Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Between Research and Reality

Posted by Zach Morris
[Originally published on]

Quarry Bay in 1925, with Taikoo Sugar Refinery and Taikoo Dockyard in the middle

As Tom mentioned in his last post, the greatest challenge for us in creating this new site-specific work was that the site was in Hong Kong while we were in New York. Through research, historical accounts, online pictures, and video we were able to get brief glimpses, whiffs, and hints of the reality of Hong Kong and our site. However, we knew that no amount of research could compare to actually being in Hong Kong, experiencing the city's vibe, pulse, and energy. And our investigations could prepare us only so much for what we would actually find on Tong Chong Street.

From our research we were particularly interested in this site's history. Tong Chong Street is located on the eastern part of Hong Kong Island, in a commercial complex called Taikoo Place in Swire Island East. This entire area is managed by Swire Properties, an arm of Swire, who's parent company, John Swire & Sons is headquartered in London. This family of companies began its relationship with this area in 1881. At that time, the site was purchased, and soon became the site for the Taikoo Sugar Refinery. Shortly thereafter, on land adjacent to the sugar refinery, the Taikoo Dockyards were constructed. This area was also the site for a number of the company's other manufacturing/commercial endeavours including a Coca-Cola bottling franchise. Only recently did this area begin it's transformation into its current manifestation as a bustling residential and commercial center.

Certification of apprenticeship of lathe turning at Taikoo Dockyard, August 1934

Certification of apprenticeship of lathe turning at TaiKoo Dockyard, August 1934
As it exists today, Tong Chong Street has an urban topography that is similar to other commercial hubs around the world, with its familiar coffee shops, transnational corporations, public art, and gathering spaces. It's a good fit for us as New Yorkers because, although we are strangers coming into this new space, we are strangers from a city that parallels Hong Kong in a number of ways. Sharing a similar commercially-driven history, New York and Hong Kong are both inherently dynamic, innovative cities in a perpetual state of re-invention. As such, the streets and landscapes of both cities have undergone numerous changes and developments--history built upon history. It is perennially interesting to us as artists to dig down through those different layers, unearth each one, and have them manifest in the space as it exists now.
An old map of Taikoo Dockyard
An old map of TaiKoo Dockyard
Vintage TaiKoo sugar advertisements
So then, this became our point of entry for creating our piece. Knowing some of the site's past, but understandingthat we could not possibly know enough, really, about the site until we were there. At its core, the work became about how we, a group of outsiders arrive in a new, unfamiliar space. Moreover, we were aware that this space itself was NOT unfamiliar to it's day-to-day inhabitants. It would be us, as outsiders, that would establish a dynamic tension, pose a dramatic question, scramble the status-quo.

From these ideas, we began to explore the what it meant to be strangers sharing an urban space. We began to explore the universal urban phenomenon that happens in every city when people who don't know each other share the same routine and knowledge of the patterns of a shared urban landscape. These same patterns of intimate space sharing manifest in almost every aspect of public urban life regardless of geography... waiting to cross the street... waiting for public transportation.
In it's own way then, these cities that are so dependent on hustle and bustle, that are driven by dynamic change, commerce and innovation, prompt their citizens to do strange collective dances of waiting and rushing, of squeezing together and then flying apart. The movement material that we developed in New York had the feel of patient, urban waiting followed by flurries of activity.
In addition to looking at notions of strangers sharing urban space, we also wished to recall the shared, mercantile/industrial histories of both Hong Kong and New York. Finally, we were particularly interested in the site's previous incarnation as a sugar refinery, and began to build material that dealt with the rituals surrounding, and the gestures associated with consuming sugar.
Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Strangers2.jpg
Thumbnail image for Thumbnail image for Strangers1.jpgAs such, we chose to design our costumes (which were created by the fabulous Karen Young) to evoke an era at the height of the western mercantile/trading boom--towards the end of the industrial revolution--recalling both merchants and manufacturers. Designed in sugary blues, whites, and leathery browns, the garments are also decidedly contemporary--evoking an edgy, urban feel and couture that reflects both New York and Hong Kong as contemporary centers of culture, creativity, and innovation in addition to commercial centers.

