I was drawn to the bound woman like a moth to light. My rational mind screamed for me to seek help for the damsel, but I remained captivated.
My eyes were glued to the rope bondage display at the recent music and arts festival, Neon Lights. For such a physically imposing art form, there was a certain unspoken tenderness between the rigger (the one doing the tying) and the model (the one being tied). After missing out on two musical performances, I knew that I had to find out more on the subject. It was an itch that needed to be scratched. And that’s how I found myself at Café Melba speaking to local rope artist, Daniel Kok over a cup of coffee.
The 40-year old independent dance choreographer, who is based in Singapore and Berlin, defies the stereotype of a rope bondage practitioner. Short and soft-spoken, Kok had neither the domineering personality nor physical stature that one would expect of a Rope Artist. Nothing really gave him away except his well-toned physique. No doubt the result of repeatedly hoisting people suspended on ropes, I suspected. Little did I know though that this was just the tip of the iceberg, as my preconceived notions about rope bondage would soon be shattered.
BOUND BY HISTORY
Derived from an ancient Japanese martial art for restraining captives, rope bondage – otherwise known as shibari – was originally used by samurai warriors as a form of imprisonment and torture. At the same time, the different rope techniques were also supposed to showcase the status of the captured prisoners. For instance, the usage of knots in bindings was reserved only for convicted prisoners as it was regarded as bondage and shameful.
It was only in the early 1900s’ that the artistic form of shibari came about. Shibari literally means “to bind” in Japanese. This erotic spiritual art is not only about creating intricate rope designs but also about stimulating ki energy flow through the knot placements onto the canvas of the human body. Akin to a shiatsu massage experience, a shibari experience is designed to stimulate an increased level of endorphins that leads to an adrenaline rush for the model.
This is not too dissimilar to Kok’s shibari approach, which marries traditional Thai massage with ropes. He mentioned that he spent two weeks in Chiang Mai learning the massage skills because he felt that the breathing, as well as body contortion techniques, result in an overall “gentle” sensory experience. This flies in the face of conventional notions of what a shibari experience is, thanks to its appropriation by the BDSM community and pop culture vis-à-vis 50 Shades of Grey. The result; Kok claimed that he is able to enter “an intimate, meditative space” with his model during his public shibari demonstrations, regardless whether they are in the privacy of a gallery space or a bustling festival ground.
LEARNING THE ROPES
Having previously explored other disciplines such as pole dancing and cheerleading for his performance work, Kok told me that his interest in rope came about during a 2014 residency with the Campbelltown Arts Centre. During his time in Sydney, he collaborated with fellow artist-in-resident, Australian dancer and choreographer, Luke George on a shibari performance piece called Bunny. It was a production that took two and a half years to actualise, and made its premiere in Sydney earlier this year.
Wrap your mind around the teaser video for Bunny
After taking a quick sip of his cup of joe, Kok was quick to point out that he wasn’t “interested in bondage in a conventional way” and that his interest in shibari was purely “an artistic project”. “I was thinking about the issue of how people relate to each other; the relationship between two people as seen by others, when seen by others,” he said matter-of-factly. “There are those who practice rope bondage only for sexual play, and then there are those who never had sex with rope; they just like to tie somebody up, and looking at it like a tailor is enough for them. So people will find their own interest, boundaries and desires within the practice.”
Shifting the attention back to ropes, Kok described the inanimate rope as though it possesses human qualities; “The language that we use for ropes actually conveys something about human relationships as well. For example, tension, twisting, connections, bonds, ties, joints, hanging and stuff like that.”
And that was exactly what drove the 2012 SG Pole Challenge champion to a Sydney rope dojo, along with his Bunny collaborator George, for “some private tuition”. From then on, it was a matter of researching about shibari through books and (you guessed it) YouTube.
Kok also studied the art of macramé and revisited those knots that he “learnt from camping, rock climbing and so on“. But all work and no play made Jack a dull boy indeed, and pretty soon he was trying his hands at tying George, volunteers and even objects up!
“The language that we use for ropes actually conveys something about human relationships…”
The self-dubbed “Cheerleader of Europe”, also the title of one of his other shows, confessed to tying “chairs, tables, cushions, soft toys, vacuum cleaners and chickens”. Although this was initially due to a lack of volunteers, or the fact that his performance partner was overseas, he saw it as good practice “to be steadfast and confident”. Kok explained that when tying a person, “the way you touch and contact another person is heightened with the rope” and if the rigger fiddles, or becomes stuck, the model “feels it immediately” and the “mental and emotional space that the model needs will be interrupted”.
