Jamie Lewis talks about the Singapore Brisbane Exchange

Hot on the heels of WTF and getting around to reading a random Currency Press Platform Paper (No 31 April 2012: Finding a Place on the Asian Stage by Alison Carroll & Carrillo Gantner), which had been displayed at the box office at Brisbane Powerhouse while I was waiting to go into The Last Supper (not so random, really, considering the work Andrew Ross has done to bring Asian theatre and theatremakers to Brisbane. He gets a lovely mention), I chased up Jamie Lewis, who is a performance artist and the Audience Development Manager at Metro Arts.


Jamie participated in a fascinating creative experience overseas, the Singapore<>Brisbane Exchange.


Believe it or not, I’d never heard of it so I asked her to tell us all about it!


Get yourself a coffee, chai, smoothie, wine, whatever…and get into this. Thanks so much, Jamie, for taking the time out to talk with us.



Chan Hampe Galleries (Singapore) in partnership with Metro Arts (Australia) presents the Singapore <> Brisbane Exchange, a cultural exchange program that will comprise of a six week residency period (three weeks in Singapore and three weeks in Brisbane) for four artists and two curators or writers and result in a major exhibition project at Metro Arts to coincide with the Asia Pacific Triennial at the Queensland Art Gallery/Gallery of Modern Art (8 December 2012 – 7 April 2013).

The participating residents, two artists and one curator or writer from each country, will be challenged to respond to the urbanisation and built environment of the two cities. For the past quarter century, the government of Singapore has significantly redeveloped the city to facilitate the daily needs of its people and to enhance economic growth. Similarly, Brisbane is one of the fastest growing cities in Australia, having experienced significant population growth over the last two decades. Development permeates the culture of both cities.


The Weekend Edition reported that in late October, three Australian artists and three Singaporean artists convened in Singapore – exchanging personal experiences, cultural differences and sharing their work practices and ideas. The six artists are now set to continue their collaboration in Brisbane. The challenge set for them is to explore and respond to the urbanization and rapid development of the two cities. Though culturally different, Singapore and Brisbane have both experienced significant growth and development to facilitate the needs of their respective populations over the last two decades.

The collaborative practice sees the six participants, comprising four artists, a writer and a curator, working together, exploring the city, talking to its people, investigating its present and thereby also revealing its history. Issues of shifting communal space, cultural memory and the city environment are informing and feeding the works they are creating.


Jamie Lewis is a performance artist. Her work investigates the thresholds of audience engagement through the experimentation with the Live. The form of her work is determined by the nature of collaborations and provocations through the process of creation, though her current explorations are in the intimacy of one-on-one performances in the public-ness of the city.

Her conceptual streak, and a perceptive eye, has also led her practice into some sort of a midwifery, as she facilitates, curates, and challenges the artistic processes of her peers.

Her background in Theatre of the Oppressed work with Drama Box (Singapore) has taken her to the streets of Bangalore, India, youth in Singapore schools and workshops with Augusto Boal in Omaha, USA. She graduated with a B.A.(Hons.) in Theatre and Performance at LASALLE College of the Arts (Singapore) and completed her Postgraduate Diploma in Performance Creation at the Victorian College of the Arts (Melbourne).

Jamie is also one-quarter of Transparency Collective



Jamie, tell us how you came to be involved in the Singapore<>Brisbane Exchange.

I had been part of FreeRange 2011, and in the Galleries Program early 2012 with Transparency Collective. So there was already this existing relationship with Metro Arts, always curious to see what other opportunities I might have here.


I actually saw the call for applications through Singapore’s National Arts Council newsletter, and I remember writing Channon (then coordinator for Visual Art at Metro Arts) to clarify if I should apply as an Australian or a Singaporean artist considering I live here now.


Also, the themes of urbanisation and development in both cities were already things I had begun exploring at FreeRange 2011. It was the most apparent part 2 to the research I had already begun on. There was no way I wasn’t applying for this.



Tell us about the highlight of this program.

The highlight was being in the Singapore leg of the residency, and being introduced as an international artist. Hey, small wins! Got to claim them when they come.


