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Lifepatch. Situated Assemblages of Un-Situated Things

Anthropologist and film-maker Rosalia Namsai Engchuan examines Lifepatch’s work at the intersections of community-oriented art, science and technology as well as their DIWO (Do It With Others) ethos and the Indonesian notion of gotong royong. Examined through different life situations, science workshops for local communities, or art institutional projects, Engchuan’s contribution affirms a technicity radically ‘de-coupled from the imperatives of productivity and progress’ inscribed in a cosmological relation with gotong royong.

Lifepatch. Situated Assemblages of Un-Situated Things01

An intimate link exists between the situated experience of life and the extra-local, present-absent (capitalism, coloniality and the patriarchy) forces that organise it. Long before Indonesia became what is today the world’s largest Muslim nation, the island of Java was home to Hindu empires. The Majapahit empire lasted until the early sixteenth century before it was replaced by Muslim sultanates. As elsewhere in the world the pernicious ghosts of centuries of colonisation still reverberate and have brutal effects on so many levels of life. Epistemicide flattened landscapes of local wisdom – world views that treasure belonging to Gaia – through rationalities inherited from the Enlightenment and mainstreamed via modern educational systems. 02 With the founding of the independent Indonesian nation, local belief systems were officially forbidden. General Suharto and the group of Indonesian liberal economists known as the Berkeley Mafia generated short-term economic growth, planting the seeds for post-industrial crisis and environmental catastrophe. The accompanying hopes for better lives through economic development were soon exposed as ‘cruel optimisms’ during the Asian Financial Crisis of 1997. 03 Under political reform in 1998 in parallel with a more relaxed political climate, the rise of new communication technologies unleashed a void of potentialities for new relationships between people, things and ideas. Countless media and art collectives mushroomed all over the archipelago, 
including Forum Lenteng, KUNCI, ruangrupa and Lifepatch.


Lifepatch is a community-based citizen initiative that promotes cross-disciplinary creative work in art, science and technology. Founded in 2012, members of Lifepatch invite anyone to take part in their activities to research, explore and develop the presence of technology and of natural and human resources in the surrounding area. Championing the spirit of Do It Yourself (DIY) and Do It With Others (DIWO), the practice of Lifepatch encourages new forms and creativity from the interactions between people as well as between individuals and communities. The mission of Lifepatch is to be useful in developing the potential of human and natural resources by building bridges for domestic and international collaboration and providing open access for everyone to research material and the results that have developed out of the work carried out. Members of Lifepatch come from various disciplinary backgrounds, with both formal and informal education (including agricultural
biotechnology, education, art and civil engineering).

Lifepatch’s practices loosely orbit around the idea of bridging art, science and technology through making hardware and knowledge openly accessible to interested lay audiences. Mediated by technologies their activities reach local communities all over Indonesia, international avant-garde hackerspaces, biodesign science communities and the contemporary art world. They develop, run and host workshops for DIY webcam microscopes, electronics, photography, fermentation, noise, 3D printing, touch and moist synthesisers and plentiful other programmes and exhibitions. The Lifepatch website lists and links hundreds of activities. 04

Lifepatch, Hackteria Lab workshop, 2014, detail

In formal approaches to art the object, through an analytical act, is often separated from its roots and the environment in which it is open to becoming. Adopting another gaze, one that looks elsewhere, I am interested in the vernacular practices that enable the genesis of artworks and in the social grammar that configures these processes. Such a processual materialist gaze looks at artworks as the culmination of a set of complex relational becomings involving humans, objects and technologies, testing established notions of art.

Socially entangled artistic practice is not the exception but the norm in Indonesia. According to Hafiz Rancajale from Forum Lenteng, art collectives are ‘a response to a local situation’ – one, however, that is always already shaped across global scales and temporalities. 05 One of the longest running projects of Lifepatch the Jogja River Project (2013–ongoing) stems from and responds to these of out-of-sync temporalities and to an apocalyptic present marked by environmental crisis and post-industrial disasters. It started with a walk by the Code River in Yogyakarta among a group of friends who were curious to learn how the river and its surroundings – both in its human and more-than-human dimensions – became affected by pollution and environmental problems. Together with residents, the local university, as well as international collaborators, a range of projects around water unfurled. Proactively acting upon an unfavourable situation that was not of their making, they built microscopes and digital maps to monitor the water quality, explored the level of E. coli bacteria and hormonal contamination of the river waters, and took photographs and organised exhibitions and workshops.