In addition, he also felt that he is “beautifying” the objects that he practised on; “It is like I am imbuing a little bit of subjective qualities.” Which ultimately led him to reflect; “So an object can turn into a subject. But when I tie a person up, there is also the reverse; the possibility of a subject being objectified. I find that tension, that relationship between subject and object, the flipping back and forth quite interesting conceptually.” It is little wonder then that objects are just as important as people in his shibari performances.
THE TIES THAT BIND
I pressed on and questioned Kok whether he has a plan when tying a person or object up, or if he simply wings it and sees where the process takes him; he replied that it is “necessary to have a plan…so that I wouldn’t… kalang kabut (panic)”, but stressed it is not a hard and fast plan. “It (Shibari) is play and it really is… so I bring my own desires of the day into it.” He went on to describe the play process as very much a “negotiation with another person”.
Elaborating more on the above-mentioned point, Kok broke it down as an “arbitration over a yes and a no”. This is because “the model might not know where his or her yeses and noes are; where they lie and you are going to test it out together”. This was where the common misconception of a cruel rope master dominating over a silenced model got thrown right out of the window. Kok summed it up by saying, “It’s not completely altruistic like I look after you and I do everything for you. Or the opposite; I dominate you, you are my slave, you are just clay in my hands. It (The shibari process) is very dynamic and fluid and it varies from person to person, the moment, the time of the day, all kinds of stuff.”
He emphasised that “there is a lot of issue of trust, duty of care and responsibility. If you start to go into those zones, you have to know that sometimes a no might be a yes, a yes might be a no… It gets very very grey and you learn how to navigate those questions.” For someone who operates outside the bounds of convention, it came as little surprise that Kok answered “politeness” when I probed him on what he regards as an overrated virtue.
So ultimately, what had he gained from being a shibari artist? Kok started off by saying that the art had opened his mind to a new way to empathise with people; “There are different modality to how you interact and play with another person… I’m gay, but if I meet somebody who is a 50-year old woman for example, I now have a way to play and be intimate with another person who I don’t have a regular sexual desire for… I could be close to another person physically in a different way.”
Besides discovering a new way to play with others, Kok also credited shibari for helping hone his body language reading skills; “You have to read this person (the model) quite quickly, without speaking.” He cited the different types of people he encountered during the run of Bunny; “When you start massaging somebody, and he or she immediately goes limp, you know he or she is giving you full permission… so you can go further. Then there are those are fidgety… but that’s not what you want… a lot of people don’t even realise that they are doing it, so there are these things that you got to sense, you got to read.” Words befitting a man whose life motto is “read between the lines”. And even with the amount of experience under his belt, Kok let slipped that there are occasions that he gets it wrong. After all, this is a skill that he said takes years to master.
But was all this effort worthwhile for such a taxing yet fleeting art form? Considering that a shibari performance and product wouldn’t have the same permanence as say a painting or music. Kok mulled over the question while stirring his coffee before sheepishly replying “There is a lot of pleasure in looking after somebody. I feel that it has been changing me as a person.” So much so that he feels that “the other person’s highs are his highs” as he learns to “give emphasis to thinking about what another person wants”. Kok even went so far to call his shibari experience as a “very interesting journey about self-discovery”.
Adding on, Kok concluded; “I get a lot of satisfaction in what I do as long as I feel like I have new challenges. So it could be found in… creating a performance that people like. Or it creates a conversation because there are some people who don’t like Bunny.”
AT THE END OF ONE’S ROPE
On the subject of critics; I bring up a photo of his Neon Lights installation that I noticed on Instagram. It was posted by Time Out Singapore accompanied with the caption, “Is BDSM art now?” I ask what he thought of it, and Kok brushed it aside saying that “It is not even a question. It’s a comment and it is not even an intelligent comment, so I don’t engage with it.”
Clearly, this sort of “reductive stupid question” is like water off a duck’s back for him; “I don’t give much attention and energy to this kind of conservativism in Singapore. If I do that, I will be an angrier and unhappier person.”
He ended off our conversation on a high note; “I am generally quite happy because I consider myself very lucky. I don’t earn much money, but I am doing what I love and am finding a lot of meaning in it. I am constantly learning stuff and I am never bored. I feel supported, I feel loved. I have friends. People want me to do things, so I am known and regarded by enough people.”
For someone who lists “stoicism” as a talent he would most like to have, Kok certainly has a lot of it. And it is reflected not just in his work, but in his personality as well.
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