Alternative Economies of Collectivity

Iswanto Hartono and farid rakun, members of ruangrupa, speak about artistic mobility, property, financing, rest, the importance of using one's language, and the inevitable collectivism.

Petra Matić
FOTO: ruangrupa Facebook

I met members of the Indonesian art collective ruangrupa for the first time in the summer of 2021 when I won a scholarship for participation in Salzburg Summer Academy. The two-week workshop becoming lumbung led by Iswanto Hartono, Reza Afisina, and Ade Darmawan was slow, thorough, and incredibly generous. We, around twenty participants, got almost a week to present our practices in detail, and the rest of the time was spent in pleasant conversation, with tea and beer, barbecue and karaoke, while the artistic results almost emerged by themselves, or rather, from our commitment to each other.

We met again in the summer of 2022 when we, as students of ruangrupa, formed an office collective, and our teachers kindly included us last minute in one of documenta fifteen programs. There, I had the privilege to spend two weeks inside Gudkitchen, a project run by the education platform Gudskul founded in Jakarta in 2018 by ruangrupa, Serrum, and Grafis Huru Hara. In Kassel, Gudskul repurposed the rooms of the Friedericianum museum into a collective dormitory and kitchen, creating a favorite place for hanging out and making friends.

In this conversation, farid rakun and Iswanto Hartono spent a long time thoughtfully answering my endless questions, from the problems of artistic mobility, property, financing, and bureaucracy, through the effects working on documenta fifteen left on them, their local ecosystem, and the lumbung network, rest, being rooted into home and local, the importance of using one’s language, to trauma, conflict, and the inevitable collectivism.

Diagram of lumbung practices

Dealing with documenta fifteen included a lot of visa issues inside the lumbung ecosystem which you created gathering art collectives and artists from all over the world. Can you speak a little about the problems of art mobility coming from Indonesia and working with other former colonies?

farid rakun: This is not something that the art world, an art exhibition, or an event can solve, it uses the trade logic. Being Indonesian passport holders, it’s always a challenge and we found through the process that, of course, we are not alone with this, but the most we can do is push these issues about in an institutional way or dealing with institutions. Myself and all of us as a group have to find strategies on how to plan logistics around this fact, because as generous as embassies can be, they’re still tied up. Making this reality transparent is maybe the only thing we can do.

Iswanto Hartono: Some think it’s very easy, but then the mobility doesn’t happen. Like the case of Sourabh Phadke with the UK visa which should not be complicated, the UK is not a conflict area and it’s not a case of islamophobia, but it still has an immigration policy. We tried so hard already, and the fact is we could not push more than the effort that we already put in for months, it wasn’t happening.

farid rakun: I don’t know how strong or useful a Croatian passport is, but it’s really difficult for those who have a strong one to understand. My wife has an American and Australian passport. For example, it’s difficult for her to understand how draining visa applications are for passports such as Indonesian. So, it also happens when dealing with institutions that are based in strong passport countries, their administration is not understanding a lot of the time. Maybe they know it’s going to be difficult, but they underestimate how difficult it’s going to be.

Iswanto Hartono: It’s not happening only with documenta. The performer Agus Nur Amal PMTOH was invited to the UK just a month ago for a tour and had five venues booked, but he didn’t get a visa to enter the UK. It’s not only Schengen but also the UK and the US.

farid rakun: And Australia. On top of it all is COVID-19, and immigration got hit hard by that. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and those who have the sovereignty to issue visas, it’s all bottlenecking. Still today, if you’re an Indonesian passport holder in the appointment line right now, if you want a Schengen visa, you have to wait for two months for an appointment. 

How did doing documenta fifteen change the situation of the artist ecosystem in Jakarta and the way you work today?

