Arts & Culture

Melinda Lauw: To Make Art Your Body Responds To

Immersive art bringing wellness back

Words by
b-side staff

Featured photograph by Annie Lesser

2018 has been the year of wellness and immersion, and I am sure 2019 will be no exception.

As part of the DigiMuse Open Call 2018, San Francisco-based artist Melinda Lauw will be presenting Parturition. It will run for 15 minutes and is a one-on-one experience. It invites the audience to be in the position of a foetus, exploring the relationship between mother and child. This performance is in collaboration with artist/architect Randy Chan’s work, Sonic Womb.

Sonic Womb is an interactive, immersive installation comprising a suspended tensile “womb” structure and soundscape, which explores the process of human gestation. Alongside Melinda’s expertise of intimacy and touch through performing ASMR, this may be one experience to look out for at the Singapore Art Week 2019. It may also be the closest experience we may get to Whisperlodge, an immersive theatre experience done through live ASMR that Melinda co-created and is currently artistic director of.

Born and raised in Singapore, Melinda’s art practice only started when she moved overseas. With plenty of inspirations drawn from her time abroad, this performance is inspired by and adapted from an immersive performance by California-based immersive company Screenshot Productions in 2016 of the same name.

Melinda shares her artistic journey thus far and tells us if Singapore is ready for something like Whisperlodge.

What inspired you on this pursuit for art?

I think my inspiration comes from a mixture of self-realisation and opportunism. I have always had a natural inclination for art. The more I did well in it throughout school, the more I was encouraged to pursue it. Right after I finished my BA in fine art and history of art at Goldsmiths, University of London, I felt so sure that the financial instability of being an artist was not for me. As a result, I moved to New York to do an MA in art business at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, hoping to work around the art that I so loved. I ended up working for a dealer in the Upper East Side and was on the path to becoming an art appraiser.

However, not having the pressure to make money off my art allowed me to throw myself right back into it.

I started Whisperlodge on the side of my master’s programme and tended to it throughout my work life. To everyone’s surprise, it grew into a cult hit in the immersive community, to the point where I felt more fulfilled, valued and sought-after in my performance work than in my career in the art market. At the end of 2017, I was struggling with my relocation to San Francisco. On the table was an invitation to speak at the inaugural Immersive Design Summit, and in contrast to that, a heap of undesirable or ignored job applications to galleries and museums. That was when I decided to listen to the universe and become an artist. I have had to change a lot of my expectations and lifestyle goals, but I know this is where my potential can be stretched.

Has the move from Singapore to San Francisco affected your art making in any way?

I would say that my art making was most affected by my move from Singapore to London, actually. London opened my eyes, New York allowed me to sprout, and San Francisco is where I am finally trying to grow. I never really considered myself a real artist in Singapore. Before I left, I was simply an art student, making work for my grades. When I moved to London, I learnt all about contemporary art and art theory, and I fell in love with textiles, making that my main medium throughout university. It was also in London that I experienced my first large-scale immersive shows, put on by Punchdrunk International and Secret Cinema. That was my turning point.

I do not think I would have been exposed to either textiles or immersive performance had I not been overseas. Perhaps I was drawn to these forms precisely because they were lacking in Singapore.

Your art works with contrasting textures and use of materials. Why this particular area of exploration?

I think this was born out of my struggle with contemporary art. Even though I am trained to interpret it, I often find contemporary art to be over-theorised, too abstract. I saw craft, objects and materiality as being more tangible than ideas. Feeling and touching are inalienable as opposed to thinking.

I wanted to make art that your body responds to, rather than art that you pondered over.

For me, the digitalisation of our everyday life has also contributed to this. I see textures and materials as a way to ground ourselves in relation to a world that increasingly on a screen.

Share with us how the conception of Whisperlodge came about.

Whisperlodge came about from a meeting between my co-creator Andrew Hoepfner and I. It is a fusion of his immersive theatre experience and my knowledge of ASMR. At the time, Andrew had just created a wonderfully surreal immersive performance called Houseworld, during which he unintentionally triggered the ASMR of many audience members. He only knew of this through audience feedback. I, on the other hand, was an immersive theatre fan who had just written my undergraduate thesis on ASMR and was attempting to translate that through my textile work. A common friend and former Houseworld cast member linked us up, we had coffee, and pretty quickly plunged into our artistic experiments. We started workshopping among ourselves, then with friends and within four months, we were hosting our first ticketed shows.

What is about immersive theatre, as what Whisperlodge is about, that makes this particular art form so powerful?

Immersive theatre is transformative. To me, it has the potential to create sense memories in a way that conventional theatre or art forms cannot. Rather than showing you the world, immersive theatre incorporates you into the world, and that level of engagement is incredibly sticky. I can still recall how I felt wondering through Punchdrunk’s The Drowned Man every time I listen to its soundtrack.

In Whisperlodge, what we value-add to immersive theatre is a radical level of consensual, safe intimacy. In Whisperlodge, there is no speaking, only whispering. Our guests spend most of their time in close proximity, one-on-one with our guides, receiving personal attention and gentle touch. I see it as providing a form of care through art. Our intentions are not only to deliver an artistic experience, but to relax you and heighten your perceptual awareness.

Considering all its benefits and how immersive the process is, why do you think ASMR is being picked up by the mainstream only now?

I think ASMR has had a few waves of interest from the mainstream media over the years. I think it only seems to be increasing now because more and more people are using it and talking about it. It is also conveniently inline with the wellness boom in recent years. People and businesses are seeking mindfulness, presence and healing, and ASMR delivers on all of those fronts.

Do you think Singapore is ready for something like Whisperlodge?

I do think audiences in Singapore are ready for the experience, and it has been a dream of mine to bring it back home. Similar to New York, Singapore is incredibly fast-paced and full of young, creative people who would appreciate both the soothing and artistic components of Whisperlodge.

The thing that I am unsure about is whether Singapore and/or Singaporeans are ready to commit to the resources required to bring it back.

Whisperlodge does not yield a high profit because we were built as an artistic experience, not a business. We maintain a one-on-one ratio between our performers and audiences, and limit each show to a maximum of 10 audience members, to achieve the intimacy that we are most known for. With our small size, a Whisperlodge ticket in America costs between US$100 and US$150. That is what we need to be viable, and despite that, we have consistently sold out because audiences there see our value. Singaporeans are unaccustomed to paying so much for art, and funding bodies are also cautious about supporting a show with high costs and small throughput. Those are big challenges that I am up against, but I am hopeful!

All photography by Chia Lynn Kwa

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