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Being an Activist Artist: Interview with Nuraini Juliastuti
行動,以成為你自己—專訪努拉伊妮.朱利亞斯杜帝
June 26th, 2019Type: Residency
Author: 吳庭寬, 李蝶衣 (Translator) Editor: Rikey Tenn
Quote From: 群島資料庫Nusantara Archive
Note: Nuraini is used to people calling her Nuning. During her residency in Taipei, we traced her experiences in cultural research and activism over the past twenty years at some of the parks she was observing. The Kunci Cultural Studies Center (hereinafter referred to as KUNCI) co-founded by Nuning is an active arts and cultural institution in Indonesia. When sharing her practical experience at KUNCI, she would often refer to the word ‘keberanian’ (courage). To engage with those outside the feudal, elitist or comfort circles, courage is essential for opening up dialogues. Behind the surface of these realities, there is also a society that has been hollowed out by colonization and the Cold War, and which must be slowly refilled by action.
Nuraini Juliastuti & Sima Wu in Da-an Park (2019). Photo: Rikey Tenn

Wu Ting-Kuan: Can you tell us a bit more about yourself? Can you introduce yourself informally?

Nuraini Juliastuti: I am a mother, writer, researcher, and cultural activist. My workss and research cover alternative cultural production, Southeast Asian art history, music and sound, and language politics. I founded KUNCI in Yogyakarta in 1999 and recently received a Ph.D. from the University of Leiden in the Netherlands. My doctoral thesis is titled “Commons People: Managing Music and Culture in Contemporary Yogyakarta.” I currently live in Melbourne, Australia, and run an art platform called “Reading Sideways Press”(註1) with my husband, Andy Fuller. …This seems a bit too formal.

 

WT: Why did you leave your hometown Surabaya and start KUNCI in Jogja?

NJ: If I hadn’t left Surabaya at the time, I might not be where I am now. Although I grew up in Surabaya and my family resides there, I am not particularly fond of it. In the early 1990s, Surabaya was too industrialized and culturally barren. I studied at the Department of Social Studies at Airlangga University in Surabaya for a year, but I have always felt that campus life was unfulfilling and that I wanted to leave. In 1994, I transferred to Universitas Gadjah Mada (UGM). After enrolling in UGM, I joined a group of student journalists and launched my campaign against the New Order regime (Orde Baru, Orba). I read a lot of books while living in Jogja. I enjoyed the school library and its collection about various non-governmental organizations. In short, I began to expand my knowledge and open my mind while I was there. The student movements and artistic movements in Jogja were very active in the late 1990s. KUNCI and other communities all started around the same time.

 

WT: How do you remain in touch with partners in Indonesia and KUNCI now that you reside in Australia?

NJ: Two members of KUNCI currently live abroad, but we stay in touch with each other and video chat at least once a week. At the beginning, though, we hadn’t thought of doing so. Everyone was busy with work. Later on, I felt that KUNCI seemed empty and then discussed with the team about how to stay in touch. The results were good. At least we know which books we’ve been reading recently and what we are doing respectively.

 

Nuraini Juliastuti on "Dance Age(跳舞時代)" in Nusantara Archive 12: Archives as Migrants (2019). Photo: Rikey Tenn

WT: The Indonesian art circle seems to have preferences for certain themes and issues, such as the environment, human rights, minorities, etc. Many important art institutions also rely on foreign funding and networks. The art circle has also been critical of active art communities such as Ruangrupa and Forum Lenteng for dealing primarily with topical issues, considering these practices to be more like social movements.

NT: I think art must be applicable and be of use to society. Art practices should allow us to communicate with the public. We must realize our purpose and positioning – art is honest, and we must not fear communication. Perhaps some people would separate art from activism, but for me, this limits our imagination of art. Not all things are definite; sometimes they are mixed together. Should we define art and activism? I don’t think it should be an issue, nor is it that important. Firstly, in Indonesia, the development of contemporary art has become increasingly more uncertain and is thus difficult to frame. Secondly, we should think of what drives practitioners of art and culture. How is their progress? Nowadays, practitioners of art and their production methods are radically different from those of the past. For example, with the innovation technology, a lot of migrant workers live stream or post vlogs using their mobile phones. These materials can also be edited and become video art. For me, it is similar to organizing an exhibition; the images they post on Instagram can also be seen as a type of display.

