Questions by Azzief Khaliq. Header image from The Three Spirits by Olga Guse. All photos and images courtesy of KLEX.
The Kuala Lumpur Experimental Film, Video and Music Festival (KLEX) has been a regular part of Malaysia’s alternative and underground arts calendar since 2010, showcasing fine work from all across the world in the fields of experimental film and video, as well as featuring performances by local and international musicians and audio-visual performers.
This year’s KLEX Festival carries the theme “spark”, and will feature international guest screenings, an open programme selected from more than 200 sumbissions from around the world, audio-visual performances as well as a non-camera film workshop, which will focus on ways to create and destroy images on 16mm film. Ahead of this year’s festival, which runs from November 24 to 27, we sent festival director Kok Siew-Wai some questions about the festival, and even get her to weigh in on the problem of Malaysia’s own experimental output (or lack thereof).
2016 sees the seventh edition of KLEX; can you tell us a bit more about how the festival started and what the motivation was behind trying to get an experimental film and video festival off the ground in Malaysia?
Siew-Wai: KLEX was founded in 2010, although Yong Yandsen and I, and a few others, had started to organise experimental film screenings and music gigs since 2006 at our studio in Cheras, called SiCKL (Studio in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur). The KLEX team is basically made up of the core members of SiCKL. KLEX has had an international vision since the very beginning: we want to show good experimental works from around the world to Malaysian audiences because we think this is what is lacking in the art and film scene. In fact, the idea of KLEX did not come from a local, but came from Tomonari Nishikawa, a Japanese experimental filmmaker and researcher, who saw the necessity and potential of establishing an experimental festival in Kuala Lumpur. There were 6 people in the team in 2010, Au Sow Yee, Yap Sau Bin, Goh Lee Kwang, Nishikawa, Yong Yandsen and I. After a few months of discussion, Nishikawa left Malaysia. He actually never attended KLEX festival, ha! I took up the festival director post since. The team members have changed over the years, but we continue working on it and 2016 marks the festival’s seventh year.
When did music also start becoming a key part of the whole KLEX experience? Were experimental music and audio-visual performances part of the plan from the start?
SW: When Nishikawa proposed the idea of KLEX, we agreed that we’d start with film and video, because that seemed most workable at the time, but we discussed the possibility of considering other art forms in the future. That is why the name is KLEX, “Kuala Lumpur Experimental”, since it leaves things open to other art forms. Since 2011, the 2nd edition of the festival, we started to include audio-visual performances, but only for the opening night. This slowly developed into having two performance nights, and then performances for all three festival nights. In May 2014, KLEX launched a monthly series called Serious Play Improv Lab (SPIL), and has since started to put more focus on music. In 2015, we officially modified our name to “KL Experimental Film, Video & Music Festival”.
KLEX has had a long and fruitful relationship with Findars; how did the collaboration get started and does KLEX intend to keep working with Findars for the forseeable future (at least, for KL-based events)?
SW: Our collaboration with Findars started even before KLEX. It was back in 2009, when Findars was first established at Central Market Annexe. We organised a monthly series called “Improv Lab @ Findars” there. It was like SPIL, focusing on music and improvisation. The styles of music and film that we have focused on are not widely accepted and understood, even to this day. Findars is one of those rare open-minded and adventurous art spaces in KL, and it has been friendly and supportive of our work, so there’s no doubt that we’ll continue to work with them.
You’ve obviously seen a lot of films and videos over the past seven years. Any particular ones that stand out, that really left an impression?
SW: Personally, I have been quite impressed by a number of works from Hong Kong in recent years. Interestingly, most of the works were from very young filmmakers who were students or had just graduated. Several shorts sent by the Hong Kong Art Centre were very inspiring and thought provoking. One of them is Under the Lion Crotch by Wong Ping, an animated music video with political and social criticism of influence of mainland China, with dark humour. Gwan Gong VS Alien by Leung Chung Man, an experimental sci-fi comedy fiction, also tackled similar subject matter. This year, Dancing Eye, an animation by Eric Lee Ka Yin, tells a simple and beautiful story about a girl who has bad eyes imagining tiny dancers around her, but once her parents bought her a pair of glasses to “fix” her eyes, the tiny dancers disappeared and she cries sadly. A sort of farewell to the pureness and innocence of a child’s creative and imaginative mind.
Last year, I was especially glad to show an experimental personal documentary by Chan Hau Chun titled 32 + 4, which explored the artist’s relationship with her family. I first encountered the film at the International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, Germany and it hit me right away. I was very happy that it won the Principal Prize at the Oberhausen festival. The film was extremely personal and honest: the tone is both vulnerable and strong, with a good sense in filmmaking and aesthetics. These youngsters showed mastery of their art forms with interesting and meaningful content, reflecting on the experience of living in an unsettling social and political climate in contemporary Hong Kong.
