I’m experimenting with critical writing as critic-in-residence at the Southernmost festival organised by experimental performance company Emergency Stairs. The festival, which emphasises artistic process and intercultural collaborations, runs from Nov 3 to 11, 2018 at Centre 42 in Singapore. You can read my official blog here.
TheatreWorks' ongoing Curators Academy formally opened on Wednesday evening with the video installation Capture Practice by choreographer Arkadi Zaides (b. 1979, Belorussia, former USSR). It's a dual screen installation on an 18-minute loop; the left screen presents archival video material taken between 2007 and 2011, the right screen presents Zaides' performance of the movements enacted by Israeli occupiers and soldiers in the Palestinian occupied territories. I found it a riveting, harrowing work examining the body as an archive and site of trauma, resistance and occupation in a Gordian knot of a political conflict. Academy director Ong Keng Sen, former artistic director of the Singapore International Festival of Arts, has had a consistent interest in how dance is archived, and his Archive Box programme at SIFA, for instance, interrogated the memory of the body and how dance and movement is transferred and interpreted/translated from one practitioner to the next.
I've been thinking about the attempts to choreograph empathy in performance (influenced by the fact that I'm reading Susan Leigh Foster's Choreographing Empathy: Kinesthesia in Performance) and how we the viewer might trace different trajectories of movement when watching dance or performance, and "rehearse movement pathways that are specific to our history of moving". By that same notion, one could also choreograph movement that evokes visceral fear, anger and distrust.
In one scene in Capture Practice, we see an Israeli soldier on the left screen in full gear, his assault rifle an extension of his arm. He rocks forwards and backwards around the corner of a crumbling building, lifting and lowering his gun as he responds to a possible threat. On the right screen, against the blank, neutral walls of the dance studio, Zaides almost seems to be doing a box step as he imitates the soldier's stance. The authoritative walk, backwards and forwards, the firm grip on an invisible weapon, the hunch of the shoulders as the gun lifts, then lowers, the unquestioned ownership of the ground upon which he stands. The scene repeats, and we can see Zaides learning the soldier's choreography, and inheriting the power structures that come with inhabiting that body.
Andrew Hewitt inverts the conventional idea of choreography in his text Social Choreography, insisting that "choreography is not just another of the things we 'do' to bodies, but a reflection on – and enactment of – how bodies 'do' things". The choreographer is not only creating a pattern of gesture and movement that instructs the body on how and what it should dance; this dancing body is also the everyday body, drawing inspiration and instruction from how the body walks, eats, sleeps, stumbles, runs, skips, falls – shoots, kills, maims.
In displacing each body from its original context – shepherds being chased from their grazing fields, protestors being forcibly removed from a road – Zaides' re-enactments in the empty studio compel the viewer to isolate each gesture and what that gesture means. Which gestures are those of power and authority: the legs apart, the firm centre of gravity, the straight back? Which are those of disempowerment: the flailing arms, the prostrate body, the contorted torso? And which are gestures of protest and resistance: the bent knees pre-empting possible violence, the arm curling back to cast a stone? In embodying the movements of the Israeli occupiers and soldiers, Zaides is also examining complicity in conflict – there are echoes of the gestures we use from day to day in these re-enactments as our bodies respond to our environments and play different roles in different circumstances.
Because this isn't a live performance, there's a sense of the documentary about it and how a video might reconstruct or be proof of "what really happened". It's a permanent record, not a fleeting, unrepeatable movement. But even permanent records may be interpreted in wildly different ways. With the screens set at an angle to each other, there are some startling moments of juxtaposition, with the horizon lines of each screen either diverging or tapering to a point. Perspectives meet and veer away.
As I flicked between the left and right screens I found myself comparing each archive: the archive of the camera and the archive of the body. I think what guts me about this work is that what the camera records isn't what the body records; what we see is not what we feel. Susan Sontag argued in Regarding the Pain of Others that the brutal carnage of war photography isn't always straightforward: one photographer's call for peace may be another's call for war depending on the history and context of the conflict. We may never even begin to feel the pain of others, but I wonder if embodying and re-enacting the gestures of both the oppressed and the oppressor might give us a concrete sense of "what really happened". Zaides' own body remains trapped in this loop on tape, doomed to lift and lower the gun time and time again, to remove the protestor from the hood of the car, to give power and to take it away.
