Annie Jael Kwan is an independent curator and researcher, co-director of Something Human, and leader of Asia-Art-Activism (AAA).
Nicholas Tee, Yellow Peril, commissioned for the
Being Present Live Art programme, presented at
the exhibition Speech Acts:
Reflections-Imagination-Repetition. Image by
Andrew Brooks. Courtesy of Manchester
Art Gallery, 2019.
The discussion of Live Art in relation to Arts Council England’s ‘Creative Case for Diversity’ cultural policy, and its relative success in framing more diverse artistic approaches in the UK has been noted.99 This sits alongside the general critique, in line with mainstream institutions, with regards to its shortcomings in efficacy of creating more visibility for practices beyond a Eurocentric focus, and the lack of substantial structural reform such that existing exclusionary power dynamics and relations remain intact.100 I accepted the invitation for this Live Art ‘Futures’ commission with the intention to broaden the cultural topography of the Live Art Sector Review that had noticeably, in its interim findings and discussions, omitted the many UK and international Asian diaspora practices. However as the scale of this commission occludes the possibility of a broader survey or in-depth examination of Asian diasporic practices, this essay offers a summary of several projects featuring Live Art from Asia-Art-Activism’s 2019-2020 programming, to provide examples as to how Asian diaspora practices and Live Art have mutually engendered creative and critical development.
Asia-Art-Activism (AAA) is an interdisciplinary, intergenerational research network. As its operational model is continually evolved by its Associates consisting of curators, artists and researchers interested in “Asia”, this spotlight is particularly cogent for making visible a complex intersection of diversity, and shifts the emphasis away from the binary conjunctions of thinking in relation to cultural diversity with respect to exterior/interior, mainstream institutions/alternative sites, and the UK/and beyond. As a Singapore-born, UK-resident independent curator and researcher, this report also reflects my professional investment in the continued enrichment of the Live Art sector that is interlaced with concerns for its ongoing sustainability. AAA’s risk-taking and experimentation with technological platforms was prescient to the pandemic drive of the art world online. This piece offers broader reflection on this embrace of technological innovation that brings expansion of the definition of Live Art, and the wider inclusion of audiences via cross-border networks.
Catalysed by the opportunity for residency space at Raven Row, AAA was launched in 2018 as a loose network that brought together individual practices that reflected the complex scope of Asia in the UK and beyond. AAA was able to utilise the shared gallery for its many public events, including the four hour Live Art programme, what gets stuck in the eddy goes around and around101, where audience members were allowed to drop in and leave at any time during the span of the programme, and some would circulate and linger in the space. The programme presented six concurrent durational performances by artists Kelvin Atmadibrata, Bettina Fung, Ada Hao, Quek Jia Qi, Mengting Zhuo, and the duo, Burong and Eunjung Kim, that explored the differentiated yet overlapping anxieties of lived Asian diaspora and migrant experiences. Atmadibrata’s performance gestured towards queer erotic imaginaries against image projections of formal English topiary gardens, connecting personal memories from Jakarta to the UK. Simultaneously, Fung enacted her drawing tribute to Chinese migrant artist Lee Yuan-Chia’s twenty-six year sojourn in Cumbria before his death. Ambivalent reconfiguring of the diaspora body was manifested via Burong and Kim’s collaborative viscous oozing with sweet-smelling chewing gum to create sticky entrapment, whereas Hao’s alter-ego performance donned a cyclopic corporeal apparatus to create a fictive all-seeing, archiving post-human subjectivity. Further explorations of somatic and subconscious conditions were offered by Quek and Zhuo – the former invited participatory sharing of discomfort, whereas the latter facilitated readings of the Six Crosses symbolism based on the I-Ching system to explore answers to personal dilemmas.
