YUDI Ahmad Tajudin was skeptical. When Indonesian artists started creating online performances in the second quarter of 2020 in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, he decided to put a handbrake on his ongoing theater collaboration project Multitude of Peer Gynts. He felt that going online was not an option.
Multitude of Peer Gynts, initiated by Yudi and his fellow Teater Garasi artist Ugoran Prasad, aims to explore fear and anxiety produced by the flow of mobility in today’s world based on a rereading of Henrik Ibsen’s verse play Peer Gynt. The multiyear project opened the door for artists from Indonesia, Japan, Vietnam, and Sri Lanka to engage in a series of workshops and performances in three different places in 2019. It was supposed to continue in Yogyakarta and Jakarta, Indonesia, from June to July 2020, before the pandemic forced Yudi and his team to postpone it to as soon as September.
Yudi even thought about canceling the 2020 plan altogether as no one really knew what kind of future the pandemic would bring. Moreover, he was heavily influenced by the view of noted Indian author Arundhati Roy, specifically in her essay “The pandemic is a portal” published in April. She wrote that the pandemic had created a rupture and “forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew”, yet we were still “trying to stitch our future to our past and refusing to acknowledge the rupture”.
Hence, Yudi was annoyed when many started calling on artists to remain productive, including by holding online performances, during the pandemic.
“We don’t always have to be productive. We need a break. Especially because the pandemic has spread quickly, more or less because of the (neo)liberal regime that says we have to be highly productive and mobile,” said Yudi, the co-founder of Teater Garasi and director of Multitude of Peer Gynts. “For me, the limbo and the liminal space the pandemic created was the right moment to reexamine many things in my life. Including my arts.”
Yudi, however, realized that not all artists had the same privilege as he did to be able to take a step back and reflect. Many simply had to make ends meet.
As of mid-April, around 227,000 artists and creative workers from across Indonesia had been financially affected by Covid-19, official data show. By April 21, at least 234 art events had been canceled or postponed due to the pandemic, according to the Indonesian Arts Coalition (KSI). Traditional performers and technical crew of various kinds of live shows have been hit the hardest, and it is difficult to see the government make them a priority when businesses are shattered and the public health system is collapsing.
“Some artists are quite sophisticated to be able to immediately change their ‘gears’ and start a new business during the pandemic. But some others cannot because art is the only thing they can make, the only living space they have,” said Ugoran, the dramaturg of Multitude of Peer Gynts.
The complicated situation presented by Covid-19 led to continuous discussions among artists involved in Multitude of Peer Gynts, and, at one point in June, they realized that what was happening during the pandemic was actually something they had been exploring since the beginning.
“The issues we have been reading and working on since 2019 in this project, namely fear and anxiety related to the world’s mobility and immobility, are now being ‘staged’ intensely across the globe,” said Yudi. “Therefore, we felt the need to keep on realizing this collaboration project in 2020 by changing the format into a series of virtual performances, live or pre-recorded, with a modular approach, as our attempt to mark and create the possibilities of meaning regarding this extraordinary situation.”
Simply put, the Peer Gynts eventually decided not to go roundabout.
IT all began with a leisurely affair. One evening in May 2017, Yudi Ahmad Tajudin and Silvester Petara Hurit unwound at a city park in Larantuka, the easternmost district on Indonesia’s Flores Island. While sipping on coffee, they talked about the calm sea guarded by the Adonara and Solor Islands right across from them, the straits between those islands, the vessels coming through the straits, and the changes brought by the vessels.
Adonara, Solor, and the eastern tip of Flores – all are parts of East Flores regency in East Nusa Tenggara province – have a long history of global movement and exchange, which led to drastic socio-cultural changes on the islands throughout centuries.
As noted by Didik Pradjoko in his research, the Portuguese first established trading bases in Flores in the 16th century, namely in the Bay of Ende and Larantuka, to smoothen the trade of sandalwood from Timor Island. In the same century, Portuguese traders also used the Solor harbor as a transit point, while the Dominican missionaries started coming to the island to spread Catholic teachings. The Dutch were able to take over Solor from the Portuguese, only to see their fort there shattered by a large earthquake in the mid-17th century. The Dutch then left Solor, paving the way for the Portuguese to strengthen their grip on Larantuka and build new settlements on Solor, Adonara, and Konga Islands.
Marriage between the locals and the immigrants, including the Portuguese soldiers, former Indian and African slaves, and ex-workers of the Dutch East India Company (VOC), resulted in the emergence of a new population group known as Topasses, whom the Dutch called “the black Portuguese”. The Topasses would eventually engage in a long power struggle in Timor with the Portuguese, the Dutch, and the kings, or liurai, on the island.
“Maybe I was just being a romantic,” said Yudi, who at that time came to Larantuka to hold a workshop on collective creation with local East Flores artists. “But looking at the Adonara and Solor Islands, the calm sea that looked more like a lake, I suddenly imagined the colonial ships coming through a strait, anchoring off the harbor, and changing the whole world of East Flores.”
And change it did. East Flores has never been the same since its first contact with the colonizers, a contact that was followed by centuries of war and strife. Even today, it seems that peace remains elusive, particularly due to the rising presence of the state, Abrahamic religions, and capitalism in the region.
Land, for instance, has long been seen as the “mother” who gives birth to and nurtures the people of East Flores, yet it may now have become the mother of all conflicts, with the government’s administrative territories conflicting with the customary territories, extreme religious movements triggering prolonged wars between villages over land rights, and foreign companies taking control of the people’s ancestral lands and seas for pearl farming.
“In the past, we had traditional authorities such as lewo alat, or the landlord, but they have now been replaced by village officials, priests or others,” said Silvester, a theater artist from East Flores, where 78 percent of the population are Catholic Christians and about 20 percent are Muslims. “People adhering to the indigenous religions have been seen as infidels, idolaters. Our traditional houses have been demolished, burned down. Ethnic tattoos have been banned. Traditions and rites have also been banned. Furthermore, many have been forced to leave their hometown for a new-style village.”
Despite its high exposure to global mobility since the colonial period, the commodity-rich, tourist-attracting East Flores is also still relatively underdeveloped, with a poverty rate of 10.84 percent as of March 2020, higher than the national figure of 9.78 percent.
