Are you viewing or being viewed? Surveillance in and out of the performance space

Words by Inês Carvalho.

The young Jasmine Fan has always wanted to become a dance maker. However, at the age of 17, an encounter with German filmmaker Monika Treut has unveiled the world of film, and the possibilities arising from combining these two art forms.

Since then, the Taiwanese, Hamburg-based choreographer has been exploring interdisciplinary performance , both as a choreographer and curator of the TANZAHOi International Festival for Dance. Inspired by her own experience as a Taiwanese woman, Jasmine has recently premiered COLOR, a performance that uses the topic of surveillance to reflect on human interactions, and the political and social conversations around voyeurism through digital technology.

DAJ: What was the starting point of COLOR?

JF: The foundations for COLOR come from my fascination with the impact of surveillance systems in our social dynamics. But unlike my previous artistic endeavors that delved into dreams and the central tenets of Buddhism, this project took a different trajectory – COLOR emerges as a fusion of my personal narrative and experiences, social critique, and the core principles of Buddhist philosophy.

The piece is centered around a woman who encounters a mysterious stranger donning a black mask moments before arriving home. This enigmatic individual inexplicably vanishes within the building’s stairwell, which happens to be monitored by a surveillance camera situated in a ground-floor sex cinema. 

Those monitoring systems allow the woman to voyeuristically explore a realm where surveillance and eroticism intertwine. By using my personal story as a springboard, COLOR creates a peculiar scenario questioning various aspects of our contemporary society.

DAJ: How is the theme of voyeurism explored through different elements in COLOR, such as choreography, music, video and visual arts?

JF: As I delved deeper into the theme of voyeurism, I realised that it is not a one-sided concept, as it requires both a subject viewer and an object being viewed. In response to this idea, I created an immersive environment with a dark ambiance, reminiscent of the red-light district, using light bars as key elements. This setting envelops a captivating dancer accompanied by ASMR-inspired sounds infused with metallic and mechanical elements. With this arrangement, I wanted to establish a dynamic where the audience becomes the viewer, observing an erotic object.

From the very beginning, the female performer carries a miniature camera in her hand, which allows her to explore the surroundings and observe the audience in her own way. She then subtly changes her position, becoming a focal point for creating and projecting provocative imagery. It entices the viewer to explore her body, delving into deeper and more intimate spaces. Even though the dancer is partially concealed behind a semi-transparent curtain, meant to symbolize a boundary between the audience and herself, she remains subject to public voyeurism.

This boundary that I have created assigns different roles to each side. For the dancer, it becomes a means of self-discovery, as she scans her body using the camera, attempting to redefine her organic form through digital equipment. From the viewer’s perspective, the images she produces evoke a captivating reverie, or voyeuristic self-pleasure.

In this way, I explore voyeurism as an unconscious reaction between the audience, dance, music, and visual art, intertwining their elements to create a thought-provoking experience.

DAJ: What is the kind of interaction that COLOR gives to audiences?

JF: Prior to each performance, the audience is informed about an installation that detects human movement. This interactive feature involves six radar sensors connected to our projection system. So, as the audience moves, they see fewer images, but when they remain still, they see more.

This experiment adds an intriguing layer to COLOR once it relies on the audiences’ choices and behaviors during the performance. Thus, each iteration generates a unique and dynamic atmosphere.

Throughout the performance, the audience encounters different phases that offer opportunities for conscious or unconscious movement choices. The significance of movement lies in showcasing the interaction between the audience and the choreography, as well as reflecting how individuals engage with political opinions. Are we simply passive observers, devoid of any reaction, when the dancer scans our bodies with her camera, reminiscent of government scrutiny over our personal documents? How do we respond when faced with uncomfortable imagery? Would we strive to take action and disrupt the status quo, or would we remain on the sidelines as mere spectators?

Ultimately, through the task of “whispering,” the audience is encouraged to spread the message of collective movement, utilising their actions to disrupt the surveillance cameras throughout the entire space. This narrative arc prompts reflection on the power of collective action and challenges us to consider whether we would actively participate in halting unwanted surveillance or passively observe from the sidelines.

DAJ: How do you combine the live and digital experiences?

JF: This is a very significant aspect of my artistic process. For a long time, I have been actively combining live and digital experiences in my work. However, the key lies in understanding the “Why” before the “How.”

