REST-LESS (RAVE MORE) seeks to harness the transformative potential of restlessness – defined as the inability to remain at rest resulting in perpetual agitation – through rave. Set against the backdrop of a contemporary resurgence in global protest movements brought about by relentless socio-political conflict, this work urgently asks what it means to show up for each other and rest less.
REST-LESS (RAVE MORE) is a durational installation with a definite beginning and an indefinite end – the installation concludes only after the last person chooses to leave. Part endurance performance, part protest, part rave, REST-LESS is a durational exercise in radical solidarity, kinetic resistance and care.
Restlessness is defined as the inability to remain at rest resulting in perpetual agitation; it is an ‘ugly feeling’ – a term used by writer Sianne Ngai to describe feelings that are ‘explicitly amoral and noncathartic, offering no satisfactions of virtue, however oblique, nor any therapeutic or purifying release.’ There is a tendency to pathologise restlessness and diagnose it as a symptom of disorder, it is often spoken of as something negative that needs to be sedated, treated and kept under control. But how if restlessness was something to be harnessed rather than overcome?
Carl Phillips describes restlessness as a ‘form of ambition’:
Unsatisfied with the given - the usual explanations, the usual goals for and trappings of a life – there are those who push past the given, are willing to enter into uncertainty – to take a risk – in order to get to something presumably superior and/or preferable to "the old life”.
Unlike sudden feelings of anger or rage, restlessness does not culminate in purgation or cathartic release. REST-LESS (RAVE MORE) is a durational work with an uncertain end – the installation concludes only after the last person chooses to leave. Yet, it is precisely this ongoingness that lends restlessness its radical potential as it can be harnessed and sustained over a prolonged duration – ‘uncertainty can be a catalyst for restlessness: in our not being able to know something absolutely, we somewhere have to acknowledge a vulnerability in ourselves’. REST-LESS (RAVE MORE) conceives of restlessness as a catalyst for transformation – a stubborn defiance against how things are and a way of thinking about how things could be.
THE RISE OF PROTEST
One avenue for understanding the transformative potential of restlessness is protest. We live in restless times heightened by a global pandemic, sociological collapse, environmental crisis and an uncertain future. Since 2017, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Global Protest Tracker has recorded over 230 significant anti-government protests in more than 110 countries. From Black Lives Matter to the Umbrella movement, we have witnessed increased outbreaks of civil unrest in recent years due in part to a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo. Each protest is triggered by a different set of factors in response to a local socio-political context. Yet, what the data shows is that an increasing number of people around the world are taking to the streets in public displays of discontent.
Is there a global tipping point for frustration? Everywhere, it seems, people said they'd had enough. They dissented; they demanded; they did not despair, even when the answers came back in a cloud of tear gas or a hail of bullets. They literally embodied the idea that individual action can bring collective, colossal change. And although it was understood differently in different places, the idea of democracy was present in every gathering. The root of the word democracy is demos, "the people," and the meaning of democracy is "the people rule." And they did, if not at the ballot box, then in the streets.
In 2011, Time Magazine chose “The Protester” as its person of the year. The year before, a 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi had set himself on fire at the gate of a provincial capital building in frustration after being repeatedly harassed by the police. Bouazizi’s death set off a chain reaction of spontaneous anti-government protests and uprisings across the Middle East that would come to be known as the Arab Spring. Of course not all protests are spontaneous eruptions, in fact many social movements are meticulously choreographed performances of political expression. Arguably, it is an ongoing feeling of restlessness which fuels the relentless pursuit for change and sustains activist motivation over a prolonged duration.
Associate Professor Zeynep Tufekci argues that ‘much of the power of protests is in their long-term effects, on both the protesters themselves and the rest of society.’ She explains that protests work because they undermine political legitimacy – ‘a society without legitimate governance will not function well; people can be coerced to comply, but it’s harder to coerce enthusiasm, competence, and creativity out of a discouraged, beaten-down people’. Unlike other forms of activism which might take place on the internet or behind closed doors, the mass mobilisation of people in public space makes it difficult for governments to ignore the voice of the people. Furthermore, protests force a conversation about a topic they’re highlighting by putting problems in the public spotlight, this can inspire others to join in and take collective action to bring about change.
PROTEST AS PERFORMANCE
Protest is an operation of democratic power which can be performative; it is both an act and an enactment. […] The democratic public performs its existence through resistance: it demands recognition, embodies visibility, articulates a political voice, and communicates ideas/demands. In doing so, protest constitutes ‘the people’, and through the aesthetics of protest, rupture conventions of doing politics. […] Protest is not only concerned with seeking recognition; protest seeks to disrupt the existing political order, transcend or abandon its ideological trappings, and create new possibilities.
