Barbara Schwerin von Krosigk: To start with IN TRANSIT. You are trying to establish a completely new type of festival. What is the basic idea of IN TRANSIT and what is your very personal interest in it?
Ong Keng Sen: "I won't dare to use the word 'new festival' because I feel that 'festival' has too many implications and too many meanings. Meaning that 'festival' usally means a certain commercial relationship with the audience. Because you need to have an audience to sustain the festival. You need a relationship with the city. Let's say for example if IN TRANSIT becomes a Berlin arts festival it really has a kind of responsibility to the city, the people of the city as an audience.
I see IN TRANSIT much more as a kind of a process by which artists of the world come together in the city of Berlin and through this process they begin to understand each other, different cultures, different artforms. And in that sense it is a process of dialogue and exchange. So I would say that it is really a project rather than a festival.
And I don't think that it is new and that it never happened before. Of course it happened all over the world but maybe it was not so ambitious elsewhere. Like in Asia we have had such projects before. Like the project I have come from, called the 'Flying Circus'. But that has mainly been with artists from all over Asia. And it is very different in Singapore when we do the 'Flying Circus' because we do not charge the audience for the shows. All the artists come for the workshops. And they teach each other or share skills of each other. And they perform every night. But that performance is free. So it is like a gift to each other. And there is an audience there to witness the gift. So in Berlin it is a bit different because we have to charge tickets. And so I am of course a little nervous that it has certain aspects which make it like a festival. it has to have a certain kind of responsibility in terms of gate takings and all that.
We have to be very clear what IN TRANSIT is for and who is it's main target group. I feel that the main target group is the artist. And instead of focusing on artists from Berlin we are focusing on artists from all over the world including Berlin because the House of World Cultures allows that possibility. These artists bring whatever they have gathered back home and in a sense it has effected and impacted their way of thinking, their way of working. So along the way there are events for audiences, there are events for policy makers, events for academics. But I would say the main focus is the artist."
But not all the things that happen are charged for? Something is also free for the audience? You were talking about these clubs - you have to pay when you go in?
"Throughout the day there are free events, of course. For example all the workshops are open to the public and they do not have to pay to go into these workshops. But most of the performances they would have to pay. And if they visit a club of course they buy drinks, they have to pay for the drinks. Despite this, we will strive to have an open door policy."
So how will you communicate with the public? You were talking about 'open windows'. But if it is for the artist how will it be conveyed to other people so that it is not only like a 'closed laboratory'?
"What I am trying to say is that all the opportunities are there. What I do as a curator of this project is to provide the opportunities or the platforms for exchange, for audiences to perceive the artist in different spheres, in a workshop, in a discussion, in creating, in performing, in improvising. But whether or not the audience member takes up the opportunity it really depends on them. As a curator I am not going to force a certain situation to happen. I provide a possibility and then from thereon I think it has to be fairly organic. Meaning that there might be ten people from the city of Berlin who come for everything and maybe that is enough. That they will be the ones who are maybe writing and thinking about these issues. I believe that if a few seeds grow and ensure some kind of continuity and some kind of future the money or the effort is well spent. That it is really these few people who would become the transporters. In a sense I think that the artist will be the transporters. I feel that it is going to be a long term effect.
After making these laboraties for eight years I know that initially the response of the artist is sometimes of anger and violence and resentment because you are actually putting them into a context where they have to shift out of their comfort zones into somewhere else. And they become in a sense very agitated. But after a few month it starts to flow again. Doors start to open. And by this I do not mean technique. But maybe the desire is kindled. It is like a flame. The desire has been lit. And they feel that they want to work with people from other cultures. They want to understand more of another culture, they have a thirst.
And in that sense I would say very frankly that this project can not be undertaken by many institutions. Only some institutions have the possibilitiy to undertake this project because maybe their mandate is wider. Let us say that this can be undertaken by an educational institution or some place like the House of World Cultures but if it was the city arts council, they can not do a project like that. They may have to do what I call 'bums-on-seats-festival'. I feel that in this project I am not so concerned about trying to sell tickets. For me it is about putting forward a different perception, a different way of seeing. And that hopfully this different way of seeing would affect and effect people around me and around us."
What is the basic subject matter of IN TRANSIT? It is not only the encounter. What is your idea about the bridge between theatre and ritual?
