Long-term residency gives space for depth and produces lasting results

Sari Palmgren, 27.6.2018

Sari Palmgren has been involved in a joint residency programme for dance artists from Hong Kong and Finland. Now, following the fifth residency period, she has written about her experiences, giving us an insight into what she has learnt.

At the start of the residency programme in 2016 we, the participating artists and organisations, had the opportunity to shape everything, to really define the purpose and content of the residencies. The starting points for the artists’ work were cultural exchange, networking, and sharing their own methods and practices. Very quickly it became clear that the working methods and starting points of the three Finnish and three Hong Kong-based dance artists were very different.

At the workshop. In the picture dancers Poon Chun Ho ja Ho Ming Yan © Sari Palmgren

Questions of responsibility and power

The residency has taught us how to better understand different discourses, where others are coming from, ways of thinking, and what is personal, versus what stems from a person’s culture or training.

There are a lot of differences between the organisations and how they work, and the content was discussed in different ways with the artists from Hong Kong and those from Finland. At the start of the residencies there was a great deal of conversation surrounding what sharing meant in the group. Why am I bringing this thing to a joint situation? Articulating and answering the questions ‘why’, ‘what’, ‘how’, and ‘what is important in each instance’, took a long time, for both the organisations and the artists – at different stages of the longer-term collaboration project.

As the structure of the residencies was initially flexible, issues relating to responsibility and power arose. How should I interpret this as an artist, and what does it mean for organisations with lots of other things on their plates? This journey made me consider the extent to which I can drive matters forward as an individual, and what I should focus on. What battles should I choose: what should I focus on?

I also struggled with accepting the idea of lots of flights to Asia. Ultimately, I’d have preferred to travel to Hong Kong by train, but that wasn’t an option within the timeframe of the residency. How can you collaborate and see different cultures without polluting the environment? Is it possible to use my own work to leave things in a better state than when I found them, rather than causing destruction and increasing my carbon footprint? I have my own forms of compensation (such as not having children and opting for a vegetarian diet) that I use to explain/justify my decision to live a nomadic lifestyle.

A sustainable element of the project was the fact we were engaging in deep-rooted, long-term cooperation rather than taking shorter trips for one-off projects.

Thoughts on personal residency work

Residency work is characterised by the same kind of issues that an artist might come up against more broadly in their own work. Which of the broad sub-sections of this work do I want to and am I able to focus on at any particular moment? Lessons I took from previous residencies to serve as guidelines this time are to prioritise the following choices:

1. Do things that I can only do here.
2. Do physical training every day.

The residency was still fully-packed, with plenty on offer, but it was easier to make choices this time, listening to my own guidelines. Alongside my own training sessions, it was interesting to attend a range of yoga, gymnastics, and dance classes, as well as seeing different places, teaching and moving with different people. Once you get far enough away from your own standard starting points and familiar patterns, you find yourself confronting your own insecurities. I find a new understanding of myself as I navigate the difficulties of settling into a new culture.

During this residency, we visited more of the natural sites on Hong Kong’s numerous islands, which provided a pleasant opportunity to disconnect from hectic city life. This time, adaptation, planning and working were much easier, since I knew the places, routes and methods better, as well as being aware that, for example, people are often late and due to the traffic it’s a good idea to set aside at least an hour to get from place to place. I also learned to shut off the air conditioning on the bus and to instead just live between the hot outdoor spaces and the freezing-cold air-conditioned spaces.

Recidency artists Linda Martikainen and Wayson Poon Wai-shun © Sari Palmgren

Dance fields differ between Finland and Hong Kong

To some degree I felt that although in principle we share a common factor – dance – I’m not part of the same artistic field. For me, choreography is the celebration of different things, of diversity. It feels as if in Hong Kong many of the performances I’ve seen make the same claims in terms of capitalism, focus on appearance, youth, and superficiality that are very visible elsewhere in the city and culture. Can art’s role not be to bring something different to the stage, something that goes beyond what already exists, even here? To bring light to dark corners, to see things differently?

There’s always a counterforce, thankfully. I met some artists who are trying to do something different, such as the choreographer Mao Wei: ‘Everything should be slowed down. I want to slow´down the whole process and constantly question whether I want to continue in this particular direction.’ I also met the fashion designer Kay Wong, who gave up a successful career in the clothing industry to launch a service that adapts and repairs old clothing.

As I felt a sense of not belonging in Hong Kong, I could observe the differences between the fields of dance in Finland and Hong Kong. In Hong Kong (as in Finland), there are a lot of challenges when it comes to creating a more sustainable dance field. Based on my own observations, here are a few of those challenges:

– The work of a choreographer is sometimes thought more as that of a technical craftsman, rather than as that of an artist.
– Working groups are not generally very familiar with collective working methods in Hong Kong. Designers attend rehearsals perhaps just once and are not active in the process when preparing for performances; a choreographer is often doing the entire work from start to finish by themselves.
– In Hong Kong you get funding for the whole project at once, there are not many small foundations or opportunities to gather funding. This means a lucky few get all the money and opportunities to produce pieces. Performances are often put together within very short timeframes.
– Many dancers also have another job alongside dance, lessening their commitment to the process and ensuring the field stays very young. There are no long-term artist funding sources.
– They prefer novelty when it comes to performances, and there is no support for the development of performances (this is also true in Finland). However, many artists manage to find different routes and continue developing the same piece by changing the name of the performance, for example.
– The audience are considered more consumers than participants. Artist-led outreach and audience development are also very rare.
– In the freelancer scene, producers seem to be more active in Hong Kong. They take equal responsibility for the creation of a piece and for finding partners and funding at a very early stage in the process.

Collaboration to continue

Matters and processes progressed further during this fifth residency. It feels as if they’ve undergone a long maturation process, and that we can move on to the next stage. The next stage for me personally is the realisation of a production in Finland and Hong Kong in 2020–2021. Four artists from Hong Kong and four from Finland will be involved in the production. One of the dancers is the residency artist Wayson Poon Wai-shun.

The best thing about the residencies has been getting some distance from my own work and conventions. Being a long way from home gives you the impetus to see your environment and methods afresh. It helps clarify what is important to you. One of the residency artists said to me that before I was like a stone, whereas now I’m like a snake. I’m more flexible when it comes to finding new directions; if the direction I chose isn’t working, I can fuse and find new routes.

© Sari Palmgren

A big thank you to the organisers: West Kowloon Cultural District, Zodiak – Center for New Dance, Dance Info Finland and Dance House Helsinki, and to the other residency artists: Linda Martikainen, Justyne Li Sze-yeung, Wayson Poon Wai-shun, Ivy Tsui Yik-chit and Carl Knif!

A journey made can never be taken away from you.

Further information about the Creative Meeting Point Hong Kong x Finland 2016–2018 program here.