Early in 2015, I travelled with a group of colleagues from am interdisciplinary research project invested in “the researchers’ affects” to the Javanese city Yogyakarta in Indonesia. The aim of our expedition was to gather experience in anthropological fieldwork – within the short time of two weeks we were to conduct individual research projects in accordance with our interests but in a yet unfamiliar disciplinary terrain.

I am a humanities scholar by training, having studied comparative literature, cultural studies and theatre studies among other things, and I could not quite picture myself diving into anything too remote from my expertise. Thus, my interest fell on contemporary art and the means of its production. I had been previously involved with the work of young artists in Berlin and had taken part in a productive cooperation between another research project and a Norwegian curator the year before. The insight into the resemblances and differences of art production in Berlin, “the pink-mohawked little sibling of the art world” (Mauk 2015) and tranquil Bergen, renowned for its vibrant music scene and its municipal endorsement of street art, sparked my interest for the conditions, means and forms of art production in Yogyakarta – which many like to compare to Berlin. But while I am a comparatist, my field of expertise is literature and culture. I am by no means an art historian or even much of a connoisseur of art. So the question posing itself instantly was: How does one grasp the idea of a city’s artistic environment as a foreigner utterly alien to country, city, language or the art market when all you have got is two weeks time? To me as a Central European humanities scholar the various impediments to acquiring first hand knowledge seemed unsurmountable at first. Therefore, I turned to what I knew: I read up on academic texts about Java and its cultural and political history, hoping to gather insights into the workings of a society and its artistic output. As it turned out, reading classic anthropologists’ accounts of a society can be quite misleading when dealing with its most contemporary form; just as forming an opinion based on art criticism aimed mainly at a broad global audience is insufficient for understanding a specific urban phenomenon such as the Yogyakarta art scene.

Street art in Yogyakarta, image: Mira Shah.

Street art in Yogyakarta, image: Mira Shah.

Working on a concept of the research project at hand, I started out with questions about ‘alternative spaces’, a term rooted in Indonesia’s more recent history. In 1989, the social anthropologist Niels Mulder described Yogyakarta as a city “full of vitality” destined to “play an important role in filling up the cultural vacuum that was left by the undoing of its formerly dominant court culture” (1989:139). As “bearers of this rejuvenated culture” he saw the new middle class, “who inspire themselves on a wide variety of impulses” yet tend “toward a spontaneity and open-mindedness that contrasts with the old models [of Javanese court culture]” (Mulder 1989:139) in their expression and style. Shortly after Mulder published this assessment, an alternative art scene took root in Yogyakarta that is even now, over a quarter of a century later, present in this city (cf. Ingham 2007; Juliastuti 2009; Wong 2004). But ‘alternative’ in Yogyakarta did not mean being avant-garde in a ‘Western’ comprehension of the term. Alternative art here is that, which “prioritised resistance to existing conditions rather than innovation and originality” (Ingham 2007:8), posing a challenge and a response to dominating political and artistic stances of Suharto’s dictatorship, also coined as the Republic’s second president’s ‘New Order Regime’ (1965-1998). Under these circumstances, counter-culture and alternative art relied on alternative spaces; and in turn, their formation and use became a self-relying project determining the semantics of the word ‘alternative’ for years to come: the art critic and curator Hendro Wiyanto characterizes alternative art spaces as “the contact point between the practice of visual art and the culture discourse”, where artists “seek to build a network with overarching cooperation in art or disciplines, in order to achieve a ‘political’ effect” (Darmawan 2005). ‘Alternative’ is here always thought as opposing a (power) ‘centre’.

Today, the aim to connect the practice of art and cultural analysis appears to be paramount in Yogyakarta’s alternative spaces. Sixteen years after the start of the era of transition into a democracy (Reformasi), multifunctional spaces such as “restaurant-galleries, cafe-library-discussion-space-galleries, and distro-galleries” (Juliastuti 2012) hint at the metastasising of artistic spaces und the mediating role art is fulfilling between the realm of the aesthetic and the socio-political. As Juliastuti concludes, ‘alternative’ (and ‘initiative’) are “keywords by which to understand Indonesian society post-1998” (Juliastuti 2012).

When I came to Yogyakarta in early 2015, I wanted to find out more about this distinct form of alternative art and especially the spaces it is produced, shown and sold in. How would these have developed in the almost twenty years since the fall of Suharto’s regime; how would they have changed in the different political environment and with a globalized art world seeping into Indonesia? What would be its significance to a new, young generation of artists and cultural entrepreneurs? How would all these intersect with the aesthetics and affects of space?

Doni Maulistya's work at group exhibition 'Router Art Project', Cemeti Art House 2015, image: Mira Shah.

Doni Maulistya’s art work at ‘Router Art Project’ group exhibition, Cemeti Art House 2015, image: Mira Shah.

