Wendelien van Oldenborgh on No False Echoes

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Discussing No False Echoes on September 26, 2008, at Ruang Mes 56, Yogyakarta. In the picture, from left to right: Grace Samboh, Binna Choi, Nuraini Juliastuti, Wendelien van Oldenborgh.

“No False Echoes”, the latest film of Wendelien van Oldenborgh, was screened for the first time in Be(com)ing Dutch exhibition at Van Abbe Museum, Eindhoven, the Netherlands, on May 2008.  It then traveled to Yogyakarta during a visual art event called Electric Palm Tree: Open Circuit #1 (EPT) in September 2008, in which van Oldenborgh was also one of the participants. The discussion about it was held by KUNCI Cultural Studies Center, and was part of EPT. This writing is about the conversation between van Oldenborgh and Nuraini Juliastuti on “No False Echoes”.

1. In “No False Echoes” as well as in your previous work “Maurits Script”, you have applied a discussion-of-certain historical text method. Why do you choose this method in particular?

My method of working has developed through the desire to research about how to produce – in a situation where I wanted to talk about the conditions of today and work through the difficulty to think around heterogeneity, conflict and contradicting realities. Through the research/production series A Certain Brazilianness, of which Maurits Script is a part, I slowly came to this way of working where I invite people to contribute to a moment of production. In the case of Maurits Script it was the first time that I used a historical text as a basis for this contribution, which in essence was the actual reading of fragments of 17th century text – ranging from personal letters to daily minutes by the Political Councils – which I had collected and compiled in the form of a script with the aid of the Berlin based script writer Rainer Kirberg. My interest in the reading was not primarily the literal information of the text, but the way it would be pronounced by these people, who all had some relation to the contents – or the omissions – of this text. It is the relation between this actuality of someone today, with a certain set of recognizable values and the power of a text, which brings words from another period and would be written by someone, with a similar, or very different set of values. The friction that clearly appears between the words and their articulation is where I think the works functions.

2. Examining the conversation in your work, it feels like watching the combination of a discussion session and play, because although you seem to allow participants of the talk to act in whatever way they wish to perform, audience still can see some participants who show obvious aura of performativity. How do you link such performativity practice with historical reading?

Using a historical text, which had a strength and meaning at a given moment, a moment we can know some things about, like the text “Als ik eens Nederlander was” by Soewardi Soerjaningrat which appears in No False Echoes, and actualizing it by a perfomative act, not only brings the historical text as a given fact, but as a material to rethink the meaning of both the historical moment and the situation which we live today. The way it is performed in No False Echoes is both “real” in the sense that this particular text brings words, which for the reader of the text (Salah Edin, a Dutch – Moroccan rapper) could work as true for his own situation, as well as “performed” in that he is a strong performer and can bring emotion to the reading, which allows the text to show its strength. I left him to read it in the way he chose, but since he is a rapper and used to cameras, his way was full of pathos and ways to play with the viewer to give strength to the words.

In the case of the participants who speak freely, or speak form their own expertise directly, like some others in the discussion session, I think the performance aspect brings a similar friction between the words being “real” expressions of the moment, of someone, and being “text”, which can be considered more contemplatively. Or even being “film” or “script” in which case they are starting to function on yet another register namely that of a fiction, an act. Since the whole of the work is not functioning in one register only, I think the viewer finds herself in a more uncertain situation in which she must negotiate her own reactions and thoughts.

To come back to your question: The way that these particular moments of perfomativity are linked to historical reading lies exactly in the listening. I think the listener/viewer is left to judge what is history, since it is brought as something, which is clearly not authoritarian, clearly not only “true” or “fact”.

3. In the same work, you bring audience to enter the discussion of colonial relationship between the Netherlands and Indonesia through reading Soewardi Soerjaningrat’s text “If I Were a Dutch Man”. Why do you choose this text?

Within the research towards making the work, I was looking for an existing material, which could express the historical moment of a growing national consciousness. What interested me was that the radio, which was a rather new invention, was used in the Dutch Indies at the time to strengthen the Dutch national consciousness, and tried very hard to deny or ignore the possibility of an Indonesian national feeling. When I read Soewardi Soerjaningrat’s text, I thought it was an amazing piece of work in which this issue was already addressed in 1913, in a way that was so literarily beautiful. The text moves elegantly between identities. The writer takes on ironically the identity of the other, of the opponent even and then jumps back to his own, still making a detour via the other to finally arrive at speaking from the voice he is representing: the fight for the recognition of an Indonesian nation. This was very inspiring to me and I thought it would be both very important for a Dutch audience to hear this text, to know about it, and for the text to act as an activator for new connections between that historical moment of a late colonial time and the now, in which immigration and national identity are being discussed – at least in the public sphere in the Netherlands – in very conservative and simplistic ways.

