THE SHORT STORY entitled “Rotten Stench” by Eka Kurniawan presents an interesting bodily experience as there is only one full stop at the end of the two-thousand-word story, forcing us to read it non-stop, where throughout the story short pauses are only made available by commas, and since there is no full stop in between, it has no paragraphs either, thus, when we read the story, we will gasp for air, looking for escapes to catch our breath in between the endless sequence of sentence that tells the story of a rotten stench that entirely engulfed a city named Halimunda, where the city folk were no longer surprised by the horrible smell, because Halimunda was a place where corpses of half of its communists were sprawled out and they died while doing silly things such as sleepwalking, teaching their children how to ride a bike, lathering their privates up with soap, sitting in a barber’s chair, and so on, and these trivial, silly things may not be intelligible to us as readers because we tend to hastily try to find where the full stop is, and this is why exactly this piece is so fascinating, as we overlook such silly things and casually miss them because our breath is getting shorter looking for a way to stop reading which is usually made possible by a full stop, and this experience could potentially remind us as readers of when we encounter a rotten stench, whether it be from battlefields, dug-up graveyards, rivers where corpses of communists, not unlike Halimunda, are dumped and emit putrid odor, or simply from rotting garbage we leave under the sink or a dead rat stuck between the steel frame or our roof, and when we are still unable to locate a section to take a breath, I began to contemplate how the bodily experience and the memory of encountering rottenness analogous to the content and form of the short story can be adopted to a performance, which should be relatively easier as a performance is a multi-sensory experience, and for this reason, the sense of smell can be a part of such experience, including a rotten stench, but things get complicated because the performances that we usually watch live will be viewed through a thick screen that is firm, stiff, resistant, and cold and blocks the smell from the performance intended for our nose, therefore, my task here is to reflect on this complexity by proposing a question, that is, how we can smell the rotten stench on that screen, and the question gets even more complicated, knowing that Rotten TV runs projects with a certain sub-theme that artists undertook on Site #1 called Land, and this complexity doesn’t end here because an artist also caught my attention here, the name is Jessica Ayudya Lesmana, who specifies the theme of Lahan with her own project about the right to die for trans women, which I initially thought as a more specific project in Rotten TV Site #1, until finally I found out that Jessica did the project on her own while her collaborators from Performance 69, namely Prashasti Wilujeng Putri or Asti and Dini Adanurani or Dini also had their own perspectives regarding the sub-theme of Land, and as a result, Rotten TV Site #1, in my view, encompasses four layers—the layer of Rotten, the layer of Land, the layer of Jessica’s right to die, and layer of interpretation collectively presented by Jessica, Asti and Dini as three adjoining works—which may lead us to ask why it has to be layered like that, are the themes not eventually combined into one, yes, that is true, but don’t forget that the themes do not come all at once, but are interpreted one by one as I explained in sequence earlier, and for that I’m also trying not to constantly view it as an end product coming in bulk, but rather a gradual process, and another thing that I want to emphasize is that even though I watched the works of the three artists on a computer screen, I tried to disregard the reality of the medium and try to imagine first what if I watched the show in person, and as for why in person, it is not because I am against mediated form of art and reject the idea of screen, but because the umbrella theme of this project is Rotten or rotten stench, which can only be recognized through live performances and not through screens, and I also need to highlight that this is the irony that Rotten TV tries to present in the first place, as the word TV behind Rotten can only present audio and visual experience but not olfactory, while our experience of encountering a rottenness is always preceded and dominated by olfactory experience, and if we only see or hear it, we find it difficult to call it rotten when it emits no smell, and we sometimes just call it decayed or damaged, so the idea of rottenness escapes our ability to see or hear what a TV presents, and the second reason why I imagine that the work has to be watched and visualized in person is because in the context of Jessica as a trans woman, the modality of accessing this performance in person is crucial considering that the way one encounters a trans woman—in person or through media—will greatly affect the experience, for example a person can have a good laugh over watching trans women perform comedy shows and crack some jokes on TV, as frequently depicted in mainstream media, but will the same person find it fun if he or she has to sit next to a trans woman on public transportation, or maybe even on the Jogja–Jakarta night train, and these two modalities of encounter—in-person or through-media—will affect the experience even more when the person in question is homophobic or even transphobic, and so we see that the experience of through-media encounter is very different from that of in-person encounter, and this is a common example to explain why a discussion on performativity is important in a queer performance because it does not refer only to the performance but also the performativity, as in, the ideas of whose identity and how a trans woman become a trans woman, and believe it or not, the complexity will not apply to the context of Asti and Dini, and this is not to say that being a woman guarantees security, but at least heteronormativity approves their presence in this world, and if we go even further to the theme Jessica brought