Thinking and Talking about Arts and Culture in Southeast Asia

“Talk to me and I slap you”: confronting intimacy and violence

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By Chloe Chotrani

(1,040 words, five-minute read)

The one who loves you hits you. The one who hits you loves you. The one who loves you hurts you.
This is a piece about relationships, unfortunately. (We can’t get away from them.)

One woman, one chair, one microphone. And a chair opposite her, for you.
In an intimate conversation, she lays her cards on the table: talk to her, and she might (really) slap you.

– Chan Sze-Wei and Gabriela Serani

Chan Sze-Wei and Gabriela Serani first met in 2014 when they were both in the postgraduate programme of the London School for Contemporary Dance. The pair found immediate synergy and have been collaborating ever since. Chan is now based in Singapore and Serani in Santiago, Chile. Four years later, they have finally had the opportunity to re-develop their work in Singapore and Bangkok.

The provocative title Talk to me and I slap you emerged from a site-specific rehearsal in 2014. A question arose: “What if the audience starts to talk to us?” Serani responded in a joking manner, “We tell them, ‘talk to me and I slap you’.” This jest grew into deeper questions about both artists’ relationships with violence, in both a physical and psychological context, which relates deeply to women in particular. Thus, the female protagonist – and aggressor – challenges this stereotype in this participatory piece.

 

Gabriela Setrani interacts with audience members in The Substation Gallery.
Image: Susan Sentler

 

The mood is casual, an open circle in The Substation‘s gallery space. There is no dramatic lighting, just a brightly lit room where one can witness the expression of every single person watching the action – and being watched. The audience, of about 20 people, is seated on chairs and on the floor. As everyone continues to chat while they wait for the show to begin, Serani walks into the centre of the circle and starts rearranging the two empty chairs to her liking. We quiet down and she smiles, inviting someone to sit on the chair across from her. She extends an invitation, but she also makes use of questions and interrogation to instil her sense of control, while leaving space for the audience to respond.

The audience shape-shifts into the performer as the performance develops. Serani looks directly at specific people in the audience, creating a sense of intimacy. She asks questions and gives instructions,  prompting active responses. It brings about a different sense of engagement, where the audience has to be on their toes, slightly excited, but also nervous and curious. She provokes the audience by being slightly aggressive, hinting at the threat of subtle violence with the hostility in her voice or the slight slap of her palm. Her demeanour made me think about the intertwining of both intimacy and violence. What is violence to us? How about non-physical forms of violence? What kind of visceral sensations do we feel when we are verbally questioned, attacked or insulted?  

 

Gabriela Setrani interacts with audience members in The Substation Gallery.
Image: Susan Sentler

 

As these improvised dialogues between participant and performer continue, we slowly begin to familiarise ourselves not only with Chan and Serani, but with everyone in the room. There is a heightened sense of awareness of both ourselves and others. In between these conversations with the audience, Serani tells and dances funny yet sad stories about relationships, loneliness, and fear.

Each performance of Talk to me and I slap you is unique because of the interdependency of the performer and the audience. In this particular performance on a Saturday afternoon, there were many moments that stood out. In one instance, one of the participants sits beside Serani and, in a tender attempt to soften a grumpy woman, gives her a gift. She presents her with an ang pao or red envelope containing a small note with some writing on it: wo ai ni (“I love you” in Mandarin Chinese). Serani and the participant then talk about the softer aspects of relationships and love – but this is short-lived. Serani reaches into the envelope and finds a pair of $2 bills. The idea of a monetary transaction, after talking so tenderly about relationships before, brings back an immediate hostility to the scene. Serani’s soft tone hardens, and the audience member retreats to her seat. Although this is a humorous moment, it reveals how relationships might change when a monetary value is brought into conversation.

Each performance of Talk to me and I slap you unearths a myriad of new stories from different sets of audience members with varied ways of responding to the invitation to participate. One could watch it ten times over and never watch the same thing twice. What I found most fascinating was the show’s conflux of playfulness and aggression. Because this work was so carefully choreographed and staged, watching and engaging with an aggressive performer was less intimidating in a gallery than it is in public, or in real life. I have learned that it is in these kinds of “safe” spaces where we can confront difficult situations such as physical and psychological violence in our lives. My experience of Talk to me and I slap you lingered long after the 60-minute performance. It energised me to tackle how I experience violence, especially when I am detached from the fear of it – perhaps because there were other people in the room, experiencing and confronting the same difficulties as I was. In many ways, tackling the difficulties of intimacy and violence together through live performance distances you from the fear of thinking about these topics, by moving and playing with it in space.

 

Gabriela Setrani interacts with audience members in The Substation Gallery.
Image: Susan Sentler

 

My favourite moment of the piece is when choreographer Chan walks up to Serani to hand her a microphone about halfway through the performance. This exchange takes place in such an unceremonious, casual manner that it places everyone in the room on a horizontal plane: the choreographer, the performer, the audience. In that moment, there is no hierarchy. Relationships between two people, twenty, or a thousand come down to negotiation, the push and the pull between each individual, the ebb and the flow that moves between the struggle for both dominance and submission. Power is a play, and there is a hierarchy that needs to be dismantled, which may take longer than our lifetime. However, through interaction and performance, Talk to me and I slap you gives us room for the possibility of equality.


Talk to me and I slap you was staged at The Substation Gallery in Singapore on 24 and 25 February 2018. It was then performed from 2 to 4 March 2018 at the Democrazy Theatre Studio in Bangkok, Thailand.

Guest contributor Chloe Chotrani is a movement artist and writer based in Singapore. Her embodied research is oriented towards her ancestry, eco-feminism and the movement landscape of South/east Asia and the Diaspora. When she is not dancing or writing, she bridges art and ecology through permaculture by building and tending to garden installations around the city with Cultivate Central. Find her on her website.

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