1. Personal Account On Journey, Borders, Electronic Media & Performance
In our common notion of time-space, a journey necessitates a map (or perhaps vice-versa), with borders or boundaries and territories to abide to, to guard or protect, or to violate, to transgress, or to negate and negotiate or to mend, to blend and merge. As a visual artist, my personal journey is perhaps traceable on oftentimes overlapping maps, borders and boundaries (artificial and ‘real’), marked by a web of crossing paths and occasionally blurred territories. Sometimes I found myself ‘in between’ borders or territories, flanked and suspended indeterminately by contesting territorial forces and overlapping discourses.
|Video still from "The Borrower of Light"|
For me, performance is a mediated act, a form of language. To use the language of physics, and through my occasional ‘transgression’ into the territory of performing art, I perceive the synthesis of electronic media and performance as invoking a single white light that contains myriads of electromagnetic waves in various frequencies. If we take both electronic media and performance as subjects of analysis in which a combination of Taoism, Sufism and ICT are employed as the meta-language or the instrument of discourse, performance then can perhaps be taken as the moon, the ‘al-Hillal’, the software that illuminates the inward. In compliment, electronic media is the sun, the ‘as-Sham’, the hardware that illuminates the outward. Expending on this binary compliment, and to appropriate the language of quantum physics, electronic media performance can perhaps be taken in as either a wave or a particle, depending on how our instrument of measurement interferes with and captures them.
This paper will focus on my personal account on electronic media and performance. I doing so, I have decided to focus on my early encounters with performance, mainly for the reason that I have accumulated sufficient distance to be assured enough in using my own ‘journey’ as the object of discourse.
2. Primordial Journey Across Borders: “Proclaim” (1993) & “In The Precious Garden” (1993)
Winter 1993, Troy, New York, USA
During this season, I produced two artist’s books, collectively entitled “Proclaim I & II”/1993. The books are off-springs of my multi-channel audio/video MFA thesis installation called “In the Precious Garden”/1993 (ITPG). By appropriating a ‘path’ taken by a ‘chosen’ human zygote to reach an ‘egg cell’ as a point of reference or departure, these works summarize my personal reading and interpretation of a ‘journey’ – physically, intellectually and spiritually.
The ‘garden’ in the title of the work, refers to a dimension before time-space in which each and every one of us was conceived, nurtured, multiplied in fractions, protected or concealed, and later ‘revealed’ or ‘be born.’ Central to these works is a ‘text-poem’, written or rather constructed from several textual sources – mainly Sufism and Taoism, and scientific materials on the fractal-like embryo stage of human formation inside the womb.
In regards to this ‘garden’, I asked myself, is it my primordial ‘land’ or ‘soil’ or ‘tanah tumpah darah’ (land of birth), or ‘negara’ (nation-state)? Is this a kind of primordial dimension in which my so-called personal ‘journey’ formed the ‘history’ (or shall I call it pre-history) of my life before time? Is this me in the larger whole of humanity at large?
This is a ‘time-space’ dimension that never fails to intrigue me, perhaps calling me back paradoxically to the dual nature of departure and return; reminding me of my original transgression across dimensions or borders or territories; a rupture; a catalyst: giving me a sense of place within the larger whole. My place in you, and you in me.
Allow me to share few excerpts from ITPG.
In the face of this garden
We see creation’s mystery
As water doth appear
Within a crystal clear
In a day when there was neither we nor me
In the descending water that brings fruits of every kind
In the cause of pure water to descend in order to revive
Sown fields of different colors grow
A drop, mingled
As in a unified bright light
Pursuits of mingled colors
Each with its own fancy
In its own circle
Gracious and tolerance
Each a completion
In the chosen one
From a pool of a perished population
Embodying what to be revealed
Of opposite forces
From one mingled liquid
In successive stages
Well measured and balanced
In the receptive radiating garden
That displays the mobility of the Heaven
And the humility of the Earth
In a complete motion with grace
All in ONE light
In a round luminosity
Of a UNIFIED spirit
In a complete cycle
In its own orbit
3. Contexts: The Ruptures
I would like to take a detour from this ‘recited journey’ to enlist several contexts and theoretical frameworks that have in many ways shaped and influenced the early web of my cross borders artistic journey.
