Sit Down and Talk

Held once every five years in Kassel, Germany, documenta – the Hundred Day Museum is a post-war effort originally conceived by artist and art educator Arnold Bode to reconcile German public life and culture — after the period of Nazi dictatorship — with international modernity, and confront Germans with their failed Enlightenment.

Since its inception in 1955, documenta has maintained a reputation for taking the route less travelled in terms of its exhibition framework, which opts for a more concept-driven and intellectual approach. It is hailed as the most esoteric and idiosyncratic international art event of its ilk.

It is often said that one comes to the grey, pleasure-less Kassel to contemplate and think — unlike the glamourous, prosecco-soaked Venice Biennale; high-profile, blue-chip art fairs like Art Basel; or any of the other biennales and triennales of recent times, with their extensive media reach. Perhaps it is due to the above factors that documenta’s quiet presence has been somewhat distant from the general consciousness of Southeast Asia’s art community, save for a few in the serious art / culture sets.

In conjunction with the 12th edition of documenta in 2007, the exhibition launched documenta 12 Magazines (d12). This online journal has earned “a magazine of magazines” moniker, as it was conceived to compile articles from 90 publications worldwide on the themes of d12. The result has been a cerebral coming together of art publications, with a range of orientations, formats, and art, culture, and theory media.

d12 ventures into the often feared and daunting realm of theory, and opens up the exhibition to critical writing from outside the centre. Clearly, it is also a product of its time: thanks to the current proliferation of internet technology and advancements, an online magazine of this magnitude — and an interactive one at that; where readers are able to pick and choose and, best of all, personalise their own d12 magazine — would have been a near impossibility 10 years ago.

documenta 12 Magazines in Southeast Asia

In 2006, d12 convened two meetings with the editors of various Southeast Asian arts publications in Singapore: the first in January and the second in October. These meetings marked a major step, as it brought together — for the very first time — all the editors and publications from the region to hear each other out. It was also here that the idea to put together a special collaborative issue between (Malaysia’s leading arts and culture website, of course), the Kunci Cultural Studies Centre (of Yogyakarta), and Pananaw (a journal for visual arts based in the Philippines) for d12 germinated.

Looking back, this decision was a natural one. Aside from the desire to maintain a stronger regional presence internationally, the collaboration is also an attempt to put into action the idea of cross-referencing on a more modest and manageable scale. This project is not without its share of dilemmas, problems and pressures — such as the question of translation and accessible contents and contexts, as well as logistical and administrative aspects — we cannot deny that there is a certain sense of comfort in finding strength in numbers.

In the process of this collaboration, the editors from the three publications — Eileen Legaspi-Ramirez, from Pananaw; Nuraini Juliastuti and Antariksa, from Kunci; and me, as guest editor for — have been in constant communication with each other, via SMSes and messenger chat conferences.

Excerpted and edited below are some of the discussions and responses to the d12 magazine project, as well as other related matters, conducted over Yahoo! Messenger. We questioned the leitmotifs of d12:

  1. Is modernity our antiquity?
  2. What is bare life?
  3. What is to be done?

What Is To Be Done?

njuliastuti (Nuraini Juliastuti): The leitmotif we feel most connection with is number three: “What is to be done?” We at Kunci try to connect theory and reality. So, aside from making theoretical works, such as publishing our cultural studies journal, website and creating a mailing list for cultural studies discussion, we make attempts for more socially engaging works.

addy12.rm (Adeline Ooi): I think, for most us in South East Asia, our work is often driven by practical needs — responding to all that is lacking and that which needs to be done, building infrastructure, cultivating audiences, etc.

eileenlegaspiramirez (Eileen Legaspi-Ramirez): Well, in our case, we do still have a very soft spot for getting people to theorise — even while we stay cognisant of how disempowering theory can also be for most artists. But I agree; the last leitmotif is the most accessible. Who can argue with education, after all? Even before documenta came into the picture, we already had a volume about education planned out. For us, education is very much tied up with criticism and curatorship. So, in a sense, it wasn’t like we were totally going out of our way to fit in with the leitmotifs.

addyl2.rm: With d12 participation in mind, did you consider the accessibility of the content?

