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Kai Syng Tan | October 2016

14th October 2016

performingborders (Alessandra Cianetti): Let’s talk about running (my sport-related worst nightmare!). While in the September interview artist Sara Zaltash explores walking as a live art medium, since 2014 you have been presenting RUN! RUN! RUN! An ‘international body for research’ that ‘examines the body and mind in motion (such as via running) as a creative and critical toolkit for the individual to engage with the self, others, the city and the world around us, and non-logocentric modes of thinking’ that so far has been presented at Documenta (Germany), Centre for Contemporary Arts (Warsaw), Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting (Chicago) and ANTI Festival (Finland), amongst others. How did you come to running (but also swimmingislandhopping, spinning, drowning) as ‘critical/creative modes of interrogation/intervention’? And, how do you neutralise the ‘competitiveness’ of these activities in what you define a non-hierarchical art and humanity discourse that has the nature of ‘productive antagonism’, potential and in between space?

Kai Syng Tan: Yes, I set up RUN! RUN! RUN! to, well, run solo and collaborative work – and the activities will jolt you from your nightmare — because what we do is not so much about running as a ‘sport’ or exercise, but how its physical and poetic processes can be mobilised as metaphor, methodology and material to enable us to reimagine ourselves and the world around us.

For instance, in the workshop at Documenta, participants ran for all of two minutes, to think and talk about how running affects what and how they think and talk. The commission in Finland was a series of running ‘masterclasses’ conducted by  world-class running experts – ages seven to 14 – to teach adults (top age: 84) how to re-cultivate fun and silliness, to give them the permission to trip over, to throw tantrums and to giggle.

I picked up running in 2009 because it can be fun and silly (in theory at least, although it is not always the case in real life for a middle-aged beginner). After all, as toddlers, soon as we could walk, we ran — until our parents and teachers reprimanded us. The same way an artist may use bronze, acrylic or data, I mobilise running. Running, and previously, swimming, hula hopping and so on, because it is of and by the body. Running, because it is about putting one foot after the other, without the need for equipment or even shoes. Running, because intellectuals have insisted on mocking it as a ‘futile’ (Baudrillard) ‘New Age myth’ (Zizek), and preferred walking as the ‘sensitive, spiritual act’ that has built ‘Western civilisation’ (French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut) — ignoring the fact that artists do use running (in a ‘sensitive’ and ‘spiritual’ way), such as artist Jun Nguyen-Hatsushiba and his Breathing is Free: 12,756.3, an ongoing performance since 2007, in an attempt to physically experience world refugee crisis by running the diameter of the earth, 12,756.3km. Running — instead of flying, like Icarus — because it is mundane and everyday. You do not have to ‘go for a run’, you can run after a bus (or not). And way before it became popular for people to ‘go for a run’ (and there are many — more than 2 million people a week in England — who do so today), our ancestors had had to run when hunting for food, two million years ago. So biologically and neurologically, human beings are ‘tailor made’ to run. Aside from our enormous buttocks (maximus gluteus) and that have no use whatsoever for walking, human beings have cultivated cognitive skills such as ‘the retention and recall of the details (topography, potential food sources, water sources, etc) of large areas of land’, and a ‘long-range vision’ or ability to project and extrapolate, from having to chase for 6, 7 hours after an antelope in the African planes. Running — rather than ‘jogging’ — because if you cannot physically run, you can metaphorically do so. The word ‘run’ has no less than eighty-one definitions and expressions in the Oxford English Dictionary. So its poetic potential is endless, including expressions like ‘letting your imagination run riot’, being on the run’, ‘running into’, and ‘running against’.

