KS: As I look at the works of all my artist friends here, I’m thinking about why we do what we do. And I want you to throw this back to you? Why do we do what we do?
And I think an element in all this is that we are all making nothing. We are all making nothing. I don’t want to say this in a spiritual way. In the end it will become a dream, a memory.
But of course, nothing is actually something. But what is this something?
There’s a French philosopher, Jean-Luc Nansi, who specializes in this nothing. But coming from Buddhism, Japanese philosophies, nothing is actually something.
Ass a child, there were hiding spaces I liked very much. One was my father’s filing cabinet. The other was I would sleep at the foot of a big bed where my other siblings slept. And they were always spaces where a lot of new thoughts came to me.
So just now during Desire Machine Collective I sat in that little spot over there, like a little child’s spot. So these thoughts are coming to me. Why do we do what we do.
I am very curious because of all our Burmese friends who are not talking so much. Why are you here? Why do you do what you do?
Even for me, it’s very unusual to hear artists from Assam, from Sri Lanka, from Finland, in three hours. It’s very unusual for me. And the Flying Circus for me is always a magic time, a window that’s enchanted. And I think this is the question that I want to pose to each of us and myself, about why we do what we do.
Odd discussion at lunch: KS brought up communication flow amongst ourselves; we expressed concern that we don’t know the Alter U participants properly yet; that both Ko Tar and Ju had chosen to address us in English without translation, never mind the fact that at least half the people in the room spoke Burmese as their first language. Deal sealed: from now on, there’ll be interpreting all the way.
Then we started looking at the photo documentation of our Myanmar citizen journalist, Sithu Zeya. He’s been shooting and videoing everything we’ve been doing. Yep: I’m not the only one at work here – in fact, KS hopes Zeya might even set up a blog once he’s done.
KS: We all document very differently. And many of us are involved in documentation, citizen journalism. The whole project that we’re inside is this whole question of memory. How we remember, how the Burmese remember.
It’s the first time FCP’s commissioned a local documenter-blogger for the country we’re visiting. This is meant to complement my blog, your blog, everyone’s blogs and Facebook walls that record the course of these two weeks – no monolithic archive but a fretwork of contradictory accounts.
However, Zeya’s shots of yesterday – body postures of us gazing at the feet of the Buddha, precious arrangements of flowers on a temple altar – provoked some friction from the participants.
Wu Wenguang: These are just tourist photos. It’s not about trying to understand the people here. I want to transfer some information to people who want to know what’s about Myanmar. Because for me, it’s not just coming here for myself. It’s for my people. To China, Myanmar is a small country, but we have always had a story of each other. People are talking too much about Aung San Suu Kyi, but what about ordinary people and social movements?
Adriaan leapt in here to point out the irony of this situation: we were telling a Myanmar person that what was important to him wasn’t important enough for our reports on Myanmar. Everyone must have his/her own story to tell.
Julie: I’m not an uploader. To me it makes me feel nervous to think that things are being uploaded. It makes me feel strange. Maybe I’ll be interested in the future, what everyone said. I’m sure I’ll be interested. But this just reminded me how we have to negotiate ego around ethics.
So Alter U begins today! KS is addressing the 24 new voices.
KS: One of the things we try to do as an international arts group is to invite independent artists. So there are no “national” artists here. And they come from many different fields like you all do, some from visual arts, some from film, some from the field of writing. And we all make so many different kinds of art, and we are involved in so many different fields in our home cities.
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.
And here we are: the Flying Circus Animals, drawn from a dozen nations and disciplines; some of us natives, some of us tourists, some of us somewhere in between.
KS assembled us before dinner for introductions: ourselves and FCP itself.
KS: It took three years to prepare for this. And what this is, is a very preliminary meeting of artists. Because I want to start off by saying that maybe we cannot hope for too much in this time, because it’s very short. But at the same time it’s the beginning of some kind of discussion, dialogue, relationship.
Seems he’s had the idea to set us up here since 2010, when he asked artists what country in Southeast Asia would benefit from an FCP intervention, and they immediately said Myanmar/Burma (even KS struggles with the dichotomy of names).
This was before the wave of economic-political liberalization that’s put the country in the spotlight of the global press.
KS: There is a lot of change. But it is not clear where the change is going.
KS worries for solid reasons. He first came here in ’98, when the land was abuzz with the news of joining ASEAN, and the potential for change that would result therefrom. Loads of investment, loads of speculation, loads of hope. Then he came back in 2000 and everything was dead and depressed: the five-star hotels that had sprung up with mushrooms were growing mould on their glorious wallpaper.
Seems that citizens (and investors) pushed for freedom so much that the generals got scared, locked the doors and threw all the reforms out the window. Could happen again. Duplicity’s alive and well: the censorship board’s been dissolved, but speak to any Burmese artist and you’ll find out censorship’s functioning on other levels.
Also consider tomorrow’s event.
KS: Big change of plans. The Freedom Film Festival is postponed. But postponement in this country means many things. The official reasons given to us is the parliament needs the Lady [Daw Aung San Suu Kyi] to be there. And she’s the patron of the festival, and because she’s not here they’ve decided to postpone it. This is how we’ve worked for 3 years. Change change change, change.
So we’re going to Pegu tomorrow instead. But first, dinner.
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.