Which Lord’s Favor Would Be Denied
Which Lord’s Favor Would Be Denied
2019, 29 mins 38 secs, 16:9, color
Director: Otty Widasari
Production: Forum Lenteng
Jabal Hadroh, Jabal Al Jannah
2013, 9 mins 19 secs, 16:9, color
Director: Otty Widasari
Production: Forum Lenteng
In this fourth issue of the Harun Farocki Institut’s Rosa Mercedes online journal, we present Otty Widasari’s video shorts, Which Lord’s Favor Would Be Denied (2019) and Jabal Hadroh, Jabal Al Jannah [Green Mountain, Paradise Mountain] (2013). Contextualizing some of the themes present in her work, the short conversation between the artist and RM04 co-editor Renan Laru-an accesses how Widasari’s practice is formed in complicated social and ethical environments.
Renan Laru-an (RL): Media literacy is integral in your practice as an artist and a cultural organizer. In your work, how do you differentiate the artist’s literacy program from the projects implemented by those who do not identify as artists?
Otty Widasari (OW): I don’t feel that I ever separate my work as an artist from the cultural practices or literacy activities I do with my network of friends. Networked literacy, working with collectives in various regions, is a long-term journey in my practice (since 2003 with Forum Lenteng, and especially with the Akumassa program since 2008)1. In Akumassa, we have built a data center, exploring through our perspectives as local residents (no matter how long we have identified ourselves as local people there) what the “location” is. From here, I have built a solid tradition of always connecting all location-based elements of today (the here and now) as a method, as well as a way of thinking and knowing. To me, this is the best way to criticize the work of historians on which the official system is based. Prior to working intensively with networked literacy programs, I was a writer, painter, and video artist who has always been interested in “people” and the reasons they live their lives as they do. Since working on Akumassa, my view has been enriched by a deeper understanding of the contemporary nature of location—that is, where people live their lives. My artwork and work on literacy are, therefore, two complimentary devotions in my life.
RL: In one interview that discusses the history of Akumassa, you characterize your approach to producing knowledge as “softer.”2 You say that this “poetic science” can counter the hegemonic formation of knowledge systems and their distribution across different populations. Could you share with us how your commitment to “poetic science” adds, alters, or even challenges accepted ethical norms in organizations or (artist) collectives like Akumassa, in terms of collaboration, the management of resources, etc.?
OW: The Akumassa program’s approach is one where every citizen is equal who comes with the desire to learn about producing their own information from their own perspective as ordinary citizens. Thus, Akumassa has no hierarchy, because we have the shared experience of being restrained for thirty-two years by the previous regime’s control. Additionally, all citizens have been deceived by the supposed freedom of online networking now, which obscures the position of “citizenship” within the circle of social media capital. The commitment that we have built together pivots on conveying an intensive perspective. Using the handiest of production tools—the smartphone—to produce video, text, images, and so on, we explore a location from the perspective of today, recording and producing information about it simultaneously, and networking. Thus, we are expanding the network and continuing it. Not all iterations achieve the same goal, but a measure of our work can be obtained by looking at what we have produced over the years, from dozens of locations: more than a hundred citizen videos, 700 citizen articles, books, and feature films. Since Akumassa was initiated fourteen years ago, these data are able to illustrate how, in their respective locations, it is the perspective of ordinary people that is the main door through which social phenomena can be dissected. Akumassa—which combines the two Indonesian words “I” and “mass”—denotes the position of one in the crowd. This non-singular gaze technique in a location of today, frees one from omniscient authorship. We see a phenomenon that is similar in social media now, but as Akumassa is a movement with a common goal it is more equivalent to a concept.
RL: How do you engage with tradition—in its broadest definition and development as a term—in the production of culture and art? What is your relationship with the notion of having “respect for our tradition”?
OW: My view is that tradition is something that is always moving, changing gradually over time, according to location. Over time, traditions take on monumental proportions. In my approach as an artist, I respectfully provoke the “monument of tradition” in my projects using my perspective as part of the common people. This is a notion I have borrowed from Luthfan Nurrochman, the curator of my solo exhibition, Partisan (2022).
