Produced by TerryandTheCuz
9-13 August 2016
APW, Jalan Riong, Bangsar
Review by Anonymous
Thank you, TerryandTheCuz, for your production Sk!n – it made me incredibly angry. I was curious about my anger, which on the night I could not express coherently. Allow me now to clarify my negative emotions against Sk!n with words and reasons.
‘Exploiting the issue of refugees’ was the first argument to appear in my mind right after the show. I continued generating other ideas to explain my anger: ‘using the sorrow of others for your own intellectual satisfaction’, ‘the glorification of your own privilege to discuss something about someone who has no choice’, and ‘making fun of the pain of others.’ I think it is crucial to criticise productions which market their work using ‘trendy’ social issues; this is what I call exploitation. Highlighting the issues of human trafficking, slavery and refugees, as it was done in Sk!n, did not really create awareness; it merely provoked curiosity by using the pain and sadness of its victims as a kind of spectacle. It ended up being just propaganda, avoiding any serious debate about the issue.
Nowadays, with the explosion of input from social media, the experience of reading the news is similar to watching a show; we are at the border line between observation and participation. While reading the newspaper, we exist, consciously or unconsciously, in a confused zone between thinking of ourselves as watching a ‘show’, and being involved, mentally or physically, in the reality. Given that we already have this conflicted experience when consuming the news on a daily basis, what is the point of reproducing a similar experience as a performing arts production? And it’s even worse when you present this tortuous reality through the framework of a ‘game’ – a cruel game.
There are three main parts in the experiential journey of Sk!n: examination, performance, and celebration. At the beginning of the show, each audience member is asked to fill in a questionnaire. Then we are transferred to the next department, where officers in charge measure our weight and height, and request us to do some movements to test our physical ability. The last part of the examination is similar to a customs check: one by one, we step forward towards two officers who use our questionnaires to interrogate us, and then group the audience into red, yellow or green.
I was in the green group, which, with the yellow group, was led to a raised shipping container, to witness the dance performance which was held in an adjoining container. Despite the anger I felt later in the night, I had a great time in the second part of the journey. We had an intense experience in the container, thanks to the wonderful performance and the dancers, featuring Wong Jyh Shyong, Suhaili Micheline and Lee Ren Xin. In the tiny space, we witnessed a group of people crawling continuously, always from the same direction towards the same direction. Through the seemingly endless stream of bodies, we started to notice the diversity of the group – their different skin colour, and their clothes. The featured dancers rose from the group to express images of struggling and suffering, until they fell into a mechanical shaking, as if their bodies no longer belonged to them. The intense but low lighting, combined with the minimal metallic soundscape, created a world of darkness.
At the end of the dance, some people in the audience (the yellow group) were led into the dancers’ container, which was moved off elsewhere. For the green group, the third part started when the customs officers appeared, inviting us to celebrate the precious moment of our release with champagne. Finally, we were invited to return to the place where we had first gathered, to look at a photo exhibition about refugees, and to have discussions with other audience members. Talking to one of my friends in the red group, I learned that while we were watching the performance, they had been blindfolded and led around. Then they joined the yellow group in the moving container, which was driven around Kuala Lumpur on a truck for about half an hour. Everyone sat in the dark in the oppressive, hot and uncomfortable space; when they were released, they joined the rest of the audience at the exhibition site.
While the entire journey was interesting, and at some points exciting, it was also so absurd that at times it led us to mockery. But I became speechless when I realised that some of the kids mingling with us at the photo exhibition were actual refugees, and that they had been among the people crawling during the performance. I couldn’t contain my emotions; I grabbed a crew member and asked her about the process of working with these kids. I was told that they had arrived a few days before the show started, and that there had been no socialising activities to let them get to know each other or the other performers, or to go deeper into the creative process.
Making the connection between the real refugees in our midst, and the performance we had just witnessed, was sobering. I felt ashamed to speak to the refugees; I felt as if their most horrible experiences had been used to satisfy my pleasure. I had gone to see what I thought would be an interesting performance, but the ‘interesting’ turned out to be going through a mock experience of being a refugee. At the time, I had thought it was funny, but then being confronted with the actual refugees I was reminded that the real-life experience had been, for them, cruel and intolerable. I felt angry that I had been used, and that the refugee kids had been exploited. Of course, the kids had the choice not to be in the production, but they are minors and refugees; do you think they really had enough information and power to choose?
While I admit I have done nothing to help the refugee situation, it does not mean I cannot express my position against people who abuse the issue for personal gain, and made me feel like an accomplice in their cruel game. In my mind, this production deals with the refugee issue too simplistically. It gives no deeper perspective. Maybe that’s why the production decided to use actual refugee children to participate in the performance, and enlisted an NGO which helps refugees to assist at front-of-house – in order to link their art work more tightly to the issue.
But it is cruel and intolerable to use the sufferings of dispossessed people as a template to create your own poem. Had the refugees not been part of the performance, and the NGO had not been involved, and there had been no final photo exhibition, I would accept the concept of this performance. But the producers used these elements to justify their work, to set themselves up as researchers and experts, when the work itself did not have give any deeper perspective about refugees or human trafficking. While it is morally acceptable to be inspired by the suffering of others to create work, we should not pretend to be helping a community unless we do it properly and correctly.
I would like to ask the people behind the production: what do these refugees mean to you? And, of course, I shall ask myself what they mean to me, as well.
All photos by Darshen Chelliah, courtesy of TerryandTheCuz.