Interview with Daniel Kok
Ben Brooker in conversation with Daniel Kok
Since completing his Masters in Solo/Dance/Authorship (SODA) at the Inter-University Centre for Dance in Berlin (HZT), Singaporean choreographer and performer Daniel Kok has been exploring what he calls ‘specific figures of performances’: in, for example, cheerleading, pole dance, rope bondage, and, most recently, Indian classical performance. Also a theorist (he has a BA in Fine Art and Critical Theory from London’s Goldsmiths College), Kok’s work continuously engages with the ideas of Nicholas Bourriaud, the French curator who, in his 1998 book of the same name, originated the term ‘relational aesthetics’ to refer to:
A set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space.
‘I have always,’ Kok told me via email, ‘been eager to find a way to justify to myself why I ought to be working as a choreographer instead of making objects, installations or videos, all of which I have dabbled with since 2001.’ How, then, does Kok approach choreography when dance has, traditionally, been equally as unidirectional as object-oriented art? ‘I now see choreography,’ writes Kok, ‘as a particular field of knowledge specialisation that can inform or contribute to other disciplines that require closer investigation into the dynamics of socio-cultural interaction, such as the visual arts (as aforementioned), design, and anthropology.’
My introduction to Kok’s practice was through Bunny, a collaboration with Australian-born, New York-based choreographer and performer Luke George, which premiered in Sydney in 2016 and featured in that year’s OzAsia Festival in Adelaide, where I saw it. A playful, erotically charged work drawn from the clandestine world of rope bondage, I described Bunny in my review (RealTime issue #135 Oct-Nov 2016) in this way:
Bracingly transgressive, [the work] poses many questions around consent, privacy, trust, power, and collective responsibility and moral agency. Nevertheless, its atmosphere is predominately a safe one that, even as the work slowly breaks down conventional social and theatrical boundaries, momentarily binds together everybody present—performer, participant, observer—in ways that can’t be seen.
In rope bondage, while ‘rigger’ is a name given to the person who does the tying, a ‘bunny’ refers to the one being tied. Conventionally, a submissive woman assumes the bunny role, a dominant heterosexual man that of the rigger. As gay-identifying artists, Kok and George were interested in subverting bondage’s heteronormative aspects, introducing a ‘feminine’ aesthetic (coloured rather than natural fibre ropes, rope bracelets of the kind usually made by young girls) and a camp sensibility that meant household objects (a vacuum cleaner, a fire extinguisher, a pot plant) could be imbued with subjectivity while audience members could be objectified by the application of ropes and other paraphernalia. Kok tells me he and George began by wondering ‘what it might mean to queer rope bondage… begin[ning] with dichotomous relationships like male-female, gay-straight, top-bottom, dominant-submissive, artist-audience, but end[ing] up in a shared space that is more open, more fluid… queerer.’
‘In Bunny,’ Kok continued, ‘we are essentially playing with the social contract inherent to a theatrical performance. At some point in our creative investigations, we realised that we could not any longer avoid the power negotiations in bondage. Intimacy in bondage is built through the demand for acquiescence, giving of trust, playing with permission, taking up duties of care, testing of boundaries and the discovery of new desires together.’ It is this complex interplay of consent and refusal, trust and suspicion, desire and revulsion, which makes Bunny such a fascinating and, ultimately, rewarding experience for the audience as traditional performance hierarchies are flattened out and participation and cooperation are elevated over, or at least alongside, mere spectatorship. The conventional relationship between audience and performer, however, has been problematised rather than simply neutered or reversed. The bodies of Kok and Luke – athletic, near-naked, sheened with sweat – invite our desiring gaze, and there are moments, such as when an audience member is bound at the wrists and ankles and has her purse riffled through, that, while provoking ripples of uncomfortable, thank-god-it’s-not-me laughter, appear at face value to have crossed the line that demarcates violations of privacy and trust.
Nevertheless, the space created by Kok and Luke feels, if not exactly safe, then at least like one that is constituted, moment by moment, through a process of continual negotiation. Audience members can (and do) rebuff the duo’s invitations to be bound or blindfolded, and George frequently ‘checks in’ with participants to ensure their consent and comfort as they are subject to sometimes arduous programs of rope binding. According to Kok, ‘Not everyone will say “yes” to our propositions. Yet, we have to believe that irrespective of some refusal to acquiesce in our rope games, we could still appreciate the social space that we are shaping together by considering the varied levels of connections that might (or might not) be forming amongst the audience. The game is to cajole and manipulate, but never to completely place others into a trap.’
Bunny will play for four nights in February at Melbourne’s Meat Market as part of the inaugural Asia TOPA (Asia-Pacific Triennial of Performing Arts) Festival. Kok, however, is already looking ahead, a process complicated by the questioning of both his own practice and his place as an artist and individual in a world that will shortly see Donald Trump ascend to the US presidency. ‘I am beginning,’ writes Kok, ‘to find the ethical questions that surround my choreographic work thus far as restricting as they are stimulating. For me, in trying to be mindful of the politics of choreography, what tends to happen is what I think amounts to a “throwing of the baby out with the bath water”. There begins to be less and less dancing in dance.’
And how, I wonder, will Kok’s choreography respond to Trump’s quasi-fascist bigotry? ‘By looking,’ he tells me, ‘to work with an even more ambiguous language, for instance, [and by] going more deeply into the shape-shifting movement of dance. Presently, I am beginning to find in Indian classical performance forms such as kutiyattam and mohiniyattam new ideas for representation, relating and moving.’