Kaffe and Tellervo, improvising a song in the bus at Mandalay Airport.
A ticket tag from the Swedawmaw Pagoda (or is it the Shwedagon?) discovered on Tellervo's camera strap while on Pulau Semakau, Singapore.
And perhaps most precious of all, the random chatter between us on bus rides between the BFI and the hotel in Yangon.
Kaffe: My name is Kaffe Matthews, and I think you could say my background is in classical violin, farming and zoology.
I’d already listened to Kaffe speak about her work in Singapore and Ho Chi Minh City. This presentation was utterly different, and not simply because it covers a lot of stuff from the five years since ’07. You see, in the wake of all these discussions about politics, Kaffe felt the need to talk about the presence of social messages in her own art.
Kaffe: The fact that we in the west – I’m based in London – we don’t have anything comparable in terms of restriction. In a way there’s too much freedom; maybe that’s our restriction. We’ve never dealt with physical destruction and war on our streets the way a lot of you have. In another way we are all faced with many, many conflicts, the one right now being focused on capitalism and concern for the environment.
Didja know that she’s part of a women’s environmentalist mock-alterna-pop group called The Gluts? I sure didn’t. The other members are Hayley Newman and Gina Birch. Turns out that they did manage to overstep the bounds of censorship in London, where they got harassed by the cops for videoing themselves in drag outfits, singing about greenwashing in the financial district.
Kaffe: (to interpreter) I just need you to translate one line for me. “Who is the owner of this planet? I need to buy some more, dammit”.
It’s actually inspired by an ‘80s feminist band called Fabulous Dirt Sisters, harking back to a period when a lot of (Western) activists feeling they could make a change by being on the street and taking action.
Most of Kaffe’s talk was actually a cycle back through her repertoire. F’rinstance, her 2009 trip to the Galapagos.
Kaffe: When I was first invited to the Galapagos Islands, my first thought was that I shouldn’t go, because it’s a unique environment that humans are destroying and humans shouldn’t go. But then I checked what conservation activists are doing. And they’re tracking sharks to see the impact of humans on their populations.
She ended up creating soundscapes based on the depth/longitudinal movements of the sharks; their mysteriously horizontal hunting migrations across the ocean floor. Turns out that the hammers of the hammerheads are like aerials, reading the magnetic changes in the earth’s crust.
(She couldn’t record their sounds: sadly, sharks are soundless.)
Kaffe: Essentially sharks are millions of years older than dinosaurs. They are the most sophisticated of animals. And they are being slaughtered for sharksfin soup. The worldwide shark population is now reckoned to have declined by 90%,
This has become a 3D sound installation, which she played us a bit of. It’s supposed to be experienced lying on a vibrating platform, with water dripping from the ceiling, but the stereo system was enough to give us that sense of, as Kaffe put it, “sharks flying around in an audio extravaganza”.
Plus, she did a listening workshop with local kids and played their resulting work on the (only) local radio station, which everyone listened to! The locals must’ve been adjusting their sets like crazy.
Kaffe’s also done similar work on the declining salmon populations of the River Tyne, back in her home territory of the UK.
Kaffe: When I was a kid, salmon was an expensive fish that we only ever got when somebody died. Now salmon is bright pink and available everywhere.
She’s created a score based on their route along the river and taken it to schools, even collaborated with students on an opera called Where Are the Wild Ones, about the salmon returning to the river to play the song of the god of salmon.
Then a bit of backing up: remembering how she started out playing the violin at the age of six with free violin lessons.
Kaffe: What happens with the violin is you are receiving all these vibrations through the bow and through your body, so it’s a lot more fun for the violinist than the audience.
By 2003, she’d recorded 6 solo CDs and was doing 70 concerts a year, all over the world. This was a magical time, she says: discovering the software in Amsterdam, working every day making these concerts that were entirely new and entirely improvised.
Kaffe: And who were my audience? Mainly white young men who were already studying the kind of experimental music I was making with my violin and my laptop.
But what a difference when she invented her now trademark sonic furniture! Bass frequencies played on speakers vibrated the whole body, just like a violinist’s, so that old women and children who’d never go to her gigs would be lining up to sit on her armchairs.
And after her first sonic bed in London, she’s been commissioned to make beds in city after city, each one customized: a rough lumber bed in Québec, a hand-carved bed in Shanghai, where she fell in love with the food and the endless history, though perturbed by the invasiveness of the government officers and the odd unwillingness of Chinese to take off their shoes before lying in bed. (She had to create plastic covers for shoes.)
Kaffe: It’s always fascinating to see how different people would behave when they were invited to lie in bed with a stranger.
Another strange community: the fellow victims of flesh oscillations on a sonic mattress. Ah well. If they’ve come into an art museum, they’re probably worthy of communion.
Or welcome to the French Institute, if you’re feeling a bit more Anglophone today.
This is the centre for avant-garde art in Yangon, a diplomatically immune square of turf where we don’t have to seek silly government permissions for our shebangs. Consequently, it’s where we’ve decided to hear and hold our presentations – mornings in the Conference Room:
And evenings at the Big Stage. Looks lovely, doesn’t it? Sure, there’s traffic and factory noise in the morning and people noise and mosquitoes at night. But we’ll survive it!