But on a serious note, that was indeed the big highlight. Visiting my family in that trip was a very significant moment. I am still a very young artist in terms of my practice, and so it was a big recognition of their (and we’re not just talking mom and dad and brother, we’re talking grandma and mom’s 7 siblings and younger cousins etc) immense support and love to be involved in such a project; a homecoming of sorts.


Big highlight was also to be there with Jess O’Brien and Richard Stride, who we all only got to know through this residency, to live in the same house, and spend this intensive 3 weeks experiencing Singapore. It was confronting and yet refreshing to see my home city through their eyes, to be a tourist for the first time, to take note of details I’ve taken for granted…and mostly, to be stimulated by the amazing conversations we were having ALL the time. We were discussing thoughts and ideas and observations and criticism at any moment – when on a residency like this, there’s no distinction of “work-time” or “play-time,” but there was always respect of space and privacy. And that experience, I thoroughly savoured.


What was particularly challenging or difficult to get your head around?

I think when we look critically at urbanisation and the development of a city, we inevitable have to look at history, culture, politics, geography…because it is about context isn’t it. And that really means that this is a lifetime’s worth of research. To spend 3 weeks in Singapore on that exchange felt like we only scratched the surface. As we went on our day visiting places and things, there was so much I was discovering out of my memory to share with Jess and Richard, I was surprised myself – how much we remember things we read randomly (like which architect built this and some political gossip that went around the saga etc…)


But that’s it isn’t it? There are so many factors that influence the current state of a city. Where do you begin, and how do you begin to contextualise your research and your work? How do we pick an angle, or a frame, without being superficial? What questions are we really asking?


In terms of performative outcomes, what has been seen or experienced by audiences in Singapore and Brisbane?

Singapore was mainly a research leg. There wasn’t a performative outcome there. We did have a very good talk with Kelvin from the Urban Redevelopment Authority, and had amazing insight to heritage and conservation in such a fast-developing Singapore. And also were invited along to openings at Chan Hampe Galleries and the Singapore Art Museum. With the Singaporean artists we worked with, we’ve been talking about possibly bringing a part 2 of the exhibition and process to Singapore.


In Brisbane, we had a full exhibition at Metro Arts. It was pretty interesting how we had anticipated to present only works-in-progress given the rather short and tight lead-time, but it turned out we all had pretty resolved works for this stage.


Jess and Bernice wrote essays towards the catalogue. And Jess also made a zine to further share our process.


Bernice Ong (SG) works with house paint on wood surfaces. For this residency, she was looking at construction sites, and the signs and colours around them – so started painting as she researched, so there was a good series of works, and signs that she had made up.


Ryf Zaini (SG) is an engineering major before he went to art school. His installations are interactive and witty. He collected hardware (computers, appliances etc) and put them together to resemble a city skyline, connected red wires to them, and had them pointing towards one main switch, as if fighting for power.


Richard Stride (AUS) had photo collages made up that were just astounding. He had been experimenting with concrete prior to this, so he had some sculptures out of moulds he has been working with. Richard and Bernice also collaborated on an installation that was this great abstraction of high rises. Richard was probably the busiest of the lot: he also constructed the kitchen from which I worked in.


Over the time in Singapore, I also wrote a postcard a day journaling my “new” thoughts about Singapore. So I had that up as an installation over a Bougainvillea plant. And I prepared Sambal Belachan in the gallery, and hosted a dinner of Sambal Kangkong and rice the following evening.



 Can you describe what your preparation for this program involved?

Recipes. I tested out some recipes and had a dinner party with friends in Melbourne. My work has been conversation based, and mostly one-on-one, so hosting a dinner was a first, and I wasn’t sure how to facilitate that exactly. In a way, when the exhibition period started, it was very much still a “trial” for me; an investigation.


Revisiting my research from 2011 as well, as tracking the changes in thoughts since. Re-questioning and re-answering the sense of home and identity, sense of place – all that was important – writing the postcards was as much a work in itself as it was the process of re-evaluating the research. It came down to recognising the sentiment I wanted my work to communicate.


