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Undressing Room

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Melissa Lim, the General Manager of The Necessary Stage, which organises the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival and the Executive Producer of the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival.
(Completed on 6th February 2017, Singapore)

1) What role does the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival play in relation to the larger art scene in Singapore?
The Festival has just completed its 13th edition in 2017, and through the years, it has provided an important platform where important, pertinent and urgent questions (about the arts and society at large) are posed and grappled with through art. The Festival may be relatively small in size in comparison with other events in Singapore—we take place over 12 days and feature about 14 works. But what sets the Festival apart is our focus on cutting-edge contemporary works that address a chosen curatorial theme, and our deep interest in encouraging discourse and constructive dialogue that extrapolates from art into life. 

The Festival has also been very eager to commission new thought-provoking local work from both emerging and established Fringe artists. We try to begin discussions early so that there can be a longer gestation for the works, and more research and development can take place before the presentation at the Festival. Through Festival Commissions, we provide resources for artists to focus on creating their work, whilst the Festival takes care of other aspects such as marketing, publicity and venue rental. I think this is a crucial role of the Festival, in that we allow artists the space, time and resource to develop what they do best—their art—whilst using our own machinery to help bring these works to fruition. 

2) Can you share the selection process of works that are presented in the festival?
There is an open call for works which is usually launched in October and runs till the deadline in March. Thereafter, we go through each and every application, and as a team, led by our Artistic Director Sean Tobin, we then shortlist applications to go to the second round. By around May, we send out the second application form, which requires more information. Then again, as a team, we need to decide on the final line-up, and this is dependent on a few things, including but not restricted to: funding, technical riders and whether requirements can be reached, venue suitability, how the works relate to one another, and how they can dialogue/respond to one another, etc. 

3) Why was Undressing Room selected and commissioned?
I think this is a question best answered by Sean. On a personal level, I deeply appreciated the direct relevance to the theme for the Festival, and more importantly, how the participatory work dealt with skin beyond the usual sensual and sexual connotations. Specifically, Undressing Room posed both a challenge for both artist and audience-participant, to look beyond the superficial understanding of skin (and the negativity we as a society have come to associate it with: shame, licentiousness, desire, insecurity), and come to a purer, original understanding of touch, acceptance and trust. I also believe that in relinquishing our insecurities with our bodies and skin, we gain in quiet power through self-acceptance, mutual appreciation and a willingness to engage and believe in something more positive once again. 

4) What difficulties did you foresee in commissioning Undressing Room? What has been done to address them?
Having dealt with IMDA for so many years, just by looking at the proposal of Undressing Room, I could imagine numerous questions that would be posed to us—and perhaps even some alarm bells on the part of the authorities. This is an unprecedented project, with one-to-one encounters that cannot be monitored by any third party, and involves partial to full nudity in an enclosed room. 

However, I also know from experience that the officers that work with us at IMDA do genuinely want to try to understand the artistic intent, and to help us with the licensing procedures. We have always had an open relationship with IMDA, in that there is transparency in our dealings, as well as plenty of negotiations to help each party understand the other. So we continued with this strategy where Undressing Room was concerned as well. 

The Festival generally meets IMDA some time in August each year, just to give them a head’s up about the works in the upcoming line-up. During our meeting, if there are any red flags that come to mind, these are brought to the table, so that we can try to get as much information as possible from the artists to help our cause. The actual applications are put in any time from then on till around October, and we are always well within the deadline. 

5) Describe the communication process with IMDA, with regards to Undressing Room?
We began our conversation with IMDA on 25 August 2016. When we met IMDA, they had already asked a few questions as well as made some suggestions as to how we can deal with potential issues (one instance would be the provision of an alarm/bell in the space, so that in the event that either party—artist or audience-participant—needs to alert an external party, they can do so). We also knew that IMDA were themselves unsure of how this work could be classified/rated, and they had to go back to consult with others first. 

Our communications with IMDA continued over emails, phone calls and meetings. We also made sure that any information put out about the work was honest, and that we did not—be it for the sake of marketing or avoidance—pitch the work in a coy manner.

The actual application was submitted on 10 Oct 2016. Thereafter, there were a number of emails between the Festival and IMDA to clarify questions, as well as between the Festival and the artist to ensure that we are representing the artist’s responses accurately. 

On 25 Nov 2016, IMDA met us to talk about their decision that the work cannot be classified in its original form because it exceeds the classification guidelines. We were told that fundamentally, the entire concept of the work flouts two parts of the license conditions that are problematic from a regulatory point of view:
– Extended length of audience interaction (more than 15 min),
– The possibility of reaching a state where both parties are entirely nude and have physical contact

For your info, with regards to the first, there is indeed a clause in licenses that are pertaining to public safety and order: “The Licensee shall advise the performers to refrain from mingling with the audience. If the performers wish to come down from the stage to interact with the audience, this should not be more than 15 minutes for the entire arts entertainment and escorted by security personnel unless otherwise stipulated by the Police.”

6) After learning about IMDA’s decision for Undressing Room, what was your immediate course of action?
Our immediate course of action was to speak to the artist to find out his thoughts, and if he wishes to adapt the work within his creative vision, to allow it to fall within the classification guidelines. 

We also had to prepare our own statement, in the event that there was a withdrawal of works.

7) Once IMDA has made the decision, what were then the options available to you, if you still wanted to present Undressing Room as part of the Festival?
We had several options: one, to see if the artist wants to amend the work so that it can fall within classification guidelines; two, withdraw the application and work; three, explore the possibility of a private event, or the artist can do sessions for his own friends (which will then fall outside of Arts Licensing purview). 

Appealing could also be explored. But in this case, if it could not even be classified, then it will be very difficult to go on that path given the limited time we had—the Festival was to open in just over a month’s time.

8) How has the non-rating classification by IMDA directly affect the Festival?
With the non-rating classification, the Festival had to decide how to proceed—whether to go on with the two works in their curtailed (censored) form, or to withdraw both works altogether. 

For me personally, I don’t agree with going ahead with works that have been changed irrevocably, with their artistic intent fundamentally altered. In the case of Undressing Room, I remember that I kept asking myself whether the suggested amendments made to the work allowed it to remain true to its initial intent and spirit, and with that, whether any shift from the original, truest spirit of the work is fair to the artist. 

Undressing Room was precisely about what it says in the title—it involves undressing in a room. The intent was to dismantle the oft-held associations of skin to shame and fear. If we had gone on with a censored work, then we have effectively capitulated to that shame and fear (as articulated by those anonymous complainants) we want to debunk. We are not true to the original intent and spirit of Undressing Room. What we would have done is to undress the work, scarring it with insecurity and shame, and then repackaging it in a sanitised form for public presentation—all this done without letting the work address the issues it intended to in the first place. It is not right, and to me, not ethical at all. 

That is just my own analysis and thought process, leading to my take on why the work had to be withdrawn, if I stand by the integrity of the work and artist. There are of course other factors, and the other members of my team would also have other thoughts as well. 

The short of it is: the Festival had to make the painful decision of withdrawing the work. Of course, with that comes the media furore, public outcry (both in support of the Festival and in disagreement with our decision), and so on. 

I believe rather that this has been a collective learning experience, not just for the Festival, but also for the artist and authorities. When boundaries are pushed, sometimes there are blowbacks, but we also all come to a better understanding of the process, concerns and how we can do better next time.