"There are many levels at which IN TRANSIT works and there are many different themes. One theme is the translation of ritual into performance. And maybe an organizing theme can be this idea of the politics of translation. What happens when we translate from one culture into another culture? From one sphere of life into another sphere of life? From one generation into another generation? When we translate from one language into another language? For me there is a certain politic in the act of translation. Meaning that when you translate you give focus. And the focus could be political.
Let us say if I tell a story to my child I can tell the story in a certain way. I can tell the story of a woman who is killed by her village. But I can tell it from the perspective of the woman as a hero or the village as the hero. For me that means that I have translated to this child a certain interpretation and that this child will therefore carry this interpretation. He will either think that the woman is a hero or she was a witch and the village was the hero. And so for me there is a political act in that. Is it a story of misogyny or is it a story of the woman's position in society? I believe that this act of translation and the politics of translation is what IN TRANSIT is about. And I think that this is more and more important in the future as we continue to encounter different cultures in our city.
Many people have asked me why do we bring a ritual let us say from Karajá people from the remote parts of Brasil to Berlin. Why? Isn't it dangerous to bring people from that world into the city of Berlin? And what is my responsibility? I think that of course it is dangerous. Everything that we do is dangerous. We walk out of our house in the street and we can be knocked down by a car. For me it is irresponsible to say that: 'Well, we are so different. So let us leave them in their country and in their culture. And if we want to know about them we visit them.' But I believe that there must continue to be exchange and reciprocal exchange where we visit them and they visit us. And the question is: 'How do we have this exchange on two sides? So that it is a bi-directional exchange.'
I think it is also too simple to say that we should stop doing all this. It is too reactionary. In the past, in the worlds fairs of the twentieth century ,tribes were brought to be exhibited in Paris or in New York and now people are beginning to say: 'No, we can not continue to do this. We need to be much more considered.' And I think that is very important, how do we consider the presentation and the representation of other cultures in our city? And it is not a solution to say that: 'No, no, if we want to know about them we need to go an live with them for a year.' This will be a way in which information will be shut out, from both sides. So I believe that we need to find new strategies and new ways of developing relationships with parts of the world which are very alien from us.
And I know a lot of curators who are very shy. They move far away from touching anything traditional or folkloristic because for them this is too difficult, it is too problematic. And then it continues to be a problem. It continues to be in this box which curators don't touch or which festivals do not want to open up. And then in the end it just becomes a black hole in which no one dares to enter, something mysterious and superstitious that we don't want. That is how I believe superstition develops in any society. It becomes taboo. And slowly it becomes more and more distant and then it becomes a myth. If curators do not think of how to engage with tradition or with folklore then it just becomes a whole space - and it is a very large space - which we will never step into."
What do you think is possible - as a stranger to meet in a brief encounter? These encounters do not last long. What kind of conditions are you going to build up to make sure that they will not become commonplace or trivial?
"When the Karajás are with us they are with us for a fairly intense period of like maybe seven to ten days. And during these ten days there are many different workshops. And the workshops are organized as a way in which the audience meets their singing and dancing. It is more like an exchange of their song and their dance in a context of sharing. Which is probably how they actually communicate from one generation to another generation. When they have an event in the village the children are naturally seeing this. And the next year they start to dance and sing themselves.
Perhaps it is about the trivial and the commonplace, rather than the epic.
For me it is about finding these different strategies of relating to the other. And these strategies will change. Right now we are here in Benin to look at vodou culture. I am interested in bringing vodou to Berlin. But it will probably be a different strategy from the Karajá Indians from Brasil. For me as a curator the search is for these strategies of relating different people, of connecting different people. And I don't know if it is the correct strategy. But I do know that if we stop by simply saying that we should not do it then for me this is a way of censoring a search for some kind of bridge.
This search, I have made for six years in Asia and now it is in Europe. Completely different. But I think this search has to continue. And we probably will not be able to find the answers. We will have to learn through mistakes. And there will be mistakes along the way. The question is what do we learn from these mistakes. I think it is very important to consider the history of the presentation of other cultures in our culture and city."
In which way are you preparing the room? When you bring in people from Benin or from the Amazonas you seperate them from their people, from all their social concerns and mutual understanding. They will arrive in Berlin and nobody will understand their signs, their gestures, their songs, their stories. So how will you provide for them so that they won't feel lost?