If the time-space dimension of our physical world can be neatly described as a linear progress from pre-modern to post-modern, or from pre-history to the ‘end of history’ as suggested by a mechanistic view of reality, then I suspect that the path of my cross-borders journey would be a jumpy progression towards a series of ‘ruptures’- ruptures of the notion of a stable progression of ‘time-space’ dimension that I used to refer to as ‘modern art’, ‘culture’, ‘history’, ‘identity’, ‘language’, ‘representation’, ‘sign’, ‘meaning’ and even ‘self’.
On the other hand, this linear reading imposes singular rupture rather than multiple, serial rather than simultaneous or concurrent. It implies singular progression rather than radiant expansion or multidimensional fractions, in which the fractions can be read as multiple ruptures. These ruptures are the results of multiple catalysts. Within this range of multiple ruptures, each rupture will eventually nurture and grow its own ‘reality’ only to expand to a certain extent that it will in turn spark its own peripheral catalysts, hence more fractions or raptures. The pattern can go on and on and on (in multiple directions) until one is encapsulated in a multidimensional and overlapping network or web of multiple ‘realities’ (or to be intellectually hip – discourses)
Eastern mysticism reads such pattern as a downward mobility towards multiplicity – towards the world of shadows or Maya. Sufism called it the act of descending, as opposed to the act of ascending in which one struggles to free oneself from the complex webs of multiple realities to a singular Unity or Union. (See Al-Ghazali : 1997) Wayang Kulit or Shadow Play reflects its reading of such pattern through the dual nature of artificial/Real in its binary use of light and shadows, and the branching pattern of Pohon Beringin/Hayat.
Using similar notion of multiple networks of catalysts, branching and sub-branching, Quantum Physics coined the term multiple or parallel universes to explicate the paradoxically dual nature of subatomic elements or ‘ghost in the atom’ (see Davies & Brown: 1986). Using the language of astrophysics, expansion of whatever system to a certain state is paradoxically countered by unseen, non-observable and radical (or irrational) forces on its periphery. In astrophysics, these forces, called ‘strange attractors’ and ‘dark matters,’ connote the “irresistible gravitational pull of the universe towards forces lying at its periphery.”(Horrocks: 1999, page 74)
Cybernetic Paradigm offers similar pattern in which information in living organism is based on the concept of system and subsystem that are organized into networks of hierarchies.
Cybernetic process relates to mental models of reality built through association of representations. It allows humans to create and recreate to form paradigms and new models of reality. Technological advances have accelerated contact of the individual with the external world through electronic media. Artworks and other creative disciplines increasingly reformulate models, due to efficient information flow and exposure. (Cox: 1989, page 7 –12)
Cyberspace, as used by William Gibson in his novel “Neuromancer”, describes a composite new space that encompasses both extremes of scale: the vast global network of telecommunications, and the minuscule quantum space in the microchip, with its ever increasing capacity to store and manipulate data. (Refer to Baker: 1993)
Studies on human cognition reveal similar ‘tree-like’ network pattern in the way human brain functions. Whole brain system as epitomized by the use of radiant mind-map in generating creative sparks reflects similar multidimensional fractal growth or expansion. (See Buzan: 1995)
This fractal or radiant pattern and their scientific as well as philosophical explications are perhaps the best graphic representation of the webs of ruptures throughout my ‘journey across borders’. I would like to believe that it is the best representation for others as well. I used to refer to it as a shadowy matrix that forms the webs for my journey.
