The Case of Baling

TPAM Staff: This talk will be in English, Thai and Japanese. Thai will be translated into Japanese, and it will be translated into English, which you’ll hear through your earphone. That is the system, so theoretically everyone needs a device unless you understand all the three languages. If you haven’t received it yet, please go to the reception and get one.

We would like to start the fourth session from the artist’s point of view, in the discussion series on co-production in Asia. The speakers are Pichet Klunchun, whose Dancing with Death is being premiered; Mark Teh, whose Baling is also our co-production; and the moderator Kee Hong Low. Kee Hong, please take over.

Photo: Hideto Maezawa

Photo: Hideto Maezawa

Kee Hong Low: Good afternoon, everyone. I don’t know how many of you attended the previous session on the co-production from the producer’s point of view. Not everyone. What I will hope to do is to give you a very quick summary of what we discussed the last time to put it into the context. Today we will talk about co-production purely from the artist’s point of view, because in a lot of ways, in the co-production, the context is very complex as we have heard in the last session, and it is something for which within this part of the world we are trying very much to find different models to go about supporting artists. If you give me about five minutes, I will just give do a quick sort of round up to give the context for today.

In the last session we had Faith Tan from the Esplanade Singapore, Hiromi Maruoka of course from TPAM, Stephen Armstrong from Arts Center Melbourne, as well as Sojirat Singholka, the producer of Pichet Klunchun Dance Company, who are the key co-producers and co-commissioners for Dancing with Death. We needed to clarify the nomenclature in that session to really talk about what was the process like from the producer’s point of view. One of the key things that came up very quickly was the clarity of roles in a sense, which is why I go back to the difference between the commissioner and the producer. Because the producer would have a lot more involvement in the sort of step-by-step, day-to-day process, of course from the budgeting right down to solving technical issues of the set. The roles were very critical to be able to have different elements in place in order to better facilitate how the artist is making a work, especially if the work is completely new.

Today, what is interesting is that the works by Mark and Pichet are two very different examples (I am going to assume that you have all seen both Pichet’s Dancing with Death and Mark’s Baling), because in Pichet’s case it is a completely new work premiering in TPAM whereas Mark’s Baling is a work that has existed for about 10 years and gone through five different iterations; this current one is the latest version. When I presented it in Singapore in 2011, it was a completely different work altogether. Although the text and the content were exactly the same, in terms of its manifestation it was very different.

The clarifying of roles was very critical because as the artists are figuring out in the rehearsal studio, in the room, whether in conversations with their collaborators artistically, the producers have to solve the problems along the way, and if the roles are not clarified of who is doing what, it is going to be a bit haywire. I think I want to thank the speakers in the last session for being very transparent and honest in their learning points, because this is what we are trying to do in these sessions. As Stephen said, we should be able to celebrate each other’s successes to be very honest with our massive failures so that we can take away, I think, key understanding on moving this thing about co-production.

Photo: Hideto Maezawa

Photo: Hideto Maezawa

The other thing that was raised and was critical in what we discussed in the last session was in fact also about the timeline; sequencing of when the artist knows that you have a commission or enough budget. Money was very important. We do not want to pretend otherwise. No money means no work. We have to be upfront first. Soji was great to finish the last round for Pichet’s case — and I think for most artists — she would need ideally two years to make it work. We concluded that there is no shame to put this upfront and especially in this part of the world when the economics of creation and making production has been condensed to about six weeks to make a new show, which is completely nuts.

In that sense I think we have to recognize that the artistic process needs that time, and I would say first that it needs the time and space for the artist to fail, and to fail gloriously, because especially coming from where we come from, there is a lot of pressure to be successful. You are using money from many, many different parts, and everybody expect that the premiere to be the perfect iteration of the work, which usually is not. I think Stephen agrees with me. The obsession of premieres has become such oppressing phenomenon not just for the artist, but I think equally for presenters, curators and the houses that will go into commissioning. I think in that sense Mark’s example is an interesting one because it is a work that has evolved over 10 years having different points of new commissioning for you to dig that work. I will shut up now and ask and invite Mark to give everyone a very clear sort of context in his process for Baling so that we can contrast this later with Pichet’s sharing for his completely new piece of work. Mark, please. 