Iswanto Hartono: I think not a lot. Maybe not like in Europe. In Indonesia, it’s only a small part of society that noticed that we were going to Kassel. Here, it hasn’t really become a privilege to be in documenta. Of course, it has affected the way we work since our relations across the lumbung network expanded and it’s where we’ve had the privilege to have exposure, to make friendships and networks, and to nurture together. In this way, we get more. When we have more friends, we can have more partners to discuss and develop things. For example, farid will go to Zagreb, the spiral is moving on. But with Indonesia, it hasn’t affected much of what we do, and we haven’t changed a lot inside. It’s completely opposite of the attention and exposure in Europe. 

farid rakun: There are layers and scales to answering this question. First, as Gudskul, we started at the end of 2018. The questions we had remained by the end of 2022 when documenta ended. Challenges came back and we were not in a better shape than we were before.

Second, on the scale of institutions and government, this is funny, but it happens to many Indonesians, if not in other contexts as well. We’ve been doing the same thing for 23 years now, but it’s only recently that the people who are in power have the permission to engage with us more, like in the ministries for example, they find legitimation because we’ve done documenta to work with us structurally. So, this intention was there from before documenta, that lumbung could be used by them by inviting us to try to rethink a better structure.

Those things are happening. Now, how useful it is, we still need time to find out. Those types of things take time to come to fruition. It changes perspectives, but as Iswanto says, on an everyday basis, no one cares. I, who stays in Jakarta, would go into the National Gallery or the National Museum, and people would know me, or know ruangrupa thematically, but not all. It’s actually refreshing, it’s a better way to do it, compared to my experience in Kassel. There, people on the street recognize us. Of course, there are positive sides to that as well, but I like being invisible. I cherish that.

documenta fifteen / FOTO: Nicolas Wefers

Saying no is not straightforward in Indonesian culture, and you have joked before that the reason you accepted working with Documenta was because in Indonesia it’s impolite to say no. Is it easier to say no nowadays for ruangrupa?

farid rakun: It’s really difficult for us to say no as Indonesians, or as ruangrupa, because it’s just not nice. It’s bad turning down things and saying no. Yes, there are ways to say no. If the Indonesian government asks us to do something, my immediate reaction would be to say no, but luckily, a lot of times other people will talk me out of it. Nowadays we are finding more ways to say no. One example, coming back to visa, it’s easier for us to say yes to those contexts where there is no visa application. Of course, it’s going to be maybe 20%, maybe even less, of all the countries in the world, which shrinks possibilities, but that’s one way to do it. There’s also extractiveness. We have been talking about it with others, internally as well, and making cases where there’s no standard of procedures about it. We have become more aware of extractive practices and how to deal with them. Saying no is maybe a last resort, but then, how to get to that no? We’re getting better at that. Or, how to negotiate with extractiveness and make them realize it and turn it into something less, if not non-extractive, if possible.

What did you learn about rest from working with documenta fifteen?

Iswanto Hartono: There has been no break, and actually, that’s the worst. It’s very hard. My personal experience was actually so intense, the past two years before we started documenta, in the hundred days of it, and after. Now, we are used to it. I don’t know about the rest of the group, but I never really had a real holiday, like one working for a month and then having two weeks. Of course, I had a holiday, but not a planned kind. When I don’t have anything to do, I may decide to go somewhere nearby, or visit family. We try hard to have a break, of course, but we are used to that. In Gudskul as well, the distinction between working and meeting and relaxing is all mixed together. Nongkrong is more relaxed, but sometimes it’s very intense. At times it suddenly becomes a serious discussion, but that’s how we work.

farid rakun: There are many things about this. One is, taking a break, being not productive. The second, it’s about slowness, taking things slowly. As Iswanto said, in practices like ours, it’s a challenge. Also, it’s a challenge in my personal relationships and personal life. We keep on fighting for that. Art, if it is considered to be work, a profession, art and life should not be separated, or less separated, not autonomous. So, as a consequence, it’s kind of all jumbled together. Then it is a challenge not only internally between us but also with our personal lives. 

Different people have different strategies for it. Nongkrong became work. I used to be like that, not taking holidays, we don’t do that because our work is actually life, that’s what we need, a lot of times. Not financially, because financially we have to struggle personally to be able to afford collective work, but then we enjoy it. In the framing of work and rest, it becomes too much enjoyment, so we work all the time. I used to not have holidays, I don’t understand how to take holidays. If I take holidays, my body and brain relax, my body breaks down, and I become sick. 

