Agan Harahap, Redi Murti, Maharani Mancanegara,Muhammad Akbar
Around the end of December last year, I was contacted by Nindityo Adipurnomo and Agnesia Linda and asked to conduct a project at Cemeti Art House. At the time I had no idea what I would do. Only after several meetings and chats – including with Mella Jaarsma – was I able to imagine what I could offer this project. Their most important point was that I could not position myself as a curator, but as a researcher working as a partner or collaborator with the artists involved. Also because of this, there is no specific issue that I could bring or offer to the artist who was to be my working partner.
Collaborations between researchers and artists are not new to Cemeti. This also worried me a little; could it be that this would turn out to be no different from the “Dobrak!” project that was held in the space previously. However, in a conversation with Mella, Nindityo and Linda, we discussed another possibility that they thought could square off this project and differentiate it from “Dobrak!”. In “Dobrak!”, the artist responded to the research of their (researcher) collaborator, but in this project it was different. In fact, it seemed the reverse was true, the researcher was to "respond" the artistic practice and the issues that concerned the artist.
However along the way, I felt dissatisfied with the conclusions from our discussion. If it was a project conducted merely as an antidote for “Dobrak!” it seemed less than spirited. But at that point I began to imaging a more dialogical collaborative working method, where as a researcher I could gain something from the artist and conversely, the artist could gain something from me. That vision manifested as a short proposal titled "Addressing Now", which I eventually presented to the four artists. These four were Redi Murti from Surabaya, M. Akbar and Maharani Mancanagara from Bandung, and Agan Harahap who is now living and working in Yogyakarta.
I acknowledged my short text was still too abstract, and awkwardly composed. Eventually, when I had the opportunity to visit each artists’ studio, I decided to abandon some of the assumptions in my text altogether. I carried on with a few small parts, especially in regards to the working patterns I had proposed. From discussions with each artist, I was able to patch up the weaknesses in the original text. The specifics of each of the four artists’ working processes made me reconsider using a singular approach. I feel that, in order to understand what these four are thinking and practicing, I need a completely different approach.
I visited the artists' studios equipped with only a few questions, and this actually gave me many opportunities to explore other questions that I had not imagined previously. Firstly, I visited Redi Murti's studio in Surabaya. I had already known Redi for three years. However, I knew very little about his artistic practice thus far. I knew that he is fascinated by Lekra comics, but I learned that it is Wen Peor whom he is most interested in and who is most influential on his graphic comics. Even the scratchy style of marks in his prints and paintings seemed to have been "adopted" from the "scratchy style” pictures on the covers of vintage Chinese books and magazines.
Thus far, there were three main issues that Redi responded to: land disputes, 1965 and China. From these three issues, I have only had opportunity to examine land disputes and 1965. And from these two issues, for this project Redi seemed to be more interested in exploring the issue of land. Redi became interested in land issues when he joined the "Photocopy Militia". Land disputes were also his primary exploration in his Master's thesis during Postgraduate studies at ISI Yogyakarta – in response to the Tambak Bayan case in Surabaya. Redi did not take up “direct advocacy” with his art, but through his activities with the Photocopy Militia – in association with his Tambak Bayan project. Redi recognised the importance of protecting young children's memories of the history of their neighbourhoods in relation to the eviction they were facing. From this discussion we honed in on the issue of the "Green Letter", one of the foundations of land problems in Surabaya, not only in Tambak Bayan, but also other areas in the midst of the city, including Redi’s own family home. Citizens who live on land with "Green Letter" status have no ownership rights over land, only usage rights, because the land is owned by the City Government. Although Redi had learned of the Green Letter from his father when he was in high school, he acknowledged that only really understood the potential dangers when he went to university. This was the issue that he wanted to highlight in this project. For the meantime Redi says he will begin with the same working methods he has always used, while considering other potential working methods that we might be able to conceive together.
