[Publication] Sugar, Spice, and Everything Nice: a Proposal of Possibilities and Disobedience

"The art field is a space for wild contradiction and phenomenal exploitation. It is a place of power mongering, speculation, financial engineering, and massive and crooked manipulation. But it is also a site for commonality, movement, energy, and desire."[i]

1/ “Why?”
Imagine this scenario: it is a beautiful morning; you have three stroopwafels in your bag. It is your favourite stroopwafel and yet, it is too much for your morning. You walk into the office and decide to share one of it with your beloved friend. You: excited to share. Your friend: pauses, hesitates, and asks “Why?” It took you a while to process the question and make sense of it. An unspoken follow-up question of “What do you want?” hanging in the air. You realise the question might be as spontaneous as your act, but your heart sank anyway, excitement dropped, and the imaginary bird chirping around you suddenly fell silent. Never have you ever encountered a question loaded with suspicion for such a mundane action. It was a mindless spontaneous act; until the moment someone asked you, “why?”.  Of course, you love your friend enough to start blaming the cliff of cultural differences hanging between the two of you and start making up excuses for sharing your food: a crash diet, reducing sugar for health reasons, getting very full after two bites, and so on. You can actually just reply to the question with another question (“why not?”) but your mind is busy trying to make sense of the calculative weight in the question. That is why you start blabbering with more and more reasons while your mind recedes to the contemplation cave in the backside of your head. The question lingers.

Then there comes an essay that you agreed to write. Of course, it started with even another question. The world can sometimes be funny like that. Even when you are still trying to make sense of the first question, now you have another question to answer: “How to politely say no to unpaid cognitive labour in the knowledge economy?” This time, you laugh as a reply. Not because you do not know how to say no, but more because you cannot really make sense of why would you say no. When the question further leads to the notion of strike in the art world, half-jokingly you thought, “If there would ever be a strike upon unpaid cognitive labour in the art scene on my side of the world, nothing will ever be done. No more cultural production. No more civic movement. No more grassroots initiatives. No more contemporary art scene.” Your mind sneaks out of that safe contemplative cave and reminds you that the thought was not even half a joke. It is, once again, your mode of operating: a mode of being.

2/ “Why Not?”
Coming from a context that believes in the presence of an alternative value system, I do not feel that the question represents the non-standardised, autonomous mode of being in the artworld where I came from. This view, I only realise later, after a year of having been provided with abundance of time and distance from that scene, looking back to the periphery from the centre.
For one moment, it surprises me that even the thought of writing “about the periphery, looking from the centre” ever occured to me. It embarrasses me to belief that a ‘centre’ even exists. But, unlike Zaelani who believes that acknowledging a ‘centre’ is a total denial of all the myriad art practices outside the dominating system[ii]; I believe that standing at one side of the world, having enough distance to be able to look at the other, might probably provide me an answer to the question I am facing, while providing a betwixt-and-between insight of the other art practices in the other side of the world.  For this purpose, I once again refer to Zaelani who believes that 'criterion' and 'language' become interconnecting components[iii].  At the beginning of my writing process, I did not want to use local terminologies. I was afraid of romanticising or turning it into exotic commodity. But then I realize how some local concepts are better explained in its language as the signature of that specific culture. In the end, it might not be a totally foreign idea after all.

Instead of answering to the question of “How to say no to unpaid cognitive labour in the knowledge economy?” I would like to explore the possibilities of an alternative value system. Those alternatives can be common goals and belief, friendship, a sense of belonging, civic movement, or probably: love.  In a world where tolerance is at stake, the far right is rising, and trust is lacking; trust, hospitality, generosity, and everything nice can be proposed as an act of disobedience.  Starting from this point of view, network and friendship can no longer be seen merely as a dirty and fragile reputational economy move. Instead, it becomes a safety net to strengthen the movement and reach common goal.  Hospitality and trust turn into a crucial mode of exchange in building a stronger and more tolerant society; while the presence of a generous structure allows reciprocal learning processes in the grassroots level.  Within this notion art is no longer art, but what we can achieve with it. When art is perceived as a tool and vehicle to achieve common goals, the monetary value aspect is not so crucial anymore. It does not necessarily mean that a cultural worker does not need to be paid, of course. Whenever there is a means of monetary support, it is only fair to actually provide decent wage for cultural worker. Yet, this essay is rather meant for seeking possibilities in the question of what to replace the fiscal value in the equation and in what situation does this scenario valid.

