Day 3 (Nov 6) – conversations; coming together

The workshops have ended, and the mood is different today. Xiaoyi begins the rehearsal at 9am with a textbook of Japanese for beginners. Because Shimizu-san is the only practitioner who doesn’t speak English, we’ve all gathered around him in a circle for a crash course in basic Japanese greetings – as well as vocabulary relevant to the production. Shimizu-san also teaches us the varying degrees of politeness you’d use for each phrase.

  • おはようございます (ohayō gozaimasu) – good morning
  • こんにちは 今日は (konnichiwa) hello
  • こんばんは (konbanwa) good evening
  • おやすみ なさい (oyasumi nasai) good night
  • お願いします (onegaishimasu) – please
  • ゆっくり (yukkuri) – slowly
  • 早く (hayaku) – quickly
  • 続ける (tsudzukeru) – continue
  • ちょっと 待ってください (chotto matte kudasai) – wait a moment

This is a deliberate preface to a morning of deep conversation and connection that sets the agenda for the Southernmost project. I wonder how Xiaoyi’s chosen today as the sort of epiphanic reveal of what all the workshops have been travelling towards. Today feels like the fulcrum of the entire process.

Xiaoyi tells us about his company, Emergency Stairs, which he founded last year. While I’m familiar with the company’s work and the experimental presentations they favour, like Offending the Audience (2017) or Einstein in the Carpark (2018), I’ve never had a proper chat with Xiaoyi about the ethos or the (Lacanian?) drive of the platform he’s striven to create for a small group of practitioners.

This is roughly what he says:

I started off as an actor, and as an actor, you’re very sensitive to the boundaries of your body. You know the boundaries of the stage – where the backstage is, what the audience sees of you. When I became a director, I stepped off the stage. I started to get to know the bigger picture. You see the four walls of the theatre space, the exits and entry points. I also started to meet other boundaries, like what the budget is, and what my resources are.

And then when I started Emergency Stairs – it’s an even bigger picture. My boundaries are so different now. I know more about the NAC (National Arts Council), the IMDA (Info-communications Media Development Authority; also a regulatory board), about arts housing, about cultural policy… And I thought, how can deal with all of this creatively? 

I think we need creative artists, and arts institutions, and governments, and environments, and arts councils. This is why crossing borders is so important. What does it mean if we only focus on our bodies as practitioners? Maybe a few days later we’ll forget what we’ve learnt. But beyond the body – what is the culture, history, and social environment behind a person? I think it’s time to learn something else.

Then he brings up the SG Arts Plan unveiled very recently by the National Arts Council.

I guess this is the script that has been given to me. And this script has a duration of five years. How can I respond to this script? How can I negotiate with it and challenge it? […] Who takes initiative? How can we empower ourselves? I think that’s why I see One Table Two Chairs as a project, not just a production. I’m looking for any alternative ways of art-making. Right now, I’m following the script. But can I write the script in another language, on another piece of paper?  

He also talks about not being entirely sure what might happen to Emergency Stairs after their Seed Grant concludes in 2020. Could Emergency Stairs become a different type of project? Or perhaps it could become a regional platform? He brings up other models he’s seen in his visits to other cities, like an independent artists’ village in Yokohama.

At this point, Xiaoyi invites both the Singaporeans and non-Singaporean practitioners to discuss their position in their respective arts landscapes. There’s an outpouring of emotion and empathy as the various participants talk about the challenges they face.

Didik talks about how the usual top-down policy in Indonesia, where national policymakers are completely disconnected from what happens at the prefecture level, has become more ground-up under Jokowi’s tenure. As part of the cultural congress, Indonesian artists have recently convened in Jakarta to discuss and troubleshoot the problems and challenges they face. But this may be a brief grace period – who knows what might happen under different leadership. Some provinces are regularly overlooked when it comes to arts funding, such as Sulawesi. And even private funding comes with strings attached, e.g. a cigarette company sponsoring the arts proved to be too controversial for some regions. Arts policy also needs to do the fine balancing act where it can appeal to both moderates and conservatives.

