By Zedeck Siew
Stella Maris, a mission school in Pudu that shares its premises with a chapel under restoration, found itself playing host to the Asian Youth Artsmall Exchange, a 9-day workshop for those interested in taking the arts to marginalised communities. Organised by Five Arts Centre, one of the pioneers of community arts in this country, the workshops took place from 4 – 12 Dec 2005, gathering young artists and NGO activist sorts from across the region. Presently, Angela Kuga Thas (Malaysian), co-founder of KRYSS (Knowledge & Rights with Young People through Safer Spaces), is in repose, resting on a couch in the classroom-turned-lounge area, her elbow on the armrest, her legs crossed in front of her.
Sitting next to Angela is Choiti Ghosh (Indian), who is from Anant, a children’s theatre initiative dealing with space issues. Both wear a similar air: they look worn. They have just returned from wandering the corridors of Kota Raya, trying to capture the sounds of the place. Now they have to tell the rest of us their findings.
Angela says: “I think one thing that Choiti and I felt was that, being in the karaoke boxes on the top floor with this young man, who tried to pick Choiti up… I think Choiti should tell the story… ”
“I don’t really want to… well, yeah, he tried to talk to me,” Choiti says. “And I was really nervous. But what was interesting that he was having so much fun singing this song that – right Angela? – is about heartbreak… ”
“I love that song,” Bernard Goh says, flipping his head up and shouting: “Sakit hati!” Bernard (Malaysian), a smiling and animated talker, is the head of Hands Percussion, a Chinese drum performance group. He supervised our foray into the mall with MP3 recorders, aiming to sample its sounds. He can’t recall the rest of that Indonesian rock song’s chorus, and we didn’t manage to record it. He looks tired. “Okay, okay. What else?”
“What was also interesting was that it felt as if he was letting go,” Angela says, “You know, all the stress from work during the week, but he was in a booth, and the whole place felt enclosed, so it’s like letting go but not really letting go. There’s that tension.”
“But it still felt like a safe place,” Choiti says. “And even though we were strangers he was very nice to us.” “But he was trying to pick you up,” Bernard says, laughing.
What do they think, what do they think?
The Asian Youths Artsmall Exchange (AYA) project was already in the planning two years ago – when it finally happened, the project received participants from the Indian subcontinent and much of Southeast Asia. It stowed them away in Swiss Garden Hotel, brought them along Jalan Alor for food, and placed them in Stella Maris Secondary School classrooms for a serving of panel discussions and presentations about the business of arts facilitation.
Most participants belong to various organisations that employ art on community-level scales. From what I can gather, the arts facilitator is a person (frequently a practicing artist) who employs the arts as a tool to enable a target community to express themselves. The Five Arts Centre’s Ciku pack is a good example here: they consist of young artists who have worked, most notably, at training young adolescents in various artistic disciplines under the Taman Medan Community Arts Project (ongoing for three and a half years). The Taman Medan Project has tried to nudge its kids into addressing issues such as racial prejudice, of which the area has been particularly notorious. In 2004, this project won the IMG Most Outstanding Educational or Community Development Project Award at the BOH Cameronian Arts Awards.
Talk to any one of the Taman Medan Project veterans, though, and you would have extracted stories of the fumblings and mis-organisation that plagued its earlier phases; with uncooperative participants and reluctant community leaders, they have dropped their initial overtly socio-political aims.
In a sense, this memory of stumbled learning may inform AYA, which seems designed as a platform for various organisations around the region to warn each other which methods work and which ones don’t. Over its weekend, four concurrently running workshops (called, grandiloquently, ‘masterclasses’) began under instructors who would teach intrepid arts facilitators a range of skills pertinent to the art-as-community-tool methodologies.
The “Community Video” masterclass was conducted by video maestro John Nosenas, a training facilitator from the Philippines that helped found Pusat Komunikasi Masyarakat (KOMAS), a local NGO which documents the struggles of marginalised communities and teaches them to make their own videos; most well-known for their annual Freedom Film Festival line-up of screenings and forums (in spirit, not so different from AYA itself). His class was aimed at participants who wanted to learn how to approach communities with cameras in tow – always a cause of anxiety – and had a willing community to practice on: the Jinjang, Selangor, longhouse settlements, long awaiting resettlement from the authorities.
