Thursday, October 22, 2009
Friday 23 October 3.30 -5pm @ MES56, Jl Nagan Lor 17, Yogyakarta.
What I am going to write in this post is the fragments of my interview with Bu Jilah, on October 19th, 2009 at the Cemeti Studio. The conversation was conducted in Javanese, mixed with Bahasa Indonesia. She talked about her principles of money, work ethic, time management, the relationship between men and women, and so forth. Reflecting on our talk now, I feel that she was actually trying to show her values for living life.
Cemeti Studio, October 19, 2009
She was late. It was already past 9.00AM. I sent her a text message, and the reply was short one: “I am half way to the studio”. Then I finally saw her motorcycle entering the front gate. I greeted her. “Hello Bu Jilah. Nuning here. I am the one who just sent you a text”. “Hello Mbak Nuning. Sorry for being a bit late. I went to the PLN (Nuning: Perusahaan Listrik Negara or the State Electric Company) office first to pay the electricity bill. Wait Mbak, I need to fasten the screws of my motorcycle’s front lamp,” she said. With the screwdriver in her hands, she continued talking, “I have to handle virtually everything in my house, starting from regular house activities, paying bills, to trivial matters such us fixing the lamp of motorcycle…I am easily feeling stressed out because of these small things…Last night, I talked to my son. Well he is not my real son, I adopted him, anyway I said to him to not speed at our kampung, because our neighbors like to talk and gossip about that you know…And I said to him to always think about me, the mother who is working really hard for the family”. She talked fast, with a casual tone, as if she was facing me, her old friend. Or perhaps it was because we used Javanese that she spoke rather freely and broke all the boundaries between us? Probably.
Then we sat on a bench at the rear of the studio. “My mom has just passed away,” she said. “Was she sick?” “Yes, various kind of illness”. She pulled a photo album out of her bag. Browsing through it, she continued the story. “This is my mother when she is still sick”, said Bu Jilah pointing at the picture of an old woman lying on the divan bed. “And this is my mom when she has just passed away. I spent quite a lot amount of money for the funeral ceremony. It cost me 450 thousand rupiah only for getting the ambulance taking my mother from our house at the village to here. Plus I still need to pay my mom’s debts…” “Did your mother have many debts?” “Well yeah actually not so many…It is just because I said to the lady who own the food stall at the market of our village to let my mom eating there whenever she wanted it to…I am holding many responsibilities…”
“Do you have many people borrow money from you?” “Not anymore. I do not want anybody to borrow money from me again.”
“Do you save the money you earned?” “Absolutely. I own lots of jewelry, especially gold.”
“So you do not have a bank account?” “No. I prefer to save my money in the form of jewelry and keep them all inside my own house.”
“Do you ever have a wish for using some of your savings to go on a holiday?” “Oh no, and what for? It would be better if I used the spare time to work and get more money. If I am not cleaning up houses, I sell herbal drinks or used bottles, and provide massage services for those who need it. Often I come home late.”
“Or perhaps you want to spend the money to buy more electronic stuff?” “I do not have any particular desire for it. I already have a refrigerator. I have six motorcycles. And I always pay the installments on time.” She pulled a small book containing the record of the installment payments from her bag. “Look, never once have I exceed the deadline of paying it. And because of it, the motorcycle dealer always grants my proposal to installing another motorcycle”.
“Do you know what I really want now? I want to have a washing machine. I want to have a laundry business someday. Students would be our main targets. And we are going to use a pick-up-service method. I used to have a business laundry a couple years ago. It was a traditional laundry since we washed all clothes by hands. Then there was this neighbor starting to build a competition by establishing a more modern laundry. They used a washing machine. But their business died in short time too.”
“I have worked since I was a little girl. As far as I remember, when I was still sitting at the junior high school, I started to earn my own money by selling many things…Then I worked for the lady working at the post office, cleaning up her house...I cannot remember exactly when was that. She liked me because I have always been a diligent person. She introduced me to a foreign lady called Tessa. So that was the beginning of me working for expatriates. Tessa started to introduce me to her fellows…And that is how I get the job, from mouth-to-mouth advertisement…I always try to be trustworthy. I never show a slight attitude of asking-things to any employer I have. For example, many friends sometimes feel happy on hearing their employers will soon return to their homeland, because they wish to be sent many gifts or money or something like that. Well I never have such a thought. What I want is to be paid for what I do. In bidding farewell to any employer, I always say: Goodbye. Have a safe and nice trip. I hope you all can visit Indonesia again someday, so that we will have an opportunity to meet again.”
