KUNCI Cultural Studies Center

Resound, revision, recollection:
Sensing through colonial archives

1st May – 10th June 2017,
Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam


KUNCI Cultural Studies Center inhabits a precarious position of belonging to neither this nor that within existing disciplinary boundaries while aiming at expanding them. The collective’s membership is open and voluntary, and is so far based on an affinity to creative experimentation and speculative inquiry with focus on intersections between theory and practice. Since its founding in 1999 in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, KUNCI has been deeply preoccupied with critical knowledge production and sharing through means of media publication, cross-disciplinary encounter, research-action, artistic intervention and vernacular education within and across community spaces.

Members of KUNCI are Antariksa (co-founder), Brigitta Isabella, Nuraini Juliastuti (co-founder), Syafiatudina and Ferdiansyah Thajib. Hayyu Al Qayyumi is involved in KUNCI as librarian, Wok The Rock designs the website, Verry Handayani is managing financial matters. KUNCI collaborators are Bagoes Anggoro, Fiky Daulay and Gatari Surya Kusuma who are supporting the research and educational processes at KUNCI’s School of Improper Education.

The Becoming and the Unbecoming

KUNCI came into being through a regular publication of newsletter. We are founded by the activists of Bulaksumur, one of the main student press of Gadjah Mada University, Yogyakarta. In accord with how student press and university habitus informed our lives, we created different activities to facilitate discursive practices and intellectual exercises, regionally as well as nationally. Newsletter, website, and mailing list constituted the main outlets of our past activities. These were responds to censorship on student press, and other forms of ‘alternative media’ before Indonesian Reformasi in 1998, The dawn of Indonesian Reformasi which marked the end of president Soeharto’s authoritarian New Order regime saw the rise of multiple political subjectivities. The needs for representing and raising voices from formerly repressed-silenced histories and communities emerged. Community, empowerment, participation, history from below are essential keywords that inform the development of different cultural organizations during this phase. At the same time, we also witnessed the ruinous knowledge infrastructure following the end of 30 years of a repressive government. Those whom we expected to bring changes into the sociocultural landscape were too busy consolidating political powers now that the old governance is truncated.

Thus we decided to take matters into our own hands; by actively posing the most urgent questions, opening up new areas of inquiry, seeking for intellectual autonomy, transferring awareness, and actively investigating contemporary issues using methods and approaches that are mainly ignored by formal institutions, including the academia. While continuously trying to reconfigure what would be the best ways to navigate our intellectual desire in the new freedom of expression realm, we managed to make connections with similar initiatives. Laypersons who are tired of the commercialization of everything, students who have lost hopes with elitist thinking, artists who are straddling in between arts bubbles and economic precarity. Internally, if not eternally, the main question the main set of questions that continue to haunt us as collective at KUNCI is: how do we not only survive but also sustain, transfer and expand our ideas, practices and commitment into the future?

Past Ordeals

Present Challenges

School of Invisible Economy

Unsettling Experiences and Other Salient Matters

With the spirit of decentralization that came after the New Order, channels of expression were opening up. Paradoxically Indonesian public sphere has become an arena for competing forces in the society. These are forces from different ideological factions that had been silenced by the past regime. Both liberal and conservative groups were facing head to head on the political stage. Many of the elements of the former political structure also remain salient due to the deep-rootedness of corruption and power abuse among state apparatuses and public servants.

Within this disorienting political landscape we had decided to remain autonomous. Practically however this would also mean that we isolate ourselves from government funding, if any at all. Many of our contemporaries think alike. Foreign funders became one possible channel to get support. This was apparently not without the risk of creating new dependencies. Due to the limited funding resources, a climate of competition was forming among friends and colleagues for existential reasons.

In the course of time new actors emerged. Collectors and cultural entrepreneurs were popping out of the art market bubble. This was a short-lived period where profiteers tried to grab whatever vestiges left by the fluctuating interest towards the regional art scene. Meanwhile, territorially Yogyakarta is increasingly becoming overpopulated, introducing us to the new spectre in the block: gentrification. Land and water resources are diminishing due to the massive urban redevelopment. New organizations with focus on the rights of the people and the rights to the city have emerged. New alternative spaces and artists initiatives keep flourishing. along with their respective cultural networks. Overlapping interests connects us, others don’t.

Scholars, artists, students are coming and going. We travel a lot. Exchanges, residencies, partnership, fellowship, have become the norm to inform the cultural production. We meet and find more collaborators, though we still seek for more of them. Participatory art becomes part of the edginess of art practices.

We turn 19 years old this year. We have done a lot but at the same time there are still many more that we have not yet accomplished. Despite our constant struggle, the problems that the society is facing remain elusive as well as real. New ‘ghosts’ are bubbling under as we write this text. Something needs to be (un-)done, always.

Leveraging Situated Knowledge

In the early years, KUNCI was preoccupied with theoretical issues that had been developed in the British Cultural Studies tradition. With the demise of grand narratives, we deemed that enriching the public’s criticality through translation of then still minor subjects such as youth issue, study of style, girl culture, body, space, the Internet culture, emotion and intimacy, feminist studies and queer issues into local context. This we found more productive to circumvent the ennui in knowledge-production which was led by university at that time, still too much focusing on western canonical theories. We then matured through fashioning a cultural studies inflected by local dynamics and vernacular vocabularies.

In short we gave birth to a version of Cultural Studies that is increasingly our own. In turn our practice managed to garner allies in the region, as artists, academics and cultural producers in South East Asia participated in the knowledge sharing circuit.

After the critical engagement with theoretical speculations,in its later evolution KUNCI shifted its orientation towards practice-based knowledge. This is marked by the organized series of media literacy and family history projects. Following the end of newsletter publication in 2009, we entered a phase where we immersed ourselves with socially engaged and theoretically inflected projects. This ranges from issues on space and urbanity, media and technology convergence, history from below and memory work, diasporic studies, open knowledge and sharing culture to critical art history and experimental education.

Currently questions of horizontality, sustainability of ideas, transmission of awareness and future orientation become our main preoccupations. This self-distancing process is also borne out of the more fragmented and complex realities that we are situated in. How do we value not only the pressing material but also the immaterial aspects of our conditions? What can we do with the affective values of our work? How do we sustain and reinvent togetherness in a world that is getting more inchoate, unruly and incoherent? And to what aim?

Capacity to Aspire: School of Improper Education

Starting end of 2016 we initiated a long term attempt for sustainability of ideas through the establishment of School of Improper Education (SoIE). The school is founded upon the ethical foundations and desires of realizing knowledge into tooling, through developing socially-engaged artistic experimentations, embodied learning/unlearning, emphasis on micropolitics and commonings. To this end, we seek for different forms of collaboration and translocal networks that aspires towards the expansion radical imaginations through horizontality and self-organization. In terms of format, the school is aimed at investigating notions of study, as way to imagine different ways of organizing education outside of the dominant models. As a school which is designed to problematize the concept of school, SoIE will be functioned as a platform for living research in which KUNCI will try and test various formats of study that exist accross different spatiotemporalities.

For the initial yeary, models developed by Jacotot Method, Turba (or going into grassroots, popularized by LEKRA), nyantrik (study with the masters in Javanese context) and Taman Siswa (a vernacular model of horizontal education) will be presented as objects of speculation.