By Benjamin McKay
There will be some among you who believe that talking about problems, about crises and about rights is a passive act. All talk, no action. I disagree with those sentiments. Talk, conversation, dialogue, argument and general discourse ARE actions. Identifying problems and the responses to those problems are important diagnostic activities too. A surgeon does not cut you open without knowing what it is they are looking for. Likewise artists and activists need to theoretically and critically analyse the conditions within which they are forced to endure. It can also be a cathartic experience as anyone would have ascertained had they heard the ‘public’ responses to these issues at the public forum called Panic Buttons – Culture and Crisis in Malaysia and the Region at The Actors Studio Bangsar last Sunday (11 June 2006). It ended a preceding two-day Roundtable Forum on “Crisis, Performance, Rights” at Valentine Willie Fine Art.
Given the recent and regular crackdowns on artistic practice and expression here in Malaysia it was timely that this regional gathering took place here in Kuala Lumpur. It was organised by Ray Langenbach, Sharaad Kuttan (Malaysian intellectuals), Lee Weng Choy and Paul Rae (Singaporean intellectuals). They brought together art practitioners, writers, activists, filmmakers and academics from around the region, all sharing stories surrounding moments of actual crisis in the arts from Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand and Burma. These case studies were contextualised and reflected upon in a rigorously engaged manner, and in a spirit of regional and creative solidarity. The two events over three days attempted to answer, among others, the following questions:
What is crisis? Are crises orchestrated? What happens when an artist or a work of art is situated at the centre of a crisis – perceived or actual – that is orchestrated by second and third party players? Are these crises initiated as part of a larger and more insidious agenda? Is the state the only censor? What might a cultural worker do in response to such attacks? How can communities of practitioners across the region galvanise to support the integrity of the artist and the artwork when a work is arbitrarily banned or when the broader human rights of an artist are imperilled or withdrawn by state, institutions or individuals within the broader social fabric?
Rupture: “There is no real social fabric”
The first workshop at the two-day roundtable discussion was ‘Rupture’ which was chaired by Ray Langenbach. The organisers utilised the theoretical modelling of anthropologist Victor Turner’s “social drama” and the manner in which crisis emerges from a recognisable breach within the social fabric. It was a model that proved fruitful, even when it was critiqued as it was by doyenne of Indonesian literature and thought Goenawan Mohamad, who found the bias towards a formalised social fabric to be at best problematic.
It is an interesting question to have asked. Is there a recognisable social fabric that can indeed be ruptured? Goenawan was concerned that the term in fact hides something more serious and that ultimately ”there is no real social fabric in the first place.” To give that argument some concrete support he cited in detail the broader implications of the proposed Anti-Pornography Bill in Indonesia, of the campaign against it and the multiple sites of contestation that surround it. Rather than a homogenous social fabric that is occasionally transgressed producing such crises, there are, he argued, competing sectors within society who struggle to either maintain or oppose larger hegemonies. His analysis also touched upon a recurrent theme of the three-day event when he talked about the power of language, and of the need to reappropriate and reignite meaning that has been otherwise subverted for hegemonic and perhaps sometimes sinister purposes.
The personal accounts of ‘rupture’ – of censorship and bans and acts of creative defiance were grounded firmly in Malaysia with the testimonies by Amir Muhammad surrounding the chronology of events leading up to the arbitrary ban of his film Lelaki Komunis Terakhir, from Arahmaini about her sense of fear and vulnerability following the closure of the Satu Kali event in Kuala Lumpur recently and from Fahmi Fadzil who spoke about the state/federal battle over the banning of Mak Yong and other traditional Malay arts in the state of Kelantan. The question of the arbitrary nature of most censorship within the region was reiterated a number of times by Weng Choy who claimed that the act of censorship is ALWAYS arbitrary.
Reaction: The new democracy
The next workshop, chaired by Paul Rae, further explored what a crisis may actually mean while giving shape to a variety of differing possible responses. Indonesian writer Laksmi Pamuntjak gave a valuable account of how she personally responded to the attacks and physical threats of religious extremists on Utan Kayu in Jakarta. She also spoke of the problems inherent in getting information out to the wider community about what is happening on the site of crisis.
The workshops and public forum engaged positively with the idea of what might constitute a ‘public’ and how that ‘public’ engages with works of art, with state hegemonies and with other ruptures created by non state institutions and forces. The ‘public’ is itself a vague and problematic construction, grounded in the falsehood of generics and defying ultimately attempts at homogeneity, and therefore of course broad based consensus. Can we start to imagine a series of shifting publics that have a porous fluidity about what they might at any given time be made up of?
There was amongst the round table participants an accord when it came to the argument that states create crisis in order to maintain their hegemonic supremacy. The creation or production of crisis is in itself a performative act. Raiding black metal concerts, banning exhibitions on world religions, cancelling screenings of films at FINAS and not protecting the free assembly of people gathered to discuss Article 11 are in a sense all orchestrated acts of crisis that serve to not only engender fear, but to bolster the hegemony of shifting power bases. The state falls back on a defence of its hard won status quo.