The expressions ‘running into’ and ‘running against’ are at the heart of ‘productive antagonisms’, a conceptual framework which collaborator geographer Dr Alan Latham and I have come up with. At its most basic, this refers to the facilitation of a kind of potential space, a between space where the usual norms of disciplinary practice are temporarily suspended. At a broader level, it is about a mode of working with and through difference. The workshop in Finland for instance was about exploring the creative sparks that could emerge from collisions and frictions of dissimilar people and elements: of generation (adults, teenagers, children); of disciplinary backgrounds (Alan is a geographer, I am an artist); of cultures (Finland, Singapore — where I am from originally, New Zealand — where Alan yields, and UK — our adopted home). If it was competitive, it was a competition against time — to come up with a ‘work’ after just 4 hours of workshopping with the children. And with my kind of timing for the 10 races I have competed, I think it is illegal for me to talk about competitiveness and running in the same sentence. (For the record, it was 4 hours 24 minutes for the 2011 London Marathon and 1 hour 53 minutes 01 seconds for the 2012 KNI Walthamstow Forest Half Marathon. Go on, mock me),

That said, the sportiness and competitiveness of running can be interesting, too. In a digital work that I created in 2015, instead of neutralising the competitive nature of running, I played it up. By drawing a satirical parallel between the gruelling (and exorbitant) journeys that migrants undertake to seek asylum in Europe, with the gruelling (and exorbitant) endurance races that niche but expanding groups of people from the ‘first world’ subject themselves to in the name of fitness, adventure or self-fulfillment, Certainly the Toughest UltraMarathon of Your Life  is a map of Europe that critiques the demonisation of migrants by mainstream media and Nimbies (‘not in my backyard’, people who oppose to something that happens in their immediate surroundings, such as a ‘swarm’ of immigrants)


Still from short film Hand In Hand, RUN! RUN! RUN! 2 minutes 15 seconds. 2016. UK. Composition and Sound Direction: Philip Tan. Available at To premiere at RUN! RUN! RUN! Biennale 2016 in November. Copyright: Kai Syng Tan.

performingborders (Alessandra): Through a catchy pop aesthetics RUN! RUN! RUN! addresses socio-political issues like in your proposal Front(ier) Runner where — although at the moment details are top secret — you aim to run along borders, including invisible/clearly defined/faded/imaginary ones such as ‘Scotland and England; Schengen Europe; where Berlin Wall stood; along what will become the new wall between Hungary and Serbia; along the North and South Korean border; San Andreas Fault’. I would add the possible Calais new wall/border we are scarily hearing of these days. Can you tell us a bit more about this project and how do you address the notion of border?

Kai: Human beings — as individuals, societies, tribes, nations, etc — have always built borders, boundaries, boxes, walls, and fences. These borders may be physical, like the neolithic walls of Jericho 10,000 years ago, the Great Wall of China 2300 years ago, as Guardian journalist Andrew Brown points out, or metaphoric such as trade walls, as another Guardian journalist Andrew Solomon highlights, or imaginary like Trump’s fantasy/farcical wall. Yet, history has also shown that whenever and wherever walls are up, ‘people find ways to go round them’, says François Guennoc of Auberge des Migrants, a French aid group working in Calais in Solomon’s article.

As a migrant, woman, academic, artist, teacher and someone neurologically-wired differently (with ADHD, dyspraxia and dyslexia), I consider borders — visible, invisible (which are more insidious than those you can see), political, disciplinary, natural, professional — as artificial lines of division to be crossed, challenged, complicated, shifted, teased, pushed. (That said I have also precisely created multiple boxes with the ‘declaration’ and definitions at the start of this statement about who/ what I am — although those identities are not fixed but modulated, modified, further multiplied; thus another ‘box’ or label that I use to describe myself is ‘shapeshifter’). Closed walls means closed thinking. Glass ceilings are to be smashed, party lines by dictators to be crossed, gates to be crashed, limits to be pushed, bars to be metaphorically raised, and, just to continue with my rhyming roll, Mars to be reached (though not arrogantly conquered, as Kevin Fong, an expert in space medicine, warns). If too stubbornly-entrenched to be toppled or knocked down, the least we can do is to mock, and knock, criticise, and create leakages, cracks and fissures on these borders, so that things can slip through, pollute, corrupt and disturb that which are walled in, protected or kept out. In 2004 Francis Alys walked 24km along Jerusalem, leaking 58 litres of green paint along the way. In 1964, in an act of what a writer calls ‘subversion by an irritation’, Joseph Beuys recommended that the Berlin wall should be raised by 5cm so that the proportions can become ‘beautiful’ (Poerksen 2011). I am not much of a fan of Suzanne Moore (or Beuys for that matter) but agree with she says about Beuy’s proposal in the context of the imminent Calais wall today:

