Thursday, October 22, 2009

Destiny Exchange / Pertukaran Nasib - Presentation Today!

Agents of Proximity have joined forces with writer Nuraini Juliastuti (Kunci Cultural Studies Center) to develop a new project exploring travel, tourism, leisure and the relationships of power and exchange which these things generate. In the lead up to the South Project Gathering The Agents have been swapping roles with Indonesians, in an "exchange of destiny" that attempts to subvert and invert the usual forms of interaction that occur between locals and tourists. Come see the results at an informal presentation and slideshow!

Friday 23 October 3.30 -5pm @ MES56, Jl Nagan Lor 17, Yogyakarta.

A post from Nuning.

I decided to contribute raw materials that might be useful for the development of this project at its later stage. When I said “raw materials”, I am thinking about a collection of interviews and excerpts from personal websites or relevant texts that serve as plausible explanations for the existing local concept of work, leisure, time, and the work/life balance.

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

So Bu Jilah went to the mall, huh?

(from tori...)

Ha! I love it ... after ranting on about the beautiful dissonance of Bu Jilah choosing to spend her "day off" working instead of "being a tourist", she ends up taking the day off after all (or at least part of it) and heading to the mall. As Amy put it so articulately ... put that in your participatory pipe and smoke it!

In a funny sort of a way though, I love it for the same reasons that I loved it when I thought Bu Jilah was going to do something entirely different ... for that sense of being confounded ... for the unexpected. I love it because opening up your practice to the participation and agency of others means the continual disruption of the idea of artist-as-author/creator. It's not that you surrender your own sense of creative agency ... (as Claire Bishop would put it, participatory practice should not require that artists surrender their own desire) ... but that you're are never able to fall into a complacency about it.

This is going to be a really jumbled post. Very brief, too. I will try and wrestle back some time later on today to write a proper response, but for the moment, some random thoughts...

Firstly, the fact that Bu Jilah went to the mall brings me back to one of the things Amy and I used to speak about a lot, which is the sort of enabling power of the idea of "art" and "artists". The label of "artist" gives this licence, it seems, to act out, and act up, and transgress the bounds of the expected in ways that I think we've yet to fully explore. Perhaps more excitingly, though, is that "art" allows you to extend that license to other people. I'm so intrigued and tantalised by the possibilities of using this license to create the possibilities for encounters / meetings / situations that would otherwise go unrealised.

Sort of related to this point, I've thinking about questions of ethics and agency and engagement, and all that stuff I've been waffling on about before. Participatory practice needs to have such a clear sense of its own ethics because it can so easily be exploitative. And for me, the core of that ethics has to be a deep respect for the agency of others, and a willingness to surrender your own authorial control. But there's also a balancing act that goes on, because while I would contend that it's totally unacceptable to exploit people's discomfort or unease (or pain, more broadly) in order to make art out of it, what makes art so important is also its ability to provoke and challenge and confront, and all those things. Perhaps, then, that's also one of the strengths of employing that artistic licence... you offer people the possibility of using that license to put themselves in situations might be slightly unusual, uncomfortable, foreign. It's a gentle provocation ... an invitation and not an order.

The big challenge for me, though, in thinking about how we develop this work from here ... is how we document it? You could take a really hard-core line of saying that the encounter and the experience is the art, and there's no possibility of recreating that out of the contingent time and space in which it occurred. On one level, I agree ... the encounter is the art. But I think the encounter is also generative in and of itself ... it creates the possibility for more creation. Documentation, then, but also potentially more than just documentation. I don't think that either of us would be satisfied with leaving the "art" in the moment. I want the possibility of creative exchange and communication beyond that.

Paraphrasing Anna Tsing again, in the constant pull between the universal and the particular, we find ourselves time and time again having to begin in the middle of things...

