From A Rebellous Sentiment — 09.12.2020
A Conversation with Kok Siew-Wai on SiCKL (Kuala Lumpur, 2006-2010)
In late 2005, Kok Siew-Wai returned to Malaysia after having lived in the US for over seven years. Shortly after, she co-founded Studio in Cheras Kuala Lumpur (SiCKL), an initiative which sought to promote experimentation across different media, with Yong Yandsen and other members from Experimental Musicians and Artists Co-operative Malaysia (EMACM). It has since ceased its operations but in some ways transformed into the Kuala Lumpur Experimental Film, Video & Music Festival (KLEX) in 2010. In this conversation, we discuss how SiCKL was formed, the chaos that ensued and the friendships made along the way, and how it all led to KLEX.
MEETING THE GANG
Merv Espina (ME): We’d like to concentrate on SiCKL (Studio in Cheras Kuala Lumpur) and maybe discuss EMACM (Experimental Musicians and Artists Co-operative Malaysia) as well.
Kok Siew-Wai (KSW): I joined a bit later as EMACM was formed before I returned to Kuala Lumpur. I was studying in the US and only came back in late 2005, around Christmas time.
About two weeks after I came back, I went to Goh Lee Kwang’s solo show at Rumah Air Panas (RAP). It was a show with the dancer [Lee] Swee Keong. He asked me to document his performance. [Yong] Yandsen, Tham Kar-Mun, [Yeoh] Yin-Pin, and a bunch of musicians were there at the show. They were playing improvised music and, before I went to the US, I had never heard improvised music in Malaysia so I was really surprised hearing it there.
We started to converse and they mentioned some musicians that inspired them like Peter Brötzmann. I told them that I’ve seen Brötzmann live in the US and they were surprised. Then we just kept talking and became friends. In January 2006, I did a talk at RAP and invited Yandsen to perform with me.
After that, Yandsen and I talked about renting a space for music practice and artists’ gatherings. We got excited and looked around and found a place, and that became SiCKL.
HAPPENINGS AT THE STUDIO
KSW: We kind of had an informal opening ceremony for SiCKL and invited Joe Kidd to open the space for us, with a durian. When we opened it and the smell was like, "ahh..." It’s a fruit with a strong “personality,” definitely not for everyone, ha!
ME: It's officially open, you can smell it. What other funny weird stuff happened in that space?
KSW: There's this dancer, Low Shee Hoe, who brought in a group of young female dancers, and they were just very cute and funny. After the high energy performance, I don't know how, everybody just got into a dancing mood and it kind of became like a trance dancing party. Everyone was dancing and the musicians were playing and the audience were also banging on tables and chairs.
There was also one time that we had zero audience. I remember I was performing, Yandsen was performing, and Azmyl Yunor. Azmyl is a folk singer and he ended up doing a spontaneous stand-up comedy set. It was hilarious! There was no audience and we were like, “Why don't we just perform for each other? We are performers. And we are audience too!” So, we decided to go on anyway because the show must always go on!
Also, at one point, part of SiCKL became kind of like a storage for Yandsen's company which is a supplier of Chinese herbs. I think they had too much goods that time and he needed more space so part of the studio was stacked with so many Chinese herbs boxes that when you entered the studio, you could smell them.
ME: What did your neighbors think of you?
KSW: Our neighbor changes. At one point, it was like some kind of educational center. I think they just thought we were a little strange.
ME: They never attended your performances?
KSW: No. But I remember one funny thing, maybe two floors below us, there was a small church. During one of our events, they were also having one and so when our audience came up, they thought they were going to the church. So the church people were greeting our audience and shaking their hands. Our audience was confused. It’s quite funny.
KSW: Eventually, Yandsen and I were like, “If it’s just us two, the rent is too expensive. We need to ask more people to pay with us.” So, we approached other EMACM members.
Some of them decided to make SiCKL the base of EMACM. That’s how it started basically. Then of course, people come and go, and for some of them, experimental music wasn’t the only thing they did. Some did it for a while before returning to what they are actually more comfortable with. Basically, the ones who stayed to play purely experimental and improvised music from that group were Yandsen, Goh Lee Kwang, and myself.
The two of us became the core members in terms of organization. I ended up doing a lot of the writing and paperwork. Yandsen was the one who took care of technical things. He would be the stage manager during events. And then we both discussed and decided on the content of the programs. Actually, we still work with this structure until today.
ME: So how did you financially sustain that space?
KSW: We have day jobs!
ME: But how many of you contributed? What was the logistical dynamic in sustaining the space financially?
KSW: The space had no official funding at all so basically it was just all the members contributing. At first, everyone contributed together and then, little by little, some pulled out for different reasons. We could understand because some people didn't have full-time jobs so the ones who had stable jobs, like me and Yandsen, tended to contribute a little bit more.
