On merantau, hosting and holding spaces: a collective reflection by the Something-Something Working Group

13 minutes read
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A group photo of Something-Something Working Group with Para Rupa.

Masthead Image

A group photo of Something-Something Working Group with Para Rupa.

Ayo kita rantau ke Jogja!

The Something-Something Working Group is Chong Gua Khee, Corrie Tan, Deanna Dzulkifli and Shawn Chua. We were first convened through the ELEMENT#10 Research Residency at Dance Nucleus in November-December 2021. Our aim is to imagine and prototype new paradigms and infrastructures for knowledge production, artistic practice and their contingent entanglements. We desire to facilitate ways in which artists, arts practitioners, workers, organisations and institutions in Singapore might question, reflect on and articulate their internal infrastructures and working processes. Through the group’s long-term curiosity and engagement, we hope that these different constituencies may be able to gain a broader picture of how their practice is positioned within and also shifts the wider Singaporean arts ecology—and the hopes, possibilities and futures that might emerge from this process of dialogue and reflection.

The Co-Lab Residency at Centre 42 has supported us as we work on developing and articulating a facilitation framework that might support artists, arts workers, institutions and organisations to be more self-reflexive about their projects, positionalities, processes and practices. Through this emergent process, we also aim to examine where and how the working group sits within the artistic ecology in Singapore, and whether this framework and methodology are more specific to the Singapore arts context or could be broadly applicable to other arts contexts.

In February 2023, the working group travelled to Yogyakarta for a mini-residency, where we were hosted by curator Riksa Afiaty and residency manager Theodora Agni of the arts management platform Shifting Realities. Riksa and Agni curated a series of encounters for the group with collectives and artists based in Yogyakarta, including:

  • KUNCI Study Forum and Collective: Initially established in 1999 as a cultural studies study group, KUNCI has been continuously transforming its structure and methodologies as it experiments with producing and sharing knowledge through collective study. The group is fiercely interdisciplinary and traverses the intersections of affective, manual and intellectual labour through their work in organising, discourse, archiving and publishing. The group’s membership is based on friendship and informality, as well as self-organised and collaborative principles.
  • Bakudapan Food Study Group: This newer study group organises itself around food—both its cooking, history and conservation, as well as considering food as a means to speak about and with broader issues such as politics, society, gender, economics, philosophy and the arts and culture. The group’s work on food spans art, ethnography, research and practice.
  • Lifepatch: A citizen initiative and community-based organisation at the intersection of art, science and technology, Lifepatch focuses on art and science education informed by the spirit of DIY (do-it-yourself) and DIWO (do-it-with-others). The 13 members invite participants to examine, explore and develop various technologies, including organic, ecological and electronic technology. 
  • Para Rupa: A network of families with children with disabilities, Para Rupa relies on ties of kinship and affect as a way of working together and mutually supporting each other. The group presented their first solo exhibition of artwork in 2023, and often convene when they feel a sense of “saling merindukan” or “missing each other”. 

The week we spent in Yogyakarta was deeply transformative for us, and prompted us to consider a new lexicon of “hosting” as part of the constellation of our facilitation framework, and to reimagine more expansively a different heuristic for hosting and facilitating. This trip also allowed us the space and time to articulate how our group has developed and mutated over the past year, and sketch out some ideas for where we might like to bring our collective methodology and spirit next. 

This was inspired largely by Agni and Riksa, who embodied a rigorous and intuitive care ethics when it came to hosting us in their artistic ecology. One of their shared aspirations is to dramatically rethink how artist residencies are organised and facilitated—in a way that centres socio-political urgencies but also reciprocity and mutual care. In 2022, Agni and Riksa had co-convened MARANTAU, a residency platform for artists across Indonesia, drawing from Indonesian sociologist Mochtar Naim’s theorisation of the practice of merantau by the Minangkabau people of Sumatra (marantau adopts the Minangkabau spelling of the same word). Merantau is a practice of voluntary migration, which Riksa and Agni adapted to consider the dynamics of movement, exile, the separation from familiar places, and the adoption of new working patterns and cultures in new locations. In the words of Edouard Glissant, they were keen to explore what it meant for artists to “errant” and “de-root” themselves from localities they had previously been embedded in. 

