Choy Ka Fai is an artist from Singapore, who devises performances, presentations and installations that revolve around a speculative approach towards dance and body memory.
Ka Fai graduated from the Royal College of Art, London, with MA in Design Interaction in 2011 and was conferred the Young Artist Award by the National Arts Council, Singapore, in 2010. He was the resident artist at Kunstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin from 2014-2015. His projects have been presented in major festival worldwide, including Sadler’s Wells London (2016), ImPulsTanz Festival, Vienna ( 2015) and Tanz Im August, Berlin (2015 & 2013).
In a relevant part of his projects Ka Fai opts for an invasive employment of technological means on the body of performers or audience as well as stage props to deal with the mediated re-enactment of consecrated dance pieces through video-archives and electrical muscle stimulation.
The quantification and assessment of brain cortical activity during dance performances has led Ka Fai to experimenting on reactions and learning processes of the dancers dealing with data charts, graphs, transmissions and interpretations of movements based on recorded and live actions. A further project involve a large interview-based documentary about dance practices with Asian dance makers, which results also in collaboration and productions of pieces reflecting on the nature and approach to dancing in relation to the peculiar experience of the involved artists.
Another series of video-based projects delve into a compendium of apparently insignificant stories, biographies, events, and decisions, however conditioning national policies and narrations that shape the young history of his homeland, Singapore.
Mario Margani: Can you tell me more about your background and why and how have you approached to the theater?
Choy Ka Fai: I’m trained as a video-artist and I started getting involved in theater, physical theater and multi-media theater. I was very inspired by the artists collective Dumb Type from Japan, and I decided to go to art college instead of architecture school. At that point I also start performing, but I’m not such a great performer so I started looking at ways to extend the body and in a different form. When I saw Dumb Type, I thought a lot about the idea of the multimedia, the surface and the intangible of the digital as a powerful performer as well in a space or in a theater. So I started making works that looked like Dumb Type and then I realized that, cause I cannot be a fake Japanese artist, I’m Singaporean, I had to start my own research. But somehow I noticed that I always came back to the body.
With the project Drift Netin 2007 I started playing with the muscles sensors. For that project I invited Daito Manabe to Singapore, who was not so famous yet. Immediately I though that if we could measure the muscles movement and we could have these data taken out of the body, we could also do many different things with them. Even at that time the issue of interactivity was still quite restricted to things like infrared camera tracking movement or making sound through the way body interacts with different things. With these muscles sensor, which actually Daito Manabe made, the interaction became very instant and spontaneous.
The thing I like about performance is the intensity and intimacy in a space, whereas in an exhibition the visitors are free to come and go. So I moved totally into performance at that time. And then with the use of muscle sensors my work moved more into this directness. For the Drift Net performance in 2007 we first tried to connect the movements with Google Earth navigation. When a person made a movement with the right arm for example, Google Earth projected it as a life size and navigated in the same direction.
Moving two arms was the way to zooming in and out. It was about taking the control of Google Earth from a physical body movement. We also controlled the lights and sound in connection to the movements. After that I continued to make my own work and because Singapore hadn’t a very vibrant culture in the field of the multimedia performance, I became more and more refined in a way, and the technology become more and more invisible in my performance.
If we talk about immersive environment, it can go on in a totally overwhelming way. But I started to think about what I really wanted to say if I have ten projectors and you come into the space and interact with them. But what’s beyond the sensorial? Then I started questioning the skin as a digital surface, and how I could get into the body. I was at that moment full time in a theater company in Singapore and I had to produce two works a year for them. So I became a “producing” artist, but I realized that I was not creating anymore, I really had to produce in six months for a theater production.
In 2009, I went away to London to study Design interaction at the Royal College of Art. It allowed me to do whatever I wanted actually; of course I liked the whole concept of the speculative and critical design. The courses, if I can simplify, were about the possibility to design an object or a concept for a future that doesn’t exist, for a speculative future. Many discussions arose just as reaction to the future scenario you proposed as context for your concepts. In the first two years I actually just made one work.