Eventually, we had other people who were not from the initial group coming in to share the studio with us. At one point, there was a theater group who came in and used the space for theater rehearsals. Sometimes, dancers or actor groups would rent it for one or two weeks. But yes, financially, we felt like it was hard to survive because at one point there were only three of us contributing.
ME: Who was that? You, Yandsen, and who?
KSW: [Tey] Beng Tze who now runs RAW Art Space. He used that place as his painting studio. That was the last batch of people sharing: me, Yandsen, and Beng Tze.
Then, the rent increased and, at that time, RAW Art Space was already there in the city center so we thought perhaps we didn't need two spaces that do similar things.
So, we thought that if we weren’t really using the space for public events, then we should perhaps stop. But, as you can see from the KLEX (Kuala Lumpur Experimental Film, Video & Music Festival) website, SiCKL is mentioned as a producer. SiCKL does not have a base anymore but it still kinda stays as a collective.
ME: It seems like EMACM kind of became SiCKL and then it kind of became KLEX. Is that right?
ME: So it never really ended? It transformed and changed names?
KSW: Yeah, in a way. Also, I think it became more focused? Its direction became clearer. Because, for example, during the SiCKL time, we had our Open Lab series showcasing all kinds of artists and musicians in all styles. It was very friendly and inclusive but there was no clear direction.
Actually, I had a small drama with a member in the team due to the issue of having a clear direction regarding the kind of works we are dedicated to support as a collective. My argument was that we should have a focus and since the establishment of EMACM, our focus is on experimental work or work that is more unconventional and underground and so we should stay in that direction.
But of course, as you work with different people, these kinds of things happen. You will have different ways of working and different ideas. And sometimes, for things that I hold dearly, I can be quite stubborn.
SAMA-SAMA GUESTHOUSE MINI ALTERNATIVE ART FESTIVAL
ME: You mentioned that you were renting out the space for some time. Didn’t you also have some kind of informal residencies?
KSW: It was very informal. It was basically just musicians or artists writing to us. I think that was because there weren’t many platforms for experimental arts. Like, if they just google "experimental arts Kuala Lumpur," somehow we will pop up.
At the time, we had random people writing to us and they would give samples of their work and if we thought it was okay, we'd meet them and if we felt okay about the person, or the person was recommended by someone we trusted, then we were quite relaxed about letting them stay at the studio.
Also, at the time, we were quite inexperienced and just coming from a place like, "We love art, we just want to do what we love.” We were very naïve and idealistic. Around this time, we organized a no-budget festival called Sama-sama Guesthouse Mini Alternative Art Festival. It happened at the Guesthouse in this small historical town called Melaka. Basically the two people who planned out the whole festival were just me and Yandsen, with the generous support from the Guesthouse owner who allowed us to occupy the space for a weekend. With no funding at all, we gathered artworks from over 50 artists and performers. The participating artists were very generous and independent, with a strong DIY spirit to manage things by themselves. It was a very idealistic project and somehow it was realized in a memorable way, like a miracle. So, at the time, we didn't really think so much about how to sustain ourselves financially and things like that. It was only when we started to do KLEX that we figured that we actually need funding in order to sustain ourselves in the long term.
ME: But didn't that happen in the same year?
KSW: It happened in the same year but this festival happened before KLEX.
ME: Oh my god, you're crazy!
KSW: It came from a very rebellious sentiment because, at that time, we already had KLEX in mind. The idea for KLEX was actually initiated by the filmmaker Tomonari Nishikawa. He was the one who suggested that, since we had been doing SiCKL for a few years already, why don't we try to organize a festival and start doing things in a more professional way. Sau Bin [Yap] was actually in the first KLEX committee as well.
We had a lot of meetings about that first KLEX. It was just meeting after meeting about how to find money and things like that. Yandsen and I found it frustrating so we wondered if it was possible to make something happen without funding. I think it was just this kind of rebellious thinking that led us to make an experimental festival with no budget at all.
It was a very good experience for us not just because it actually pushed through but also because we saw that some people genuinely have the passion and enthusiasm to do things and, of course, we knew this would only happen once because people can’t just work for free all the time. But that’s okay, this one-time experience is enough to give us the courage to keep doing what we believe in.
KUALA LUMPUR EXPERIMENTAL FILM, VIDEO & MUSIC FESTIVAL (KLEX)
ME: How did you apply that learning to KLEX? Because KLEX became kind of big.
KSW: It's only bigger in terms of content but the team is actually very small. It's easier to discuss things and, little by little, we get to know the kinds of people we can work well with. Working with the right people is quite important. The team is getting smaller but more efficient. We have been working much faster and smoother in the past few years. We can focus more on the content, and our content does grow stronger in recent years.
