“Chaos is the truest friend of democracy” – William Blake.
I cited this ‘quote’ when I pitched my curatorial theme for the Main Exhibition of Biennale Jogja XIII 2015. It was a closed discussion held by the Yogyakarta Biennale Foundation on the 23rd of December 2014. I used this ‘quote’ to explain the theory of Agonism and its relation to my curatorial framework. After some time, I realized I had misquoted Blake! Realizing my mistake, I continued on, assuming those who had studied Blake in depth would recognize my mistake and would know the correct quotation is not “chaos is the truest friend of democracy” but “opposition is true friendship”. My mistake, I believe, was caused by one of three possibilities: I just forgot the original quote, I used an incorrect translation, or I was nervous in front of the Director and the Foundation and just too quick to the point of my curatorial strategy. Luckily, despite misquoting Blake, the audience could grasp the concept I presented and wanted to discuss it further. So finally, I actually projected the meaning of Agonism by misquoting the work of William Blake! So, what is Agonism? And what the heck does it have to do with Indonesia and Nigeria?To answer this question, I should go back to my trip to Nigeria with Biennale Jogja researcher, Lisistrata Lusandiana. We had 30 days travelling across Nigeria from 5 November – 5 December 2014 to continue the research program our colleagues – Yustina Neni, Director; Rain Rosidi, Artistic Director and Arham Rahman, Equator Editor had been conducting since July 2014. I was particularly interested in the depth of artistic intervention in public spaces and socially driven or engaged art practices in Nigeria. Lisis and I then broke these research goals down into focus areas. I focused on the dynamics of art and culture while Lisis examined the political and socio-economic context of Nigeria. Our findings then lead us to produce this year’s theme: Hacking Conflict.
The Jogja Biennale team had already challenged us to create a theme beyond just the similarities between Indonesia and Nigeria. We needed to create a theme that went beyond just similarities, a theme that could also embrace contemporary discourse, political context and social issues in both countries respectively. In order to do this we really had to feel and directly experience the dynamics and rhythms of life of Nigeria. We visited four cities: Abuja, the capital; Lagos, Nigeria’s largest city; Abeokuta, a small city not far from Lagos where Fela Kuti and Wole Soyinka hail from; and a small village in the region of Osogbo where we were hosted by an artist who is also a chief of the village. We spent most of our time in Lagos as we were drawn to its’ lively contemporary art scene. Our long list of recommendations took us deeper into Nigerian social life and forced us to consider bigger issues and political movements and how these affected the arts scene. Needless to say the list kept us on our toes. We went everywhere independently; we ate what the locals ate; we bargained at local markets and took public transportation. We travelled around, observed and engaged with people we met along the way- cultural figures, artists, activists, bus drivers, children, businessman, musicians, street food vendors and even soldiers. Throughout our travels, there were two key words that we often heard: ‘republic’ and, quite surprisingly, ‘intervention’. The word ‘republic’ was used almost everywhere. Kalakuta Republic, an art-collective basecamp and now a museum, initiated and owned by musician-political activist Fela Kuti; Cassava Republic, an alternative book publisher, Cellular Republic; a shop selling hand phones and even a fast-food restaurant called Chicken Republic. On the other hand, the word ‘intervention’ was mostly in the work of artists, cultural figures, writers and authors. Based on these observations, Lisis and I agreed to make these words the basis of our research. In other words, we tried to find out why these words are so ‘popular’ and prevalent in everyday life in Nigeria.
Indonesia and Nigeria are both post-colonial countries, share experiences related to authoritarianism and were both freed from authoritarian rule in the late 1990’s. In Indonesia, the authoritarian regime of the New Order was put to an end by relentless student demonstration and civil unrest. Nigeria on the other hand has a story that is a little more ‘unique’. In Nigeria, the authoritarian military regime was overthrown from within the military force itself. Upon the sudden death of military leader, General Sani Abacha in 1998, Major General Abdulsalami Abubakar, then Minister of Defense, took over control of the military and, in effect, of Nigeria and put an end to the authoritarian rule by initiating a general election later that same year.