But, how to do this? I have no idea. Or more accurately, many ideas but none that seem satisfactory. I'm really drawn to collaborating with other artists, and drawing them in to document our encounters, but also to respond to it in their own way. I love, as well, having participants documenting and commenting on their own experiences. Amy, those photos Bu Jilah took were so stunning, and so intriguing and suggestive. It was the fact that she took them ... that they represented what she was seeing, and privileging in that experience. So i'd like to explore that more. But I also want to explore the idea of taking what came out of the experience and using it as material for generating new work ... reflections on the encounter ... or the encounter as inspiration. Stories, installations, more encounters?



I’m smacking the table as I say “waduh” which is much like saying “oh my god” in Indonesian. The last three days have been really busy, crazy, fabulous and very, very hot!

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

Thinking about Bu Jilah's response

This is mostly a response to Amy's story about Bu Jilah, and our conversations about her response to the project. As I post this, I'm pretty sure that Amy is bang in the middle of taking over Bu Jilah's work for the day in Yogyakarta...

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 cafĂ© — 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

“She loves work more than eating”

Although my last post was quite long, it failed to mention a conversation I had with Bu Jilah. It was a conversation that is probably best to reserved for a separate post, as it brings up some interesting implications and questions for this project.

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.


About not making happy-clappy novelty art

Amy and I were chatting over Skype the other night, and our conversation about how the project is developing in Yogyakarta brought up a whole lot of questions and thoughts about our work that I know we've grappled with before, and which I think we're a long way off resolving.

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.


Friday, October 16, 2009

This project is not in turmoil!

Often people warn me that things take time in Indonesia. That I should not expect to get as much done here as I would in Melbourne. On one level that is true. The heat limits your ability to achieve more than two tasks a day alone, and then when your push bike breaks, or you can’t find an interpreter, or your important request has been lost in translation, you can go a whole day thinking your art project is in turmoil.

But our art project is not in turmoil (I promise, Tori). Because there are also days when you ask for a new bike, someone picks up the phone, and in a few minutes there is a pink 18 speed, functioning bicycle delivered to your door. If there is one thing you can count on in Yogyakarta, it is people’s easy-going generosity - where no random artist’s request can cause too much trouble – that goes well beyond anything I have experienced in Melbourne.

Which leads me to the main subject of this entry. We have found this project’s first participant! Her name is Bu Jilah (pictured below) and she is a Pembantu (helper/housekeeper). She became an obvious person to approach about this project, as we had crossed paths twice already, and I figured that since she works for many artists in Yogya, she would be a little used to unusual requests and art projects.

When I first arrived in Yogya I spent a night at Performance Klub, a friendly sharehouse that also doubles as the base for many of Yogya’s best performance art and music gigs. It was there that I first met Bu Jilah, a smiling Ibu who persistently offered me food and drink. Later, when I was staying at Cemeti Residency House (below), it was Bu Jilah who was doing my dishes and changing the sheets on my bed (pictured below).

So to arrange a meeting with Bu Jilah, I contacted Rachel Saraswati from Performance Klub, who had a good relationship with her. Rachel instantly enjoyed the idea of giving Bu Jilah a day off, and set about convincing her to participate. On Wednesday morning, when I arrived to meet with Bu Jilah at Performance Klub, Rachel had already got her to agree to do the project.

Bu Jilah speaks loudly and lengthily in Javanese, and probably knows more English than I know Indonesian, but not enough for either of us to communicate in any meaningful way. But through the fabulous Rachel, I was able to explain the finer details of the idea. The plan was that I would take over Bu Jilah’s day of work next Monday, and in return she had the opportunity to enjoy being a tourist in her own city. In order to make this more conceivable for her, I offered her 200,000 rupiah to spend at her leisure.

We had weighed up the idea of whether or not to give participants a travel allowance, but it seemed a strange deal to make – “let’s swap roles for a day” – if a person had no money to spend on their possible holiday. People here, I have discovered, are often earning only 500,000 to 1 million rupiah a month (which equates to about AUD $60-120). So the 200,000 rupiah (under $25) I offered Bu Jilah is then a significant amount for a local person. Yet, for a tourist, it is only a moderate budget for one day of touring around Yogya.