While varied diaspora and migrant subjectivities were co-represented in this space (tracing multiple trajectories from East / Southeast Asia), the audience experienced a range of affective, visceral and relational encounters that employed the use of sound, smell, image, touch and space. In this scenario, Live Art reaffirmed its expedient capacity for expressing an intersectional and experimental presentation of performing bodies without seeking to equalise or flatten the performances – an inclusivity further supported by its relatively economical production costs (in comparison to other media) that keeps barriers to entry of participation low, allowing both established and younger artists to participate. Live Art arguably provided an open frame for these unresolvable variegations – visibilising the embodied diversity of histories, influences and contexts, while holding a space for exploratory enunciations and relations.
Another AAA project, Being Present, extended this deployment of Live Art to enable a conceptual space for complex and abstracted Asian diaspora and migrant concerns to occupy institutional spaces where Asian diaspora narratives and practices are less represented. Being Present brought three Live Art performances by artists, Ada Hao, Bettina Fung and Nicholas Tee, in response to Speech Acts: Reflection-Imagination-Repetition, an exhibition presented at the Manchester Art Gallery.102 The performances connected with ongoing questions and issues raised in the exhibition regarding the under-acknowledged contribution of diaspora and migrant artists, and highlighted questions with regards to diversity and inclusivity in art histories and institutions. Chinese artist Hao’s intervention splintered the authoritative curatorial narrative with the reading of poetic fragments and sound glitches. Hong Kong-born British artist Fung performed her poignant drawing tribute to Lee Yuan-Chia in front of the reconstructed window of his Cumbrian museum in the gallery space. Singaporean artist Tee invited the audience to scrutinise his yellow-painted visage covered with gold leaf. This performance recalled his fellow countryman, Lee Wen’s experience of racism while in the UK, which led to the creation of Lee’s iconic Journey of a Yellow Man performance, while gesturing towards the contemporary increase of students from East Asia as part of an aggressive recruitment drive in higher education for increased revenue.103 AAA practitioners harnessed Live Art as a modality of production that reached across diaspora contemporaneous concerns and histories to enact their occupying of institutional space for Asian diaspora narratives and practices. The curator and artists were subsequently invited by the editors, Sarah Victoria Turner and Hammad Nasar, of Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art to adapt their performances for its British Art Studies digital cover collaboration – a project that arguably acknowledged the entanglement of Live Art and Asian diaspora artistic narratives within the broader framework of British art history.104
The Paul Mellon Centre digital commission occurred in tandem with AAA’s experimentation with technology as it had begun its AAA Radio105 strand of digital roundtables and experimental audio pieces in the same year. In 2020, as the pandemic resulted in restrictions to global travel and closures of public institutions and spaces, AAA quickly shifted online its community meetings and adapted its curatorial methodology to present its digital multidisciplinary programme, Till We Meet Again IRL106, which featured fifty-two contributors, and included Live Art works adapted for the reconfiguring of spatial sensibilities of the digital realm. In particular, UK-based Singaporean artist Lynn Lu’s 36 Questions That Lead to Love, explored intimacy and distance via one-on-one performances on the Zoom conference platform, and for her participatory performance, Not This Future,107 Korean diaspora artist Youngsook Choi gathered thirty-nine digital grief offerings from Asian and diaspora collaborators all over the world as a memorial for the 39 Essex tragedy that itself unfolded at an illegal attempt to cross borders. These segments were played online alongside her Youtube enactment of a shamanistic rite for the dead. AAA artists capitalised on popular digital formats to explore their diasporic capacities for cross-border connections for co-creation, and affirmed their broader aims of nurturing transnational community and solidarity.