Human beings have also become more complex. How can we dictate how art should be? ‘Artistic practice’ is the interpretation by the public. Higher education should not be obligatory for practicing art. That would be too elitist. In the Indonesian art scene in the 1980s and 1990s, the boundaries were still clear, but that is no longer the case in Indonesia today. A person who holds these beliefs is ’adul’ (Jaman Dulu, a bygone era, meaning ‘outdated’). You can read my interview with Ruangrupa, the founder Ade Darmawan(註2), in which there are many discussions on this topic.

 

WT: Does the art circle often view KUNCI as an activist group?

NJ: Professor Melani Budianta of the University of Indonesia once described ‘Emergency Situation’ as Indonesia after 1998. Cultural activism was regarded as ‘Emergency Activism’ in this era. The purpose of activism was to fill in the hollows of society. ‘Emergency,’ in this context, refers to the short-lived and fast nature of these actions. 20 years has passed since the political reform (Reformasi), and yet, our activists are still dealing with the pitfalls left by Suharto. However, after filling in one hole, another hole may appear in other social situations, or new holes may emerge at the bottom of the hole that had previously been filled. How do we perceive this short but expanding era? We exist to fill these holes, and perhaps we rely on these holes to define who we are. We take on various roles and responsibilities in an extremely aggressive way. In other words, this is the struggle for life.

 

Nuraini Juliastuti & the migrants' Sunday gathering in Taipei Railway Main Station (2019). Photo: Wang Hong-Kai

WT: Do your projects and KUNCI’s projects express protests in general?

NJ: Not all of our projects are about protesting, but we must maintain a critical attitude. The art circle is proud, especially in self-important literary circles. However, it doesn’t help the production of art when we are not open-minded. How should we fight? The way is through direct communication. They often see me as an arrogant person as well…

 

WT: In Indonesia, a lot of people are involved in building communities (Gotong Royong), alternative education, alternative schools, etc. KUNCI founded the School of Improper Education (SoIE) in 2016. What is the difference between SoIE and other alternative schools?

NJ: 17 years since it was founded, we began to think about the future and rediscovered our distance from society. After 1998, we tried to define ourselves, and we are still in the process of learning how to be ourselves. In the 1990s, I went through a special learning experience. The zeitgeist of the era was being ‘alternative.’ Being ‘alternative’ defined ‘Generation 98.’ I prefer the word ‘alternative’ because I couldn’t find another word to define those that are marginal, flexible, mobile, and adaptable. We also use ‘alternative’ to refer to things that are increasingly wild and capable of adapting.

I have never positioned SoIE as an alternative school, but I often consider SoIE as one of its models. SoIE is not particularly special in Indonesia, nor is it trendier than the rest. There are several alternative schools or non-traditional institutions in Indonesia. But what we want to do is to experiment and use pedagogy methods that are less well-known. For example, we would deliberately replicate Joseph Jakotot’s method, which emphasizes that teachers should not be the authority of power and knowledge in the classroom and that knowledge should be the collaborative effort between teachers and students. Then there are ’Turba,’ ‘Nyantrik’ and ‘Taman Siswa’.(註3) SoIE is completely experimental. Unlike other alternative schools, which aim to educate students who are not suited for public schools, SoIE was predicated on the context of art and culture and was later used for training cultural activists in the metropolitan areas. As far as I know, in most schools that offer alternative education, teacher-student relationships are not that much different from traditional educational systems. Most of them only replicate existing systems, while the relation between teachers and students remain similar to traditional schools. At the beginning, KUNCI wanted to disintegrate such relations and to emphasize communication and coordination between one another; at the same time, we wanted to deconstruct the definition of school, which is very different in concept from the other schools.

 

WT: Following the previous discussion, SoIE’s Turba (Turun ke Bawah; going to the countryside, decentralizing to the bottom) literally hints at a certain direction. How do you respond to criticism from the intellectual circle?

