Asia TOPA was a multimedia exhibition presenting seven moments in time, created in response to the forced shutdown of live performance art during the pandemic.
The works on display ranged from contemporary reframing of traditional practice to engagements with questions about digital identities and the state of the planet.
This exhibition was a partnership between the National Museum of Australia and Asia TOPA and was on show at the National Museum from 29 September 2022 to 13 February 2023.
About Asia TOPA
Asia TOPA: Asia Pacific Triennial of Performing Arts is a joint initiative of Arts Centre Melbourne and the Sidney Myer Fund and is supported by the Victorian and Australian governments.
Held in Melbourne over the summer months, Asia TOPA spans out from the Southbank Arts Precinct and across the city, with cultural institutions simultaneously dedicating their public programs to hosting artists and cultural leaders from across the Asia-Pacific region.
Between festivals, Asia TOPA LABs supports the development of new works through collaborations between artists. Disrupted by Covid-19 the program became Asia TOPA Virtual LABs, which continues to foster the creation of new works virtually and online.
Asia TOPA Virtual LABs received additional support from the Australian Government (Office for the Arts), Playking Foundation and the National Museum of Australia.
Asia TOPA Virtual LABs is facilitated by creative director Stephen Armstrong from Arts Centre Melbourne with digital dramaturgy by Daniel Koerner from Sandpit.
LAB projects featured in this exhibition also received support from: Australian Centre for the Moving Image, Exhibitionist and Meta Objects; Garin Nugroho Workshop and The SubStation; Arts Tasmania and University of Tasmania; Performing Lines; Miku Performing Arts, Artback NT, Kath Papas Productions, Hui Jia Creatives and Rubaga Music Co.; NuArt Sculpture Park Bandung and La Mama Theatre.
You can visit the rest of the Virtual LABs projects – and encounter earlier versions of some projects featured in this exhibition – at Asia TOPA Connected.
Asia TOPA presents legendary artists as well as new and emerging voices to celebrate the diversity of culture and creativity in our region. Unlike most international arts festivals, almost half of the works have been initiated by or created specifically for the festival. This focus on supporting new repertoire with international and local artists has seen Asia TOPA become one of the most significant creative hubs in the Asia-Pacific.
The second triennial in early 2020 narrowly escaped Covid-19’s border closures and shutdowns to present artists from 20 countries and territories in more than 50 events across the city. Nearly one million people visited the festival.
Many of the commissioned works are creative partnerships and collaborations between Asian artists and their Australian colleagues. These intercultural projects encourage enduring relationships and cultural exchange as well as artistic innovation. Frequently, Asia TOPA secures additional investment in these projects from national partners and festivals in Asia, Europe and North America extending the touring life (and artists’ livelihoods) of these new voices as they tell their own stories on a global stage.
Asia TOPA LABs
Since 2014, Arts Centre Melbourne has invited Asia-Pacific artists to explore potential collaborations with Australian artists and producers through a curated LAB program. Early concepts are developed in Asia TOPA LABs in Melbourne where the creative teams are introduced to one another and Australian presenters and producers.
The LABs are mostly multi-artform with artists from across Australia and numerous Asia-Pacific territories participating. Occasionally the LABs have been thematic. In 2015 Gideon Obarzanek was invited to lead a dance-based LAB for twenty artists from eight countries and, during the 2020 festival, the first Blak LAB was developed with Australian First Nations artists and curators.
Often beginning with a travel grant so that artists can immerse themselves in one another’s contexts and artistic process, these early concepts are then developed in Asia TOPA LABs in Melbourne where the creative teams are introduced to one another and Australian presenters and producers. Artists are paid to attend and all travel and other expenses are covered.
Mostly the LABs are multi-artform with artists from across Australia and numerous Asia-Pacific territories participating. Occasionally the LABs have been thematic – in 2015 Gideon Obarzanek was invited to lead a dance-based LAB for 20 artists from eight countries and, during the 2020 festival, the first Blak LAB was developed with Australian First Nations artists and curators.
The Covid-19 pandemic saw seasons and follow-on tours cancelled, international borders closed and venues across the region indefinitely shuttered. Asia TOPA and Arts Centre Melbourne resolved to move online. In the face of continuing lockdowns in 2021, the Office for the Arts provided additional support to run a second Virtual LAB program.
Over two and a half years, Virtual LABs have supported artists from more than a dozen countries and territories across 20 creative development stages. Some of these have literally been first conversations between artists. Some began to develop as virtual studio explorations pending future live meets, while others flourished in the virtual space and have gone on to second and even third phases of creative development and live digital presentation.
With an increase in international travel, LAB projects will begin to connect in real life (IRL) to test the viability of their concepts and their producing needs and potential.
Virtual LABs at the National Museum
In 2021, the National Museum of Australia offered to support Asia TOPA by providing additional development time and digital documentation for a cohort of Virtual LAB projects with the intention of sharing these preliminary online outcomes with a wider public.
This is the basis of the exhibition, which presents a ‘moment in time’. These creative processes and ideas have far to go before they will realise their final artistic form and live performance character. Nothing can ultimately replace direct personal contact and shared physical space and yet the extended experience of working online has produced some striking outcomes.
Founding Creative Director, Asia TOPA
At the time of writing, the pandemic is far from over. Even before it began, economic disparities and geopolitical turbulence frequently worked to keep artists apart. As the world faces the deepening crisis of global warming and how to reduce the hefty carbon footprint of international travel, new ways of creatively connecting, personally sharing and culturally exchanging will – and must – become choices we make with defiant enthusiasm.
Some Virtual LAB artists have become deeply immersed in the digital, sourcing ‘the digital spiritual’ and coming to understand that it is a fully creative dimension like any other artistic medium. For others, the chance of working in and through the virtual has offered vital and dynamic options at critical stages of the collaborative process – not merely a diminished alternative to IRL.
What every participating artist and project in the Virtual LAB shares is the unique and unprecedented global and local experience of creating together in isolation – a life experience no less shared by future audiences. What has always been clear, but never clearer than during the pandemic, has been the need for our region’s people to continue to connect at the most fundamental level.
Good fortune is rarely shared with equanimity and our hearts have beat fast on many occasions learning of the daily anxieties and extreme challenges experienced by our friends and colleagues over this period. Thanks to the generosity of the LAB artists, we have continued to connect and find solace in the inexorable drive of the imagination.
Our thanks go to the artists – as ever – and our many partners for enabling us to remain in intimate acts of exchange and creation across the vast distances of the Asia-Pacific.
In our collection
Banner image: Still image from DOKU: Live Alone Die Alone – The Karma Circle, 2022, Lu Yang, video, 6 minutes. Asia TOPA