The “Ethnolab” workshop at the start of the research period offered a welcome opportunity to present these research questions to a round table of intellectuals and artists from varying fields. In the ensuing discussion I realized that alternative spaces where everywhere, and that they determined the structure and the design of art practices. But ‘alternative space’ has become a historical term. Most of the participants in the art world that I talked to felt annoyed that this old topic should be brought up again and again, and that everything they did should be derived from a concept developed almost twenty years ago. Although very much engaged in political conceptual thinking, the politics of aesthetic, and a major discourse on the practice and practicability of art in society, they felt haunted by the ‘West’s’ insistence on something they saw as a thing of the past. The ‘alternative art space’ was deemed a concept derived from the ‘old’ generation of artists from the 1980s and 1990s. Quickly, I decided to not only take this into consideration but act upon it by stepping away from the narrowing topic of ‘alternative spaces’ and towards a more general view of the Yogya art scene, its participants and agents, its spaces and self-awareness as it presented itself in early 2015.

1. Approaching the Yogya Art Scene: A Couple of Helpful Hints

 1.1. Learning How to Pose A Question

In order to conduct this research, I chose a very broad approach: I went to see different art spaces such as galleries, artist collectives’ studios/spaces, institutions like the Indonesian Visual Arts Archive (IVAA), event venues and multifunctional spaces (e.g., restaurant-cum-gallery-cum-event-space). I talked to various participants of the Yogya art scene that were located in the south of the city, one hub of cultural life here[1]: single artists, members of art collectives, curators etc. I engaged in English language interviews that sufficed my curiosity of the way things worked as well as the agenda of my interview partners in sharing their perspectives on the local art scene. In the beginning, I relied on a detailed list of possible questions and topics, but during the first and second interview I changed my strategy and let my interview partners tell me about what they wanted to share. Subsequently, I inquired deeper into certain topics that surfaced in these person-centred and open-ended conversations.

Soon, it was possible to isolate aspects within the interviews as fields of interest that could be elaborated further: 1) artistic self-definition, 2) spatial importance, 3) aspects of the social sphere, and the 4) (financial) structure of the art world. Although distinct topics, these four aspects were very much interconnected, and only with that in mind could I gather an integral impression of the details and workings of the Yogya art scene.

To bring these topics into view when talking to members of the art scene, I gathered information from what they told me on their own accord but also asked for specific details: to get at a person’s self-awareness as somebody participating in the art scene and thereby to a self-labelling and working description (1), I would ask who they were and what it was that they did but also how they would shortly describe themselves and their art or the way they work. I would simply ask if and how the space they worked or exhibited in was important to them (2) and if and how it influenced their artworks thematically and materially. Information pertaining to the cooperation and/or competition within the art scene (3) was easily elicited when asking the people I talked to whom they were working with or thought I should also see and interview. Sometimes I would share information with one informant that I had been given by another, to ask them for their opinion. Lastly, I would ask freely how they sustained themselves, what kind of funding was available and what kind of impact they thought the financial structure had on the work that is produced in Yogya (4).

I gave my interview partners leeway to speak about issues that mattered to them. Accordingly, the interviews resembled conversations and varied in length. Anthropologists define these as open ended, narrative interviews. The setting varied from interview to interview, ranging from one-to-one conversations in a gallery to group discussions in a studio kitchen. On several occasions, colleagues from my own research project (Samia Dinkelaker, Ferdiansyah Thajib, Fermin Suter) or members and associates of KUNCI Cultural Studies Center (Gatari Surya Kusuma, Woto Wibowo alias Wok The Rock) accompanied me.

1.2. Relying on Help

The short research I conducted could not have been done without the help of the KUNCI Cultural Studies Center and associated artists, writers and culture workers or that of my colleagues from the research project “The Researchers’ Affects”. Before starting the fieldwork, I took part in the “EthnoLab” organized by Thomas Stodulka, Ferdiansyah Thajib, Samia Dinkelaker (Freie Universität Berlin) and KUNCI. Within this context a first informative discussion took place, with Syafiatudina from KUNCI and Farah Wardani from the Indonesian Visual Arts Archive (IVAA), contributing tremendously to my research outlook. In the following days I talked to Arsita Iswardhani (curatorial manager of Ark Gallery), Wok the Rock and his collective MES 56, the artist Hestu A. Nugroho alias Setu Legi in Ark Gallery, Ignatia Nilu at an exhibition opening at SaRanG Building, Farah Wardani, Antariksa, a co-founder of KUNCI, Grace Samboh (curator and manager of Ceblang Ceblung Forum), Hendra Harsono and Iyok Prayogo of Ace House collective; I visited a ‘traditional’ wayang puppetry workshop as well as a well-established alternative space (Cemeti Art House) and witnessed exhibition openings as well as scheduled discussion events. I also talked briefly to artists from abroad that were presently doing a residency at KUNCI or Cemeti Art House (Australian artist Rachel Ormella) or were linked to artist collectives (Japanese artist Takashi Kuribayashi). Overall the variety of informants, venues and spaces assured a broad overview of the art scene in Yogya, its structure as well as its appeal, and gave me the opportunity to gather a kaleidoscope of impressions by comparing the assertions made in the individual interviews.

Façade of Ark Gallery, Yogyakarta, image: Mira Shah.

Façade of Ark Gallery, Yogyakarta, image: Mira Shah.

