A radical collective takes control of one of the largest art exhibitions in the world

I undertook several days of nongkrong in Gudskul, arriving in the calm of mid-morning to sit under the breadfruit trees with anyone willing to chat. When the collectives bought the property, it had an indoor soccer field, so ruangrupa kept the high roof intact and built two floors of cabins inside – some with drywall and glass windows, others from shipping containers. Across a central tree-lined walkway stand more shipping containers: stacked in half, in a bright row, like a tiresome childlike arrangement of Legos. In the late afternoon, when Jakarta received its usual downpour, Gudskul hummed with activity. Classes on Zoom. A tattoo parlour. A radio station called rururadio. An archivist in the compact library. A graphic design laboratory. A publishing house and shop offering Indonesian translations of world literature. Artists in their shipping container studios. And everywhere, the feeling of a slow fermentation – the feeling that, as people floated in each other’s orbits, they were creatively galvanized, working towards new arts and new ideas all the time. Not necessarily big projects, as Andan said, but small rich stories with big frequency.

To flesh out some of these abstractions, consider ruangrupa’s exhibits at two exhibitions: the Asia-Pacific Triennial in Brisbane in 2012 and the São Paulo Biennial in 2014. This period proved to be a turning point, says Farid Rakun, a architect who joined ruangrupa in 2010. For Brisbane, ruangrupa invented an underground 1970s Indonesian rock band, created memories and persuaded Brisbane rockers to witness the band’s influence. It was wild and engrossing work, and it delighted ruangrupa, in particular, that the ruse escaped the museum and spilled over into real life. “Years after that, someone showed us a blog post talking about the Kudas,” Darmawan said. “I think they didn’t know it was actually fiction, because it was very serious writing, talking about how the Indonesian punk scene influenced the Brisbane punk scene.” But it was all still “closer to what people understand as art projects,” Rakun told me. São Paulo, on the other hand, became “the first time we put ourselves on stage”. After that, he says, invitations to art festivals multiplied, “boom-boom-boom-boom”, and the export of ruangrupa – his community exercises – became the convention.

In São Paulo, ruangrupa planned very little and did almost nothing. Instead, Rakun said, they replicated ruangrupa’s presence and methods there. Ahead of the biennial, they flew twice to Brazil to meet other collectives: graphic designers, architects and activists. “Tell us what’s going on in your city,” ruangrupa inquired, learning along the way of the hottest karaoke songs, motorcycle taxis in São Paulo that sound like those in Jakarta. ojeks and in a public square that a collective of architects was working to preserve. “It was their way of tackling a city that resembled Jakarta in terms of growth and history of colonialism,” said Charles Esche, the curator of this biennale.

In the space assigned to them, on the ground floor of an Oscar Niemeyer building, they have created a reduced plan ruruhouse: canapes for nongkrong, a place for rururadio, another for a gallery. And in this home away from home, ruangrupa initiated a dialogue between Jakarta and São Paulo. The gallery hosted works by artists from both cities. A Paulista food cart, converted into a movie projector, showed OK films. São Paulo Video and Collective Archive. Like a rururadio the replacement, ruangrupa erected a small tent and invited people to participate in karaoke; they sat cross-legged on the floor and sang Portuguese, English and Indonesian songs. Esche recalled that São Paulo’s ojek drivers — who aren’t usually the kind of people who feel welcome at biennials — were hanging around the ruruhouse, offer walks to visitors.

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