It is useful to understand protest as performance through the lens of performative utterances as proposed by philosopher J. L. Austin in How To Do Things With Words. As opposed to constative utterances which describe things in the world, performative utterances enact the activity the speech signifies. Likewise, protests are simultaneously symbolic acts that seek to communicate a concern by a group of individuals as well as performative acts that disrupt structures of power. In Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, Peggy Phelan relates Austin’s speech acts to performance theory and writes that ‘a performative speech act shares with the ontology of performance the inability to be reproduced or repeated […] performance honours the idea that a limited number of people in a specific time/space frame can have an experience of value which leaves no visible trace afterward’.
Yet, it is not entirely true to suggest that that no visible trace is left afterwards. The effects of protest live on tangibly in the form of material remains such as protest signs and documented images shared on social media – the symbolic power of these visual images sustain a political charge in their continued circulation after the event. Additionally, the transformative feeling of participating in a protest resonates across society long after it is over, potentially turning casual protestors into lifelong activists.
Understanding protest through the lens of performance also allows us to identify an aesthetic of protest and interrogate how democracy is constituted through ‘a complex interplay of performance, images, acoustics and all the various technologies engaged in those productions’. For example, the aesthetics of protest manifest in the form of chanted slogans, coordinated costumes and the graphic design of protest signs. Protests are theatrical events that rely on a combination of aesthetic forms – costumes, props, music, choreography – to communicate ideas. For example, the umbrellas used during the Hong Kong protests were both a functional tool to shield against pepper spray used by the police as well as a prop which served as a symbolic visual shorthand to communicate a message of pro-democracy to audiences across the world.
PERFORMANCE AS PROTEST
Performance art has always been connected to and inspired by legacies of activism, politics and protest. Similar to activists, artists ‘rely heavily on symbolic elements and uses of the body to communicate claims across borders and languages’.
For example, American artist Dread Scott attempted to walk forward while being repeatedly battered and occasionally knocked down by a water jet from a fire hose in his performance On the Impossibility of Freedom in a Country Founded on Slavery and Genocide (2014). The work references the 1963 Civil Rights struggle in Birmingham Alabama in which the government used high-pressure water jets from fire hoses against non-violent protesters and bystanders in an effort to maintain segregation and legalized discrimination.
Tatlin’s Whisper #5 (2008) by Cuban artist Tania Bruguera sees two mounted policemen on horseback patrolling the gallery and controlling the audience using a series of crowd control techniques. The work reflects on the complex relationship between agents of authority and the people they aim to control. In both examples, artists have re-contextualised crowd control tactics used by the police as staged works housed within the context of an art gallery.
Conversely, Singaporean performance artist Seelan Palay’s 32 Years: The Interrogation of a Mirror (2017) blurs the boundaries between protest and art by situating artistic gesture within public space. Inspired by the political detention of Dr Chia Thye Poh for 32 years under the Internal Security Act, Palay was interrupted and subsequently arrested by the police during his performance for staging an illegal public procession, resulting in a two-week jail sentence. By performing in public space, Palay sought to critique the lack of free speech in Singapore which was ironically reinforced by his arrest. As such he literally and figuratively held a mirror up to law enforcement officials, revealing the absurdity of how power is wielded in Singapore.
PROTEST IN SINGAPORE
Singapore has a particular relationship with protest – even a solo protest can be considered a crime in the third-most densely populated country in the world. Human Rights Watch considers Singapore’s political environment to be ‘overwhelmingly repressive’ and draconian laws regularly prevent free speech and the ability to publicly assemble.
Rare instances of public assembly have often been met with swift action by the police. Civil rights activist Jolovan Wham has faced criminal charges on multiple occasions for organising peaceful events without a police permit in Singapore. In an example of peak absurdity, Wham was investigated by the police for holding up a cardboard sign with a smiley face drawn on it near a police station. More recently in January 2021, three protesters were arrested outside the Ministry of Education building for ‘protesting without a permit’ against transphobia.
In the book Air-conditioned Nation Revisited, Professor Cherian George writes about Singapore’s politics of comfort and control. He describes the ‘air-conditioned nation’ – a society where the individualistic majority is systemically rewarded while the socially conscious minority is discouraged and in some cases, actively suppressed. Likewise, Professor Chua Beng Huat observes how Singaporeans willingly give up their civil and political liberties in exchange for social and economic stability.
In a speech by Law Minister K. Shanmugam, he used the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong as an example to justify the ‘zero-tolerance approach to illegal demonstrations and protests’ in Singapore:
…people want to protest, say, at iconic places, Orchard Road […] Primarily because of the disturbance it will cause to everyone else, therefore their cause will get noticed. So, on the one side is the desire of the protesters to get themselves noticed, on the other side is the disamenity to the rest of the community. Why should one be favoured and why should the rest of the community just accept it?
