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Undressing Room

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Artist: Ming Poon
(completed 1st May 2017, Berlin)

1) What is your view on IMDA and its classification?
For me, IMDA is very much a part of the arts ecosystem in Singapore. I find it contributes to and affects my creative process when I make works in Singapore. I am constantly reminded of its regulations and the consequences of overstepping them. For instance, one of the first questions I usually get asked by producers here is: will there be nudity, religious or political elements in your work? They need to know it beforehand because all contents are screened and vetted by IMDA, and the license may prove to be very tedious to obtain, if the work contains any of these elements. 

Having worked in Singapore, I find that some aspects of IMDA have rubbed onto me as well. For example, when I hear of a challenging work, I would instinctively ask: will it pass IMDA? Or when I create a work in Singapore, one of the considerations would be: will it pass IMDA? I am sensitised to look out for elements that might not pass the vetting of IMDA. This behaviour has become so second-nature to me that I hardly even question it when it happens. IMDA has somehow entered into my subconscious and fused with my psyche. So for me, IMDA is not just an external agency; I feel it has also become a constant presence that lives inside me, casting a shadow over everything I see, read, hear and do here as an artist. 

I believe the classification can be very helpful for the public. For me, the classification for performing arts (General, Advisory, Advisory16, R18) seems to cover adequately the range of performances, allowing the public to make an informed choice of what is suitable for them. I am very much ok with my work being classified under any of the categories. As most of my works are small-scale and meant for adults, so even getting a R18 classification (which means a smaller audience pool) does not really affect them too much. 

2) How did you feel about IMDA’s denial of classification for Undressing Room, on the grounds that it contained ‘excessive nudity’?
As mentioned before, to me the classifications seemed to cover adequately the range of performances, so I expected Undressing Room to fall under R18 classification. In fact, the Festival had already set R18 as the default rating for it. Besides, there were clear safety measures put in the work, to ensure that audience members were informed about the nature of the work and their participation in it, and that they were in full control of what happened in the room. Before they could participate, they also had to sign a consent form. In a significant way, the purpose of these safety measures in Undressing Room was rather similar to that of IMDA’s classification system, in that they were there to ensure the safety and wellbeing of the audience and that they were able to make an informed decision and be responsible for their own decisions in the performance.

So, I was disappointed with IMDA’s denial of classification for Undressing Room, but it did not come as a surprise. What I really found interesting was the reason for the denial: excessive nudity. Excessive as in indulgent, too much, out of proportion, intemperate, over the top, unbound? I thought that the association of ‘nudity’ with ‘excessive’ said a lot about the distrust we have about the naked body. ‘Excessive’ used in this manner seemed to suggest that the naked body was somehow inappropriate and uncontrolled, and hence, threatening. To hear it used by a state institution demonstrated how pervasive and deeply-rooted this distrust is in our society. One of the aims of Undressing Room was precisely to address and confront this distrust. A denial of classification meant that the work could not take place, thereby further re-affirming this distrust of the naked body. It allowed me to experience firsthand how the distrust reinforced itself and created a closed system, not just on a personal level but on an institutional level as well. It also made me want to find out IMDA’s definition of ‘excessive nudity’. What constitutes ‘excessive nudity’? What are the objective measures, by which nudity can be prescribed as ‘excessive’ in a performance? 

3) What was your reaction to Undressing Room being withdrawn from the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, after it was denied a classification by IMDA?
When I first received the news of the non-classification of Undressing Room, I agreed to make changes to it as requested and re-submit it for classification. I had to decide rather quickly and that seemed to be the only option open to me at the time, if I wanted to keep the work going. I also really did not wish to see all the money, work and effort put into it go to waste. But eventually, the Festival organisers decided to withdraw the work from its program. Their reason was that the integrity of the work would be seriously compromised by any changes made to it. As such, they decided that it was best to withdraw the work.

I was actually relieved with the withdrawal because I too had doubts that the work would be able to deliver what it set out to do with the changes made to it, no matter how small they were. There was a very high likelihood that the revised version would deviate from the work’s original intent and might end up being more about IMDA’s intervention than Undressing Room itself. I also had this uncomfortable feeling that if I were to make changes to the work, I was indirectly allowing IMDA to appropriated it. So, under this rather ambivalent situation, I was definitely relieved that it was withdrawn in the end. 

4) Why did you decide to revive Undressing Room, despite the controversy surrounding it?
In Singapore, when a new creation is withdrawn or cancelled, as in the case of Undressing Room, there is usually no physical recording of it afterwards. Given the controversy surrounding Undressing Room, I thought it would be useful to document it, so that it could still provide the public with a ‘recording’ of the work, which would otherwise be impossible with its cancellation. I also hoped that the documentation could serve as a case study for people who are interested in performances that were considered controversial in Singapore. So the primary reason I revived Undressing Room was so that it could be documented. 

Happening concurrently to IMDA’s non-classification, was also an online public outcry describing Undressing Room as being ‘lewd’ and ‘pornographic’. As the work has never been shown before, the complaints were made based solely on the description of the work. So I wanted to use this chance to invite the critics to take part in the actual work, so that they could get a clearer idea of what it was about. I believed that it would help clear up some of the misgivings they had, if they were to experience the work for themselves. And maybe we could even start a dialogue. I sent them a private invitation via their Facebook pages, but unfortunately, none replied back or took up the offer.

