Serena Bentley (Assistant Curator, Contemporary Art, National Gallery of Victoria): How did you both meet?
Kristi Monfries: I had known about Joel for many years as a result of his work with OtherFilm, and had attended lots of OtherFilm events which were all interesting, exciting and totally out of the ordinary.1 OtherFilm is an artists’ collective, founded in 2004, that explores the creative possibilities of experimental film, video, music and live performance by curating festivals, international screening programs and exhibitions. Its co-directors are Sally Golding (London), Joel Stern (Melbourne) and Danni Zuvela (Burleigh Heads, New South Wales). For more information see http://otherfilm.org. I felt rewarded seeing those shows! Later, I had the pleasure of meeting Joel in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, when he was touring with his conceptual rock band Sky Needle – this was back in 2011.
Joel Stern: I think I first head about Kristi through her collaborative audiovisual works with the American composer David Shea. These were great, and I’ve still got some of the DVDs in my collection. We then met for the first time when I visited Indonesia in 2011. I knew I wanted to work with Indonesian artists and do projects over there, especially in Yogyakarta, and Kristi and I were really on the same wavelength and excited to work together.
SB: How did the Instrument Builders Project (IBP) come about?
KM: This project was initiated in 2009 and came out of some things I had seen while researching the performing arts in Indonesia as part of an Asialink grant. I kept seeing street musicians, local performers and people on the streets of Yogyakarta, Jakarta and Bandung making not only instruments, but also all kinds of useful objects out of anything they could find: for example, reflectors for becak [bicycle rickshaws] made from discarded CDs, and sun visors made from pieces of cardboard. What they were doing was really entrepreneurial, innovative, resourceful and so interesting artistically, even though the makers themselves considered it more about survival!
The street instruments I saw in Yogyakarta reminded me, in an uncanny way, of the instruments made by Melbourne artists Rod Cooper and Dale Gorkinkel. I also thought a lot about what artist Dylan Martorell was making and also the performances by Snawklor (Dylan’s collaboration with Nathan Gray) I had seen when living in Melbourne. However, what really pushed me to pursue this project was seeing Wukir Suryadi’s bamboo instrument for the first time, at the now defunct Performance Klub HQ in Nitiprayan, Yogyakarta. This instrument made out of a rod of bamboo was phenomenal, even in its prototype form in 2008. I had never seen anything like it before; it looked so ‘Asian’ and traditional but sounded unbelievably contemporary – it was new music.
JS: I think the project responded to the fact that some of the most interesting artists in Indonesia and Australia seemed to be gravitating towards this practice of instrument building, either through necessity (not being able to afford off-the-shelf gear) or as a way to escape from the constraints of normal music. Having noticed that as a tendency, Kristi and I saw the collaborative possibilities straight away.
Perhaps an interesting point to make is that we wanted to move the site of collaboration from the playing to the building. The usual situation is that artists work hermetically in their own studios or homes and only come together at the performance stage to play publically. We wondered what it’d be like for them to build together, to conceptualise the instruments, to evolve them through the shared making. This also seemed like a way to work across cultural barriers, so that the end result, rather than being a ‘culture jam’ of different things mixed together, was more of a unique blend of all these different interests, philosophies, techniques and traditions.
SB: Wukir Suryadi is a key contributor to the IBP. Can you talk about his role and about some of the instruments he made for previous iterations of the project that will be on display at NGV Studio?
KM and JS: Wukir Suryadi is a really interesting artist and musician. He comes from a very traditional background in the sense that he was trained by the old Javanese masters: masters such as the Indonesian playwright Rendra, whom Wukir apprenticed with for five years at Rendra’s Bengkel Theatre in Cipayung, East Jakarta, and the famous gamelan master I Wayan Sadra from Solo (Surakarta). In the early days, Wukir’s apprenticeship with Rendra consisted of sweeping the master’s floor in order to absorb some of his philosophical teachings. The sweeping of the floors, while it sounds boring and possibly exploitative, was one method by which Rendra would teach emptiness and humility.
