Malcolm Smith

Copyright 2007-2012
Built with Indexhibit

Soft Diplomats
Observations on the impact of cultural exchange programs in Yogyakarta
Malcolm Smith

(This is the English version of an article I wrote for the Equator Newsletter, published Oct 28, 2016, as part of the Equator Symposium in Yogyakarta)

In the six years that I have lived in Yogyakarta I get the impression that the arts community seems to be growing – both in terms of attendance at exhibition openings but also in terms of the number of art-related events every week. I think the reason this is such a successful arts community comes down to the diversity of its ecology. In terms of production, studio space is cheap, materials are accessible, there’s an interesting tradition of artisanal production, there’s lots of galleries to show our work and plenty of room to experiment without having to take it all too seriously. The focus is not so much on the outcome, as it is on participation.

There’s also a very diverse range of opportunities to support artists. Young artists form cooperatives that provide them not only with art materials and studio space but often with food and accommodation. For more established artists there is a strong domestic market as well as consistent interest from overseas collectors and institutions. There is also a very well established system of patronage by foreign nations through cultural exchange programs, including residencies, biennales, and international surveys.

Significantly also, I think there continues to be a strong cultural demand for the kinds of work that artists produce here. As South East Asia continues to develop economically, and as the region’s middle class continues to grow, they are hungry for experiences that mirror and authenticate their new social realities, and artists play an important role in this respect.

But while the arts community and our middle class audiences enjoy a wave of prosperity, it should not be assumed that this is universally true for the broader Yogya community. Nor should it be assumed that artists who speak on behalf of the ‘Third World’ in their work are actually improving the conditions of these people. There’s a fine line between wanting to do what’s best for the community, and thinking you know what’s best for the community.

Krack Studio1, of which I am a member, recently approached an arts organisation in Australia for assistance funding for one of our projects – a print project where the majority of artists involved were women. We were advised by this organization that we would have a better chance if we made it an all-women project, because then it could be funded through an aid program targeting women’s empowerment.

Sukma Smita, one of the members of Krack and the project manager of this initiative, raised the dilemma that in Indonesia, ‘women’s art’ projects have exactly the opposite effect to empowerment. While we acknowledge that the ratio of female to male artists in Jogja is very low, the problem with ‘women’s art’ projects is that they tend to reinforce the idea that women make ‘women’s art’; a subcategory of (men’s) art. So ultimately these projects only serve to reinforce the idea that art is a male domain.

Foreign funding always comes with ideological strings attached, and despite their good intentions, these ideologies need to be challenged. What I’m interested in exploring in this essay is how these cultural exchange programs impact Yogyakarta’s arts community.

By ‘Cultural Exchange’ I mean projects involving Indonesian artists that are funded by foreign nations for the purposes of strengthening cultural ties with Indonesia. In Jogja, these projects include foreign artists undertaking residencies here, as well as Jogja artists doing residencies overseas. They include group and solo exhibitions here and overseas, as well as invitations to biennales and international survey shows. Cultural exchange programs can include project, program or infrastructure grants for arts organisations, research funding, curatorial and arts management support, and much more.

Cultural exchanges have been ongoing in Indonesia since the Republic was established. The Putera group of modernist masters was formalised through Japanese support during the 1940s occupation. The Tugu Tani in Jakarta was the product of a cultural exchange between Indonesia and the USSR in the 1960s. Yet the impact of these exchanges have received little art historical analysis. Much has been written about the cultural agendas of the Orde Baru, and resistance from the arts community. Similarly there has been considerable research about the impact of the commercial market, especially in the 2000s. In these narratives foreign NGOs are usually portrayed as disinterested and neutral, but the foreign donors who provide this funding are not disinterested, and the impact of these exchanges is never neutral.

Foreign Aid programs are largely determined by the trading objectives of the donor nations (countries who don’t trade with Indonesia don’t generally donate foreign aid). So from the perspective of the embassies, cultural diplomacy aims to achieve two things; firstly, it’s about building a sense of a relationship between foreign and local communities, through an alignment of values, an identification of similarities and differences, and establishing a sense that we all share the same objectives.

Secondly, cultural diplomacy is about negotiating the global topographies of centers and peripheries. They establish who is perceived as the innovator and who is perceived as the imitator. So for example, art from Berlin will always be cooler, or fashion from Korea will always be edgier, because of the successful branding, through cultural diplomacy, of these cities as centres of cool art or edgy fashion, respectively. These perceptions inform the value of trading relationships.

Embassies usually fund local agencies to deliver their cultural programs. In Jogja, these agencies are usually arts organisations, curators, or major events like the Jogja Biennale. These programs must ultimately promote the donor nation to both the arts community and to the influential middle class of Indonesians who attend their exhibitions. However local organisations are mostly free to determine the structure and form of the projects they undertake.

For the purposes of this essay I did a rough survey of 11 arts organisations 2 mostly in the Mantrieron area of Jogjakarta, a rapidly growing arts district where a large number of these exchanges have taken place. On average, more than one third of the income of these spaces each year comes through foreign cultural exchange programs. Some received no foreign funding, but others were entirely funded through these programs. What also interests me is how this funding impacts not only those who directly benefit from this lucrative opportunity, but also how it informs the practices of those who want to receive it.