Shimizu says that his company, Tessen-kai, relies on renting out their theatre and building for some financial support, as well as the commissions they get a performer’s fee for. But almost all members have separate livelihoods outside the fold, and most of them will hold an additional teaching job. The company did try to participate in the grants system, but the money would invariably arrive much later than when they needed it – sometimes something like a year later – which led to horrific cash flow and they had to abandon that financial model. He also talks about how a performance form with a long historical lineage can be a source of power and support instead of baggage.

Rady speaks about how ridiculously tiny the commissioning amounts are in Cambodia, e.g. US$1,000 for a single production to somehow be shared among everyone. He’s concerned that many of the state’s cultural programmes are blind to the future and don’t think long-term; there aren’t a lot of plans in place for the next generation of artists. Most of the money comes from the big arts and cultural ceremonies and productions that come with diplomatic relations and government-to-government connections. “For the artist, it’s just: perform and then bye-bye.” He’s also a part of Amrita Performing Arts, the NGO that was founded in 2003 with a mission to revive and preserve Cambodia’s traditional performing arts with a slew of capacity building programmes; it transitioned into contemporary practice about 10 years in and was one of the pioneers of contemporary performance in the country. But that chapter may soon be coming to a close, and might take a different form in the near future.

Ee Vian’s concern is that many policymakers (not all, but many), whom she calls “the paper people”, view so much of the artistic practice in black and white, which never tells the whole story. They don’t see the artist or the sheer amount of work beneath the text. There’s also a problem when loose interest groups are forced to turn into corporate entities to survive – literally becoming companies in order to make proposals and get grants. She wonders if the passivity that Singaporean artists are often stereotyped with is a result of practitioners (a) not knowing what to say and (b) not daring to say anything.

Amin responds to this by saying that perhaps when people don’t know what to say it’s because they haven’t engaged with an issue enough, and that not daring to say anything stems from a minority complex (and this could be in terms of being a minority race or a minority interest group, e.g. “traditional” arts practitioners). He’s discomfited by the label of the “cultural orphan” that Kuo Pao Kun coined several decades ago. Not everyone’s a cultural orphan, he says, “Not all of us can start from zero, especially the people who treat this land as indigenous! Are you asking us to discount all our history stretching back to the 12th and 13th centuries??”

Elizabeth completely agrees. She feels that the “cultural orphan” label rips at her heart – as if it were discarding her entire cultural heritage. Wanting to be a “cultural orphan” gives the person who claims that category a culture and history in itself. “Your culture is what you choose,” she says. But her work and her practice is her life, is what she loves most of all, and she won’t have anyone erasing that.

I’m reminded of an interview Xiaoyi did with Centre 42 two months ago about the festival, but it only clicked into place for me right now, as I’m writing about it to make sense of it all:

Last year there were three works directed by three directors, performed by five artists from different art forms. Through the process, we looked into their bodies, creative methods and process. More importantly, we compared the different cultures of and approaches to theatre. It was a very valuable experience for all of us as artists.

This year, we changed the format into a full length performance directed by me and performed by seven artists. With Journey to Nowhere, I’m thinking about how to expand and deepen this comparative study with these seven artists across Asia. I have designed a research and creation method for Journey to Nowhere, which is closely connected to the spirit of Southernmost. The seven artists will observe one another, and go through a teaching and learning process. I, together with the audience, will observe how they communicate and interact with each other. Definitely there will be lots of discovery, negotiation and criticism. At the end we will witness how they end up sharing the stage. I’m the director, but to a certain extent, I’m the table to link all the chairs together.

