Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Oregon Country Fair

Two weeks ago, I had the fun adventure of participating in the 'Oregon Country Fair', a classic hippie gathering in the woods near Eugene, Oregon, boasting everything from live music, street parades, painted bodies, and some excellent performers. The first time I went to the Oregon Country Fair I was sixteen years old, and to me then it seemed like a utopia of rainbows and wacky performances, costumes and wafts of marijuana. At 26, after spending two years in Indonesia and prior time abroad as well, I find myself more skeptical of that 'hippie' stuff, in many ways I don't feel myself as connected to it as I might have in the past. In spite of that, I took the opportunity offered by my good friends Gary and Liza from Seattle to take part in their 'Mighty Tiny Puppet Stage' and create a performance to perform two times a day at the fair, in collaboration with my boyfriend Lilik, who is newly arrived in America for his first time from Indonesia.

Oh overwhelming!! In the end the preparation for the performance was a bit more than I had expected, given the fact that we'd only been in America for a short time, still juggling everything between cultural adjustment, family, friends and being back. That in addition to my continuous search for what kind of performance I do want to create. My performance over the years has been such a mish mash of so many different things, sometimes I don't even know how to pin it down anymore!!

The result of our search for an idea came to this: instead of being a basic 'puppet show', which I've strayed away from for a while in hopes of not getting locked into anything too specific, we decided to blend the world of Mr. Matterly, the famous green-headed know-it-all puppet from a previous show I did, 'The Secret Life of Isabel Jukes', with the world of the West Javanese mask dance I've been studying recently in Indonesia, 'Tari Topeng Cirebon'. This way, the audience would still have the visual eye candy of puppetry and masks, in addition to seeing something new and different, that of the dance, and perhaps even learn something about that place so far away that not many people, especially in America because it's so darn far, have even heard of!

The result in the end was great, at least we felt like it was! The audience seemed to be mesmerized, especially the children, with lots of questions to ask afterwards like: "How do you hold the mask on with your face?" (with my teeth), "Where is Indonesia?" (south of Malaysia, which is below Thailand, and spanning in an archipelago of islands to the east, above Australia...!), and even a flattering one or two: "Do you do this dance professionally?" (well, um, not yet, still learning, which is why I'm returning to Indonesia in November!) Among other things....

The more I do performance, the more I learn that every time is a new experiment. The performance I did with Lilik at the Oregon Country Fair was a completely new attempt, as I've yet to perform a lot of Indonesian dance, especially publically, or dance in general, although it's something I've always loved to learn and do. That, in combination with puppetry and exploring new ways to meld some of the many things I do love doing together into one, which is a challenging task, but definitely one that I want to continue to conquer. That, in combination with some of the amazing performances I saw at the fair (The Yard Dogs, Jason Webley, Gamelan X, a hilariously funny guy who called himself 'Donny Wu' with a New York accent and tried to preach his yoga philosophy to the audience, with products for sale and all...!), resulted to be a truly inspiring experience, both from my own efforts to explore what I do, and from seeing those of others and how they succeed.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

Work In the Roof-tile Factory

When I first arrived in Jatiwangi I didn’t imagine I would find myself working in a roof-tile factory. In Jatiwangi I took part in the Jatiwangi International Performance Artist in Residence (JIPAR) 2006. Participants included artists from all over the world, including Greece, Germany, Australia, Finland and America. I arrived in Jatiwangi early, for a stay of six days, where I resided in the home of the Jatiwangi Art family, a family of four brothers, their lovely wives, children, mothers, aunts and uncles. From there I was taken on tours of the area of Jatiwangi and Jatisura, which is located in the Majalenka area of West Java, an area of spanning rice fields, far-off mountain ranges, and what I would soon come to know well, hundreds of roof-tile factories.

My first introduction to the roof-tile factory was within the Jatiwangi Art Factory itself. Run by some of the family members, the roof-tiles made traditionally by hand by a local staff of about 25 employees. From early in the morning until late at night, hundreds of roof-tiles are in the process of being made, formed from big chunks of clay, laid out to dry and at night stacked into a large brick kiln and burnt to form a nice, solid red clay roof-tile. At night you can hear the crackling of the fire, watching its hot orange flames stretch out to the sky.

