Friday, September 23, 2011

Another Oz/Indo Collaboration

Australian Cultural Residency Vignettes
by Triyanto Triwikromo
First published in Indonesian in Suara Merdeka, February, 2008.
The writer was a participant in the Gang Festival Literary Residency in Sydney, Australia in 2008.

Transversal Waves from the Gang Festival
Great events do not have to be born from grand festivals or mega flashy stages. It is highly possible for a small yet inspirational festival to lead to stories that resound with an acute power to astonish and create unending transversal cultural waves.

The small lane was called Pine Street. In that lane, filled with paintings and sculptures from Australian-Indonesian artists, I began my literary residency activity in the Land of the Kangaroo, 17 January till 7 February 2008. It was in the Pine Street Creative Arts Centre with Rebecca Conroy and Alexandra Crosby (Gang Festival Co-artistic Directors) to be precise, that myself and Jan Cornall, the Sydney-based writer of the novel Take Me to Paradise, were able to convey some literary ideas in an event entitled Gang Tulis and Literary Lesehan on the 19January (Writers’ Lane and Casual Literature).

What did we do then? Unlike the usual literary celebrations in my homeland, Jan and I exhibited our works (by sticking book covers and photocopies of short stories) on the walls of a hallway that participants had to pass through on their way to the discussion. Not only that. Jan also neatly arranged her novel and compact disc Jan Cornall Singing Srengenge on the discussion table, whilst I spread my short story anthologies, Children Sharpening the Knives and Malam Sepasang Lampion (The Night a Pair of Lanterns) in an artistically messy style – on the table which was also being used to sell jamu kunir asem (turmeric tamarind herbal medicine drinks).

Then, guided and interpreted by Indonesian cultural commentator Suzan Piper, Jan and I spoke about everything that I was planning to do in my literary residency supported by the Dewan Kesenian Semarang (Semarang Arts Council), the daily newspaper Suara Merdeka, Kharisma Pena Kencana (Jakarta), Kaisa Rossie travel bureau (Semarang), Padepokan Bumi Walisongo (Pati), Capung Organizer (Semarang) and the restaurant Mirasa (Kensington).
Starting from the premise of frequent perceptual misunderstandings between Australia and Indonesia in various fields, we are indeed now collaborating to write the book Reading the Signs (Tafsir Isyarat). The book will contain seven short stories with Indonesian settings and characters written by Jan Cornall and seven short stories with Australian settings and characters written by me.

Three Letters
Of course at that time we could not yet show the results of this collaboration. Instead I chose to read my essay ‘Tiga Surat (Bukan) Cinta untuk Jan Cornall’ (Three Non Love Letters to Jan Cornall). In those letters indeed I speak of the misunderstandings of Australians surrounding the fundamentalism, liberalism and silent majority that is developing in Indonesia. Concerning fundamentalism I said to our audience:
It’s an intertextuality. It never exists in a single form, complete in its own singular self. It always appears in plural or dispersed forms. Thus if you continue to consider that only the Forum Pembela Islam (Muslim Defenders’ Forum) is rightfully viewed as fundamentalist, you are making a big mistake. Those who wanted to ban the making of Garin Nugroho’s film Opera Jawa for reputedly belittling Rama-Sinta are also fundamentalists in their wish to defend their gods.
That’s why in my country fundamentalism is not identical to Islam or terrorism. In my country Christians who commonly say ‘When you are struck on your right cheek, offer your left one’ are also capable of killing Muslims. My country with its Muslim majority can also give birth to Muslims who kill other Muslims with modern techniques. Yes, yes I consider the people involved in the killing of (human rights lawyer) Munir to be fundamentalists as well.

Concerning liberalism I also blabbed on to Jan:
No doubt you consider that in modern societies the liberals prefer liberal democracy with open and fair general elections, which allow all citizens to have equal rights under the law and the same opportunities to succeed. And yet in my country liberalism is something humorous, an intermezzo and sometimes merely the butt of jokes. And the joke about the Liberal Infidel Network hits home the best. It is a way of convincing the public that liberalism is just a dream. It is something equally as absurd to imagine as existing freely in our country as all the other sorts of isms such as terror, horror and humour that are given rein to here.

