George Town Festival Continues Keeping the Arts Alive amidst the New Normal
Festival director Jack Wong gets candid about pivoting to publishing and virtual programmes, lessons he learned about keeping the arts alive amidst the new normal, and how physical events still have their merits.
George Town Festival has been a platform of choice for local artists to reach a global audience – the Festival has amassed a large international following over the years. But when the COVID-19 outbreak hit and the MCO came into effect in March 2020, the crisis for the Festival was hard to miss. All of a sudden, physical events were cancelled, and Jack Wong and his team had no choice but to move the entire festival to cyberspace.
Although the first-ever online version of the Festival in 2020 was put together in a short amount of time, it attracted a total of approximately 70,000 local and international viewers to all its 11 virtual programmes. The alternate format also enables the Festival to leap over a number of hurdles. But although the Festival managed to transition online, many artists experienced a level of loss from sales. “It became apparent to us that we have to pivot professionally to support the arts community, including venturing into publication and merchandising, which was never done before,” says Wong.
This year, the Festival has published two books; Penang at a Glance, a photobook showcasing Penang’s breathtaking landscapes, festivals, celebrations, arts, culture, heritage, people, and lifestyles, captured by four local photographers and Tanjong Life: The New Norm, a comic book illustrated by Penang-born cartoonist Azmi Hussin. “These books not only give those in the creative sector the opportunity to continue what they do best but they also celebrate the people, experiences, and ideas that define Penang,” says Wong. “It encourages originality, especially Tanjong Life: The New Norm. To my knowledge, it is the only comic book that illustrates Penang in lockdown.”
Azmi Hussin’s Tanjong Life: The New Norm is a shining epitome of originality. The comic book may be the only book that illustrates Penang in lockdown.
To promote local brands and recognise homegrown artists, the Festival teamed up with select creatives for an array of exclusive merchandise. The newly released A Nostalgic Journey, produced in collaboration with Penang-born artist Lefty Julian, consists of two notebooks featuring a ferry and a trishaw drawn by the prolific artist as part of his “Sama-Sama: George Town, A Multicultural Art Journey” exhibition, allowing locals and visitors to embark on a nostalgic journey through these uniquely Penang icons. Another notebook, aptly named A Notebook, is meticulously handcrafted by a Penang-based stationery producer Muccapaper and features four creative, one-of-a-kind doodles with stories about the Festival illustrated by illustrator Yuki Koe. It is set to be released soon.
The newly released A Nostalgic Journey, produced in collaboration with Penang-born artist Lefty Julian, consists of two notebooks featuring a ferry and a trishaw drawn.
Living in the new normal era, Wong says it necessitates his team to think digitally, which led to more unique online programmes in George Town Festival 2021, such as “3 x 3” and “Arts to Your Doorstep”. The “3 x 3” art residency and group exhibition offers an opportunity for homegrown creative talents to be supported while remaining in their homes, studios, or workspaces safely. Meanwhile, “Arts to Your Doorstep” is a digital marketplace that promotes and sells artworks by local artists online. Art lovers in 14 countries and regions, including Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and more, can now purchase the exquisite creations of the artists via the George Town Festival website. “At this point, many artists are taking the time off to create more, so these platforms allow them to do that while providing them an avenue to showcase and sell their art pieces,” says Wong.
The “3 x 3” residency artists. From top left to bottom right: Harold Reagan Eswar, Putri Intan Sari Binti Amrizal, Muhamat Ammar Bin Idris, Cassie Wong Mun Yew, Lee Lai Queen, Ivan Alexander Francis Gabriel, Liu Yong Sean and Norfatihah Binti Yusof.
The Festival’s “Arts to Your Doorstep” is a digital marketplace that promotes and sells artworks by local artists online.
Wong also opines that the art residency challenges artists to “think outside the box, within the box”. Usually, art residencies allow artists to live and work outside of their usual environments to explore new locations and different cultures. “But because this would be done in the confines of their homes, studios, or workspaces, I’m quite excited to see the works that would come out of the artists. If anything, it encourages originality, and that’s what I see in the best of it,” says Wong.
While the virtual world opened up possibilities beyond traditional means and has allowed art to transcend across boundaries, Wong admits that physical spaces still have their merits. “It’s the human connection which cannot be replaced. People still want to see art pieces, understand the context, and connect with the artists or the curator personally before committing to a purchase.
“It’s the same with performances. I’ve gotten feedback from performers that the energy and vibes just won’t translate remotely when they perform in front of the screen. For stand-up comedians, getting instant feedback from audiences is important, and that’s something they cannot get when performing online,” shares Wong.
Being made aware that it will be safe for people to venture out when the current COVID-19 situation improves, the Festival has laid the groundwork to provide artists with a physical space. SPACE, an art space located in The Whiteaways Arcade on Lebuh Pantai managed by the Festival, is set to draw art makers and enthusiasts of all kinds from November 2021 onwards. The art space is dedicated to homegrown creative talents to showcase their works and carry out any artistic programme – be it an exhibition, a talk, or a performance – to reach a broader range of art lovers. “It will be the perfect avenue to encourage creativity and originality, in addition to empowering local artists to connect with the local communities through their artistic creations. It will be the place where artists can pick up where they left off before the pandemic,” says Wong.
As the country is looking to treat COVID-19 as an endemic disease around the end of October, restrictions are now gradually relaxed under the National Recovery Plan. This gives the Festival ample time to start preparing for some of its physical programmes in November and December 2021, at reduced capacities. Assuring the public that the Festival will strictly comply with the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and precautionary guidelines, Penang State EXCO for Tourism and Creative Economy (PETACE) YB Yeoh Soon Hin says the safe resumption of physical creative programmes in Penang is much welcomed. “The loosening of SOPs for the creative industry will allow the arts to continue to flourish and regain its momentum. While the pandemic has undeniably caused a heavy blow to the artists and industry players within the creative ecosystem, it has also shown us their resilience. The Festival and the artists have certainly manoeuvred and explored different means to keep the arts alive.
“Moreover, the continuation of the George Town Festival’s physical programmes by the end of the year will revive their hopes and confidence to give us more outstanding performances in the long run,” says Yeoh.
Though COVID-19 closures devastated Penang’s arts scene, they certainly did not stop George Town Festival from reimagining new ways to support the industry. Now, despite the uncertainties and challenges ahead in a post-pandemic world, one thing is certain – as long as there are ways, the Festival will continue its journey in supporting the artists.