KS: Usually there are three layers of public.
This morning’s meeting was called by KS to try and figure out our practice for the next week. One key aspect of this is our interactions with a group of 24 young performers and painters from Yangon, some traditional, some contemporary, all selected by Lin Htet and Lorène from Theatre of the Disturbed.
Our program of engagement with these guys is called Alter U – partly because it’s an Alternative University that looks at artmaking from a daily life perspective, partly because it is truly expected to Alter You.
We won’t be doing media training with them: that’s for other, more practical foundations. But we will be trying to introduce a sense of the complexity of the worlds we come from; the diversity of our practices. None of the “this is what contemporary art is” business either – we have to admit that we aren’t representative of the big wide world out there, and they have to figure things out for themselves.
KS: The Flying Circus is based on communication. How do we communicate with different kinds of audiences? We’re not staging a festival so much as figuring out how we share our work with audiences in different contexts. To me, today’s exercise of talking and preparing is less about whether we do well, but how effective we can be in sharing what we do, how it’s coming across.
Kaffe Matthews has already done two workshops with Myanmar students at Gitameit Music Centre, the city’s only private music school. KS turned to her to fill us in on the experience of working with local youth.
Kaffe: When I was invited to come back [to FCP] I felt I very much wanted to do something with people here. The Gitameit students are all instrument based, so they’re playing saxophones, guitars, voices, quite a big choir. They’re further out in northeast part of the city, and their ages run from 17 to their early 20s.
We ended with more practical considerations – asking how we can present in a way that is introductory without being kindergartenish; how we have to use up only half our speaking time so the other half can be used for translations into Burmese; how in fact the more we talk about a visual or a movie clip, the more complicated it can become.
Also matters of trust: how some of the Myanmar people who’ll be speaking to us can’t tell us everything they want to say, because of political and legal restrictions.
KS: We’ve selected you as artists not so much working for NGOs, but artists who are building our own worlds. How do we build worlds in our own spaces? What is our relationship with the communities we work with? How do we communicate in their shared world?
Yes, we’re kicking off the project with a rather grand meal: al fresco Italian cuisine by candlelight! Next to a frickin’ lake! I had cold cuts, penne alla puttannesca, pork loin and panna cotta! Check it!
Sat next to Kaffe Matthews, who’s currently in a blissed out state because she’s spent the past ten days trekking around.
Kaffe: I love this country. I have never travelled with such joy at every moment.
She’s been staying at backpacker inns, chatting with backpackers in the backs of tuk-tuks (even bumped into our interpreter, Thet, in Moulmein!). And she’s never, ever found herself in a situation in which so many people have been so genuinely interested into talking to her as a visitor.
Kaffe: A guy gave me a violin in Moulmein!
Once a cop stopped her when she was about to go down a dark street, volunteered to escort her, and stuck by her side throughout dinner, giving commands through his walkie-talkie, while she munched on her mohinga on the streetside. Later he found a little boy to walk her home too. And he ran away before she could give him a tip.
Kaffe: I’ve never been so happy. I haven’t felt like this for year. And it’s really beautiful.
The reason why she’s taken these ten days, of course, is that she’s gone for FCP before, and she knows the problems it brings with it: the horrible jet lag, the sense of being busy all the time, the seclusion in chi-chi restaurants and residences to the extent that you don’t’ get to meet *real* people, you don’t get to see the *real* country you’re an ambassador to.
So she asked for these ten extra days – even volunteered to do a workshop at a private music school. And after days spent in hostels, the Parkroyal and the penne puttannesca are even lovelier treats than they would be otherwise.
I wandered by KS’s table: he had similar issues on his mind. Y’see, this was the first edition of FCP in which he’d really tried to invite back alumni. Kaffe came, and so did Wu Wenguang and Takamine Tadasu. But ten people wrote back saying they were busy: never mind the winter frost, they were touring the opera houses and galleries of Europe.
It’s the European Union that’s made this happen: how art is now one common market, so artists are always employed, making stuff, showing stuff. That’s great, I thought, but the folks at the table said no: artists need the time and space to consider their practice and the audiences they’re speaking to: jet-setting from Helsinki to Barcelona is not, in the end, sustainable.
KS: We have to come about with some way to shift from international curation – you go into the city and all the curators just buy up whoever is interesting and you se them in Paris, in New York, in London.
And of course, they think they’re making more money, but everything becomes expensive on the way, so they’re not. FCP, ideally, is a remedy for this: an oasis in the hubbub, a curated space for reflection and regeneration.
KS: It’s really an adventure that we’re going on. It is not a workshop, it is not a conference, it is not a rehearsal for action, but it is in a sense a meeting. And whatever the meeting means the meeting could be some kind of seed for the future. I think it is important that we discover what we want along the way.
One final note: the restaurant has a motherfuckin' creche.
My name's Ng Yi-Sheng, I'm a writer from Singapore, and I've been a Creative-in-Residence with TheatreWorks since 2006. I've served as blogger-documenter for two previous Flying Circus Projects: Singapore/Vietnam in 2007 and Singapore/Cambodia in 2009/2010.