Our Desk | Heterotopia is not a theme

Daniel Beitler

The theme for the 28th Macau Arts Festival, “Heterotopia,” was announced last week at a press conference and was poorly explained by the new president of the Cultural Affairs Bureau (IC), Leung Hio Ming.

He said: “Heterotopia is a heterogeneous space that exists in the real world, which existence is both strange and familiar. The establishment of different spaces is precisely what gives charm and uniqueness to performing art works, allowing the audience to experience the unparalleled warmth and wisdom of life.”


According to the few definitions available, this pretentious and esoteric term was discussed by the philosopher Michel Foucault to describe “spaces of otherness” that are simultaneously physical and mental. Instances of this can include making a phone call or seeing oneself in a mirror.

It’s a lot to wrap your head around and, even once you do, you are still left perplexed as to what that will entail for the actual festival.

To the IC’s credit, some of the performances showcased at the press conference actually do bear some relation to this “theme.”

One, titled “Remote Macao,” is described as an “unconventional walking-tour theater” act. Participants walk through the city’s streets wearing headphones and listening to a common synthetic voice.

Others attempt to explore multiple states. “Hu(r)mano” professes to explore the tension between the “human me” and “urban we,” while children’s theater show “Metamorphosis” involves the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly.

For me, these few performances bear unconvincing links to the festival’s theme. Meanwhile, most of the other shows hold no relation (unless you try really, really hard), and in any case might have been included in this year’s program even if the festival had no overarching theme.

What’s truly amazing is that the IC can select a theme that is both so nuanced that nothing can definitively be said to belong to it and also so broad that it encompasses everything.

For example, any performance can be made to concur with a theme concerning “space” and “otherness” – after all, what kind of show can hold absolutely no relation to “space”? But then if a theme, which is supposed to link the 100+ activities at the festival can be used for any one of billions of other activities, does it not become a little redundant?

“Love” is a theme, as is “The Sea” or “The Future,” as these are all exclusive categories that do not encompass everything under the sun. Heck, even “Cats” are a theme. “Heterotopia” is not.

“Heterotopia” is a theme in the same sense that “Expression” or “Meaning” are themes. Sure, they work, but they don’t really add anything.

Still, it’s a breath of fresh air that, unlike for many other events in the MSAR, the theme has a brief translation into English and Portuguese, making it somewhat remarkable. The problem here is that the conciseness of written Chinese often makes the translated themes needlessly lengthy and impossible to remember.

Take for example the theme for the 5th Ministerial Conference of Forum Macau held last year, “Working toward stronger Sino-Portuguese-speaking countries’ trade and economic relations – combining efforts, jointly building a platform, sharing fruits of development,” which might as well be the theme every year.

IC president Leung also shed some light last week on the themes for the next two years of the festival. According to him, Macau can look forward to “localization” and “human” for the 29th and 30th editions of the festival respectively.

If these seem more down-to-earth to you, remember that in the same vein and under the original plan this year’s theme was penned to be “space.”

Categories Opinion