My main references for a lot of my work on the city were based on Gaston Bacchelard’s The Poetics of Space, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities and Matthew Condon’s Brisbane. So I re-read them.



And then a lot of conversations, and contemplation.


Hey, what does your involvement mean for your new position at Metro arts as their Audience Development Manager, and for your own work in the arts?

Having been an artist involved in Metro Arts puts me in a rather prime position to understand what Metro Arts does. (Though there is still much to learn!) But in terms of facilitating the type of work made and presented here, and how it is to be communicated to the audience and media and general public – I understand the nature of work that is interrogative of one’s practice, and the necessity of it because of my own practice – which makes for a strong starting point to then “translate” that.


More so, to find new ways to communicate that.


It’s no longer enough to get numbers through the door. We (as artists and as Metro Arts) want audience to recognise that they are patrons, investors, to a growing body of work, to an artist’ career, and to be engaged with the curiosity behind our processes.


My conversation based work puts people in the forefront. It is about engaging the Other. An invitation, not just to be present, but to be “intimately” involved. When this position came along, I said yes, because it was this obvious extension to my practice as an artist. Even more exciting, is that it is no longer just about my work, it is about facilitating someone’s else creative work. And to consistently be collaborating, not just with my colleagues, but also with the artists that work within Metro Arts.


With my artistic practice, it is about creating frameworks in which audiences can enter into the work. With Metro Arts now, it’s not much different. In fact, it’s an ambitious and invigorating step to now consider a broader audience for a larger pool of artistic works. How bloody exciting!


You’re a Performance Artist. Can you explain that term, in terms of your own work? Who are your (local and international) Performance artist idols? And what do you admire about their work? How does their work inform or inspire elements of your own work?

I think Performance Artist came about because it simply indicates that my work is performative. But I’ve recognised that I am responsive and prefer collaboration. So the form takes itself on depending on the concept and research, and what is pertinent at that time.


I write conversations: does that make me a writer too?





The word performance too for me is varied. And for me, I’m interested in us performing ourselves. In getting an audience member involved and responding, they too become performers of some sorts. We perform roles, daily, we perform tasks – we take on personas whether we like it or not, neither more or less genuine than the other. I am daughter, sister, lover, wife, friend, colleague, teacher, etc at different times and contexts, and my behaviour changes with these roles, but always Jamie.


I’m more interested in the active audience. So I create frameworks that enable them to be just that. There’s art in conversation.


I was very influenced by Adrian Howells from the UK. His intimate works, and later one-on-one performances was definitely something I took on when I was first investigating my practice, which perhaps might be answered in the next question.


Locally, I’m not sure about idols. But I’ve definitely met and worked with some amazing people in the last 3 years in Australia, who I will always want to maintain some sort of creative working relationship with because we share a vocabulary of process.


Your post grad, from Vic College of the Arts, is in Performance Creation. What does that mean? Describe the process and result from your favourite experience during that period in Melbourne.

My postgrad in VCA was instrumental in charting the path to where I am now. I didn’t plan to study overseas. We never had the finances. But it fell into place.


I remember graduating from LASALLE College of the Arts (SG) knowing the theatre that I DIDN’T want to make. I had a vague sense of the performances I wanted to make, but didn’t know how or where to start. I took a holiday to Melbourne to spend time with a best friend who had moved there, and chanced upon the course. So I enquired.


And I understood Performance Creation, specialising in Theatre Animateuring!!! [even more confusing] quite simply, starting from concept to devising to eventualising a work. And it truly was.


We were given provocations weekly, to instigate a short piece of work. The focus was on being critical and investigative. I was in an amazing cohort of 4 (who make up Transparency Collective) led by Leisa Shelton, and we were rigorous with our process and articulating the questions and findings.


I can’t say anything was favourite about it, because the entire year was intense and exhilarating! My first time living away from home, my first time living in a foreign country, and to so intensively explore my creative practice with peers who challenge and inspire me – how do we condense that who year and separate experiences within that?


But a very significant moment was in our preparation for our independent projects, which was the birth of my one-on-one conversation body of work, was:

I was feeling quite vague and insecure, feeling a bit of a wanker, wondering if “THIS” that I was making, was art. Jamie laughs.