1. 3. Sorting Findings, Sketching a Field

In reflecting on the findings of my two weeks’ research, the four identified fields can be reduced and fused into three major topics that deserve further investigation: the connection between artistic self-description and the importance of spatial aspects for self-awareness; the correlation of financial or historical conditions and forms of social art practice; and the socio-cultural pervasion of the artistic field as exemplified by gender(ed) aspects. I will elaborate on these three topics in the following chapters.

2. Of Art Workers, Cultural Activists, and Craftsmen: Self-awareness and Artistic Definition Within the Field.

As Farah Wardani, then director of the IVAA, explained to me, Yogyakarta has a long history as “habitat of artists”. What is now subsumed under Javanese culture was preformed in Yogyakarta’s pre-colonial past as part of the Mataram Sultanate. After the independence from Dutch colonial rule in 1945, arts as means of national identity formation and compliant artist associations were endorsed by the state, especially by the ‘father of the nation’, Indonesia’s first president Sukarno. Wardani emphasised that Yogyakartans are very aware of the city’s history as a centre for the arts and cultural traditions, especially when compared to Indonesia’s capital Jakarta, which is much more politicised. Yogyakarta’s rich cultural history bolsters the differentiation of artistic identities. As I soon realized, these identity narratives involve the kind of art that is made, the aesthetics that determine the form, and social and spatial components.

2.1. The Cultural Activist

When I asked Wok the Rock, current director of the contemporary photography collective MES 56, how he would label himself I seemed to be tapping into a deliberate aesthetic program: “cultural activist”, Wok answered without hesitation. It was necessary, he told me, to have a statement ready when asked, something that sums up what one’s intentions and aims are – otherwise you will get asked again and again what your art means. His role, he said, was “building a collective, a community”; he spoke of a “relational aesthetic” as his approach on art. Inspired by the Thai-cosmopolitan conceptual artist Rirkit Tiravanija, Wok is concerned with the relation between people that art facilitates. For Wok, interaction is art in itself. As it is rather easy to get people together in Yogya, he gives another example of his work from Japan: in trying to transfer the MES 56 idea – artists sharing a space together, where they not only work but also sleep, live, socialize and party (cf. Juliastuti 2011; Wubin 2010) – to the Yokohama festival Koganecho Bazaar 2013, Wok fitted a house to be a living, cooking and bar space, envisioning it as a permanent get-together-space that would let people interact with each other in comforting surroundings. Because Japanese administration didn’t allow for spaces to be used without commercial interests, objects conventionally identifiable as art were employed as decoys – rather than as objects of interest in themselves.

2.2. The Craftsman

If a cultural activist with a relational aesthetic in mind is on the one end of the Yogya aesthetic spectrum (and in tune with an internationalized conceptual art practice), the other end might be taken by the manufacturer of traditional artistic objects, e.g., wayang shadow puppets. When I entered a wayang workshop, presumably as a tourist, I was seated in front of a workstation where one person was at work on a puppet and another was explaining the history and manufacture of the shadow puppets and the underlying belief system. The narrator shared the intricacies of his socio-spatial conditions and self-perception with me as part of his selling practice: as he was working within the confines of the Sultan’s palace, or rather in a house belonging to that property, he thought of himself as a craftsman. He wasn’t making art to be exhibited and sold in art galleries. He was partaking in a proud tradition of manufacturing puppets as instruments for educational purposes, rather like a violinmaker, I thought to myself, who would never think of himself or herself as an artist, but who actually is responsible for the materiality of music. Interestingly enough, although the men working in the wayang workshop officially referred to themselves as craftsmen, one of them introduced himself to me as a student of the local art school.

Unlike European or ‘Western’ concepts of artistic education, the Indonesian Institute of the Arts in Yogyakarta, founded in 1984 and the largest such institution in the country, purports in its mission statement the wish “to create a future Indonesia[n] generation with solid integrity of [the] State Ideology Pancasila […], able to professionally conduct their duties in the community, as skilful and creative artists, with a scholarly attitude and competency, who have a sense of responsibility, awareness, and commitment in developing the national culture, in accordance with their services for the nation and character building” (English translation derived from wikipedia: Indonesian Insitute of the Arts Yogyakarta 2015). Similar to other educational institutions instrumental in New Order indoctrination, artistic education is therefore supposed to be rooted in a state ideology that instituted integrally the traditional arts as pillars of national identity under Sukarno and even more so under the Suharto New Order Regime: “the arts constitute a form of culture promoting the ethical and aesthetic values of the people” (Hellman 2003:28). As Hellman describes the outcome of the 1979 five-year plan, “Culture […] is largely treated as a national asset. This asset is exploited to provide a yield for the nation, and art is engaged in this enterprise as a medium for implementing this policy and making traditional culture visible” (2003:28). Art, in the 20th century in Indonesia, is not a playing field for aesthetic experiment, “[a]rt is generally considered as a means to approach, appreciate and present cultural values” (Hellman 2003:29). The wayang craftsmen in their proud self-awareness represent the persistence of this mission, the art student among them (in collaboration with the still pertaining mission statement of the art school) the continuing importance of traditional cultural forms for 21st century art in Yogya.