Then about the silent majority I only muttered:
It is a sort of cultural wave or tsunami that strikes from time to time. The silent majority, you should know, in fact grows out of something that Goenawan Mohamad considers to be the ethics of humility. This is an ethics of viewing oneself humbly, and because of that humility, respecting other people, respecting the other.
Reactions to this text of mine were quite varied. Jan said the text had encouraged Australians – like her – to reinterpret their understandings of Indonesia.

‘Wow, your thoughts should be heard by a wider circle. Let’s re-perform this text of yours at the Consulate,’ said Deva Permana. This musician from Bandung, who currently resides in Sydney, was not just being polite. He subsequently invited Ernezto Messakh (keyboard player) and Ron Reeves (flautist) to arrange a musical composition that could be used to respond to the rather long essay. Finally together with the music group Kuno Kini and rapper Nova we indeed did perform at the Wisma Indonesia. Beyond expectations this performance made people ask about my other works.

‘Does this performance already have a CD recording?’ asked someone.
‘Not yet. But I have a book that can explain my views about Australia.’ God have mercy! As soon as the show was over the audience rushed for my book – which was selling for twenty Australian dollars. This made Deva keen to put on another show at the Indonesian Embassy in Canberra. ‘Only we must include Jan Cornall so there is a response presenting the Australian view.’

Eventually the ‘Indonesian-Australian instant group’ wrote a new composition for Jan Cornall’s performance. The composition which was more ‘Western’ in style was in response to Jan Cornall’s ‘essay reply’ to mine. Jan, who is indeed a performer and singer, performed the essay skilfully in the Anton Aalbers Common Room, Toad Hall, Australian National University. ‘This made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end,’ said Bandung painter Syaiful. ‘I was moved. I cried watching your performance.’

And so it was. From the small lane everything flowed unimpeded crossing other spaces and times. The Gang Festival, which was very underground in nature, had blasted a small performance into a larger and different event. It had become a transversal cultural wave.

A Mini Indonesia in a Slice of Sydney
Prophets, physicians, shamans, even maestros are often ordinary people who are not well-known in their hometown. Rudy Ardianto, the artist from Salatiga who now lives in Sydney, is also one of those people. ‘Unknown’ by the Indonesian art world, the polite man who manages TUK (Tanam Untuk Kehidupan – Planting for Life) has in fact become one of the important icons of the Sydney underground art scene. Even more surprising is the fact that it was at the Pine Street Creative Arts Centre that I came across the results of his creative activities, that include running the Festival Mata Air (Water Spring Festival) in Kalitaman, Salatiga. Since there were also artistic photos of the arts celebration at the Senjoyo and Kalitaman springs displayed on the walls, my thoughts naturally leapt to the problematic possible closure of these public baths, formerly known as Kaligedong, and other public spaces in Salatiga. ‘It’s not possible to fight for ‘caring for the environment’ only in your own town. That’s why I also displayed works linked to defending the environment here,’ said Rudy.
Rudy who is in fact one of the participants and moving forces in the Gang Festival did not only bring works to do with water. He also brought Imam Bucah’s rich mini sculptures made from scrap wood. Rudy it seems, wishes to inform the world about how grand works of art can be born out of recycled materials.

That is why when viewing the works on display – which included the paintings of Bob Sick and installations of S. Teddy D’s in that ‘mini gallery’ – what I saw in fact was the sensation of a small Indonesia constructed from re-used goods. Indonesia in this way although consisting of old materials could nevertheless be represented anew. It became something fresh through the perceptions of Rudy and friends: something unique, fascinating and freshly illuminating for others who view Indonesia from across the ocean.