Through my conversations with these organisations, several issues quickly became very clear. Firstly, as a result of foreign exchange programs, artists have shifted the focus of their practices away from local audiences and toward a transnational, middle class audience. This audience is connected more through social media and a shared liberal cosmopolitan worldview, than by geography. It’s hard to find an artist in Yogya who is not addressing this audience in their work.

A second issue is that the only people who can access foreign cultural grants are those who speak good English, are university educated and understand the nuances of international development, contemporary arts discourse, and global cosmopolitanism. That narrows down eligibility for funding quite significantly, fosters elitism, and can potentially lead to organisations gatekeeping the flows of grant money into communities.

Thirdly, because of the language differences between this community, only ideas that can be Google translated tend to get supported, which tends to encourage individualistic, rights-based and identity-based contemporary arts practices. But as the above illustrations about ‘women’s empowerment’ illustrates, while this kind of work satisfies the expectations of a global audience it does not always translate neatly into the local context.

A fourth issue is that in order to receive funding, organisations need to structure themselves around a not-for-profit model. They need to define and deliver outcomes based on the altruistic objectives of liberal, rights-based discourse. They also need to develop capacities for reporting, accounting, grant writing and so on. Organisations often end up with such specialized skills that they are unable to support themselves in any other ways. If they become dependent on their foreign donor, they inevitably end up uncritically reproducing the donor’s agendas.

I fifth issue that can be seen arising in the Mantrijeron area is gentrification. This is the process by which low income neighborhoods are renovated, making them attractive investments, but at the same time forcing the older, poorer residents out. Mantrijeron is a suburb in Jogja where over 15 artspaces or collectives are situated, including Krack Studio. Five years ago, this area was considered a low rent neighborhood, compared to the affluent suburbs in the city’s north. However as artspaces continue to proliferate, along with espresso bars, cafes and boutique hotels, rents have more than tripled in the past five years, which has forced poor residents to move out.

Over the past year, the relationship between Yogyakarta’s ‘liberal’ community and the quasi-military religious organisations (Ormas) in this area have become increasingly antagonistic. In the past six months there have been several incidents where these Ormas have closed down events and exhibitions because, allegedly, they did not meet the moral standards of the local community. At ISI, Yogya’s famous arts school, a community of conservative religious teachers and students are lobbying to change the curriculum to reflect (their) Islamic standards.

My liberal friends often claim this polarization is solely due to the Ormas opportunistically causing trouble to ‘divide and conquer’ Jogja residents. But I’m not sure it’s that simple. It is also a symptom of how our middle class liberal community (not only artists, but also academics, development workers and so on) have become so focused on maintaining our relationships with our foreign funders that we have ignored the people that, ironically, we often claim to represent.

Our elitist and paternalistic attitudes, alienating discourses, gatekeeping and gentrification are actually increasing social inequality, despite out claims to be ‘liberal’. For the city’s poorer residents, the Ormas are able to provide leadership, structure and opportunities in a way that the liberal community does not.

I first came to Yogya on a cultural exchange funded by the Australian Government in 2005. I returned in 2011 and have been on a largely self-funded cultural exchange ever since. So all of the problematic issues I’ve outlined above I know about from personal experience! My point is not to say that cultural exchange is bad or that the outcomes are always bad, but rather that there are pitfalls implicit in this system that we must find ways to address, and that the responsibility to address these issues lies with us, as artists and organisations.

These issues are not exclusive to Yogya or even Indonesia. There is a growing body of research in the social sciences that increasingly identifies how dependencies, elitism and inequality are produced in the international development sector. In the past two years HIVOS (Netherlands), Ford Foundation and DFAT (Australia) have changed their funding structures, partly in response to these issues. Dinas Kebudayaan Yogyakarta and BEKRAF in Jakarta are also in discussions with the arts community about the possibility of structured funding programs. It remains to be seen if all of these new initiatives make an improvement.

However the responsibility also lies with us as a community. In my opinion there are two important factors that artists and organisations need to address. Firstly we need to maintain the diversity of our funding, so that we do not become dependent on a single source of opportunity. Secondly, in the same way, we need to acknowledge a diversity of stakeholders, including our local communities. This doesn’t mean that artists should become community development workers, but we should pay attention to who are the audience our projects address, and who are excluded.

At the beginning of this article I wrote that what makes Jogja’s arts community so unique is the diversity of its ecology. Not only is it diverse in terms of its modes of production, but also in terms of the kinds of opportunities that sustain it. This diversity produces conflicting agendas, which are a good thing for the community; it forces artists to respond to new conditions, challenge the rules, and renegotiate their positions in the community. This constant process of challenge and transgression keeps the work we make here fresh and interesting and provocative.

When artists and organisations become too focused on a single source of opportunity, and on supplying a product to meet a demand, we end up just being propagandists for a privileged elite. But by maintaining our capacity to provoke and transgress these relationships, we strengthen ourselves as community.

1 I’m a member of a screenprinting studio and gallery in Yogya called Krack!, which focuses on critically engaged printmaking from the South East Asian region. Krack has ben operating since March 2013 and has four members; Prihatomoko Moki, Rudi Hermawan, Sukma Smita and myself.
2 Artspaces surveyed were Krack, Cemeti, HONF, Ark, Grafis Minggiran, Biennale Jogja, Kunci, Acehouse, Mes 56, and ICAN