On the Experimental Path in Kuala Lumpur
* This write-up was for LaoBan Records, a Kuala Lumpur based label that is focusing on experimental and improvised music releases performed and developed through the exchange in South East Asia. It was first published in August 2020, on https://www.laobanrecords.com/blog
Kuala Lumpur in the mid to late 1990s saw a group of young people passionate in the DIY spirit organise into collectives, set up art spaces and put on underground events. Alternative, indie, punk, rock and folk music became popular among youngsters with some of them publishing zines, setting up own studios and organising gigs at their studios. These indie scene musicians from the 90s formed the initial group of KLites that would venture into a very different kind of music in the upcoming century.
The EMACM collective (Experimental Artists and Musicians Cooperative Malaysia) formed in the early 2000s. The founding members included Yeoh Yin-Pin, Yong Yandsen, Goh Lee-Kwang, Azmyl Yunor, Aziz, Tham Kar-Mun and Ronnie Khoo. The collective put on small gigs, founded a label named Xing Wu (醒悟) (meaning “coming to realisation”) and released a compilation album. The album includes tracks by its members and international artists such as Toshimaru Nakamura, Oren Ambarchi, Carl Stone and Axel Dörner. However, this label was short-lived. Sound artist Goh Lee-Kwang later founded the label Herbal Records releasing recordings “under either field recording (and related), or abstract / noise, or simply unclassified”. He also founded Switch ON, a platform for electronic music, and had organised several festival editions of it.
In 2006, EMACM members, with the addition of video artist/vocal improviser Kok Siew-Wai, founded the artists collective SiCKL (Studio in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur). Having a base allowed the collective to develop more sustainable projects and hold regular events. In May 2006, SiCKL Open Lab series launched, which was a bi-monthly art laboratory that gathered artists and musicians from different disciplines for experimentation and improvisation.
Throughout its active years between 2006-2009, the Open Lab series witnessed many refreshing and exciting cross-disciplinary experimentations among musicians of various backgrounds (electronic, noise, contemporary, folk, rock, improvisation, free jazz etc.), visual artists (live painting, light art, film & video etc.), and performers (dancers, actors, poets etc.). In addition to EMACM members, Au Sow Yee, Brian O’Reilly, Darren Moore, Fairuz Sulaiman, Justice Yeldham, Low Shee Hoe, Ng Chor Guan, Sudarshan Chandra Kumar, Tim O’ Dwyer, Thierry Monnier, Tomonari Nishikawa and many others participated at the SiCKL Open Lab.
Besides holding events at its premise, SiCKL received invitations to collaborate with other collectives and projects, including coordinating the experimental music programme of Notthatbalai Art Festival 2007 and running its Open Lab series at other art spaces such as Findars at The Annexe. It was also during this period that the team started to establish its regional and international network, with SiCKL hosting events and providing a living space for travelling artists. Invaluable friendships and professional partnerships formed during this period.
After 2009, SiCKL ceased to be an event venue due to lacking financial and human resource support. The team changed its administration with the remaining members embarking on an ambitious project to further develop and promote experimental art and music in Kuala Lumpur. With three years of experience hosting events and running the studio, the core SiCKL team became the producers of an artist-run festival celebrating experimental moving images and music. Kuala Lumpur Experimental Film, Video & Music Festival (KLEX) would run consecutively for ten years in the next decade.
KLEX started as a film and video festival in 2010 on a very modest scale. It took place over a weekend at The Annexe Gallery where the KLEX team set up a temporary 40-pax screening room with borrowed equipment. KLEX’s vision since the beginning was an international one. The first KLEX Festival had an international open call for the film programmes, with a jury committee selecting experimental shorts from around the world. In the second edition of the festival, KLEX added an audio-visual performance programme. The programme saw filmmakers/video artists collaborate with live musicians, projecting pre-edited works or live video mixing and cinematic performance.
From 2013 until the present, the core members are co-founders of KLEX are saxophonist Yong Yandsen and vocal improviser Kok Siew-Wai. As musicians, they gave more weight to music as the festival developed. In May 2014, KLEX launched the monthly music series called Serious Play Improv Lab (SPIL). SPIL continued in the spirit of the SiCKL art laboratory, providing a regular platform for local and international musicians to experiment and collaborate.The SPIL seriestakes place at RAW Art Space run by artist Tey Beng Tze, which is one of the most supportive venues in the city for experimental arts. SPIL has run monthly from 2014 until February 2020, where the Covid-19 pandemic strikes the country unexpectedly, and the series is currently on hold. Besides RAW, The Saxophone Store, run by saxophonist Chung Ping Wei, is another local venue that hosts concerts focusing on improvised and experimental music.
Since 2015, the music and performance programme of KLEX has grown stronger with the participation of prominent musicians such as Bob Ostertag, Jaap Blonk, Sachiko M., Burkhard Beins, Dino, Otomo Yoshihide, Will Guthrie and Wukir Suryadi. KLEX approach is to encourage new collaborations at the festival. Some of these collaborations continue after the initial meeting at KLEX, such as the collaboration between Sound of the Mountain, a music duo from Canada, and filmmaker Shinkan Tamaki from Japan; and the formation of improv noise unit Tenggara Trio, with Dharma (Singapore), Ikbal S. Lubys (Indonesia) and Yong Yandsen. This approach creates excitement and anticipation for the musicians and performers to create something new and to establish new relationships via the festival platform. We have also seen more international audience coming to attend the festival from Hong Kong, Indonesia, Taiwan and Singapore in recent years.