These AAA Live Art examples and the artists 108 suggest that LADA still has work to do in order to embrace a broader range of practices from diaspora communities, in keeping with Live Art as a flexible artistic mode that has the capacity to champion the representation of marginalised and vulnerable communities, especially as the commissioning of diverse Live Art practices is still at present dependent on curators, organisations and institutions being willing to source and dedicate resources towards new and unfamiliar artistic modes. Artists that embrace technological innovation may broaden their opportunities for making Live Art sustainably in a post-pandemic digitally connected world. These possibilities open up pathways of presentation – thus also triggering a necessary expansive rethinking of the practice of Live Art that was once thus idealised, “‘Live art cannot be placed within any singular history, viewed through a disciplinary lens, or held in any cultural boundary or place.”109
99. Jerri Daboo, ‘The Arts Britain still Ignores?’, Studies in Theatre and Performance, 38/1 (2018), pp.3-8; and in Nicholas Tee, ‘As the “world’s leading organisation for Live Art”, how does the Live Art Development Agency (LADA) make visible Live Art practices that take place beyond the UK?’, Unpublished report, 2019.
100. Fisher, Jean, ‘Cultural Diversity and Institutional Policy,’ Third Text, 2013, http://thirdtext.org/cultural-diversity-and-institutional-policy. It is noted that at the time of this writing, LADA has taken steps towards attempting to widen the scope of visibility of practices and implementing structural reform. Eg. the Southeast Asia Performance Collection, donated by curatorial initiative, Something Human in 2017, that holds primary artworks and documentation in relation to Live Art practices in Cambodia, Vietnam, Philippines and Singapore; the Study Room publication, Timely Readings: A Study on Live Art in Australia, launched in 2019 by Madeleine Collie and Sarah Rodigari, with its poetic analysis of Live Art traces in Australia via the archive of RealTime magazine’s descriptive art writing. More recently, in 2020, Director Lois Keidan announced a change of leadership.
101. This programme curated by Annie Jael Kwan, was presented as part of the three-day mini festival, SEA Currents in 2019, hosted and led by Asia-Art-Activism.
102. Speech Acts: Reflection-Imagination-Repetition was curated by Hammad Nasar with Kate Jesson, and exhibited at the Manchester Art Gallery in 2019. Being Present was curated by Annie Jael Kwan, and funded by Something Human.
103. In 2019, a briefing at the University of the Arts London, reported that 60% of the university income was derived from students from East Asia.
104. Nasar, Hammad & Turner, Sarah Victoria (eds.), ‘London, Asia, Exhibitions, Histories,’ British Art Studies 13, 2019, Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art and YaleCenter for British Art, https://doi.org/10.17658/issn.2058-5462/issue-13
105. AAA Radio was initiated by Annie Jael Kwan in collaboration with DJ and curator, Cuong Pham, and funded by Something Human and Arts Council England.
106. Till We Meet Again IRL was co-curated by Annie Jael Kwan, Arianna Mercado, Cuong Pham and Howl Yuan, and funded by Something Human, the Bagri Foundation and Arts Council England.
107. Not This Future was commissioned by Asia-Art-Activism/Something Human, with the Bagri Foundation and Arts Council England, with additional support from Heart of Glass.
108. I made a short survey of a number of AAA Associates interested in working within Live Art for this essay. The general response was that LADA occupies a significant role in the development of Live Art practices and discourses, and they look to LADA for direction on the work they wish to do, but all have responded that they find it difficult to access significant support from LADA for their practice.
109. Keidan, Lois, and Brine, Daniel, ‘Live Art in London’, PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 81, 27:3, 2005, pp.74-82.
Annie Jael Kwan is an independent curator and researcher whose exhibition-making, programming, publication and teaching practice is located at the intersection of contemporary art, art history and cultural activism, with interest in archives, histories, feminist, queer and alternative knowledges, collective practices, and solidarity. As co-director of Something Human, she has presented live art projects across the UK and Europe, and launched the pioneering Southeast Asia Performance Collection (SAPC) at the Live Art Development Agency in 2017. She leads Asia-Art-Activism (AAA), a research network that explores the proximities of art and activism. She was the co-editor of Southeast of Now: Directions in Contemporary and Modern Art in Asia’s guest issue: Archives. She is a recipient of a Diverse Actions Leadership Award 2019, and currently teaches at Central St Martins, University of the Arts, London, and at KASK, School of Art, in Gent, Belgium.