Agni and Riksa’s practice of hosting us facilitated our own act of merantau—temporarily dislocating ourselves from Singapore and relocating ourselves to Yogyakarta. This was both a physical and temporal relocation; when we were in Yogyakarta we were all very aware of the elasticity of time (jam karet) and how the city operated at a rhythm markedly slower and gentler than Singapore’s very frantic capitalist temporal regime. Through deep attention, curiosity and responsiveness to our needs, Agni and Riksa were also able to get a sense of the kinds of people and groups we might want to be in conversation with, and how these dialogues might offer a site for mutual excitement and growth. They spent hours with us each day, lubricating these social interactions but also cooking for us, bringing us to various sites within and around the city, and unfolding extended conversations with us about behind-the-scenes workers (pekerja balik layar) in the arts, gendered and reproductive labour, and the politics of care work. They also launched into a very detailed analysis of our horoscopes—and also shared their observations and practices around people’s horoscopes in their arts scene. In fact, they have frequently brought people in the arts together or curated collaborative possibilities between individuals not solely because of their shared creative or research interests, but also because of their potential astrological compatibility. 

The work that Agni and Riksa do is so refined and practised that it may almost be invisible to those who are inattentive to the gestures and rhythms of care work. They described having a kind of “signature” to their care practices that they were only just beginning to articulate. This involved preempting our needs, measuring the fluctuations of our energies and emotions and calibrating themselves to these movements, being sensitive to our interests but also to our frustrations and restlessness, and tending to our desires while also recognising when we desired autonomy and solitude. Researcher and organiser Alva Gotby writes about how emotional labour often becomes less visible when it is well done:

Emotional labour is difficult to think about since the better it is done, the more it appears as non-work, both for the labourer and for the recipient of emotional care. All labour may involve effort on the side of the labourer, yet such exertion might appear as merely a natural expression of the labouring subject. In emotional labour processes in particular, the result of the work is often invisible as a product and comes to appear as an aspect of the personality of the worker. As Sophie Lewis argues, in these forms of labour, ‘a feminized person’s body is typically being further feminized: it is working very, very hard at having the appearance of not working at all’.

(Source: They Call It Love: The Politics of Emotional Life, 2023)

In conversation with Agni, we discussed the various Indonesian terms the Yogyakarta arts community uses when it comes to describing these acts of hosting and hospitality. Some of the words that emerged included menyambut and menerima, which focus on acts of welcoming and receiving, and which also make the distinction between hosts and guests more clear and visible. Menjamu is the Indonesian synonym for “hosting”, but Agni spoke about how they often rely on the English term in daily life “because the practice is a combination of everything: welcoming, entertaining, accompanying, and perhaps much more”. As a working group, we wondered about the ways in which we might adapt and incorporate this hosting practice into the way we hold space for artists, groups and organisations—to create a hospitable physical, temporal, emotional and mental site where these individuals and groups might feel welcomed, received, and accompanied.

Vocabularies of hosting and hospitality

The Something-Something Working Group can function as a kind of collective intelligence, but is also very much the overflowing sum of the interests, delights and curiosities of the individuals who constitute the group. Each of us has come up with three terms in conjunction with our residency—but also our development so far—that speak to our journey to Yogyakarta, our time spent incubating within Dance Nucleus and Centre 42, our individual practices, and our collective futures.

  • affective architectures:

    As a facilitator, educator and organiser, I am constantly considering the ways in which I might scaffold the emotional or affective spaces around an activity, event or programme that I am creating or have a shared responsibility for. I have started to describe this as an “affective architecture”, derived from NUS Museum curator Sidd Perez’s description of my practice as an “architect of affect”. I relish acting as a kind of tuning fork for the affective frequencies that shimmer and vibrate around me, and when watching performance as a critic I often find myself sculpting my writing so that it can act as a site for the reader to be held, or to be submerged in these emotions and affects I experience during a show. Architectural critic and scholar Jane Rendell introduces us to her practice of “site-writing”, and how artwork might “take critics outside themselves, offering new geographies, new possibilities, but they can also return critics to their own interiors, their own biographies” (Rendell 2010, 14). In this way, the affective architecture of my writing “traces and constructs a series of interlocking sites, relating, on the one hand, critic, work and artist, and on the other, critic, text and reader” (ibid.).

