Platform6documenta fifteen

ruangrupa: „Our exhibitions are an alibi“


ruangrupa: „Our exhibitions are an alibi“

Franz Thalmair

ruangrupa is a collective founded in 2000 and based in Jakarta. ruangrupa can be translated from Indonesian as "space of art", or "space-form". The collective’s curatorial approach is based on an international network of local community-based art organizations. From Kassel, ruangrupa views the documenta as a pool of resources that is located in the city but functions globally through a contemporary art ecosystem.

f.l.t.r. Daniella Fitria Praptono, Julia Sarisetiati, Ade Darmawan, Farid Rakun, Iswanto Hartono, Mirwan Andan, Reza Afisina, Indra Ameng, Ajeng Nurul Aini, 2019
© Photo: Saleh Husein

Franz Thalmair: Will there be an exhibition in Kassel?

ruangrupa: Yes of course, that's how we think about it, at least! Those 100 days are a celebration of a process before and after the documenta. We didn’t start this process with a new concept – the way we approach Kassel is with something that we were already doing in Indonesia for 20 years. You can understand it as an invitation for documenta to be part of our ecosystem… What kind of exhibition you will see, I cannot answer this question yet, because that’s based on the process. Normally we start to work with people we trust already and then slowly but surely it keeps on growing. One thing is sure: we are definitely not the sole decision makers and the single genius of the show.

FT: How do you work on and with communities right at the moment, when everywhere in the world there is a call for social distancing?

ruangrupa: Right at the moment, we are still preparing everything according to plan A. But of course we ask ourselves also the „what if“-question… What happens if people are still afraid to be in close contact to each other. Maybe the virus will stay. There is the possibility that the pandemic will still be up in 2022. Already now, the process has been affected. We should have a lot of meetings in person, in Kassel, in Indonesia, in Palestine, everywhere around the globe, but everything is cancelled. Now, even if digital tools rescue us to a certain degree, the whole situation has changed.

We thought before that we can prepare everything first and then start to work with artists and other collectives and initiatives. But people are in a much more precarious situations. So our ideas are really in line with them and all of us facing this kind of crisis. The positive side is that we need to act right now – faster that we thought before. Certain questions have a different urge now.

FT: If ruangrupa is invited to curate exhibitions or festivals, do you feel a certain kind of fear of institutions of not getting what they expect to get in terms of public formats?

ruangrupa: I don't think it's fear. If somebody invites us it is clear that we won’t play the well known game. We can’t as we don't come from that kind of background. It's much more that we have the opportunity to learn about different contexts. Sonsbeek for example was a challenge and a constant negotiation, let's say on day to day basis, on how we set up our projects and on how the system is built for our process or not.

We appreciate this type of discussion as it is a good way of not making us too comfortable with ourselves. If you ask us to make an event here in Jakarta, we know very well how to do it as this is what we have been doing in the past twenty years. According to how differently the institutions we cooperate with function, be it a biennial, a festival, a community event, we have to adopt our own practice – and we have to unlearn everything we did so far.

FT: You sometimes call yourself an instigator in addition to artist, writer, editor and teacher – who do you instigate and to what do you instigate?

ruangrupa: Maybe it's good to explain it with my background. I wasn't trained to be an artist or curator but as an architect. Even if I wouldn’t call myself architect nowadays, I am still doing architecture. In our practice with ruangrupa we try to read what's there already and then we try to to make something come out from the ingredients. We act a bit like a chef who creates a dish without a recipe. First we try to understand what's already there, we sort out the ingredients, and then we mix everything together – we try to cook a dish, whether this dish had a name before or not.

The process can end up very differently from project to project. Sometimes working with institutions can have an impact on them. When museum curators for example – especially the junior curators – start to talk about the power relations between them and the artists the whole process becomes entangled with social relations. That’s what we instigate. Our practice is starting something. Or it is not even starting something new, but making things visible that were already there right from the beginning of the process.

FT: Is there a difference for you whether you are invited as artists in a group exhibition or as curators for an institution? Do you apply the same strategies of working?

ruangrupa: There is a certain type of sensibility we start with, a very local sensibility that grew from being in Jakarta. We are interested in what is available in a certain context. The question that underlies our processes is always repeating, but the answer becomes always very different. Hopefully, this working method is not a formula – that's one of the most dangerous traps.

FT: Some of your works, for example “The Kuda: The Untold Story of Indonesian Underground Music in the 70’s” which was created for the Asia Pacific Triennale 7 in 2012, looks like an exhibition within an exhibition. Is this a common format in your practice?

ruangrupa: We like the idea of an exhibition within an exhibition, not always, but sometimes. In this specific case it all depends on The Kuda which is a contemporary punk band that is still playing concerts. It caught our attention because with looking at them we had the chance to look at a piece of Indonesian and Australian history. We created this semi-fictional setting – the entire installation plays with blurring the boundaries between fiction and reality. That’s the way it became a medium to tell a story – underlining the importance of music exchange at a certain moment in 1970s. Of course The Kuda wasn't active at this time, but we recreate a fictional myth. That’s why the piece looked like an exhibition inside an exhibition, or like a museum, an archive.

