Conceived & directed by Mark Teh
Produced by Five Arts Centre
15-18 March 2018
Kotak, Five Arts Centre
Review by Carmen Nge
In science fiction, retrofuturism refers to the way the future was imagined in the past—a speculative future usually steeped in incredible technological advancements. Earthlings from the 1960s used to picture flying cars, interplanetary travel and personal robot assistants in the 21st century. Oftentimes, this vision of the future never materializes, giving earthlings from the present fodder to criticize or poke fun at the imagination of their peers from the past.
But what if the future, imagined in the recent past, did not contain such fantastical inventions? What if what were imagined were concrete goals, like becoming a fully developed nation that is economically just and equitable? Or being a confident society armed with strong moral and ethical values? Or being a united nation with a sense of common and shared destiny?1
Would we be more or less critical if such plausible visions of a near future were never attained? How would we feel if such visions came from political leaders? What would be the extent of our criticism if such leaders could achieve their visions using public funds, but without public engagement or checks and balances?
These were some of the questions I pondered when I watched Version 2020, a Five Arts Centre production, conceived and directed by Mark Teh. Together with his ensemble of performers, who hail from creative backgrounds as diverse as dance, theatre, film, design, activism, and visual art, Teh collaged a visually resonant work that positions itself in the nexus between documentary theatre and multimedia performance art.
As audiences enter the performance venue, they encounter a squared-off green space, almost completely covered by placards containing keywords, phrases, and slogans—some familiar (“1MDB”), some memorable (“Protest is Patriotic”) and some prurient (“I love cock”). This is Dataran Merdeka, the most contested public space in the history of Kuala Lumpur, reconstituted and reframed within Five Arts Centre. Throughout the performance, this simulated version of Dataran Merdeka would be taken apart, destroyed, repurposed, and resurrected by the performers in a myriad of ways. Its metamorphosis is one of the most visually engrossing elements in Version 2020.
In the background are the Petronas Twin Towers and other buildings, illuminated from below. Later on in the show, these KL city structures made from recycled plastic and paper would be cleverly manipulated by the performers and morphed into clothing and accessories. The unique and aesthetically compelling ways in which the set and costumes merge and become integrated with the space and the performers are testament to the ingenuity of visual artist and production designer Wong Tay Sy, who worked closely with Mark Teh and the production team to lend the show a DIY punk aesthetic.
In his previous shows—Baling, Gostan Forward, and Something I Wrote—Teh successfully employed the strategies and tools of documentary theatre, which mines history as a resource for performance, using living witnesses or archival materials to restage past events. The theatrical strategies for Version 2020 are no different. Even though Teh ostensibly aimed to explore a future Malaysia in performance, in reality he was relooking Mahathir’s Wawasan 2020 [Vision 2020], which has become, since its 1991 launch, a decidedly old project. This is why I find the term retrofuturism apropos to Teh’s latest show.
In preparation for Version 2020, the performers actively mined their personal archives for materials that routed/rooted them to tangible apprehensions of the 1990s era. During the performance, Fahmi Reza took on the role of a multimedia DJ, sampling materials from all the performers—old photos, video footage, personal artifacts, newspaper clippings, and music from as far back as three decades ago—and projecting them on a large screen, occasionally punctuating the visual and aural smorgasbord with stories of his young adulthood, living off the largesse of a national vision come to life.
Being of the generation with the most direct connection to Wawasan 2020, both Fahmi Reza and Imri Nasution have very distinct memories of how their lives intersected with the national agenda, and, in true documentary theatre fashion, they harnessed the power of physical evidence to lend veracity to their recollections. The narrative arc of their stories encapsulates a time when the horizon of possibilities appeared within reach, but never once did their storytelling veer into nostalgia.
Being younger, the remaining three performers—Roger Liew, Lee Ren Xin and Faiq Syazwan Kuhiri—have more tangential connections to the national vision and none of the expectations of its success. The lustre of Wawasan 2020 had substantially faded by the time they came of age; as such, their narratives accentuate a strong sense of distantiation and aloofness from such erstwhile national ambitions as well as the current government agenda in the form of Transformasi Nasional 2050 [National Transformation 2050].
In a kinetically-charged scene in Version 2020, these three performers employ movement and sound to embody two periods of great tumult and social change in our nation’s history: the Reformasi movement at the tail end of the 1990s and the Bersih rallies almost a decade later. Liew and Lee worked in tandem to wield their bodies as weapons of physical occupation of vertical and horizontal space. Liew darts around the performance space, mimicking the frenetic movements and iconic gesticulations of Reformasi and Bersih protesters while Lee writhes and rolls on the ground, her legs mimicking the running motion of protesters attempting to flee the riot police and tear gas, and her undulating body simulating a nation that is transforming and evolving. Meanwhile, Faiq navigates ever so slowly through the same space, his steps deliberate and his movements guarded; he appears to be carefully maneuvering the shifting terrains of change effected by Lee and Liew, not quite sure-footed but unwavering in his determination to remain upright.
It is at this moment that Version 2020 veers away from its more pedantic historical roots and begins to adopt a decidedly kinaesthetic course. As performers use their moving bodies to occupy the entirety of the set, they also begin to chart a path towards Dataran Merdeka’s destruction. Eventually they tunnel underneath the square of green carpet in an act of subterranean defiance, throwing up tons of debris that is then bundled up into smaller packages using swatches of the same carpet. As the lights dim, a mobile tent that very much resembles the ones used in the real life Occupy Dataran grassroots movement in July 2011, slowly springs to life and the most beautiful moment in the show unfolds.
The tent is illuminated from within and Faiq’s sonorous voice fills the venue, accompanied by the melodic twang of a ukelele. Slowly, but without a clear sense of direction, the tent becomes mobile, tumbling and rumbling amidst the islands of green-covered debris. Faiq’s voice lulls and crescendoes as the tent shifts and changes position, buoying us along in a comforting and evocative ocean of sights and sounds. I found myself drawn to the misshapen tent’s languorous tumbling pace, its desire to go where it shouldn’t, gobbling up obstacles in its path with its amorphousness. Dataran Merdeka is deconstructed, reformed, renewed, reborn into islands of indeterminate shapes, at once unfamiliar and foreign, yet never threatening. As the lights gradually flicker on again, all five performers move to occupy various locations on the set and one by one they articulate their personal visions for the cities of their dreams.
Although Version 2020 is devised using historical content both national and personal in scope, its strength lies not in the substance of this content but in its aesthetic and semiotic imprint. Using the actual text of national agendas and government propaganda as performance texts is fraught with all sorts of risks, especially if the language used therein is instructional and insipid, and the content lacking in nuance. Teh tries to balance dry official texts with personal stories, which contain more intimate language, but the juxtaposition of the two can sometimes feel too jarring. Perhaps it is his intention to jar the audience, to instigate us to consider the chasm between official ambitions versus lived experiences and desires. Nevertheless, drawing attention to this chasm is not the same as imagining a way beyond it.
Carmen Nge is a writer and arts enthusiast; she is currently an assistant professor at the Faculty of Creative Industries, Universiti Tunku Abdul Rahman (UTAR).
1 The full text of Wawasan 2020 can be found here: http://www.isis.org.my/attachments/Vision%202020%20complete.pdf