On working together on Gudskul and documenta fifteen, sustainability for socially engaged practices, and the skills you need to become a professional time-waster
This conversation was conducted with two current active members of ruangrupa, Ade Darmawan and farid rakun. Note: for every edition, documenta‘s name slightly varies; the official spelling of the upcoming edition curated by Jakarta-based artist collective ruangrupa is “documenta fifteen“ (always in lower case).
farid rakun (fr)
The group composing ruangrupa is growing and shrinking through time. People come and go, like everything in life, including me. I met them in 2003-2004, when I was still a student, then I moved away from Jakarta for a couple of years. In 2010, I joined ruangrupa properly, when I realized that architecture was not for me professionally. I was loosing sleep and it was very administrative, risk-averse, with very little creativity. The chance came up to join the Jurnal Karbon, ruangrupa’s online journal focusing on the problems of public space and urban visual culture in Indonesia. I started by editing and commissioning and got more and more involved over time. I left again for a couple of years, and came back in 2013. In between, I still work on architectural projects and also on artists projects. Every member has a different path. Some take others jobs, and some have never left like Indra Ameng and Reza Afisina.
Ade Darmawan (AD)
Group Dynamics. We don’t have a membership, so it’s very organic. We span three or four generations, and people come and go. Some people just call me by my name, some call me Mas, which is like brother, some Pak, which is like sir—I tell them not to, but it comes naturally. People ask us if we are afraid to become too institutionalized. And of course, since we are an institution. But we like to think that’s it’s good to try and envision different ways of being one. We alternate roles. It’s necessary to break hierarchies and rotate leadership. There are a lot of challenges, but everyone has to find their own politics. It’s about being sustainable. People see our platform as a place of knowledge but also to advance their careers, either ways we cannot avoid it. But ultimately, while you cannot choose family, we choose to work together, so it’s better than family.
Gudskul. Looking at ruangrupa from the outside, and then from the inside once I joined, was different of course, but that is true even throughout my time here. Just five years ago, ruangrupa was different from what it is now. Because we are contextual, and context changes. Working on documenta fifteen is a bonus, but if you want to see the latest answers to our context, you have to look at Gudskul: Contemporary Art Collective and Ecosystem Studies. The project is a public learning space that we developed with the collectives Serrum and Grafis Huru Hara, in Jakarta. Gudskul would be the latest articulation of what we think we can be. It becomes a school, not a formal educational institution but a place of knowledge production, a space of dissemination, and a school of thought. It was founded at the beginning of 2018. By then, ruangrupa was nearly 20-year old and we realized several things. One of them was a question of sustainability, how to sustain our practice, not just by asking for foreign funding all the time but looking at other models. The ecosystem, the landscape in the Jakarta art scene changed in 20 years. So, another question was about how we can be more relevant in the present. One way to do it was to gang up with other collectives in Jakarta, but also talk about what we could become, asking ourselves if being an artist collective was enough, or if we should change our face. Education became the most tempting option. We had 20 years as a bank of resources to share. To express ourselves through this form of school is until now one of the best ways to do it. Today we started the fourth batch of students, the first that was open for collectives outside of Indonesia. The applications were open for those located between GMT+4 and GMT+10—Jakarta is GMT+7. We have 8 collectives from those different time zones.
Connecting Collective Practices for Sustainability. At Gudskul, what we address over a year and the relationships formed can go beyond the course itself. For instance, from our second and third batches, participants came out of the program and developed collectives. We basically are still working together. It’s what we do in Gudskul, everyone thinks about how to be sustainable as a single collective but also in collaboration with others. We are really trying to think as a whole ecosystem in Indonesia. And now we are trying to do that with different countries. ruangrupa’s trajectory is building on an on-going conversation. Our work for documenta fifteen is related to our practice. We try to bring documenta fifteen into our path, which is about sustainability of socially engaged art practices and collective practices. It’s something that resonates in many parts of the world. We try to use this documenta fifteen as a journey to extend, to sustain a bigger, longer term conversation and network. It can be quite isolating to be an institutional initiative with educational practices of working together, self-organizing, finding financing and so on. This type of practice is easily located on the periphery of the mainstream art system and market. To connect to each other is actually really, really important.