4. What things that urge you to discuss the colonial relationship as a topic of your works? Further, how do Dutch society perceive historical bind between the colonizer and the colonized one? And how do they respond to your work?

My own experience as a Dutch person looking at how the Netherlands deals with its problems and its past, urged me to discuss the colonial relationships in my work. It feels like a hugely neglected topic for analysis and self-reflection as far as I am concerned. I feel strongly that what makes the current debates in the Netherlands so flat and limited is that certain issue have never been addressed in the past and are now considered as already being too far away. I have a feeling that the idea of being the colonizer is not a very strong notion in the Dutch society. Somehow, when I was in school, the message was always that England and France had been the colonial powers and we were not, we were so to say the good example of a nation which explored the world and had many trade relations everywhere. Having lived for a long time in the UK and in Germany as well, I realize that there are far more sophisticated attitudes possible towards a discourse of ex-colonial relations. In the Netherlands the notions of the colonizer and the colonized seem not to apply to us.

What I think is a problem in the Netherlands, is that digging through issues by forms of discourse is not a very appreciated game. A popular pragmatic attitude asks for questions with clear-cut answers and decisions and conclusions to deal with the outcome of the choice.

In the case of Indonesia, I personally notice mainly an attitude of nostalgia towards our past colonial relation. I am myself quite shocked not to have been taught in school about the idea of the colonies, their meaning and functioning, and certainly not about the battles in 1947 and ’49, which have such different naming as to estimate their meaning in Indonesia and here in the Netherlands (Dutch Military Aggressions versus Politionele Acties). But I am also surprised that there is no real analysis in the public domain of what it meant and means to have been a dominating nation for such a long period of time, and what that means for our attitude and knowledge of all the groups of people who are involved in the consequences. Perhaps it could be nostalgia and shame, in which the former leads to a highlighting of personal feelings, and the latter to repression of the analysis. I think it would be very good when in schools the teaching of history would be changed to be more open, or certainly more analytical: looking at the larger lines.

The response to my work has recently turned to be quite positive by one group of people who perhaps recognize the need to review certain relations of today and dare to look at them through a detour of a past, which might not be singularly understandable. But there exists also a very cynical response of viewers who find that the past is the past and 1913 (Soewardi’s text) or 1933 (temporary closing of the Philips broadcasting in the Dutch Indies, because they could not hold their exclusion of other voices) is too far away to consider relevant now… (let alone the 17th century!).

5. Can you explain Radio Kootwijk as the background of “No False Echoes”?

Radio Kootwijk was a transmission station, built around 1920 where radio contact was established between Holland and the Dutch Indies in an early stage of radio. It is also an early modernist building, concrete and very monumental, constructed in the isolation of a wide landscape, which today is a nature park. As a location for No False Echoes, it signified powerfully the technological progress in action in the Netherlands, with the aesthetics that this was expressed with. But in the way I used it, I also wanted to points at how it can express isolation in this story of power and deafness. The significance of economical factors in these power relations, I wanted to express through the story of Philips. Philips built radio receivers, exported them to the colonies and then started to make and broadcast the programs to be received by these radios. The PHOHI – the Philips Radio Broadcast Holland-Indies – never transmitted from Radio Kootwijk at the time. Philips had its own transmitter, which has been destroyed already. The whole of the Philips story is very interesting in studying how companies are involved in the making of political force fields. By controlling the apparatus, the programs and the transmission even, they had a nice grip on information and even state decision making. As a location, I found the Radio Kootwijk building very expressive about these subjects.

6. Do you have a personal relationship with Indonesia?

I have. Even with the radio and Philips. In the late 1920’s my grandfather worked for Philips and moved to the Dutch Indies to sell radio’s there. My mother was born in Yogyakarta in 1933 as a result of this history. She lived in several places on Java and was captured, like all Dutch people at the time, by the Japanese army when it invaded the Archipelago in the early 1940’s. As a young girl she spend four years being captivated in a camp on Java. This personal trauma of war experience has always made the view towards Indonesia colored in both pain and nostalgia. After all, she was a child, brutally disconnected from all that was familiar, who after four years of imprisonment was brought to Holland which was not very welcoming to this group of bereaved, arriving in a country, itself recovering from war damages. I think this group of people coming back from the Indies was representing the Netherlands as a colonizing nation, which had a mixed status at the time. Many left-wing people had a very strong anti-colonial agenda, and perhaps this shame-thing had an influence. With the extra fact that my mother had a very bad relationship with her mother, who practically abandoned her in the years of imprisonment, stories of Indonesia were rarely heard in my family home, but nevertheless a certain feeling around this past was established.

7. How do you choose actors to play in your work, and how do you place them or how do they place themselves in your work setting?