I was never a trained actor. I was not a craftsmen. I had no form in terms of my artistic practice. I love research and concept. I had ideas. And a good eye. Was concept form?


And Leisa responded with something along the lines of: “do not give the question any more weight than what it carries. It’s no different from asking yourself where you want to live, or what kind of a relationship you want to have. You’ve stayed in a few different places, you’ve found your favourite things about each one. At some point, you decide what you need for where you are, and you stay there until it changes again.”


And then there was meeting my now husband through that particular independent project. (He was a friend of my classmate who I never met till he was an audience member in my work).


Tell us about the streets of Bangalore and Drama Box in Singapore.

If not for this Bangalore trip with Kok Heng Leun (Artistic Director of Drama Box), I would not have started on theatre at all.


I went on a youth expedition project with an open group of youth, led by Heng Leun and Suneetha (a leadership trainer I had in Junior College before I quit school because I didn’t believe in taking my GCE A Levels!)


We worked with Janothsava, an arts and cultural group there led by a child activist John Devaraj. The group was made up of middle-class youth, and street kids, the aim being getting kids off the streets.


So a bunch of us city kids, mostly in University or just graduated from University, and I was the youngest of the lot, spent almost a month there. Using Boal’s forum theatre, we devised 2 performances for a school, a village, and one on the streets in the city. The works dealt with themes of child labour, alcoholism, and even the education system.


See, on our first day, after the icebreakers with the Indian youth, there was news that one of the Indian girls who were supposed to join us committed suicide because she did not get into college. The results were posted online, and there were 3 girls with the same name, and without clarifying, she had felt so utterly disappointed and took her own life. It shook us all. It shook the Singaporeans crazily! We recognised that stress and pressure. We have had friends, or some even themselves, who have been close to such a scenario, all because of societal expectations of good grades! That is so incredibly sad…


Prior to this, the Indian youth felt like we had answers, since we came from a first world nation, educated and economically strong. They had a most basic impression that Education was the answer. But clearly, it offered its own set of problems.


We walked through slums and the city streets, and saw children working. Depressing sight, yes. But many were smiling, playing, and in conversations, actually preferred working to being in a school, because they’d rather help their parents.


The issue is far more complex than what that experience spelt out; but like I highlighted earlier at the start of the interview, understanding the full extent of anything like that, is a lifetime’s work. But understanding context, in as far as we can! And then posing the right questions, stirring the sentiments that come with it, enabling the Other to critically engage.


That’s our work as artists.


The experience shifted the entire workshop process, and created space for a much diverse dialogue around our original brief of why we were there in the first place.


And of course, the performances themselves – it’s a whole story on its own. And I could go on.


I went on working on Boal’s theatre of the oppressed with Heng Leun for a few more years, enrolled into theatre school, knowing I didn’t want audiences to sit behind a fourth wall, and here I am, writing conversations to have with strangers.


What do you believe theatre and art are for?

I wrote about this in my interviews with Jess in preparation for the zine she compiled. I think theatre and art presents a picture that problematises what is current, or predominant, or “normal.”


This probably answers questions about our responsibility to open eyes towards political/social/historical issues.


It’s not so much a responsibility as it is for me, something that is inevitable.


We perceive the world, and draw from it inspiration, material and direction. Our art making is a response to that. In our response, we seek an understanding of the context in which it is placed. And there, how can we disregard history, politics, and social currency?


But what we do is more to present an angle, create a framework, pose a question for thought, and give the audience the room to ask their own questions, find their own angle, and create their own framework for how they then want to see the world.


Okay, what do you love about the Asia Pacific Triennial?

Speaking of the APT, I need to go and visit it again before it closes! I managed only one visit the last time I was in Brisbane during our exhibition, and it certainly wasn’t enough.


I didn’t know much about it before last year, and when I looked it up and went through its archives, I think that’s what impressed me. It’s established itself as a very strong and sustainable program. The focus on a good curatorial ensures strong works, by artists with a sense of longevity in their practice.


What do you love about the future of Brisbane city?

