Performance Making in a Violent World
y name is Rani Pramesti and I am a performance maker and intercultural producer. I work predominantly with women to inspire conversations, self-reflection and social change. My work gives audiences and communities transformative experiences through intimate and insightful stories by and with women of diverse cultural backgrounds.
Many years before I even considered jumping headlong into the arts, I trained and worked as a social worker in various inner-city Sydney homeless shelters.
It was in my 2nd year of Social Work training that I decided on a whim to audition for the imPACT ensemble at the PACT Centre for Emerging Artists.
Performing in Lotophagi: The Lotus Eaters (2007), directed by Regina Heilmann, was an exhilarating experience for me. As a performer, I felt I had finally found a way to activate my mind, body, heart and spirit all at once.
However, it took me a long time to trust that what I had found would somehow be useful to society, a question that drives a lot of my decision-making in life generally.
Three years after my experiences at PACT, I finally auditioned for the VCA’s Bachelor of Dramatic Arts course. I graduated in 2013 and ever since, I have been muddling my way in combining both my social work and dramatic arts training together.
When I was asked to write this article, I was requested to firmly state my point of view and experiences as a socially engaged artist. I want to share with you the personal journey of why I do what I do and also, to invite a conversation about the main ethical questions that form a central part of my performance making practice.
The overarching question
I ask myself regularly, as a person and as an artist: What does the world need more or less of?
In 1998, when I was still living in Indonesia, I was given an assignment by my English teacher to do a ‘Me’ book. The task was to write autobiographical pieces, include a smattering of poetry, interviews with family members and documentation of school life.
One thing that struck me sixteen years later, flipping through the pages of my ‘Me’ book, were articles that had to do with mass violence. On page 60 of my tweenage autobiography, there is an image of riot police and a bloody Indonesian flag with an ink sketch of people screaming. Above it, I had inserted the title, in red, ‘Slaying of my people’. Just a couple of pages on, I had inserted a picture of a severed head and the title, ‘Trauma’ above it.
The years 1997-1999 in Indonesia were turbulent ones, which saw the country ride out an economic crisis, an explosion of racially targeted riots, the end of three decades of dictatorship and prolonged civil society protests.
In 2013, under the mentorship of theatre maker, Chi Vu, and the support of the Emerging Cultural Leaders program at Footscray Community Arts Centre, I began the creation of Chinese Whispers, a performance installation that investigated mass racial and gender-based violence that erupted across five major capital cities in Indonesia in 1998.
In the installation, pairs of audiences embarked on a gentle and meditative journey through an enveloping world of white fabrics as they listened to my story of coming to Australia following this violence. The experience culminated in a conversation with an actor whose role was simply to sit and listen to audience’s responses after they had been exposed to at times harrowing accounts of mass violence.
This work was a response to what my thirteen-year old self, in 1998, needed more of.
I believe that my thirteen-year-old self needed and continues to need:
- More non-violent safe spaces where neither race nor gender is used as an excuse for instigating violence or shaming
- More permission to talk honestly about pain, sadness, anger
- More help to transform traumatic experiences into meaningful creative expression
Chinese Whispers was my artistic response to give myself these three things and by doing so, inspire self-reflection in others, with regard to topics that are often uncomfortable to discuss.
Trauma as Transformative Learning
“The need for safe places where free expression is supported, and the realization that artistic expression, like healing, transforms difficulties into affirmations of life."
Another premise of my practice is that trauma does not have a to be a show-stopper or indeed, a life-stopper. If anything, I am coming to realise that trauma provides infinite possibilities for learning and creating, as soon as one is ready to learn and create from it. As an artist, I ask myself how I can share these learnings with my audiences and the communities that I work with.
I am currently collaborating with three other women artists to create a new performance installation through Next Wave’s Kickstart program. The work is called Sedih // Sunno. Sedih is Bahasa Indonesia for ‘sadness’. Sunno means 'to listen' in Fijian Hindi. The work is a gentle invitation to listen to sadness.
One of the key stories is my mother’s experience of suffering sexual abuse at a young age. My mother kept her trauma a secret for more than three decades and refused to admit to herself that the violation had indeed happened. It took her more than five decades to share the details of her experiences of rape with me, and to give me her blessing to make a performance experience out of her story.
Sedih // Sunno asks you to contemplate: What lessons can sadness teach us? What have we inherited from those before us and what do we want to pass on to the next generation?
In Violence, re-membering, and healing, Vanessa Thompson states, “If violence erases the other, the restorative or healing injunction involves, first, a determined, resolute, courageous, and undaunted willingness to revisit the sites and landscapes of violence… But it is not enough to recite sites of violence, it is necessary to relate to it (sic)… to remember actively and affectively.” (Thompson 2006)
In Sedih // Sunno, I re-write my mother’s trauma from my perspective as her daughter and as an artist. Through my eyes, you come to experience a narrative of gratitude, that I am grateful to my mother for having done the work in confronting her pain and sadness, so that she could pass on to me a commitment to honesty, beginning first and foremost with honesty to oneself.
