A conversation between Gayle Meikle and Irwan Ahmett This is the fifth instalment of our Conversation Series, and the second in a sub-chain of conversations collectively titled ‘Finding Common Ground Over Distance’. In the first, Alexandra Ross and Gayle Meikle brainstorm project ideas for a curatorial collaboration; and in this subsequent edition, Gayle Meikle speaks to artist and designer Irwan Ahmett. The text that follows is their edited email conversation, which took place from 1st April to 9th June 2016. Gayle’s current PhD research is centred on the university gallery and play. It is within this context that Gayle and Irwan discuss Irwan’s collaborative practice with Tita Salina and their research residency at St PAUL Street Gallery, Auckland University of Technology, New Zealand. Gayle Meikle is a curator, artist and organiser currently based in the north east of England. She is located at the BxNU Institute as a PhD researcher in Fine Art. Her research speculates on the university gallery as a site for radical pedagogy. Irwan Ahmett and Tita Salina are an artist duo from Jakarta. The duo’s artworks are a series of public interventions targeting city-specific issues and using play as a universal medium or strategy for change. Find out more about the duo and their residency at St PAUL Street Gallery here.
Gayle Meikle (GM): … I am interested in how you use playfulness as a strategy. Can you outline what you mean by playfulness in terms of your practice?
Irwan Ahmet (IA): In the social and economic conditions of the world filled with injustice, it’s really hard to offer a universal ideology that could involve the public. An actualisation of our art practice is to create events that need a lot of involvement. Tita and I always offer various negotiation and conversational forms, with the intention of motivating the public to a level of action. We believe a movement will happen when a common purpose is built amongst a public, and we believe Play is a power enabler, a catalyst which represents the above criteria. We always pick problems as the starting point in our work then we respond to them with creative intervention. So Play can be a strategy of presentation that is able to offer new perspective towards the complexity of a social condition, especially if we are capable of placing it appropriately so that it will create a strong bond among locations and collective memory. The mentality of play is already in human nature since birth but it is gradually forgotten as we age and our world view becomes more narrow and limited.
GM: My own research is looking at the university gallery’s purpose and how it might influence current conversations about alternative art pedagogy. It is just at the beginning, however in my view the university and ergo the university gallery is a critical player within the city and must engage beyond economic and infrastructure contributions. I noticed that St Paul’s mission is to explore the university’s role “… as critic and conscience of society.” Can you tell me more about your current project with them and how you see play to be an integral part of looking at land reform within that specific local context?
IA: This is the first research residency for us and is likely to be conducted across several countries over the next few years. It’s important for us to observe our art practice more critically through artistic, conceptual, technical and material factors. As we don’t have an art background, the interaction with academics really helps us give context to our practice and construct our thinking and ways of working in the long-term – let’s say for ten years. We are not really interested in the gallery as a space to make work because the real space, for us, stretches into public space. St PAUL Street Gallery as an institution representative has the negotiation space which we as artists don’t have. The curatorial process is quite intense yet it does give us a lot of space to understand more the concept of Pacifica regional and the Aucklanders’ collective art practice. Their understanding of art is interesting because it has brought the academic territory to the political stage. The gallery is very careful and critical when developing projects/works which could be very good but also prone to indecision. However, as both artists and institution, we feel fortunate that we are brave enough to take our own position within the project, yet share the risk together. The gallery’s existing program helps us to absorb and interact faster with the layers of problems, which are our creative resource during our stay. The concept of the project, ‘Ring of Fire’, began from intensive discussions two years ago, when the gallery director and curator had a survey visit to Indonesia. Then in 2015 we were invited for a short research visit for two weeks in Auckland which was very valuable for what we are doing now in these three months. There is no requirement to make an artwork but it’s more to emphasise building networks and developing the notion conceptually and in action.
GM: And lastly, I am interested in how you describe ‘playfulness’ as a ‘universal language’. As you move from city to city can you outline how this strategy helps you to get to know the area you are in and develop your research on a specific issue?