At that time Daito Manabe was working at his Copy Face project, where he was tracking and copying facial movement. So immediately I thought that if he could take these data out of the face and put them into another person, then it would have been possible the same for the whole body. After my research I started to test what I programmed on myself and after that it became quite clear that I wanted to speculate on the scenario of copying dance and body movement of a person to another.
When I tried the electric stimulation, the image that it created was very intense because it was contracting the muscles. So the result was a sort of contortion and distortion of the original movement, I mean like Francis Bacon. And because of that I connected it with the idea of Japanese Butoh dance, which also have this aesthetic.
So I tried to teach myself the Butoh piece A Summer Storm (1973) from the legendary Tasumi Hijikata by translating archival footages into movement data. I used this way of dancing and moving the body as a prototype for my first experiment. I wanted to recreate the Butoh movement by training myself with this digital muscle memory. This is what happens in Eternal Summer Storm.
Mario Margani: Talking about speculative design, what you say triggers different questions, for example if we talk about your idea of collecting data about the movements of a performer from a video-documentation and injecting them into other performers, directly into their bodies. In the performance art could be taken as a way to reproduce old happenings, apart from watching at the documentation. You could reach a kind of reproducibility of the singular performance, which also questions the essence of a performance as a unique act.
Choy Ka Fai: Yes in a way it is also about the documentation, or something more than that. But when I started, my naïve idea was that the archives of old performances are always audio-visual, so the idea of the stimulation gives you another layer of information. You can suddenly feel which part of the body and which muscles were moved when a dancer made an action. After that I was confronted with the topic of the documentation. For example also nowadays if you have in mind Tino Seghal, how do you buy his work? How do you recreate his work ten or twenty years later? How to have a choreographic score of that?
This opens another set of questions, which I was asked a lot when I showed this project, that was If I would have been able to make someone dance like Pina Bausch, for instance. We have just an image of the pure movement of Pina Bausch, but what about the expression and emotion. So for the project Prospectus for a Future Body I clearly draw the line that I was not interested in emotion at that moment, but that I wanted to research on the movement and the creation of a notation for the body. But at the same time, when I work with dancers, it somehow reverses itself. When I give the electric stimulation of a Butoh dance, naturally the expression becomes what you see also from the archive, because it comes from the outside into your body, then to your expression.
Mario Margani: It relates to the question of representation and repetition of a performance, which involves on a certain level an interpretative act on the side of the dancers, and an act of trust on the side of the audience. In the case of complicated movements, how much comes directly from the muscles memory data through the sensors or through the autonomous interpretation of the stimuli by the dancer, like the interpretation of a score?
Choy Ka Fai: What I’m using it’s a surface electrode, meaning that you apply the electricity through the skin to the muscles. So for example the hands are in a basic way quite easy to control, but it’s hard to control precisely the orientation of the hands movements. I could lift the arm, but I couldn’t lift it toward the left or right. From there I started thinking maybe the data have always to be paired with a visual reference. The other problem is that some muscles are too big to stimulate. If you have ten electrodes, the muscle does contracts but you may also burn the skin.
A Japanese Science University did a project (Processed hand) where they made someone play a guitar just by stimulating the right point on his arm, but for that you need very precise and expensive instruments. At that point of the project I realized that I had to work on an artistic and not scientific level, that I wanted to talk about different questions and issues relate to choreography today, about the reproduction of an old choreography.
What does it mean to archiving and selling choreography? That’s why I made a performance called Notion: Dance Fiction, where I did a lecture based on my research and then I did a demonstration on myself as prototype. The whole idea plays with the suspension of disbelief. Three days ago I met a dancer and I wanted to teach her Butoh movement, but it didn’t work so instantly in a classical way. So I propose to try out my method of the digital muscle memory.
So in general what I make it’s choosing from the last hundred years of dance history the dancers I like and I try to implant this memory into another body live on stage. I select ten to fifteen choreographies so that if you see the performance you also see all the references to the history of contemporary dance, but also the dancer receives all this instant memory. At the end of this live experiment I would ask her or him to create a dance movement which is almost like a monster, connected all these different choreographies and maybe sometimes producing something new and exciting, but it doesn’t work always.
