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Trance in the Virtual Realm: A Conversation with Choy Ka Fai

Curator Mi You interviews artist-choreographer Choy Ka Fai on his journey to document shamanistic practices in Asia, and his attempt to collapse the technological and spiritual realms.

Choy Ka Fai - Unbearable Darkness, 2018 performance

Choy Ka Fai - Unbearable Darkness, 2018. Photo: Katja Illner.

Estragon: Perhaps he could dance first and think afterwards, if it isn’t too much to ask him. 
Vladimir: Would that be possible? 
Pozzo: By all means, nothing simpler. It’s the natural order.
Vladimir: Then let him dance.

- Waiting for Godot, Samuel Beckett



It’s now well-known how much of Silicon Valley's ideology and production have been fuelled by an annual gathering of free expression, communal sharing, and radical inclusion known as Burning Man. Some have even claimed that the Playa — that windswept dust bowl loved and nearly mythologised by many a “burner” (as participants are known) — has become a “key cultural infrastructure for the Bay Area’s new media industries” [1]. “Technorati” burners [2] have included Google’s co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, the co-founder of Dropbox, Drew Houston, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk, and more. The hallucinogenic imaginary that laces so much “techno-futurism” emerges: we see Elon tripping balls on the lap of his electronic musician-girlfriend Grimes, head in the clouds, dreaming up the next SolarCity [3]


In all of the celebrity hype that has popularised this 70,000-strong rave, we often forget that Burning Man is essentially an occult pilgrimage that culminates in a massive ritual: the burning of a large wooden effigy called the Man. The Man harkens back to an ancient Celtic pagan tradition that could have existed as early as the rule of Julius Caesar [4], where a wicker man would be burned during festivities to pay tribute to the gods and “fertilise” the village.  The architectural progeny of these old Druids can be seen in aerial views of Burning Man’s temporary capital, Black Rock City. Its mystical formation is a series of pentagons, pentagrams and circles; its beating, then burning, heart is the effigy [5]


It is no wonder that this awe-inducing, climactic worship of the Man has given us so much human-centred design and technology. And however couched in open-source, collaborative work cultures that celebrate individual creativity, Silicon Valley has followed the same corrupted, commercial trajectory that Burning Man has, where formerly democratic, accessible platforms have been knotted up in a morass of surveillance capitalism. 


Can we worship in another way? Can we dance in another way? Can we technologise in another way? A few from the Bay Area, like Google’s Kenric McDowell, whom SO-FAR hosted a discussion with for Chapter 5: Thought and Personhood, have been advocating for a more non-anthropocentric approach. Perhaps the answers lie not in Celtic, Wiccan, or humanistic ritual, but further East.


Can we worship in another way? Can we dance in another way? Can we technologise in another way?

Over the past year, artist and choreographer Choy Ka Fai has been on a long research journey throughout Siberia, Taiwan, Vietnam and Singapore, documenting obscure shamanistic practices in an ultimate quest to conflate the technological and supernatural realms. Curator Mi You, who had joined him in Siberia, interviews him on his findings during this rather bizarre odyssey. Although neither has yet concluded with any sure answers, Choy speaks of an AI or an avatar that could be half-human, and well, half- something else.  


Choy Ka Fai -Unbearable Darkness

Unbearable Darkness, Choy Ka Fai, 2018. Photo: Katja Illner.


Mi You: Where did your interest in choreography and the supernatural begin? 


Choy Ka Fai: I’ll go back to my work in 2012 to 2015 with a project called SoftMachine . I made a series of interviews with 80 choreographers, where I tried to find out about dance in Asia. Suddenly, it felt like I was an expert in choreographic ideas. After two or three years of showing this project, and after hundreds of hours of interviews, I felt a bit stuck and bored. I was thinking, “What should I do next?” 


Somehow the opportunity opened for me to work on one of butoh’s founders, Tatsumi Hijikata [6]. I knew that concurrently, a lot of people were doing work about either him or its other founder, Kazuo Ohno. Around that time, my Japanese lighting designer was telling me a story how he went to Mount Osorezan, a place where shamans call for dead spirits. A friend of his, a Japanese playwright, had gone to summon the spirit of Samuel Beckett through a shaman. Immediately, my mind connected this with Hijikata. Because even if everyone was making work about Hijikata, nobody really knew what he was or had been thinking, and perhaps I should call for him. That was the lightbulb moment, and for another two years I worked on this project titled Unbearable Darkness .


