Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Singapore Arts Festival 2012 - Review of Songbird (24 May-27 May 2012)

Hi all, remember my post on the Singapore Arts Festival 2012: Remembering Our Lost Poems? I recently went for Songbird, an interactive storytelling experience which was presented as part of the Singapore Arts Festival 2012. According to the Singapore Arts Festival website, Songbird is about
…uncovering a journey of ambition, obsession, aspiration and love through an interactive storytelling experience. SONGBIRD is presented by Tara Tan of creative collective Studio Now & Then, with the participation of the Media Development Authority. 
A glamorous but mysterious singer is about to make her debut. No one knows who she really is, or even what she looks like. A crowd is gathered, waiting at the concert venue. They chant her name. But something is amiss. Something is not quite right. 
Playing out across the dazzling cityscape, SONGBIRD is set against an original soundtrack, films and live installations, and melds multiple worlds — digital, physical, real and imagined.
Now all you need is your iPhone. Download the app at www.hellosongbird.com to start. 
…if you are interested in stories told in new ways.
…if you want to see the city in a new light.
…if detective intrigues are your cup of tea.
I wasn't quite sure what I was in for, but upon listening to the "debut single" by Songbird (watch the MV above), I was intrigued by the musical potential of this singer, described on the website as Singapore's equivalent of Feist, so I decided go for the show on 26 May 7.30pm. In retrospect, it was a fantastic and well-crafted experience, kinda like a real-life quest/role playing game. More details after the jump!

A few weeks before the show's inception, I downloaded the companion Songbird iPhone app that was required for the show from the iTunes store. The interface was very aesthetically pleasing and easy to navigate, and it piqued my interest in the show, which was touted as the first narrative journey using an iPhone/iPad.

26 May 7.30pm: I arrived at the Festival Village at the Esplanade Park, hopeful and curious, and went to the second level of the Bridge Café, a small standalone café serving food and drinks to festival-goers. The second level was an open air area with chairs and tables and there was a sign that read "Songbird". I sidled over and was told that I could start the Songbird journey whenever I wanted to by scanning the first QR code and plugging in my earphones to the iPad provided. It was supposed to be an hour-long experience, with some walking involved and a number of QR codes to scan to reveal the story's progress - fascinating, eh?

My first destination was The Fullerton.

In The Fullerton, I was given instructions on the iPad to head to the Gallery. There, I admired a number of paintings/art works done by students etc. relating to Songbird. It was quite a visual feast. There were two QR codes that could be scanned and once I had done so, I was able to watch two videos detailing Songbird/Sherry's progress as a musician and her relation to her manager, Ethan. A mysterious character named "hunter343"was also introduced, and Ethan's "text messages" (these messages were "received" on the iPad, and were part of the app) cautioned me against him, as a series of threatening messages had been sent to Sherry, supposedly by hunter343. What an exciting and dramatic start to the journey!

The second location was a bench across the bridge from The Fullerton. The lit-up Songbird logo which appeared at all the checkpoints made it much easier for audience members/participants to navigate through the course of the journey.

I found this below the bench:

The caged origami bird was a nice touch, and upon scanning the QR code, a video featuring Songbird/Sherry and hunter343 (he was actually her friend) played on the iPad, revealing a bit more of the story.

The next destination was the "Lotus Limousine". As you can see in the picture below, the app was painstakingly crafted to show your exact location (via GPS tracking), and there are checkpoints to mark the different locations of the journey, exactly like some kind of real-life RPG or quest!

Before heading to Lotus Limousine, I took a detour to redeem free ice cream at the ice cream stall near the bench. Yes, you heard me right. The Songbird tickets were free, and on top of that, I got a free ice cream as a post-dinner snack.

When I reached the third checkpoint, I wasn't expecting a real limousine, but was pleasantly surprised to find that there was indeed one waiting for me! Better still, I got to sit inside the limousine and watch a video showing a dramatic, emotional conversation between Sherry and Ethan. I'd never been in a limo before, so being able to see the interior of one was quite a happy event.

By this time, the plot of Songbird was building up to a climax. While I attended the show expecting a music performance that was supposedly part of the debut of a local singer, Songbird was actually a meta-performance about a fictional character - it was a game, a play, a story about a story that included snippets of music, pictures and videos to spin its yarn. In this tale of love and betrayal, Ethan, Sherry's manager, was in love with her despite his familial commitments to his wife and children, and Sherry reciprocated his feelings. However, she was unwilling to continue their relationship, and pulled a no-show by running out of the limo which was supposed to fetch her to her concert venue. 

The plot thickens. Our next stop was Animus Music HQ (a fictional place), at the Arts House, where a "Songbird Press Conference" was in session.

There were lit-up Songbird logos to show the way. Very innovative use of round lamps!

And finally...

I arrived in a media viewing room with a few screens mounted on a free-standing fixture. Upon scanning a QR code, the screens came to life, airing a video of the press conference. In the video, Ethan fielded queries about Songbird/Sherry's no-show, and denied all allegations of a romantic liaison with her. For the finale, I walked to the Old Tree back in Esplanade Park. However, it wasn't quite clear exactly where the Old Tree was. I wandered around for a bit until I saw a tree surrounded by a circle of white fixtures with hanging cages. I walked closer, and saw QR codes on some of the cages.

Upon scanning them in the iPad, the entire circle lit up to signify that I had reached the end of my Songbird journey. 

Needless to say, the mysterious Songbird/Sherry was nowhere to be seen, and all that was left of her was a parting note telling us to look forward to her next appearance. It seemed a little abrupt, and a few others who had arrived at the tree seemed confused whether the performance had ended until one of the staff, whom I later discovered was part of the Studio Now & Then team (the creators of this show), assured us that we had reached the end of the performance.

Upon reflection, I feel that Songbird was very successful as a whole, from its conceptual framework of meshing an interactive audience experience with technology and performance art, to its execution and the effort spent on creating a comfortable and enjoyable experience for the audience. I thoroughly enjoyed Songbird, and felt very involved in the performance as I "interacted" with the characters through the iPad and the traces they left behind on the journey. The nature of the show was such that I could experience it at my own leisure, taking breaks in-between, enjoying the scenery and getting a bit of post-dinner exercise. It also allowed me to look at some facets of Singapore in a new light, as real and imagined stories played out on familiar local landmarks that usually seem more mundane in daylight. At night, these familiar landmarks seemed more mysterious and foreign, and Songbird certainly drew upon the nocturnal charm of Singapore's cityscape to great effect.

However, a few improvements could have helped the performance run more smoothly. At some checkpoints, I was a little confused about where exactly to find the QR codes and how to get the next checkpoint (e.g. The Old Tree). There were helpers around, but I suspect that some audience members may have passed them by without getting proper directions, and would have gotten a little lost. The slightly abrupt ending was a bit of an anti-climax compared to the tension-filled rising action, and left me a wee bit disappointed. Nonetheless, it was an excellent first iPhone/iPad-based interactive performance, and I'm looking forward to more such performances in the Singapore Arts Festival 2013.

I was unable to go for the other Singapore Arts Festival 2012 performances, but this year's festival seemed quite vibrant and exciting as a whole. Dear readers, did you attend any Arts Fest 2012 shows? If so, which ones did you like and which didn't leave such a good impression?

Rachel loves sharing about the beautiful things in life from different perspectives. She writes on beauty and lifestyle in Cherchez Beauté , and does more abstract stuff on Antelune . When she's not writing, she's playing with her dog Holly, doodling and reading fiction. You can follow her on Facebook , Twitter and Instagram .