My experience at 2nd Beyond Pressure International Performance Art Festival in Yangon, Myanmar. Published in Off The Edge, Feb 2010.

2nd Beyond Pressure Publication cover

In December 2009 I found myself in Myanmar again, attending the 2nd Beyond Pressure Performance Art Festival. I was there for the first one at the end of 2008, and to experience the sequel to that great event was a privilege with many meanings.

To walk the faintly familiar streets of Yangon was a homecoming of sorts. To meet again with friends – warm embraces and the continuous clink of beer mugs reinstating their earthy presence after a year of emails – was sweet. Attachments to places and people are an occupational hazard of some contemporary artists. Through residencies and participation in festivals or exhibitions, we spend short, intense periods of time living and working outside of our home bases. Relationships are forged. To experience a place through the eyes of the artists who live there is to know it in a way unlike any other. In this knowing I relearn the value of art: it opens a door to understanding ourselves and others, and artists are the keepers of this door. That’s not to say they decide who or what passes through, but that they ensure the door is never shut. In this, as in many things, beer helps. Myanmar beer is very good.

We drank alot of it over the course of the 7-day festival. There was plenty to celebrate. For one thing, there were more people to celebrate with! Last year, the freezing of Bangkok airport due to the Thai political crisis prevented many invited overseas artists from arriving in Yangon. This time I was accompanied by eight international colleagues: Joseph Ravens (USA), Soni Kum (Korea), Varsha Nair and Chakkrit Chimnok (Thailand), Nguyen Phuong Linh (Vietnam), Zhou Bin (China), Kaori Haba (Japan) and fellow Malaysian Rahmat Haron. Joining us were Myanmar artists, students, and a fantastic group of volunteers, many of whom were social workers with various NGOs. Together we seemed to pitch a sort of invisible circus tent, an ever-widening circle scratched deep within the dirt.

Many came into the circle. Moe Satt and his team were able to secure a public space for the main performance events held over two evenings. I was brought to Inya Lake the first time I visited Yangon. Adjoining it on one side are the manicured grounds of the privately owned Sein Lan So Pyay gardens. It is a beautiful, peaceful place contrasting sharply with the dusty streets of the city. Couples gather in the evenings, to sit on benches and watch the sun set over the calm waters of the lake. Here, we performed to a general public that grew to around 200 people by the second day – non-art audiences who had no experience of performance art. Amongst the audience were also top officials from the local Board of Censorship…

Does one ever get used to censorship? Is it possible that over time, we come to accept it as a way of being, a condition of the time and place that we find ourselves in? It was certainly surreal to encounter the same censorship officials who vetted the performances of the Myanmar artists during 1st Beyond Pressure. That time, I had only been an observer. This year, along with both local and international artists, I stood in front of them explaining what I planned to do for my performance. What was I going to wear? What materials would I use? What was the meaning behind my actions? All of us were poked and prodded as if by the most discerning art critics. Indeed, these men and women began to feel somewhat like our collaborators, giving us suggestions for improving our works, and scrutinizing every word in the artist statements we’d prepared. We were all keepers of the same door – pushing and pulling. Somehow, together – the balance shifting uneasily on the edge of a knife – we kept it open. The certificate of permission was issued half an hour before the public performance event.

Afterwards we joked: at this rate of first-class education, the censorship officials are fast becoming experts in performance art.

Performance art in the Myanmar context is fascinating. The art form is not well developed in Malaysia, and I myself am a newcomer to the field. My involvement in Beyond Pressure has alot to do with my friendship with its founder and organizer Moe Satt, than anything else. Different from theatre, performance art requires no stage and no suspension of disbelief. The audience follows no narrative, but encounters meaning directly in the actions and presence of the artist. It is also different from dance and music – although performance artists may use movement and sound, meaning does not come from the aesthetics or skill of those elements. From my observation of and participation in Beyond Pressure, it seems that performance art is about creating a situation within an already existing situation.

As in each performance work, every situation has components that make it what it is. In Myanmar, the situation is more complex than most, something acutely felt throughout the festival, and especially so at the performance events. The gaze of the Authorities was present at all times, in layers. After all, the ones watching us were also being watched: they were accountable to an ever higher Authority and had put their own sense of security on the line. We were warned that the event would be stopped immediately if they sensed anything approaching political statement or protest. It was like watching a dance unfold, in which everyone, including the audience, tread steps they didn’t know they knew.

Powerful statements emerged. Zoncy, the youngest Myanmar artist in the group, induced everyone around her to sing a wordless tune that she cried out over and over, as she hacked and spit into a wastebasket. Voices combined in a broken chorus of meaningless sound that spoke about something primal in our humanity – the need, the fragile togetherness, the huddling against the dark. There was lightness too. In his work ‘Mr. Happy’, Moe Satt handed out multi-coloured ping pong balls and asked people to draw smiles on them. He then invited the audience to stick these balls all over his face and body, while the song ‘Smile’ sung by Natalie Cole played languorously in the background. The last performance of the festival was Mrat Lunn Htwann’s aptly named ‘Beyond Pleasure’. Standing side-by-side in a row, audiences held up a long banner printed repeatedly with the Myanmar syllable for ‘ha’. One-by-one, they laughed into a loudspeaker as the artist faced them and imitated each laugh into a loudspeaker of his own. ‘Hahaha ha ha’ of various volumes, lengths and characters (some cynical, some truly heartfelt from the gut) boomed out into the night air. We had gone beyond pressure into pleasure and back again, for what is one without the other? It was great ending.

At the closing party, we feasted and toasted in a restaurant on the banks of the Irrawaddy river. To witness the continuation and progress of the festival gave me a deep satisfaction, the sort you savour quietly – swirling it around your mouth to taste it from all angles. The world contrives to convince us that things do not change… or is it that we believe it too easily? On the first day of the festival, me and Moe Satt took a cigarette break from the workshop conducted by Joseph Ravens. We were sitting on the same steps of the same YMCA building where the workshops and symposium were held last year. We stared out the same dusty windows at the same blue sky and run-down shack beyond. The same Burmese flag was hanging there limply, just like it did that day in 2008. We looked at each other and Moe Satt said wryly: ‘Nothing changed, huh?’

Actually, I pointed out, there was a pile of bricks beside the shack that hadn’t been there before.

“2nd Beyond Pressure International Performance Art Festival”, 2 – 6 Dec 2009, Yangon, Myanmar.