Thus, protest is framed as an inconvenient disruption rather than a legitimate act of democratic participation. REST-LESS (RAVE MORE) challenges the tyranny of air-conditioned individualism by appropriating the concept of kettling: a controversial control tactic used by anti-riot police to encircle and contain unruly crowds with the aim of making it unbearably ‘hot’ – like when steam escapes from a kettle. The installation subverts this tactic by literally using heat as a material to activate restlessness in the body, prompting audiences to lean into, confront and embrace restlessness.
To apply utopianism to clubbing in an active way would be to acknowledge this utopic feeling, and ask, "Why can it not be like this all the time"? This question opens up the clubbing experience to larger questions about identity, community and boundaries we create between self and other.
Nightlife enacts what Jill Dolan refers to as the utopian performative – “small but profound moments in which performance [...] lifts everyone slightly above the present, into a hopeful feeling of what the world might be like if every moment of our lives were as emotionally voluminous, generous, aesthetically striking, and intersubjectively intense”. For minoritized communities, nightclubs have often functioned as spaces of refuge, offering the freedom to participate in activities that were disapproved of – or even criminalised – on the outside. Ball culture in New York City during the 70s and 80s allowed queer Black and Latino communities to gather under the cloak of darkness to critique heteronormativity and social class through fashion, dance and music long before homosexuality was decriminalised in America. Similarly, daytime raves in the late 80s and 90s allowed young British Asians the freedom to take over clubs and dance to bhangra before returning home to their conservative Asian parents for dinner by six. Inside the club, they carved out space to imagine – and perform – a progressive future that was not yet permitted on the outside. Dancing at a rave was not merely an act of escapism, it was also a gesture of active resistance.
In the essay Nightlife as Form, Madison Moore writes about how nightlife sits as a staged experience at the intersection of multiple aesthetics forms, giving us the permission to experiment with identities and imagine alternate social contexts. Under the cover of darkness, nightclubs become ‘crucial sites for the production of selves, as well as a primary incubator and source of popular culture.’ Similar to protest, nightlife is constituted through the interplay of aesthetic forms such as performance, fashion, music, design – and more recently, technology. From the graphic design of rave flyers from the 80s to the outrageous costumes of the club kids, each aesthetic element is carefully curated to produce a seamless (and potentially transformative) experience for the party goer. This enables nightlife to function as a heterotopia with the ability to foster an alternate sociability.
In ‘Queer Kinaesthesia: Performativity on the Dance Floor’, Jonathan Bollen writes:
A dance floor is a space in which the presence of others is crucial. In other words, a dance floor really only happens, as a dance floor, when there are other people dancing on it […] one of the defining features of the dance floor experience is an involving engagement in relations with others. Understanding how relations with others are negotiated is central to understanding the possibilities and limitations of the dance floor as social context.
At its visceral core the dance floor functions as space to navigate – and rehearse – how to be with others. In the essay ‘Erotic Love as Sociability: An Alternative Reality’, Roslyn Bologh writes:
We learn from what is between us, who we are: how we are similar, how we differ. What is between us brings us together, sifts us, mingles us, but also stays between us revealing our essential separateness and difference. If each party is capable of responding to the other, and if the other’s response makes a difference in terms of one’s own pleasure or pain, then one must care about the other’s response. This means that each must care about the effects of their own actions on the other, the kind of response the action will evoke.
REST-LESS (RAVE MORE) conceives of the nightclub as a radical arena to incubate an alternate sociability. Audience members are asked to stand in boxes marked out with yellow tape as they enter the installation. Within the context of Covid-19 and Singapore, the ubiquitous yellow tape – used to maintain social distancing and keep citizens standing ‘behind the yellow lines’ – has gained a renewed prominence. We have reappropriated the disciplinary effect of yellow tape by utilising it as a compositional tool to configure and draw dance floor relations in terms of proximity and orientation. Thus, REST-LESS (RAVE MORE) functions as a frame for the constant (re-)negotiation of social relations which change depending on the configuration and amount of bodies in space.
Nightlife acts not as a venue, but as a functioning network of complex social relationships and theatricalized constructs that work together in the formation of an environment. Therein, nightlife communities create alternative progressive contexts and possibilities.