eileenlegaspiramirez: In a sense, yes — though I still feel what we’ve put out there is primarily relevant to us. I mean, I can understand how a European audience might find it parochial. There’s a tug and pull, really, between primary and secondary audiences. I hope that it will somehow resonate across — but, still, the main intention is to address needs that we know are very real in our own locus.

addy12.rm: For us, the most practical approach was to present “a sampler plate”: a selection of articles from our archives that is interesting and relevant to both local and international audiences. Most of our articles are about the local art scene, so it was quite difficult to predict what others (outside Malaysia) would find interesting or accessible.

antariksamail (Antariksa): I believe our articles are relevant to Indonesian audiences, but I am not sure that they will be relevant to a d12 audience …

eileenlegaspiramirez: Specific to Pananaw’s d12 volume, there are issues of intellectual / artistic / curatorial lineage; questions of representation within the Philippines, and abroad; attempts to disabuse audiences of the myth that everything that goes to print is worth the paper it’s on; an examination the dynamics between curators and artists, emergent and established voices — both in writing and art production.

addy12.rm: It is the same in Malaysia. The lack of art writers — and, by extension, too few readers. I think, specific to d12, we were more concerned with addressing local issues, like the rest of you guys: the question of identity, cultural criticism …

eileenlegaspiramirez: Yes, I think we do share a lot of issues, right?

antariksamail: Yes — and I think we can answer the first and the third leitmotifs of d12: modernity and education.

Middle Class Hype

addy12.rm: And what about leitmotif two: “What is bare life?”

eileenlegaspiramirez: On the political front, it was and is still actually relevant, particularly given the rising number of writers and artist-activists being rendered voiceless. The local headlines this week was very much about the newly enacted Human Security Act, which — while touted as the state’s primary weapon against terrorism –­ remains a sore point among a significant number of sectors who feel it will only aggravate the sense of impunity that state agents invoke in relation to dissidents.

antariksamail: That question is too abstract for me. I find it is too detached from reality — the reality in Indonesia, I mean.

addy12.rm: But isn’t the same thing happening on your end, too? I mean, taking into account what Eileen says about activists and writers being rendered voiceless — or is it just media hype?           ,

antariksamail: It’s middle class hype! 😛

eileenlegaspiramirez: Just another point to add. I think there’s a flipside in the Philippines, though: there’s still very much an aversion to the “victimization” thread. You get the sense that people know repression, and are living in what are long-drawn problems. You no longer wait to have help come your way. You act, you do. That, to us, is education — self-empowerment.

njuliastuti: Concerning writers I activists being rendered voiceless — say, in the New Order era — at the grassroots level, the movement is doing great. You see, even under the control of the New Order regime, the underground movement managed to find ways to speak out about “freedom” and “democratisation” — those were the two buzzwords before Reformation. One important development that resulted from the above is the alternative media movement. Even though the most political media at that time (Tempo, DR and Detik) were banned, we still can find the online version of Tempo magazine, published by the former journalists of Tempo. I call them “former journalists” because, formally, they are not journalists at Tempo anymore. And there is a powerful discussion on politics among Indonesians through the “Apa Kabar Indonesia?” mailing list.

Idiosyncrasy and Collaboration

eileenlegaspiramirez: So okay, back to d12. Let me just say, I think one of the major problems of d12 is that, even as it is supposed to be trying to serve as a counter-weight to the documenta exhibition’s central European focus, it didn’t attempt to build that counter­-network early enough.

antariksamail: The problem of representation …

addy12.rm: The ambition of a such a monster is great, but the end result is often disappointing. It requires a lot of thinking through; what sounds great on paper may not necessarily work. Call me old-fashioned, but I prefer smaller, more intimate working relationships.

njuliastuti: Yes and there’s no time to elaborate or explore the leitmotifs in d12 — at least for Asian editors; and, perhaps, for other editors out there too. In the case of the editors of the CLiCK collaboration — with Surat, Clea, LeBur and Kunci — it was very hard for us to discuss the leitmotifs and connect them to our real situations. Everybody had their own existing work and commitments. The most practical thing to do is simply to make sense of the three leitmotifs from the context of our own work, and for each of us to come up with a list of publications to match. But my concern is that d12 should create tools or ways to discuss the leitmotif among the editors in different places.

