Interbeing (2016) is my first evening-length work, which was presented by Production Workshop at Brown University last December. It is a piece built on eight dancers and non-dancers alike which is developed intensively over a long period of time, marking the first time that I truly immerse in a creative process.
Interbeing: The suggested replacement word for the verb “to be,” coined by Vietnamese Buddhist Monk and scholar Thich Nhat Hanh. It means to inter-dependently co-exist. The meaning of interbeing recognizes the dependence of any one person or thing as to all other people and objects.
I love this definition on Urban Dictionary, not because I find this definition striking a chord for me necessarily, but because I am very intrigued by this urban nature. There is something very radical in reclaiming this urban-ness amidst the development of the capturing and controlling apparatuses in our society. There is no author nor there is a sense of an authority – only words to be circulated, to be picked up, to be learned and unlearned, to be used and mis-used. There is no need to hold onto the definition in this realm of urban-ness.
There is no we are. We are not; We inter-are. Hence, I am not. The singular I is meaningless for me: I am made of anything and everything but myself. I am the society -and I don’t mean it metaphorically. The society lives in me – its codes, its norms its history, its un-history, its oppression, its liberation. The society and I inter-are. Hence, with Interbeing I set out to redefine what it means to be personal, by entering a much more elusive realm of the inter-personality, or in other words, the political.
With this kind of pretentious conceptual virtuosity exemplary of the Ivy League educated artist, I plunge into the work with an unprecedented level of confidence. The piece opens with a half-an-hour body installation that unfolds very slowly in what resembles an abandoned disco club. It is an obvious rip-off, or to say more politely, a tribute to Maria Hassabi’s PLASTIC, with a queer, post-apocalyptic touch to its minimalist aesthetics.
Following this meditative opening, the piece moves along to a separate room, accentuated by its remarkable emptiness, which is gradually occupied by air-filled plastic bag, one by one testing the patience of the audience members. From then on, Interbeing broke loose, bursting open into a series of choreographies/ events/ reenactments that make absolutely no logical sense. We imitate the hyper-masculine self-proclaimed performance artist Shia LaBeouf with his motivational “Just Do It” video; we meditate; we vogue, we live through the legendary Wonder Woman Leiomy Maldonado; we sing the American national anthem, we sing the Vietnamese national anthem; we become sexy mermaids in the foam; we dance minimalism.
After watching the piece, one of my dance studies Professors tells me: “It seems like you just get a bunch of people together for four months in the rehearsal room and see what kind of world you can build together”. And frankly, that is no too far off from my intention with Interbeing: I want to get away from the formulaic dance-making process and to not know what I am doing, so that an alternative world among us dancers – a fiction, or an ultra-reality can both organically and destructively emerge. We build a messy utopia together that defies linearity and legibility, allowing more nuanced and perhaps unfamiliar versions of the selves to unfold throughout the process.
In retrospect, one of the driving forces of Interbeing is my disillusionment with the taxonomy of the self (i.e. identity politics) that is dictated by the neoliberal American bubble that I am living in. The prescriptive nature of identity politics, or even theory of intersectionality with its oppressed/oppressor paradigm has failed to sufficiently represent my experience of navigating the world. By focusing so much on policing what is right or wrong/ who is the oppressor or oppressed, it intensely imposes a formula on what it means to be something: to be queer, to be male, to be Vietnamese, to be a colonial subject.
However, I refuse to be contained by this ironically oppressive and normative discourse that hypocritically claims to free minoritarian subjects. I look towards Interbeing, towards the non-existent self with its uncontainable multiplicities as my own strategy of dealing with the individualism that is prescribed onto me by neoliberalism. Yet, I fail to come to terms with anything that I set out to resist: I am lost, I am frustrated and I am impatient. The one question that I want answer to remains: What does it mean to be (free) in the world?
In the review for Wendell Cooper’s Carrying Capcacity, I wrote about the urgency of artists having a stake in the circulation of narratives around their works. It is important not to delegate this responsibility/ power exclusively to the figure of the critic, as if this mostly-white-male figure is the emblem of objectivity itself, who can decide whether the work is worthy of being watched or not. How can such a person wield this kind of power over an artist’s brainchild, while the artist themselves have extremely little say in how their works are being received? Can the artist then review and critique his own work? I guess they can’t because they are too personally absorbed in the making process – their perspective would be too subjective (as if the critic’s view is not).
However, it is firmly my belief that the artist’s intention should not transcend the affective representation of their works. I am not arguing for the kind of critique and analysis that center around the artist’s intention, treating it as if it is the ultimate truth to be excavated and revealed to us worldly spectators. Rather, I believe in a more democratic, or even an anarchist exchange, where everyone including the artist, the critic, the scholar and the spectator can have their own stakes in the discourse, without claiming any kind of authority over their experience in/of the works.
Photographer: Matthew Steinberg.
Set designer: Sam Keamy-Minor
Light designer: Melissa Dembski-Sullivan
Costume designer: Justine Nguyen