How do Malaysian contributions generally stack up compared to our regional counterparts? Grievances related to the the general lack of quality in our film and music compared to our regional counterpart are pretty common, we find. Is this something you’ve noticed as well?
SW: This is a good question, as Yandsen and I’ve been observing and analysing the issue for quite some time. This year we received 250 film submissions, with less than 10 percent of the submissions coming from Malaysia. Although I wish there are more local submissions (perhaps 20 percent would be ideal), I’m OK with this for now. We should accept the fact that there are very few people making experimental film in Malaysia. Even though KLEX is a a small-budget, DIY-style festival, we’ve modelled ourselves after established international festival in terms of content and execution, and such festivals tend to showcase a large variety of work from all around the world, with a variety of styles and subject matter. That’s why it’s very important for locals to see all these works at the festival that otherwise might not be accessible to them.
In general, I think we lack the habit and culture of reaching out and showing our work. Perhaps there’s a lack of encouragement from mentors in the field, or maybe there aren’t enough platforms for it and a lack of exposure for the platforms that do exist. Or maybe we are too afraid to expose ourselves away from the “protection” and comfort of familiar networks and friends. I studied and lived in USA between 1998-2005, and when I was a student, our professors would let us know about all sorts of events that we could check out, and call-for-work from festivals/events that we could send our work to. So, during my sophomore year as a video art student, I was already sending my work out to different festivals. Of course most of the time my works were rejected (haha!), but there were a few times that I got into some shows, and once even won a prize at a student film festival. As a young artist, that was very encouraging and pushed me to keep doing it. Sometimes, I’d show my work at local art spaces that operated an “open mic” kind of screening events. At times, I’d be showing my work alongside very established local artists, and sometimes even some of my professors. I really appreciated these platforms because I learnt directly from watching the works of these established artists who were much more advanced than me. As an artist, I think it is very important to see and learn from others in the field, especially those that are more experienced than you. It’s a self-education process, a learning process.
I think most Malaysian artists and audience members are less proactive and, in a way, conservative. Maybe it’s a result of our culture that needs constant mentoring and approval in order for people to do things, leading to a lack of independent and critical thinking. For example, young artists tend to be “led” into a scene or a path most of the time, rather than reaching out to explore and experiment by themselves. Our mentors tend to view this as “wasting time”, and they are too eager to lead the young ones to “the right path” so that they can achieve faster. Because of this mentality, the youngsters become dependent and passive. They always need a certain “manual”, “instructions” and “samples” in order to move on.
I’m a teacher myself, and this is what I notice: students lack self-confidence and independent thinking, and are too worried about making mistakes and being criticised. We have fragile egos! We also lack a culture of honest expression in our art, due to official and personal self-censorship. I remember a brief conversation that I had with my late professor Tony Conrad when I told him that I’d started to perform, and that it was always frightening and that I had stage fright every time. He replied, “perhaps the greatest thing about performance to a performer, is indeed the overcoming of fear.” This statement inspired me a lot. To put your work and yourself out there, in a vulnerable position, open to both acceptance and rejection, is a brave gesture. Some people will love you and others will criticize you, but in any case, you’ll learn a lot from the experience of positioning yourself outside your usual comfort zone.
Another common complaint here in Malaysia is simply the fact that there honestly isn’t anywhere to “go” here, that the audience for experimental art is a very small part of an already small audience; how have you (and KLEX) sought to tackle this? We notice that KLEX has been involved in many international collaborations, is an attempt to move “beyond” Malaysia’s restrictive borders?
SW: Yes, as mentioned previously, KLEX has had an international perspective since it was founded. Our aim is not only to bring works from around the world to show in Malaysia, but also to serve as an agent to bring Malaysian and Asian works to show in other parts of the world. We shouldn’t be restricted in our little society, country, and region. We need a broader perspective and experience. Since 2011, KLEX’s works have toured to Belgium, China, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Hungary, Indonesia, Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam and USA. It’s pretty exciting! It shows that KLEX’s work is appreciated and recognised by the international art community.
Regarding the small audience number in the alternative art scene, to be honest, it happens everywhere! As I’ve been travelling with KLEX programmes to a couple of countries in Europe and several in Asia, I’ve found out that it’s a common issue for everyone working in the fringe art scene. So we’re not alone, don’t be discouraged! Of course, if a place has a more developed art history and culture, and the government gives more focus and support to the arts, provide the art education and let it accessible to the general public, it’ll be more vibrant and diverse. So I think it’s not only a problem for the alternative art scene in Malaysia, but one of a society that lacks a knowledge and awareness of the importance of arts and culture.