Lifepatch, Hackteria Lab workshop, 2014, detail

At the time, the bureaucratisation of Islamic morality, which imposed high taxes on alcoholic beverages, triggered the production of more affordable but sometimes poisonous and deathly substances. Water became a terrain where these movements materialised and gained operational force. What happens in water matters; it matters to the residents of the polluted river and to those who drink unsafe alcohol. Together with the Microbiology Laboratory of the Faculty of Agriculture of Gadjah Mada University in Yogyakarta, Lifepatch organised workshops for safe fruit wine fermentation. Institutional conventions that decide who gets to partake in knowledge production became fractured as interstices were created. The workshops were open to the public and came from a place of awareness for the epistemic limitations of scientific modes of capture that are only ever able to produce knowledges that are exclusive and dismissive of other ways of knowing about water. One can hear, feel and taste things growing in water. Based on an experiential rather than theoretical relationship with water, some of the collective’s members built sound installations to translate the fermentation process into an audio form.

A processual materialist gaze suggests that these techno-poetic assemblages bring into being so much more than mere artefacts. When people come together to chop and cook bananas, and pour water into canisters with yeast, they are not only making fruit wine. They are also producing knowledge about making safe wine. In that particular moment in Indonesia, this constituted a micro-
political act, a rupture in the toxic spiral of power over lives, disguised as religious morality and institutionalised through capitalist modes of taxing.

The Lifepatch Method

What runs through the diverse projects and works produced by Lifepatch over the years is a particular mode of collective speculative knowledge production. A dialogical technique for the creation of alternative pedagogical spaces to learn from and with another. Proactive speculative futures making in the now through playful techno-poiesis.

In my workshops whoever can join, men, women, young and old. In the workshops there is no teacher and student. People learn from each other. We just share what we know. Then you can hack and improve. 06

The workshops constitute spaces where participants are not merely receivers but active contributors. This improvisational and speculative stance is reminiscent of what Donna J. Haraway portrayed as ‘play’, a practice that is ‘rooted in taking chances with one another’ or what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney call ‘study’, ‘a mode of thinking with others separate from the thinking that the institution requires of you’.07 The mode of production of study is a journey through collective speculation, a space where the question of what languages we want to speak and ultimately what constitutes a language is posed anew.

Our practice is our language, and we develop our language through our practice. 08

The practice of Lifepatch is an artistic language for our times. A language that believes in the world, wants to be in it, cares for it and wants it to be better. A language that is not for fundamentally changing the world but, as Andreas Siagian puts it, for ‘sharing something good at least with the people who surround us. Small but consistent within our limited time and energy’.09 This can be brought close to philosopher and psychoanalyst Félix Guattari’s notion of the ‘molecular revolution’, which refers to situated processes that enact change beyond the mere articulation of critique.10 It is another kind of revolution, an antidote to the definition we are familiar with, a masculinist type of disruptive macro-change.

Lifepatch, Mbanyu Mili (Flowing Water), 2015, detail. Installation view, ‘Maju Kena, Mundur Kena: Bertindak Sekarang’ (‘Neither Forward nor Back: Acting in the Present’), Jakarta Biennale, 2015. Courtesy Sita Magfira

Relational Beings, Relational Worlds

Technology is a tool, we had thought. Here my thinking goes alongside philosopher Yuk Hui’s notion of ‘cosmotechnics’, namely the imperative to unleash and articulate all other possibilities of the relationships between human-technology-nature, beyond the narrow Western-centric definition of technology derived from the Greek technē, rooted in a plurality of local cosmologies.11 It is crucial to question the foundational assumptions of a normalised instrumentalist conceptualisation of technology that expands the idea of ‘the West’, which, as anthropologist Michel-Rolph Trouillot reminds us, is always ‘a fiction, an exercise in global legitimation’ that undergirds corollary phenomena of colonialism, capitalism and racism.12 Any operation in the production and dissemination of knowledges should look at ontological windows instead of merely through them. Context is never merely a backdrop, it is always operational. For it takes more than an open political climate and access to technologies for art collectives to thrive. Technology, in these processes of creating relations and of becoming, matters when it is actualised as part of concrete associations between human and non-human agents. We might therefore more productively think of technology as a type of relation rather than as an entity. From there we may examine the nature of the relationship and question the moral grammar through which it is configured.