Not having been there I ask one of John’s assistants, Lor Yew Mien (who herself works for KOMAS) about the experience. She tailed a group that decided its short film was to be about single mothers within the settlement. The group’s moving ten-minute documentary featured, among others, a portly woman tearing over a pile of dirty dishes about how her husband left her and how the restaurant owner was good to give her this job, and a pair of girls, recently fatherless, wondering whether they would get to college.
‘They were quite open to us,” she says. ‘The Jinjang community in general has been there for about fifteen years, and NGOs have been working with them for that long, so they are quite used to it.”
The participants themselves weren’t so comfortable. Later, when post-mortems come about, a predominant topic within the groups is how transient their presences were: a weekend, three short films, then nothing.
Perhaps it is this unease that made people bashful. Janet Pillai, an arts educator and master of her own masterclass, tags along for the film screening in Jinjang on Sunday, and observes that: “[The participants] were just sitting in groups by themselves, away from the rest of the community, asking each other: ‘What do they think, what do they think?'”
“Well, it’s good to see people worried about ethics,” Yew Mien says, “But the organisers and John and the assistants were very clear that this was just a training exercise. And the community was told [of this project]. We went in with Permas (Persatuan Masyarakat Wilayah Persekutuan dan Kuala Lumpur, an NGO working with the urban poor).”
During the screening, however, a man apparently stood up and said, rather accusingly: “Who are you to tell us about our problems?”
Not a video about their condition
Kota Raya is a fascinating edifice. One of Kuala Lumpur’s earliest shopping complexes, it has grown steadily down-scale over the years, and is now host to the migrant workforce. This crowd, which on Sundays swarms into the mall and overflows into the street, mixes freely with the fumes and bus-travellers of nearby Pudu Raya station and the bargain seekers of Petaling Street – a combination that has effectively driven away the more genteel among Kuala Lumpur’s buying power.
I frequently pass through the area, but have only entered Kota Raya twice before; it didn’t offer anything for me. Malaysian businesses located within Kota Raya tend to tailor their services for what is essentially Malaysia’s servant class, and take forms such as the parcel shop (a shipping / courier service patterned after the Indonesian practice of workers in urban areas sending goods home) – some are already hybrids (we found a hair salon whose owner’s wife, a Filipino woman, was very outspoken about Gloria Arroyo’s administration). The building is a microcosmic, and fairly secret, commercial hub.
These economic observations are supplied by visual artist Liew Kung Yu, who along with Janet Pillai and Bernard Goh, conduct the “Integrating the Arts” masterclass, which decided on this mall as subject matter.
“Because there are so many karaoke boxes in there,” Kung Yu, making rounded gestures with his right hand, says during our introductory discussion, “I think it would be a good idea to make a karaoke video – maybe something that we produce that is intended to be placed back in on of those boxes for people to sing to.”
“Is it right for us, though, as outsiders, to comment in any way about these people and their community?” someone asks. “We don’t even know them, we aren’t even Malaysian. How can we tell them about their condition?
“Then we can make, not a video about their condition,” Kung Yu responds, “But a video of our condition meeting them.” We are satisfied with that idea. Karaoke, after all, is fun.
“Now I want you to get permission from this shopkeeper to shoot a video in his shop,” Janet says. Janet, a small silver-haired woman who is, nevertheless, a master at drawing great theatre out of children, is making us practice our persuasion skills on each other. She is not letting me off the hook. “Go!”
I gingerly approach George Jose, a slightly balding, sideburn-ed man now fiddling with a camera tripod, playing the part of the shopkeeper. George used to work for the India Foundation for the Arts and is now Associate Director of PUKAR, Mumbai, an independent research action organisation. For now, however, he is trying to sell me his tripod.
“Thousand ringgit,” George says, hefting his tripod. “But for you I give discount: eight hundred ringgit.” “Oh, why so special?” I ask, examining the tripod’s legs.
“I think you are a nice person,” he says.
Oh god, I really don’t know how to do this, I say.
Heh, that’s okay, neither do I, George says, Just continue.
“Seven hundred?” I ask. We haggle on for the remaining five minutes.
“Fail!” Janet says. Later, George and I will hang around in a pool parlour on the fifth floor of Kota Raya, watching the tables with very grave expressions. Fellow masterclass participant Rini has better luck. She discovered that most of the young men are Javanese, and is soon laughing with them. One shyly offers her his billiard stick.
