Censorship – Rating Denied, Letter from Arts Engage

UPDATE: Withdrawal of Undressing Room and Naked Ladies by Fringe Festival
Click here or scroll down for more on the withdrawal

Undressing Room by Ming Poon (Photo credit: mingapur)

Arts Engage regrets the Infocomm Media Development Authority’s decision to deny rating to two works in next year’s M1 Singapore Fringe Festival
(ST Nov 25, 2016; “IMDA denies rating to two shows in 2017 M1 Fringe Festival for 'excessive nudity'”)

IMDA was apparently applying the Arts Entertainment Classification Code “to protect the young from unsuitable content, while enabling adults to make informed viewing choices.” It took advice on this matter from an Arts Consultative Panel (ACP) comprising “housewives, artists, educators and working professionals”.  

Naked Ladies (by Thea Fitz-James) and Undressing Room (by Ming Poon), were denied a rating – which is a ban – due to “excessive nudity which included scenes of audience-participants stripping naked, and graphic depictions of exposed genitalia”. IMDA said the works “exceeded the R18” rating under the AECC.
"The arts have always encouraged new ways of seeing, and have also created safe spaces for us to examine differences in opinions. These constructive dialogues are essential in this day and age, and they prevent fissures and polarisation, by celebrating diversity, open-mindedness, and a willingness to engage in discourse with one another."
Celebrating Diversity, Open-mindedness and Engagement
(excerpted from Facebook, scroll down page for more)

This is an unmerited and retrograde step which runs counter to the move towards a reasonable, open and fair regimen of arts regulation in Singapore. It is totally unbecoming and out of character for an agency like IMDA that aspires to administer a transparent and well-run system.
Arts Engage expresses full support for the Fringe Festival and its Director Sean Tobin. The Festival has a long history of incisive, cutting-edge programming coupled with open audience engagement which has raised the bar for the appreciation of contemporary art in Singapore. Mr Tobin is a respected artist and art educator who has made significant and seminal contributions to the growth and development of theatre and performance.

The 13-year old Festival has always been professional and responsible in sourcing content and opening up a critical public space for dialogue and discussion. This year, given the nature of the content, the Festival itself decided on the R18 rating – the highest possible for theatre.

We would also like to question the grounds, protocol and process used to censor Undressing Room and Naked Ladies. What does “excessive nudity” mean? Who decides if nudity, a legitimate and time-honoured device of artistic expression, is “excessive” or not? Where is the artist’s voice in this decision process and how is nudity in these works “excessive”? Did IMDA or its representative actually see the works? What precisely was the ACP’s advice and who on the panel signed off on it? How is nudity (excessive or not) harmful to young people? Finally, doesn’t the fact that the works have an R18 rating already protect the young?

So many unanswered questions bespeak an appalling lack of clarity and transparency in IMDA’s decision-making process. Works which are submitted for a rating decision should not be banned or censored altogether; neither artist nor citizen is any the wiser for it. Opaque, backroom censorship violates the value of art and undermines community trust in the legitimacy of institutions like IMDA.

While we accept arts regulation, IMDA must regulate without resorting to moral policing. If anyone thinks Naked Ladies and Undressing Room are not to their taste, they do not have to watch the shows. A rigorous and transparent regulatory process will ensure fairer outcomes without disrupting artistic enterprise and the eroding of the community’s trust. This incident is proof that the IMDA is failing as Singapore’s arts regulator.

30 Nov 2016

Excerpted from M1 Singapore Fringe Festival page
(5 December 2016)

Withdrawal of Undressing Room by Ming Poon and Naked Ladies by Thea Fitz-James

The M1 Singapore Fringe Festival will not be presenting the performances of Ming Poon’s Undressing Room and Thea Fitz-James’ Naked Ladies at the upcoming edition of the Festival.

We have been in consultation with the artists since the IMDA’s assessment that their works have exceeded the R18 rating under the Arts Entertainment Classification Code (AEC). Both the artists and the Festival have taken steps to consider the feedback given and discuss the options available to us. While the artists have expressed their willingness to amend their performances to meet IMDA’s classification requirements, the Festival believes that any adjustments and abridgments to the art works to fit these guidelines will result in significant changes that will affect the original artistic intent.

The Festival has decided against compromising on the artistic integrity of these works to conform to the current AEC guidelines. Both works, in their original forms, are well-crafted pieces exploring issues of vulnerability and identity. We want to reiterate our stance that we do not believe the works to be “lewd”—to use the term bandied around by some complainants—nor was there any artistic intent to titillate. Both pieces are thoughtful and sensitive; they advocate body positive messages as well as a sense of personal candour and community trust.

