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Feeling useful for the first time

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Mighty as the ocean and certain as the tide, the need to express oneself surpasses enormous obstacles and impenetrable boundaries. Never have I been more keenly aware of this  than during the Beyond Pressure International Festival of Performance Art.

Who can say exactly why a place calls out to you; beckons you to come. I simply felt an urge to see and experience a mysterious place called Myanmar. That was the seed – a subtle impulse.

I wasn’t sure what to expect. Initially quite nervous, I was immediately put at ease by the generosity and warmth that I received not only from the festival organizers, volunteers, and participants, but by all Myanmar people. I couldn’t help but feel as if I stepped back in time to some exotic and wonderful place lushly green and glittering with gold amidst the dusty heat.

A smaller pagoda viewed from the famous Shwedagon Pagoda. It’s known as the ‘little brother’.

After my arrival in Yangon I began to grasp the tremendous responsibility set before me. The Myanmar people were ravenous – anxious to devour the knowledge, experiences and art work I came to share with them. All this I gave with great pleasure. I was to be the first performance artist from America to show work in the very first public performance art exhibition in Myanmar. I felt honored, lucky, and a little intimidated to take part in such a monumental event. My concern was that they would see me, my practice, and my work as indicative of all American performance art. I was careful during my workshop and in my conversations to reference my influences and try to frame my work within a larger historical and social context. Despite my initial anxiety, it was extremely satisfying to have my voice consumed by such eager ears.


Workshop conducted by Joseph at YMCA.

I thought it funny and strange to learn that I had to have my performance approved by a government committee. As the time drew near I became uneasy – this was not a game. Once underway, though, the censorship review was in itself a performance piece. International artists were struggling to communicate abstract concepts to people who were largely unfamiliar with such ideas. Highly memorable and somewhat comical the artists one by one showed their materials and described their actions and the significance behind their imagery. It was a brilliant deconstructionist exercise.

Joseph explaining his work to the Board of Censorship.

I felt proud to be part of such a strong exhibition. The work was engaging,  thought provoking, and wonderfully diverse. The Myanmar artists, armed with smiley faces and boisterous “ha-ha’s”, subtly (yet poignantly) referenced the pressure from which they were moving beyond. The art and artists were impressive but I must admit that my greatest pleasure came from watching the audience – many of them stumbling upon the public exhibition by accident. The spectators observed with wonder and amazement as abstract events unfolded before them. I have never witnessed performance art so voraciously and joyously received.

In Myanmar I felt useful for the first time in my life. I’m grateful for having an opportunity to make a difference through my art. I like to believe I played a small part in opening up a dialogue that embraces a limitless amount of potential. It boggles my mind to think: this is only the beginning.



Joseph performing his work at Sein Lan So Pyay gardens next to Inya Lake. Seeing him come out wearing the big head was one of the most unsettling and strange things I have ever experienced. He is holding some plaster casts of fingers which he then used to draw on the ground.


Joseph Ravens creates time-based art works that encompass text, movement, installation, technology, costume, and object. Touching on subjects such as materialism, insatiability, conformity, and alienation, his performances reflect a struggle to find pattern and purpose within an imposing and random universe. A graduate of The School of the Art Institute of Chicago with an MFA in Performance, Ravens has shown at festivals, galleries, and theaters throughout the United States, Europe, and Asia.

To learn more, please visit www.josephravens.com


2nd Beyond Pressure International Performance Art Festival was held from 2 – 6 Dec 2009 in Yangon, Myanmar. It was a historic event that had profound impact on all who took part. 9 international artists, including myself and fellow Malaysian Rahmat Haron, participated.

For a Beyond Pressure special on ARTERI, the organizers and artists have kindly allowed me to publish their artist reports, originally written for the festival publication which is coming out shortly.

You can read about the first Beyond Pressure here and here. Visit the official website here.


This article was first posted on the original Arteri site on 28 December 2009.

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