All of these situations forced Yudi to sink deeper in thought, ruminating on the contacts, the mobility and immobility that could provoke fear and anxiety, and the reality of today’s world. “As an artist, I want to do something about it,” he said.
A few months after that night in Larantuka, Yudi shared his thoughts with other Teater Garasi artists, and dramaturg Ugoran Prasad immediately responded, “Let’s do it.” Ugoran was also quick to propose Peer Gynt for the project’s dramaturgical platform.
Peer Gynt is a five-act play in verse written in the 19th century by the Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen, who is widely considered as the “father” of modern theater. The play, which has taken its place in the canon of Western drama, tells the story of Peer Gynt, an irresponsible vagabond and dreamer in search of himself. He dreams of becoming an emperor, yet he constantly goes roundabout, traveling from one place to another to avoid moral struggles and responsibilities. He trades slaves and pretends to be a prophet while in Morocco, becomes a historian, finds himself crowned an emperor in a mental asylum in Egypt, and eventually goes back to Norway as a broken old man, a nobody without any worthy accomplishment that can justify his existence.
Ugoran was familiar with Peer Gynt as he had been repeatedly exposed to it since the early 2000s, including through informal discussions with fellow artists and one-off projects related to Ibsen’s works. In 2013, particularly, he delved deeper into the play when he was a first-year doctoral student of theater studies at the Graduate Center of City University of New York in the United States.
“Peer Gynt’s characteristics are interesting as they show Ibsen’s criticism of Europe’s individualism, and individualism is the keyword of modernity,” said Ugoran. “The play itself tells the story of a European traveling to North Africa, to places with various differences in the era of high colonialism in the mid-19th century. This opens up sets of discussions, investigations, and questions relevant to examining sharp differences in Indonesia.”
Ugoran took a particular interest in the fourth act of Peer Gynt, which details the titular character’s adventures in North Africa, from having dinner with fellow capitalists and being deceived by the dancing-girl Anitra in Morocco to winding up in a madhouse in Egypt. Ugoran felt this act contained interesting dramatic situations that could allow people to reflect about today’s reality and deal with their personal questions. And, it was in line with Yudi’s concerns about fear and anxiety stemming from the world’s mobility and immobility.
“All of the things I found in East Flores are there (in Peer Gynt), whether those related to the state, religions, or capitalism,” Yudi said. “Hence, I soon began learning more about the play and formulating the project based on it.”
During the concept development phase, there were continuous talks about precarity and multiplicity. Then, instead of placing the character Peer Gynt at the center of the project, Yudi and Ugoran decided to put everything encountered by the selfish wanderer in his journey as the “main characters” within the context of Asia. They sought a rereading of Peer Gynt from different Asian perspectives to understand the struggle of Asian subjects in the ongoing global history, along with its politics and capital circulation.
“We agreed that this would be a project of creation and exploration,” said Yudi. “We also decided to collaborate with artists from other Asian countries as we had quite strong assumptions that these issues on mobility could be found everywhere, especially in the Global South.”
The project, eventually focusing on the fourth and fifth acts of Peer Gynt, was expected to provide a meeting ground for Asian artists with different backgrounds, expertise, as well as experiences in facing the realities of globalization. With their respective personal anchors, the artists would create various Asian versions of Peer Gynt in an attempt to negotiate singularization. They would travel and get lost. They would be trapped in a mental asylum together. They would be the Multitude of Peer Gynts.
MULTITUDE of Peer Gynts materialized into living, growing sites of encounter in 2019. From June to November, key collaborators in the project were hopscotching from Larantuka in East Flores, Indonesia, to Tokyo and Shizuoka in Japan. They were working closely with local artists in the respective cities in exploring fear, anxiety, mobility, and immobility through the lens of Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt and creating one-off performances specific to the context in each place.
In the process, director Yudi Ahmad Tajudin and dramaturg Ugoran Prasad, who also served as producers, teamed up with executive producer Rama Thaharani and a number of key artists, namely Arsita Iswardhani, Gunawan Maryanto, Ignatius Sugiarto, and Muhammad Nur Qomaruddin from Indonesia’s Teater Garasi, Takao Kawaguchi, Micari, and Yasuhiro Morinaga from Japan, Venuri Perera from Sri Lanka, and Nguyen Manh Hung from Vietnam. They joined forces with 10 East Flores artists to run the project in Larantuka from June 23 to July 6.
Larantuka was selected for the first embodiment of Multitude of Peer Gynts because, apart from the fact that it is the place where the project’s inspiration came from, the word “larantuka” itself originates from the language of the indigenous Lamaholot ethnic group in East Flores and means “middle way” or “meeting point”.
In Larantuka, the artists had many discussions on land, motherhood, and immobility, in line with the socio-cultural context in the region. They went to remote villages on Adonara and Solor Islands, witnessing traditional rituals and ceremonies, which, as Yudi said, looked like a “crash” between religions and cultures. On the last day, they held a performance entitled “Peer Gynts in Larantuka” at a city park located between the calm sea where the colonial ships were once sailing through and the Tuan Ma Chapel. This chapel is home to the legendary statue of Mother Mary believed to be found more than 500 years ago by a local on the nearby beach, even before the arrival of the Dominican missionaries. Hence, the city park is truly the meeting point for all.
“We took several scenes from Peer Gynt text, in which the character is stranded or appears in new places and takes on new subjectivities, and used them as the basic construction for the narration in our performance,” said Ugoran. “That way, we were able to combine all of the artists’ findings, their improvisations, on the stage.”
The core artists, minus Micari, then proceeded with the project at the Morishita Studio of Saison Foundation in Tokyo from August 23 to September 6. This time, they were looking closer at the fourth act of Peer Gynt to explore the notions of new empires and modern institutions. In the end, they presented their in-progress work “Peer Gynts – Asylum’s Dreams”, which focused on the scenes of capitalists’ dinner and mental asylum from the fourth act, to a select audience comprising critics, fellow theater artists, and programmers.
With Micari rejoining the group in Shizuoka, all key collaborators were engaging with six artists from the Shizuoka Performing Arts Center (SPAC) in a workshop from October 16 to November 4. They were working together to create the first complete theater performance of the project, the Shizuoka version of “Peer Gynts – Asylum’s Dreams”. The two-hour show, co-produced by SPAC and staged at the Shizuoka Arts Theater from November 5 to 19 with a total audience of over 2,000 people, combined some materials from Larantuka, findings from Tokyo that were developed further, and a new context from Shizuoka.