Later on, when Bengkel Theatre was going through a very tough financial period, Wukir took to the garden, planting vegetables to feed the steady stream of artists who were working there. He also sold the produce from the garden to help fund many theatre productions. This time spent at Bengkel Theatre, from the age of sixteen until he was twenty-one, was an incredibly formative period that informed the way Wukir would later approach his own work. After five years with Rendra, he went on to work with I Wayan Sadra, who was also immensely influential on his practice. Wukir was vital to the early days of the Instrument Builders Project. Together we did a lot of research into musicians and artists building instruments in Yogya and also in Bandung. We spent time going into their houses, documenting and recording conversations, and we really selected those Indonesian artists included in IBP’s first iteration (IBP1, 2013) together as team, along with Joel.
The works on display in the exhibition component of the third iteration of IBP, at the NGV, are Mahogany root (Acar mahoni), 2013, and Ekologi gong, 2014. Mahogany root is a beautiful traditional form of an instrument and really is the starting point for many IBP participants’ work. It is a highly collaborative piece in the sense it needs two people, at least, to play it. The instrument can sound very lovely or incredibly harsh depending on what aspect of it you play. Mahogany root was fashioned from a log of wood, and over IBP1’s three-week period was turned into a kind of electric guitar/theremin/percussion/synth.
Ekologi gong is more of a meditative installation work and has a quiet quality that Mahogany root does not. Originally there were fish swimming around in the pond under the gong; however, in this version for the NGV we have decided to leave the fish at home. Ekologi gong is more of a solo endeavour by Wukir, but he was assisted in making it by Dale Gorfinkel, Ikbal Lubys and Dholy Husada. It is the kind of work that you need to spend some time with to truly appreciate.
SB: This project is a hugely successful example of true collaboration between artists, musicians, curators, writers, graphic designers and wider communities in Indonesia and Australia. In your opinion, what is the key to a successful collaboration, particularly when you’re dealing with participants from different countries and backgrounds?
KM and JS: Collaboration is very topical at the moment. I think this fascination is due in part to the fact that the art world seems to be shifting focus from the traditional art centres, such as New York and Paris, to Asia, where collaborative practices are much more commonplace, or where the meaning of collaboration might be different. In Indonesia especially, the focus really is on working together. As Andreas Siagian of LifePatch Collective says, it’s not DIY, its DIWO – Do It With Others! If you do anything in Yogya it’s almost always done collectively. The traditional Javanese concept of gotong royong (mutual assistance) has set up a premise for the way in which people work, which is independent of external institutions or government bodies and more centred on serving one’s community. This is not because there is a fascination to explore collective work as a theory, but more about the fact that traditionally in Java it is the only way you can get anything done, especially if you don’t have any money! You can’t rely on the government or art institutions to help you out. Most artists – for example, Mes 56, Taring Padi and Ruang Rupa – learn from each other collectively through sharing resources and working out of shared spaces, such as ACE House Collective and the KUNCI Cultural Studies Centre; or, as in the case of Apotek Komik and Survive Garage, together in the streets.
As far as the Instrument Builders Project is concerned, the common goal of building instruments coupled with a clear framework was key to creating a positive environment for these artists to work together closely and effectively: every good collaborative project has to have a strong framework specific to it. The framework cannot be formulaic, and even when an effective one is in place, cultural differences are not automatically going to disappear! In my experience, when you engage different cultures in a collaborative process, especially one as unusual and specific as instrument building, each culture’s frame of reference is going to be totally different. This can make for some very exciting outcomes but also, sometimes, for some weird, awkward moments. Working in Indonesia in this way can be very unpredictable; there can be a lot of subtext and unspoken assumptions, which as a curator you have to acknowledge and work through right from the start. The process can be as important, or more important, than the outcome.
The IBP model proved to be an incredibly rewarding experience for everyone involved, in all its different manifestations, because there was a willingness on both sides – from the Australian artists and Indonesian artists, and from our extended ‘family’ working team – to meet each other with openness and sensitivity and with a desire to learn, share and experiment. We had an excellent working team in Yogya who were the backbone of the project and without whom we would never have achieved what we did. I would like to take this opportunity to publicly thank Stufvani Gendis, Ikbal Lubys, Dholy Husada and Aim Adi Negara.
OtherFilm is an artists’ collective, founded in 2004, that explores the creative possibilities of experimental film, video, music and live performance by curating festivals, international screening programs and exhibitions. Its co-directors are Sally Golding (London), Joel Stern (Melbourne) and Danni Zuvela (Burleigh Heads, New South Wales). For more information see http://otherfilm.org.