Why Workshops?

Isn’t it enough that performance art is already ‘obscure’ by the mainstream definition without having to hold workshops for performance artists? No, it is absolutely not enough. It is the workshop that brings performance art to a human and interactive level.

The first time I attended a workshop was December 2009. It was the 2nd Beyond Pressure Performance Art Festival. It was my first encounter with Myanmar avant-garde artists. I was not a guest, but a mere observer, keen to research and document this festival and interview the participants. I was preparing for my thesis on Myanmar artists and Beyond Pressure was my starting point.

What I didn’t realize was how involved I would be in the actual workshops. What is a performance art workshop? Well, it’s a way for artists to introduce themselves and their bodies to one another, limber up, bring out ideas and challenge previously held notions about what performance art is and can be. I was mortified to even participate. Stage fright has a long and distinguished place in my past. Joseph Ravens, a boisterous and talented artist from Chicago, who recently participated in the inaugural Venice International Performance Art Week, ran the first workshop. He asked everyone to stand in a circle and told us to make some movement, any movement, which described our feelings or our physical state. In doing so, the person standing next to you would then repeat your movement and then create their own. So one by one, we each made a movement, the person next to us repeated that movement and by the time the exercise had come full circle the last person had to make 20 movements and end with his own.

It was a fascinating exercise. One that I never thought would ‘help’ a performance artist. It’s not just about your own motion; it is also seeing everyone else’s and having to mimic that motion. I remember dropping to my knees. Looking back, I think I was humbled by the whole experience. But at the time I was just so nervous I couldn’t think of anything else to do.  The next person had to drop to their knees then create their own movement. If I recall it was a karate kick. So it went, like a name game, but instead of introducing each other with names, we used our bodies.

Zoncy, the incomparable female Myanmar performance artist, working on and off since 2009, hosted a worshop as part of the 5th Beyond Pressure Festival in December 2012. She used an exercise, which began with a name, then parlayed into action. Here’s her process in list form:

  1. Introduce yourself with a one syllable name (preferably from your own name), then close your eyes and make a new name using the combination of several people’s names in the group
  2. One group ‘of names’ sits, one stands
  3. Zoncy: “We are performance artists. The body is very important. In Buddhism, the body causes every suffering in the life process. The body is something to enjoy, which body part makes you confidant? (close your eyes) share the body part with the audience.
  4. Different pairs come to communicate their “confident” body parts. Touch your confidant body part.
  5. One person will touch, can travel with another’s, must follow group vs. group
  6. Zoncy: “We don’t know each other at all, all we know is the body part.”
  7. Use body part to touch things
  8. Zoncy: “It’s like exercise for the body, performance for the performance of the body, everyone is tired but willing participants.”
  9. Some chose feet, some chose eye, neck, shoulder, knee, hand

Zoncy: “Without material, without title, without concept, show off your body part in solo performance.”

One participant took Zoncy up on her offer, and created a solo performance where she held her foot as if she was holding a baby. By the end, Zoncy was asking her artist participants to  “enjoy the disability” of being blind, wherein artists walk around and touch/feel each other’s bodies. The whole process was incredibly intimate and I was genuinely impressed by the artists’ willing participation.

The second workshop host that day was Made (pronounced Mah-day) from Bali. Made was clear in his intent: to question the use of control with the body. He paired up the artists (I also participated to complete an extra pair – though this time I was less threatened) and asked once of us to guide the other with his/her hand. I held up my hand and my partner followed the hand with his eyes and his body. If I walked with my hand, he followed it. If I brought my hand to the floor, his body went to the floor, if I slammed my hand up against the wall, he slammed his body up against the wall. It was a terrifyingly sexy feeling, having the ability to control someone’s movement and thereby ‘create’ a performance through them. When it became less sexy was when the roles were reversed and you were then controlled by the hand which you had previously had control over. I suppose it depends on what turns you on…

Performance art is captivating but I never thought of it as controlling. Then I remembered a performance video I once saw. Chaw Ei Thein and Htein Lin “mirroring” each other. Htein Lin moved his finger and Chaw Ei mirrored him. HL held a plate with nothing on it and put his finger on the plate then on his face. Chaw Ei’s plate had black ink on it, so when she touched her face, it became black.  It was a beautiful piece and I have the video. Unfortunately, I cannot post it without the artists’ permission.

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The point Made was trying to make was how does it feel to be controlled, to control? He told us to think of all the ways we are controlled in society or how we control our own energy. Perhaps the most interesting thing that comes out of workshops is that sense of control over your own body, when in fact during a performance, the trick is to maintain a certain fluidity or freedom of movement, rather than control. Perhaps it is the opposite that intrigues us.

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