what makes you who you are
A man sits before a camera on a tripod, with other people looking on.

jogja residency – week three

Monday was scheduled with part two of the improvisation sessions, with a second group of Jogja actors. We worked with four actors, again using as the starting point the question “What makes you who you are.” Several times, I asked the actors to write their responses on post-it notes that we stuck up on the walls. Once we had accumulated a good selection, I asked them to pick one random post-it, or a combination of two, to use as the basis for their character in an improvisation.
The first improvisation was set in a warung, a small family owned shop, on a rainy day. There was one shop owner and several “customers” who came in either to buy things or simply to get protection from the weather. This impro developed quite nicely – you could see how people were making subtle judgements about each other based on small details, like how they looked, what they were wearing, or behavioral traits.
In previous sessions, I had become aware that one of the important factors in Indonesian culture in determining identity was family. Many people introduced themselves by saying how many brothers and sisters they had, and what number they were in the family order. After further discussion on this topic, we based the next impro on family dynamics.
A son, who lived with his mother, calls his three sisters home after their mother dies, and they arrive on the day of the funeral. They all have a strange and strained relationship. The mother has left a will that the brother must open and share with his sisters. But there is a secret in the family. The one sister who had left Jogja (the youngest) always felt like an outsider and always felt resentment from the mother. And she recently found out why. In fact, she is not her mother’s true daughter, but the daughter of a woman with whom the father had an affair. Because of this, the mother never bonded with her.
Now the mother has left the youngest daughter out of her will, and the the siblings need to decide what to do: disregard the mother’s will and share equally between them, or respect her wish and give nothing to the youngest sister?
I had asked the actors to speak as little as possible and try to convey the scene through silence and body language. We filmed the scene on video, and even when they were speaking in Indonesian, I could feel the dynamics and relationships within the family unit. I felt that this scene was quite powerful and one I would be interested in revisiting.
But no time for that, because the next day I started working with a new group of artists – the residents at PSBK, who had been working together for the previous 6 months at the centre. The group included visual artists, set designers, performance artists, Javanese dancers, and actors. We didn’t have a tight brief, just an open space and we knew that whatever work we did together was going to inform the exhibition they were going to create, their final project as a group, which was to take place after I finished my residency.
I again started by posing them the question “What makes you who you are”, and posting their responses around the room. But they were not very forthcoming. Part of the challenge was the language. Part of the challenge was that the question itself was very simple, so in a way it was very difficult to answer. They were also shy.
I was told that due to the education system they come from, people are more responsive to complicated systems. Also, they said that in Indonesian culture it is more important what other people think about you, than what you think about yourself (the latter is not common to talk about). There was ongoing disagreement about the precise translation of the question – this became a running theme during my entire residency (not to mention when we tried to translate it into Javanese and Indonesian Sign Language/Bisundo).

