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.


1 comment:

  1. For some reason I was suprised at how many Yogyakartans hadn't been to Borobudur when I talked to them about my visit. Then I remembered that I've never been to the Melbourne Aquarium, the Zoo for 20 years, the Opera House, Uluru, any further west than the Otways - the things that are in our proximity aren't necessarily that interesting. I know I'm stretching the idea of proximity with some of those examples, but I realised that their "never have been, not that interested" response wasn't unusual at all, when looked at from a new perspective.