by STIRworldJun 11, 2022
In June 2022, Indonesia-based art collective ruangrupa will launch the 15th edition of documenta, one of the most prestigious exhibitions of contemporary art held every five years in Kassel, Germany. Driven by the ethos of lumbung (the Indonesian term for a communal rice barn) ruangrupa imagines documenta fifteen to embody the principles of collectivity, equal allocation, and communal sharing of resources. In the past two decades, ruangrupa played multifaceted roles through exhibitions, festivals, art laboratories, workshops, research, books, magazines, and online journals. Founded in Jakarta in 2000, ruangrupa began as a 'physical and mental space' for artists in Indonesia to engage and experiment collectively. While the group's understanding of collectivity has changed over the years, their primary role as resource builders for the cultural community stays. We speak with Farid Rakun of ruangrupa about the idea of the collective, and their specific process and plans for the upcoming documenta fifteen.
Collectivism in art saw a significant shift since the 1990s with the advent of the internet and its potential to foster connections across geographical locations. Countries from the Global South such as Vietnam, Indonesia, and India saw the establishment of new collectives and artist-run organisations in response to the state's paucity of attention to contemporary art and the new potentiality of the internet. Their collective intention was to build an understanding of artistic practice beyond the dominant framework of national art and towards more decentralised and artist-run approaches to convening culture.
ruangrupa was initiated in 2000 by a group of friends and art school graduates to build an ecosystem for themselves and the artistic community in Jakarta. Farid Rakun, who joined ruangrupa during 2003-04, notes, “We have always been interested in the now and the immediate. Since Indonesia’s Modernist project is a failed one, it was easier for us to jump around from one medium to the other without the rhetoric of interdisciplinarity. As a result, ruangrupa became a platform that could absorb and facilitate a range of interests. We were doing video, music, and different kinds of stuff with students, festivals, and so on. At a given point or another, there is one person from us who wants to focus on and sustain a particular form.”
Rakun mentions that “the failure of the Indonesian state to support cultural practice made almost every artist in Indonesia form a collective or be part of one. One could say collectivity is one of the main ways of doing art in Indonesia.” He elaborates that ruangrupa’s understanding and approach to collectivity and collectivism have changed over the past two decades. “If we are asked right at this moment, what does it mean to be and become a collective, we would say collectivity is a work in progress, and we are sharpening it right now, as we speak in our shaping of lumbung – documenta fifteen,” he adds.
Lumbung in rural Indonesia is a practice where the surplus harvest is shared with the communities in need defined by an agreement with “values of generosity, humour, local anchoring, independence, regeneration, transparency, and frugality.” ruangrupa translates this practice and its values into the field of art and speaks of lumbung as a protocol. “From the get-go, we understand lumbung not as a theme, but as a protocol. It is an invitation that keeps on extending its reach in terms of the community. We are using this extension as an opportunity to open our world to more friends, and their knowledge. We invited 14 organisations and groups from across the world to closely work together with the artistic team of documenta fifteen as lumbung members. We learned a lot from the process and saw what is working and what is not. It is part of the protocol. Together we started rethinking the economy, position, and the role of art.”
Lumbung members vary from Britto Arts Trust (artist-run network in Dhaka), Instituto de Artivismo Hannah Arendt (safe space for artists, and activists in Havana), Gudskul (educational knowledge-sharing platform from Jakarta), among many others. “The interaction with the lumbung members has been multifold,” says Rakun. “Some of the members are artists who we invited to be part of documenta fifteen, others have involved their extended networks in proposing projects. For instance, The Question of Funding from Palestine has invited a collective from the Gaza strip to be part of their work. OFF-Biennial Budapest is staging a long-term interest of theirs, called Roma MoMA, tongue-in-cheek play off of Museum of Modern Art, but made for the people of Roma.”
The conversations between ruangrupa and the 14 lumbung members of documenta fifteen also resulted in a wider selection of lumbung visual artists from different parts of the world. While some of the artists such as Richard Bell and Taring Padi were already familiar to ruangrupa, others were sourced through their extended networks. Rakun says that "due to the pandemic, we had to create a series of regional visits where we met art ecosystems, and we knew the actors and their roles in the whole from this process. We also touched base with our old friends to reach ecosystems foreign to us. For example, in India, it was Raqs Media Collective who were very generous. We got introduced to artists, such as Party Office, Amol K Patil, and Sourabh Phadke from India. We learned a lot from Party Office already, and Sourabh who, in our current opinion, is one the most lumbung artists in the list. Also, Amol brings in an important conversation about the caste system in India.”
Amol K Patil’s recent practice engages with intergenerational histories of protest against the caste system in India as well as the "invisibility of the working class in emergent urban imagination." Party Office is an 'anti-caste, anti-racist, trans*feminist art, and social space' hosted by Vidisha-Fadescha that calls for intersectional solidarity and kinship. An architect, and mason, Sourabh Phadke works with grassroots communities building crafts, sustainable sanitation, appropriate technologies, and design.
Alongside the global scope of lumbung members and artists, ruangrupa also has been keen on having a unique standing in the locale of Kassel, where documenta fifteen will be hosted. For instance, ruruHaus - formed by ‘ruru’ for ‘ruangrupa’ and the German word ‘haus,’ is one of the first venues of documenta fifteen. ruruHaus is imagined as a living room for Kassel where people from all walks of life meet, pool, and share resources. ruruHaus is “imagined as a space that allows us to understand the overarching ecosystem of the city of Kassel, and one that can serve as an example of how documenta fifteen represents itself.”
The invocation of lumbung as a curatorial protocol of documenta fifteen by ruangrupa sets itself in contrast to the grand narratives that mega-scale exhibitions aspire to set up. The expanse of global contemporaneity is diversified here through the ethos of lumbung across individuals and communities that actively acknowledge the interdependency of the world we inhabit on equal footing. In discussing whether the narrative of the decolonial is embodied within the practice of lumbung, Rakun says, "I think there are similarities, of course, but there are also places where we cannot put formulas, except to deal with them. I think the problem with the questions coming from western institutions is that they are trying to find formulaic answers on how to do this properly. But we are doing it, and we do not know how to do it in a formulaic way. We can only show them to a certain extent in the process of doing it differently.”
documenta fifteen will take place from June 18 until September 25, 2022 in Kassel.