addy12.rm: Whatever the sexy buzzwords may be these days — “globalisation”, “cross­-referencing”, or whatever — at the end of the day we are not selling McDonald’s or Coca­ Cola. Culture, at the end of the day, is specific to context; even if we may share common ground, the problems or the specifics are idiosyncratic …

njuliastuti: I agree.

eileenlegaspiramirez: Then again, there’s some real productive residue — perhaps we wouldn’t have met if d12 hadn’t (though belatedly) invited us. I think the network of editors will indeed outlive d12, and imaginably make the relationships workable. What do you think?

addy12.rm: Perhaps the one good thing we got out of this is this three-way collaboration. It is ironic that we had to go (that far, all the way to documenta) to connect with each other.

eileenlegaspiramirez: How about for you Nuning? Antariksa? Has it been worth the trouble for you? 🙂 Any gains or lessons from the exercise?

njuliastuti: Yes. This project opened the door for us to do collaboration with our friends, here in Yogyakarta.

Regional Networking?

addy12.rm: Why do you think there is so little regional collaboration?

njuliastuti: Because we always look at the West.

addy12.rm: And you, Eileen? Do you feel very far removed from the rest of Southeast Asia?

eileenlegaspiramirez: No, not particularly — but I do feel that there’s not enough macro (as in region-wide) initiatives that are being initiated. Perhaps it is because the local problems are so overwhelming, that not enough energy is left over to mobilize outside of one’s backyard.

addy12.rm: Yeah, I think that is the same too for Indonesia no? Often cultural work tends to be very “Java-centric” or “Bali-centric” — Java and Bali being the two great cultural centres — that you don’t hear voices from other regions.

njuliastuti: That has always been our question or curiosity, since at least five years ago. The question concerning Asian connections, being Asian, etc. That’s why we always included “Asian Indonesia Identities” as one of the grounds for our work.

eileenlegaspiramirez: Why do you think we are having such difficulties reaching out to each other within the region? What do you think is at the heart of this problem?

Language? Competition?

addy12.rm: Perhaps, for most ASEAN countries, it’s the burden of solving local “problems” first, before we can look elsewhere. And let’s not forget the lack of funding being one the other great deterrents.

eileenlegaspiramirez: But is it a problem specific to Southeast Asia? Don’t other regions have their own local nuances and funding problems?

addy12.rm: I wish I knew the answer to that … Just looking at European models alone, there’s always national funding or some sort of cultural funding for exchange. I believe it’s similar for Japan and Korea, too. But these are, of course, First World models.

The West and Ourselves

eileenlegaspiramirez: So the infrastructure is not as hospitable to networking, then?

addy12.rm: I remember when Cemeti Art Foundation organized “Fixing the Bridge” a couple of years back. That was a groundbreaking conference despite the many communication problems, as it brought together the different models of artists initiatives from all over the world, from as far as Poland, through to Asia and New Zealand. Many of the Europeans were surprised that the regional bodies rarely met, and wondered why we had not done it more often. While we all recognised the need to connect the regional dots more closely and actively, we all admitted that it was easier to form relationships with European, Australian or Japanese counterparts, due to the offers available and the accessibility of funding.

antariksamail: Perhaps because we never realise that the Southeast Asian networks are more important than direct networking to the West …

addy12.rm: Just look at the project sponsors for that conference: ASEF, Goethe Institute, Erasmus Huis, CCF, Prince Claus (Foundation), HIVOS, Japan Foundation, etc.

eileenlegaspiramirez: So the networking follows the funding trail?

antariksamail: For us, it’s not just about the money but about our own leitmotifs. 😛

addy12.rm: Perhaps … but, no, I disagree with Antariksa in that issue about networking with the West. I personally feel that regional networking is vital — especially in Southeast Asia, because of our common grounds. It’s just that we never knew how we could successfully make it happen.

eileenlegaspiramirez: I’m thinking now that it could also be because we’re still very much engrossed in asserting our specificities, despite all the talk about globalisation. So it could really be an amalgamation of conditions.

antariksamail: Yes …

addy12.rm: I agree that we all have our own “fish to fry”, so to speak, but I also think one of the reasons why we have never got together is largely due to the lack of funding. The realities and logistical costs of getting together a group of people from different countries is really quite a huge burden to overcome. And it is also to do with communication — we know that others exist out there, but sometimes finding information may not be easy. It’s only in the past few years that everyone’s got a website, blog, etc. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, this was not the case.

