You are here

Lucy Davis' Railtrack Songmaps involves bird sound recordings, photography, and life stories featuring contributions from artists and scientists across genres.
Gloria Tan is the solo female actor in the deconstruction of the Sang Kancil fable by Rizman Putra
Edith Podesta's take is that the word ''bitch'' offers a reflection of our ''animal selves''.
Sharda Harrison in BI(CARA), where she plays herself with certain memories and fears about snakes.

Woman power

Animals take centrestage in this year's M1 Fringe Festival, but probe a little deeper and another influence emerges - woman power. While not intentional, the 11-day festival programme displays a strong feminine side - setting the stage for an eye-opening journey into women's psyches, the nature of animals and the state of humanity.
Jan 8, 2016 5:50 AM

IT was the first thing that M1 Fringe Festival festival director Sean Tobin noticed when the programmes came together - most of them were by or about women.

There are works by female playwrights including Singapore-based Jean Tay, Sharda Harrison, Edith Podesta while the three foreign productions are also penned by women, namely Lenka Vagnerova from Czech Republic, Cat Kidd from Montreal, and Paige Philips from the USA.

Human Bestiary by the group Principio from Mexico, one of the festival highlights, features five female actors in the tale about the extinction of animal and plant species, global warming and the destruction of natural habitats.

It's easily the "wildest and gutsiest piece in this year's Fringe, where girl power meets animal power", describes Mr Tobin, about the physically and psychologically intense, raw and bold play which also uses video projections and a live DJ set to present its message.

Lenka Vagnerova & Company's La Loba (Wolf Woman) represents a mythical woman connected with nature and animal voices which resemble those from our world.

Award-winning Jean Tay's The Shape of A Bird has female protagonists - about an imprisoned writer penning stories and letters to her daughter; while Montreal's Cat Kidd has devised a story based on the "Hare" as a powerful symbolic force throughout art history.

"Wild", unbridled, unfettered creativity is what the Fringe Festival is all about, which Tobin explains is why he chose the animal theme as the Fringe Festival is about the "wild", which is important in art making. To Tobin - this is the second time he's at the helm - this exploration of humans' "animalistic" psyche or impulses, and its correlation with nature and the environment has a strong link to feminism.

"That female-centredness and strong female core is in most of the pieces - and it's all bold stuff, even in Lucy Davis' art installation which has a poetic but rigorous activism behind it," he notes.

"And as a male and an art educator, I know how male-centred the arts can be. Like race, gender representations is one of the hot issues in the industry," adds Tobin.

Indeed, it will be interesting to see the effect of a woman's touch on "Art and the animal" as the M1 Fringe Festival puts her in the spotlight.

M1 Fringe Festival: Art and the Animal runs from Jan 13-24 at various locations. Check for more details. All tickets can be purchased from Sistic outlets. For more information, contact or call 6440 8115.

Project arises from 'bird interventions'

Railtrack Songmaps: a Migrant Ecologies Project (Singapore)
Jan 13-24, Tue-Sun, 12pm-7pm, Fri 12pm-9pm, Blk 47 Malan Road
#01-25 Gillman Barracks.

IN such a built-up city like Singapore, it's hard to imagine it teeming with wildlife, never mind endangered species. But give animals like birds a bit of wooded green, like that at the former Malayan Railway corridor, and they will thrive.

This is what artist Lucy Davis found out, in the three years she spent recording the sights and sounds of birds there for her upcoming presentation at the Fringe Festival. 

The artist calls her encounters "bird interventions" - for the way nature intervenes in our lives even as modern life threatens it. 

Davis has been fascinated with birds since the time when she was photographing teak and banyan trees in south-east Sulawesi and a flock of cockatoos flew into the Banyan tree canopy. From there she realised how the birds were the main agent of reforestation, not humans, she relates.

In Singapore, she became even more attuned to them when she moved to the west coast from Little India. She found it too quiet in the area until she began to listen to bird calls. "My ears opened up to the sounds of nature all around us … and I realised that our awareness of birds has to do with sound rather than sight as there's always a cloud of bird sounds around us," she says.

