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This day was quite different from the rest of the other three days of the da:ns lab programme. It was also led by an artist facilitator, Martin Schick, but the format of the workshop itself was an experiment because he chose to try out a practice of facilitation without being in Singapore. The first half of the day is conducted via an embodied representative—Norhaizad Adam, who stands in front of the room as a presenter and relays Martin’s speech as received on a bluetooth earphone. The second half of the day is conducted by Martin via direct video link.
The experiment of long distance facilitation faced several technical challenges, contributing to the sense of distance and difficulty. This prompted substantial discussion in the morning amongst participants during the coffee breaks on the dynamics and perceived structures of authority produced by the format—including that Norhaizad was apparently reduced to a mouthpiece obliged to convey Martin’s bidding, and that Martin seemed to speak from a position of authority. These led into an adjustment of the room after the lunch break. Before continuing with the programme, Martin sought feedback from participants and asked if it was possible to engage without prejudging.
How then can we find a way to be in close communication, without constant travel?
Daniel Kok: “Martin’s reason to not be here is deliberate. He is looking at how to work differently after travelling extensively and running an arts centre in Switzerland. He has decided to change radically how he works and collaborates. He proposed not to be here but experiment with how to conduct activities with us, to try to see how to be close to us without having to be physically here. How to take care of ourselves—travel—impact on environment and own body, and losing contact with community around you. If you look at time and physical abilities as a resource or opportunity cost, then you can’t be flying around all the time. But to build international relationships is crucial to many artists’ way of working today."
Because of its performative and scripted quality, this section is reported verbatim.
First, I would like to take my pants off cos it’s hot in here. So don’t get confused because of this.
(Norhaizad takes off his pants and stands before us in his underwear.)
I’m an artist and an activist. The activist thing is something I write about myself in CV but it’s not really true. It’s just that it’s something I would like to become. I live most of the time in Switzerland but I have no fixed home, a nomadic existence. Today I didn’t sleep well, didn’t sleep at all. I had maybe 30mins of sleep. This is a practice called polyphasic sleep, originating from the Middle Ages practice of sleeping early and having some life in the middle of the night. Polyphasic sleep was practiced among many people including Leonardo Da Vinci, Napoleon, and Nikola Tesla. Bucky (Buckminster) Fuller slept 30mins every six hours. Scientists say that this was not trying to be creative.
My un-practice is Unlearning. This is the Unlearning centre (photo below) in the Blue Factory, a place for innovation in Switzerland where I work as a cultural manager. This is an Unpresentation. I am going back in time with the idea to see where all of this comes from.
The General Guide for school children is issued officially to every school child in Switzerland. Children will never ask to be part of this. I would like to change this with an artistic project. We created General Guide 22 with “general” children. This is the Head of the Education Department holding the guide, now you see a child replacing her as Head of Education. We squatted an HQ for our department. Children gave inputs to make a very serious book and take children seriously. We manifested an installation from the children’s drawing to be the new HQ. It was a cloud and becomes “cloud learning” which seems to be very contemporary.
Children’s police. They fight for their future. Creating new laws based on security of their own future—sustainable laws. They go into the city and ask people if they respect their laws. If they don’t they will get a fine. This was a way of taking an institution to change the concept. They took the official uniform of Zurich police. It’s almost impossible to say no to the fines they are giving out. This was an instrumentalisation. As artists we have to be very conscious and attentive.
This is my attempt for a revolution with elderly. These are the placards and banners with their slogan: “We still exist/Uns gibt es noch!” We did a short demonstration and sit-in in the park. It was a very personal revolution, connected with the topic of revolution in Egypt. We also tried to get the attention of their neighbours, by writing banners with their thoughts, e.g. “Contre la connerie en generale” (against stupidity in general). Some of their political manifestos contradicted each other.
Breaking limits of private, where the public penetrates the private, is interesting for me in my work. Here you see 1km of small flags going through different apartment windows, back doors. People can visit the apartments and see flags. (Fanions!)
I also break my own private sphere. I offered an internship in my private life. He celebrated my birthday with my family, replacing me.
I’m going to a dance topic because you like dance, I guess. I will try to nudge this from dance into something experimental.
I am trying to create a training on post-contemporary dance. I don’t know what it is, but it forces me to investigate. Attempt to find new styles in neighbourhood, e.g. Agglorobics. We showed this in Kortrijk, a Belgian festival with a lot of unpractice. We are on the way in this idea of unlearning: a festival where people got in cars and drove out of the city, and the festival happens where people stopped at train barrier, out in the field. Food came in bags from a helicopter.
This is the catharsis of this presentation. You need energy for 10mins. This is the part where I start to cut my head off as a symbolic gesture to not participate any more in the logic of what performers are supposed to do.
Theatre is an institution that puts up a lot of questions for me. With the climate crisis, theatre is in a difficult position. We’re used to having guests from afar, and artists travel a lot to be important and locally recognised.
