Who is Performing Whom: Daniel Kok
Framed, transcribed and edited by Rahel Leupin, in consultation with Daniel Kok.
What are the three most important moments in your professional biography?
Firstly, when I left Singapore to study at Goldsmiths College in London to become an art teacher on a government scholarship. I was not prepared for it. I had completed two-and-a-half years of military service, I was a Christian and I was trying to do something noble, something that would serve society. The college was selected for us and so off I went. Frankly, I had no idea what I was doing. In London, I realized that it was dance I wanted to work in. I took as many dance classes and workshops on top of Goldsmiths as I could and when I ran out of money I worked part-time to pay for the classes. After I graduated, I had to come back to Singapore and work as an art teacher for eight years. Parallelly, I built up a small body of dance work. I knew I wanted to study dance as soon as possible.
Secondly, after eight years of being a civil servant, I left Singapore immediately for Berlin. It was 2010 and I was 33 and finally free to do what I wanted. The Master of Arts/Solo/Dance/Authorship (SODA) at the Inter-University Centre for Dance (HZT) was brand-new at that time. I was in the official pioneer batch of students.
Thirdly, I found myself gradually coming back to Asia, to Singapore. I find there is more meaningful work in Asia. As a Singaporean artist I am in a privileged position. In Singapore we have government support for the arts. The National Arts Council of Singapore, for example, initiated Dance Nucleus, a space for practice-based research, creative development and knowledge production for independent dance. I run the place with a small team. But I also think pragmatically; Berlin, Brussels are saturated and there have been so many funding cuts across Europe. I feel like I should not compete for these sources.
How would you further describe your position as a Singaporean artist?
I realised that the Singaporean position is a very unique one because we are a city-state and also with a history of colonisation. And beyond that, we Singaporeans have a history of brutally changing ourselves culturally in order to serve a kind of strong economic imperative. Everything is subjected to economy. Singapore is possible because it is historically and economically always connected to other places. There is no Singapore without this connectedness. We are completely reliant on globalization. This means that I have to think about culture and identity in a different way. It means that I cannot rely on a simple understanding of tradition.
Is this phenomenon of cultural loss you are describing similar to what the Singaporean play write, theatre director and public intellectual Kuo Pao Kun terms ‘cultural orphan’?
I first heard of the term ‘cultural orphan’ when I was studying in London. When I came back and talked to other artists in Singapore, people started to say things like this. And even now there is always a trying to conceive of the Singaporean culture in notions of a fusion or convergence of different Asian identities. There are Chinese people, Malays, Indian and Arabic people in this small space. For a long time, the government and even the tourism board tried to sell this idea of Singapore as a place where all this multiculturalism comes together in a melting pot. To counter that there is this idea of, what if we don’t have everything? What if we actually have nothing? What if we have dispossessed ourselves from any kind of historicity? In the language that we speak, in the way we dress, in the way we think about our relationship to the region. We are so dislocated from any kind of linearity in history. It’s almost like we made ourselves cultural orphans.
Is this like the dark side of multiculturalism?
Yes, I think so. In our case, in a very short time, say in the past fifty years, lots of buildings were torn down, the streets were cleaned up, and local dialects were forgotten. Everything is about rapid modernisation, which comes at the expense of culture. After acquiring economic wealth to then say ‘now we want culture’ is too late.
Do you yourself identify with the idea of ‘cultural orphan’?
In some ways, yes. I lament it but I also try to play with it by giving myself the freedom to do whatever I want. So, I would learn a bit of bondage, pole dancing, cheerleading, hip-hop, capoeira, flamenco. I don’t have to care about the origin of forms or if I belong to them.
Do you use the notion of ‘cultural orphan’ to legitimise the heterogeneous resources you use for your dance language?
Yes. When I started working with pole dancing and cheerleading for example, I had people tell me, this is American. And then I said, I don’t really care because my roots in dance are not ballet or Chinese dance. There are no roots in what we do. Even our interest in traditional forms are postcard versions. I am more interested in the position of the Singaporean as ‘confused postcolonial’.
In what ways, then, do you address postcolonialism in your work?
I don’t directly comment on it. But it is the place and the base I work from. I feel like there is some kind of expectation from Western curators on Asian artists. And it has to do with the way we are represented or the way we represent ourselves for the gaze of the western market to put it crudely. So many Asian colleagues deal with the traditions and political issues of where they come from. These practices do not essentially challenge the gaze of the Western hosts, but reaffirm them, nor do they challenge the people who are watching. I wonder if there is any space or freedom for Asian artists beyond stereotypes. I cannot prove it as a fact but I suspect that if there is an Asian focus in a certain festival programming, to be from Singapore elicits the reaction – this is not Asian enough. This is however not something I get pissed-off about. But I prefer my work to then be about flipping the gaze back at whoever is doing the looking.
