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da:ns lab 2019: A public square

Xiao Ke x Zi Han discuss public performance and engagement


Published: 7 Sep 2019

The following article contains extracts from an archival report of da:ns lab 2019, written from the perspectives of participants Chloe Chotrani and Chan Sze-Wei. This article also contains verbatim transcriptions of conversations between the participants.

Day two

I find that it’s hard for my body to dance. Dance is a luxury for me. Now I’m trying to find new ways to understand what is dance.

– Xiao Ke, in her introduction on day one.

On day two, Xiao Ke x Zi Han (XK x ZH) introduce themselves with an enigmatic video clip of their work 大力伤害 (Darling Hurt.Crush), showing a video of them driving to a busy location and arranging several white T-shirts to be run over by passing cars.

Their presentation that follows has an air of informality and playfulness as they discuss their works, and raise questions about individual expression and the body in public spaces, which bodies define contemporaneity in movement, and their strategies to deal with censorship in China when running their NIAO NIAO festival. Another work shows their attempts to express the disorienting experience of the familiar and unfamiliar in their encounters with Japanese culture. They use each of these works to invite a group discussion on various themes. The second half of the day is devoted to their “A-Game”, an adapted game of Monopoly (titled “The Great Artist” in Chinese), and a subsequent round played in teams with inputs from da:ns lab participants.

On dancing in public space

Republic of Dance was based on the daily public square dances common in cities across China, danced by older folks. XK x ZH mention that they initiated this project after being asked frequently about “China’s contemporary dance”, leading them to seek out dances danced by everyday Chinese people. XK x ZH approached this with the following questions: Is public square dance different in various cities? How do public square dances change Chinese society? What is the body memory of mainland Chinese? It was also a way for Xiao Ke to connect with her parents’ generation, whom she previously did not identify much with as they had different lifestyles and what she perceived as bad manners (e.g. speaking excessively loudly).

XK x ZH identified distinctive elements in the public square dances which they related to Chinese body memory: poses with the Little Red Book and positions influenced by Maoist Moral Operas, pauses for photography, and a unique concept of the use of music which was not count-based. They also observed that the public square dance groups generated their own forms of community and communication, with their own groups using online forums. They noted that body memory lingers, even though China changes very fast. These memories influenced a whole generation, but wondered how a younger generation understands this?

Public square dancing also says something about how Chinese use public space. Despite overseas impressions of control in a communist country, Chinese people use public space a lot and don’t care what others think. The dancing was an important expression of happiness for a generation with painful memories.

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Republic of Dance. Image courtesy of Xiao Ke x Zi Han.

XK x ZH toured a work based on public square dances to Weimar, Germany, and brought some Chinese public square dancers with them. They selected in particular the square where Hitler had proclaimed the Third Reich. The local dance community was invited to join their old ladies and engaged with surprising enthusiasm. Xiao Ke reflected that perhaps all humans have a similar feeling of happiness in a public square when doing things together.

On culture from body memory

Chan Sze-Wei mentions that propaganda displays are a familiar feature of Singapore culture (the National Day Parade, the Great Singapore Workout) that most artists tend to disdain but perhaps we could think about that more. Fehzah Maznan speaks about how basketball courts and spaces between blocks of flats in Singapore are used for line dancing and exercise. She also mentions “smaller body memories” such as cooking by feeling, and weaving food with leaves, memories that were inherited from great grandmothers. Gua Khee is amazed by the gathering of young and old for free Zumba classes at her local shopping mall, and how everyone seems to know all the steps without apparent communication.

Preethi Athreya notes that the Indian diaspora has its own versions of dances for Bollywood songs from the ’40s, such that pop culture enables that music and dancing to become something with an ownership beyond India and de-emphasises national identity.

Mok Cui Yin points to the underpass near Esplanade, where in spite of signs not to dance or sit, there is a rich variety of activity by skateboarders, street dancers, line dancers, gatherings of migrant workers and people sleeping. Chloe adds that it is a space with an informal schedule of different activities on different days.

On mirrors

Sometimes we have to jump out of our own country to understand other countries, as a mirror to understand ourselves.

