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SiCKL is Studio in Cheras KL, an experimental art space run by a group of multi-disciplinary artists. Since starting in 2006, many different musicians, performers, filmmakers, artists and thinkers have passed through SiCKL’s upstairs shoplot in Cheras. To say an art space is ‘experimental’ as well as ‘artist-run’ may be doing it no favors: it’s easy to think of artists jamming amongst themselves, with intentions and results that are unapproachable, vague, and difficult to understand.

Let’s put experimentation back in context. Play and the process of trial and error are central to art making. We forget that behind each pristinely installed exhibition or perfectly lighted performance lies a long, messy road. That’s why it’s so fascinating to step into an artist’s studio – we see that each act of creativity starts with a question. The ability to be open to possibilities is what gives us the stimulation and freshness of perspective that we look for in art.

In the short time I’ve been involved in the Malaysian art scene, one of the biggest concerns artists have voiced (besides cari makan AKA money) is a sense of isolation, and lack of discourse. I guess the two go hand in hand – it’s hard to talk about something when you’ve got no one to talk to! SiCKL runs two programs that address this issue in exciting and constructive ways: Open Lab and Improv Lab.

SiCKL Open Lab (S.O.L.) is a monthly art laboratory that welcomes artists from all disciplines to present their work, as well as form new collaborations. They’ve had musicians (avant garde and singer-songwriter!), dancers, video artists, stand-up comedians and more. I fire some questions at Kok Siew Wai, SiCKL’s co-founder and motor engine, to find out more.


ARTERI: Well we always have to start with an origins question! The first time I met you, you had just returned from studies in the US. How did you go from there to starting SiCKL?

Kok Siew Wai: Yes, I remember you came to my talk at Rumah Air Panas (RAP)!  Well, two weeks after I came back from the U.S., I went to an art opening at RAP.  There I met basically all the ‘right people’ whom I’d be working with for the following years 🙂  During the opening, there was an improv music session, with drums, clarinets, electric guitar and a no-input sound mixer.  It was a total chaos, and yet so great!  I loved their energies and free styles.  This was the kind of thing that I’ve been doing in U.S. with free improv musicians.  I felt at home at once 🙂

We then became good friends and I wanted to have a space to practice and also to connect with other like-minded artists.  Yandsen and I went to find a space nearby where we live, in Cheras.  We then invited a few more friends to join in (or to share the rent!).  And so SiCKL is established.

Do you see SiCKL as addressing a specific need in the art scene? I’m wondering where your own self as an artist sits in relation to SiCKL. What were your intentions or reasons for starting this space?

As I said, we needed a space to practice and also to shelter like-minded artists & musicians.  All this while, SiCKL is said to dedicate itself to support the so called ‘experimental’ artwork.  But what do you mean by experimental? What are you actually experimenting with? That’s always the question. And the answer keeps changing.

Perhaps one thing that I can say about being experimental is that: you create your own rule (rather than following existing rules), and test it out, and see what will happen, or – enjoy the process of inquiring and trying.  And this is ‘creating’; it’s happening now.  It’s a bit raw, but honest, without much packaging (because you can’t – it’s still work in progress!).

I think my own work is kind of like that, gaining inspiration from living my daily life. No fancy packaging, try to be as honest as I can, to face the reality and to learn something from it.  est of all, it’s always working in progress, as life is. Being alive is a ‘-ing’ form. The mission of SiCKL is to support art & music that is not necessarily grand in presentation, or gain wide recognition by the majority, but is nevertheless creative, inspiring, radical and significant in its own right. People who understand it can see its value.  The minority also has a voice. And the majority is not always right.

How ‘open’ is Open Lab? Do you have any restrictions or limitations on who can take part? What do you think about the idea of a ‘professional’ artist versus a ‘non-professional’ one?

The focus is ‘art’, and it is a ‘lab’. You are free to experiment with anything that you define as art and cook it in your lab! At SiCKL, we don’t set rules for you. You create your own rule, as long as you have a point to justify your idea, and the kind of work and concept fits the objective of Open Lab.

To us, there’s no hierarchy between ‘professional’ or ‘non-professional’ artists, as long as you are willing to share and interact with each other in an open platform. We put a university professor’s presentation and a fresh graduate’s performance on the same bill, both given a 20 minutes time slot. Equal 🙂


How do you consider the audiences for Open Lab? You mentioned to me before that it’s a small and humble crowd, usually consisting of other artists, friends and sometimes students. What are the sort of people you’d like to see more of?