Another tour took me to see the modern roof-tile factory. A large compound of sprawling buildings and security gates, large amounts of roof-tiles are produced and packaged every day. Inside the factory was a cacophony of dust, the constant sound of machines and large equipment being moved around continuously. Unlike the traditional factory which sells its roof-tiles locally in Indonesia to neighboring islands like Sumatra and Sulawesi, the modern factory, owned by a French company, exports as far as Italy, France, and America. Although the target daily production in the traditional factory is much less than the modern factory, the amount of staff in the modern factory almost seems less than in the traditional! With the machines doing all the work, less people are needed to do the job.

With a desire to know more about the experience of working in both of these factories, I arranged through the Jatiwangi Art Factory to work two full work days, one in the traditional factory, and one in the modern.

On my first day of work at the traditional factory, I awoke at 5:30am. Arriving to work at 6am on a borrowed bicycle, I was greeted by large smiles of curiosity from the other workers. I was put to work with the women, stacking newly pressed roof-tiles up on large drying racks made from bamboo, and moving the ones from the day before out into the sun from which they would later be taken to burn in the kiln. The smell inside the factory was of earth and clay. Several of the workers had brought their small children to wait while they worked, who played on handmade swings amongst the piles of clay. The sun shone through the wide open doors and dangdut, Indonesian popular music, played on the small radio. Within those eight hours, I was amazed at the agility of these people, their physical strength and ability to work so hard every day at something that is incredibly demanding physically, for a mere pay of 10,000 rupiah (a little more than $1) for one full day’s work. After only two hours, my arms were already tired, my back ached, I was hot and sweaty, but the momentum of everyone working together kept me going until the end. After work I was invited to visit each worker’s home, seeing the simplicity of the way they lived, meeting their children and families, and trying to imagine how their lives might be working hard every day just to manage to put food on the table for their families. What moved me was their generosity, openness, and the constant smiles on their tired faces.

The next day my body felt quite sore, my arms especially. But this didn’t stop me from getting up early once again, and heading to the modern factory to keep my promise of working there for a full day in comparison. Entering the modern factory is much different than entering the traditional. The chaos of sounds and movement of large machines has the ability to instantly throw you off. I was set up to work with a small group of people, both men and women, at the roof-tile forming machine, where clay was put in and formed roof-tiles came out in a long moving line. Each worker had his or her own specific task off cutting off the rough edges, repositioning the tiles, and at the end setting them one after the other on large trays. Once a tray was full it was moved to a drying room and immediately replaced with an empty tray. While it was the same kind of repetitive process as in the traditional factory, I found this work to be draining much more quickly. Not after twenty minutes of work I was already feeling quite lightheaded, difficult to concentrate, my eyes straining to focus on the fast-moving tiles going past me. How, I wondered, could these workers manage to do this every day? I think I would go crazy! But the more I talked with them, the more I understood that working in this factory was not a matter of choice, but a matter of survival. Every day these workers work from seven in the morning, until seven at night, often working overtime due to a high output rate for each day and a slow-working machine, getting paid a mere 25,000 rupiah (about $3) per day. Many of them took special medicine to reduce headaches caused by the fast-moving trays and loud sounds. They managed to survive the hard work by building friendships amongst themselves, making jokes and chatting as they worked. After six hours of work in the modern factory, I went home exhausted, going straight to sleep and trying to shake off the repeated sounds of machines in my head.

In a late-night conversation with some of the workers from the traditional factory, who worked to tend the fire of the kiln, I learned more about the pros and cons of both modern and traditional factories. One con of the traditional factory is the waste of wood used to burn in the kiln. The worker stated that they’re killing the forest to make roof-tiles, but can’t afford to put in a gas burner like those in the modern factory. He also pointed out that the roof-tiles that come out of the modern factory are much stronger, and will last longer than those of the traditional factory. However, life working in the traditional factory seems to be much healthier, with set breaks for eating together and resting every few hours, and no dependence on the non-stop moving machines as in the modern factory. Fresh air and sun came into the room, and the pace of the workers together was in sync and like one big family. Both factories did maintain a strong connection between all the workers, and a continual sense of togetherness and commitment to work based on survival. The traditional factory workers wage was lower, based on the fact that prices for materials to make roof-tiles have recently gone up, and it was all that the factory owners could afford to pay their employees. Higher pay depends on action from the government to take charge of laborers rights and honor the work that they do as essential to the economy.

