Daniel Kok (Singapore) and Luke George (Australia) are two solo artists who collaborated to make the performance ‘Bunny’.
SEYA: So, how has your experience of the dance festival December Dance been so far?
LUKE: It’s quite funny because we don’t get to see many of the other artists or their work in Australia. Quite strange to come to the other side of the world to meet them and see their work.
I’m particularly happy to be sharing a project which is a collaboration between me and Daniel, because I believe us Australians are starting to see ourselves more and more as a part of the bigger geographical region (including all the other islands surrounding us), as opposed to as inhabitants of an isolated island.
LIESELOT: Where did you meet?
DANIEL: Well, an art centre united us and gave us the space and time to start exchanging ideas. I realized this morning that it’s getting rarer and rarer to have a residency in which the focus is not on the finished project.
LUKE: It was an open invitation by the art centre, but of course they are an art centre so they invested resources in us. This means they had a strong hope of us making something together. So, they kind of came into it going: “How about you make a piece together.” But we were like: “We don’t know each other, we need to meet first.”
DANIEL: Really? So it was said like that?
LUKE: Yeah. Then we proposed back to them: “We would like to get to know each other first, get into conversation, so how about we do a residency where we’re in conversation?” They were like: “If something comes of this; that’s great. If not; it’s also fine.” Very generous of them.
DANIEL: What I found very interesting about our process, was the research, visiting different places and encountering several contexts. In this case that meant tying up people in different places and discovering how this was different for different people. It became a practice of understanding how to relate to not just each other but also different genders, different contexts… the rope practice became that conversation.
LUKE: The essential part is finding out people’s boundaries and how to invite someone to say “yes” or say “no” or say “maybe, I don’t know yet”, and that that’s okay. Funnily enough we only received one refusal last night. If someone says “no”, it’s fine. In fact, it’s actually really helpful for the other people in the room, to know that “no” is okay.
SEYA: Have you had strong reactions, people walking away or even walking out?
LUKE: Yes, often from women, which makes it even more significant, because we’re not women. It meant that we had to be more sensitive to the things we could not see and sense easily. In this work it feels really important that the rope is something that is soft and weak and very gentle as well as tough. The rope practice revealed to us that it’s not about only being nice and gentle or of taking advantage of people and being violent, but that it’s something in between. This is often characteristic in BDSM-play, which was new to us: Giving permission to each other to cross boundaries together. We saw this performance as a safe space for us to explore these boundaries, as opposed to it being a direct reflection of the violence that exists in real life.
After we premiered the work, the #metoo movement made it apparent that there is a need to place a spotlight on women who are being abused, to just bring a fairer representation of the female voice. I think that that made us want to pay more attention to how people, particularly women, feel in this particular work.
LUKE: There have been different times when we performed the piece in which it triggered something personal for people in such an extent that they couldn’t stay in the space. Daniel and I talked about this a lot, because our attention goes to everybody in the room but particularly to the people being tied up or that are quite directly involved. We have an awareness of everybody, but the ability to care for everyone in the room is a lot. How do we consider someone who isn’t being tied up? How can we be aware of someone who is watching, gazing upon, but for whom a lot is happening. How do we attend to that? What can the performance offer at that point for that person?
We’ve been performing the work for about two years now. During that time we’ve increased our understanding of what it means to be watching this piece. The understanding of what the onlookers are feeling is a continuous consideration for us. The watcher is also in a kind of bondage, and we have to tend to that and care for the onlookers as well as for the people being tied up. We keep doing little tweaks to find out how we can better support the relationship with the audience for the people being tied and for the onlookers. In good practice of BDSM-play, they talk about communication, consent and aftercare. Particularly if someone has been through something physical he or she has to slowly come out of it, to become present again, come back to their body, to time. It’s important for the process to be able to talk and move through emotions. Because this is so important for the process, we started adding a moment to talk after the performance. At the end of the show, Daniel now asks people to stay in the room to talk about their experience. Whether people were tied or not tied, they’re really welcome to talk to us. This has been a big shift for the show.
SEYA: Do you have certain way of choosing the people you’re going to tie up?
LUKE: Yeah. When we first started performing the piece, the pressure was immense for me. The moment people started walking into the room I was looking and checking, finding out who could be the people I would tie up later. Now I don’t feel like it’s entirely my responsibility, it’s a shared responsibility. The brochure sends words around like consent, shared, trust, interactivity… so people come in knowing they might be asked to participate in one way or another. People (unknowingly) show something about their willingness or openness. I notice how close they sit to the carpet, their body language, eye contact, whether or not they are following things, looking at things… super simple stuff. Early on in the piece we build in these little things where we ask people to do really simple things; play music, spin Daniel, help him come down… we notice who is willing to do something or who responds to someone else being willing. We purposely take a long time and it’s quite spacious, we consciously do this to take the time to notice how everyone in the room is reacting. If we would act fast or would be playing music all the time, it would be hard to notice things. Now people present themselves.
SEYA: So you wouldn’t go for someone who looks unwilling to participate?
LUKE: I wouldn’t go for them for something that involves a lot of interaction. Maybe I would invite them, put the offer out there. They can say “no” and consider it, and everyone can see this, can see that there are different experiences in the room. We had people looking at us like “tie us up”, but it’s too easy to tie the most willing people in the room. Like the guy who gets blindfolded, it sometimes takes a long time to ease him into it when they’re not sure. Then I just take the time and to gradually work it out and get through it together.
LIESELOT: And then you talk to him afterwards?
