01 September 2016

Interview with Luke George
and Daniel Kok:
Knots as a Medium

Text: Susanne Heinlein

Knots are conceivably the simplest means of creating connections, points of attachment or structures between, with, and within pliant materials. In many cultures they are deeply rooted in traditional craftsmanship and may carry symbolic significance. Contemporary design has also found a use for knotted ropes and is now making them serve a range of purposes both aesthetic and practical.



The two dancers Luke George and Daniel Kok first met in 2014 at a workshop at Campbelltown Arts Centre in Sydney and decided to create a performance together with knot and bondage techniques at the centre of it. The premiere of “Bunny” took place in Sydney at the beginning of 2016. Since then, it has been performed in Singapore, Norway and Japan among other places. We spoke to them about the ideas and development process behind the piece.


How did the idea to make ropes and knot techniques an important part of a performance come about?


Luke George: Upon meeting and in our early discussions, we found that we clearly share similar interests in looking at the power dynamics between the artist and the audience respectively the public. The idea of working with ropes came up because as material, it can make visible the relationship between people and bodies – between us as collaborators as well as between performers and spectators. We were also drawn to the many metaphorical languages available from ropes and tying when we talk about relationships: bonds, entanglement, tension, unwind, twist, suspend, etc. 

The decision to test and work with rope as our material came intuitively through our discussion around spectatorship, collectivity and participation in performance. We shared with each other our personal experiences in love, sex and dating, as well as dancing in clubs over the years. Somehow in all of this, rope came up. We both got a spark in our eye and said, “I’d like to try that”. So we immediately found a rope dojo (editor’s note: studio for bondage classes), in Sydney at the time, and started learning. 

Other relevant interests included Daniel’s training in pole dance and my practice in massage. All of these interests converge at the question of the dancer and the crowd’s or audience’s desire for each other.



What aesthetical and interactive qualities do these components offer?


Luke George: We looked at different bodies of knowledge that come with ropes: macramé, camping, sailing and rock climbing, survival paracords, bondage and Chinese knots. We made sure that we spent some time studying these different skills and crafts; bondage in particular of course. Bondage was most influential because of the role play on power dynamics between people. It is also already extremely full of performative potential. 

Over the process of our research, we collected and worked with different kinds of rope. They ranged from natural fibre ropes preferred in bondage, to colourful parachute cords that are now often used to make bracelets, to ropes for household use, and to ropes used by professional mountain climbers. We were even at one point curious about working with industrial ropes used for giant ships. But that became too big a logistical challenge for us and we aborted that plan.

A rope carries both aesthetic and energetic qualities. It is a line in space, around a body, between bodies. It draws attention to both spatial and dynamic relationships. To put rope on a body is to not only restrain it but also to adorn it; tying rope in lines and knots in a way that gives value to the body’s strength and vulnerability – the rope and the body are in communication and communion. The degrees of tension the rope at play contain tone – something that is both very visible and felt by the people in contact with the rope and the people watching. 



What role does the audience play in the performance “Bunny”?


Luke George: The audience has multiple roles: active observer, voyeur at a distance, physically involved. These aren’t set roles, nor are they necessarily played out in a didactic way. The roles are operating at various degrees of awareness, behaviour and choices. We hope that these roles and perspectives become visible throughout the performance.

Bunny is a nickname given to the person being tied in rope bondage. For this piece, we pose the question, “what if everyone (in the theatre) is a bunny?” At first this sounds like we are going to tie everyone up, and early in our creative process we attempted this, but later realised that you can be a Bunny without necessarily even having any rope on your body. We talk a lot about desire, both individual and collective; the desire to be tied or to watch someone being tied and wonder if you’d like it to be you, for tension, to be teased, to please, to do what is asked, to be rewarded, empathy and intimacy, trust and acquiescence. 