Through my two days of work, I managed to get an idea of what life might be like for the people who work in these factories every day. However, my experience is still far from complete. I would have to work there for a year, living on the wages that the other workers are living on, going to work every day six days a week to really know what the experience of working in a factory is like. As an artist, I had the advantage of working in the factory as an experiment, not as a will to survive. However, what I have learned is still something that not many people have the opportunity or even the desire to experience, and for that I am thankful. The largest influence for me was the friends that I made and worked with in the factory, their kindness and understanding, their welcoming of me into their work environment, open sharing and continuous laughs and jokes that made my experience, despite the hard work, a pleasant one.

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Tari Topeng Cirebon

Through time and exploration of different styles of dance and performance in Indonesia, I finally found my calling and passion of interest, 'Tari Topeng Cirebon', which means 'Mask Dance from Cirebon'. Cirebon, whose name is derived from the Sundanese words of "Cai" (or water) and "Rebon" (or "shrimp"), is a city on the north coast of the island of Java, approximately 297 km east of Jakarta, whose main production, hence the name, is fishing.
Tari Topeng Cirebon has been known to society since the 16th century, and possibly before that, although there is no written proof. The first person who made this dance become known throughout Indonesia was Sunan Kalijaga, one of the nine prophets, or Muslim ‘evangelists’ who brought the teachings of Islam to Indonesia. Sunan Kalijaga, who was the only prophet originally from Indonesia, was unique and perhaps the most effective, as he preferred to use alternative propaganda in spreading his teachings, using traditional Javanese art such as shadow puppetry, mask dance and music to reach the people, drawing from the stories of the Ramayana and Mahabarata. Around the 19th century, such dancers as Mimi Rasinah and Sudjana Ardja continued the preservation of this ancient mask dance, passed down through generations, making it further known through their gracefulness and devotion to this nearly lost dance performance form.
Tari Topeng Cirebon tells the life journey of a person in society through five different mask characters, Panji, Samba, Rumyang, Tumenggung and Klana. Accompanied by a gamelan orchestra, each mask symbolizes a different phase in one’s journey from birth to adulthood, expressed through specific characteristic movements of the dancer, a variation of rhythms, and often active participation of the audience. Considered a sacred ritual dance performance, Tari Topeng Cirebon can be experienced in an array of village ceremonies, including those highlighting worship of the ancestors, marriage ceremonies, harvest season activities, circumcisions, and important family and community gatherings. Vestiges or simplified variations of Tari Topeng Cirebon can also be seen today in new forms of dance, street busking performances, and certain small theaters in cities throughout Indonesia and the world. Still preserved principally by passing the lineage down from generation to generation, Tari Topeng Cirebon’s future existence will depend on the continuing interest of younger generations who are motivated to venerate their elders and traditional culture, a group that appears to be dwindling with time.