Also, we now know how to say yes and no. In the very beginning, we felt that we were so inexperienced and so everything was “okay.” As a result, the quality was inconsistent. In one show, you would see something really good but also something that was not up to standard. Personally, I feel like in the recent editions, there generally has been a good standard in terms of content. But of course one thing that I still haven’t learned is how to get money. It's still not enough money. The KLEX committee still works for free!
Actually, the first KLEX... I don't know. Sau Bin is here. What do you think about the first KLEX? I think the first KLEX was a bit of a failure.
Sau Bin Yap (SBY): It is the first KLEX. How can it be a failure or a success? Either you're harsh with yourself or you're actually harsh to the people that were working there.
KSW: No, I think... it wasn't very organized.
SBY: It was the first time, Siew-Wai.
KSW: It was very last minute and I remember I was really sad on the opening night because only ten people came. The promotion wasn't good. I think I was also sick on the second day. I think I had diarrhea or something after the opening night.
Also, the setting wasn't very ideal. During some of the screenings, there were technical problems that we could have avoided had we prepared better. So, I don't know. Personally, I detected many problems with the first KLEX. After that, some left the team. For us who stayed, the only thing we wanted to do was to correct all the mistakes that we made during the first KLEX, to list them all down so that we don’t repeat them.
Norberto “Peewee” Roldan (NR): These are not questions but I just would like you to recall three events which happened in 2007 and 2008. In 2007, Donna [Miranda] had a residency at Rimbun Dahan and her final output was a major production at the Annexe Central Market which was a big collaboration with SiCKL. Could you give us a little story regarding how that collaboration came about? How were you introduced to each other?
The next event was when, after the residency, Donna went back to KL with me and Joaquin [Roldan] and then she did a performance at your space.
Lastly, in 2008, you and Yong Yandsen came over to Manila to do a performance at Green Papaya. These are three events that I hope you can recall how they developed, how they were organized, and how was your experience of these happenings?
KSW: To be honest, I don't remember who introduced me to Donna but I remember somebody told us that there’s this very good dancer from Manila who is now at the Annexe Gallery and she would like to meet artists. It was probably someone from the Annexe Gallery. So, we just went there and talked with Donna and my first impression was that she is such a strong artist and I like her. I think that's how it started, it was quite random.
We started to have more conversations and she did a movement workshop which I think I took part in. In her performance project at The Annexe, I was actually involved as a musician, together with my peers from SiCKL. I really enjoyed the collaborations because Donna was very open to communication. After every rehearsal, she would ask everyone what we felt about it and if we had any thoughts or suggestions on how we could go about these things. She never placed herself in some authoritative position and she was always open for people to give feedback so she was very pleasant to work with.
SiCKL was the music coordinator for the [2007 Notthatbalai Art Festival’s] experimental music program. Actually, Donna’s appearance in that performance was random. We already had a program but we just decided on that day to call Donna and ask whether she wants to dance and she said yes. So we added one “encore act” with Donna, Yandsen, Aziz, and myself.
After Donna’s residency, she came back with Peewee [Roldan] and Joaquin, and we organized a SiCKL Open Lab for Donna to perform and collaborate with local musician Aziz. Aziz was also the artist that did all Open Lab series flyers for SiCKL from 2006. Also on the bill were Yandsen, Azmyl, and myself.
After that, we kind of became friends and then Yandsen and I were interested in going to Manila so we just talked to Donna and said, “Hey, we are coming. Can we do something?”
ME: And then you stayed at Peewee's house.
KSW: Yes, having met some Filipino artists in KL, we were curious about Manila. Both of us haven’t been to the Philippines, it was the first time! Tengal came to KL and stayed at SiCKL before we went to Manila. So we knew Tengal, Donna, and then we got to know Peewee at Green Papaya. And got to know turntablist Caliph8 [Arvin Nogueras].
Our residency at Green Papaya was very brief, I think it was only four or five days? We did some recording sessions with Tengal, Arvin, and others. And then Donna, Tengal, Yandsen, and I did a performance at Green Papaya where we improvised in different combinations. I remember it was a good night with a great atmosphere and meeting other Filipino artists and musicians at the event. Oh, and Donna and Peewee cooked dinner for us. So nice!
About our "networking," SiCKL was really not like a fully functioning art organization because we all had our day jobs and so we were doing this organizing work just whenever we could. It was quite hard to run it very “professionally." We just let things flow so it was more organic. For example, our relationship with Green Papaya was through Donna and it started as a friendship. Just as individuals that enjoy the company of each other. Actually most of our network works like this. It’s very seldom that we purposely go out trying to network with “the VIPs.” For us, it’s much more organic and random. For example, we played with some musicians or collaborated with some artists like Donna, and then we became friends. And when an opportunity arises, we think of our friends (or friends of friends…) and the collaboration happens. I would say that 90% of our network works like this.