“Is your husband working somewhere?” “No. He stays at home”. “He is not working?” “No. He is at home, taking care of our house”. “Is he sick or something?” “Oh no. I think it would be better for all of us if he stays at home, for otherwise there would be nobody taking care of our cats”. “Do you have many cats?” “Yes, there are around 10 cats at my house”.
Bu Jilah mentioned that she always tries “to follow the social rules”. And she said it in an unusual phrase; I believe she has invented it herself, that is “ikut sosial” which literally means “following the social”. By that she means that the everyday relationship between her and people in her neighborhood should never to be disregarded. No matter how busy she is, she remains willing and ready to help a neighbor who needs support. In the case of a neighbor who is about to have a wedding ceremony for their children, unlike the other women in her kampung who help to cook for the ceremony for a whole day, Bu Jilah prefers to come to say her best wishes at night. “And of course I do not come there with empty hands”, said Bu Jilah. Her neighbors, she continued, understand that she has a tight work schedule during the day. “After all, I usually contribute a lot amount of money…That’s what makes them even happier…” she laughed.
“Did you go to school, when you were younger?” “I did. I got a degree from a vocational school, from SMEA (Nuning: Sekolah Menengah Ekonomi Atas means Senior High School specialising in Economic Studies)”.
“Don’t you want to work in an office? I mean to work in the formal sector?” “I used to want to work in an office. But my father forbade me from working at places too far away from our house. I think that was because I am the girl he loved the most…”
“The neighbors used to express their negative gestures whenever seeing me wearing jewelry.” “Why would they do that?” “Because they thought I was wearing the fake ones! Until one day I showed them the letters of my jewelries, then they started to understand…People are always like that you know…They just do not know how hard one has to work to get all that. I always come home very late at night. Also everyday, usually at 3AM in the morning, I wake up, to sincerely ask God for blessing me, my family, as well as this city.”
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
It’s something like 38 degrees here, which is the kind of temperature that gets even the locals complaining. On Monday, when I was doing Bu Jilah’s work, the heat was relentless. Luckily I spent most of the day splashing around in water, scrubbing bathrooms and hand-washing bedding - which was some small relief from the heat.
I apologise in advance, but I am going to make no effort to write this post well. What is called for is a brain dump of mammoth proportions. I may need to even revert to bullet points. There is so much to say.
Things are happening very quickly, and they must. I present this project on Friday 23rd October at 3.30pm. That gives me less than 48 hours to compile all the research and documentation, and put it together in an interesting and engaging presentation. However, tomorrow I spend from 8am - 4pm at Via Via, taking over the job of a kitchen hand (more detail on that later), which means the next 2 days are going to be intensely hectic!
But I’m going to stop whinging a moment, to gush about this project instead. Monday was an amazing success. Not only did I manage to complete most of Bu Jilah’s responsibilities (minus a bit of dusting and sweeping here and there) but Bu Jilah seems to have had a really great time. Unexpectedly, she didn’t spend the whole day working and took some time out to have adventures in a shopping mall! She returned with some great stories and some amazing photos (see below)!
So the day of the big “role swap” began at 9am on Monday, with a meeting between Bu Jilah, Nuning and myself. This was an opportunity for Nuning to meet and interview Bu Jilah (later Nuning will post something on this blog based on their discussion), and for me to show Bu Jilah how to operate a digital camera. Bu Jilah has never used a camera before, but she took to it like a duck to water (her photos, a selection from the 40 she took, will appear later in this post).
Up until this meeting it seems Bu Jilah was under the impression she needed to accompany me as I did her work. When we clarified that she had the whole day off to do as she pleased, it was a revelation. Bu Jilah had a “waduh” moment and slapped the table in front of her. After this small detail was revealed to her, she was more than happy to hand over the keys to the Dutch school and Cemeti House and leave me to it!
My day as Bu Jilah began at 1pm where I was scheduled to go to the Dutch School to clean. I decided I’d get there an hour early so I could get a head start on scrubbing the toilets and the kitchen. By the time the kids arrived for class at 2pm, I had finished most of the hard work. The rest of the time was spent dusting, tidying and sweeping, as well as fetching drinks for the kids and joining their games. Not so hard really, despite the heat… I was introduced to a few of the children’s parents, who were bemused to hear that I was taking the place of Bu Jilah for the day. Remarkably however, they were also very accepting of the idea and had no problem with a strange artist spending the afternoon cleaning their children’s school.
