An attempt to POP! the utopian bubble of the Yogyakarta art scene

The text is written for Metropolis M No.5/ 2017. The writers of this text are Cemeti – Institute for Art and Society Chief Curators Sanne Oorthuizen and Alec Steadman, Lir Space founder Mira Asringtyas and Kunci – Cultural Studies Centre member Brigitta Isabella. 

The Yogyakarta (Jogja) art scene attracts a continual stream of visiting curators, researchers and artists who are often struck by the dynamic and polyphonic nature of the scene, in particular its self-organised, artist-led and collective approach. Art practitioners from Europe, struggling to adapt to ever-increasing demands for “financial sustainability” in the wake of systematic and ideological cuts to funding, often get excited about the possibilities such DIY models might offer for the near future (post-welfare state). Those from ‘Asian Tiger’ countries (Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea), who enjoy generous support from their governments, often visit to discuss the social and political function of art, which they see in forms of self-organization in Jogja. Although the scene can be said to be generous, supportive, collective, and easy going, it is an easy trap for visitors to romanticize the Jogja art scene as a utopian bubble.

The Indonesian art scene in general is notorious for its precarious public infrastructure. For example, what is called the Jogja National Museum (JNM) is in fact a hire space with no curators, programme or permanent collection. So if you visit JNM and nothing is happening, do not immediately feel disappointed. Remember: sometimes art needs rest too. The history of JNM still offers something to learn about the contemporary art infrastructure in Jogja. Not only in terms of the absence of state art institutions, but also the engagement in infrastructural development by artists that has flourished in its place. In the 1950s, what is now JNM was built to host the city’s art academy. In 1998, the school’s campus was relocated to the Southern part of the city. A group of left-leaning art students named Taring Padi [literally: “fangs of rice”] squatted the place, turning the unoccupied classrooms into a dorm and social centre. Its members programmed the building in line with their shared political consciousness, fuelled by the toppling of the dictatorship of Indonesia’s second president Suharto (1965-1998) in the same year. Sadly, Taring Padi’s organic infrastructure at JNM didn’t last long: they were kicked out in 2003 as the area would soon fulfil its new role as a “museum” for hire, operated by a cultural foundation owned by the Sultan’s son-in-law.

Taring Padi were not the first artists to create their own alternative space for experimenting and working together in Jogja. In 1988, artists Mella Jaarsma and Nindityo Adipurnomo initiated Cemeti , initially housed in the front room of the couple’s family home. They wanted to provide a place for artists to show their work, and importantly to meet with practitioners from across cultural scenes, something much needed during the Suharto regime. For many years, Cemeti was self-funded and supported in-kind by its network. In 1996, Cemeti spawned Cemeti Art Foundation, focusing on the archiving and documentation of the Indonesian contemporary art scene. This initiative later evolved into Indonesian Visual Art Archive (IVAA), a fully independent organisation, an important centre for archiving as well as generating discourse in the local context through an active public programme. The fact that the key organisation for archiving Indonesian contemporary art histories was initiated by artists, attests to the absence of public institutions in preserving art historical narratives - not to mention that art history departments do not exist in Indonesia. 

Another key space in the scene that originated around the same time is Kedai Kebun Forum (KKF), a mix between art space, restaurant and merchandise store, founded by art producer and restaurateur Yustina Neni and artist Agung Kurniawan. KKF offers a space for artists to experiment with performance, exhibitions and projects, with an increasing focus on younger artists. The space sustains itself through the proceeds from the restaurant and its merchandise shop, allowing KKF to develop their programme relatively independent from art market and funder constraints. 

Both Cemeti and KKF are important precursors of artist-founded spaces in Jogja. After the end of Suharto’s dictatorship in 1998, censorship ceased, which made it easier to create civil movements and cultural initiatives. Alternative art spaces emerged in various Indonesian cities. Groups of young artists started renting residential houses and running them as (semi)public spaces, where they could hang out with friends, make and show work, do gigs and organize projects. Now, in 2017, Jogja is densely populated with collectively run spaces, from research collective KUNCI Cultural Studies Centre, to Ace House Collective, a platform for young artists; to Mes 56; an art space and hangout place centred around “art etc.”, to Lifepatch; “a citizen initiative in art, science and technology”, to print collective Krack!, to Lir, a laboratory for young artists and non-artists alike, and many more besides. Each space has its own focus, way of working and surviving, with most people (even in the more established collectives and spaces) needing a job on the side to be able to pay increasing rent and living costs.

Cemeti and KKF, which were initially founded as an alternative to the establishment (at that time the conservative government art school), have now become two of the more established institutions. Now in its 30th year, the Cemeti founders have given over the day-to-day running of the organisation to a new team, in part as a attempt to complicate this position of establishment. Under a new name, Cemeti - Institute for Art and Society, the team is experimenting with new modes to connect with a range of constituencies from across the city, exploring the various civic roles a gallery might play, whilst trying to understand its relevance in a much changed cultural landscape.

