Story by Terence Anthony Wang, Arts Editor
Photos by Nguyen Thao Ngan
My photographer and I were in a crowd, and a big one at that. Auxiliary policemen in reflective jackets puffed whistles, helping us navigate the maze of roadblocks and uneven surfaces. The white noise of disorganized chatter and screeching tires gave way to a rising bass pumping in the distance. We were at Singapore’s annual Night Festival, and it was one very happening neighborhood.
Now in its 9th edition, the Singapore Night Festival first started in 2008 as a relatively simple yet fascinating affair. It had eight different programs, ranging from an overseas arts troupe (Studio Festi) performing dance and acrobatics to musical performances by the Fusion Quartet and the late Paul Ponnudorai, fused with a dash of theater by the Happy Puppetry Company. Today, with a theme of “Inventions and Innovations”, it boasts roughly 40 acts from every genre imaginable, be it the staples of dance performances and art exhibitions all the way to creative new additions such as lip-sync battles and light shows.
The festival brochure offered us three separate routes to help confused visitors like ourselves cover as much as possible in a single night. The first was charmingly named “I Jio You” with a description promising “romance and surprises”; the second was a more clinical “The Basic Unit of Society”, focusing more on action; and the last was the intriguing “I Went to Arts School”, with the lofty claim of being “thought-provoking” and “introspective”.
Being complete rebels with a primal attraction to loud pumping music, we chose none of the above and simply followed the crowd. The irony was not lost on us.
Following the path of least resistance led us to the Festival Village, located on the Singapore Management University Campus Green. There were three main components to this area: closest to the road was a stage which was being set up for a band performance, opposite was a semi-circle row of food-and-beverage stalls. The variety was mind-boggling, with signs advertising everything from Spanish paella to “Uncle G’s Handmade” (we discovered that this meant some very enticing roast pork). Sandwiched between the two were plenty of beanbags, allowing visitors to relax as they enjoyed a performance, preferably with a snack or two in hand.
The National Museum of Singapore was across the road, so it naturally became our next destination. As we drew close, we spotted what appeared to be a pack of dinosaur-like sculptures. They stood about 3 to 5 meters tall, with scaly, brown skins of cloth and tinfoil covering them from head to toe, giving them a robotic feel.
To our complete shock and horror, the sculptures started to move. Their bodies swayed back and forth while their tails curled in and out. Then, like mummies coming to life, they straightened their bodies to full height, and started marching thunderously towards a clearing nearby. These creatures gathered close, arranging themselves into one grand formation. As if to make themselves even more imposing, thunderous roars erupted from them, one by one. It sent chills down our spines, adding to the ominous atmosphere created by the bass pumping through the loudspeakers. Pointing themselves towards the crowd nearby, they then approached menacingly in a single file, like mighty warriors off to war. We would later learn that this spectacle was called Invasion, performed by street theater company Close-Act.
Screams of awe and terror erupted from the crowd as the dinosaurs marched close. We rushed headlong into the fray, now a complete wave of chaos and movement. Bodies clashed as people tried simultaneously to follow and get out of the way of the dinosaurs, and we soon had to give up the chase and content ourselves with watching their light-studded tails swaying in the distance.
More gasps came from the audience behind, and we turned around to find more unexpected visitors. Three performers on stilts, as tall as the dinosaurs, stood in a V-formation in the middle of the crowd. They wore masks that were intricately detailed yet completely identical, removing all semblance of identity, and their arms were stretched outwards from their hips, fists clenched for battle. Proud and magnificent, they headed towards the dinosaurs in long, grand strides.
With bated breath, we watched the mighty clash that we never knew we wanted, but were now all hungry for. The dinosaurs roamed the crowd, lunging back and forth upon contact with their new adversaries. Were they fighting? Were they dancing in unison? We could hardly tell.
Without warning, we felt a sudden movement towards our left and found ourselves face-to-face with one of the mighty creatures themselves. Despite its size, it had managed to sneak up on us, and it threateningly thrusted its scaly head down towards in a confrontation terrifyingly reminiscent of Jurassic Park, emanating raw, physical power. Thankfully, it decided to leave us alone.
Cheers of “good show!” rose from the crowd as it wrapped up in a rousing blast of horns and drums. Indeed, we had plenty of praise for Close-Act’s success in using a combination of light, sound and of course, awe-inspiring props and costumes to strike fear and wonder in the hearts of the audience. This makes it a triumphant example of street performance art, as it would be particularly difficult to recreate such an atmosphere in any other medium.
Our next and final stop, the National Design Centre, was where we found the theme of “Inventions and Innovations” to be most alive. The National Design Centre had a full range of exhibits, but we were pleasantly surprised by an unassuming gift shop on the first floor. Inside, we found a variety of unconventional exhibits, from 3D-printed sculptures to an internet-enabled mini-habitat, which provided real-time information about the ecosystem. A glowing T-shirt was displayed prominently on the counter, while a bobbing neon-blue lamp in the corner attracted a small crowd with its calming, jellyfish-like movements.
Ms. Cathy Ooi, a community member, said that these exhibits were the result of a “community project of makers, entrepreneurs and designers” organized by One Maker Group (OMG). “[They] hold workshops regularly in the prototyping lab, where the public can learn various skills from woodwork to laser cutting to 3D-printing,” she said. While we were unable to access the prototyping lab, a peep inside revealed a clean workspace with rows of tools, workbenches and exotic-looking machinery. It was a maker’s dream through and through.
Sequels are mostly unsatisfying prospects, each one a fading shadow of the last. The Singapore Night Festival, however, is rare proof that this does not always have to be. This year’s edition has left us not only with high hopes for the years to come but also with a sense that Singapore’s arts and design scene is a growing phenomenon that sees no sign of slowing down.