    My desire to construct these affective architectures has, in recent years, extended far beyond my practice of writing. For example, I organise an ongoing seminar series for early-career scholars presenting their research on Singapore, and I enjoy ensuring that our guest speakers and audience members feel like they are being invited into a space for critical discourse that embodies generosity and warmth. This shapes everything, from the way I craft emails, respond to questions or send reminders—to compiling extensive resource lists and glossing audience comments for our presenters. In both my personal and professional life, I desire to build affective architectures around “hosting” or “holding” spaces for people, so that they feel like they can be invited to be their best selves.
  • companionship:

    My practice of companionship has emerged from the long-term observation and documentation of Singaporean performance—initially as a performance critic with mainstream media, and now as an in(ter)dependent critic and dramaturg. I consider the critic’s practice a durational one, where the critic takes various proximities with an artist and their work—this may look like a period where the critic follows the artist’s work very closely and intimately, followed by other periods where there is some distance and the artist’s trajectory is in the critic’s periphery. This companionable criticism is heavily inspired by a specific articulation of dramaturgy in Indonesian performance discourse that styles the dramaturg as both the pendamping (companion, aide, friend) as well as the pengganggu (provocateur, disturber, interrupter) (Helly Minarti at the Asian Dramaturgs’ Network Symposium, 2016). I think of the ways in which Agni and Riksa accompanied us during our time together in Yogyakarta, and how the intimacy of our time spent together was also tempered judiciously by time spent apart. In the same way, I enjoy following artists and arts groups over significant periods of time (sometimes over a decade) and navigating the ebb and flow of our relationships. I find that as these relationships solidify, I am better able to both celebrate and interrogate their work. My critical response to the work acts as an expression of this companionship.
  • porosity:

    How might we establish holding sites for artists that allow each of us to engage and encounter the other on the best terms? To come together, and to leave with grace? I draw from dramaturg Cathy Turner’s understanding of porosity, which suggests that the structure of my critical writing processes and the way I establish relationships with artists and audience members “contains space within it available for occupation [...] intervention, habitation or contribution” (Turner 2014, 201-202). Porosity does not mean the absence of a loose and flexible structure that allows each of us to retain our respective shapes. When I work with artists as an embedded critic or writer-in-residence, I prioritise relationships that will allow me to sculpt a porous structure (together with the artist or group) that gives me the latitude to enter and depart the process with autonomy, and to be curious and open about the creative process while also communicating questions and concerns from a place of empathy.
  • fugue:

Making music together is the best way for two people to become friends. There is none easier. That is a fine thing. I hope you and I shall remain friends. Perhaps you too will learn how to make fugues, Joseph.
—Hermann Hesse, The Glass Bead Game (1943)

As a dramaturg, facilitator, as well as an artist working in inter- or trans-disciplinary context, I often find myself in a fugue-like state. I don’t imagine myself being a conductor external to the fugue, but being undone and modulated and reconfigured. I am hosting from within the fugue, trying to dilate my attention to hold the multiple complex interweaving elements, tracing the emergent theme without collapsing towards a convenient, but false, unity. Through this trip, I found myself moved as I was being held in this fugue, in holding on to the singularity of my strand, while being deftly interwoven into multiple layers across different dimensions into this braided fugue.

  • time dilation:

    In time dilation, time moves slower for an observer who is in motion relative to another observer. To a stationary observer, a moving clock will tick slower than the one the observer is holding.

    Following the fugue, I find myself attuned to the polyrhythms that pattern my mode of being. In being hosted, I find my unconscious rhythms disrupted as I am inducted into a different rhythm. The disruption is important in interrupting and unhoming the particular rhythms that have vibrated me. In the space between these different rhythms, time dilates–opening up spaces of reflection and possibility. It is not only the experience of inhabiting a different rhythm that is significant, but the relative space that opens up between that reframes the experience. I see the act of hosting as a kind of interpolated time dilation, and in this dilated space we are invited to imagine and inhabit a vibrant otherwise.
  • intertidal:

An Intertidal occurs when those paradigm shifts are heightened and intertwined, when the degree of complexity and confusion in our lives is turned up to eleven, and, most important, the underlying ideas, narratives, and rules of what it means to be a human being are called into question.
—Ari Wallach, Longpath (2022)

I have a more tempered notion of the intertidal compared to Wallach’s portrait of an extreme ecosystem of “both crazy creativity and crazy danger”. The intertidal zone of hosting represents that in-between space between the ocean and the land, across low and high tides. The intertidal zone is dynamic and changing, and requires different innovative strategies of adaptation that are responsive to its environment. Creative opportunities arise for all parties in this liminal zone as all elements co-create a vertiginous environment that challenges and embraces our different ways of being in the world.