Can the so-called meta-language or meta-narrative and its peripheral counterpoints be equated into the above-mentioned pattern? If it could be, can each peripheral counterpoint functions as the meta-language or meta-narrative of its own peripheral counterpoints, on and on and on and on and on………? If I need to set a purpose for my journey, it would be to transcend these multidimensional and overlapping webs of ‘realities’ or ‘discourses.’ The question is whether such purpose is achievable? What would be the prescriptions or devices or instruments for such purpose?
4. Contexts: The Catalysts
This particular section summarizes the catalysts of my ruptures. (Refer to the listed references used to help summarize my encounters with the catalysts)
My ruptures came through rather sporadic and flirtatious encounters (especially throughout the 90’s) with an odd combination of postmodern condition and theories, Eastern mysticism especially Sufism and Taoism, cybernetic paradigm and Quantum Physics. I refer to them as my ‘catalysts of ruptures’ that have significantly shattered (among constructed notions of many things) my previously deepest held conviction in ‘modern art’.
Through postmodern (and borrowing from Eleanor Heartney), I began to develop a suspicion in the repressive expansion of the ‘meta-narratives’ of history (read Western). As a result, I radiated towards ‘little narratives’ (even those so-called radical or irrational ones) and was keener in developing new ‘knowledge’ that could help to ‘deconstruct’ (or even destruct) the claim of power, hegemony, dominance and control in such narratives.
I became suspicious of the suppressive use of certain ‘meta-languages’ (as in the global media) as an instrument of analysis or ‘objective’ interrogation of lesser peripheral languages (object language or text –a community for example). I became more aware of the repressive role of certain sign systems in social formation, designed to control individuals through Repressive State Apparatus and Ideological State Apparatus (ISA, no pun intended). I became more sensitive to my own personal positioning in regards to the complex webs of languages and discourses, sign system and its apparatus, as I negated myself in complex webs of multiple binary contexts (as in local/global, Western/Eastern, White/Non-White, Me/Others, Malay/Non-Malay, privilege/non-privilege, Muslim/Non-Muslim and many more).
My perception of culture and tradition as a fixed or progressing phenomena was changed. By looking at culture as all things produced by human intervention, especially ideological, I began to perceive cultural space as an open arena of contestation and changes. I began to realize that the value of cultural object in the whole spectrum of cultural production was permeated by the conditions of economic exchange. From this realization, I took upon the notion that cultural production of objects (including arts and artists) has become ‘myth creation’ in the process of universalizing their significance and to make them seem natural to human experience. Meanings that myths induced were not necessarily natural, instead constructed to serve particular interests of a controlling culture.
I began to accept my reading of nature as a conception constructed by cultural conditioning, not absolutely natural all the time. I began to read ideology as a tool to naturalize everything that is economic, political and social in order to make its contingency appear apolitical and timeless – creating myths like ‘common sense’ and ‘naturally given’. From such reading, ideology thus came to signify in me as a tool used to maintain and reproduce social power.
My stable perception of modern art and all that is modern as a commitment to a linear reading of history, material progress, entrepreneurial spirit and technological innovation began to crumble. I felt a strong dual sense of disappearance and simulation occurring simultaneously around me. I perceived technological domination of the world as an integrated, over-rated, saturated, simulated illusion of reality that grew on its increasing supply of more radical illusion, added paradoxically by fatal proliferations of viruses and crashes beyond the rationalist, progressive enterprises that instigated it. I read how gravitational pull of the universe towards forces lying at its periphery was seen as parallel to forces outside of rational, progressive, and humanist processes – the ‘strange attractors’ or ‘dark matters’ that functions as the counterpoints of global media and technological expansion.
Such notion of attraction to the peripheral forces brought me to Cyberpunk manifestos, noted for its diligent propagation of cult-like and do-it-yourself techno-subcultures, frontier spirit, cybernetic utopia and total distrust of any suppressive claim of expanding central authority.