3/  “Strike?”
In a country that is lacking structure for formal art institutions and where government support is only very recently revived (thanks to the years of persistent independent art initiatives performed by the people); does Indonesia need a biennale?  The mere fact that it is lacking contemporary art institutions and formal infrastructure creates a gap for a biennale to fill; to present the latest developments in the contemporary art practice in Indonesia and hopefully be able to create an immediate response to the current socio-political situation of the nation. Historically, the pioneering biennales in Indonesia started from the government’s initiative, aiming to form the cultural identity of the nation, operating within the vision and mission of the nation, and somewhat loaded with top-down repressiveness.  In one of my conversations with Indonesian artist Agung Kurniawan, he mentioned how in order to overthrow that platform and change the top down repression of the state, the citizens need to take over the throne and perform the role and function of the government. This was the case of Jogja Biennale, which he recalled as a crawling coup d’├ętat of the citizen to take over the role of the government. The easiest way to do it, when project funding was barely in existence, was to make use of all available resources and most importantly: the people. Not to fall into the trap of art populism, it is then very important to make sure that the intersection between art people, citizens, and the state is existent within this method. Sharing a common goal and an accessible cultural vision, are the things that can trigger the movement and voluntary state of being. In such situations, the human resources of the art scene will autonomously work for the common cause instead of for reputational or economic purpose.
In a much smaller and personal context, my experience of independently running the art space Lir[iv] is possible partly because of the closely-knit society of the art scene in Yogyakarta. At this point, maybe I need to stop calling it an independent art space. Yes, it is independent of monetary funding or agenda from any second party, but it is nevertheless dependent on the immaterial infrastructure of personal support, friendship network, human resources, and so on. The network allows us to create programme exchanges, the mutual hospitality allows us to do reciprocal residency programmes, and the generosity of the senior art practitioner in terms of knowledge sharing and knowledge production allows us to conduct an alternative education programme for young artists. Lir is one of many examples of how smaller scale art spaces work using this method of community support system and keeping it small. To be small means to remain autonomous and free from a bigger agenda. Being small also allows the art initiative to stay fluid, flexible, and open for collaborations. It is also less economically demanding. The strategy of staying small is also applied by older independent art institutions:  Kedai Kebun Foundation (KKF). KKF in Yogyakarta is one of the examples of an independent art space that has been running for almost 20 years and has an important position in the art scene, thus still insisting on making the political decision to remain ‘small’. I question KKF’s definition of small because when we compare the scale, stage of development, and influence; Lir and KKF are in two very different domains of ‘smallness’.
Yet, to be strategically small as a political decision requires a moment of having arrived in the position of being able to say no to the opportunity and temptation to grow larger. To stay small can then be seen as a deliberate refusal to be swallowed by the capitalist system. For KKF, to stay small is to make a statement. For Lir, the privilege to say no has yet to arrive. When I think of the previous question in the beginning of this essay, I see the decision to stay small is the closest thing to strike against the capitalist system present in the art world.  In his book, ”Also Space, From Hot to Something Else”, Vanhoe noted two facilitary structures that allow Indonesian art spaces to survive: 1. Supportive structure, the practical and theoretical support to each other’s collective or individual artistic goals; and 2. Generous structure, the open-minded sharing of knowledge that offers an alternative to a calculating world.[v] Such structures are possible partly due to Indonesian customs and the social concepts of gotong royong (mutual cooperation) as a form of collective support, and nongkrong (loosely translated as hanging out) as an informal process of knowledge transfer.

4/ “What?”
Looking back to the thought of an alternative value system and non-Western mode of being, I chose to give an indirect answer to the notion of alternative value in the art world, by explaining about the social concepts mentioned in the previous paragraph: gotong royong as an alternative to the capitalistic idea of labour and nongkrong as an alternative way of learning. In her essay, Juliastuti noted “When an activity is done in the spirit of gotong royong, labour is valued as fleeting, abundant, and free.”(Bowen, 1986).[vi] In the context of the Indonesian art scene, having the awareness that we are in the same situation and art being able to become a vehicle for social change, such kind of voluntary act is easily available. In this case, people and their kinship become the crucial resource. When doing the act of gotong royong, people provide collective support without expecting a favour in return. Yet, in my personal opinion, to receive an act of gotong royong means opening up an expectation to be ready when it is your turn to do a job. Even if people do not expect favour in return, the debt is to the community itself. There is never a binding contract, however the sense of responsibility is highly personal and often fragile. At the same time, it creates a site of possibility and supportive structure for a longer period of time in a continuous cycle. It is important, of course, to openly share common understanding and respect the mutual relationship.
The second concept, nongkrong, is some kind of a casual get together talk about nothing and everything at the same time. Dahl, explains in her essay “[…] nongkrong as it is practised among Yogya’s artists, intellectuals and activists is actually a profoundly productive and creative practice that functions without overt regard to the capitalist model. [...] more akin to “non-productive time”—neither overtly goal-driven, nor unproductive in the capitalist sense. Rather than focusing on end-product productivity, nongkrong offers a holistic view of art as a long-term social process. It is a site of potential action, a social space that is all about the pleasures of sharing time with friends.”[vii] In this moment, knowledge is transferred, a chance of collaboration opens, and the bond between people within the community strengthens. This mode of knowing and acquiring knowledge independently require a generous structure: willingness to share, and at the same time willing to give some time and attention to other people’s thoughts. Often it requires trust and attentiveness. Without the generosity of sharing knowledge and attentiveness to receive new knowledge, the potentiality of nongkrong will degrade to just a meaningless act out of habit or peer pressure.  The informal structure of this specific knowledge production also risks the possibilities to form a basis of cultural elites, just like any other unstructured groups.[viii] Yet, it opens up a space for possibility and within the sphere of possibilities, changes can happen. The challenge is how to make balance interchange and to find the ethical mode of working within this idea of immaterial transaction. It is possible if we see ourselves as part of a network that can influence, encourage, and provide feedback focused on the creation of an also-possible world.[ix] 