This year’s festival features a vibrant and diverse list of performers, including international names such as Asger Thornsen, Charlotte Clermont, Ikbal S. Lubysm Liu Fangyi and Riar Rizaldi, as well as some familiar local faces. Is there a selection process that you go through when deciding the international performers? And, for the local performers, is there a risk of perhaps things getting a bit stale with the same faces?
SW: The focus of KLEX is serious music of the experimental and improvisational genre, as suggested in the name of our monthly series, Serious Play Improv Lab. There’s a lack of serious improvised music with quality in Malaysia, hence the necessity for KLEX to provide a platform for it. With SPIL, we showcase and experiment with musicians from different backgrounds and gather them to improvise together. The musicians come from backgrounds such as electronic, rock, jazz, noise, western classical and contemporary, ethnic classical, folk and of course free improv. For KLEX festival, it’s not so much of a concern regarding the “quota” of local players, as our criteria is to showcase players with quality, and that their work is relevant and recognised in the field of experimental and improvised music from a global perspective.
It’s worth pointing out that improvised music is not merely “jamming”, “play whatever you like”, and that “anything goes”. Not really. More accurately speaking, it is “instant music composition”. It is serious music. I’d like to share this quote from Joe McPhee:
Very often people think it’s kind of throwaway music in that anyone can do it. I think anyone can improvise. That’s quite easy to understand. But it’s not throwaway music and because it’s often played without written scores and everything, they think nothing goes into it compositionally. Well, it’s really being composed as it’s happening and that’s akin to trying to, say, repair a flat tire on a car that’s rolling… You’ve got to know a kind of direction that the music is going in anticipating things. You also have to listen. A very (big) part of it is listening with the whole self.
This year, we actually have a new local player in the scene that will performing at KLEX for the first time, a composer and classical pianist by the name of Goh Yen-Lin, who will be improvising with toy piano and sound objects. We think that in Malaysia, there are already many “friendly” festivals out there where the main aim is to support local works, and where the quality of work is of secondary concern. It is necessary to have those platforms to encourage the local artists, but we at KLEX we have a different objective, and I think Malaysia needs a variety of festivals that aim at different things. At least then the audience has an alternative choice.
Have there been any particular performances that stick in your mind vividly? Any musicians or performers that you’re particularly pleased to have had be a part of KLEX?
SW: For film, the 16mm multiple projections performance by Australian experimental filmmaker Richard Tuohy and his crew in 2015 was something interesting to see in Kuala Lumpur. For one, celluloid films are extremely rare here. I appreciate the opportunity to see “real films” from these film experts and passionate preservers of the medium. Black Zenith (Brian O’Reilly [USA] and Darren Moore [Australia]) performs at KLEX festival regularly, and their audio-visual performance with abstract video and synthesizers with loud volume is always a feast visually and sonically. Last year, we were very lucky to witness the incredible vocalist Jaap Blonk (Netherlands), an acclaimed and well-known figure in contemporary and experimental music, showing us the different possibilities of composed and improvisational vocal music. Those were some of the performances that I thought were amazing at KLEX.
What does the future hold for KLEX? Any major plans for KLEX?
SW: I think we’re going on the right path, so we’d like to continue the work and do more. We’re not just working to realize the annual festival. We work throughout the year. Development takes time. It’s not as dazzling as realising the annual feast at the festival, it’s a game of hard work and patience. SPIL is a series for music and performance, and we do it every month. For film, we launched a series called ExScreen in 2015, where we show experimental videos at various venues such as colleges, universities and art spaces in Malaysia, usually once every two months. So far we’ve done 12 screening events at different venues in Peninsular Malaysia, and two in Sarawak.
We’ve also been invited to produce programmes for other organisations, such as Iskarnival IP Kreatif 2016 and Dongtaidu Music Festival 2015. In December, KLEX and Soundscape will co-produce the Malaysian leg of Asian Meeting Festival (a project led by experimental music luminary Otomo Yoshihide from Japan), that will gather more than 10 musicians and artists from Japan and Asia to play a music improvisation concert. Some prominent names include current and former members of Singapore’s The Observatory, namely Vivian Wang, Yuen Chee Wai and Dhama; Otomo Yoshihide; Hirose Junji; and Indonesian duo Senyawa.
All of this other work, aside from the annual festival, is part of our efforts to build up a bigger audience and expose local audiences to more experimental music and cinema. We not only need quality artists and musicians, we need quality audiences who can appreciate quality art and music!
This year’s KLEX takes place from November 24 to 27 at Findars, Lostgens’ Contemporary Artspace and Da Huang Pictures. You can find out more here, or check out the festival’s Facebook page.
Azzief Khaliq mostly spends his days thinking about, buying or listening to music. He used to play music too, but finds that it’s not something he’s all that interested in doing anymore. Please don’t say “experimental” when what you really mean is “generic post-rock.”