Southernmost is essentially performance-as-research/practice-as-research in motion. Xiaoyi’s “research and creation method” is an intense research programme tailored to a group of seven practitioners (plus stage manager, interpreter/administrator, sound artist… and critic?), and we are in the thick of it. It’s almost like an academic programme, with workshops, masterclasses, and small-group discussions. In Personal Knowledge (1958), Michael Polanyi writes about tacit knowledge – the knowledge we cannot articulate, but the knowledge we know (e.g. you could tell someone what swimming involves, but you’d never be able to teach someone to swim just by telling them about it). Polanyi devotes an entire section to “tradition” and modes of knowledge transmission:

An art which cannot be specified in detail cannot be transmitted by prescription, since no prescription for it exists. It can be passed on only by example from master to apprentice. This restricts the range of diffusion to that of personal contacts, and we find accordingly that craftsmanship tends to survive in closely circumscribed local traditions. […] To learn by example is to submit to authority. You follow your master because you trust his manner of doing things even when you cannot analyse and account in detail for its effectiveness. By watching the master and emulating his efforts in the presence of his example, the apprentice unconsciously picks up the rules of the art, including those which are not explicitly known to the master himself. These hidden rules can be assimilated only by a person who surrenders himself to that extent uncritically to the imitation of another. A society which wants to preserve a fund of personal knowledge must submit to tradition. (p. 55, emphasis my own)

Which brings me to why they’re all here, in this room, sitting in a circle on lint-stippled carpet. Everyone is struggling with the labels that have been pasted on them, of the stiff, unyielding, archaic “traditional” as opposed to the lithe, adaptable, versatile “contemporary”. They’re trying to argue that what they are doing is contemporary. It’s evolved with age, it’s experimenting, it’s supple and sinuous. Therein lies the rub for so many of them, who’ve honed and perfected their practice in the handing down of knowledge from master to apprentice, and who love the work they do, but who can no longer participate in the “imitation of another” so “uncritically”.

Southernmost isn’t just a research programme – it wants to be a reclamation programme. It proposes another path, another language through which to redeem and subvert the term “traditional”, another way to give knowledge to each other. Through the workshops, the intense discussions, the presentations and the rehearsals, these seven artists are passing on a new body of knowledge by example. Robin Nelson, one of the godfathers of the practice-as-research PhD – which was almost blasphemous to the academy 20 years ago – champions this more intimate brand of knowing. In Practice as Research in the Arts (2013) he suggests that

The noun ‘knowledge’ might suggest a clearly bounded object of knowledge separate, and at a distance from, an observing subject and available to be seen-known across time and space by other viewing subjects. The verb (present participle) ‘knowing’, in contrast acknowledges a subject engaged in the act indicated and perhaps engaged in a processual relationship spatially more proximal to the object to be understood. (p. 20)

TL;DR: don’t think of knowledge as some distant body of facts that you need to memorise and acquire – but as something close to you, that you can engage with intimately and, through that engagement, learn and understand what you need to know.

It’s this softness, this closeness that I realise has been the most effective “way of knowing” over the past three days. Elizabeth and Amin, in particular, have been keeping daily rehearsal journals as part of the process, detailing what and how they’ve learnt, but also the deeply emotive dimensions to the process, about longing to hold on to a specific feeling, about what it means to “don’t think, just do”. It isn’t a perfect process, and there’s a lot of trial and error, and a lot of figuring out, and I may not like or enjoy every single image or line of text on the stage, but I dunno, that somehow feels secondary at this point. Something else clicked this morning, and rumbled to life. I didn’t know this before. But having been so close to it, having engaged with it, and sat with it – now I do.

The rest of the day – and this continues in Day 4 (the day I’m writing this!) – involves a lot of chiselling and hewing things out of the blocks the artists have made; the finer details are coming to the light, and then re-worked, and the re-sutured. Xiaoyi has very specific things in mind that he’s gleaned from all the interactions and the work the artists have devised over the past two days. Some pairs already have a foundation – others need development as partnerships and dialogue partners. There are also some soloists, and some sojourners. Key terms keep coming up: “rhythm”, “space”, “time”. The production is now producing and following its own vocabularies, both in terms of props and in terms of gestures and sounds. But I’ll write about that tomorrow. Today I’m just happy I finally know what Southernmost is, even if it took me a year to get here.

The Southernmost programme booklets from 2017 and 2018.
The Southernmost programme booklets from 2017 and 2018.