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S’pore arts website The Flying Inkpot closes shop after 19 years

SINGAPORE — After 19 years, one of the arts scene’s respected institutions is closing shop. The country’s longest-running performing arts website, The Flying Inkpot Theatre & Dance (http://www.inkpotreviews.com), announced that it would stop uploading new reviews and cease to update its Facebook page from today.

SINGAPORE — After 19 years, one of the arts scene’s respected institutions is closing shop. The country’s longest-running performing arts website, The Flying Inkpot Theatre & Dance (http://www.inkpotreviews.com), announced that it would stop uploading new reviews and cease to update its Facebook page from today.

While it has survived since 1996 as an independently funded operation for nearly two decades, the Inkpot’s editors — Kenneth Kwok, a public servant in the arts and culture sector, and Matthew Lyon, a teacher at the School Of The Arts — reckon The Flying Inkpot has hit a plateau in recent times.

At its peak, the number of reviews on the website averaged between 60 and 80 annually, but while there didn’t seem to be any lack of enthusiasm in reviewing shows, there were other considerations to think of.

Lyon said: “Internet technology, along with the public’s expectations of websites, has progressed greatly since The Inkpot started. We realised there is so much more we could be doing — for example, videos, podcasts, social media and feature articles. I get frustrated when I feel I’m not doing something to the best of my ability, and that’s the feeling I have with the site ... it can’t continue as it is.”

To take The Flying Inkpot, which is maintained on a purely voluntary basis, to the next level would entail professionalising its operations and financing, to develop the site and pay its reviewers and staff. Lyon said there had been initial discussions with the National Arts Council vis-a-vis funding, but both parties could not agree on an appropriate model.

“They didn’t want to provide 90-plus per cent of our funding and I didn’t think it was viable to come up with the shortfall their offer would result in,” said Lyon, adding that the website was not “a saleable product with which to generate cash”.

As for the idea of getting corporate sponsorship, its editors have consistently rejected this alternative. “We don’t believe The Inkpot should go corporate — it’s important that criticism be independent and neutral,” said Lyon.

A GROUP OF FRIENDS

Kwok said The Flying Inkpot started from a group of friends who wanted to tap on the Internet to provide a platform for people to engage with various aspects of the Singapore arts scene. “Over the years, more and more people who loved the arts — and wanted to write about the arts — came on board,” he said.

In its early years, The Flying Inkpot didn’t offer only theatre and dance reviews. It also included “offshoot” sections for poetry, film and classical

music, which evolved into separate but related sites under its banner. Now, the only “sub-section” is The Flying Inkpot: Classical Music, which is run separately by another editor and continues to have its own Facebook page and website (http://www.flyinginkpot.com).

Ironically, The Flying Inkpot’s decision to stop comes at a time when there is a concerted push to encourage more writing regarding the arts, including the creation of writing-centric institutions such as Centre 42, as well as the flourishing of arts blogs and websites. But there’s another reason its editors have decided to close shop: Maintaining the site, while juggling their day jobs, has taken its toll.

“We’ve been running it for over a decade and, at some point, you want to do different things in life,” said Lyon. “Being a critic has its rewards: It’s a joyful experience when you capture a powerful moment of performance in words. But being a critic is also wearing, because negative reviews create understandable friction with artists, and it becomes easy for people to feel that the critic is the bad guy. But basically it’s just a natural feeling of wanting to move on.”

Kwok added: “Considering how few websites have endured over the years, maybe we should be asking how we continued for 19 years without funding! For that, we have to thank our writers who selflessly gave up their time and stood in the line of fire for no other reason than that they believe arts writing is important.”

WRITING OPPORTUNITIES

Among The Flying Inkpot’s most recent batch of writers are Naeem Kapadia and Karin Lai. The pair, who also contribute to TODAY, were theatre bloggers before the website gave them the opportunity to expose their writing on a more established platform.

