Cover image courtesy of the artist.
The following article is extracted from an archival report of da:ns lab 2018, written from the perspectives of participants Chloe Chotrani and Chan Sze-Wei. It include excerpts from the artists' lectures and Q&A sessions with the da:ns lab participants.
Sonja’s lecture began sitting in a circle on the studio floor. Each participant was invited to give a non-verbal gestural introduction to themselves. She also referred to the previous evening’s performance sharing, where she had introduced elements from her works Blab, Rrr and Hmm in performance and video clips.
Alternative modes of expression and learning are central to her work. Sonja works with this in an experiential way, in community-based work, as well as performance solo and group works. She is interested in how we can claim space for sharing of subjectivities but also the validation of different modes of expression. When working with people with special needs (e.g. autism, mental health), it is important that the diagnosis does not define the person, but instead raises the potentiality of different perceptions.
“Mainstream society has a strong emphasis on conceptual thinking, verbal expression, lingual abilities, social intelligence, how we should understand each other’s codes and respond in coherent manner. Though research on acknowledging diversity has broadened, there’s a lot of exclusion, especially in what is considered valid knowledge.” – sHmm by Sonja Jokiniemi
Some concepts that have become important in the course of the project Caring for Stories, a collaboration in Belgium with a social scientist Dr Leni Van Goidsenhoven and participants on the autism spectrum:
“Hmm (2015) relates to my need and my desire to go towards working landscapes that I feel some affiliation to. It is also my need to be in a working environment that I can understand, where I don’t have so much difficulty understanding the social roles. So that it’s not only the other with a more visible diagnosis that might be analysed.”
Multi sensorial objects in my work have a “sensoric” logic. For Blab, the hair, chains, slime came from her looking and imagining what needed to be felt to make sense in a way of opening up potentiality of associations.
Sonja looks at community dance projects as knowledge sharing, instead of going in as an artist and doing something for a community. This is slightly different from artistic work. The emphasis is on healing, with art as a tool to express oneself and find different topics. Whereas as an artist, it’s about being surrounded by a question.
Without an alphabet was a one-year process of working with four young autistic adults in duos and as a group. It was a quest for subjective languages; how to speak without a common vocabulary. My collaborator in the performance TU, Veera Kivela’s only vocab was “yes” and “swim”. But Veera responded and understood speech well. They started from a table conversation, and I might mirror her. No structure, spending time with each other and listening to each other. Now she views her work from the perspective of new materialist choreographic practices. But at the time, others called TU “autistic object theatre”.
“I asked why it was problematised even on the stage. The stage is supposed to be available for alternative forms of expression but it is very much normativised. When something feels non-communicative – an un-useful discourse – we easily perceive things we don’t understand as non-communicative.”
Sonja was interested to see how she could engage with a language (of her autistic collaborators) that she felt very affiliated to, and how to find a collaboration through this kind of language exchange.
With Caring for stories, I am working in a housing association for people with mental health conditions. The framework had more (of an) aspect of art for health care. I used to be more against that approach but now I see it’s a complex landscape to operate in. You can shift this from within. You can work against art as service, which is not always expected by people who take part but by the funders who expect something to show that this was useful and beneficial. This is very much in the language with which such work is spoken about.
“As (an) artist, I feel very much the need to not speak of artistic work as art service.”
In Caring for stories, we attempt to create an equal learning environment. I didn’t go as a specialist. Participants and each of us are all specialists. I try not to go into habit of teaching, which is not always easy with people with cognitive difficulties where sometimes there are things you need to teach to go somewhere else. But I realise that I also sometimes need teaching or someone needs to say to me you’re not focusing on the right thing. I think of this as guiding, not something negative or constitutive of a hierarchical relationship. If we consider that we all have some sensitivities, points that we are not strong in, then it is in those points that the other can strengthen or guide us and that doesn’t need to lead to (the) way we communicate in general, e.g. if I need to change a diaper, that didn’t change the way we worked artistically together. He wouldn’t become a more needy person to me and we would still communicate the same way.