Although a small scene with limited followers, the experimental and improvised music scene in Kuala Lumpur has been around for several decades now. It is undoubtedly playing an important role to provide a platform for musicians and audience who look for unconventional sounds and music-making approaches. To document this local history, and to establish regional and international collaborations, LaoBan Records formed in 2017. The label’s current efforts serve “to document a group of artists who have performed and developed together through exchanges made within South East Asia”. As in the journey of life, challenges and surprises will always be there. Let’s take the risk, and improvise along this chosen path!
Why no budget? A little story …
* I wrote the following article in July 2010 when fellow partner-in-crime, saxophonist Yong Yandsen, and I organized the completely idealistic, no-budget mini art festival at Sama-sama Guesthouse in Melaka. This small writing expresses my motivation and a sense of mission working in the alternative/experimental art scene in Kuala Lumpur. It’s still relevant today. Surely, we have a long way to go… (noted 2016)
I got interested in organizing art events since college, inspired and influenced by the strong grass-root art community in Buffalo, New York, where I studied and intermittently living in the city for almost 8 years. In 2001, I came home to KL for winter school break, bringing with me a collection of 8 video artists’ works from upstate New York. I wanted to do a video screening at a local art venue. I approached a quite prestigious, self-proclaimed independent local art space with the recommendation of a local dancer. I proposed my little project to the director of the art space and naively requested a discounted rate for venue rental, and if possible for free, since I was doing this with no intention to make commercial payback. I was just a student with no money, the only thing I had was the enthusiasm to share some interesting artworks that I’d discovered abroad with fellow Malaysian audience. Moreover, the dancer told me that he was able to do a few experimental shows at the venue for free. So I was quite hopeful that the director will support the project. A few days later, I got a reply from the director, with a rather cold tone, she wrote: “Well, if you start to ask A or B or C about free places here and there, I’m sure you can get some spaces like someone’s living room or balcony or garage or something. But XX is a proper, professional art space. And let me tell you my dear, ART IS NOT FREE.”
So BANG! There go my naïve dream for a real grass-root, DIY, friendly community oriented artists society in Kuala Lumpur to support my kind of art!
It seems like art is for the elites, or those who can “afford” it. But is that art? Or social status? Or the self-pride showing that one is “cultured”? I would later realized that there were actually more art businessmen than genuine artists in the community.
I was very disturbed by the unfriendly reply and the authoritative attitude of the director. But deep inside my heart, I didn’t believe what she said was 100% true about Malaysians. Ok, so these so-called independent art spaces won’t work, I’d go find other kind of places. There must be people who support art and culture without asking for commercial returns for a humble project like this. My ever supporting late father, driving me to meet principals of colleges around KL to propose my little project. At last, I was able to do 3 screenings at 2 colleges: INTI College, both Subang Jaya and Nilai campus; and the Malaysian Institute of Art in KL. These screenings were very small and humble (between 10-20 people). But it happened, for FREE! Furthermore, these were higher educational institutions, not someone’s “living room, balcony or garage”.
Two weeks after homecoming to settle in KL in 2005, I met a small group of experimental musicians and artists who were quite interesting, but seem to be the minority in the local art circle. I found such connections with them, artistically, mentally and spiritually. In 2006, we formed Studio in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur, or more commonly known as SiCKL. Since then, we have been active in promoting edgy experimental/avant-garde works in music, film/video, dance, performance art and cross-disciplinary works, either at its humble Cheras base or at other venues around town such as Findars Art Space; and involved in coordination of local art festivals such as the Notthatbalai Art Festival 2007. Between 2006-2008, SiCKL Open Lab series witnessed many original, creative and interesting art experimentations rarely seen at “proper” local art spaces. Most of SiCKL events do not charge admission fee but based on voluntary donation, except when we work with other partners who need to fulfill particular interests for their organizations.
Any individual and organization that have gone through the funding process know how exhausting and frustrating it can be, physically and mentally. It involves too much hypocrisy, factors of authority and politics. Is the criteria of judgement for funding applications truly impartial and consistent? Our “no-budget” motto is not equal to “the rejection of official funding”, of course not! But we wouldn’t like the complicated funding process to become the biggest obstacle, or an excuse to hold us back from realizing our project. The funders will always ask, “What do I get from this? How do you ‘sell’ this? What is your ‘tangible product’?” Sometimes we just want to say, “You know, we do it because we love it. Oh, you can’t imagine how we love doing what we love!”
This little festival is incredible because we have not expected to gather so many generous individuals from various backgrounds and ideologies to come together, contributing their time and energy, absolutely for free. A big salute to all artists, in-kind sponsors and volunteers! SALUTE!! They are not working for the money, status or for certain authority, but for the souls, spirits and joy. What would you call that? I call it LOVE. Love for art, love for creativity, love for culture, love for friendship, love for the place, love for the community, and ultimately, love for life!
Only love can beat money, don’t you think so?
If even art cannot be free (with every possible context of the word), what else can?
We did it, over 50 of us, at Sama-sama Guesthouse Mini Alternative Art Festival 2010. FREE, for 3 days in a row!
Mind you, Madam Director.
Siew Wai, 28 July, 2010
Sama-sama Guesthouse Mini Alternative Art Festival 2010: