2020: Futurists’ Diaries
Produced by Toccata Studio
23-24 September 2017
Review by Bilqis Hijjas
At the end of 2020: Futurists’ Diaries, a synthesized droning noise vibrates in the darkness. It might be the celestial harmony of the spheres, but it is devoid of humans. When our sun finally goes out like a candle and our world grows cold, what will survive mankind’s passing?
This recent work by Toccata Studio seems to hark towards a bitter destiny. Innovative contemporary composer Ng Chor Guan and indefatigable creative producer Tan E-Jan captain this shiny spaceship of a show, the third in the interdisciplinary performance series Project 2020 which explores ideas of time, change and the future. Cocooned in Chor Guan’s sound score as powerful as any force field, the ship is populated by a collaborative team of other artists, as well as scientists and other untrained performers, including two young children.
In the show, a white-clad entity (he’s a clone, according to the program book, but I like to think of him as an android, or, even less embodiedly, as a computer program) encounters a series of creative humans: a writer, a singer, a painter, an engineer, an inventor, and a dancer. He absorbs from each of them a snapshot of their daily activity and thoughts. But a mysterious apocalypse threatens, and humanity seems to be caught up in a chaotic despairing mob: inside an enormous tube of stretchy cloth, a crowd of figures presses and surges across the dramatically lit stage, to earsplitting climactic sound. At the end, the community of artists and scientists seals the clone into a capsule containing all of their creations. Its final destination is unknown.
Although it’s a work about the future, some aspects of Futurists’ Diaries seem curiously dated. The cool-toned but saturated lighting by Low Shee Hoe smacks of the 1980s, just as the giant disco ball which dominates the stage like a glittering planet evokes the 70s. A canvas painted on stage by artist Shiela Samsuri at first suggests the double-edged profile of a face, rendered in multiple perspectives like early 20th century Picassos, before it is erased by strokes at right angles and in black and primary colours, reminiscent of Mondrian’s work from the same period. Even the stretchy material of the amoeba mob reminded me of modern dance icon Martha Graham’s purple costume from her 1930 work Lamentation.
Metallic shininess — in the mirror ball, and a spiral set piece by Lisa Foo which envelops singer Lim Aik Guan in its dragonlike coils — is used as shorthand for hypermodernity, a relationship dating back to the Great Exhibition of 1851, when the sparkling Crystal Palace in London demonstrated the glorious future which, through technology and progress, would save mankind. The opening music by Ng Chor Guan seems to owe something to the rising chords of Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra of 1896, now popularly recognized as the spaceship sound of 2001: A Space Odyssey, a vision of the future dating back to 1968.
Perhaps our imagined future will always seem oddly old-fashioned, because, whether it’s Asimov’s spaceships or the Jetson’s flying car, people imagine the future by extrapolating from things they already know. As soon as our fantasies occur, they immediately belong to a set of probabilities already in the past. And perhaps it is fitting that any archive of humanity contains traces of our history.
Futurists’ Diaries also does not say much about a specifically Malaysian future, although the year 2020 in the title has powerful nationalistic overtones. If the work is showing us a Malaysian future, then I can report that it will still be comfortingly multiethnic — and that some women will still choose to wear head coverings, albeit ones more elaborate and geometric than those in favour today.
Perhaps it’s more useful to think of Futurists’ Diaries as offering a more general perspective on the future, in which all mankind face some existential threat, forcing us to select and enshrine our greatest achievements in science and the arts in an ark which is also an archive. The capsule in the finale may be designed to be launched into space, like Carl Sagan’s Golden Records, hoping to make a good first impression on aliens. Or perhaps it will be sent back in time as a warning message about the future. I suspect it will merely float in the darkness of space, all that remains when humanity has perished.
To my partial eye — I’m a dance critic, and I like dance best! — I appreciated that in this imagined future dancers are superior beings. The pivotal part of the clone is played by dancer Steve Goh. He reduces the movements of the other people, whether writing on a board or moving blocks of engineering, into a collection of movements divorced from their original physical affect — a demonstration of art’s transformative powers of abstraction.
The character of the dancer-artist, portrayed by Rachel Chew, also shows greater sensitivity than the other humans. The first to wake from the stupor that affects the crowd, she seems the most alert to the coming tragedy. And she gets to be the most virtuosic. Her blink-and-you’ll-miss-it solo is packed so full of daring balances, whiplash turns, and eyewatering displays of flexibility, even the talented Steve Goh has trouble keeping up. Perhaps Rachel is really the show’s physically-augmented super-high-tech clone. I am tempted to ask, are you human, Rachel, or are you dancer?
I also watched Futurists’ Diaries from an educator’s perspective: over fifty of my students from University of Malaya’s Cultural Centre went to watch the show. For them it was a valuable experience which may have spurred them to think about the directions in which we as a country and a species are heading. And most of them had never witnessed any interdisciplinary contemporary work before, let alone one on such a bold scale, unafraid to take over a big stage and to unite a disparate mass of people in a single creative project exploring so grand a theme. For at least a few of them, Futurists’ Diaries must have opened an intriguing gateway towards artistic horizons they had never imagined.
Bilqis Hijjas is the founding editor of Critics Republic. A producer, lecturer and community organizer in contemporary dance, she believes that the main purpose of criticism is to enhance the audience’s appreciation of art.