"Of course such a journey is not possible if there are no connectors, no bridgers. With the Karajá Indians we are working with the Indian Foundation in Brasil who is run by two people. One is Angela Papianni. She is a Brasilian white woman. The other is Siridwe who is a Xavante Indian. He himself is a middleman, a bridge. He is in his thirties. The Xavantes are warriors and they have a tradition of sending young boys into the city. To protect themselves they have to send their people out. These poeple would find out the ways of the world and hence in a sense they would then be able to guard against being destroyed by other cultures. So as a young boy Siridwe was sent to Sao Paulo to study. It is very interesting his journey. He talks about how he was asked to perform in a kind of Brasilian-Japanese-Butoh production. The director said to him that it is really about bringing your identity to the stage. And he did that. He started to think more about the pride of his people, the identity of his people. And then he started to form this Indian Foundation, called IDETI. For me he is a connector. I don't think it is possible for such events to happen without these connectors and these bridgers. In a same way with voodoo culture. We will have a connector of Koffi Kôkô. This means there is already some kind of bridging.
I do not think that one week will change very much how both sides think and perceive the world. How do we prepare the room, how do we prepare the city to be ready for this event? I feel that the preparation of the room is the process of doing it. It is in the doing itself. That means that 2002 in bringing the Karajá Indians we are preparing for 2003. And 2003 we are preparing for 2004. In the course of time the city then becomes more and more receptive to the other coming in. I do not think that preparation is possible by handing out notes, by doing workshops before that. I mean, of course it will help some but I think it is a bit of a fallacy to think that people will be prepared just because they go for one workshop. I feel that it is really about a journey of openness which will take years. I think about years rather than really about the two weeks or the three weeks. What is necessary I think is to provide the opportunity and to allow certain elements to be discovered.
This is only the tip of the iceberg. It is really to prepare the ground for future encounters. One encounter will lead us to become stronger for the next encounter. This is the process of time. I think very much of how do we bring the Berlin audience into the same time and space as the ritualists? And that it is going to be maybe a very difficult process. And with the Karajás it is more a social way, it is a way of living. Their events that they will bring is really about community patterns, ways of celebration, world views and it is not so much about the spirituality. Of course you can not compartmentalize it, within their ways of living will be the spirituality.
I am interested first and foremost in cultivating an openness. I think that openness doesn't grow on trees. We have to grow this openness. That is why in the process of a child's development you can either develop a child who is open to possibilities or a child who is very closed and afraid of the world. For me maybe the first thing that we have to do with projects like IN TRANSIT and laboratries is really to develop an openness in the people. This openness is a lifelong journey. How to constantly keep your window open or to keep the walls around you porous so that you can move in and out? Realistically we all live in a world with walls. But can these walls become porous for you to move in and out?"
In a ritual there is a certain life rhythm. It has nothing to do with the rhythm of theatre. The participants in a ritual are more connected with this life rhythm, they don't expect something particular, not a show, nothing extraordinary, no extremes. So how do you deal with it? Because in a way you have to disappoint the expectation of an audience. There are two different rhythms. The rhythm of theatre and the rhythm of ritual. How do you bridge these different expectations and timeexposures?
"How do you frame the event so that the expectations of the audience would be open? How would they get a sense that IN TRANSIT is collaborating with the Karajá Indians to investigate the different manners of presentation? That there is no one method? We are intending to shift the context surrounding the Karajás during their entire time with IN TRANSIT. We will move from a spontaneous improvisation with the Karajá Indians in The Club. They will descend on The Club and interact with the public there and with the deejays and veejays of WMF. We are planning this quite soon from their date of arrival, so that it is not a controlled occasion. Maybe it will be more like a happening where different types of celebration collide in one space. Maybe this will be the factor that joins us, the people in the club are celebrating their lives in an environment of partying, dancing created by the deejays, the veejays, drinking the night away. The Karajás will celebrate and party with us. Deliberately, I am moving away from a politically correct perspective, challenging a cautiousness which cann sometimes be limiting. It will be dangerous but this is included in any encounter: the danger and its excitement.
The next day, the Karajá elders will share with us their worldview at the lab, this will be open to the public. There will be the beginning of a process of collective conversations with the contemporary artists from around the world. This will culminate in some kind of public presentation of these conversations, a preliminary investigation of commonalities, differences and just being with each other. Included in this laboratory time will be a visit to the Museum where there are Karajá objects collectedby german anthropologists from the turn of the century, i am hopeful that this will trigger a discussion of the politics of intercultural contact and communication.
