M1 Singapore Fringe Festival accused of censorship by artist collective

This year's edition of the Fringe will feature works inspired by Singaporean contemporary artist Amanda Heng's performance art Let's Walk.
This year's edition of the Fringe will feature works inspired by Singaporean contemporary artist Amanda Heng's performance art Let's Walk.PHOTO: THE NECESSARY STAGE

SINGAPORE - Artist collective The Glory Hoes has accused the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival of censorship and protested the withdrawal of its event from next year's edition.

Prior to the official launch of the festival line-up Tuesday (Oct 10), the group, which presents queer film experiences, issued a statement on how their screening of the documentary Paris Is Burning was cut from the festival brochure, where it was meant to appear under the In Conjunction section.

The 1990 film is about New York's drag and transgender ball scene in the 1980s. It is rated R21 by the Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA).

In the statement, The Glory Hoes said members of the Fringe team were concerned that the event's inclusion could be spun to look like "the Fringe is celebrating the LGBT lifestyle" and that telco M1 had expressed that its continued funding of the Fringe would depend on 2018 being a year free of controversy.

The statement added that the Paris Is Burning screening will still go ahead at the Projector cinema. The group also called for greater dialogue on the topic of censorship.

Last November, two of the festival's shows were denied ratings by IMDA due to "excessive nudity". Organisers The Necessary Stage cancelled the shows rather than rework them to meet R18 guidelines.

Next year's edition of the Fringe will run from Jan 17 to 28.

After 13 editions with the theme "Art & ____" - for example Art & Skin this year - the annual arts festival will now draw on iconic works from the past.

Its 14th edition, which will feature works inspired by Singaporean contemporary artist Amanda Heng's performance art Let's Walk.

The piece was created in response to the 1997 Asian financial crisis, when female employees were the first to get retrenched, while the beauty industry experienced a boom as women tried to enhance their looks to keep their jobs.

In 1999, Heng invited members of the public to join her in walking backwards in the streets with high-heeled shoes in their mouths, while guiding themselves with handheld mirrors.

Festival director Sean Tobin, 45, said the festival's new direction is not "about nostalgia, sentimentality or placing an artist on a pedestal".

He added: "I believe it's completely possible and very vital that as we find new directions in art making, we remain mindful of what led us to this point."

Many of the 16 works from seven countries at the festival will follow in Heng's footsteps in confronting gender norms and societal pressures.

The Immortal Sole, a dance theatre work by M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards winner Edith Podesta, explores beauty and inequality through a retelling of the fairy tale The Little Mermaid, while In Pink Gajah Theatre's piece Hayat, a woman on the verge of her twilight years explores her mortality.

The festival will also revisit the work of Heng, 65, a Cultural Medallion recipient, through an exhibition titled A Walked Line Can Never Be Erased at Objectifs in May next year.

The exhibition will include work created through a new solo walk by Heng, I Walk From The South To The North, in which she walks across Singapore from Clifford Pier to Woodlands Checkpoint.

"Walking art engages the body in real-life environment and presents the experience as the art," she said.

She added that it is a "superficial assumption" that women's position in society has improved greatly since she first did Let's Walk. "There are still differences in salary scales for males and females in employment and women are the first in line for retrenchment during a recession."

In response to The Glory Hoes' statement, the Fringe team issued its own statement explaining its reason for withdrawing the collective's event.

"Given the Fringe's recent circumstances and experiences in 2017's edition, the organising team is taking special care not to have a recurrence of a furore where works presented are taken out of context by smaller, possibly less discerning groups of people. It is our belief that such misconstruing of works is counterproductive and damaging not only to the works themselves and the Fringe, but also to public education," it said.

The Fringe team added that it is "constantly trying to negotiate the positions of the audience, the sponsors and the artists" it is presenting and has discussed with The Glory Hoes the possibility of presenting them at a future edition of the festival.

It clarified that sponsor M1 has been supporting "challenging and socially engaged works and not interfered with the Fringe's programming".

"We look forward to the upcoming Fringes in 2018 and beyond and hope to continue engaging in dialogue and discussion with audiences and artists alike," the Fringe team said.