On contemporary shamanism and avatar – Choy Ka Fai invites us to expand ourselves

How do we perceive the world today in all its seen, unseen, and imagined dimensions? Does the body continue to play the role of a medium to connect with our surroundings and an archive for personal/collective memories, or has it dissolved into a digital stream of virtual consciousness? How did curiosity about the human body evolves into an investigation of the supernatural?

Cover image: C. Kafai, “CosmicWander: Expedition”, video still, 2021

Berlin-based Singapore artist Choy Ka Fai has long been fascinated by the human body as a tool for exploring mystical experiences and posthuman choreographic ideas, and by the extracorporeal, sublime potential induced by multimedia experience. As a multidisciplinary art practice at the intersection of dance, media art and performance, his work is based on creating and dialoguing with avatars and artificial intelligence that are “half human and half something else,” mixing new technologies with ancient rituals, and interweaving altered states of spirituality with speculations about the posthuman body. At the heart of his research is a continuous exploration of the metaphysics of the human body. Through research expeditions, pseudo-scientific experiments and documentary performances, Ka Fai appropriates technologies and narratives to imagine new futures of the human body.

Ka Fai has been researching posthumanist metaphysics and dance in the last decade; for “CosmicWander,” his latest ongoing project, the artist ventured across Asia to study the spiritual practices and shamanic dances of different peoples and communities. In search of supernatural dance experience, during his travels he met over 50 shamans and filmed extraordinary shamanic rituals and folk traditions that are still prevalent in our contemporary times, intersecting with the broader environmental, technological and political shifts in Asia. Ka Fai returns with encounters on altered states of human consciousness and transforms these experiences on stage. He seeks to speculate on the alternative modes of knowing and living, as well as other realms of reality other than our own. The exhibition “CosmicWander: Expedition” presents his research to date in the form of an immersive installation inspired by the practices he observed in Singapore, Indonesia, Siberia, Taiwan and Vietnam. In meshing new technologies with ancient rituals, Choy interweaves his encounters with ‘altered states’ with personal accounts of spirituality and his own speculations on the posthuman body. It now arrives in Berlin at Tanz im August, an international contemporary dance festival, where it will also present the performance Postcolonial Spirits” at HAU1 from August 12-15.

Postcolonial Spirits is a telepresence performance inspired by the Indonesian folk dance of Dolalak. The trance dance ritual from the 1930s draws upon a multi-dimensional history of traditional Javanese dance movement, imitations of partying Colonial Dutch soldiers and melodic Islamic poems. Dolalak’s dense heritage opens up a liminal space where dance transcends the resistance of coloniality, power, and fantasy. Originating from Purworego in Central Java, Dolalak has continuously adapted to pop culture and evolved with social media. Its origin stems from the traditional Javanese dance movement mixed with imitations of Colonial Dutch soldiers in cosplay parties from the 1930s. The trance ritual is accompanied by songs of local mythologies, political banters and Islamic poems.

Inspired by Dolalak’s multi-dimensional heritage, Postcolonial Spirits creates a telepresence experiment via live streaming of motion-captured dance from Java to perform on stage in Berlin. Dutch contemporary dance artist Vincent Riebeek and Dolalak folk dancer Andri Kurniawan collaborate virtually and speculate on the notion of telepresence dance making for our post-pandemic world. Andri is one of the last remaining male dancers of Dolalak and still transmits the original dance notation from the 1930s. The reality of Dolalak today is dominated by sexy young female influencers who garner millions of followers online, dancing to the tunes of the Indonesian pop genre dangdut as their contemporary repertoire. The intriguing ghosts of Indonesia’s colonial past have evolved through both the spiritual and secular realms, and retain a critical effect of enchantment in Dolalak.

Together with Indonesian artists including vocalist Nova Ruth (of Filastine & Nova) and music composer Yennu Ariendra (of Raja Kirik), the piece seeks to traverse across time and space to present a supernatural dance experience. Working with established cultural and historical rituals through the lens of contemporary technology, Postcolonial Spirits opens up a liminal space in which dance transcends beyond the resistance of coloniality, power and fantasy.

CosmicWander” research unfolds into a series of performances, installations and virtual portals, seeking to resurface the alternative and disappearing human culture on dance, trance and belief systems. It will also soon be usable as an immersive, personal VR experience as part of the “Blue Sky Academy” project: an online virtual portal to promote Siberian Shamanism as a contemporary form of spiritual practice. The academy proposed a discursive space to re-surface the alternative worldview of the shamans and provides a series of supernatural dance experiences with digital shamans, visual documentaries and rendered worlds.

CosmicWander is not about me as an artist. It is about an openness to the alterity, a sense of the otherness, a sensing of the visible and invisible, of the supernatural worlds that oscillate around realms of the real, the hyper-real and the altered reality. I seek to resurface alternative world views with seemingly irrational and ancient belief systems of shamans. There is a sense of feminine fluidity in these shamanistic ideologies. Ideologies that pre-date political systems, systems that now govern our human bodies.

CosmicWander is about reaching out for freedom and resistance, so as to re-conceive the future of the human condition.

C. Kafai

Project page | Choy Ka Fai

Choy Ka Fai is a Berlin-based Singaporean artist. His multidisciplinary art practice situates itself at the intersection of dance, media art and performance. At the heart of his research is a continuous exploration of the metaphysics of the human body. Through research expeditions, pseudo-scientific experiments and documentary performances, Ka Fai appropriates technologies and narratives to imagine new futures of the human body. Ka Fai’s projects have been presented in major institutions and festivals worldwide, including Sadler’s Wells (London, UK), ImPulsTanz Festival (Vienna, Austria) and Tanz Im August (Berlin, Germany). He was the resident artist at tanzhaus nrw in Düsseldorf (2017–19) and Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin (2014–15). In 2010, he was awarded the Young Artist Award by the National Arts Council, Singapore. Ka Fai graduated with an M.A. in Design Interaction from the Royal College of Art, London, United Kingdom.

C. Kafai, Blue Sky Academy, 2020