Curating is not at the center. We all use very different languages. None of us really deal with only one articulation. For example, farid is not only an architect, others aren’t only writers, and me I don’t only do art, I organize things, I teach, I play music, I write sometimes, and all of us also do ruangrupa alongside our other activities. So when we do projects, festivals, or exhibitions, we put these different languages together. We never believe in only on way of doing things. All of our project are different. We introduce different sensorial articulations, readings, talks, archives, visual, sound and so on. It’s coming from our individual passions that are brought into ruangrupa. We also ask ourselves what can we learn from a project. It’s not about illustrating our thoughts, it’s more about dealing with art practices and being inspired by them. Curation becomes something that is not about saying things to people, it’s not at the center, it’s more about how to work around.
Lumbung. It’s a gesture that has to do with survival, and the belief, thinking both on micro and macro levels, that you cannot survive without others. I don’t know if it’s specific to Indonesia—since you’re asking—we can speculate about it. Lumbung is actually still happening in urban environments, in Jakarta for example. When we brought up lumbung, people said it was a past tradition, but it’s not. There is a very nice essay about lumbung by Melani Budianta (see here for her series of Lumbung Calling talks). She talks about lumbung still being alive. It’s not just symbolic. By doing this on a bigger scale it’s about creating or recreating that model. Lumbung is not the only way, many people do this type of work elsewhere. Perhaps they work with different models but they have similar values. It’s important to have these conversations with other models, other cosmologies.
Experiencing Stories, not Theories. One thing that we came up early on with documenta fifteen and Gudskul, is tacit knowledge. It’s difficult to define a complete picture of our contents by talking about them, it’s easier if you experience them. In this sense it’s almost hidden. With documenta fifteen we are thinking of stories instead of theories. When you listen or experience certain stories, oral history is one kind, then the values contained within that story are much more open than if we shared, say, a theory of collectivity. When you theorize, represent, or even perform sometimes, it falls short. It doesn’t touch the magical moment of what we are trying to achieve. Zoom for example is a tool for productive meetings, with agendas, and separate windows, but it’s not made to address all the informal conversations and cigarette breaks. Those moments can’t be replaced.
Hanging out. We can just agree that Zoom doesn’t really work, which is good, otherwise it would replace meeting in real life and that would be scary. We spend time together as much as we can. For documenta fifteen, we took the idea of a central theme out of the exhibition, leaving it hollow in the middle. Lumbung is about the structure, not the theme. By doing this we automatically see our practice differently, as being in conversation with different people on how they work and their ecosystem, moving forward by our guts, bias, and so on. With Gudskul we didn’t expect to have to go online, but we did, we have WhatsApp groups and online hangouts group where anyone available shows up, comes and goes. As professional “hanging out people” ha ha, capturing, interpreting, and storytelling is very important. This process is like creating many ripples that build up into a project. It’s also something that we include in our strategy when dealing with the audience and other artists. How to experience together but also how to tell and retell stories. I am sure that during documenta fifteen, different point of views will have to deal with this. I am sure some academics will dissect us.
But how to become a professional hang-outer/time waster person? It’s about willing to share and generosity. You need skills for that. Nowadays even being generous needs effort. In many places we are not designed this way. Being generous is not beneficial. So first it’s about being generous with time and knowledge. And often it questions the value you give to time.
We forced ourselves to formulate values because of the documenta project. Now we have several. Humor is number one. But there is also generosity, transparency, sustainability, local anchoring, independence, regeneration, and frugality. We talked about curiosity at some point, even though now it’s not in the list of values anymore after making the shortlist. But it’s tacit, you can feel it. The question is you know the kind of people you want to hang out with. So imagine people in your place, or yourself in other people’s shoes, and be that person everyone wants to hang out with, basically. It’s not the same with everyone but at least you can start with yourself. So to be a professional hang-outer/time-waster, imagine the person you want to hang out with 24/7 and try to be like that. It’s never defined and formulated, it’s a continuous work.
Also among our values, there is friendship. It’s one word that gets easily misused, and perhaps, it sounds cheesy. We have trauma also regarding that word, we suffered a lot during the Suharto regime because of friendship, nepotism, and so on. In our many projects there is a learning mechanism about this idea of friendship. In our playing, hanging out, cooking together there are also many interpersonal and power relations that we try to consciously and unconsciously break and mock all the time. Many times, the way we memorise our previous projects, the way we consider them successful or not, is a matter of knowing if we built a friendship out of it. It’s about connections, learning together, all the values, and what the project can bring afterwards. Sometimes we choose each other with other parties because we think that it must be nice to learn from each other, be friends, and be inspired by our mutual practices. That’s also how we navigate collaborations. It isn’t about the best practices or the best artworks, we aren’t really interested in that.
