Experience interactive digital art in new art festival

The people behind Betwixt Festival: (seated, from left) organisers Ng Wen Lei and Serena Pang, and artists Samantha Chua, Benjamin Low and Mithru Vigneshwara (back row).
The people behind Betwixt Festival: (seated, from left) organisers Ng Wen Lei and Serena Pang, and artists Samantha Chua, Benjamin Low and Mithru Vigneshwara (back row).ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

A new digital interactive art festival aims to be part of Singapore's Smart Nation push

As Singapore's push to become a Smart Nation gained steam last year, two artists found themselves wondering where their ilk and art fit in this sweeping move to use technology to improve lives.

Serena Pang and Ng Wen Lei, both in their 30s and partners of art collective Spang & Lei, were convinced the drive to turn the country into a Smart Nation would be for the poorer if it engaged only commercial start-ups and industries.

To fill in the blanks, they are launching the inaugural Betwixt Festival, which looks at how digital technology can foster human interaction and build community through art.

The six-day event kicks off on Thursday at the ArtScience Museum and it includes an exhibition, art performances and masterclasses.

There will also be panel discussions and lectures on topics that explore, for example, the gaps in culture and education which influence the development of art and technology.

The line-up of speakers includes Professor Vibeke Sorensen, chair of the School of Art, Design and Media at Nanyang Technological University; Singapore artists Debbie Ding and Angela Chong; and curators Pichaya Aime Suphavanij from Thailand and Dayang MNT Yraola from the Philippines.

  • BOOK IT/ BETWIXT FESTIVAL

  • WHERE: Various locations, including ArtScience Museum, Marina Bay Sands and Objectifs, 155 Middle Road

    WHEN: Thursday to March 1

    ADMISSION: Free, except masterclasses, which have a registration fee

    INFO: For events and admission details, go to 2016.betwixtfestival.com

The festival founders believe art has a place at the table where ideas on Singapore as a Smart Nation take shape because of their personal experiences.

Ng, who was a graduate student at New York University's (NYU) interactive telecommunication programme from 2012 to 2014, says she saw first-hand in New York City how art and technology can "interweave seamlessly".

"At places such as Eyebeam, a centre at the forefront of art and technology research, and galleries that celebrate digital art, it was common to see artists working together with engineers," she adds.

Eager to mine this potential in Singapore and ride the wave of the Smart Nation push, she and Pang, an NYU performance studies graduate, decided to create a platform for like-minded folk to meet and network.

They shared their idea with members of the arts scene, including artists, art organisations and agencies, and it drew such enthusiastic response and excited suggestions that the platform gradually grew into something greater than what they had envisioned.

"The programme for the inaugural festival is what we had originally planned for the fifth edition of the festival," says Pang. "If we knew this at the start, we'd have been filled with doubt and fear."

Neither had any experience running an arts festival.

"We had to Google 'arts business plan' and find out how to write grant proposals for our project and how to tell people about our ideas," says Pang.

The festival is funded with help from the National Arts Council.

The pair, however, were clear about their goals for the exhibition which anchors the festival (see sidebar).

Ng says: "We were interested in three things when selecting works for the exhibition. Can we find new ways to describe digital aesthetics? How can big data be material for creation? And how as artists do we live among digital technology?"

She adds: "For us, digital art has moved from being defined by medium - programming and electrical components - to being about the relationship between humans and technology and how art can call attention to this."

Ms Honor Harger, 40, executive director of ArtScience Museum, a venue for the festival, says: "The festival aims to put the art into Smart Nation.

The exhibition, screenings and talks show how artists experimenting with new technologies come up with innovative and unexpected ways to help us understand the world around us and how Singapore can be a city to look to for exciting new ideas within art and technology."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 23, 2016, with the headline 'Putting the art in Smart Nation'. Print Edition | Subscribe