XK x ZH created Miniascape (小风景) during a three-month residency in Japan (in 2015, after the Fukushima nuclear incident). They noted the gap between Chinese and Japanese cultures and world views, even though the traditional culture was closely connected and they are neighbouring countries. The historical narratives in the respective education systems portrayed confusing portraits of the other.

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Miniascape. Image courtesy of Xiao Ke x Zi Han.

Xiao Ke felt a strong sense of cultural affinity in Kyoto, where the old architecture, Buddhist practices and how people communicate and interact in society made her think of ancient Chinese culture and customs originating from China that had been lost. Zi Han recounts a dreamlike sense that everything was culturally familiar but incomprehensible.

XK x ZH show Kanji/Chinese characters they created for this performance, which gave a sense of cultural connection without specific meaning. Their new project is about Chinese identity research where they have interviewed Chinese in Singapore and Thailand.

On censorship

XK x ZH’s instant theatre initiative in Shanghai Too late/NIAO NIAO Festival/Instant Theatre was created to circumvent the Chinese censorship process. They created their own inflatable theatre and festival to support independent young artists and show their own work. Through an open call they assembled 30 performing artists and amateurs and together created a work called Too Late. They later brought the Instant Theatre to Penang but regretted it because it was so hot.

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Instant Theatre. Image courtesy of Xiao Ke x Zi Han.

The context for Too Late was that XK x ZH had several shows for the theatre censored prior to this. They sensed that the censors’ objections were arbitrary, and were frustrated with the negotiations to modify their shows. It was also difficult to get approval for a theatre in a public space. They circumvented this by collaborating with the West Bund festival in Shanghai, who didn’t bring XK x ZH to the censors’ meeting. They had an agreement that they would not say that XK x ZH’s events were a performance. Instead, they hosted “free workshops”.

Xiao Ke feels that it isn’t so hard to figure out how to navigate censorship in China. She refuses to stop working because of self-censorship—which is more powerful than government censorship. So they choose to circumvent the censorship process and work with little resources, even though if one is happy to negotiate, one can get huge funding and space.

Han Xuemei shares about Drama Box’s inflatable theatre, the Goli (marble), created to address the aesthetics of community theatre in a different space. It is a challenge to maintain and repair the structure, while the ambiguity of ownership of public space makes licensing tricky. The porosity of public spaces also creates the requirement that all content performed in the Goli needs to achieve a “G” rating because you can’t control who will accidentally encounter your work and feel offended. The company realised that the redefinition of space was becoming something interesting in itself.

Xuemei describes a sense that the censors are constantly trying to catch up with artists. Cui Yin notes that even talks and buskers in Singapore require licenses. Xiao Ke responds that Singapore seems to be a game where it is hard to imagine anyone breaking the law—unlike China where artists in big cities still have this possibility. Loo Zihan and Eng Kai Er respond that there are still situations where Singapore artists can avoid regulation, such as sharing in private events, and informal practices such as those in the Esplanade underpass where participants are presumably ignorant of licensing requirements and do not feel a need to self censor. Zihan feels relief that the censors seem to be catching up rather than running ahead, in contrast to the ’90s when performance artists were seen as a security threat. The censors had tried to run ahead of artists and measures become disproportionate.

Xiao Ke and Henry Tan mention the censorship of artists in Taiwan and Macau because of their participation in the Sunflower Revolution. Kao Yi-kai shares about the performance Provisional Alliance in the Taipei Arts Festival. A variety of activists, artists and politicians had been invited as performers for a work about decision making in government. The involvement of political candidates was perceived as biased and there was pressure from the press, mayor and venue to cancel the show or remove some participants. The artists were able to proceed with a modified script, because they had the support of their venue, and in Taiwan artists won’t be stopped if they really want to do something.

Zi Han recalls that Republic of Dance was censored when it was scheduled at the Shanghai Power Station, a government contemporary arts museum. However the institution also played the important role of protecting the artist. The performance proceeded informally un-ticketed and by invitation, and the censored text “cultural revolution” was instead covered with beeps and blacked out subtitles. In his opinion, this made that part of the performance even stronger.