In the visual arts realm alone, think about the number of important Southeast Asian or regional exhibitions we’ve seen or heard of in the past 10 years. How many were there and who initiated them? I think we will see that these were organised by the Australians (the Asia-Pacific Triennial), the Germans via the Bols Foundation (“Identities vs Globalisation”), the Americans via the Asia Society (1997’s “Contemporary Art in Asia: Tradition / Tensions”), and the Japanese (the Fukuoka Asian Art Triennial). The only other country that tries to do the same is Singapore — through their National Arts Council, or the Singapore Tourism Board — and that’s because they recognise the need to become, and have been gearing towards becoming, a cultural hub.

New Meanings

eileenlegaspiramirez: Perhaps unless the gains from networking become really glaring and incontestable, the impetus will not set in. In the meantime, we have all these small, sporadic initiatives that are not sustained, or are driven by very specific institutional mandates.

antariksamail: Which also happens in the NGO realm and in the nation-state realm.

addy12.rm: I suppose it boils down to why, and what is the purpose of this network …

antariksamail: The purpose of this network, in my opinion, is to build a new meaning of Southeast Asia.

eileenlegaspiramirez: Yes, perhaps that is the direction to look at. Nation-states converge because they very clearly see the use of coming together as political blocs …

addy12.rm: Often national levels of cultural exchange are all rather superficial: bring a few cultural delegates, do a couple of song and dance numbers, exchange some pictures, sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) or two, bid each other goodbye, and tell themselves, “We’re friends now.” What we really need is to build real, meaningful relationships and dialogues. And such relationships require time …

eileenlegaspiramirez: Of what use would it be to us, in the long term, to redefine Southeast Asia?

addy12.rm: Because we want to be like the EU? :)) No, seriously, call me a romantic or sentimentalist, but this region has so much history and cultural overlaps …

antariksamail: Haaaa … we can work on it on a very practical level first — like what we are doing for the d12 project. But in the future we have to do it in a more “systematic” manner. 😛

What Now?

eileenlegaspiramirez: So beyond goodwill and recognition of shared histories, where else could we take this?

addy12.rm: The exchange is necessary because there is much to learn from this dialogue; the parallels and divergences in our current realities are good reasons to start. Maybe this sounds too simplistic, but there is nothing wrong with wanting to learn more about our “neighbours”, and to see if there are any areas we can work on together.

eileenlegaspiramirez: I guess, at this point, I’m also looking for more concrete indicators of gains ensuing from the dialogue. I’ve no answers, as yet …

antariksamail: Do you think it will be possible to do this kind of project (dialogue and article exchange) on a regular basis, and also for the long term?

eileenlegaspiramirez: Yes, I think so — but I’m imagining what kind of infrastructure this would require.

addy12.rm: As Antariksa says, we would have to do it in a more systematic way. But, back to what you said Eileen, I agree that there is nothing concrete just yet to reinforce the need or gains from this relationship — but isn’t that what it is about: not knowing the answer and the journey in search of it? Isn’t the process necessary?

antariksamail: Yes, process is more important than the result.

addy12.rm: So how do we approach this?

eileenlegaspiramirez: Perhaps we could set our sights on doing a collaborative project on a periodic basis, either by way of a web publication, or by meeting or conferencing annually — or by some other, more predictable, timeframe?

antariksamail: How about we meet via YM conference every few months, with a specific topic, and aim towards an annual publication in 2008. The final result can exist in print, online and as a pdf document — which we can forward to people.

eileenlegaspiramirez: Yes, let’s do that.

addy12.rm: Ok, let’s speak soon, then.

eileenlegaspiramirez: Yes, good for me.

antariksamail: Yes.

First Published: 27.07.2007 on Kakiseni

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