It’s amazing how we are connected and appreciated internationally by artists working in this direction, from the Philippines, Singapore, Canada, Japan, Australia, U.S. & Europe, but ironically not widely recognized in Malaysia itself, ha! Sometimes people dismiss things that they do not understand, not familiar with, or have not seen before. They are attached to their own comfort zone and reluctant to get out of it.

I think in general the SiCKLers have an opposite reaction to such situation – we get extremely excited about things that we do not understand, are not familiar with, or have never seen before! So we hope to meet more curious and passionate souls, ha!

What do you think a more mainstream audience could get out of experiencing Open Lab?

Umm… that they would have to come and check it out by themselves 🙂

How successful has Open Lab been in forming new collaborations between participants? Does a genuine dialogue happen or are artists mainly using it as a stage to present their works?

Many interesting things have happened in SiCKL’s projects. Several ‘try out’ sessions in the Open Lab series have later become collaborations between artists from different disciplines, for example the collaborative project between Lisa Foo (lighting), Fahmi Fadzil (lighting performance) and Jazmi Izwan (musician). Hosting Singapore based free jazz musicians Darren Moore (drums) & Brian O’ Reily (double bass) at Open Lab has resulted in a free improv trio performance with SiCKL co-founder Yong Yandsen (saxophone) at the Mosaic Music Festival 2009 in Singapore. There are more stories like those.

You also run a program called Improv Lab. Could you tell us a little more about it and how it differs from Open Lab?

Improv Lab was produced especially for Findars Space. We liked the concept of Findars – with the kind of openness like SiCKL, and at a very strategic location. Some people were saying ‘Cheras is so far lah!’, so we thought, ok, let’s do something right in the heart of KL, at the Annexe. As the name suggests, Improv Lab is an art lab that focuses on improvisation, in any art mediums (as long as the artist figures out a way to improvise live). We’ve had actors, video artists, filmmakers, dancers and musicians joining.

The most memorable lab for me was the last lab in August 2009 (and Findars moved out after that) where we had Lena Ang and Low Shee Hoe doing butoh, Fairuz Sulaiman with live video mixing, Fahmi Fadzil on lighting, and Goh Lee Kwang, Yandsen and myself making music.  Nothing was set, except for how we start.  Then we just went with the flow. And the flow was created by ‘now’, moment by moment, being sensitive to ourselves and to each other, changing and evolving. This is improvisation. I thought it was a beautiful experience. In future, if we can find a good and affordable venue, we’d like to continue the Improv Lab series.

You once shared a very memorable quote with me about ‘uncertainty’. Could you repeat it here and speak more on this particular idea?

The quote is from a free jazz composer/musician David S. Ware – “Living as an artist, one of the main stumbling blocks that we face is that people become frightened by the instability of the artistic lifestyle.  Everything isn’t guaranteed.  That instability is the key, though.  Through this openness, through this insecurity, great wisdom can come.  We need to put our faith in that uncertainty.”

Well, I think David says it all, no? 🙂 To me, he is talking about the nature of life itself, and in performance, improvisation is closest to this notion. Of course, you can plan your life out, from 20-60 years old, and you can follow your plan and be safe (or try to convince yourself that you’re safe, ha). Or, you can be open and flexible, always ‘going with the flow’, which is perhaps a more natural way of living.  Because life is full of surprises and accidents. The result of a plan is what you’ve expected (or closest to what you expect), something you already know would happen (or you get frustrated because what you’ve planned out doesn’t happen!). But nature has endless potential; you simply cannot predict much what will happen next. So you’re always alert, flexible, thinking, changing, learning. But that’s the energy of being alive! Oh, anyway … I think David says it better than me. So just go back to read that quote lah!


Last minute notice, but SiCKL is having an Open Lab tonight! Friday 23 Oct 2009 from 9pm sharp. It’s a stellar line up. Details:

SiCKL Open Lab 009 is back with full blown this October! Our beloved friend, dancer Donna Miranda, visiting from Manila, will be performing her multimedia piece, “Listen, little brother”, together with guitarist Aziz. The Self-conscious Acronym(ed) Man is back with more incredible stories and love+hate songs for us to sing along (really?!). Azmyl Yunor (guitar), Yandsen (sax) & Siew Wai (voice) are going to play together as an improv trio for the first time. There’ll be a mysterious stand-up comedian appearing at SiCKL this night … Salute to Mr. A.M. Yusof! An act that you surely don’t want to miss!

SiCKL (Studio in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur)
No. 75, Amber Business Plaza
Jln. Jelawat 1, 56100 Cheras, KL.
(1 minute walk from CHERAS LRT station)

For map, contact and directions, click here!

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