Akumassa has been working with the Pasir Putih (Pemenang, North Lombok) co-collective since 2010, navigating the sociocultural dynamic of the local people there. These days in Pemenang—a small coastal town and international tourist destination—the people rely on the tourist industry for employment, since they have not inherited the skills or knowledge of their forefathers who were farmers or fishermen. In 2016, Pasir Putih and I initiated Bangsal Menggawe, an annual beach folk festival, using the strong local mempolong-merenten or “brotherly tradition”. When the most powerful earthquake ever recorded hit Lombok in August 2018, Pemenang was razed to the ground. Since then, the people of Pemenang have suffered due to the lack of tourists. As there is no way of earning a livelihood without the tourists, only brotherhood remains. In 2019, Pasir Putih and I decided to hold the folk festival again on land overlooking the ruins. This holding the festival without money was an experiment. Yet, with no funding at all, zero rupiah, we achieved many goals, which I think was due to the philosophy mempolong-merenten and also to the ten years of collaboration with Pemenang people. I hope this story helps to explain what I mean about how my “provocation” of tradition is as much about my respectful engagement with tradition.
RL: Respect is a socio-moral code that can be negotiated in a lively way, celebrated as exchange-value in the community, and/or even given, almost assigned to, an individual. With this story you just shared with us that was animated by mempolong-merenten, the practice of helping each other, a materialization of solidarity, was actualized as a method of being together. I wanted to bring into juxtaposition with this what you referred to as a “softer” methodology, such as poetic science and other processes, which put an emphasis on respect. What comes of this when conflict arises, when abuse or violence happens in the context of such a moral universe? Perhaps I am also curious about the ethical intervention of artists like you when working in these locations with strong traditions.
OW: Working in Pemenang over these past twelve years, I have been gradually and organically involved with various elements of society, with individuals, in groups, or in institutions. This feels a little easier, because Pemenang is a very small town, and the collective of Pasir Putih is a very attached part of the town. The process of our work always takes place side by side with the citizens of the town, and at certain times must be in direct contact with town policy makers, even with the Regent. Herein lies the beauty of our process for my friends and me at Pasir Putih—we even see this relationship from a comedic perspective: the leaders need a well-known and slightly sexy dangdut singer to engage thousands of citizens to listen to their campaign, mainly because this area has long been an economic source for the province of West Nusa Tenggara (the wider region) through the tourism sector. There is no presence of citizens in the official system without the presence of money. But as we have proved, more than 5,000 residents gather and party together on the beach each year for the Bangsal Menggawe festival (meaning: Bangsal—the name of the beach, and harbor—party) on their own initiative. This is because Pasir Putih, Akumassa, and I have embraced organically the mempolong-mertenten tradition over more than ten years. An awareness of a position as a “citizen” is not something accommodated by a top-down, representative, and methodological government system. During the twelve years I have been hanging out in the city of Pemenang, the conflicts I have witnessed, both directly and indirectly, have always been related to tourism, clandestine drug trafficking, land ownership, and regional politics. I am not claiming that there was no violence there, but what I have witnessed is how the mempolong-merenten philosophy strictly maintains harmony between the three religions that exist there: Islam, Hinduism, and Sasak Buddhism. This phenomenon is unique, considering that Lombok is known as “the island of a thousand mosques,” prone to radicalism. Based on my experience, merpenten-merpenten is sufficient to accommodate many aspects that at least help prevent the social vulnerabilities that relate to violence. Akumassa considers awareness of “location” as the main thing, that’s the method, which is something that has been ingrained in my aesthetic of art over the years. If Pamenang is mempolong-mertenten, then that is an ethic that I uphold. And it will never be quite the same in other locations.
RL: While Which Lord’s Favor Would Be Denied (2019) and Jabal Hadroh, Jabal Al Jannah [Green Mountain, Paradise Mountain] (2013) have different temporalities, both are documentaries that are observational in their quietude. As a viewer, this made me almost believe that the social, political, and historical issues the two films bring to the surface are non-urgent. As a filmmaker, what makes a subject urgent for you? In a documentary right now, is it productive to prioritize which subjects, issues, and/or calls for action are the more important to highlight?
