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SIFA X oneirism: Art Entangling Audience

02 May
Mon, 12am

by Choo Yi Feng

Dreaming in a Dual Act

Dreams occupy odd roles in our lives. In the language of orthodox western psychology, they are the domain of the subconscious, otherwise known as the mesh and the mush of our unordered thoughts, memories, and experiences left behind by our minds, the residue of our waking bodies. Yet to many people and many cultures, dreams embody an inordinate significance; they are passages to our souls, to our inner truths and often they are also passages through time, twisting loops in our otherwise linear existences to produce hallucinations of the aberrant past and visions of plural futures. It is almost as if, to many people, that which is less coherent, less apparent, less “real” in any sense of how we experience that weird, rippling word, is somehow more telling, more truthful.

SIFA X oneirism’s dual acts, Ceremony and Ritual, take the inescapable weirdness and symbology of the unconscious as a starting point to explore how dreams bleed into art and how art transforms our cultural understanding of dream. Ritual holds itself almost as an experiment in liminality, featuring three artists sharing a black box space at Aliwal Arts Centre and engaging in unpredictable, repeating actions. Objects of domestic familiarity – a pestle and mortar, clothes hangers, and rattan rocking chairs – constitute the space. Each appears to have been chosen for the specific qualities of repetition associated with them — the rhythmic tok tok tok of the pestle grinding spices into the mortar, the fond, childlike back-and-forth swing of the rocking chair, and even the clothes hangers, suspended by threads, twisting and rotating to the whims of disturbances in the air and torsional stress.

Rituals are traditionally understood as having religious roots, but in our urban, secularised lives, the rhythmic, repetitive order of rituals continue to offer a comforting structure, whether it’s the simple fidget of checking social media for new notifications, or something more elaborate, like a refreshing clay mask, a workout in the gym, or a meal at a favourite coffeeshop. We often draw meaning and stability from the banal repetition of a ritual, engaging these cyclic acts as constituents of the cosmopolitan stories we tell about ourselves. A gym session builds the story of how one likes to keep fit. A morning coffee infuses the day’s work with an atmosphere of invigorating warmth and tantalising fragrance. If we accept the injunction of the ritual as a narrative form, as an ever-present, ineluctable form, then the stories we tell ourselves can be seen not as linear, progressive threads, but recursive ones.

Watching the artists of Ritual engage the space in ways that are at once recognisable and defamiliarising, I feel uncannily as if I am falling asleep, witnessing that strange state where my coherent thoughts are still there, but starting to fray at the edges, encroached upon by the sleep paralysis demons that are waiting in the basement of my subconscious. Dreams, even when they aren’t outright nightmares, are often described as unsettling and discomfiting. These episodes thrive off unravelling the smooth certitude of rituals. When we dream, our minds take memories that are known and intimate, and distort, upend, and decontextualise them. What happens when we fall through the basement membrane of our waking mind and into the feral world beneath?

One answer is Ceremony. Unlike rituals, ceremonies are distinctive, singular, designed to transcend the ordinary and mark important events. One way to think of Ritual/Ceremony is in terms of the words that ancient Greece devised for time. In ancient Greece, chronos (the root word for “chronological”, “chronic”, etc) is the more familiar and well-understood sequential time, one of regularity and linearity. This would be Ritual. On the other hand, the less popularly understood kairos refers to opportune time, moments that are strategic, essential, apposite. Ceremony, both the word itself and the event, is brimming with kairos. The Ceremony of oneirism is not a solemn, profound affair, but a colourful, explosive event that wraps the audience up in batik print blankets, and tumbles them around, emptying us of all our preconceived notions on what a ceremonial performance might look like. Ceremony is NADA ricocheting around the stage while rocking full-on aristocratic European colonial drag; it’s Deførmed singing heartland-punk-rock about how Singapore bloody hot! and all my friends live in the east, while roving performances by puppetry artist Bright Ong and the contagiously ecstatic blanket dancers from P7:1SMA delight audiences between acts. If Ritual serves as the portal to and from the slippery sleeping world of oneirism, then Ceremony is the main stage proper. I never know what to expect on both nights of attending Ceremony, and find myself thoroughly thrilled and entertained by the brilliant and innovative performances that take place.

While it is commonplace to think of dreaming in a psychoanalytic frame, to use dream interpretation as a way to access a deeper, inner self that represents latent desires, fears and beliefs, Ceremony seems to depart from this reading. Instead, it offers up an ecstatic performance that is infused with bizarre newness. As with all subconscious objects, there is a hint of the recognisable, but it has been pulled apart, rearranged, and toyed with. The result is not a rawer, truer vision of art, once locked away by the mythic gates of cognitive function, but a rearrangement of the known world to create something new. The result is spontaneous, collaborative art, and by that I mean that the beast-puppet will wander into the audience and randomly arrow people to join the main stage as dancers, and those who do not obey will provoke the three-metre-tall spirit-beast’s ire.

oneirism: Art as Slippery Worldmaking

In oneirism, the relationship between performer and audience is troubled in delightful ways. As part of the audience, as the witness to art, I find myself slipping in and out of existence, closing my eyes to savour music only to open them again and discover light and colour.

The artists, too, seek to shift in and out of focus during the myriad actions that constitute their performance. Ever self-aware of the weighty, oft-unwieldy presence that is the performer, the artists that are present in these spaces must then engage in acts of wilful self-negation in order to achieve their vanishing act, indulging playfully in a confusion that leaves me, the observer, wondering: what’s going on here? Boundaries are blurred between incipient sensations and the aesthetic experiences that they synthesise. At what point in our perceptions does a sound become a tune? Does form become art? Does utterance become words, does movement become dance? At what point does this distinction stop mattering?

