Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Most countries have slashed arts funding over the last decade.
But not pragmatic Singapore.
According to a recent article published last week in the International Herald Tribune (IHT) Singapore doubled its support for the arts from $55.1 million Singapore dollars to $110.3 million Singapore dollars. And that’s only from 2005-2008.
In the last decade, arts funding here has increased tenfold.
Result: In January 2011, Art Stage Singapore will open, organized by Art Basel Switzerland redesigner Lorenzo Rudolph. It will function, as the IHT points out, as a hub for the sizzling Indian, Chinese, and Indonesian arts scenes and the new market for contemporary Asian art.
Compared to when I last lived here in 2003, my cultural life requires quite a bit more navigation. It’s a major research project to coordinate all the activity here: I have a collection of brochures, flyers, websites, arts calendars, Time Out Singapore, and a variety of real and virtual maps to plot my arts adventures.
And that of course does not include the never-ending exploration of the myriad cuisines here, like Putian, Hakka, Hokkien, Peranakan, Malay, Indonesian, Singaporean, South Indian, North Indian and so on. It’s a heady experience--and not what some might expect from a place with a bad rap about gum and cleanliness.
The Esplanade has more concerts—and not just the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, but Branford Marsalis, tango from Argentina, singers from India, indie rock from all over Asia, Europe, Latin America and the US. Yo Yo Ma is coming to perform with his Silk Road Ensemble (I won’t miss this) but so is DJ remixer Karsh Kale and the MIDIval Punditz, billed as the top of India’s electronic a dance scene with synthesized soundscapes layering tabla, bansuri, programmed sounds and live vocals from Papon ( I won’t miss this one either).
In a report released this February 2010, Singapore’s planners in the government’s Economic Strategies Committee (ESC) recommend that Singapore become a “leading cultural capital” and a “distinctive global city.”
Given Singapore’s penchant for marrying high technology with transparency, I found the report online. The ESC Subcommitee Report on Making Singapore a Leading Global City puts the arts, multicultural diversity and international economic development front and center.
The report observes that Singapore’s cosmopolitan identity derives from its multiculturalism (which here means four languages a Chinese, Malay, Tamil, and English and diverse ethnicities). Singapore’s ministers want to leverage its hybridities to become a creative industries pinnacle for international events in sports, culture and cuisine.
In case you are wondering, no, Singapore is not abandoning its prowess in technology, transportation and sustainable urban development to refashion itself as the new 21 century city state version of the MacDowell Colony. And yes, there are still some restrictions on what can be done in the streets and what kinds of films can make it through the censors. Some concerts and arts events here are not exactly buzzing and SRO.
As the ESC report argues in its multiple, concise, bold-highlight bullet points, the New Asia means that the “leading economies of the future will be innovation intensive and ideas-driven.”
As I read the report, I wondered what an arts policy in the United States might look like that had a regional, grounded focus, a clear set of goals for implementation, and a no-nonsense approach to the mixed media ecology possibilities of a hybrid landscape of profit and nonprofit, arts and commercial design, urban revitalization and urban street culture, local/regional artistic expression and a global conversation, arts enclaves and tourism.
One of those only-in-Singapore-everything-must-be-ranked-and quantified- moments happened to me as I read the report: the government report notes that although it is ranked 7th in the world in terms of business and human capital, it is only 37th in the world in terms of cultural experiences. It compared itself to competing arts sectors emerging in Asia, like Hong Kong, Seoul, Abu Dhabi.
I must share, it is hard for me to imagine any US government economic agency worried about its rankings in culture.
Despite the Herculean efforts of non profit organizations with a big, new vision of the linkages between arts, culture and economic recovery like Americans for the Arts, the National Alliance for Media Arts and Culture, and Grantmakers in Film and Electronic Media, the United States has a long way to go before national public policy can produce crystal clear bullet points to implement a creative economies plan. Do you think there is even ANY possibility that Obama will call a press conference and announce he is DOUBLING arts funding?
Last week, we journeyed downtown to the Esplanade (built as part of a previous arts initiative here)and heard an extraordinary, transcendent recital of Korean soprano Jeong Ae Ree and Singaporean pianist Shane Thio that combined Mozart, Weill, Barber, Kim Sung Tae, and folksongs from Xinjiang China.
