This webinar by Dr Miguel Escobar Varela is based on conversations with artists who hold a wide range of ideas on what wayang kontemporer should aspire to – both politically and aesthetically. The multifaceted landscape of contemporary wayang practice and discourse offers insight into the complex politics of contemporary artistic practice in Indonesia.
REGIONAL SOCIAL AND CULTURAL STUDIES PROGRAMME WEBINAR
The Politics of Art in Southeast Asia Seminar Series
Monday, 27 July 2020 — As part of the Politics of Art in Southeast Asia Seminar Series supported by Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute invited Dr Miguel Escobar Varela, Assistant Professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Academic Advisor on Digital Humanities to NUS Libraries, to speak in a webinar about contemporary wayang kulit (Javanese shadow theatre) in Indonesia. Dr Su-Ann Oh was the chairperson of the webinar.
According to Dr Escobar, wayang has always been a political art form. Developments in technology and political contexts, however, have reinvented both the aesthetics and meaning of the wayang, transforming performances and making them distinct from classical forms. While the use of technological innovations like television screens and camera during performances have been commonplace in recent decades, Dr Escobar’s presentation was particularly interested with a distinctly interventionist and contemporary vein of wayang.
This contemporary form of wayang is experimental with an abridged duration and is characterised by a modern selection of media and music. It deemphasises the centrality of philological pleasure found in its classical counterparts. Dr Escobar then previewed the resources available online through the Contemporary Wayang Archive, where recordings of wayang performances are available for viewing. He showed briefly in visual form the differences between classical and contemporary wayang through a comparison of certain aspects such as the puppets, music, language, story and space. Using data extracted from Google trends, he further demonstrated the enormous digital presence of contemporary wayang and indicated that this performative art has been drawing audiences from beyond its traditional heartland in Central Java.
Dr Escobar subsequently delved into the political nature of contemporary wayang. First, it can be explicitly political in terms of its message, a legacy of the past, and persisted during the New Order era. Today, however, its political commentary is far more diverse and direct. For instance, some performances have supported popular causes and have also attempted to dismantle class divisions and feudal values by appealing to working class tastes. Second, the performances are also political in terms of aesthetics through the adaptation of production methods like those used in films, thereby subverting classical standards. Furthermore, Dr Escobar explained that contemporary wayang is mainly sustained by corporate sponsorship. This shift has helped practitioners move away from a traditional dependence on political patrons, thereby creating greater space for political critique.
The webinar concluded with Dr Escobar’s observations on the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on contemporary wayang. He acknowledged more deliberate attempts to cater to online platforms. This development has fostered greater interaction among members of its global audience. Moreover, the financing structure of the performative art has also become individualised through ticket sales and personal contributions. This interest on the online dimension of contemporary wayang also went on during the question and answer session. Multiple questions from participants touched on the changing meaning of the performance as a result of the online medium. Other questions covered the politics of sponsorship, audience reach in rural areas and also the reinvention of archetype characters found in classical wayang. The webinar attracted a total of 33 participants from Singapore and abroad.