I was invited by Coddiwomple, a newly-formed performance collective, to experience a test run (on 29 Sept 2018) of their first work together, Dis/Embark. It’s likely they will be developing this production for a public audience, so if you’re planning on attending it I suggest saving this post for later. All I knew prior to the show was that it would involve a bus journey that would pick me up from my home address and drop me back there after.
This is an email I wrote to Shawn Chua, who performed in Dis/Embark, almost immediatelyafter I arrived home.
I’m tired. The Coddiwomple text message caught me mid-sentence in a difficult essay I was trying to write; I tried to finish that sentence then realised I was late for my pickup from the carpark in front of my block of flats, and I’m doubting my decision to wear a knit sweater on an oppressively hot day but the instructions say “dress snug”, so I’m dressing snug. I realise I’m the first one on the bus, and I’m looking for my seat the way you might look for it on a narrow budget plane. There’s a lovely soft flannel throw blanket and neck pillow on my seat, together with what looks like a little nylon shoe bag – it has a tag with my name on it. “Your dream travel planners”, it says. I’ll only figure out the pun later, but for now I’m deciding if I ought to take a photograph of my bespoke travel package. But wait, the minibus has stopped. I look up and I see you out the window, tugging at your tie. Your character is anxious. He looks like a Japanese salaryman late for work. My brain can’t quite process that there is a tiny moment of performance unspooling in the carpark I’ve crossed almost every day for the past four years. My carpark. My peripheral vision snags on something small and bright and pink – is that a Jeff Koons Balloon Dog replica in my carpark?? But already the bus is sailing out of my HDB estate and the late afternoon sun is pouring through the windows, and I’ve realised I’ve never quite looked at the carpark like this. I have a physical epiphany about Lefebvre and his notions of the production of space. My spatial practice of moving through this estate has never factored in the representational space of contemporary performance. I put away my phone and I feel lighter. I’m alone in this smooth, shiny capsule moving through my neighbourhood, the streets and the roads I cross every day to get to places. Never going, always getting there.
There are other empty seats, so we must be picking up other spectators along the way, but I’m savouring this delicious moment of aloneness, of not having to interact with anyone but listen to “Chill Out Dreams FM”. I rest my head on the seat’s headrest and I realise I haven’t done that in a while – lean my head back in a chair. I don’t quite pay attention to the radio first because I’ve learnt to associate the radio with the ambient. But maybe it’s Lou Reed’s Perfect Day, maybe it’s because the DJ is talking about rush hour, about leaving work, about being a freelancer, and I think about how I never get to “leave” work and that I haven’t left work for a long time. For months. But I’m leaving work now on this bus and as we sail down the ECP I look out the window and I look at all the homes I’ve lived in down the east coast, in Marine Parade where the block’s been painted a drab new colour, in Katong where it’s been torn down and replaced by the ugliest condominium with the perfect sea view. On the other side of the expressway, a bus with the decal “LUXURY EXPERIENCE” zooms past us, and I think, yes. I am having a luxury experience. This is a luxury.
I place the blanket on my lap and I wrap the pillow around my neck. Earlier this week, one of my friends posted on Facebook. Help. My toddler son has taken to headbutting my wife and I to get sympathy. He didn’t know what to do or where his son had learnt this from. It wasn’t gentle headbutting, it was painful – for him, and for his son. One of his friends responded:
His body is trying to express a proprioceptive need. Deep long hugs, or weighted blankets, or squeezes on the arms and shoulders help. Or get the child to crawl under a pile of mattresses. Proprioception is the body trying to place itself in relation to its parts. It senses the impact that different parts of the body receives and responds accordingly. It is more acutely felt in children’s bodies as they grow into them. Things like crash mats, trampolines are great for children to jump into, experience impact, and help with the proprioceptive process. Adults have proprioceptive needs as well, but these are usually compensated with other mechanisms.
I don’t want to compensate for my proprioceptive needs with “other mechanisms”. I want to sink into a hotel bed with a weighted blanket. I want to be in a cocoon, and Dis/Embark is making a cocoon for me and it is an act of kindness. The kindest thing a Grab driver has told me is: It’s ok, you can fall asleep, I’ll wake you up when we’re there. (Well, then he asked for a five-star rating when I alighted, but I’ll take any utilitarian shred of kindness I can get at this point.)
We pull up into another HDB estate to pick up more passengers. Some of the passengers are alone, and some are in pairs. I am wondering if by some fortuitous turn that this journey is taking place at exactly the right time for me, that I needed three hours of being alone and that the universe is granting me that wish. The music and the DJ’s ramblings drift in and out of my ears. There’s the Balloon Dog again, with his stuffed and headless master. I love how the performance tableaux are sculpted against the concrete HDB landscapes, and I love how unsuspecting passers-by move through them and around them, whether they’re coming closer or recoiling. A middle-aged man who was on a phonecall puts his phone down and stares, with unabashed fascination, as what appeared to be a breathing, shuddering headless mannequin of an office drone splits open and spits out its trembling, embryonic larvae – faceless and featureless and beige and afraid. Behind this quivering rebirth are a mother and daughter playing badminton in that narrow space between HDB blocks. They pause to stare. Our protagonist is shedding his world-hardened skin, just as I am. I am both swaddled and sloughing. I am safe and so I am letting go.