Moreover, these bizarre anachronistic costumes serve to set us apart from the day-to-day denizens of the site. All in all, we came to Hong Kong embracing how little we knew, drawing from what similarities we could find from our own cultural framework and eager to slowly familiarize within this new city and site.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Not So Far From Home

Posted by Zach Morris
[Originally published on]

We arrived in Hong Kong roughly a day and a half ago, a bit shell shocked from the 16 hour flight, but eager to actually experience this city that we've spent the last several months researching. While still in New York, unable to respond personally to Hong Kong, we began rigorous research on the city and our site's social, cultural and historical makeup. Through this research, we hoped to discover how we, a group of New Yorkers, could begin to und
erstand and engage with a locale situated half a world away.
As it turns out, New York and Hong Kong share a number of similarities. Both cities owe their formation to European trading and financial interests. From their inception and to this day, commercial forces have shaped New York and Hong Kong. Whereas many cities owe their development to political or religious influences, NY and HK were threshold cities, gateways to the vast riches of their respective mainlands. Neither was run as a "traditional" colony. And
even now, it could be said that they are both wild cards, operating, to a certain degree, on their own unique systems. Their histories and topographies have been shaped by the intersections of culture, collision, commerce, change, innovation, and transformation.
These issues have particular resonance for us, coming from New York. New York has, since its creation as a trading post, been the site of cultural conflict and struggle. It was, at one time, the fastest growing city in the world. It was the world's first "big" city and thus had to deal with issues never before faced on that scale in an urban environment. It has been the site of racial turmoil, huge clashes between nationalities and religious factions, the hotbed of tensions between those of differ
ent social classes, and most recently, the site of enormous tragedy stemming from clashes of differing ideologies.
Likewise, from the beginning of western occupation following the Opium wars, foreign interest in Hong Kong has been commercial in nature, sometimes to the benefit and sometimes to the determent of the Chinese people. Like New York, Hong Kong has always been a changing, dynamic, mercantile, and maritime city where its denizens gathered in the interest of achieving financial success. Thus, both cities have become strange, bubbling laboratories of multiculturalism. By their very nature they have brought people of vastly different backgrounds and intentions together. They are fast paced, changing, unrelenting, and unsentimental. As such, both have forced the strangers who live within them to find ways to reconcile their differences in order that the city itself may continue its dynamic movement.
It was these commonalities that struck a chord with us.
Our group is composed of a diverse group of artists hailing from different cultural, geographical, and artistic backgrounds. We are, perhaps, quintessential New Yorkers: none of us are actually from there, we hail from different backgrounds but have come together to work towards a collective end. Our differences serve to reinforce our shared enterprise as opposed to hindering it.
Stepping off the plane and into Hong Kong there was a bustling familiarity. The sites, smells, and blaring noise were perhaps more comforting then jarring.

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Challenges in Making Site Work

Posted by Tom Pearson
[Originally published on]
Our first series of blog entries will focus on the creation of our new project, "Strangers on Tong Chong Street" and with the particular challenges of creating site-specific work for an unfamiliar space, a site unseen. It will likewise tackle the various issues concerning touring work that is meant to be site-specific.
The inherent challenge in creating our new work is the simple fact that we are in New York and the site is in Hong Kong. In the past, we have worked in several ways to create our site-specific dances. Our tendency is usually to approach a site with three considerations: architectural, social, and historical. So, in preparation, we research the social and historical, apply it to our movement and images, and prepare the architectural in terms of the known: the corners, walls, streets, and tables.

"Hope & Anchor" (2005) by Zach Morris & Keely Garfield; Photo by Arthur Donowski
Naturally, the most desirable scenario is when we are able to work periodically on site throughout the creative process. Both Zach and I were afforded this luxury with our respective Lower Manhattan Cultural Council's Sitelines series performances. Zach, together with Keely Garfield, created "Hope & Anchor" for the South Street Seaport in Manhattan and I created "REEL" for the Rotunda of the National Museum of the American Indian, US Customs House. For both, we spent time throughout our months of creative development in studios and then applied our ideas to the space. This frequent checking in with the architecture of the site allowed us early perspectives on what would work and what wouldn't. It also afforded us "trial" audiences, the regular denizens of the area who often responded as strongly to our rehearsals as to the performances. In fact, some of our most rewarding lessons in site work came from observing the developing relationships between the vendors, the day-to-day inhabitants, and ourselves. Most interactions were positive, a few were contentious, but all were illuminating. A favorite was during "Hope & Anchor" as performer Marissa Nielsen-Pincus perched on a whisky barrel, a flustered Sunglasses Hut vendor called the NYPD to complain that a mermaid was ruining his business.
When working with the dancers to create "REEL" in 2005, we had an ideal residency situation at 133 Beekman in the South Street Seaport, just a few blocks away from the museum. Here, we were able to interact with the unique architecture of an empty Liz Claiborne department store to develop methods of site-specific movement generation, exercises that got us working more efficiently during our extremely valuable rehearsal time in the rotunda. What we experimented with inside this studio environment was tested and reformulated every two weeks at three-hour on site rehearsals. Although only six hours per month were spent on site, the ongoing shuffling of movement material back and forth between the studio and the space maximized those hours.