Capture Practice | 2014, video installation, 18 min loop
Archive materials (left screen): Volunteers for the "Camera Project" of B'Tselem The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories: Ahmad Jundiyeh, Issa 'Amro, Abd alKarim J'abri, Abu 'Ayesha, Raed Abu Ermeileh, Iman Sufan, Mu'ataz Sufan, Mustafa Elkam, Oren Yakobovich
Videography (right screen): Amir Borenstein
Video consultants: Effi & Amir
Artistic advisor: Katerina Bakatsak
Commissioned by: Petach Tikva Museum of Art, Israel
I'd like to preface this response to I AM LGB by suggesting that you not read this until after you've experienced the experiment. Or to only read it if you're now wishing you bought tickets but it's too late and the show's ended its run.
Are you ready?
It was next to impossible to tell what audience members – or should I say participants – could expect from I AM LGB. The artists behind the experiment refused to give individual interviews to the media (or even to Singapore International Festival of Arts official blogger Ng Yi-Sheng) and would only agree to be interviewed as the fictional collective of the Lan Gen Bah Society Of The Mind (LGBSM) or the fictional artist Lan Gen Bah (LGB). All I knew was that the show was four hours long, running from 7pm to 11pm, at 72-13, coupled with a some slight mental preparation given my familiarity with the work of Ray Langenbach, Loo Zihan and Bani Haykal, and their penchants for documentation, archiving, re-enactments, and dissecting that fine line between performance and performativity in everyday life.
The subsequent experience, which I'll try to summarise before digesting and processing it, was both incredibly frustrating but fascinating, a deep and hard look at individual freedoms, freedom of expression, groupthink, herd mentality, conformity and non-conformity, game-playing psychology and game design, all set against the looming backdrop of Singapore's own tumultuous history with performance art. I loved it.
After signing a form agreeing to allow ourselves to be documented on video etc, my sister and I are escorted into a cloak room where we get a lab coat, a number, and a bright, Mao-red textbook with a pencil. We're immediately complicit in the performance in some way, since we're all wearing costumes and carrying props, adopting a prescribed identity, if you will. Along with other bewildered and curious audience members, we're funnelled into the main playing area after having our photographs taken and pasted on a wall. Other lab-coated audience members are already there, either sitting down on rows of white chairs or playing what looks like a simple ball game. I'm coaxed into playing as well – you're supposed to throw a ball back and forth with increasing levels of complexity (clap your hands before catching the ball, lift one leg, etc) while being mindful of the ball, and not worrying about failure. None of which happens, of course; we are all embarrassed when we drop the ball, apologetic, shy.
We're then divided into four groups (Josef, Weng, Sharaad, Lucy – names that should sound familiar to anyone with a bit of knowledge of performance art) according to our coloured (and blank, identity-effacing) name tags. Loo Zihan/Josef sets out some ground rules:
- We have to wear the lab coat at all times
- We need to be punctual and present
- We need to get hall passes from the facilitators if we need to use the bathroom or take a smoke break
- We can 'set ourselves free' or 'liberate' ourselves at any time. The catch being – you can't come back into the playing area. Also, no one really knows what happens after someone gets 'liberated' or 'liberates' themselves. And, Zihan emphasises, everyone will be 'liberated' by the end of the experiment, save one person, who will be anointed the new LGB for tonight. So we'll all be set free at some point.
My coat comes with a green tag, so I'm in the 'green' group facilitated by Bani Haykal (or in this case, Weng), in a bright green coat and followed around by two black-clad assistants. The 20-plus of us are first instructed to do a kindergarten-type object sorting exercise. We're told to sort a pile of about 100 objects, but we're not told how or what categories they are to be sorted by. Some people, apparently already irritated with the infantilisation that's been happening since the start, have started to liberate themselves. The rest of us dutifully sort and re-sort objects, depending on the vague instructions given. Then we're told that two of our group members must liberate themselves, or we'll each have to justify to the group why we should not be liberated and made to liberate two people through voting. Two people quickly volunteer themselves as tribute in this bizarre subversion of The Hunger Games. Their photographs are struck out with a bright red marker.