One of Setu Legi's artworks exhibited at his solo exhibition at Ark Gallery, image: Mira Shah.

One of Setu Legi’s artworks exhibited at his solo exhibition at Ark Gallery, image: Mira Shah.

2.3. The Art Worker

Somewhere between the artistic vs. artisan production of cultural artefacts lies Hestu A. Nugroho alias Setu Legi’s self-ascription as “art worker”. Hestu, who is very aware of his spatial and geopolitical surroundings and who addresses them directly in his art pieces, was hesitant when I asked him how he would define himself as an artist. As he explained – and quite in contradiction to the art pieces that surrounded us and that showed a distinct involvement with Indonesian (post-)colonial topics – Hestu is not interested in overly theorizing concepts when regarding his artistic ideas. When I discussed Wok’s term “cultural activist” with Hestu, he found this fitting for Wok’s work but understood his own artistic activities more along the lines of productive labour: “art worker” and “creator” are terms fitting to his approach. In fact, as the art works I could see around us during the interview partly involved the collaboration with craftsmen, e.g., pottery makers, the view on the creative process as labour seemed to be a reflection on the modes of production used – something that appeared to be linked with Hestu’s aesthetic program which also included works that were on exhibition but that he still worked on.

2.4. The Curator as Author and Art as Translation

Whereas artists like Hestu emphasise the productive processes far enough to think of themselves as labourers of art, some that might at first be considered ‘art or culture worker’ broaden the approach to ‘art’ as definition of cultural artefact. When Grace Samboh joined the Artists’ Forum Ceblang Ceblung  as independent curator and manager, she turned the forum from a meeting venue for artists who talked about materials and technical approaches into a conceptual and organisational discussion group, where artistic exchange of ideas is just as likely to happen as the discussion of galleries, selling strategies and self-representation. Once, the participating artists asked Samboh, if she would like to be an artist herself. But as Grace told me, she understands her own curatorial work as a narrative arranging the different art pieces and guiding the perception and contemplation of art. This reminded me of the creativity of interpretative work as discussed in the discourse on the life and death of the author. In his reading of Foucault’s critique of the author (cf. Foucault 1979), Alexander Nehamas reemploys the author as “whoever can be understood to have produced a particular text as we interpret it” (Nehamas 1986:686), “the agent postulated to account for construing a text as an action, as a work” (ibid.:688), “not an independent constraint forbidding a priori desired but unlawful extensions […] and authorizing only accurate interpretations” (ibid.:691) as Foucault saw it. The author (function) is rather understood as a process enabling interpretation and extension. As Samboh indicated, the work of a curator for an exhibition might be regarded as functionally similar.

Interestingly enough, the term “narration” that sparked my scholarly interest turned up again when I talked to Hendra Harsono and Iyok Prayogo at Ace House, another artist collective. Here the two artists saw the collective’s art and aesthetics as a “basic narration” of what they observed in society. Furthermore, they described their artistic process as “translating society into artwork”. Again art, its production and intention were described in terms derived from the realm of text and language, with narration – more and more understood as a crucial human meaning making feature (cf. Dunbar 2004) – turning into translation – which can be viewed as a firm embedding of art into a sociocultural environment. Why else would you need to translate if it wasn’t to socially interact and mediate?

3. “We have to be collective because we’re poor”: Cooperation and Collectivity in the Yogya Art Scene.

As I talked to members of artist collectives or forums, I found people regularly collaborating with each other. The trend to ‘team up’ seemed to be a defining feature of the Yogya art scene. I soon suspected it had something to do with the local history of arts and crafts and the contemporary economic conditions affecting the field of art.

3.1 Programmatic Frames

When Sukarno endorsed the artist associations, he also allowed for the continuance of a tradition, that of the sanggar (literally: small house or temple). In part, sanggar might be compared to European Renaissance artist workrooms, where a renowned artist instructed and taught apprentices the craft as well as the trade and was in return relieved of some of the manual work of producing art by his trainees (cf. Wallace 2014). This concept has of course endured time elsewhere, too, as Sarah Thornton’s visit in Takashi Murakami’s studio showed (Thornton 2008:181–217). But in Indonesia the term comprises the idea of a group or school rather than that of a workshop, most prevalently so in Indonesian musical traditions (Sutton 2002:188–193).

A performance at SaRANG Building, image: Mira Shah.

A performance at SaRanG Building, image: Mira Shah.

Based on the principle of ‘patronage’ the relationship between a master (or empu) and his disciples in a sanggar still is determined by the idea that the renowned artist was supposed to ‘give back to society’ by furthering the trainees. In this way, artists, as Farah Wardani put it, serve as alternative patrons. Of course time and the importance of the market have changed this concept, but as Wardani says, the empu still holds a cultural or societal mandate. In Yogyakarta, the sanggar concept materializes mostly in buildings and spaces. One example of this is SaRanG Building, founded by the artist Jumaldi Alfi , which not only offers exhibition and gathering space, but also living quarters and a studio for artists in residency. In lieu of artists, collectors may also emerge as important patrons (cf. Djatiprambudi 2014).

