Forging new frontiers in the arts with T:>Works

Photo courtesy of T:>Works
Photo courtesy of T:>Works

Singapore theatre group T:>Works has revealed its plans for the new decade, including the addition of two new members to its team and the launch of PerForm, an international fellowship programme that aims to expand global artistic practices.

Taking a bold step into the next 10 years, theatre company T:>Works introduced PerForm, its new fellowship programme that seeks to expand artistic practices beyond Singapore and across disciplines and specialised fields.

Having received seed funding from the Ford Foundation of S$1 million (US$746,157), it will commit this amount to research, knowledge production and contextualised practice over three years, while continuing to raise funds to sustain this programme. Additional support for this project comes from the Cultural Matching Fund.

Helmed by theatre veteran Ong Keng Sen, 57, who resumed the role of Artistic Director last year, T:>Works is a Singapore-based independent and international performance company founded in 1985.

First up this year, T:>Works will present its inaugural digital lecture by Singaporean artist Shubigi Rao on 6 May. The remaining five fellows joining PerForm are also from Singapore: Ho Rui An, Jerrine Tan, Munirah Mansoor, Nurul Huda Rashid and Wong Bing Hao. More fellows will be announced in the latter half of 2021. Dr Ong says that he plans to invite the remaining fellows from the Global South, which refers to underprivileged countries located on one half of the global North-South divide. 

“PerForm is one way of trying to break through, to reach more people to get out of the silo of art, [and] to see art as interconnected,” he shares. “It’s about trying to break through the glass ceilings and walls which actually affect art in Singapore.” 

In pioneering thought leadership in the arts, Dr Ong adds that T:>Works will provide a “strong educational perspective with research and discourse contextualising the histories, contemporary experiences, and art practices of South-East Asia”, as well as nurture a “field of arts care”.

Opining that writers, artists, audiences and managers are all part of the same field, he calls for these different stakeholders in the arts scene to form a “sustainable ecosystem” and encourages them “to speak out when things have to be said, rather than keeping silent.” 

He says, “What we’re doing in art in the public sphere, and dialogue in the public sphere, is a very fragile thing. So it can be destroyed very easily… We are all in this ecosystem to try to keep it afloat.” 

Braving new frontiers in the arts with T:>Works
Returning to the helm of T:>Works last year is theatre veteran Ong Keng Sen, the theatre group’s Artistic Director. (Photo courtesy of T:>Works)

The seeding of PerForm

The idea for PerForm began as part of Dr Ong’s dissertation, which revolved around the topic of “remaining enchanted and [exploring] how to develop a vision of the world which is beyond national borders.”

Elaborating, he says, “People are already writing about how the planet is something that we all co-share and have to be responsible for equally. Not just the richer nations – the poorer nations also have to have common custodianship.”

Young environmentalists such as Greta Thunberg and the global climate strike movement FridaysForFuture also inspired him. As part of a group teaching a Master’s class in Oslo, he recalls looking at the “performance of everyday life” with these young people. He was struck by the inherent “struggle for limited resources” and by people who became aggressive while “fighting for the world they want”.  

Being an artist involves “being porous to the world, [from] all these things that are affected outside coming into your space,” he says, while also acknowledging that one “cannot necessarily make a show immediately about it.” Instead, PerForm creates a freer space for “discussion or dialogue”, and will involve persuading individuals from fields outside of the arts, such as scientists, to join the project.

“When you think about scientists, what we have to offer them is nothing,” he says. “They must have an interest, say, in biology and in music, perhaps. Then they might come in to look at molecules and how music is made from molecules, and then how it feeds back into public reception, and perhaps this helps with individuals who are having [difficulties such as] attention span issues. It’s a space where one impacts the other.”

All this will take time to evolve and Dr Ong asks for more trust in the process: “One of the things we are looking at, process as opposed to product, is to see how we invest not just several years, but maybe a decade, like what we did with The Flying Circus [Project].

“These things are percolating. We have to trust that the people who are listening and taking the information will start to use the knowledge in their own ways. It’s about trusting that if the knowledge is valuable, it will be harnessed.”

Braving new frontiers in the arts with T:>Works
T:>Works’ new Executive Director Traslin Ong (left), with artist Brian Gothong Tan, who will direct an artistic atelier with T:>Works. (Photo courtesy of T:>Works)

New, old faces join the team

T:>Works also welcomes two members to its team: Traslin Ong, 47, returns to Singapore to join T:>Works as Executive Director; while multimedia artist Brian Gothong Tan, 40, will direct an artistic atelier with T:>Works from 2021 to 2023, exploring the fields of cinema and film. 

Both Ms Ong and Mr Tan are no strangers to T:>Works.

Ms Ong was a manager for the theatre group from 1999 to 2004.

“I return to T:>Works and the Singapore arts landscape, both of which have changed vastly from 20 years ago. And that’s an exciting place to be in,” she says. “I look forward to creating a safe, yet vitally artistic space, for the next generation of arts practitioners at T:>Works.”

Having worked with renowned artistic establishments in New York, including the Brooklyn Museum, and Museum of Chinese in America, Ms Ong relishes the chance to “refocus arts management as a field of arts care.” This means “listening to needs, understanding artistic ideals, and extending care” to future artists.

Mr Tan’s journey with T:>Works started in 2007 with The Flying Circus Project, which was a visionary nomadic artist residency programme that gathered regional and international artists to “engage with life” through an alternative university. He says that T:>Works was a key influence in “shaping and reframing” his approach to art and life, and that he was eager to push boundaries and bolster T:>Works’ body of works. 

“I’m excited to work with my T:>Works family, in a time when we are saying goodbye to the old world order and watching a new one being born. It is a blessing to be able to articulate the world we live in,” says Mr Tan. 

100 Microfilms, the first of four works he is to present with T:>Works, will premiere in October this year. The piece will marry installation art and cinema to feature multiple narratives of people travelling across Southeast Asia in a “sumptuous” seven-hour-long experience.  

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