In April 2020 good cop bad cop were due to host a visit to Wales by their Vietnamese colleague, Nguyễn Duy Thành, courtesy of a Connections Through Culture award from British Council South East Asia. And then the COVID came…The following, mainly written by John, is an account of what happened next, as reported back to British Council (SEA)…
It has been challenging for good cop bad cop, though we do like a good challenge, we are not artists who have chosen to work digitally up until now. Our work comes from responding to relationships between bodies and spaces, from chance encounters, from dealing with the fall-out from irrevocable acts, in real time and in real physical places with our real physical bodies.
It was all going so very well. We had travelled to Vietnam thanks to British Council Wales funding and Thành had secured money from British Council SEA’s Connections Through Culture to visit Wales. The plan was simple. Go on a road trip around Wales, visiting selected artists and others working in the arts that we respect in their home/work environment, introducing Thành to the landscape and the artists, and allowing them to introduce him to their own locality. Start new conversations, start new working relationships, a sharing of ideas and experiences. For us cops also to strengthen our relationship with Thành as a colleague and a friend. This whole experience was to be filmed as all good road trips have historically been.
Then Covid came and all those plans had to put on hold. To begin with we waited and then we waited some more. We thought things might change and that we could soon reschedule our plans. We didn’t want to cancel. We held out for as long as we could but it became apparent that it was impossible to plan in these new ‘not normal’ times.
So what might be a digital version of our proposed encounter/project look like?
How could we introduce Thành to Wales and our proposed artist collaborators? Is this what we really wanted to do in these changed circumstances anyway? We decided that we still wanted Thành to meet our contacts in real life, sometime in the future. We didn’t want this aspect of the project to take place, in the first instance, online.
I have known Thành for 3 years now and our friendship isn’t all about the spoken word and constant conversation. We experience things together as we walk along, we laugh and nod knowingly at things. We enjoy each other’s company but there isn’t a great deal of talking going on. Zoom and other online ways of meeting up are, after all, all about the talking. They don’t accommodate/tolerate silence quite so well. We didn’t think these digital mediums were the best way to introduce Thành. These introductions could wait until they could happen in person, real encounters in the same way that we had encountered Vietnam.
So…we asked our collaborators/colleagues here in Wales to suggest other people to make short videos of their lives and the places in which they lived which would be shared with our friend in Vietnam. People who were unknown to us and preferably those who were currently unrepresented in the arts here, and who would fall into the Welsh Government’s categorisation of ‘Protected Characteristics’. They suggested a really interesting mix of people who we never would have chosen or had access to. People of all ages throughout Wales. A small sample but from wide-ranging backgrounds, and we choose four of their suggestions, one from north Wales, one from mid Wales, one from the west and one from the south.
For now, to get the ball rolling, these videos would give Thành a taste of Wales. Not the Wales of tourist brochures, American movies and postcards, or even of our choosing but each unique and authentic. What we received were all surprising and delightful in their own way. We asked for no context or explanation from those making the films about the content. These videos of snapshots of individual lives were then shared with Thành. In response we asked Thành to make a short video which expressed his life in Hanoi. This was then distributed with our video contributors in Wales. To give them a sense of his life, in another country, another culture. A video which promised something more, some potential in the future to meet, to collaborate, to share more.
We also asked Thành to produce videos of himself in the act of watching these videos from Wales for the first time in various locations in Hanoi. To give our contributors here in Wales more of a personalised taste of Hanoi. Shots of people and places in Wales appearing on the streets and in the apartments of Hanoi. Albeit on a video screen…but it’s a start!
To keep a sense of our artistic collaboration going we decided to regularly meet via Zoom and attempt to perform something. With a simple set of rules but with little planning we proposed to make 30 minutes of improvised performance. Something that we might have done if we were all in the same room together but here it being more of an unknown. A real experiment to see what might be achieved. Rules were made that would engage us physically such as ‘you follow our moves’ or ‘we follow you’ or ‘ we respond in whatever way we feel appropriate/inappropriate’.
It was initially quite difficult what with technical difficulties, the three of us in different locations relying on different strengths of internet/WiFi, using different hardware and so on. Without professional lighting and sound equipment it wasn’t always easy to see each other’s moves or positions or facial expressions. It required a lot of concentration and staring at the small screens of our devices was sometimes headache-inducing. However, despite these difficulties i think we managed to achieve quite a lot. Once we got the hang of it i think we really managed to connect with each other and produced some very satisfying moments of movement together.
Three people, with miles and miles distance between, in different time zones collaborating physically in the digital space. As we went on we developed different rules for engagement. In one 30 minute experiment we suggested that Thành leave his home and move onto the streets of Hanoi. While he was free to do this we here in Wales were not, still experiencing a COVID lockdown and were unable to meet up and leave our homes. Richard and myself, ‘trapped’ in our houses pacing from room to room and back again with our iPads filming, a bit like rats in a maze. A COVID tale of two cities! Interesting for us cops to experience Thanh’s freedom of movement while ours was curtailed.
At the time of writing this we are about to perform another 30 minute online experiment with Thành, this time Richard and myself will be free to meet up in his garden with some Covid restrictions lifted while Thành will be confined to his house with restrictions currently heightened in Vietnam. This, unlike other improvisations, will be for an invited audience.
This period, funded by the British Council, has not been what we had planned and hoped for. However, it has strengthened our relationship with Thành and we have begun to introduce him to colleagues, friends and collaborators here in Wales and it is certainly still our intention to bring him here to Wales to carry on our proposed road-trip project at some point in the, hopefully, not too distant future. The period has also informed the way in which we, good cop bad cop, integrate with the world in a digital fashion. Not something we had chosen to take that seriously before but is certainly now on our agenda to investigate further.