Art June 21, 2012 00:00


Singapore audiences go walkabout, hunting for a songbird and finding reality


Picture the contrast between mass-transit commuters insulated by earphones and smart-phones and members of a theatre audience with all senses riveted to the stage. Now picture the two combined.
That’s what Tara Tan and Studio Now and Then offered with “Songbird” during the recent Singapore Arts Festival.
Audience members were loaned an iPad with a special “Songbird” application or invited to download the app onto their own phones. Our assigned “mission” was to find out why an aspiring young crooner named Songbird hadn’t shown up for her highly anticipated debut concert. 
We spent the next hour scouring the neighbourhood – the Fullerton Hotel, the Asian Civilisations Museum, the Arts House, Esplanade Park, and a parked limousine – guided by messages and instructions, QR data codes and pre-recorded videos. Meanwhile there were pop songs as well to compensate for the afternoon heat.
I mainly use a PC so I’m not too familiar with the iPad. As a result I missed a crucial message and lingered too long in the museum. At the hotel I scanned a QR code perhaps too soon, was told to move on, and thus missed an interesting exhibition there. 
My only other complaint is that the many assistants posted at each site giving directions watered down the fun of what could have been a truly personal exploration. 
I took this experiential performance as a comment on the Internet’s role in the music industry. The fact is that, with people buying fewer records and instead downloading songs, these days you can become a famous musician without ever performing live in concert. 
Call me old-fashioned, but I still love going to concerts. And, no, I’m not going to buy an iPad anytime soon.
Nearby, France’s Espaces Sonores was presenting “Umbrella for Two”. This time pairs of audience members shared an umbrella equipped with an MP3 player and two sets of earphones. Then it was off again around the district, following stickers along the route to monuments we’d all seen before but overlooked.
We also went through underground walkways, one of which is a shopping mall, listening mainly to recordings of the artists interviewing people they’d met there. My favourite part was when the stickers indicated we should stop and either listen or look around carefully.
I wished the tour had featured more places I hadn’t seen before (and that the day wasn’t so hot), but “Umbrella for Two” was a good reminder about how many sights and sounds we miss in our daily lives. 
“Songbird” and “Umbrella for Two” reaffirm that contemporary art keeps developing new forms, some of which appear to reinstate its relevance in ordinary life. These shows also indicate that art and science remain allies. 
Festival directors in other countries would do well to present such works. They won’t sell thousands of tickets, but they still hold value and contribute to the development of local arts.
Singapore’s National Arts Council supported the writer’s trip.
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