I think after documenta, I knew that I had to take a break, so I’m taking a break right now, up until today. I’m still a stay-at-home dad, and from an Indonesian point of view, not many people can do that, because our system and structure do not accommodate that, so it’s a privileged position. It’s a privilege also that I work with people who have an understanding of that and accommodate that, and I am not the only, the latest, or the first case to be in this position. 

But then, when it comes to slowness of things: with the experience of documenta fifteen, we know we have to fight for that slowness. When we work collectively, it’s not effective and efficient, it’s not the right way to do things in the philosophy of late capitalism, there are faster, stronger ways, it’s about growth. Our way of working is not like that, unfortunately, or fortunately. Maybe we don’t need to fight for the slowness because we live like that, we just have to make other people understand it and we have to keep through to that root.

rururhaus, documenta fifteen / FOTO: ruangrupa FB

Do you already see an appropriation of collectivism in the art world?

Iswanto Hartono: I don’t read the news a lot.

farid rakun: One thing is hope, another thing is reality. Sometimes we live in an echo chamber and we don’t see other realities. Maybe it is a trend, we hope it’s not. We hope that if it gains a certain momentum, if it helps the collective type of working, if documenta fifteen has helped the collective way of working be more visible, then it’s good. And we hope it’s not a mere trend. 

But, having said that, many people have come to us because we’ve been developing the same thing for 23 years, so it’s difficult for us to see that it’s a trend. People have come to remind us of that and to be aware of it and hopefully, we can use it, but not get used by it. It’s a difficult balance to keep. Even before documenta fifteen we realized, that maybe because we’re a collective, maybe because we come from a certain context, background, biographies, country, etc., like many others, of course, we’ve been appropriated. Even before documenta fifteen and that’s why we invited documenta to be part of the lumbung journey, because we’re aware of it. 

Iswanto Hartono: We feel that there is more interest in this. Many come to us with interests in collective practices and working collaborations. I noticed in school in Hamburg, many posters in the city, galleries… repeatedly the words ‘kitchen’ and ‘karaoke’, are on every poster. Also ‘cooking’, and ‘commons’. I noticed this repeatedly.

How is the lumbung network going? What about lumbung gallery and lumbung press? What about

Iswanto Hartono: lumbung Press has been working so hard these months. Since they moved to Barcelona they came to Hamburg twice, and now they will come to the Miss Read Book Fair in Berlin, and they got two years of funding from Helsinki. lumbung Gallery is still in discussion about resources and sustainability, so it’s not that active.,  of course, is active. lumbung Land is activated in Jatiwangi and Morocco, they plan to do a tour soon in Lebanon and Jatiwangi.

farid rakun: Lumbung Indonesia…

Iswanto Hartono: There was a big majelis last week in West Sumatra.

farid rakun: Because that’s the lifeline we have to keep. Maybe you know that lumbung continues in different places in different ways, it doesn’t necessarily have to do with us directly. Sometimes we know, a lot of times we figure out when there’s a hashtag on social media. It’s not supposed to be centralized on us. We have to be honest that we have limited energy, it’s not a renewable resource, energy, and time. So if it’s small but many, then we have the question of what can happen further with the lumbung inter-lokal, for example. We still don’t know because – not that we don’t know, there are many ideas, it’s hard… We were warned about this before by artists who did previous issues of documenta, their artistic directors, and curators, that things will be different and harder after documenta

We asked for a lot from artists as well, because there were many majelises. Took us something to come back again – the need to be aware of people’s levels of energy and I think the energy hasn’t come back. Slowness, we’re taking it. Personally, that’s where I’m coming from. Up until today, maybe after a year in September, I can see exhibitions again, but right now I’m still too tired of contemporary art.