As artist associations and the artist patronage system sanggar continued a tradition in line with the Indonesian political history and became either part of the New Order Regime in implementing the regulation of art as a nationalistic enterprise or ceased to exist (Jurriëns 2015:101), alternative forms emerged, especially shortly before and after the fall of the New Order Regime. One of these is the concept of ‘alternative spaces’ initially mentioned. It soon inspired a tentatively democratic collectivity, where artists elaborate independent forms of expression.

MES 56, named after their first gathering space, a mess of the Indonesian Air Force, and Ace House are examples of such a coalition of like-minded; Ceblang Ceblung, a “platform of exchange” for independently working artists or “art practitioners” is another. MES 56 was formed in the first photography class of the Indonesia Institute of Arts in 1994 (cf. Wubin 2010): the living room of a dorm was turned into an exhibition space, an arrangement which installed the concept of living, working, sleeping and exhibiting in the same premises. They have changed houses three times, and by now some of the 15 members prefer the privacy of their own homes to co-habiting in the confines of a former motel but the underlying concept of functionally and personally shared space persists: “living together” and “hanging out together” are, Wok assured me, still a conceptual part of MES 56’s artistic processes and self-awareness. Just as important is the spatial proximity to and collaboration with other art spaces, especially in the south of the city, where the young art scene is located. They share the same audience, so why not help each other out when needed and enjoy each other’s company. Wok put emphasis on key words like “tight knit”, “supportive”, “sharing”, and “collaborative” when describing the Yogya art scene.

Hendra Harsono and Iyok Prayogo from Ace House also supported this image. Much more recently established, theirs is a collective of design students from the Indonesian Institute of Art that have known each other since ca. 2011. With the aim to distinguish themselves from the generation of the 1990s, which they described as overly concerned with political matters, they emphasized the value of forms of pop culture as a means to overcome the politicisation of art and to propagate affective aspects. Ace House, founded in 2013, takes up the idea of knowledge transfer inherent in the sanggar system. According to Harsono and Prayogo, they saw the need to share their vision when they realized that a younger generation was adopting their visual aesthetic without understanding the underlying ideas. They spoke of responsibility for an “aesthetic statement” that reminded me very much of Wardani’s comments on the artist as patron. But here, in a house with several small exhibition and studio rooms, a living room and kitchen, the two artists stressed the idea that Ace House is not about teaching but sharing a “visual image” and what lies behind it, its “process”. The space itself is thought of as a “lab”, a safe space for young artists to experiment in.

What I gathered from my interviews with these members of artist collectives is first of all the oppositional stance to the established structures of traditional art or to the 1990s Reformasi-generation. Secondly, though, they value aesthetic freedom while cultivating social aspects and the combination of leisure activities and conceptual involvement. Although everybody admitted that they also produce work on their own, some even for a commercial market, they perceive of art not so much as the product of individual aesthetic genius but as a product of social exchange and group ideas. As Ace House’s Harsono and Prayogo put it: “bigger than the personal”.

3.2. The Lack of Funding and The Rise of Foreign Capital

All three of my interview partners, Wok the Rock, Hendra Harsono and Iyok Prayogo, also spoke of the influence of the art market on the art that was produced. The criticism, that Ace House’s focus on popular cultural forms met with, only ebbed away with the Indonesian painting boom of around 2010 (for the story of Indonesian painting booms cf. Wiyanto 2008). Since there is virtually no national, communal or city funding for the arts (but for traditional crafts and murals), artists have to rely on selling their pieces and on international funding. Although almost everybody I talked to in Yogya saw this as a chance for art itself – against the backdrop of state-regulated aesthetics the lack of financial funding also guarantees a certain independence –, this also shapes the artistic field in a certain way: international funding and market exposure frequently come with an interest in certain topics, for example women and Islam or Indonesia and identity, that might more often than not fail to meet the topics artists are concerned about, as Wok remarked.

When I asked Grace Samboh and Farah Wardani about this issue, they both mentioned that the art market in Indonesia took on a complicated form: to run a gallery in Yogyakarta is a hard day’s work. Most owners have to support the gallery by working another job and can only afford to use spaces in living areas (as opposed to more visible sites). Ironically, a substantial percentage of Indonesian artists is represented and exhibited by the German gallery Arndt Berlin at art fairs in Singapore and Berlin, where an increasingly Indonesian collectors’ audience then buys them. Prices rise significantly in this detour, whereas nobody is buying art directly from the artist’s studio that lies virtually ‘next door’. Although Arndt’s intermediary role has advanced a global interest in (post-)modern Indonesian art, the international market is still more apt on buying purportedly ‘indigenous’ Indonesian art influenced by the Pancasila ideology. Most of the people I spoke with addressed the problem that artist were nudged to adjust their art to the tastes of the art market in order to make a living (for the complexities of changes in Indonesian art cf. Simone 2014).