We are lucky to have social support and friends. We don’t have money to do this and that but with the help from friends we can do it. We have the communal way of doing things. 13

It is this ‘communal way’ expressed through the idea of DIWO (Do It With Others) and the notion of gotong royong emphasised by Timbil that I wish to discuss. Conceptions of communal labour have a long and complicated genealogy, starting from a romanticised rural past, through political mobilisation and forced labour, to modes of collective practice in contemporary art. In the context of the latter, gotong royong refers to a mindset and practice of doing something for a greater common good, a form of exchange without direct material outcomes and which upsets the capitalist assumptions of neoliberal individualism. Is a fundamentally different cosmology at play here? Many people I spoke to in Indonesia conceive of themselves as part of a world where everyone and everything is intimately enmeshed with the extra-corporeal. This is a conception of the world in which subjectivity is relational, translating into a fundamentally different way of acting in the world, where no being is separate from their surroundings. In this world, everyone is response-able. And as Haraway puts it, ‘response-ability must be cobbled together, not in the existentialist and bond-less, lonely, Man-making gap theorized by Heidegger and his followers.’14 Gotong royong acts as an organising principle in the dynamics between human and technology. It is a moral grammar that structures and opens up new relationships at the intersections of the human, the environmental and the technological.

But there is more to it and this goes beyond free labour. Instead of a material transaction, such collaborations use another currency, trust. For Nur Akbar Arofatullah trust consists in ‘always [having] some people who will help […] when encounter[ing] difficulties’, which needs to be nurtured by spending time together. The Indonesian word for this is nongkrong. It happens when people meet with no pre-defined goal in mind. Someone might sleep or eat and people come and go as is there is no official beginning or end. I learned that spaces for nongkrong are the birthplaces of many art collectives in Yogyakarta, where people met to hang out long before they had even labelled themselves as ‘collective’. As Nopel Basuki puts it ‘it happens organically, people spend time together and then do things together. Often using gotong royong instead of money’. 15

‘Vape Liquid Workshop’, 2016. Courtesy Sita Magfira

On the Persistence of an Ideal

A technicity de-coupled from the imperatives of productivity and progress. A cosmotechnics irreducible to labour, freed from the project of modernity. Grounded in cosmological relations, with the moral imperative of gotong royong at its heart. Radical relatedness despite and against extractive neoliberal capitalism. This sounds too good to be true. Indeed in contemporary Indonesia, gotong royong is not a natural default or an essential characteristic of individuals but something that is always at stake, a process that requires tremendous effort, a task that remains.

Yogyakarta is a special place, relatively low costs of living still allowing its easy-going lifestyle. But this climate is fragile, tourism and development making life more expensive. ‘They are building houses differently now, modern houses have fences not the huge porches where we used to gather in the past’, says Basuki.16 Since the early workshop days, many things have changed, not only in the environment but also within the collective. In 2012 Lifepatch officially became an organisation, as Nur Akbar Arofatullah explains: ‘We were invited to exhibitions and they always asked for our name and when we apply for funding we need to be registered as an official organization.’ 17

What happens when art collectives become organisations – when gotong royong is institutionalised and organic experimentation is turned into structures, processes and procedures? Akbar Arofatullah recalls: ‘When we got funding for a certain project, we should create a proper structure to make sure that the project runs well and each member that contributes to the project is properly acknowledged.’ 18 This mirrors a process many of the art collectives, after 1998, are going through, and it is still an ongoing difficult negotiation. Many of the conversations I had about this with Indonesian art collectives have a bitter aftertaste. Situations of conflict and cul-de-sac result from the fundamentally different logics of organisations, while gotong royong is based on collectivity. Accountability instead of trust, contracts instead of friendship, deadlines and clear responsibilities instead of improvisation. Yet, gotong royong rests not on the assumption of institutional form but performs open-ended ‘forms of instituting’. 19

‘Solder Synth Sense Sore Sore Sip’, a DIY electronics workshop at Lifepatch House, Yogyakarta. Courtesy Sita Magfira