With the theme "Birds of Paradise," the programming pushed the edge. It was utterly exhilarating and moving. The performances were passionate and engaging—Jeong Ae Ree wore a white gown in the first half and then a red gown (to celebrate, I believe, Chinese New Year, but she also played it out as the western connotation of passion in a rather hybridized twist). She even waltzed with one member of the audience. Her voice was ethereal, complex, and searing.
At the end, I stood up and yelled BRAVA. I was a one person, ang mo (Singaporean term for white person) standing ovation. I was a bit embarrassed, wondering if I was importing my western classical music sensibility honed in Hockett Recital Hall at Ithaca College and Symphony Hall and Ravinia in my native Chicago to a more restrained Asia.
The applause was continuous: the performers did two encores. But the audience was tame and rather sedate. It got me thinking that emotional engagement with performers here has a way to go. It's not yet the New Orleans Jazz Fest or the Morelia International Film Festival in Mexico, both places where arts meets people meets passion.
The ESC subcommittee report had a sentence that leapt out at me like a chilli padi in mee goreng after this recital experience.
Singapore, it states, needs to go beyond the “hard” environmental factors to the “soft” engagement factors working at a deeper social and emotional level. Pragmatic, problem solving, hyper planning Singapore has governmental reports on stimulating engagement and connections with the arts.
Obama, take notice.
Book a non-stop flight from Newark on Singapore Air, Mr. President. Maybe a trip East to this global city in in order. I'd suggest benchmarking how a cogent arts policy stimulates the economy and creates new jobs. Better the arts than the war in Afghanistan, I think.
If you come, I’ll treat you to mee goreng and sambal kang kong at one of the hawker stalls before we catch one of those Indian remix electronica concerts.
Thursday, February 4, 2010
Consider this image: a snazzy, gleaming, Taipei skyscraper adorned with two young hipsters with spiky hair photoshopped at the top like flags, their bodies defying gravity.
But there is more to Asian global cities than the space-age ultramodern architectural wonders and young information technology (IT) professionals whirling in a device-driven cosmopolitanism on endless overseas flights ornamented with their iPods, iPhones, Blackberrys and purple netbooks. They live both somewhere and nowhere.
The IT revolution in Asia is now over two decades old.
Researchers Dr. Alan Chong (S. Rajaratnam School of International Stgudies at Nanyang Technological University) and Dr. Faizal Yahya (South Asian Studies Program at National University of Singapore) have mounted a very large, multi-authored book project to “probe beneath the surface of the grandiose image of IT (information technology) in Asia.”
Asia’s networked formations differ from those described by theorists like Saskia Sassen and Manuel Castells. Diasporic cultural networks, remittance cultures from white and blue collar expats, propagandizing globalized information cities, hacker and techno-elites form a new technology landscape that differs from what scholars based in the US and Europe have theorized and analyzed. The distinctions are significant.
Chong’s most recent book is Foreign Policy in Global Information Space: Actualizing Soft Power (Palgrave, 2008). Yahya just published Economic Cooperation between Singapore and India: An Alliance in the Making (Routledge, 2008).
I've just plopped myself into the weekly research seminar here at in the School of Commucation and Information. I note that the assembled faculty address the speakers as Alan and Faizal. Their project maps the little understood and often obscured interactive relationships between IT, politics, and society in very specific formations, such as Taipei, Bangalore, Malaysia, China. India might market itself as an ultramodern, new technology wonderland, but it still confronts severe, continuing, on the ground problems like illiteracy, poverty, and lack of clean water.
I’m sitting in the fourth floor conference room at the research seminars for the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information (WKWSCI )organized by my new colleague Marko Skoric, an intensely engaged scholar originally from Belgrade who also studied in London and Michigan. Marko researches new media and social and political change from a social science psychology perspective.
Before the session starts and the power point gets powered up, Alan and Faizal cruise around the large oblong oval table and introduce themselves individually to the 20 or so professors and graduate students assembled. I’m struck by the collegiality and sense of comaraderie in the room, how social interaction and connection on a human level generate a shared feeling of openness and exchange.
My experience in the US is that most speakers (including myself) would be obsessively checking power point slides, media clips, and notes, focused on ourselves and our arguments, inward directed. Here in Singapore, I notice that the speakers immerse themselves in the people in the room, shaking hands, chatting, extending themselves. Immediately, I feel part of the group. I ask Alan and Faizal if they would be comfortable with me blogging their session. They say okay.