FT: You start form a fictional point and from a construction but as this construction somehow is used to to work upon our presence it becomes real – fiction becomes the ground for something happening actually right now.

ruangrupa: It is world-making in a sense, yes. 

FT: How was your approach to Sonsbeek 2016 and what strategies did you pursue with the title "transACTION"?

ruangrupa: Coming from a place where 200 million people live and still call Arnhem where 200.000 people live a city – this situation and the tension deriving form the different backgrounds was interesting. We're lucky to have done Sonsbeek before documenta. Kassel and Arnhem are somehow comparable, at least what concerns their size.

Sonsbeek is all about the park which is a real luxury coming from this part of the world, from Jakarta. The park is amazing. Therefore, we tried to make as much interventions as possible happen in the park. In Arnhem we built a house, called RURU Huis, a year before Sonsbeek opened. The strategy to open a space is very important for us. In order to understand and to interact with the city, we repeated this process in the Netherlands too and from that we could build a lot of things. In the end that process led us to making a city within a city.

Similar to Sonsbeek, we're going to set up a a RURU Haus in Kassel as well. In documenta we try to not showcase works that have been done in different places of the world but it's much more storytelling about what is going on right now. We are not telling people about theories from post-colonialism, de-colonialism or about the Anthropocene but to name a few trendy topics – it will be much more about telling those stories in different modes.

FT: Is this approach related to what you initiated with GUDSKUL? Infrastructures and architecture seems to play an important role in your process.

ruangrupa: Yes, it’s almost like that all right, but of course the scale is different. Together with other collectives from Jakarta, Serrum and Grafis Huru Hara, we transformed ourselves into a school. Therefore, we formed a collective of collectives, we've been trying to experiment with the notion of particle collectives and come up with an ecosystem and to understand ourselves as a resource – resource not only in terms of money, but of networks, knowledge, time and so on. You are right, in that way GUDSKUL can be understood as a space, an infrastructure, and an architecture. We have a space and other resources and we are trying to share it with our ecosystem. This is a model of sharing but also of sustaining our practice.

That’s also how “lumbung” works – this is the underlying concept of documenta. Lumbung is a very local practice. Now we try to apply this practice to a more planetary perspective. Not to scale it up but to connect more dots.

FT: Is lumbung relevant to South African Ubuntu, a concept being untranslatable in Western languages, meaning an idea of humanity, collectiveness and hospitality?

ruangrupa: Lumbung has similarities but it is not exactly the same. We are constantly trying to harvest those types of concepts from different parts of the world. Lumbung is translated as "rice barn". It is a collective potting or gathering system in which the plants produced by a community are stored as a future common resource. Our main question introducing lumbung to the documenta is, if a site like documenta is able to heal face problems rooted in colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchism.

FT: Is the exhibition medium still a valid model of distribution in the art field?

ruangrupa: We use our festivals, our exhibitions, our events as an alibi. As an alibi to learn something together, to experience something together, and to build certain type of ecosystems. We can sustain with certain values like sharing, generosity or humor – but to name a few. Exhibitions in themselves, if they are only exhibitions, are not interesting for us. We don’t want to reproduce these type of formats. But if it is useful in a bigger sense of things, if an exhibition hosts conversations for example or as a support structure for the whole process, then it is still an effective way of working.

FT: What happens at best after 100 days in Kassel?

ruangrupa: We don't have a blueprint. If we are successful we'll continue after that 100 days – with the network, the friendship, the practice, with supporting each other on a planetary level, not trying to swallow everything and bringing everything under one umbrella.

This is not a new start for us, the documenta is rather a new phase on our journey.


ruangrupa has been participating in exhibitions such as the Gwangju Biennial (2002 and 2018), Istanbul Biennial (2005), Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (Brisbane, 2012), Singapore Biennial (2011), São Paulo Biennial (2014), Aichi Triennial (Nagoya, 2016) and Cosmopolis at the Centre Pompidou (Paris, 2017). In 2016 the collective curated TRANSaction: Sonsbeek 2016 in Arnhem, the Netherlands. In 2022 they are responsible for the curation of documenta 15. Right now, ruangrupa is comprised of Ade Darmawan, Ajeng Nurul Aini, Daniella Fitria Praptono, Farid Rakun, Indra Ameng, Iswanto Hartono, Julia Sarisetiati, Mirwan Andan, Narpati Awangga, Reza Afisina

Courtesy KUNSTFORUM International. Originally published in German in KUNSTFORUM International no. 270 (Octobre 2020), pp. 66-73.

About the Platforms

In the course of our research and preparation for Documenta11 in 2002 the curatorial team discussed the possibility of organising a sixth platform. It would feature the voices of artists, curators, critics and intellectuals formed by the experience of Documenta11 and its various platforms. The spirit of the event should be that of “reculer pour mieux sauter”, looking back to look forward, using the event to reformulate the issues most urgent to our practices just as Documenta11 itself enabled us to rethink our political, cultural and aesthetic engagements.

Documenta11 team members Ute Meta Bauer, Angelika Nollert and myself visited Okwui in Munich where he was confined by illness but where he continued to work on his Haus der Kunst and critical and curatorial projects.

Introduction by Mark Nash, Ute Meta Bauer and Angelika Nollert

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