By Jocelyn Chng
(1,800 words, 4-minute read)
When I accepted the opportunity to write this piece on Purⓔ《纯ⓔ》, I did it feeling a bit like a shipwreck survivor re-approaching water for the first time.
As someone who was already struggling to make sense of my triple roles as an artist, audience member and reviewer in pre-COVID times, COVID-19 has only served to heighten my existential crisis. If artists are currently struggling to make work and make sense of work, despite being seen as “non-essential”, where does that place me, as not only an artist but also a previously-avid theatregoer and reviewer?
Instead I swung in the direction of resisting the numerous online performances, talks and workshops that had sprung up in response to the pandemic. Their online-ness only served as an in-my-face reminder of the futility of it all. I wondered what the point was of continuing to engage in performance-making and watching, with the expectation of one day resuming such activities live, without knowing if or when that day would come.
I guess writing this piece is my way of navigating through trauma – personal and collective. Of reflecting on the situation and trying to understand this period as one of re-learning and experimenting, when the very foundations of how we conceive of art forms and processes have been virtually demolished.
The experience of watching Purⓔ《纯ⓔ》gave me the realisation that, with the proliferation of online works during this period, we are dealing with a new art form – one that no one is entirely familiar with. This art form is neither film nor live performance (and I am not considering documentation/archival recordings of live performances here). I’ll call this new form Art Form X.
Because here in Singapore it is new and everyone is still grasping their way around it, we lack the language to describe aspects of Art Form X and its processes. Instead, we use the terminology of either live performance or film as the closest approximations. I shall have to do the same, with the acknowledgement that some lack of precision will necessarily arise from this.
With my artist hat on, one of the thoughts that first came to mind was: to do Art Form X well requires skills, hardware and software that are not necessarily within the means of all artists and companies. This can be seen in the examples of technological issues like poor audio and break-ups in connection that have beset other online performances. In comparison, the Purⓔ《纯ⓔ》 team appeared to have the technological skill and resources to create a work with much thought given to staging and video elements, and that seemed to run with few technological hiccups. “Digitalisation” is clearly not an equal playing field.
To contextualise, Purⓔ《纯ⓔ》 was part of the annual M1 CONTACT Contemporary Dance Festival organised by The Human Expression (T.H.E) Dance Company. The work had originally been made for a black box and staged in 2016, as the audience of this online version was informed during a pre-performance introductory speech by Moderator and Festival Manager Athelyna Swee. With the closing of arts venues in Singapore in line with COVID-19 measures, the 2020 edition of M1 CONTACT has been re-organised to take place over 2020 and 2021, with a few events taking place online in 2020. Purⓔ《纯ⓔ》was thus reworked for the Zoom webinar platform, within the framework of the existing Festival. This is one factor that distinguishes this work from other spontaneous new online works made in response to the pandemic by smaller, independent companies unlikely to have the same level of access to resources.
In this online version of Purⓔ《纯ⓔ》, we see the two performers, Anthea Seah and Brandon Khoo, each in their own homes, on screens arranged side-by-side in the Zoom webinar (audiences were advised to access Zoom on a laptop on full screen mode, or place their phone or tablet in landscape mode for the best viewing experience). “Set” and “lighting” had been organised in the performers’ homes. Their respective living rooms had obviously been cleared of furniture, except for some strategically placed plants. There were light sources allowing the performers to be lit from both the front and back, evidently approximating the effect of stage lighting.
These two things – technological finesse and staging elements – worked very well in the piece. In theory, if you were thinking as an artist familiar with live stage performance, they should create a perfect Art Form X. I myself am currently involved in a series of online rehearsals for another show, and the performance language that our team uses is along similar lines.
However, when I put on my audience hat, the experience could not be more confusing.
The synopsis of Purⓔ《纯ⓔ》explicitly describes the work as a response to COVID-19 – exploring new ways of communication and the boundary between the virtual world and reality. I remember scrambling to get drinks ready for myself and a friend who had come over, minutes before the performance. On setting up my laptop in the kitchen and signing in, we were greeted with a holding slide. We continued eating and chatting while waiting for the performance to start. At that point, my reality and that behind the screen could not be two worlds that were more distant, and it was to remain that way for most of the performance.
Purⓔ《纯ⓔ》employed live video editing, enabling video effects like juxtaposing the two performers’ living rooms onto each other, and changing the colour and brightness of the performers’ videos. However, rather than highlighting the sense that the performance was being done live, the proximity of these effects to the language of film, a language we as viewers are so familiar with, gave the sense of it being a recorded work instead. Apart from the opening segment where both performers typed “Hey” simultaneously into the Zoom chat box, it was not obvious that they were actually performing live, at least to my technologically untrained eyes.
