Performances of the Post-New Order

Lauren Bain


This essay was inspired by a series of interruptions.  While I was working on my PhD, looking at contemporary theatre in post-New Order Indonesia, my research was constantly – and fantastically – disrupted by large rallies or demonstrations taking place around Jakarta. Luckily, the more I watched demos, the more interesting they became. And in many cases, the demos were more interesting than the theatre performances I was ‘meant’ to be watching.

Although not fitting conventional definitions of ‘theatre’, the performativity of demonstrations, strikes and political rallies became a focus for my research. The very success of a demo is often totally dependent upon the length of time it can hold the attention of an audience – whether live or via the media. Successful demonstrations – like theatre – often use elements of spectacle, carnival and suspense. They involve performers, often dressed in costume, and draw on what Charles Tilly (1978) refers to as an historically established ‘repertoire’ of collective action. As many performance studies scholars have pointed out, even when demonstrations are totally improvised, protesters are working from familiar ‘scripts’ that give a common sense of how to behave, when and where to march, how to express demands and which sites to occupy (Esherick and Wasserstrom 1990). In the context of demonstrations in Indonesia, there is also often a sense that one’s fellow protesters might not be who they are pretending to be. Are they  really protesting or just acting on behalf of someone more powerful?  Are they ‘genuine’ demonstrators or provokators? Is the guy with the camera working for Koran Tempo or intel? (Brown 1999).

Much of the literature on demonstrations and protest movements discusses the symbolic importance of public appropriation of spaces(see amongst others Jordan 1998, Schechner 1993, Lazić 1999). To extend the theatrical metaphor, demonstrations are often planned with a particular stage and backdrop in mind.  Most importantly perhaps, successful demonstrations often attempt to subvert the symbolic order by appropriating language or symbols associated with state authority. Like avant-garde theatre, demonstrations often attempt to re-write and contest dominant codes of power.

In this essay I will try to make some connections between demonstrations, use of public space and political culture in post New Order Indonesia. I will look at one main example/ site of protest, the Hotel Indonesia and its famous Bunderan.  It’s important to mention that whilst performances inside theatres were mostly attracting small audiences comprising other artists, students and journalists, these ‘other’ types of performance were watched live by hundreds of thousands of people and on television by millions. If, as has been argued by Esherick and Wasserstrom ‘theatre (as a political mode) is only as powerful as the audience that it can move’ (1990: 842), then these performances were potentially powerful indeed.


Writing about ‘other’ types of performance

Although I won’t discuss theoretical frameworks in detail here, it should be pointed out that the ideas that ‘everyday life’ is ‘performed’ and that performances take place beyond the context of stage and screen are not new.

Luminaries such as performance studies scholar Richard Schechner (1992, 1993), anthropologist Victor Turner (1969) and sociologist Erving Goffman (1959, 1963) have investigated new ways of reading and looking at performance and/in everyday life. Schechner (1992) for example, expands previous notions of what might constitute ‘performance’, by arguing that it includes ‘entertainments, arts, rituals, politics, economics, and person to person interactions’. Schechner argues that ‘performance’ can be characterised as  ‘behaviour heightened, if ever so slightly, and publicly displayed: twice-behaved behaviour’ (1992:1).  Jan Cohen –Cruz in the introduction to his recent collection Radical Street Performance likewise writes that ‘performance’ is ‘expressive behaviour intended for public viewing.’ (1998: 1)

The use of performative forms such as parades and processions for political purposes is well documented (see amongst others Welch 1998; Davis 1986). And indeed, the exploitation of the power of performance has been a strength of many ‘successful’ regimes, both left and right wing. As Cohen-Cruz writes, ‘Broadcasting the Aryan ideal to the masses…the 1934 Nuremberg Party rally is a paradigm of street theatre as media opportunity’ (1998 : 169). Most observers of Indonesian politics will be able to think of examples of the ways in which regimes both past and present have used performative strategies to achieve their goals. The pictures below capture a small number of ‘political performances’ that have happened in Indonesia in the last few years.