5) What were your thoughts or concerns about reviving Undressing Room as part of a documentation project, even though the work itself has not been approved by IMDA?
It came with a whole new set of concerns. The first concern was legality. How to proceed with the documentation of Undressing Room without contravening any laws or IMDA’s regulations? I sought advice about it. It seemed that the only way to do it was to frame it as an independent, closed-door, non-ticketed and by-invitation-only event, without any press coverage. Which was what I eventually did.

Then there was the issue of ethical practice. How to ensure the wellbeing of the participants? Although there were already safety measures in the original design of the work (rules of engagement, informed consent, safe-code, anonymity, etc), but now they became ever more important. I had to make sure that all the safety measures were strictly adhered to, for I was afraid that any slight negligence or oversight would cause legal problems.

Other practical concerns were finding the funds and a suitable space for the event to take place, now that it was an independent and self-funded project. I also expected fewer people to take part in it, given the circumstances. Even though all the eighteen slots were eventually taken up, I still expected a few of them to drop out last minute. In the end, only one person did not show up. Everyone else did.

At some point, I mentioned to several people that I was worried that reviving Undressing Room for the documentation might create a backlash because IMDA might construe this as an attempt to abuse a ‘loophole’ in the system and as a result of that, decide to apply more stringent regulations on art documentations and research processes. I did not know what were the chances of that happening, but it was certainly a worry for me nonetheless.

6) How did IMDA’s decision affect your experience of Undressing Room as a performer?
I would say it definitely raised the stakes for everyone who participated in it. On my part, I was very concerned about the possible legal repercussions of performing Undressing Room. Even though it was now revived as part of an independent and closed-door documentation project, it was still technically not approved to be performed by IMDA. So I was still worried. Another concern was how the critics might react to the revival of Undressing Room and if they would pursue actions to stop it. In the end, I sought legal advice because I needed to know what I might be getting myself and the participants into. So, in many ways, Undressing Room felt more real to me than just a performance. I must admit that there were a lot of second-guessing going on about what could potentially go wrong and I was constantly on the lookout for any potential legal problems or deliberate acts of disruption that could arise. One of the bad scenarios that kept repeating in my head was the police showing up and disrupting the performance, as a result of some complaints. So I even prepared a contingency plan, if that were to happen. Fortunately, it did not happen. But could it? I don’t know, but I was told that there was always that slight possibility. It really made me feel paranoid. It felt like I was walking a tightrope right before a storm. So, that was the general state of mind I was in when performing Undressing Room.

Curiously enough, despite the whole business with IMDA and legal concerns, once the performance started and I was in the room with the other person, Undressing Room somehow became an oasis, a refuge from all the controversy and paranoia. I felt like we existed in a suspended space, not just in time, but also from the outside world. I felt strangely safe, serene and quiet. All the windows and mirrors in the room were covered with paper bought from Ikea. I remembered thinking to myself that what kept us safe from the outside world — its judgement and scrutiny — were literally just sheets of paper. I could hear the rain falling, the birds chirping and the construction work going on outside. If the authorities were to disrupt the performance for whatever reasons, the safety of this space would crumble like paper. That was how fragile I felt the space was. And that was what made the whole experience so precious for me — knowing that there was this other person who was willing to hold this suspended space with me, so that we can exist for a brief span of time, without any judgements from each other and beyond the scrutiny of the outside world.  

There is a poem by Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi which perfectly encapsulates my experience.
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
there is a field. I’ll meet you there.
When the soul lies down in that grass,
the world is too full to talk
Ideas, language, even the phrase each other
doesn’t make any sense.”

That was how I felt in the room. 

7) Other comments.
After this experience with Undressing Room, I realise that IMDA’s classification system is not comprehensive enough to cover all kinds of performances. The current system, in particular the non-rating classification, denies audience the choice to take part in works which it considers controversial, even when the audience are informed and willing to take responsibility for their participation in those works. This to me somehow contradicts the purpose of the classification system, which is supposed to enhance the choices for the audience, not reduce them. To make the classification system more robust and comprehensive, I wonder if it might be helpful to include a classification that caters specifically to controversial works that are not currently covered by the existing classification system. Perhaps a classification that allows artworks to engage the audience on controversial or sensitive issues but would also require them to take their own responsibility for their participation in those artworks? It might be a step towards creating a more critical and civic audience in Singapore. 

I also noticed that IMDA’s denial of classification have the unfortunate side-effect of creating the impression that Undressing Room was somehow an illegitimate and by extension, illegal work. The upside was that this generated a lot of public attention. On the downside, it also made the theme of naked body in the work seemed illegitimate and illegal by association. While the treatment of naked body in Undressing Room was unusual, it was by no means illegitimate or illegal. I feel that the conflation of the two — the legitimacy of the work and of the naked body — contributed to a certain degree of sensationalisation of the work in the public imagination. This sensationalisation in turn contributed to the sense of paranoia and scrutiny I felt while making this documentation of Undressing Room.