LUKE: Yes, and I notice that almost no one comes out of that role feeling emotionally pushed. It’s mainly physically strenuous. I give them a lot of positive encouragement, like a coach would do. This makes them feel really proud at the end of it.
DANIEL: Good thing that you mention the positive encouragement. It’s a good reminder for me to use this language. Using praise and compliments is very effective as a manipulative tool: if in public you say “you’re doing really well” it makes it harder for him to say “no”. It works in both ways: it makes him want to do it more, but at the same time it makes it harder for him to quit. It’s an innate desire for us to want to please someone else.
LUKE: Funny, I don’t think of it as a manipulative tool.
DANIEL: Not in a bad way, it’s not a bad word. But we need to recognize that all the codes and social contracts that we sign with each other often involve manipulation.
LUKE: Even stepping into a theatre is manipulation.
DANIEL: One of the things we ask ourselves in this piece is; what if everybody is a bunny (nickname for person who is tied up). The whole time the relationship of trust and consensus is not just with the people being tied, but eventually the question really applies: we are asking everybody in the room to give us their consensus. This encouragement as a manipulative tool, or just tool if you like, is a big part of the show. When people can hear you encourage him, they are encouraged along to some degree. Do you think that is the case?
LIESELOT: It was a bit double to me. First of all it was difficult to hear the encouragements. Secondly, it felt like you were teaching them something, like good manners. Especially in the scene in which a man from the audience is asked to spank you; it looked like he felt okay with it. Even though it could’ve been experienced as wrong in most situations or occasions, it felt okay there and then.
DANIEL: It’s about the space we are in, the space we create, that makes it okay
SEYA: So what if some of the people watching are really not feeling okay? Would you consider telling the onlookers that they can ask for a “stop”?
DANIEL: I believe we have to be careful not to make a big deal. To some people it’s obvious that this is just a bit of fun, some react more strongly. We also have people from the BDSM community attending the show sometimes. It’s important to keep in mind the whole range of responses. I feel that if we draw attention to what a big deal flogging somebody in public is, it might be counterproductive. A lot of what we try to do here is to produce this kind of comic and humour to make it clear that this is playful, that there is a lightness to it. A lot of bondage performances takes place in dark places, candle light… we’re not interested in that. We investigate bondage and how challenging situations can be arrived at. We try to create a connection of trust and mutual agreement, because of which people are able to cross boundaries together. And at the same time, it’s about brightly coloured cotton-candy.
SEYA: Cotton-candy bondage.
LIESELOT: Did you dig into the history of bondage?
DANIEL: A bit, that’s why we shared the little booklet with different types of knots with the audience. It’s clear that it came from the Japanese military, where they used to tie up people that were captured. But the transition into sexual play is not clear.
LIESELOT: Considering the dark sides and connotations of bondage and its history, the contrast with your colourful stage couldn’t be bigger.
DANIEL: Interestingly, there is a lot of ambivalence about this. On the hand everybody in this room would want to support women’s rights. At the same time, women are often really curious about being tied up by us. When I do this installation, only women come up to me to be the next one to be tied up. In real life those people are likely to be very educated, liberal and even political. The gap between those two lives and perspectives is a bit unclear to me.
LUKE: I feel like the act of submission in a fantasy role play situation, the choice to be submissive, to make a choice about my own bodyis a radical and powerful decision. There is something very powerful about the choice to be submissive in a role play situation, and theatre is a kind of role play too.
SEYA: Okay, thank you both for this talk. When do your preparations for tonight’s show start?
DANIEL: Well, to comfortably prepare, warm up, tidy up… takes almost three hours. The whole thing is five hours; three hours cleaning and a two hour performance.
SEYA: Well, it’s five now and you’re on at eight. So you’re starting, uhm, now?
LUKE: Yes. It’s nice to leave the space messy after the show – which we can if we have another show the day after - , because the way we prepare has become almost like a ritual. In order for us to prepare mentally for the show, to come into the time of the show, we have to handle the rope, feel the behaviour of the rope. Cleaning the space and caring for each other has become part of this as well. And Daniel is quite sore at the moment, so maybe I’ll give him a massage.
DANIEL: A massage?! Since when?
LUKE: There was a time when we would give each other a massage before the show! This performance is quite taxing for both of us in different ways so we have to care for each other quite a bit. So yeah, care has become a major word for this show.
DANIEL: I think in general care has become really important in the world of performance. I think we feel that it’s important to go back to the performance itself, ask ourselves; what do we want to achieve, what is the experience – rather than just make a “waw” show. The way we listen to the space and to each other, the way we communicate and go deeper with that communication becomes really important.
SEYA: So what do you want to achieve with the performance?
DANIEL: I would want to go one step further to where the performing of the piece becomes energising and no longer tiring.
LUKE: Which is getting better for us though. We had to move through some challenging experiences with the piece and particularly with developing my own boundaries within it. I can get too caught up and feel too much weight or responsibility for the care, it can get a bit overwhelming. Created a boundary for myself has helped a lot and is making it less tiring already.
DANIEL: Of course it’s physically tiring, but we’re very proud of this work. I dare speak for the both of us when I say that this process of working with rope has taught me a lot, and even made me a better person and a better lover. I feel like now, every time we perform and have a conversation like this one after the show, we are still figuring out what it means to listen to people and have a conversation about different experiences, some of which are very private and personal. For art to be able to engender those conversations is really precious. I‘m not a good listener by nature, so for me to be made to listen because of the ropes is really good.
(general laughing, again)
SEYA: We’ll leave you to your ritual, then.
DANIEL: Don’t let me stop you if you want to help!
(more general laughing)
Foto: Bryony Jackson