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SENO JOKO SUYONO & SAMANTHA LEE――Performing Arts Journalism in the Philippines and Indonesia

Interview / Asia Hundreds

Artists as Activists?

Fujiwara: Have either of you had any specific involvement in political or social themes?

Samantha: I have an interest in LGBT issues. The Philippines has made great strides in gender equality, but LGBT issues are still very much controlled by the Church. And although we need to follow the teachings of the Church, we do not need to believe statements such as "gay people are bad."

The film crew for my latest movie was made up entirely of women or members of the LGBT community. For example, if I go into the city with a flag or banner and cry out "Everyone, please accept me," I am free to try to persuade society and there is no problem, right? In the same way, I believe that showing a movie that portrays women or the LGBT community members as ordinary people is a way to promote acceptance even though the message may be controversial.

Seno: I have been involved for six years in the Borobudur Writers and Cultural Festival, a small festival held in the Borobudur remains. The festival serves as a platform to invite people from different backgrounds to engage in religious dialogue or discuss the topic of tolerance. We are also planning to invite a Shingon sect (major school of Buddhism in Japan) monk. The festival work differs from my activities for Tempo in the sense that it feels like a more personal platform.

Fujiwara: It seems like both of you are working on clear themes. I believe that art, politics, and society have been separated from each other in Japan since 1970. Only in the last few years, I feel there has been an emergence of art that brings together these fields in a manner that is neither positive nor negative, and I believe this has led to opportunities for dialogue with fellow artists overseas.
What is your perspective on artists who lean toward being an activist?

A photo of during the interview

Seno: Last year, Tempo gave the Best Director Award to a young film director. The award was given to honor the director's film about a poet who was kidnapped for writing anti-establishment poetry in the era of President Suharto and remains missing to this day. The era coinciding with the Suharto regime is referred to as "Orde Baru [New Order]," and the film director received the award for boldly covering this era. Of course, artists remain as artists and there is still a gap with activists. However, I believe it is important for artists to be critical of social activities and highlight new perspectives.

Samantha: I agree with that. I feel artists always function as a mirror of society. This reflection of society can play out in two ways. The first is a direct reflection of the phenomena occurring in society today, and this has somewhat of an activism component to it. The more problems there are in society, the more dramatic the art becomes. The other method is to reflect an ideal world in a more personal format.

I feel that movies fulfil both roles in the Philippines; the more underground the art, the more it is a reflection of reality in its entirety, including the negative sides. This then becomes a critique of society. At the same time, mainstream art depicts ideals that are based on sensibilities developed during the era of colonial occupation, reflecting a flight from reality.

In either case, I believe artist can become activists. However, much like a magician, they can hide the bad aspects of reality and portray an ideal society.

Referencing conditions in countries abroad, countries such as Cambodia have performances of protest songs that are forbidden to be sung. Comparing this with a stable country such as Japan, I believe art tends to be more of a reactionary expression against actual trends in countries where the political situation is not very stable. In stable countries, artists become more personal in their expression. Elements surrounding the individual play a greater role. For example, I watched a French performance the other day, and found it very different in nature from the Cambodian protest songs. It is still a reflection of society, and therefore no less significant. It is just different, and can be considered as a different form of activism.

A photo of during the interview

Fujiwara: With regard to what you just mentioned, Samantha, are you in favor of artists depicting an ideal world in their art? Or are you critical about this?

Samantha: I do not have a preference either way. Even if artists depict an ideal world, the reaction of the audience will invariably be different. In some cases, audience members are brainwashed into believing that the depicted image is reality, in which case there is no call for change. This is an example of bad art. However, by expressing an ideal in a different form, the audience can also have a more active reaction.

The French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan has said that ideal images are a mirror reflecting a self that can never be realized. We spend our lives trying repeatedly to realize the images in the mirror, but the goal stays out of reach. However, if this moves the audience into a direction of repeatedly challenging themselves as a step toward the ideal, I believe it is not a bad thing.