You founded the educational platform Gudskul in 2018 in Jakarta together with the collectives Serrum and Grafis Huru Hara. What is happening in Gudskul now?

farid rakun: Gudskul has held since October maybe around 40 majelises, because there are many things that we need to decide all together, and we use majelises to do it. Not working groups, we have working groups, but it’s majelises where decisions are made. I can imagine it’s a grueling process because I’m not a part of a lot of it. It’s also fun, I think a lot of us enjoy that process because it’s different. It’s something beyond our imagination as individuals. I think we all agree that Gudskul will continue, and from the energy, I feel up until today, we know that we’re sitting on something valuable enough to sustain. So, the question is how to continue. There are many answers to it, but we will see which route we will take together.

What is happening in the conversations about the financial stability of the ecosystem, can you share some realizations and decisions that were made?

farid rakun: We have been experimenting continuously with financial sustainability. We haven’t found the right way. We tried, and that’s why we’re not in a better position than in 2018. For example, we tried to pay monthly wages, at least minimum wages, for everyone in Gudskul up until 2022. It’s impossible to sustain. So, our collective decision right now is that no one is a Gudskul employee anymore. Maybe the security, cleaning, admin, and maintenance, because that’s the backbone and we have to secure the positions for them, but for the rest of us, no. We’re out, we got fired. We fired each other, we fired everyone and each other. 

The diagram that we used before is nice as a diagram, but as practice, it’s much more messy. Right now, we’re learning from doing documenta fifteen and lumbung that good economy and financial stability need to be everywhere. It doesn’t function that the business wing has to look for money in order to finance everyone else, so the structure might work conceptually, but not in the labor division. Not that like Iswanto or I are always looking for money and another person is always creating programs that are spending money. If I want to create a program, then I have to also think about how to sustain it, so it’s fair. So, that triangle can be helped by many of us at once. So, it’s not departments, it’s not compartmentalized.

So, it’s many little businesses?

farid rakun: Or maybe even ways to do things. Maybe it’s not about money. Maybe it’s about being with your neighbors, so there’s no money involved. Because the resources are there. So, it is about scale as well, and then if it is small enough, a lot of times, like running a household back in the days before capitalism it’s possible. Of course, there are exchanges. Of course, there is sharing and all that distribution of resources. Money is not necessarily the only way to do that. I think that’s where we’re pushing to, ideally.

Since 2018, you have owned your space at Gudskul. How is the work on property and ownership going inside the Indonesian lumbung, are there other collectives in the process of owning their spaces?

farid rakun: It’s something we struggle with, ownership, property, and all of that kind of stuff. There is a risk of property being a burden, that we’re not going to be flexible, that we’re not going to be nimble enough, so to change, to shift, to confuse, which we like to do, by owning property or something like that. It’s something we needed to do. This is a particular Jakarta strategy because Jakarta is a free market, and its real estate is maybe one with the highest inflation in real estate in the world. 

When we were renting, we spent such a high percentage of our annual budget on rent, that it makes it unsustainable. We’re not the only ones doing it. In places like Hong Kong where rent is very high, it’s really difficult for initiatives to sustain their existence because of that. A lot of times, this cost affects people besides the internal conflicts within groups that break initiatives apart. 

It is a strategy, we’re not going to say that it should work with everyone else. But for Jatiwangi art Factory for example, who are fighting for their land, and for others in the land working group, it becomes their work. I don’t think it’s always about owning, but it’s about realizing the importance of property, of being there, of being grounded, and how fickle, how precarious that element can make you and your practice and your sustainability. So, it’s kind of sustainability in a bigger sense as well, not only financial, but also even environmental. I think many initiatives in Lumbung Indonesia realize that they’re precarious and the first thing that they can tackle in the way to be more sustainable, is land. I can say that some others also think that way, but it would be so much different if the real estate and property market were not a free market. Then, the struggle would be different, strategy would be different. This is something we’re offered with, we got lemons and we make lemonade. So, if these are our lemons, what can we make of them?