Solutions. I attempt to stop touring and only perform locally but collaborate internationally. One solution that provokes other solutions to appear. I am still looking for someone in Asia to perform this piece in Asia. So if you’re interested, you can contact me.
(Norhaizad relays Martin’s forced laughter. The discomfort and laughter turns out to be infectious.)
X minutes on how to sell work. It was sold before it was created. The whole issue is the selling of the performance to programmers. We create a story of what is happening on stage. This is a change of the logic of production in this project.
Half bread technique. (Which was performed at the Esplanade Annexe Studio) This project is a kind of intervention into the theatre. I send a parcel to people motivated to perform this piece. The postman comes on stage asking if this is the audience for Half Bread Technique, and if they say yes the postman says “This parcel is for you”. The audience will have to unpack the piece and perform it themselves. And they are paid for it. It’s a theatre without an actor.
Not my piece: post capitalist for beginners. I was also a beginner as someone who tries to get out of the system. But it is almost impossible when you are in the theatre. So the whole piece became a farce about not participating in the system, creating a micro-system which is the only thing that’s possible within the bigger system.
Cmmn Sns Project. This is my current project. I like to be substituted by someone. As this piece was becoming a product, we didn’t only give away products (e.g. shampoo), but we also gave away the piece as a product so others could do it as well, and sell it again as they do it, and others can put their name on it. E.g. Davis Freeman performed at the same place and time–so the piece becomes product for itself.
Curriculum Ruinae. This is a CV of all the things that didn’t work out in your life, an accumulation of failures. A different way to present yourself.
(Martin asks for examples, and [Eng] Kai Er and [Chan] Sze-Wei volunteer.)
I am now a Haizad-Martin hybrid. Haizad is free to interpret and talk as he wants.
It’s not clear anymore who is speaking.
How does the production of performance engage in the fundamental issues of our advanced neo-capitalist age?
Bojana Kunst: “The artist today as the quintessential figure of creative capitalism.”
Randy Martin: “Dancers as the ideal labourers of an idealized creative economy.”
I use these voices so that it’s not just me speaking now.
Following the presentation Martin gives a webcam tour of the Unlearning Centre, created together with architects interested in creating a village, a space for unlearning. As learning was conceived as something that people do when living together, the space was created with living and public meeting spaces, special tables and chairs that could turn to meet others or to work. Martin was interested in how he could transmit this space abroad.
Martin guides the group through some examples of embodied unlearning:
Susan Sentler notes that it has become fashionable to talk about the difficulty of deciding to create a way of life of not travelling and the dilemma of wanting to be a global artist. For example, Jerome Bel. She asks Martin to elaborate on the obstacles, and quality of work arising from this practice and the notion of the hybrid. Loo Zihan asks whose bodies can afford not to travel and who can make the choice and agency to do so.
Martin-Norhaizad: “We don’t know yet. This is something new for us. We are reacting without knowing where we are going. That makes it very performative and experimental, without saying how it has to be. There are many failures. There are no small answers for small questions. [Not travelling as an artist] is a practice that for many years practiced by mostly western artists. Something that we cannot say everyone should do, not everyone was doing it before. The more we talk about it the more we get into a trap. It is interesting to get into a trap so we can learn something about it.”
Martin-Norhaizad: “I love talking about money because it’s one thing that is difficult for Swiss artists like me and for Haizad. We are both in our privileged situation. Talking about money is easier for us. In Switzerland I had to be on the road to earn money because not every city has the same conditions for production. So I’m a special Swiss case. Since I’m working locally as a cultural manager my financial situation is much better.
I think that performing arts will have to come back to a state of something immediate, something dangerous, something where you don’t know what’s going to happen. There will be less reproduction of well rehearsed pieces and this is mostly interesting in the dance world. It has to become interactive or immediate or lose a lot in the competition/comparison with other media.”
Martin-Norhaizad: “Hopefully what we’re doing today turns out as a big failure.”
Eng Kai Er in a whisper to the microphone: “Hi Martin, I’m impressed that you didn’t show up. It’s the most unprofessional thing I have ever seen. I’m interested in ways of becoming less professional because it is a way of fulfilling needs that are not met in professional theatre settings. One unprofessional thing I’m interested in currently is having sex at rehearsals. I wonder if you ever consider having sex by proxy? Do you think it’s one microsystem that’s interesting to create?”
After a break, the organisers have resolved some technical issues. When we resume and see Martin everyone waves. Martin apologises for the “prison situation” (the sense that Norhaizad was trapped as his interpreter) and the technical glitches. He wonders how to “overcome” Skype, and says that intimacy in distance and how can we reach proximity are big questions for him.
