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Undressing Room

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Undressing Biopolitics: Ming Poon’s Undressing Room and the bare/d body

Marcus Tan (National Institute of Education, Nanyang Technological University)

Undressing Room is a bold, provocative and unconventional performance that explores intimacy, the naked body and its place in contemporary biopolitics. Conceived and performed by Berlin-based, Singapore choreographer, dancer and performance artist Ming Poon, Undressing Room is a one-to-one ‘performance’ that involves the mutual disrobing of spectator-turned-participant and actor in the safe space of performance. 

As a new performance piece, Undressing Room, however, had the misfortune of being denied a performance licence by the Singapore’s Info-communications Media Development Authority (IMDA), a government statutory board that regulates restrictions, manages censorship, and awards ‘Licence for the Provision of Arts Entertainment.’ IMDA claimed the performance had exceeded the ‘R18’ rating under the Arts Entertainment Classification Code (AECC) since it featured ‘excessive nudity which included scenes of audience-participants stripping naked, and graphic depictions of exposed genitalia.’ This refusal of permissions is a stark reminder of the exercise of what Michel Foucault terms biopower – a power that has taken control of both the body and life or that is […] taken control of life in general’. Biopolitics then, as a condition of the intentional effect of biopower, is ‘the control over relations between the human race, or human beings insofar as they are a species, insofar as they are living beings, and their environment, the milieu in which they live;’ It is characterised by an erasure of the individual body and an engendering of regulations of that body such that they conform. Biopolitics can then be understood as the State’s ‘acquisition of power over man insofar as man is a living being, that the biological came under State control, that there was at least a certain tendency that leads to what might be termed State control of the biological.’ Biopolitics is evident not only in a State’s act/ion of regulating birth (through, for example the illegality of abortion), sexual relations, identities and indecencies, and public exposure of the body but, more implicitly, the creation of normativity and the acceptance of dictated behaviours as conditions of ‘normalcy’ as a façade of culture and cultural practice. 

Purported and state-sanctioned ‘Asian’ values and conservatism characterise the biopolitics in Singapore masked as cultural norms; these forms of biopower subjugate and regulate the Other, here the naked body, through shaming, discipline and punishment. Biopolitics is consonant with the objective of shaping the Other to be the Same and deviance is seen as a social-cultural threat that must be eradicated. In reaction to the pre-show publicity released by the M1 Fringe Festival, of which Undressing Room was a featured event, a Facebook group called ‘Singaporeans Defending Marriage and Family’ (SDMF hereafter) posted an entry, ‘M1 Fringe Festival – Pornography Disguised as Art?’, on its Facebook wall; this post was extracted verbatim from a longer blog entry from the socio-political blog ‘Singapore Affairs’. With far right-wing sentiments prevailing, the post attacked the M1 Fringe Festival for ‘prostituting the performing arts sector’ and ‘promot[ing] homosexual behaviour and transgenderism.’ The authors, priding themselves as ‘conservative and pro-family’ Singaporeans who were saving Singapore from an ‘immoral mess’ while combatting left-wing Western liberalisms, urged the government to exercise ‘due diligence in vetting such shows’ which ran contrary to the government and State’s proclamation of a family-oriented society. The post reiterated its view on performances that featured nudity as an assault on traditional ‘Asian’ values of morality and family (which it claims is under ‘unprecedented attack’). Just three days after the post’s mandate to the government to stop this promotion of ‘sex and LGBT activism’ the official statement denying the performance permissions for Undressing Room was made public. While the refusal of permissions cannot be affirmatively said to be the consequence of the virtual lobbying by this Facebook group, the sequence of events, as Goh Wei Hao observes, is ‘at least a little uncanny.’ In the sanctimonious attack, Undressing Room is deprecated as ‘an obscene act’ because the bare/d body is regarded as a non-conforming, sexual Other that must be disciplined, normalised and communitarianised; the bare/d body in performance (or in a public space) is necessarily sexual and therefore indecent and perverse; it is underscored as the deviant Other through an ascription of the body as pornographic, (homo)sexual, abnormal and anti-social. Only by such a designation of the singular Other (body) as aberrant can the State legitimise its subjugation and collectivisation. In Singapore, the body is conscripted by its social identity and this in turn is dictated by a public life world, a socio-political culture, and a biopolitics that seeks to deny its universality through repressive apparatuses.

The event, which made headlines in the local press, and stirred a debate between artists and purportedly ‘family-oriented’ parties, evidences the prevalent and persuasive effects of biopower. While biopower is frequently and consciously exercised by the State, the controversy, stirred by a blog post made public by Facebook, reflects its pervasive influence in the everyday life of a populace: biopower dictates normative practices and discourses such that they become imbibed by the individual who now in turn exercises the same surveillance and regulation over other individuals. Biopower is most potent when it is self-circulating and a self-sustaining regulation reveals the success of the biopolitical machine. 

Ironically, Undressing Room is a performance that seeks to uncover the inscriptions, wounds and scars that biopolitics has inflicted, through the exposure of the bare/d body. Throughout history, body art has attempted to capture the way that humans relate their experiences to their physical body. The body has always captivated artistic consciousness and, since the 1960s, Body Art has placed the ‘deviant’ body as a ‘site of social inscription.’ Nudity became commonplace in performance art with Carolee Schneeman, Marina Abramovic and Stelarc being among the more notable performers who have used the bare/d body as a means of socio-political resistance. Nudity, in its performative exposition, aims to peel off ‘the sedimented layers of signification with which the body […] was historically and culturally coded.’ The bare/d body is thus used as a site of a phenomenological encounter that interrogates discursive inscriptions of power, privilege, divergence and difference. Undressing Room requires participants to strip, literally and metaphorically, the biopolitical inscriptions from the body and to encounter the body as the ‘thing’ itself. It is the challenge to peel off prescribed identities carved by discourses of culture, race, ethnicity, religion, gender and sexuality, and the encounter with one’s own body and another’s body in their bareness and nakedness that marks the performative power of Undressing Room.

