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Reflection from/in Asia on Dance, Technology and History - Choy Ka Fai Interview

Interview / Asia Hundreds

Thoughts and Bodies of Dancers Explored through Technology

- Deviating a bit from Soft Machine, I also found your interest in, or obsession with, technology in your past works.

Ka Fai: Are you talking about Prospectus For a Future Body?

- I was thinking of Notion: Dance Fiction that was presented at Festival/Tokyo and Kyoto Experiment in the first place. The work was in a sense the model of the way you involve technology and anti-technology. You stored data extracted from footages of historically important dancers in a computer, and have a living dancer wear sensors or pads that control muscles and reproduce historical dances following the data sent from the computer. Of course that was a fake idea and impossible in the current technology, but I was deceived into believing that very well (laughs).

In Soft Machine too, you bring a camera to Manipur to follow Surjit, so digital technology is important at least as a tool, but you don't conspicuously show the technological achievement.

Ka FaiThe Soft Machine project is the second in a trilogy that I have been working on. Notion was the first, and what I tried to do first was to hijack the brain of the function of controlling the body. As you explained, it was about choreographing digitally, only with a computer. When I was working on the piece, I was interested in what on earth choreographers and dancers were thinking. That, and other various reasons, led me to the research and meetings with a number of artists, and developing on the process, the third piece will be premiered in Berlin. The title is The Choreography of Things, and in the piece, what I have researched about neuro-sensing will be merged with dance. I started to experiment on various things and came to think that there is a limit in technological multimedia stuff. I became less and less interested in having merely digital surfaces on the backdrop, in the projection or interactions. I worked with Japanese people, and thought I would never be better than them in interactions through digital technology, so I shifted my focus to the body. I began to study invasive technology. The master sensor collects data, and computerizes it. That is now possible with brainwave. "Invasive" doesn't mean aggressive; I have the dancers wear brainwave sensors, and if I ask a question or give a choreographic task to them, I can tell what they are thinking by analyzing the brainwave data. Are they being true or lying? Are they following my instructions or not? I collect information from the dancers' brainwave, but there must be some kind of stimulations in the viewers too. I want to work on that too.

A photo of Ka Fai 3
Photo: Naoaki Yamamoto

- It's indeed scientific, but it's also utopian, or on the contrary, dystopian. I can imagine that it works like a polygraph, but can it really detect emotions?

Ka Fai: What made me conceive the piece was the fact that there is a gap between what a choreographer writes about their piece and what audience sees. I wondered if what they do can be understood and analyzed by using their brainwave.

- There is a huge accumulation of data and papers in neuroscience, and it must be difficult to understand their special terminology. It is easy to say, "understand what dancers are thinking when they are dancing," but is it really possible? How do you analyze their emotions?

Ka Fai: It isn't possible in that sense (laughs). Those kinds of studies have proven that the brain is too complicated even for the top neuroscientists to analyze. They just propose a hypothesis and experiment to learn which parts of the brain are active and which parts are not. Analysis of what dancers are thinking is my own hypothesis, and I can only interpret through my own observation and based on my own methodology.

- Doesn't that sound groundless?

Ka Fai: I have actually met and talked with some neuroscience specialists, and they said that they understand what I want to do. This kind of research is important for them too, because recent studies in neuroscience are predominantly about consumer activities. Of course my project has something to do with consumer activities, but I don't intend to raise a question about that or try to sell things. I just want to understand things.

- What the actual presentation of the performance will be like?

Ka Fai: In Berlin I show a version for a gallery. It's with four dancers, and four unique versions forty minutes each. The brainwave shall be live streamed, and I shall add commentary to it. Of course, I conceived the choreography too.

- Can you concretely explain how you add commentary and conceive choreography?

Ka Fai: Most of my projects last for two years. The first series that I am going to present in Berlin is called Introspective, in which what a dancer feels while dancing is understood through the brainwave. After the gallery version, I will work on a performance version. For the first series, I had the dancer, and we collaborated on a choreographic score. For example, I proposed, "Here, what if you dance to a song that you like, or if you read aloud a text that you like?" We collect and compare various things like this. We need to gather data. While repeating the process, we compare the data, have another dancer make the same gesture to compare, or have them do different things. We also see how the brainwave works when they improvise. It can be accessing their memories, or if it doesn't, the movements must be totally new to them and they must be just following energy and flow. An explanation like this might sound like something very dependent on technical studies, but I have been trying to make it as simple as possible and also to contextualize it. I don't want it to be like a scientific paper, which I myself won't understand. I want science to be accessible to audience. To make the piece sustainable, I'm trying to build a system that any dancer can use. You visit a place, work with a new dancer, and then a new "reading" is created. Of course, I need time to condition the dancer with the system and also software synchronization so that they understand each other. I think a computer is also an intelligent being. We don't only tell a computer what to do but also receive instructions from the computer. After the conditioning period, we are able to work together.

- And then what happens?

Ka Fai: I don't know before actually doing that (laughs).

Creation Environment

- You have been globally developing projects, literally, and it seems that experimental and new ideas are appreciated better in European cities such as London and Berlin. Is that right?

Ka Fai: But I get more money from Asia (laughs).

- Oh, the money is from Asia (laughs).