The cultural origins of rave link to a particular time in the 1980s which saw the rise of Acid House music in the UK and the MDMA fuelled explosion of youth culture and illegal parties. However, REST-LESS (RAVE MORE) references rave more broadly as an attitude that is both counter-cultural and politically engaged. We imagine rave as the creation of a Temporary Autonomous Zone (TAZ) – a term borrowed from anarchist writer Hakim Bey who refers directly to the nightclub as an already ‘liberated zone’. The irony of attempting to create a TAZ within the strict confines of Singapore is not lost on us. Yet, perhaps it is up to artists to carve out such space in a country where public assembly has already been stifled. Raves are pertinent sites for building knowledges of assembly because they function as transgressive liminal spaces that are joyous as much as they are political. REST-LESS (RAVE MORE) functions as a pre-enactment – a concept borrowed from Public Movement which describes the socio-political potential and responsibility of the arts and artists to facilitate arenas where people can rehearse the corporal and behavioral knowledge assembly requires.
DANCE DANCE REVOLUTION
Under conditions of immense social stress the collective body reacts, especially if it has no lines of escape or contact with effective power. If there are no governmental mechanisms in place to relieve suffering or at least listen to its complaint, then the collective body convulses and reacts in ways to confound all meaning in a hyper-sensational combination and 'wastage' of corporeal forces, the magic of ritual, and flamboyant 'mass' political expression.
Dance has an intrinsic relationship with restlessness. Between the 14th and 17th centuries an outbreak of the dancing plague in mainland Europe caused thousands of people to gather and dance erratically for days, weeks and even months at a time for no apparent reason. They would tear off their clothing, convulse and spasm on the streets. Musicians would join in, believing that they could treat this choreomania but the music only served to encourage more people to join in.
Raves are contemporary reincarnations of choreomania – ‘freeform dancing, the process of trusting an innate, rhythmic impulse that shirks a set of codified behaviors [functions as] a powerful gesture of resistance.’ Sometimes what begins in the dark rooms of a nightclub can extend onto the streets, such as when thousands of young people gathered on the steps of the Georgian parliament for a “Rave-o-lution” in response to the attempted government crackdown on suspected drug-use in Tbilisi’s clubs with riot police in 2018. This set the stage for a cultural shift that would see clubbers uniting with larger activist movements in calling for drug policy reform. Thus, activists have likewise recognised the political potency of the rave format, revealing the ability of nightlife to operate at the intersections of artistic innovation, socio-political critique and advocacy.
Furthermore, the history of dance music is laced with the legacies of activism and protest. In the article ‘Electronic Music is Black Protest Music’, Whitney Wei writes about how the underground club scene provided refuge from the outside world for Black and Brown communities. For example, Detroit Techno emerged in the late 1980s as a form of Afrofuturistic sonic inquiry into Black liberation. Even today, techno continues to hold a political charge as demonstrated by activists in Detroit who were caught on video chanting ‘no justice, no peace’ during a Black Lives Matter march in sync with Bruno Furlan’s track Line Five. Thus, dance music proves to be a powerful conduit for political expression.
SAMPLING THE SOUNDS OF GLOBAL PROTEST
REST-LESS (RAVE MORE) is a sonic onslaught that combines the aesthetics of nightlife and protest into a soundscape composed by sound artist George Rayner-Law. The soundscape samples audio taken from a variety of internet sources including news reports, amateur videos and field recordings posted on social media, creating a sonic collage that seeks to index the restless sounds of protest.
By deliberately employing a binaural sound design, the multiplicity of sounds are re-contextualised and placed in conversation (and solidarity) with each other. This spatial approach places sonic repertoires of protest in relation to each other while encapsulating the magnitude of protest movements happening around the world.
REST-LESS (RAVE MORE) also reappropriates and subverts methods of sonic warfare often used against protesters by law enforcement as a mechanism for affective mobilization. Steve Goodman defines sonic warfare as ‘the use of force, both seductive and violent, abstract and physical, via a range of acoustic machines to modulate the physical, affective, and libidinal dynamics of populations, of bodies, of crowds’. At the core of the soundtrack is a kick that constantly increases in tempo over the duration of the installation:
…the beat is [dance music’s] most insistent disciplinary force: “the beat brooks no denial, but moves us, controls us, deprives us of our will,” such that “dancing becomes a form of submission to this overmastering beat.” […] the beat may register its disciplinary effects not through direct infliction, but through the way in which others dancing to the beat rhythmically textures the choreographic ensemble in which you dance. The synchronicity of the dance floor, the dancing together in time, is secured through a system of reciprocal indistinction: dancing to the beat of the music is dancing to the beat of the other.
Combined with the constantly increasing temperature, the beat serves as a disciplinary force to synchronise the bodies in restless communitas, provoking collective action.
REST-LESS (RAVE MORE) is the first part of a much larger investigation into navigating and finding hope in a world that seems to be getting progressively hotter, angrier and more restless. This installation is doomsday preparation for an uncertain future – it embraces restlessness as a source of potentiality rather than affliction by urgently dancing in the face of difficulty. REST-LESS (RAVE MORE) seeks to be a training ground to practice kinetic resistance, radical solidarity and mutual care.