Malcolm Smith

Copyright 2007-2012
Built with Indexhibit

The Instrument Builders Project
Yogyakarta, Indonesia. 24 June to 16 July, 2013

Published in Realtime, Online e-dition 11 Sept, 2013
original article (with pics!) here

Recently the Australian International Cultural Council (AICC) announced funding for a number of Australian / Indonesian collaborative cultural projects and the first of these was The Instrument Builders Project. I wanted to check it out not only because it sounded like fun, but also because, as an Australian artist living in Indonesia, I’m very interested in the broader issues surrounding the Australian Government’s re-definition of ‘cultural diplomacy’ in light of the recent Australia in the Asian Century White Paper.

Within days of the Instrument Builders arrival I’d heard rumours about the artists who’d hiked up Mt Merapi (the active volcano about 40km from the city centre) and installed devices that produced sounds from shifts in the atmospheric conditions near the crater. The installation was devised by Andreas Siagian, one of the founders of Lifepatch, a Yogya geek/art collective; with Pia Van Gelder from Dorkbots and Serial Space in Sydney, and Michael Candy, a young media artist from Brisbane.

The rest of The Instrument Builders Project took place at ICAN, a space for open ended, research driven, multidisciplinary projects in Yogyakarta. Given the short time – three weeks - that the Australian artists had in the country, they got straight to work constructing and modifying instruments, discussing their various approaches, playing together and preparing to exhibit their work.

I’m a big fan of co-curator and participant Wukir Suryardi’s work, in particular his band Senyawa, that combines rigorous research into traditional music, experimental approaches and a disciplined theatricality. Other participants came from very different backgrounds and I was curious to know how this combination would resolve itself. Dylan Martorell, for example, makes percussive instruments from found objects with a loose DIY aesthetic, Rod Cooper comes from a pub blues background and Ardi Gunawan is fast developing a profile in both Australia and Indonesia as a visual artist interested in process driven projects.

I attended the three public presentations in the final week of the project, each of which had moments of brilliance, where the dialogue between all of the participants was resonant and compelling, and at other times descended into noisy chaos. For me one of the sweetest moments was after a particularly loud section, when ethnomusicologist Asep Nata played a minimal, unamplified interlude with a jaw harp and a steel bell. For an excruciating moment it seemed something had gone horribly wrong, until one by one the other musicians returned to the performance.

To the curators’ credit the performances were not so structured that they eliminated risk or the possibility of failure, or tried to pander to the audience’s expectations. What they did instead was present the instruments in a number of different contexts over the three public events; the first being a group improvisation with a choreographed dance work, the second a showcase of each instrument, then a loosely structured composition (arranged by Gatot D. Sulistiyanto and Tony Maryaan from the Yogya group Art Music Today). For the final presentation the instruments were presented as an installation that could be played by the audience.

Without sacrificing its experimental nature, the project was framed in a way that gave the audience a number of entry points, and just enough information to see where they were going. Yogya can be fabulously DIY but sometimes a little lazy when it comes to presentation, and The Instrument Builders Project certainly raised the bar in terms of professionalism.

I talked to a number of the participants about their experiences and their thoughts about cross-cultural exchanges. Dylan Martorell pointed out that this project happened within a continuum of projects between experimental sound artists in Australia, Indonesia and elsewhere, and that several of the Indonesian artists had performed in Australia, and some of the Australians (including Martorell) had previously worked in Indonesia. “Its not like we suddenly turned up in a remote village wanting to collaborate with traditional musicians. Basically everyone involved here is interested in the same kinds of music, so in that sense we already shared a common language”

Kristi Monfries, one of the project co-curators was a little more circumspect. “Working in a cross-cultural environment, like it or not, there’s often misunderstandings, mainly through language or a mis-reading of cultural conditions. In many ways our job as the curators of this highly collaborative project was to not only select artists on their artistic merit but also on their openness to adventure and experimentation.”

Co-curator Joel Stern further pointed out “There are differences, but mostly practical ones. In Indonesia the cost of living is cheap and so is the cost to build or buy stuff, and work on a scale that is unaffordable for most artists in Australia. On the other hand in Australia you can access funding for experimental projects a lot more easily than in Indonesia.”

Indonesian artists don’t have the luxury of government grants to fund their projects, and often rely on money from foreign governments to fund non-commercial or experimental projects. It’s significant to note that Japan, the US, France, Germany, Holland and other countries generously fund Indonesian artists and organisations.

Until recently, Australia has been conspicuously reticent; only willing to fund projects that promote Australian product abroad. AICC’s recent shift to funding collaborative projects is welcome, although still falls short of what other countries contribute. Given the rapid social change currently happening in this region, and the accompanying explosion of cultural debates and artistic production, it seems a lost opportunity for Australia to not participate more proactively.

Nonetheless, collaborative projects, when they work, can be transformative for everyone involved, can open up ongoing dialogues and exchanges and can sometimes produce unexpectedly great results. While ‘cultural difference’ is an overused and often misunderstood term, practical differences in each country undeniably influence the way a work is produced and received, and collaborations such as The Instrument Builders Project are able to harness the best of both worlds.

Malcolm Smith is an artist and art manager living in Yogyakarta. He is one of the founders of Krack! a printmaking studio focusing on innovative and critically engaged work from South East Asia.