Gua Khee
  • compatibility:

    As a director and performance-maker, I find deep pleasure in collaborating with people across disciplines and sectors to create long-term multidisciplinary projects, and also making in ways that support emergence and the unexpected. These are very specific preferences, and not everyone’s cup of tea. Hence, over the years, I’ve come to realise that the work is as much about being clear about these preferences and finding people who are keen to work in such ways as it is to actually ‘do’ the work. 

    This approach is somewhat different from how I think about the work of being a facilitator, especially for more public settings like open workshops or talks – it is often neither feasible nor helpful to have a select pool of participants or audiences. In these contexts, my focus is thus less about who the people in the space are, but rather how I as the facilitator might structure the physical, mental and emotional space and respond in ways that are as generative as possible. 

    When I think about the working group and the concept of ‘hosting-facilitating’, a third possibility comes to mind. That is, even as we are seeking to develop and practise a facilitation framework to support greater self-reflexivity amongst artists, arts workers, institutions and organisations, how might we attend to the compatibility of the working group and the framework with different artists or organisations? Who at what points might find these ways of facilitation most interesting, resonant and/or beneficial, and how do we be intentional about these moments rather than attempting to be broadly available to anyone at any time?
  • collective pleasure:

    Insisting on the artmaking and art management processes being pleasurable for everyone involved has been a crucial part of my practice ever since I encountered adrienne maree brown’s work around pleasure activism and her assertion that “we all need and deserve pleasure and that our social structures must reflect this” (brown 2019). Insisting that hosting be a pleasurable activity for the hosts feels in line with this—as much as we enjoyed eating food cooked for us by Agni and other Indonesian friends, it was even lovelier to know that they were really excited to cook for us, and were not offering to do so out of a sense of obligation.  

    There was also pleasure for me in the fluidity of the hosting/being hosted dynamic we experienced with Riksa and Agni—Tronto (1998) writes of ‘care receiving’ as a phase of care, and it was lovely at different moments of the residency to be able to ‘host’ and hold space for them to unpack some of their thinking, rather than only experiencing being cared for by them. 
  • lightly, lightly / how do we dance with bubbles:

    Wanting to embody care and intentionality around dynamics and relationships can sometimes feel like navigating a minefield of sensitivities, and it feels all the more important to keep orienting towards lightness and playfulness. How do we play seriously with the work and with each other as well as the people/groups/spaces we encounter? How do we acknowledge our own and other people’s failings and failures, and also dance as a way of navigating through these tensions together? How do we equitably partner ease and discomfort for everyone who is involved in a process, so we are responsive but not overly reactive? And always, always – how do we find, amplify, and create moments of casual beauty and magic? 
  • uncertainty principle 

Not only is the Universe stranger than we think, it is stranger than we can think. 
—Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976)

(Heisenberg’s) uncertainty principle is one of the most famous (and probably misunderstood) ideas in physics. It tells us that there is a fuzziness in nature, a fundamental limit to what we can know about the behaviour of quantum particles and, therefore, the smallest scales of nature. Of these scales, the most we can hope for is to calculate probabilities for where things are and how they will behave. Unlike Isaac Newton's clockwork universe, where everything follows clear-cut laws on how to move and prediction is easy if you know the starting conditions, the uncertainty principle enshrines a level of fuzziness into quantum theory.
—Alok Jha for
The Guardian, “What is Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle?” (2013) 

In contrast to a heavily output driven producing practice in recent times, I’ve realised that my interests within the field of theoretical physics stems from a deep sense of amateur curiosity. The relinquishment of responsibility to know, understand and labour within capitalistic norms, but instead to be inspired and challenged, idealistically. Reading within the field of physics as a layperson, like Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle within the field of Quantum Mechanics, I takeaway an attempt of capturing essences of the human experience whilst retaining an awareness of how we lack (from their professional lens).

I would describe writing about the journey we’ve undertaken as the Something-Something Working Group as a type of fuzziness I am attempting to work through. A type of uncertainty that exists in this moment, which is an essential part in the calculation of the overall experience of this something that occurs. 

Many times I wear the hat of the “do-er”, or “getting things done-er”, and while I would expect this kind of unknowing as an uncomfortable state for me, it has been surprisingly reaffirming. The Something-Something uncertainty has proven to be regenerative, and its uncertain clarity has been contributed to by all those whose paths we’ve crossed in this time. 