‘It is good to be reminded that there are those who build walls but there are those who will build ladders over them. That is called hope.’ (Moore 2016)

My preferred mode of crossing, or ladder-building, and subversion by irritation is by running. Running is a fit comeback in a few ways. In running you talk about ‘hitting the wall’ — reaching a point when you are physically and mentally bankrupt and cannot move on — and you talk about ways to overcome that (pacing yourself better, fuelling more regularly etc). I have also argued for a mode of running that is defiantly, stubbornly and tantrum-mishly (?) childish, child-like, mundane, anarchic, unruly, simple, simplistic, light-footed, and light-hearted. Writing at the age of 61, the American author and runner Joyce Carol Oates notes that she

‘never saw a “No Trespassing” sign that wasn’t a summons to my rebellious blood. Such signs, dutifully posted on trees and fence railings, might as well cry, “Come Right In!”’ (1999).

My application of so-called ‘pop aesthetics’ — blinding colours and catchy slogans —  is part of my means to irritate the ‘canon’ erected by the often white, male, important (and sometimes self-important and drugged-out) artists and others who have walked before us. Think Charles Baudelaire while On Wine and Hashish, Richard Long and his A Line Made By Walking, Iain Sinclair around the M25, Will Self everywhere as a self-proclaimed 21st century flaneur and Jesus Christ on water, while carrying a cross, across the hellhole of this world (that he’s created?), and so on (obviously, there are plenty of self-important male runners, and self-important non-white non-male non-runners too). Rather than merely following in their footsteps I want to up the speed — literally by running — and up the game.

Front(ier) Running is just one of about eight proposals I have created in the past three years or so on the theme of running along borders. In Front(ier) Running, I propose to create GPS drawings and leave a digital trace (after all, the ‘digital’ refers to the digits of the foot, too) while run along borders, such as between the two Koreas or along the Hungarian wall. As Alys says, sometimes ‘doing something poetic can become political and sometimes doing something political can become poetic’.

In another, a film about and shot ‘on the run’, I will run in the Right to Movement marathon in Palestine and chat with co-runners. The annual marathon is thus called because movement is a human right, according to Article 13 of the UN Human Rights Charter. Runners run ‘from the Church of Nativity, along the Wall, through two refugee camps and turnaround point in a checkpoint’, according to the website.

In this case, running is a visual expression and indeed demonstration of this freedom.

When the building of the Calais wall was announced, I sketched another proposal, Life On The Run / Running Into Difference, to run with Calais residents — those who are ‘native’ as well as recent — along it. This ‘run’ will be more of a skip. Not with skipping rope but a jaunty, time-consuming, frivolous, inefficient — and irritating — hop.

Get in touch if you are a potential participant (or potential funder).

performingborders (Alessandra): This year you have been touring your project HAND-IN-HAND in both Grenoble Festival, France and the Whitworth Art Gallery, UK as a post-Brexit reflection in which, referencing thinker Matthew Taylor’s call to ‘a cycle of hope and unity’ within the post-referendum discourse, you created a collective experience aimed at subverting and sabotaging the UK Home Office rules about refugees in Calais. Would you mind to tell us a bit more about the project and how it was received in both cities?