Friday, March 30, 2007

The Dream Parade

In Taiwan about an hour southwest of Taipei is the small city of Shijr. Surrounded by mountains and lakes, Shijr is a typical Taiwanese city, packed with high-rise apartment buildings, shops, temples and open-air markets. The streets are busy and full of activity, but a ten-minute walk will bring you to a quiet lake where fishermen relax and wait for fish to come, groups of Taiwanese do early-morning tai-chi, and families stroll on the cobblestone paths with their neatly groomed dogs.
Not ten minutes back into the city from one particular lake, called Jen-Lei Lake, you will find the Dream Community. The Dream Community is an art and living community started by a man named Gordon Tsai. The story goes that over fifty years ago before Taiwan began developing into what it is today, the site where the Dream Community now stands were rice fields owned by Gordon’s family. Once Taiwan began developing, Gordon and his family were forced to join with the changes in order to survive, building several high-rise apartments on their rice fields. Despite this new development, Gordon still had a strong desire to create something more than just high-rise apartments. He wanted to continue the sense of community and bring something new to the stale idea of progressiveness that he was witnessing all around him. Thus, he established the Dream Community.
Today, the Dream Community is a compound of roughly seven high-rise apartment buildings with one new building in the making, a bakery, theater and two cafes, two dance studios, a music studio, a sewing room and artist residence apartments currently being built. The focus of the Dream Community is to bring art to the local community, with a focus on celebrational performing arts, and puppetry.
Once a year, the Dream Community puts on an annual Dream Parade. The idea of the parade takes influence from the infamous ‘Carnival’ of Brazil, and several other celebrational art parades including the Fremont Solstice Parade in Seattle, USA, and the May Day Parade in Minneapolis, USA. Up to thirty artists from all over the world are invited to come and take part in the parade, teaching workshops to the local community and collaborating with Taiwanese artists. This year, September-November 2006, included artists from Thailand, Mexico, India, America, France, Brazil, and Indonesia. The theme of te parade was ‘Aboriginal Culture’, blended with elements of the ‘Animal Kingdom’. Aboriginal Taiwanese artists were invited to collaborate with the Brazilian samba team, and international artists were asked to bring their own traditional culture to share. Me and my partner, Lilik, along with our friend Ivan, a musician originally from Mexico who has lived in Bali for several years, came to teach and represent the culture of Indonesia.
As the Indonesia team, we had many different traditional cultures from within Indonesia to choose from. Given that we would be teaching these new skills to local Taiwanese families and children, who had no former experience or real understanding of the art of Indonesia, we decided to keep it simple and not too complicated. In the end, we divided our team into several groups, which later in the parade would become one whole; The Ondel-ondels, the Jatilans, the Baris Dancers, the Fruit Ladies, and the gamelan musicians. In a tented workshop space, we worked with other artists from morning until night every day, helping people who came to create the costumes they needed, working on ondel-ondel and doing workshops in traditional dance and gamelan. On days off or during breaks, we would go to the park and play, to night markets and try strange new foods, and ride the underground subway to Taipei to visit friends and be tourists in the big city.
By the day of the parade, the workshop space was overflowing with newly made art pieces, the majority of them made with building techniques from bamboo, paper maiche, and costume-making. Hours before the parade was to begin, hundreds of participants gathered at the starting point at a community college in the nearby city of NeiHu. There were giant tree floats, unicycle teams, stilt-walkers, people riding bicycles made into fish and bugs, bellydancers, aboriginal samba-players, samba dancers, one team of a hundred lions, a blues band playing on a mushroom float, a crocodile, a large group of young butterflies, a dancing baby in a monkey costume, our Indonesia team, and much more. Each group was given a specific location in the parade, and everyone lined up when it was time to begin the procession. Our Indonesia team gathered in the soccer field, an array of colors and shimmering gold, traditional costume and ringing bells and gongs. Me and Lilik both carried ondel-ondel, with two more being carried by Taiwanese men. Ivan joined with the gamelan group, wearing traditional Balinese ceremonial dress. The length of the parade route was only 3 km, but enough to be quite tired by the end. A pulsing of sound and rhythm served as the backbeat to the entire event, and hundreds of onlookers came to join in the fun. Smiles shone on everyone’s faces, laughter continued to ring out and the event proved to be an enjoyable experience for all.
It was sad in the end to say goodbye to all the great people we had the opportunity to work with in Taiwan. So many of our students were so caring and giving, always bringing us little gifts and snacks of traditional Taiwanese mooncakes and green tea. The young children who would run around and play or help us to work on paper maicheing and various other tasks. The day of the parade was great fun, but for me, even more satisfying was the opportunity to get to know the local community of Taiwan, to understand something more about their culture and ways of living, to make new friends, and work on creating something together. I will never forget such a unique experience, and wouldn’t be surprised if I try and return to take part in the parade again next year.

