By Akanksha Raja and Kathy Rowland
(1010 words, 15-minute read)
There was a distinct absence of PowerPoint presentations at the Asia Pacific Network for Cultural Education and Research (ANCER) 2016 Research Camp, held at LASALLE College of the Arts from 18 – 20 November 2016.
The opening speaker, Antariksa, co-founder of KUNCI Cultural Studies Centre from Yogyakarta, walked up with scant supporting material other than personal notes for reference, and a cryptic T-shirt declaring “Salty Tolerance”.
He began by tracing the lineage of art collectives in Southeast Asia to the traditional values of gotong royong and bayanihan (communal co-operation). Wryly noting that arts collectives in the region were the direct result of poor national infrastructures and lack of trust in the government, Antariksa described the act of forming a collective as a desire to “take things into our own hands and get … things done”. He noted that the exception to this rule was Singapore, where art collectives arose in the early 1990s, under the aegis of the global community art.
Following Antariksa was Professor Giep Hagoort, Dean of Amsterdam School of Management. He too used low-tech methods: the hand-drawn mind-map, photocopied and handed out to participants. He explained the various models of creative cooperation based on his observations on the different ways that they are organised in the SEA, including those groups participating in the ANCER camp: the project based, coalitions, strategic partnerships, clustering, platforms and networks.
The method of delivery of the two keynote speakers was not mere idiosyncrasy. Collectives in the region often operate at the edges of mainstream arts practice, at the intersection of community activism and creative work. Antariksa and Prof Hagoort replicated the tone of informality and inclusiveness that many of the collectives in the region employ at the contact point of their target communities/collaborators.
Despite its unconventional start, the camp had some serious business to attend to, namely to “fill the gap in knowledge and share practices about creative collective practices … from the region.” What transpired was part fact-finding and part jamboree, with some early steps towards possible frameworks of practice and points of interrogation.
A total of seven organisations, one each from Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines and four from Indonesia introduced their collectives’ origins, organisational structures, funding, methods, activities and target communities. After each presentation, Antariksa, Prof Hagoort and Malaysian community arts pioneer, Janet Pillai commented or posed questions, as did the rest of the attendees.
The first speaker was Angga Wijaya from Jakarta, Indonesia, who spoke about Serrum: a collective that examines education practices and tries to find alternative means of education, using art, and seeks to develop education-based programmes working with teachers, students and people from other fields. He was followed by Woon Tien Wei of Postmuseum, a cultural and social initiative from Singapore whose projects offer a platform to examine contemporary life, spaces, and seeks to connect people between communities and international cultures.
Fabiola Buchele followed with the Vietnamese collective she co-founded named Not All Dreams, an art initiative that recognises the value of unrealised creative projects. Ismal Muntaha then presented about Jatiwangi Art Factory. Founded in 2005, the project establishes a collaboration with the Jatisura Village Government, initiating cultural activities such as festivals, performances, music, video, ceramics and visual art, residency programmes, radio broadcasts and education programmes with a focus on discourses of rural life. Micah Sofia Pinto from the Philippines shared about Para Sa Sining, a project that conducts multidisciplinary events (film, music, performance, visual art displays) that seek to bring diverse artists across genres to collaborate and interplay.
At the end of the first day, the two keynote speakers, and the conveners of the camp, Dr Aleksandar Brkic and Mitha Budhyarto identified three recurrent themes and issues for further discussion: sustainability; the interplay of space and collectivity; organisational awareness of community. This was the meat of the research camp, as the participants had to interrogate their practice against these questions.
With regard to the first area, the one question that is obvious and ubiquitous to any arts practitioner is that of economic sustainability: how to find models of funding that can be used to continue realising projects?
Moreover, the question of sustainability of ideas also emerged: how do we maintain our ideas of community and collectivity while adapting to changing social or political circumstances?
Some questions were raised about the interplay of space and the people that inhabit it, and how this aids in shaping collective forms of creating or working. How do spaces influence the relations we develop with people, and how do our relations cement our understanding of places? When thinking of space, it is important to note that its physical, tangible aspects are as significant as its immaterial or metaphysical aspects – such as memory and emotional, psychological associations. How do these factors affect collective art practices, and how can this lead to the development of a feeling of community?
Finally, when conceiving of a collective art project, it is vital to consider our awareness of community. What do we understand by the notion of collectivity, when we set out to start our organisations? How do our individual ideas of collectives different from one another’s? How do we develop a model for our organisation? How are these conceptions of collectivity, and community, embodied in our projects and activities, and reflected in our internal processes?
These questions lead to robust discussions amongst the participants, without demanding a final answer from the them. Indeed, the ANCER Research Camp’s primary benefit was the way it brought different groups together to meet and share their experiences and their practice. By making the participants articulate their practice, the camp enabled multiple levels of dialogue – within the collectives, across the region, and between groups for whom the collective is mainly a mode of operation against those whose formal structures reflects more ideological collectivism.
The process of formulating more stringent theoretical positions vis-à-vis collective creations in Southeast Asia will, in all likelihood be long drawn out, but a camp that not only asks questions but forces the participants to ask themselves questions, is as good a place as any to start.