Kai: Main Dans La Main / Hand In Hand is a participatory artwork that asks: amidst a volatile and hostile reality, how could image-makers, researchers and ‘ordinary citizens’ invent everyday poetic/political/playful interventions to celebrate difference? What could ‘wellbeing’ mean in an unwell world? I designed ribbons and invited people to tether themselves to strangers, and share their hopes for the future while running. Participants could decide if they wanted to cover 1 metre, 10km, or 100km, or to walk, use a wheelchair or skateboard while tethered. I wanted to create a celebratory demonstration — in both senses of the word — of cooperation and conversation. From my own work in critical disability (for instance working on the ASEAN Para Games Opening and Closing Ceremonies 2015 as Visual Director), I had been inspired by how blind people can enjoy running. This is done through tethering themselves to another  — although not without first establishing a sense of trust with this other person. The design of the tether was a response to how asylum seekers in Cardiff had to wear red wristbands to gain food rations. By utilising something celebratory — in this case customised, red ribbons — I wanted to subvert the ‘handcuffs’ that ostracise the migrants. Hand-in-Hand thus becomes a methodology and metaphor to détourn and sabotage something aggressive and antagonistic, into something positive and creative, particularly against the backdrop of what Taylor has called ‘dark and dangerous times’ (I’ll return to Taylor in the next question).

Hand-In-Hand was commissioned for the Fete de Tuiles (Festival of Tiles) street festival that celebrates the beginnings of the French revolution, and which attracted 100,000 people this year. My segment was part of a 6-hour race curated by Florent Cholat. The runners found it hard to run tethered —and did not last long! You can see parts of what they said in this short film I made.

That was in early June. Then came Brexit. So when I was invited by the Whitworth Art Gallery (Manchester) to do something in July as part of Culture Shots festival which blends culture with wellbeing, I decided to re-run Hand-in-Hand. My audience with a group of trainee nurses from the Manchester Royal Infirmary as part of their training module on wellbeing — which was ideal, given our unwell world. The nurses decided to walk rather than run, which they did around the adjacent Whitworth Park. They appreciated the ‘inconvenience’ of the experience — and talked about how it made them more thoughtful and considerate of how and where they move. The exercise was short, but they managed to share their dreams — such as where they were going for holidays in Summer!

I have been invited to run the work with first year undergraduates of the Visual Communications course at Leeds College of Art in October, so I am keen to understand how so-called millennials relate to one another in our strange world.

fence with barbed wires

Digital sketch for multi-platform project Life On The Run / Running Into Difference 2017-2020. Copyright: Kai Syng Tan.

performingborders (Alessandra): Your collaborative practice seems to seek an intimacy with the participants where a safe and trusted space is created for them. How do you think these live art interventions feed into a broader conversation on how art can create a possible collective future? How do you blend it with one of your sources of inspiration, as stated in your Manifesto, the Situationist International’s ‘revolution of everyday life’?

Kai: First of all, I think we would agree that at the heart of this discussion of a ‘collective future’ is the assumption — or the ‘hope’ that Suzanne Moore talked about —  that art can be transformative. This seems to go hand-in-hand with Matthew Taylor’s cry for clever, concrete, creative ways of bringing a better more humane future into the here and now’, to battle despair and division. David Shrigley’s recently unveiled fourth plinth at Trafalgar Square — an oversized thumbs-up, in bronze which the artist has described as an incitement to optimism as well as ‘a work about making the world a better place… which obviously is a ridiculous proposition, but I think it’s a good proposition’ — would fit that example of a (literally) concrete counterpoint to insularity and pessimism.  

The Situationists’ psychogeographical tactics would also be fitting examples, but I want to temper their often macho, chest-beating rhetoric with another brand of anarchism — albeit one that is a sinologist Chad Hansen described as ‘gentle anarchism’.  Favoured by Chinese philosopher Lao Zi 2500 years ago, wuwei is an ‘opposition to authority, government, coercion, and even to normal socialisation in values’ characterised by ‘distinct ambivalence, indirect, non-argumentative style, use of poetry and parable’. At its best, wuwei is ‘a new spirit of naturalness’ which should ‘inform and transform everything we do’, to enable us to ‘realise the need for a fundamental change in the way we live’, and bring about a ‘radical reorientation of the way we do things’, explains another sinologist Cheuk Yin Lee.