The Karajás will also be conducting children's workshop in dance and music. When the audience buys tickets for this workshop, they are immediately alerted that this is not going to be a performance. You do not buy a ticket into a seat in the auditorium. You are enter into a communicative relationship of sharing between the children of Berlin, their parents and the Karaja Indians.
And then there will be the spectacle of performance in the big auditorium. We will run the spectrum of different types of contact with the Karajás. It is about priming the expectations of the audience."
There are morning workshops with different artists where the context is given of the artform, of that culture, of that particular artist. A lot of the artists that are selected for IN TRANSIT have very strong identities and biographies. There is a very direct correlation between the work which they have chosen to make and their personal identity.
In that sense I think that IN TRANSIT has a very clear frame. The mornings are open workshops where we find out about the artists and their work. And it could be one session, it could be three sessions, it could be five sessions. The afternoons are more closed door sessions where groups interact and work together. And every three days maybe there will be public showings of these pieces which will be free, there will be no charge. In the evenings there is an ongoing seminar of the politics of translation, weaving in and out of the other events. And in the nights there are performances.
The structure of IN TRANSIT, the frames in which it is trying to operate in is not just like - oh, let us go and buy a ticket and have a good time. Certain juxtapositions are naturally there if you want to follow the process."
In a way you are looking for a spectator who is witnessing the whole process, who is there all the time, who knows the different parts, so that he is well informed and has some background knowledge, a spectator who starts to do something himself.
"Definitely it is about providing the opportunity to them. They can follow this process if they want to. But how do I as a curator not be too fascistic with them. I don't think that is possible. But I think that for those who are interested in learning and in living the process we have provided the doorways.
There will be people who just want to see a show, let us say contempory dancers from Berlin who just want to see a dancer from Benin-Nigeria, just for the sake of dance. There is nothing wrong with that.
Witnessing is a very strong element is the element of documentary. we have pieces about major events which have now become history in different places but a history that keeps repeating in our world of today. Like genocide in Cambodia, suicide bombing in Lebanon, apartheid in Southafrica. And the performance is created by people who have lived through it. They are not actors acting these people or dancers acting these people. They are themselves, the people who have been in the concentration camps, who have lost their husbands and their children. And who have now to rebuild the Cambodian tradition arts after it has been destroyed by Pol Pot.
So the question of translation from life on to stage. And who is the actor today? Is it really a performer who is taught in an institution or in a conservatory or in an academy? I think it is a reconsideration of the relationship between art and life, not a question of authenticity. That art is not something that you can keep in a box.
I am very conscious that there are many many artists who work interculturally because they are trying to make more interesting work. how do I tell this narrative in a more interesting way? Let us try to bring in some art from India or some art from Africa and then the performance becomes more interesting. The story becomes more vibrant. But then what do you do for the people from that culture that you are working with? It is too simple to say that - oh, they are already participating in this, they are being paid good fees. But how do you actively allow for something to flow back to that culture?
This giving and taking is really important. Giving and taking without simply being a commercial transaction.
The audience has to give a part of themselves to get something back. That is the journey for any kind of exchange. It may not be what you want to receive. and what do you give in the first place?"
This was what I was thinking about. Because I took part in different workshops. And normally if it is for one week or two weeks or even if it is for a whole month it means superficial knowledge. I am able to catch the idea. And when I am alone again I feel rather lost because I still don't know how to do it. Is it that what you are looking for, just to smell something different, a new taste? What is one week good for if you have a master and you have somebody who has never come in touch with anything like this? You can not learn a song, you can not learn a dance, you can not learn a certain step, you can not learn anything that tradition teaches you in one week. So what is possible?
"I don't think that I am interested in learning steps or the song or the way. Because their way is very different from my way. Perhaps, for me the end objective is twofold, to become more open when I encounter different religions and different philosophies but also disciplining myself to create, to constantly expect new ways of thinking from myself.
How do I process my journey there after? That is really the important event. There are no rules and there are no ways. How do you deal with being alone? That for me is really the crucial question. This is something which you can not teach.
From very traditional cultures you always had this moment of isolation. Initiation involves bringing a group of young people out into the jungles and then leaving them alone. And then how do they deal with the aloneness? So it is the journey of the group into the aloneness and back into the group. And IN TRANSIT provides the group opportunity. But after this, I think that we all have to go through it in our own ways as we return to our communities. The group moment is maybe only 5% of the experience. 95% is how you live alone."
