By Sharon Chin & Lydia Chai
There is no denying the esprit de corps that arose during the five-day-long notthatbalai art fest (17 – 21 Aug 2005). Arts groups and collectives that do not normally get together, as well as members of the public (and a few tourists), celebrated this event. You couldn’t get a more diverse arts crowd anywhere. It is to the organisers’ credit that this was a democratic affair; there was something for everybody, and so everybody became an audience member. Performing artists, lecturers, artists from outside the Klang Valley, socialist artivists, graphic designers, singer-songwriters, filmmakers, writers and many multi-disciplinary sorts congregated at the remote bungalow at Taman Seputeh – out of curiosity, out of support, and out of a desire to share in the dynamic energy that resulted from such interactivity. Oh, the networking opportunities.
Plugged as an “underground” fest at an “edgy” venue for an “alternative” art experience, it seems that one of the main objectives of this event was simply to be different. It provided what the Balai Seni Lukis does not: an atmosphere of freedom where artists and audience didn’t feel intimidated. Not the least because it is an actual home, as opposed to a monument like the Balai. As a direct result, artists, performers, writers and filmmakers experienced an intimacy with the audience. For instance, if we had seen India’s Rahul Acharya perform his dance Suryashtaka at the Sutra Dance Theatre we might not have been as moved to tears as we were by his performance of the same in the intimate confines of Lost Generation Space. Amazingly, he improvised with the space, dancing around Teoh Joo Ngee’s mosquito net and making reverential gestures at Sun Kang Jye’s large carved wooden head sculpture.
Another unique aspect of notthatbalai was that discussions between artists and audience were encouraged. There was an occasion when the artists were criticised by the audience for making lazy art. For the both of us who come from an art school training, this was normal procedure, whereas for some people, seeing artists being put in the dock and chastised in public was shocking or plain uncomfortable. However, as notthatbalai organiser/curator Yeoh Lian Heng said in an interview with malaysiakini, “If our audience merely sings praises about our work, we cannot move on to the next level.” It is good for a non-art audience to witness artists being questioned about their work because this tells people that art is in fact not as easy as popular opinion makes it out to be. Artists, like writers, have to be accountable for their work. Artists, musicians and performers, for all their many virtues, can be a notoriously unreliable bunch.
But looking at the technical, promotional and funding concerns of the fest, even the worst nitpicker would have to agree that the organisers have done a great job with notthatbalai. Events ran on-time, discussions weren’t allowed to spill over into the next sessions, bottled water was available, the program booklet was well-designed with clear directions, and technical equipment held up through songs, screenings and strange activities – a particularly tenacious lamp continued working even after being thrashed about in a Maggi noodle and sirap ros infused outdoor performance by Chong Keat Aun. These are the little things that are so often taken for granted, that allow the art and artists to take center stage, and that must be given their due applause. Kudos.
This smoothness of organisation is all the more admirable in light of what limited resources were available to the committee of notthatbalai. With limited sponsorship, all non-governmental, notthatbalai is an example of what can be achieved through sheer effort and force of will. Looking at the spotlights that were crafted out of wooden stools and aluminum boxes (which worked superbly, by the way), one may sense a true spirit of D.I.Y.ness forcing its way through obstacles and difficulties to bloom into this wonderful festival. Forget 4% GDP and the Petronas Towers, here is something that finally gives meaning to our overused, often awry, declaration of Malaysia Boleh!
Alas, if notthatbalai boleh in so many ways, we must, as conscientious reviewers, always come to the part where it tak quite boleh.
Most people we spoke to had come to the fest with no expectations at all, particularly with the visual art exhibition. Someone mentioned that it was as if the visual arts aspect of the fest was a mere decoration to the live and recorded performances. They seemed to find it very underwhelming – unmemorable to the extent of not making any impression, good or bad.
For one thing, the exhibition did not appear to be properly curated. And by that we mean that the works should have dialogued with each other or contributed to the theme of ‘High Voltage’. It rather looks like a group of artists used Lost Generation Space to hang their works individually, not as a collective effort. Then again, curators can only do so much when they are let down by artists handing in mediocre work, or off-cuts.
Something is amiss here. The poster says “art”, not “arts” fest. Despite having a prolonged exhibition period, why did the visual art exhibition take a backseat to everything else? Why was the overall standard of presentation so low? More worrying is the fact that people did not seem to expect a good standard. We’re almost in danger of using the word “underground” as an euphemism for “amateur”.