IA: We come from a megacity with poor infrastructure – Jakarta with 15 million people, who are aggressive but full of surprising humour. We face problems every single day and continually negotiate with these problems, from the mad traffic, high crime, air pollution, waste, to social and political tensions that arise at any given time. The feeling of desperation, futility and helplessness in facing those crazy problems has made us Jakartans have a distinct sensibility in order to survive. To ridicule problems is our daily life as Jakartans. This affects us in viewing life. No matter how developed a city is, it always has problems. Today Auckland is facing increasing homelessness. As problems are our resources, Tita and I work within the situation to understand the problems through the eyes of citizens, who are likely saturated with the current condition. Through this we offer a new perspective on the problem. It is here that our position is to intervene and make the world smile again.
GM: Hello Irwan,
Thank you very much for your response. It is very insightful to see you how you and Tita articulate your practice. Lots of leads I could pick up on, however I want to explore your reference to problems or the concept of problematization;
“To ridicule problems is our daily life as Jakartans.”
Firstly, I love the poetics of your above statement “to ridicule problems” it reminds me of the use of the absurd through the plays of Bertolt Brecht and latterly the ‘theatre of the absurd’ movement. Although what sets your practice apart from these plays is your use of optimism rather than focusing on the futility of the situation. Do you see ridicule as an empowering method for people to use when faced with adversity?
IA: Hi Gayle,
Finally I reply your email after longgg days…very sorry about this.. just finished the residency, went back home and now in Boston, US.. hope you’re still keen waiting for my answers…
There is no special formula for solving a social problem quickly except we can change the perspective towards that issue and then, over time, we can reflect and reconstruct our way of thinking. Humour and irony are platforms which I feel are quite effective in intervening in the status quo. Ridicule and futility tend to lead to negative connotations. The creation of a collective play event empowers the public mind through the normally dormant imagination. In the context of the city and public space, at least, it changes the perspective more effectively through developing a shared story (though it may be ephemeral). In practice we always utilise found objects, situations, negotiation and spontaneous reactions to create a surprise from the normal behaviours found routinely in one’s life. Everyone likes surprises and hardly anyone refuses when one is asked to play.
GM: I am curious as to your repeated use of problems and how you intentionally seek these out as starting points. Although more artists, particularly socially engaged artists, are beginning to problematize the site they work within, to me it still seems quite a unique positioning to start a project from. How much do you think that approach has been developed from your background as designers and can you expand on what you mean by:
“It’s important for us to observe our art practice more critically from artistic, conceptual, technical and material factors. As we don’t have an art background, the interaction with academics really helps us give context to our practice and construct our thinking and ways of working in the long-term – let’s say for ten years.”
IA: Our background as designers influences our working process in making artworks because designers are often faced with things to create solutions. As designers we hold firmly to the function and rules of design. In a particular situation, those conditions are able to offer solutions towards an issue especially when we observe a form of communication, technical reading and the distribution of a project. But it’s not like that in art, I see art as a value beyond its own value. We have to admit that design is our ‘mother language’ in constructing an idea. But in the resulting process, we always try not to get trapped in a design paradigm.
GM: To bring it back to play (playfulness) I remember when we were in Bergen and the first day you suggested we play a game at the park, this in my view really helped our group connect especially as we came from diverse backgrounds. In game theory they quite often talk about the magic circle as the space and time of a game where the players build an unspoken bond between each other. In the multiple games you have made have you had much experience of this and are there strategies you use to try and cultivate it?
IA: Yes, playing is a very fair exchange and capable in overcoming awkward interactions quickly. We often do that with strangers in public spaces or try to enable this when asking the public to interact with our platforms. Sometimes it doesn’t work as expected, but that is the fun side of the play ideology, we can do it with and for ourselves. It’s like a celebration of a small victory and that’s more than enough for us.
As a collective duo (Tita and myself) who come from a country without a proper art and culture infrastructure, we feel the need to keep building networks that will lead us to the next level of our practice. When it is our own risk and funding management, we have to be smarter and more sensitive, to keep listening to our hearts and dreams. In relation to this residency within the university, the academics’ territory, although it’s very short it gave us a broader horizon in doing research on culture and the vulnerabilities in Pacific Rim which are new things for us.
All the best,
Photographs taken during Irwan Ahmett and Tita Salina’s research fellowship, The Flame of the Pacific, at St Paul St Gallery, Auckland, New Zealand 22 April 2016 – 27 May 2016