Indonesia: Country of the Future

20th of January 2017. A friend from Indonesia calls me. Not for anything in specific, just a bit of friend-to-friend chitchat. I can’t help to start a rant about something that starts with a T and ends with rump. Arief interrupts me: “Don’t worry sis,” he says. “The world has new countries.” Arief, I have to explain, runs Jatiwangi Art Factory, a non-profit space in the region of Jatiwangi, and manages to mobilise thousands of people in the wider (rural) area to organize all types of cultural events; from performances to discussions and from exhibitions to radio broadcasts. This community is active, engaged, and inclusive. They share responsibilities and resources. Still it takes me a few seconds before the penny drops: Arief is telling me the future is not America, it’s not even China, it’s Indonesia. And the reason is that Indonesia is the country of creativity and the country of the commons.

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, the term ‘commons’ seems a good candidate to replace 2016’s ‘post-truth’ and is certainly a more reassuring and constructive buzzword. 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[1] 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.”

13. Nurvista.jpg
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 gotong royong[2] or bersama sama.[3] Traditionally, both social and environmental stewardship have been at the heart of Indonesian kampung[4] 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[5] 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 Arsitek Komunitas (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.

In addition to Indonesia’s creativity, solidarity, and resourcefulness, there is a vast 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[6], or the Tukang[7] 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.

[1] 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.”

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

[3] A Malay word that translates as togetherness.

[4] Village or community.

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

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

[7] Repairmen.

This research was commissioned by the Asia-Europe Foundation and the full research publication will be freely available on Culture 360 in April 2017.


Curator Yasmine Ostendorf (MA) has worked extensively on international cultural mobility programs and on the topic of art and environment for expert organizations such as Julie’s Bicycle (UK), Bamboo Curtain Studio (TW) Cape Farewell (UK) and Trans Artists (NL). She founded the Green Art Lab Alliance, a network of 35 cultural organizations in Europe and Asia that addresses our social and environmental responsibility, and is the author of the series of guides “Creative Responses to Sustainability.” She is the Head of Nature Research at the Van Eyck Academy (NL), a lab that enables artists to consider nature in relation to ecological and landscape development issues.

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