By CREATRIX TIARA
This post was written as an assignment for Professor Cindy Shearer’s CIA 7091, Interdisciplinary Arts Workshop. As part of a community of artists working across art perspectives, students in this course get the chance to present their work and teach each other about their art form(s), practice, lineage and influences, and are challenged to inquire into the interdisciplinary arts as well as forms new to them.
When I tell people about being an artist, or that I am working on an MFA, the first question I receive is, "What sort of art do you do?" Usually this means, "What is your medium?" and often their elaboration reveals their limited ideas about what art entails: "Painting? Drawing? Watercolors or acrylics?" Even other artists and art-savvy people focus on the medium as though that is the only way I am meant to identify: "I am a performance artist" or "I am a writer."
To me, that feels like the wrong question to ask. Stating the media I use does not convey much about my artistic practice. It's just as vague as asking me which languages I speak, and assuming that says anything about what I say with that language, as though I only communicate with that one language.
Then again, much as people don't tend to expect my use of multiple artforms, they don't often expect me to be multilingual either.
From a very young age I have been fluent in more than one language, and am also very proficient in various regional creoles, such as Singlish (Singaporean English) and Manglish (Malaysian English). Growing up in multicultural societies where English is not the primary language, though its importance as an international business language was emphasized, meant most of us often code-switched while communicating. In the same conversation, often the same sentence, I would braid in English, Malay, Bengali, sometimes a smattering of words from various Chinese or Indian languages, and often Singlish or Manglish slang words - and be perfectly understood. The mix of languages became a larger super-language for me, one that I felt best communicating in.
So it was quite a surprise for me when I played back videos from Indian TV shows, where the hosts often code-switched between Hindi, English, and other regional dialects, and many of my friends (often native Western-speakers) reacted with bafflement and confusion over the host’s patter. Even those who knew more than one language did not mix them up regularly while communicating: they picked the most useful language in that situation and stuck to it.
I understood then why people tended to be more curious about form than content: because the idea of switching between mediums, languages, tools in the same piece or space was unusual and unheard of.
Like languages, there are a couple of art forms I am more fluent in, forms I tend to gravitate to instinctively and hence have more experience with. I have been a life-long writer and recently embraced my love of the stage through performance art. And, like languages, there are a few forms I do not know much about, some I am rather self-conscious about and not confident in. I feel much the same way about Bengali (my family's mother tongue) as I do about painting or drawing. People expect me to know more than I actually do and often comment on my lack of skill to the point of making me reluctant to make use of those languages and forms.
However, to restrict me to just one form is like forcing me to choose only one language forever. Some prompts require this, and usually the prompt also tells me the requested content, creating useful artistic boundaries, e.g. submissions for themed poetry readings or acts for a burlesque cabaret. The main purpose of my artistic practice, though, is to express myself the best way I know how, which almost always involve more than one form, code-switching like I do with language. I've performed my poetry submission in costume and character; I've incorporated spoken word into my burlesque acts.
And sometimes, when the idea or emotion demands it, I delve into languages and forms I know little about - because they were the best ways to communicate. I have used painting and music to deal with body-related emotions. I have created short films to visually accompany written work. I have sung the words of others because they tap into what I want to say better than I sometimes can articulate.
I understand the importance of building fluency, whether in language or artform. It's why people take classes, read books, listen to audio instructionals. Yet one of the best ways to really learn a language is by immersion. Similarly, a lot of my artistic education has come about through immersion and experimentation.
The pertinent question for me is not, "What art forms do you work with?" It's, "What are you trying to say, and what's the best way to say it?” And sometimes the best word for what I want to say is in a language unusual to me.