During the two-week performance run, the artists were successful in incarnating the spirits of Asian Peer Gynts and, unexpectedly, Huhus.
Huhu is a minor character in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, appearing only once when the gloomy figure meets Peer Gynt in a mental asylum in Cairo, Egypt. When telling his story, Huhu talks about the Portuguese and Dutch invasions that have muddled up the language of people on the Malabar coast, degraded the “urtongue” (primal voice) and muted the “ursounds” (primal sounds) of a forest once ruled by the great orangutan, and his attempts to fight for the genuine jungle lingo. This indicates a concrete connection between the play and the Indonesian archipelago, especially considering that Huhu may come from a place where orangutans live, whether on Sumatra or Kalimantan Island in Indonesia, and he has also suffered from contacts with the colonizers.
In the process of creating the Shizuoka performance, Yudi and Ugoran initially saw the asylum scene as the moment when everyone would become Peer Gynt. Later, they realized that they were wrong. Everyone in the madhouse was actually Huhu, an Asian subject who had been heavily exposed to globalization, yet had little to no bargaining power in the flow of global movements and exchanges.
“In Shizuoka, we furthered the exploration of Huhu,” said Yudi. “At one point, when we looked at the asylum scene, it was no longer clear which one was Peer Gynt and which one was Huhu, as the idea was that Huhu might only be the projection of Peer Gynt’s mind.”
All Peer Gynts in the asylum eventually turned into Huhus, played by Perera, Kawaguchi, Arsita, Gunawan, and Qomar. While Perera performed Huhu’s original monologue from Peer Gynt text, others presented different post-dramatic works on the stage. Kawaguchi talked about prejudices surrounding people with HIV and AIDS. Arsita and Gunawan raised an issue concerning ghost workers in the fashion industry. Qomar, at the end, shared his story of interacting with refugees from Sudan in Indonesia.
After Shizuoka, Yudi and Ugoran were certain to give a bigger stage to Huhu. Hence, their project’s subsequent phase in Indonesia was entitled “UrFear: Huhu and the Multitude of Peer Gynts”, with the word “urfear” referring to the primal fear stemming from the inevitable global exchanges in the current world, in line with Huhu’s notions of “urtongue” and “ursounds”. In this phase, the core performers would collaborate with a number of Indonesian artists, namely Abdi Karya, Andreas Ari Dwianto, Darlane Litaay, Nyak Ina Raseuki, and the East Flores Theater Collective (STFT).
Originally, “UrFear” would use the same structure as before by bringing together all collaborators in Yogyakarta and Jakarta from June to July 2020, allowing them to engage in a workshop and develop an intercultural performance together. However, the Covid-19 pandemic suddenly changed everything, restricting mobility and spreading fear and anxiety across the globe. Key artists Kawaguchi and Manh Hung were even forced to pull out of “UrFear” because of the pandemic.
Yudi and Ugoran, despite their initial hesitations, then started exploring new strategies to breathe new life into the project in the digital world. It was not an easy feat, as the online sphere was something that always felt foreign to them. For Yudi, he was just an apathetic internet user who went online only to get work done. Ugoran also said he simply did not understand how to live in the social-media era. It was clear they needed professional help, and that was why, in June 2020, they turned to Woto Wibowo for advice.
Woto, better known as Wok the Rock, is a Yogyakarta-based artist who has been working across the fields of contemporary arts, design, and underground music, and, most importantly, has vast experience in developing internet-based projects.
The first thing Woto told Yudi and Ugoran was they must be conscious of Indonesia’s internet realities, including its slow internet connection. In October 2020, the Speedtest Global Index by internet speed testing company Ookla ranked Indonesia 115th out of 176 countries in fixed broadband speed and 121st out of 139 countries in mobile internet speed.
Indeed, Indonesia’s digital population has grown rapidly. The nation is home to 175.4 million internet users and 160 million active social media users, according to a January 2020 report by social media management firms We are Social and Hootsuite. However, the uneven distribution of digital infrastructure has led to unequal internet access. For instance, more than 12,500 villages, including ones in the frontier, outermost, and least developed regions, still have no 4G connection today.
Despite all that, Woto said the internet still offered numerous possibilities, especially with its interactive features that could allow people to chat, create a poll, stream a video or audio, or download a document, to name a few. The issue was just to find the right platform to accommodate the project’s agenda of creations.
“There are many challenges in creating an online performance on Zoom or Skype. Everyone would panic when the screen suddenly freezes, for example. There are also limitations to video-based platforms like YouTube. We would not have many possibilities to explore when using such platforms,” said Woto. “I then proposed using a website for this project because when you develop a website, the first thing you need to deal with is the site map, which helps users navigate through the site, and, for me, that concept of navigation shares similarities with the concept of dramaturgy in theater production.”
Yudi and Ugoran bought into that idea, and Woto became the official web designer of “UrFear”. From that point on, they worked together in creating a virtual theater using a dramaturgical approach. They sought to establish the online world of Peer Gynt as seen from Huhu’s viewpoints, where everyone would be Huhu.
The website, registered as urfearmpg.net, would direct visitors to different “stages” on specific pages, allowing them to watch and experience 11 individual performances as one work. Each of the performances, accessible only from desktop computers and laptops, would be scheduled at a fixed time from October 31 to November 30, 2020.
“As the shows would not be available at any time and must be accessed from laptops, we expected that people, in heightened concentration, would be really focused on watching the performances at their own chosen times and spaces,” Yudi said. However, he also realized that it was impossible to control the behavior of online users and some might watch the shows while performing other activities.
Meanwhile, Ugoran saw the process of creating a virtual theater as a unique experiment to negotiate singularization, as all artists involved could explore many possibilities and, subsequently, find new meanings related to interactivity, liveness, space, or collaborative performance.
“It was a blessing in disguise,” he said.
WOTO Wibowo and Kurniawan Pujianto were struggling to beat the clock. The web designer and developer of “UrFear: Huhu and the Multitude of Peer Gynts” only had six weeks to set up a virtual theater for 11 different performances before the opening day on October 31, 2020. They did everything they could, but as Murphy’s Law would have it, anything that could go wrong eventually went wrong on the website’s first day online.
