Lesson from Asian Games Opening Ceremony; More Than Political Campaign, Always For Nation Branding

The opening ceremony of Asian Games 2018 a week ago had left most of twitter users that I followed amazed. I read so many interesting tweets about how Indonesia “able” to portrayed such a spectacle with high quality of sets and story line. Some of my Korean friends even amazed of how “cool” Indonesia actually is. That night, “Indonesia” and “Jokowi” were on trending topic list on Naver. I do realised that the opening ceremony was one of the marketing strategies – or soft politic as you wish, for a nation in promoting their country. As you can see, every opening ceremonies, from Olympic, winter game, SEA games, and now Asian Games, every host has the opportunity to perform something for the audience. The word “audience” can reassemble the international community, citizen, or even a desperate call for validity. To some people (or nations to say), hosting a sporting event is a prestigious opportunity that can justified regional or even global capacity to hold such high intensive labour. Sporting events can also be seen as a soft power opportunity to gain public trust or create a branding for a nation.

I always see that even performing art has a strong political purpose behind it. If we learn from the previous ceremonies from a different sporting event, Beijing 2008 and London 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony we can see clearly of how performing art is a medium for nation branding. I think it is fair to say that the general story line is always dissected into  past-culture-future section. Past: nations are trying to emphasised their existence, glorious days, and great contribution to current society. Culture: condition where nation shows their heritage and plethora cultural attributes. Future: what is one nation forecast of their own future. A side from the theme presented to the audience, there will always be agenda embedded.


Raising the flag

To understand this aspect, we need to be aware of the political issue around the months the ceremony was held. China was previously known for it’s controversial government system and “picky” in terms of economic relations – a.k.a the ideological war, this crafted China as an unfriendly neighbour to the western.  The ceremony started with count down with Arabic and Chinese numerals, followed by (seems to be like hundreds) of drum players to welcome the athletes. The so-called “artistic performance” starts with dancers on a scroll then to terracotta soldiers. This marks the “Past” section where China reminds the audience its influence on literature (especially art, writing, characters, and numbers). Then there is the transition to “Culture” or maybe we can call it “Present” too with the dance indicating Silk Road, vary kind of music (mostly traditional ones during the Qing Dynasty style), peace dove and old rituals for king. Moving forward to the Taichi movement that indicates the harmony, floating astronauts, then one of the craziest thing I’ve ever seen in performing art stage: defying gravity dance circulating (I guess) a sun. 

China had been very playful with the properties and architectures of the stage, they did this for a reason: breaking the stereotype of western media. You can’t deny the ripple effect of colonialism to our current perspective towards the world, there were a cultural and communication gap between the Chinese and the western media. They failed to understand what China tries to imply through the ceremony. Some western media claimed China’s message seems aggressive, irrelevant to uninformed, and one-sided, I completely disagree with this. As a person growing up in Asia, China has always been seen as a nation-state that is powerful but still hold it’s cultural heritage in their modern living style. Indonesians maybe familiar with all of those arts and musical performances given at the opening ceremony. One message that is clearly delivered is that China wanted to be seen as an influential player enough to make impact the world- as people can see from the history of how influential China was. Strong enough in a sense that they are “opening” themselves (in terms of economic and political relations) with international community. But as if the western media didn’t understand it, so does the world. Although in 2010 Shanghai hosted the biggest international expo and echo the sentiment of “Next Great World City”.

Moving on to London 2012. I was expecting for classic “western” opening ceremony that glorifies they victory upon conquering lands and remarking their position. Interestingly, London had the other way around to portrayed UK glory days. It started with a movement that highlight the beauty of Glastonbury Tor to emphasised the existence of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as an Isle. The “Past” section revealed the condition pre-Industrial revolution: green and peaceful, but the strong remarks was shown during pandemonium segment of industrial revolution in  England. People in dusty labour outfit crafting the olympic ring. That is pretty dark and interesting way to express the British influence on the world. Then the inspiration for Jokowi’s entrance scene (from what I heard from the committee, the producer of London 2012 is also working along with Wishnutama in creating the opening VCR- the word “vcr” refers to definition usually used among Korean Artist for prerecorded scene before a stage show). Where the Queen and Daniel Craig jump out of a helicopter to attend the ceremony. Among many culture to be presented, the British decided to do music instead. Appreciation for TV shows and “music time machine”, although it’s quite confusing and clashing each scene. Another funny thing for me is how the British use Artic Monkey as a back sound for their “Future” segment with doves on a bike; a smooth movement illusion directed by Danny Boyle. This is one of the most mesmerising shows ever done in the olympic ceremony. Taking “Isles of Wonder” as theme, they have succeeded giving a glimpse of each part of UK a “show” to perform. This shows highlight how the British is a major player in changing the world; referring on industrial revolution scene, and still be influencing into more subtle way though music and pop culture in the 80s and 90s. The “Future” scene indicates that the British will always be part of a global peace movement. 

If you’re the type that loves seeing subtle messages behind a certain scene, you can understand far more of the line on the London 2012 game than the Beijing 2008; despite how colonialism define our media. In the cultural aspect, China is far richer than any European culture combined. It is simpler to understand what London 2012 trying to conveyed through pop culture, rather than China’s attempts to show each of their culture in relatively short time. This also had been a problem for the opening ceremony of Asian Games. In one interview, Ronald Steven said that it is one of a challenge to compressed hundreds of existing cultures in Indonesia to be exhibit in just under 2,5 hours. This task risks the chance of failing on conveying the message as what happened in China back in 2008. There are many aspects aside from story line and music in a show, as small as properties, colours, and setting matters to what people will perceive scenes as. I was immediately amazed by how the team able to compressed Sabang to Marauke and put more attention on small convenience thing; race, background colour. I feel all part of Indonesia is represented. 