up, the world approves and allows them to use Asti and Dini as their names from birth to death, but that is not the case with Jessica, considering the names she lives up to is like an invitation to troubles from the very first day the name was used, carried over in everyday life such as being called by the masculine name and humiliated when queuing at the polling stations during the General Election and became a source of amusement for the queue, until the time she dies and it will be difficult for her to take her new name to the grave with her, for that, thank you Jessica for you have woken up and fought, thank you Jessica for you woke up today and is still fighting, and thank you Jessica, for tomorrow, if life allows you to wake up, you will still fight, and thank you Jessica for reminding us that life is a sand dune, it sucks our feet in and sinks them, making it difficult for us to walk because it does not allow us to step on it with women’s shoes, and this is where exactly I increasingly consider that the Rotten TV’s work needs to be watched and visualized in person because as Peggy Phelan reminds us, a performance is a representation without reproduction—the camera does not see, record, and then broadcast a performance so that we can feel the cold sand with seawater underneath on which Jessica is walking—and this in-person or live experience in the context of Dini’s performance further highlights the irony of food in the refrigerator while we may be standing on the same rice field, and may be bitten by the same ants or grasshoppers, and in Asti’s context, the smell of pine forest, instead of refreshing, it would lead to a headache, because rows of similar-looking pines are contrasted with self-imagination, broken fragments and reflections of the self, which are reflected in the mirror fragments, a spatial experience is thus emanated, both natural and intervened, and those are the experiences of feeling the land and the space that we get when watching the work of Jessica, Asti and Dini in person, not through screen, for our own ability to identify not only the rotten stench they are contemplating, but also the spatial and physical sensation of being in different lands—the wet and windy black sand beach, the lush and yellowing rice field near a residential area, the green, vertical, and homogeneous pine forest—and yes that won’t happen if we only watch an olfactory experience in a certain land through the screen, so let’s dive in now, see what happens when the modality of enjoying their work switches to recorded media that can be slowed down, fast-forwarded, and replayed because it is no longer ephemeral, how we can identify the rotten stench they present on the screen, which, at this point, I need to take a more concrete example through Jessica’s body and autobiography as a trans woman, and beforehand, we can briefly describe Jessica’s work, and first of all, the work entitled “Another Land to The Utmost Happiness” begins with Jessica, in a white dress, red medium-heel sandals, and makeup, looking like she’s about to go to a banquet, and here Jessica woke up in the middle of trash pile, contradicting the white dress with the disgustingly rotten pile of trash, and also begging a question of whether a white dress is how death presents itself, that even if you wake up in a beautiful dress, your body is already rotting like trash, or perhaps you are a beautiful trash, who knows, I personally don’t want to suggest a coding here, instead, the process and emotional experience of the body, or affect, and after waking up, Jessica walked slowly and spread white leaflets, sat under a bamboo tower that was not sturdy at all, before walking towards a sand dune where various small transparent boards stood, on them were written words like queer, tranny, stigma, and discrimination, and, at first glance, the sand dune looked like a new grave where a body was probably buried just yesterday, and Jessica sat on it, after taking off her white dress and wearing only a pair of shorts and a piece of bra, she spread out her body, always the source of conflict, because the heteronormative system said the body was a walking catastrophe, because what Jessica brought into her life was not what was given to her at birth, or so they believed, thus her performance represents and refers to what she was not performing, that is, the complex layers of identity that were fighting against the social system, and in short, her performance implies performativity, and I refer to performativity here not only to the technical and aesthetic aspects of the performance, such as where and how she moved, what shoes and dress she wore, and how she did her makeup, but also the performativity that presents the dismantling of the idea of who I am, and how I will be called I am, who always gives me validation, and we call these the dismantling of the idea of identity, and thus Jessica’s body, only wrapped in a pair of shorts and a piece of bra, emphasizes two things at once, that is, the body of a trans woman lying on the sand dune and the bodies of trans women who had died or would later die and were buried six feet under, rotting away after experiencing discrimination all throughout their lives and even in their death, as they are not allowed and entitled to use their trans-woman names, because it appears the heteronormative system only recognizes men and women, and not trans women, and if your original name is masculine, then take it to your grave, and the system does not give trans women the right to carry their trans-woman name even in death, and the next question is how do we use such in-person performativity and in-person spatial and temporal aspects, or liveness, in order to smell the rotten stench from the screen, if we go back to our initial knowledge that a performance is a representation without reproduction as Peggy Phelan suggests, we understand that this understanding can be problematic because it seems to imply that the performance must be in person, or live, and shares the same space and time with the audience, and thus a record cannot be called live, but we can also consider a more recent view that argues that liveness, or the aspect that shows