  • the egg/theory of one

Your soul is more magnificent, beautiful, and gigantic than you can possibly imagine. A human mind can only contain a tiny fraction of what you are. It’s like sticking your finger in a glass of water to see if it’s hot or cold. You put a tiny part of yourself into the vessel, and when you bring it back out, you’ve gained all the experiences it had.
—Andy Weir,
The Egg (2009)

The theory of one brings the reader face to face with the stunning realisation that the universe is bounded-rather than unbounded, as Einstein and others have asserted.

...Consider now a flat surface as characterising the universe of all universes.  If we select a point to represent our universe, we know the thing which defines our universe is that our dimensionality has no meaning outside our universe—indicating that our universe occupies no more than a point in the universe of all universes…

—Christopher Bek, The Theory of One (2015)

The trip to Yogyakarta made me feel the most present that I have had in awhile. It reminds me of how much brain-work perhaps I have done, and the neglect of my body. It reminded me that our brains move very fast but remember less things, whereas our bodies move a lot slower and remember a lot more. 

The trip made me think of The Egg by Andy Weir as well as The Theory of One by Christopher Bek. The way we were so sensitively held by our hosts Riksa and Agni, the way this gentle practice intentionally inspired and probed, shed light on the subject matter on hand, but definitely implied a larger togetherness, a part of a larger whole, that can only be experienced, and attempted to be described. All of the Something-Something gatherings have been bursts of physical, present moments, experienced together and embodied individually.

  • clarity

    Words are not really an intuitive area of practice for me. I think it is because I am excited by these stray connections between many things, and the collective excitement of being able to internally understand my mind palaces, combined with the disregard for its legibility to others, have always made words unnecessary for me. However, as I embark on more collaborative practices and relationships, I want to practise my legibility muscle more intentionally. This realisation is in no small part due to my encounters amongst my Something-Something Working Group peers, as well as with the people we have encountered along the way, in the moments and containers (residencies) which have held the four of us. How can I continue to host myself and others in a way which continues to uncover, clarify and question? Dancing around legibility to me now becomes a tool to more precisely transpire the spirit of these thoughts amongst one another, instead of this scary concrete-pouring process over the “magic” of a moment. 


Asian Dramaturgs’ Network (2016) “Mapping the Terrain (Part 1)” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x5pwfv4AbPQ 
Bek, Christopher (2015) The Theory of One: Realizing the Dream of a Final Theory. Victoria, Canada: FriesenPress.
brown, adrienne maree (2019) Pleasure Activism: The Politics of Feeling Good. California: AK Press. 
Da Col, Giovanni (2019) “The H-Factor of Anthropology: Hoarding, Hosting, Hospitality”, L’Homme 231-232. http://journals.openedition.org/lhomme/35525 
Glissant, Edouard (1997) Poetics of Relation, trans. by Betsy Wing. Ann Arbor: The University of Michigan Press. 
Gotby, Alva (2023) They Call It Love: The Politics of Emotional Life. London: Verso Books.
Hesse, Herman (1943) The Glass Bead Game. New York: Picador USA.
Jha, Alok (2013) “What is Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle?”, The Guardian, Nov 10. https://www.theguardian.com/science/2013/nov/10/what-is-heisenbergs-uncertainty-principle 
Naim, Mochtar (1973) “Merantau: Minangkabau Voluntary Migration”, PhD thesis, ScholarBank@NUS Repository. https://scholarbank.nus.edu.sg/handle/10635/153066 
Rendell, Jane (2010) Site-Writing: The Architecture of Art Criticism. London and New York: I.B. Tauris.
Tronto, Joan (1998) “An Ethic of Care”, Ethics and Aging: Bringing the Issues Home 15-20. https://www.jstor.org/stable/44875693 
Turner, Cathy (2014) ‘Porous Dramaturgy and the Pedestrian’. In New Dramaturgy: International Perspectives on Theory and Practice, edited by Katalin Trencsényi and Bernadette Cochrane, 199–213. London: Bloomsbury Methuen Drama.
Wallach, Ari (2022) Longpath: Becoming the Great Ancestors Our Future Needs – An Antidote for Short-Termism. New York: HarperCollins.
Weir, Andy (2009) The Egg. http://www.galactanet.com/oneoff/theegg_mod.html.

under c42

Something-Something Working Group
The Something-Something Working Group was first convened through the ELEMENT#10 Research Residency at Dance Nucleus in November-December 2021. The aim is to imagine and prototype new paradigms and infrastructures for knowledge production, artistic practice and their contingent entanglements. The working group desires to facilitate ways in which artists/arts practitioners, arts workers and arts organisations (or institutions) in Singapore might question, reflect on and articulate their interna
12 May 2023