Kathy Rowland also pointed out the interesting shift away from direct state censorship. She mentioned that the Malaysian state has actually not banned a theatrical performance – not before the play’s opening night anyway – since the ban on Madam Mao’s Memories in 1990. Now the municipal or the federal bans or closes a performance based upon a complaint or objection by one or more members of the ‘public’. The state has so successfully produced a sense of perpetual crisis – that ‘we, the nation’ are under constant attack from ‘the West’, secularism and communism, to name but three – that it no longer needs to generate the crises itself. Broader society has internalised this fear and state generated crisis and now many feel capable of serving that state as self appointed moral guardians. Caught in the middle are art practitioners, filmmakers, writers and so forth whose claims for freedom of expression and the right to articulate difference are smothered by a newly self-righteous ‘democracy’. This new ‘democracy’ claims it responds to the concerns of the ‘public’ even if that public is perhaps a public of just one person. As is the case with the banning of Amir Muhammad’s Lelaki Komunis Terakhir, a truly Monty Python-esque affair. But it remains ultimately a state generated crisis even if the trigger was the campaign of one particular journalist who manipulated his coverage to create a perceived campaign of opposition. In fact, this crisis appears only to further highlight divisions within the ruling elites, if not within the ruling party.
Rites, Reflections, Resolution, Renewal: The failure of criticism
The third workshop, ‘Rites and Reflections’, chaired by Lee Weng Choy of Singapore’s The Substation, acknowledged that rites (as opposed to ‘rights’) have an important role in both maintaining the status quo as well as in generating possible change. It was premised on the idea that certain institutions such as universities perform a series of rites – such as the articulation and preservation of liberal values. But such institutions are increasingly hampered in their capacity to use those rites to generate change and are often sidelined when it comes to responding to crisis.
The idea of reflexion therefore signifies the possibilities and potential of intellectual activism. This workshop explored such things as what constitutes a critical imagination. It looked at the failure, in contemporary culture and society, of the performance of criticism per se and its apparent inability to truly engage with the greater public. Particularised case studies again proved useful for this discussion and the session itself was a particularly good segue into Sharaad Kuttan’s open roundtable discussion on ‘Resolution/Renewal’. How do we respond? How do we actively engage with the public? What new ways of strategising could we think about? Can we give new life to old strategies and methods of action and activism? How can we build bridges to other activist networks? How do the problems faced by cultural practitioners impact upon or relate to the broader rights issues of women, workers and other sectors of society who also feel that they experience crisis and rupture when confronted with hegemony and ruptures within a perceived social fabric? What role can the media play in these crises and how is the media complicit in crisis generation?
Public Forum: More than mere talk
The answer to the question of how one might actively engage with the public was given a performative and concrete response last Sunday when a panel from the roundtable addressed a public meeting at the Actors Studio at Bangsar. Hosted with considerable panache by intellectual Sharaad Kuttan, the panellists Kathy Rowland, Thai artist-activist Chumpon Apisuk, Goenawan Mohamad, translator and scholar Jennifer Lindsay, Lee Weng Choy, Malaysian artist Yap Sau Bin and PR consultant John Pang collectively distilled much that was discussed in the previous two days and opened that discussion up to the public for their critical engagement.
If l were to characterise the mood of a Malaysian ‘public’ who gave up a sunny Kuala Lumpur afternoon to deal with some very serious and current issues then I might just mention three other words that begin with the letter ‘R’ – Race, Religion and Rights. Matters of identity, or rather perceived threats to identity, are often the triggers of crisis. In Malaysia, the very contested notions of identity that are so thoroughly laced with the inherent complexities of your own bountiful diversity lie at the heart of such contestations – ethnicity, religion and class mixed together with all the apparent divisions that indeed lie within each one of those rubrics. This dynamic and somewhat fluid state of affairs appears to be governed and controlled largely by a desire to keep it all perpetually static. The ruptures and responses are perhaps spat out occasionally and then the bruises are later concealed to fester below the surface in the sanctuary of fear and marginality. While the current state and cultural hegemony might appear divided, even fractured, it does however appear to be resolute in maintaining its hegemonic status and a semblance of the status quo.
There was some debate as to whether there was an active and cohesive arts community here at all and an equally interesting argument that a networked community all working together is not necessarily either achievable or desirable – the community itself is diverse and the creation of a united front has the potential to become another institutionalised power base that could itself exclude and marginalise. A commitment has been made by the organisers to continue the dialogue further and to begin a process of monitoring and disseminating information to fellow practitioners and activists when a particular incident arises in a particular place. This is a sound and proactive outcome.
The audience appeared pleased to be able to articulate their fears, their desires and their uncertainties – not just with a crisis in the culture of the land as is so demonstrably evident in the recent attacks on the arts – but also with the discourses on power, hegemony, place, space and control. It was a healthy thing to witness people discussing these issues and listening to each other. It was more than just mere talk – it was a sharing and a convergence and confluence of ideas that gave people a chance to proactively utilise their right to democratic spaces while also articulating their positions. It might not save the next film that is arbitrarily banned, the next book that does not get published, nor will it safeguard the rights of artists and performers to break new ground and to tread where others wished they wouldn’t. What this meeting achieved was an informed and articulate defence of diversity and difference and an affirmation of the importance of art and culture to the health of a society and of a nation.
To those who practice moral policing and censorship and to those who support such actions, Panic Buttons proved that you are not speaking for everyone. Demonstrating that proof was indeed action and I look forward to seeing more critically informed public engagements throughout the region in the near future.
First Published: 18.08.2006 on Kakiseni