Tom Pearson's "REEL" (2005), LMCC's Sitelines series
at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

I began early on to research the history of the rotunda as a holding area for customs, as an architectural masterpiece, and as a dichotomy of messages, especially in the context of a museum for the American Indian. I was struck by the portraits of European colonizers on the walls, images of commerce, and the multiple levels of scrutiny in the gaze of the portraits, the hidden cameras, stationed guards, and airport security. With that to frame the work, we spent the first rehearsal in the space focused on the physical attributes of the site and working those into our movement vocabulary.
Knowing that this work would be performed in the round, we had to consider ways in which to best focus attention in such a vast space without being dwarfed by the overhead skylight or enormous width of the playing area. We used unison movement when far apart to unify the space with a common intention. When we were clustered, we could afford to go into more individual, idiosyncratic phrases. It was important to shatter our group into breakneck runs and then reassemble in order to cleanse the palette for a new idea. At one point, we broke the perimeter of the space by stepping out onto the marble and into the niche beneath Columbus. Afterwards, the intent was focused on repairing the circle, finalized by reclamation of space and the spinning of the web.

We have also done work where we had much more limited access to the site. Last year, Lincoln Center Out-of-Doors presented "Lacuna," and I chose the Reflecting Pool for our site. We were only allowed on site the day before the performance, leaving us with only a few hours total to adapt our movement to the physical environment. Furthermore, we were instructed not to touch the Henry Moore sculpture, which is the focal point of the pool. Although we were unable to work within the site, we were able to visit ahead of time to get a feel for its dimensions, its effect on daily traffic through Lincoln Center, and we were able to formulate our connections to its form, textures, and messages. We were also able to imagine the work sculpturally in relation to the Henry Moore work and how we could create tension by playing very close, even underneath it, without making contact.

Tom Pearson's "Lacuna" (2006) Lincoln Center Out-of Doors
"Beehive," our work for Dance Theater Workshop's 40Forward celebration was similar in that we only had one or two rehearsals on site before the performance. The other challenge was performing in an efficiency-sized staff kitchen. To work our way around this, most of the movement was staged in Jennine Willett's kitchen on the Upper West Side. Instead of working in a studio, we basically rehearsed in Jennine's cabinets.

Zach's experience at the South Street Seaport had to take different obstacles into consideration. First, the work was a promenade piece, so he had to figure out ways to make it progress in intuitive traffic patterns so the audience could easily follow. He also had to factor in the vendors, shops, daily traffic grid, and a rowdy happy hour crowd. Moreover, Zach and his collaborator, Keely Garfield, had to find ways to create sharp, immediate focus to draw in passersby while vying for attention in a noisy, crowded, tourist-filled area. Working on site was invaluable in this process. They negotiated the obstacles of the space by utilizing large, eye-catching visuals: a performer garbed as a bedraggled mermaid, another with a giant sailing ship complete with bowsprit, masts and rigging.

Day-to-day interaction with the site informed the content as well as the form of "Hope & Anchor." After in-depth research, Zach knew that the piece would focus on highlighting the site's mercantile, maritime past. Time on site allowed him to weave these heightened, ghost-like images into the fabric of the Seaport's overwhelmingly commercial, modern topography. Hours of on site playing and planning gave birth to bizarre juxtapositions such as a shipwrecked maiden stumbling into the Gap, only to come out gasping for air as a shopping bag covered her head; a mermaid, unable to negotiate stairs using the wheelchair ramp instead; and a swarthy sea-wench ordering a happy-hour two-for-one.

Our new project comes with an entirely different set of challenges. Our connection with the site in Hong Kong is completely virtual. The presenter supplied us with photos and a video walk-thru, but it is still difficult to get a sense of where people assemble, what the flow is like at different times of day, things that we would know immediately after spending an hour on site but can only guess at until then.

Our initial steps in understanding the site were to get a feel for its geography, structures, and relationship to the rest of Hong Kong. Also, important is understanding its commercial and social histories. We started by researching what exists today in the areas of Taikoo Place and Quarry Bay. And then we began researching historical factors relating to the Taikoo Sugar Refinery, which occupied the area prior to recent development. Likewise, it was valuable for us to begin connecting with other artists in Hong Kong, through mutual colleagues, to understand what artists there are doing and to get their perspectives on what to look for.

Photo of Tong Chong Street

But, decisions have to be made. The presenter needs to know what specific areas we will use, what our entrances, exits, and staging areas will be, and what we need in terms of lighting for the pre-event cocktail performance the night before. And, as always with dance, there are photos and descriptions needed in advance for marketing and press purposes, especially difficult to come by when working site-specifically.

For us, it basically boils down to the fact that site work never really becomes specific enough until it inhabits its space. So much depends on every detail of its architecture; and although a corner is a corner and a cobblestone a cobblestone wherever you go, its particular context is always different.
To other artists who have created site work for spaces that they have had only limited access to: what were the greatest challenges for you and what methods were successful in preparing for the unknown?

In our next entry Zach will report on our findings from our research and what we have begun creating as a result.

Please visit us at for more photos and video clips!