Virtual now: George Town Festival keeps arts and culture alive amid pandemic


It was meant to be a music concert of some magnitude.

Classical musicians Tan Yong Yaw, Raymond Choo Boon Yew and Chow Jun Yi dreamt it to be an unforgettable night of Chinese orchestra music in a grand concert hall.

Imagine an evening of splendour with these three musicians journeying through time, exploring the different styles and periods of Chinese classical and orchestra music.

The trio, who studied music in China, reckoned it was about time they collaborated and performed live together.

Although they are living in different parts of the world, they planned to get together and produce this passion project concert.

This was early last year, before the pandemic turned the world upside down.

But the ensuing global travel restrictions proved to be no obstacle for the three men as they decided to go ahead with their music concert idea albeit virtually.

They will present an online show called Immerse (July 10-18), which is one of the highlights of this year’s George Town Festival.

The GTF, which is going fully virtual for the second year, had the foresight and programme flexibility to deal with the pandemic situation in the country now.

Melaka-based Tan Yong Yaw plays the yangqin (dulcimer) in the remotely produced 'Immerse' show, which will also feature pianist Chow Jun Yi (New York) and lute player Raymond Choo Boon Yew in (Macau). Photo: GTFMelaka-based Tan Yong Yaw plays the yangqin (dulcimer) in the remotely produced 'Immerse' show, which will also feature pianist Chow Jun Yi (New York) and lute player Raymond Choo Boon Yew in (Macau). Photo: GTF



Initially, this annual arts and culture festival in Penang was set to run from July 10-18 in a hybrid form, with virtual and on-site events.

But since most of the nation is still under the first phase of the National Recovery Plan, the GTF organisers decided to shelve all the physical programmes and proceed with the virtual option.

Originally, the GTF had 42 programmes. Now, only 16 online programmes will carry on, but the promise of a global audience is major boost for all concerned.

Scaled down, neatly compact

“It was a blessing that we planned to carry out the festival in a hybrid form. Now, although we are in the midst of lockdown restrictions, we are still able to go ahead with the online programmes, ” says Jack Wong, GTF festival director.

This decision by the GTF team made it possible for artists like Chow, a New York-based music composer/pianist, to still create and put up work at the festival.

The Down The Melting Pot video series gives a cast of young contemporary artists a platform to discuss diversity in society. Photo: GTFThe Down The Melting Pot video series gives a cast of young contemporary artists a platform to discuss diversity in society. Photo: GTF



In fact, Chow says it was an interesting process of putting together a virtual concert while trying to keep the show’s original elements.

“It was an experiment for all of us. Since we couldn’t record at the same time, many things that we took for granted that are easily done in person had become a challenge to sort out collaboratively, ” shares Chow, whose piano recording was done in New York.

“From things such as what is the speed of each piece? How do we get to listen to each other while performing?

“It’s great that we have so much more technology today, and with the help of our brilliant team of sound engineers and videographers, they made this collaboration possible, ” he adds.

Tan, who plays the yangqin (dulcimer), had his recording done in Klang, Selangor, while Choo, who plays the ruan (moon lute), completed his recording in Macau.

Immerse, which will stream on CloudTheatre, features traditional and contemporary repertoire.

A festival for everyone

Despite a smartly-curated week of programmes, GTF 2021 was not without its challenges.

With a lot of uncertainty in the air, Wong says that there was a lot of troubleshooting involved to put the festival together.

“Firstly, it was challenging for us to do comprehensive planning ahead of time. As such, we had to play it by ear and make changes to our programming from time to time by taking into account the (pandemic) situation, ” says Wong.

Body x The Culprit is a digital theatre production that allows viewers to be involved in the solving of a murder-mystery. Photo: GTFBody x The Culprit is a digital theatre production that allows viewers to be involved in the solving of a murder-mystery. Photo: GTF



He believes that virtual programmes decided upon have pushed participating artists to think outside the box.

“A festival like GTF encourages creativity and originality, in addition to empowering creative talents by providing a platform for them to showcase their works.