Iswanto Hartono: One issue is the context of the area where there is no investment, and the different issue is land. With Jatiwangi art Factory, it’s morality that drives them, they’re trying to save a piece of land that is located between two big factories. They want to save it so it can be used by all the community there. There have also been ideas with the Perhutana project where they reclaim eight hectares of land for a conservatory forest, it is ethical to work with it. To save it, to keep it that way.

farid rakun:  In Gudskul, we own property, but we have to make sure that it doesn’t go back to the speculative market. So, we had to invent with the notary a way for us to own it together. On paper, the state demands ownership by one person. But, notary-wise, legally we have to come out with our convention, although it’s not only our invention, for many of us to sign the papers. 

We also learned that many places in Indonesia, Columbia, and New Zealand also, have heritage land or traditionally owned land and cannot be sold easily so it’s really difficult to sell it to the speculative market. I think that’s how we have to do it, with the tradition and an instrument to do it legally. I don’t know if Jatiwangi art Factory owns it, but I know in West Sumatra they have something like heritage land ownership status and they should, in my opinion, research it and use it for their good.

How is the status and struggle of art workers in Indonesia with there being little or no state funding? Are there initiatives to change this?

farid rakun: I think it has changed, the state is trying to change as well. Sometimes for better. sometimes for worse, it’s never stable here. It all depends on the parties in power, I guess same as everywhere else. So, we know we cannot rely on it, but when we can use it, we use it. In the last few years, finally, we have in the arts a kind of endowment funds that artists in Indonesia can use. How to use it is another thing, and the competition is another, but they’re trying to change anyway. They’re trying to even have conversations, with the decision-makers. They understand that they’ve been playing the wrong roles and that competing with what’s already there, with the grassroots doesn’t work, so they’re trying to change their role into only supporting. They’re not going to make new events, but are going to support the events that are already there.

One example and time will tell whether it’s a good thing or not. They find that lumbung as a concept can also be useful, so they’ve been engaging with us on how to use our experience and how to learn from us, how to invite us, and how to have us more involved with decision-making. It’s all negotiation though, it’s not flowery. It has been changing, especially compared to the year 2000 when we first started, and also because Indonesia has been changing. The economic power, and the governance of Indonesia, are in a shifting moment. To say that there’s no state funding anymore is not correct. It held truth in 2000, but right now it has become different. It’s not enough of course, but what is enough? No one has enough, not even Norway.

In your work, you use common pot as a vessel for sharing resources. Are the institutions considering the common pot as a funding model?

farid rakun: No, they’re not going that route. Even we have to fight a long, long way ourselves. We are learning. Our current state of collective pot in Gudskul is the result of working on it since 2016, so it’s not a flick of a hand. With government, bureaucracy, and all that, it’s much more about how to see each other as resources and then how to think of each other not competitively. And then, how to realize one’s possible role in an ecosystem instead of understanding everyone as a fish, and it all depends on the pond,. You know this analogy of a big fish in a small pond or a small fish in a big one. But they’re all fish, no one wants to be a frog, no one wants to be a parasite. It’s about realizing that locally a lot of people are doing something, and we should not invent things further for the sake of newness or genius. 

Is there accessible support from your government for art mobility, if our local organizations want to invite Indonesian artists?

farid rakun: There are ways with our Ministry. If you invite us, the question is whether we want to take that route. 

You approach funding applications and contracts with institutions as a work of fiction or an artwork, how does that approach work in different countries?

farid rakun: An old friend of ours and member of the documenta fifteen artistic team, Gertrude Flentge, said: “Bureaucracy is a form of distrust”.

Iswanto Hartono: There are two fundamental things for this kind of process. One is to change the basic idea of commissioned work and to give more benefit to the artist. We encourage a lot of artists, especially in collective form, to avoid making new works and rather continue what they already do. In terms of production, we negotiate a lot. Even with the upcycled materials in documenta, which has been a practice in documenta already, but not as massive as this, we made it become a part of the structure of the production. We build the networks to support us, and they can use this. Last month, El Warcha came from a festival in Frankfurt and was supporting the production of another collective, so they used their upcycled materials. In documenta, we changed production costs with this, and the structure of bureaucracy, and architecture and design were not made with any outside designer. Also the website, normally they had one, and now we have three, and it took us more than a year to convince them to change it. With the publication as well, the negotiation took quite a while. 

