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THE O.P.E.N., SINGAPORE INTERNATIONAL FESTIVAL OF ARTS

A sneak peak at The O.P.E.N segment of the Singapore International Festival of Arts

Artsgoers are welcome to share their thoughts and food at The O.P.E.N., which precedes the Singapore International Festival of Arts

On the second floor of 72-13 Mohamed Sultan Road, volunteers sit around tables in groups of five and deliberate the gender wage gap. They are warming up to discuss other hot-button issues in public on June 28 and 29, for an event titled Art As Res Publicae.

The forum-cum-performance starts The O.P.E.N., a season of public engagement that precedes the annual Singapore International Festival of Arts (Sifa).

Typically, public engagement before a concert or performance involves a lecture or discussion explaining the art form. The O.P.E.N. usually goes a step further, engaging the audience in the performance.

In last year's Club Malam, about 100 people were selected to be the living representatives of cartoon characters created by Speak Cryptic.

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This year, organisers have curated an array of events that similarly puts viewers centre stage.

For example, holders of the $45 O.P.E.N. Pass can opt to be extras on the film set of director K. Rajagopal's Lizard On The Wall. The film is centred on a Punjabi wedding and inspired by Singaporean writer Balli Kaur Jaswal's novel Inheritance (2013). It will be screened in September, at the end of Sifa.

  • BOOK IT / FOR LACK OF A BETTER WORD

  • WHERE: Various locations

    WHEN: Various times, installations open from June 29 to July 9

    ADMISSION: With $45 O.P.E.N. Pass. Registration may be required. Go to www.sifa.sg/theopen for details

In the O.P.E.N. Picnic, inspired by Lebanese foodie and activist Kamal Mouzawak, chefs from his Beirut- based Tawlet restaurant will cater an open-air picnic. Anyone can turn up for a taste and participants are invited to bring food to share.

In their fourth and final year at the helm, festival director Ong Keng Sen and O.P.E.N. director Noorlinah Mohamed want people to query traditional definitions of art and make art a part of their lives.

Ong says: "There's a problem about art in Singapore where art is separated from life. It's a natural part of our lives that has been sectionalised and tagged as elitist."

Noorlinah adds: "Breaking silos is one of the major themes."

So in O.P.E.N. Kitchens next month, people can sign up to cook and share food with someone from a completely different religious, cultural or economic background.

Ong says: "Food is non-polarising. You may not go to Ethiopia, but you would go try an Ethiopian cafe. You just cross naturally to try it out."

The corollary to that is people may be open to different tastes of food, but what about different opinions on matters of civil society?

Art As Res Publicae seeks to address this. About 50 participants chosen from an open call are the "performers" in this forum, watched by ticket-holders who register for the event online.

On June 28, discussants watch a reading of a scene from Eleanor Wong's 1995 family drama, Wills & Secession. A panel, which includes academics and religious leaders, offers its comments and then the participants discuss pluralism in Singapore. The audience observing the discussion will also get to respond.

The format is repeated on June 29. Dementia and caregiving in Singapore are discussed through a screening of excerpts from Hungarian play Dementia, which was presented here in Sifa 2015.

Art As Res Publicae aims to demonstrate that Singaporeans are ready to talk about tough issues in public. Ong says: "We're often told Singaporeans aren't ready to make decisions on issues of civil society. Through the creation of a public platform, we show that there are people willing to step up."

The hope is to create a safe space for Singaporeans of differing, even extreme, views to honestly exchange ideas.

The current protocol in Singapore is: Offence is taken, complaints are made, offending material is removed.

Noorlinah asks: "How do we survive in a world where we use offence as a way to remove things?"

She also asks participants in the workshop at 72-13 to consider this: "How do we build empathy?"

The organisers have tried to include a range of Singaporean voices in Art As Res Publicae. There are people employed in IT or who run businesses. There are data analysts, teachers, nurses, lawyers and artists. There are those who live in HDB estates and those who do not. All have at least an A-level education.

Dozens responded to the open call and close to 50 volunteered to sit through two rounds of warm-up workshops before the public discussions. But not all are regular consumers of the arts.

Mr Lewis Liu, 31, a private consultant who designs and facilitates management retreats, can count on one hand the number of plays he has seen in the last few years.

Why did he come forward? He has noted that there are communication problems between different sectors of Singapore society and tried to address that in a personal project, More Than Just, from January to last month.

Over five dinner conversations, more than 80 strangers discussed race and racism in Singapore.

He says: "Because of my profession and also as a citizen and curious person, I'm interested in new ways of engagement between different entities."

He hopes to eventually design a "tool-kit so people can have conversations on difficult topics".

Ms Tang Wai Ying, 37, works in the finance industry and her husband Ensley Tan, 39, is a civil servant. The couple enjoy debating opposing views and listening to an open exchange of views.

Mr Tan says: "Active discussion is part of my work and I'm used to it. But in private life, it's seldom available. I stay away from Facebook because discussions there are not very rational. It's interesting to debate in this format with people who are trying to be rational."

Ms Tang suspects it is easy to inhabit an echo chamber and she hopes to hear different viewpoints during the discussions. The problem identified in the preparatory workshops is, she says, "Singaporeans are very polite". People try not to give offence even if they are offended.

Also, says Mr Tan, "a lot of Singaporeans don't know how to make a statement without it being taken the wrong way".

Another artist in The O.P.E.N. addresses this issue in a different way.

For Lack Of A Better Word is a series of workshops and lecture- performances curated by Singapore artist Ho Rui An.

His own performance, Opening Draft on July 6, responds to the instant fury of statement and response on the Internet. It invites the audience to slow down, delay response and consider the meaning of the words used.

Two days after Opening Draft, Singaporean artist Zou Zhao also gives a talk, shifting the focus from speech and response to listening.

"What happens when we take a pause to think about what we want to say and realise that maybe we don't have the words to express ourselves?" says Ho, 27. "It's about trying to look for new language to approach the process."

He adds: "There is this anxiety to express yourself, but expressing yourself doesn't mean anything if there's no one listening."

•For more stories on the Singapore International Festival of Arts, go to http://str.sg/4E4k.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 20, 2017, with the headline 'Food for thought for audiences'. Print Edition | Subscribe