Is that your strategy to address the expectant gaze?
Yes. I never consider the audience to be uniform, but consisting of many individual members.
I could be seen as Asian, gay, male… The context of the person looking at me is crucial.
Flipping the gaze back means asking: what are you looking for? This performance is not necessarily about me, but also about you who is watching it. A pole dancer for example may have ten different people looking at him/her. The pole dancer has to make sure that he/she can bond with each one of these people while everyone thinks that they are the most special one in the room. And this illusion, even if it is transparent to all parties involved in the transaction, is a crucial ingredient to the dance.
How is your work represented at festivals?
Sometimes I feel that it is not only the Asianness that is foregrounded in what I do. It is also my sexual orientation. For example, I did a duet with Eisa Jocson and then immediately one programmer who invited us commented on how he was watching a beautiful heterosexual female and a gay man doing a pole dance. I couldn’t just be a man; I had to be a gay man. Another time, when I was performing in Vienna at ImPulsTanz the first thing they wrote in the preview is ‘very queer’. Queer not in a philosophical sense but in the most quotidian definition, in a gay-pride kind of sense. I did a quick count the other day; I looked at all the performance invitations I got in the past years from overseas, and I realized only less than twenty percent were from heterosexual men. Does this say something? I don’t know.
But to be fair, I want to believe that most invitations do not work according to – you are Asian, you are gay. I don’t think they work like this. Inadvertently, I guess, there is still this general stereotypical dynamic in operation. I think there are many astute programmers and curators that are thinking about these issues . For us artists to be able to talk about these issues is very important so we can circumnavigate this landscape that we are all part of.
How do you avoid being labelled and boxed?
I am interested in queering things. I am very much interested in the idea that a performance needs to cause some kind of rupture in the way we make sense of something. To me, this is really important and relevant to a lot of different issues right now. Performance as politics, related to feminism, related to queer theory. I am very much inspired by Jacques Rancière. He never speaks about queer theory but I find there is a lot of connection between his writings and queer theory.
Queering something means – if you look at an archetype or a stereotype, things as they are expected to be, but, for example, in my performances I try to invite you to look at it in a different way. A way in which it doesn’t quite fit what you expect. In this moment I think something else becomes possible.
Is your interest here focused on the performative live moment, between your proposition and the gaze of the audience members?
Yes, when I refer to my work nowadays, I describe the performance as the moment when politics is practiced. By that I mean what happens when a group of people come together to share space. Again, the idea is that the audience is not uniform, that it looks at things in different ways, in pluralistic ways. The audience looks at the artist but also at one another. This set-up makes performance already refer to its politics.
You now spend about a third of your time in Singapore. As a gay contemporary choreographer in Singapore, is there also an activist notion to your work in this local context?
I avoid the ‘activist’. Let me pull out a quote from the Singaporean playwriter and poet Alfian Sa’at. The quote is in the signature of his emails and he has been using it for many years now. It says: if you care too much about Singapore, first it'll break your spirit and then it'll break your heart. I kind of agree with it. If one cares too much then there is a lot of disappointment waiting. Let me give you an example: the problem of the criminalisation of homosexuals in Singapore. We are not talking about marriage or civil union. We are talking about struggling with a Victorian law that came through India during colonial times and we still have it. There is no possibility now of changing it because the Christian right is very influential in Singapore, for example. Our politicians say that they recognize that there are gay people but that we will keep this law without enforcing it. Nothing changes in favor of a superficial harmony, but socially gay people continue to be stigmatised. The conclusion is: let’s not talk about it anymore, you are left alone. All my activist friends are constantly having to speak of homosexuality on a very simple and boring level, like we are people too. In this sense, Singapore is very frustrating. As an artist, I don’t have the desire to keep talking about these issues on this level. It’s like staying at chapter one of a book. I want to get to chapter eight or ten.
I find that working with Singapore is a pragmatic move for me. It’s about using the available resources to create a win-win situation. A situation in which the government gets what they want, namely a lively and striving dance scene and we artists can use the space that is given to make it work for ourselves. I would like to connect the people I believe in internationally and think about artist trafficking. European artists who would like to work in Asia. Australian artists who are on their way to other parts of the world can stop in Singapore. Think about South-East Asia – there are so many great artists without resources. How can we artists create the spaces we need ourselves, without waiting for things to happen for us? How can we help each other create the conversations that we need? That is the most interesting to me. I would not call this an activist position because in some ways I do not want to care.