To questions from Susan about the process of unlearning and the intentions behind the architecture of the space, Martin elaborates that unlearning is about slowing down and being less in the productive mode (therefore sleeping boxes), and deep learning that takes place when one had experiences over a longer time. Architecture-wise, sleeping was allocated the same importance and space as the toilet and benches—a Corbusier-like approach to a minimal or perfect size.
Daniel comments that the Unlearning Centre offers a space to question and ameliorate social practices at the micro level and the self. He wonders if the unlearning practices at the individual level could also question the foundations of society and mobilise people in bigger ways, as an act of resistance. Martin responds that one point of unlearning is to reduce the efficacity of the production mode and raise consciousness of what we are doing right now and what those practices lead to.
Chloe asks how unlearning can apply within a local context, and Aparna Nambiar noted that the unlearning exercises might be more useful in systems and for individuals not used to constantly unlearning and rehabituating as artists do. Martin responded that he had presented his approach to unlearning, but did not intend to explain to us what unlearning was.
Preethi Athreya comments that unlearning was a concept present in many histories and parts of the world. We were very aware that we were listening to the unpacking of a whole system.
For lunch, Martin has two proposals. (1) an “un-lunch”, to not chew and allow food to dissolve in our mouths. (2) He also asked that participants pay attention to habits, things that might be unlearned.
After lunch, Martin apologised for “bad vibes”. He admitted that it had been difficult to sense the room and that the technical problems had made it difficult for him to feel like he was communicating. The morning was meant to be an input phase and the afternoon was meant to be more active. He invited participants to bring up any questions, frustrations or reservations.
Martin: “I feel sad that in the art world there is a tendency to go into judging and then put a distance and disengage. You can feel this onstage when an audience is feeling provoked or disappointed because they have some expectation. This is more present in arts than elsewhere. It confuses me but I think it’s an interesting point to think about judging as a habit to position ourselves in the artist environment. I made an effort this morning to not just talk from me but to let others speak, for example using the book. I invite you to get out of a judging mode and to get into something that is happening right now, rather than something that is materialised from being named.”
Chong Gua Khee sums up that she heard that Martin would like a leap of faith in going along with you and that the group would have another conversation at the end.
Martin invites participants to propose habits they had observed that they would like to unlearn. Examples range from conventions of how we dress and groom ourselves, how we organise our meals and schedules around meals, apologising for our bodily presence, apologising for an unpronounceable name, politeness, trying to save situations, thinking in silos, how to love.
Participants meet in groups and define what they wanted to unlearn, and find a practice to do so. Major themes that appear as summarised by Martin:
The group opts to try no. 5 together, and takes up space at the Esplanade Mall entrance by lying and sliding on the floor and blocking the way, much to the bafflement of a tourist group. The experience rather re-energises the group. After the unlearning activity, Martin shows a video of a Body Weather performance with farm animals that was respectful of their presence and input. He leads the group to practice this approach by selecting an object or machine in the room and scanning it visually then responding in movement, to test our relationship with objects and devices, so as to be outside ourselves.
Bernice [Lee] notes that during the “scanning” exercise, she was trying to not see other people and trying out not wanting to be seen, so that the movement would not be about what it looks like from the outside. Susan is interested in how the scanning could go beyond surface and engage different levels of seeing. Chloe reflects on the attention to materiality in the scanning exercise, as material objects were already very privileged and that we needed to deprioritise materiality and its vicious cycle so that we could look deeper. Martin responds that he will revisit whether “scanning” is the most appropriate word.
Daniel asks if role-playing instead of speaking as ourselves can allow us to suspend judgement. Kai responds that she understands that speaking in public is already performing, and that she tested what she was saying by saying it. Aparna appreciates Martin’s call to not be so judgemental about what’s being offered. Referring to the “scanning” exercise, she related it to her traditional practice where one regularly observes and borrows from the natural and animal world—a deep, complex and valuable practice.
Jacob highlights traditional societies’ methodologies in coexisting with the environment that might address the climate crisis and social-political crises led to by neoliberalism and industrialist history. KC is interested in how to follow up on da:ns lab so as to make a material change in how we work, and strategies that will allow the change to have a multiplier effect.
Kai asks how we know when we have listened, and whether hearing something uncomfortable makes one listen deeper, and potentially change one’s views.
Shawn Chua invites us to dwell on the word “failure” and to be careful about how we use the word. How do we situate failure as a practice? Failure of what, in what context, unlearning in what context? Judith Halberstam’s Queer Art of Failure describes a strategy that queers the normative logics of society, where failure is an important way of life for queerness. Failure is also tied to promise. If there is no promise, there is no failure. What then is the risk?
He also notes how words have become very important for us, our particular way of life, our history, asks how we can listen and respond to that. If nothing is undone or unlearned, maybe you’re not listening but projecting beliefs. Maybe you’re not listening carefully enough. The first two days were collectively intense, with a subtle language forming through listening, recognition, and resonance. How could we extend those relations, even if one was participating remotely?