Ka Fai: As a Singaporean, I am very lucky to be supported by the National Arts Council Singapore. They provide the initial support for most of my research which are the basis of my creations, so I appreciate it a lot. However, I haven't recently created works in Singapore. I had worked in Singapore for nearly a decade, and I always ended up working with the same people. It has been more than five years since I left Singapore, and that made my creative concepts clearer and my environment freer. In terms of my strategy, I often get support from the National Arts Council or commission from Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, which is also in Singapore, at the early stage of my ideas. And then, at the stage of work-in-progress, I get support from European and Asian festivals.

- You are based in Berlin now?

Ka Fai: I am on a one-year residency at Künstlerhaus Bethanien. That is also supported by the National Arts Council Singapore.

- Bethanien? The legendary art center, where Jan Fabre worked when he was young and Shogo Ota had a creation?

Ka Fai: Yes. Now they focus more on visual arts though. I'm grateful to them for picking me. Before that, I was in London for five years studying design at the Royal College of Art. I studied what is called "speculative design."

A photo of Mr. Uchino 2
Photo: Naoaki Yamamoto

- I am unfamiliar with "Speculative design." What is it about?

Ka Fai: It's critical design. It's not for services or productions but critique on society, concepts and ideas. Speculative design is about designing certain situations or solutions aiming for possible futures. I created the first piece of the trilogy because the experience at the College made me think of the future of dance technology. The documentation of dance that followed it is also in that line.

- That is responsive to the idea of archive, which has recently been enthusiastically embraced by scholars first and then practitioners. Why has archive become important for artists in these years?

Ka Fai: That happened in the recent five years or so. I don't know why, but I feel that the recognition of the necessity to think about the issue of archiving has spread among artists.

- Is that different from the older idea of archive, where libraries would collect visual documentations?

Ka Fai: It has only been one year since New York Public Library for the Performing Arts started to make its dance video archive accessible on the internet. However, Soft Machine is different from that kind of archive. Of course, it involves historical issues about dance, but I am interested more in what is happening right now. So, that is not an archive of the past but a real-time, live archive.

A photo of Ka Fai and Mr. Uchino 1
Photo: Naoaki Yamamoto

Interest in Insignificant History and Its Development into a Work

- We have had you talk about Soft Machine and the project involving brainwave, but have you been working on other projects too?

Ka Fai: I have a project called Insignificant History. It started when I was still based in Singapore as a project about a Japanese shrine that was built in Singapore during the World War II. It is a ruin now, and it is not in our history textbook. Nobody talks about it. I am interested in this kind of forgotten history, which I call "insignificant history." I am interested in understanding what it is now and what it means to our generation. I presented another work, I think in 2012, at Singapore Arts Festival. It was about a Hakka Chinese republic that was in Indonesia. The 107-year history of the republic and the 50-year history of Singapore have a lot in common. They are like parallel worlds. This kind of "insignificant history" has formed another line of my work, from which sometimes an exhibition or performance emerges.

- I like the word "insignificant." There are "official" histories, and the histories of peoples and publics are always presented in opposition to them. But "insignificant" histories don't belong either to the former and the latter, which is interesting.

I visited Singapore recently and saw the exhibition in cerebration of the 30th anniversary of Lasalle College of the Arts, to which you contributed a work.

Ka Fai: Yes, I did. I contributed part of a project that I started in 2009. In 1777, a Hakka Chinese republic was established in Pontianak, Indonesia. There had been a number of Chinese people who went there to mine for gold, and the business grown so big that they seized sovereign power over the land. That resulted in the republic because they selected the leader through election. Scholars call it "the first republic in Southeast Asia." It was ten years before the Constitution of the United States. My interested started there. I went to Mandor, 30 minute from Pontianak, where the capital of the republic was, to look for the descendants and remnants of the republic. The republic officially ceased to exist long time ago, in 1884, but there still are remnants and people who worship the founder of the republic. There are also Hakka people who have mixed with Indonesians. I went to the town where the founder was born, and interviewed some descendants living there. I also went to the archive of Leiden University in the Netherlands, which has all the documentations about the republic.

- Ah, the Netherlands. The former suzerain state.

Ka Fai: The research proved that the republic surely existed for 107 years. Its history is similar to Singapore's history. People gather for a business, they gain power, and bring Confucius scholars from China to educate children: this is exactly the same as what happened in Singapore in the 1980s. Also, both the two republics have punitive provisions that follow industrial and corporate priorities. They are so similar, which made me think that I have to study the history of the republic to be able to study the history of Singapore.

- Is the project ongoing?

Ka Fai: I stopped in 2012, but that just means that I have collected all the materials. I have been thinking of doing something with a different structure and more accessibility to audience.

- Thank you for the interesting conversation. I look forward to your future projects.

A photo of Ka Fai and Mr. Uchino 2
Photo: Naoaki Yamamoto

[February 12, 2015, in Sakuragicho, Yokohama]

Interviewer: Tadashi Uchino

Born in 1957 in Kyoto. MA in English literature at the Graduate School of Humanities, The University of Tokyo. Ph.D. in 2001. Currently a professor at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Department of Interdisciplinary Cultural Studies, The University of Tokyo. Specializes in Japanese and American contemporary theatre and performance studies. Among his publications are Melodramatic Revenge (Keiso-shobo, 1996), From Melodrama to Performance (The University of Tokyo Press, 2001) and Crucible Bodies (Seagull Press, 2009). A board of trustees of The Saison Foundation, board of directors of Kanagawa Arts Foundation, board member of Arts Council Tokyo, a committee member of ZUNI Icosahedron Artistic Advisory Committee, and board of directors of the Association for Studies of Culture and Representation.