I was introduced to parallels between quantum physics and Eastern Mysticism – such as the notion of ‘light’, unity of all things, beyond the world of opposites, emptiness of form (or nothingness or ‘fana’, and ‘Maya’), interpenetration, and cosmic harmony. (See Capra: 1991) In fact, my reading of Al-Ghazali and Al-Jailani probably sealed my own ruptures.
It would be impossible for me to explicate in details my encounters with these ‘catalysts’ of ruptures. Even the nature of the encounters itself is hard to summarize – be it actual or physical, mental or intellectual, experiential, emotional and spiritual. Furthermore, it is not within my keen interest to give a lecture on Postmodernism, or Taoism, or Sufism or Cyberpunkism. I’m far from being an expert in any of these ‘discourses.’ To persist, would be like trying to contain a flowing water inside a ‘labeled’ bottle, only to stagnate and contaminate it, rather than allowing it to flow, mingle, and seep indiscriminately into whatever surface that can soak it within the path of its flow or journey.
5. Back to winter 1993, Troy, New York, USA.
Allow me to continue with the recitation
“In this fashion of motion
We free our HORIZON
From the CHANGES of SURFACE
That never SPEAKS
We struggle to Remember
And adorn gifts
That we assumed
Can only be adorned
When stripped BARE and NAKED
For consumption and Greed
6. The Reading of “In the Precious Garden” As A Media & Performance Work If a rupture can be taken as a pre-condition for a ‘new birth’, an opening, or a paradox of departure and return, the question is what lies beyond such paradox. This reminds me of the acumen of Taoism - the further and further one goes to the West, one will end up in the East (and vice-versa).
I perceive “In the Precious Garden”(ITPG) and “Proclaim” (1993) as a multi-dimensional space in which various sources were sought and brought together – a collage or fragments of insights inspired by and taken from different texts. The text-poem were inspired and taken from As-Sheikh Abdul Kadir Al-Jailani, Jallaluddin Rumi, Al-Ghazali, and Liu I-Ming, all of which were complemented by scientific readings of fetus formation inside the womb. I perceive the text-poem as a co-mingling of multiple texts, with multiple entry points that presumably will lead to multiple readings and formation of meanings.
It was within the ruptures and slippery nature of language, signs, representation, forms and meanings that I wished for flashes or sparks of insights to appear, beyond the confines of my own notion of a stable reality.
In ITPG, members of the audience became the performers, the software, and the moon, al-Hillal, illuminator of the inner. The media installation functioned as the hardware, the sun, as-Sham, illuminator of the outer. In semiological term, they became both the signifier and the signified as their immersed themselves in the installation. The nature of their interactions (performances) defined the ‘meaning’ of their whole experience.
The meaning of their collective performances then, became a constant flux of insights that kept on moving and changing like streaming water that flows in different tempos and rhythms.
Structurally, there were several formal devices used in creating ITPG, namely:
- Modularity and cyclical formations – that eventually connotes inter-dependency, inter-linked and interlocking patterns, all of which create a sense of
- Simultaneity and dynamism – as opposed to permanency/fixed view
- Non-linearity – as opposed to sequence
- Emphasis on multiple viewpoints that reject a monopoly of single focal point (as in the use of a vanishing point in a linear perspective system).
- De-centralization, multiple options, open-endedness and flexibility, all of which relate to
- User/observer-centered paradigm that allows the observer to decide his/her own pattern of perceptual experience according to his/her own option in a given confine of time and space. This leads to
- Interactivity, participation, involvement and immersion
- The use of mathematical and schematic principles, including fractal abstraction (time is compressed or expanded and divided into smaller or bigger fractions or units) (note)
(Slides and LCD)
The text-poem was constructed in a modular and cyclical fashion to negate linear logic of progression. It was written on a large white cloth in a spiraling fashion. The original version formed the base of the installation. Twelve smaller compressed copies of this original version were made and placed in equal distance at twelve separate points on the base. They functioned as the secondary physical branches. These secondary branches were then copied and compressed into twelve smaller units and placed in a similar manner to form the third branches.