On the morning of October 31, the “UrFear” website was done. In the afternoon, it premiered one live show and two pre-recorded performances. In the evening, about five to 10 minutes into the second live show, the website went down due to heavy traffic. The problem was soon fixed, but people could not get back on it before clearing their browsers’ cache. Others even had trouble accessing the website from the very beginning because of incompatible browsers or network providers. It was certainly not the best opening day ever.
“Had we had more time, there would not be such errors and the website would run more smoothly,” said Woto.
The process of developing and designing the website officially began on September 20 after all performers had finalized the format of their respective modular works. From that point on, Woto and Kurniawan worked closely with a team from Citraweb Group, a Yogyakarta-based information technology company that provided internet access, web hosting, and live streaming services for “UrFear”, to create the website from scratch.
On October 25, they started testing some features on the website and broadcast system for the live shows. However, up until the opening day, they had yet to run thorough tests to check various aspects of the website, including server performance, cross-browser compatibility, and interactive functionality. Such tests would ideally take around three weeks, and they simply ran out of time.
“In the beginning, we estimated that six weeks were enough to finish the website but, as it turned out, they were not, especially because every modular work on the website required its own specific treatment,” said Ignatius Sugiarto, one of “UrFear” collaborators and the technical director at Teater Garasi.
Each work indeed had its own level of challenge to deal with, but for the “UrFear” website team, the most complicated one was “Dancing with the Minotaur” by dancer and choreographer Darlane Litaay.
The dance piece tried to explore how the body as a social subject dealt with visual control and strict surveillance. Seeing Peer Gynt’s mental asylum scene as a metaphor for institutional control, Darlane showed that strictly-surveilled spaces could transform into border areas, where people were often chased or forced to run. The work was based on Darlane’s personal experiences, spanning from his time growing up in Papua, where conflicts were recurrent and everyone seemed to always be monitored, to his time as a dance student in Yogyakarta, where he was always looked at differently.
“When entering a new space as a guess, I often felt observed,” Darlane said. “Similar to that, in Jayapura (in Papua), when someone new comes to our environment, we will look at that person and question who the person is, where the person comes from, or what the person is doing. Such gazes became a starting point to develop my work.”
In “Dancing with the Minotaur”, the surveilling gaze was represented by a “lighthouse” with rotating beams, which acted like a panopticon’s observation tower with unseen guards observing each of Darlane’s actions. Meanwhile, online visitors were able to watch Darlane from six different camera angles, presented in the form of thumbnails along with the main viewing area on their respective computer screens. It was like watching from a closed-circuit television (CCTV) monitoring station.
The problem was when people clicked on a thumbnail to change the camera angle, the video with the chosen angle displayed on the main viewing area would suffer a delay of varying length. This meant the only way to watch the performance uninterruptedly was by not changing the angle at all.
“We could not fully customize the YouTube videos embedded on the website. Thus, we had to find some workarounds through scripting to make the viewing experience continuous,” said Woto. “After the website was live for two weeks, it got better, but we were still unable to completely solve the delay issue and eventually decided to just let it be.”
Another tricky production was “Monopoly: Asylum Edition” by actor Andreas Ari Dwianto, familiarly known as Inyong. This also departed from a rereading of Peer Gynt’s asylum scene, with a focus on Henrik Ibsen’s decision to not clearly explain how the titular character was able to get out of the madhouse in Egypt and go back to Norway. Mirroring that part of the play, Inyong used a Monopoly game to tell a story of a migrant worker seeking a way back from Malaysia to Indonesia. In the process, four players took turns to roll dice and move their tokens around the game board, with each landing space representing a different phase in the migrant worker’s story that had to be acted out by Inyong in an isolation room.
“I began with the keyword ‘survival’, which made me remember my own friend’s escape story. I then rewrote the story, in which I found things related to what had been discussed in Multitude of Peer Gynts, including about workers, movements, borders, hopes, safety, anxiety, fear, and divine intervention,” said Inyong. “Monopoly, which we know is a game of capital and land occupation, was able to contain the story and all the things I thought about. It answered the question of how I should tell the story.”
“Monopoly: Asylum Edition” was separated into two forms. The first one was a live performance, which allowed “UrFear” visitors to watch four people playing Monopoly and randomly determining the fate of Inyong as a migrant worker in search of home. The second one was an interactive game, which let users play the game and randomly watch Inyong’s pre-recorded actions.
The production team must deal with a number of technical challenges in the making of Inyong’s live performance. For instance, GoPro cameras used to stream the show online sometimes shut down due to overheating as there was no air conditioner in the isolation room. Meanwhile, the interactive game was also plagued with malfunctions in its early days, including the failure to load the right video when players landed on a certain space as well as the error preventing players from finishing the game after they had successfully gone back to Indonesia.
For director Yudi Ahmad Tajudin, all the technical issues faced by the “UrFear” team were part of the process of learning the logic of “new media” to explore possibilities of experience and meaning through online encounters. The crucial thing, he said, was to keep trying to identify and solve existing problems and anticipate future ones.
“For performance artists, virtual theater experiments present an opportunity to get to know the ‘new media’ better,” Yudi said. “That way, once the artists go back to conventional theater after the pandemic ends, they would be more sensible, more open to possibilities of cross-fertilization. They could use different media on or bring the logic of ‘new media’ to the stage, for instance.”
It was not easy, though. Many “UrFear” performers found it difficult to deal with digital devices and tools for the first time during the Covid-19 pandemic. They were often forced to be creative to overcome various technical difficulties in isolated environments, where there was no one to ask for help or, specifically for the East Flores Theater Collective (STFT), conflicts could unexpectedly emerge.
The STFT made a video performance entitled “Land of Sorrow” to voice their concerns on land issues in East Flores. Reinterpreting the fifth act of Peer Gynt, the collective depicted the Norwegian antihero as a native of the indigenous Lamaholot ethnic group who came back to his hometown village after a long journey, only to find that the locals had been intoxicated by dreams of prosperity brought by capitalists and religious figures. In the end, Peer Gynt and other villagers were “crushed” by capitalism’s power symbolized by an excavator, while a religionist watched them and smiled from a distance. The 30-minute video, presented in black and white, was conceptualized together by actor Silvester Petara Hurit and Catholic priest and playwright Inno Koten.