When you are preparing this laboratory and there are specialists from different traditions, in which way do you want to bring them together? Is there a subject for the encounter? Have you a special pattern in mind to avoid confusion? Do you propose a certain theme? Because there will be masters of different traditions, if I understand it right you are always working with specialists, with masters and not with dilettantes, amateurs?
"There are certain themes. One theme is translation. How do we translate information from one time-space into another timespace? It is a very broad theme and within that there are many different manifestations of that theme.
What do I mean? Vincent Mantsoe's mother is a sangoma who is a spirit medium from South Africa. She is not a performing artist but he is. He has been bestowed the power to communicate with his spirit ancestors through dance. He is also permitted by his spirit ancestors to dance outside of the ritual space, in the contemporary dance world. So there is translation from ritual into performance. The mother is a ritualist, the son is a performer. There is a translation of knowledge from one generation to the next as Vincent uses his traditional knowledge in a different manner. It is about getting deeper and deeper into your own culture but it is also about moving into a different space completely. You are not just digging down into the same tunnel. So for me it is not simply about moving down vertically or travelling horizontally. This complex translation is part of our theme.
Another theme is what happens between young people and elders who have a completely different philosophy. Like the Karajá elders who will share their worldview with the other younger artists. So for me it is also about communication between generations which is a very big space in our world, a space which is slowly being neglected.
Another theme is our personal biographies; to make and to express ourselves. This we can see from most artists that have been selected for IN TRANSIT 2002. There is a transsexual who talks about her journey of translating her sex from male to female and how this has affected her work as an artist. IN TRANSIT 2002 connects personal biographies and art expression."
Like the laboratory, when there is an encounter between these different artists. Could there be an improvisation for example that male actors suddenly have to work on female aspects? Do you propose themes for an improvisation -or do they do it themselves? I mean you have to prepare such a brief meeting, the artistic working situation.
"Improvisation and creation will not be along certain themes. It will be about having a dialogue. How do we create a dialogue between the two of us? That will be the improvisation. If they work on two or three days about that they might want to start right from themselves. They might want to start from taking a walk through Berlin and from there developing a little conversation, a little piece. So there is no theme apart from very broad theme of having a dialogue, having a conversation. You can converse with each other based on your personal life. You can converse with each other based on the site. You can converse with each other based on an exchange of cultural norms in your society. I would say that it is very important to create a laboratory which is both open despite having a structure.
It is very important that this plan lives with the people, with the different artists, rather than them acting out my design. I am not interested in that. I think that it is too expensive an adventure for just fifty people to come together to act out my design, my grand masterplan. For me it is more about providing a basic impulse. And from this basic impulse something will emerge.
It is a basic impulse to discover each others' identities. As soon as two people are together in the same room they will want to find out about each other. That is how exchange starts, from curiosity. I prefer this method instead of saying, 'OK, today we are going to make an improvisation based on gender.' Then it just becomes too constructed.
IN TRANSIT is a project about difference. It needs to be inclusive of different approaches and different strategies. It is very different from let us say a dance festival where you have workshops being given by ten different dancers and you learn contact improvisation, you learn hiphop, you learn ethnic dance etc.
With the Flying Circus after six years, I can't say whether we have achieved anything. But I do know that a lot of the artists after visiting the Flying Circus, they start to dream of projects together, across borders. And we have evidence of this. Because in 1999 a foundation from America, Ford Foundation was willing to give support for Asian collaboration. So I set up a network, called Arts Network Asia. We send out letters in eight different languages to Asian artists to ask them to apply for funds either research funds or collaboration funds. The money is not much but it starts the process going. And there have been a lot of artists that have been through the Flying Circus who apply to this network. Because they want to develop a piece of work with each other. I think this is a big sign that as soon as you open doors, people begin to be curious. And they want to cross the threshold into somewhere else. So I believe that with the Flying Circus there have been many new dreams which have emerged. Sometimes these dreams are pursued and sometimes not.
I think that is what I have to continue doing as an artist, as a curator. To sustain a dream. And also allow us to keep imagining. Because I think that once you stop imagining; when the imagination dries up or shrivels, then we have lost a living moment."
Your personal research seems to have very much to do with your own situation or the way how you grew up in Singapore. Can you tell about this, your researchwork as an artist and your situation of life in Singapore?