It’s quite messed up, because I’m actually Christian by faith. When I went down this path to make this art project, and I called for him, I didn’t expect him to come. But it was something I experienced personally and I believe that he was there talking to me. Later on, when I did a transcription of the interview, it confirmed my feelings because he was really talking about art concepts and choreographic ideas that I don’t think the shaman [who was channelling him] would have known. I had three or four interview sessions with this spirit. 


That led to me looking for things that are other than human, into this spiritual realm. What surprises me is that there is something that is invisible. You can’t see it, but you cannot disagree with it. You have to respect it, whether you believe it or not. Over the past two years, I’ve called this the “paranormal dance experience”, and it’s led me to my current research. It’s been a natural progression from the human to the paranormal, and finally to the supernatural. 


MY: Were you ever affected by these sessions? 


CKF: I have quite a neutral spiritual aura, so I’m not easily affected by either the darker or the brighter side. A few people have told me this, that I’m quite suited to do this kind of research compared to someone who would be affected by these kinds of presences. 



MY: Can you share with us more about these encounters with the supernatural, especially over your travels in different parts of Asia to develop your long research project CosmicWander ?


CKF: My journey began in Taiwan in December 2019 quite naively. I had seen some news on a young, female spirit medium who was also a popular live streamer on the Internet, as well as a bikini model. I was fascinated by this story, so I searched for this woman and met her. From then on, I just kept looking and observing. 


At the end of April, there was a major 10-day walking pilgrimage for the Goddess of the Sea, or Matsu, as she is known in Taiwan. I decided to go on my own and join the crowds. Her worshippers bring the statue of Matsu to different temples as a kind of religious exchange. To walk with thousands of people for days — that bodily experience was quite transformative for me. Walking and purely experiencing sort of shuts down the rest of your senses. 


I was quite amazed because of their use of technology too. They actually put a GPS on the statue, and the followers could lock onto her location through an app, so they knew where the Goddess was and could view her through a livestream camera. At the same time, the spirit and temple mediums were communicating with her, asking her where she wanted to go at any particular juncture. It was all happening live and it was interactive. 


MY: There is also the involvement of politicians who endorse the ceremonies.  


CKF: Yes, this pilgrimage plays out on such a big, national scale. There were fireworks displays, the business community came out, the LGBT community was there too with their gay pride flags, even the President came for the ceremony. It was maybe the first time that I had seen such a large impact of religion, and it led me to really question why people are so fervent. Looking at the supernatural through the lens of culture is a way of understanding humanity more. Most of these Asian deities are created in the image of humans too.


CosmicWander, Choy Ka Fai, 2019

Documentation of CosmicWander, Choy Ka Fai, 2019. Photo courtesy of the artist.


MY: This was more of a festive, communal moment for you. But you’ve also had very different experiences, such as being in Siberia in the middle of nowhere. Can you tell me about those encounters too? 


CKF: Yes, again on a German news broadcast, I had seen a shaman in Siberia. It was hard to find out more information or locate him, but we went to see what we could find. It was a kind of spiritual tourism over six or seven days traversing Lake Baikal, and eventually we got ourselves invited to an event in Arshan. 


It was basically a meeting between the shamans from two states to hold a cooperative signing or understanding. We saw about 30 different shamans. We didn’t know what exactly was happening, but we knew it was a ceremony. Suddenly, everyone began to move at the same time and go into trance. They were using a lot of drums, and you could feel the vibrations. It was all quite powerful. 


MY: When you were reflecting on recording the research, you felt that it could not fully represent the moment — not just because of the technical limitations, but also because there was essentially something more multi-dimensional than what we could simply perceive. Do you remember when we were interviewing a man called Valentine? 



CKF: The shaman with three thumbs?


MY: Yes. There’s this Chinese science fiction novel called The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, and it talks about a person who is in a “quantum state”. You can never fully capture how he looks because he’s always changing. I had that experience with Valentine while you were recording. There was something shadowy over his face. 


CKF: There was another experience I’m reminded of where something was missed. We were at Shaman Rock at Lake Baikal, in the most sacred land of the Buryat shamans. I was trying to understand what was so special about that place, but there were so many humans, cameras and noise that it definitely lost a bit of its aura. There was also a group of New Age tourists who were meditating in front of the rock, so it was a strange mix. 


There are definitely more people from the West who are attracted to this sort of ancient culture. The more advanced our technology is, the more people want to go back to traditional wisdom and belief systems. I’ve been thinking about those ideas — ancient technology or wisdom — how much they’ve evolved over hundreds of years, and how relevant they are for our everyday life. 


