Stepping through a small metal gate off a quiet side street in Jogjakarta, we find ourselves in a shaded garden facing an old building whose sign reads:
On the front porch is a boxed-up arcade machine, plastered with FRAGILE stickers, and inside we find books shelved and stacked on racks and ancient TV sets. On one wall is a mockup of Jokowi-JK in the Month of Ramadan, a Tintin parody featuring Indonesia’s President-elect and his running mate. Jokowi is widely seen as Indonesia’s best hope for a clean political break; the comic is subtitled Jokowimania.
Nuraini Juliastuti, one of the founders of KUNCI, arrives on a motorbike as we browse the library. Nuraini tells us she co-founded the ‘Cultural Studies Centre’ fifteen years ago, as a way to discuss the things that Indonesia’s existing cultural institutions were passing over. Those cultural institutions were – and are – preoccupied with big politics and the state of the nation. In contrast, as Nuraini explains, KUNCI’s founders wanted to “capture something else”, which meant exploring previously ignored subjects like fashion, youth culture and LGBTI issues.
Over the years, that “something else” has continued to expand. KUNCI Cultural Studies Centre now functions as a co-working space, library, research centre and discussion area. It also publishes a quarterly journal, which started life in print before migrating online (print distribution – on a store-by-store basis – was simply too much work, says Nuraini).
A quick look at the library reveals shelves devoted to a broad range of topics, from Feminism and Gender to Architecture and Ethnography, with Western and Eastern thinkers lined up side-by-side. If the arrangement of the books seems a little chaotic, it is very much deliberate. In a recent workshop at KUNCI run by Sydney artist Rebecca Conroy (just one example of the many Australian collaborations that happen here, including one this year between the Footscray Community Arts Centre and KUNCI), the idea of “radical archiving” was discussed. The idea, Nuraini explains, is to deconstruct the Dewey decimal system in order to rethink how we organise our knowledge products.
With this comes a restructuring of the relationship between the library’s owner and its users. In the traditional library, we are told how and where to find information. That system is both patriarchal and rather abstract, says Nuraini. The shelves at most libraries are not designed to be browsed; instead, we are herded to the catalogue computers. In contrast, KUNCI asks those who come in to try to re-imagine the best ways to organise information. It’s an approach that accords with KUNCI’s ethos of creative experimentation, and its focus on the intersections between theory and practice. Membership of KUNCI is open and voluntary, and radical archiving is only the latest in a long line of efforts to create an open and culturally critical Indonesia.
The growth of KUNCI – as with most artistic endeavours in Jogja – has been quite organic. Indeed, the library began with Nuraini and her co-founder’s personal book collections. A willingness to create new spaces and start new initiatives seems to be characteristic of the artists in this city, and Nuraini is quick to point out that KUNCI is not affiliated with any official educational institution, giving it a rare amount of independence and flexibility compared to other academic research centres.
The night before our trip to KUNCI, as we sat down to dinner after a long train trip from Jakarta to Jogjakarta, a group of young buskers arrived outside the restaurant. They played songs typical of Jogja – rousing sing-a-longs, accompanied by acoustic guitars, drums and a double bass, featuring choruses like, “The people’s representatives should be able to live with the people”. The songs are all composed by local Jogja musicians, and the most popular ones are taken up by other musicians.
It’s all part of the Jogja ethos – to create first and worry about paying the bills later. Politically, Jogjakarta is accorded special status as a “Special Region” within the Indonesian republic because of its prompt support for independence in 1945. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. As the chorus to another buskers’ favourite goes, “Jogjakarta is special because the people are special.”
Island to Island is presented by Asialink Arts and the Emerging Writers’ Festival, supported by Arts Victoria.