Sonja’s has a new creation with Maija Karhunen (a wheelchair user who is an influential curator of an online dance critique website) that will be premiered at the Kiasma Museum. She has written an article on the disabled body in dance. Can a disabled body ever be considered neutral on stage, and is that meaningful? This question is important to how she perceives her body onstage. She doesn’t try to attempt towards neutrality, or that she could be a template of many possibilities. There’s always a certain person onstage. Rather than making work that deals with the question of disability. It’s just two people performing a work about hybridity, a mothering cocoon (not just female mothering, not gender specific).
Sonja made archive paintings of trans female, hybrid female figures with extensions, tentacles. How she imagines herself, something to do with religious images, the iconography of mixed beings, influenced by Donna Haraway’s Cyborg Manifesto.
Books RRRRR and PA A, which were a written/verbal scoring of conversations, comprising unfinished texts, soundings, and visual scores.
Her drawing practice has different functions. Sometimes Sonja starts with drawing, and the drawing feeds the performance by being present or inspiring the embodied material. Sometimes the drawing is an after-reflection like in a book. Sometimes a choreographic practice (in Oh no) with pens as a protagonist in miniature world.
Hybridity and fluidity in sexual identity and gender roles and how she perceives human interaction. With regard to ideas of normality, she would like to think outside of categories. As a female in society you are in a different position, and in some countries, one could understand that there are fights to be fought urgently.
Sonja’s sharing of her work and process impressed me deeply. The deceptively simple and playful elements of her performance sharing were also characterised by an intense focus and a sense of internal logic – which became clear when she articulated them in her lecture and workshop. There was amazing clarity in how her philosophy of de-centering neuro-normativity and its modes of expression underpins all of her work. Her work clearly stems from her sense of compassion, and an awareness of how constructs convenient to the majority oppress other narratives and other ways of being. I found myself wishing that policy makers and arts organisations that work with special needs communities were able to hear Sonja’s lecture, because this seems quite different from most approaches to community art at this time in Singapore and could be a useful set of ideas to encounter. As an artist her process and expression of her ideas is intuitive and playful while also careful, measured and well-articulated – combinations that are new to me.
Chan Sze-Wei (1980) blends conceptual, interactive, improvisatory and cross-cultural approaches for theatres, public spaces, video installation and film. Her work is intimate and personal, reaching for social issues, identity and gender. She has performed with contemporary dance and theatre productions in Asia and Europe and her work has been shown in Singapore, London, Kuala Lumpur, Solo, Taipei, Zagreb and Laos, as well as dance film festivals in the USA and Brazil. Her creative practice is grounded in a somatic approach focused on perception, sensation and the organic knowledge of the human body, its immediacy and its responses. She is also an advocate for the rights and sustainable careers of dancers in Singapore, and the development of artistic networks and exchange in Southeast Asia. She holds a Diploma in Dance from the Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts and an M.A. in Contemporary Dance from London Contemporary Dance School.
Sonja Jokiniemi (1983) is a choreographer, performer and self-taught visual artist based in Helsinki, Finland. She makes transdisciplinary work with research interests in thing ecologies, language and thinking structures, neuro and psychodiversity. She often works with objects, materials and drawings as collaborators on stage. Her participatory projects within the social sector and studies in Expressive arts therapy intertwine with her interest on stage that claims space for intimacy, sincerity and broadening ideas of norms. Jokiniemi graduated from DAS Theatre (previously DasArts) MA Degree programme in Performing Arts in Amsterdam 2013. Prior to this she has completed a BA degree on Contemporary Dance at Laban Centre in London 2006 and taken part at Daghdha Mentoring programme in Limerick, Ireland. Jokiniemi’s work has been supported by STUK - House for Dance, Image & Sound, Zodiak – Centre for New Dance, Dampfzentrale Bern, Kiasma Theatre, Workspace Brussels, Moving in November festival, Veem House for Performance, and Regional Dance Centre of Eastern Finland. Jokiniemi has been awarded two grants by Arts Promotion Centre Finland (Taike): a one-year artist grant for 2017 and a three-year artist grant for 2018-20.
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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