As the ceremony begins, they started from the very west of Indonesia; the most popular extracurricular in Jakarta, the Saman dance. For those who understands how Saman works, you will always be amazed of how fluid the movement is, but in this occasion, aside from massive participants, small things such as clothings and patterns (as seen from above) gives you goose bump. A thread on Twitter exposed how the “5-in-1 saman cloth” works, with Velcro’s and simple system yet this opening scene has pumped nationalism to those who watch even from the flat screen. To those who don’t understand Saman or geographical location of Aceh, this scene able to convey its message through colours and patterns. 


Earth Segment
Now we are moving towards the “Middle” part of Indonesia

In the “Past” section, as expected, kingdoms are highlighted. In 2016, I worked along with Denny Malik in creating performance art, his choreographs is always in 1) diverse – in terms of physical sizes, age, and race, 2) shows glory -lifting, body climbing, acrobatic, and 3) harmony – you can see from where shirtless Maruli Tampubolon is surrounded by villagers. The “Present” section shown in what the media claimed as “Earth Segment”, showing dances from all over Indonesia, from West to the East. A side from costume used by the dancers, the race of the singer – although this may look racist where we can’t still differentiate Nusa dan Papua, matters the most to state “where in Indonesia” are we. They close this section with “white” performances from Putri Ayu and “red” by Anggun C. Sasmi which created a transition to “Fire Segment”- to cool to be discussed! The last section is the most confusing for me, it does shows “future” but has no further meaning than collaborating – which was only represented through landmarks statue on the background. There seems always a problem in the transition from “present” to “future” in every opening ceremony. In the emerging economic country, the branding will always be “too big to imagine”, in other way they always see future  as an ambition to be achieved – understanding that the last section is about collaboration to if you compared London 2012 is about peace. However, this last scene is very important to nation branding, this is where a nation put their hopes and wishes, ambition and vision for their land. 

As talking about Jokowi’s VCR, I had around 100 retweets talking about how the Queen also “faked” her parachute landing. Some replied with mockery saying that I am pro Jokowi and didn’t see that this is action of stealing bases for next year election. To some extend, I do agree on stealing bases, but I also see that maybe our president is just in the right time and right moment. I believe any of his action has been thoroughly thought by his team- including possibilities to take this opportunity as a pre-campaign stealing bases action. Some said that Indonesian Netizen always find a hole to match everything with politic, even thou they don’t have any deeper knowledge aside from their experience reading random media and broadcasts on the internet. As someone who wrote her thesis on internet media and agenda setting, in my year of research prove that agenda setting – political or non political, will always exist in any form of output – media, performances, speeches, or even tweets!, as long as the writer is a human. Bias and hatred will always exist. Some even try to debunked my argument saying my comparison of Jokowi and the Queen is not apple to apple since we have different political system (UK doesn’t need to “vote” for another “Queen” so it doesn’t seem like a campaign). If you’d like to drag it down to political campaign, there should be another writing on that, but in my personal opinion, “campaigning” for position should not be start when the campaign season is on, candidates should start far way back, 4 year to be exact to build that credibility and trust from the people. This is why Indonesian House of Representative sucks a lot, we tend to choose people that is already popular – celebrities going politician. Let’s just keep this for another story.

Preparing Saman
Preparing for Saman Dance

Aside from any of show directors political view, Asian Games Opening Ceremony has proved that complexity can be simplified. The idea of ceremony is to entertain people, as long as the spectators are happy and amused the goal is achieved. The secondary goal is to conveyed the message, the subtle and unconscious way. I do believe that all Indonesians are proud of who they are at during those minutes of ceremony. The ceremony would not be as remarkable as this one as if it only tried to please aesthetic purpose, on this occasion it should triggers sensitivity towards current political condition through unconsciously realised the message through beauty. It build trust and confidence that we are able to do something big and win. Some said that holding the second biggest sporting event after Independence Day radiate a Big Dick Energy. Despite all those salty paid netizen, the praises are not only for the creators, athletes, and performers but to all Indonesian that still have faith in bringing this country to a greater good.

Opening ceremonies are not intended for political purpose nor entertainment. It’s a business anyway. Ceremonies attract people to come to the show, up selling merchandises, build people trust on the host countries, and boost nationalities. Take LA Summer Olympic in 1984 that put a record on highest merchandising sales in Olympic history defeating even London 2012 with £100m points of sales with the iconic “Flying Astronaut” scene. Aside from sales, a good opening ceremonies also boost amount of local spectators to the game arena – which means local tenants in the arena can benefit from daily people traffic. As what I overhead on the alethic stadium the other day, people (especially middle lower economic income) come to visit the show “that looks amazing on TV” to experience the hype, rather than supporting athletes.  Not to mention all the technologies used to create such scenery, budgeting, so on and so forth. Ceremonies are more to talk than lame political campaign agenda-setting. Opening ceremonies have always been a portray of what a nation wished to be seen in the eyes of international community, what they want people to realised about their nation and what makes them special. It is much more that what we discuss on social media.

You maybe wondering, why do I compare Asian Games with Olympic Games since it mayn’t look apple to apple. The game is held under the same committee – The International Olympic Council, but under different regional director. Aside from that, the quality that Indonesia gave that night was no comparison to the previous Asian Games opening ceremony, even the last performance by country with an amazing ability of media and television; South Korea in winter Olympic earlier this year. Indonesia has successfully caught attention with last week show. Aside from any flaw during the games, we are one step closer to reach what we put on the “future” scene. 

All photos CC copyrights of Nindyo Setiawan.


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