It was also in the west that she discovered the call of Oriental Magpie Robin - thought to be poached nearly to extinction in Singapore because they were highly sought after by bird enthusiasts in the 1970s and 80s. She also found out that there are still people out to catch them for sale - at S$120-S$150 a bird - now that they've made a comeback.

With these "bird interventions" in her life, Davis, an assistant professor at Nanyang Technological University's (NTU) School of Art, Design and Media, started conceptualising the elements that would go into her project, Railtrack Songmaps.

The survey - conducted together with the Nature Society of Singapore Bird Group - recorded over 100 species of birds, a process which took a year and a half because it also included migratory birds. Then, Davis got her NTU students to study everyday life along the Tanglin Halt area where one of Singapore's first HDB blocks has recently been vacated for rebuilding.

The result is a multimedia, sound and visual experience in a exhibition that will involve bird sound recordings, photography, and life stories featuring contributions from artists and scientists across genres.

Davis roped in collaborators, namely Zai Tang (composer/field recordist), Kee Ya Ting (photographer/videographer), Marijke Van Kets (filmmaker), David Tan (biologist), Dennice Juwono (designer/visual artist), Steven Setiawan Jap (interactive media designer/visual artist) and Ben Slater (script consultant). The installation is crafted with the assistance of Philippe Foulfoin and Kevin Sullivan (architects) and Eugene Tan (product designer).

"I wanted a way to talk about birds in the prosaic, everyday life around us," Davis explains. The main driver of the project is sound, and her collaborators have recorded 32 bird calls for the anchor piece - an interactive touch-screen and projection piece. An introductory film leads the viewer into an interactive map of the area, and then a diversity of bird calls invite visitors to follow soundtracks that weave into layers of song, story and image that resound with urban myths, memories and experiences of people and the birds they've known, seen or studied.

Human stories include that of a taxi driver who had an owl appear often at his kitchen window and a Tanglin Halt resident with nine pet parrots. Some stories were taken from schoolchildren from Tanglin Halt Primary School, where listening workshops were held and the children had asked their parents or grandparents to share stories of birds.

The most challenging, says Davis, was deciding how to best represent the birds themselves. "How do we show the bird at the end of all this? We felt that we had to show them in some shape and form but not in the way they've been shown in the past - ie decontextualised from their surroundings, or drawn up in natural history detail like they've been from colonial times," she elaborates.

In the end, Davis found images of the shortlisted 32 birds (which birdcalls had been recorded) and made transparency cutouts of them to photograph their shadows on the pavement, or chairs, and so on. The shadow image is a strategy used in the interactive console. Another method was more laborious as she had downloaded videos of birds, printed out hundreds of frames and cut out the birds so what's left is a birdshaped outline animating the space it was originally filmed.

There is a subtle advocacy dimension to Railtrack Songmaps as the area covered - One North, Tanglin Halt-Wessex Estate-Queensway viaduct down to Warwick Estate - is threatened because of new plans for the Railway Corridor. "I wouldn't like to see another Dempsey Hill here, for instance," she adds.

"The exhibition is not meant to protest, but to try to convince through the poetry of the piece," she says.

An art project with a scientific heart and approach, it also highlights other issues concerning birdlife in Singapore.

One of the rooms will feature Feather Forensics, a collaboration between Kee Ya Ting and David Tan from the National University of Singapore. This photographic work tracks "avian death maps" of the city revealing where birds fly fatally into high-rise buildings. "This includes an owl that's never been seen in Singapore before, but it was found dead as it had flown into the Amnios Building in One North," she says.

Railtrack Songmaps is essentially a multi-angled tableau that Davis has set up that will bring the diversity of birdlife in one part of green Singapore into the gallery space - through the interactive installation, short films, photographs, sculptural works with scripts and pantuns (Malay poems) - and promises to be fascinating as well as a nature resource for posterity.

Revisiting a tale with solo female actor

The Chronicles of Zero and One: Kancil
Jan 13-16, 8pm nightly
Esplanade Theatre Studio

SANG Kancil is the title of a much loved 1980 Malaysian cartoon series about a spunky mousedeer who got up to all kinds of antics in the animal kingdom. But what few may realise is that this fabled character is actually female.

