Updated: Nov 16
by Nabilah Said
with Air da tohor (19 & 21 May 2023)
Locating power is an interesting thing. In Singapore, we locate power fairly easily. The multi-headed hydra of the surveillance camera. The signs that prohibit free play. The banners with smiling representatives. Power is vested in spaces, and it is simulated particularly in the policing of spaces.
In life, we are used to such policing. In fact, this usually manifests itself in the simulacra of power – to borrow from Baudrillard’s writing on reality, symbols and society.
Simulacra: copies that depict things that no longer have an original
To me, simulacra of power in Singapore is: a tsk at someone being the wrong race, wrong gender, wrong religion, wrong nationality. In the MRT, a lift, a bus, a rental unit, a meeting room.
To be wrong in a country is to have power inflicted on you, against you, even by those without formal power.
With air da tohor, I find myself thinking about reality, symbols and society a lot. And the relationship between the stage and reality.
I think about the simulation and the simulacra of power. I think about the reality we’re playing at - the reality we want, which might be the reality we may not have.
I think about being the wrong versions of a country, and the right versions of our own dreams. I think about the original orang laut and orang pulau. I think about how to locate the original orang.
Baudrillard’s Four Phases of the Image. Source: https://media-studies.com/baudrillard/
On the stage, we are used to constructing reality using stage images, and a valid performance strategy might include mimesis.
As a production created for the stage, what might we mime? Water, the ocean, loss, the thrum of a former community? What realities might we construct, and how close do we try to get?
A set might convey a place that no longer has an original. A performer might convey a person that has no original. A sound might convey a place is no longer original. A visual might depict a world of no original.
Is the world of an orang laut/orang pulau in air da tohor a reality or a copy? Is it simulacra?
For me, I don’t necessarily consider simulacra a bad thing. If we see what’s on stage as having no relation to reality – then I think that’s a reflection of the observer too.
In my observation, there are 4 ways in which we use mimesis in the show:
1. Speech acts
Some of the performers speak according to the cadence of the orang laut/orang pulau. These acts go beyond a pure presentational function, to represent a transmission of language. Words like “mika” and “diko” are not meant to create a sense of unfamiliarity, but in fact, familiarity. By picking up simple words, the audience might discover a new world just within reach.
2. Performance objects
There are objects used which represent lifestyles, beliefs and traditions of the orang laut/orang pulau. My favourite are the chairs with sawn off legs, which are used in the orang laut/orang pulau enclave in West Coast Park. Other objects, like the pestle, or flowers used in offerings, are familiar in other contexts too.
There are people on stage who are former islanders, or their descendents. This form of embodiment is what I consider to be “pure” or at least, naturally embodied. Embodiment can also refer to performers taking on movement vocabularies, vocal qualities, or rhythms that are reminiscent of other characters, bodies or energies.
4. Performance of power
There are movements and actions on stage which represent the performance of power in the Singapore context. Power is also subverted in the performance, where characters which are traditionally oppressed or sidelined hold power onstage, taking charge of their own narratives or turning the gaze back on the audience.
The acts of mimesis above (and all other acts of performance in the show) contribute to the many realities of the production - the systems of signs and symbols that are activated by each person in the room, including the audience, when the show opens.
It’s important to note that in mimesis, becoming the original may not be the point. In this production, the richness of the lives, cultures and narratives of the orang laut/orang pulau are one reality. Our lives as contemporary citizens in Singapore, where our offshore islands have become venues for modernity, defence, and progress is another reality. The stories of loss, of anger, of displacement, are another reality. Stories of joy, pride, achievement are also a valid reality.
The shades of these realities might meet and mingle, or stand alone in their own time-spaces of history and the future. No matter how momentarily, the stage holds potent space for all these realities.
All realities, real or constructed, hold their own truths and power too.
The irony is that the making of the art itself is one with no centrality of power.
When I first stepped into the rehearsal room back in March, I remembered marvelling at how diffused the power in the room was. The musicians were jamming in one corner. The dancers were stretching and moving in another corner. Firdaus and Kak Asnida were conferring. The visual artists came, tested their visuals, and left. At one point, Syimah and Haizad’s son Noah joined us in rehearsals too.
For me in the rehearsal room, I found myself often gravitating to the locus of discussion. If there were no active discussions happening, I observed the dynamics in the room.
I must credit stage manager Syarifuddin Sahari, who highlighted to me how everyone in the room has a different performance state. He was right. Initially I thought it was a “rehearsal thing”, where everyone was still figuring out the things they needed to do, but increasingly I think it’s a strength of this production.
In this show, we have 14 bodies on stage. There is almost never a moment of unity in action, and I mean that in the purest sense of the word.
Uniformity has no place in this show. In fact, I feel like uniformity would be closer in relation to the acts of violence referred to in this show.
I believe everyone in this show has their own niat (intention) for what they’re doing - their own message or internal purpose for what they’re delivering.
I also see in this show a transmission of knowledge, energy, and love.
Natural intakes of breath, the comfort and familiarity of instruction from father to child, the passing down of a baton from mother to son, the involvement of family, and the care extended to one another – these rhythms lend a sense of ease to the show which I find special and life-giving.
Once the show opens, the audience is involved in this act of transmission, and is a part of its special power.
As a writer in residence in this production, I often ask myself where I belong in a room.
In fact, I think it’s an important question for anyone entering any new room.
Some questions to ask yourself upon entering a new room:
What is this new room?
Where is everyone located in this new room?
Am I a visitor? What is expected of me?
Are there others who have been longer than I have? What dynamics can I observe?
What rituals can I observe? Are there expectations of me to join in?
How do I feel in this room? Are there ways for me to feel safer about my position without compromising the safety of others?
What new relationships can I forge in this room? What new rituals can I introduce?
How do I create a positive impact in this room, even if it’s only on myself?
How do I leave this room?
What have I learnt from my time in this room?
I believe that even as an audience member, it’s important to know where you belong in a theatrical space. This is your entrypoint into the production.
Before the show: What do I know or think I know about this story or topic?
During the show: What new things am I learning? How does it relate to what I know?
After the show: How has my experience shaped my perceptions? What new realities do I know now? What am I curious to learn next, and where might I go to find it?
Wherever the show leaves you as an audience member, I hope this is the start of your own journey.