Sadly, these works have been judged based on the preconception that nudity equates to pornography. The unfortunate irony of IMDA’s assessment of the works having “excessive nudity” is that both works actually make deliberate attempts to distinguish nudity from sexualised connotations. Ultimately, the licensing process—along with the online furore surrounding these works—deems that society at present is not ready for these cutting-edge, intelligent works.

What We Believe—And Continue to Believe In

Since our inception in 2005, the Festival has been unwavering in our belief that thought-provoking art can generate important discussions about issues of the day, across race, language, religion, class and gender. We believe we are relevant—and we are heartened that so many of you believe that too. We have been moved and encouraged by the numerous supporters who have spoken up for the spirit of the Festival, and who recognise that celebrating diversity means respecting one and all—including those who differ from our ideals. Clearly, our public is more progressive and open-minded than some would want us to think.

We are grateful for the amazing support from long-time partners like the National Arts Council, Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, Centre 42, as well as you, the supporters who have been with us through editions of the Festival, and who have been instrumental to our success.

M1 has been the title sponsor of the Fringe festival for the past 12 years. They have always stood by the Festival and have treated the Fringe Team with great respect every step of the way. We are grateful to them for being open-minded, patient and an exemplary patron of the arts.

We believe in having constant dialogues and mediation. As a responsible festival—and one run by concerned members of the public as well—we want to engage in discussions with detractors. While we do not agree with their strategy of writing anonymous letters, we would like to understand their concerns better, and come to a better understanding—if not acceptance—of each other.

As such, we would like to invite anyone who has queries or comments pertaining to the Festival’s works to approach us. We want to get to know you better in person, in a safe, private space, where we can mutually share our concerns.

We also believe that the discussions generated from all this have been fruitful, clearly demonstrating a deep interest in society to debate and grapple with difficult issues such as censorship.

Letters voicing against M1 Fringe Festival, are not from the ‘silent majority’
(The Online Citizen, 6 December 2016)

Click here to read

Censorship and policing divides rather than open a space for conversations and understanding
(The Online Citizen, 6 December 2016)
Click here to read

Rating denial: Look at context of shows' nudity
(Letter to Straits Times,
10 December 2016)
Click here to read

May contain nudity
(The Monocle Minute) Click here to read

Excerpted from M1 Singapore Fringe Festival page
Celebrating Diversity, Open-Mindedness and Engagement

Public Engagement & Arts Education

Over and beyond the arts classification provided by IMDA, the Festival believes in further engaging and educating the public, and this is done through a variety of collaterals in print and on the web. Furthermore, we conduct online interviews leading to the production dates with the artists, so that more about their artistic intent can be unpacked for the public to digest and engage with. Post-show dialogues are also held, so that audience members have the opportunity to pose questions directly to the artists. The media’s support cannot be discounted, and press coverage has been crucial in reaching out to the public, to help them understand the works on offer at the Festival. All these efforts are done so that we can create a healthy, supportive and constructive space to process the meanings and impact of the works.

Works at Fringe 2017

There are works in the Festival that clearly contain mature content, and as such, the Festival has taken the precaution of imposing the R18 rating from the date of the launch of ticket sales, limiting audience members to those aged 18 and above.

For instance, Undressing Room and Naked Ladies feature full nudity, and naturally these shows come with the appropriate ratings and advisories—as would be the case for other performances featuring nudity here. These art works are thoughtful, well conceptualised pieces that deal with the Festival theme, through the lens of nudity and the politics behind it. They question issues of identity, and how that is formed, thwarted and reasserted. They are most certainly not acts of pornography or titillation.

Naked Ladies by Canadian performer and academic Thea Fitz-James is an intelligent piece that helps us think very deeply about the objectification of women in various media. The work is enriching, life-affirming, sensitive and respectful to women and to humanity.

Undressing Room by Berlin-based Singapore artist Ming Poon is another important progressive work that sensitively explores the respect and appreciation of the human body, through the literal and figurative disrobing of our selves. It compels us to be self-reflective yet vulnerable in a fundamental way.

Undressing Room is a participatory one-to-one performance with a total of only 18 audience-participants. They will have to sign disclaimer forms and agreements with the artist, to protect both parties. Other measures on-site have also been taken to protect both artist and participant during the course of the work.

Managing Difference

The arts have always encouraged new ways of seeing, and have also created safe spaces for us to examine differences in opinions. These constructive dialogues are essential in this day and age, and they prevent fissures and polarisation, by celebrating diversity, open-mindedness, and a willingness to engage in discourse with one another.

We welcome anyone who has queries or comments pertaining to the Festival’s works to approach us directly. We hope to be able to continue our discourse with the public, and would be happy to do so in a safe space, where we can share our concerns and come to a better understanding—if not acceptance—of each other. That is the true community engagement that we hold steadfast to and continue to celebrate with each edition of the Festival.