By Nabilah Said
(890 words, 5-minute read)
Draw a straight line.
Draw a straight line freehand
Draw a straight line freehand, with a 100g weight attached to your wrist.
Repeat, ad nauseam.
The moment you walk into Goodman Arts Centre’s Block O for RAW Moves’ latest work, you notice a sort of landscape artwork. On it: lines drawn in black marker, jagged and rough, like it belongs to someone’s controlled yet occasionally erratic heart. Or if you will: a sound wave. You lack the capacity to quite understand its significance, and so it recedes into the rest of the white walls. You wonder if there is a natural tendency for humans to relate everything to themselves, to map the unknown onto their bodies. To find materiality.
Perhaps this is a set-up. Dancers Dada and Matthew Goh are also in the space, dressed in white jumpsuits and white shoes. Tables in the centre of the space contain a logbook of some kind, instructions, cling wrapped (fake) hearts, and oddly, balls belonging to each dancer. You instantly feel like you’re in some kind of science experiment.
This piece, conceptualised by Taiwanese artist Paul Gong and movement mentor Ricky Sim, is based on ideas of transhumanism and its ethics, and to the team’s credit, you do see the multiple entry points into these concepts. The clearest attempt at finding a kind of meeting point between human and machine comes in the form of video interviews with individuals who have had an artificial organ implanted into their bodies. Viewed through the mediated form of video, these are arresting only for a while – you find yourself drawn instead to the very real bodies in the room.
For almost the entire 75-minute run, Dada finds herself interacting, wrestling, dominating and being dominated by two exercise balls. She first handles only one, using her body in different ways to bounce and prod and push it around the room, as the audience makes way like she is Moses, and they, the Red Sea. At some points, the movements settle into something that looks like a duet. But after she inflates another ball, we sense a shift in the power dynamic. She is getting tired, she sweats, she sighs in pain. The two balls, while staying the same, become stronger, heavier.
On the other side of the room, Matthew Goh engages in his own test of strength and stamina. With a weight strapped onto his right arm, he repeatedly draws a straight line on a scroll of paper with black marker. The exacting motion get harder and harder to keep in line as he struggles with the weight. Some members of the audience look away, to avoid confronting this visceral visual of pain. Others stare dead at him. In the diary, Matthew has written that he is curious about being able to better the human body through science and technology. Perhaps that is true, but what you see is someone who is resisting weakness through his own physical strength. You wonder if witnessing human vulnerability is more impressive than seeing an indestructible machine.
There are other random activities that are interesting but don’t quite push the concept forward so effectively. A science, and social, experiment is set up when Matthew invites members of the audience the opportunity to charge their phones in exchange for sustained eye contact. Once the novel factor wears off, the eye contact becomes largely ceremonial and ultimately transactional. Perhaps that is the point, but the vulnerability of the exercise doesn’t quite reach the audience, who quickly scatter and find other things to do in the bare room.
The use of space and the spatial placements of objects are interesting, but you find the whiteness of the room blinding after a while. This isn’t the first time RAW Moves has used the multi-purpose rooms in Block O, and while the space isn’t always the most conducive for performance, this time around it sets up the premise of the experiments well. It is almost perfectly oppressive, swallowing the dancers and audience up. The white fluorescent tubes overhead create the right kind of claustrophobic effect. These are two rooms which have been forced together, like two sides of a human heart.
There are things that you try to overlook – why does Matthew get to write how he feels, in chalk on the floor, while Dada is relatively silent? Why is the act of deflating the balls ironically as difficult as the attempt to handle them while fully inflated, while Matthew appears to come out on top in all the physical challenges he participates in? But in the end, the overarching, overbearing coldness of the space makes you look for any vestige of warmth, and humanness, which this piece successfully brings out. You don’t quite know where this leaves science and technology, but at least you are once again reminded that what unites us as humans is not giving up in the face of struggle.
With Being, and Organs, RAW Moves once again moves the needle on what constitutes dance. If empathy and a recognition of the pain suffered by both men and women are part of the point of the piece, then RAW Moves and collaborator Paul Gong have been successful, but with works like these, also comes the pain of suffering the question, for the nth time, of “but is it dance?”. As long as it continues to find audiences who are satisfied with the answer of “does it matter?”, RAW Moves will do just fine.
Being, and Organs by RAW Moves ran from 19 to 21 September 2019 at the Multi-purpose Studio 1 & 2 in Block O, Goodman Arts Centre. For more info, click here.
Nabilah Said is the editor of ArtsEquator.