The East Flores artists initially intended to film the performance in an area between Riangkotek and Kawaliwu, two villages in a heated border dispute in Lewolema district. They even planned to involve people of the two villages in their work, as they sought to remind the conflicting villagers that the land should be uniting instead of dividing them. However, the situation turned tense when, during a rehearsal session, some villagers came and mistakenly thought that the STFT was performing a kind of ritual there. The collective was eventually able to clear up the misperception and continue rehearsing, but not for long.
“The two villages were attacking each other. It got worse,” Silvester said. “At one point, when the villagers started carrying bows and arrows, we decided to move away and look for a new filming location. It was just a few days before the shooting was due to begin.”
In fact, the STFT was constantly rolling with the punches throughout the process of creating “Land of Sorrow”. The artists involved lived relatively far apart. Some of them must take a two-hour road trip by motorbike or travel by boat from a different island, while occasionally skipping work, to join rehearsals on Flores Island amid the Covid-19 pandemic. The actors were unfamiliar with performing for cameras, while the cameramen had never recorded an outdoor theater performance with fluid movements. Even the video was presented in black and white because the original shots were inadvertently taken in different color settings.
“To be honest, this work was created through a stuttering process,” Silvester said. But despite all the challenges, he added, the East Flores artists were able to learn many new things and “adjust the speed” to complete the project within a limited time frame.
And the result was satisfactory, at least to “UrFear” visitor Rara Sekar Larasati. The musician said the video’s cinematography was “so good”, making her feel like she was watching a theatrical black-and-white film. “I did not expect the ending to be so depressive,” she said. “I was quite shocked.”
Another work with a strong cinematic feel was “Aase’s Dreams” by Micari, a senior Japanese actor from the Shizuoka Performing Arts Center (SPAC). Inspired by her time exploring issues of land and motherhood in East Flores in mid-2019, Micari took a closer look at the end of life of Aase, Peer Gynt’s mother. She presented Aase’s fractured dreams in her 25-minute video performance, including ones in which Aase was looking for Peer Gynt in mountains and patiently waiting for her son’s return. Then, when Aase was ready to go, the sky seemed to welcome her with a bright light.
“Hopefully, death will not be seen as something sad or lonely, as there is soft, beautiful light from the sky protecting those set to go,” Micari said. “We are now in a sad situation, with many people suffering during the pandemic. But I hope people who are departing for a different or new world can all be peaceful.”
Despite lacking experience in video production, Micari did almost everything by herself in this work: playing as young Aase, casting her friend Takako Iwata in old Aase, finding shooting locations in the Yatsugatake Mountains in Japan’s Yamanashi prefecture, and filming the performance. The only hitch was when she failed to transfer the video files in high definition to the “UrFear” crew in Indonesia, forcing the latter, which thought those were the best they could get, to display her work in low resolution on urfearmpg.net. After the website ran for more than a week, Micari found a way to send the files in their best quality.
“This is what I call a smooth-but-not-smooth process,” said dramaturg Ugoran Prasad while chuckling. “We had a headache with the technical details, but Micari’s working process was smooth because she really knew what she must do with the text. She processed it by herself. There were strong images in her head.”
Ugoran said an almost similar “magical” process could also be found in the making of “Huhu’s UrSound”, collaborative sound works by Japanese music director Yasuhiro Morinaga and Indonesian ethnomusicologist Nyak Ina Raseuki, better known as Ubiet.
“Sometimes we had to use different formulas for different works. For this sound performance, we used the ‘Galácticos formula’,” Ugoran said with a big smile, referring to a group of superstar soccer players signed by Spanish giant club Real Madrid in the early 2000s, including Luís Figo, Zinedine Zidane, and (Brazilian) Ronaldo. “Just let Ubiet and Yasu meet and something magical will happen.”
Morinaga and Ubiet teamed up to reconstruct “ursounds”, the long-lost primal sounds of Huhu’s native environment, by gleaning what was primordial from today’s vibrations. They used everyday sounds, nonsensical syllables, and androgynous voices, among others, to create the sonic narrative of the diegetic world and the soundscape of the non-diegetic world of Peer Gynt. Huhu could be anyone or anything in the 10 tracks of “Huhu’s UrSound”, and the presented acousmatic sounds were expected to allow people to explore the world from Huhu’s viewpoints.
“In the story of Peer Gynt, the main character is Peer Gynt himself, but he sees, meets, or experiences many different things. It is as if these different things have their own lives,” Morinaga said. “Attachment and detachment, or connection and disconnection in the story and our lives are somehow similar. That is why I wanted to create sounds that were more like our everyday lives, but they were not really realistic everyday lives.”
As the sounds were created amid the Covid-19 pandemic, Ubiet was inspired to capture the uncertainties surrounding her life. She, for example, inserted recordings of conversation with her child and street sounds, along with her nonsensical vocals, in “Huhu’s UrSound”. Ubiet must record the sounds by herself before they were sent to and processed by Morinaga.
“Previously, I was very dependent on sound engineers and designers,” Ubiet said. “This time, I had to do it all alone because I was afraid to go to the studio (during the pandemic). I then learned to do a recording by myself and, for me, it was a blessing in disguise.”
In addition to experiencing the primal sounds of Huhu’s homeland, “UrFear” visitors were also able to delve into Huhu’s background in Abdi Karya’s lecture-performance “On the Origin(s) of Huhu”.
Following clues from Huhu’s monologue in a madhouse in Egypt, Abdi deduced that Huhu might be a Bugis pirate from South Sulawesi who was captured by the Dutch traders and taken to the Malabar coast. Or, Huhu was Enrique of Malacca, a Malay member of the Magellan-Elcano expedition that completed the first world circumnavigation in the early 16th century. Abdi pulled references from history and the great Bugis epic poem La Galigo to support his arguments.
Abdi did not stop there. It was also possible, he said, that he was Huhu. Born in South Sulawesi where Bugis people originated, he grew up on local folklores as well as stories of sarong and sailors. Abdi’s involvement in I La Galigo, a musical play inspired by the Bugis poetic text and directed by American theater director Robert Wilson, in 2005 opened the door for him to travel the world, bringing his artworks to the United States, Australia, and Kenya. Like Huhu, he was an Asian subject that had been carried away by global movements and exchanges, frequently misunderstood and underestimated.
