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Group photo of RUANGRUPA, from left to right: Reza Afisina, Indra Ameng, Farid Rakun, Daniella Fitria Praptono, Iswanto Hartono, Ajeng Nurul Aini, Ade Darmawan, Julia Sarisetiati, and Mirwan Andan. Photo by Jin Panji/Gudskul. All images courtesy Documenta, Kassel, unless otherwise stated. 

Hanging Out, Sowing Seeds

Also available in:  Chinese

Ruangrupa’s curatorial concept for documenta fifteen, lumbung, is inspired by Indonesian communal rice barns, and reflects your interests in collectivity, pooling knowledge and resources, and sharing these assets equally among different actors. As you have already started to bring together organizations, collectives, and artists—both online and in person, in Indonesia and in Germany—can we say that documenta fifteen is already in progress? 

In June, we announced nine lumbung members [partner institutions, including Fondation Festival Sur Le Niger (Ségou, Mali), Gudskul (Jakarta), Jatiwangi Art Factory (Jatiwangi, Indonesia), and The Question of Funding: How to Work Together (Palestine)], and we will continue to build this collective in 2021. So for ruangrupa and our lumbung members, yes, documenta fifteen has already started. In fact, lumbung building commenced long ago. It is our utmost priority to extend the process beyond 2022 so that the lumbung members can continue to support each other and we can sustain our respective practices in our various contexts. We want our collaborators to be in a different state after documenta fifteen—to be much stronger in their local ecosystems, and to have better economic strategies. If we fall short on that front, we would consider documenta fifteen a failure.

Ensuring that the event is not extractive but nourishing entails negotiating with the systems that are already operating. For example, we have been looking at how funding organizations like Goethe Institut and Pro Helvetia reproduce a colonial or imperialistic logic in their collaborations, and how this can be avoided. That task will definitely go beyond 2022.

Of course, the 100 days of documenta fifteen [scheduled for June 18–September 22, 2022] in Kassel are important for these goals. For us, it’s helpful to see the exhibition’s duration as a celebration of the harvest, and we want to include as many people as possible in that celebration. We also aim to have certain public milestones before, during, and after the 100-day exhibition. For example, in 2021, Budapest’s OFF-Biennale will present a “living room.” We see this room as an extension of ruruHaus, the space that we set up in Kassel in preparation for documenta fifteen.

RUANGRUPA’s lumbung booklet for documenta fifteen. Photo by Keke Tumbuan.

Exterior view of ruruHaus in Kassel, 2020. Photo by Nicolas Wefers.

What events have you been running in ruruHaus?

Two ruangrupa members, Iswanto Hartono and Reza Afisina, moved to Kassel with their families. Since the beginning, having a physical base in Kassel has been an important part of our strategy. Every time we curate something outside of Indonesia, that’s a method that we try to implement. After ruruHaus opened in July, it became clear to Iswanto and Reza that we could use the space for organic and improvised gatherings to understand what’s already happening in Kassel. It’s a space for hanging out with different communities, from urban farmers to musicians, like we do in Jakarta. The question is how to best translate that aspect of ruangrupa’s sensibility in Germany.

How is that process of translation going—from the context of Jakarta to Kassel?

So far so good. We don’t want ruruHaus to be in competition with what exists in Kassel, at least in the sense of the attention economy. Our approach in Kassel is an extension of how ruangrupa started in Jakarta in 2000—we had a circle of friends but no proper gallery to present projects in, so we observed the scene and came up with things that were needed in that moment. Having two of us move to Kassel has made a lot of difference. It’s fun hearing back from them about how the process is unfolding.

RUANGRUPA’s lumbung drawing for documenta fifteen. Image by Iswanto Hartono.

How do you maintain a sense of collectivity across multiple spaces?

WhatsApp, emails, and Zoom every day. Zoom fatigue is definitely real. It’s challenging because we usually make decisions when talking informally, like while having a drink, outside of meetings. But we are doing the best that we can. We’re still excited and decisions are being made.

You mentioned how, since the pandemic, you’ve had to react to difficult conditions—do you feel like ruangrupa is always responding to crisis?

