S'pore art tour that visits people's homes sees funding reduced by 80% but plans digital show to tell new stories

The team has been re-planning its 2020 programme but it is still hopeful to conduct house tours again soon.

Joshua Lee | September 09, 2020, 09:55 AM

"We are experience specialists. Nobody does tours like we do," says non-profit arts organisation OH! Open House (OH!) on its website.

It's true. I've covered two editions of the annual art walkabout, a regular fixture on the arts scene since 2009, and I've never seen anything else like it.

The main draw of OH!'s tours is that it invites participants to view art in other people's homes.

It is a conscious decision, says OH!, to allow people to experience art outside of museums and galleries which can leave one feeling "disconnected".

Participants on a tour of Tiong Bahru in 2012. Image via OH! Open House/Facebook.

It is fascinating, partly because you get to wander around in a stranger's home without getting arrested.

But more importantly, it's an opportunity to experience the stories and history of the community.This is because OH! engages artists to create works of art that draw on the history and meanings associated with the locale.

The 2015 edition of the art walk took participants on a heritage tour of Joo Chiat and in 2017, a Holland Village terraced house was transformed into a natural history museum.

"Two years' work disappears in a puff."

Obviously, organising art walks of such scale and proportion requires plenty of prep work.

In fact, OH! was planning its largest art walk ever with international artists for this year's edition, says Alan Oei, Executive Director of OH! Open House, when the Covid-19 pandemic struck Singapore and effectively put a stop to public events and gatherings.

"Two years' work disappears in a puff," he said.

This year's edition was titled "The Elemental Trilogy", a three-part act which uses the locale of Sungei Kadut to draw the audience's attention to our relationship with natural resources in the context of climate change.

Planning for this project started in 2018, and there was even a website already up and running.

But visitors to the website are now greeted with a notice that the art walk has been postponed indefinitely.

Oei adds that the the situation has been "distressing to all involved", but the OH! team is not giving up. It has switched gears to come up with a new programme called "Days – and counting", but it's not as simple as recording a "virtual tour".

"I think everyone has been rushing to go digital and most of it reflects a particular kind of blind faith where we are still rooted to translating the physical, for example, recordings of live performances, or virtualisations of exhibition spaces."

"Days – and counting", which will be launched on October 30, will be an online programme, which Oei hopes will make a difference in terms of how art and stories can function in the digital world.

"More importantly, the programme tries to make a time capsule of this Covid-19 new normal," he adds.

"No shows means no ticketing dollars."

Adapting its art tour to this "new normal" has been painful, says Assistant Director Lim Su Pei.

"We were still hopeful when some social measures were introduced, thinking that we could delay our large scale art walk for six months. But when the circuit breaker announcement was made, we knew immediately that we couldn’t pull it off within this year. The team being pressured to switch gears was certainly demoralising."

It is now harder to engage the programme's wide pool of volunteers since art walks can no longer be conducted and the team cannot continue recruiting new volunteers. Fortunately, OH! has not had to let go of any employees.

Donations to the organisation have also trickled to a fifth of what it can potentially get — most of which comes from OH!'s regular donors.

What has been severely impacted was the staff's earned income, says Lim ("No shows means no ticketing dollars.").

The art tours are also a way to highlight the stories of people in the community like this Potong Pasir mamak shop owner who had his alcohol licence revoked after people complained about noise from customers. It was featured in the 2016 edition. Image via OH! Open House/Facebook.

OH! does qualify for the Job Support Scheme and some capability development and programme-related grants which are dished out by the National Arts Council. The former has helped OH! tremendously, says Lim.

However these are stop-gap measures, she adds.

"We recognise that support cannot go on indefinitely. We are alright now due to our prudence in the past, but with all our revenue streams being affected currently, there will be a snowball effect hitting us eventually."

People crave physical engagement

For Lim, the impact of the pandemic and circuit breaker has also been felt keenly by OH!'s fans. The circuit breaker, in particular, has left people craving some form of physical engagement.

During a recent focus group, participants gave a resounding "YES" to a suggestion to include a small physical component in its upcoming digital show.

Lim has also been touched by the words of encouragement from the OH!'s volunteers when it first announced the postponement of large-scale art walks.

"I think the most touching was the use of the word "we", for example, 'We will get back together stronger.' You just feel that you’re not alone in this — that there’s a lot of people behind you to help through these."

Oei acknowledges that in this new normal, OH! has to adapt its house tours to a new hybrid model that combines the physical experience with the digital. In fact, OH! is already planning a project which involves a mysterious forest that has stories that can only be experienced digitally, he says.

"For instance, we experience the world at the scale of a human, but what’s it like at a microscopic level, or a bird's eye view, these are experiences better translated via the filmic and digital gaze."

Whatever the reinvention through, people must still remember that we are tactile and social beings, says Oei, adding that OH! is looking forward to a time when house tours can return.

"Days – and counting" will be launched on October 30, 2020.  You can check out OH! Open House's Facebook page for updates on the show.

If you would like to support OH! Open House financially, you can do so here.

Stories from the City of Good is a series on ordinary Singaporeans giving their best for others and inspiring each other to become a Singapore that cares. This is a collaboration between Mothership and the National Volunteer and Philanthropy Centre.

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