“This lecture-performance is an attempt to talk to the public about the alternative narratives, to make the minor voices heard by wider audiences,” Abdi said. “Everyone can be Huhu, because people often have unexpected layers in their lives.”
Performing in a studio with cameras and crew instead of a live audience proved to be challenging for Abdi. The “cold” cameras, he said, brought a different kind of intimidation, especially because he was unable to feed off a crowd’s energy. In other words, Abdi lost the intimacy he used to find in conventional live shows. A similar issue was raised by Sri Lankan choreographer Venuri Perera, who presented a lecture-performance entitled “On Gaze and Anonymity (See You Don’t See Me)”.
In her pre-recorded work, Perera talked about the power dynamics of gaze and the power of being anonymous, while showing that the anonymity itself could never be separated from the construction of views on gender, race, language, cultural politics, and colonialism.
Perera had conducted a number of experiments to explore these issues. While covering her face with a ninja-style shawl, Perera walked on the streets of Sri Lanka’s capital Colombo, during the day and night, alone and in groups of women. It turned out that the anonymity gave her a sense of freedom and empowerment. Being visibly invisible allowed her to look back at someone with confidence, to reclaim spaces where women were often judged and harassed. On one occasion, Perera even danced on a pavement with a stranger, an older man with a face mask on. This subsequently reminded her of the dancing-girl Anitra, who robs Peer Gynt blind in Morocco by reclaiming the gaze in the Ibsen’s play.
Moreover, she witnessed drastic changes in people’s perception of those with face covers. Wearing a ninja shawl in Colombo after the 2019 Easter Sunday bombings could provoke anger among civilian vigilantes due to rising anti-Muslim sentiment. However, after the Covid-19 pandemic emerged in early 2020, face-covering was made compulsory in public places, though the use of ninja shawl could still attract attention, including from the police.
In her lecture-performance, Perera incorporated her monologue and footage of her experiments in Colombo and Amsterdam, the Netherlands. She was often frustrated in the process of creating the work as there were tons of technical issues she must tackle alone amid the pandemic, including when she had to look for a shooting location with proper lighting, do retakes because her camera’s battery died while filming, and find the right platform to send large video files to “UrFear” team in Indonesia.
“It was a very lonely process because it was meant to be a collaboration and there were things we were supposed to do together,” Perera said. “But, yeah, it was something that we had to acknowledge in these times.”
Despite all that, Perera said the online, modular approach of “UrFear” had opened doors of opportunity, as the artists involved were allowed to go hyperlocal or even let the relevant subjects in their works talk for themselves. For example, actor Muhammad Nur Qomaruddin was able to directly involve refugees from Sudan and let them voice their concerns from their own intimate space in his work “In Search of the Lost Favourite Song”.
“I think, earlier, when we had to collaborate transnationally, we got uprooted from where we lived and we had to go somewhere else and then talk about another place,” Perera said. “But now we can go deeper into where we are in the context of where we are, and we have the possibility of bringing people to that.”
All in all, the “UrFear” collaborators were forced to step out of their comfort zones in crafting virtual shows for a month-long online festival, something they would never think of doing if the pandemic did not happen. This eventually enabled them to recognize and look back in the eye of their primal fears.
MUHAMMAD Nur Qomaruddin initially wanted to create a social event with his refugee friends from Darfur, Sudan. He planned to cook Sudanese food together with the refugees and their neighbors in Ciputat, Banten, and broadcast it on urfearmpg.net. But before going further, he must run a trial in mid-2020 and present it through Zoom to other collaborators in “UrFear: Huhu and the Multitude of Peer Gynts”. And that was when it all went wrong.
As recalled by director Yudi Ahmad Tajudin, at one point during the trial run, the Sudanese refugees looked at the camera and said, “Thank you to all Indonesians.”
“The performance’s structure made the refugees appear powerless. It was like they put Qomar and the audience above them. For us, it was problematic,” Yudi said. “The issues even extended to the camera positioning, the angles, as a certain angle could determine a subject’s position of power.”
Indeed, filming techniques used in the production of most “UrFear” performances allowed viewers to enjoy a kind of cinematic experience. But in Qomar’s case, they also posed a number of ethical questions, especially considering the sensitivity of the refugee issues and the vulnerability of the subjects involved.
It has been around three years since Qomar’s friends, namely Abu Bakar, Alyas, Alhadi, and Abdal Majed Adam, fled the war-torn Sudan to Indonesia to seek help from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). As Indonesia does not permit local integration, the Sudanese refugees can only live temporarily in the archipelago with no legal rights to work, study, or marry, while looking for an opportunity to be resettled by the UN agency in a third country such as the United States, Canada, or Australia.
The problem is refugees in Indonesia must spend years living in limbo, with many of them waiting for more than a decade to be resettled, due to limited opportunities. As of 2019, there were 13,657 refugees in Indonesia, or 0.05 percent of the world’s refugee population of 26 million people. In the same year, only 63,696 of all refugees worldwide were resettled through the UNHCR, showing a huge gap between resettlement needs and available places. Hence, as advised by the UN agency, refugees in Indonesia must understand and accept that they “may never be able to benefit from resettlement”.
“It was complicated,” Yudi said. “Who were we to get into and take a position on this issue? What were the ethical boundaries? What was the purpose of our work here? What kind of relationship we had with the refugees? What kind of position we would put them in? And, who were we to place them in that kind of position?”
Facing a tricky situation, Qomar subsequently explored different ways to translate his creative agenda into a performance. It was crucial to involve the Sudanese refugees as he sought to renavigate Peer Gynt’s journey through the viewpoints of Global South subjects.
Henrik Ibsen’s Peer Gynt took the classic trope of a European traveling to exotic places in search of him/herself. Meanwhile, Qomar once dreamed of going to conflict zones in the Middle East in the name of Muslim brotherhood due to his upbringing at an Islamic boarding school in Indonesia. This was in stark contrast to the Sudanese men, who were forced to flee the Middle East to escape conflicts and now stranded in Indonesia.
“There were three issues I wanted to raise. The first one was about refugees in Indonesia, as many people might be still unaware of it. The second one was related to pan-Islamism, the reverse flow of pan-Islamism, and the developments in international politics. Then, the third one was on human rights, especially regarding the refugees’ situation during the pandemic,” Qomar said.
