To be as visible as possible
Dramaturge Jeroen Versteele in conversation with Meg Stuart and Jompet Kuswidananto
Jeroen Versteele: What brought you together for this production?
Meg Stuart: I was invited to make a project for Europalia Indonesia and considered revisiting the themes of memories and ghosts. Arco Renz, the curator of Europalia, subsequently introduced me to Jompet. We spent a long day together in Berlin, saw two performances, ate dinner, we walked around. That was our beginning.
Jompet Kuswidananto: Later, we met again in my hometown of Yogyakarta which is also known as Jogja, on the island of Java. The musicians Mieko Suzuki and Ikbal Simamora Lubys also came, as did the lighting designer Jan Maertens. We visited historical places together and shared stories about personal and political traumas.
Stuart: Jompet took us on walking tours of the city and we visited the campus of his old college. Here, he re-enacted the demonstrations that took place during the student revolution of ‘98, when the dictator Suharto was overthrown, and described his memories of the events. Everything in Indonesia – the atmosphere, the mood, the way people live and how they work and create art – is still influenced by the rapidly shifting politics, as well as the various religions and traditions. We also saw exhibitions, concerts and an incredible street performance...
Kuswidananto: Jatilan, a traditional magical dance from Java in which the performers enter a trance.
Stuart: The jatilan blew me away. In one sense, it felt like a sacred ritual, but on the other hand, it also seemed very chaotic. Some of the opening movements were quite minimal but then, and totally unexpectedly, the dancers entered into a trance. Sometimes they imploded in a formal manner, at other times in a very expressive, dramatic way. They were visited by animals and deities and their ritual costumes were altered by their everyday clothes. It was impossible to tell what was real and what was fake. I couldn’t identify who was a shaman and who was helping, who was being healed, who was sick and who was cured, or if they even wanted to get to their feet again... Nothing was explained. I don’t think the performers themselves knew exactly what was going to happen. It seemed endless. And then, after two hours or so, they would loop back to the beginning and start all over again, guided by the music, which went on and on and on. The many layers of the performance, its radical physicality, and the disorientation I felt while watching it, were all extremely compelling.
Kuswidananto: We also went to a public square where traders rent out hundreds of bicycles and pedal cars decorated with blinking lights. It’s a huge attraction. The square becomes a sort of dreamland, a wonderland.
Stuart: It was a place for escape and fantasy. One of the cars had bright flashing neon lights that read: ‘I LOVE JOGJA’ ‘I LOVE JOGJA’. Which made you think: is this a statement of fact, or is it their way of cheering up the nocturnal visitors? People seemed really happy there, surrounded by bright, flashing, colourful lights. It was impressive.
Kuswidananto: There used to be ‘sound competitions’ in the east of Java: trucks laden with sound blasters would cruise the streets, music blaring. It was banned because of safety issues, so people started to make miniature versions of the trucks, on which they would install loudspeakers. Their main intention, with regard to playing the music, is to showcase the range of their sound system, from the deepest basses to the highest frequencies.
Versteele: How can you explain this fascination for the chaotic use of noise and bright lights?
Kuswidananto: During the dictatorship, not everybody was allowed to speak. People were forced to express themselves through alternative channels, just to be noticed. The tendency you describe is therefore part of a tradition. When Suharto’s regime was toppled in 1998, the people were euphoric: they could finally use their voices to express themselves. Nowadays, people are still taking to the streets and speaking out in public. Every day, they bring crates to stand on, or drive trucks full of speakers in front of the president’s palace. They want to perform. It’s what I would call a performative democracy. This has long been an important topic in my work. How do people use their voices? How do Indonesians make themselves heard? How is it possible to be louder than everyone else? How can I be as visible as possible? Metaphorically speaking, the abundance of light reflects the hope of enlightenment, the desire to emerge from the shadows. At the same time, people are obsessed with darkness. They are afraid of disappearing, of being invisible. I’m very interested in this kind of tension.
Stuart: I think that this process of articulation, of speaking up, of excavating what’s been hidden and bringing it into the light, is a movement of transformation. You burn it up. For many years, I’ve been thinking about ghosts as unfinished business, and the way in which unresolved conflicts affect both our presence and our movements. Our bodies are constantly shuttling between objects, sounds, lights, voices and unprocessed events from the past. This might awaken a dormant presence, whether we like it or not. I’ve always wanted to make a choreography about light and sound moving through the space, triggered by voices, as though part of a secret network. The voice is not something that you can hold, it’s a part of you and yet it’s not. During rehearsals, we experimented with fragments of songs, with the emotional depth of sound, with breathing, with proto-linguistic utterances, with whispering and distortion, with rhythm. Not only to create a sound concert, but to research what it might release in the body. How does it affect your emotions, and what memories does it evoke?
