Four of us, Jorgen Doyle, Hannah Ekin, Alex Head, and Anna Kostreva have been corresponding between Australia and Europe, discussing and working together in Indonesia and more recently looking at Island G or Pulau G from Berlin, Germany.
This research arc was initiated by Hannah and Jorgen in 2017 and has allowed Anna and myself to visit long standing project partners KUNCI Cultural Studies Center in Yogyakarta and Rujak Urban Studies Center in Jakarta during a research trip to Indonesia in 2019.
Since that visit we have been thinking about the wasteland island situation of Pulau G from multiple perspectives. Having Jorgen and Hannah here in Berlin has allowed for a great deal of discursive opportunity, the intimacy and force of which seem possible only in physical proximity.
It hasn’t been possible for me personally to maintain contact with each of the other nodes in the wasteland twinning network and this comparative failure often gives me pause for thought. What, after all, does a project that is defined by parallel research and exchange within a large global network, trade on when that network goes cold? What is the role of the last person standing other than guardian of the archive? And what claim does one have to speak for a project that is substantiated by the work of so many others?
I was mulling these issues over as we sat together during Jorgen and Hannah’s residency at the ZKU to work on our current collective endeavour.
We debated the pros and cons of artistic self-loathing, the hype around blockchain and the ethics of the cultural production and capital around an island that has caused a great deal of harm to its local population, the fisher people of the Jakarta Bay. We did not always concur. For some of us the performance of our own privileged positions as artist-researchers wasn’t enough, was offensive even. I had to agree, but I also thought that the inevitable failure of staging a staging might also be what made the work worth attempting. A critique of hierarchies of knowledge that wouldn’t necessarily have to rely on those very same academic hierarchies to be delivered into the world.
Then, during the lead-in to our collective performance Pulau G: invitation to a Public Consultation, I bumped into the artist Amy Spiers as she made her way through Europe on a short visit.
Amy was one of the first set or ground zero residents at ZKU (along with Catherine Ryan), when the residency began there in 2012. Their work in the field of public intervention and conflict, both collectively and as individual artists and writers is now well recognised and highly recommended study.
Amy put me on to a 2013 paper by Marina Vishmidt entitled “Mimesis of the Hardened and Alienated: Social Practice as Business Model”. Though she acknowledges the organisational productivity of the artist-entrepreneur in “finding and translating” the contradictions of our time, Vishmidt concludes that,
...if these ideological affinities can be mapped and developed further, the analogy between “disruptive innovation” in art and in business is of only limited interest so long as it stays at the level of analogy, without allowing us to discern a common logic structurally grounded in the economic mechanisms that drive capitalist society.1
The practitioner is therefore faced with a dilemma: perform or re-enact the conditions of power under investigation and thereby delimit the critical parameters of her work, use a direct approach which reduces the outcomes of an investigation of power to political propaganda, or, as is also often the case, simply look the other way, denying the power relations as they exist in toto.
An example of this last approach could be used to describe the attitudes of the very eco-urban planning for sites such as Pulau G.
Given “the apparent shift from a politics of reason to a politics of experience”2, I would argue that the performative approach nonetheless retains a high degree of validity in the current art + political sphere of contemporary practice. That performers and their public exhibit a less than negligible trace of schizophrenia while doing so seems fitting as well. (Note for example that the public attending Pulau G: Invitation to a Public Consultation were at no point asked to participate in its farce but rather collaborated in self parody entirely of their own volition.)
During our performance, Pulau G: Invitation to a Public Consultation, the four positions on stage range between protectionist/conservationist activism to would be aggressive neo-colonial exploitation, the likes of whom, in other circumstances, the former may have serious reservations about sharing a platform with. Of course this incongruity is part of the aim to stymie the potential instrumentalisation of the performance itself within the production of cultural capital for Pulau G and/or speculative processes in its environs in the future. However when we dance with the devil the devil chooses the tune. Or as Marina Vishmidt would have it,
Like all narratives of modernization, the one of art cannot help but also evoke the narrative of economic growth, the liberation theology of capital. Capital, too, is always striving to overcome its boundaries and turn the new terrain it has won into the basis for a new round of accumulation.3
In a work composed of four at times conflicting, at times complicit character-positions, the productivity of the work per se can indeed be regarded as displaced in relationship to the normal consensus building work of public consultation. Following the logic of the global ecosystem that today demonstrates congestion, bottlenecking, geological cramping and rupture, it seems reasonable to infer however, that the productivity or affective exhaust of the work has simply been deferred. I.e the very success of the work as farce engenders precisely the legitimizing capital that the artistic object desires. But where and with whom might it be realised? Our next steps remain to be witnessed and continue to present more questions than answers. Whatever direction this collective work and research takes, I would like to keep in mind the following quote from Achille Mbembe:
As Édouard Glissant never ceased to reiterate, each of us needs the memory of the other. This is not a matter of charity or compassion. It is a condition for the survival of our world. If we want to share the world’s beauty, he would add, we ought to learn to be united with all its suffering.4
1, 3: Marina Vishmidt - “Mimesis of the Hardened and Alienated”: Social Practice as Business Model
2, 4: Thoughts on the planetary: An interview with Achille Mbembe