In Conversation: Kay Zhang

In Conversation: Kay Zhang

In Conversation: Kay Zhang

As well as being an accomplished saxophonist and wearing many curatorial hats, you're an interdisciplinary collaborator, with an interest in visual communications. How did this particular strain of your artistic DNA come to the forefront?

It’s an interesting question; I think it all started when I began organizing my own concerts in Melbourne and then taking that idea overseas. Away from Australia, I found it extremely difficult to explore the idea of how performance can be more than just something static that you watch happen on stage. I think it was also a lot of trial and error, trying things and being able to embrace mistakes, failures and transitions. I think I am also extremely lucky to have built up my network and to be able to work with open and diverse people. To be able to collaborate with different people from many art disciplines allows one to really explore and open another dimension to your practice.

You've performed in theatres and festivals all over the world, in a variety of contexts. How does travel and language impact your practice and your understanding of collaboration?

Travel is the best form of learning and developing your own practice. You are able to unleash things you have wanted to do for a long time and receive a clean slate. This is purity! You are able to gain perspective and reflect on yourself and the way you interact with other people, cultures and, of course, language. Learning how to speak, present and focus on a new language has been a huge process. It’s the essence of how to express yourself, but also how you interact with one another. Of course, what you say is important, but how you say it sometimes holds even more weight. 

You're currently working on Des astres (medusas) at the Zürcher Hochschule der Künste; an interactive piece that sits between role-playing, installation and music theatre. Where did the concept come from and why does this mode of storytelling work best in this instance? 

Des astres developed from an existing project that my ensemble Kollektiv International Totem (KIT) developed in 2017 for the Amsterdam Fringe Festival. KIT consists of Leo Collin, Nuria KhasenovaMariana Viera Gruenig, Dalius Singer, Leandro Gianni and myself. We are also working with dramaturgist and director Sabrina Tannen. We work together to create new music theatre productions, in this case,  a crime story about a fictional character Percy (known as Perseus from the Greek myth, Medusa) who is on a mission to solve a murder case. However, this production of Des astres it is set sometime in the past in a city called XXXX, and explores place through a fictional lawsuit against Melissa Gordon, the famous hacker who leaked documents regarding the Stolen Data Day. We invite the audience to try out our prototype of the video game Des Astres based on this story. If the audience doesn’t feel like playing the game we also offer a tour of the game's location. We take elements of contemporary music, multimedia (electronics, videos, video games), scenography, displacement of rooms, but also object instruments, for example, a shaver becoming a microphone, and recyclable material as musical instruments, made by Kaspar Konig with technical realization by Eric Larrieux. Medusa is a complicated story; it’s a myth that sees the main characters' destinies determined before they're born, and then follows the consequences of their destinies playing out. We decided to put as many elements of ourselves and our disciplines into the mix to co-create a story. KIT’s motto is always to try and consider what the audience will want to experience and what challenges we can create using sound through theatre. The combination of role-playing, installation and music theatre allows us to input different themes based on our remake version of the Greek mythology: video gaming, jellyfish (check the google translation), data and surveillance and biodiversity; which leaves our work open to multiple impressions.

Let's talk about interactive theatre - how does it work and what does the audience need to bring to the table? Are there risks involved in leaving the piece in the hands of an unknown third party (i.e. a different audience every night)?

In Des Astres, we feature different paths that the audience will be lead through via headphones. We want to highlight the space and take the audience on a sonic experience together with a written text. The audience needs to bring curiosity and an open mind. Our productions are always varied and so the expectations are always different. Yes, of course, there are risks, especially when we are dealing with the conscious mind and how the actions of the audience impact the story, but leaving the work in the hands of a third party is very interesting. It forces us to constantly update and consolidate our show and allows us to enhance the experience based on the feedback and observations of the audience. It also opens up a dialogue, breaking the cycle of equilibrium authorisation and hierarchy between artists and audience.

Why is theatre a "place of utopias", and how, as artists and audience members, can we use this belief to progress the form and also our understanding of the world beyond the stage?

As a musician, we think that the theatre is a utopia place - it is a platform where you can engage and intertwine different elements of storytelling, costume, scenography, music and staging. I think it really depends what concept and situation you want to contribute for the audience. To provide an experience for the audience which can include elements of everyday life or past experiences is important. Moreover, integrating what we deal with in the contexts of today’s society to be more approachable and create a platform to open up conversations is distinctly possible on stage, and should be explored. 

Kay Zhang and KIT present Des Astres at the ZHdK Theater der Künste from September 14 to September 16.