Yes. When we first started discussing the concept of lumbung for documenta fifteen, we were thinking of it as a proposal for a way to pre-empt a crisis. But then the emergency hit sooner than we thought. Instead of preparing, we had to start practicing immediately. This has almost always been the case. A major factor in ruangrupa’s establishment in 2000 was the end of the New Order [the Suharto regime, 1967–98]. Things were not stable. We utilized those conditions to create something new.

Even before we had a global emergency like in 2020, we put ourselves, as a group, in crises all the time. Sometimes it’s because of ambition. In 2007, we almost broke up because of the video art festival OK.Video Militia and our vision to tour around Indonesia in the making of the event. In 2015 and 2016, we teamed up with other collectives and experimented with the notion of creating a more diverse artistic ecosystem. Finally, at the end of 2018, out of that experience, we established the knowledge-sharing platform Gudskul in Jakarta. We’re always off-roading. We ask ourselves what we can do within our ecosystem and we have different answers every time.

Photo of RUANGRUPA’s meeting with the artistic team of documenta fifteen in Kassel, 2019. Photo by Nicolas Wefers.

How has the pandemic impacted Gudskul?

Gudskul’s campus hasn’t been open to the public since March but we’ve been running online programs. We were already discussing a “digital turn” for Gudskul even before Covid-19. The pandemic just accelerated the process. Gudskul offers yearlong study programs about different subjects, such as the history of art collectives in Southeast Asia and sustainability strategies for artist groups. These have all been moved online. The intention was always to reach a nationwide audience with these courses, so the positive thing is that more people can participate, as relocating to Jakarta is no longer a deterrent. The challenge is that how we build our sensibilities is totally dependent on gathering bodies in the same place and this has not been possible.

Screenshot of GUDSKUL’s “Walkie Talkie” live streaming series with Mirwan Andan, Lara Khaldi, Reem Shilleh, and Noor Abuarafeh. Image by Peter Chung for ArtAsiaPacific.

In 2020, Gudskul launched the online talk series “Walkie Talkie.” What was the idea behind this initiative?

“Walkie Talkie” started with the idea to record the stories of how documenta fifteen’s five artistic team members [Gertrude Flentge, Frederikke Hansen, Lara Khaldi, Ay┼če Güleç, and Andrea Linnenkohl] met ruangrupa. Most of them are our old friends. We gave them carte blanche to use our Zoom or YouTube channel; ruangrupa doesn’t have to be involved in the sessions and the host can expand the dialogue however they want. For the fifth “Walkie Talkie,” for example, Jerusalem- and Amsterdam-based curator Lara Khaldi invited artist Noor Abuarafeh and researcher Reem Shilleh to join her in a discussion on the cultural repositories of Palestine. The conversation was carried out partly in Arabic because Lara was leading it. Only one member of ruangrupa can understand Arabic so this would not have happened otherwise.

How will you continue to develop your digital programs?

Planning is difficult right now so we are rolling with the punches. However, we have invested time and money in 360-degree cameras and sound equipment so that we can play around with projects like virtual concerts and exhibitions.

How else have you responded to the new normal in Jakarta in 2020?

Jakarta has always been a challenging context to be in. When the pandemic hit, art spaces, performance venues, and all sorts of businesses closed. We realized that it’s time to question what we can do as a group of artists who run a space. There was an added urgency to play a more active part in society. This led us to set up a mini factory for healthcare apparatuses such as masks because there was a lack in the market and health workers were at risk. We manufactured what we could and used our network in Indonesia to distribute the items. In the months when no restaurants were open, we delivered healthy foods like fresh vegetables and rice, up until that need was not there anymore. We could only meet a certain scale—we couldn’t solve the whole problem. Certain interests have stayed with us, like urban farming and waste management. We might experiment more with those operations.

In the arts, we’re pushing the next understanding of exhibitions, performances, and concerts because musicians, dancers, actors, and artists have not been able to share their work in physical spaces. Ruru Gallery is on the artistic compound of Gudskul, and we opened Syaiful Ardianto’s exhibition “Corak Klise Bererot” (12/12–23) there. We realized we shouldn’t stop holding exhibitions because they play a role in young artists’ development, though we need to be aware of health protocols. Virtual concerts and exhibitions are other possibilities. Art education is a big question as well. We’re asking ourselves what type of educational entity Gudskul could become.

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