At 4pm I moved on to Cemeti house where I had a list of tasks to get done by 7pm. This was a little daunting, as this time I had no head start and I was already quite tired. It was also still very hot. I started with the kitchen and dining room, scrubbing the remnants of a small dinner party that had happened the night before, and then moving on to the bedrooms.
Bu Jilah had been very clear that I had to wash and change everyone’s bedding, so with two and a bit hours left to go, I stripped the beds and began hand-washing the sheets. An hour later I was done, completely soaked in water and soap suds. After a quick cigarette break, I realised there was not much time left, so I perfunctorily did a quick sweep of the 4 bedrooms, made the beds and set to work on the bathrooms. At 7pm I had arranged to meet up with Bu Jilah at Cemeti, and when she arrived I was more or less done, though perhaps not quite up to her standard.
Bu Jilah seemed unconcerned though. She had a big giggle over the wet sheets hanging on the line, and asked if I was tired. I said I was and she had another giggle. She appeared to have had a good day. She spoke rapidly in Javanese, beaming and laughing as she showed me her photos. Boy, my interpreter, said she had found it tiring to be a tourist. Below are some of her photos from the day.
So it seems Bu Jilah did give herself the day off, spending most of her day at Progo shopping mall, a place she had never visited before. She marvelled at the Teflon saucepans and the washing machines (which doesn’t supprise me, after my hellish hour of hand-washing sheets!), and took delight in the array of shoes and clothing. She told us at one point she got lost in the shopping mall, trapped on a certain floor that only had escalators, contraptions she didn’t know how to use. Laughing at herself, she said she had felt “groggy”, having never spent a day with no purpose before.
On Monday evening, I was invited back to Bu Jilah’s house, as a kind of thankyou for involving her in the project. At her house I met her son and daughter-in-law (a photo of them by Bu Jilah is above) and together we ate mangos and biscuits, and sipped on coffee. I saw photos of Bu Jilah’s family and friends and learnt that her son hires out karaoke equipment. On that note, Bu Jilah, who loves singing, demonstrated her vocal skills belting out a song in Indonesian (see below). At the end of my visit, Bu Jilah put me on the back of her motorcycle, where we sped back to my place, with my head towering over Bu Jilah’s helmet (Bu Jilah is quite short). We made a funny pair. When we arrived, she handed me a bag full of mangoes and tempeh, and we exchanged some heartfelt “terimah kasies” (thankyous).
So Tori, I have no idea what all this means. Perhaps I can leave it to you to decipher, while I hectically try to get this project completed by Friday? Honestly, all I can say is that beyond the critical and artisitic outcomes that will come from this project, I think on a purely human level I have enjoyed doing this project with Bu Jilah. It has been a very remarkable encounter with a Pembantu that I may have easily passed-by - quite likely paying her minimal attention as she made me coffees and attended to my sheets. And I feel an elated kind of satisfaction that she enjoyed her unusual day off.
So tomorrow, I take over the work of Iput at Via Via resturant (pictured above). Iput, 25, thinks she might spend her day off with her husband at Maliboro, selling keyrings and trinkets at their street stall, and taking her son to the swimming pool. Meanwhile I’m told my day will be spent chopping vegetables and washing dishes. Stay tuned to see how it all eventuates.
Monday, October 19, 2009
There’s something quite beautiful, I think, about the way that Bu Jilah was planning to spend her “day off” — working and doing errands. What I think is most beautiful about it is the way that it totally confounds our expectations for how we imagined the project to play out. We wanted to “role swap”, to take the place of the local worker and have her take the place of the tourist. We’d already been thinking about the sort of photos we might get out of the encounter, about the stories we might be able to write up, and about the sort of aesthetics we wanted to capture in the documentation. But instead, Bu Jilah thinks about it and decides that, thanks all the same, she’d rather use the day to get some other jobs done instead. Cheers for the 200,000 rupiah, but on balance she’s not really that enamoured with spending the day on a tour of the ancient Buddhist monument at Borobudur, and can think of better ways to spend the time and money. Bang! There goes the project!