In John Pemberton’s analysis of the 1982 General Elections in Solo (1986) it is clear that the New Order’s control over the population was not only about public space but also about defining the way in which identities and ideological positions could be ‘performed’ in that space. As soon as unofficial identities are expressed through performances in public spaces, ‘official culture’s claims to authority and…immortality’ (Schechner 1993: 46) perhaps comes into question and different sorts of futures and political spaces are at least temporarily imaginable.

The power of demonstrations as political performance of course is significantly heightened by the mediatisation of cultures.  Several writers have argued that whilst in recent decades live theatre often fights a losing battle for audiences and relevance with film and TV, the increasing power of visual media and communication means that power and resistance are increasingly ‘performed’ as they are broadcast to audiences of millions.  As British performance studies scholar Baz Kershaw has argued, ‘the performative quality of power is shaping the global future as it never has before’ (1999). It was no accident that the September 11 2001 attacks on New York City took place at a site that guaranteed instant media exposure.

In writing about the 1989 protest movement in China,  Richard  Schechner points out that in several instances it seemed as if the protest events only ‘became real’ when a TV crew appeared (1993).  Chris Brown’s article on the Semanggi I incident in Jakarta in November 1999 likewise describes various performative elements of the protest and its tragic consequences – he writes for example that,  ‘Cameras waited in the gap between opposing lines. The sound of gunfire was literally the cue to switch on the spotlights.’ (1999: 9).

It is important to note that the idea that politics itself is often interpreted in theatrical terms is of course nothing new, perhaps it has even become a cliché in the Indonesian context.  Phrases such as ‘aktor demokrasi’ and ‘siapa dalangnya’ are commonplace in Indonesian political discourse; indeed often politics appears to be played out as a sort of ‘sandiwara’ that has an unwritten and preordained script, full of the elements of tragedy, comedy, ritual  and mistaken identity that characterise stage dramas throughout the ages. In the lead up to the 1999 election, Kompas regularly used the language of performance to describe the campaign: for instance they ran a regular collumn ‘Pentas Pemilu’. Media coverage of the 1999 elections – perhaps out of necessity – also tended to focus more on the atribut and the spectacle (‘tontonan’) of the kampanye than on party policies. Interestingly a recent quick search on Tempo’s website for the word ‘teater’ threw up more articles about demonstrations and political actions than about ‘theatre’.

But by 2001, were demonstrations in Indonesia becoming, as Chris Brown suggests, an ‘empty formality’? Perhaps it is the difficulty of translating symbolic change into ‘real’ reform that characterises the ‘post-reformasi’ era. In this paper, I want to suggest that ‘reformasi’ has in fact existed more as a ‘performance’ than as something that has led to ‘real’ change. Taking this idea further than ‘performance as metaphor’, which is something of a cliché in Indonesian political analysis, maybe the reality of reformasi lies in its performativity.  I think it is fair to say that scholars who write on theatre and the arts are often marginalised in mainstream discourses/ analyses of politics in Indonesia, in this paper I am arguing that perhaps the paradigm needs to be inverted to reflect the centrality of performance to political culture.


Hotel Indonesia, the ‘perang spanduk’ and the performance of reformasi

In order to understand fully the symbolic interest in the HI as a site for demonstrations and other actions  it is important to chart some of the site’s history, and the way in which its position in Indonesian history has been (and continues to be) constructed.

