks to you Su-Lin

S-L N: Yeah

BC: And thanks to our listeners here in the US and Singapore and around the world for tuning in and, if you are so inclined, being in touch. So let us know what you think by dropping us a line at csac@artandcommunity.com, by subscribing to the show, and by sharing the show with your friends and colleagues.

Change the Story / Change the World is a production of the Center for the Study of Art and Community. It is written and produced by yours truly, Bill Cleveland. Our glorious soundscape and theme are the masterful creation of the incomparable Judy Munsen, Our Chief editor is Andre the paddle Nnebe, and our cosmic guidance comes from the mysterious Uke 235.

Adios, my friends. Stay well and make good trouble.

Show artwork for Change the Story / Change the World

About the Podcast

Change the Story / Change the World
A Chronicle of Art & Transformation
Poets, dancers, and painters at war with white supremacy, COVID, criminal militias, and Milosevic? Muralists, musicians, and actors, making a difference in homeless shelters, planning departments, emergency rooms, and death row? Sound delusional? Yea, sure, but also true! And when creativity confronts destruction, and imagination faces fear, in places like Ferguson, Johannesburg, Belfast and San Quentin surprising things happen.

Our stories help shape and sustain our beliefs and actions. Bill Cleveland believes that meeting the challenges of the 21st century will require a revolution of thought and deed— in essence, a new set of stories powerful enough to change beliefs and behaviors.

Change the Story/ Change the World is a chronicle of art and community transformation across the globe. In each episode, Bill will introduce listeners to creative change agents working to re-imagine and recreate the social, political, and cultural narratives that define their communities. Join us
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