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ruangrupa, Singapore Fiction, 2011, installation with radio, documentation material, prints and video, dimensions variable, detail. Installation view, Singapore Biennial. Courtesy the artists
During Soeharto’s New Order era (1965—98), the progressive term ‘alternative’, used as an idea or to describe art spaces, signalled an opposition to the authorities.1 The reform period that followed, the reformasi, ushered in a time when ideas spun quickly, buzzing almost, and in which a number of alternative media and local civil initiatives developed. This increased activity reflected the intensity of local cultural production in Indonesia and was partly encouraged by the urgency to express the long- suppressed counterculture movement. Sensitive as these projects were to the social and political situation of the region, their lifespans varied, but the significance of what they produced proves that ‘alternative’ and ‘initiative’ are keywords by which to understand Indonesian society post-1998.
Ruangrupa is a Jakarta-based arts organisation established in 2000, when reformation ideas were still in the air. It functions as an outlet for studies of visual culture through exhibitions, the publication of a journal and writing workshops, and as such mirrors the shift of artistic practice from the production of objects to research. It was founded by a group of artists (Ronny Agustinus, Oky Arfie, Ade Darmawan, Hafiz, Lilia Nursita and Rithmi Widanarko), who met as students in different cities in the archipelago.
Youth and students played an important role in the demise of Soeharto’s New Order. During the reformasi, youth culture was given previously denied freedoms, and allowed to question things previously taken for granted. Writing about ruangrupa is writing about a youth movement.
At the same time, describing an artists’ collective is like remembering a long list of names — detailing those who came and worked for the collective, those who left and those who
Editors’ note: Soeharto’s New Order emphasised national unity, including a policy of transmigration that bred substantial local discontent and hence ethnic division as well as economic inequality across the Indonesian archipelago. Soeharto also prioritised economic development under the guidance of a team of Western-trained economists, and the military enjoyed a powerful influence in politics. Following the Asian financial crisis in 1997, poor economic performance, disaffection within various elements of society and burgeoning criticism of the regime culminated in the protests, violence and eventually riots in May 1998 that led to Soeharto’s resignation and the end of New Order, after 32 years. The reformasi (reform) period that started in 1998 was initially turbulent, but it soon led to greater political stability and an improved economic situation.↑
Ade Darmawan and Hendro Wiyanto, ‘Ruangrupa: Ruang Alternatif dan Telaah Kebudayaan’, Kompas, 30 January 2005.↑
Melani Budianta, ‘The Blessed Tragedy: The Making of Women’s Activism During the Reformasi Years’, in Ariel Heryanto and Sumit K. Mandal (ed.), Challenging Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia: Comparing Indonesia and Malaysia, London and New York: Routledge, 2003.↑
See interview between A. Darmawan and Haema Sivanesan, in From the Edge (exh. cat.), Paddington, NSW: Ivan Dougherty Gallery, 2006.↑
Email to the author, 23 March 2012.↑