More and more I see my work as performing this process and I find the process much more interesting than the production at the end. So I want to show and perform this process, or reveal the process. That show is called Dance Fiction and the question is always if what the audience see is real, if the dancer did rehearse or not. When I’m asked about this I always answer “Please refer to the show title”. In the show I make it ambiguous on purpose and most of the time half of the people just believe in that and the other half would just think about the technicality behind it. But my point is also that with the show I want to trigger some questions in the audience.
Mario Margani: Simultaneously you produced your interview-based research SoftMachine about Asian dancers, which also brought you to create choreographies and performances related to issues of exoticism and negotiating traditions and contemporary dance on the same level.
Choy Ka Fai: It took actually the shape of a trilogy. After SoftMachine, I developed The Choreography of Thingsas third and final part. SoftMachine is an interview-based project triggered by the fact that after working on the less emotional part of the dance, I really wanted to find out what are the choreographers thinking about now, what is the process in a very analog way. I started this research in Asia and there wasn’t any sort of archive available for Asian dance makers. I just went around and meet more than 80 people from five Asian countries and talked to them about their process. In each city I interview about twenty dance makers individually.
The title “SoftMachine” was inspired by the novel by William S. Burroughs (1961). He used his cut–up technique to compose this and other novels out of other already written manuscripts. I wanted to connect it to the idea of the body as a soft machine and the idea that we can actually cut and paste and get influences from these different sources and re-elaborate it into something new.
It was for me a way to understand more about the present situation, condition and what’s happening in term of contemporary dance. I made a biographic performance with one dancer from each country. And then I realized the archive and a documentary-film, since when I travelled to these different cities I also recorded my travel and what was happening around. I spent two years and once I selected the dancers and choreographers I followed them on and on whenever they had a project. I wanted to share all this information I say also because I really realized that dance is much beyond what you see on stage. I was very inspired by the project Choreometrics (1974) (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Oz8S4fwGm38) by the ethnomusicologist and writer Alan Lomax. He went around for South America in the 1960s and 1970s to document tribes and dance movements, to use dance as a window to human culture.
In each city I came with a theme or an idea that I wanted to deepen. For example in India I deal with the persistence of exoticism. When a visitor comes to India he or she wants to see and buy some “Indianess”. I played with that and worked with an Indian dancerSurjit Nongmeikapam, trying to make him the next Akram Kahn. The performance is about my process as a foreigner, going to India and trying to make the Indian dancer perform what the market in Europe expect and would like to see from an Indian dancer.
In Indonesia the people are always talking about the spirit of dance, or the Rasa, because a lot of them are trained in traditional movements and have a strong relation with the spiritual. But they also constantly reinvent the tradition. And then I met the great dancer,Rianto, who plays both male and female role in traditional dance as well as in contemporary dance, and he has a Japanese wife and a German boyfriend. So in the performance the whole show was about the duality of his life, about his biography.
Soft Machine was also a way to accumulate knowledge and experience for me, to bring in later in other projects. For example in Indonesia I met the shamanistic tradition of the trance and I had the chance to research about how the body goes into trance, the role of the music and more. Maybe in a later stage of the current work I could also translate the trance and try to work with the brainwaves.
Mario Margani: When you started to work with the reproduction of dance movements, both traditional and contemporary, were you also driven by a sort of deconstructive approach towards the uniqueness of these famous dancers and their acts, so that you wanted to find a way to really transform their movements into something which can be dissected and repeated over and over again? Thinking about your muscle memory, the first time I saw your work I funnily had to connect it to the speculative scenario of Matrix, when different sorts of knowledge are inserted into Neo’s mind. And after practicing a bit with Morpheus he uses this knowledge like an experienced fighter or shooter, counting on a sort of Random-Access Memory. Let’s talk about your show The Choreography of Things at Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin in March 2015.
Choy Ka Fai: At the beginning, because I work by myself and I’m not really choreographer, it was a good starting point. I love the piece Trio A by Yvonne Rainer and I have been referencing a lot to it, but after a while I started to reflect about the reason for me to create a new movement and about the value of the archive. I’m not naturally a choreographer so that’s why I started, but also I am a keen observer of contemporary dance and sometimes when I’m researching the history I find a lot of lineages through different generations. It is also fun for me to mix them up a little bit, drawing relationships, highlighting certain ideas.