This was a moment of pausing, thinking. What was I expecting when asking the questions? Were my expectations blurring my open mind? Did I have my own agenda in asking the question? Before coming to Indonesia, when asking people what makes you who you are, the responses were also about ‘identity politics’ (being a woman, Turkish, etc.) – in Indonesia it was very different. One person answered the question just with one word: “green”.
I wanted to throw something at them to see how they would react. It wasn’t something I had thought of before. I wondered, they had worked together for six months, but how much did they know each other? So, during lunchtime I gave them the task to think of two spaces in the PSBK complex, 1) the place you feel most comfortable and 2) the place you feel least comfortable. And think about why. I asked them to send me photos of this place via What’sApp (which everyone seems to use non-stop in Jogja).
As we regathered after lunch, I said I didn’t want to talk, but rather I wanted them to show me. As a group we were all to go to each space, but they had to figure out the shortest and most accessible route for me to cover the whole itinerary. Then we went to each place and I asked: was it comfortable or uncomfortable? Why? What’s happening there and how do they behave there? And I asked the others: have you ever seen/noticed the person in this space? Did they look happy or unhappy? What did you do when you noticed? I asked them to demonstrate what the person would do in the space, and quite a few times they imitated the person in a teasing or satirical manner. At the end of the day, they were a bit puzzled as to why we were doing this. My answer: I was curious how aware you were of each other and how well you knew one another. And I wanted you to be aware of me and how I function in this space that is not quite accessible for a disabled person.
Throughout the five days I worked with the residents, there were warm up movement and voice sessions every morning to stimulate energy and openness. Because one of the things that was fed back to me over and over again was ‘people are not used to talking’. And there was also the challenge of language and sporadic translation. So hopefully movement and voice sessions would break the ice. Then we would continue to discuss identity, character and culture.
At the end of day 2, before they went on their break, I asked them to think of a difficult conversation – who is it with, where is it, when, and what is its subject? I wanted them to share something with another, almost like a secret. Then, inspired by some of the post-it notes on which to base characters, they improvised these difficult conversations.
The first improvisation was about a taxi driver, and the difficult conversation he was forced to have over and over again with each customer. One male artist created a female character, which I thought to be a bold and interesting choice in this context. They dealt with quite a few difficult subjects in these improvisations – domestic violence, child abuse, relationships outside of marriage, children born out of wedlock – all very loaded subjects. Most of the time we proceeded without translation, in order not to interrupt the flow. Part of me wanted to know what they were saying, but part of me was happy not to. When you stop paying attention to what people say, you start paying attention to everything else. What do we think makes people what they are, when language isn’t there? What do we use to make judgements and gather meaning, what do we rely on?
One actor created a ‘mad artist’ character, quite ‘stereotypical’, using a lot of what I would consider to be “no no’s”. At the end of the day I brought up the issues of stereotypes. I asked – what did you use to create the characters – first hand experiences? Hearsay? Where did you get the information? Stereotypes can be an entryway into a character or story – as we work through them, we arrive at something deeper and more authentic. It was rewarding to watch the actor process this feedback as he developed the character in further work.
So far with the resident artists, all of this work had gone unrecorded, but on the third day I brought in the camera and had them introduce themselves, in character, using the work from the conversation impros. We then proceeded with “hot seats”, where each actor embodies their character one at a time, and the other members of the groups ask questions that the actor must answer “in character.” This is great for fleshing out the characters and questions can be purposely challenging. We then relocated to the PSBK gallery (with its beautiful daylight) and filmed each actor introducing their character, followed by questions from the group, followed by the actors as themselves answering questions about their characters. There are subtle differences in each of these set-ups that the camera reveals.
As this work on character became more focused during the hotseats, some very interesting dynamics and situations arose. Questions sometimes felt loaded and personal, directed more at the actor than at the character. I used these examples to ask the group about their own preconceptions, values and culture, bringing up issues around stereotyping, institutionalised discrimination and internalised prejudice, which I believe caused them to think more deeply about their creative process – who are they as artists and who are the characters they created?
This was followed by an extended filmed improvisation, in which each character had to enter the gallery and interact with one other character in the space. The rule was that only two characters could be on camera at once, so as soon as one entered, another had to leave. This created an interesting dynamic and a sense in them of the whole scene as well as their own individual situation.
At this point, I started to ask for input into framing, lighting and composition from the visual artists in the group, including X, a lighting designer. I could feel them immediately engage with the filming process in a new way. To be fair, many of the them were not actors and I had been pushing them out of their comfort zone in the improvisations, which can put even professional actors “on the spot.”
I, too, felt constantly on my toes throughout the process, wondering whether my questions and methods translate. In my working process, I kept seeing a reflection of myself, my own preconceptions, agenda and assumptions, and the relationship between different cultures I was exposed to – similarities and contrasts, and the whole idea of East and West. (In one of the conversations with artists I learned that the discussion about west/east annoyed a lot of them and they are now instead locating themselves in relation to the Equator.)
I kept asking people ‘What makes you who you are’, every day, in fact. What surprised me was that nobody ever said ‘I’m Indonesian” or “I’m Javanese,” or “I’m an artist, woman, Muslim, etc.” At one point we made a word cloud list of all the things that could make us what we are (race, religion, beliefs, etc.) – but that never seemed to be the single answer for them, at least they didn’t declare it. Was this a cultural thing? Were they being selective about where and with whom to share these thoughts? Or did they just think of themselves in different terms?
From the very beginning of my time in Jogja, I kept hearing the question: So what do you want to do with this? Initially my response was: I need time, I just arrived. Then I was like: I am doing it – it’s R&D, I’m here to experience it, to develop not produce. I process afterwards – I don’t need to make a decision about the ideas I have in the moment. PSBK and I clicked in that – PSBK is a space for people to be, to learn, to experience. Their approach is ‘we can give you a version’ – you need to make the choices of what you need, what you’ll do, how you’ll use the space. It’s a blank canvas. In that way, I felt that I was a perfect match for space – take it as it is, come at it without agenda. Week three gave me a lot of food for thought and a lot to process.

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