"It is about mutiple realities and living with different kinds of identities. I mean being a Singaporean Chinese and going to a protestant school. I went to a school where we would have chapel and prayers. There was religious activity surrounding the studies. At the same time I will go home to Chinese ancestral worship and to Buddhism. My mother is a Buddhist, my father was a Buddhist. It was about switching codes. Switching from one religion into another religion. And yet feeling that you are not betraying either religion. That you are giving what you can give fully in both religions. Being in Singapore you become very aware of these multiple identities and multiple realities. That you are many different people in one body and many different spirits in one body. It also goes down to language. I speak Chinese with my parents. But I speak English with all my siblings, with my friends and with the world outside. These are the multiple selves in one. As I become older some of these selves start to shrivel and diasappear. I think as a child you have many different identities, many different imaginary worlds. And these disappear as you grow older.
Living in a multi racial, multi religious country or society like Singapore, it is not homogenous. And you have to deal with this reality. And you deal with this reality by switching codes. I know when to use Singlish (Singaporean English) or when to use more formal English or when to use Chinese. In Singapore you are very much in between cultures in many ways. English is the first language but I am of Chinese descent. Even when you first begin creating theatre pieces, you are maybe depicting a Chinese situation and you are using English. So already it is 'intercultural'.
Perhaps it is the dilemma of being from the margins. You are always dealing with another culture, negotiating with the global power. When you come from a very homogeneous culture that has a kind of a world position you don't learn another language. You are a kind of, my culture is the center of the world. But when you come from the margins you have to learn other languages to survive. You have to learn other languages to engage. And then immediately you are working on a very basic level. To survive, you use another tongue.
There are some people who say that intercultural work is a luxury. I believe that intercultural work is a necessity. It is a necessity for me because I wasn't born in a cultural center. I was born in the margins, being from Singapore and engaging with the English language. A language that was not mine but that i transformed into my language.
This is how it began for me in Singapore. How do I find my own identity despite speaking English? How do I connect with myself? And so my early intercultural experiments were to find my ancestry, working with Chinese Opera, working with all my ethnic elements - like Chinese martial arts, Chinese T'ai chi. Going deeply into those spaces. Of course, this can also be fallacy, ethnicity is not the only factor in personal identity. Of course, this can also be a fallacy.
And then it was going to New York University and studying performance studies which is extremely politicised. You look at colonization, appropriation, the politics involved in doing intercultural work. These were the building blocks from which I make my present philosophy."
And when you translate this into theatrical conceptions. How do you prevent to have a multicultural mixture of everything where you lose the precise elements, or the precision, the deeper art in it, and in the end it is just a kind of soup in which you are unable to distinguish different flavours?
"There have been people who have accused my work of being that. My productions may be very deeply grounded. But it can also be spectacles. When I did 'Lear' there were some people who thought that it was simply an epic with different cultures and different artforms. There were six cultures on stage. After I finished that work I did a piece called Desdemona where I completely deconstructed myself and critiqued myself on exactly that.
Using the methodology of 'Lear', I brought together a group of artists who were specialists in their fields - Kathakali dancers, Kudiyattum, which is a Sanskrit form of theatre from India, Korean Shamanic music, Burmese puppetry, videoinstallation art. But the piece was not about telling the narrative of Othello or Destemona. The piece was about us as an intercultural company. Why be an intercultural company despite the struggles? Why tell a story in an intercultural way? It was like moving behind the face of 'Lear'. 'Lear' was criticized to be a grand epic which was very beautiful, very artistic, very seriously done with many different cultures. But still it was a spectacle. We flipped in 'Destemona' and we talked about the tensions, the anxieties, the quarrels, the conflicts in an intercultural company. And this was completely not well received. Audiences prefer to have the spectacle - 'give us the beautiful masks, the charming dancers, the tinkling music'.
That experience has made me very aware that I wear many different hats as an artist. There are times when I just engage in the process. The Flying Circus or the laboratory aspects of IN TRANSIT is really that - I am engaging with the process. There is no end product. There is no target to be achieved. The being is the target. Being there and working every day with the difficulties of being an intercultural laboratory.
And there are times when I am just a director. Wearing the hat of director.
And there are other times when I make a piece like 'The Continuum: Beyond The Killing Fields', this Cambodian piece, a documentary performance of a 69 year old dancer's life. It is really her piece. I am just a facilitator, I am a conduit to tell her story. And hence I try not to be too clever with the material because it is really her material. In a sense she has shared it with me.
So there are different types of hats that I wear at different points. Perhaps it is about finding the mechanism through which you communicate. Finding a communicative tool.