Rizman Putra's retelling of the Sang Kancil in The Chronicles of Zero and One: Kancil, is intended to give full voice to the female gender. "When I was a child, I loved watching Wonder Woman, Jane Fonda and reading the Nancy Drew series. My heroes have always been women instead of men," says the founding member of a multi-disciplinary art group KYTV (Kill Your Television), and front man of local music group, Tiramisu.

But it's the first time he's deconstructing an old fable, an "exciting and scary" task at the same time, with the possibility of trodding on some sacred cows. He expects Singaporeans in their 30s and older to be familiar with the Sang Kancil fables, especially the story of how she tricked Sang Buaya (the crocodile) to get to the other side of the river, as the fable was still shown on TV in the 80s and told in primary school textbooks. "But I'm not so sure about the younger generation," says the artist.

That's partly the reason why he's keen to revisit the tale, roping in collaborators who are totally new in the theatre scene. Safuan Johari is a musician while Brandon Tay is a video artist in Syndicate. The "rebooted version" of the story, scripted in Malay (with English subtitles), was written by Big (Zulfadli Rashid).

Gloria Tan is the solo female actor in the play, although Rizman and Safuan (both form the duo, NADA) will provide the music off-stage. He naturally chose a female actor because Sang Kancil has that sensitive side which is hard for a male actor to tap on. "The nuances can only be discovered by a female. The rest of the characters are made of 'male' voices."

What can the audience expect? Rizman describes this Sang Kancil version as completely twisted, dark and haunting. "For me it's like the Malay version of Animal Farm and a darker version of Bambi as it plays on the universal human themes of jealousy, hatred and change." Rizman has been on tour for most of this year, as part of the Singapore Inside Out project which the Singapore Tourism Board brought to Beijing, London and New York.

While the character is ancient, the presentation will be very new with a heavy reliance on visuals like body projection mapping. "The visuals are the second actor, almost," says Rizman. The music too is a reconstruction of old Malay traditional music and presented in a contemporary way.

"Dulu lain, sekarang lain ... (things are different now)" is one of the key lines in the play - as Rizman and his team retell the story in today's digital and virtual world.

From the perspective of a dog and woman

BITCH: The Origin of the Female Species
Jan 21-23, 8pm, Esplanade Recital Studio
Jan 21-24, 8pm & 3pm
Black Box, Centre 42

AS a premise, BITCH: The Origin Of The Female Species is certainly going to be an interesting look into one of the most common and complex insults in the English language.

Writer/director/performer Edith Podesta's take is that the word offers a reflection of our "animal selves", an embodiment of suppressed human urges and desires transformed into the perfect companion: man's best friend.

The idea of the separation of male and female genders is what spurred the piece, Podesta relates. "People don't understand how destructive the book Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus was: the idea that women are a separate species altogether. And if we don't look at animals as intelligent beings which are similar to use, that also leads to destructive behaviour."

She first wrote the piece from a place of anger and frustration, while on a 490km walk across The Netherlands - where she would walk by day, and write by night. Then she decided to write it from the perspective of a dog, "from the rhythm of nature". "After all, for a long time, animals and women shared the same position in the food chain," she points out, adding that we're still not in the post-feminist era with a lot of our mainstream stories still written, produced and critiqued by men.

Together with her co-actor Helmut Bakaitis (who played the "architect" in The Matrix series), Podesta's aim is for the audience to question their own assumptions of the fundamental qualities of the human, as they witness the "dog" impounded in the image of "woman".

Meanwhile, physical performer Sharda Harrison's piece, BI(CARA), is based on a talk once given by her father Bernard Harrison, former chief executive of Wildlife Reserves Singapore, founder of the Night Safari, zoologist and conservationist.

His talk highlighted the treatment and consumption of animals, and the thespian who once wanted to be a conservationist, hopes to make that stand through art instead.

There are four characters in the play she wrote - one where she plays herself with certain memories and fears about snakes; the second is a cat lover who feeds stray cats; an orang utan keeper who struggles with his humanity, and a non-speaking character called the Shaman, based on two groups of Orang Asli tribes in Malaysia. All the characters are based on interviews she's made.

Will hers be a female perspective? Harrison points that it's her own perspective more than anything. "I've been trying my best to include how both 'male' and 'female' would think in each role's demands."