This proposition will be better explained using this table below:
Table 1: From Hot to Something Else[x]

Profit-driven, market-driven

Networking in order to increase one’s visibility within the art scene

Individual careers

Effort to be seen; energy is focused on being represented, on being present and valuable, on being credited

Internal community


Networking in order to learn and share knowledge

Working towards common goals

Effort to engage with and relate to the context of everyday production; effort to give and receive

Different communities

As we go through this stream of thought, you might realise it is never about a radical step into the unknown. In a more personal level, we are all well familiar with the terrain. We did free labour work, hoping to make the world a better place. We give up the idea of having a child or a house or even to have the privilege of mobility for a simple reason of not having enough time or enough money because art makes you constantly overworked or broke. We know how it feels to work extra jobs to support your art practice. But when we ask about the possibilities and collectively, at one point you might start to care less about your individual career and will no longer do anything for the sake of reputation—instead, you will make use of what is available for the good of many people, for overthrowing corrupted governments, or as simple as for making your neighbourhood more friendly and less suspicious to one another. Or, when you still need to remind yourself why you are doing what you are doing in the art world, here is the last desperate reason: love. (Let’s hope that the feeling is mutual.)

[i] Steyerl, Hito. "Politics of Art: Contemporary Art and the Transition to Post-Democracy." Are You Working Too Much? Post-Fordism, Precarity, and The Labor of Art. Berlin: Sternberg, 2011. 37. Print.
[ii] Zaelani, Rizky. "Interpellation: Notes on a Common Language of Comparison in International Art Events." Exhibition Catalogue for Interpellation, CP Biennale. Jakarta: CP Foundation, 2003. N. pag. Web. 13 June 2017. <http://biennale.cp-foundation.org/2003/essays02.html>.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Lir Space is an independent art space founded in 2011 that aims to build a supportive and positive environment for young artists in Yogyakarta; focusing on a laboratory platform as alternative education, creating research-based artistic projects, and using independently-published book as an alternative space for exhibition. ‘Independent’ in Lir’s sense is implemented by creating a sef-sustaining support system without funding from either the government or other funding bodies in order to stay autonomous and continuously change. (www.lirspace.net
[v] Vanhoe, Reinaart. Also-Space, From Hot to Something Else: How Indonesian Art Initiatives Have Reinvented Networking. Eindhoven: Onomatopee, 2016. p.33. Print.
[vi] Juliastuti, Nuraini. "Wok the Rock & Co.: Making Sense of Friendship in Yogyakarta’s Art Scene." Discipline Journal No.4 (December 2015): n. pag. Web. 14 June 2017. <https://www.academia.edu/21844424/Wok_the_Rock_and_Co._Making_Sense_of_Friendship_in_Yogyakartas_Art_Scene>.
[vii] Dahl, Sonja. "Nongkrong and Non-Productive Time in Yogyakarta’s Contemporary Arts."Parse. Parse Journal, 2017. Web. 14 June 2017. <http://parsejournal.com/article/nongkrong-and-non-productive-time-in-yogyakartas-contemporary-arts/>.
[viii] Freeman, Jo. "The Tyranny of Structurelessness." Berkeley Journal of Sociology 17 (1972-73): 151-65. Web. 15 June 2017. <http://www.jofreeman.com/joreen/tyranny.htm>.
[ix] Vanhoe, Reinaart. Also-Space, From Hot to Something Else: How Indonesian Art Initiatives Have Reinvented Networking. Eindhoven: Onomatopee, 2016. p.89. Print.
[x] Ibid.