In general, the current moment in Jogja is one characterized by transition and reflection, not only for the older spaces but also those that were founded in the beginning of 2000s. Initiated to fill a gap in existing infrastructure and formed around friendship, a set of artist collectives that now find themselves in their mid-teens, seem to be moving towards more formalized models of programming and organizing. In the past few years, new, often-younger members have started joining these collectives. Negotiation naturally occurs when new members join a club: they bring different perspectives and ways of working (and living) whilst questioning long-standing habits and introducing new methods. Amongst some of the newer members of these collectives, the idea of belonging is different, some of them feeling comfortable to be part of multiple groups.  For some, more structured ways of working that come with age and growing numbers stress hierarchies, with younger members following the lead of founding members, a jacket that might not always fit comfortably.

An important example of a space going through such a period of transition is Mes 56. Founded in 2002, Mes is a collective that was initially based on friendship between photography students of the city’s art academy. In February this year, Mes celebrated its 15th anniversary with the launch of a new platform, shifting their focus from photography to a far broader “art etc”. This change has seen them organize their activities into different divisions, housing a shop, the offices of record label Yes No Wave, a permanent archive room and a dedicated cinema for collaboratively programmed screenings. Mes now has a director who sets the framework and vision of the collectives and a salaried manager (one of only two women in the group ). These recent changes also seemed to signal a shift in the idea of publicness for MES; the programme no longer only targeting their direct community of friends, but having a broader public in mind. At the same time they are exploring new survival strategies, charging for certain workshops as a way to support their self-funded community.

The necessity to explore new strategies for financial sustainability and survival is a common reality for many groups and spaces today. The art boom that hit Indonesia in second half of 2000 gave some members of art collectives the possibility to profit from the art market for the first time. In 2008, in the middle of this market fiore, the annual art fair ArtJog was established. Unlike the customary format of most art fairs, ArtJog is a platform that supports artists directly, rather than giving space to commercial galleries. This is not strange, since Indonesian galleries that have exclusive contracts with artists are still rare. Market boom and international platform for artists to meet directly with collectors in place, there was a real possibility to use the art market to support local artistic activity. However, for some self-funded artists collectives based on friendship and solidarity, with blurry boundaries between personal and collective, art market success of individual members could either provided a way to support the collective endeavour, or lead to conflict and a questioning of idealism. The boom has now boomed, with the market slowing in recent years. Although art spaces and groups in Jogja have always been run on adhoc economies of friendship, today the need to find new ways to financially support themselves is an urgent task.

One of the few galleries that does exclusively represents artists, Ark Galerie, also finds itself in a moment of transition. Ark was founded in 2007 by collector Ronald Akili and Jason Gunawan and was initially based in Jakarta. In 2013, Alia Swastika, curator and program director of Ark since 2008 instigated a move of the gallery to Jogja with the aim to widen its audience from collectors to the wider arts community. As well as representing a stable of some of the best-known Indonesian artists, Ark also actively contributes to local discourse hosting residencies, educational forums and producing off-site projects. Now after ten years of operation, Ark Galerie will soon close its doors as the landowner of the site the gallery occupies decided not to renew their tenancy. Alia has chosen not to rush into finding a new space, instead developing a more nomadic future structure for the institution. She plans to work on Ark projects in pop-up spaces, taking the role of cultural producer instead of gallery space. In Jogja, a space never really closes or dies as long as the individual behind the institution is still alive and has a strong presence in the scene.[6] As a city of ideas, a physical space can be gone but the idea of the space lives on within the person and the scene’s collective memory.  

Another kind of change that significantly affects the scene is the increasing mobility of local artists and art workers. Many individual artists and members of groups such as KUNCI Cultural Studies Centre and Lifepatch are invited to give talks and workshops, participate in residencies or organise projects abroad, at times only having their feet on the ground long enough to catch their breath. This is amplified when projects with an Indonesian focus bring busyness and travel for much of the scene. Europalia for instance has taken up the time and work of many Jogja based artists, curators and researchers simultaneously. These activities provide some additional income for individuals, whilst sharing local practices and knowledge in other contexts. Also upon return, local practitioners often share the experiences and knowledge with the scene. However, the frenzy of travel for the ones going abroad and the role of host for those in Jogja can sometimes lead to exhaustion. The question that arises is how to balance between engaging locally and globally, between Facetime and face-to-face time.

When an organization or a group is facing difficulties such as a lack of monetary resources, loss of physical space, changes in government regulations or even censorship from fundamentalist religious organisations, one needs to change or die young. When popping the utopian bubble of Jogja’s art scene we find that although resilient, it has a decidedly fragile nature. On the one hand its support structures are strong because of underlying friendships, but at times it is hard to manage the proximity between personal and professional. There is a danger for any art scene anywhere, organised in an organic or structureless  way, to end up forming, rather than dismantling, cultural elites . Although it can energise, self-organization can at times get too demanding for the individual forces behind it and the struggle to survive. Coupled with overproduction, mobility and hosting this can lead to exhaustion. Making space for reflection is always necessary, but this space does not necessarily need to be physical. Some art practitioners in Jogja have started initiating study groups that fill this need; more discursive, nomadic structures that might offer respite, space to think, breath, re-group and build again. The question is not only how we can financially sustain a space but how we can sustain and nurture critical thinking?