Alternative Space as New Cultural Movement : Landscape of Creativity


by Nuraini Juliastuti

This paper was presented in “Indonesia 10 Years after” conference, which was held on 22-23 May 2008 in the East India House, University of Amsterdam. The conference was organized by KITLV in cooperation with ASiA/University of Amsterdam and Inside Indonesia.
The word “alternative” in Indonesia was previously known in the phrase “alternative media” (“media alternatif”) as a term that used to describe the media showing opposition to New Order regime. The use of the word has expanded over the past ten years. It has become part of the vocabulary of culture, and is now used to refer to spaces for new voices in literature, film, and visual arts in three Indonesian cities—Jakarta, Bandung, and Yogyakarta—in particular.

During the New Order era, the field of arts and culture was controlled by formal institutions. Under the dominance of formal cultural authorities, local people were put in two positions. Firstly, as consumers of cultural products offered by formal spaces. By consumers I mean, for example, an audience of people visiting visual arts exhibitions and enjoying theater in Taman Budaya (Cultural Center) available in all Indonesian  provinces. Secondly, as cultural producers and active users required by authorities holding power of those spaces to adjust their cultural expression accordingly.

The dominating role of formal spaces started to weaken in the 1990s. In the visual arts scene in Yogyakarta for example, the foundation of Cemeti Art House in 1988 served as a challenge to powerful spaces. It was born as a response to the absence of space for contemporary visual arts, and provided a space for contemporary visual arts voices which did not fit into existing art spaces such as Taman Budaya and the National Museum.

New rooms for arts and cultural products slowly formed. Posters containing information about exhibitions not in galleries but in small flats or cafes were distributed. Some of these new spaces have been developing and establishing their roles as alternative spaces ever since such as Kedai Kebun Forum and Via-Via. Both are restaurant-gallery spaces. Even now, the number of multi-functional spaces such as  restaurant-galleries, cafe-library-discussion space-galleries, and distro-galleries is increasing.

The demise of New Order government has not only been followed by the increase of alternative spaces, but also by the more active role of local people at the level of cultural production.

Of the new spaces in visual arts and film, some notable examples in Yogyakarta are Ruang Mes 56—a space for art photography and Kinoki—a space for film. There are also spaces built for arts and cultural discourse. Cemeti Art Foundation—now known as Indonesian Visual Arts Archive (IVAA)—is a space focusing on the documentation and research of visual art. Kunci is a space that produce newsletter and website to discuss Indonesian contemporary social and cultural issues. Rumah Sinema is a space focusing on film studies.

Central to the existence of alternative spaces is youth as the initiator of the space. Not only have these alternative spaces demonstrated new ways of discussing arts and culture, they also create a landscape of creativity.

The works of alternative space

In the hands of its founders, “alternative” becomes an elastic term. Organizing an alternative space means the freedom to employ the term, to stretch and to flex it according to the situation that is faced.

Founded in 2005, Kinoki started its activity by providing space for alternative film screenings. It then developed activities created to nurture fresh ideas of young film-makers and  to form reading communities on film and video such as holding film-making and film criticism workshops, and publishing a periodical newsletter on film called Ikonik. If  a space is considered a physical room for an activity, looking at Kinoki’s scope of activities, it is a space that is moving freely from physical  to non-physical space.

Conversely, there are spaces that are moving from non-physical to physical space. Formerly known as newsletter, Kunci develops activities that require real spaces such as book discussions, organizing community history workshops, and making exhibitions. Like Kunci, IVAA not only performs as a visual arts documentation centre, it organizes activities such as inviting artists to discuss their visual concepts, organizes exhibitions in its office, and publishes a periodical newsletter on visual arts.

Alternative spaces must be flexible in creating activities that can be adjusted to fir changing focus and contexts. This includes flexibility in finding funds to support the running of the space and the capability of its members  to perform activities.

This brings me to discuss the other character of an alternative space, that is its openness to build a network with other alternative spaces. Mostly started as personal and group initiatives, the seeds of alternative spaces find their best places to grow outside state art institutions and universities. With their inherent non-formal character, a particular activity of an alternative space is building collaboration with another space not necessarily working in the same field. For example, Kinoki collaborates with Kunci to create film screenings and a discussion series on Southeast Asian film. Kunci collaborates with IVAA to create discussions and an exhibition on “Indonesian youth media in the 1990s”.