I employed the same fractal formulation in translating modularity into time-based fractions. A single sixty minutes tape consisted of both visual (images and texts) and aural materials related to ‘a journey of life before time’ was initially conceived. This sixty minute ‘original version’ was then compressed (in time) and divided into twelve smaller units, each with duration of five minutes. This secondary branches (or fractions) were then compressed and divided into twelve smaller units, each with a duration of sixty seconds. These smallest units formed the tertiary branches – three times removed or compressed from the original version in terms of time. They appeared as flashes or sparks in relation to the original time version.
Members of the audience may interact with the installation in numerous ways. Among them are
- They may read the text-poem by pacing their walk according to their own tempo and rhythm, progressively moving into the inner part of the physical installation
- They may initiate and end their reading of the text-poem from any point of departure (and return)
- They may stop and passively view the video
- They may interact with each other or with how others interact with the installation
- They may function as either the signifier or the signified or both
7. Crossing Borders & Extending Media & Performance Work Through Collaborative Projects:“Rainforest Images” 1993 & “Jambori Rimba” 1996
Some of the above-mentioned formal devices resurfaced in “Rainforest Images”(RI) /1993 a collaborative project with an electro-acoustic duo from New York, Barton and Priscilla McLean, also known as the McLean Mix. The project was produced in two formats – an electro-acoustic concert with video, and an experimental single-channel video piece. RI was a mix of rainforest’s sounds and sights around the world, especially the Peruvian Amazon.
“Jambori Rimba”/ 1996 was a sequel collaborative project with the McLean Mix, with music and video that were set in an audience-interactive installation. Five musical ‘stations’ were placed within the installation setting, calling members of the audience to add and explore various sampled aural motifs provided by the stations. Their presence was captured, mixed with pre-recorded rainforest video and projected on a screen. Members of audience became the performers, while the artists (or perhaps the ‘authors’, to use Roland Barthes’s term) became mere collaborators. If nature was perceived as a realm without human intervention, through this installation the ‘audience-performers’ were made aware of how their intervention in the whole setting effect their own collective aural and visual experience. Through simulated ambiance in an open-ended setting, the conception of nature as a detached independent object was taken by an awareness of nature as a complex organic system in which the distinction between the observing subject (human) and object of observation (nature) was blurred. In short, the audience became conscious of their own contribution in the whole organic experience of listening and seeing. Taking a clue from Quantum Physics, the act of observing becomes an act of intervention that will influence the result of the observation.
I was privileged to engage in several other collaborative performance projects that involved the use of electronic media. Some of them like “Xpressi Xerimental”/1994, “Bernafas Dalam Lumpur”/1994, “Skin Trilogy”/1994 and “Rama & Sita” / 1995 reminded me of my earlier collaborative ventures when I was attached to CenterStage Performing Arts in the late 80’s.
Recent projects such as “Jati”/2000, “Antara Semangat”/2001 and “The Borrower of Light”/2003 will perhaps form a body of materials for another paper, when I have sufficient artistic distance to discuss about them.
8. Responding To My Initial Ruptures: “Listen to the Land” (1992)
Winter 1992. Troy New York U.S.A
I heard the sound of my daughter’s heartbeats in her mother’s womb, surrounded with what sounded like streaming water. I listened to the sound of this ‘first land’ – a land in which this ‘little secret’ is nurtured, protected and concealed, and later ‘in appointed time’ – revealed. According to her doctor, there will be a rupture – a sign of ‘ready for departure’ or ‘revelation’ or ‘delivery’ or simply ‘my daughter is ready to enter this world.’
Prior to this rupture, I experienced my own ruptures - my own sort of crossing borders, of entering a new world, in which all stable reality seemed to be fractured.
