A Conversation in Saitama
In September 2013, Jason Wee and I were invited for a residency with the Contemporary Art of Japan, Saitama, Japan. Among various other projects we made a decision to have a dialogue expressing our main concerns recorded, The text was published in a limited edition. It was a beautifully designed by Jason Wee with some of his inimitable photographs taken during his residency.
Jason Wee (JW) : We are here to spend some time with each other. But, why talk, why not silence instead? Conversation is a strange but familiar experience; a product demanding our attention and exertion for it to come about, but unquantifiable and it constantly escapes our valuation. I hold out the possibility for reciprocity and an equal exchange, and often I am disappointed, or I am the saboteur making demands and mining words for information. But I return to it again and again, with a determined naivety. And here I am.
Lee Wen (LW) : This brings to mind the Zen story. Three guys were betting which amongst them could remain silent until the night of the full moon. Just the night before the full moon, one of them exclaimed,” looks like we're all winners as no one has spoken yet." The second guy retorted, "well at least we know that you have spoken up first!” The last one joining in said,” too bad for you but I believe I have not spoken till now". As the moon was not yet full, actually all of them did not fulfill their said task.
JW: Speech is a way of making space, even more so conversation, when we consider the possible combination of partners, from one other, to two, three, more. Conversation is promiscuous space. I am not thinking yet of what speech does, but of the prior conditions that would open a gap of time or a footprint of space for conversation. Conditions yield conversation to interruption, allow simultaneous, overlapping threads and claims without any one enforcing direction, limits or rules. These conditions in a different configuration could produce competitive outcomes, as the zen story points out, someone wants to be first, or to be in the position to judge. But speech is so often power's aural signature that we neglect to account for parallel affects in silence, that the quiet ones like the monks in the story (I like to imagine these men as monks) are manifesting their great store of wisdom, their ostensible enlightenment by saying little or nothing at all.
LW: The thing I like about zen stories is there is often an unexpected twist by a kind of poking fun at the often taken for granted status quo or typically, stereo-typed idea that we should not be irreverent to that is considered sacred, i.e. the highest authority in the human or even the cosmological scheme of things. They also do tell us the need to be on the guard to wards losing our humanity on the way to taking our mission in life so seriously that we forget how insignificant we actually are while we maintain seriousness in terms of intensity, integrity and intention. Without that seriousness too it would turn out to be of such frivolous, futile and faithlessness that I would rather say we will surely lead us to the ultimate hell by increasing her destructive extremity towards nihilism until “the end of the road” that we all fear when taking on a less trodden path or risking forsaking well tried traditional ways of approaching the future course of our lives.
But I would like to bring it back to the situation both of us find our way here and now doing this as an “art project” per se. To begin with in terms of economics based on the distribution of energy, as Bataille would put it the coincidence or synchronicity of being here and doing this is not altogether accidental. I would think it best we make some agreement for the sake of clarity and economy to define the areas of interest based on our recent activities in our work. That is for me the involvement in organizing an artists’ initiative and also busy doing my solo research and productions. Perhaps these are the main questions I am concerned with that in some ways we circle our other art articulations around.
JW: So let's talk about that, and I begin with talking and conversing because I see the organizing that you do - R.I.T.E.S. but more so with your archive and resource centre, as opportunities for you to collide with others and to invite these collisions, to offer you opportunities to talk with others by widening the circle of conversation and multiplying the opportunities to listen in to what others are doing, and discovering by conversation and dialogue further points of contact, even collaboration. Implicit in this is a kind of generosity, though I am sure your needs are met, a willingness to experience the energy of others. I think of a point in our conversation when you say you don't always have to speak, though you are often thought of as loquacious. Speaking is an act of sharing, you say. Bataille is a useful reference; I have him in mind as well, when I think of these collisions, these conversations, as an exchange of gifts, as that kind of different economy.