Because of IMDA’s prescription, Undressing Room eventually withdrew from the M1 Fringe Festival; this came after deep consideration with the organisers of the festival about the possibility of altering the performance to meet the required standards. Both organisers and artist felt any change made to the mode and form would have compromised the efficacies and performative intentions of the work. The work became a private performance and those who had earlier bought tickets became the 16 participants that would experience Ming’s body-performance. In the performance, participants were invited to partake in a ceremony in which they changed into white cotton robes and entered a white space; the performance space was set with a table and two stools, prepared with two teacups, a teapot, clock and pair of tea-lights. All items, including the furniture, were white – these distinctly a metaphor for purity, wholeness, innocence and new beginnings found in a new exchange between unadorned bodies. In that space, the bodies are encountered in silence and the presence of the Other acknowledged only with the body – sense, touch, expression. As Ming recounts, ‘we see each other’s scars and wrinkles, breathe in each other’s odours, feel the sweat on our skin and the warmth of our body.’ The space and process demarcate a ritual distinctly given the anteroom in which participants were briefed on the process and awaited their turn, the space of performance with the artist, and the final room where participants returned to their ‘ordinary’ selves to have a conversation with the artist about their experiences.  As Victor Turner and Richard Schechner purport about rituals, and performance as a form of social ritual in contemporary society, liminality characterises these sites for they are marked by spatial and temporal dislocations in which participants are a  threshold and a state of ‘in-betweenness’ – ‘betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention and ceremonial,’  between their previous ways of structuring identity, time, or community, and a new conversion (of selves and communal relations) that results when the ritual is completed. The experience of liminality is recounted by many participants in which they expressed a sense of dislocation, uncertainty, self-consciousness and anticipation, as revealed in their post-performance dialogues documented by the artist; their post-liminal experience reveal states of change where self-identity and awareness of one’s body are concerned. 

It is also, as Turner observes, in the experience of liminality, specifically the liminoid, that there is communitas – of ‘homogeneity and comradeship […] an undifferentiated comitatus, community, or even communion of equal individuals.’ In this space, the bare/d body, unclothed from its biopoliticised identities, becomes the site of a universal understanding. The body is used, in Undressing Room, to exemplify a universality of experience of and through the corporeal and physical – the raw sensation, emotion and deliberations that arise in an encounter with one’s own body with and through another. The experiences of the participants, captured in a survey done by the artist, reflect the transition of the biopoliticised body to the phenomenological body. Many participants expressed awkwardness, shame and discomfort in the initial stages of the performance but recounted a sense of liberation, intimacy, vulnerability and trust. In the silence of the encounter with another body, one is made to look at one’s nakedness, both physical and emotional. This heightened consciousness of one’s nudity and vulnerability is the performative moment of an awareness of the discourses one adorns, or has been compelled to adorn, and that have now been discarded – the performance indubitably exposes the social and physical repressions engendered by bodies subject to biopower. In that moment of liberation, one feels ‘re-connected to the body,’ as recounted by one participant. 

This encounter with the bare/d Other, as a phenomenological experience, is a performance of the universality of the wholly Other: the experience remains singular and distinct for every participant yet it evoked identical sensations, emotions, thoughts and perspectives: while participants felt ‘exposed’ and ‘awkward’ to varying degrees, they became aware of their own exposition and, as the performance proceeded, recognised a deep sense of intimacy and connection with the artist, through the body and its expression. In that intimacy was a sense of trust. The bare/d body thus becomes the site of the universal of the body and of the body in relation to another, both physically and psycho-emotionally, for in that nakedness, intimacy and connection evolve; there is an ‘honesty’ in the nudity as bodies are seen for their vulnerability and corporeality. As the artist describes of his experiences, ‘To entrust my nakedness to another person made me feel very vulnerable. There was nowhere to hide and everything was exposed in plain sight. But I found that the moment I began to trust in the other person, as well as in myself, there came a sense of release […] For a brief span of time in Undressing Room, nakedness became my point of connection, instead of separation, with the other person.’

While, as Ming stresses, the work does not necessarily involve nakedness even though all, but one, participants readily disrobed, it is the act of undressing that a universal quality of bare/d, genuine and unguarded connection and of closeness between two strangers is engendered. How much one chose to unclothe and how one explored the other’s body revealed the trust between the  participant and the artist. It is a trust that sprouts only when one is willing to accept one’s own physical and emotional vulnerability by disrobing. In the act of undressing and removal, there is also recognition and celebration that the subject can transcend one’s biopoliticised identity – the bare/d body is metonymic of a universality shared by the human race. Despite differences in form, shape, colour and smell, the body is universal, and in that performative encounter, ‘performer’ and ‘participant’ become ‘two persons embracing each other’s vulnerable state without any expectations and judgements.’ 

In recounting his experiences ‘performing’ Undressing Room, Ming Poon poignantly recalls a proverb by 12th century Sufi poet Rumi, ‘Somewhere beyond right and wrong, there is a garden, I will meet you there.’ In between the public and private, particular and universal, right and wrong, Undressing Room became a space that permitted an encounter with unconditional and unreserved trust. It was a space which served to remind those who partook of this unique performance experiment that encounters with strangers, the unknown Other in their nakenedness and ‘bareness’, can yield a new understanding of the Self and a capacity to dissolve the distance between the oneself and another.