From 2017–18 Lifepatch presented ‘The Tale of Tiger and Lion’ at M HKA – Mueum of Contemporary Art, Antwerp.20 Their idea was to engage with colonial artefacts from the lake Toba region in Sumatra held in the Hans Christoffel collection at the Museum aan de Stroom (MAS) in the same city. I asked Lifepatch what it felt like to work on a project like this, to which Agung Firmanto B. responded: ‘When I saw this big room full of artefacts. So many things from Indonesia. From our ancestors. We were angry and we wanted to bring them back. But there is not an easy way out. We tried to learn from a local perspective.’ 21

The idea behind the Antwerp project was a form or return to Sumatra. And so, dialogic engagements with a local community in Indonesia developed into a multi-local socio-technical assemblage with its own dynamic. Information from the university library in Leiden was shared in Sumatra. Members of the community were interested in the content of the Pustaha, their magic book with ancient wisdoms that are not taught in schools. As Sita Magfira recounts, ‘One of the big impacts of colonialism in North Sumatra is the spread of Christianity. The practice of the local religion and related beliefs is diminishing.’ 22 However, although many of these stories are not taught in schools, to the surprise of Lifepatch, the community did not want the objectback: ‘Why would you bring back the artifacts? What would we do with them? We can make better ones now. This will only cause conflicts in our community. How can we possibly determine who they belong to?’ 23

7 January 2018: The Exhibition Closes

The bureaucratic temporalities of an artistic research project end here. And so does funding and institutional support. Modern institutions are rigid. But a story told in an exhibition space once does not end. In contrast to many socially engaged art projects that remain tangential encounters, Lifepatch constantly works with local communities. Scans of the Pustaha are shared in WhatsApp conversations with friends in Medan, language experts who help to translate. Why do this after the project has ended? Because a collective is not a modern institution. Because a relational subjectivity made Lifepatch a part of the community the moment they met the people from lake Toba. This is reminiscent of Grace Samboh’s characterisation of gotong royong art as ‘a method, an approach, or even a series of processes that do not need to end immediately. It has no single objective, much less tangible and measurable ones.’ 24

This refusal to be caged in the framework of a single project or event hints at the fact that for some people their practice is a way of life, not a profession. As Irwan Ahmett has beautifully written, ‘gotong royong is in souls who want to be free’.25 Or as a friend of mine told me, ‘we are doing this so we can always be free in a world we love’.26 Not being free from responsibilities but creating this world. Step by step. Gotong royong then is more than an echo from the past, it is a decision for the now and a potentiality towards a liveable future.

A wine-making workshop at Juminahan, a Kampung on the banks of the river Code. Courtesy Sita Magfira

23 January 2020: Another Exhibition Opens

Spectacular Healing (2019), is a two-channel video created in collaboration with Manguji Nababan who transcribed and translated the Pustaha, commissioned for the group show titled ‘On the Nature of Botanical Gardens: Contemporary Indonesian Perspectives’ at Framer Framed in Amsterdam.27 This work that engages with traditional healing methods, and decolonisation is another moment in the ongoing engagement between Lifepatch and the community in Sumatra. It is a poignant example of how the Lifepatch way of DIWO shapes both the process and the artwork. On one channel we see herbs, fruits and roots merged into jamu, a traditional medicinal drink. The other screen shows blood being sucked out of a body, needles into and hot metal coins on skin. Subtitles and audio are not indexical. This ungrammaticality performs an argument about contemporaneity. In the aftermath of epistemicide, everything orbits around a version of knowledge where traditional healing methods do not have a place other than in commoditised exoticism of the capitalist exploitation of plants. The English language subtitles ask why, give answers – ‘epistemic violence’ – and state an imperative – ‘we do not follow imperial needs, colonial wants on Indonesian identity representation’. A carefully crafted message that is in stark contrast to the audio layer in which we listen to conversations in Indonesian without translation. The performative political position claims the right to opacity.28 What spectators listen to (but necessarily fail to hear if they don’t speak Indonesian) offers a conditioned glimpse into another temporality of the work: the process of making it. While the text reads like a manifesto, the tone here is more ambiguous, suggesting that this process was about collective contemplation about the contemporary relevance of the Pustaha. The creative process here is a dialogic journey and it does not end when the screen turns off.


