We’ve always called the concrete jungle our home, existing in a thriving metropolis with fast-paced living, a thousand and one things on our to-do list, and the nagging feeling that we can’t stop, won’t stop. But when COVID-19 struck and we were sent into a lockdown, everything in the world seemed to come to a complete standstill for a moment in time, as we took pause, immobile and fearful, wondering what the next step would be.
Perhaps in times of crises like these, the one thing we could actually do, is to just breathe.
That’s the solution 微 Wei Collective suggests at least, an art collective comprising lighting designer Liu Yong Huay and actor/writer Neo Hai Bin. But for Wei Collective, breathing isn’t just about the act of making sure we’re inhaling and exhaling, but to be conscious of the speed, rhythm and flow of our breath, all of which is an indicator of our presence and clarity.
This January, as part of the 2022 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, the duo are collaborating with sound designer Ng Jing, costume designer Loo Anni, dramaturg Daniel Teo and production stage manager Ng Siaw Hui to continue their exploration of breath, with their brand new performance/installation work Being 息在.
But perhaps, even if you’ve read up about Yong Huay and Hai Bin’s work through theatre, you may very well never have even heard of Wei Collective. Formed in 2017, they have, to date, produced only two works, each one a performance-installation exploring space. As its name suggests (微 means ‘small’ in Mandarin), both these independent works were blink-and-you-miss-it affairs, without heavy publicity, and more of a way for both Yong Huay and Hai Bin to experiment and develop their practice.
“I returned to Singapore in 2016 from my studies, and did a volunteering stint for the Setouchi Triennale in Japan for 3 weeks,” says Yong Huay, regarding the origins of Wei Collective. “I was very inspired by the things I saw, and how the artwork and the space came together, like being placed in traditional Japanese houses, or this work I saw, the Teshima Art Museum, where it was essentially an entire space designed to invite people to enter the space and alter their breath. This combination of materiality and space makes us view art differently, and I came back to Singapore wanting to do something like that.”
Unlike some of the companies Yong Huay and Hai Bin have worked with, Wei Collective has focused more on the installation element of their work, over the production of shows. Their debut was a simple affair, with Breath in September 2017. Here, they took over Nine Years Theatre’s rehearsal space at Aliwal Arts Centre, and transformed the space according to how they felt about it, allowing it to become a study of space and how the space changed over time.
This was followed up by In The Mood For Words in March 2018, which the duo produced as part of #BuySingLit, this time studying the space at The Arts House Play Den, and transforming the space into a quiet reading room, designing it for maximum enjoyment. As part of this work, Hai Bin also performed some of his writing, while visitors too could do the same to do live reading.
“Our name comes from how we believe that even small things can have a big impact, like having an empty room with a beam of light shining in,” says Yong Huay. “Something as small as that can change the whole space, or hiding small pieces of paper in there – the discovery of that changes our experience of the person in the space.”
The key framework behind Wei Collective comprises three elements – space, time, and material, which Yong Huay’s teacher in Hong Kong told her every good piece of art comprises of. “The elements are quite literal – space and time refers to where and when the production happens, while material refers to lighting, set and design, all the way down to the choice of materials that exist in the show, or even the script and how it all comes together,” says Yong Huay. “And these three words would always be something we answer to in our work.”
Coming into Being 息在, the work now tackles the Esplanade Annexe Studio’s space, as it invites audiences to learn and re-learn the art of breathing, and considering our place within nature, attempting to help us draw strength from nature through ‘be-ing’ at ease in the sea of life. “This show is adapted from a short text I wrote called ‘The People of The Sea’ and wanted to put on stage,” says Hai Bin. “The story explores the relationship between man and nature, and how we seem to have this paradoxical relationship with it – while we wish to co-exist, we’re also thinking about how we can protect ourselves from it.”
