Gains and losses of performing arts’ online migration

Gains and losses of performing arts’ online migration

As Penang’s key performing arts festival goes online in a post-pandemic world, the difficulty of translating live arts events for the screen becomes evident.

By Deric Ee

Malaysia’s former leaders set 2020 as a deadline for the nation to hit significant milestones, their zeal immortalised in the comics of national treasure Lat. But expectations for a glittering decade crashed when whispers of a pandemic ushered in the new year. By the end of March, all public events were cancelled, commercial spaces stopped admitting physical patrons, and travel was limited to workers in essential services. While many of these restrictions have been loosened, one industry is still reeling from the crisis.

When the pie started shrinking for the local arts community, talents began logging extra hours on digital platforms and social media to keep their craft visible. Instant Cafe Theatre Company most recently staged Alfian Sa’at’s critically-acclaimed stage play Parah on video-conferencing software Zoom. Creative bazaar RIUH took to Instagram to present live music and showcases from local creatives. In fact, over 100 live camera feeds of arts-related activities were listed by arts advocate Kakiseni on their AsingBersama page from March to May 2020.

In Penang, the nation’s largest performing arts festival also went digital as social distancing guidelines remained past June. George Town Festival (GTF) in July hosted an online program themed Everyone Everywhere on Facebook Live. While previous editions of GTF flaunted booklets jam-packed with the annual festival’s wide array of events, this year’s schedule fits on a single flyer: ten events, comprising performances, discussions, and workshops, each free to stream on the festival’s Facebook page.

Teochew Puppet and Opera House performs Mu Guiying Gets Married live as part of the Absolute Penang two-hour special.

GTF2020 opened with The New Adventures in Sound Art by Kamal Sabran & Friends, a collaborative performance which featured video feeds from local and international artists splashing music, visuals and dance upon Kamal’s mix of sound samples and classic Malay music. An icon and educator in the local music scene, Kamal played the rebab at last year’s festival for the arresting site-specific movement anthology Dance @ 74. His latest work is one of GTF2020’s highlights, teasing the potential of streaming and collaborative technology.

Penang’s heritage and culture remained a vital part of GTF’s DNA even as it transitioned to Facebook Live. The festival centrepiece, titled Absolute Penang, showcased multiple cultural performances such as Teochew opera and classical Indian music, back to back in two hours. Organised like a variety show with post-performance interviews, it’s Penang’s ethnic diversity and performance heritage in a nutshell. It provokes curiosity for our cultural tapestry but may not pique the interest of those looking for innovation on traditional artforms.

Di Luar Bayangan is a shadow play by Plasticity Theatre Troupe screened as part of Moving Shadows, Chasing Light.

Moving Shadows, Chasing Light, a ‘bonus’ screening and discussion about violence in police custody which took place after the festival period, was another of GTF2020’s better moments. The session followed the human rights activists and creatives seeking justice for P. Chandran, a lorry driver who died in the Dang Wangi police station. Plasticity Theatre Troupe’s shadow puppet adaptation of the sinister case was impossible to ignore. Not since Rumah Anak Teater’s theatrical staging of Beng Hock (2012) have artists been so bold to spotlight police brutality.

Elsewhere, GTF2020’s array of discussions revisited last year’s headliners to peek into their processes, but none of its Q&A sessions involved audience members. Here, the festival’s lack of interactivity was glaring. We’ve seen audience feedback and polls shaping live events and stage productions before. The ability to manipulate on-screen proceedings would have gotten users actively engaged and enlivened the online festival experience even more.

One of the festival’s major discussions saw Pichet Klunchun answering a wide range of questions about his life and work from moderator Nicholas Ong.

If the performing arts are patterns of ideas and bodies interacting with spaces and time, can what is lost when performances are taken out of the physical space be provided elsewhere with technology like augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and mobile apps? Can a state’s art and culture budget support such ideas? Or are these considered far-fetched, limited to Japanese popstars like Utada Hikaru who made a VR PlayStation concert so fans around the globe could sit in the front row?

GTF was founded by Penang arts hero Joe Sidek with a mission. As an international arts draw, the festival has witnessed daring one-off commissions which continue to elicit conversation in arts circles. The festival’s biggest attractions have always platformed George Town’s atmosphere and heritage, as seen through 2 Houses (2014), the site-specific Singapore-Malaysia co-production at Soonstead Mansion, or Ombak-Ombak ARTStudio’s Moved By Padi (2016), which sowed paddy in the city for a phenomenal movement piece.

Last year, George Town Literary Festival collaborated with Nusantara Audiobooks to post panel discussions as podcasts on Spotify.

GTF’s record for plucky curation may not have been apparent in its digital debut, but for the first time in history, many festival programmes remain online for future reference. If arts and culture were ever too ephemeral for private and state investment, digital archives are the way forward — they last indefinitely and are accessible to the less-abled. It’s a tested move, too: Penang’s international literary festival started archiving festival content on Spotify last December. Ideas like these enhance the value of Penang’s events industry and hopefully signal the state’s growing commitment to technology.

Cover image by Clair P. on Unsplash

Screenshots of performances taken from George Town Festival’s live streams.

Deric Ee is a writer and producer with experience in theatre production, arts writing, and placemaking — which he hopes to channel towards community-driven projects.