  • This text results from conversations between the author and Lifepatch members Nur Akbar Arofatullah, Timbil Budiarto, Agung Firmanto B.,Sita Magfira and Andreas Siagian, as well as Lifepatch friend Nopel Basuki. All quotes from Lifepatch members are from these conversations held on 5–6 December 2019 in Yogyakarta, Indonesia as well as an ongoing conversation through emails, WhatsApp messages and exchanges on the draft of this text.
  • Epistemicide, or the killing of systems of knowledge, is a notion coined by Boaventura de Sousa Santos in Epistemologies of the South: Justice Against Epistemicide, London: Routledge, 2014. Gaia is the name given to personify the Earth. The term has been popularised by, amongst others, Bruno Latour in his discussion of chemist James Lovelock and microbiologist Lynn Margulis’s ‘Gaia hypothesis’ in Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the Climactic Regime, Cambridge and Medford, UK: Polity Press, 2017.
  • The term was coined by scholar Lauren Berlant in Cruel Optimism, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011.
  • See
  • Hafiz Rancajale during a conversation with the author on 6 September 2019 in Jakarta, Indonesia. A version of this quote is regularly voiced by other members of the Forum Lenteng collective as well when they speak about their practice.
  • Without a standard template, this is one of many examples of Lifepatch’s workshops. Lifepatch member Agung Firmanto B, 8 December 2019, Yogyakarta, Indonesia in conversation with the author. Each member holds workshops in various formats.
  • Donna J. Haraway with Martha Kenney, ‘Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulhocene’, in Heather Davis and Etienne Turpin (ed.), Art in the Anthropocene: Encounters Among Aesthetics, Politics, Environments and Epistemologies, London: Open Humanities Press, 2015, p.261; Stefano Harney and Fred Moten, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning & Black Study, Wivenhoe and Port Watson, NY: Minor Compositions, 2013, p.11.
  • ‘Lifepatch: the Natural Affinity between Indonesian Culture and Global Peer-to-Peer Culture’ (interview), Japan Foundation Asia Center [online], available at (last accessed on 15 June 2021).
  • Written comment by Andreas Siagian on an earlier version of this text.
  • Féilx Guattari, Molecular Revolution: Psychiatry and Politics, Harmondsworth, UK and New York: Penguin, 1984.
  • Yuk Hui, The Question of Technology in China: An Essay in Cosmotechnics, Falmouth, UK: Urbanomic, 2016. Also see Hui’s essay in this issue.
  • Michel-Rolph Trouillot, Global Transformations: Anthropology and the Modern World, Basingstoke, UK and New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.
  • Timbil Budiarto, conversation with the author, 5 Decebmer 2019, Yogyakarta, Indonesia.
  • Donna J. Haraway, Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene, Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press, 2016, p.11.
  • Nopel Basuki, conversation with the author, 8 December 2019, Yogyakarta, Indonesia.
  • Ibid.
  • Written comment by Nur Akbar Arofatullah on an earlier version of this text.
  • Ibid.
  • The expression ‘forms of instituting’ is from theorists Gerald Raunig and Gene Ray, Art and Contemporary Critical Practice: Reinventing Institutional Critique, London: MayFly Books, 2009.
  • ‘The Tale of Tiger and Lion’, M HKA – Museum of Contemporary Art, Antwerp, 16 September 2017–7 January 2018.
  • Agung Firmanto B., conversation with the author, 8 December 2019, Yogyakarta, Indonesia.
  • Sita Magfira conversation with the author, 8 December 2019, Yogyakarta, Indonesia.
  • Ibid.
  • Grace Samboh, ‘The democratization of knowledge and curiosity through gotong-royong art’, in HackteriaLab 2014 [online publication], Yogyakarta: Hackteria, Lifepatch and Hyphen, 2015, available at (last accessed on 7 June 2021).
  • Irwan Ahmett, ‘Pertemuan Dengan Si Gotong Royong’ (‘Meeting with the gotong royong’), Whiteboard Journal [online journal], 25 January 2019, (last accessed on 7 June 2021). Translation the author’s.
  • Deden M. Sahid, conversation with the author, 2018, Bandung, Indonesia.
  • ‘On the Nature of Botanical Gardens: Contemporary Indonesian Perspectives’, Framer Framed, Amsterdam, 24 January –16 August 2020.
  • See Édouard Glissant, Poetics of Relation, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1997.