To cooperate by merging into a collective, then, is also a means of getting by financially. Both collectives use the proceeds of group exhibitions to finance themselves, as they asserted. With individual and commercial work more distinguished artists within the group thereby partly fund the other member’s opportunity to work – as well as their own inspiration by the group. State and municipal funding is only slowly developing again: Wardani mentions a hype for art and culture under the former administration, but the name of the responsible government body, the Ministry for Tourism and Creative Economy, was telling enough. The new administration of President Widodo made promises, e.g., to establish a Directorate General of Creative Economy as a separate organization that it now finds hard to keep. A competitive climate would only be to the detriment of a vibrant art scene that has to rely heavily on an informal financial funding system. Or, as Grace Samboh put it aptly, “We have to be collective because we’re poor.”

3.3. Poetics of Necessity: Harvesting the Fruits of History and Deprivation

The organisational forms of art production characteristic of the Yogyakarta art scene emerged from historical, cultural, socio-political and economic developments and necessities. It is interesting to see how these influences have given birth to certain concepts and claims – some of them implemented, others still sought for, and yet others vigorously debated.

When I witnessed a discussion round-table on “Curating Organisations (Without) Form” at KUNCI after I had formally closed my investigation into the Yogya art scene, a synergy effect ensued. Notions that had been hinted at in the interviews with my informants or concepts that I had gathered from our conversations were now named and discussed vividly. Bringing together “three organisations that work in ways that are in formation, driven by specific kinds of knowledge-production, practices and ideas, and responsive approaches to working with communities, through which we resist fixed forms and institutional structures” (Syafiatudina et. al. 2015), the discussion raised certain issues: ‘Organisations without form’ (Organisasi Tanpa Bentuk) was a fixed term of the Suharto era labelling “almost any kind of regime opposition as communist, from those who appealed for human rights, environmental protection or democratisation, to those who discredited the government” (McGregor 2007:194). The term also subsumed such cultural and artistic organisations that would not register with state administration. Constantly negotiating space and the freedom of ideas, they developed what some among the discussants called “a culture of resilience” as “resistance within the frame”.

With the Reformasi, most of the organisations without forms were legalised. In order to do so, these organisations, mostly collectives, had to present “proper positions” (managers, accountants, etc.) to guarantee accountability. These denominations and inner-organisational hierarchies were mostly foreign to the collectives discussed; because the key concept – and advantage – of a collective appears to be that “everybody collaborates with the knowledge and capabilities they have instead of assigning roles or specifically hiring professional people for certain jobs”, as Binna Choi from the Dutch organisation Casco mentioned in regard to the Yogya art scene. The legalisation process and the new opportunities to apply for financial support changed the role dissemination and structural ideology of these organisations. The growth of the ‘system’, be it the city administration or the alternative organisations themselves, becomes somehow oppositional to the slowly grown uniqueness of the collectives, which is based on the diverse involvement of the individual members. Accordingly, several participants in the discussion sensed the danger of a too narrow focus on the increasingly influential financial logic and demanded a return to a “sustainability of ideas”: the goal of spaces of artistic and cultural work and critique must not be a presentable financial balance but the persistence and viability of their ideas, topics and issues. As Andreas Siagian from lifepatch, a “citizen initiative in art, science and technology”, stated, the separation of the professional and the personal is important but not entirely feasible; in order to develop a functioning structure for a collaboration, it is important to establish a personal relation network that involves not only other members but also a wider circle in the art scene and enables exchange on many levels. Opinions on the shape of these interactions differ according to individual collectives and members. But as I gathered, these organisations share not only space but also differing concepts of what they want to be: the “hanging-out-place” to meet friends and hatch relations and the intellectual hub that is an effective work place and furthers critical thinking and societal involvement.


In Session: Curating Organisations Without Forms, image: Marianna Dobkoswka.

In Session: Curating Organisations Without Forms, image: Marianna Dobkoswka.

4. No Nurturing For Us, Please. Gender Roles and The Search for Alternatives

The differing concepts of collective life and work also entailed a noticeable gendering of the Yogya art scene. It showed in individual roles within the art field and in the way participants conceptualized the structure of their organisations, collectives and the art scene itself.

4.1. Cultural Roots, Modern Roles: Male Artists and Female Managers?

As soon as I started interviewing my informants, I realized a gendered labour divide. I allowed for the possibility that I was lacking enough insight to form a more varied impression of the scene. But from what I could gather, gender was an implicit topic concerning the personnel of the art world: with one exception I met only male artists and female curators and managers.

MES 56 has only recently opened its all-male ranks to a young female photographer, Gatari Kusuma, but was managed by, according to Wok, “the best manager of the city”: a woman who, with the help of her young female assistant, had unburdened him as director from having to enforce rules himself. Ace House is all male and Ceblang Ceblung Forum currently also gathers only male artists. On the other hand, the forum is managed by Grace Samboh who is also part of Hyphen, the all-female “office” for “arts and cultural research and curatorial acts”. As head of the IVAA at the time, Farah Wardani held one of the most important positions in the Yogya art scene. Now that Wardani has gone on to serve as assistant director of the Resource Center of the National Gallery in Singapore, her successor Pitra Hutomo is also a woman.