In this way, Sedih // Sunno treats trauma as a source of celebration and inspiration rather than as a source of shame and silence.
Safety and Consent
One ethical concern that I am always aware of in dealing with traumatic experiences through my artistic practice, is the risk of re-traumatizing or triggering trauma in ourselves as performers as well as in our audience members.
Cynthia Cohen, a theatre maker who uses theatre for peace building, writes that, “In an attempt to dignify suffering, we can end up re-traumatizing people. Sometimes with the best of intentions, the unequal dynamics in the society are simply replicated, rather than transformed, in the theatre production.” (2013)
As artists, in our practice, how do we avoid replicating the unequal power dynamics that we live within every day? In my work, I ask myself, how can I avoid replicating the power dynamics that continue to constrain and repress women-identifying people in the world today?
This is where Informed Consent forms the underlying basis of all my decision-making processes with the people I work with: whether it is my mother, my creative collaborators, our audiences or anyone else who may come to experience aspects of our work.
Prior to using excerpts of my interviews with Chinese-Indonesian women to form part of the Chinese Whispers audio experience, I repeatedly sought the verbal and written permission of these women, to share their stories with the public.
When the creative concept shifted considerably from the broader theme of ‘Chinese-Indonesian identity’ to an investigation of the racially targeted violence of May 1998, I revisited each interviewee in their homes and explained the new creative concept to them, before regaining their permission and trust once more to share their stories.
And again, prior to divulging my mother’s recorded story to my creative collaborators, I had prolonged discussions with her, face to face and via Skype, about my creative intentions with her story.
During the creative developments of Sedih // Sunno, I maintained regular and in-depth conversation with my mother about what is emerging from the inspiration of her story. I spoke with her about what the spaces looked like, what the interactions with audiences felt like and what the audience responses have been, among other things, so that she knew what it was that she was agreeing to.
Once again, this founding value of Informed Consent is in response to the overarching question: What does the world need more or less of?
I believe that the world needs less appropriation of stories without Informed Consent. I believe that the world needs more commitment to ethical rigor in the daily interactions that we have with people. I believe that when it comes to women’s experiences and women’s voices, we need to aspire to a definition of consent that leaves no room for doubt of whether the person was aware of what they were consenting to.
I also believe that the non-violent safe spaces that my thirteen-year old self needed, always has to be founded on principles of Informed Consent. There is no safety without consent.
In addition, we notify audiences to our work several times prior to their arrival and upon their arrival to our performance installation, that our work contains references to sexual violence/assault. Once again, this is so that they are aware of the sensitive nature of the work they are consenting to experience.
“Interactive art makes the realization flash up that there is actually no ‘I’. No one is an island: we are produced by others as much as we create them… since interaction means changing each other, and only that which interacts with us is alive for us, we are changing everything around us as much as we are being changed by it.”
By creating safe spaces to engage with conventionally ‘unsafe’ topics, my practice creates transient communities that speak up on violence against women.
In contrast to communities where violence is silenced, ignored, denied or minimized, the transient communities I create with my collaborators speak these traumas out loud and bring people together because of these violent acts, in order to reflect and learn from them together.
This is in direct opposition to the effect that violence often has on communities, that of fragmenting them. (Thompson 2006) It is through the creation of these communities, however transient, that our art contributes to social change.
Nurturing Cross-Cultural Empathy
“A finely pitched and gently powerful piece that creates a much-needed space of contemplation of issues of race, difference, violence and universality of humanness’
(Audience Feedback from Chinese Whispers, 2014)
A key intention behind my work is to nurture empathy across cultures. In the context of a nationhood that was founded on dehumanizing entire previously existing societies on this land, in order to invade, slaughter and erase for the benefit of colonial society, ‘empathy’ continues to be a radical act in our current society, which has been deeply shaped by these colonial actions.
In Gauld (2014), Rifkin writes that “humans are soft-wired to experience another’s plight as if we are experiencing it ourselves (…) we are soft-wired not for aggression, violence, self-interest and utilitarianism, but we are actually soft-wired for sociability, attachment, affection, and companionship. The first drive is to belong. It is an empathic drive.” (2010 in Gauld 2014)
This potential to nurture empathy across the myriad of cultural groups present in Australia, is what drives my motivation to invite culturally diverse audiences to my work. As practitioners of Community and Cultural Development would know, every community has its own needs to feel invited to a particular space or event.
In the one and half years prior to premiering Chinese Whispers, I reconnected with the religious roots of my childhood and started attending church every weekend, where hundreds of Chinese-Indonesian community members would gather.
It was only in the month prior to our season, when I had developed enough of a relationship to gain the communities’ permission, that I presented a bilingual (English and Indonesian) trailer about Chinese Whispers at various churches across Melbourne.
