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What is an “Experiment”?

Words / Liu XiaoyiTranslate / Wei Shimin & Chong Woon Yong

Now, let me ask a question, “What is an Experiment?”

Before you continue , perhaps you might want to stop and think about your own answer to this question.

In the study of sciences, experiments are done with the intention to test out a hypothesis, or to put an existing theory into test. The results are often released in the form of a lab report. In an experiment like this, normally,  two outcomes exists– Success or failure. Of course, if we were to examine further, it could be further differentiated into “Success and knowing of why there is success”, “Success but I don't know why, probably it’s due to some luck”, “Failure and I know why therefore my next attempt would be a success”, “Failure but I don't know why, and it’s all  fuzzy”, etc.

Then what about creating art? What then is an experiment in this aspect?

(Think about it. Is there any difference at all?)

An experiment in art is not to verify assumptions we already hold, but to question and challenge theories that have been established. This is where it is different from experiments conducted in the scientific sense. An experiment in the arts, I feel, it’s about not repeating – Not repeating yourself, your predecessors, and to be brave enough to challenge yourself, the existing structures, processes, laws, rules… Since it is about not repeating, and is about challenging the existing, there will not be any prediction of failure or success.

As such, how then do we measure the success and failure of such an experiment?

In order to measure the success or failure of a play, I guess, there are about 49 different ways of doing it, maybe more.. For example, whether the audience enjoyed it, whether the ticket sales were good, how did the reviews go… If we were to look at it through the usual lens of a materialist, then we can consider in detail how many audience came, how many left halfway for the toilet, how many filled up the feedback form, within these forms, how many gave a positive or negative feedback, how many audiences mischievously doodled tortoises on these forms, how many eminent theatre critics wrote a review, what was the average rating given by these critics, how many awards or nominations it won at the end of the year, etc.

However, can these factors really quantify the “success” or “failure” of an artistic creation?

(You say, isn’t it so? Is the whole purpose of putting up a play meant for entertaining the audience, or to get a raving review from the “experts”? )

We are used to having a judgment on anything now, set a conclusion on it, and set a standard in assessing it. If we look at things from a “market” point of view, then we might come to the conclusion that “commercial appeal equates to success”. But is this theory viable for everything? For example, if a performance has 30000 audience members, and all of them are enthralled, does it mean that it was a successful experiment? A show that could only seat 3 audience members a night, and got a rating of ★★☆, is it then a product of failure?

If so, then is there no difference between an artistic endeavour and grocery shopping? We go grocery shopping to buy things we want to eat. And if the audience goes to a theatre expecting what they had expected, then artistic creation simply becomes a product which we use to pander to market demands. In this regard,  the issue of commercializing the arts becomes more and more serious.

(You ask, isn’t it good that the arts be commercialized? Wouldn’t it be better if more people came to watch theatre productions?)

Commercialisation itself is not a problem. The real problem surfaces when the market is the deciding factor in producing part. If commercialization becomes the only standard, will art creation then, be simply pandering to the whims and fancy of the market, i.e. the audience?

At the start of the article, I mentioned that to an experiment in art should be one where one departs from what has been done and to open oneself up to new challenges. Such a criteria would allow for artists to reflect and challenge their creative process. The audience reflect about life through the work created, and therefore starts to question the status quo – This then is what an experiment truly is. And it is precisely because of this that the theatre does not degrade into a venue for entertainment, but instead, it is a space which promotes the advancement of the human race.

To let the audience enter the theatre and experience something which he/she has had not expected, it would confront his/her usual way of thinking or aesthetics, and challenge whatever he/she is accustomed to – be it in life or while watching a performance. It allows him/her to think, and maybe then, this will be considered a “successful” experiment – if there exists a concept of success and failure.

If there is indeed a concept of success or failure, then experimenting is about embracing failures. If you do something knowing that you would eventually succeed, then it is simply just a process of verification. Besides, we cannot simply evaluate an artistic experiment using concepts of success and failure, for that will run counter to the true nature of art.

Don’t you think so?


The original article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao

arrow  Continue reading on Issue 4 / 31 March 2015:Experiment • Viewpoint