So it is during this post-authoritarian era of both Nigeria and Indonesia that we start to see similarities again. In both countries, the people and the state begin to diverge in separate directions, each trying to formulate a democratic system that would best serve their country. Once again this friction and difference creates chaos as both sides insist on doing things their own way. This situation is of course made worse when the concept of the nation-state remains unclear – a dangerous position for a country with multitude of traditions, tribes and languages not to mention the rich natural resources scattered across multiple regions – again a situation Nigeria and Indonesia both shared. And so affect for both countries is a climate of ‘democratic’ chaos created by too many voices– even though all these voices are in fact competing against one another in the same race to ‘catch up’ to developed countries.
In practice, the right to self-expression in a country rich with diverse cultures and languages is a fertile ground for the birth of opposition. Freedom of speech creates opposition whilst democracy also aims for a sense of national unity. These two quests become incompatible, like water and oil; two things that, if not managed well, can be deadly ingredients in the construction of harmony. In most of the cases, conflicts are positioned as something to be avoided and prevented. This approach can lead to a society that is overly moralistic and anti-pluralism. In Indonesia, for example, we can see the concept of a ‘symmetrical society’ referenced, albeit ironically, on T-shirt designs by art merchandise label DGTMB (Daging Tumbuh). This lead to the realization of the potential of applying the theory of Agonism to explore the binary of harmony and chaos in both Indonesia and Nigeria respectively.
In the theory of Agonism, conflict has to be positioned positively. We have to be able to embrace and understand conflict as something that is essential and unavoidable in formulating harmony. While the theory of Agonism belongs to the field of political science, I want to project this theory to a different fields and new horizons – how is Agonism enacted in the daily lives of common people today? I don’t think it is constructive anymore to see democracy always in term of politics. We have to think about democracy as a way of life in times of political pluralism and socio-economic instability.
If we look at inconsistencies in access and distribution of technology as a symptom of economic instability, we can also see social innovation and the birth of unique form of improvisation. These innovations are not the products of the imagination of new things, they are the product of limitations and often misunderstanding. Similarly, if we look at collaboration- a favorable working system nowadays for its spirit of togetherness—a misunderstanding of an idea can sometimes lead to an unexpected artwork. Sometimes the resulting work has a sense of newness because of its’ uniqueness. In this ‘messy’ working method we are able to see new spaces and chances. The process of creation then becomes a process of hacking and improvising. So, I believe we need a tactical strategy to hack and break down conflicts to create a symmetrical/ asymmetrical pattern—a harmony in chaos. This needs to be done by finding and presenting the seeds of conflicts and chaos through imaginative, open and dynamic collaborative activities; spaces to enjoy, to stimulate and to break down and hack, together.
The Main Exhibition of Biennale Jogja XIII will engage not only visual artists but a variety of participants and professionals from dancers, to book editors to graphic designers and engineers. The diversity of participants (artists) will stimulate friction and difference as they are prompted to collaborate with the curator and hack ideas and examples of conflict.
Jogja National Museum will be the central site for the Main Exhibition of Biennale Jogja XIII 2015. The Main Exhibition will take the form of a collaborative space beginning from the frame of contemporary art practice but involving a diverse array of participants as artists. The curator will also become an active collaborator within this framework. The curator and participants (artists) will be brought together explore and develop ideas communally in open forums. The purpose of these forums is for the artists to start from the same point, the same themes. From this point the artists will respond and create in all manor of ways, means and even sites beyond the central site of the Main Exhibition. In this way it is possible for an artist to produce their own works yet their ideas and concepts are generated from the collective forum. This forum for participants will begin both online and offline from May until December 2015. Indonesian participants will perform a 30 day residency in Nigeria in July to research and respond to the online forum. Nigerian participants will come to Indonesia to produce works and solidify ideas developed in the forum. In this way, the Main Exhibition can also be seen as a collective art project and is intended to be the site of experimentation with conflict.
The central site for the Main Exhibition will feature an exhibition space, performance stage and active workspace. The central site will host interactive projects intended for active participation by the audience and an information center for works in public space.
The Main Exhibition will become a platform to explore the production of mass opinions and experimentations with conflict using open forum collaboration and experimental working practices to generate and distribute public discourse.
-Wok The Rock-