One example is a rupture from an addicted and fixed attachment to the notion of a permanent or static subject confined by the x-y axis of a two dimensional space, to moving and flowing (visual and aural) subjects captured through a time-space recording device. I crossed over a crossbreed between a two and three-dimensional space that allows motion to exist in time. Time and all that can be contained by it became my canvas. The sound of streaming water, the melodic call of billal, self-whispering and various studio improvisational acts were performed and recorded to be treated like a clay on my audio/video mixer – fractured, compressed, prolonged, filtered, cut, sliced, pasted, reversed, forwarded, wiped, dissolved, faded, constructed, reconstructed and deconstructed.
“Listen to the land” (1992) – was perhaps my first sign of acknowledging the rupture of artificial borders within myself as well as without. I crossed over, but not without struggles. Everything became fragmented, blown into pieces only to be consolidated by the sound of my daughter’s heartbeats in her mother’s womb, as well as her eventual cries. The chorus of newborn babies in Troy Samaritan Hospital mesmerized me. They came in different hues and colors, sizes and shape but yet echoed primal human voices without the burden of language; free from the haze of doubt.
9. Studio Performances & Video Camera As A Witness: “Post-Colon: A Series of Video Shorts” 1992
Jump cut to winter 1992. Troy, New York.
My initial studio performances were ‘mediated’ by the language of video camera; the video camera became my witness, my audience. They became a mediated representation of my journey across borders – within and without. The borders suggest multiple readings and meanings – such as the artificial demarcation or boundaries within my thoughts and memories, within my own body, within my emotion, between various artistic disciplines, between nation-states, race and ethnicity, religion, culture, history, and even gender.
Adding (or perhaps confirming) the rupture of borders was my encounter with Edward Said’s post-colonialism, his exposition of orientalism and exoticism (of which I discovered that I was a willing subscriber or ‘actor); his exposition of the writing of history and body of knowledge as an instrument of power and imperialist hegemony. (Said : 1978)
I never look at the proclaimed truth of history and the so-called objectivity of knowledge (with its extended footnotes) the same way again.
I responded by producing a series of video shorts that combined studio performances, computer graphics, computer music improvisation, and analog audio/video editing improvisation
Western’s enlightenment ideas of progress that I had been faithfully subscribing (through ‘proper’ training, indoctrination and canonization of ‘fine art’) crumbled down, dethroned. Greenbergian dogma was mocked. The notion of modern art as constituted an autonomous, self-referential field of human activity was assaulted. Modernist faith in universality, artistic progress, shared meaning and quality was shattered to pieces. Plagiarism (or ‘appropriation’) prevailed and ‘legitimized’. Academic painting once relegated to the dustbin of history were resurrected. Mass culture and mass taste flooded the once guarded high art scene. Post minimalism, body art, land art, performance, neo-expressionism, feminism, and multiculturalism began to flourish. (Heartney : 2001)
I fell into a post modern’s rabbit hole, struggling to find my way back to my primordial transgression – the first rupture. But how shall I return?
I recalled Lao Tzu’s abstraction of the notion of a journey in which “going far means returning.”
9. The Return
Allow me to conclude with another recitation from my artist’s book.
“We will remember the day when it was so easy to disclose disagreement in Pain and Poison
Than to strive hard in disclosing through Dignity and Grace
In patient expectation of relief
We will remember the day when forgiveness was a lavish fashion
On an empty glass doll
Ridiculed as an insult
In receiving and giving
We don’t want to regret the time when we were to busy
We take a pause in action
Until its permissibility is clear
Free from the haze of doubt
We return to the First and the Last
The Outer and the Inner
The point of return and the point of origin
To whom all hearts belong
The sanctuary of spirits
The resting place of burdens
The giving of all gifts
And the bestowal of blessings
Night ends with the darkling of the day
Chill of winter takes its leave when summer comes around
Before we return to the state
OF A KERNEL WITH NO SHELL
BIRD FLYING FREE FROM ITS EMPTY CAGE”
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