The former had worked and studied in the United Kingdom before joining the website upon his return in 2011. “It sounded like a great platform for normal working people to write creatively about the arts scene. Inkpot has definitely helped me to fine tune my own writing about the Singapore theatre scene, which I was not very familiar with previously. It’s also been nice meeting theatre practitioners in Singapore and learning more about the theatre ecosystem and the various parties who come together to put up a production,” said Kapadia, who had contributed 50 reviews in a span of four years.

Lai said that joining The Flying Inkpot had also given her an audience. “One thing it did was to create possibilities for dialogue. I (previously) didn’t have an audience for my thoughts. Over time, friends and friends of friends that I met would have read something I wrote up about a production and I could engage in conversations with them about it. The Inkpot helped give me an audience and I am very grateful to it for that.”

Both said they will continue writing about theatre, but they also recognise how the arts (and arts writing) landscape has changed.

“The Inkpot has always stood apart from the mass media as its more serious, considered, older cousin,” said Kapadia. “One of the dangers of today’s social media-obsessed generation is that every theatre company, practitioner or reader is simply looking for that juicy, bite-sized blurb about a play. The days of good, old-fashioned reviews seem to be dying out and I sincerely hope that won’t happen.”

Lai pointed out how the arts criticism scene in Singapore is changing rapidly, citing how “lifestyle” blogs and companies now also offer reviews, which are seen as mere “content” to draw page views. With The Flying Inkpot’s strictly non-commercial stance, they were not beholden to any interest, resulting in a “culture of brutal honesty”.

At the same time, she wondered if changes in performing arts scene has had some effect. “In some ways, the increased competition between companies for audiences and the advent of social media has made the Inkpot’s unique culture harder and harder to sustain,” she said. Echoing Kapadia’s point, she said there was a tendency of some companies to expect faster reviews and to simply look for “the quotable one-liner”. “The kind of considered and yes, more academic, review that Inkpot was known for has been drowned out by the need to generate ‘buzz’ — to get good messages about your production out there, quickly and consistently. I have my doubts about how good developments like these are for theatre criticism in Singapore, but I can understand the commercial pressures that have led to their development even as I regret them.”

A LOST APPENDAGE

Some artists TODAY spoke to expressed regret over the closure. The Necessary Stage’s artistic director Alvin Tan said he admired the idealism, dedication and energy of the people running the website without any funding, noting that its longevity is an exception to the rule these days. “I can’t see any entity that can last that long working on a voluntary level,” he said.

Citing its unique position in local arts ecosystem - being an alternative to mainstream publications as well as being a platform for young writers and developing in tandem with the arts scene - Tan said: “It has been there for so long that it’s an appendage of the arts community and you’ll feel that one arm has been cut off.”

W!ld Rice artistic director Ivan Heng echoed the sentiment. “It was a wonderful space for thoughtful reviews that were more than the usual 400 words. And that repository of knowledge and criticism is so rare, precious and important. It certainly became a respected source that was really consistent — the reviewers had a definite point of view ... They’re cultural commentators who saw works in theatre in context.”

Dance artist Bernice Lee also recalled how the website was her first introduction to “passionate, informed critical writing about Singapore performing arts” before she went to study dance in college. “Contemporary dance-making involves so many nuances and references to many threads of history. To be able to contextualise and reflect on the works produced here in Singapore is absolutely necessary to critical dialogue and discourse. I hope what the Flying Inkpot has started in Singapore will continue through a different thread,” she said.

The Inkpot will continue to be up until the end of the year. Its archives — more than 1,000 theatre and dance reviews written by 30 volunteer contributors — will be accessible until then. The editors are in talks with a few arts institutions that have expressed willingness to host the sizeable material.

But even as The Flying Inkpot closes its doors, Kwok said a window of opportunity could open elsewhere: The theatre and dance website, in whatever form, may very well make a comeback, perhaps driven by different people.

“It has always been very informal and organic, and it’s always been entirely volunteer driven,” he said. “So who knows?”

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