I climb up the stairs towards Dance Nucleus after a full-day workshop with Sensorium Theatre, a company from Down Under who specialise in multi-sensorial work for children with diverse and special needs. My senses alive and slightly overwhelmed, I will my mind to shift gears for a different mode of stimulation — at the same time, I am making connections between our discussion and the day I just spent activating different modes of perception.
Daniel Kok and I have had a handful of brief conversations over the years about artistic practice, but this will be the first time we go on the record. I had seen a work-in-progress performance of xhe late last year and am eager to see how it has since evolved.
Could you share why you locate the work xhe as a work of dance, while stating that it is heavily driven by the medium of visual arts?
This has a lot to do with me trying to revisit visual art. I’ve been very interested in visuality, concerned with the politics of spectating together. And there are a lot of questions and work done, in both the fields of visual and performing arts related to questions on spectatorship. I was really curious about rediscovering and mapping out the differences of these art worlds. How do we see when we look at an art object? When watching things or people move? These questions become quite formalistic – is there politics behind colour? In a shape? I became really interested in dealing with relational politics through aesthetics. Not to make an artwork about politics, but working with politics that already exists in art. Relating to Jacques Ranciere’s writing around the emancipated spectator, the politics of aesthetics versus the aesthetics of politics.
These days I’m not strictly interested in dance. To me “choreography” is a much more important word. The idea of choreographing relationships, choreographing materiality is something I’m super interested in.
What do you see the role and input of the performer being, next to the objects in the space and with the audience? Especially in dance, with the objectification of the body, the performer objectifying themselves – the performer is both object and subject.
Yes – this is very key. What if an object, sound, movement, are all material? My body, my flesh – what if all these materialities are treated equal? How do they come together?
I’m less interested in the performance as a spectacle than how, just as the performer is the object of the gaze, he’s equally able to look back. And that applies to the viewer too. I’m interested in the viewer becoming aware of themselves, as the object of the gaze and of gazes.
If you have to give attention to something, you’re not just there to take. You’re watching; you’re being watched by others. This kind of dynamic back and forth relationship of seeing and being seen, being able to look back — Is somehow linked to feminism I think. I know, it’s quite a big leap.
Yes but — I can make this link in the context of the male gaze, of John Berger’s book Ways of Seeing.
With #MeToo and Trump, the work of feminism’s become important to me. I think feminism needs real effort from men. We can’t keep simply supporting women speaking up for women.
I can’t speak for women but I deal with the sense of otherness. When Miho Shimizu is making an object for xhe, we ask, can this look like something, even if we don’t know what? It’s like looking at shapes in the clouds — we see it and somehow it makes sense. Our goal is to have that shared sense of wonder, be suspended in shared curiosity.
I suppose it informs the choices you’re making in xhe and ultimately it’s still your performance work, not something to undo the effects of “male gaze”. So we can read it that way. But I am most curious about how the performer is inviting and activating a kind of negotiation: that’s a key component of your work, I feel.
There are five of us – in theory we are equal in the space. For instance, the musicians are not just supporting the dancers.
What do you mean by equal?
Everyone has the agency to contribute, initiate, change something. To take turns to be at the centre of attention. In theory, no hierarchical role and order. I could be there as a performer to serve the wallpaper. What does that even mean? We’ve been working on that.
Oftentimes you watch a show, somebody coughs, and you go, oh right that’s not part of the show. But here, let’s not pretend we didn’t hear it. It’s part of the soundscape. Everything requires us, the performers first, to be attentive. If we give something attention the audience might, as well.
How did you decide on the number of performers?
This was a practical budget question. I started with two dancers; between two performers I can reveal duality and contradiction. I was really interested in this musician duo Filastine and Nova, in their musical synthesis.
The fifth person coming in is the host. The host is engaging the audience – firstly making connections visible, secondly to clarify the ethics of the space. Like a geisha, she may make you play by the rules of the space, but she’s not policing the space.
We want the audience to realise that this is about being sensitive together. Just as the audience is watching, audience are being watched. You have to have self-awareness. I think it’s so important that people become increasingly aware of themselves in relation to one another. This is politics.
Is there a message or central experience you want the audience to take home?
Okay, I might as well admit that I do have a message. And the message is that, when we are experiencing art like that together, the question is the answer. That’s why the work is titled xhe. What is xhe? I also don’t know. But the fact that you are asking is already enough. “Between a square and an octopus” — if I can say that, and immediately your mind upon hearing it is busy making sense — to me that is sufficient. To me, that is the validation of the queer position.
Queer is not about gay rights trying to be accepted. Queer is important, it’s strange, the thing that doesn’t fit, but somehow we are still fascinated by it. It falls outside — has to remain outside — the circle of normativity. We have to keep it there. It’s what actually sustains us, paradoxically. Because if we know that there is always something we designate as the unknown, we cannot rationally pin it down and define it, and if we are okay with that, then we will be better off as a society. This is my personal belief. This is super important to me. Performance is the only place left in our world in our society, whereas a social apparatus, in art and theatre we practice looking at things we don’t know.
I spent 2.5 years making this work, but the moment we have to market it, the questions are reductive in nature — what is the work about? What is the soundbite we can use? But my job is not to simplify the answer. My job is, partly, to make things difficult for the marketing person trying to attract an audience. There’s constantly this tension of “aiyah so troublesome” but actually, quite shiok. “Aiyah so much work” — but I sit there for 5 hours, and it didn’t feel long.
xhe by Daniel Kok and Miho Shimizu is co-commissioned by Esplanade – Theatres in the Bay for da:ns festival. 12 & 14 of October (This is a durational performance that unfolds over five hours, and the audience may enter, re-enter or exit the performance space throughout that time).
This post is sponsored by Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay.