Jan 31-Feb 1 Performance Works
Alex Lazaridis Ferguson
I’m in a theatre watching a game. What kind of game is it? What kind of theatre is it? The show is called Foxconn Frequency (No.3): For Three Visibly Chinese Performers. There are indeed three “visibly Chinese performers” on stage. Does it matter that they are Chinese? Or that they are also Canadian? Is this question part of the game? The company is called Hong Kong Exile. Which raises the question, are these people actually exiles from Hong Kong — people barred from their native homeland?
Or does “exile” in this context indicate a state of mind, one that includes ‘feeling a longing for a place it would be inconvenient to return to, a place of origin’? What might “place of origin” mean? Are “game, theatre, Chinese, Canadian” and “exile” essentialist categories of “system, activity, ethnicity, nationality” and “being,” or are they simply moveable pieces in the game being played? Do these pieces have absolute identities or are they rather elements to be traded lightly in a “free play” of symbols, as the philosopher Jacques Derrida might have argued? In other words, does “Chinese” mean a kind of blood, a set of genes, and a cultural narrative somehow glued to a body forever, or does it mean different things in different contexts?
An open and closed game
Foxconn Frequency is a game system, one with both open and closed parts. Three performers sit at large electronic keyboards: two adult women (Natalie Tin Yin Gan and Vicky Chow) and a boy (Andrei Chi Lok Koo). Each one watches a monitor that offers instructions only they can see. Each is also situated within a square of light from a projector fixed some distance above their head. Throughout the performance these lights change colour, turn on and off, and do so with sudden and jarring intensity. They seem to respond to each performer-contestant’s success or failure to accomplish an instruction — to hit the right keys in the right sequence.
I learned, after the show, that the contestants have to succeed at a challenge to move on to the next level, and that moving on sometimes requires co-operation between contestants.
While this is going on, an info-graphic is projected onto a large screen that fills the back of the stage. It’s a bit hard to read, but after some scrutiny I notice a line on a graph moving between maximum and minimum values, and that the line represents the contestant’s moment-to-moment success rate. If the line falls below the minimum value a red light descends on her/him and a large word in red Chinese script appears, a word I’m assuming means “failure.” Success produces a white light and a word in white Chinese script.
Among other things the video projection rapidly switches through images of Chinese script, Arabic numerals, and English script. I have no idea if any of this is generated by the game, is pre-set, or randomized. The Chinese script and the numerals mean nothing to me. I can read the English words but only as incoherent fragments.
The sound design, together with the flashing lights and the often jarring video, contributes to sensory overload. I feel the way I do at a video arcade. The sound composition is like a cross between industrial noise, computer game soundtrack, and the inner life of a microchip. Someone (the program doesn't specify who) combined such sources to compose music that intersects many spheres, including the arcade, the assembly line, and the digital oscillator. I respond as I do at an arcade: I shut down my emotional centers so I can enjoy the auditory assault.
The ‘open’ part of this game system is that the contestants don’t know which instructions will come up at a given time (I figured only part of this out during the show, and learned more later). There is no guarantee they will succeed at a given task. They often fail many times.
Another open aspect is the actual meaning of the script, video images, and numbers. Because they haven’t been assigned an obvious meaning, I can decide for myself their significance or lack of it.
The ‘closed’ parts of the game are that the rules, while given in a different order every show, are determined by the game makers (the HKX creators of the show). The scenography is closed, in that most of it is fixed (three performers at three keyboards below three projectors with a big projection screen at the back). The costumes, seats, keyboard, screen, and — I forgot to mention — the 3D printers in front of each keyboard are fixed.
Actually the printers have a chance factor built in to them. Each is programmed to build a small cube during the show. The final shape of each cube is dependent on the success of the contestant. Due to the many failures all three cubes were misshapen at the end of the show, but I could see, based on how close each one was to an ideal cube, which of the contestants had succeeded most often.
I could barely see the cubes during the show, and even though a live video of each appeared on the big screen, I didn’t know what they were at the time. More to the point, I didn’t know what the task was.
While I understood that a game was being played, and while I often enjoyed trying to figure out what that game was, I didn’t know enough of the rules to fully invest in the exercise.
For a short period, bars of musical notation replace the info graphic on the screen. The performers seem to be trying to play the notes. It was only later that I learned they were reading notation the whole time and not receiving instructions such as, “Hit the farthest key on the keyboard with your opposite hand,” and so on. I’m not sure why I wasn’t let in on this from the beginning.
Open and closed theatre structures
Foxconn is both like and unlike a traditional theatre ‘game.’ In a conventional play, for example, the characters know some things the audience doesn’t know, and the audience knows some things the characters don’t. Depending on the type of play it is, the audience will know a lot or a little. Since the late 19th century, many plays have had open endings in which the fate of the characters isn’t fully known. Some plays are didactic and have a very clear message. Others are morally ambiguous.
Then there is task-oriented contemporary performance, in which suspense is not a major factor and the fascination lies with moment-to-moment contemplation of performers undertaking an action, often for the sake of the action itself.
But perhaps most relevant to Foxconn Frequency are the large-scale video game competitions that take place in huge arenas, where tens of thousands of fans watch small teams of gamers fight it out for cash prizes, their avatars projected onto massive screens.
In each of the examples noted above, the spectator has a fair understanding of the rules of the game. I enjoyed going for the ride Foxconn Frequency offered but I wonder if I might have got deeper into it if I had understood the rules better.
The meta game
On the other hand, maybe the greater game has to do with figuring out the playing pieces and how they perform as cultural signifiers — the contestants, costumes, Chinese script, show title, English script, abrupt lighting shifts, the show title, the performance company title, the sound design.
1. Visible and invisible Chinese identities:
All three performers wear white, button-up shirts and black pants. The two women have their hair tied back. The boy’s hair is short. They all play electric pianos. Their physical demeanour is formal. They look like they are trying to pass a music exam. The stereotype is of the “Asian” math or music prodigy.
Clearly HKX is playing on this stereotype. They celebrate it while framing it in such a way that questions around free will and systemic subjugation are raised. This becomes apparent late in the show when the English script (and possibly the Chinese script that I can’t read) coheres as a poem. The poem is about the suicide of a worker at Foxconn, one of the largest electronics manufacturers in the world and the place where iPhones are made.
It seems to be written by someone who currently works at Foxconn or who had previously worked there, and it is addressed to the suicide. In it, a screw falling to the ground becomes a parallel for a person throwing themselves from a building. The spate of such suicides at Foxconn, considered by many an exploitive labour compound, is well documented.
And so the cultural signifier of “visibly Chinese performer” takes on specific geographical and cultural weight. The Chinese performer-contestant before me must be linked to Longhua, a residential district in the city of Shenzhen. The performers don’t try to represent the workers in the Foxconn factory, they simply point to it by being, in Vancouver, “visibly” Chinese (I assume at Foxconn in China they would be somewhat invisibly Chinese), and by undertaking the stereotypical roles of following instructions to perform a task efficiently, as regimented factory workers must do.
2. Meanings of “Foxconn”:
The word Foxconn itself is a complex signifier that can point to several things:
the importing of an American assembly-line ideology, and therefore the colonizing of worker-boss relationships in China
China’s own Maoist exploitation of workers
pre-Maoist exploitation of the lower classes
the collusion of multi-national corporate interests in the Foxconn enterprise and the accompanying ruthless neo-liberal profit model
a place where awesome smart phones are made that almost everyone uses
a necessary human sacrifice (the suicides) so that cellular and wireless communication, as well as endless distracting games and other types of click bait, can be enjoyed by all the people of the world
the proliferation of meaningless digital gadgetry that fuels a massive digital economy
3. Exiles and workers:
Referring back to the performance company’s name — Hong Kong Exile — we have the signifier “exile.” Are these performers and creators exiles from Hong Kong? Do they hope to one day return to their place of origin? Who or what is stopping them? What am I to make of this essentialist notion? In what way, in this time of identity sensitivity, is a Hong Kong exile-artist able to speak for a Guangdon province factory worker? What’s the connection between middle class Chinese-Canadian artists with roots in Hong Kong (performing themselves) and Guangdon workers?
4. Performing the diaspora:
I ask these questions because I know the HKX artists ask these questions of themselves. I’ve heard HKX artists mention, as members of the Hong Kong diaspora, their trepidation around speaking for the diaspora or for those who remain in the former British colony. I’ve also heard one member say that the company creates work specifically for the diaspora, and not with the intent of addressing the “white” Canadian audience. During the writing of this article I saw the HKX show, No Foreigners (about internal discrimination within the Chinese Canadian community). I looked around at my fellow spectators. They were almost exclusively “white” and middle aged. So maybe HKX’s point is to create work in which some real or imagined “white” aesthetic and politic doesn’t become the foundational term in a Europe-Asia binary. Maybe they’re trying to get the “white” audience to adjust its cultural frame. (I should confess that I find the categories of “white,” “Asian,” and “Chinese,” as they are typically used, so generalized and so erasing of internal difference they are becoming meaningless).
The introduction of poetry offers yet another set of game pieces to play with. I didn’t have time to analyze the poem but I felt, based on my investigation of Haiku about 20 years ago, that it had a Haiku feel to it — in the way a simple image (the falling screw) is juxtaposed with another to evoke an emotional state. Maybe I’m wrong about that. Maybe this poem follows a Chinese form that does the same kind of work Japanese Haiku does.
The poem however, like the show as a whole, is meant to touch on something that can’t be communicated as mere information: “X committed suicide by throwing herself off a building” doesn’t quite the capture the destruction of a life and a family. It is therefore a fluid signifier. There would be no point in using poetry or making this show if the meanings were fixed, as in: "Visibly Chinese performer refers only to exploited factory worker." Such a statement could be made in a few minutes and the show would be unnecessary.
So, “visible, Chinese, exile, Hong Kong, Foxconn, poem, keyboard, white shirt, square of light, red Chinese script, music notation,” and all the other elements of the show, offer many moveable pieces that can be arranged and re-arranged in the mind of the spectator to reveal further nuance and insight.
I’m a fan of the three Hong Kong Exile (HKX) works I’ve seen so far (Room 248, No Foreigners, and this one) because I’ve found them to be intellectually and formally rigorous — more so than most theatre, dance, and hybrid performance in Vancouver. I like rigorous investigation. I don’t like work that feels unexamined and habitual. I try to convince my students (re-phrasing Plato) that the ‘unexamined performance is not worth performing.’ It seems to me that HKX is at the leading edge of experimentation in Canadian contemporary performance. Foxconn Frequency challenges expectations.
I also have to say that it fried my brain. Between the intense visual and auditory stimuli and the mental work of arranging and rearranging the ‘game pieces,’ it was a hell of workout. Paradoxically I left the show feeling both fatigued and invigorated.