Another Indonesia
At the Gang Festival – especially the part put on at Bill + George Creative Studios – I also discovered the sensation of a small Indonesia in other forms. I met rapper Nova – daughter of Indonesian rocker Totok Tewel – who belted out truly inspirational rap songs in Indonesian. She criticised people who do not love the environment. She hilariously attacked people enslaved by stupidity and in league with pollution through her song ‘Smoke.’ Nova, who is still quite young, seems to be a singer from another sort of Indonesia. ‘I can’t be stopped from talking about things that disturb my common sense. I know that Australians – even the women – like to smoke. But to be honest I must criticise their unsound behaviour,’ said this cute girl who was on her three-month musical residency of Australia.

An equally unique appearance was that of the group KunoKini. This Jakarta- based group, playing various traditional musical instruments, bravely took on the songs ‘Rasa Sayang’ and ‘Yamko Rambe Yamko’ in ‘full cool’ arrangements. Given the opportunity to perform their songs with mostly reggae and rock influenced rhythms with an Afro beat, these four young men Bhismo, Bebi, Fizy and Akbar communicated well with the Australian audience. They also performed the composition entitled ‘Techno Java’, mixing various types of Javanese musical rhythms in a modern musical structure, forming a bridge between Java and the outside world, or at least Australia. ‘All we want is for our music to be heard by the young. One way is to play various traditional musical instruments the way they want it. Till now they consider us to be cool players of traditional instruments,’ said Bhismo, the leader of the group which is about to perform in Croatia.

The Indonesia that is not being shaken by the ’arts auction tumult’ can also be found in the installation works of Djuadi and Exi. These two eccentric guys from the Blora-based anakseribupulau (Children of a Thousand Islands) community were also in an arts residency in Sydney. They do not want the earth to be destroyed by anyone and this view is reflected in their installation works which in general depicted the arbitrary treatment of nature by the industrial world. ‘Indonesia doesn’t just belong to the people at the top. People you don’t even know have the right to save Indonesia from the gluttony of greedy people,’ said Exi who is an expert at playing crazy dangdut songs.

Well, they are the friends who, for one to three months, enjoyed a cultural residency through the support of various sponsors, funding bodies, and of course the moving forces of the Gang Festival itself. Although they did not act in the name of, nor were they funded by the state, yet they still brought all the scratches, beauty, jokes and complaints, as well as other Indonesian phenomena. ‘Indonesia is top, Man!’ said Exi.

The Underground
What did raise a question was why the festival, held in this gang or lane, was called Sydney underground art? Did the participants have to appear ‘underground’? The first question can be easily answered. To view ‘legitimate art’ people may at any time visit the Sydney Opera House. Indeed almost all types of ‘clean’ art like Nigel Jamieson’s work The Theft of Sita or Shaun Parker’s This Show is About People can be nicely watched at this extremely representative theatre venue almost every day. However, shows that are difficult, unconventional, anti-establishment, that attempt to overcome various world problems in a creative way, cannot always be found in such ‘polite spaces’. This is why the Gang Festival indeed designed a display of art, music, literature, or whatever was considered to be ‘special’. It was this extraordinary quality that enabled the ‘lane’ to be conjured into a gallery and a stage displaying beauty. There was no need for those fine paintings to feel a need to drop their prices because they were shown in alleyways.

Of course not every participant felt a need to appear dressed like a crazy person. I was one of the participants who did not appear with a punk haircut. I was also not one of the participants to come to the forum with long hair, clothes in tatters and a body covered with tattoos. However, to Rebecca Conroy and Alexandra Crosby I said: ‘It’s my stories that are underground. So my craziness is apparent from my thoughts. I will present Sydney’s controversies in underground stories that will be unsuspected by the people of Sydney.’

I do not know whether these two sweet girls discovered my underground side whilst I was in Sydney. What was clear was that they were satisfied and that they will give me the chance to present the results of my literary residency some time in the future. Well, finally we should be grateful that the mini Indonesia – that emerged from the various Indonesian artists that were invited to Australia – indeed eventually showed its potential to colour a slice of Sydney.

More info re Gang Festival

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