What Wei Collective then does is to transform the Esplanade Annexe Studio, priming it for the experience they’re about to present to the audience, and considering how best to use the space’s ‘character’ to achieve their goals. “I do quite a few dance shows at the Esplanade Annexe Studio, so I’m quite familiar with it, and have seen the possibilities that exist to explore and use for the script,” says Yong Huay. “The Annexe has very high ceilings and is a very concrete-looking space, and there’s all these weird pillars. But the beauty of it is that it has such a strong character, as a former club, and that’s how we attempt to bring out a conversation between audience and space, to let the space lead our design and let its character come out.”
“I think we need to rethink the word immersive, and we’re really thinking of how design can bring us closer, and how the physicality of the piece is so important,” says Hai Bin. “As a performer, I’ll be leading the audience, but the design must inherently make them breathe, so there’s this fun interplay where the most important thing to do is find the balance between those two.”
With safe management measures in place, Yong Huay does mourn the fact that audiences will not be able to fully appreciate and immerse themselves in the space, instead relegating themselves to a fixed location during the show. “I wish audiences could go through the set at some point,” she says. “We do try to find ways to ease audiences into the space, like putting them on cushioned seats and trying to create that meditative space for them, and basically engage with them in a material way and leave them with food for thought.”
Bringing on their chosen collaborators for the show was a no-brainer, having worked with them on other productions in the past. But for every member of the creative team, what was so interesting was how Being 息在 allowed for a very different, almost horizontal creative process from the beginning. “We did a workshop back in June, where the production was metaphorically, this blank canvas anyone and everyone could throw paint on,” says Yong Huay. “The workshop phase was important to getting everyone on board and seeing where we wanted to go. In a way, we were all learning to coexist with each other, and we’re all co-directors of the piece: our preferences, taste methodology, our practice, and everybody brings their own perspective.”
“The workshop was a luxury for us as well,” adds Hai Bin. “It was the first time seeing the designers at work, and we learnt so much about it, compared to how a traditional production is often just following the director’s vision. Here they’re bringing in their own tools, and we played around with them and really got to understand what they mean by sound or lighting design. In a way, we don’t really have a director for this, and you could even say it’s an act of coexistence between the artists involved.”
As for the future of Wei Collective, both Yong Huay and Hai Bin don’t see it as expanding or going the route of major arts companies anytime soon, preferring to remain small and going at their own pace. “I think the beautiful thing for us as a collective is that there is no plan, and that’s ok. I didn’t use to think of it that way, and always feared that without a plan, there would be no fear. But I’ve accepted and embraced that even if our next production is 5 years later, that’s ok,” says Hai Bin.
“We started off Wei Collective as a process of understanding space, we’ve also learnt to understand breath better as well,” says Yong Huay. “We’re definitely not going to be producing work every year, but when there’s an opportunity, when it feels right, then we will do something. Think of our speed of production like slow food.”
“As a freelancer, I try my best not to do back to back shows, because it’s detrimental to my own physical and mental health, and it also ends up causing both productions to suffer,” she adds. “We need to regain breath after each production, because you put so much of yourself into each one, and you want to regain breath, and not overwork. In the long run, it’s better for sure, and I’m more aware and alert in daily life and in the present. It’s about living in the present, and that for me, is the Wei Collective philosophy.
“The title Being 息在, it really focuses on the idea of being in the moment, which comes back to COVID itself, where we realised we can take pause,” he concludes. “I think about how COVID relates very directly to the difficulty of breathing, but we think about how fast-paced our lives used to be, and how we felt pressured to keep producing work. And when COVID happened, we all realised it was possible to slow down a little bit, and take a very deliberate pause. Perhaps in future, when all this is over, we still need to remember to take pause, and question at times instead of continually moving, to be present and take a step back.”
Photo Credit: Daniel Teo
Being: 息在 runs from 20th to 22nd January 2022 at the Esplanade Annexe Studio as part of the 2022 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival. Tickets and more information available here
The 2022 M1 Singapore Fringe Festival: The Helpers runs from 12th to 23rd January 2022. Tickets and full line-up available here