By Vere van Gool
From elections to the Olympics to the Venice Biennale, social and cultural activity is historically defined by bringing individuals together to share ideas and experiences within a physical space. But as the familiar ritual of large-scale gathering has abruptly paused due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, tools have also emerged to adapt to this new normal and to connect in important ways. Going forward, what formats for assembly will prove to be viable? Examples now exist of how intimate, decentralized, and small-scale micro-doses of culture over an extended period of time can impact audiences long-term.
IdeasCity, the New Museum’s civic platform that explores the future of cities with art and culture as a driving force, is no stranger to large convenings. Since its founding in 2010, IdeasCity has organized festivals and residency programs in Athens, Detroit, Istanbul, São Paulo, and New York. This February, IdeasCity guest-curated NTU CCA Singapore’s Ideas Fest 2020, which examined the urgency of solidarity in addressing climate change and its impact on Southeast Asia and communities worldwide. Originally planned to include a residency program, international satellite events, and a culminating public festival, news of COVID-19 spread across Southeast Asia as Ideas Fest neared launch, demanding a drastic adaptation of our program. These adjustments also rendered the program’s theme, Solidarity with Nature, a reality: solidarity — between each other, our partners, and with the novel coronavirus, our new, unwelcome collaborator — proved more urgent than we could have imagined.
Health is both a private and public matter. In dialogue with participants and community members, and following safety protocol set by local authorities and our host, the NTU CCA Singapore, Ideas Fest proceeded with a heightened sense of caution. Navigating mandatory temperature checks and social distancing techniques, we altered our immersion in Singapore and across Southeast Asia, asking not just how to stay safe today, but how today can be a design-template for a more equitable future.
To examine the global context of the climate crisis, IdeasCity branched out beyond Singapore and developed partnerships with artists and organizations across Southeast Asia. This decentralized approach, favoring small cultural events over large gatherings, sparked a regional framework of exchange built around the question “What does solidarity mean to you?” At one of these regional events at the Land Foundation in Chiang Mai in Thailand, artist Rirkrit Tiravanija and local rice farmers conducted a solar cooker workshop. Rather than using one solar cooker for a large group, we opted to build five, allowing for a site-wide cookout, where multiple chefs prepared traditional recipes using solar heat.
Back in Singapore, the Ideas Fest residency invited local and international participants to develop research focusing on the intersection of art and ecology. In light of COVID-19 protocol, we reimagined the form the residency would take. Instead of our workshops, lectures, and mentorship taking place in dense urban areas of Singapore, we asked ourselves, “How can we learn from a city remotely?” Artist Charles Lim’s Sea Survival Workshop covered the basics of ocean survival at a remote site off the Changi Coast. Taking place during early morning hours, the participants tested out newfound skills in the ocean. Artist Heman Chong’s walking tour of Singapore’s social and infrastructural peripheries offered us a look into the urban development of the city’s margins, while shedding light on both its hidden and migrant economies.
Ideas Fest’s culminating public program also took on a new format to comply with regulations limiting audience capacity, and to account for speakers no longer able to travel in or to Singapore. In place of artists and community leaders convening in Singapore to discuss what “Solidarity with Nature” means to them, we moved our program online, hosting a 12-hour live broadcast featuring local, regional, and international voices discussing solidarity in a time of crisis for the environment and public health. Those already in Singapore presented live: Ho Rui An spoke on the nature of crowds in response to Asian financial systems, Shumon Basar gave a talk on the Extreme Self, and Kirsten Han addressed democracy and storytelling in Singapore.
Those unable to travel were asked to prerecord digital lectures, including Monica Narula, who read on the topic of curation and community resistance; Marwa Arsanios, who spoke to the ecofeminist activism of the Kurdish Women’s Liberation Movement; and Emeka Ogboh, who discussed beer as a metaphor for decolonization. Audrey Tang performed a virtual ode to digital solidarity in Taiwan, and Rindon Jonhson presented a VR experience on love in a meatless society. Engaging our audience in the room and online, the day alternated between live, prerecorded, and virtual presentations. Mimicking a global public-access television station, we broadcasted as a morning program in Singapore, afternoon lecture series in London, and a late-night show in New York. This simultaneity proved that even amidst a crisis — of which we know more are to come — cultural institutions can link audiences with each other and to culture across geographies, borders, and communities.
As the program wrapped up, and we departed Singapore and Southeast Asia in late February 2020, we asked ourselves, “What steps can we take to prepare for the future?” and “What role does solidarity play in shaping public life?” We feel compelled to act now — while confined to our homes reminiscing about festivals, museums, and civil liberties — to imagine new forms of connection that demonstrate equity in practice.
This experience requires us to preserve the lessons and positive change this crisis has engendered. Most importantly, it has posited how we are to live together — through socially distant solidarity, audience-free culture, and remote togetherness.
In February 2020, IdeasCity’s Vere van Gool, Associate Director, and Gabe Gordon, Assistant Producer, spent a month in Singapore with collaborators, fellows, speakers, and the NTU CCA Singapore team led by Ute Meta Bauer who welcomed IdeasCity to Singapore.
Programming Note: With the COVID-19 pandemic continuing to create profound changes, the New Museum has scaled back activities, and the IdeasCity program is on hiatus until further notice. Over the last decade, we have learned a great deal from our many partners, and look forward to continuing to work together toward common goals in new ways.