"We are 'perfurbing' here."
Consider science fiction. Many things in the news today remind me of science fiction; of how real the once unthinkable could become. From steam engine trains to space exploration, from television to mobile phones, from genetic engineering to Dolly the clone sheep, from nuclear bombs to 9-11, from the holocaust to interethnic wars.
When I first got the invitation to participate in “Perfurbance #3”, I was skeptical of its high idealistic intentions and did not seriously consider going. Also without knowing that the word “Perfurbance” was coined from the juxtaposition of ‘performance’ and ‘urban’, I had at first the negative impression of the organizers equating performance as a bothersome ‘disturbance’. However I must admit that I was curious to see how far the idealistic proclamations in the invitation of artists/organizers in Jogjakarta could be made into reality. And after all, aren’t we as artists the ultimate dreamers in this science-fictional life? As we dream so may we realize them through responsible action?
“Perfurbance #3” appear at once to be plummeting directly into many complex social and global issues using the international performance art festival as platform. However before dealing with these issues perhaps we should first re-assess directly with questions that had been raised concerning the burgeoning not only of performance art but various cultural festivals in the last twenty years. The festival idea originally derived from a religious occasion of special significance, which manifests itself by way of a feasting celebration. Through the years of development they seem to lose its sense of value and relevance, in danger of spiraling down into frivolity. In my first forays into such events we used to call them symposiums and spoke of the root word derived from the Greek “sympósion” as a drinking party. It recalls the Socratic tradition of meetings with philosophical discussions. The drinking was necessary to help loosen our tongues and make light our all too serious high-minded attitudes, to linger on the hermetic traditions of forecasting our imaginations. Another petition for its manifestation is the post-war consciousness that the preceding cultural status quo was called in question and as our world grew with intensified globalization artists should have more physical meetings and create with consciousness of inter-cultural sensitivities, exchange and understanding.
These basic laudable intentions may still be intact but have become more complicated and suspicious as I continued to experience more international art events and festivals over the years. There are distinctions between the mega exhibitions of biennales or triennials organized by state and institutions as opposed to artists initiated alternative events, symposia and meetings. Artists offered an alternative representation based on inter-personal fraternity that hopes to widen its selection and range beyond art world expectations, curated agendas, hyped political correctness, market tendencies and commercialism, censorship and conservative restrains. However there are drawbacks in selection and representation based on fraternity alone, as there are tendencies towards facile mutual promotions between artist organizers, which also limit a wider selection based on the quality of work. The looser curatorial control may overcome more conservative restrains but this may also encourage sensationalism for media attention or superficial thrills, spectacles and other phony excitations.
As invitations to festivals increase our art production is in danger of being more and more directed towards festival presentations rather than an ongoing practice in daily life or critical investigative processes. And for better or worse over enthusiastic organizers tend to invite more number of artists than the time and resources their program have or could comfortably sustain. One of the more obvious results is the proliferation of the 10 to 30 minutes presentations that all of us become well accustomed with as demands made by limited resources allow only short programs of the few days framework that most festivals typically take. In contrast with other media, performance art being a transient and ephemeral form has been consciously used (perhaps more in the past) as a critical tool in opposition towards the commodification of art. Technological advances in photography, video and digital new media has seen an aspiration sometimes reaching over-zealous frenzy to document performance art and also used to produce yet another marketable object or at least some propaganda residue for further dissemination, if not for the sole sake of the increasingly respected significance of archival documentations.
Historically performance art emerged from radical anti-art beginnings with inherent social and ethical dimensions, at times in an underground situation, and had been critical of prevalent social and cultural norms and status quo. As it is being accepted into mainstream institutions, art museums and state initiated mega exhibitions such as bienniales, such universal acceptance may be a triumph of uprooting old ideas of art and cultural production but has it not also lost its critical cutting edge and forgotten its politically charged motivations for social change? Are performance art festivals then becoming promotional fairs for the artists themselves in complicity with global capitalism and market driven consumer society? What alternative agenda do artists intend to seek that may confront the propagandistic motivations or nationalistic, neo-imperialistic spectacles of the institutional and state organized mega exhibitions and not merely using it as self-promotional enterprises mirrored or modeled after the trade fairs of a prevalent ubiquitous global capitalism?
“Perfurbance #3” appears to set out to continue situating performance art as an intense and radical practice and providing the festival as a valid alternative platform by delineating and advocating various socially charged themes alongside its performance art program. Although it began in 2005 in the city of Jogjakarta confronting themes of urbanization and industrialization in the midst of globalization it now re-locates its venue to Kampung Gemblangan (Gemblangan Village). From the busy Malioboro Street and open public spaces, parks in the vicinity of Parliament Building and the National Palace, “Perfurbance #1 and #2” confronted loaded issues of urbanization, education, global capitalism and social inequities. “Perfurbance #3” owes its shift in venue to the earthquake occurring in May 27, 2006 that brought out a deeper relationship between Iwan Wijono and the artists of “Performance Klub” who joined volunteers and activists in helping Kampung Gemblangan villagers overcome the effects of the earthquake. This relationship had earned the trust among the villagers of allowing the local and foreign artists to stay with families, whose houses were destroyed during the quake and rebuilt in Kampung Gemblangan while participating in “Perfurbance #3”.
The staging of “Perfurbance #3” was not only an alternative platform for 50 odd performance artists but also included traditional dance, music and indigenous rituals, the five days program was also impressively packed with seminars, forums and workshops on alternative health care, emergency relief, alternative education, organic farming and nutrition, political ideology, social customs, community self-help and mutual assistance (Bahasa Indonesian:‘gotong royong’)attitudes. In the midst of such an overloaded intensive program albeit of relevant contents to various hard questions of our time and commendable idealistic ambitions to seek resolutions via the art process, I must admit that I had bouts of cynicism and doubts of what “Perfurbance #3” was trying to achieve and if it was successful? It became difficult to describe my experience at the end. Perhaps I was being shaken to the point of “spiritually renewal” as its sub-title proclaimed however I came away filled to the brim with quandary as to what we are “perfurbing” here?
Although many of the seminars and forums were not well attended I tried hard to observe a major part of the proceedings, marveling at the courageous efforts of the organizers in putting together such a fine aspiration into reality. I nodded sleepily at some discussions, groped to follow some of the translations and offered some of my half-baked opinions on issues brought out by the better-informed activists or committed social workers. It became more like witnessing a performance or ritual, which I could not fully understand or absorb, sometimes due to the disruptive flow of the speeches as they are being sketchily translated, or out of my own fatigue and exhaustion from the intensive program, not to mention the late night parties and discussions. But somehow one gathers bits of information and feels the need to acknowledge our fortune at the chance to hear the sincerity and earnestness of these speakers. All who confronted and re-assessed the prevalent tyrannical status quo with alternative perspectives of substantial, valid possibilities sorely, sadly, sporadically ignored by mainstream society at large. A world seemingly choosing to remain corrupted by fear, greed and power although we are facing crises of global dimensions, which may lead to our self-destruction if we continue unabated.
Some of the performances suffered from probable fatigue and the excessive program for as the days go by we found lesser crowds. Though there were many interesting performances one wonders how well the artists mostly with an urban consciousness were able to sympathize or synch their work with the rural site and its recent recovery from a disaster. Perhaps we need a longer time to process the unique scenario and environment in order to comprehend and respond more deeply the experience of being in the aftermath of an earthquake most of us only read or heard about in the news. Besides coping with an earthquake there is the ongoing struggle of life in current Indonesian society. Alongside forums and workshops on such imposing themes as survey on religious, traditional, spiritual values and tolerance, herbal health care and alternative medicine, alternative education for the prevalent poor in rural as well as urbanized population, organic farming and pollution and environmental problems, one wonder if participating artists could still take their own practices seriously without another self-examination.
As with any event where invitation to one and all are welcome as long as you got the interest and resources to participate, there were high and low points in the performances. There were comic relief from the simple acts of Bruno Mercet of France and local Indonesian groups who satirized social, political and environmental issues if not performance art as well. Sakiko Yamaoka of Japan and Indonesian artists Arahmaini and Cutter made actions in the cemetery to remember the dead via the ones still alive. The raw actions of the Chinese artists from Xi-An contrasted with the refined, calculated actions by NIPAF artists of Japan. W. Christiawan of Bandung, Indonesia gave a graphic, moving tribute to the earthquake victims. He laid himself in a body length metal tray atop a table while gradually the audience surrounded him with more and more lighted red candles. As the candles burned, the melted red wax flowed around him and the increasing heat made us grimace while his body curled up as he tried to lift his torso and limbs from the tray until he was balancing only on his butt. A simple but rare work of art was enacted where the body meets social context.
Can we still maintain the sovereignty and neutrality of conceptual art from social tensions and political uncertainties? Do we need to plant plastic materials in the fields or incense petrol in rituals to make a statement about ecological and energy issues? Is it necessary to mutilate our bodies and shed our blood in order to assert the pain of human suffering? Perhaps Iwan Wijono’s performance could be an allegory of what we were “perfurbing” here. He wore a smart batik shirt and songkok like a politician or bureaucrat, asked some audience to hold and prop up a long (about 4 meters) bamboo ladder and climbed it. At his elevated position he threw out crumpled papers with names of plants on it for those lucky enough to catch and exchange for the said potted seedlings of fruit trees to bring home and plant them in their grounds around their homes. Was Iwan playing the fool or the sage or the artist of privilege or the political man of power? One who elevates himself with the help of others and the willingness of the people to put one of our own up above the rest with hope and promise? What were we expecting? Will this give us a better chance dealing with our present day disarrays and dilemma? Were our expectations driven by selfish desire or promises of rewards that only a few would get the chance to actualize and profit directly from it, however many more can still share the dream of their future fruition?
Our perception and description of contemporary society, global complexities and reality with its myriad dimensions may be like the ancient story of the blind men trying to describe an elephant. As artists of live performance actions, participants and organizers of such an event as “Perfurbance #3”, we are also deliberating the elephantine reality with the intention of providing the varied possible potential responses though restricted by our human limits. Grope we must if not we would be caught in the inertia of compliance for only with preceding dreams comes the responsibilities for subsequent changes.
30 March 2008
Perfurbance #3, “Spiritual Renewal”, Yogyakarta.
Spiritual Renewal: Performance Art Urban Festival