Rini Endah Sulistyowati, small-statured and whose dancer physique is masked with street wear, is Javanese herself, and in 2005 worked on a project called Creative Momentum, where she explored the young, mainly hip-hop- and capoiera-influenced subcultures of Solo, getting these groups to exchange notes creatively and collaborate. She is, naturally, more comfortable with our tour of Kota Raya. “Oi, record,” she manages to say to me, before returning to her game.
I press a button on the MP3 player in my hand. Later, during our discussion in the lounge, I play it back, and what we hear is a slice of life: arcades, clandestine gambling dens, and a food court, with the click of billiards, crashing of plates, and bang of joysticks, accompanied with muffled singing and videogame announcers, enclosed in a claustrophobic low hum. Or maybe that was just the bad recording.
“Okay, so how ah?” Bernard says. “So we need to compose a song. We can use that ‘Sakit Hati’ tune. Rini, you sing, okay?”
“Me?” Rini asks.
“You can sing Bahasa what,” Bernard says. “Don’t worry, Zedeck can back you up.” “Me?” I say.
This title is quite big lah
The gonzo-urban-communist style iconography in our programme books and around Stella Maris is largely thanks to Fahmi Redza, a freelance graphic artist who often lends his talents for various NGOs. He went for the “Drawing as a Media for Advocacy of Social Problems” masterclass, because: “This title is quite big lah.”
Master Moelyono is an artist that would have appealed to Fahmi’s sensibilities: in the mid-1980s, Moelyono, as a young visual artist, became part of the Kelompok Seni Rupa Baru, a movement in Indonesia from various disciplinary roots that wanted to ‘liberate a more pluralistic concept of art’, freeing everyday Indonesian crafts and aesthetics from under the heel of more respected fine art forms, enabling a more democratic and politicised practice that would connect to ordinary communities.
Moelyono’s masterclass, large title considered, reflects his current practices, having more recently started working with the creativities of younger children. “Everything was very simple,” Fahmi says, “Everything was just, one line, and what you can do with lines.” With this basic concept, through the expression of lines drawn on paper, Moelyono’s disciples learn how to teach young children a visual vocabulary that is eventually builds into a self-illustrated chart of “Games We Like To Play”, or “Bullies in School”, or “Child Abuse”.
The participants, some of whom are accomplished visual artists in their own right, often found Moelyono’s exercises more challenging than the boys and girls of House of Peace, a foster home in Taman Seputeh where they went to test their methods. During presentation time on Sunday, we watch a video introduction to the Moelyono masterclass, where Fahmi and his peers look down at a piece of string trying to figure out what it looks to them. One of them tells us later: ‘There was this five-year-old boy in the home that would jump and immediately say: oh, that is a dog, or that is a man, without needing to think.”
“On the first day I thought it was all too simplistic, just lines and shapes,” Fahmi says, “But it was the simplicity that made it amazing. The idea about simplifying things to the bare fundamentals that was very challenging. And Moelyono’s technique, you can use it according to whatever age group.” Fahmi plans to apply the ideas from this masterclass in a project he is planning in his own Cheras neighbourhood.
What is the issue?
Rini and I spend Saturday evening rehearsing and finally recording our homemade rock song, “The Shopping List’, whose lead-in is exactly that: a shopping list of items available in Kota Raya. The verses are vaguely existential outbursts of not belonging, and of wanting to wear hip clothes, and of life being difficult, translated in Bahasa Indonesia – and Tagalog. My task is easy – sing the chorus:
It’s so crazy
Crazy and yet so still
What’s going on what’s going on what’s going on
Faces all the same
We know you’re different
Don’t know how to tell what’s going on, what’s going on…
Janet pops in intermittently to ensure that some modicum of quality is maintained: “Rini, your voice is a little uneven in the second verse; Zedeck, can’t you go louder? Use your diaphragm!” In retrospect I should have tried harder – this would have had the effect of catapulting the song into high camp, as it wanted to go – instead of trying to keep a level of seriousness about our Inability to Connect issue and, later, feeling so awkward about it.
This Inability to Connect is ultimately a rather self-indulgent theme, revealing more about us the facilitators than about the migrant workers who were supposedly our subjects. Unfortunately, art for art’s sake is pretty much taboo in community arts, particularly to some of the socially-aware facilitators among us from NGO backgrounds. During the post-mortem on Sunday, other AYA participants will ask us: “What’s the point to your karaoke video? What is the issue?” – seeming to imply that we had more fun than was ethical.