The close relationship between alternative spaces reflects their non-commercial character, and a low cost strategy for running their activities. They practice a form of networking economy.

Alternative spaces show the desire to appropriate modern cultural and  lifestyle expressions as part of their new work mediums. The popularity of cafe-culture in Indonesia has inspired alternative spaces to build cafes to cover some of their operational costs. Kinoki and IVAA, for example, are spaces with cafes adjacent to their offices.

Kinoki owns a small shop selling VCDs and DVDs of films produced by young film-makers, uniquely designed t-shirts made by local designers, and various newsletters published by alternative spaces and youth groups based in Yogyakarta and other cities. IVAA developed a similar shop selling various alternative magazines, comic books, video art DVDs and other things made by local visual artists. These “distro-like” shops show the confluence of an alternative space and creative industry. An alternative space has expanded its reach to accommodate and to distribute creative products.

These spaces choose new media to support their activities, such as Mailing list, Blogspot and Facebook. For Kinoki and IVAA, the profit obtained from their cafes is not big. For an alternative space funded by international funding agencies like IVAA, perhaps building a cafe is not really a necessary step to take. The real benefit they have gained by having cafes is through their provision of spaces for discussions and meeting-centers for the organization’s communities. Likewise, a mailing list owned by Kunci, a blogspot of Kinoki, and a Facebook of IVAA are used not only as mediums to inform their communities about their activities, but also as ways of knowledge-sharing among their communities members.

An alternative space acknowledges the new Indonesian youth generation as part of its community. In the latest development of alternative space, there has been a mixture of generations. On the one hand, the generation experiencing New Order who urgently needed cultural movement transformation,  and on the hand Indonesian youth born in the 1980s who started their college in or after the year 2000. The latter is the generation were born in the heyday of the New Order era and who started their university life when Reformasi—the last few years of the 20th century, which saw the destruction of the military-backed New Oder—had already passed. They experience it only by reading the stories and documentation in the mass media. The mixing of generations opens up a possibility for the new youth generation to create new alternative spaces.  The two generations need each other.

The strength of alternative spaces to form a new cultural movement lies in the combination of the capability to build a network with other creative spaces, and their potential to form cultural communities.

Old enemy: The Dilemma of being “alternative”.

The existence of new spaces in Jakarta, Bandung, and Yogyakarta has interested the youth in other cities. They started to form networks and copy the form of spaces. However,  despite the  proliferation of alternative spaces,  is this just a small scale cultural movement performed by educated middle class youth living in Indonesian urban areas?  Is being “alternative” only a new middle-class phenomenon? Does the existence of alternative spaces actually make any difference to freedom in the arts scene?  Are the alternative communities using their networks for constructive change? I want to briefly refer to a recent case in the Indonesian film scene as a pointer here to my concerns.

Recently, the Masyarakat Film Indonesia (Indonesian Film Society)—a Jakarta-based working group that consists of film workers and cultural activists works for the betterment of the condition of Indonesian film—requested a review of the Film Acts of 1992. One of their recommendations was the closure of the Lembaga Sensor Film (Film Censorship Board). As filmmakers, they considered the Censor Board to be repression of  the flow of cultural product. However, their courageous effort to review the Film Act lacked strong support from both film communities and new cultural communities formed by the alternative spaces movement. This reflects the sad truth that, even among the film communities themselves, there is no solid view regarding the life of cultural products—in this case, a film—and their relationship with the state, which remains strong,  and with other aspects of society.

This suggests that the impact of alternative spaces and communities is limited.  For example, the movement to look at the audio-visual medium in new ways—the use of a film as a medium to open new awareness as shown by youth organizations, the popularity of “low-budget and strong message film” among youth film-makers, and the new spaces for new discourses on film as shown by new film spaces and  publications and—has failed to bring its existence to a broader scale, and to transform its spirit into new critical voices. The alternative spaces and communities are not united or powerful enough. As a united body, they have failed to recognize a creeping back of “New Order style” cultural repression to mute the voice of cultural products considered dangerous. Perhaps this is the dilemma of being “alternative”. Alternative spaces get freedom, and can express it, but cannot collectively see the threats to that freedom.

Despite the fact that I acknowledge the great potential of alternative spaces, I will end this essay with a pessimistic note: that the alternative space movement is still at the level of exploration of new arts and culture discourses, and  the freedom of consumption.  However, in the flow of freedom, these new spaces are floating to destinations that they have not yet clearly formulated.