Throughout the piece we gradually “tie” up the room; physically, psychologically and metaphorically. We involve the audience, requesting their assistance to keep the show going and unfolding – because at first we ourselves are tied up and restrained – by doing simple tasks; playing music on a phone, spinning a suspended performer, tying us, untying us. The level and intensity of involvement increases over two hours to quite demanding things which are only possible because of the incremental development of trust and asking for more. By the end of the piece it often seems quite amazing that we take it as far as it does go. 


Daniel Kok: At one point in our creation process, we also realised that we’ve set ourselves a massive challenge: to call the audience and everyone in the theatre a bunny is to be tying up and assuming the role of dominance over everyone. This came with great responsibilities. We couldn’t simply be playful about this notion anymore. We’ve made our bed, and we’ve got to lay in it. The audience of “Bunny” is to a large extent putting themselves into our care and expecting us to take them somewhere; somewhere challenging and surprising. 

We asked ourselves if we have bitten off more than we could chew. Yet, isn’t this the ultimate wish of a performer? To be entrusted by the audience to give them what they didn’t know they wanted? As soon as we realised that this was what was demanded of us because of the question we’ve asked, the sense of risk-taking and duty of care heightened. We might have to put aside the ethics of the everyday and step into some kind of role play. To assume the role of someone worthy of trust, capable of holding the centre. 

Eventually, I can say that there have been times when “Bunny” became for both of us valuable life-changing experiences. It is rare that I find the intellectual aspects of my work converges with the emotional and personal.  


How do you define respectively manipulate the role of humans versus objects?


Luke George: The set design of “Bunny” is a aqua blue carpet and a series of objects laid out on it, like a showroom floor. The whole space is brightly lit using LED lights which heighten the bright colour palette of ropes, objects, costumes and make-up. The objects are everyday items: vacuum cleaner, table fan, CD player, fire extinguisher, cushions, etc. Each object is tied in colourful rope designs that access macramé, Shibari (editor's note: Japanese bondage), and netting techniques. We regard the objects like bodies, and tie them as such, wrap them in rope, making them beautiful valued things. Throughout the piece Daniel comes into contact with each object, has an intimate and sensual connection with it, activating it, turning it on. The rotating fan clicks because it is restrained by rope and can’t move. Parallel to Daniel’s relationship to the objects, I am in direct contact with people, addressing them and gradually bringing them into the piece, tying them into rope designs and restraints. We have the objects here to also propose that the body – our bodies and the audience’s bodies – are also objects, to be tied and moulded into something beautiful. 


Daniel Kok: One discovery that I found intriguing is how rope can endow a bound object – be this a vacuum cleaner or a chicken from the supermarket – with greater subjectivity. The reverse is also true: a human subject tied up is transformed into an object, yet this objecthood does not seem to reduce humanness. As people and things are bound, oscillating between subjectivity and objecthood and gazed upon in “Bunny”, I’d like to think that a sense of empathy, as well as desire, is heightened; especially when the gazing is performed collectively. Witnessing someone or something get tied up together seems to arouse these feelings. 



What are your plans for the future? Will you continue to work with this theme?


Luke George: Themes of intersubjectivity, interactivity and the power dynamics between artist and audience or public, are all ongoing areas of focus for Daniel and me in our individual works and practice. Our collaboration has gone so well that we will most likely do another project together sometime soon, not sure yet when and what it will be. In our works, we both tend to become interested in new ideas for working with particular materials and physicalities, so whether rope will continue to be the material we focus on is yet to be determined. “Bunny” is generating a lot of interest, so far we have already had seven international presentations of the work, and there are quite a few more being planned for 2017. As for our personal relationship to rope work, it has definitely had and continues to have its “way” with us. We are a little addicted to it, to tying and being tied.


Daniel Kok: I don’t know what we could be dealing with next. Wrestling? A fashion show? Whatever it is, maybe we could go one step further: deal with the same kind of questions for example relational politics and intersubjectivity with or without touching the audience or getting them to participate. I get a headache when I think about how that might work, but I hope we will try. 


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