From a European perspective a focus on male artists is all too common, and has only been contested for a few decades now (cf. Guerilla Girls,  or the 2009 exhibition elles@centrepompidou). A female lead in the curatorial and managerial positions is rather astonishing given the only slowly changing gender bias of the art world on a global scale. When I addressed this issue in my interviews, most informants where surprised that it even was an issue. MES 56 director Wok maintained that there were fewer female than male students at the art schools, and Grace Samboh agreed that only thirty per cent of the active artists and about the same percentage of gallery owners were female. But in international exhibitions the proportion is often balanced, which could be due to the international interests and gender policies, as the Ace House members indicated. Samboh was more inclined to make the work ethic and persistence of female artists in a male art world responsible for their success: because they had to work and fight harder for success, they could no longer be ignored.

The fact that women tend to preoccupy themselves with the business and curatorial end of artistic production in Yogya is interestingly enough connected to cultural traditions. Coming from a culture where the traditional and ideologically enforced female role is that of ‘mother and nurturer’, I offered this link as an explanation for the female professionalisation in organising and marketing male art(ists) – but this was sharply rejected. When asked if she saw herself as somebody who offered a ‘nurturing’ place for art to develop and mature, Wardani dismissed the notion. She saw her role as “facilitating” and “providing for” art. Since she was in a leading position, she also saw her work as “giving back” to the art world and society just as KUNCI and MES 56 did. Samboh also spurned the term “nurturing” as inappropriate and labelled her work as, again, “facilitating” and “enabling”. She saw nurturing qualities in male curators, prevalently those in Jakarta and Bandung.

Only at the end of my two weeks did I finally realize what this insistence on terminology meant. As was subtly pointed out to me, in the ideology of the New Order pembangunan (development) context (cf. Hellman 2003:23–24) it was the Javanese term for ‘nurturing’, mengayomi, which was widely used. It entails a moral responsibility similar to what Wardani had described as patronage system: the furthering of the less developed parts of the community in order to make them achieve growth and success according to the Pancasila guidelines. It also encompasses the notion of a patronizing power that the decentralized art scene vehemently rejects (personal communication with Ferdiansyah Thajib). This also explained why Samboh was insisting on not needing “support” by government funding but appreciating “participation”. The former was associated with a paternalistic and homogenizing strategy, whereas the latter implies a respect for grown structures, the exchange of ideas, and knowledge of each other’s responsibilities.

Grace Samboh also explained the tendency to a gendered labour divide with the traditional Javanese and Muslim underlining of the contemporary society in Yogya. In traditional Javanese culture men represented the front of the household whereas women held the power to decide in financial and social matters, shaping much more of society than they were credited for afterwards. “That they were invisible didn’t mean they didn’t have power”, Grace suggested. The Islamisation of Indonesia influenced already existing differentiations of gender roles and attributes by turning the head of the household notion into a solely male role accompanied by the function of ‘provider’ for the family, whereas before it had often been women who provided financially for the family by manufacturing goods and food and trading them on the market or by holding the economic power over the men’s earnings. In contemporary Indonesia, competing ideological models of gender roles and attributes – Javanese, class-derived, Muslim, colonial, state-ideology, etc. – superimpose each other. These pluralistic forms can also be used creatively to either reinforce or subvert gendered power asymmetries (cf. Brenner 1995). Whatever interplay of traditions and gender roles are at stake within Yogyakarta and its complex art scene, it seems that the public performance as curator, manager, art worker, crafts(wo)man or cultural activist can be comparatively more complicated for young professional women than men. As Grace Samboh as well as the managerial assistant at MES 56 told me, in the beginning they were intimidated by situations where they had to speak up to first, a group, secondly, men, and finally and most importantly, their elders.

4.2. Of Brotherhoods, Post-Families and Kinships: Alternative Structures in Gendered Terms

Another aspect of the Yogya art scene is the way the structures and social relations are thought of. This does not necessarily mean the adherence to ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ perceptions, but the borrowing of terms from the realm of a gendered rhetoric to perceive of group structures and bonds.

Australian artist Rachel Ormella observed that artist communities in Yogya are predominantly located in spaces that were formerly used as homes, whereas in Europe and Australia, such organisations and/or workspaces would be situated in spaces formerly used for industrial or manufacturing purposes. She suggested that these locations might influence the way collectives were structured, resulting in a ‘post-family’ concept shaping the hierarchy of artist communities. For communities conforming to the patronage system of sanggar this idea seems to apply; they obviously adhere to a rather patriarchal family concept with a benevolent powerful household head and retentive dependants. Even if the patrons are female, the Javanese veneration of the authoritative mother figure not only supports but also reinforces this structural hierarchy, as KUNCI’s Ferdiansyah Thajib mentioned. In order to avoid the allusion to the family as problematic source and tool of gendered structures, he suggested a turn to two very differing structuring principles: ‘friendship’ and ‘kinship’. Whereas ‘friendship’ is an elective mutual affinity between like-minded persons, typically exclusive of sexual or family relations, ‘kinship’ is first of all defined as the relationship between people bound by blood or family ties, and then only metaphorically associated with a bond made by affinity.

