Photo by MMCA Performing Arts
LEE : Please introduce yourself brieﬂy.
MARK : I am a director and researcher based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. My projects tend to be collaborative and diverse in terms of subject matter, and they are particularly engaged with the issues of history, memory and the urban context - often taking on documentary and speculative forms. My practice is situated primarily in performance, but also operates via exhibitions, interventions, writing, curating, and education. I graduated with an MA in Art and Politics from Goldsmiths, University of London, and am a member of Five Arts Centre, a collective of interdisciplinary artists, producers and activists in Malaysia.
LEE : The Prime Minister Mahathir, who took power in the year you were born, has takenover the government for twenty-one years. Under Mahathir’s regime, what inﬂuence did you have?
MARK : Yes, I am part of the ‘Mahathir generation’ where he was Prime Minister for 22 years - from 1981 up till he stepped down in 2003, I hadn’t known or lived under any other PM. As with most powerful, complex and paradoxical characters, Mahathir is perceived by some as a modernising leader who liberalised our economy and who was responsible for the infrastructural growth of the 1980s and 1990s especially. But with a wider view and hindsight, we can now understand Malaysia’s growth was not so unique, and consider it as part of a larger current of neoliberalism that was gathering momentum around the world post-1989. In East Asia and South East Asia, these were characterised as the so-called ‘miracle’ or ‘tiger’ economies - Mahathir’s contemporaries included the likes of Lee Kuan Yew of Singapore, and Indonesia’s Suharto. In many ways, he is the last man standing from that particular generation of politicians.
As Prime Minister, Mahathir employed many laws to silence or imprison the opposition and civil society activists, and to remove the independence of the judiciary. Some of these laws included the Internal Security Act (which allows for detention without trial), the Printing Presses and Publications Act (which curtailed the independence of the media), and the Universities and Universities Colleges Act (under which any student considered to be participating in any activity deemed ‘political’ could face expulsion from public universities). But I think in general, many people were able to tolerate Mahathir because Malaysia was experiencing economic prosperity. Many things came to a head in the period of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, and in 1998 when he sacked his former protege, the then Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim - which sparked the Malaysian Reformasi (‘Reformation’) movement. I was 17 at this time, and attended the big street demonstrations, the first in decades - it was an awakening for a generation.
I should mention that the ethnic-based ruling coalition that Mahathir led (Barisan Nasional, or ‘National Front’) has been in power since 1957 - the year of Malayan independence. They have been in power at the federal or national level for 61 years - this creates a persistent psychology of nostalgia, dependence and fatalism that we are trying to break and fight. The slogan for the main party in the coalition, UMNO, is ‘then, now, forever’. Of course, it is particularly and painfully ironic that Mahathir has now emerged as the leader of the Opposition, in 2018, against his old coalition and former protege and current PM Najib Razak - at 92 years of age! This can be read as Mahathir’s staying power and continuing relevance on the one hand, but also as the lack of imagination and ability on the opposition’s part to nurture and mobilise younger leaders and voters. I truly hope this situation is tactical and temporary.
LEE : Was there a lot of artists who did political activities at the time?
MARK : In the 1980s and 1990s, visual artists such as Nirmala Dutt Shanmughalingam, Wong Hoy Cheong, Liew Kung Yu, Ray Langenbach, the Matahati collective and others were offered strong socio-political commentary in their work, and in some cases, participate in activist work. Within the performing arts, there were collectives such as Five Arts Centre which was founded in 1984, and the Instant Cafe Theatre, which were particularly well-known for their satirical revues of Malaysian politics. Many of these artists and groups continue to be active today, and around the late 90s and early 2000s, there began a parallel growth in indie spaces and arts collectives set up by a younger generation, some of whom were influenced by the Reformasi movement and environment.
LEE : How did the < Bumiputra policy > aﬀect your language and your work? At that time, the university quota system was introduced, and many Chinese Malaysians left for overseas universities.
MARK : I don’t think it impacted me in a direct manner - in terms of my language or work. Much of my work in Malaysia is multilingual or at least bilingual - in English, Malay, and some Chinese dialects. I did not attend university at the undergraduate level - partly because of the Universities and Universities Colleges Act and partly because I was learning a lot through working with Five Arts Centre and in community projects. As such I did not have the experience of some Chinese-Malaysians who were left out through the quota system and had to attend private universities or leave for universities overseas.
LEE : You belong to < Five Art >. Founded in 1984. This group is seen as an older generation group. What caused you to enter? Also, is the group activity of young artists in Malaysia active?
MARK : I was invited to join Five Arts Centre around 2001, along with members from ARTicle 19 and Akshen, two youth theatre collectives I was involved with. Around the same time, all my peers in these groups left Malaysia to study in America and the UK, so I began collaborating with filmmakers, designers and visual artists to work on community arts projects in an urban poor area in Kuala Lumpur. Five Arts provided a base and a lot of support for my projects, despite the fact that I was very young and inexperienced - only 20 or 21 years old.
