Questioning identity

I Am LGB is a four-hour performance experience inspired partly by the career of Ray Langenbach.
I Am LGB is a four-hour performance experience inspired partly by the career of Ray Langenbach.PHOTO: KELVIN CHEW

From Thursday to Saturday, up to 100 people will enter the TheatreWorks building at 72-13 Mohamed Sultan Road at 7pm each evening and participate in a four-hour "performance experience" titled I Am LGB.

Not much is known about the work commissioned by the Singapore International Festival of Arts. It is created by a collective called the LGB Society Of Mind, which keeps its cards close to the chest.

Members include Singaporean artists Loo Zihan, Shawn Chua, Mun Wai Lee and Bani Haykal, as well as American academic and performance artist Ray Langenbach.

The creators call I Am LGB an experiment where the artists are equally in the hands of the audience since they cannot predict what the participants will do. Declining to share details during the interview, they direct the curious to the I Am LGB Facebook page where Langenbach, in a wig, presents a disturbing choice.

In the video, viewers are asked to imagine an iron room where the air is running out. Only the viewer is awake. Should he wake his sleeping peers or let them slide from sleep into oblivion?

Choices like this - a metaphor perhaps for the role of an artist in mainstream society - appear to be the engine driving the "performance experience".

Asked for more details, Loo, 32, recognises the "hunger and desire for information" but says: "We are trying to resist it because it supersedes the performance itself. In a performance that talks about the classification of information, how we present it is part of the performance.

"It's not a flippant decision," he adds. "Resistance takes strength, stamina and intention."

Loo wears a pink lab coat during the interview. The other creators wear similar coats of different colours, emphasising the experimental nature of the work. They play characters resisting state control, who may or may not be real people from the Singapore arts scene.

Langenbach, 68, wears a white lab coat. He was a key figure in performance art here during the 1990s. He left Singapore in 1998, taught in Malaysia for several years and is professor of performance art and theory at the University of the Arts Helsinki.

In Singapore, he created the fictional female artist Lan Gen Bah, who reappears in I Am LGB. He drank his own blood on stage during The Autologous Vampire, a performance about American superpower and the post-colonial landscape, in 1999.

He made a video-recording of Josef Ng's controversial 1993 performance of Brother Cane, in which Ng burnt himself with a cigarette and snipped his pubic hair while his back was turned to the audience. Langenbach's eyewitness account and the video were instrumental in Loo's 2012 restaging of that same work protesting against an anti-gay sting operation.

In 1994, while Langenbach was teaching at the National Institute of Education, he received an anonymous letter purportedly from a student demanding a boycott of his classes. This event is somehow key to I Am LGB, but Loo raises the question of whether the letter was also performance art written by Langenbach.

In reply, the artist only says: "It's a good question. It wasn't asked by the school at the time."

Loo says participants in I Am LGB have to be mobile. There are provisions for people who have some difficulty moving, but he cautions that the experience will be compromised. He adds: "We're looking for somebody who's constantly questioning the structure. Somebody who is curious."

Akshita Nanda

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 16, 2016, with the headline 'Questioning identity'. Print Edition | Subscribe