In August 2020, Qomar came up with the idea of creating a show in a game format, which he thought would make the refugees more relaxed in performing in front of cameras. The refugees were particularly worried that any of their actions would offend the Indonesian government that had allowed them to temporarily stay in the country. Qomar then designed the performance’s structure and wrote the script together with the Sudanese men to allow them to freely express themselves in the collaborative work, which was eventually entitled “In Search of the Lost Favourite Song”.
The work’s title was inspired by Qomar’s conversation with one of the refugees, Abu Bakar, when they first met at a temporary shelter in Kalideres, Jakarta, in August 2019. Qomar was there to research the lives of Middle Eastern refugees, whom he saw as the representation of the failure, or “the bugs in the system”, of pan-Islamism as a global ideology. At that time, Qomar had lunch with Abu Bakar and, in an attempt to break the ice, the former asked, “What is your favorite song?” After a long pause, the latter replied, “I don’t know. I don’t remember. I want to forget and remove my past.”
For Qomar, that answer was so unexpected, yet so strong, as the presence of a favorite song was meant to serve as a metaphor for the refugee’s existence. Afterward, he even quoted Abu Bakar’s words in his monologue to close the “Peer Gynts – Asylum’s Dreams” performance in Shizuoka, Japan, in November 2019.
In the 2020 collaborative work, Qomar and the Sudanese refugees agreed to play a series of games, including ones in which they must simulate an interview with a representative from a resettlement country and tell their life stories through drawings. Qomar originally wanted to end the performance once again with the story of Abu Bakar’s lost favorite song, but the 28-year-old refugee suddenly rejected that idea at the last minute.
“A week before the shoot was scheduled to start, Abu Bakar texted me and said he did not want the ending to be like that,” Qomar said. “He wanted to say that he was now in search of a new favorite song.”
After discussing with director Yudi and dramaturg Ugoran Prasad, Qomar agreed to change the show’s ending, which therefore brought a different meaning to the whole story of the refugees. For Qomar, Abu Bakar’s new closing line not only showed that the refugees were out of the system, but also that they were willing to build their own system and be independent. “They had their own way,” he said. “We must be open to that.”
“In Search of the Lost Favourite Song” was not the only work in “UrFear” that forced Yudi and Ugoran to constantly scratch their heads. Another complicated performance was “The Messiah for Dummies” by poet and actor Gunawan Maryanto.
Gunawan took a closer look at Peer Gynt’s messianic theme, which could be found in the main character’s self-centered manner and ambitious goal to be the emperor of the “Gyntian Empire” and, more explicitly, his masquerade as a prophet in Morocco.
This subsequently led Gunawan to delve into the phenomenon of self-proclaimed prophets in Indonesia. As noted by Al Makin, an expert in new religious movements and rector of Sunan Kalijaga State Islamic University in Yogyakarta, there have been around 600 “prophets” in the archipelago since the end of the colonial period and their emergence often stemmed from social uncertainties and unstable political environment.
“This is related to one of the footings of this collaboration project, namely fear and anxiety,” Gunawan said. “Crises pave the way for the concept of messianism, as people imagine there will be someone who can save their community from fear and anxiety.”
At first, Gunawan wanted to embody a fake prophet figure in his performance by referring to certain cases in the past. However, this turned out to be problematic because, as stated by Yudi, the actor should not take a high position in addressing the Messianic issues and make a final judgment on what was right and wrong, or what was real and fake. There must be complicated contexts driving the emergence of all the self-proclaimed prophets throughout history, Yudi said, and oversimplifying them would be a mistake.
After having back-and-forth discussions with Yudi and Ugoran, Gunawan finally went with a presentational format instead of a representational one. He decided to create a comical tutorial on how to be a messiah. The tutorial part was inspired by his observations about people’s craving for practical guidance and solutions these days, particularly from self-help books and tutorial videos. Meanwhile, the comical aspect was crucial to bring out the irony and keep a distance between Gunawan as an artist and the sensitive Messianic issues.
“UrFear” web designer Woto Wibowo helped add interactivity to Gunawan’s work with online polls, which allowed viewers to choose the messianic attributes to be attached to the actor from multiple options. As a result, Gunawan always presented a different version of messiah in each of his eight live shows throughout the “UrFear” festival from October 31 to November 30, 2020, with a different costume, character, source of divine revelation, sacred text, ritual, and even chamber.
“In the beginning, I was like an empty avatar with no character or costume. Then, a new messiah was built together with the online users through the polls,” Gunawan said.
As intended, “UrFear” virtual theater managed to become an interactive site of encounter, where users were able to explore the world of Peer Gynt from Huhu’s viewpoints and even find themselves becoming Huhus. In the “UrFear” world, Huhu was indeed everyone, whether the website visitors, the Sudanese refugees in search of a new home, the messiah trying to save people from fear and anxiety, or the ghost workers in the fashion industry.
The “ghost workers” refer to the invisible workforce in the supply chains of the global fashion industry. They are the overlooked and underpaid homeworkers, who are mostly women, in many developing countries who stitch and embroider clothes or glue shoe insoles for top fashion brands without any job security or fringe benefits.
Such workers resemble the innocent Solveig, who spends decades sewing while faithfully waiting for Peer Gynt’s return, and Huhu, the immobile Asian subject trapped in the flow of global mobility. It was with these in mind that actor Arsita Iswardhani created her durational performance: “How the Ghost Worker is Dancing in Your Shoes”.
In her four-hour work, Arsita repeatedly reenacted the hand and body movements of a ghost worker gluing shoe insoles, which she learned from Mujaeni, a homeworker in North Jakarta and primary source in her research on this matter. “UrFear” visitors could watch Arsita’s actions through two static camera views on their computer screens, each in a medium and wide shot. If the users went out of Arsita’s page in the middle of the show and browsed other areas of the website, the show would pop up and remain visible in a small floating window. The mini-window would close only if they started watching a different performance.
“For me, this (floating window) idea is so interesting as it really reflects the situation of the homeworkers. They, too, are ‘floating’. At a glance, it seems like they don’t exist, when in fact they really do,” Arsita said, adding that Mujaeni worked together with her child to glue 200-300 pairs of insoles a day and received Rp 200 (1.4 US cents) for each completed pair. “This shows that there is always something immobile that supports the mobility of the world.”
