Five months on since the coronavirus pandemic went global, the focus has shifted to the disruption the virus caused on the livelihood of artists and arts organisations.

The conversations have also pivoted to the type of world we would have to adapt to, with technology at the forefront driving many industries, including the arts and culture.

Tan E-Jan and Ng Chor Guan of Malaysian creative incubator, Toccata Studio, both understand the concept of impermanence, having created extensive works that fuses science and technology with art.

We recently spoke to Jan, who serves as the Creative Producer, and Guan, the Artistic Director of Toccata Studio on how they started out the creative incubator. The two of them also shared their thoughts on the pandemic and the way forward for the Malaysian arts post COVID-19.

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Futurists’ Diaries. Image by Alvin Shen.

Hey there guys! Can you share with us how Toccata Studio was found? Also, what’s the story behind its name?

Toccata Studio was co-founded in 2012, by Ng Chor Guan and myself. We find it challenging to have a platform for creative research and development in our ecosystem. We really wanted to explore creativity and innovation in a long term approach and not only limit it to a one off by production stage performance creation. Hence the idea of having Toccata Studio came into picture. The multidisciplinary/ cross discipline/ interdiscipline, or some even call it hybrid art / live art nature of our approach in creation of projects helps in identifying ourselves as a creative incubator.

Toccata literally means ‘touch’ in Italian. It also carry the meaning of improvisatory piece in baroque music. We see it as a platform for arts to touch/cross boundaries, for people to touch the arts, not only in an end product basis, but also from the beginning of creation, from ideas, to the process and coming to a point where an art piece is presented, and how it inspires mass public to generate further conversations.

Guan would probably talk to you about the different meaning of ‘Toc-ca-ta’, where he finds it amusing when we speak it in different languages. For example, in Hokkien dialect, ‘Toh-ka’ is floor, ‘ta’ is to step on it, which means staying grounded. And in Malay, it could be pronounced ‘tok-kata’, which means the elderly’s wisdom which we would usually respect and believe in. That’s beauty of being Malaysian, growing up in a multicultural environment and how our brain works in between languages. We especially adore the multiple layers of meaning when we see/hear one word.

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Timescaper Fluidity. Image by Witjak Widhi Cahya.

You guys consider yourself as a creative incubator. Can you perhaps elaborate what this term means for our non-artistic friends?

Hahaha… we actually struggled in the very beginning on how to define ourselves as a collective as we pretty much started with the idea of having a platform to create. In the process of creation, we went through many times to breakdown the work into individual elements, looking into the chemistry of locating each of them in a different relationship bond and restructure those components in different ways; to patch bits and pieces into different shapes and forms. Because Toccata Studio’s work is based primarily in contemporary original creation, a lot have to deal with creative research and development, a lot has to do with creative and innovative thinking and how it inspires the larger community.

Then we began looking at relationship of arts, culture, creativity in the process of creation; we examined relationships between artists, producers, audiences, resources. It was through years of approaching above mentioned elements in various variations. We finally realised a ‘creative incubator’ is probably closest to what we do. We often put creativity and innovation in the core where ideas come from, artistic approach in creating (or delivering) a piece may be varied, end product (if we call it a product) could come in different forms of presentation. For Toccata Studio as an organisation, we do not want to limit the outcome as only stage production or any single other art form as certain works of ours were presented as installation in gallery while some initiatives occurred to be social engagement project. We want to keep the flexibility of creation to shape the nature outcome of an art piece.

What are the criteria do you guys look at when it comes to collaborating with others?

There are many different situations when it comes to engaging collaboration partners. I could look at them from different perspectives, including creative partners whom we engage people from the creative team. There are also collaborating partners in terms of the resources end, for example a venue provider offering the venue, a festival commissioning us to create a piece, also funding bodies supporting a work by providing grants. These could be from any private companies or individual patrons offering monetary or in-kind support.

As art plays a multitude of roles as a platform for conversations, as a reflection of the society, as an archive to an era, it is crucial to have all collaborators on the same page to elevate these awareness to another level. We see all the above mentioned as collaborating partners because at the end of the day, works created are for the people, for the community, however you want to define community.

What are some of the changes in the arts industry you’ve observed, be it locally and abroad eight years on since Toccata Studio was found? And what can be done to improve it post COVID-19?

We first started Toccata Studio in affiliation to Space.Toccata, a physical experimental laboratory (later consisting of an artist residence). There were several regular programs we ran at Space.Toccata, including New Music Series, an improvisation series with musicians, bringing east/west, traditional, folk background to play/jam/exchange together during the performance. We also ran Dance=Music Series, an improvisation cross over dance and music series, engaging amateur to professionals to play together for each explorations. Then there was Cake Project, a micro crowd funding platform for creative ideas, followed by Toccapoly, an originally created children art appreciation course that used three languages to teach kids about the cultures from around the world. There were also other individual shows, mainly non verbal, focusing on music, dance and multimedia visual projections.

The early days were rather crazy because we used to put up almost 30-40 shows yearly with a small team together with a completely self-funded model. But those were the days when we had highest record of audience engagement, especially new audiences we don’t usually see in theatre/concert halls. Those days of experimentations became a norm as we constantly tried to push boundaries of what’s new, what’s possible, what’s interesting, what’s worth exploring. At the same time, both Guan and myself were actively engaged with international platforms, organisations, and of course artists. Our original works started to tour, including to UK, Korea, Japan, Taiwan. Guan himself was granted several opportunities for some very precious residencies, including Berlinale Talents, OneBeat, KulturKontakt, who invited him to create and collaborate. He was even commissioned by AltoFest in Malta, Kaohsiung National Center for the Arts. I was actively engaged with the Asian Producers’ Platform, ISPA, IETM, and recently Australia Council for the Arts with their Arts Leadership Programme.

