Technicolour courage

20 August 2020

What can be found in the extravagantly coloured and textured world of xhe (online)? Patrick Gunasekera tuned into Zoom to find out.

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xhe (online), Daniel Kok & Miho Shimizu ·
Presented online by Perth Institute of Contemporary Arts & Dance Nucleus, 15 August 2020 ·

Presented over five hours in a group Zoom call format, xhe (online) invites audiences into a vibrantly embellished, dance-based quest to discover and embody the fluid, kaleidoscopic ways of being that are xhe: “The pronoun for the possible, the queer or the multiple.”

Streaming live from Dance Nucleus, Singapore, dancers Dapheny Chen, Pat Toh, Jereh Leung, Syimah Sabtu, and sound artist Zai Tang build a sensorially and emotively rich world of play and transformation, amidst a staggeringly bright installation of multi-coloured and multi-textured blankets, cushions, plush furnishings and backdrops designed by Japanese visual artist Miho Shimizu.

As an audience member, participation in xhe (online), referred to as “finding xhe”, can be carried out in private, by creating a collage out of artworks by Shimizu that are made available to print at home before the performance. Finding xhe is also encouraged through a public participation of making yourself visible onscreen during the high activity phases of the durational performance – which cycle through recurring scenes of stillness, tension, and energetic release.

At Saturday night’s performance – upon open invitation from xhe host in the Zoom chat, at the start of the ten-minute high activity phases – several audience members chose to turn their videos on during the high activity phases and be witnessed in finding and becoming xhe. Accompanied by a virtual background of Shimizu’s psychedelic artworks, we then introduced new voices to the possibilities of xhe by bringing our own movements and presences to the screen.

The distinct visual, musical and choreographic elements of xhe (online) – with complex polyrhythmic dance tracks, vigorously absurd physical gestures, fuchsia tetrahedron frames, stripy rayon bolsters, and a huge amount more – are of an intensely unbridled nature within the world of the performance.

Miho Shimizu’s design is staggeringly bright. Photo: Bernie Ng

Crucially, participants must embrace this nature unreservedly to cross the clearly defined threshold of “video off” to “video on”, and this, surprisingly for a participatory durational performance, is the only option participants of xhe (online) are given to shape the evolving ecology of xhe. Otherwise, this process is almost entirely led by the dancers, sound artist and live feed managers throughout the five hours of the show.

Despite having set out to embrace the ways of multiplicity and possibility, xhe (online) quickly becomes an attempt to embrace these practices live with the use of an already limited process – one that exclusively relies on both being seen, as well as a set of pre-determined archetypes of vivaciousness which have been seen in queer performance art many times over.

And so, when presented over Zoom with pre-set restrictions for audiences around visibility settings and acceptable methods of viewership and participation throughout the show, xhe (online) poses a very limited and highly regulated scope for audience participation.

To me, this is a simulation of the same pseudo-inclusive participation that has saturated mainstream responses to the COVID-19 pandemic and to every crisis preceding it. It obliterates space for negotiation and nuance between participants and performers, as the only audience members who can collectively inform the strength and direction of xhe as the durational performance unfolds, are the ones who choose to cross the threshold of invisible to visible during the ten-minute high energy phases, and who must first be willing to do so in congruence with the aesthetics of xhe.

Additionally, the audience are consistently encouraged, by Zoom chat messages from xhe host, to hide all “video off” participants throughout the performance, so as to engage with xhe only through those present who are visible on the Zoom call.

This establishes xhe as a binary of colour and quietness, a binary of xhe and non-xhe, so firmly defined as to crush multiplicity. Even Shimizu’s artworks for the collage were so densely multi-layered that cutting shapes from them forced a fixed divide through a bricolage scene, and all of the live feeds filming the performers were given the Zoom screen names “xhe” followed by a three-digit number.

This constructed binary echoes the harmful shortcomings of the times we live in, in the sense that the greater an individual or group’s capacity is for mimicking a dominant culture’s ideals of charisma and desirability, the easier it becomes for their voice to be granted protection by assimilating into and fortifying these ideals.

Presence in xhe (online) is only acknowledged and granted the opportunity to be a part of xhe after crossing the binary of invisible to visible established within this iteration of the show—whereas if this performance were presented in person, everyone present would be participating in and affecting the performance regardless of their participation style.

I believe xhe (online) has not yet succeeded in translating this collective consciousness, through an all-inclusive dynamic participation, to Zoom.

Nevertheless, choreographer/director Daniel Kok and the team behind xhe (online) have courageously followed through on a risk of highly imaginative, challenging and ambitious proportions – and without such audacity, our human failings cannot ever be tested and understood through art.

Pictured top is a scene from ‘Xhe (online)’. Photo: Bernie Ng

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Zal Kanga-Parabia

Author —
Patrick Gunasekera

Patrick Gunasekera is a queercrip Sinhala artist working across performance, visual media, and writing. After reading a poorly written review on a show about disability, he got into arts writing to critically engage with touchy topics that affect him personally. He loved the monkey-bars as a kid because he wanted strong arms. Photo by Zal Kanga-Parabia.

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