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.