In short, it is the HI’s importance as a symbol of postcolonial identity and modernity  – as well as its geographic centrality – that has made it such an important site at which to protest (see Bain 2002 for a more detailed account). Once decribed as a ‘luxury liner mid ocean’ (Koch 1978 : 15) and proclaimed as one of the key achievements of Sukarno’s ‘Year of Triumph’ (Tahun Kemenangan, see Sukarno 1962) , HI is at the centre of Jakarta in both a physical and imaginative sense. It is useful to recall that Sukarno declared – in his speech at the Hotel’s grand opening – that the completion of HI was so significant that it should be compared with the arrival of the Ramayana Epic in Indonesia, the explosion of Krakatau and Christopher Colombus’ discovery of America (see Bintang TimurHarian RakyatIndonesian Observer 7 and 8 August 1962). To borrow a phrase from city-theorist James Donald, the Hotel Indonesia occupies an important place in Jakarta’s ‘imagined environment’ (1992 : 427); according to one tourist guide book of the early 1970s it was ‘the greatest achievement of the Sukarno regime’ (Golden Guide to Southeast Asia 1971). It is central in memories about the building of a modern, postcolonial Jakarta – when the HI could be seen ‘from any direction in Jakarta, so strong and impressive, reaching to the sky’ (Kompas August 4 1996, see also Kusno 2000; Leclerc 1993).

The bunderan HI  is arguably the most-used site for demonstrations in Jakarta, perhaps in Indonesia. It is a useful mid point, on the axis between the Presidential Palace/ Monas, the UI campus in Salemba, Atma Jaya University near the Semanggi Interchange and the DPR. It is one of the few open spaces in Jakarta with such high profile and is a natural  ‘amphitheatre’ complete with a 24 hour audience of motorists, street traders, city workers and of course the resident polisi and preman who are variously occupied on the edge of a dubious looking canal on the Menteng side of the street. Undoubtedly its close proximity to the CNN satellite feed on the roof of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel also enhances its reputation as venue-of-choice of would-be demonstrators. Importantly the design of the Bunderan means that you need relatively few people present in order to cause major disruption to city traffic.

The performances of reformasi and democratisation enacted around the bunderan HI are in deliberate dialogue with the built environment, with the media, and with eachother.  These days the HI of course is dwarfed by its neighbours – skyscrapers and luxury department stores – and what the authors of Learning from LasVegas might refer to as an ‘autoscape’ (Venturi et al 1972 : 49) of flashing advertising billboards and a giant RCTI TV screen which broadcasts an endless cycle of advertisements for Nike basketball shoes and is framed by the words ‘SATU INDONESIA SATU’.

In particular it is worth mentioning that directly opposite the HI is another building that lays claim to the name ‘Indonesia’. The Plaza Indonesia, its super luxury shopping mall and Grand Hyatt Hotel is an exemplary piece of postmodern architecture, representing the vast social inequities that characterise modern Jakarta. Whilst the HI is strongly (and nostalgically) grounded in place and history, the Plaza Indonesia and its Grand Hyatt form a perfect example of  the aesthetic of  what Jameson has called ‘late capitalism’ (1984). At the Grand Hyatt for example, oasis-like atriums are filled with the murmur of cascading water fountains and the click of women’s high-heels on marble floors – familiar white noise for the ‘global soul’ in an era in which global capital (in theory) has no nationality (see Iyer 2000).

City theorist Sharon Zukin has written that ‘nearly all cities use spatial strategies to separate, segregate and isolate the ‘Other’ (1996: 49; see also Davis 1990).   This idea is relevant to a discussion of the ‘performances’ of the post new order era precisely because at least in the initial stages of reformasi, the staging of demos, strikes, actions and street theatres in this space has in part been about claiming back some of the space for people who would normally be positioned as ‘Other’. Almost all of the buildings surrounding the Bunderan HI are owned by corporations or by the government. The space is also crowded by billboard advertising which towers above the street demanding that we think not about the coming revolution or plans to disband Golkar but about  LUCKY STRIKE: AN AMERICAN ORIGINAL, Citibank ATM cards and AXA life insurance.