Earthquake in Yogyakarta

At 6am on May 27th, 2006, Yogyakarta was hit by a very large, tectonic earthquake, claimed by various sources to be from 5.9 to 6.3 in Richter scale, with over 6,000 people killed, 15,000 injured and 30,000 homeless. The village where I live, Sewon, Bantul, was one of the most badly hit. From here to the south until the ocean, villages that once stood were totally smashed to the ground, families were forced to live in tents, all their belongings destroyed, schools shut down, everything stopped in mid-sentence, shaken to a reality that no-one would ever expect to happen, but did.
It’s amazing and totally eye-opening to see how everything can be regular one minute, and totally different the next. Buildings on the roads you’re used to passing, homes of friends you’re used to going to, the night spots you usually hang out, even your school, all of them gone in just 30 seconds.
After the earthquake, Yogya was a combination of chaos and complete silence. Bricks and cement strewn everywhere, mobs of people fleeing in panic to the north in fear of a tsunami (which did happen, but a month later and a totally different earthquake, the biggest center in West Java, but reaching all the way to the beach 40 minutes south of Yogya), families still searching for their loved ones beneath the rubble, huddled together at night in the pouring rain, nowhere to sleep, scared of aftershocks, no food to be found anywhere.
Miraculously, my home survived the quake with only a few small cracks and smashed things inside. Not to say that I wasn't scared to sleep inside, several times being woken up by aftershocks and with impulsive instinct immediately running outside. One thing that an earthquake will do is give you this intense awareness of space. I’ve never paid such close attention to where I am, whether the space is dangerous or not, and how to get out quickly if things start to shake again.
Since I arrived in Yogya, I met and began collaborating with a tight community of artists called Taring Padi, which means the sharp tooth of the rice paddy. Taring Padi is a collective of tattooed, incredibly creative, talented artists who for years have been creating artwork and living together, much of their art focusing on social/political issues, ranging in a variety of forms which include but are not limited to painting, wood-block cutting, screen-printing, performance art, sculpture and music. Since the earthquake, Taring Padi also became a victim, it’s community home and workspace as well as the homes of several members completely smashed. Thus, the community space of Taring Padi was forced to move to a small tent and re-establish itself like all the other earthquake victims. Despite it’s own inconvenience, Taring Padi became involved with helping others, the first two weeks gathering food and goods that were not easily accessible (such as rice and vegetables, baby milk, tents, blankets, medicine, etc.), and distributing it to those in need. After two weeks, we decided to refocus our work more on the long-term, gathering donations from outside of Indonesia (managing to raise about $15,000, $5,000 of which came from my dear friends and family in America), and setting up a few different programs aimed at re-establishing what had been lost from the earthquake. These programs include; buying land for Taring Padi to establish a permanent place for its collective of artists and the community close-by, starting an alternative arts workshop program for children to be run in several villages that were badly hit by the quake, and distributing money to families who had lost their homes, to assist in rebuilding a new place to live.
My main focus was with the arts workshop program for children. We focused on two different villages, with a third one of more permanent status (in Taring Padi’s new home), which is currently in the beginnings of being developed. The goal of the workshops was to provide children in the villages with an outlet to express and relieve their traumas from the earthquake, to get away from their smashed homes and learn about different forms of art, allowing inspiration and creativity to continue to flow. Over a span of approximately six weeks in each village, in which the children numbered to about 90 from ages 4 to 12, we taught workshops in drawing and painting, creating mozaics, playing music, and performance and mask-making, the final meeting culminating a carnival of masks and music created by the children, which involved parading through their village and sharing their art and creative energy with their families and community members. The most amazing thing working with these children was how the smiles on their faces for the most part never seemed to disappear, still full of fresh thoughts and ideas, anxious and excited to learn, and continuously hopeful and positive about the future.
In the end, although this experience was challenging, difficult, and frightening and to this day still continuing (the earthquakes and natural disasters don’t seem to stop in Indonesia), it has been an experience which has completely changed my point of view about life, people, and the situations that always have the possibility to come but in day-to-day life don’t usually surface. It has given me an even stronger appreciation of the people I care about, the friends that I have, the children whose ideas and inspirations continue to flow, and how art and community can always establish a sense of safety, belonging, and the possibility of creating something that has a positive effect for all those involved.