Watching Arsita’s performance was an interesting, yet painful experience, said writer Intan Paramaditha. About an hour into the show, Intan started getting anxious as she felt that she could spend her time doing something more productive. She then ended up performing other tasks while occasionally coming back to see Arsita’s repetitive actions.
“I saw this performance with parameters set by capitalism. Watching Sita made me feel unproductive. So, I began checking my phone, making coffee, and doing other things,” Intan said, adding that the experience had “quite slapped” her. “There were politics of looking and politics of looking away, and I kept wanting to look away because it was very painful.”
On the other hand, durational performance artist Melati Suryodarmo questioned the use of two static cameras in Arsita’s work. It might be better, she said, if one of the cameras could move more freely to get close-up shots or details of Arsita’s actions, especially considering the gap between performers and the audience in the digital theater environment, where a computer monitor or mobile phone screen had become the new proscenium arch and the spectators could no longer feel the breath of the actors on stage.
Yudi disagreed. It was a conscious decision to make all the cameras immobile in Arsita’s work, he said, because the emphasis was on the static situation faced by the ghost workers, the repetitive activities they were forced to perform for long hours. The work must focus on highlighting the homeworkers issues, he added, not on showing Arsita’s great acting skills or bringing an impressive cinematic experience to the viewers.
“Sita’s agenda was to make the ghost workers, not herself, visible,” Yudi said. “We would play hero if we tried to make a ‘wow’ performance in terms of the choreography and so on. Who the hell were we to do that?”
Not only that, the whole digital approach of “UrFear” eventually triggered plenty of discussions on theater’s liveness and spectatorship. This was not something exclusive to “UrFear”, as the rise of virtual shows amid the Covid-19 pandemic had forced many artists to reexamine what actually made theater “theater”.
Renowned performance theorist Richard Schechner has previously suggested that theater’s main characteristics are ephemerality and immediacy, as it exists in the very moment when it is enacted. Drawing from Schechner’s arguments, scholar Peggy Phelan sees that performance can only live in the present and it “becomes itself through disappearance”. Therefore, any attempts to document or record a live performance will be futile as it is deemed unrepeatable. In Phelan’s words, the product of the documentation will become “something other than performance”.
Another important aspect of the unmediated live performance is the communal environment, the shared experience between performers and the audience as well as among the audience members. As noted by theater critic Jill Dolan in her book Utopia in Performance (2005), the intersubjectivity among the performance’s spectators can form temporary communities and sites of public discourse. The spectators, according to Dolan, then experience a processual, momentary feeling of affinity and find themselves being a part of a congenial public constituted by the performance’s address.
The sense of community in a physical theater space brings forth consensuses among the audience members, including to turn off their cell phones, respect their surroundings, stay silent, and focus on the performance on stage. Such consensuses, however, tend to vanish in the digital theater environment, as people can easily leave their gadgets for a restroom run or perform many activities while watching an online show from their respective spaces.
As stated by film critic and pop culture observer Hikmat Darmawan, “UrFear” was able to establish other forms of consensus by scheduling its performances at fixed times and making them accessible only from desktop computers and laptops. The consensuses, he said, were not as “absolute” as those in the conventional theater space, but still quite effective. It was because the online users were forced to condition themselves, particularly by finding the best possible time and space to watch “UrFear” shows.
The main issue in bringing theater’s liveness to the online sphere, Hikmat said, was the use of cameras to mediate performances. Cameras’ mediation created a barrier between performers and the audience and subsequently eliminated theater’s general consensuses, he said. To improve people’s viewing experience, a show’s production team could adopt advanced filming techniques, which on the other hand would make a performance appear more cinematic rather than theatrical.
“The question is, if there is no liveness, is it still a theater work?” Hikmat said. “There are two possible answers. The first one is this is absolutely not a theatre performance, because the experience is cinematic. Or, we can revise our definition of theater and see whether it is possible to have no liveness in a theater work.”
With many other artists and experts also arguing about theater show’s definition and its differences from digital audio-visual artworks such as film and soap opera, Yudi simply responded, “So what if a work is not called a theater performance?”
For Yudi, the most crucial thing was to create a work with clear agenda and target audiences. Hence, if artists were able to meet their objectives or clearly communicate certain messages to the target audiences through their arts, the debates surrounding virtual theater should no longer be relevant, he said.
“As a performance artist myself, I understand that theater as a medium offers something irreplaceable: contact. We have a desire to build contacts, to be in contact (with others),” Yudi said. “What I am worried about is if we turn into essentialists, who say that theater must be like this or that but forget to think about the agenda in creating the artworks.”
After all, the use of digital technologies and tools in theater production brings a number of benefits. Recorded performances may not be able to represent the original sense of liveness, but they can serve as archives useful for future production of knowledge. Furthermore, the internet allows theater shows to be experienced by a wider audience, as everyone from across the globe with a proper connection can now watch, for instance, an online performance by artists from East Flores, Indonesia.
“UrFear” online festival, held from October 31 to November 30, 2020, on urfearmpg.net, attracted 4,915 unique visitors, not only from Indonesia but also from the United States, Japan, Australia, Norway, and Greece, to name a few. There were 101 people involved in this project, including 26 performers who worked closely with director Yudi and dramaturg Ugoran in creating their respective modular works. With the support of Ibsen Awards, the Japan Foundation Asia Center, the Saison Foundation, and Citraweb Group, “UrFear” was able to present a total of 433 hours of shows spread across 18 days.
It did not stop there. Yudi and Ugoran seek to further develop some of the works created in 2020, specifically through a series of workshops and live performances in different Asian countries in 2021. A few Indonesian artists are set to bring their shows to Sri Lanka and Vietnam, while collaborators from Japan and Sri Lanka are expected to travel to and perform in Indonesia. Moreover, it is possible that each “UrFear” work will grow organically and autonomously outside the scope of Multitude of Peer Gynts and, should that happen, Yudi and Ugoran will give their full support.
“For example, if Qomar and his friends from Darfur decide to continue working on their project and try to find a new form of performance, we must support them,” Ugoran said, adding that some “UrFear” artists might be interested in presenting their works in front of a live audience. “I will be really glad if each work can keep growing.”
It has been a long journey for all artists involved in “UrFear”. They have been Peer Gynts. They have been Huhus. They repeatedly got lost. They faced their fears and grew. For them, to be thyself – not enough.