Your practice is strongly related to the setting of home, how does that relate to art as an everyday practice and the idea that everyone can be an artist?

Iswanto Hartono: The terms ‘locally’ and ‘anchor’ are very important to us, and that’s where our practice comes from, it’s following us for the past 23 years, it’s where our energy and thoughts are developed. Nongkrong comes from this context, the context of space, and in the case of Jakarta, a very contested space in terms of economy, and politics, during the New Order. Economically, the home was the most affordable space where we could be hosted. In Europe, you have a different context.

farid rakun: Gudskul part of Fridericianum that was converted into a dormitory and a kitchen during documenta fifteen was the latest manifestation of it. In lumbung there is public space, living space, and storage. On the scale of domestic and intimate, this is where we find our sensibilities coming from, so we have to be honest about it. For us, that’s one of the sources of energy that we’re trying to convey, it’s where we’re coming from. That’s also why we call it ruruHaus, why Iswanto and Reza made a lot of living rooms. Right now, we’re planning to do another public living room in Jakarta in October, and funnily enough, ‘living room’ cannot be directly translated into Bahasa Indonesia. We use ‘ruang tamu’, but that’s almost like a guest room. But the concept of the living room shows how important that background is for us because we’re coming from that and it keeps working for us. The idea that everyone can be an artist, that’s too Joseph Beuys for us. I think it doesn’t matter whether you’re an artist or not.

Bahasa Indonesia course, Gudskul and an-office, documenta-fifteen, 2022/ FOTO: Arianna Sollazz

You use a lot of terms in bahasa Indonesia such as nongkrong, lumbung, and majelis. Can you tell me about the importance of using your language in your work?

farid rakun: It’s much more honest. We use language as shortcuts in Indonesian, the shorter we can convey what we mean, the better. If we can make it into one word, then we use it. I think lumbung functions that way, because in Indonesia everyone knows what lumbung is, so when we say lumbung, we kind of know what we’re talking about. The translation might be the point of discussion, but what we’re trying to do, we make a shortcut. That’s where it’s coming from. It was not intended to be taken to another context. But just being honest, we just don’t know better shortcuts for lumbung. Commons doesn’t work that well for us, if we use commons, then we’re just confused about what we’re talking about. 

A lot of things are untranslatable because they were functioning for us before. At one point, we knew that we had to fight for it because we had been colonized in language as well. We’ve been taken out of context and we’ve been forced to do so, e.g. by learning all those theories and genres in the art world, impressionists, what does it mean, expressionism, the list goes on, that’s not a thing we grew up with, but we have to learn about it, and then we’re like, maybe we can turn the table around for once.

ruangrupa has existed since 2000. How are things going with the archiving process?

Iswanto Hartono: We are good but very bad as well. We archive, but we’re not organized. We recently started discussing the preparation for our 25th anniversary in 2025, and one of the main subjects of this discussion is the archive. Now we have to start working on it, to see and revisit our archive, but we have to organize it simultaneously as well. 

Do you find a connection between trauma, healing, and collectivity?

farid rakun: We talked about this a couple of times: Why did we collectivize? Why do we last this long? Why don’t others last this long? Should we last longer than the longest ones before us? And if we shouldn’t, we should disappear and give it to others. Maybe we shouldn’t last this long, at least as a collection of individuals. Maybe Gudskul itself can last, but not us. The analogy that Jatiwangi art Factory, us, and others have used so far that is useful is the analogy that forming a collective is a life-saving raft. 