I feel very comfortable in Brisbane, for various reasons. But I must admit I don’t know it well enough to understand what that future means. Again, context – understanding its history and its political climate, and where the direction is heading – but I think I’m learning.


To be a part of an institution that is Metro Arts though, that excites me. It’s one of a kind. Where else in Australia do we see such a hub of contemporary art in its diversity, and commitment to independent artists and their developing practices? That can do amazing things for the City if we can reach a broader, wider profile.


But also, I’ve noticed a culture and vibe from the artistic community here that humbles me. There is a “can-do” attitude, a down-to-earth, “let’s just try” approach. Brisbane may lack the quantity of things compared to Melbourne, but it certainly does not lack in quality and willingness, and daring I’d say.


In one of your posts on the Singapore<>Brisbane Exchange blog, you mention that you’ve described your practice as “conversation-based.” Also, “food is the enabler”. Can you explain what you mean by this?

Food is one of my biggest loves so I am biased. No, seriously, put food on the table, and people gather.


The table filled with food is a vehicle for people to engage. Whether it’s something familiar, and we feel welcomed and safe, or we provoke curiosity and risk in trying something new, food gets people talking. First they talk about the flavours then they talk about themselves.


There are many other enablers of course. Provide an activity, a framework, and people are less conscious of how they are presenting themselves. Food does quite significantly put someone’s guard down. To feed, and to be fed, is a fundamental act of nurture and care. And the immediacy of those effects is undeniable.


So more than food itself, the act of cooking for another person is what I am more interested in.


Hey Jamie, I’m particularly fascinated by your observation that we don’t always have a great mix of multicultural friends. You may have a better way of putting it! I noticed that in my daughter’s class this year, at a regular state school on the Sunshine Coast, she has not one class member who looks non-Anglo. We have friends from many different cultures outside of school but she in her school environment she is meeting mostly white Australians and Europeans. The darkest skin colour is tanned after the summer holidays. I find it intriguing that we still have these pockets of “white Australia” (though I’m sure the vast majority of the attitudes don’t reflect that particular political term!).


You noted that


“Friends and community happen organically. But it is interesting how rare it is to find a multicultural group of friends. It exists, but considering the sheer make-up of different races and ethnicity in the city, the proportion is imbalanced.”


Do you think there’s a responsibility as an artist to open our eyes to political, social and historical issues? Just to go back to the primary school setting again, how long will it be before the shared tins of pencils have multiple options for “skin coloured” pencils?!

With regards to the responsibility question, I think I answered that earlier. But to expound on your thoughts, again, there is context to grapple with. A local school is made up of the local environment, and if that local environment is made up of a majority ethnicity, then any effort to be “diverse” could come off contrived, and be rather oxymoronic. I think the same for intentionally including other ethnicities into a local community.


(In multiracial Singapore, in order to ensure a diversity mix, there are racial quotas to an apartment block. But the first very fact is that there exists a significant Chinese majority, so even by ensuring a racial quota, we’re only preventing the entire apartment block to be completely lived in by the Chinese community. On the other hand, we are preventing the minorities to separate themselves because they can’t choose to all live in one apartment block either. Quite ironic and problematic, I think.)


Even “White” Australia is problematic. The local environment is problematic. We have to consider housing, socio-demographics, history/lineage, etc.


Our choices are limited isn’t it? We go where rent is cheap. We buy where we can afford. The early Greek migrants settled in particular places, same with the Jewish, as with the Italians etc.



As strangers in a foreign land, a community is formed.


Then social stereotypes take over. Socio-demographics determine how live-able somewhere is. Some people capitalise on the “lesser” and over time gentrification happens. Fitzroy and Collingwood in Melbourne. West End etc.


Pockets of “white Australia” as you say: even if the people will welcome “non-white Australians” to live in the area, will these “non-white Australians” want to anyway? What would attract them there?


Friends and community do happen organically. And more so, in a foreign country, we need community. And ethnicity is probably the lowest common denominator. Language, culture, food, habits, belief…before we start looking for communities based on interest like the arts community etc.


Perhaps the harder question is “do we know our own culture?”


