Working in a Curatorial Laboratory
A Journey Filled with Experiments and Adventures
That afternoon in February 2015, Ade Darmawan, chairman of the Jakarta Biennale Foundation, asked me to pick up Charles Esche at the Soekarno-Hatta International Airport in Cengkareng. Esche is a co-founder of Afterall, an art journal that frequently became my source of reference. so that day felt like I was meeting my idol, whom I had previously known only from his writings.
A few days afterwards, we had dinner after the launch of rUrUradio in Kemang, south Jakarta. Charles casually asked me if I would mind joining the curatorial team of the Jakarta Biennale 2015. I thought I misheard him, thinking that maybe he wanted me to be involved with the artistic team like during the previous biennale. But as it turned out, he didn’t. after making sure that I didn’t misunderstand him, it didn’t take long for me (who am I anyway to take time to consider the offer?) to accept the invitation to join the young curators team for the Jakarta Biennale 2015.
There are plenty of young curators in Indonesia, so being one of the six members of the Jakarta Biennale 2015’s Curators lab was not something I expected. I was among the artistic team during Jakarta Biennale 2013, and the experience more or less provided me with glimpses of how to become a curator, or at least how to take care of a big-scale exhibition. My duty had included technical matters at the exhibition arena, as in taking care of the display and treatment during the exhibition. Now, with the Curators lab, I did and learned the negotiation processes and how to formulate a concept into a presentation.
Before that, if I had to describe the job of a curator, the easiest answer would be creating an exhibition, writing, and inviting artists. In reality, the three elements could develop into detailed and specific components. I still remember how a writing workshop, a forum, a project and running a festival have forged me into a curator. Without any background in art education, with just enough knowledge about what art is and how to create an exhibition and the discourse to be picked, I believe the accurate word to describe my decision to join the Jakarta Biennale is recklessness. The recklessness to improve myself and to gain as many experiences as I could in the field of art.
Our days as a curatorial team were filled with discussions and formulating ideas. We mapped which artist to work with, who could respond to the Jakarta Biennale’s ideas. I met some of my fellow young curators for the first time at the lab, although I had heard about their works and achievements. Irma Chantily is a woman with concern and care about gender equality and who works in the photography scene; the last time I had seen her was when she curated the festival OK. Video Flesh in 2011. Asep Topan is a friend whose talents make me both envious and proud. he is probably enjoying spring right now at de appel, a contemporary art institute in the Netherlands, where he will get to learn a lot more about curatorship in the next two years. he is my art teacher and discussion partner as we both grew together at ruangrupa, Jakarta. Anwar ‘Jimpe’ Rahman and Putra Hidayatullah are friends from the network Gerobak Bioskop (Bioscoop Cart), a film-screening program that I ran at ruangrupa. I worked with them to create programs and workshops about the role of moving pictures in providing alternative knowledge for people. Jimpe is also active in the Tanah Indie (Indie land) community in Makassar, while Putra, who is of Aceh descent, is involved with the Tikar Pandan (Pandanus Mat) community. last but not least in the young curator team is an eccentric multimedia artist with the ‘poetic prowess’, Benny Wicaksono, who also works at the East Java Arts Council. We all come from different backgrounds and disciplines, which fill in the gaps in our knowledge. Later on, as the debates went on, and because most of us do not have an art background (which is actually the most fascinating thing!), we got to understand the potentials and positions of artists, as curators and discourse producers in the arts and social fields.
Among the early findings that I remember the most were how artists and curators exist in a constellation that groups exhibition content, ongoing political articulation, and the relations between artists and curators in realizing the ideas into a physical presentation. I had to adapt to understand the artistic goal of the artists that (has to be) in line with the construction of the idea. We engaged in debates about what is art and what is the importance of art for the wider public. The role of the curator as ‘a cultural producer’ makes more and more sense. Our work here is to find the space and relations within art that can involve the public. Not physically involve as in touching or participating in producing artworks, but be encouraged to read and understand the discourse offered by artists. From their part, artists cannot block the possibility of appreciation, but they must make themselves part of society so that their ideas remain grounded and accessible. It becomes more important to avoid art as commodity by increasing its role for the humans around it. In this sense, the public is no longer a passive audience, but is actively involved in creating meaning. As curators, our job is to come up with the platform for interpretation, discussion and negotiation for artists’ and public understanding over the discourse.
Next, we determined the criteria of young artists and established artists, or those with experience and high numbers of exhibitions. We wanted to encourage young artists to have a career and a place at the Jakarta Biennale, which usually invited renowned ones. To find these young artists, we went out to the field and see numerous works. It was fun working with newcomers. Some of their works were still raw and experimental (sometimes they don’t know what they are doing), and have yet to find any shape. But they brought huge spirit to the exhibition arena. We learned new things and sometimes we felt old as we listened to the ideas and issues sprouting among them.
Being with young artists took a lot of energy, especially when dealing with talented but highly inexperienced ones. We had to make sure that we didn’t come off patronizing and remained in the collaborative corridor. Working with senior artists was not any less a valuable process. It enriched our experience and a part of our learning curve.
There is always a risk of failure in producing something. But there is always wisdom and explanation behind it. Problems can arise from tactical things, related to lack of funding or how the artist does not spend enough time to do his or her ‘homework’, namely finding references. It can also derive from technical issues: how to build a sensible work that can be materialized with a feasible formula and model. Finding location or space can also be a problem. Sometimes failure leaves us with a question, did we not spend enough time to assist the artist? Could it be the unequal relationship and understanding and weak resonance between us? The existing variables eventually bring us to a conclusion: it is better to work more closely but with fewer artists in the future.
There were times when we felt that the work of an artist would not be strong enough. Initially, we were convinced that the work would have significant impact, but the reality showed otherwise. Time-consuming work and discussion led us to a final decision. When the artwork came to the point of no return, we have to let go off the fact that it was really not working. It was a horrifying choice to stop the production of an artwork and to halt the discussion with an artist. But we had to do it for the sake of the artist and the management who had worked really hard to create an event with all their might, including by finding finances and negotiating with numerous parties amid complicated red tape. I believe the cancellation process is not a responsibility of an individual, but a collective one. It is a matter of how we position ourselves and hold on to the principles to work better.
There are several artists whose works we really admire because of their simplicity. At the end of the day an artwork cannot be determined by the complexity and intricacy of the installation technique, which creates a cutting-edge look, or making it look like it has a wide reach. Art can be ‘perfect’ when the artist works with the awareness over the medium and the content.
In practice, we did not work in such a specific way or a process to create certain end results. Our intuitions helped us a lot in intertwining all of the artworks so that they are connected with one another. sometimes everything went smoothly, before pivoting and returning to the starting point with better ideas, or stuck in the way back that we had to open a new way to see the ideas materialized.
During my stint with the Jakarta Biennale, I worked closely with the artists to develop a new project or artwork. It was the process that I enjoyed the most, especially when I had a good team. It was always a delight to provide enough space, time and capital for the artists to create a new work. I liked the experiments that were going on, even though nothing is perfect. Time and logistics often restrained us, but for me, there is nothing more valuable than digging deep into the artistic discourse and model and presenting the findings in the form of exhibition.
It is obvious that we learned a great deal from the Curators lab. hopefully, we contributed something not only to each other, but to the world of art curatorship in the country.***