spatial and temporal similarities between the performer and the audience, is always and only formulated from the perspective of the performer, not the audience, and this is important because this view acknowledges different receptions of the audience when perceiving the same recording, whether a photo or video, for example, one still feels a closeness to and a longing for one’s deceased father even though one only see photos or videos of his birthday celebration, which means that the audience can always encounter new feelings and experiences, and for this reason, new ideas that highlight the importance of perceiving the audience’s liveness aspect emerge, and in the case of Jessica’s work, we can use this new view to see how our role as the audience in formulating liveness can help us smell the rotten stench of Rotten TV in general, and specifically the rotten stench of Site #1 aka Jessica’s work, which is by activating our agency in experiencing liveness from our own perspective as the audience, formed by our own experiences, and not only through Jessica’s performance on the screen, but also through the performativity she is shooting off the screen, outside the gallery walls, outside artistic practices and colliding with other practices in social realities, and it can only be achieved if we recognize and understand what is actually happening to trans women out there, burned alive, starving to death during the pandemic, facing barriers in applying for civil service jobs, always a joke in television and so on, and by broadening our understanding of liveness, where the audience has a big role in reviving what is recorded, and by taking performativity into account when looking through a performance when it comes to identity, I believe that the success of identifying and smelling rotten stench in Site #1 is not merely the responsibility of the artists, but also ours as the audience,and the success of smelling the rotten stench in Site #1 can only happen if the audiences recognize the stench in social realities, so if we fail to smell the rotten stench on the screen of Site #1, it is doubtful that we will succeed in smelling the rotten stench of social realties, the rotten stench of discrimination against trans women, and to me, if we fail to smell the rotten stench that Rotten TV Site #1 Land on the screen, it is not a question of whether the rotten stench is blocked by the screen or not, rather it is because we fail to smell the rotten stench in social realities as well, we consider discrimination as normal, allowing it to happen because “yes, we beat and hurt the bodies of the oppressed such as trans women because that’s just part of the normal, daily life”, so don’t blame the screen if we fail to smell the rotten stench, because we ourselves are numb, we have forgotten what pertains to rottenness in social realities, and at this point, it ceases to become the sole responsibility of the performers to ensure that we too smell such rotten stench, it is now our responsibility to testify whether our nose is still sensitive to perceive rottenness, because otherwise, we will be like the city folk of Halimunda who were so used to the rotten stench even though it burst from the streets and alleyways and the fields and floated into the kitchens, the classrooms where children were studying, and maybe we are not surprised at all by the rotten stench because we are actually the city folk of Halimunda in the short story “Rotten Stench” by Eka Kurniawan.
New York City, 7 February 2022
Notes for Rotten #1: Land
- Short story “Bau Busuk” can be read on Eka Kurniawan. “Bau Busuk”, in Cinta Tak Ada Mati by Eka Kurniawan (Jakarta: Gramedia Pustaka Utama, 2017), 114-122.
- For English translation, see Eka Kurniawan and Annie Tucker. “Rotten Stench.” Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art 55 (2017), 188-193.
- Trans woman who was called by her masculine name at the election site (TPS) and humiliated by the media can be read on “Waria Ngamuk ke Petugas TPS Gara-Gara Dipanggil Nama Aslinya, Lucu Banget, Ini Nama Aslinya” on https://wartakota.tribunnews.com/2019/04/17/waria-ngamuk-ke-petugas-tps-gara-gara-dipanggil-nama-aslinya-lucu-banget-ini-nama-aslinya accessed on 7 February 2022.
- On a representation without reproduction, see Peggy Phelan. Unmarked, The Politics of Performance. (London and New York: Routledge, 1993).
- The importance of taking audience into account in identifying liveness, see Amelia Jones and Adrian Heathfield (eds). Perform, Repeat, Record, Live Art in History (Bristol and Chicago: Intellect, 2012).
- Trans woman burned alive, see Mira, Transpuan yang Dituduh Mencuri dan Meninggal Dibakar,” on https://www.kompas.id/baca/metro/2020/04/06/mira-transpuan-yang-dituduh-mencuri-dan-mati-dibakar, accessed on 7 February 2022.
- Transwomen who died during the pandemic, see “Kisah Belasan Waria di Yogyakarta Meninggal selama Pandemi Corona: Kekurangan Nutrisi hingga Depresi on https://www.kompas.tv/article/193037/kisah-belasan-waria-di-yogyakarta-meninggal-selama-pandemi-corona-kekurangan-nutrisi-hingga-depresi, accessed on 7 February 2022.
I would like to express my gratitude to Ridho Afwan Rahman and Aik Vela for representing all of my senses at every opportunity for processes, workshops, and performances on Site #1.
About the Author
Joned Suryatmoko is a theater maker, researcher, and writer who is interested in the boundaries and relationships of theatre, performance art, and performance in general -mainly autobiographical and fictional ones. His interest in artistic practice and research, currently revolves around issues of citizenship and queer performance/studies. He’s the Director of the Indonesian Theater and Performance Conference, designed to produce and disseminate knowledge of performance and theater through a gathering of artists, practitioners, and academics. As a writer and artist, his work has been shown at the PEN Festival New York City, Melbourne Fringe Festival, Asia Playwright Meeting (Tokyo and Melbourne), and Arts Summit 8.0. Joned is a PhD Candidate in the Theater and Performance Program, the Graduate Center, City University of New York (CUNY), and Asian Cultural Council (ACC) Graduate Fellow.