The Point of Art debate, being one of capital-letter magnitude, will never be fully resolved. But the sentiment that art absolutely has to be socially aware – whether all the time or in a community arts context – strikes me as either needlessly self-flagellant, or as a tendency towards disingenuous martyrdom; both of which give the Issue precedence over people themselves. Going in with ‘I need to deal with Socio-political Injustice’ instead of ‘I want to get to know you’ seems a little disrespectful. Perhaps this is why guys stand up and ask: “Who are you to tell us about our problems?”
And the question was moot, anyhow. “We were very clear at the beginning, with everyone: this is just an exercise on Intergrating the Arts,” Janet would say in response, during that post-mortem session. “There is no way we could possibly address any great issue about migrant workers in three days. This was just an exercise to teach us how to get people in a community, with different talents, to work together to make a piece of work.”
We are making something, and it is rather exhilarating. Angela holds the microphone, Bernard sits some distance away with a drum-and-snare ensemble, and Wong Tay Sy, a visual artist and AYA committee member with an increasingly furrowed brow (she had other errands pending at the time), plays on her Apple Powerbook keyboard, and Rini and I shout, rasping, into our mics.
And I’m thinking: Hey, it’s really okay, not being worried about the issues all the time. I’m having fun, and everyone else had fun, and I’m assuming the same is true for the guy in the karaoke booth who had the attractive Choiti ask him questions, the two girls smiling at Yew Mien’s camera, and the five-year-old who wanted to point out to Fahmi that the piece of string on the floor was a cat on a rocket.
The rest of my masterclass are outside, in the evening drizzle, filming a tale of interracial love, loss and searching, involving a stolen wallet, in the failing light. On Sunday, after seeing the finished product, I tell George, who had played the nonchalant pickpocket: “You were great!” The video is great.
I can’t tell you really what happened
There are also videographers recording the masterclass sessions for archival purposes. During discussion, when questioned about the “Facilitator’s Self Discovery Through Contemplative Arts” masterclass, videographer Nik Haslinda can’t answer the gathered crowd on what actually happened.
We are in the classroom where, while participants of the other masterclasses marched to their locations, the facilitators who had joined art therapist Adisorn Juntrasook remained. In here, they had tried to discover their motivations for the work they did and the problem doing it. So much I gathered. There is meditative space music from a stereo in the corner, a drum set on the opposite corner, and a scattering of paper-mache masks and art bloc, on which some has little piles of plasticine affixed.
Lim Chung Wei, until very recently a production manager for Five Arts, welcomes us here, smiling and blinking serenely, but he also says: “I can tell you, this and this happened, but I can’t tell you really what happened.”
Kung Yu, among us, says: “I feel as if I have stepped into a funeral, like you all were mourning for the end of what was really a great experience for you, and now we are forcing you to show it to us.”
The most we have experienced of the masterclass is through Haslinda’s video, which had people wandering, eyes shut, around the room; people puzzling over the significance of the geometric shapes they had sketched, people walking about with masks, and Adisorn speaking soothingly and ringing his little bell. Compared to what the rest of us were doing, they looked, well, lazy.
I talk to Chung Wei much later, after he has had a few beers. “Actually my reason for joining this workshop is the most boring. The others had reasons like: ‘I want to learn more about myself, and all that. Mine was logistic: because I was in the organising committee, I knew that this workshop was the one that didn’t have to move around at all. Lazy lah.
“If you want me to quantify my experiences in the workshop, I can’t. It was all very – how to say? – experimental, we had a lot of freedom. The sessions were all 45 minutes long, with another 15 minutes of discussion: sharing about how we see other people and how other people see ourselves. They were like meditations: you feel very relaxed.
“We were not like the other masterclasses, where you have to learn the skills and come up with an end product. For our workshop we had no skills to learn, and our products were all personal. Like Charlene [Rajendran, a writer, director and teacher now working in Singapore, who also was among the smiling ones] said during the presentation, she was always a curator, even for AYA, but entering this workshop she became a participant, and that she could just let go of all the curator-ship and the stress.”
Chung Wei has verbalised what, essentially, AYA is: a well-deserved holiday for industrious and beleaguered arts facilitators, who sometimes, in single-minded pursuit of that elusive goal, the Betterment of Society, forget to think about themselves.
Chung Wei laughs. “You know, people are saying that before this workshop I talked less, and that the workshop changed me, and now I’m more open. Now I talk a lot.”
Zedeck Siew is busy rehearsing for M! The Opera
First Published: 07.02.2006 on Kakiseni