Fresh perspectives on Art and Ecology: Indonesia

Our crashed economies, fossil fuel-based energy consumption, and changing natural environment and climate are just a few examples that prove that our current systems are broken in many ways. For the last 5 years curator Yasmine Ostendorf has been undertaking research across Asia and Europe on artists proposing alternative ways of living and working -that ultimately shape more balanced, sustainable and resilient societies.

The research is based on over 200 interviews with artists, curators and cultural managers across the continents. The reason for this is the author’s desire to tap into an untapped stream of practical knowledge and local wisdom. For the Ecohumanities platform she highlights inspiring practices in Asian countries and gives concrete examples of projects and artists giving a fresh perspective on art and ecology. This month: Indonesia

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the scientific and intergovernmental research body ran by the United Nations that specialises in peer-reviewed reports on the status of climate change,have called on Indonesia to take a leadership role in the fight against climate change and states the country could play a major role in tackling the issue.[1] This is quite a statement.

One of the reasons for this ambitious statement is the size of Indonesia. It’s a huge archipelago[2] and the different climatic conditions and biodiversity spanning the country (both on the land as in the oceans) is impacted by climate change as we speak. The marine ecosystems of Indonesia are vulnerable to rising sea levels and consequential flooding and ample amounts of communities are dependent on various coastal resources including fish.

As for the land, Indonesia’s forests are part of the so-called ‘lungs of the world’ and they have a crucial role in absorbing global CO2 emissions. However, large-scale burning of forests in parts of Sumatra and Borneo produce record levels of haze and pollution in the region, impacting air quality across Southeast Asia. Deforestation and forest degradation is occurring at high speed: about 1 million hectares of forest is decreasing every year.

It’s undeniable; the environmental challenges are as vast as they are complex and urgent. And the change is slow. Partly because progress suffers from infrastructural bottlenecks and ineffective bureaucracy and partly because corruption allows for illegal logging and unlawful licensing.However, there is light at the end of the tunnel and it’s a light that is inspired by the mentality of the original kampung[3] life: Indonesia is traditionally s country of creativity, resourcefulness and the country of the commons.

Not for Sale, picture by Jacob Gatot Surarjo.
Not for Sale, picture by Jacob Gatot Surarjo.

You must have come across this word recently: commons. Whether it is in an art, environmental, social, or policy context. If you’re not familiar with it yet, my personal, non-academic way of explaining the concept of the commons is as a form of sharing of resources by a community without private or governmental intervention. This could concern inherited commons (rivers, forests, air), immaterial commons (intellectual, cultural) or material commons (machinery). It concerns communal resources that are (or rather, could be) managed collectively without identified ownership but with shared responsibility. Though the concept of the commons often remains in the topic of social processes, more and more artists, city planners, environmentalists, philosophers, designers, and architects around the world are recognizing ‘commoning’ as an interesting way of working and as an alternative to our broken capitalist and neoliberal systems – keeping commodification, commercialization, and privatization at arm’s length. Indonesian urbanist Marco Kusumawijaya explains: “Communities can play an important role in moving towards a different paradigm that is not dominated by capitalism and neoliberal governments. Rather, communities[4] can be the stewards of land and resources as well as being an essential place where relationships, alternatives, substitutes, and critiques are constantly in the making.”

Elia Nurvista, Performance. Hunger Inc. Courtesy of Jogja Biennale
Elia Nurvista, Performance. Hunger Inc. Courtesy of Jogja Biennale

Indonesia has a long history of what we might now call ‘commoning’, or what is locally known as gotongroyong[5] or bersamasama[6] Traditionally, both social and environmental stewardship have been at the heart of Indonesian kampung life and in Indonesia artists have a key role in keeping this spirit alive. Artist Gustaff Harriman Iskandar explains that artists traditionally have a special status and social function in Indonesian society. “Artists often have an important position in the community (sometimes as spiritual leaders or politicians) and are expected to make a contribution to society. They are not seen in the individual domain but rather seen in a social context.”

Beside their sometimes ‘special status’, artists in Indonesia often work in collectives. Art collectives across Indonesia, and particularly in Yogyakarta, practice a way of working where they share knowledge, skills, responsibility, and resources. Because the government often failed in providing resources to artists, artists started to organize. “The sheer size of the country[7] makes it so that things only work on a small scale,” artist Andreas Siagian from Yogyakarta based art/science collective Lifepatch explains. In a country that is so big and diverse, things function better in smaller systems and structures that allow for flexibility, fluidity, and self-organizing. Lifepatch enjoys the process of collaborating and calls this approach DIWO: “Not just do-it-yourself (DIY) but do-it-with-others (DIWO).”

In Indonesia, art collectives are leading the charge in creating alternative ways of dealing with resources, alternative currencies, skill exchange and repairing initiatives, that have created a strong DIY culture and arts infrastructure, are innovating, experimenting, and fun. The collective is a good alternative to what artist Ade Darmawan from Ruangrupa calls ‘the big structures’. “Big structures have more difficulty being relevant. They are always slow. You need to have real conversation with society and they’re missing a radar or mapping system. That’s lost. It’s hard for an institution to be localized. My experience with Ruangrupa is not bringing the community to an institution but the other way around.”

At ArsitekKomunitas (Arkom), a community architecture initiative in Yogyakarta, each project starts with seeking advice from the community. “The community doesn’t want to be an object in the collaboration,” says Amalia Nur Indah Sari  from Arsitek Komunitas. “Our principle is: Believe the people, they are the solution. You need to trust the community and the community needs to trust you.”

Irwan Ahmett and Tita Salina, Public Furniture, Jakarta, 2010
Irwan Ahmett and Tita Salina, Public Furniture, Jakarta, 2010.

In addition to Indonesia’s creativity, solidarity, and resourcefulness, there is an enormous amount of (localized) knowledge of the natural world, whether it’s the indigenous communities in Riau, farmers on the rice fields of Bali practising subak[8], or theTukang[9] in Jakarta, the amount of knowledge and creativity this country holds is unheard of. All together, it creates a strong foundation for a sustainable society. There is so much to learn from this society which has suffered war and genocide, is at the forefront of climate change as well as a center of environmental degradation, and is one of the biggest carbon emitters in the world. This is our chance to widen our thought horizons: There are alternatives on offer.

This research was commissioned by the Asia-Europe Foundation and the full research publication will be freely available on Culture 360 in April 2017. A different version of this article has been published on Artists and Climate Change.

[1] According to Thomas Stocker, co-chair of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in the Jakarta Globe.

[2]The land surface is 1,811,570.0 km2[2] and consisting of over 13.000 islands. Its five biggest islands are: Sumatra, Java, Borneo (known as Kalimantan in Indonesia), Sulawesi and New Guinea. The two major archipelagos are Nusa Tenggara and the Maluku Islands, and there are sixty smaller archipelagos.

[3]Village or community

[4]Kusumawijaya explains community as “a group of people whose members live together in a territory, and share some commons in concrete way, with bounds and consequences immediately felt when something goes wrong.”

[5]Refers to a collaborative approach and a way of working for a higher communal goal.

[6]A Malay word that translates as togetherness.

[7]Based on data from 2015, Indonesia is the world’s fourth most populous country with 257,563,815 inhabitants.

[8]A sustainable form of water management developed in the 9th century that is based on sharing.