ME: ruangrupa has a term for that: "Make Friends, Not Art.”
EMACM AND SiCKL TODAY
ME: What's the current status of EMACM and SiCKL? How are they now?
KSW: I think all of these "collectives" were basically formed by the same people and they didn't really end so they're just kind of inactive? They each morphed into the more currently active thing? As I said, SiCKL is no longer a space but it became the producer of KLEX. And EMACM never really disappeared. It's still there, but perhaps it changed into another form.
ME: So knowing what you know now with your experience, would you still form SiCKL the way that you did? What would be your ideal scenario? What is your ideal form of SiCKL?
KSW: I don't know. I think it is okay as it is? It's interesting because personally I never really think about the ideal scenarios of things. Perhaps I’m so used to imperfect circumstances? I think that all experiences are okay because eventually, they make us who we are today. It doesn't matter whether it failed or not. Maybe because it is a failure and you feel that you need to do something about it, and that makes you grow. In other words, in order to grow, you need that failure. So... I don't know. I think it's okay.
Maybe I should be a little bit more organized about my flyers so we can have a good list of events and artists we've worked with. Documentation and archiving. This is the aspect that we need to do a better job at. In a way, Facebook is good because we now create events there. If Facebook doesn't disappear, then at least we have some history we can retrieve. For the coming years, I hope that our team can afford to put more effort into documentation – posters, pictures, texts, and videos. Yes!
The online interview took place on 20 August 2020. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Hailing from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, Kok Siew-Wai started as a video artist and is now active as a vocal improviser and artist-curator/organizer. She received her BA in Media Study at University at Buffalo and MFA in Electronic Integrated Arts at Alfred University in USA, where she was based from 1998 to 2005. Siew-Wai has shown her works, curated projects and performed in Asia, Europe, Australia, Canada and the USA. She has a deep passion in experimental and improvisational arts, and is the co-founder and co-director of SiCKL and the Kuala Lumpur Experimental Film, Video & Music Festival (KLEX). She’s currently teaching at the Faculty of Creative Media, Multimedia University.
#RightPeopleWrongTiming #rpwt #FlashbackFriday #greenpapayaarchives
1. Dancer Caesar Chong (RIP) and artist Teoh Shaw Gie in the event “Leave Me Alone” at SiCKL. Photo by Lesly Leon Lee.
2. Au Sow Yee during SiCKL's opening night, 20 May 2006.
3. Aziz and Fahmi Fadzil in “Projek Wayang,” 29 Sept 2006.
4. Low Shee Hoe and the Lapar Lab performing SiCKL X’mas Gig in 2009. Photo by Ilyia.
5. Directions to SiCKL.
6. Poster for SiCKL Open Lab, June 2008. Designed by Aziz.
7. Poster for Extended Periods of Waiting, the culmination of Donna Miranda's residency at Rimbun Dahan, June 2007. Designed by Norberto Roldan.
8. Yong Yandsen, Kok Siew Wai, and dancer Lena Ang in Improv Lab, Findars, August 2009. Photo by Ricky Sow.
9. Poster for Sama-sama Guesthouse Mini Alternative Art Festival 2010. Designed by Hee Chee Way.
10. Kok Siew-Wai introducing a program at KLEX 2011.
Kok Siew-Wai. “On the Experimental Path in Kuala Lumpur.” (Aug 2020)
SiCKL & Experimental Musicians and Artists Co-operative Malaysia blog
Goh Lee Kwang’s first solo exhibition at RAP (11 Dec 2005)
Kok Siew-Wai’s talk and performance at RAP (Jan 2006)
S. Chin, E. McGovern, S. Soon. “Independent Spaces in Malaysia.” (April 2010)
“Penunu bunsen & Tabung Uji, baybeh!” (23 Oct 2009)
Sama-sama Guesthouse Mini Alternative Art Festival 2010
Kok Siew-Wai. “Why No Budget? A Little Story…” (28 July 2010)
"Performance may serve as a lesson on punctuality." (15 June 2007)
“Regurgitating Rabbits / Open Sound Lab.” (5 June 2009)
If you can:
Right People, Wrong Timing (RPWT) is a series of texts on defunct or inactive independent Asian arts initiatives that had crossed paths or ran parallel to Papaya’s own 20-year history. With new posts every Friday from August to December 2020, RPWT is kindly supported through a local grant by the Japan Foundation Manila.