Guilt, self-indulgence and care/harm complexes

By Jaclyn Chong

If creating art is a form of self care, why are artists sometimes plagued with guilt? Where does the guilt stem from, and how do we navigate it? Jaclyn grapples with some of the challenges she encounters in producing her work as a freelance theatre practitioner and discusses the importance of developing support systems within the arts community.

Pictured above: Participants of CCP 2019 viewing Crossings, a work by visual artist Tay Wei Leng, who we invited for the first CCP closed-door sharing session.

As Wei Leng passes around her artworks, photo prints on tissue paper, she notes that every time anyone touches them, a bit of the dirt and oil from our fingers transfers onto them, and they slowly deteriorate. I stop leafing through the fragile plies of tissue paper, and pass on the box to the Concerned Citizen participant next to me. The photos are of Wei Leng’s migrant aunt, and her memories with her when she was younger. Although Wei Leng has invited us to touch and look at them, a conscious guilt sinks in when she mentions the inevitable deterioration of these fragile prints. Later on, as Chris aka Yeo Siew Hua, director of A Land Imagined, shares about representing the migrant workers in his film, he expresses that he feels guilt, coming from his own privileged position. This feeling of guilt perhaps arises from an awareness of how we are all complicit in the structures that privilege one over another.

As I’m writing this post, I have just ended a long day of work and theatre rehearsals. I am grateful for this opportunity to be part of the programme, to dedicate time to interact and learn from the mentors and other participants as well as the sharing sessions over the next few months. I cannot help but feel a tinge of guilt, that I have been allowed to self-indulge, allowed this platform to materialise some of my ideas that I have been brewing for a while now. When I meet Kah Kit to discuss my project, he assures me that self-indulgence is good and even necessary, to be able to reach the depths of understanding and to also know your own flair.

My initial proposal for this programme was to examine the conditions of casual labour and casual racism in Singapore, as these are casual systems and conditions that people who are marginalised by society are often subject to. I don’t like the way ‘casual’ is used in these situations. What allows us to “casually’’ inflict harm on others? Probing into this further, I realise that my own experiences could shape the direction of this discourse. 

Considering my own position as a freelance theatre maker in Singapore, I am hoping to enter this subject matter from my own understandings and experiences working in the performing arts. As much as we try to create utopic conditions, theatre is really also a microcosm of the politics that play out in society. While we seek to address the issues of society, the ways in which we organize ourselves to do so can replicate the power structures and dynamics of violence or exploitation, and to perhaps “casually” inflict harm on each other. 

We are always imagining other possibilities for society through the content of our works, but what if instead we look at the conditions of working we subject ourselves to in order to imagine these possibilities? I don’t mean to open a Pandora’s box of worries and complications about the rehearsal process, but I hope to address or at least make known some of these processes that not everyone is privy to, and hopefully collectively imagine possibilities together.

There is an increasing awareness of the need to support one another I think⁠—especially among freelance art practitioners⁠—as the initiative of the Arts Resource Hub set up by National Arts Council is hopefully indicative of. However, a lot of it still seems to fall on the individual to self-care, as evidenced from the two posts pointing to self-care on the tab under ‘Wellness’ as part of the resources for freelancers. 

Perhaps therein lies the gap in the system that needs addressing: Can we move away from replicating the structures and conditions that exploit vulnerabilities? How do we address director-actor hierarchies? How can the platform actualise possibilities of coming together?

Over the course of the next few months, I hope to speak to practitioners and researchers in the arts and gather thoughts and understandings of creative processes. I want to perform the emotional labour behind performances themselves, to stage a non-performance performance. I want to reenact director-actor hierarchies, for us to recognise conditions of exploitation.

Some ideas/theories that I’m letting myself run away with: harm reduction, emotional labour and acting and dramaturgies of female performance. You are most welcome to join me on this journey.

Screenshot from the Arts Resource Hub website