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Transform/Linger: An Inventory of Invention

By Hong Xinyi

1: The Mirror

In the beginning, it was water. Somewhere in the dawn of time, someone looked into a tide pool as rain-ripples stilled, or perhaps into a murky mud-banked puddle. And they saw themselves. It is hard to imagine that moment. A sort of thick blankness sheaths it from us.

Anyway. Then came polished stone, later burnished metal, and finally, silvered glass. That sentence covers millennia. Our language retains the shadows of this evolution — we used to see through a glass, darkly. But not anymore. In Realm of Silk, a round mirror tilts, like an accommodating moon, above the stage. It clearly reflects, and neatly circumscribes, the tangled painted lines of this man-machine duet.

2: The Cello

This musical instrument was developed in the 16th century, and an electric version was created in the 1930s. The electric cello that musician Leslie Tan plays in Realm of Silk was made by Yamaha, and has belonged to him for over 30 years. It looks extremely cool, like an abstract expression of a cello. 

Tan did not choose this instrument for its looks, though. “In my research for this production I experimented with different things, like silk strings and loop pedals and sound effects software and hardware and different types of electric cellos,” he says. “The silk strings would have worked better with an acoustic instrument, but using one would have meant dealing with different microphones etc for the cello. An electric instrument that connected directly to the amplifiers without an extra mic would also solve a lot of feedback issues. So in the end I decided that to streamline everything, an electric cello would work better.”

The production’s sound designer had used software to compose a soundscape. That meant there was no notation for this aural base. Tan listened to these audio files, then proceeded to add his improvisations, working with the sound designer to calibrate the latitude of his ideas.

“We did some looping but that was triggered more by the sound designer and his computer than it was by me. Given the amount of time we had, we felt it was best to do it that way. And also, aesthetically, a whole looping setup on stage would have been very distracting,” Tan elaborates. “The stage design and lighting played a huge part in this collab and I really felt that I did not want to mess the lines that our designers had created.”

We cannot see the strings not strummed, the lines not drawn. But these un-doings are choices nonetheless. What’s done is done: the live music sings from a body electric, negotiating a mercurial equilibrium with its programmed partner. It is a captivating dance.

3: The Robots

In an age of tech-powered automation, what will become of the human hand, and the marks it makes? This inciting question sparked the beginning of Soungwen Chung’s exploration of artistic collaboration between the human and non-human.

She started by designing a robotic arm, and calling it Drawing Operations Unit, Generation (or D.O.U.G). Different iterations of D.O.U.Gs have been trained on her art-making gestures and biometrics. Their movements, and the marks these movements make, are thus linked to her body of work, and her body. But while these robots do learn from this input, they do not generate entirely predictable output. And they have clear limitations. In Realm of Silk, Chung wears a headset that relays the electrical activity in her brain to the robotic arms onstage, which each grips a paintbrush. She ‘feeds’ their brushes by holding a small bowl of paint just so; occasionally she even pets them. In this way, these aided arms draw, and she draws with them. Looking into the moon-mirror, we can see their art emerge, converge.

The process is a little hypnotic, and a little bewildering. The lines of code and electrical impulses powering this performance are more invisible strings that the human eye cannot observe. But there is nevertheless something beguiling about this opacity, which resembles children deep in play. Type ‘factory robot arms’ into YouTube and watch the industrial cousins of D.O.U.G do their own dance — a highly choreographed routine, honed to construct infallible assembly lines. In these scenes, the mark of the human hand is already a thing of the past. Sometimes a human worker remains part of the line, tasked to intervene if their robot co-workers mess up. Industrialists call these machines cobots. One wonders what they call the humans.

4: The Space Between

In NEW-ILLUSION, there are no actors present in the flesh. Instead, director Toshiki Okada and stage and video designer Shimpei Yamada place two rectangular screens, each resting on their shorter ends, in the centre of the black box performance space. There is a physical gap between these screens. As a result, when video footage is projected onto them, there are times when the actors in the footage simply disappear into that gap. This is an experience of manifold absence.

The story is simple. A couple has recently broken up, and also finished working on a play together. They talk about both endings. On screen(s), they seem to occupy a space that looks like a rehearsal or performance venue, not unlike the one that the audience is actually sitting in. The presentation here is an example of EIZO-Theatre, a form that Okada and Yamada are developing, and which tries to “transform display space into theatrical space by the effects that projected images have on human sensibility”.

What does this mean? This seems to be another performance of deliberate opacity, and I find my eye constantly drawn to the gap between those two screens, to that space of intentional disconnection. What happens to the theatrical space when it is transformed into a display space? How do we, the audience, project our energies during this exercise in detached doubling, skewed symmetries, and layered limbos? This is, again, a bewildering experience, and for that reason an intriguing one. Screens, the mirror of our age, rarely bewilder us these days; they take pains to be painless, friction-free. But here, they decline to reflect us back to ourselves, and we can only sit with our alienation, feel it roil. At one point, the screened footage shows a photogenic mist filling the frame(s), a mist that does not obscure nor scent our inert black box. Instead, this space that we sit in, this redefined context, grows gradually replete with something curious, a sort of psychic fog of arrested ricochets. The observation of non-ease can be illuminating. An old world is dying, as a new one struggles to be born. Immersion is a lie; mind the gap.

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