In truth, though, it’s that “failure” which is the most interesting part of the encounter. It tells so much in itself, about different ideas and priorities, about exchanges between people and cultures and desires, about the limitations of art and the spectacular, necessary unpredictability of participatory arts practice.
A lot of our work and our thinking has always been drawn to these sorts of disjunctures and discontinuities. In thinking about this project in Yogya, we said from the outset that what interested us was the ways that ideas of leisure and holidays and ‘time off’ were socially and culturally constructed. We were drawn to the ways in which they didn’t translate, or perhaps got mangled through the process of translation.
What I love about your encounter with Bu Jilah, Amy, is that you didn’t try to convince her to have a day off in the way that we might have envisaged it previously — going on a tour, or to a shopping mall, or eating in some touristy bar or café — even though I think you probably could have if you really wanted to. Doing that would have been so obviously unethical, but the point I want to make now is that I think it would have also have had such a sterilising effect on the encounter and the art. What makes the work aesthetically interesting and critical (I hope!) is that it is non-prescriptive, and genuinely responsive to what emerges out of the engagement with other people and places. That’s what makes it participatory practice, and not just using other people to make the art you want to make. The critical aesthetic space is created by the openness to what unfolds through the encounter, as opposed to trying to force what emerges into a prefabricated model, and the possibility of creativity emerges from that space.
In that sense, it’s a lot like improvisation, and I’m thinking particularly of improvisational theatre. The process of creation is necessarily co-creation; you can’t script the way an interaction is going to unfold. Improv philosophy talks about actions and words as being offers to the process of co-creation, which create a little piece of the collective reality. It’s the responsibility of other people to take what is offered, and build on it through adding another offer, the idea of ‘yes, and…’. To not do that is to block it, which is to stop the creative process.
So the best we can do is to make an offer — in this case quite literally, an offer to invert roles, to take on the work that they would normally be doing, while they are freed to have a day of leisure — and then accept and build upon the response we get, which in this case is Bu Jilah using the day to do some extra work and run errands around her house.
I am really interested, though, in why she felt that she would feel strange and uncomfortable going to Borobudur or a shopping mall. I wonder if we can talk to her more about that?
One more random thought for the day …
There’s an anthropologist whose work I love, called Anna Lowehaupt Tsing. Coincidentally enough she works mostly in Indonesia, in the South Kalimantan rainforests. She has this beautiful notion of “friction”, by which she means those zones of ‘awkward engagement’, ‘where words mean something different across a divide even as people agree to speak’. Tsing articulates a model of ethnography which looks for these awkward connections, rather than try to uncover universal and generalizing patterns, and uses them as the basis from which to think and work. ‘As a metaphorical image’, she writes, ‘friction reminds us that heterogeneous and unequal encounters can lead to new arrangements of culture and power.’ For me, that notion of friction really speaks to what I think we’re trying to do. It’s that sense that it’s the points of disconnect which are the most rich, and the most laden with creative possibility.
Saturday, October 17, 2009
When I met Bu Jilah at Cemeti on Thursday, I asked her if she could stop her work for a moment to chat about the project. I just wanted to ensure she understood the project and what was expected of her.
I was lucky enough to have Antariksa as my interpreter. Antariksa is a respected arts writer here in Yogya, working for iCAN and Kunci. He is also the man who makes the phone calls, the ones that get you bicycles, or warehouses, or press conferences. The South Project artists have been running him ragged with our requests (he looks really tired in the photo below), and I cannot gush enough about him.
So with Antariksa’s help, I chatted to Bu Jilah. Bu Jilah, I have noticed, is more than happy to talk. She is also more than happy to feed people, and while responding at length to my questions, she prepared us a heaped plate of rujak, slicing up fresh fruit, and grinding a dipping sauce of peanuts, chillies, palm sugar, tamarind and fish paste in a motar and pestle.
Bu Jilah told us she has a reputation for being a hard worker, that someone had even said she loved work, more than eating. She explains the key to happiness is to love your work. At 52 years of age, she imagines she could live another 100 to 200 years more, happily working.
On Wednesday, I had heard through Rachel, that Bu Jilah was intending to work on her day off. She had mentioned Bu Jilah wanted to sell jewellery or take bottles for recycling. However, Rachel was keen to see Bu Jilah do something nice for herself, and urged her to go on a tour to Borobudur. But Bu Jilah had no interest in going on a tour to touristy sites.