In the exhibition The Choreography of Thingsat Künstlerhaus Bethanien in March 2015 I had a work with the visualization of dancers’ brainwaves through a headset that measures and represents in form of diagrams what’s happening during a dance in terms of memory, relaxation, attention, and there are some more variables. Each value is represented live through LED-lights in different colors. A dancer performed a piece by Wayne McGregor and one by William Forsythe, and actually their pieces generated a very similar diagram. This could also be interpreted as a statement or a proof, since actually many people think that Wayne McGregor had very similar choreographic methodology as William Forsythe.
When I planned the performance I though about the trends of contemporary choreographer actually dancing less and less. The performances I see in Berlin have the same idea or structure but I tend to believe that they don’t trust their body so much now. Whereas during my research and meeting with different Asian creators, I noticed how their practice always starts from the body, also for the more conceptual approaches. If you see a slightly more conceptual dance piece or performance, they don’t really include the body in the equation. They talk about certain ideas or concept and with the body they do things that maybe the artist can also do, but the beauty is how they piece them together. Whereas the Asian counterparts always start from how the body moves, how the body tells a story. That’s also a reason why I went to Asia to make my research for SoftMachine.
Mario Margani: Choreography looks almost like pretext to research about the way mind and body almost distance themselves in the age of the integrated informatics systems.
Choy Ka Fai: Sometimes I feel that, since the research gets very specific, I want to expand it a little bit out of choreography. I still use that word but one of the first questions and objective I had when I made the show at Künstlerhaus Bethanien was how could I induce the mind to do certain things by creating electromagnetic field. For example I could apply electrodes to the left-brain in order to stimulate the motor cortex. It was also the idea of a choreography that goes beyond the body, or that has not only to do with that.
When I talk about brainwaves I do see that it sound very abstract and intangible. So that’s how it becomes choreography of things. The durational performance happening inside the show in Berlin was called Introspective and it was about looking into yourself, about the process of thinking about dance and dancing per se. The Choreography of things is also in a way the accumulation of these first two projects Prospectus for a Future Body and Soft Machine.
While the earlier projects were dealing mainly with the body, the Choreography of things delves more into the issue of the external control and the muscle memory. I’ve got scientific means to measure the brainwaves, but I’m still not trained as a neuroscientist. It is always about hypothesis and I like this methodology so I appropriate this into choreography or dance in the sense that I can ask the dancer to focus on something but there are always many ways to get the focus on the same thing.
Mario Margani: How do you deal with critique related to your work with the electrodes and the muscle memory? Do you get bad reactions and critiques focusing on the violence and the intrusiveness of your practice and research?
Choy Ka Fai: I do get those reactions, but I think also that anyone can do it. I propose this idea and I think that in my work I don’t give any clear suggestion to the “dark side”. Even my work with technology is made of appropriation. Anyone can use these technologies and it is about whether you want to do it, about what you want to say. Andre Lepecki wrote about the presence of violence in choreography and relating to my work for a piece on the MoMA web project designandviolence.moma.org.
Mario Margani: The way you generate dance movements and choreographies is always on the verge between a representations of an already existing dance by a given dancer, which in some of your presentation is also present as a visual reference. But on the other side you create a sort of notation for the body out of these memories, once these movements are translated into impulses. With these impulses and stimulations the new dancer reproduces gestures, but cannot avoid being always different. Sometime you create movements for your presentations with your test subjects and dancers knowing that you are using your devices to pass on to the other what you want in term of movements. When you work with video archive you translate these original movements and adapt them for the media you use, which means probably a loss of information on one side, but more room for the dancer to read and appropriate in its own way, like a notation actually. This leads us into questions of authoriality and interpretation in dance practice.
Choy Ka Fai: I think that if you talk about dance you deal a lot with the idea of recreation and repertoire. The same year I performed for Tanz im August (2013) in Berlin I saw all these dancers making the 1970s dances from Trisha Brown. It was her repertoire, not a recreation, and they were not creating anything new. I didn’t see a lot of life in the dancers and it becomes very sad for me because it is a nice work and it is very interesting to see what Trisha Brown and her contemporaries were thinking about in the 1970s, in the gallery space, in connection to minimalism and abstraction.
