“District 18” by P7:1SMA

It’s noon and oppressively hot and my shadow’s hiding beneath me from the sun. I’m making my way to the Tampines Round Market & Food Centre (“pasar bulat”), which is just a fifteen-minute busride from my home, but I feel like a complete tourist in this food centre despite the fact that it’s in the district just next door to mine. It’s funny how the neighbourhood food centres we frequent – their architecture, their layout, the hawkers who know us as regulars and can tell us our orders before we do – start to become the exemplars that we hold up in comparison with others. Here I’m searching for where I can buy a cold drink, but also scanning the crowd for anything vaguely performative because I’m not sure what to expect. No one else here is expecting anything, it feels like, they’re digging into nasi lemak and vegetarian bee hoon and chiding children and gingerly wiping down tables. The pasar bulat is a morning market that almost completely empties out after lunchtime; Fengshan Food Centre (home turf for me!) comes alive in the evening and late into the night. In the open arena at the centre of the pasar bulat is a clothesline of diaphanous tulle costumes threaded through with everyday objects from the food centre: egg cartons, chopsticks, plastic bags, spoons; waving gently in the hot breeze.

I skirt the open arena to find a seat in the crowd, and as I’m carrying around my teh c bing siu dai I’m confronted by the enormous posters and standees emblazoned with the National Arts Council logo to make it absolutely clear that this is a state-organized community project to have “Arts in your Neighbourhood!” (“more like Arts in your Face!”, a practitioner tells me later).


It’s almost impossible to see the dancers at first – they emerge from from all corners of the market pushing little trolleys woven with tiny glittering fairy lights, picking their way through the lunchtime crowd, grinning at rapt children. They put on their costumes and they’re transformed into what feels like the food centre’s playful, colourful guardian spirits, weaving through clusters of tables and initiating short games and exchanges of gestures with the audience. Almost everyone reciprocates, beaming when they’re approached, getting used to the idea of the performance and these bedecked performers. Oh wait! Now it’s a variety show – one of the performers grabs the microphone and announces they’ll be doing a lucky draw based on table numbers, and now the crowd is excited, waving their hands in the air when they’ve won. The uncle I’m sharing a table with is disappointed that his table is 120, not the winning 121 (“only one number different!” he exclaims). The creative team tells me later that when they walked through the market for evening rehearsals they would hear multiple radios simultaneously broadcasting the 4D results for the day. There’s a culture of soft betting here, whether it’s the number lottery or the horse races, and this a cheeky acknowledgement of that habit.

Then the dancers begin drifting into the round arena, performing gestures and movements that feel like they’ve been derived from the repetitions of physical labour they’ve observed around the market, and carry a sort of kinesthetic empathy – someone pushing a trolley of dirty dishes to be washed, or reaching for something hung on a hook, or lunging forward on their knees. Their bodies seem to age, visibly and quickly, in front of us. A disembodied voice begins to read out the names of all the stalls in the market. They slowly hang up their costumes, stack up their trolleys in a wobbly pile. The dancers gather in a circle, huddling round and patting each other gently on the back. One by one, they recede, walking back to the empty clothesline, until only one dancer is left, patting himself. Then he, too, returns to the line of waiting performers. Then they disappear into the crowd. I read it as a commentary on the vanishing craft of food production, a generation of hawkers without successors retiring one by one, a sort of endless cycle of repetitions – making thousands of copies of the same kind of dish over years and years – until the cycles run out.


I think the state’s emphasis on the community-building function of the arts isn’t something to recoil from, particularly if it’s a meaningful, long-term project that is well-conceived and gives that community a stake in how it is engaged, how it articulates its needs and how those needs are fulfilled. My concern is when a well-intentioned community project gains its instrumental trappings and starts to feel like a token corporate social responsibility project where impact is measured in terms of “how many passers-by are clapping” (are they not impacted if they aren’t clapping?) or “how many surveys are filled out” (someone offered a survey to Haizad, ignorant of the fact that he was the artistic director of P7:1SMA) or “can you make your movements less abstract if not the public cannot understand” (which really belittles the “public’s” interpretive skills) or adamant assertions about which particular community in Tampines needs engaging with (and how). I suppose with commissions come compromises, and P7:1SMA – as I understand it, and among other things – wanted to develop their relationship with the stallholders here, to echo their invisible labour in bright, visible ways, wanted to have their performers enter and leave the chaos and colour of the market quietly and unobtrusively, without the state elbowing its way into the preface and post-script of the work.

How does one measure “community engagement”? And when the term “community” is bandied around here, why does it feel like it’s the kind of community that requires an “artistic education” because of a supposed lack of cultural capital? I get that the state wants to play benevolent match-maker between artist and community sometimes, but I wonder if an arranged marriage is always the way to go. P7:1SMA does their best with this relationship – even if their founders stay on the opposite end of the island and had never been to this market before rehearsals began – and the team immediately took to the space, befriending stallholders and taking in as much as they could of their environment so they could respond sensitively to it. They called these rehearsals “activations”. Perhaps the way to permeate a community, the way the artist moves from outsider to insider, isn’t with fireworks and loudspeakers – but quietly, gently, not in a loud quick and intimidating burst but over a gradual period of time. And what happens when artists leave? How does one settle into a community and then immediately uproot after? I think of Drama Box’s long-term projects in Chong Pang and Telok Blangah for their series on end-of-life care, Both Sides, Now. They’ve become a fixture in the neighbourhood over the past few years, so that conversations that have only just begun to unfurl don’t retreat back into silence once the performances depart and the initial excitement fades. These activations can’t be abruptly abandoned, and commissioned community projects need to take into account the labour involved in maintaining these relationships – because a performance might end, but life doesn’t.


Postscript

I had a really long conversation with Haizad (artistic director of P7:1SMA), Desmond (one of the District 18 performers) and Syarifuddin (their in-house documentarian) about the incredible detailing and reflection of the group’s creative process for this project, captured here in sensitive detail: https://www.p71sma.com/district18

The group had read my writing about last year’s Southernmost festival (http://www.southernmost2018.wordpress.com) and wanted to experiment with an embedded writer who had the quiet distance to reflect on how the project was unfolding. We’ve been having some preliminary discussions about a possible methodology for this kind of writing and will be in dialogue with each other throughout the rest of this year.

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