The more advanced our technology is, the more people want to go back to traditional wisdom and belief systems.

What is the relevance of looking at shamanistic culture? In Asia, these rituals are mostly about alternative medicine. When I began researching, I admit that anyone else, I exoticised them. But as I learned more, I saw that the Siberian shamans were like bonesetters, and could help to heal people. In Vietnam, they said that if you had a yang disease, you went to the Western medicine hospital. If you had a yin disease, it was something that no one could explain, and you would have to go to the shaman. 


MY: How does this research map back on your interests in technology and dance? 



CKF: These alternative-healing forms brought me back to an earlier work called Dance Clinic , where I tried to use technology to help dancers to become better choreographers, but in a funny way. I wanted to explore whether artificial intelligence (AI) could be a form of medicine or at least a placebo. 


AI always seems to float about as a part of my creative journey. When I was working with the Japanese butoh ghost of Hijikata, I was thinking of ways to re-engineer his presence. That was the first time I experimented with motion capture. The question was whether we could take the dance moves from his archive, allow a machine intelligence to understand all this movement, then create a dance of “the now” even when he had passed away. This technology is already possible with audio, where if you send an AI an hour of a person’s audio recording, it can generate a speech that sounds like the same person [7]. I want to apply this to the choreographic dance experience. 


We were inspired by Francis Bacon’s paintings, so it was fitting that the avatar would go into this half-human, half-ghost state.

MY: Some of the most surprising moments in watching Unbearable Darkness were when Hijikata’s avatar began to make really strange, twisting movements that perhaps no human being could ever achieve. What was essentially a glitch became the most interesting thing because it surpassed both the technology and the human. 


CKF: Well, some people can detect the presence of ghosts through electromagnetic waves, and I believe that the motion capture sensor could pick up these wave patterns as well. From a scientific point of view, you could say that different theatres had different cabling and this caused the glitches. But either way you look at it, we experienced a lot of “drifting” in the software that had not been calibrated or programmed. 30 minutes into the show, the avatar began to drift because of some electromagnetic interference. Visually, it was so beautiful, because it was twisting in the opposite direction for 360 degrees. We had five different avatars for Hijikata that represented his ages from 20 to 50. Because we didn’t reset the system, it felt like every 20 or 30 minutes, the avatar would deform on its own and go into a ghostly state. We were inspired by Francis Bacon’s paintings, so it was fitting that the avatar would go into this half-human, half-ghost state.


Unbearable Darkness - Choy Ka Fai, 2018.

Unbearable Darkness, Choy Ka Fai, 2018. Photo: Katja Illner.


MY: This reminds me of a scientific experiment where researchers were trying to establish a connection between Google Deep Dream and what people see when they’re on drugs. The researchers would feed people these Deep Dream images through virtual reality (VR) headsets [8]. Basically, they concluded that the brain would react in a similar way. 


CKF: Moving from Unbearable Darkness to CosmicWander , my proposition for this current project is to create a parallel, spiritual universe in virtual reality — to collapse the spiritual and the technological worlds. After using motion capture with Hijikata, I wanted to know whether I could use the same technology to work with different shamans and capture the dance of their deities. Of course, it’s simpler to say, because there are so many states of being possessed by different spirits.


So I tried to create a technological ritual, to invite a spirit into an avatar or digital body in VR so that it can communicate with us. I’m working to create a VR trance experience which was similar to what we saw that particular morning in Siberia, where all these sensors were aligned. I have also been working with several shamans and a motion capture device, either in an academic way to record the dance notations, or by asking them to go into a state of trance. I’m now attempting to translate that experience, and amplify it through technology. 


There’s a point at which technology becomes magic.

MY: Do you feel the result will be more invisible than visible, such as how the magnetic field was altered with Hijikata’s avatar? 


CKF: There’s a point at which technology becomes magic. As a creator, I want to find ways to work with the invisible, but at this point, it’s still stuck at the basic level of a human life form. When I recreate these experiences in my trials, 90% of the time, the technology cannot keep up. When I’ve choreographed a dancer who is moving like the Siberian shamans past a cognitive state, the vibrations are so minute and intense that the motion capture system becomes confused. Of course, I have to understand that a lot of the technology is not built for this purpose. 


I am working with different artists and scientists to look at how to move beyond these limitations. That’s where the narrative becomes important — how we can contextualise these experiments, and what do they tell us about ourselves. 


MY: That’s a great way to end. What we can project onto AI only tells us more deeply about our fears or hopes, and these are the things that only make us more human. 



Choy Ka Fai will be presenting CosmicWander (Work-in-Progress) with Singapore Art Museum at Centre 42, Singapore from 23-29 April 2020. The final work CosmicWander: NeZha+KuanYinKali will premiere at Tanzhaus Nrw Dussendolf, Germany from 5-6 June 2020.



  • 1.

    Fred Turner, “Burning Man at Google: a cultural infrastructure for new media production,” SAGE Journals, 11, no. 1-2: 73-94, https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444808099575.

  • 2.

    I first came across this term on TechCrunch. Read more: https://techcrunch.com/2014/09/04/elon-musk-is-right-burning-man-is-silicon-valley/

  • 3.

    The story goes that Elon Musk did actually come up with the idea for SolarCity while heading to Burning Man. Read more: https://www.cartalk.com/blogs/jim-motavalli/tesla-and-solarcity-elon-musk-its-personal-and-family-affair

  • 4.

    These rituals were documented in "Commentaries of the Gallic War" published in 58-49 B.C., Julius Caesar's firsthand account of the military campaigns against the Celtic peoples in Gaul.

  • 5.

    Read more about the Wiccan belief system of Burning Man: https://burners.me/2013/11/30/magic-on-a-grand-scale/

  • 6.

    Butoh is a form of Japanese dance theatre founded in 1959 by Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno that rejected Western styles of modern dance or ballet in favour of an entirely new, playful, grotesque and absurd aesthetic.

  • 7.

    This is also possible with video and deepfake technology, which has been used to resurrect dead personalities like Salvador Dalí. Read more: https://www.theverge.com/2019/5/10/18540953/salvador-dali-lives-deepfake-museum

  • 8.

    Keisuke Suzuki, Warrick Roseboom, David J. Schwartzman & Anil K. Seth, “A Deep-Dream Virtual Reality Platform for Studying Altered Perceptual Phenomenology”, Scientific Reports, 7, no. 15982 (2017), https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-017-16316-2

Artists and Contributors

Christina J. Chua portrait picture

Christina J. Chua

Christina J. Chua is Co-Founder and Chief Editor of SO-FAR, a hybrid publication, gallery and artist incubator. Prior to founding SO-FAR, she worked at galleries and art fairs throughout Asia representing and exhibiting a spectrum of emerging to blue-chip contemporary artists from around the world. As a writer, she contributed to various international and Singapore art publications. Today, Christina is committed to bridge-building in the Singapore art scene, while developing a new generation of art patrons through her fine art consultancy and education group, Metis Art. With her interests lying at the interstices of business, technology and contemporary art, Christina is also Strategic Advisor of innovation consultancy ArtBizTech.

Mi You

Mi You

Mi You is a lecturer at the Academy of Media Arts Cologne and Aalto University, Helsinki. Her long-term research and curatorial projects spin between the two extremes of the ancient and futuristic. She works with the Silk Road as a figuration for nomadic imageries and old and new networks/technologies. She has curated programs at Asian Culture Center in Gwangju, South Korea, Ulaanbaatar International Media Art Festival, Mongolia (2016), and with Binna Choi, she is co-steering a research/curatorial project Unmapping Eurasia. At the same time, her interests in politics around technology and futures led her to work on “actionable speculations”, articulated in the exhibition, workshops and sci-fi-a-thon “Sci-(no)-fiction” at the Academy of the Arts of the World, Cologne (2019), as well as in her function as chair of committee on Media Arts and Technology for the transnational political NGO Common Action Forum. She is fellow of Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, and serves as director of Arthub (Shanghai) and advisor to The Institute for Provocation (Beijing).

Choy Ka Fai

Choy Ka Fai

Born in 1979 in Singapore, Choy Ka Fai graduated with a M.A. in Design Interaction from the Royal College of Art, London, United Kingdom. His multidisciplinary art practice situates itself at the intersection of dance, media art and performance. At the heart of his research is a continuous exploration of the metaphysics of the human body. Through research expeditions, pseudo-scientific experiments and documentary performances, Ka Fai appropriates technologies and narratives to imagine new futures of the human body. Ka Fai’s projects have been presented in major institutions and festivals worldwide, including Sadler’s Wells (London, UK), ImPulsTanz Festival (Vienna, Austria) and Tanz Im August (Berlin, Germany). He was the resident artist at tanzhaus nrw in Düsseldorf (2017–19) and Künstlerhaus Bethanien in Berlin (2014–15). In 2010, he was awarded the Young Artist Award by the National Arts Council, Singapore. He is currently based in Berlin.