The Bigger Conversation

Ho Rui An

Censorship isn’t working: regulate instead.

Lately, I have wanted to write something in response to the arts community’s ongoing campaign against censorship, but have hesitated since there was little I could add to enrich the conversation. The campaign tagline (“Censorship isn’t working: regulate instead.”) probably doesn’t sound as snappy as expected, but this is perhaps a reflection of the curious position the paper takes as a whole. In fact, at first glance, the definition of censorship and regulation against each other would raise some eyebrows.

It’s a really fine line we are treading upon, which is why much of the paper is dedicated towards differentiating the two policy directions and in the process, identifying the latter as desirable to the continued development of the arts. The dwelling on definitional particularities comes across as a little belaboured and my worry is that it would lead only to a technification of the two terms.

Furthermore, the claim that regulation entails a “disinterested classification of content” is largely an ideal, for both censorship and regulation will always involve the drawing of arbitrary boundaries. There is no litmus test available when it comes to making decisions on what rating a work should be given. And in many cases, “regulation” may even provide a euphemistic veil to cover up acts of censorship.

But in all honesty, I can scarcely think of a more viable position to be taken, which accounts for my hesitation on speaking on the issue. Depending on how it is practised, the distinctions between censorship and regulation can be stark. Censorship involves the outright denial of content. In contrast, with regulation, access to a work remains available, but is monitored and managed.

But perhaps is the biggest head-scratcher for many is this: doesn’t Singapore already have regulation? Yes, we do, but the problem is its coexistence with censorship, which the campaign hopes to obliterate entirely. In other words, what is being pushed for is an extensive refinement of an existing system, falling short of a complete overhaul. It’s a very clever position to take, particularly since we are dealing with an authority with a knee-jerk aversion to any signs of radicalism.

Answering the tough questions on art

However, in contemplating the relationship between the artist and the state, it is also necessary to look at the bigger picture, which involves an examination on the role of art in society and more crucially, the methods in which art is produced, consumed and distributed. There is a dominant perception within the mainstream that art emerges into the world complete and self-made, embedded with intrinsic meanings that form the core of its nature.

Such essentialist views towards art need to be deconstructed to give way to an understanding of art as a process in which meanings are constantly created, ascribed and transformed through complex interactions between the various stakeholders (artists, audience, curators, critics, the state, the market economy, the media and so on) and the art object within a specific context. Artists themselves cannot be imagined to be driven by purely missionary goals for they are also operating within a highly politicised sphere govern by the rules of the economy and society.

Essentially, art constitutes a becoming; and without a critical mass of stakeholders who is capable of discussing the varied methods in which art becomes art, it is almost impossible to speak of a system that aims to address the difficult questions on art.

An ongoing negotiation between the artist and the system is, in all senses, a structural necessity, but over-emphasising it would belie the greater complexities that govern cultural production and consumption. The nature of negotiation imagines a bifurcation of the stakeholders into two initially oppositional groups. Its ultimate intention is the attainment of consensus, or even more idealistically, a coalescence of the disparate fractions.

But how attainable is this desired consensus? And why must consensus always be seen as the necessary end point of any reconciliatory endeavour? Has consensus, or even resolution, been overrated? Can something productive be generated out of a state of indeterminacy instead?

I say this because the attempts at negotiation thus far have not really culminated to any genuine form of consensus. Some interests are simply irreconcilable – a fact we need to contend with. What we can reasonably expect is a little give and take; in other words, a movement towards building consensus but never its attainment.

Until recently, the engagement between the artist and the state in Singapore has largely been that of a cross-checking and second-guessing of each other’s modus operandi. Both the government and the arts are only involved in a process of speculative self-calibration, not negotiation, keeping in mind of an unmarked threshold that each tries not to surpass.

Occasionally, one side attempts to test these unidentified boundaries, only to frantically retreat upon realising that it has overstepped them. What is happening between the artist and the state is like that of an awkward dance between two dancers who are trying very hard to preempt each other’s next move.

I am, however, in no measure, trying to discredit the efforts of the ongoing petition. Consensus-building has its limits but it has definitely yet to reach its point of exhaustion in a country where the state has been engaging the arts in only monologic terms. But in the long run, to effectively grapple with the difficult questions that arise from “transgressive art”, we need something beyond a set rubric derived through consensus (which is primarily interested in the ends of production).

We need a culture of conversation which is capable of a critical inquiry into the very methods in which works of art have come to be in our society. We cannot rely on a select group of cultural intellectuals in the academic world to answer these questions. Conversation needs to permeate society.

What is conversation?

But how can we do this? How do we get people to make talk? It is an endeavour, which I believe, can only be achieved on the level of the individual. Institutional solutions are untenable when it comes to something as intuitive and organic as conversation. This is where I feel arts practitioners need to take the lead, which can take the form of a more self-reflexive practice or curatorial strategy.