I try to be aware of the context of what I am doing. And at the same time of course I push and take as much space as I think the situation can allow. For IN TRANSIT, once I was told by the House of World Cultures that they wanted me to curate a festival in my way, I started then thinking about curating based on my working philosophy. And hence it is a process oriented festival. And in that way I push the boundaries."
What about your idea of the clubs?
"That I think is very very exploratory. Just to put these two very different things together in the Berlin IN TRANSIT, the clubworld and the ritual world. It is to bring together two unexpexted opposites. And maybe then to make people realize that when we go to the club we are engaging in a weekend ritual. Some people have to go to the clubs every week. And they will go to the same club. They will do the same things. They will dance to the same music. There are certain rituals which we engage in. And for me rituals - first and foremost it is about social rituals rather than religious rituals.
Recently I did a production in Japan where the objective was to talk about Worldwar II when Japan was an aggressor in Asia and to talk about it in the club. So we engaged with young people who do not think that this history is a part of their life. Worldwar II is something of the past. History books of Japan actually downplay Japanise aggression during war. They actually brush aside what Japan has done in Korea and in China and in Southeast Asia. Instead they will focus on the Hiroshima bomb when Japan was a victim in Worldwar II. Hence this project was designed to engage with young audiences from another perspective. So we brought together young artists like DJs, hip performance artists, fashion designers, drag queens, people who do not come from the conventional 'art' world. And we made a club. So we spun records in a club ambience and talked about this really heavy material of war - like a cabaret partying while death is raging outside.
I think that there the young audiences were really shocked and stunned. Because they felt that this issue of war and comfort women and what Japan had done in 1940s is something which belonged to politicians, belonged to their fathers. They read in the papers about how Korean women are demanding compensation now for what has happened in the war, when they were made into prostitutes, serving a hundred soldiers a day. But these issues are not their problems. When you bring this material into the club world suddenly they are shocked. Because this is their world. And they have to deal with it. What happens when in the middle of a transvestite dragshow or in a trance dance moment suddenly you have somebody speaking about how she was made into a comfort woman? And suddenly you are disorientated. You thought you were in the club and suddenly the issues of your fathers or of your government come into that club.
I like to make these events which are unexpected. And I think for IN TRANSIT the coupling of ritual and club is a very unexpected coupling. When you couple in this way, I think you just start to have a different way of perceiving.
However we should not be knocking this message into the audiences' heads, 'when you go to the club you are involved in an urban ritual just like the Karajás when they are doing their community rituals'. It is better to be more light handed. These juxtapositions may lead to discussions. If you frame everything too tightly it will be too much for the audience. It is better to present the juxtapositions and some people may choose to see it your way and some may not."
There is always the bridge from ritual to theatre. Allover the world you find rituals in decay. Then it becomes theatre. Maybe the priests or participants are still doing what they know but they have lost the meaning and the life inside. So it becomes a gesture because the lifeprocess is cut out. In Europe we have it very often that we have lost the knowledge, we have lost the possibilities of doing. The danger I see in this project is that in a way you are supporting this decay. Because you are supporting the event as a presentation or just as a meeting not requiring knowledge of this living process which is so often forgotten. Because only elders remember. Young people are no longer interested in it. Or they start to do it but they lose the meaning and the way of knowing.
"I think this is really about 'The Future Of Ritual'. This is a book written by Richard Schechner who was one of my teachers in NYU. And what is the future of ritual? What is the future of voodoo for example? That is what I told the Dagbo, the master of voodoo religion here. I said that I would be very interested in 2003 in Berlin to make a project about voodoo. But I want to see the theme as the future of voodoo and from their eyes. When we see this little boy vodou priest dancing, what does vodou mean to him? It is not important what we think about voodoo in a sense.
I see my role more as a facilitator, to bring these perceptions into the city of Berlin or into the city of Singapore or into whereever my work moves to. Where we share some kind of information with the people of the city. And it is about teaching in a Brechtian way almost. You are teaching something to the audience. In a lot of the work that I am doing I am teaching about the difficulties, the tensions, the problematics in interculturalism, in intercultural expression, in intercultural performance. So I do not see my work as trying to preserve tradition or trying to ensure a future for it.