It could be argued that when a homemade spanduk enters into dialogue with these images it disrupts – to varying degrees – the dystopic aesthetic of global capital as well as the meanings ascribed to this site by Indonesian governments past and present. Spanduks and the people who display them threaten to (temporarily) re-code a space in which ideas and images of Indonesian nationhood and modernity (and perhaps postmodernity) have been and are powerfully imagined and represented. It’s no coincidence that Jakarta’s Governor, Sutiyoso, not particularly known for his love of democracy, declared prior to the 1999 elections that he would much prefer that the campaigns were held within an enclosed building (Kompas 9 March 1999). Likewise it is not accidental that the Jakarta City Government’s current renovations of the Bunderan although in the name of ‘pelestarian’ are likely to result in the creation of a site that is much more difficult for demonstrators to occupy.

Since 1998, performances that have happened at the bunderan have included (but are not limited to) demonstrations and  strikes with obligatory convoys of Metromini buses, flag and banner waving and making of noise; competitions to place political parties’ flags on top of the Welcome Monument;  the distribution of flowers of peace, pamphlets demanding Gus Dur’s resignation, photocopied rupiah, nasi bungkus, and noise making devices to demonstrators and  passers by;  ‘happening art’, often involving semi naked young men entwined in Indonesian flags and body paint;  24 hour sit-ins staged by retrenched bank executives; performances by bands, folk theatre groups and parades of giant puppets, for example the demo staged by Taring Padi on Hari Pahlawan in 2001; and barongsai lion dances. The pictures below document a small sample of these performances.

These performances take place against a changing backdrop of banners and slogans representing almost all political persuasions. Indonesian readers will be very familiar with these slogans. They range from the classic ‘reformasi’ demands: ‘Enam Visi Reformasi : Cabut dwifungsi TNI-Polri, Adili Soeharto dan kroninya, Tegakkan supremasi hukum , Beri otonomi daerah seluas-luasnya, Lakukan amandemen UUD 1945, Budayakan demokrasi yang egaliter’, to party-political demands, such as ;‘Vox Populi Vox Dei. Suara Rakyat, Suara Tuhan. Megawati Presiden Kami’, ‘BJ Habibie Presidenku, Barisan Pendukung Habibie’ or one of my personal favourites ‘Kalau Bukan Megawati Sukarnoputri, Papua Merdeka!’.  And by 2001 there were more frequent displays of slogans such as ‘AWAS! Indonesia Mau Bubar’, ‘AWAS Komunis Baru’ and ‘Kami Cinta Reformasi tapi Lebih Cinta Kedamaian’.

It is important to note that in 2001 the novelty of the demo and the simple pleasure of occupying spaces like the bunderan HI had – for many people – worn off.  As every theatre reviewer knows, it only takes a short time for what has been avant garde and risky to become mainstream.  Likewise, the once-radical occupation of public space very quickly becomes the status quo. The protest genre of ‘happening art’ is perhaps a good example of the way in which  once radical ideas can become tired very quickly: although once a brave intervention, by 2001 I would argue that  the image of a semi naked (usually male) body writhing around as if in pain, the use of familiar props such as military boots,  red and white flags and  face paint, anguished facial expressions, playing on a sort of uncomfortable patriotism with phrases such as ‘negeriku berdarah’, had become clichéd.

A protest’s ability to raise awareness about a specific issue is – as I have argued above – determined by the success of its ‘dramaturgy’.  When the ‘dramaturgy of protest’ transcends cliché, the protest is most successful. This was the case, for example, with an action staged in the lead up to the 1999 Elections, which focused on the issue of money politics. Outside the KPU office in Menteng, and then around the nearby Bunderan HI, activists from Forum Komunikasi Senat Mahasiswa se-Jakarta (FKSMJ) dressed themselves as ‘manusia uang’. Spectacularly covered from head to toe in hundreds of photocopies of 50,000Rp notes, they proceeded to stop passing cars while handing out photocopied (but very realistic looking) 50,000Rp notes. The ‘manusia uang’ gained front page news coverage in Kompas (11 May 1999), not – I would argue – because the media was particularly concerned about money politics (although it may have been sympathetic to the protesters’ point of view), but because the activists’ costumes and performance was so visually impressive. Likewise, passing cars, which may not have looked twice at the activists’ protest had they been more conventionally attired, interacted with the performance (an indeed became part of it) when they accepted the fake money handed to them.  Activists – like artists – face the continual challenge of transcending clichés and inventing new ways of challenging dominant codes of power and meaning.


