What Indonesian Curators ruangrupa Learned from an Agrarian Tradition

The lumbung, or rice barn, sets the stage for the group’s documenta opening in 2022

Frieze considers the role of food – aesthetically, sensorially, politically, environmentally – in contemporary culture

In Indonesia, lumbung is a village agricultural tradition in which farmers pool together surplus from their harvests. The word translates as ‘rice barn’, but it refers to whatever crops are gathered. One village usually produces a lumbung together and the resources are for everyone. Anyone can use whatever they want from it.

Lumbung is not only an economy, but an architecture, too. Each region of Indonesia has its own distinct, vernacular architecture and type of lumbung. Typologically, these buildings have two levels on stilts: the dark upper floor is used for storage, while the ground level is for common use, hosting village meetings or traditional celebrations. The typical location for a lumbung is the village centre, which gives a sense of the vitality of its function in the traditional agrarian culture of the country.

It’s become a way of thinking for us, too. Ruangrupa translates as ‘space [ruang] for art [rupa]’. In 2000, six artists in Jakarta, most of us just out of art school, rented a house and transformed it into an art venue. The first exhibitions we staged were in domestic settings: living rooms and even bathrooms became exhibition spaces, bedrooms were made into offices and screening rooms. We moved several times until, last year, we managed to acquire our own space. We’re here to stay.

In Indonesia, we experienced a 32-year dictatorship. In 1998, a student uprising led to the toppling of Suharto, the military leader and president. Until this point, it was illegal to congregate in groups of more than five people without permission from the state. After, there was a sea change: people were finally allowed to talk more freely, and we learned so much in the new democracy. This optimism created a context for young artists to speak their minds, to form new ideas and works. For us, at that time, it felt necessary for the young generation of artists to create a new scene, especially in Jakarta. So, ruangrupa’s first year was spent delving into the Indonesian capital, as an urban context. In post-Suharto Jakarta, there was finally hope to create and use public space, after the paranoia of the previous dictatorship and a moratorium on anything ‘public’. As artists, we also tried to get a slice of this new sense of shared, public space; many other collectives were formed. 

We were always fascinated by urban and youth culture and subcultures, and worked often with video, music, movies, comics and street art. When we were founded, we had in mind a laboratory to encourage collaboration between young artists and art students in Jakarta. We also wanted to promote conversation among art students, who were very alienated from the other students at university. So, we began to create a student forum, which evolved into our Jakarta 32℃ (2004–ongoing) initiative, an annual festival for student productions.

During this time, most of us were interested in video art, precisely because we didn’t know much about it; we didn’t have access to it. Therefore, we created a festival so we could learn and present video art, from both outside of the country and from Indonesia. In 2003, we researched young artists working with technologies, video, public and media art. This formed the basis of OK. Video, which broadened its focus from video art through biannual festivals to finally become what it is today: a platform for new media art with a wide scope – from food to archiving practices. The lumbung is a strategy we developed at OK. Video, before we were invited to curate the forthcoming documenta fifteen. Now, we are using it as a logic to inform our approach to the exhibition.

This is not a theme or a concept but a protocol. We want to work in a certain way. We are looking for more friends in different parts of the world who are thinking similarly to us about sustainability. We are questioning art practices and how to support them through alternative ways of subsistence, and asking what kind of experiments are out there to sustain ideas in challenging contexts: places where there is censorship, of course, or little support from the government, or little capital for art. This is an economic framework we are considering, but it is also about friendship and system-building. What is happening in rural China or a remote part of Spain or Italy? What is happening in central Europe right now or Brazil – where there are so many challenges emerging from the government – or Egypt, where there is censorship, or in Palestine? These places face issues we all share, and our vision of a lumbung, formed in tandem with documenta, is as an opportunity to take them on together. 

Main image: ruangrupa, Friendly Food Stall, 2017, OK. Video – Indonesia Media Arts Festival, Jakarta. Courtesy: the artists

This article first appeared in frieze issue 205 with the headline ‘Sharing Economy’.

ruangrupa is an artists' collective and art space based in Jakarta, Indonesia, founded in 2000. In 2019, ruangrupa were announced as the curators of documenta fifteen (2022). 

Issue 205

First published in Issue 205

September 2019

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