We want to go somewhere together and we have to go through certain obstacles, so we find each other and build a raft together. The collectivizing part is the process of building it and then going through the world. Sometimes we meet some other people that need to be saved, or that want to go in the same direction. But then the crisis stops when we reach the destination, a lot of times. If that crisis stops, a lot of times there’s no reason to collectivize anymore.The difference with us until today, for a few of us, we knew when we arrived at that first destination that it was not enough – this was not our destination. So the crises kept on coming, but it’s just different. So we became Gudang Sarinah and then Gudskul, we made it into something else, we changed houses, we changed programs, we created different things. because the crisis never ceased to exist. 

I don’t know whether there’s trauma and healing, because people younger than us who didn’t experience the New Order directly, if we’re talking about New Order as a trauma and we need to be healed from it, they still keep making collectives for reasons that are a riddle for us. So, maybe the crisis is still happening. 

One of the ways to think about the crisis is the support, or the infrastructure and the system. When there’s none or there is a lack of certain things, the crisis is there. Then, there’s a need to make an initiative, whether they want to call it collective or something else. Collaborating with others, when it is systematized, when infrastructure is something that you’ve built together and it works, maybe it’s like the collectivity that we’re talking about ceases to exist, or doesn’t have any use. You need to come up with your type of collectivity, Balkan collectivity, and we would love to learn from it.

Iswanto Hartono: Two weeks ago I was traveling in Aceh, one of the most conflicted areas in Indonesia. Even during colonial times, it had one of the longest wars against the Dutch. They even started a dispute with Sukarno, they tried to be an independent nation. There was another war during the New Order regime, the war was continuous there for a very long time until recently when the separatist movement calmed down and made an agreement with the government. I found that there is a lot of trauma there, even for the younger generation. 

For me, it’s care, and the question of care, but I had a lot of questions when I was there. It’s such an enormous context and I didn’t have an answer for that, a traumatized community suffering from war and violence. Indonesia is also collectively very well known for violence. Even the word ‘amok’ came from Indonesia, it means anger and stems from the riots and violent wars of the tribes, which were done collectively. So there is this paradox, we do collective care, and we have the violent side which is also collectively massive. It’s both sides, the collective good and collective evil is here.

Often, when I mention your work to my friends in the Balkans, they say “But I don’t want to have to work/hang out with everyone”. Does collectivity mean having to work with everyone?

farid rakun: It’s like a neighbourhood or ecosystem, you cannot choose the species that come into your ecosystem. But we have to deal with it, we cannot pretend that it doesn’t exist, it will only explode. So, we try at least. But, we are not state institutions. We start small and then the circle of friends becomes bigger and bigger. Our understanding of the public, which is basically ourselves, grew together with that notion of friends. So, no, you don’t have to work with everyone, but, it’s a test of how open you are. 

Are you going to be a closed hippy commune as a collective or you are going to be like very open, which doesn’t go anywhere either, like, I don’t know, a nation-state? I don’t think the nation-state is working anyway. So, it is realized on particular occurrences as well. How you build your collectivity is of course based on where you’re coming from. So, there’s no magic, it’s not a magic pill, and then there’s no recipe for it. Sometimes we let nature and time do the work. Those who are not supposed to be with us will fall out eventually. 

But, that is a fine balance as well. We also think of ourselves as a band that keeps on playing, and if someone is leaving, then the sound will change. If someone is coming, playing a different instrument, with different skills, then the sound will change, that’s why we’re also confusing, which we like to be. It’s kind of a balance of being open and trying to understand our role in the ecosystem. If there are too many parasites, it’s not good, if it’s too much of good things, it’s also not good. Like, everyone is giving, no one is taking, and that’s also not good. The balance is a matter of luck as well.

How do you deal with conflict? For example, if the three of us had to work together, and farid and I are both friends with Iswanto, but we don’t like each other.

farid rakun: In that case, it’s not healthy anymore, so we should either talk about it or go our separate ways. Maybe Iswanto has different strategies. Everyone has their strategies, and as a group, we found strategies to deal with ourselves. A lot of it is unsaid, and a lot of it is said as well, even the difficult things. It’s actually about the genius of Iswanto to make things work. And we’re lucky that we have these roles a lot of times.