We're then subjected to a long lecture about the origins of the artist Lan Gen Bah, her work, and her intelligentsia parents' relationship with Mao Zedong. The bell rings, and it's a common test. A common test? I panic. I'm going to liberated, I think, because I wasn't paying attention to the lecture. The common test has one logic question, one algebra question, and three random questions that really could have any answer, completely irrelevant to the lecture before. The final question can't even be marked, because it depends on group responses. Okay then. Fifteen minutes later, we peer mark this test paper. I get nine points, the girl next to me gets six. I feel a perverse, repugnant sense of pleasure, that awful Singaporean competitive spirit in me, that I'm above average in this game. We're all made to stand up, and sit down into safety as the marks are called, with a highest possible mark of 12. Nine is pretty safe. Everyone with a three? or four? and below is escorted out. I shake my internal fist at the sky – how can this be! Art is meant to be all-embracing! You don't need to be good at math!
There's 'recess', during which more people liberate themselves, and then Stage One: Hybridization. Every single group goes on a different trajectory now. Our group, which has dwindled significantly to about a dozen people, is led into a tiny, dark, confined room at the back of the playing area. Bani closes the door. We're all standing, shoulder to shoulder, as our eyes adjust to the darkness.
"You'll be in here for 50 minutes," he says, so anyone who's claustrophobic should leave now. Two people leave.
"50 minutes?" I ask, "not 15?"
"50, five zero," he says. We all titter nervously.
So we are in there for 50 minutes. First an excerpt of P. Ramlee's Labu dan Labi is screened on the ceiling, and we all have to lie down to watch it comfortably. Then we're given another audio lecture by a raspy, heavy breather, against a soundscape of water and industrial noises, about Cold War cultural diplomacy. Then we're made to have a discussion, within that hot, stuffy, confined space, about individual freedoms and freedom of expression. I feel as though I've regressed 10 years and am trying to out-perform or out-pretend freshman/first-year students at any given seminar in a liberal arts university. Another person leaves. At this point, about 40 minutes into our 50-minute slot, a live video feed of what is happening outside this room, in the large, spacious, air-conditioned playing area, is projected on the ceiling. When we finally step out, I feel as though my internal compass is whirling. I bend over to get over a sudden burst of vertigo. If I take off my lab coat – because I'm so hot – am I breaking the rules? Will I be liberated?
"Liberation is a wonderful thing," intones one of Bani's assistants, piously.
It's 10pm by this point, and I'm exhausted. But no, there are more stations yet: Essentialisation, Enculturation and Totalisation. We have a discussion about the letter of complaint sent by Ray Langenbach's students to the National Institute of Education in the wake of the 1994 crackdown on performance art in Singapore, and we list down what we think should be taught in schools, and what shouldn't. It's a very meaningful and heartfelt discussion, but at the end of it, another four people are liberated through drawing lots. We're then instructed to pick an object from before and use it as an object lesson to explain why we are all 'collectively dreaming'. I don't understand what we're required to do – and I'm guessing neither does anyone – but we do it anyway, make up some embarrassing, ridiculous, jargon-filled speech ("light brings clarity, clarity brings communality") about these trivial objects (matches, playdough, a sponge, etc). We have been collectively dreaming after all, because each inane dream speech has influenced the next. In the end, about 90% of us remaining audience members are forcibly liberated, and only four people, who chose the most popular object (the sponge), remain.
We're ferried to an upstairs room where most of the liberated audience members (about 50 of the 80 who came tonight) are talking, laughing and commiserating, framed by a breath-taking exhibition of what must have been hundreds of documents – whether from Langenbach's time at university or during the controversy surrounding 5th Passage and its performances at Parkway Parade in 1994. Hardly anyone is paying attention to the final four, who are making speeches off the cuff as to why they should be made LGB for the night. The voting is a farce. We vote at random, having not paid attention to anything. Someone 'wins' – but really, he's not winning anything, because everyone's going home. I hear myself asking someone: "Is it over? Can we leave?" Are we allowed to leave?
I AM LGB's tagline is 'between solitude and solidarity', and it's a skin-flaying experiment where the audience is pitted against itself. Just as the boundary between Lan Gen Bah and Langenbach's identity begins to blur, so do our own identities as audience members – it grows increasingly difficult to distinguish between our agency as an audience and being co-opted into this experiment. The paradox at the heart of this experiment is the promise that one can be liberated at any time, and do so voluntarily, but eventually realise that one can also be expelled through completely arbitrary means. This hinges on two fears: the fear of elimination, but also the fear that one cannot, as an audience members, 'finish' watching the show if one chooses to leave. This assumes some social contract between the artist and the audience, that by watching or participating in a production, we will gain some sort of entertainment or enlightenment by the 'end' through engaging with the artistic material. Do we game the system, or play the game? Does the machinery always win, since it boots you out if you decide not to be complicit? Does the machinery always co-opt you, since by staying you must decide to be complicit?