OW: Maybe the fact that I am not an advocacy activist working for an NGO means that people see me as someone who sees a problem without prompting and then does not rush to solve it. I am an artist who strongly believes that a long-drawn out process is a response to an urgency, to produce a maximum result. A long process can fulfill our need for knowledge. For too long, our knowledge has been clouded by ideas (religion, modernity, etc.) that have become a distraction. We don’t know ourselves. If an issue’s urgency must always take priority, then we will only repeat the disruption; we will only continue to be the little ones imitating the big one. For example, Jabal Hadroh, Jabal Al Jannah (2013) is a poem about a woman who wants to bathe in a waterfall, and bathing is something she sees as her own. In Islamic law, a woman cannot walk alone, she must always be accompanied by her guardian (father, brother, or husband), but sometimes women want to be alone, even if only to bathe. Another example, in Which Lord’s Favor Would Be Denied (2019), the footage I used is on the banks of the Ciujung River, Banten, from 2009, in juxtaposition with footage in the same location in 2019. This video is part of my work with Akumassa at that location. This is a summary of ten years’ work that has produced dozens of videos, hundreds of articles, and one feature-length film that describes the social, political, and cultural situation in one corner of Banten province. What I mean by all of this is, the aesthetic of the long process is an urgency of knowledge.
RL: I sense the trust you are bestowing on the audience of these works. You also have faith in your subjects, the knowledge and experience they can make appear and then form, in helping you build your creation. I like the terms you used—“distraction” and “disruption”—in which the critical task of the aesthetic process is positioned with them; one condition of the documentary is to enable criticality as the possibility of immersion, which, ideally, repairs individual biases and distractions. How would you describe your own process of immersion (with people and their location)? And, what is the current status of immersion as an ethnographic tool, which promises connection with the field, and the restoration of “truth” in capturing images?
OW: My early college background is in journalism. To become a journalist had been my dream since childhood. Then the time came when I found myself working as a journalist for one of the newspapers during Indonesia’s political transition, which was when I quit because I felt constrained by the editorial outline. Since then, I paint and keep journaling every day—as I have been doing since I was eleven years old, starting from a very personal journal to extending beyond myself, especially my encounters with people and locations. I then became acquainted with this handy medium called video, on my smartphone. Now my journal is a moving-sound-and-durational journal. It is here that I saw the meeting between my passion for journalism and art: documentary (made in my own way). It’s hard to be “liked” in the film industry, but it survives as a support for my life choice as an artist. In 2008, five years after the founding of Forum Lenteng, I had a discussion with a friend, Ugeng, about documenting Forum Lenteng’s language achievements through its products (videos). From there, we formulated the Akumassa concept, where we agreed that the mass distribution of video in society could produce a non-singular aesthetic, and, if it was made into a networked movement, it would counter a single narrative in the creation of history. My fellow discussants come and go, but me and my passion for this concept are not going anywhere. I choose to be devoted as an artist to the continuity of the excavation that Akumassa envisions. The way I view people and locations has evolved, sinking deeper and deeper into the crowd, looking on, as if from above, in a location that could no longer be imagined officially as an administrative boundary. I adhere to the principle that my gaze is not the only gaze looking on a narrative from above the “now” location—there are many mutual gazes in the narrative. And from here, a new narrative is born, which we know as history, even though it is “just” the history of the common people. I believe that what is witnessed by the so-called audience is a metamorphosis of the documentary aesthetic. And I have always examined this aesthetic—that is, I have endeavored to reduce a large amount of the author subjectivity, because truth should never be singular. As problematic as the resulting image is, without denying the slightest element of “self” in the location, it is the post-colonial society’s way of recognizing themselves, among which we too are the problematic selves. If we dare to continually unfold the pleat of modern disruption, one day we will find genuine social gestures, which will continue to be processed in tandem with our own processes as cultural travelers.
Otty Widasari (1973, Balikpapan) studied at the Jakarta Institute of Arts (2011-2013). Widasari uses various mediums in her artistic practices such as video, painting, and performance art. In her work, one can see elements of journalism, which she studied before beginning her artistic career. In 2003 she was also one of the founders of Forum Lenteng, a creative group that focuses on alternative education through audiovisual media. Since 2008 she has been the head of AKUMASSA at Forum Lenteng, a media studies program which utilizes media such as photography, video, and writing as tools for uncovering social and cultural struggles from the perspective of the common people.
1 The Jakarta-based institution Forum Lenteng describes itself as “an egalitarian non-profit organization as a means of social and cultural studies development. Forum Lenteng was found by communication students, artists, researchers and cultural observers in 2003. The forum was established to develop knowledge on media and art of its members, by doing production, documentation, research and open distribution.” More here: https://forumlenteng.org/en/; One of the flagship programs of Forum Lenteng, Akumassa works are dedicated to media empowerment. More here: https://akumassa.org/en/ 1
Read the interview here: https://www.aseac-interviews.org/otty-widasari-manshur-zikri. 2
go to topSeptember 15th, 2022 — Rosa Mercedes / 04