Versteele: Do any lingering traces of the dictatorship still move you as an artist, Jompet?
Kuswidananto: My memories of the dictatorship are very strong. As children, for example, we’d all be taken to see an anti-communist film. Every year, the teachers would take us to the cinema to see it, like shepherds herding their flock. The film shows how the communists of the 30 September Movement kidnapped and murdered six Indonesian generals during a coup in 1965. It was an early 1980s propaganda film that was trying to legitimize the events of 1965-66, when the dictator’s troops executed millions of acclaimed communist sympathizers. The images of the ruthless, merciless communists that we saw in the film are etched into our memories. Even today, the majority of Indonesians believe that the mass killings of the so-called communists and leftists was a good and just thing. The propaganda still represents the truth for many contemporary Indonesians.
Versteele: You once wrote that you hear the movie’s soundtrack in your head when you wake up too early.
Kuswidananto: Yes! Because the kidnappings and killings happened at dawn, I hear the eerie soundtrack of that scene whenever I lie awake in bed at five or six o’clock in the morning. Many of my friends, people of the same generation, have similar experiences. The national trauma is implanted in our brains.
Versteele: Suharto’s regime is not only associated with trauma but also with a ban, at one point, on sad songs. This inspired our research into melancholic music and sorrow in general.
Kuswidananto: During the economically prosperous years of the dictatorship, around 1986-87, the regime wanted to promote development. As a result, they banned sad songs. It was only permissible to play happy music. Broadcasting a sad song was an act of subversion. I was very young at the time and didn’t want to hear sad songs either. It was only after the dictatorship that I understood the absurdity of the diktat.
Versteele: Why did they consider sad songs to be a threat to prosperity?
Stuart: It’s funny, but sad songs seem so innocent and comforting, how could they possibly be dangerous? But in reality, they are the warning sign of dissatisfaction. Sad songs fuel longing, they suggest nostalgia, or a desire for an unknown future. You can’t build a city on sadness.
Versteele: Perhaps sadness can be a motivating factor? It might inspire you to change something. Can’t it be also constructive?
Stuart: If you’re sad because of a situation that you know you cannot change, or if you long for something you can’t have, at the precise moment when you dive into that feeling, sadness isn’t constructive. There’s no construction in disappointment. It doesn’t make things better. Of course, for the human soul, sadness creates a connection, it’s a step towards compassion and understanding and sympathy. Sadness is unproductive but essential. And it’s always around the corner.
Versteele: Do you have any rituals?
Stuart: I can embrace rituals, but I don’t keep them for very long. I sometimes write three pages in the morning, just after waking. Or I meditate. When I go into a new theatre, or if I feel as though I want to reinvigorate my home, I smudge the space with ashes of sage. Saging is when you burn a sort of incense to clear and cleanse the space. It gets rid of old energies. And then you need to open the windows. (laughs)
Kuswidananto: I do something similar. Like most Javanese people, when I enter a new space, I mentally greet the spirits who live there. I can’t translate the exact greeting that crosses my mind then, it’s something like “excuse me, pardon”.
Versteele: Did your parents teach you that habit?
Kuswidananto: No, it’s something that was passed on by my childhood friends. If we were playing outside and needed to pee against a tree, we’d always excuse ourselves beforehand. We thought there might be a spirit hiding in the branches. Somehow, it has become an unconscious tradition that whenever I deal with a new space, I feel as though I’m interfering with new and invisible entities. So you have to politely knock on their door. This tradition is rooted in animism, like all religious beliefs in Indonesia. If you were to remove all the religions, the animist traditions would still remain.
Stuart: When we were in Indonesia, we performed a beautiful ritual together. According to the Javanese calendar, we were there on New Year’s Eve. But it’s not a moment for parties or celebrations. Instead, people go for a walk outside and reflect, silently. We met at around midnight and, without speaking, walked through the city together, through the streets that were, as usual, full of traffic. We encountered other people doing the same thing.
Kuswidananto: Literally translated, the name of this ritual is ‘muted walk’.
Versteele: To return to the jatilan performance you witnessed in Yogyakarta: we deal with trance and possession during rehearsals. Possession, both voluntary and involuntary, is a universal phenomenon. You find it, in different forms, in every part of the world and in all religions. What does possession mean for you?
Kuswidananto: I’ve never been possessed myself, and I’m not totally convinced that it actually happens. But I can connect to the idea of it. Becoming somebody or something else can be a very good exercise in terms of empathy.
Stuart: I see possession as a fiction, as well. It’s a state that we, as dancers, strive towards when we improvise. Even if we don’t know exactly what that means, it’s something we can imagine. And for me, what we can imagine, we can dance. Possession compels you to let go of everything that holds you in its grip: your history, your expectations, your sadness. Perhaps possession can only take place if you’re ready to share your mental space, your unconscious mind, with unknown forces.