Photo: Hideto Maezawa

Photo: Hideto Maezawa

Mark TehThank you, Kee Hong. Thanks everyone for coming out to listen to us speak. I think what Kee Hong has just said really provides a very nice kind of window or frame for us to think about our project. I haven’t seen Pichet’s Dancing with Death unfortunately as we were also in the theatre at the same time, so I don’t have a basis for comparison; I will be speaking more from our perspective if that is okay.

As Kee Hong mentioned we started this Baling project in 2005, and some contextual things might be useful. In 2003, the communist leader who appears in the performance, Chin Peng, published his autobiography. For a nation state that only had one ruling party or ruling coalition since independence in 1957, this was really important for opening a new vista, a new kind of window into alternative histories for us about the 1948-1960 Malayan Emergency and civil war. Many young artists, filmmakers, theatre practitioners, and in fact young historians as well, and researchers began to really look at this period. I am not unique in that sense. There are a lot of people who also do this kind of work.

We found the transcripts of the Baling Talks in 2005. They are publicly available actually in Malaysia, but no one knows that they exist. Strangely enough, they are in a memorial, which also tells you that the place of memorials in Malaysian society is not particularly highly regarded or people don’t visit them.

We did five different versions, and the first version was in 2005–2006. It was very raw, 60-minute, physical theatre kind of performance that we toured to universities, colleges and futsal centers or indoor football fields. So it was quite agitprop in its approach, and we played in like corridors, canteens and football spaces. These were the kinds of places that we felt very urgent at that time to do it in, and in that particular version those performers shared their family’s connections to or oppressions by the communist party, personal stories, stories of grandfathers who were deported back to China, also stories where the communists threatened them physically, and so on and so forth, as well as reading the talks.

In 2008 and 2011, we did versions including the one in Singapore when Kee Hong invited us. We did versions where we read out the entire transcripts. This probably lasted for four or five hours — Kee Hong, and you thought the show was long here? It was substantially longer in Singapore and in Kuala Lumpur… What we did there was — we invited activists, civil society leaders, journalists, human rights lawyers, kind of critical filmmakers, public intellectuals, politicians and members of parliament to read the transcripts.

Photo: Hideto Maezawa

Photo: Hideto Maezawa

At the same time, I should mention that my group and I worked extremely collaboratively. I worked with visual artists who made the set that you guys saw and filmmakers: Imri Nasution and Fahmi Reza. Besides Baling there is a whole archive of projects that looks at the Malayan Emergency that we have developed through exhibitions, films, internet projects and so on and so forth. Baling is just a series, and in fact I didn’t think of it as a series until this most recent one: oh it’s actually a series, we’ve been doing it again and again and again.

This latest version, as Kee Hong mentioned, was commissioned by the Asian Arts Theatre, by Seonghee Kim. For this particular one we were actually very resistant towards doing it, because we thought maybe we had closed the chapter on this part of our work or this part of our history, but somehow the group began talking again and asking some of these fundamental questions, “What is the meaning of looking at the talks now?” and “What is the meaning of looking at ideas that appear in the talks such as ‘loyalty,’ ‘surrender,’ ‘nation,’ ‘freedom’ and ‘independence’ now?”

Also, when we were asked, it was just one year after Chin Peng had died. Finally, the last protagonist of the talks had passed away, and because his ashes could not be allowed to return to Malaysia, we thought this was a very useful metaphor for us to think about history and dust, because dust never really disappears. It is ever present. You can’t get rid of it. You can’t see it anymore. You can put it away. You can put it in a corner, but it is always still there. The fact that his ashes could not be brought back across the border was something very powerful for us.

This is why the Chin Peng footage is there. We began very consciously to look at how his images had been constructed throughout our history, by the British and by the independent government, and much more recently when he died, to attempt to kind of understand and deconstruct this ghost or phantom hopefully in a more kind of human way.

I hope this gives you a picture of kind of different Balings that we have made over the time and the kind of context with which we are trying to think about it.

Maybe the last thing I will say which Kee Hong might pick on later on is that it did cause us great stress to think about redoing it again because I work with activists, politicians and documentary filmmakers, and half of the group is not involved in theatre at all. So this idea of touring…

Kee Hong Low: Doesn’t work.