“White Australia” consists of rich heritage and lineages that generations down have distilled itself. In a kind of homogeneity, what is Australian then? So then, how do you begin to share a culture, invite someone else into it if you can’t quite articulate it?


And I say this even for children of migrants, born and raised here. This is problematic even for Singapore. All of who are losing connection with that heritage (be it our dialects, tradition…), and thrust into a very young national identity that we can’t seem to describe or differentiate.


I’m sure that food is key! When did you start cooking and what was your first dish? What’s your signature dish now?

Instant noodles when I was 7 or 8? My parents always worked, and my brother and I were left to our own devices in the day before and after school. Hawker food is cheap and accessible in Singapore, but we’d still be stingy with our pocket money and have instant noodles for lunch sometimes. But we’d put fancy things, like leftover abalone from Chinese New Year; decadent!


But I’ve cooked a lot more since living on my own in Australia, mostly because I miss the food back home, and I’ve taken to recreating some of these things. And it’s been fun, substituting Roo meat in some traditional things, like VindaRoo!


My signature dish would really just be the homely stir-fry. I cannot live without ikan bilis (dried anchovies), oyster sauce and kicap manis (sweet soy sauce), and of course sambal belachan. So at home, for the every day dinner, it’s usually a veggie stir-fry, sometimes I’d have some Roo meat in there. But it’s a signature because the husband (whilst he’s learnt how to make it) claims he misses my stir-fry when he hasn’t had it for a while, and that it’s just not the same when we both make it.


What are your favourite haunts in Brisbane and which dish can you not resist in a restaurant?

I haven’t been here long enough! Perhaps you should recommend a list of places to start trying! I live in West End though, and so far I have been pleased with the restaurants there. They do the job of comfort food at affordable prices.


But if I were to indulge in a good meal out, I’d happily spend on a good Japanese meal. And I would like to try an authentic Australian meal, and by that I mean kind of indigenous, game meat, kind of meal.


What’s your favourite meal to make for family and friends?

It would probably be Sambal Stingray, and sambal kangkong. It’s probably because I miss them the most, and have cravings for living in Australia. But also, in Melbourne, Stingray’s really cheap because no one eats them. (They are called Skate at the markets) And so it’s been really good to have them for dinner parties, and friends who were skeptical have all raved about it, and keep asking for it.


Also, it is tied to memories of hanging out with friends at a hawker centre on a muggy evening having a late dinner or supper at 10pm, having BBQ Sambal Stingray served on a hotplate…So definitely a dinner party favourite here in Australia.


When I am in Singapore, I cook my family very “western” things, like Roast potatoes and the likes. I mean I grew up with a very wide culinary palate because mom cooked everything. But when it comes to traditional Devil’s curry, or a good old tonic soup – it’s best to leave it to the mothers and grandmothers. It’s just not the same when you try to make it.


I need to start sourcing a local fish shop to see if I can get myself some stingray.


What are the connections between food and art and conversation?

I’m not the first to make art works around food and/or conversation. So there are connections for sure. I suppose going back to the “food as an enabler” question earlier, and also the one about what theatre and art is for. I think those answers tie in for me that connection.


Metro Arts has a loyal following and a growing audience. What’s your plan to further develop the relationship between Metro Arts’ artists and audiences?

Metro Arts has a loyal following and a growing audience. It also has a very different and exciting program this year. There is much to do in terms of facilitating the understanding and appreciation of the outcomes we will experience in the year. With the focus on creative development and residencies, we aren’t going to see a lot of resolved, finished shows. But we are going to get to know a lot of artists, and be a part of their evolving investigation and practice.


Whilst Metro Arts focuses on their commitment to independent artists and nurturing their practice, and having that long-term, sustainable relationship, with work that has longevity, I am interested in the long-term, sustainable relationship of our audiences, to invest similarly in the longevity of an artist’ body of work.


I can’t say I have a tangible big plan as yet. It’s being formulated! But I definitely have a lot of IDEAS that I am looking forward to fleshing out and executing them sooner rather than later.


Metro Arts has launched an exciting season in 2013, and will hold its AGM on March 26th at 6pm.



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