Genre Barriers and Platforms that Facilitate Critical Review

Fujiwara: Is there a clear dividing line between the theater and dance scenes in the Philippines and Indonesia? In Japan, I feel there has been a gradual increase in artists whose activities do not fall in either of the existing theater and dance categories, and I feel it may be difficult for art critics who focus solely on theater or dance to keep up with the cross-disciplinary or non-conforming activities of such artists.

Seno: They are essentially separate art forms in Indonesia, but some theater plays also incorporate a dance component. A lot of cross-disciplinary art, which mixes various elements such as theater and other art, is being created especially by the younger generation. Of course, art critics pay attention to such artists, and cover their work properly. In this sense, I think they manage to cope with new trends.
Among art critics and journalists, there are people who specialize in dance such a Helly Minarti of the Jakarta Arts Council, but also many others who cover theater, dance, and other arts.

A photo of during the interview

Fujiwara: Helly contributed to performance encyclopaedia at TPAM 2017, a work that compiles language into a dictionary format. I assume this means she possesses the flexibility to work across various genres, being active as either an art producer, critic, or curator based on the occasion.

Samantha: In the Philippines, we have the concept of a "show." The audience probably unconsciously expects theater to include dancing and dance shows to include theater.

As for art critics, there are not enough theater or dance performance shows to make a living from writing art criticism. While online platforms are opening up to Filipino theater, the Internet has yet to evolve into a major medium in this respect, and online platforms are therefore operated more on a general-interest basis, playing a secondary role.

It is my hope that the Philippines will develop more cultural activities that allow art critics to successfully make a living, but I do not actually know what this should look like. Even CNN Philippines is having a tough time finding people who can write about art. Perhaps Filipinos are averse to critiquing other people's work .... In any case, we seem to lack a culture that is conducive to critical review. Although people may feel inclined to write about or discuss a topic, they are reluctant to publish their opinions under their own name. What you do find a lot is introductory articles that discuss the venue of an event or the performance of the actors. In my case, however, I want to write about my opinions without inhibition.

Fujiwara: You mention an interesting point, that the Filipino mindset is averse to critical review. I believe critical review is necessary, but it is also possible that this practice is a product of the Western modern era. I think we cannot deny that this is a possibility.

Samantha: In the case of performance arts, in particular, the performance takes place before one's eyes and not on screen, so it may be experienced as more personal by the audience. In fact, there are many movie critics. This is because critical reviews of movies can be written while maintaining distance from the performers on the assumption that movie directors and actors will not read the review anyway. When watching a performance however, the performers are right in front of your eyes. Even though people may express their personal views on the performance backstage, they will not allow it to be broadcasted on TV or distributed in written form. I believe this is because the criticism is personal in nature.
However, in progressive festivals such as KARNABAL, critical opinions are solicited from the audience for each performance.

Fujiwara: That is right. I also feel I am constantly engaged in critical discussion when I am attending KARNABAL.... I would like to ask Seno about the correlation between the mindset of the Indonesians and critical review, although I realize this can only be answered in generalized terms.

Seno: The correlation depends on the character of the critic. While some people are extremely bold in their statements, others are more cautious. I fall in the latter category [laughs].

A photo of during the interview

Target Audience

Fujiwara: Your professions entail the communication of information or language to other people, but who do you think of as your target audience? With the emergence of the Trump administration in the United States, the Brexit phenomenon—United Kingdom's looming departure from the European Union—and rising anti-immigrant sentiment around the world, incendiary statements by the so-called populist movement have gained considerable influence. In such an environment, do you believe it is sufficient to write critical reviews aimed at art fans or people who are already well-versed in politics? I personally see limitations in the approach of only appealing to those parts of the population that already have a liberal mindset.

Seno: Tempo readers are middle-class citizens who, of course want to know about politics, but they also have an interest in migration or LGBT-related issues. This is the audience that I aim to reach through my writings. With that said, younger readers are also growing online. They can gather more information by surfing the web. The digital version of Tempo allows readers to post their own opinions.