Few journeys have made me feel so cared for. I eat the sweets from my travel package, crystalline sugar and sng buay, that sweet and salty flavour reminding me of long car trips to Ipoh as a child to visit my grandmother, and being fed dehydrated, sugar-encrusted orange rinds at regular intervals so I wouldn’t throw up in the back seat from carsickness. I’m torn between my physical desire to fall asleep and my spectatorial desire to engage with the work, awake, from start to finish (although one might argue that sleep is another layer to the reprieve we’re already experiencing). Even the DJ’s fallen asleep now, and I’m tickled by this sympathetic sleepiness even though I know it’s pre-recorded and “choreographed”. The intermittent weather forecasts and traffic updates, and then the random poetry of the SAF call-up, remind me of this episode of the podcast 99% Invisible called The Shipping Forecast:
Roman Mars: Sailors know how to decode the Shipping Forecast, and over the years it has provided them with really important information. But most people in Great Britain are landlubbers. They do not need to know the weather conditions around some seagull rock hundreds of miles from the nearest coastline. Still, there’s just something about the forecast that appeals to them.
Peter Jefferson: Many people find the the words and the, I suppose the tone, and the pace quite mesmerising in a way. People have described it as everything from just very soothing to a sort of, a prayer
RM: And maybe you can see where this is heading. Maybe as you listen to Peter, your eyelids are getting heavy and your thoughts are getting dreamy. If this is the case, you are not alone. Peter discovered pretty early on that people all across Great Britain were tuning into the late night Shipping Forecast, just before one o’clock in the morning, for something entirely different from its intended purpose
PJ: Somebody once said to me, “We love listening to you sending me asleep late at night.”
RM: Peter was lulling them into sweet sweet oblivion.
Overhead, the DJ rambles on about dogs, and rehoming dogs, and the dogs of the Sungei Tengah animal shelter who’ve managed to escape, traversing Singapore in search of shelter, or perhaps adventure. The bright pink Balloon Dogs invading HDB carparks all across the island. In one HDB estate, a father is teaching his daughter how to ride a bicycle, while our zentai-suited performer acquaints himself with pink balloon dog. She wobbles away and he runs after her with his phone camera. The performer walks in place, and the dog stays still.
At this point, I’m resolutely in favour of the work being an intensely individual experience, where passengers board alone and carve out space for silence and contemplation and themselves – a sort of enforced quiet from the chaos and the labour and the work and the churn of it all. I peek into the cars pulling up alongside us. A woman reaches over to stuff wet wipes into the glove compartment, and there’s an empty baby booster in the back seat – and then a tiny dog pops up next to her. A pickup truck full of construction workers heading home for the day, all plugged into their earphones. Lush music plays over the “radio”, from Hanging up the Moon. I think of Michael D. Jackson’s preamble to Between One and One Another:
On the one hand, the world constantly invades my consciousness, breaking into my thoughts, disturbing my dreams, and sometimes subverting my sense of who I am or would seem to be. On the other hand, I experience a countervailing impulse to leave the world behind, to put my dealings with it on hold, opening up a space in which the rhythms of my inner life govern the way the external world appears to my consciousness. I regard this tension between turning toward the world and turning away from it as an expression of a deeper existential dialectic between being acted upon and being an actor. For the world can be so overwhelming that one is swept away by it, with no time to think, no sense of being in control, no opportunity to be still or silent. But in stillness and silence we may become estranged from the joys and obligations of our worldly life.
The sun is setting now, in orange and pink and gold. I haven’t seen a sunset in weeks, maybe months. This fact chokes me up. I almost cry, my face pressed against the window and the sun sinking lower and lower overhead. I am sinking into the weighted blanket of my self. It reminds me, just for a fraction of a second, of the ten days I spent doing vipassana meditation, sinking into my body, listening to my breath, being silent. I know that we’ll all have to take a toilet break soon and it soon becomes clear that we’re in Mandai and that we’re pulling up at the Zoo, and I almost don’t want to leave the bus because of how far I’ve receded into myself and this break will yank me back to the surface, but we all disembark (!) and there are so many people, and there are passengers I know, and I try to walk right behind all of them so I can cling to this last shred of quietness, to walk slowly and deliberately through the throng of tourists queueing up to enter the Night Safari, but already the silence is broken and I can feel myself stepping back into that office suit and shirt and tie and zipping myself up to insulate myself against the world, and on the bus we all exchange niceties and my meditation is broken. But I wonder what the journey’s been like for these other passengers, because I’ve managed to piece together a clear narrative, as the first passenger, from start to finish, and I wonder if the cycle will repeat as they drop me off later on. Outside, two stray dogs trot in the shadows, on the path skirting the central catchment area, and then they disappear.
The bus begins to scale an incredibly winding multi-story carpark-industrial building, and as we circle onwards and upwards the city reveals itself around us in glittering lights. The performer struggles with a noose around the balloon dog’s neck, and then his own. Is this our return to the world? I don’t know what I feel about the sadness and the resignation of this final scene (well, the final scene for me, at least). For all the care-giving the production has provided us with it hasn’t quite cared for this character, whom we’ve seen craving affection from this unmoving dog, this symbol of contemporary art wealth. The DJ’s also grown increasingly tired. He veers off course in his narration. It’s an infectious exhaustion and I’ve run out of energy – as the bus rumbles on into the night I know it’ll be dropping me off soon, and I feel like I’m on the final leg of a multi-part journey, as if I’ve taken the train somewhere, got on a flight, hopped on a shuttle bus, and then a taxi’s picked me up to go home, and I’m looking forward to home now and to staying still. My neighbourhood comes into view as we exit the expressway, all the landmarks I use to orientate myself completely unfamiliar to everyone else. As I get off I see the performance loop around itself. The performer adjusts his tie. The dog stands under a lamppost in a pool of light. But as I leave the bus I now see what I didn’t see before – the performer flags down a car and gets in and speeds away as the routine repeats. I wave. I don’t know if anyone waves back, but I wave goodbye anyway, or perhaps hello. I walk home.
Lee Yew Jin