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look back, move forward, cross borders

rebecca conroy: contemporary indonesian performance

Bandung-based artist Kuncoro from JAKER, an underground art network ‘performing suffering’ at a community protest, Lampung, Sumatra Dec 2000 Bandung-based artist Kuncoro from JAKER, an underground art network ‘performing suffering’ at a community protest, Lampung, Sumatra Dec 2000

In December last year I decided to ‘pulang kampung’, and journey back to the island of Java to gain a fresh understanding of performance and contemporary arts practice in this newly ‘democratic’ country. It has been 11 years since the overthrow of the dictator Suharto and less than a year since his death, a day celebrated by many of the country’s 220 million people. I embark armed with barely three weeks and a familiar wary sense of the Indonesian culture of jam karet (where time is relative to the elastic length of a piece of string).
Mukmin Soge Ahmad (Indonesia) performing at Birds Migration Dec 2006, National Gallery, Jakarta
Mukmin Soge Ahmad (Indonesia) performing at Birds Migration Dec 2006, National Gallery, Jakarta

Yogyakarta is a good place to start and I am fortunate to land myself in the close-knit quarters of Nitipuranm an area populated by many artists, both foreign and local. I am given the directions to find Fitri Setyaningsih who lives not far from my friend Hestu. He draws me a map marking out along the way Sangkring (an artist-run gallery) and Rumah Panggung (a performance/rehearsal space). It should be straightforward except that there are two houses on the same street with the same number—urban planning in Indonesia is not well known for adhering to any system of order, least of all an order of numbers.

When I finally arrive at Fitri’s house I am greeted by seven dogs, all barking furiously, and all appearing to share a genetic line descending from the Alaskan Malamute. For a tropical climate and a predominantly Muslim nation, this is most unusual—though it is in keeping with the quietly unorthodox Fitri Setyaningsih. A contemporary dancer with a background in classical Javanese movement, Fitri works with objects and collaborates with a writer, Afrizal Malna, named in 2008 as Writer of the Year by Jakarta’s equivalent to Time Magazine.

Over cups of sweet Javanese tea, our conversation travels around the edges of contemporary performance culture in Indonesia, and finally settles on the situation for collective devising across art forms. The frustration expressed by Fitri and Afrizal arises from the lack of models for collaboration when working outside conventional art forms. How does a dancer work with a sculptor, a designer or a writer? Where are the local expressions and models for artist residencies and art form development and dramaturgy for contemporary performance practice emerging? Afrizal’s performance texts seem naturally to have inhered alongside the development of Fitri’s spatial performance idioms, more easily since they are also partnered off stage. Models for artform boundary crossing appear to have been more readily pursued in underground quarters where a rejection of the canon fused with a rejection of the new world order, catalysing a growth in ‘happening art’, ‘seni pertunjukan’, and laying the seed bed for emerging live art discourses.
Old Indonesian Institute of the Arts Old Indonesian Institute of the Arts
courtesy Rebecca Conroy
During my time in the late 1990s and early 2000s researching and squatting in the abandoned ISI (Indonesian Institute of the Arts), ‘performance’ seemed the answer to every occasion whether it was a protest, an art exhibition opening or a dinner party. These occasions blurred the easy lines drawn in the Western world between the estates of theatre, music and art. The common purpose was liberating art-making from the commodifying universe of the art market.
New Indonesian Institute of the Arts New Indonesian Institute of the Arts
courtesy Rebecca Conroy
Now as I wander through the old squat, newly crowned the Jogja National Museum and run by the fresh Prince Nico (son-in-law to the sultan of Yogya), I am battling a surreal fog. The Prince, in casual slacks and polo shirt, invites me in for a drink to a room upstairs with a large flat screen TV, barely metres from the room that was once my bedroom shared with a number of other dreadlocked, tattooed romantic revolutionaries. The walls once heavily decorated with graffiti and poetry have been sanitised with a fresh coat of white with just one mural remaining in the downstairs lobby, a memorial gesture to a moment in time now reserved for the history books. Prince Nico pours me a Johnny Walker, Red Label. It is barely 11am. Not wanting to offend, and to prove his assumptions about my wild Western ways, I thank him and raise my glass. “To the revolution!”, my fading punk friend Yustoni Volunteero proffers. Typically of course, Toni is rarely serious.

It is a perfect irony that ISI, the once hotbed of radicalism suspected by the Suharto regime, became home to a ragtag collective of artist activists peddling a home-grown version of anarchist community politics, some real life international permaculture action and an uber cool street punk aesthetic which managed to catch the eye of many a visiting foreigner, myself included. They were the days of ‘seni untuk rakyat’ (art for the people). Now it seems that at least in this part of the Yogya art scene, having been bucketed by several waves in the boom crash opera of the international art market, many of my once starving artist friends have been able to purchase houses and, in at least one instance, expensive DJ equipment. The scene may be growing up, or at least their army of small children is.

