As some of you may know, I am curating an arts, history and food festival in Ipoh for Kakiseni — It is called The Other Festival, and will be held next year. I am very pleased about some things, but these two are very, very dear to me: bringing arts to the people, and presenting my hometown to others. A part of me is deeply afraid and feeling very unprepared, but I don’t think I ever will be prepared, so here goes.
If you know me well, you’ll know I’m a silent worrier. I consider things like diversity (am I only talking to English-speaking Chinese people?), ownership (am I working with enough Ipoh people?), budget (what are the returns if my airy fairy dreams cost RM10,000?) and logistics (monsoon season). I also worry a lot about how the authorities respond to art.
Last week I sent a text message to Sharon Chin. All it said was “Buka Jalan 2015”. And she replied “Possible”, which is happy enough a response for me.
If you aren’t aware of its history, Buka Jalan was an international performance art festival in the national art gallery in 2011, and Sharon was one of the organisers. And let’s just say, both audience and authorities are not fully developed when it comes to performance art.
Performance art is not a forte of mine. I enjoy it a lot, as an audience member, and while I generally despise being occasionally roped in for the more direct participatory aspects, I endure it because I know I’m filling my memories with little presents to open at home, when I’m alone. Actually, I’m very, very, very shy and introverted and easily overwhelmed by attention, so I remember less if I’m required to participate directly. I got pulled onstage for the musical #mudkl, and that is also the section I remember the least of in the entire show. It’s like when tv characters describe how things were happening too fast in a hostile environment, and they have to be hypnotised to recollect the details.
Yesterday, I was at a lovely dinner party, and at some point we ended up talking about audiences, and how art may (not) work without cultural context. I believe that performance art that addresses/uses religious rituals to ask questions or send messages is always a disconcerting experience for the audience. Some Malaysians by reflex will go “Is this offensive or what?” or worse, “I see a glimmer of my religion and I am offended!” It’a also where “holier-than-thou” scorn is most relevant, for example: “I do this ritual differently, therefore you have betrayed your lack of understanding and unworthiness!” For an introvert, dealing with communal beliefs can be a tricky negotiation.
I have a tenuous grasp of religion, but from what I gather: religious rites are frequently communal. Even when performed in private, you can safely assume other devotees elsewhere are performing similar rites, based on certain shared beliefs and key values, for common end-goals.
If you don’t recognise them, religious rites can look quite strange. If you do, then in performance art, you’re seeing the familiar but probably in an alien setting. The point of performing these rites is a show of piety for god, and only that — not for others in what looks too close to entertainment. Either way, religious rites require a sense of belonging and community that does not seem to exist in performing arts events. The familiar becomes alien, the alien becomes grotesque, not everyone reacts well to it.
Art is tricky. Religious community is tricky. Performance art is tricky. Malaysian audiences are tricky. Not many artists are experienced in adequately addressing the type of discourse I have come to expect from performance art. But I still want Buka Jalan 2015 in The Other Festival, I still hope it happens. I’m just going into it with a lot of prayer (and preparation).