We eat a lot together. Food is important. The rest follows. We use a lot of football analogies, because football is one of the most popular thing in Indonesia. Music too, we have our own music festival RRREC Fest, in support to the local music scene. We also dabble in video art, music clips, we like to talk about it, support people who are doing it … But the one thing that unites all of us, is cooking, eating, and drinking, like in many other cultures. With the pandemic the opportunity of eating together was cut short. Usually we eat directly from the table, sharing the food without using plates, that’s not even droplets anymore but eating on top of each other’s mouths, ha ha. So that is difficult to do now. But still, at Gudskul we just recently celebrated the anniversary of Serrum, an art collective we work with, which focuses on fine arts and education based in Jakarta—and that turned into a feast!
Last time we cooked together was in Kassel with ruangrupa’s team members and some of the artists who came for documenta fifteen. But it’s not a curatorial method, it happens naturally.
In small groups we exchange links for books, some of us read more than others, some tell us about the books they read, so we don’t have to read them. We read very different things. Farid would read more academic sources, about architecture and art. I read comics, graphic novels, not that much theory or novels. One of my old time favorite is the work of American political writer Hakim Bey, especially “Immediatism”. Also, I read mathematics, that’s my hidden passion.
If we weren’t curating, personally I would play more music. As a group, we would still hang out, have a place of exchange, and at the end of the day, people would call it school.
ruangrupa was founded in Jakarta in 2000 by a group of artists. The founders felt that there was a great necessity for “space” (physically and mentally) in Jakarta, where artists could work intensively and could direct their attention more to means of analysis and less to means of production. A space that conveyed the ideas of visual art – which are important to analyse, mediate, and furnish – like public art, performance art, and video art. The founders felt that this was the only way in which visual art could possess a critical sensibility, which is the most important position of art in society.
As a non-profit organization, ruangrupa consistently advances artistic ideas in both an urban context and within culture at large through exhibitions, festivals, art laboratories, workshops, research, and by publishing books, magazines and online journals.
During its journey of almost two decades, ruangrupa has changed its programs and restructured its organization several times. From the beginning, the organization’s workflow was intentionally designed so flexible that everyone could continue to work individually. ruangrupa is used to work with a myriad of individuals of different backgrounds. Every individual is a key to a treasure trove of historical and cultural fact.
This is also evident from the house that became ruangrupa’s space during its early days. Located in the south of the city, ruangrupa is more like a clubhouse: always open, always peopled – a studio, a library, a research lab and a party venue, all in one.
Ade Darmawan lives and works in Jakarta as an artist, curator and director of ruangrupa. He studied at Indonesia Art Institute (ISI), in the Graphic Arts Department. In 1998, a year after his first solo exhibition at the Cemeti Contemporary Art Gallery, Yogyakarta (now Cemeti Art House), he stayed in Amsterdam to attend a two-year residency at the Rijksakademie Van BeeldendeKunsten. His works range from installation, objects, drawing, digital print, and video. Exhibitions include “Magic Centre” (solo show held both in Portikus, Frankfurt, 2015, and Van AbbeMuseum, Eindhoven, 2016), Gwangju Biennial and Singapore Biennale (both 2016) and “Doing Business with the Dutch” (Lumen Travo Gallery, Amsterdam, 2018). As a curator, he has contributed in Riverscape in-flux 2012, Media Art Kitchen 2013, Condition Report 2016, and Negotiating the Future: 6 th Asian Art Biennial in Taiwan. Together with ruangrupa, he co-curated TRANSaction: Sonsbeek 2016. From 2006-09, he was a member of Jakarta Arts Council, which led him to be appointed to become the artistic director of Jakarta Biennale in 2009. He is the executive director of Jakarta Biennale during its 2013, 2015 and 2017.
farid rakun. Trained as an architect (B.Arch from Universitas Indonesia and M.Arch from Cranbrook Academy of Art), farid rakun wears different hats, dependent on who is asking. A visiting lecturer in the Architecture Department of Universitas Indonesia, he is also a part of the artists’ collective ruangrupa, with whom he co-curated TRANSaction: Sonsbeek 2016 in Arnhem, NL. As an instigator, he has permeated various global institutions such as Centre Pompidou, La Biennale di Venezia, MMCA Seoul, Sharjah Biennial, Bienal de Sao Paulo, Harun Farocki Institut, Dutch Art Institute (DAI), Creative Time, Haute école d’art et de design (HEAD) Genève, and basis voor actuele kunst (BAK).
Other ruangrupa members here