There is still some nostalgia for the past world, the bit in-between, before the crest of the wave that dumped everyone on this strange new democratic island quickly followed by a succession of failed presidents. But some good things emerged as a result of the three decades of military repression. For one thing it could be said that it gave birth to a contemporary live art scene, spawned from a genetic line of art traced imperfectly from street performance to happening art to performance art to a version of what one could accuse the art institutions of accelerating before its time—Live Art. With ties to the blinded oligarchies of postcolonial fashions, truncated intercultural exchanges and the short-sighted international circuit training of biennales and festivals, Live Art in this country is grafting itself to the domestic scene in rather interesting ways.

When performance took to the streets in 1997 it did so out of a desire to overtly challenge the Suharto regime, which strictly forbade gatherings of people in public spaces that the military interpreted as “spreading hatred against the government.” Political critique had long since silently disappeared into the subtextual lines of the theatre estate, where the plays of WS Rendra, (who recently passed away), Nano Rianatiaro of Teater Koma and the poetry of Widji Thukul (‘disappeared’ in 1998) were frequently banned and their creators arrested. Street performances usually took the form of passionate orations, a ‘performance of suffering’, typically on street corners and most often during a mass mobilisation of students, peasants or factory workers. The script of the performance frequently invoked the hand of justice to intervene in the fate of the ‘wong cilik’ (little people), with frantic gestures demanding the whereabouts of justice or, with eyes averted, intimating the ignorance of the masses suffering under the weight of a brutal regime.

During this period hundreds of performance groups mushroomed, many of them germinated on university campus grounds, developing standard repertoires which they would perform at frequent interludes during mass assemblies of demonstrators. In the years after the events of May 1998, street performance or ‘happening art’ as it was frequently referred to by the underground scene, gathered a critical mass, while performance art, also emerging as a distinct practice within the counter culture gallery scene, started to gain international attention along with artworks of an explicit political flavour.

Three performance art/live art events in the past few years have been driven by persons and groups characteristic of three different threads or streams in the contemporary art scene. Perfurbance [see articles in RT73 & RT79] in its fourth incarnation in April 2008, is nurtured by performance artist Iwan Wijono and the Performance Klub based in Yogyakarta and largely connected internationally through a counter culture scene. Birds Migration in 2006 was an event which had its genesis in the Jakarta and Bandung gallery world and connected heavily to an international scene through the art market. Undisclosed Territory held three times since 2007 exhibits elements of the other two, driven by gallery-based performance and live art practioners but situated in Solo, Central Java, it also has strong links to an international, mainly European circuit of live art, and is directed by well-known performance artists Melati and Suprapto Suryodarmo.

Common to all these streams is the working outwards and against a prevailing domination of artforms aligned to the theatre, dance and visual arts estates in both the traditional and contemporary realm. Distinguishing between them is often harder, although it’s superficially done through geography and the political economy of art scenes. Generally, the further one approaches the centre, the closer one gets a sense of the awkward and imposing influence of the international art world and the gaps in local knowledge and appropriation. The further out one moves, in particular off the island of Java, the deeper one moves towards a more nuanced hybridity grounded less in the desire to ascend the discursive ladder and more in a desire to make meaning out of the everyday contemporary experience and rebuild a critical culture recovering from three decades of the New Order regime.

Along the periphery reside clusters of collective action, enveloped by the surge in DIY aesthetics driven in part by necessity and increasingly by the international style market and disposable cultures aping capitalism’s desire for the surface, including zine culture, easy access to technology and piracy’s easy access to everything else. Artist-led spaces and organisations, such as the internationally fettered and adored Ruangrupa (Jakarta), have for a long time understood the communion and commerce between such things, and pioneered fresh thinking, which has finally infiltrated the Biennale arena. In Yogyakarta, the discursive terrain is similarly taken up through project based groups and collectives such as MES56, Kunci and Taring Padi.

This October more than 30 Australian artists are descending on Yogyakarta for the South Project and in a nearby town, Salatiga, for Festival Mata Air, in the interests of creative exchange and collaboration across artforms. Both of these projects bear witness to the very real and active fascination Australian artists have for our nearest neighbour. Perhaps bound by a common desire for something grounded, live art and creative exchange is paving the way for a common past to be reimagined in the here and now.

Rebecca Conroy visited Yogyakarta in January 2009 on behalf of Performance Space, Sydney, where she works as Associate Director.

RealTime issue #93 Oct-Nov 2009 pg. 5

© Rebecca Conroy; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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