Amanda Heng's Let's Chat (1996-2000), re-presented last year at Curating Labs

Amanda Heng's Let's Chat (1996-2000), re-presented last year at the Curating Labs

I say this particularly in the field of the visual arts, in which there seems to be a lack of both inspired curatorship as well as a developed critical discourse. Too much of contemporary art relies on performative mimicry, in which many works only strive to perform contemporaneity without engaging its internal structures. More projects in the likes of Curating Labs, the curatorial experiment and pedagogical programme seen last year at the Singapore Art Show, are needed to stimulate such conversations about art.

Given its importance, it is also necessary to discuss what is the kind of conversation we should be striving towards. The problem with conversation in Singapore, whether is in the context of spoken or written form, online or offline, is that it’s either too instrumentalised or dismissed as frivolous chatter.

There appears to be only two places where people make talk – either in the coffee shop or the official talk shop, may it be a governmental feedback unit or some other round-table discussion forum. The overriding notion that talk must lead to a particular end is stifling. There is, or would be a need for what one can call conversation for conversation’s sake.

First, such conversations are not driven by preset convictions but by inquiry. They are motivated not only by a thirst for knowledge but also a desire to understand the means through which knowledge is produced. A lot of what is seen in the local blogosphere, so hailed as the bastion of citizen journalism, entails not conversation but pure defence.

People are more interested in driving their point across under the cloak of anonymity, instead of being committed to an interpenetration of ideas. Repartee is seen as a hallmark of discourse. We are valorised for our ability to single-mindedly safeguard our personal worldview and to squash that of others, instead of our receptiveness towards change. Go to any online discussion platform and you would see knee-jerk reactions flying all over the place.

Next, conversation needs to entail a respect for plurality. There is a need to appreciate instead of resist or rationalise any fundamental incompatibility of ideas and beliefs. I refer to the work of postmodern philosopher Jean-François Lyotard which asserts that consensus is inadequate as a process for validating truth and that it is effectively driven by manipulation and power.

Lyotard’s philosophy is particularly marked by its opposition towards meta-narratives, which often aim to order disparate forms of knowledge and experience into one unified cultural narrative schema. The Singaporean mind is, unfortunately, structured on such narrativity. We are obsessed with originaries, trajectories and endings. We grew up learning about the Singapore Story even before we have figured out what Singapore is. Too many art exhibitions are also too fixated with narrativity, with little attentiveness to the act of narrativisation and what is constitutes.

This is not say that any form of narrativity ought to be abandoned. Narrativisation has its value, particularly in understanding art-historical developments, something which our national museums are doing an excellent job in. But at the same time, weaving historical narratives is a project which is essentially methodological and not critical in nature. There needs to be less of that awkward insertion of works into an artificially drawn trajectory and a greater recognition of the inevitably pluralistic nature of knowledge production.

Classic Contemporary, held earlier this year at Singapore Art Museum 8Q, is a fine instance of a show which approaches the art-historical narrative with a level of criticality.

Finally, conversation needs to be boundless, endless and fearless; the last condition being the most difficult to fulfill. Too often is conversation truncated when we accidentally veer into the touchy areas. It’s like hitting the wrong nerve. We quickly gloss over them, unwilling to return to them for we fear its sting. Admittedly, such audacity is difficult and can even be dangerous. But we should still endeavour to imagine a conversational culture in which moments of tension and resistance are not blindly shunned. Instead, one rests in them and cultivates them, not for their own sake but for their potentialities.

In fact, there have been promising glimpses of such conversations happening within the recent past, and what is remarkable is the fact that while they were often not conceived to culminate in certain tangible, identifiable ends, they often end up doing so, if not by serendipity, then by the generative nature of conversation.

Take the Arts Community e-group set up in 1999 and still running today, which has spun several initiatives through the online discourse. The two “working committees”, The Working Committee (TWC) in 1999 and subsequently, TWC2 in 2003, are also cases in point. TWC2 was subsequently re-invented as an officially gazetted civil society called Transient Workers Count Too and continues campaigning the rights of migrant workers today.

But it is of no necessity that conversation needs to arrive at any decision, resolution or consensus. Its use value is intrinsic. Through conversation, we don’t need to reach any collective agreement on whether a work is good or bad, rapturous or repulsive. Instead, we can reside in a state of indeterminacy which entails giving space for irreconcilable disagreements in a manner informed by intuition of the most cultivated form. It all probably sounds pretty abstract and lofty at this point, but only because it presently resides in the province of imagination. But there is nevertheless a need to imagine, for it is imagination which propels change.

Censorship is an intellectual slaveholder. Moving towards regulation marks progressive change. But tinkering with institutional apparatus can only bring us so far. The toughest questions on art can only be adequately addressed on a personal level. Conversation thus must be driven by individuals, not bureaucracies. It can happen anywhere, anytime and with anyone as long as there is the will to make talk.

More than 1000 people have signed the petition to make censorship history. Read the position paper and add your signature today here.