Some works could have taken small steps to become slicker. The mysterious Rat:h’s screenprints were successful as images in themselves – propaganda art after the style of Guerilla Girls – but they could have been wet-rolled onto the wall or presented as actual posters instead of wrinkled A4 sheets glued onto foamboard. (Still, we bought two.)
Low Yi Chin’s installation about preservation and atrophy had a dead bird and mantis preserved in resin blocks, a roughly made wax baby melting slowly in a jar, some empty jars and an accompanying video that showed successive shots of a live bird, a live praying mantis, and a baby being born. Even for a poorly developed idea the presentation could have been enhanced. The resin blocks should have been cleanly cast, instead of left in their messy Perspex boxes. When artists diminish their own work by not troubling themselves with craftsmanship, we believe it shows a lack of commitment and respect for their own ideas.
Giving and Taking
By the end of the festival, we found ourselves hollowed out and spent. Sure, a certain bodily fatigue was to be expected (after all Lost Generation Space sits at the top of a steeply inclined hill), but this was more a tiredness of spirits, with no sense of being inspired or enriched after being exposed to art for five continuous days.
We would like to venture a theory that is likely to render us extremely unpopular. That is: as an audience, we gave more than we were given.
Many works seemed intent on exciting reactions in the audience and little else beyond that. Idora Alhabshi’s video eeexp@24 had us sit through 16mins 23seconds of the artist staring into space. Opening night performance The Present of Absent by Nyoba Dance+ had some reckless audience participation like fondling of the performer’s naked body (Caecar Chong in his birthday suit, in plain view of onlooking neighbours) and rampant smashing of raw eggs. Aisyah Baharuddin’s performance had her brushing her teeth for far longer than was really decent, before gargling fake blood and simulating defecation. By golly, we watched 45 minutes of Teng Jing Ping’s non-edited video showing him driving through KL’s rush hour traffic jams.
A phrase we heard many times in the dialogue sessions was: “It is up to the audience to get what they want from if. Boredom, frustration, confusion, disgust, revulsion, wonderment, morbid fascination – we believe the audience gave their reactions generously and unstintingly. What they got in return however, we are not so sure of.
Is it possible that the artists, satisfied at having produced a reaction, any reaction, felt like their jobs stopped there, that there was no need to give the audience anything to do with their reactions?
In all fairness, we cannot say that the artists were not committed to their respective visions. Whatever the outcome, it takes guts to take a shit in front of a crowd. But imagine if some of this commitment were channelled towards a regard for the audience and an awareness of the role they play in completing a work of art. What wonderful and constructive outcomes would we have then? Audiences might even begin to view notthatbalai as more than a place where you can see ‘provocative’ art (i.e. anything goes lah), and start to think of it as a source site for thoughtful, edgy, considered statements from artists.
We do not ask artists to pander to the whims of others. We ask them to consider: When the audience goes home, what do they feel, what do they bring with them? Of course it is up to them, but as artists, we challenge anyone who says it is not also up to us.
How to support notthatbalai in one easy step
Festival organiser Yeoh was right on the money when he said: “The best way for artists to support notthatbalai is not monetary. It is by taking it seriously, and putting in the best work that they have.”
This is the second incarnation of notthatbalai and it is time for artists to move away from the ‘good effort is enough’ syndrome. The opportunity to participate in a festival is not something to be taken for granted. We would like to see more examples of commitment from artists, like that of Kurma Manis, who worked intensely for a week to graffiti the entire outside wall of Lost Generation Space. Also, despite our beef (hehe) with the Nyoba Dance+ performance, we still think that their use of materials were well-considered.
There are few excuses for bad art, and none at all for mediocre art. As artists, we have a responsibility to make good art to the best of our ability, regardless of where we are exhibiting, performing or screening – whether at Balai, notthatbalai, abandoned shoplot or commercial gallery. We must do this also regardless of how many people turn up or how many pieces you will or will not sell. This is how we can go beyond our spaces, beyond our limitations, and become a charge of energy in society that spreads like electricity.
To us, this is the true meaning of notthatbalai’s theme of ‘Kuasa Tinggi’ or ‘High Voltage’.
Sharon Chin and Lydia Chai are artists. They are not actually married to each other.
First Published: 09.09.2005 on Kakiseni