I made sure that I was there to answer any questions afterwards that could and did come up. Not only that, I also brought the mock-up of the Chinese Whispers set to concretely explain to these community members what I meant by a ‘performance installation made out of fabric’.
For Sedih // Sunno’s creative development showings, I put together invite lists made up of people of diverse cultural backgrounds and more recently, people of diverse abilities.
During our September 2015 showing, we created a session specifically for adults of diverse intellectual abilities and continuously liaised with the group’s coordinator for two months prior to their visit to our installation. Our team learnt a lot that day about the different sensorial needs that people of diverse abilities required us to meet, in order for them to more fully engage with our work.
Importantly, “empathy should not be seen as an effect, for the emotional outcome of an encounter, but an affect, a productive catalyst for sociality” (Gauld 2014)
I believe that Australia’s artistic communities need to be more of a reflection of the people that actually make up Australia as a nation. As an artist, it is important for me that my work is accessible across cultures and abilities, because it is under these conditions that empathy with ‘the other’ is more likely to be nurtured.
Lastly, and perhaps this last guiding principle is the hardest one to write about but the most prevalent principle in all of my work: Love. Love of the work, love of my collaborators, love as nurtured by the sharing of food together with my creative team, love of the stories that we are honouring through our work, love of our generous audiences, love of oneself in order to be able to treat others kindly in turn. Love of this craft, which I experience viscerally. Love for all humanity, who come to know violence in one form or another in this world of ours, forms the foundation of why I do what I do.
I have many doubts about my work. A constant string of questions follows me in my daily practice: Why do I do it? Why should I reveal my wounds and now those of my mother’s, so publicly? Am I doing more damage to myself? Am I doing damage to my mother, my team, my audiences?
The values and ethical principles that I have outlined above are what safeguard me from just packing it all in as being too risky or too hard. My art is my social activism. The two are intertwined and do not exist without the other.
- When in doubt, I ask myself:
- What does the world need more or less of?
- How can trauma be a source of inspiration?
- How can I ensure everyone’s safety, including my own?
- How can I ensure absolute informed consent?
- What communities am I nurturing with my work?
- How can I grow cross-cultural empathy?
- Is this work an expression of love?
I hope that my sharing some of the guiding principles of my practice with you will start a meaningful conversation. I would love to hear your thoughts and responses. You can leave a comment below, via the AustralianPlays.org Facebook page or you can contact me at ranip.com.au. Thank you for reading!
Gauld, Q. (2014), Empathy beyond the human: Interactivity and kinetic art in the context of a global crisis. In Technoetic Arts: A Journal of Speculative Research 12: 2+3, pp. 389-398. Intellect Ltd Article.
Horwitz, S. (2013), Cynthia Cohen: First, Peace- Her strategies for defusing conflicts converge at the nexus of art and justice. In American Theatre, May/ June, pp. 34-35. Theatre Communications Group.
McNiff, S. in Kalmanowitz , D. and Lloyd, B. (Eds.) (2005), Art Therapy and Political Violence: With art, without illusion, Psychology Press, Routledge, xiii.
Mulder, A. (2007), ‘The exercise of interactive art’, in A. Mulder and J. Brouwer (Eds), Interact or Die!, Rotterdam: Nai Publishers.
Rifkin, J. (2010), ‘The Empathic Civilisation: The race to global consciousness in a world in crisis’ (Video file), http://www.thersa.org/events/video/archive/ jeremy-rifkin-the-empathic-civilisation.
Thompson, V. and Laubscher, L. (2006), Violence, re-membering, and healing: A textual reading of Drawings for Projection by William Kentridge. In South African Journal of Psychology, 36(4), 2006, pp. 813–829. Psychological Society of South Africa.
Rani Pramesti is a Chinese-Indonesian theatre maker and inter-cultural producer based in Melbourne. She is the Founder and Artistic Director of Rani P Collaborations, which provides performance platforms for women, to inspire conversations, self-reflection and social change. The mission of Rani P Collaborations is to give audiences and communities transformative experiences through intimate and insightful stories, by and with culturally diverse women.
In 2014, Rani led the creation of a performance-installation, Chinese Whispers, which won the Melbourne Fringe Award for Best Live Art and Kultour’s Innovation in Culturally Diverse Practice Award. Chinese Whispers also received the VCAMCM & Arts Victoria Graduate Mentorship $25,000 scholarship. In 2015, Rani is working as an Associate Producer at Footscray Community Arts Centre and is also leading the creation of a new performance-installation, Sedih // Sunno, for the 2016 Next Wave Festival. Inspired by four women artists’ family stories, hailing from Indonesia, Australia, Japan and Fiji, Sedih // Sunno is being co-created with Ria Soemardjo, Shivanjani Lal and Kei Murakami with the support of Next Wave’s Kickstart program, the Australia Council for the Arts, Creative Victoria and the Besen Family Foundation.
Rani P Collaborations is supported by the Australian Council for the Arts’ Skills Development Grant (Theatre).
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