“This is why it was important for us to proceed with the festival instead of postponing it, ” says Wong, adding a virtual fest offers arts practitioners a practical way forward in these uncertain times.

The 3 x 3 Art Residency and Group Exhibit offers artists a platform to continue working remotely, and a chance to exhibit.

The Arts To Your Doorstep digital marketplace, a three-month-long collaborative campaign, seeks to support artists by promoting and selling their artworks online from July to September while galleries and art spaces are closed.

Wong feels this upcoming GTF virtual fest has a big role to play, ensuring a diverse spread of arts and culture is on board.

If you’re looking for a night of intrigue, Body x The Culprit (July 10-18) is a unique digital theatre production that allows you to be involved in the solving of a murder-mystery and experience it as if you are living in the physical space.

This interactive digital theatre series will require viewers to “visit” the crime scene as it happens, gather evidence, discuss with fellow investigators online and vote for the murderer.

Perspectives is an independent project which explores the lives of individuals with disabilities, told through music, monologues and works of art. Photo: GTFPerspectives is an independent project which explores the lives of individuals with disabilities, told through music, monologues and works of art. Photo: GTF



For something more experimental, the video series Down The Melting Pot (July 13), curated by Nien-Teng Chen and Jaxton Su, is worth an investigation. The idea of a hot pot meal here - stirred with diversity - is made more appetising with a cast of young contemporary artists sharing their intercultural journey.

Disabilities, accessibility and inclusion are topics brought to light in the “docudrama” Perspectives on July 11 at 3pm. This Singaporean film directed by Peggy Ferroa and Michael Chua will be streamed on CloudTheatre for free.

Part documentary, part theatrical monologue, Perspectives is an independent project which explores the lives of Singaporeans with disabilities, told through music, monologues and works of art.

Compact virtual content is also an important consideration, and the 30 finalists for the G-Short 2021 series – “a mini film fest” – will be out to grab your attention.

It’s all about telling a story in a 90-second short film. The film screenings will take place from July 14-16 on CloudTheatre.

Projecting hope and unity

Lights On is a virtual projection mapping installation which showcases George Town’s cultural and historical landscapes through lights and swimming patterns projected onto a mock-up of the heritage city.

“It is important to keep going and continue to do what we love to do while we can, especially during this time. By having this Lights On project, there is a platform for multimedia art practitioners to explore new possibilities, ” says Abdul Shakir, co-founder of media art collective Filamen.

'Lights On' will showcase George Town’s diverse cultural and historical landscapes through multimedia art and light projections. Photo: Filamen'Lights On' will showcase George Town’s diverse cultural and historical landscapes through multimedia art and light projections. Photo: Filamen



“It also allows them to connect and collaborate with other artists from all over the world. We would like to show to everyone that we can still move forward and be flexible with what we can produce within the limitations, ” he adds.

Shakir and KC Tan from FabU, a PJ-based digital fabrication and art collective, were mentors for the Lights On project.

“George Town is known for its rich and diverse culture, popular among local and international tourists.

“However, due to the pandemic, the tourists are gone. With this virtual projection mapping experience, we hope to bring good memories of George Town to them as they watch the live streaming from home, ” says Shakir.

Lights On consists of two main components: a one-month-long virtual residency programme and a virtual exhibition.

Under the virtual residency programme, nine artists from Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Mexico and Romania were selected to create eight audio visual works for the projection mapping installation under the guidance of the mentors.

“The main theme of the programme is hope and unity. The aim is to lift creative spirits (among the participating artists) and to make a global connection, ” says Shakir.

The 20-minute video will be streamed live via GTF’s social media platforms on July 10 at 8pm. This will be accompanied by a virtual sharing session on July 12 (8pm) by the participants.

During this virtual residency that started in May, weekly Zoom meets were held between the digital artists, animators and illustrators, and the mentors.

“This virtual residency served as a platform for them to explore and work with new tools in producing their artwork and encouraged them to develop new skill sets, ” says Shakir.

More info here.

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