An example how these concepts might go together, presented itself in form of another gendered term: whenever someone talked about MES 56, it was described as a ‘brotherhood’ – an organisation based on a common agenda, solidarity, companionship, even equality (although the reference to brothers would imply in most societies a certain inner-familial hierarchy), but also explicitly all-male. MES 56 was also associated with a ‘gang’ which adds a specific tendency to the brotherhood concept, one inclined to entail initiation rituals, bonding activities and maybe even a tint of the criminal – but also the form of an ‘alternative family’ that redistributes roles according to individual traits and achievements and not necessarily following gender or birth order.

I encountered the term ‘gang’ again at the end of my research in Yogyakarta. Often, the artist collectives or the cultural critique communities were first formed by a circle of friends who agreed with each other on most of the issues. With the development into an organisation this structure changed to some extent into something like a ‘club’ (or ‘gang’) that takes in members. At the discussion about ‘organisations without form’, Brigitta Isabella labelled the community ‘gang’ rather than ‘family’ when she reflected on her commitment to KUNCI as a “membership” and “investment” rather than a relational bond, thus turning to the language of economics. As she said, you cannot terminate that membership simply because you might disagree on certain matters over time; you are invested in the enterprise not just the work place it offers.

What both concepts, friendship and kinship, entail, whether as brotherhood, gang, club or alternative family, is an interweaved structure based on networking and ‘gossip’ as a means of enforcing the structure and tightening the web. In the start-off ‘Ethnolab’ workshop people already pointed to the fact that gossip and information exchange were crucial to the Yogya art scene. The participants in my interviews were very well connected with and informed about each other. Without having to even ask for further assistance, I was repeatedly informed whom I should also talk to or who was also important for my research. As soon as I started my research I also became a part of this web-like structure; word preceded my contact with individual interview partners or their collaborators and co-members. Once I was addressed with the words: “So, you’re that researcher I was told about.” Embarrassingly, someone I hadn’t pinned down on my map of the Yogya art scene yet, knew who I was: The Yogya art scene soon seemed to know more about me than I about them.

Artworks displayed at SaRanG Building. image: Mira Shah.

Artworks displayed at SaRanG Building. image: Mira Shah.

5. Conclusion

During my two weeks with the southern Yogyakarta art scene, I was able to collect a (to me) surprising amount of information and impressions. Although necessarily cursory, these helped to paint a telling picture of my object of study as a vivid subject. This subject shows traits that make it comparable to parts of the art scenes in Berlin and Bergen, my points of references for my inquiry. Like Berlin, Yogyakarta is a breeding ground for young artists with unconventional approaches to art. At least in part this can be linked to the fact that this city offers affordable living spaces and workspaces – when compared to the capital Jakarta. The sociable fabric of the field I witnessed and took part in, that interconnectivity of a ‘scene’, which appears to consist mainly of circles of friends and acquaintances, reminded me of the Norwegian coastal city Bergen – with its supportive networks of artists and musicians and the social responsibility of a tight-knit community. But when probing the subject Yogyakarta, I also found various characteristics that made it individual: not only the specific relationship of art to its spatial means of production and dissemination – the by now well-established ‘alternative spaces’. But also the various forms that artistic self-definition takes in depending and influencing the production of art; the importance and rhetoric of personal relationships and alternative forms of organisation that are based on cooperation and collectivity rather than competition; the historically induced gender roles that tentatively challenge Western gender hierarchies while being relatable to historic cultural patterns; and last but not least it is the extraordinary resourcefulness of an artistic scene that for the most part has to be financially self-sufficient but succeeds in being immensely creative and productive that lets Yogyakarta stand out.

I arrived in Yogyakarta knowing very little, and when I left the city after the ‘Ethnolab’ experience, I still knew not enough. But still, I left with an impression and a hypothesis that merits further investigation: It is the embeddedness in a political and cultural history combined with the economic conditions of a globalized, market-driven art world that makes Yogya’s art scene as globalized postmodern in its aesthetic as it renders it specifically Yogyakartan in its modes of production. How could I, in two weeks time, apprehend the intricacy this implies? Well, I enjoyed a lot of comprehensive conversations and was welcomed to take a look and so I did. Thus, I purport to have caught a glimpse of the glittering subject at hand.

Author’s Bio:

Mira Shah studied Comparative Literature, Cultural Studies, Theatre Studies, English and Gender Studies in Berlin, Germany, and graduated with a thesis on 20th century travel reports on Africa. Her dissertation project within the context of the research group “The Researchers’ Affects” examines the emotional aesthetics, rhetoric and epistemology in primatological research and its texts. Her research interests also include modern identity crises in (post-)colonial contexts, myths in modern literature and culture, theories of cultural transfer, the conspicuous conjunction of simians and women in Western culture, and interfaces of art and science. She lives and works in Bern, Switzerland.


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End Note:

[1] I was repeatedly made aware of the fact that the north and the south of Yogyakarta differ in appearance as well as in appeal. Lacking the time to attempt a systematic comparison, I relied on the assessments made by others: most of my interview partners emphasised their identification with the art scene in the southern part of the city and regarded it as less established and therefore more open to new developments.