Daily Archives: August 24, 2009

Society of the Spectacle: NDP as art

“In societies dominated by modern conditions of production, life is presented as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has receded into a representation.”
Guy Debord, (trans., 2002) Ken Knabb, The Society of the Spectacle

The observance of National Day not only marks the importance of independence, but celebrates the cultural rights of a nation.

Culture here, is used loosely to represent “the arts and other human intellectual achievement regarded collectively”. The right to brand a nation’s aesthetics and activities, seems most appropriate at National Day, a celebration of national identity. One’s identity is inherent wired into one’s roots. The need to celebrate one nation’s culture might seem trivial in the light of globalisation. Why limit when you can call the world as your own cultural roots? Or is that mistaking the appearance of a strangler fig for deep roots? While a global melting pot of cultures might sound attractive, the celebration of diversity and differences may just be as important.

The arts, as commonly understood refers to the literature, theatre, music, film/video and fine art. Typically, the National Day parade will steer towards a dramatic mass display, mass participation over everything else. The celebration has its roots in military display and marching contingent and has over the years shifted towards cultural representation – cultural might – rather than a overt military representation of national pride.  This year, everything comes together in a mish mash, ‘postmodern’ quick splice of performances, video art, and live action in a carnival of celebration of the arts. You can hardly expect anything less in the hands of Creative Director Ivan Heng, video visuals by Brian Gothong Tan, Script by Alfian Sa’at, and chief choreography by Aaron Khek, familiar and established names in our local arts scene. And in the theatrical, multimedia and multi-modal presentation, it seems a spectacle was staged, perhaps for a deeper reflection of what identity is.

The theatrics unfolded in ‘chapters’ like scenes to a play, but somewhat disjointed to a historical telling of the nation’s history. The myth of Prince Sang Nila Utama was told using giant puppetry, interjected by slapstick humour by the two presenters. Puppets, last seen at Singapore Arts festival performances, usually reminded one of children’s play. Their connotations were more surreal than majestic in this case, and seemed lost in the even larger scale of the Marina floating stage. Video seem to play a very important role in this National day Parade. Even the 9 storey twin towers that resembled Housing Development Board (HDB) flats reminded one of stacked television screens, each repeating similar routines by anonymous performers.

The first simulacra came when a mock news report announced a terrorist attack, and Cheryl Fox the news reporter came on screen. With uncanny likeness to an actual news report, the drama unfolded as a telecast, with unflinching realism. Minutes later, it became apparent that a bluff was called, when Michelle Chong from the TV series, Noose appeared on scene, with the background of perfectly seated crowd and smoke simulation.

The second simulacra was the large eye, an unusual shape for a projection screen. It is a possible homage to Nam Jun Paik, the father of video art, where the screen gazes at the viewer at the same time. We gravitate our vision towards it because of the distance and scale, rather than the actual performers; we hear sound, mediated by sound engineers,pre-recordings before broadcasts reach the viewers. The internet audience had multiple ‘live’ camera angles to choose from.

To some extent, the multi-media glitz drowned the live performance, playing down the provost gun pumping or the pole acrobats, reducing them to organic pixels on a blue stage/screen. The costume designs were perhaps the most synergistic, breaking the human form and recreating a variety of abstract objects and figurines. To television audiences in the comforts of their home, it was most entertaining crossing campy Moulin Rouge with Ge Tai theatrics.

The spectacle was topped by a 8.22 p.m. nation wide appeal to say the National pledge, like a nation wide flash mob or situationist intervention. This National Day was like no other, in our assertion of cultural rights, judging from the unique blend of colloquial arty-ness. The largest most stunning visual effect would arguably be the massive paper-fold boats that came floating to the stage area.

The audience at the grandstand were also the performers for the audience at home. They had star wands, flags to wave, hand shaped clappers to drum with. Without the live crowd, one might have imagined that it was a repeat telecast of the preview. But it did exist, as many who sat through the preview and actual event will testify, and so will the mass of performers who sacrificed weekends and long hours rehearsing.

Stern critics  might label the event as embracing the excess in the light of economic recovery.  The optimists would add that it feeds the dreams of many, telling the tale that the country has come far and we have seen far worse. Indulgence in the nation’s birthday bash, excessive garishness or sentimentality comes but once a year. But anxiety lingers after the 4 minutes of fireworks. One might even go as far to suggest that reality pours out from the television screens and computer screens. This anxiety stems from tension between reality of GDP negative growth, and the image of televised hope. But if nothing transpired from art that evening, propaganda or not, the string of action, music, song and dance stirred feelings for home, for family and touched the minds and hearts of many that evening.