Iswanto Hartono: Sometimes we talk about it in groups, but some things have never been said. But behind all of that, there is the working concept: tolerance. It’s tolerance that can sustain an ecosystem or collective or a friendship, and that’s very hard to find nowadays. In our case, tolerance has a long durability. All the time, there are disputes or whatever.

farid rakun: There are many of us, there have been so many conflicts between us.

Iswanto Hartono: Tolerance is very important.

How do you approach trust as a collective? Especially in collaborations with new contacts, how do you trust someone you don’t know?

farid rakun: There are different strategies. Again, it’s about time. You have to invest the time with each other to trust each other. There’s no shortcut for it, unfortunately. You have to build it, earn it, test it by joking around, and then, after a while, we know how far we can trust someone. That’s how we deal with people, including myself. I just don’t know how people trust me, in ruangrupa or Gudskul. But I believe that people have ways to deal with me, I just don’t know how and I never asked. Different collectives, like Jatiwangi art Factory, have different ways of doing this, even Serrum and ruangrupa have different ways of dealing with this. It is the sensibilities that grew up with the people that were there, to begin with. and you get better at reading signs of who not to trust, who to trust, their agendas, and so on. After a while, you know as a collective, not necessarily as an individual. After a while, giving time, then you know.  

Iswanto Hartono: With a positive mind. If you don’t have it, you won’t have trust, because then you’ll think like – Petra, maybe we shouldn’t talk to her. There is energy as well. A positive mindset is very important in this part of our ecosystem. It’s in our culture as well, many Indonesians if they have an accident, or get robbed, will say it’s still good because one has lost only this. When you fall, it’s okay, because you only broke one hand, but not the other. It’s about cherishing even the worst that will happen.

Trust is also connected to one of the lumbung values – the value of generosity, right?

Iswanto Hartono: It’s that too.

A lot of your work includes playfulness. How do you combat nihilism and cynicism in your approach? How do you keep a balance between playfulness and seriousness?

farid rakun: When it comes to cynicism, I’m guilty. I’m privileged to be surrounded by optimistic people, so I can bask in my nihilism and can be reminded by others that I don’t have to be that way. I think it’s a certain type of intelligence that some people have, like Reza Afisina, Ade Darmawan, or Daniella Praptono, they keep on going. I admire them because I cannot do that, but what they do is contagious. I know my point of view is not the only point of view, that’s why it’s refreshing. We are very serious in our playfulness. We have to fight for it, we have to be very forceful in that. It’s not that we don’t take things seriously, but we have to find joy because it’s too easy to fall into despair and guilt. A lot of cultures in the world came from big guilt. Not only religion, religion is a product of it, but we find it to be surprising how big of a downer the guilt is.

Iswanto Hartono: It’s so tiring to think of cynicism. I never bother with what people say. As a collective, I don’t know how we deal with it. We always make a joke about the problem, it can spiral and go somewhere, even if it’s not related. We always try to keep the positive energy, the jokes are a part of it, and sometimes the joke is very bad. But that’s what keeps balancing the cynicism or the hate or whatever, it’s the most common way of dealing with it.

farid rakun: Yes, it’s about humor.

How do you imagine our collective planetary future?

farid rakun: I have no idea. Imagine realistically, or what I hope for? I’m talking personally now. It changed when I realized I have responsibility for other people’s lives, having a child. That forced me to have hope. Our planetary future is bleak, but I hope that small but many can bring much more generosity and humor and less guilt, that would help us. Also, because you said planetary, it’s not about humanity, I think it will find its balance. It’s an ecosystem, whether it includes us, human beings, or not. I have no idea. There are too many elements that I don’t know with my limited knowledge. Hopefully, it will be joyful, which is very difficult to find these days. The pandemic made it even worse, it’s like we cannot be happy anymore or something.

Iswanto Hartono: With the planetary, I hope the humor carries over because in Germany the humor is very dry. So it will be more joyful. The future will also be more joyful, I believe. I don’t prepare too much thinking of the next year or five or ten, that’s too far.