For instance, when we propose no auditorium performance but instead of that a series of interactive workshops with the public, it was the Karajá Indians who communicated with us through IDETI and other brazilian representatives, that they would like to perform. They did not want to be the only people not to have the opportunity to perform. This made us reconsider, "are we simply politically correct curators afraid of being criticised for making the Karajás perform in a spectacle context?" What about their wishes, how do we negotiate this space if we are interested in a collaboration? The power relationship was also complicated with the offer that if the Karajá Indians performed, they could get the Brazilian authorities to pay for the US$ 8000 fees for passports and visas saving IN TRANSIT a lot of money.
I think it is very important that the tradition or ritual is kept alive by it's own people. And in a way which is living rather than as a museum piece. So if it becomes kitsch and that is the way it lives in that environment, then that is it's future.
The future of ritual is perhaps kitsch for people from the outside, I don't know. For example I was just talking about Buddhist ceremonies. In the past you have lotus flowers and you have candles. Then someone made this lotus-candle. It is like a lotus. It is pink, red and green and it is a candle as well. So you burn this lotus-candle, its two-in-one. You have both, a candle and a lotus. To me it is a really kitsch thing. But now it is being used in official ceremonies, religious ceremonies, this lotus-candle. And so, from outside I perceive it as kitsch but for the spiritualists or the ritualists the function is still there. The function is there in one object.
So the future of ritual is that it may become anything. It will manifest in any way as long as it's function is still there for that society. In our eyes as outsiders it may become very impure. We see in Buddhist ceremonies and ancestral worship, materials become substituted with plastic. There are certain 'shortcuts' that are made in the worshipping process. And some purists may say - oh, this is no longer authentic and no longer spiritual. But then for the people who are practising this, the ritual still serves it's function. So I really feel that the future of any ritual or any spirituality belongs to those people. It is not for me as an outsider to try to ensure it's future. Because the only way in which I can ensure it's future will be to make a museum. And I don't want to make museums."
About these people who are from the Amazonas: They are coming for the first time. You just made passports for them so that they could travel. Or the people from here: They also would leave Benin for the first time. They probably will have a big shock - to meet Europe, to meet all the wealth. What else do you want to give them? So that it is not only money and a cultural shock, so that there is something essential beneath. How do you want to go about it? As regards me I see these people here who have no shoes sometimes or just one piece of cloth and you bring them into the heart of Berlin. How are they to profit from the new experiences?
"I tend to be more realistic. I believe that they have developed ways of immunizing themselves. We are no longer talking about a hundred years ago when foreigners walked into villages and brought the germs of an outside world and the Xavantes died. I think that now most of them are actually prepared to make the journey outside. This is the role of our connectors like IDETI and Koffi. It will be their role to try to prepare the people for the outside world.
I don't want to underestimate them. Right now we are here in Ouidah and this festival happening at the beach, it is really an international event. There are tourists coming. Many of them have been exposed to tourists. They know how to get money from tourists. They do a little stunt for you and you give them a couple of euros. I think they have learned to immunize themselves. Because the fact is that we are no longer living in closed worlds. Everywhere, even in a remote village, you would find a tourist. You won't find a traveller but you will find a tourist. A traveller is somebody who is trying to engage in an encounter and to value this engagement. While a tourist is someone who is there to enjoy and then will leave. I feel that a lot of these ritualists that we are bringing have some contact with the outside world already. IDETI's expressed mission is to bring these amazonian indians to urban centres. I think that they also know how to control the situation. I am convinced of that after six years of cultural exchange. They know what they want to give and to share. They are not about to share their cultural secrets for mirrors and beads, not anymore. Which is what the colonialists used to give to the Xavantes, 'Give me a village heirloom and I give you a mirror and that is fair exchange.' I think now they are very aware that if they want to barter with us, they will barter for a good sum. It is very clear already from the way in which our negotiations are developing.
It is a process, they know how to deal with foreigners. Of course the balance of power is always unequal. Yes of course we are the ones with the money inviting them to come. But I think that we can also perceive it from the other direction. That they are the ones with the knowledge. And they may not want to share knowledge to us, it is their right.
I believe very much that it is about a partnership. In a partnership or in a collaboration both have a certain power. One person might have the money but the other person has the know how. I don't want to trivialise this cultural exchange but these ritualists have the power, they have the knowledge. They will refuse us when they feel we do not deserve to have this knowledge.
Times are very different now. Tourism in particular has changed the face of the world, often in a very negative way. Both sides know the game and it is about integrity on both sides. Exchange has to be a two way flow."
top Suigyu Library(Japanese)