When approaching a new project, I first become intrigued by a particular digital element that I wish to use. I then immerse myself in exploring its characteristics, while also analysing its unique and irreplaceable aspects, and how they can be translated into live experiences. Since live and digital experiences exist in distinct dimensions, it is essential for me to establish a concept that effectively merges the two.

I continually question myself as to why a specific digital element needs to be utilized in a particular part, rather than any other option. By thoughtfully combining live and digital experiences, I seek to create a cohesive and meaningful artistic narrative that transcends the boundaries of traditional performance.

DAJ: In a time of AI and new technology, how can we balance the use of digital and the live/human experience of a performance?

JF: As I mentioned earlier, my approach to combining live and digital experiences holds relevance in this era of AI and rapid digital advancements. It reminds us that we are on the cusp of a significant revolution in human history—one that transcends performance art and impacts various aspects of our society, including politics and the environment. This recurrence of transformative periods is not new to human history. However, such moments prompt us to introspect and contemplate who we are, what we truly desire, and how or why we can utilize AI, digital developments, and new tools to enhance our creative pursuits.

Through introspection and evaluation, we can determine if these advancements hold value, if they push us beyond our comfort zones, and if they lead us to new dimensions. The key to striking a balance lies in delving deeper into our creations, recognizing that there are certain aspects that technology can never replace. By focusing on the essence of the human experience, we can infuse our performances with a unique and irreplaceable quality that resonates with audiences on a profound level. It is this balance, the harmonious coexistence of technology and the human element, that allows us to create transformational and transcendent artistic experiences.

In a time of AI and digital development, I believe it is crucial to approach the integration of technology and the live/human experience with careful consideration. Technology has undoubtedly opened up new possibilities and expanded the boundaries of artistic expression. However, it is equally important to recognize the intrinsic value of the live and human experience. The presence of performers on stage, the tangible energy exchanged between artists and the audience, and the raw emotions conveyed through physicality and expression are elements that cannot be replicated by technology alone.

DAJ: As a choreographer and also curator of TANZAHOi International Festival for Dance, what are the similarities of creating and curating dance work?

JF: In both choreography and curation, the ability to assemble and synchronize various artistic components is key. It requires careful consideration, collaboration, and an understanding of how each piece contributes to the larger vision. By orchestrating this intricate interplay, I try to create impactful and engaging experiences for both the performers and the audience alike.

DAJ: Do you have any future plans for the TANZAHOi International Festival for Dance in Hamburg that you can unveil?

JF: Certainly! Currently, I am developing a decentralized concept for the TANZAHOi International Festival for Dance in Hamburg. This concept aims to empower artists by allowing them to curate a program collaboratively while also providing space for individual artistic presentations.

With this decentralized approach, I aim to create an environment where artists can break away from traditional hierarchical systems and explore alternative ways of combining their works. Through this ideal, I hope to foster a collaborative decision-making process and shared responsibility among all those involved in the festival.

By embracing decentralization, we can nurture a sense of collective ownership and co-creation, allowing the TANZAHOi International Festival for Dance to evolve into a dynamic and inclusive platform that amplifies diverse voices and artistic visions.

DAJ: Where do you want to take COLOR?

JF: Naturally, I aspire to see COLOR gaining more interest and invitations from diverse festivals and theaters worldwide. Taiwan’s prowess in technology and art has always been remarkable, with a keen sense of aesthetics, so our primary aim is to showcase the collaborative efforts of German performing artists and Taiwanese visual artists in presenting this piece.

Nevertheless, behind this project lies an essential message that I wish to convey, rooted in my heightened awareness of social surveillance. This awareness does not seek to pass judgment but instead urges us to be conscious of the information we unknowingly surrender to centralized powers. By exploring the universal values of human rights, this work delves into the contemporary discussion surrounding surveillance societies in Asia and the world. It addresses the pressing issue of privacy and human rights, which has garnered significant attention in Europe and the United States. As an artist from Taiwan, I feel fortunate to have grown up in a democratic country that values freedom of speech and personal liberties—something lacking in many other Asian nations. Through this case’s creative expression, I aim to demonstrate that artists from Taiwan also bear concern for the international community and actively engage in political discourse.

Follow Jasmine on Instagram.