Is it an aesthetic position?
Yes, aesthetic as well as ethical. It affects these different dimensions. And it shapes the way I think about production. I don’t limit it to geography anymore. In my recent performances I worked with a dramaturg from Brussels, a dancer based in Berlin, musicians from Indonesia and the USA. In other cases, I go to different places for residencies and training, be it training in abhinaya in South India, or Tai Chi in China, residencies in Japan… I allow myself to map out a broader landscape rather than think specifically about geography. But in this landscape Singapore is just one node in an informal network of many artist-focused initiatives popping up all over Asia. Many artists are setting up their own theatres and spaces, similar to Dance Nucleus. Examples of artist-focused initiatives are: the Gati Dance Forum in New Delhi, Asia Discovers Asia Meeting for Contemporary Performance (ADAM) in Taipei run by River Lin, Chang Theatre in Bangkok run by the dancer and choreographer Pichet Klunchun, the NiaoNiao Festival in Shanghai run by Xiao Ke x Zi Han and Zu He Niao Collective. We all bring local and international artists together. I call it the social capital of independent artists. We don’t have economic capital but viable and potentially powerful social capital through the ways we network and bring people and things together. I am not interested anymore in begging for theatres to give me a seat at their table, but I want to engage in conversation. We independent artists move quicker than arts councils and institutions, when left to our own devices. There is no need for the arts councils to frame things for us before we can step in. All of these above-mentioned peer to peer initiatives are building a discursive context themselves and artists are taking up leadership positions to build their own communities.
It seems like lately for the Western curator who is cautious not to step into the modernist traps of appropriation and Eurocentrism, it is also about creating discursive spaces in order for all participants (audience, festival makers, performance makers) to express and exchange positions and views. But I don’t know how effective these discursive spaces can really be? While making room in the program for discussion and context analysis there is still a tendency to exoticise performers and performances from the Global South by exactly doing so. Additionally, artist-curator relationships are always imbued with hierarchy and power, both structural and institutional power. Do you see strategies to break out of these congealed positions?
It might be necessary for a curator – and this is hard to do – or an artist to always start from a non-hierarchical position and to be very transparent by saying we are doing this because we need to question ourselves. I need my position to be questioned too. It’s not like I have all the answers. I am pointing to a problem which I might be part of.
For me to be in a room together with women artists recently for example and to say, let’s look at gender issues and let’s talk about it the way you want and not the way I want…I will facilitate this as best as I can. Still the finger will turn around and be pointed at me: why are you facilitating this? Why do we have to follow your program? And then we get into this vicious cycle where I say – I am not your enemy. I am trying to think this through together with you. I find this an interesting situation to be in. I wonder if it is possible for artists and curators alike to be willing to place themselves in these positions?
How could this be achieved?
I think it requires a belief that at this moment it is important to question the hierarchical power dynamics. This is why I dream of being able to speak to people working for arts councils, people running theatre houses and festivals in order to talk about things as colleagues. In order to question the systemic characteristic of what we are working in, of our landscape and ecology. Are we all willing to be that open with one another?
You don’t feel that you have enough of these conversations?
No, I don’t. I find that at the moment there is a lot more interest in productions, in the buying and selling of works, than genuinely unpacking questions through critical compositions. (…) I feel it is an important moment to stress the listening, as opposed to the speaking. It is very clear that politically it is what we need to do. It is very confusing – the world of politics, at this moment. Even intellectuals have little awareness of what is actually happening. Instead of making more things happen, we need to slow down and listen to each other. I find this quality really necessary, especially in positions of leadership.
Daniel Kok studied Fine Art & Critical Theory at Goldsmiths College (London, 1997-2001), Solo/Dance/Authorship (SODA, Berlin, 2012) and Advanced Performance and Scenography Studies (APASS, Brussels, 2014). In 2008, he received the Young Artist Award from National Arts Council (Singapore). Daniel is the artistic director of Dance Nucleus, an independent dance space for artistic research, creative development and critical discourse in Singapore.
His performances have been presented across Asia, Europe, Australia and North America, notably Maxim Gorki Theater (Berlin), ImpulsTanz (Vienna), Festival/Tokyo and AsiaTOPA (Melbourne). Exploring the relational politics in spectatorship and audienceship, Daniel has worked with pole dance, cheerleading, bondage and other ‘figures of performance’. Recent works include “Bunny” (2016), in collaboration with Luke George (Melbourne) and “xhe”, a durational performance-installation created with Miho Shimizu (Tokyo) that premiered at the da:ns Festival at Esplanade (Singapore, 2018) and LiveWorks at Performance Space (Sydney, 2018).