My experience at 1st Beyond Pressure International Performance Art Festival in Yangon, Myanmar. Published in Off The Edge, April 2009.

1st Beyond Pressure Publication cover

The first time I heard about Beyond Pressure was when I met Moe Satt in February 2007, during his short residency in Malaysia. Over dinner one night, our language barriers smoothed over by beer and friendship, he told me about his idea for an international performance festival to be held in Yangon. I remember thinking that ‘Beyond Pressure’ would make a great tattoo, as well as an excellent toast when drinking. In fact that night we clinked our glasses several times to cries of ‘Beyond Pressure’.

The name of the festival was apt to the point of being prophetic. A few months later, when I received the letter of invitation to participate, so much had already happened: rejected proposals, Cyclone Nargiss. Then, the week that BP was scheduled to take place, a massive sit-in protest by Thailand’s PAD (People’s Alliance for Democracy) froze Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok. Coupled with that was the news that Myanmar’s Board of Censorship had denied permission for international artists to perform publicly at the festival. It seemed inevitable that Beyond Pressure would be postponed, until storms blew over.

Unlike most of the invited foreign artists, I was fortunate enough to fly Malaysia Airlines direct into Yangon, thus by-passing Bangkok. It was only when I arrived that I began to understand why cancelling the festival had not been an option for Moe Satt and his team. For them, ‘Beyond Pressure’ seemed to signify not only an aspiration, but also a way of working. By accepting that pressure is constantly with us – there will never be a better time than today; tomorrow will not be easier – they were able to avoid being paralysed into positions of either resisting or submitting to pressure.

This became especially apparent on the third day of my arrival, when performances were to be held at Thamada Gallery. Early in the morning, the Board of Censorship had scheduled a dialogue with the Myanmar artists that would determine the legitimacy of BP as a public art event. One would think that it would be a solemn, tense affair, but nothing was further from the truth. I, along with anyone who cared to be there, was allowed to sit in and observe. There were perhaps nine officials to each of the nine artists. They were served cakes and coffee from the hotel where the gallery was in, which I later found out cost more than our entire opening party dinner. Each of the artists stood up by turn to describe their performances in detail. I couldn’t understand what was being said, but I gathered that the atmosphere was light, with plenty of laughter on both sides. At the end, a certificate was issued, with the name ‘Beyond Pressure Performance Art Festival’ written on it.

That piece of paper! Everyone gathered around, caressing it, whooping with happiness. In that triumphant moment, I realized that the strategy of BP had always been to negotiate with crisis, not oppose it. I thought about how difficult it sometimes was to talk to even my own parents about my work as an artist, much less a group of bureaucratic censorship officials! That morning, a bridge of understanding had been built between the authorities and performance art in Myanmar. It was a great achievement.

That instance stands out as an example of the flexibility and determination of spirit that I found to be at the center of BP as well as all the Myanmar artists I met. This tendency to bend plans instead of break them acknowledges that the effort of making things happen is always subject to the conditional moments in which they do happen. It is at once idealistic and pragmatic, evidence of a sophisticated understanding of how art relates to social-political reality. Another example: although Hong O-Bong and myself (being foreign artists) were not permitted to perform with our Myanmar colleagues at the ‘official’ event, we did so later that night, at the restaurant where the closing party was held. Most of the audience had migrated with us there, and so the goal of creating an international event that was also officially sanctioned was ultimately achieved, in spite of the odds.

By emphasizing the success of BP, I do not mean make light of the very real challenges and dangers facing artists in Myanmar. Most artists (many of whom are also writers) have had their work censored in one way or another. Some have been imprisoned. Moe Satt himself was arrested and questioned by the police for staging impromptu street performances. I commented that the oppressive conditions seemed to reflect a paranoid and irrational government. I was quickly corrected by Po Po, one of Myanmar’s most acclaimed contemporary artists, who told me that the government did nothing at random. The measures of control over personal freedoms were in fact systematic and utterly sophisticated. Far from being paranoid, the authorities were always one psychological step ahead of its citizenry.

In such restricted conditions, rebellion in or through art is out of the question. Myanmar artists constantly asserted the position that their work was art, not politics or protest. In this case, making the distinction between art and politics was not only a theoretical exercise, but was essential to the survival of art itself. During the BP symposium, writer and art historian Aung Min spoke about the development of performance art in Myanmar since the mid 1990s. He put forth a powerful argument about how art was related to politics but remained essentially distinct from it.   Both art and politics, he said, function in the same way. They put together things that are opposed to each other, such as chaos and order, love (passion) and violence. The difference lies in how these elements come together. Firstly, art does so in a way that is neither aggressive nor assertive. Also, it does not seek to achieve power, and finally, the effects of its endeavours are long- lasting.

The strategy of BP to create dialogue with government authorities supports this view in full. Doors have been opened which will have impact on generations of Myanmar artists to come.  This was done through conversation, with no compromise of artistic vision to political pressure. Likewise, I could identify similar principles in the performance works of the 9 Myanmar artists who performed at BP: Nyein Way, Moe Satt, M.S.O, Aung Ko, Aung Pyi Sone, Nyo Win Maung, Phyu Mon, Po Po and Mrat Lunn Htwne. Each piece was subtle, sophisticated and I would even say, crafted, even though that is a word not often associated with performance art. At the same time, they were powerful, directly communicative works. I came away deeply inspired, with my perceptions of performance art blown as wide open as the sky.

My time in Yangon was too short. The city was everything and nothing like I expected. I have vivid memories of dusty streets speckled with betel juice like coughed-up blood, and beautiful, decrepit colonial buildings – stronger and longer- lasting than any modern construction. Although covered with moss they were standing their ground, relentlessly just… enduring. And then shining gold pagodas everywhere, the most awesome of which is undoubtedly the heart of the city – Shwedagon pagoda, at least 2500 years old, in existence since Buddha’s time and in impeccable condition today. Every taxi or trishaw driver who took me past there would invariably call my attention to it: look, that’s the Shwedagon pagoda. It seemed to me an embodiment of the people’s spirit, and I felt almost fearful in the shadow of its splendour and grandeur.

Above all, I recall the warmth, friendship and generosity the artists. In the face of many pressures, they remain committed to living, working and making art. That tenacity is matched by a love of laughter and lightness of spirit that beckons a deep camaraderie as well as admiration. I congratulate them on their achievement and thank them heartily for allowing me to be a part of that dream.

Until we meet again at the next Beyond Pressure.

1st Beyond Pressure International Performance Art Festival“, 4 – 14 Dec 2008, Yangon, Myanmar.