I had been exposed to theatre around 1998, and had been particularly attracted to the work of the Five Arts collective - which was more experimental, sociological, critical and interdisciplinary than what was in the local arts scene at the time, particularly in theatre. Many of the the Five Arts collective continue to have parallel lives as educators, researchers and activists and I was attracted to this attitude and a more expanded approach to thinking and working with art.
Of course since that time, there are many more collectives, groups, artist-run and independent spaces that have emerged - across visual arts, performing arts, architecture, archiving, publishing, cultural mapping and more. Many were around for only a short period of time, but a number have been able to sustain themselves and are doing really important work - these include groups like Lostgens, Buku Jalanan, Toccata Studio, Main Wayang, Malaysia Design Archive, Pangrok Sulap, Rumah Attap, Arts Ed Penang and more.
LEE : You seem to be working with a group of strong political colors. What kind of people do you collaborate with?
MARK :Since I work mainly through documentary performance, I tend to collaborate with people who have an awareness of themselves as social actors - whether they are activists, filmmakers, visual artists, lawyers, journalists, researchers or trained performers. I guess one of the most important things is that the people I tend to work with have a strong stance, perspective or experience in relation to the subject matter we are researching or working on, and are prepared to disagree but also listen strongly - an ability to collaborate within a dissensus. This way the work can take on a more polyperspective or cubistic approach.
LEE : You started your career with < ARTicle19 >. What kind of work did you do in the
MARK : We were 18 or 19 when we made these very short, 30-minute weekly performances in college classrooms, which were free and had audiences of 40 people maximum. The performances ranged from poetry readings to monologue performances to strange dance work. But as a collective, we agreed on three rules.1. Talk about what is happening is Malaysian society at the moment.
No using other people’s texts of works (so no using plays by other playwrights, etc - you had to write your own texts for performance).
Use the room and situate the audience differently each week.
I guess in many ways, these rules are still relevant for me!
LEE : What kind of political movement was Wawasan 2020 actually? How was it related to your life at the time?
MARK : Wawasan 2020 (Vision 2020) was launched in 1991 by then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad for Malaysia to be come a high-income, fully industrialised, ‘first-world’ nation by the year 2020. When it was launched in 1991, I was only 10 years old. Growing up in the 1990s, young people embodied these aspirations - in schools, we had to draw pictures or write essays on what we imagined Malaysia would be like in the year 2020. Many students went through this, and invariably, the drawings would have flying cars, extremely tall skyscrapers and very happy people.
Interestingly, now in 2018, current Prime Minister Najib Razak has just launced TN2050 - his National Transformation programme - to turn Malaysia into one of the world’s Top 20 nations by 2050.
Very often, it is the state, politicians, technocrats and entrepreneurs who stake a claim and create borders around the future. It's no surprise we are dealing with many fall outs and crises created as a result of these developmentalist, neoliberal and populist proposals to occupy our future time and space.
As Malaysia is two years away from 2020, and as another new vision with much the same ambitions and problems is unveiled in TN50 - it is time to look at some of the continuities and discontinuities between these two models. Is it just a recycled vision or transformation, or is there something more substantive being offered? Is it possible to break the circu-linearity and fatalism of ‘then, now, forever’? How do we imagine and work towards real and diverse alternatives in the present, while resisting the nostalgia for the figures and dreams of the 1990s? How do we go beyond the notion of the nation-state? These are some of the questions that have exercised, frustrated and energised my collaborators and I during the research and making of our current series of projects under the label, The Complete Futures of Malaysia.
Put another way, the future is a place where we seek meaning for our existence, and it is more and more an arena for contestation, change and action, as recent events across the world have shown. The Complete Futures of Malaysia is a series of long-term projects to question, critique and propose different futures of Malaysia. Our projects are an attempt to investigate, present and involve many more people in this discussion and work.
LEE : After its ﬁrst public release at the Asian Cultural Center, it was announced in Japan, Germany, and Malaysia. What did you intend to show your work in Seoul this time?
MARK : In Seoul, I did a lecture, The Complete Futures of Malaysia (Chapter 4), which dived into some of the research my collaborators and I have been doing into how Malaysia’s futures have been imagined. This included looking at various ‘visions’ proposed by the Malaysian state, as well as a number of protest movements and projects initiated by citizens and artists in the past 5 years that propose alternative possibilities.
LEE : What are your plans for the future?
MARK : My collaborators and I are continuing research and further work for upcoming chapters of The Complete Futures of Malaysia. Parallel to that, I’m also currently researching and preparing for an exhibition centred around notions of the geobody, mapping and walking - drawing from the ideas of Thai historian Thongchai WInichakul and Japanese folklorist Tsuneichi Miyamoto. I will be co-curating this exhibition alongside Kumiko Idaka and Kazuhiko Yoshizaki at the Yamaguchi Center for Art and Media in Japan later this year.