So on Thursday, I asked Bu Jilah if she understood she would receive 200,000 rupiah for the project and she was allowed to take the day off if she wanted. Bu Jilah explained her choice. She said she had never been to Borobudur or a shopping mall, and although they did interest her, she said she’d feel strange and uncomfortable going. She asked me if it was okay if she stayed at home and did her errands instead. I said it was perfectly okay.
Bu Jilah’s choice has interesting implications for this project. When Tori and I came up with our idea for the Yogyakarta Gathering, we were fully aware that our notions of travel and leisure are very western in nature, and we were not sure if the project concept would translate well in the social context of Indonesia. We were curious about the Indonesian concepts of “leisure”. Did they experience “holidays” as Australians do? We did not know.
As Tori mentions in the post below, we are conscious this project could easily become gimmicky, where we do little more than mimic a reality TV show playing a cheap game with the gap between rich and poor. To ask Bu Jilah to “become a tourist in her own city for a day”, and expect her to seize that opportunity to take laps in a pool, or spend her “travel allowance” on clothing at a shopping mall, now seems kind of cheesy.
Bu Jilah’s plan for her day off is far more revealing. When you never have the money, time or opportunity to indulge in thoughts of cocktails by swimming pools, and tours to exotic destinations, what then do you want from a day off? Instead of getting holiday snaps of Bu Jilah visiting tourist sites and buying souvenirs, we will gain an insight much more complex and interesting than that.
When I sat down this afternoon to write something for the blog, this is not what I meant to write. But it's here now, and in it's own rambling way it's part of an attempt to think about some of the things we were talking about...
One of the things we’ve talked about a lot with our work is about not wanting to make gimmicky work. What we’re trying to do through our practice, I think, is create critical aesthetic spaces which both make possible transgressive encounters, and are created themselves through those encounters. What we don’t want to do is make happy-clappy novelty art.
I worry about this a lot. In part it’s a response to the way that I often see relational or social art being read and responded to — as ‘fun’, or ‘quirky’, or ‘cute’. I have no problem with fun or quirky (I’m undecided about ‘cute’), but I get frustrated when responding to social practice art in that way becomes a way of dismissing it.
Like, ‘it’s cool, yeah, but it’s not art is it? I mean, it’s not like they’re making anything.’
For all the incredible artists and theorists who’ve been associated with the development of social practice / relational aesthetics / post-autonomy /situational art / interventionist / whatever-you-want-to-call-it art, the orthodoxy is so bloody persistent, and so bloody hostile to the idea of art being possible outside the white cube or the stage. I get frustrated with feeling like the bastard child of ‘real art’. I mean, really, just because you're dressed like an air hostess...
If I’m being honest, though, my anxiety about being read as some sort of novelty side-show has as much to do with our own practice as it does with the boring conservatism and short-sightedness of the art orthodoxy. That is, I think that the kind of work we are trying to create could so easily collapse into gimmicky banality. Not that I’m suggesting it does, or is, (I’m not Amy, I’m not!) just that there’s a fine line and we walk very close to the edge sometimes. The question for me is how we hold onto a sense of play, and irreverent performativity (yes, the fun and the quirky and perhaps even the cute), without sacrificing the critical edge in our practice?
Thursday night, in a jumpy pixelated exchange over Skype, Amy was recounting part of a conversation she’d had with Nuning about an Indonesian reality television show premised on people swapping places. In this show, for example, a rich person and a poor person swap lives for the day. We laugh at the poor person who doesn’t know how to work a dishwasher, and at the rich person getting dirty having to wash the dishes in a bucket (which is really another way of laughing at the poor person again). It’s banal and cheap and exploitative and gimmicky, and it’s so fundamentally counter to the sort of work we want to create, and the reasons why we want to create it.
The difference is the critical aesthetic space, but what I want to know is how we keep that space open, and how we nurture it? My thinking around this is confused and messy, but I want to put out a couple of ideas … that it’s about an ethics of engagement that takes seriously a commitment to respecting the agency of people who we involve in our work (and I think that this has potentially far-reaching implications for thinking about authorship and creative control) … that it’s about focussing on the encounter and not on the documentation of it (that is, what we don’t do is use people instrumentally for the sake of getting a good photo or story) … and that it’s about creating a consciously self-reflexive practice.