LW: The work I do as an artist may take up any kind of medium, and although it has veered strongly into performance art I shudder at the way we are sometimes introduced as one as I do many other things when given the chance. Whatever medium one uses I see the role of artists today taking an overall direction of working in contemporary society as an agent of changes hence “revolution”. At the risk of ire from those of us who suffered terrible atrocities deserving of derisions we should not have to forsake the ones that were worthy of helping us to where we stand today. We amongst other work not necessarily as artists, still we are agents enacting and revolving by way of taking actions that contributes to a major trajectory in the evolution of consciousness and culture, have led towards a greater representation of the uniqueness of the individual. However there is a tendency of eroding the social fabric or resulting in destabilizing social relationship. Thus it calls for balancing these extremities by way of critically not only ensuring the continuation of varied individuals to being represented but also in a way where we can still fulfill our need to be in a relationship that connects our hearts and minds. We participate in the work as artists and our actions would sometimes make decisions counter wise to conventional thinking in the light of management ideas as our goals are not merely that of quantifiable transactions where we measure values by way of personal gains in a competitive way whether in terms of tangible rewards or power of influence but that of poetry and truth, and allowing more unique individuals work and grow as artists do.
JW: And sometimes the counter-thinking do not resist the status quo as much as it dismantles it. As Boris Groys points out, revolution isn't only a call for the creation of a new system, it is a pursuit of the destruction of the old. Some things need to be destroyed, the pervasiveness of a kind of caution, for one, a caution that immediately confronts a pebble of an idea with a wall of legal and censorial constraints, so that the artist even before beginning asks, am I safely within the policed boundaries, will I need to apply for a license, who do I need to ask for permission. And once the questions are answered, continues to ask these questions at subsequent points of development, at the branch of every tangent, so that risk is not approached with guile or fearlessness, but always with legalistic danger. You and I are immersed in a dense, strongly bounded culture that, over decades, has seek to produce, with some pride, a law without rights, that over time this has become the order of things, that we think first of regulation but not of freedom, first of punitive rather than innovative consequences.
I am not of the mind that there could be only one system in our sight lines, one in which the aims of artists find convergence. Though often thats how conversations between artists end up, funneling to the same disagreement with the nation-state, or with the market, which has the odd effect of replicating the same hegemonic influence that is the subject of critique. There are many systems in overlap, each as dominant and as primed for change, and I am interested in those in which artists move, meet and act with greater range and possibility. I once heard Matthew Higgs speak about running White Columns with the singular ambition to change his art world, and I don't know how far he's gotten with that, but I thought often about what another 'worlding' might lead us, and it leads me to the ideas that brought me here, on exchange and dialogue, and the ways in which these events can occasion generosity and the hospitality of friendship, however rarely.
I dont think of this as idealism. We spoke about idealism last night, how this desire of yours to establish opportunities to perform, to establish a space to act on the world, a desire that is articulated in humanistic language, is a form of idealism. I thought about my own, and while I am sure I have some, I think I have naïveté more, a kind of foolhardy belief in failing often and publicly. Conversation depends on a failure to comprehend fully, so we extrapolate, divert, misdirect, clarify, restate, extemporize.
You mentioned in a 2012 interview with Biljana Ciric that your independent archive represents for you a space of anarchy, but it is also a performative kind of anarchy that gives time to spontaneous irruptions of artistic acts. The spontaneity is important to you, I think, because it is freeing, and it is free from regulation and another authority other than one's instincts. The authority that these act repels is more often than not those in art history and in media culture rather than specific forms of governance. You write of a desire for poetry, and as I watch you perform this morning with your red dress and black scarf, and your dried brush-like leaf, I wonder if this is what you mean when you think of poetry, a casual, thoughtful decision to stay among trees, a series of movements without choreography - catching the wind with the hem of your dress, your four limbs reaching skywards like stamens from the bud of your body, the leaf slipping into the cleft between your legs - poetry as unrestraint improvisation, as proximity to unreflexive bodily rhythms, poetry, to use Henri Bergson's words, as a body always turned towards free action.
