Two Indonesian cities, Yogyakarta and Bandung, are the object of this series of blog pieces, which look at the collectivization of Indonesian cultural ecosystem, understanding it as a method of addressing the challenges of resource challenged contexts.
Rooted in the concept of Bersama-sama, a Malay word meaning togetherness, which also refers to the idea of having a shared goal or aspiration, collectivization is common throughout Indonesia and is an integral part of city change through culture.
In this piece, I will be laying the scene for the articles following dealing with culture and development in Yogyakarta and Banding. First I'll give you a broader political context to the country, and the influence this has had on its diverse cultures. Then I will talk a bit about Indonesian cities and their challenges, particularly what makes them interesting from a cultural governance perspective, recognizing how collectivization can be understood as part of a strategy to address broader issues of sustainability.
What is Indonesia
Indonesia, as it exists, is a product of Dutch colonialism. The country is situated in what is sometimes called the Malay Archipelago or Maritime South East Asia (which refers to around 25 000 islands). This is a highly diverse region in many respects, in terms of biology and natural features as well as culturally. It is made up of hundreds of ethnic groups, cultural and language variations. Indonesia shares land masses with other countries including Malaysia, with borders that are oftentimes absurd. This is the result of the region, then known as the East Indies, being cut up by the Dutch, English, Spanish, French and Portuguese into various colonies. Indonesia is now the largest of the countries in the region, the world's biggest island country and its 7th most populous nation.
The Impact of Migration
The parts that now constitute Indonesia were subject, in precolonial times, to numerous migrations, religious and cultural influences. Animism is deeply ingrained in the area and has been layered with the significant influences of Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam. The latter is the most dominant by far today, making Indonesia the largest muslim country in the world. The growing influence of intolerant strains of Islam is one the most challenging issues facing Indonesia's diversity today. There have been consistent migrations from various groups over time - a significant one being a series of migrations of Chinese who have integrated in unique ways, but are still ethnically distinct in many others, in the entire region. They are described as Peranakan Chinese or Straits-born Chinese. This distinctiveness has enabled them being violently persecuted in Indonesia, both during the end of colonialism and after 1998.
From Colonialism to Dictatorship
The Dutch occupation was brutal, racist and massively exploitative. It has contributed to many of the country's current sustainabiiity challenges. The fight for independence against the colonists, continued after World War Two, following occupation by the Japanese, and attempts by the Dutch to again reclaim control of the resource rich region. The period of readjustment as a free post colony was relatively short lived. Indonesia's first president, the charismatic nationalist leader, Sukarno, was ousted in 1968 by the military leader Suharto who established his autocratic and brutal New Order Administration, supported by the US government. Suharto's dictatorship continued until he was finally forced to resign three decades later in 1998. The change period is called the Reformasi.
The influence of the military began in 1965 - 66 when it led an extermination of the Community Party of Indonesia, then the third biggest in the world with significant influence in the country. The violence led to the deaths of between 500 000 - two million left leaning people, and the systematic brutalization of countless others who were interned in vile concentration camps, up to more than a decade and a half in many cases. It is one of the least spoken about crimes against humanity (The Hague, 2016) and has been the subject of documentaries such as The Act of Killing and The Look of Silence. It is an issue that still haunts the country in a myriad ways, one that has barely been spoken about or resolved. It is considered a taboo subject because of years of extensive military propoganda which legitimised the oppression of the left.
Freedoms post Reformasi?
Today Communism is banned and any left leaning ideas are branded as such. and can lead to a violent response. Although the country is a democracy, the army still has significant power and many of those responsible for brutalising the left are still in various positions of influence. This repressive environment against leftist ideas is also enforced by fundamentalist thinking Muslims, Openess and freedom of expression is thus heavily tempered both officially and unofficially. Violence is something simmering just under the surface. This has led to artists and cultural workers needing to work very stealthily, as we will discover later.
The Reformasi, which was spurred primarily by the impact of the global recession, released a vibrant and positive cultural response to new freedoms, It was a spark for much of the growth in the arts sector and galvanized a great deal of co-operation between different sectors, but it also inadvertently, opened the Pandoras box of violence against Chinese, and created space for expression from the extreme religious right. It further opened the exploitation of land, resources and people by corporates, spurning widespread urban and economic interventions with many negative impacts on communities and on cities. It has lead to the increased widening of the gap between rich and poor and significant environmental degradation of natural resources and to cities. The growing middle class is today more conservative than ever.