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Finding Takao. Image by Toccata Studio.

Things have definitely changed over time. When we first started to run Space.Toccata in 2012, it was rather challenging to maintain such a venue but now we see several small venues coming up (at least until before COVID-19 striked) and there were much more platforms to create. But what we need is a more complete ecosystem to support the growth of the arts at large. Sometimes I have audiences tell me that they suffer from getting information on what’s happening in town, because we simply don’t have a central online portal for such conveniences for audience members thus limiting the exposure and visibility for the local arts and culture scene. Venues and platforms including theatres, festivals, galleries, museums on the other hand don’t have the required support system such as consistent funding programmes. The education system, be it institutional and non institutional, should also focus on more professional training. For example courses on arts administration, for art managers, backstage technical support, art critics etc.

We do need to look into the entire creative ecosystem as a whole. If we have art leaders capable of seeing very far, I reckon the local growth would definitely be expedited to catch up with the international scene. We have great artists and great art to present to the world, unfortunately there’s limited structural support to push that forward. The arts here, especially the contemporary and original creations are ahead of the time we live. We definitely need art leaders who understand the challenges and have adequate skill sets to be in the forefront in bringing Malaysian contemporary identity to shine in international arena.

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Tan E-Jan, the Creative Producer of Toccata Studio.

Jan, I realized your focus is mostly on the concept of change and time. What is it about change and time that fascinates and scares you?

Ever since we started to work on creating Project 2020 in 2014, we spent a huge amount of time discussing about change and time, about multiverse theory, about time machines, about clones, about time travel. We actually had a creative team developing a narrative, working on weekly creative meetings. These creative meetings were exciting times as we could let our imagination go wild. We discussed about a world in which time is non linear. We talked about how past, present, and future can only be recognised when time is linear. We imagined if there was a time machine and we are free to travel. Some of us chose to go to the future while others preferred to travel to the past.

I think I personally have never really thoroughly understood the concept of time being non linear and I struggle from making sense of time travel. From these conversations within the creative team, I realised I am maybe the most rational person that’s stuck in a realistic world trying to approach the artistic realm, trying to break boundaries of knowledge through imagination. I think in this era, we could easily find information (be it factual or not) or ‘the correct answer’, since we always google for these answers. And this makes our life boring. Because everything seems to be real. The reason I kept myself in the arts is because I think arts offer that un-real realm that’s much needed for us to survive, to feel alive. That’s probably the most fascinating thing I find, in arts, generally.

I guess the main reason I became a creative producer and try my ever best to stay in the arts because my biggest fear is to lose the ability to imagine. Arts (or, to be more precise, original creation) is so far the only answer I could find. By bringing artists-scientists-people from all different professional backgrounds together through performing arts creations and for conversations, hybrid creations have the ability to bring the future closer to reality. Hence under Project 2020, the creation of year 2018 was Futurists’ Diaries, because we think artists and scientists are futurists, at least they are the people who create our future!

If you were given a choice to go back in time, would you accept it, E-Jan? Also do you think it’s possible to go back in time?

No. I would never want to go back in time. It would be chaos because I might want to fix all the wrong things, or at the most basic, try to make things better. But at the same time, we should not forget that it is the wrong things that create the correct ones. If we fix our life with corrections, then probably we lose the joy when we are being correct. Thinking this way makes me happy and contented with my life. That said, I do believe that time machines are real. But to step into them, one needs courage, or maybe recklessness!

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Ng Chor Guan, Artistic Director of Toccata Studio.

Chor Guan, how old were you when you first got started in music? And how did you see art as being a world-changing force?

At the age of 3. The world is consistently changing , especially now we have an obvious big change, but it didn’t come out of sudden. It started out as an outbreak. As an artist , I believe in pro-actively creating the future I would like to see instead of following trends. Art is about originality, about creativity and innovation, it is intelligence of human wisdom. Hence it lies in the position to lead, to shape, to mould the future of humans.

When we speak about time and change, oftentimes these are the traits of the nature of life: Impermanence. How do you both come to terms with impermanence through your art?

Jan: I find beauty in impermanence. It is uncertainties that create excitement, it is through unexpected results or outcomes that infuse variety in our lives. As a human being, impermanence makes you feel alive. I guess, especially since COVID-19, more people realise that and we have to learn to embrace ‘impermanence’ with a positive attitude.

Guan: Works of art are a reflection of impermanence in life. They live forever in the universe, undergoing transformation in the artists’ creation process and how audiences view them. Individual interpretations regenerates into a new philosophy. Art also serves as a form of archive, recording the era we live in.

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I’m From 2020. Image by Alvin Shen.

How has it been working together and what are your future plans for the studio?

So far mostly pleasant, that’s why we’ve survived even after 8 years full time working together! There is this shiftable very fine line between artistic director’s role and creative producer’s role. People are often curious about the process, the decision making, how we come to an agreeable final say. I think we are handling it quite well, especially when we put the biggest interest of Toccata Studio as an organisation at the forefront. But of course, that involves a lot of communication, understanding each other’s stand point, character, behaviour after years of working together.

Several projects have been an on going effort. Upcoming plans include touring of Mobile Phone Orchestra: I’m here Where You Are, and we had started a new touring schedule for 2020:Timescaper while creating new works under the Finding Series.

Most of our works are in the direction of arts vs science or arts vs technology. It is rather challenging when the local environment is lacking such support but we are optimistic that things would come into place as this will definitely be among the most important trends of the near future.

As the world starts anew post COVID-19, we probably have to start a new operational model. It is still under discussion at the moment, but one thing we are pretty sure is for us to continue to create and produce our original contemporary multidisciplinary works.

*** Cover image sourced from Toccata Studio / Alvin Shen.

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