LW: There is language in images that goes beyond words. And henceforth sovereignty exists within Art that goes beyond that of “Rule by Law” so to speak. However as practicing anarchists we are aware of the misunderstood notions in straightjacketed conventional society of advocating chaos and crime. However this is counter to what we stood for from the very beginning. Anarchy is individual responsibility rejecting authority while still living in systems of law that is needed to protect us. Unfortunately more often than not we are seen as enemies whilst we are under its mercy to give us protection that is warranted but unfortunately devised by the powers that be to punish us. Instead of protecting our rights as citizens of special abilities to be society’s creative innovators of change and risk takers that are not unlike the parallel activators privileged haloed brahmins, the ones crowned as agents of research and development in the science arena.
The freedom that brahmins of science are given in closed door laboratories of top secret and often protected by the military and even justice departments neglect the work in art and culture that is contested in the open society. Ours are not so easily seen to contribute as much in terms of most treasured needs to overcome the future impending crises and threatening our very survival unto extinction. Those bible toting soothsayers do not realize we are also the agents that their other prophets behold but seen to be in line with the word of god and revelations of doomsday aplenty. The fact is we are only visionaries having differing systems of manifestations due to contextual adjustments of time and logic based on belief systems, (sic the increasing research that advocates the overlapping worlds of science, art and religion, some earlier advocates like Fritjof Capra and Gary Zukov) to regulate contemporaneous audiences be they fee paying fans of rock and roll or beer drinking addicts of contemporary performance art is just as necessary as the ballets and operas of an almighty glorified Allah. The fact is we are merely the same tribes subscribing to different churches manifesting them in congregations of differing education, either cliches into sophistications of a flexible amorphous faith that has a kaleidoscopic ability to expand its inclusion that in spite of post modern theory rather than a disarray of splintered grandeur dimension that may be more all inclusive than any imagined defination may articulate and actually be advocated by all the Zizeks in the promiscuous world of ART.
Until the stupid idiot police of authoritaritan rulers understand this we are forever at the mercy of power that mistakenly taken to be our masters and superiors by a twist of history and fate in civilizations of past empires. What is at stake now is our possible extincrtion if we are not careful to be wary of fundamentalism and the dangers they put us in. This US being all of us including them as the signs of impending conflicts that mean the most horiific expansion of violent annihilation by those who cling on to so called traditional systems of world views that isolate themselves to the truth of history and have zero tolerance to difference puts US all in danger. I see them in the likes of extremists whether they are gun slingers of religion as fundamentalisms are equally dangerous as those on the platform of greedy capitalists pushing nuclear power as much as those who swears by the matrixiced future that is as much a worrying non-sense of the doom to come as the climate change and genetic engineering that is already here in fact as real to me that my dances shall only be saying we are all actually composing and playing OUR (humanity at large) swan songs.
JW: What happened to our anger as political affect, as a catalyst for collective action and assembly? For a time the critical answer seems to be a kind of middle-class apathy, adopted by progressively younger generations who retreated into the comforts that private property affords and away from public engagement. But a quick scroll through the comments on any number of state-operated social media sites will instead show that anger, fomenting over decades of restrictions on print media, is spilling over its bounds.
The punditry around social media in this moment, carried as we are in the current unfolding of events now called the Arab Spring, see it as a speedy and nimble means of communicating and intensifying that anger, allowing frustration and discontent to precipitate action and mobilization. But I also see it as highly effective means of dissipation and atomization. For one, by registering anger as immediately satisfying outbursts, cleverly with laced with irony and snark, that nonetheless remains safely uncoordinated and adolescent; and for another, by self-limiting media design that validate individual voices while isolating each one as such.
