Mass inclusion : thoughts on Teo Yeo Yenn’s ‘This is what Inequality looks like’

In recent days, I have been absorbed heavily into a book my wife brought home from Kinokuniya. While she absorbed it in a mere few days, I took longer to read it because I realized that this book should have been entitled (insert here names of a few people I know). There are entire chapters describing their behavior which sometimes poses a challenge for me to show empathy, and some paragraphs that deconstruct the systems I exist in, that contribute to how a specific group of people behave or live their lives. This book is entitled ‘This is what Inequality looks like’ by Teo Yeo Yenn. The thing about this book is: it is easy to see why it is hated, generally taken down constantly by critics and government agencies, social workers giving it flack for a narrative they feel is unfairly representative of their kind. Everyone often finds fault in a story that puts them in a negative light, or blames them for the inequality that exists. But of course, no one acknowledges that they are all part of the system, and somehow one single book cannot be representative of so many threads of narratives.

The main message I got from what little I browsed through it was: Dignity. A powerful tool in making people feel like they are less, or deserve less, and thus result in their self-exclusion from spaces that the larger community reside in: is to make them feel like they deserve being treated this way. I imagine that was what a lot of my family members felt growing up, and thus they burrow into a hole of self-esteem issues, having families with children that also grow up believing they are less, and are constantly reassured by the system and its various tools, that they are less.

What more the Arts.

I refer to theatre here, because generally I have little or no experience in music, dance or visual art, also these art forms are so exclusive, that even my segment of the community i.e. middle class Indian educated English Speaking professional, am unable to access for a variety of reasons: lack of education in these art forms which generally require economically higher access points, a certain attitude towards an understanding of intellectualism and theory (And cultural art history which I did not receive a formal education in) and an openness to different styles, only afforded to those who are keen and avid followers of art in the first place. Theatre still is the most accessible art form to this date: consisting of sometimes dialogue, but mostly performance of roles, which people are familiar with on a daily basis. We all perform the various roles we are expected to play.

What then, when this community are also extensively excluded from the only art form that they can access with minimum formal education in the arts? I’ve observed a few things about theatre in Singapore that we can say for sure, excludes this entire community, and more insidiously, pretends to include them.

Systemically, most groups are provided funding from the National Arts Council and the Tote Board, but only to a certain point. I’ve mentioned before in another post, that our venue rental eats up at least three quarter of whatever funding we get for our shows, no matter how small. The rest of the money to pay actors, and ensure everything else runs smoothly and like clockwork, is dependent on ticket sales and sponsorship. We’ve seen an increase in ticket prices these few years, average ticket prices of shows are not at 27 – 40 dollars, ranging accordingly to the companies that present these shows. We know for sure some companies have placed their minimum ticket prices at 40, and we know for sure, who can really afford these tickets… and by the inverse law: who cannot. It is obvious that our arts venues are getting more and more expensive to rent, ticket prices will only go up, and more and more there will be a larger segment of people who will never see a theatre show in their lives, even if it’s one that has their stories in the center of it, as a selling point even in some cases. Some companies have overcome this: getting sponsorship for tickets so the revenue still flows in, but people also get to come in: yay, isn’t this something to celebrate? The division begins to intensify between audiences, when we get sponsorship for tickets: because the decision and access to the art form is still contingent of the ones more affluent. Even when we try our best to make both ends meet, we still never truly empower our audiences.

The next big things is this sponsorship of tickets: how does one get a ticket sponsored? What do we have to do to qualify for a free ticket – to a venue that is already considerably built in a way that excludes us in many ways?

Someone once presented in a paper on a conference online (I scour youtube for these talks, and sometimes they’re utter rubbish, and sometimes they’re so informative and great and depressing all at the same time, one can only continue to scour for more to satiate the appetite for knowledge) that social activism is the new marketing technique, guaranteed to get in the millennials. I disagree with this phrase so much, one because I am a millennial myself (I also agree that this millennial label is such BS) and two because it really gets into the hearts of people who are already inherently guilty that they are not doing enough to bridge the gap between themselves and the less advantaged (- by the system). People who are already middle-class and have no monies to spare, would also be guilty, but for myriad of other reasons, that they are not doing enough for the civil society on a whole. But those with money and have no idea what to do with it? This special group of people are not mutually exclusive to the conversation about those who do not have the means, to even think about money in the first place.

This donation, charity, giving to the less, is the best way to paint your company in the best light, to make easier the comprehension of how much the company makes, from exploitation of this very community. Marketing oneself as a company that does good (only because revenue is like… great) is one of the best ways to put oneself in an industry where capitalism is often painted as cruel and as one of the biggest perpetuators of inequality. And so, sponsoring tickets for a community of people, doesn’t just mean that they give the money quietly, and say quiet thank yous, and leave with a better conscience.