The process of oneirism is constituted by the diverse talent and creative praxis of the performers, all of whom come together in their varied mediums, crafts, and genres to offer a transcendent harmony. I’ve learned that the direct result of a shifting, unreliable performer is an increasingly self-conscious audience. So often we as audience members are used to allowing ourselves the small mercy of vanishing completely into a performance, of being passive spectators. oneirism refutes this convention. It demands a consciousness of the performer-audience relation that is not so much immersion-breaking as it is immersion-bending, immersion-blending.

Self-consciousness entails awkwardness. It’s what happens when you are trying to watch a YouTube or TikTok video, but it won’t buffer because there’s no signal — it ruptures the smooth linearity of the medium. It means panicking, being unsure of what to do with your presence, your body, your hands as they linger uncertainly by your sides. It’s a process not unlike that of being born, of finding one’s limbs, of struggling with the lumpy here-and-now-ness of flesh density when you emerge from a swimming pool or bathtub after soaking for too long. It’s clumsy, whimsical, and quite alarming.

And, I would argue that self-consciousness captures a flavour of what it means to be Singaporean. To be Singaporean is to be constantly self-aware, self-categorising, self-dissecting, self-aggrandising. It’s the way we are Singaporean-chinese-buddhist, Singaporean-indian, Singaporean-malay-muslim, Singaporean-filipino, Singaporean-australian, Singaporean-japanese and so on and so forth, hyphenating our way into (and out of) existence. It is the way we talk about our dizzying cyclone of race, religion and culture with stiffness and uncertainty, dodging discursive land mines left and right with uncanny hyperawareness. It’s the way we debate what being “Singaporean” means (and its controversial relation to the “Malaysian”), and whether or not we have a distinctive national culture or merely the incipient suggestion of one, a shadow-sketch interpellated through postcolonial bricolage, historical contingency. Does any other nation in the world wring its hands this much over what it means to just be, head-empty, chill vibes only? In at least one sense then, oneirism is a deeply Singaporean art project.

As a writer, my trade is prose, fiction, imagination, make-believe, pura-pura[1]. I don’t presume to know the kind of training and rigour that goes into music, dance, or really any of the myriad performing/performance arts being synergised and blended in such exhilaratingly creative ways over the course of oneirism's four evenings. Yet in my partaking of oneirism as a casual audience member, I know that I deeply enjoyed myself. oneirism knows how to use dreams the way that we are supposed to, in our own private lives: as an excuse to have wild, reckless fun, in the most self-absorbed and self-negating ways. At the same time, I can’t help but wonder what the relationship of performer-audience reflects onto the relationship of writer-reader; what, in fact, is the relationship between you and me right now, as your eyes follow the words on this page, as I jam them out on my laptop on a sleepless 3am morning?

The performer-audience relation is in some ways convergent with that of the writer-reader. There are norms and customs (rituals, if you will) that are at work. Both sides are playing at a common set of expectations, borrowing from a shared cultural script. The reader’s role is to interpret and inquire. The writer’s role is to create a world. But what does it mean? I think it’s a metaphor. These are the implicit assumptions that we have been socialised to use, to govern the processes of meaning-making that we engage in when we watch a show, when we open a book. In her contribution to the hybrid creative-critical writing journal PR&TA’s December 2021 debut issue, Filipino writer Nicola Sebastian writes:

“The narrator calls herself the reader, which in her voice reads almost as an accusation, a death sentence, prescribing her own limits.”

I take this to mean that the writer-reader relation can never be politically neutral, least of all for those of us grappling with the heterogeneous aftermath of the postcolony. The existence of a writer and a reader, of a performer and an audience, begs the question: who are they? What do they look like, what disasters have they borne? Where do they call home, and what do they inherit? A writer who is called into being responds by calling the reader into question. For those who struggle against political injustice, the call to write is a death sentence (I am thinking of the Nigerian writer and political activist Ken Saro-Wiwa, who wrote tirelessly against militarist petro-despotism in his home country).

A progressive writer-reader relation is conscious and cautious of the ideological impulse that underwrites it. Likewise, the dream world of oneirism understands this, if unconsciously (pun intended). Perhaps it is just a property of this feral sleeping world, that it strains against any structure imposed upon it, including that of the normative performer-audience, shuddering, trembling, leaking, and tumbling out of the psychological scaffoldings and superhighways that hold our days together.

How can one respond to an artist’s call to engage collaboratively in the process of performance? The audience of oneirism responds by having fun, by creating fun. Amidst the synergy of experimental percussionists, of punk-rock bands, of ecstatic dancers clad in batik blankets, and of a giant roving puppet of an ambivalent spirit-beast, all the audience can give is all that art demands: vulnerability. A gesture, a sound, a form, an utterance. We dance, cheer, clap, and watch. Witnessing is an act of transformative creation.

I’ve spent a lot of this passage printing question-marks about art and reluctant to offer any answers, because as a 25-year-old I am deeply self-conscious that greater minds and longer lives than mine have tried and achieved (at best) quarrelsome success. But you, reader, demand answers even as the writer can offer none, so here’s my take: in oneirism, art is articulated as a kind of perceptual event horizon, as the inconceivable, indeterminate point that lingers somewhere along the relationship between the performer and the spectator, dancing in and out of existence like a quantum particle/wave. We can chase down this point, knowing we will never reach it, but enjoying nevertheless the chance to run wild.

[1] (Malay) pretending/playing

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