Similarly to Redi, Maharani Mancanagara also seems to be interested in developing issues that she has already been investigating; the history of education and the memory of her grandfather. At first I knew very little about the connection between these two worlds, because when I visited Maharani in Bandung it was the first time we had met. I came only with as much information on her artistic practice that I could gain from her portfolio and reviews on the internet, including the journal that she wrote to accompany her final studies at ITB. Rani spoke about many aspects of the history of education, especially in the period of ethical politics, and its relationship to her grandfather. She read the history of Indonesian education from her grandfather's experiences establishing a community school, which was flagged as a 'wild' school by the colonial government.
Rani has no direct memories of her grandfather, but she has material resources in the form of his diary from 1930 to 1980. Aside from this, she has stories about her grandfather as a teacher, which are always brought up in conversation with her extended family. These sources provided her with intimate introductions to her grandfather whom she never met, then became the basis for her creative processes. From her final project at university through to the other projects she has conducted, this is the issue she has consistently raised. Her reasoning is that there are too many issues she feels need to be explored from these piles of diaries, not only in relation to the history of education, but also in the unexpected important details. For instance, the fact that she did not find her grandmother's name written even once in her grandfather’s diaries. This was a suspicious discovery, but it seems to make sense for this project – Rani is still interested in the larger issue that she has been investigating thus far; the history of education in Indonesia.
From my first meeting with Rani and Redi, I inadvertently discovered a "family history" connection between the two of them. Both Rani and Redi’s grandfathers were victims of the 1965 incident and its subsequent effects. Rani's grandfather was a former political prisoner, jailed for years on accusation of being a Communist and a Sukarno loyalist. Redi's grandfather was not only arrested, but his grave has never been found. Even more interestingly, both Rani and Redi’s families "passed” through “state discrimination towards the descendants of Communists”. This similarity is quite a claim, but I have yet to be able to examine it at length, or trace the presence or absence of a link between their artistic practices thus far.
While Rani and Redi tend to start with specific issues, they have had a different approach to that of M. Akbar and Agan Harahap. As with Rani, I also met Akbar for the first time, and had previously only known him through his works. From the beginning Akbar has been known as an artist who worked with video. He is happier to play with his medium, tinker with blurring pictures and exploring many techniques that reveal particular visual impressions, rather than playing with issues. But that doesn’t mean Akbar ignores issues. The issues that he addresses are more inclined to everyday problems, often very spontaneous and personal.
For instance in the work, “The Trip”. In this video Akbar exploits the eye, recording what he sees while driving. When we ride a motorbike, our bodies seem to know what to they should do; put on a helmet, get on the bike, start the motor and so on. This video seems to illustrate a kind of savoir faire or “know-how" in psychoanalyst terminology, a kind of knowledge outside of our heads that we automatically know or which attaches to our body. Another of his works, "The Frames", is a collection of framed photographs (of a rubbish dump in Bandung) that are arranged in a series of durational videos. While there are works that depart from Akbar’s reflections on his experiences of driving, the concept behind "The Frames" was a spontaneous encounter, drawn from what he witnesses around himself.
This tendency also seems to emerge from Agan Harahap’s work, which is more spontaneous. The difference is that Agan begins by first making a fictional story with nuances of popular culture, whether that is associated with history, momentous events, or a particular person. Agan is interested in what appears at this point, in relation to the lifestyle of people in social networks. He notices that people now struggle to differentiate between the imaginary and the real. In the end, people are trapped by illusions that they build themselves and manipulate their lives. This is not only in relation to the massive use of social networks, but also to changes in photography itself. Now, everyone can be a “photographer”, representing objects, whilst also wanting to become part of the representation of the object itself. Social networks are a kind of “gallery” or place where their photographs can be presented and appreciated.
Thus far, both Agan and Akbar have yet to determine which issues they will present for this project. Even Rani and Redi, who should have identified the larger points of the issues they want to respond to, have yet to ascertain more specific imagining of the issues or artistic forms they want to work with. This project is certainly open to diverse possibilities. However, I also feel I have not been very explorative, either in bringing up questions for my own needs, or in the interests of our collaborative work in this project. I feel I am still merely doing "journalistic interviews". In the last week of this month we will meet in a forum to investigate and discuss the results of our separate conversations. This session will provide an opportunity to sharpen the issues or even discover a connecting thread across the project.