The end of the carnival

The appropriation of public space by millions of election campaigners in 1999 was clearly extraordinarily exhilarating, the lure of the streets a source of great pleasure (Berman 1999). But in the years that followed the 1999 elections, I would argue that despite the still huge need for campaigns on issues of major importance, the act of protest no longer had the same kind of impact. Nor was it necessarily ‘radical’ – except perhaps for some sections of the global media, for whom nothing fills airtime quite as neatly as a rowdy demonstration accompanied by police violence in a developing country.

To borrow again from Richard Schechner, ‘the carnival can only last so long – every Mardi Gras meets its Ash Wednesday’ (1993 : 71).  In the context of reformasi, not only did the carnival end – its very strategies, words and symbols were in many cases appropriated by forces aligned with the status quo (New Order). Hence we see Government sponsored billboards in Jakarta and Yogyakarta respectively which proclaimed  in grand (post) New Order linguistic style ‘Disiplin Mengantar Reformasi Untuk Hari Esok Yang Lebih Baik’  and ‘Sukses Reformasi Tergantung Persatuan dan Kesatuan Bangsa’.  I think it is worth pointing out the obvious continuities between the phrase ‘sukseskan reformasi’ and the use of the phrase ‘sukseskan pemilu’ during the New Order (Pemberton 1994)[1].

In writing on the ways in which politics is performed I hope to engage with more than the idea ‘theatre as metaphor’.  The performance of politics in Indonesia goes further than metaphor. Not only do government and activists alike engage dramatic strategies to achieve their goals, the very ‘reality’ of reformasi and of political life lies perhaps in its performativity.  In using ideas about performance and its manifestations in a variety of contexts I hope that new understandings about the post New Order and about politics and performance in Indonesia will be enabled.


Bain, Lauren (2002) “‘Indonesia’ dari sebuah Hotel” in Kalam 19 pp35-58

Berman, Laine (1999) ‘The Art of Street Politics in Indonesia’ in Hugh O’Neill and Tim Lindsey (eds) AWAS! Recent Art from Indonesia catalogue Melbourne : Indonesian Arts Society

Brown, Chris (1999) ‘Blood in the streets’ Inside Indonesia no 58 pp8-9

Davis, Susan (1986) Parades and Power Philadelphia, PA : Temple University Press

Davis, Mike (1990) City of Quartz :Excavating the Future of Los Angeles London : Verso

Donald, James (1992)  ‘Metropolis : The City as Text’ in Bocock and Thompson (Eds) Social and Cultural Forms of Modernity, Cambridge : Polity Press

Esherick, Joseph and Jeffrey N Wasserstrom (1990) ‘Acting Out Democracy : Political Theatre in Modern China’ The Journal of Asian Studies 49 no4 (November) : 835-865

Fitzpatrick, Stephen  (2000)  ‘Things to do with Indonesian shopping centres: the (other) end of Jalan Malioboro, Yogyakarta’  paper given at the Indonesian Identities Conference, University of Tasmania

Goffman, Erving (1959) The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life Garden City, NY : Doubleday, Anchor Books

——————— (1963) Behaviour in Public Places : Notes on the Social Organisation of Gatherings New York : Free Press

Golden Guide to South and East Asia  (1971) Sydney : Far Eastern Economic Review

Iyer, Pico  (2000)  The Global Soul : Jet Lag, Shopping Malls and the Search for Home New York :  Alfred A Knopf

Jameson, Frederick (1984) ‘Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism’  New Left Review 146  pp53-92