On Monopoly

The afternoon session is dedicated to a game of Monopoly designed by XK x ZH, which they couch as a way to “complain constructively” and have exchanges about different independent artists’ and curators’ contexts and dilemmas. In five different groups, participants play the game with a lot of laughing and screaming, while the pick-a-card (similar to the original Monopoly “Chance” and “Community Chest”) scenarios cut close to home with typical dilemmas of the independent artist such as setting artistic integrity against popular recognition and money, or formulating on-the-spot pitches. In a second round, participants contribute their own scenario cards and play an even more exuberant group round.

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The discussions prompted include:

  • Why do artists always want to join festivals, what kind of festivals do you think are good for you? Is independent always related with poor, no support, and hardship? Thinking about whether opportunities are good for your work, good platforms for your work. What is your relationship with festivals?
  • The role of money and institutions as organizing principles.
  • Whether recognition and international touring should be regarded as an end goal for artistic practice.
  • How to balance family priorities with art-making.
  • Organisation of collectives: Should collectives should only allow people to leave when they can but not when they want? Who benefits most? Do we all move together?
  • In an argument with a collaborator, do you choose your friendship or the success of the work?
  • Self-care and downtime.
  • How we regard situations where sexual relations can advance careers.
  • Whether competitions are a productive way of allocating resources, and if they nurture participants. Whether this is preferable as an alternative to more opaque systems.
  • How should a curator respond to an artist that they have invited who delivers a sub-par work. Should the focus be on the artist’s overall practice rather than the work? How can a programmer frame a work or check in with the process of a commissioned work?

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On being independent

XK x ZH admit that they “cancelled” the cash element in the game because it became problematic to talk about buying opportunities or festivals. Their board design reflects a basic map of the art environment that they work in and is only one system in which to think about art and independent practice. Cui Yin points out that the origin of Monopoly was not to celebrate capitalism but to encourage players to think about the benefits of a non-capitalist system and players had an option to veto the rules of a monopolistic system.

Sekar Putri Handayani says that artists in Solo are visually and technically mature but lacking in reflexivity and resources to develop this, in comparison to Yogyakarta. To her, to be independent means to not have private support from government and institutions, and not working for institutions. It is important for her practice to be independent so that she can work with different disciplines and support what artists want to do. Paz responds that in her experience the key to maturing practice is to develop a vocabulary, which can be done in one year.

Preethi talks about how we can develop spaces for dialogue where a work is not only judged by number of tickets sold. Building dialogue with the public, media and people across many fields is crucial in a place of ruptured history, without ready-made discourse. It is also important to engage peers to look at each others’ work and push in directions that you wouldn't normally go yourself. Many artists in Chennai are disappointed that being articulate in English and the language of contemporary arts has become so crucial to any sense of value, but there was a recent move to develop discussion of concepts and abstract ideas in regional languages.

Daniel Yeung suggests that the paradigms that keep dancers trapped are: seeing dance as a visual and technical practice, emphasis on festivals and making shows. What if dance practice doesn’t mean being alongside other disciplines, but the ability to think about an expanded ecology? In a global context of falling audience numbers and funding cuts, co-production is only a stopgap measure. The onus is on the independent artist to think creatively about other ways of engaging public rather than creating more shows to jam into an already failing market system. The latest Arts Sector plan is an opportunity for Singapore independents to reimagine ourselves and reframe ourselves to the National Arts Council.

On interdependence

Cui Yin states that she is averse to the word “independent”, which assumes a dichotomy and separation from institutions and authority. That perspective dehumanises people who work in institutions and those who accept support from them. Her own interest is more about how to create the conditions for creating and experiencing art, working collectively and interdependently. She is interested in what other languages of value we are creating; giving each other a language of meaningfulness that can’t be translated into cash. To assume markets are neoliberal is to also ignore the value of stallholders in markets and public squares that are also a form of community. 

