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In the anime series Ghost in the Shell, the world in A.D.2024 is completely digitalised. Humans plug directly into the internet via a port in our necks, and hence move seamlessly between our physical world and this equivalent of the “metaverse”. However, anonymity and disinformation create echo chambers and online tribes that lead to dystopic consequences: coordinated self-harm, systemic acts of terrorism, fascist resurgences…The picture is extreme. But these echo today’s reality, no?
It is now a mantra that the pandemic has accelerated digitalisation. And most digital conveniences that save us time and money will likely remain. Especially for the performing arts, going digital during the “circuit-breaker” months of the pandemic was the only way for artists and even an arts centre like Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay to make and bring performances to audiences. However, with venue capacities now increasing and international travel resuming, I have often been asked to answer this question, “How will digitalisation continue to shape the arts in the future”?
I will suggest three ways of looking at this future, but reversing the question instead:
How will the arts continue to shape our digitalised world?
The first is content. Content makes the digital world go round. It gives flesh and skin to code and data. The skills of the future are not just found in the STEM disciplines. Those who command the art of language, imagery, music and stories can potentially influence legions of consumers via online games, entertainment and media. Similarly, there have been calls for writers, musicians, dancers and artists to apply their skills in the digital space, mint their work as an NFT, monetise their livestreams, or incorporate emergent digital technologies into their practice.
These opportunities will only grow. But we miss the point if we think of digital content only in the context of consumption. When the printing press was first introduced to the world, it brought literacy and knowledge, and hence power to a wider base in society. In the same way, one of the greatest opportunities in the digital space is education.
Seeding curiosity and sharing knowledge through the arts is therefore one of the key goals in Esplanade’s digitalisation journey. Esplanade created the Offstage site as an online companion to our live activities and space. Packed with recorded performances, behind-the-scenes videos, interviews, essays, podcasts, as well as lesson and activity guides, Offstage offers content that supports learning about Singapore and Asia’s cultures and contemporary arts. During the pandemic, Offstage had some 1.5million sustained engagements. And this is also one of the perks of the digital space: overcoming the physical limitations of scale, distance and time. Take Baybeats, a festival of alternative music that gathers tens of thousands of young people and musicians over a weekend at Esplanade each year. With the festival now also livestreamed, its reach has grown to hundreds of thousands, including beyond Singapore.
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Singapore band Cadence performing live at the Esplanade Outdoor Theatre for Baybeats in Nov 2021. The band’s performance was simultaneously livestreamed for an online audience. Photo by Lee Jia Wen.
This brings me to the second point: our desire for community. Online communities already thrive. But with algorithms optimised for consumption and the cloak of anonymity, online communities are susceptible to disinformation, bullying, the narrowing of views. Digital culture is prone to bigotry.
The arts also thrive when it creates communities. But it can create communities out of difference and diversity, because the arts is prone to empathy. In the theatre, we are asked to put ourselves in the shoes of strangers whose lives we witness on stage. We watch a group of people sing or move in ways vastly different from ours, yet we can walk away feeling connected to them. In a darkened auditorium, we learn, ponder, laugh and cry together. In this process, we also take on the semblance of a community.
While such experiences are most potent in a live setting, they can also take place in a digital space or be enhanced with digital tools. Thinking of more vulnerable seniors in hospitals and care facilities with limited social interaction during COVID, my colleagues invited musicians to hold real time, virtual concerts for patients and healthcare workers via their personal screens. They chatted and took song requests. For that short hour, music brought relief. It also created connections, a sense of community around the sharing not only of music, but pain, memories and enjoyment.
On another occasion, two groups of students from very different academic backgrounds participated in a Zoom-enabled forum theatre work by Singapore company The Necessary Stage under Esplanade’s Feed Your Imagination series for schools. Despite the differences in how they spoke, the students demonstrated empathy, courage and kindness to one another. Perhaps for youths who always seem more confident and secure behind the screen, an acute awareness of being scrutinised onscreen by others had also made them “perform” their better selves to their peers.
The third is agency. For me, this is the most difficult task for the arts. Digital technologies and platforms often give users a sense of agency. From user-generated content to first-person games, the digital medium thrives on constant user engagement. Swipe! Like! Share! Buy now! You are asked all the time to choose and act. You are, however, not asked to be subtle. And in fact, it is best not to overthink.
For years, arts centres and museums have also been exploring the use of digital technologies to engage people, and for the public to “talk back”, participate and get involved. In the theatre, we have gone from the instruction “No photographs please” to “Please take a photograph now, #____ and share!” Arts centres like Esplanade use data to refine our marketing. Beyond that, visitors can also explore a 360 degree view of the auditorium before deciding which view or seat, or tour Esplanade’s public and indoor spaces virtually.
These little innovations make the experience more immersive, fun and user-friendly. But what the arts sometimes aim to do, which digital technologies and platforms actively avoid, is to make us feel uncomfortable. This may sound perverse, but necessary. We sometimes only confront who we are when we are uncomfortable. And choice itself—despite our human desire for freedom—often makes us uncomfortable.
Artists have therefore used digital tools to critique and make us question or realise the problems or issues of the digitalising world. These are often ethical, philosophical or political issues that we confront every day in small ways. I recall The Social Sorting Experiment by Smartphone Orchestra, a group from Netherlands. Audiences at Esplanade were guided through a series of interactions and decisions on their mobile phones that mimic the choices we make daily on social media. In this fun performance, audiences are made to realise the ways online relationships are made—or not—and what they reveal about us. Last year, Esplanade co-produced an interactive work called TM with Belgian theatre company Ontroerend Goed that uses a virtual room experience to confront audiences with our assumptions, and decisions—but ultimately our shared humanity.
In Ghost in the Shell, what differentiates a human with a fully cyborg body from a bot or android bearing the most human-like form, is a “ghost”. Our “ghost” is most fully exhibited when we exercise our free will in choices and actions that defy algorithms and programmed efficiencies. It is also our “ghost” that desires to connect and to belong to one another. The arts are a means, an expression, and the result of us having a “ghost”, a soul. A digitalised world needs the arts.