Jordan, John (1998)  ‘The Art of Necessity : the subversive imagination of anti-road protest and Reclaim the Streets’ pp 129-151 in  George Mckay (ed) DiY Culture : party and protest in Nineties Britain London and New York : Verso

Kershaw, Baz (1999) The Radical in Performance : Between Brecht and Baudrillard London and New York : Routledge

Kusno, Abidin (2000) Behind the Postcolonial : Architecture, Urban Space and Political Cultures in Indonesia  London and New York Routledge

Lazić, Mladen (Ed) (1999) Protest in Belgrade : Winter of Discontent Central European University Press, Budapest (first published in Serbian in 1997)

Leclerc (1993) ‘Mirrors and the lighthouse : A Search for Meaning in the Monuments and Great Works of Sukarno’s Jakarta 1960-1966’ in Peter Nas (ed) Urban Symbolism, Lieden : EJ Brill

Pemberton, John (1986) ‘Notes on the 1982 General Election in Solo’ Indonesia (41) April  pp1- 22

—————- (1994) On the Subject of ‘Java’ Ithaca : Cornell University Press

Republic of Indonesia (1962) Indonesia 1962 Yearbook , Jakarta : Departmen Luar Negeri

Schechner, Richard (1993)  The Future of Ritual : Writings on Culture and Performance London and New York : Routledge

Sukarno (1962) Tahun Kemenangan (TAKEM) :  Pidato Presiden Republik Indonesia Pada 17 Agustus, Djakarta : Departmen Penerangan RI

Tilly, Charles (1978) From Mobilization to Revolution Reading, MA : Addison-Wesley

Turner, Victor (1969) The Ritual Process Chicago : Aldine

—————– (1982) From Ritual to Theatre New York : PAJ Publications

Venturi, Robert, Denise Scott-Brown and Steven Izenour (1972, revised edition 1977) Learning from las Vegas : The Forgotten Symbolism of Architectural Form Cambridge MA and London  : The MIT Press

Welch, David (1998) extract from ‘Triumph of the Will’, 1935, pp169-178 in Jan Cohen-Cruz Radical Street Performance : An International Anthology  London and New York : Routledge

Zukin, Sharon (1996)‘Space and Symbols in an Age of Decline’ in Anthony D King  (Ed)  Re-Presenting the City : Ethnicity, Capital and Culture in the Twenty-First Century Metropolis Basingstoke and London : MacMillan Press


Newspaper articles and other primary sources

Bintang Timur ( August 7 1962) ‘Tundjukkan Wadjah, Kepribadian dan Perdjuangan Bangsa Indonesia’

Catatan Tentang Hotel Indonesia (July 17 1989) News Release, distributed by the Marketing Department of the Hotel Indonesia

Indonesian Observer (July 6 1962)  ‘Tourism Season in the Orient’

————– (July 17 1962) ‘First Paying Guests for Hotel Indonesia’

————– (July 21 1962)  ‘Hotel Indonesia Talk of the Town : Rp 1000 for Nasi Goreng’

————– (August 6 1962)  ‘Show Country’s Cleanest Face : President Opens Hotel Indonesia’

————– (November 17 1962)  ‘National Character Revealed in HI decorations : within its ultra modern edfice’

Merdeka ( August 6 1962)  ‘Pamerkanlah Wadjah Indonesia Jang Suka Damai’

Harian Rakyat (August 5 1962) ‘Hotel Indonesia Dibuka’

Kompas (August 4 1996) ‘Hotel Indonesia di Tengah Kepungan Rival Berat’

———– (March 9 1999)   ‘Pemda DKI tunggu aturan kampanye’

———- (May 11 1999) ‘Manusia Uang’ photo and caption



[1]The phrase ‘sukseskan pemilu’ has had a life beyond the New Order, as exemplified by its continued liberal use in the 2004 election campaigns. Pemberton’s critique remains, therefore, highly relevant.