“There is an image of Asia as a technofrontier,” begins Alan. “But this technofrontier contrasts with old politics and perennial problems that coexist with cutting edge communications, where technologies are embedded with society.”
Alan points out that cities like Kuala Lumpur, Taipei, Bangalore, and Singapore have instituted international marketing campaigns to promote themselves as globalizing information technology cities.
The Singapore government was an early adopter: it pushed to match the leading trends of international capital and advocated computerization in the early 1980s. It is now 30 years into this initiative, a successful strategy for a small island nation with limited land mass and a small population of about 4 million people. Malaysia, under Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad, instituted the multimedia supercorridor in 1996. In defiance of the 1997 Asian economic crisis, Malaysia continued building.
“Did global cities in Asia develop out of IT, or these propaganda campaigns? “ queries Alan. “The development of every new technology is almost always financially supported by some wealthy interests that would in turn seek the cover of political patronage,” he continues.
Faizal and Alan deploy the term alterity to describe the strategy of privileging the hitherto marginal or subterranean aspects of the capitalist world order through a multiple dimensions approach. Their book project is divided into four sections: psychological politics and cultural ownership of technology, governmental interventions, internet communities, and virtual cultures as political subcultures.
Subcultures, contend Alan and Faizal, are extremely varied in Asia. Adapting the theories of Manual Castells, they suggest that IT subcultures in Asia might not be so straightforward, where some function as appendages of the mainstream, others as circles of political autonomy. For example, remittance cultures among expatriate workers like the Tamil speaking Indian day laborers in Singapore suggest how IT’s global flows are not all located in frictionless cybercapital.
Faizal offers another compelling example. India has branded itself with IT. Yet, in the 2004 elections in Inida, the IT ministers were booted out. These reverse global flows defy globalization as emanating from countries of the global north. The Indian diaspora is returning, but living in self-contained “gated communities” where power and water are supplied. “It is like a bubble, one of the paradoxes of India” continues Faizal.
Across Asia, the networked global economy sequesters techno-elites. Global cities in Asia fashion high-end, Disney-world like environments attractive to cosmopolitan professionals to attract human capital. Boasting expensive condos with marble floors, grocery stores with expat foods, the arts, new airports with good connections, the city itself transforms from the complex, messy layers of life located in a specific locale and interaction across difference into a magnet for transnational development.
In the very interactive, engaging post talk discussion, another new colleague, Cherian George, a well-known journalist formerly with the Straits Times as well as a scholar of internet based alternative press in Southeast Asia, joins in. Cherian wrote one of my favorite, must-read books on the region, Singapore: The Air Conditioned Nation , so I’m eager to hear what he has to say. He points out that new technologies are often ripe for insurgence and then become recolonized.
Insurgency, he pointed out, can also simply be escape. The globalizing flows of economic power and the dislocations of new media also create a situation where elites—highly educated locals as well as expatriates relocated to Asian global cities by their transnational companies—can escape social and political obligations, leaving those dependent on the local behind.
Of course, being in Asia right now, the case of the Chinese hackers who infiltrated Google is a big story in the International Herald Tribune (owned by the New York Times) and the Straits Times, the Singapore daily newspaper. Arul Indrasen Chib, a colleague who studies information and communication technologies for development and mobile phones in relation to health care in places like China, India, Indonesia, Peru, Thailand, Singapore and the USA, offers an intriguing twist on the case: Who is hacking who? Arul inquires. Who is being insurgent? Who is dominating? The old oppositions don’t necessarily apply, he points out.
Rather than vertical oppositions heldover from old school ways of considering social and political relations, I am wondering if we need to consider layers of more fluid horizontality that endlessly interact, blend, mingle and circumvent.
I realize at Alan and Faizal's seminar how much I really don’t know about Southeast Asia. There is so much to learn beyond the hawker stalls selling roti prata and the cheap, clean taxis delivering me to an elaborate production of Puccini’s La Boheme at the extraordinary Esplanade Theater with red silk covering the walls .
I’m thinking about how much I like sitting at the oval table in open space exchange with a small group, rather than in the audience where intellectuals from the so-called “global north” perform at the podium as gladiators with large shields, hurling concepts and theories like spears.
To inoculate myself against the culture shock of reintegration into northeast US academic life in September, I think I’ll plan on sitting at that oval table every Wednesday afternoon.