Bu Jilah, herself, earns maybe 2-3 million rupiahs a month, but for that she works extremely hard, 7 days a week. I was told that not only does she work for various houses in Yogya, but she also cleans a Dutch school, makes jewellery and herbal remedies to sell, gives massages in private households and collects beer bottles from all the big drinking artists she knows, to recycle for money. This is one busy 52 year-old lady, who finds herself sleeping only 3-4 hours a night! It is not surprising, then, that she has consented to the idea of a day off. (But it may have just as equally been down to Rachel’s persuasion!)

The fact that I will do Bu Jilah’s work on Monday is creating great amusement for people. It seems she has a reputation for being a very hard worker. Something that I did not appreciate until I spent the day with her yesterday... On Thursdays, Bu Jilah works at the same places as she does on Mondays. So yesterday was the perfect opportunity to learn the tasks I will be expected to do when I take over for her. We met at 7.30am - which my fearless interpreter, Boy (pictured below), was not so impressed about – beginning our work at the Dutch school.

(Just as a side note: to get permission to do this project in a school was only a small matter of a phone call to one of the teachers. I was astounded. In Melbourne it would take weeks to get all the parents consent to do something like this in a school! People in Yogyakarta are just spectacularly chilled out!)

Following 300 plus years of colonisation, there are still many Dutch people living in Yogya, and their children attend this school to learn the Dutch language and culture. Here, I watched Bu Jilah scrub toilets, sweep, mop, wipe bench tops, tidy away toys and dust every book, and every surface, meticulously.

Bu Jilah, who has no children of her own, freely admits that she tends to go beyond her role as a cleaner at the school, happily stopping her cleaning to play with the pre-schoolers, prepare snacks or break up fights between the boys. There is one chubby 18 month-old boy that needs a lot of attention (and a lot of snacks) which Bu Jilah seems more than willing to assist with.

Following, our work at the school from 8-11am, where I made friends with the pre-schoolers despite not having a common language amongst us, Bu Jilah arranged for us to meet at the Cemeti Residency House at 2pm. In the break in-between she said she would go home and have a rest and a mandi (a wash).
At 2pm we met at Cemeti, where again I watched her clean everything precisely and methodically. Although I am no longer staying at the house, it was odd to watch her hand wash the bedding and scrub the toilets used by my friends (P.V.I. and Panther) knowing that I’d be doing these tasks on Monday! However, I am very determined to do her job to her standards, as it is obvious she takes great pride in her work. I have been a room attendant in a hotel before, so it is not beyond me to change sheets and clean bathrooms, but I reckon hand washing the bedding shall be a fair challenge. Hopefully, the crew staying at Cemeti will give me some slack… but judging by their comments yesterday, I think they plan to make my job harder. Yikes!

Our day finished at around 6pm. Before we parted ways I handed Bu Jilah the 200000 rupiah and said I’d call her before Monday to finalise our arrangements. I hope to give Bu Jilah a little camera to document her day with (not an easy request since she has never used a camera before!) and organise for Nuning to go talk to her sometime during the day. Otherwise it looks like we are all set for Monday. Ahoy!

Okay, so this has been a very long entry. Although there is still much more to talk about, I will sign off here and write more very soon. Promise.


Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Work begins

So I have been in Yogyakarta for 9 days. Because I got here earlier than most South Project artists, the first week was a good opportunity to settle in. This is my first time in Indonesia, actually anywhere in Asia, and it took a few days to adjust to the heat and the chaos. Thankfully, it did not take long to discover why lots of people rave about this city. After indulging in a sickening amount of fried tempeh, experiencing Karaoke Indonesia-style and meeting a whole lot of incredible local artists, I was raving about Yogya too.

Yogyakarta is clearly a fun city, where the pace is slow and relaxed due to the heat. I could easily spend a lot of time by the pool at Tulips Hotel (above), or discussing participatory art with the girls from Panther over a few Bintangs (below)… but with only 11 days left it is very much time to get some serious work done.

The project has started to progress well. After my meeting with Nuning (mentioned in the post below) we had a second meeting to discuss the practicalities of the project. In our conversations I have realised that local people here have a very different work/life balance to most Australians, with people often working 6-7 days a week. From what I understand, many Indonesians can take 1-2 weeks off a year to spend time with family over Ramadan or Christmas. Otherwise most people don’t have time for holidays, let alone afford one.

Thankfully this is all good news for our project! When I mention that I want to give an Indonesian a day off work, most people laugh and say that I will have no trouble finding takers. I guess now the biggest obstacle is finding someone who has a job that I can do!
As stated in a post below, we are keen to find someone whose job enables the leisure experience of Western tourists. Nuning (on the left in the picture below) and I have identified a few people that might be suitable.

Our first idea is to talk to someone who serves tables at a cafe. Today I went to discuss our project idea with the people at Via Via. Via Via is one of a handful of trendy cafes/restaurants here in Yogya that are frequented by tourists, with Indonesian and Western food on the menu, street art on the walls and a vibe that most “bule” (the word that Indonesians use to refer to white people) feel at home in. (Ha! Just while we are on the subject of “bule”, I just heard that there is a popular TV show in Indonesia called Bule Gila. The idea is that a western person must take on a typical Indonesian’s job for a day. Relevant huh?) Once I had explained the project the people at Via Via seemed more than keen to be involved, and said they would get back to me once they had determined who would be interested/free to participate in the project. I have left them with my phone number and hoping they will call back soon.

The second person I am hoping to approach is a Pembantu (helper/housekeeper). There is a particular woman I have in mind, who makes her livelihood cleaning the houses of foreigners and artists, and who is responsible for tidying the Cemeti Residency House (a place I had been staying at). I have arranged to meet her tomorrow to talk over the project. I hope she likes the idea. Fingers crossed.

I am particularly excited that this work might involve people I have already encountered; people who have already been responsible for serving and feeding me, changing the sheets on my bed and generally making my stay in Yogya more comfortable. I like the idea that I could have a more meaningful encounter with the local people whose labour has enabled my pleasurable experience of Yogya, one that goes beyond the usual interaction between locals and tourists.

Anyway there is much more to tell you, but it is late here. I’ll post more tomorrow with all the new developments.


Friday, October 9, 2009

An email from Amy!

Hi Tori,

Ok, so i've had a couple of great meetings in the last two days with Nuning from Kunci. Kunci is a Cultural Studies Centre which writes about contemporary culture in Indonesia. You would love these people. I mean, you will literally wet your pants when you see what they do! Check out their website:

So Nuning has agreed to assist us on this project which means she will 1. assist and advise us on who we can swap roles with, and 2. contribute writing to the project via blog entries, notes etc... observing what we do from a local perspective. Nuning is rather busy, including on the SPACE/SCAPE project, but is still keen enough to join us on the development of our work in Yogyakarta. What is AMAZING is that Kunci is currently working on a project that is quite similar to our Next Wave project in Brunswick, and so seem to really engage with our ideas. Check out to find out more.

At this point, we have talked about the possibility of me approaching several people to participate in the project. We have connections, through South, to several art spaces that double as restaurants / bars, and Nuning and I thought that I could take the place of one of the people who work in the kitchens. There is also a chance I could take the role of the housekeeper who works at Cemeti House where I have been staying. As well, Nuning has friends who work in internet cafes or Circle K (kinda like Seven Eleven), who might also be interested in participating.

Anyway, it all looks VERY, VERY promising and exciting. I am meeting with Nuning again on Monday to organise our first day of "role swapping", which will probably happen next Tuesday or Wednesday... We are also going to try asking one of the MES56 guys to help us photograph the project. Look at their their Holiday Project, which I thought was relevant to our project as well.

So I am going away to the Festival Mata Air for a night and will be out of contact until Sunday night or Monday ... but i'll definitely post something on the blog Monday.

Sorry this is so rushed ... I want to tell you all about the wild karaoke night I had last night .. and how I wished you were here. I can't tell you how amazing this experience has been so far, and it's only the first week! I have already promised Nuning and Antariska (both from Kunci) that we will both return to Yogya to do a more intensive version of the project ... I hope you're keen!

