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A new look on Indonesian performances

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"Performance events have long been central to the life of Indonesian societies in displaying power, affirming social relations and celebrating shared values, while also providing space for social and political critique" (p.1). But today, in the second decade of the twenty-first century, has their role remained unchanged? What impact did the fall of President Suharto’s regime in 1998, and the resulting democratization and decentralization of the country, have on their social impact and political role? How have the traditional art forms changed as a result of the meeting with global culture? What was the effect of liberalization of the media and the abolition of censorship?
In June 2010 in Yogyakarta a meeting of researchers, cultural activists and artists from Indonesia, the Netherlands and Australia took place. It was devoted to the discussion of the role and nature of performances in post-Suharto Indonesia. The book is the result of their reflection, observation and research. First it had the form of presentations at a meeting in Yogyakarta. Afterwards, developed into 12 articles, it was published first in Indonesian, then in English. The last chapter is a record of three opinions in the discussion relating to the key issues for each of the authors: whether the 1998 census (referring to the period of Orde Baru) is really necessary for talking about today's art? How to define and understand the concept of community? And finally, what problems and challenges do artists face at the beginning of the twenty-first century?

Javanese Culture
The authors attempt to show "the role of performance in expressing the identities of specific social groups, while also engaging with technological change and global cultural influence" (p.7). The first chapters focus on Java: the authors discuss the role of theatre and other performing arts in the shaping of local identities and small communities. Barbara Hatley focuses her attention on two cities in Central Java, Yogyakarta and Surakarta, for centuries considered as kind of cultural centers of Java and sanctuaries of tradition cherished in the palaces of the sultans. The author shows that tradition can coexist with modernity. The artists who dealt with censorship and the existing regime in their work, today tend to focus more on local recipients and problems of small communities. "The very absence of an overarching nationalist discourse and movement of political resistance may add to the sense of responsibility of performing artists to engage with problems, imagine solutions, dream new dreams" (p. 43).
Yoshi Fajar Kresno Murti focuses on the smallest parts of the Indonesian community, kampungs, and describes the project 'Babad Kampung' (Neighbourhood Histories) carried out in a sample of nine neighbourhoods in Yogyakarta in 2008. The residents, invited to the project, were to prepare performances of their own choosing, showing the history of the place. According to the author it allowed for the deconstruction of the centralized image of the history imposed on Indonesians in the time of Orde Baru. At the same time it allowed the actors-residents to build new, or to strengthen existing, communities. Kresno Murti considers neighbourly interactions the most important element in establishing the identity of communities. Alexandra Crosby also writes about kampungs in the third chapter while describing 'Festival Mata Air' (Festival of Water) held in the town of Salatiga in Central Java. She shows how the festival, which grew out of a local initiative, turned into a venue of activists and artists from different backgrounds. It then transformed into an event with a global impact thanks to the involvement of social media. As a result, a new local-global community has been founded.
The fourth chapter, by Rachmah Ida, is devoted to community building, based on new media in Surabaya (East Java). The author analyzes the television program Cangkrukan (Gathering), in which guests invited to the studio meet in the reconstructed scenery of the central meeting place of each kampung, gardu. They discuss, using the local language, their most important problems. The program has earned its popularity primarily due to the power of creating a virtual neighborhood. The second of the projects discussed by the author, the Surabaya 'AV Nerds' community, shows how communities become united through new media and new technologies. In conclusion, the author notes: "The end of the New Order era has stirred the production of new forms of community in Indonesia. These communities involve not only communal gatherings of people, but also the collective production of cultural values, political insights, and creative ideas shared among the members" (p.96).
Conclusions put forward by Rachmah Ida are developed by Edwin Jurriëns in the next chapter devoted to video art communities from different regions of Java. Communities created by young artists have ambitions to become an alternative to the existing world of art. The resulting works are often political, critical towards existing order, provoking discussion. Video communities are created in a new way, not based on ethnic, linguistic, religious, political or ideological community, not based on neighborly ties. "What binds these people together is usually a shared concern about one or more broad artistic and/or social issues [...] they create environments for discussing, criticizing and sometimes providing solutions to key issues of Indonesia's democratic present and future" (p. 115).

Non-Javanese Culture
The next three chapters go beyond the field of Javanese culture and describe three different regions of Indonesia: Bali (Chapter 6), Sunda (Chapter 7) and Aceh (Chapter 8). Brett Hough justifies how, in the case of Bali, the change of political system had no significant effect on the shape and role of the performances of Balinese daily life. Most performers continue to cultivate tradition, thus fulfilling the expectations of the society and tourists to whom they sell 'authentic' Balinese culture. Despite the dominant role of tradition, however, more artists appear to be trying to creatively combine tradition with modernity. "There are beginnings of potentially significant developments in certain areas such as celebrations of locality, including multi-ethnic definitions of local identity [...]" (p. 143). Both Bali and Sunda, discussed in the following chapter by Neneng Lahpan and Wawan Sofwan, base their different culture on ethnic identity. However, Sunda, located in the western part of Java, unlike Bali, remained for centuries in the shadow of dominant Javanese culture and the expanding Jakarta. "The process of local linguistic and cultural revival has been encouraged by the Post-Reform era socio-political climate, which has opened up opportunities for the expression of local consciousness without the fear of its being labelled 'separatist' or 'anti-nationalist'. The voicing of local identity is no longer seen as a threat to the central government, as was the case during the New Order period" (p. 164). The Sundanese-language drama festival is an example given to encourage the youngest generation to identify themselves with their language and the culture of the ethnic minority to which they belong.
Chapter 8, devoted to the special region of Aceh, on the northern end of Sumatra, shows the difficult situation of the performing arts torn between two rival forces. Reza Idria describes the actions of activists and artists who want to rebuild a sense of community after the  insurgency (1976-2005) and tsunami that struck the region in 2004. They try to restore the memory of shared history and culture of the people of Aceh. On the other hand, syariah Islamic law, assuming a very strict religious and moral control becomes the dominant force accepted by the province. "The current situation has not resulted in dynamic developments in performance like those occurring in other regions in the regional autonomy era, but instead in ongoing repression, as military curfew and censorship are replaced by the moral and religious controls of syariah Islam" (p. 13).

Indonesian Diaspora
Chapters 9 and 10 go outside Indonesia showing the situation of the Indonesian Diaspora in Australia (Chapter 9) and the Netherlands (Chapter 10). Aline Scott-Maxwell examines examples of three gamelan groups run by Australians with Indonesian roots or by Indonesians living in Australia, showing the activities of the Australian-Indonesian cultural network. Fridus Steijlen describes the changing reality of Indonesians living in the Netherlands, the country of their former colonizer, with the example of changes in the performances shown during the Pasar Malam Tong Tong (Tong Tong Night Fair). Their selection depended on the current policy of Indonesia, but it was also a reflection of political tensions in Indonesia-Netherlands relationships. Both chapters show that changes in Indonesia itself are also reflected in performances outside the country, and the transformation of communities also concerns the Indonesian Diaspora.

The Voice of the Indonesian Artists
The last two chapters were written by Indonesian writers who are also active participants in the world of art: curator Alia Swastika (Chapter 11), and the actor and writer associated with Teater Garasi from Yogyakarta, Ugoran Prasad (Chapter 12). Alia Swastika analyses the audience, an often neglected 'component' of performances. With the example of three selected art venues from Jakarta the author presents the interaction between audience and artists, how the tastes of the contemporary middle-class already accustomed to having access to global culture are shaped, and finally she shows the impact of new media and the Internet on the perception of art. Ugoran Prasad describes a 2009 symposium on performance, during which representatives of various artistic communities across Indonesia met to discuss, among others, the relations of art with religion, politics, history and sexuality.
The book edited by Barbara Hatley and Brett Hough results in very interesting and rich issues. Although, as Hatley admits in the introduction, the image of Indonesia presented in the book is extremely fragmented. Only a few regions of the country have been described, research is focused largely around Java, which unwittingly sustains the image of the dominant Javanese culture in Indonesia, the image formed during the Orde Baru.
For the authors, as the title already promises, the main thing was to show the role of performances in shaping identity and building community in contemporary Indonesia. The largest archipelago in the world is characterized by great regional diversity and the book presents the cultural wealth of the country. Even the smallest communities cultivate and support their own culture, form their own local identities whilst at the same time are under the influence of central and local politics. Observing the changes occurring in traditional art forms influenced by progressive democratization and globalization seems to be especially important now. Performances, which on the one hand interact socially, on the other hand also fulfil a political role, may be the key to understanding contemporary Indonesia.

Marianna Lis, Institute of Art, Polish Academy of Sciences; Theatre Studies Department, The Aleksander Zelwerowicz National Academy of Dramatic Art in Warsaw (

citation: Lis, M. 2016. Review of Hatley, B. and Hough, B. (eds.) 2015. "Performing Contemporary Indonesia: Celebrating Identity, Constructing Community", posted on on 24 March 2016;

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