An example of a live art intervention that draws out this spirit of gentle anarchism  and works as a quiet yet powerful comeback to the ‘dark and dangerous’ times would be Glasgow-based artist Rosana Cades Walking:Holding, which I have happily learnt about after performing Hand-in-Hand. In a work first created five years ago, Cade goes for a walk with an audience member through their town or city, and invites them to

‘hold hands with six different individuals along the way. The hand-holders are local participants who range in age, gender, race, sexuality and background. The idea is to give people an opportunity to experience their hometown from someone else’s perspective; and to see what can happen when you share an intimate act with a complete stranger’ (Cade 2016).

The striking images documenting the performance published on Cade’s website are potent proofs of the poetry and clarity of the piece. I think Cade’s work draws out Claire Bishop’s 2004 well known and indeed well-critiqued notion of ‘relational antagonism’, which conceptualises the setting up of ‘“relationships” that emphasize the role of dialogue and negotiation’, and which are ‘marked by sensations of unease and discomfort rather than belonging’ and ‘sustains a tension among viewers, participants, and context’, rather than a contrived conviviality or ‘imposed consensus of authoritarian order’. A participant of Cade’s work notes that he felt ‘completely outside my comfort zone’ walking with a tall young man, in spite, or because,  of the fact that ‘it’s 2016 and this is my town’, Reading, which he has lived in for 30 years. He was also struck by his experience of the work with a young woman in an electric wheelchair ‘who said that she rarely held anyone’s hand in when walking out and about, mostly because of the physical/logistical difficulty the wheelchair created’. He ends by saying that ‘I’d really recommend people give it a go. It only lasted 30 minutes, and if you don’t like it you can just walk away’. Cade’s work precisely shows how such a collective future is necessarily a messy, difficult and lively cacophony. In other words, what you have described as an ‘intimacy’ and ‘safe and trusted space’ should not be a neat, rose-tinted master narrative with a happily-ever-after we-are-the-world flatness based on lowest common denominators. Instead it includes and indeed cultivates conflict, clashes, collisions.

Minus the bloodshed.

performingborders (Alessandra): In your ‘terrifying, terrific and transformative years in Japan’ you explored the aesthetic concept of ‘ma’ (in between). In-betweenness seems to have a huge part in your practice. Can you expand a bit on how those years have impacted on your work and how you have brought the concept of ‘ma’ in your following projects?

Kai: As we move about in the world, we sometimes run into people, ideas, and stuffs that hit us in the face and WHAM! — stops us in our tracks, in a powerful way — and then we fly with it. You are right in saying that ‘ma’ has influenced my work and I think it is clear that productive antagonisms bears its spirit. I encountered ‘ma’, a notion about in betweenness, and specifically the tension (and not a flattening or harmonisation) in between elements, when I was living in Japan. The word spirit is appropriate here: whether moments of silence in a kabuki play, or the gaps between the rocks in a rock garden, ‘ma’ visualises and conceptualises a potentiality where the spirit (kami) moves through (Isozaki & Oshima 2009). It is a powerful and poetic spatio-temporal principle underlying all traditional Japanese art forms, and which I have written about elsewhere (see here and here, for instance).

‘Ma’ was the guiding principle behind ‘ISLANDHOPPING’ (2002-2005), a large, multi-platform body of performances, installations and films that explore the physical, political and poetic significance of ‘island’ and ‘islandhopping’. It asks: What are the ‘zones of contacts and conflicts’ (to borrow the words of Biennale of Sydney Dr Charles Merewether) between islanders and ‘islands’ — in the physical, geopolitical and metaphorical senses of the word? What happens when the various stories and histories from these places and people are juxtaposed within the same physical or filmic space? What (new) tensions/collisions are created, and how do they enrich or complicate what we (think we) know about these places and people? Over the period of 3 years, I travelled between — islandhopped — various islands of Japan, from Okinawa to Hokkaido. I collected a wide range of photographs, videos, sounds, texts and stories from the people and places I encountered, as an islander (from Singapore) encountering other islanders (in and of Japan).

