Notes on Jay Koh and Chu Yuan's Collaborative and Participative Art Practice
CHU Yuan (Malaysia/Singapore) and Jay KOH (Singapore/Germany/Ireland) began their collaboration in 2000. In their practice of public and community engaged art, they firmly believe in engaging, interacting and negotiating with what exists in a given site and context – individuals, groups, communities, sectors, and structures in the social, political and cultural landscape. They define their practice as "responding to the local" and "multifaceted".
Adopting forms of engagements that are responsive to and inclusive of peoples, cultural behaviours and societal structures, they place themselves for substantial periods of time within a specific locality, and develop site-specific responses to that particular locality.
These responses are often developed in collaboration or in consultation with local partners, collaborators, participants or communities. As artists, they feel that they have to take on multifaceted roles in order to be able to affect and negotiate with the complex structures and relations that are in place in each context that they work. Their actions could range from developing community resources, carrying out public art projects and/or interactive performances; devising social organizational and relational structures; organizing activities and/ or informal learning programmes, with the aim of promoting self-organisation and facilitating self-realisation of members of that community. Their broader art practice also consists of work in organising, curating, building networks and discourses, advocacy, training and education, writing, and research.
Their work involves the interaction and exchange of ideas and knowledge between cultures and knowledge systems - particularly the exchange and interaction between art knowledge and approaches with those of social systems, and community practices. This interaction and exchange could produce meaningful and responsive forms and processes for exploring and addressing important issues that are faced by specific communities.
Notable Points of Practice
A substantial timeframe is necessary to their work, which allows for sufficient immersion and grounding into the local context, for understanding the complexities in site, and to build relationships with members of the community. Time would allows embedded tension to surface and possible processes in mediation of conflicts.
They build their work around dialogue with a range of individuals, communities, institutions, local authorities within a particular context or constituency; but do not see dialogue as the end/ objective of the work. Dialogue opens up possibilities for further actions and interactions. These allow the cultivation of intersubjective meanings for constructive processes.
Their response to people, contexts and sites, is not to merely illustrate them in a physical 'end-product'; but to find ways to creatively engage, collaborate and connect with people, within existing localized situations, practices, and knowledge. This engagement (between artist-collaborators-communities and publics) goes across multiple sectors and power structures.
We do not work with pre-determined results for a particular site. The approach, scope and focus of work come from the research and interactions in the first stage of our methodology. However, we do bring with us some curiosities and broad motivations which guide our work, to improve self-determinism, participation and self-organisation of people in the matters that are fundamental to well-being and in the structures and processes that govern their lives.
It is important that they work in collaboration with other practitioners and members of the community, preferably from diverse disciplines and sectors, as they believe that any issue or subject is situated within and affected by a wider network of social structures. Collaboration with other disciplines and sectors open up ways of seeing and knowing and engenders creative responses from multiple directions. It also helps extend the work beyond their physical presence at the site; and retain the knowledge generated from the project within the community.
A central point of the aesthetics of their work lies in engaging people's imagination in visualizing ('seeing') and recreating (arranging/ composing/ organising) their lives. It seeks to engage the individual's creativity in responding to the structures that interact with their lives.
They situate our work across disciplines, in a form of contemporary art practice that is informed by sociology, cultural studies, and critical pedagogy and most importantly by local knowledge in context, the mindsets, needs and daily practices of peoples. Access to local knowledge, structures (organizational, facilities, and networks) is crucial for their work.
There is never a context which engenders all the conditions that can enable all parts of their methodology to be applied freely. Real situations constrain, challenge and modify their methodology, and can bring about creative conflicts, negotiations and resolutions, which form the root and meaning of 'practice'.
Finding common ground in engagement
After observing and experiencing different approaches in participant/ interactive/ community engagement, in which either the art/ artists dominates or the needs and priorities of the participant dominates, they have seen that both these models do not provide possibilities for long term sustainment, as in any of such cases, the curiosity, interest and motivation of one party is not fully engaged. There has to be genuine interest and desire for engagement for both participants and artists, and not motivated from outside.
Participation is a process that should lead to possible ownership. This process should be initiated as early as possible by expanding authorship and in the selection of mediums, materials and directions.
Methodology of Practice
Jay and Chu Yuan's methodology of engaged art practice seeks to bring together explorations of self + other + context; trying to give equal emphasis, attention and exploration to all these aspects, in order to arrive at responsive, informed and locally sustainable actions to local issues.
To carry out initial research and build crucial, foundational relationships; that will lead to the identification and naming of the issue, 'area of work', scope and constituency framed by the 'subject/ work'; to develop an understanding of the context and structures and pose some initial questions; to identify and collect a range of information, material, media etc.
In our projects, the naming of the issue(s), area of work, scope and constituency, comes after a stage of Research and Relationship Building. In different projects, the identification and naming of the issue(s), area of work, scope and constituency may be produced in collaboration with others, or be totally generated by context and/or others.
To open up learning/ unlearning/ relearning
To begin with personal engagement/ interpretation of material collected in order to engage and understand the 'self'; To open up to multiplicity of views and perspectives to understand other ways of seeing and knowing; To bring people from different social and cultural groups together to learn from each other
To connect with and construct the bigger picture – e.g. to learn and engage with other views that may be different to our own; to connect with other and meta-structures and relationships and engender new relationships/ structures
To consolidate and reflect on interactions; and to generate other possibilities and engagements; individually and across groups, disciplines and/or sectors
To articulate relationships which interact with 'self'/ subject and one's experience and perception of the 'other' – to try to identify the hidden/ less apparent or transparent issues, trace relations of causation; consequence; limitations, blockages, assumptions, disproportions, discriminations, and/ or oppressions.
To find ways to resolve conflicts, contestations, resistances; to extend and expand the actions, engagement and interaction
At every stage of the methodology, various activities will be carried out and there is no limit as to what these can be - actions/interactions, public events, group activities, games, outings, performances, competitions, dialogue, forums, etc.