For each work I think about which kind of relations to the subject of research I would like to put forward. The people I ask to contribute to the piece always have a personal bind with some part of the content. I ask them for different reasons and all factors play a role really, and I try to have several meeting so that we are also building up some kind of a relation. The rapper Salah Edin, for example, I asked because of his current controversial status in the Netherlands for the provocative irony he uses in his musical production; but also for his visible identity and the accent in his speech that comes with it. He could be recognizable as the one, who is at the centre of discussions at the moment: the Dutch Moroccan young man. But then not to forget, I also asked him for his perfomative abilities and his beauty. For each person there is a set of reasons, larger or smaller. I admired the discourse of Baukje Prins for example, and wanted very much that that would enter somehow into the work. Then she turns out to be a very nice and beautiful person as well. And others, like the participants in Maurits Script, I invited because of their own lives and trajectories, which relate to the central issue and because I like them and built up a relation with them around the subject. Always I am amazed how people are willing to engage and offer their thoughts and time. Their relation to the subject and the conditions I am setting up adds to this pleasure and everyone end up looking great in the situation. The way they see or place themselves within the process of the work varies I think, but it always is a negotiation.

And I also try to make combinations of people I think might like each other, but do not necessarily agree or have the same position.

8. There is a strong connection between modernity (represented by radio technology), the idea of nationalism and the formation of a nation, and the fear of radicalism facilitated by technology development in your work. Can you elaborate the relationship between these four things and how does the idea of “nation” find itself in that relationship?

 

This is a both a very important and a very difficult question to answer here. The concepts you mention being connected in my work: modernity – nationalism – (formation of) a nation –  (fear of) radicalism, are one by one large issues about which much can be said and is written and to which I do not feel capable to add more theory. The way that I try to work is to pick those concepts up and let them be negotiated during the process of production of a work, by different people with different experience, expertise and positions.

On a first level of understanding the relationships seems clear enough: modernity and the idea of progress have their strong basis in the 19th century, centering in Europe, when also the structure of the nations as we know them today were established, after the initial idea of state and popular sovereignty which were confirmed with the French Revolution. A widespread feeling of loyalty to something as symbolic as a nation has been said to be growing only from around 1800. Together with a feeling of loyalty comes a feeling of fear towards that, which might break up the unity. Within my work I like to look at the way these concepts may be connected, but how none of them is stable. One person’s definition or feelings of nationalism may totally contradict another one. What is radicalism for one group, is a fight for recognition for another.

What I am finding interesting to explore, is how we could redefine our ways of relating. In No False Echoes I wanted to look at the moment in history, when the belief of one nation in its own superiority was breaking down and in which modernity was playing a double role. Where the Netherlands were using their mastering of technological development for their own growth, gain and belief in this being right, its arrival somewhere else – Indonesia in this case – could mean a possibility to develop other interests.

Just to say that the ideology of nations and national identity is one possibility of defining and relating, and the idea of modernity with its ideology of progress and growth also. It may be clear that they are and have been the predominant structures in which we have all developed our so-called “selves”, but personally I think it is interesting to try and break it down a bit and put forward the frictions in the beliefs, rather than the confirmations.

9. You are using “Nina Bobok” song in “No False Echoes”. Why do you choose this song and what does it mean in your work?

 

The song came to me by chance. My daughter Lina sings in a small choir of her class in school, and one of the songs they were learning last year was Nina Bobo. A girl in her group had brought it in. In “No False Echoes” I wanted to let three voices move around each other. Two of them were quite clear: the Indonesian Nationalist voice and the voice of the Philips radio story: the voice of a particular expression of Dutch dominance, which was clearly keeping itself deaf for the first mentioned voice. Both are political voices, one explicitly so, and the other – the radio – formally trying to keep any political messages at bay with a rule that no politics were aloud on the radio, naturally playing on a political level. The third one I wanted to be that voice, which is more personal, sentimental (relating to the nostalgia I have mentioned earlier) and not so simply bound to one or another political position. I thought about this voice as being possibly musical, and not related to one or another group. The musical form Krontjong was giving me this possibility. This type of music became very popular on the radio, which was broadcast from within the Archipelago (but still controlled by Philips and others), a radio called the NIROM, which had a “western” and an “eastern” programming. However it may be, the fact has remained that Krontjong, which is a very romantic and nostalgic musical form, was very popular both with different groups living in the Dutch Indies. In the Netherlands Krontjong is still played now. Nina Bobo is a Krontjong song, even if it has become the most popular children’s bedtime song in Indonesia, as I understand. And what I thought was nice, is also that it came into our home via my daughter, who is half Brazilian, and blond… and who goes to a school where many different people meet and exchange their favorite things, even if they might never become one group for ever.

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