Samantha: I target the same reader audience. In other words, I write for middle-class citizens with an education and access to the Internet. Your question was about the limitations of writing for a familiar audience but at CNN Philippines, we always feel it is important to offer opposite perspectives to our readers. For example, when writing about President Duterte, we found that most of our readers over the past eight years disapproved of his actions. This prompted me to interview a group of people calling themselves the Duterte Youth (modeled after the Hitler Jugend).
I inquired about their reasons for joining the group, and posted the information on our website. If readers already have a certain political conviction and confine themselves to that view of the world without trying to understand the mindset of other groups, we believe nothing will change. For precisely this reason, we always try to keep our coverage balanced and show both sides of each issue. Even if your opinion on a certain issue is already fixed, it is important to at least learn about other people's motivations.
However, your question deal with complicated issues, and that is precisely the problem. How can you send out a definite message about, for example, the LGBT community and get people to change their minds? I believe this should be accomplished by highlighting various aspects of an issue, showing information without bias, and have people make an evaluation on issues in an open manner. I believe this is the only way we can alter people's minds and change their world view. But it is a difficult exercise, and perhaps it is idealistic to hope that art and writing can change the world. It is an issue we all think about, but neither of us really knows if it possible.

Fujiwara: In closing, could you give me an idea of the kind of issues you encounter in the field of performing arts journalism?

Samantha: One personal issue for me is how to find people who love art and can write about it in the Philippines. Art tends to take a back seat to more significant problems in society such as homicides, poverty, or severe traffic congestion. At the same time, this creates a challenge to get people to understand the importance of art.

Seno: I am particularly interested in international collaboration. As observed in the case of Tadashi Suzuki's collaboration with Indonesian artists, the process of creating a performance together contributes to mutual understanding. That is a major objective.

I believe events such as TPAM present a good opportunity to directly observe new performing arts developing in various countries. It also enables us to directly connect with artists from other countries and encourages collaboration. It is also wonderful that the focus of the event is on Asia.

Fujiwara: The performance arts network across various countries in Asia has developed rapidly in recent years. While it is true that we have yet to get to know each other, I believe this is exactly why the media and journalism are being called on to play a role as a bridge for information. I hope we can incrementally increase such efforts going forward. Thank you very much for sharing your valuable insights today.

A photo of Samantha Lee, Seno Joko Suyono, and Chikara Fujiwara

On February 14, 2017 at ZOU-NO-HANA TERRACE, Yokohama (Japan)

More on the Interviewees and Individuals/Groups Mentioned

Tempo Official Website (Indonesian)

Samatha Lee Twitter account: @givemesam

JK Anicoche Official Website

KARNABAL Festival Official Website

BricolaQ Official Website (Japanese)

ENGEKI QUEST Official Webpage (Japanese)

Engeki Saikyoron-ing Website (Japanese)

Interviewer: Chikara Fujiwara
Born in Kochi, Japan in 1977. Theater & dance critic, head of BricolaQ. He co-authored Engeki Saikyo-ron: New Currents in Japanese Contemporary Theater (2013) with Kyoko Tokunaga, and they jointly operate the Engeki Saikyoron-ing website. He has appeared in contemporary theater section of NHK Yokohama's radio "Yokohama Sound Cruise." Additionally, he sometimes works as a curator, mentor, and dramaturg, for example as the program director of Honmoku Art Project 2015, and as the captain of APAF Art Camp 2015, among others. He has also produced ENGEKI QUEST, a flaneur-style tour project, in various cities including Yokohama, Kinosaki (Japan), Manila (Philippines), Düsseldorf (Germany), and Ansan (Korea). He launched a new project Woman in A Port and performed at KARNABAL 2017 in Manila. He is one of the Senior Fellow of The Saison Foundation since 2017. He currently lives in Yokohama.

Interpreters: Chie Fukase (Japanese-Indonesian) and Lisa Fukuoka (Japanese-English)
Photo: Jouji Suzuki