A major ‘archipelago’ of stories, for instance, relates to the Pacific War. They include stories about my visits to the controversial Yasukuni war shrine in Tokyo while impersonating as a Japanese; the peace ceremony at Hiroshima in which the narrative of Japan as victim is propagated, as well as an American military camp in Okinawa (filmed with a hidden camera). Interspersed within these stories is an interview with an elderly uncle of his ordeal during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore. As I — and the audience — hopped from ‘island’ to ‘island’ and story to story in the form of densely-montaged films or densely-packed installation site, the boundaries  between victim/victor, truth/fiction may become blurred.

An integral part of the process of ISLANDHOPPING was the engagement in artistic collaborations with Japanese practitioners. That is to say, ISLANDHOPPING acted as a mechanism for me to reach out to Japanese artists so that I did not function as an ‘island’ myself. Successful interdisciplinary and intercultural collaborations I carried out included that with dancers (including a Butoh expert and a choreographer from avant garde group Dumb Type), musicians (such as noise artist Adachi Tomomi and ‘laptop composer’ Professor Christophe Charles), and media artists (such as from Videoart Centre Tokyo). My current body of work continues with collaboration across culture, discipline and borders.


Certainly the Toughest UltraMarathon of Your Life. Digital image. 2015 UK. 47 inches x 33 inches. Exhibited at: Being Human Festival 2015 at Leeds College of Art and the Autumn 2016 issue of the Transfers Mobilities journal in its Mobility and Art exhibition section. Collected by Leeds College of Art. Copyright: Kai Syng Tan.

performingborders (Alessandra): Finally, let us know a bit more about your coming projects.

Kai: To keep me on my toes, I work on approximately 487 projects at any one time (my life is a ride, life is art, art is life, etc).

The one that could be of interest to people here is a seminar in Leeds on 21 November. Drawing on the (anti)migrant crisis, global endurance athletic activities and Nguyen-Hatsushiba’s Breathing is Free: 12,756.3, we will ask how running connects or divide people across borders. The line-up is eclectic, which includes Dr Debbie Lisle (Reader. Politics and International Studies, Queen’s University Belfast, Reader in international relations, Sarah Brown (Leeds Art Gallery Principal Keeper and runner), and Stephanie Case, a Canadian human rights lawyer who founded Free To Run, a running charity for Afghan girls and women. That is if she is not on a UN assignment, or running a 338-km race (as you do).

This ‘Leeds Leg’ as we call it is one of a series of three events in three cities exploring running as a metaphor or methodology to think about body, ageing, gender, the city and borders. Myself with two other female artist-researcher-runners Annie Grove-White and Dr Carali McCall will be joined by guests and colleagues including A Mile In Her Shoes, a running charity for homeless women in London (23 November), and Eddie Ladd, an international performance maker who’s made a theatre piece on Bobby Sands (24 November, Cardiff). The Biennale draws on the RUN! RUN! RUN! International Festival of Running 2014, which took place at the Slade Research Centre, which the Guardian applauded for its ‘positive atmosphere’. Come join us , if not physically, virtually by following the #r3fest tag on Twitter.

Kai is an artist, visual director, sightseer and shape-shifter. Her works have toured 450 shows including dOCUMENTA, 8th ASEAN Para Games Ceremonies,Biennale of Sydney and transmediale at locations such as MOMA, ZKM, ICA and Dom Muzyki. Upon completing her PhD at the Slade School of Fine Art, she founded the RUN! RUN! RUN! International Body for Research to explore running as a critical and creative toolkit to engage with the self, others, the city, technology and non-logocentric modes of thinking. She has won the San Francisco International Film Festival Golden Gate Award and Japan Foundation artist-in-residency Award, while her works are collected by the Museum of London, Wellcome Images and Fukuoka Art Museum. Now a Research Fellow at Leeds College of Art, Kai is also Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts and a Peer Reviewer of the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

Featured images credits: Stills from video series entitled ‘A Plethora of Histories’ from ISLANDHOPPING 2002-2005 Japan. Exhibited at Biennale of Sydney 2006; House of World Cultures 2005, MOMA 2005 and ZKM 2006. Copyright: Kai Syng Tan.

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