Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Sunday, July 4, 2010
Blog written by Patricia Zimmermann, codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival and professor of cinema, Ithaca College
“Gossip moves faster than the internet,” observed Gustaff Harriman Iskandar, arts, writer, curator and founder of Common Room and the Bandung Center for New Media Arts in Indonesia.
Gustaff was presenting about the new media practices of Common Room on the Open Space Panel “ The Contingent Spaces of Performance, Performativity and Soundscapes" at the International Communication Association (ICA) conference last week in Singapore.
“Gossip is important,” Gustaff observes. “It is part of oral culture, and oral culture is very important in Indonesia.”
Common Room is an initiative and a civil society practice in Bandung, Indonesia, designed to convene people, new media technologies, and conversations to make public space and interactive conversation accessible. It produces exhibitions, discussions, workshops, screenings, operating within what Gustaff called “contingent spaces and contested realities.” A central concern of Common Room is how to make networks—both virtual and real—work.
Founded in 2003, Common Room contends that conversations matter. Gustaff identified this practice as “the politics of listening": to facilitate space to recognize different situations and different realities through discussion. “In Common Room, we try to be invisible to facilitate the needs of people who enter conversations. Small interventions make everything happen by itself,” Gustaff said. As a result, Common Room floats in between institutions and communities, a forum for oral histories.
Resolutely locally situated, Common Room works in mapping practices, projects that make connections between civic empowerment, environmental sustainability, and urban ecology. The members of Common Room see themselves as artists initiating ideas and activities as political gestures based on dialogue and listening to people to facilitate their needs.
Against what Gustaff called “historical dementia,” urban distress, gentrification, and “wild capitalism” in Indonesia, Common Room advocates for open commons, smart mobs, gift economies, knowledge, creativity and freedom. Gustaff contends that “wild capitalism” is rampant in Indonesia, where transnational corporations in the oil, logging and mineral extraction businesses operate without rules and regulations.
Although the democratic reforms and social revolution of reformasi in 1998 loosened up censorship, many Indonesian activists and artists have noted the enactment of a systematic process of forgetting and state-sponsored amnesia, where the nation erases history by changing names of buildings, streets, places. For example, in 2008, 11 people were killed in a concert hall in Bandung. The building was renamed.
At ICA, Common Room created a live installation based on the web 2.0 notion of the “meet up” in the Suntec Conference Center to bring the academics assembled into a collaborative Indonesian space. With mats, computers, microphones and live streaming, their site-specific live, interactive performance functioned as a meet up in the middle of the conference. Common Room activated direct audience engagement, encouraging connections across national borders and arts/scholarly practices.
Flanked by the conference rooms and then new media art installations, Common Room put straw mats on risers in the hallway. One of the mats was white and shiny—it was woven out of recycled toothpaste tubes. Laptops adorned with stickers sat on low teak tables.
Common Room members Reina Wulansari, an arts exhibitor, Addy Handy, a writer and death metal band vocalist, and Gustaff sat cross legged on the risers throughout the conference. They interviewed the academics who ambled by to rest on the platform, and then streamed the interviews over the internet.
I asked Gustaff what the academics were chatting about with him. “Ghosts,” he said. “And a lot of introspection about spirituality.” I was struck by the contrast between these interviews and the social science-oriented, quantitative methodology, power points on media research that dominated the conference.
“Practitioners are switching from working as artists to functioning more as facilitators,” explained Gustaff. Common Room energizes public engagements. It’s not designed for personal work, but positioned as an institution that creates open platforms in real space.
“In Indonesia at the moment, arts culture is very contingent” Gustaff said. “Because there is an absence of state power in the arts and an absence of an institutional apparatus for the arts, artists and facilitators must make their own way.” Working commercially to make a living, Gustaff, Addy and Reina collaborate on Common Room initiatives to convene people around ideas. Common Room is actually located in a house in Bandung. “Creativity is a sign of poverty and not wealth,” asserted Gustaff.
During the three days of ICA, many academics—mostly from the so-called west--sat on the Common Room risers, fixated on their laptops with their presentation powerpoints, their backs facing Gustaff, Reina and Addy. The hallway offered no place to sit as conferees waited for panels to end. As a result, the academics used the risers as a sort of academic lounge.
On Thursday, I noticed that a white American woman in a brown suit (rather hot for the tropics) and a white European man in a blue sport coat and khaki pants (also heavy for the tropics) closed up their laptops and turned their bodies into the risers. Open Space interns and other Open Space artists sprawled across the risers, reclining into conversations.
Reina sat cross legged across from them, holding a microphone and recording their conversation for live streaming. I heard numerous papers on cross cultural communication and I read many power points on differences in media systems. But none of these papers stayed with me as long as this image of Common Room members from Indonesia sharing conversation with academics.
This interaction evoked the power of moving away from the professionalized solipsism of obsessive laptop usage and edging towards re- positioning new technologies as contingent public spaces and open platforms. This performative gesture of collaborative conversations across differences recalibrates new technologies like live streaming as necessary and urgent open spaces.
And for me, this image of "western" academics suited up in professional outfits that were out of sync with the climate here chatting with Reina and Gustaff materialized Common Room’s politics of listening. Gradually, the powerpoints and the netbooks are closed, and unofficial conversations open up.