But on the same time I see these dancers like an object, which shouldn’t be. You have to add some of your own interpretation to stuff like that. This was one of the things I was thinking about when I made this piece. I worked with a dancer who worked with the Trisha Brown Company. She performed in 2007 at Documenta in Kassel a choreography for 100 days, straight. I was making her doing it again, because her body cannot forget such a thing. I tried to ask her to talk about the experience, questioning also her motivations for doing that, compelling your body to just repeating an action. The meaning of her body became this repetition.
In my work the border between a representation and a reproduction is quite blurry and they are overlapping all the time. The idea for the performance in the first piece was that I could digitalize and implant a movement, but once I implant five different choreographies into your body, you can use them as you wish. When you as a dancer do this remix or reinvention it do becomes something new, which I think is happening all the time. Re-appropriation and reinventing are for me very present everywhere in the artistic production and over.
Mario Margani: Another part of your projects is connected to “insignificant” histories, like the Lan Fang Chronicles, which goes together with your initial training as video artist.
Choy Ka Fai: I used to think that there are no connection between the different “insignificant” histories I’m introducing with these projects and the focus on dance, performance and choreography. But I think there is some, although not so clearly. I’m performing at the same time, I’m trained in video and I make theatre, so somehow there is always a parallel where I have a video-based project. One part is more about the body whereas the insignificant histories have to do with my Singaporean roots. Singapore is such a small and young country (50 years old) that the cultural atmosphere works like a vessel or a sponge that absorbs all kind of cultural influences from the neighbors, Japan and China. At the same time we tend to forget, because our history is very short and not yet deeply researched. The whole series started when I was still based in Singapore. I tried to find many histories that are not important, not in the official way at least or just less known.
The first I made was Reservoir, about a Shinto shrine that the Japanese build during the their occupation of Singapore. Now it is left in ruins and that project was about what do we do with that space in Singapore, why do we leave it there and in those conditions, since it is also our heritage. On the other hand for the older generation there is the problem of the Japanese war. So the work is about some feeling of reconciliation with the past or about some questions about the right thing to do. Rectangular Dream was about the architecture of the public housing. 75% of Singapore was built in this way. It was a study of that kind of space and how it conditions the body as well. It also has some juicy stories from the earlier years about how Singapore became so successful in the public housing.
This series is still going on, and the latest piece is the one you mentioned, Lan Fang Chronicles. In 1777 a group of Chinese gold miners where invited to Indonesia to do mining and somehow they became strong and powerful. They eventually grounded a republic that lasted for 107 years and had ten presidents, regularly elected. They also came from the same province in China, the Hakka province. And they are the same people who set up Singapore at the beginning. It is like a parallel universe to the Singapore history, because there are many similarities or events that repeats themselves. Singapore and Lang Fang have a 200 years gap. The project was constituted by a series of performances and I basically made an archive of artifacts made by myself, based on the history and the research.
There is not much that we can find, but there are documents. Interestingly, there are many different cultures involved: Singapore-Singapore, Singapore-Chinese, Malayan-Indian and others and also the aboriginal Chinese and Malayan people. Some of them are imaginary: I imagined that the Chinese have met cross marriage the aboriginal people. So maybe the Chinese operas mass is modified or hybrid to perform their stories. I finished it in 2012 and I showed in January 2014 in Singapore. But I’m thinking to continue this series soon. The next idea I’m interested in is quite related to Singapore and to the fact that many Singaporean are helping China and India to plan and build their dream city. In the northwestern India there is a province with a city ten times bigger than Singapore and the government of that province invited Singaporean planners to build their dream city. This could be my next subject.
Mario Margani: You are following up with the project about insignificant histories on one side, but what is going to happen with the practice that you developer throughout the trilogy that you concluded with the Choreography of Things.
Choy Ka Fai: The next is going to be about a neuro-dance duet, where one dancer can only see the other dancer brainwaves diagrams and not looking at the physical body. It would be a way to train them to collaborate by just assessing brainwaves. But I want to see what happens if I make it like the only condition for that situation. And later I’m trying to find a safe way to do the stimulation of the brain. The next work will beDance Clinic.