I took this to be analogous to any system we perceive ourselves to be in; in my case, I immediately mapped these circumstances to my experience of Singapore and the Singapore education system. By functioning within a system, are you subject to it, and can you ever transcend it without being co-opted into a sort of blind collective judgment/decision-making? Most audience members existed on a continuum, I think. There were those who immediately allergic to what they perceived as a structure of utter BS and left; on the other end, there were those who engaged enthusiastically with the game in the hopes of an eventual narrative payout; and there were those like myself, in the middle, trapped and frustrated in a mode of self-reflexivity and undecided if they should participate, observe, or leave.
From the first ball game to the final voting at the end, we're never really ourselves; we've relaxed into more comfortable, larger rhythms of groupthink and collective patterns. My sister, who went on a completely different journey, was subjected to a 'dance class' where participants had to interpret, through movement, a list of various dance genres. This began innocently enough, with 'ballet' and 'cha cha'. But what happens when it's 'Tibetan Bell Dance', or 'Amazonian Leaf Dance', or 'Dance 5.2678'? She quickly observed that the participants eventually began mimicking each other, regardless of how 'original' they perceived their movement lexicon to be. Resisting participation, she closed her eyes when she danced so she would be able to retain some shred of individuality and not bow to subconscious peer pressure. But even though she resisted participating, she felt genuine sadness when fellow participants chose to, or were made to leave.
There are hints of a larger history connected to this experiment, with the students' letter to the university, the acknowledgement of 5th Passage and the names of various prominent performance art figures and the nature of their work communicated through the various interactive stations, of being confined in an "Iron Room", to choose between a painless death, where you move straight from sleep into oblivion, or a painful one, where you fight your mortality even though it is futile – much like the fight that artists, activists and advocates undertake in Singapore every day, the tango with censorship and bureaucracy that must be danced. The experiment we are in is a surreal, bizarre microcosm, a metaphor for what we experience day to day. Who makes decisions to include one group and exclude another? How do you decide to speak up for a cause or to abandon it? How far can collectivism prolong your tolerance for psychological trauma (be it a dark room or a common test)?
I left, clutching my Little Red Textbook, with the sense that what was a complex, challenging and confronting social experiment was also a lesson; an object lesson about the process of education, miseducation, and re-education. We're first introduced to what it feels like to be part of a large, safe group, and immediately after, how it feels to go solo. Freedom and fear conflate and combine. Every interaction primes you for another moment of independent decision-making but also undercuts or subverts your expectations, the process of which moulds you into a form of perplexed cooperation. You realise that even as the rules matter less and less, you are striving, more and more, to submit to rules you have set for yourself. The facilitators initially appear to be impartial, at an arm's length, in their passing down of information and instruction. But our poor interpretations of this formal 'education' and what is required of us creates a hive mind of miseducation – where we look to those around us, going through the same experience, for validation. And I think it is only when we shed our costumes and retreat offstage, a marker for the end of a performance, that we can return to ourselves – not who we were performing as in this experiment - and finally evaluate what we have learnt.
I've been mulling over how artists in Singapore have moved from challenging and confronting Singapore's history in their work, to studying the gaps in its official narrative and turning the spotlight onto marginalised groups, to reclaiming history that has been taken from them by creating their own narratives, effectively rewriting the past. This reclamatory process felt especially keen on Thursday night, with the echo of the crackdown on performance art by the state in 1994 after Josef Ng's performance in Parkway Parade (which Zihan re-enacted at the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival in 2012), of Ray Langenbach's Singaporean students calling for a boycott of his classes, of the many ways in which performance art and all its necessary provocations were proscribed or stamped out, and of which we were all partaking in I AM LGB. Both the experiment and the granular archives on show felt like a reclaiming of what performance art had lost in Singapore – and through us, a willing public audience. (Or were we completely willing? I suppose we will never know...)