Mark Teh: Doesn’t work. You know, it’s very abstract. Our work is so contextual. There was a lot of stress actually thinking about why we are doing it again. Are we just doing it for an international audience? Why would people in Gwangju want to see this? Of course Seonghee was very good at talking to us during different times and explaining about the situation in Gwangju and the Uprising there, but we hadn’t been there. Of course it was nerve-racking, of course we were insecure and very uncertain of who we were talking to and why we were talking to them. But we can talk about this later. I shut up.


Photo: Hideto Maezawa

Photo: Hideto Maezawa

Kee Hong Low: It is interesting for me that when I first heard that Hiromi from TPAM and Seonghee from the Asian Arts Theatre were interested in co-commissioning Baling, the first question I had was, “Why?” It made sense for us to do it in Singapore because we had shared history. Although age-wise we have not live through that, but it is within our political context. That is why reading verbatim the documentation made sense, and it was relevant also to the year when I did it in Singapore; we were going through the general elections, and the politicians of now are completely idiots. There is no more statesman, whereas in the time of Baling there were super eloquent and super smart people in terms of conceptually thinking about law and human rights and so on and so forth.

My question was more related to the fact that actually in Baling the process in the 10 years is organic in a way that allowed the work to mature over 10 years, because I think any good piece of work requires very extensive sort of research, sometimes not in a linear fashion — the artist can go off in different tangents and they come back — but it is a testament to actually that each round that Baling went through allowed Mark and the collective to investigate an additional perspective or facet to the subject matter itself. And this is, at the moment, in our part of the world, kind of luxury. There is no such thing as that an artist would keep revisiting the same piece of work in a multiple iteration. Usually it is done and then it is done and then it goes on tour, fine, if not, it ends up in a DVD on a shelf or something like that.

Pichet and I had a conversation two mornings ago because I was not privy to Pichet’s process for Dancing with Death, although I am very familiar with Pichet’s work in total because I have also commissioned him, but the question that I have for Mark before we go into Pichet is, Mark, do you think that it is important as an artist that we somehow structure the moments or the steps by which you allow your process to have these moments where — okay, the work is never fully finished as such, which means that it already first immediately removes the concept of “a premiere,” but I am asking this because this really implicates the discussion the other day on why entering into our circumstance of the co-production would help you at all in your process. I am asking this question to you, and later I will ask this to Pichet as well.

Mark Teh: It is a tough question because this is our first experience of co-production or being commissioned for my work in Five Arts Centre, a collective that has been around for over 30 years. But in relation to these kinds of, I don’t know what you call them, milestones, structures or tollgates to think about the process, of course they are useful, because they also allow for markers to be laid down, they allow for the team to change its mind to make more research. As an example for this one, we decided to visit the cemetery where Chin Peng wanted his ashes to be scattered, which we had never done before, so this was kind of a new experience for us. A lot more extra research, footage, documentation and rethinking. We didn’t use it, but it was really important for us because as you do it for 10 years, you need new questions, new perspectives and new contradictions.

Maybe I can talk just briefly about the time, the 11 years, because when we first did it, we were also younger artists. We were in our early 20s. We were angrier. We didn’t mind performing in canteens and car parks and futsal centers, kind of terrorizing the audience. Now everyone is older and fatter (laugh), and they just want to read… not really, but you know what I mean, that was a particular way of working.

I should also mention just contextually that in 2008 and 2013 there was a big shift in Malaysia politically, where opposition parties came into power in about four or five different states in the 15 states. This was very significant, because I think subconsciously it changed our way of working. There were more spaces already. We didn’t have to go on the attack. Clearly agitprop wouldn’t have worked, and in fact it never works at all. It was more important at that point, 2008 and 2011, to read, to hear the words, to invite people to sit and listen and read them. And it was about, of course, representation: inviting specific people to come and read.

Now that we are here in 2016, the promise of 2008 and 2013 is gone, of course, and Malaysia is again in what you can call a two-party system or two-coalition system now. But we have new contradictions, and that was why we looked at really this Chin Peng figure as the ultimate taboo, as a way to kind of think about it, because we have new taboos now. I am not sure if I answered the question well.

Photo: Hideto Maezawa

Photo: Hideto Maezawa