No: quite conversely, it means huge stickers that tell people that so and so is here on a free ticket, and is a beneficiary, and huge boards promoting their CSR efforts in the foyer, logos on programme booklet pages, a paragraph from the chairman and how earnest he is in wanting to give back, and of course facebook posts with pictures of these beneficiaries enjoying the show. They leave with tax rebates, and good reputation.

That’s just part of the bigger problem. Who gets these free tickets? Who qualifies? Do I have to like theatre or agree that my photo comes up on a facebook post somewhere? What if I don’t even know how theatre could even affect me, and I decide I don’t want to go? What if I’m sick of being patronized like this (ironically there is an award for patrons of the arts, an award! For being gracious with money you earned from being privileged by a system already unfair to these people in the first place!) and decide fuck you, I am not going to bother with the arts, I have no time anyway!

Do I have to already be recognized as part of a VWO to partake in these funds? I understand that there are thousands of beneficiaries in actual case, but probably only one tenth of these people get to sit in the theatre. What is it like to sit in a theatre, in the dark of course, where one can argue that everyone is democratized, to see your stories onstage, sitting beside someone who you know probably paid for a ticket, with money that you don’t have?

There are so many layers to the emotional reality of a patron who has no access to stories that are theirs, inadvertently taken from research into their community. I cannot claim to speak on their behalf to answer these very difficult questions that no one dares to ask.

Arts venues on the other hand: tracking one’s journey through arts venues are tricky. They were never built with access in mind, or as a springboard, or even as a focus in the first place. We get clunky escalators, clean and shiny seemingly transparent exteriors, and out of the way, out of reach places that are not near to the mrt stations or bus stops, and rarely have affordable eateries. During intermission, we have the option of a quick cigarette some ways from the venue, or a 7 dollar latte (sidetrack: I’m not one for coffee in the first place, so I never learned the different western types of coffee. I tried to order a black kopi from a café at haji lane, and the server very rudely told me off that it was an americano and they served no black kopi.) these cafes are built with standing room, barstools, cocktail tables, small tables and chairs, barely any room for someone who does not already feel safe and included in the first place. Dinner options are out of the question, everything costs more than an arm and leg at these cafes (Yes I’m looking at you Goodman Arts Centre) and there is nothing to say that hey we are inclusive, and we’ve thought about your needs, and considered that someone who cannot afford these expensive coffees, would want to watch a show here. And yet of course, we proclaim, the Arts is important. Ya lah it’s important, it gives you soul, and fire for things you feel are important, only if you can afford it!

And yet, they clean the theatres after regular patrons are gone, work as crew sometimes, these people also serve these coffees, and work as part-time ushers, so they’re there, but they’re not there.

It is arguable that of course, several companies have been attempting to break free from these constraints to truly make work for the community, with as much research and involvement from these communities themselves. They have their own spaces, go out to these areas to make work that is non-ticketed, to engage them with translations, and as much engagement work as possible, with artists who are dedicated and work in the applied arts, melding both practice and fieldwork in mapping the ethnographies of the neighbourhoods they work in. The work is both focused and impactful, as it is labour-intensive, and expensive. Ironically, it is harder to get funds for these works, if you have a) no reputation of doing it, so if you’re doing it for the first-time, you have to explain yourself a thousand times to grant bodies, b) if you actually manage to get funding for it, it’ll be so little, you then resort to selling tickets again just to get by or c)your artists are well-off (which is NEVER the case) and don’t really need the money, so this is pro-bono or d)you get in touch with VWOs who have the funding but it reaches a limited number of people, so at the end of the day, you have a KPI, you reach it, and goodbye.

This applies to non-ticketed programmes also: typically out of the way, with a ‘flea market’ which is the in-trend right now, boasting local brands that sell nothing under fifty dollars, with hipster food and some music performances. All these efforts in the hopes of ‘growing an audience’ – so that they would recognize the importance and value of the arts, to one day deciding to pay for a ticket to get the same satisfaction. Hmmm, doesn’t make sense does it?

The point is, not to lament about what we cannot do, or just blame the system. The point is to be truthful upfront, and not pretend to care. Because the worst thing to do it to pretend to care, and to provide an illusion that the arts is for everyone, that your company has a social conscience, and is community driven, thus sending a wrong signal to everyone in the system, that we are all making progress. At the same time, as I type this, I wished so many people I knew and loved, who were in poverty, had access to theatre, especially theatre for young audiences, that would have been able to speak to them in a way social workers, and other friends and family could not. I still believe that theatre is powerful, so powerful, but it’s never going to be as powerful as it should be, if we all contribute to making it exclusive only to people like us.

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