NJ: In different social practices, the ‘bottom layer’ is often considered the lowest of the social class, suggesting poverty, insecure living environment, and a persistent feeling of deficiency and being disadvantaged. The specific state of the ‘bottom’ reveals the existence of the ‘top’. However, that is not how I view the Turba. The Indonesian artists in the 1950s and 1960s understood the ‘bottom’ very well, for example, how far Jakarta was, or how remote the farming or fishing villages were. Of course, we can say that we came from the top to the bottom. But if I was at the bottom in the first place, how much further down can I go? If I was already among the poor at the bottom, and now I am sending myself down further, what kind of bottom will that be? KUNCI’s concept of the Turba, LEKRA’s (Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat, People’s Cultural Association) original idea of ‘sending down’ and the academic system’s ‘KKN’ (Kuliah Kerja Nyata, internship service) are indeed different from one another. KUNCI’s Turba method indicates the willingness and courage to understand the environment through different paths; our interpretation of the ‘bottom’ is diverse. From my perspective, the ‘bottom layer’ should be redefined from the materialist point of view, and the society’s existing imagination of it should be abandoned. SoIE students have to explore various ways to reach the ‘bottom’ and try to understand it. For example, if a student becomes a taxi driver, they must ask themselves where the ‘bottom’ is. What kind of ‘bottom’ results from interpersonal interaction? These questions not only emerge in the process. We also gain new knowledge from these personal practices and collective discussions.

 

Nuning in Taiwan New Cultural Movement Memorial Museum (2019). Photo: Sima Wu Ting-Kuen

WT: For your residency project, you have proposed the idea of ‘Archives as Migrants.’ Can you tell us why it isn’t ‘Migrants as Archives’? Furthermore, regarding ‘archives’ and ‘migration’, several artists have already implemented projects related to migrant workers or through creating archives. Do you have any thoughts on this?

NJ: I don’t know much about the Indonesian migrant workers’ research programs in Taiwan, but I am trying to prevent myself from going in that direction. ‘Archives as Migrants’ was first developed to expand the concept of ‘migrants’ and to extend the function of ‘archiving.’ At the beginning, I wanted to investigate the metropolitan landscape of Taipei from the written texts of various Indonesian migrant workers. However, after I began my residency, I started to retrace the different methods I used to become more involved in Asia, including my experience in running KUNCI, the projects that KUNCI had done in the past or is currently implementing, my personal projects, and my observations of Taipei. I attempt to integrate these experiences to create a path into the local dynamics. I don’t have concrete ideas for ‘Archives as Migrants’ at the moment, but as I mentioned, the kinetic energy of these methods will continue to expand along with the different locations and interactions, no matter whether it is between Indonesia and Taiwan, Taiwan and other Southeast Asian countries, Indonesia and East Timor, Indonesia and Cambodia or other countries. For me, ‘archiving’ is a practice of being able to extend your knowledge system no matter where you are or what state you are in; that is the concept of ‘Archives as Migrants.’

 

WT: You once mentioned that archiving is a political practice. How do you view your own archival work?

NJ: Why is it called the national archives or ‘official’ (resmi) archives? Because the state maintains control over the official archives. What we do is to interfere with the authority of the state. The state should not be the only one to have this authority, because there are so many other things that are also worthy of being archived. What I want to stress is that what may seem important to the state is not necessarily important to the people. If archives are important and meaningful, then we must think about it ourselves and unearth its significance. For me, archiving is a kind of negotiation. I don’t want the state to be the only authority able to decide what can or cannot be archived. There must be more diversity in its arrangement, otherwise we will be controlled by the state.

 

WT: During your residency, you’ve visited the Taiwan New Cultural Movement Memorial Museum twice. Are you interested in the Taiwan New Cultural Movement?

NJ: I am intrigued by the Taiwan New Culture Movement Memorial Museum, which explores resistance movements during the Japanese colonial era through the dimensions of cultural and intellectual activism. This has led me to revisit the current situation in Indonesia and other Southeast Asian countries, which, like Taiwan, are also resisting colonization. For me, it shows a moment of unity and makes me wonder about the possibility of tandem development among Asian countries.

Footnote
[1] See readingsidewayspress.com. (retrieved on 2019/6/26)
[2] Nuraini Juliastuti, "Ruangrupa: A Conversation on Horizontal Organisation".
[3] SHOW Ying Xin, “Exploring the Contemporaneity of Taman Siswa – Alternative Education in Indonesia”, www.heath.tw/nml-article/explore-the-contemporaneity-of-taman-siswa-rethink-alternative-education-in-indonesia/