More to report back on Monday. All systems go!

xx Amy

Thursday, October 8, 2009

What are we trying to do?

This is pretty much ripped from a funding application we wrote last year. There have been multiple twists and turns in our thinking since then, not to mention a quite considerably different set of circumstance to what we were expecting. Plus, it's from a funding application so it might just sound a bit pompous. Nonetheless...

What we want to do in Yogyakarta is take the Agents of Proximity project forward, developing the ideas and the methodology which have informed our collaboration thus far. At the same time, we are excited about the challenges and possibilities of working within a radically different social context, with the opportunities this would present for new collaborations and dialogue. The central themes which we want to explore through this new encounter are, broadly: The nature of contemporary urban spaces in a period of global change; relationships between people in shared space; the nature of face-to-face interactions, particularly between strangers; travel as a mind-set and series of rituals, cultural and social practices; and the idea of the artist as facilitator and creator of otherwise unrealized experiences.

Our collaboration is underpinned by a commitment to operating within public space, and a desire to thoughtfully and critically engage people and communities outside the traditional milieu of gallery-goers.

To this end, we are proposing to spend three weeks in Yogyakarta in the lead up to the South Project gathering, working with local artists and local people to develop a series of public interventions which draw on the methodology and creative practices of our previous work. We expect and hope that the form the project takes will be informed by the process of collaboration and dialogue in Yogyakarta...

With this in mind, we want to propose a concrete idea, a starting point with which to begin. Carrying forward our fascination with travel, we want to use creative processes and social intervention to critically examine the power relationships and forms of exchange—spoken and unspoken—which exist when people from relatively economically privileged societies (like ourselves) travel as tourists to societies with a lower social-economic basis (like Indonesia) which are marketed as desirable and “exotic” holiday destinations.

So, for example, the leisure experience of a tourist who travels to Indonesia to lie on a beach for two weeks, sipping cocktails and tanning in the sun, is necessarily enabled by an enormous amount of other people’s labour — hotel staff who make their beds and do their laundry; street vendors who work to create the handicrafts that are then bought as cheap trinkets; taxi drivers, bar staff, tour guides and security guards. Underpinning the experiences of tourism in “less-developed” countries are forms of exchange and complex negotiations between locals and tourists. These interactions and relationships are frequently rendered invisible or uncritically assumed. At the same time they can involve massive power disparities which, for us, create a sense of unease and discomfort.

Our proposal is to draw attention to and explore these forms of exchange through attempting to invert/subvert them. As in the previous incarnation of this project, we will begin by engaging locals as participants. Our interaction will centre on a negotiation — explicit rather than assumed —in which we begin by posing the question "what would do if you were a tourist in your own city?" The next step is for us, as artist-facilitators, to enable that possibility. Our idea is to do this by offering to take on the work that they would normally be engaged in, for a set period of time, while they in return venture out as experimental tourists of Yogyakarta. By work, we are thinking of any of the livelihood activities, or family responsibilities which normally consume people's time. In offering to take on this work, our desire is for non-commercial exchange — based on negotiation of time, skills and capacities — that moves away from the standard forms of tourist-local interaction. What we want to create are situations in which artistic practice enables the capacity for a different set of relationships and experiences to occur, inverting and subverting the expectations and roles of local and tourist.

In documenting the work, we want to work within our own practices of writing and photography, but what we’re hoping is that opportunities for collaborations with Indonesian artists will emerge out of the process of engagement in Yogya, and take the work in new directions.

The project so far...

Our collaboration began in late 2006, emerging out of a year of chats over coffee, and cigarettes smoked together out of the kitchen window in the share-house where we both lived. One of us had a background in photography and fine art, the other in academia and activism. Both of us had moved to Melbourne from other cities, and were in that messy, slightly bewildering process of trying to put down roots. It was this, perhaps, that first stimulated our ramblings about place and change and urban neighborhoods. Then we started talking about travel, and then about participatory arts practice, and then about the inadequacy of disciplinary boundaries. And somehow, out of all of that, we ended up in a Brunswick coin laundry dressed as 1950s air hostesses…

Find out more at our website: