Ghost waiting for the audience to make a collective choice at I'M NOT SURE ABOUT YOU, BUT I NEED MY PHONE; Photo: Stephanie Handjiiska
21 Nov 2019
One early September evening, a Vietnamese restaurant in Dalston, London. A dinner gathering with six other Hong Kong artists in London. Victor Fung turned to me and said. “I watched the live broadcast of your performance in Vienna. Less than 10 seconds after I started watching, you sneezed.” And that was the first time I’ve ever sneezed at a live performance.
The sneeze was quick. The stories which came before and after it were not.
Ghost and I presented the double bill of our solo works: I’M NOT SURE ABOUT YOU, BUT I NEED MY PHONE and I’M NOT SURE ABOUT YOU, BUT I NEED TO EAT at Kasino am Schwarzenbergplatz during ImPulsTanz - Vienna International Dance Festival 2019. (It was a mouthful to say.) We spent five weeks this summer in the beautiful city of Vienna, as a danceWEB scholarship recipient and ATLAS young choreographer respectively. Ghost received support from the Hong Kong Arts Development Council (HKADC) while my trip was funded by Airbnb-ing our London flat during the five weeks.
At the intermission of Pina Bausch’s Masurca Fogo, Ghost went up to Rio Rutzinger, the artistic director of the festival and asked if a studio presentation at the Arsenal would be possible as required by HKADC. “I don’t see why not,” said Rio, unexpectedly supportive. Ghost and I took a quick look at each other, surprised. At the end of the show, we exchanged phone numbers with him.
A late night text from Rio the day before we were going to perform let us know that our presentation had been cancelled due to a scheduling clash. We went back to scrolling through endless videos posted on social media showing the events in Hong Kong. Sleepless.
Back in June, in the studios at The Place, London, enraged and disgusted. My body and mind flooded with desperation. Looking at the giant mantis shrimp larvae projection on the wall, I think: there must be something that I can do.
Ecology, capitalism and digital engagement are the big hot topics in the dance world now. Coming from computer science and biology backgrounds, knowledge from our previous fields seems to be giving us a slight edge in making relevant works. The content could be the marketing point but the real question here for me, as an artist, is the social efficacy of my work.
Five am on the day after we were supposed to perform, Rio sent us a message telling us the festival had decided to put us on in one of Vienna’s most prestigious venues, the historic Kasino am Schwarzenbergplatz. Indescribable feelings.
I dedicated my MA dissertation to the enquiry into the space between arts and spectators when I started my degree back in September 2018. The problematisation of the social impact of art seemed to be a good place to dissect my research and development for a performance piece. Being half a planet from home, the screen of my MacBook, iPad and iPhone transported me to the scenes of 6.12 and 7.21. Being so far away created a sense of helplessness that I could not quite articulate with words, whatever the language.
While our friends and families are thinking about the safest way to get home, as artists with access to a safe space, what is our responsibility and what message we are conveying through our work are the questions that cling to our minds. Perhaps distance is the key for all artists’ works to be possible. There must be something that I should do.
In I’M NOT SURE ABOUT YOU, BUT I NEED MY PHONE, there was a deliberate play on expectations as the performance pulled the audience into the loop of digital interaction through their phones, simulations of different scenarios and creation of movement. Ghost allowed the audience members to make collective decisions and voice individual thoughts through the intranet and programme he built for this performance. The anonymous comments were read out by the computer as Ghost reacted to these inputs.
When I was performing I’M NOT SURE ABOUT YOU, BUT I NEED TO EAT, the audience were allowed to roam freely in the space as there was no specified “audience area” or “performance area”. The trajectory of my movement through space morphed into the audience, hence the landscape of the whole scene kept shifting. How the audience assumed different formations throughout the choreography was quite unpredictable in terms of my control over the space and energy as a performer.
The international makeup of the audience at ImPulsTanz made it a good setting to observe the reception and cultural translation of the two solo works. The marble pillars and grand stairs leading to the theatre at Kasino did not give a sense of distance to the audience, but were surprisingly welcoming into the world we were creating.
At the specific moment when I climbed onto the audience seating with the projection on my body, the proximity between the audience and I generated another atmosphere, one that had been absent from my London performance. They first saw the projection projected onto their own bodies, leaving them feeling confused and unsure of what to do. They then saw me slowly climbing up the benches, and gave way to my progress. This process of noticing then reacting and physically adjusting themselves created the ever-changing landscape of the work.
Perhaps one of the impressions of the double bill which generated the most reaction was the way space was transformed by the utilisation of projections. The scenes were meant to be visually stunning, to generate a prolonged impression in the audience’s brain, allowing contemplation, thoughts, opinions, criticism and reflections to form. Even if the weight of the image can never fully deliver the heaviness of the social themes we are bringing into the theatre, the embroidery of the visuals used as a tactic to stimulate reaction was seen as a success.
Ghost was in a week-long field project with Steven Cohen, a South African born and France-based artist. He asked Steven about the use of technology in contemporary performances. Steven replied that he is worried that the technology could end up engulfing the body.
The fact that the audience can anonymously input thoughts and opinions generated a situation reflecting how our digital bodies form a digital society. The messages were projected on the walls and ceiling and amplified by speakers. The technology became the carrier of many different voices and thoughts, pouring their weight over Ghost’s body. The horror of this doesn't come from the excess of opinions, but from how the abuse acts on a man. Maybe, we are all more afraid of being engulfed by something else.
At ImPulsTanz, almost everyone rented a bike from Arsenal. Either pink or blue. The city is then filled with these bikes which serve as ImPulsTanz’s logo. We stayed in a building with sixty-two other artists from all around the world, which we jokingly called “the orphanage”. The experience of biking from there to venues and studios with fellow artists was one of the most valuable ones in our Vienna journey. Encountering an international group of artists, who were so generous in sharing their thoughts and opinions, was precious. Riding through the streets of Vienna on a bike with a group of young, strong, outspoken talents, I felt empowered.
After the festival ended, we sat down with Rio at a cafe called Aida. Super pink, super Viennese. We asked him about the decision to put us on the stage of Kasino am Schwarzenbergplatz, and asked why he trusted us to do this. He said, “I am curious about your social realm. You are critical and are not 'comfortable’ [for the audience]. And in the end, that’s the most important quality.”
There are things that we, together, need to do. Let’s stay not ’comfortable’.
John moving with his giant plankton amongst the audience at I'M NOT SURE ABOUT YOU, BUT I NEED TO EAT; Photo: Stephanie Handjiiska