I know it’s been quiet on the blog. Been working furiously backstage to get my online world in order. Big change is afoot, but it’s taking awhile to come together. In the meantime… ONWARDS with Fertilizer Friday.
Fertilizer Fridays are interviews with artist friends. Honest, casual conversations that share ideas and bust myths about being an artist/making art.
Say hello to Kok Siew Wai, sound and video artist, plus organizer of all things experimental in KL and beyond. She’s one of those unsung art heroes who steadily makes things happen, one DIY event, festival, and performance at a time. Here she’s got some great insights on failure, improvisation and alternative culture.
Just like everyone else, artists have good days and bad days. Could you describe what your working day is like, a good one and a bad one?
It feels good when my effort and passion in the arts is understood and appreciated. And, when I do something more risky, and it turns out great. Once we showed some challenging works in a screening, and we were a bit worried about the audience’s reactions. The audience turned out to be quite open minded. At the end, our sponsor came up to us and said, “You know, it’s important that you show these works to the Malaysian audience.” This comment made my day.
So, it’s the opposite, when we’re being misunderstood, which happens quite often. Haha! Also, I don’t like tedious bureaucracies, but I do have to do those things often because of my job.
You make art using video and sound, and also lecture in the Faculty of Creative Multimedia at Multimedia University. Is unfamiliarity a problem when it comes to experimental art forms? How can we create better understanding without taking on the position of ‘expert’ who’s trying to teach their audience all the time?
I don’t regard myself as an ‘expert’ with a superior sense. As an artist, I try to express myself honestly. As an educator, I’m a facilitator, a moderator. In teaching, I like to create an interactive environment where students will talk and involve in a discussion. I usually let the audience/students watch the work first, before presenting my own thoughts.
In my own artmaking, I’m sharing personal experience, feelings and thoughts. And if the audience feel related, that’s good. Then you and the audience are communicating on an artistic and somewhat spiritual level. If not, then so be it. Some people can understand you, some just don’t. It’s really not a problem at all.
The spirit of experimentation is in everything you’ve done, like the Experimental Musicians & Artists’ Cooperative (EMACM), Open Lab platform, and recently, KL Experimental Film and Video Fest (KLEX). Experimentation is linked to creativity, but so is that dirty word: failure. Can you tell us about experiencing failure, epic or otherwise?
‘Experimental’, and also DIY. Some of my works are experimental, while others are just alternative. By ‘alternative’ I mean it’s not mainstream or the ‘usual’, but nonetheless exists, and this is a fact. The minority is as important as the majority, as they both make up the whole picture.
A Chinese proverb says, “Failure is the mother of success”. And it’s very true. Failure makes you stronger, better, and you learn and improve. But it’s not a fixed entity, you see. From one angle it’s a failure, but from another angle it might not be so. It depends on how you see and work with this so-called ‘failure’. In improvised music, there’s hardly a “wrong note” as improvisation is an on-going process – it’s always changing, forming, transforming. You can bring a ‘wrong note’ to a whole different new dimension with new possibilities.
I’ve talked to you before about improvisation as something that’s important in both art and life. Could you give us instructions for a simple improv we can do right here, right now?
Play a ‘wrong note’, and see where it leads you!
I consume most of my media (news, entertainment, ideas, culture, art) on the Internet. The web is an explosion of sound, images and words. Lately I’ve been experiencing symptoms – inability to concentrate, lack of focus, constant hunger for information. Yet as an artist, I love that we have all these ways to connect and spread our ideas. What are you thoughts on this?
My thoughts on social media and the online culture, you mean? I think it’s a great way to connect and get informed. But one’s life shouldn’t exist only in the virtual world and be satisfied by looking at the computer screen and inside one’s mind, I think. As a human being living in a human society, I appreciate the physical connection with other human beings. I still think that you can only truly know a person with physical connections, by meeting face-to-face. That’s why I enjoy organizing events, and live performance.
Are you a feminist?
I’m a woman biologically; my womanly qualities are natural and part of me. I accept and I act with my natural self. I’d like to be regarded and respected as a “human”. That’s all. Labeling is not so important.
How have you found organizing events (Open Lab, Sama-Sama Guesthouse Mini Festival, KLEX) in relation to making your own art?
Definitely connected. An artist makes art about life in a human society. Artists and society are closely related. They affect each other. Personally, my artwork from my time in the States (1998-2005) are so different from my recent works after I moved back to Malaysia in 2005.
As an artist with an alternative, avant-garde interest in the arts, I find such work hardly gains understanding, exposure and support in Malaysia. It’s a smaller voice, but it does exist. It’s out of this internal sense of ‘mission’ to change the situation, to provide an alternative outlet for like-minded artists and audiences to see something different, that me and my peers started the initiatives. It’s very encouraging that through these initiatives, we got connected with many artists and musicians in the field internationally, and realize that we’re not alone. Everybody is struggling in his/her region, some already for many years, to remain the alternative, to not conform to the dominating majority. So we keep it up, too!
Something has been bugging me for a long time about the art profession in Malaysia: the fact that galleries and collectors often take months (sometimes years!) to pay artists for works that have been sold and delivered. Has this happened to you, or if you had to pick a specific problem you’ve encountered professionally, what would it be? What can be done to improve the situation?
To be honest, 80% of what I do is for free and I don’t get paid. If a project can break even, I’m very happy! I do art out of passion. To survive, I have a full time job. This actually makes the experience more ‘down-to-earth’.
Art funding is not easy because the importance of art is still not widely recognized. People here in general still regard art as something ‘extra’, like a hobby, an interest, but not a necessity. There are societies that realize art is an important entity to enrich culture and the quality of humanity. The state plays an important role in this case. I think in Georgetown, the situation is improving. It tries to inject art into peoples’ everyday life. This will create a general awareness of art as part of life, a necessity. Then, respect and support towards art will grow.
What’s next for you?
Well, basically continue doing what I’m doing now, juggling between teaching, making art and organizing art events. It’s already a way of my life! My current project is KLEX, in which this year will mark the 4th year. This project needs a year to prepare and it involves various pre-festival events throughout the year.
Thanks Siew Wai!
Fine Print: Images are Copyright Kok Siew Wai, KLEX and their respective creators. All Rights Reserved. Wouldn’t hurt to ask before using. But if you’re taking them anyway, credit correctly!