As we will find in the next few blogs, the impacts of neoliberalism and corruption on the environment, the issues of 65/66, xenophobia, and the rise of the religious right are all concerns that artists are taking on in a myriad of subtle ways, in a society where freedoms are still contingent. In this they are forging important ways to talk about the past, present and the future, and by necessity, are attempting to look deeply at Indonesian society for appropriate languages and forms.
The impacts of language
Different registers in language emerge as one of key strands in a report for ASEF: Creative Responses to Sustainability - An Indonesia Guide, by Yasmine Ostendorf of Green Art Lab Alliance. The document looks at how the practises of artists in Indonesia help shape resilience in the face of sustainability challenges. Based on ground research and interviews with various leaders working in the arts and in cultural development, Ostendorf recognises the ways in which Indonesian cultural practitioners draw heavily on local experiences and contexts. Cultural workers in Indonesia have, due to the lack of resources and limited opportunities, been forced to think uniquely about how to sustainably mobilise local cultural resources embedded in communities and environment. Terms used elsewhere in the world, including sustainability and activist cannot be taken for granted in other contexts like Indonesia, thus it is important to find appropriate local words that speak to the same issues differently. As a result the report has an interesting glossary, with a key word being Bersama-sama (togetherness).
Togetherness as a thread
Ostendorf links this indigenous notion of togetherness through a range of sustainability approaches used by artists and cultural workers in Indonesia - these include: working as a collective - or Doing it With Others (DIWO); a focus on alternative (arts focused/creative) education and research; and utilizing low tech methods. She concludes recognising the following learnings: a) the importance of interdisciplinary approaches, b) building on local leadership and the bottom up approach c) re-commoning the commons and d) reviving local (indigenous) wisdom and practises. These will emerge throughout the next few blog pieces.
Cities, Sustainability and Togetherness
Cities in Indonesia are chaotic and complex spaces, and environmentally degraded. They share many of characteristics that are common throughout SE Asia: inappropriate overdevelopment, high levels of traffic and air pollution, inadequate public transport, the lack of quality sidewalks, anda dearth of quality public spaces. While these elements make the cities I visited in Java difficult to be in for their citizens, and, together with high levels of poverty, make them stressful environments, Indonesia is interesting for its people networks.
The ideas around togetherness or Bersama sama are deep rooted in the ways in which cities in Indonesia are governed. Its particularly interesting here to look at how the dense urban neighborhoods (or kampungs) are formally organised.
Kampungs are relatively integrated places where middle class and poor live cheek and jowl. While cars are able to enter in some parts, and scooters others, many kampungs consist of narrow winding alleys that are best walked. This means that communality is in yourface and it is essential for co-operation around a range of basic factors such as waste removal and security or there would be chaos. An influence of the short and brutal Japanese occupation on Indonesia, was the introduction of a formal governance structure, initially as a control mechanism, which has remained in place and indigenized. Every 50 houses in a kampung is organised into an RT: a committee with an elected chair person; which takes responsibility for the areas security and key social needs, such as the organisation of funerals. Some RTs can and do take on bigger roles such as neighborhood clean ups. All residents in the RT have to provide a volunteer service, often, at the most basic level in weekly security duties (a formal neighborhood watch), or pay into a fund if they cannot. RTs are further organised into RWs. This system is still vital since local municipalities are unable to provide various services which the RTs and RWs are forced to provide. Interestingly this basic form of participatory governance appears to have created a way for citizens to learn organisational skills, which they may not have otherwise. While an RT has the potential to become a negative control (such as in overly conservative areas), it does develop certain leadership abilities and accountability ethics.
The Kunci Research Collective, has identified the Sanggar as another form of collectivisation that has influenced the vast numbers of arts collectives. A sanggar is a learning space for arts, or simply a craft or art collective. It is usually organised around a single discipline, creating the space for its participants to learn from, support each other and pass on knowledge students. Often participants live together for lengthy periods and in this way develop a deep understanding of each other and their craft.
Kunci sees as an important thread in the story of why the arts scene in Indonesia is dominated by so many small collectives, something not visible elsewhere in the region.
Bersama sama in action
The collectivisation of cultural bodies and the dense network of support amongst arts bodies, is key in a country of stressed resource and minimal funding for arts or culture. It is a reflection of the philosophy of Bersama Sama and what many see as having played a big role in developing the cultural scene in Indonesia. For these reasons much has been written about the collectivisation of arts groupings in the country, but still there is much to learn.
In the following set of blogs, we will explore some of collectives active in Yogyakarta a historic and culturally rich city. Many of these arts groupings work with a strong socially minded approach, as we shall. We will also experience a collective response to a city challenged by environmental degradation - Bandung - where creatives have banded together to make a positive impact in their city, and where their work has become part of the city making policy.