Xiao Ke responds that at a basic level for her and Zi Han, the basic premise is to try and be financially independent. There is “big funding” available in China, but 100% of the granting foundations are organisations they do not trust. As independents they have the power to decide to do or not do, and try to separate money from their work. Being independent in China is also about collaboration, and a perspective of building an ecology and an environment for art. Initiatives such as the NIAO NIAO festival and the iPANDA forum are XK x ZH’s attempts to build possibilities for a new arts ecology without funding.  Their work Darling Hurt (Rainbow) where Xiao Ke walked across Shanghai with a clothes rack—engaged audience in a different way from conventional performance.

To Loo Zihan, “independent” means that you are flexible to get resources from everywhere but you have very strong principles, determining what you do and don’t want to get. You have to take care of yourself.

Yi-kai speaks about Thinker’s Theatre, his independent venue, and Tua Tiu Tiann International Festival of the Arts, an independent festival. He agrees that being independent is about having more flexibility in time and creativities. Young producers today in Taiwan are starting to think that it isn’t necessary to go into an institution to get resources. The strength of being independent is in knowing what resources one has. Not everything is about money.

Sekar says that in Solo, she is focused on activating a next generation of choreographers after Eko Supriyanto. There is a need for a mutually supporting ecosystem of independent art workers to encourage and support young artists and their practice, and help develop their ability to talk about their work. For example, there is Melati Suryodamo’s programme Onstage, which invites young artists to create new work and be articulate about their work.

Paz Ponce says that in Germany, visual arts independents are those not represented by a gallery—trading support for some loss of independence. In performing arts, independents are those not from state sponsored companies. KC notes that independent visual artists have the supporting infrastructure of the arts market system, that provides opportunities to showcase your work more frequently than perhaps an independent dance maker would.

Jacob Boehme describes the Australian context where independents were facing a difficult situation with massive arts funding cuts removing the 40% funding allocated to small and medium organisations who had collaborated with the independent sector. The demands for not-for-profit arts organisations to follow a profit imperative are set up to fail.

Yi-kai appreciates that we addressed how independent artists navigate the landscape. It resonates with his own experience as an independent practitioner as Director of The Thinkers’ Theatre Taipei, a small venue founded by arts managers and producers in 2013 when there were few spaces for independents. The theatre selects four-five artists to support and promote annually. The Tua Tiu Tiann International Festival of the Arts is a street performance festival started to bring together local independents and to benefit businesses in their area, building on a history of social movements and arts in the district. The festival opts to take only 30% government funding and raise the rest from private companies, rather than 80% government funding with the condition that they have to follow government policies. That situation made Yi-kai realise the importance of being independent.

Daniel asks how dance address the social dimension of itself in an aesthetic sense? Must dance always be needing to engage outward groups? Must the artist always be burdened with extraneous concerns?

Kai responds to XK x ZH’s day by singing the Soviet anthem.

Contributed by:

Chloe Chotrani

Chloe is a movement artist, writer, gardener, yogini with recent trauma sensitive training. She is interested in how one can go beyond cultural boundaries yet staying rooted on ancestry and memory. Currently, she is curious about the experience of ceremony work with psychotropic medicines and its relationship to her performance work.


Xiao Ke x Zi Han

The collaborative works between Xiao Ke and Zi Han involve photography, video, live art and installation that focus on personal body exploring the extreme of expression under the public context in China.

Having the purpose to realize the conceptual body performance in the urban public environment, it no less connects the personal life of the artists with the city where they live than pushing the performing art onto the street which engenders the opportunity to have contacts as much as possible with the public as well the interaction. By restoring the artists’ ideas back into life, their collaboration is to fulfill the life process of the idea itself that what comes from life vanishes into life.

They founded iPANDA, independent performance artivists network and development action, which focus on China's independent performance to build up the internal network and improve the development to go further to international field.

Download the full report for da:ns lab 2019 here
da:ns lab

da:ns lab is an annual platform for dance practitioners to reflect upon key issues surrounding their creative practice, as part of da:ns festival at Esplanade – Theatres by the Bay. The programme aims to engage dance practitioners in Singapore and the Southeast Asian region in artistic discourse, research, reflection and exchange.

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