Henry Tan notes that the extent of unlearning depends on careful listening, and that listening, especially to the body, takes a longer time. Returning to issues of rights and access and privilege are linked to the term “independent” discussed on Day 2, Henry recognises the privilege of our experience, our CVs, language capacities, and our network that allows us to be here. He asks how one could participate remotely and “channel” ourselves to learn? He sees that Martin is searching for a new perspective on practice, and feedback on conventions of an arts industry that he cannot escape. He questions what is missing in the remote interface, and asks Martin if he considers this day a failure or success.
In response, Martin says that “risk is never a failure.” Although the situation was uncomfortable, the group was getting closer in what we are reflecting about. Sharing similar backgrounds and wishes creates a common mental space. “Maybe the complicated situation is the teacher, especially when we have to find ways to get out of the situation.” He notes that he is listening much more carefully to what the participants are saying, because of the situation. “What I get from you is very fragile; I get less but I treat it with more care to get something out of it.”
Intimacy in distance will be necessary in the near future when we have to change our practices. “If I can feel disgust and boredom from a distance, I should also be able to feel intimacy. Intimacy or sex appears as a topic in the distance.
He also admits that he has attempted to unlearn a desire to please and fulfil participants’ expectations. He recognises that “this also costs something.”
Mok Cui Yin recognises the frustrations of the day, but shares that she began to see this as a rehearsal for inclusivity. “We prioritise being able to be somewhere so much that it centralises resources. We focus on gathering to be a way of including, or to get something done. What if to decentralise is to allow us to include more people, more languages, and to “unconference” ourselves? What might this change in my practice as a producer?” Daniel adds that Martin’s not flying to Singapore has allowed Dance Nucleus to stretch the budget to invite more regional artists to attend da:ns lab.
In retrospect I found this day quite energising, and observed this in the group as well. The unfamiliarity of the situation prompted some immediate scepticism, but that in turn surfaced questions about expectations and the conventions of engagement between artists, the conventions of being engaged to present one’s practice, the politics of pedagogy vs participation, questions about the economics of privilege regarding the choice of not travelling, and the inherited subtext of colonisation that cannot help but present itself when a white body speaks to an audience of primarily yellow and brown people. My sense was that the engagement that arose created new connections among the participants, and a heightened state of reflexivity and awareness of micropolitics.
This day also made me revisit my own assumptions about rehearsal process and experimentation. I was surprised by the resistance I felt to Martin’s presentation; my personal objection was that it seemed ill-prepared in technical terms and superficial in content - perhaps trying to cover too much ground in too short a time. I recall nodding when Martin responds “Hopefully what we’re doing today turns out as a big failure.” My self-image is that I am an advocate for and practitioner of live improvisation. Negotiation of the unexpected, sometimes with difficulty, is an artistic practice in itself and I think one of the ultimate forms of being in the moment. I resonated at the theoretical level with Martin’s comments on how improvisation and liveness in performance is one way of resisting the economics of performance making and resources required for rehearsals.
Yet I found this difficult to reconcile with the heightened performativity of the clearly prepared text of the lecture-performance of Norhaizad-as-Martin. I realise I am quite bound to the conventions of performances (including improvised ones) needing to be prepared, and expecting them to be good. Was the lack of technical rehearsal for the mic set ups a demonstration of resistance to economic structures, or was it just lack of planning? Was the unmanifested desire to allow Norhaized to be an equal speaking voice in the hybrid due to a dedication to immediacy, or a lack of effort to pre-engage with Norhaizad the artist and his practice and solicit his contributions to the lecture content? I also realise that the “judgey” attitudes among participants was compounded by our lack of familiarity with Martin. Things may have been quite different if he had in some way participated in the preceding two days, and if we had already had a sense of his personality and vulnerability as a fellow participant.
Trained as a dancer, Sze-Wei now makes “stuff” for theatre, interactive performance, video and film. She is currently working on a documentary about queer communities around voguers in Southeast Asia. She facilitates the Working Group for Dancers’ Advocacy in Singapore, and the networks Singapore Interdependent Dance, Independent Dance Southeast Asia, and Contact Improvisation Southeast Asia.
Martin Schick is an independent performance and performance maker, choreographer, curator and author, born in Switzerland, living in Berlin and in a cottage in the Swiss Alps. Educated at a private Ballet School at the High School of Arts in Bern on the subject Performance, he worked for 2 years as an actor for state theater, television and the cinema. Since 2009 he realizes his own scenic plays in the independent dance and theater environment, treating the theater as a place of permanent transformation, looking out for the awkward, impure and uneven, aiming to interfere with conventions in the theater and in everyday life. He lately tends to a more general practice and less representational position as for example by curating, developing new formats, selling art, exhibition projects, writing, teaching and researching.
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.