But there is nothing quite as effective at nullifying anger, it seems, than art, don't you think? It hardly makes an appearance in the works of our peers, whether those working alongside you or I, or even the younger ones. Without getting to a discussion of the political, if it is anywhere at all among the artists we meet and know, there is the absence of red-hot intensity, the remarkable lack of excessiveness evidenced by the coolness of our affect, the tidiness of our design. Not that I can claim that anger for myself always, or sustain it, but I think without a certain excessiveness certain things are impossible, like generosity (rage as a breed of generosity, think tough love) or friendship.
But is it art that quelled anger, or is it something else that has taken its place, something else that acts in the name of art, but really art can do without?
LW: Well said my friend, I find it more and more difficult to play the cool dude cracking the usual gags. Oh how do we get across to people who refuses our constant attempt at reaching out to them. How many times do we tolerate the breaking up of a patiently constructed bridge to let our confrontations cross over to each other and yet often we are frustrated when instead of crossing it the bid is ignored or even destroyed. Anger only makes things worse as we find that both sides would only shut up more and the wall between us grows stronger to divide us.
We need to open up to each other more. We need to listen more to each other; the other see ourselves in the other. Turn our cheek again and again, let her kill me again and again. But let her know that my pain is her pain. I am dumb and I am suffering and if I blow up do not blame me.
I sing my songs in order to listen to a voice that is the other. I write in personas of not lee wen but of a sex worker, a tree, a mafia, tyrant killer mr. stagger lee, a lonely man who is on the verge of suicide, of a ghost who is dead and gone, I am a ghost of who I was before begging to be heard, because I am not who I am and am sick and tired of it all and screaming in silence and crying without tears because I am angry that I am a failure. I fail to be human, not enough anyway, when I said that is my purpose and not art. Who am I kidding? I am eating my own poetry and sleeping in my waking hours and working in my sleeping hours and destroying a sick body against medical advice and why?
No this cannot continue. I must change. Am I asking for help? Am I trying to be a martyr ? a people’s hero? Kiasu to the extreme to prove I am worthy of the medal I was awarded ? fuck off I can throw that back to them any time now this moment. But what do you think it proves?
What I have been saying is really not new and we know it all along and all the past cultures spoke it and the rules and regulations shifted as the playing fields also and the artists are helping these shifts often looking like deviance for change is a danger to conventions but growth is a deviance cause only babies are cute because we know they grow to be not that helpless ball of helplessness but has a potential for good and evil in the growing boy and girl of wonder and destiny into the fate of the future that outlives us. And they will flower even better as anarchists artists of responsible dreamers. Yes I am not pulling this out of a magic hat. John Cage is the saint of the generation after two world wars that nearly sent us all into hell forever, before all of us doodle fangers, You-tubers , fb mahabarateees and face book poets there was the beat generations and the hippies and yuppies and the right and the lefts and he asked again to the next generation whither anarchy? The black flag of anarchy was there in Taoist philosophy, islam and all that was holy even I believe in the stories of landings of the chariots of the gods and I only talk same same not same as emphirist as my Prime minister declares himself add or subtract our accounts with the almighty game of death to come as we reach our last breath.
Our generation is the one standing here to answer and to respond. Are we failing him I wonder? In the age of the end of history and the last man? In the age of September 11…in the age of the fall of Berlin wall? I only ask one question. It is one question that all of us seek to answer but not that I know it but that is there only real one.
"HOW CAN I BE HAPPY?"
It is an age old one that is the only one and that is what Neil Young was right when he said there is only one song. We as individuals each one has one special song to sing and that make you and I different. But we cannot sing this song alone. And when everyone learn to listen to each other and sing together then I think that is when god the anarchist and anarchist is god and we shall be where the truth is telling us to go all along. We help others in order to help ourselves. I only know what I can do. And when it is wrong I try to make amends. Have it your way after this you can have the last say. God is an anarchist that is why he gave us the consciousness and the freedom to decide and choose what to do. however the problem is not all anarchists can be god or even need to be god but there are some of us who wants to be and even succeed on a level that is not only frightfully close to be true it may even end up destroying all of us and you know who the one is behind that so…Amen. We need to rock it out of that chair.