I did reflect that the video effects simulated the lighting and set of a stage performance. However, because the audience experience of the work was one mediated through a screen, the video effects became the focus of attention much more than would set and lighting on a stage. The live body on stage is conventionally the main focus, while other staging elements work to support the live body. Conversely, here it felt like the video editing was The Work. Just as you can choreograph movement, you can also choreograph technology, and my experience of it was the latter. And that was not a comfortable feeling.
This nagging discomfort arose when I realised midway that my friend and I were spending much of the performance commenting on the technological logistics and trying to figure out how various video effects were achieved. It became even more telling when, during the Q&A, audience questions similarly revolved around “how did you do such and such technological effect,” rather than being about the movements or choreography.
Thus an Art Form X work like this seems to tread the dangerous thin line of rendering the performers irrelevant (or at least on the same level as “just” another staging element, like set or lighting). As a dancer myself, this of course makes me very sad because I want to see and be moved by live bodies!
Yet, despite all the video effects, this is also clearly not a film. In a dance film, the camera is an active agent and part of the choreography, using angles and close-ups to direct the viewer’s focus and experience. This is why with dance films, the viewer can still get a visceral experience of movement despite it coming through a screen. In Purⓔ《纯ⓔ》 both performers’ cameras were static throughout, giving a similar view to a proscenium stage configuration.
The only exception was during one segment where the performers held their cameras and ran in a circular motion such that the cameras showed the rooms spinning around them. For a brief moment towards the end of the performance, this helped to break the monotony of the static frontal camera view.
However, I remember thinking about 10 to 15 minutes into the show, “I don’t feel anything”.
This work, choreographed by T.H.E’s Artistic Director Kuik Swee Boon, incorporated the emphasis on breath, a characteristic of much of the company’s work. The movements were pulsating and energetic, requiring Seah and Khoo to make use of each other’s breath as visual and rhythmic cues. I felt so bad for the performers whom I could see clearly dancing their lungs out in their living rooms, yet here I was in my kitchen not feeling anything.
When I think about what sets apart physically attending a live performance from watching a recorded or live-streamed one, two main things come to mind. They are: being in the same physical space as the performer(s), and being in the same physical space as fellow audience members. In the way Purⓔ《纯ⓔ》was curated or “technologically choreographed,” I found it extremely hard to experience either of these two aspects of liveness. It felt more like watching TV or a rented film at home, rather than a live performance.
Although obviously a very different type of performance, I think about the example of being at a live concert of your favourite pop singer and watching them through a live feed on a screen because you are seated too far from the stage. There you know you are in the same space as the performer, and you are also surrounded by thousands of screaming fans sharing in the experience. Here the silence in my kitchen is deafening.
The use of the chat function (or rather, choosing not to allow the use of the chat function) contributed to this sense of alienation for the audience. Apart from the abovementioned instance of the performers typing into the chat, the chat was disabled for audience members during the performance. This blocked off an important means by which the viewer can feel part of a shared experience.
Thus the sense of liveness was greatly diminished, and I felt a strong sense of disconnect between my mental and physical space and the performance “space”.
So back to my artist hat: it appears that in creating Art Form X works, we are mostly still thinking like live performance creators while employing video and audio skills from the digital realm. This is entirely normal – our skills and processes have been developed in particular ways for years and decades; how could we suddenly acquire skills and processes to create a new Art Form X overnight? There is a steep learning curve and I definitely hold a lot of respect for all artists who are trying to create new works during this time.
Yet, here we are. Purⓔ《纯ⓔ》had a significant impact on my personal processing of this entire situation we find ourselves in, and I feel like rather than seeking answers, we need to think about the questions to ask. What is Art Form X? What is the role of the performer in Art Form X? How does the audience experience Art Form X? How do we move forward now?
Pure ran from 26 to 27 June 2020 as part of M1 CONTACT Rewired organised by T.H.E Dance Company. Click here for details.
Guest Contributor Jocelyn Chng is a freelance educator, practitioner and writer in dance and theatre, and has written for various platforms since 2013, including The Flying Inkpot and Centre 42. She holds a double Masters in Theatre Studies/Research, and a Postgraduate Diploma in Education (Dance Teaching). At the heart of her practice, both teaching and personal, lies a curiosity about personal and cultural histories; writing about performance allows her to engage with this curiosity. She sees performance criticism as crucial to the development of the performance landscape in Singapore, and a valuable opportunity to contribute to ongoing discussions about performance and society. Her reviews for the Centre 42’s Citizen Reviewers programme can be found here.