A two-and-a-half week residency to develop a performance project; location: Metro Arts, Brisbane.
It is going to be my first time in Brisbane and in my interest in the real places, public spaces and the City, of course I am going to want to make the work based on this city. Except, I know nothing about Brisbane. So I asked around.
The initial understanding from the few people I have spoken to, of who had come from/lived in/travelled through Brisbane reminded me of Singapore. Not quite a revelation, but interesting again, to note how foreign-ness always seems to highlight your identity of origins. Displacement places you.
The policies in Brisbane in the Eighties meant that the city has constantly been (re)developed. Buildings are torn down and new ones are erected. I remember this being quite a hot topic in Singapore a couple of years ago. Triggered by the demolishing of the National Library, which also housed the much-loved Drama Centre, theatre-makers rode on the loss of this iconic building to comment on the loss of national identity in Singapore. The library was meant to make way for a building of the Singapore Management University’s city campus instead an expressway sits over the plot of land today. The generation of theatre-makers identified with the National Library, having spent their days in rehearsals in the building, and even utilising the library for research as university students in their youth. The famous S-11 hawker centre just outside of the library was a regular hangout and known for its signature street food stalls. People have spent time there and built memories of the place – they have had an attachment to the red brick walls of the building. Today, there are not many buildings that still carry that aesthetic. On the same stretch, the famous Singapore shopping district that is Orchard Road, buildings have glitzy facades. The street spills into the Central Business District, and the buildings, often used as malls and office spaces, follow the trends of developers. Today, light fixtures line the buildings, glass and gloss front the main street. The new National Library sits in a location not far from where it used to be, with the aesthetic of glass as its façade.
I have never been to the old National Library. Most of the people of my generation have never either. In our youth, there were now branches of the National Library in all estates. The City that is Singapore has expanded with its accessibility.
As a young theatre-maker, I sat in the theatre watching these plays written about that loss of identity with slight apathy and a whole lot of curiosity. What were these buildings? Who are these people? How is it that they feel so strongly about something I cannot seem to understand? It was not just that I did not have any attachment to this building in particular, it was that I did not have any attachment to any buildings at all. I did not lose my national identity with a nationally iconic building; I did not have any identity to begin with.
Lately I travelled to the city of Canberra, a city that was specifically allocated and designed to be the political centre of Australia. The city-centre was a big roundabout and suburbs sparsely separated from each other. A thought was introduced to me when I commented at how odd it felt to be in the city centre. There was something disorienting in the air as we circled the city centre to find parking. The drive up to the airport, which had reconstruction being done, revealed unfinished buildings and centres along the way. The land was vast and beautiful, but the spaces between locations hinted at lifelessness, a lack of soul or culture of sorts. A friend shared that this design was so that it would be difficult to find a nucleus of energy, a source to congregate from, and hence less likely to build any sense of rally. Since this was to be the political centre, this lack of can ensure a level of peace, by preventing the possibilities of a gathered protest. My criticism is not political in nature. What I am more interested in is, do people in Canberra feel the sense of community in their city? If they have not been able to commune, does community exist?
Sure, we form communities or become part of them through many other things. Ethnicity, religion, schools, organisations, jobs and friends…in the world of the Internet and social networking sites, communities have transcended known boundaries. But do they have a national identity tied to this place they currently inhabit?
So I reflect on this idea of the nucleus of energy in a city. Do we have that in Singapore? If so, where? If not, why?
The city-state that is Singapore is well compartmentalised. Much like my experience living in the city of Melbourne in the last year, the northern inner-city suburbs differentiate themselves from the southern inner-city suburbs. Town Councils take care of a sizeable amount of territory and these town councils or town halls, give the locals a place to speak with their council representatives, to congregate on matters regarding their town or gather for social events. But Singapore, with its sheer size, or lack of, specific compartmentalising and planning of estates, where government flats is the main housing of choice – it really is not always that easy to differentiate one town from another. The network of the transport system weaves quite seamlessly through each town. Each town possess similar commodities: a central area where there are markets, a bus interchange, the train station, a shopping mall that will probably also have similar shops, the same few supermarkets, pharmacies and retail stores. The aesthetics of these government flats probably differ in paintwork but are generally of the same structure and landscape. There will always be a park in the midst of a town. Schools are generally in the same distance from the local estate, a local community centre and a branch of the National Library.
These similarities and the ease in which one can travel through the towns, in and out of the city centre, this accessibility, has created such a fluidity in this fast-paced society that one often does not stop, much less congregate for longer than they should. A nucleus of energy is unable to define itself anywhere because we are moving through everywhere.
(In the context of Singapore, there are clear and blatant political initiatives to prevent any form of “unlawful” congregation. Read: illegal gathering law, monopoly of government, the history of the Internal Security Department…)
What happens to a city without an active nucleus of energy?
Singaporeans do not feel a sense of community. They do not feel at home. They do not think their voices have been heard as very clearly articulated in the recent General Elections. There are of course many other reasons that feed this lack of a sense of community and to name a few: the nation being really young along with its rapid economic growth has not allowed cultures to find rootedness, the influx of migrants and foreigners adding more transience to our relationship with how we identify with old and new cultures, the philosophy of meritocracy that is the backbone of our education system and workforce and so our pursuits are often for economic progress and survival…
The City is our dwelling place and I suppose my question is how can the city activate this search for our identity? Or have our cities become such fast moving, transient and ever shifting in its landscape that we have been unable to dwell, to stay?
Is that why I have chosen to leave?