International Conference

on Indonesia Culture

Connectivity and Sustainability : 
Forstering Cultural Commons in Indonesia

Art as Interdisciplinary Intervention, or Can Artists, Activists, Academics Collaborate?

Ari J. Adipurwawidjana,  Universitas Padjadjaran


Art, activism, and academia all have the potential to serve as sites of intervention in the sense that they all allow, or more importantly encourage, new ways of seeing, knowing and being making it possible for social change to occur, as they all are in their own particular ways function as a kind of Saturnalia which enables the performance of unorthodoxy to constantly challenge mainstream established norms. Historically speaking, art has always been engaged in social movements in Indonesia although it has also undeniable taken part in the preservation of ruling regimes. However, even when art supports the effort to bring about change, its involvement has varied from taking the form as a vehicle of representation, as a call for action, and ultimately an active agent. It is the sense of the last that I would like to share my thoughts, where art intervenes directly in social spaces and everyday lives, questioning established practices and inciting change, or at least consider alternatives. Here, I would like to propose that one of the reasons for that is that, while artists, activists, and academics often in fact are literally acquainted with each other, they seem to consider themselves as actors in different spheres of action, and therefore ignore the potential for their sharing of resources. My experiences being involved in the making of the documentary Globalisation Tapes as well as performing and collaborating with performance artists in Bandung, particularly with the group Bandung Performance Art Forum, have led to the effort to integrate participatory art and artists into the curriculum and the classroom. This kind of interdisciplinary—linking art, activism, and academic activities—seems to have opened up new possibilities, enriching each sphere of action.


While often in my oscillations from one to the other and back I encounter familiar faces—seeing activists and academics as spectators in art and cultural events, artists invited to display works and perform in academic forums (as a kind of comic relief) as well as instruments of dissemination— each group showing support for the other’s efforts as a kind of favor, in very few instances, do I see an actual collaboration. One is often inserted as a supplement for the other’s efforts rather than each complementing each other. Perhaps, my field of vision and experiences are limited, but that limitation is exactly my point. So, as a person who makes his living, so to speak, in the academic world, I must also admit that I constantly have prejudices about activists and professional artists. And, I assume also that activists and artists also have reservations and prejudices about academics, with some of which I most probably agree.

Earlier this month I attended an online discussion of newly formed group of theater practitioners and activists concerned with how the history of urban design and urban life have helped to set up social stratifications and segregations in the service of colonial and authoritarian regimes. While I noticed that the speaker representing theater practitioners was eager to merge theater with activism, the speaker representing urban activism repeatedly underlines that activists (of her sort) could not, or rather, could not imagine herself to participate in an artistic endeavor. The information of the event, also, did not seem to have circulates among academics. I, subsequently, and perhaps hastily, concluded that there was something about artists and the way they view art that causes them feel the need to act by intervening in social spaces and everyday lives that has come to be taken for granted. So, I would like to speak about art as intervention and at the same time share the issue of the need  to cross over and back between the three spheres of action, which of course entails a rethinking of what artistic, activist, and academic endeavors are and what they may mean. I will specifically take

the examples of projects in which I was directly involved. And, therefore, most of my examples will pertain to theater.

Art as Intervention

Art, clearly, is not by nature intervention. It has historically been used by the establishment and authority to preserve the status quo, the prevailing norms and order. In his seminal Theater of the Oppressed, Augusto Boal (1985) offers a critique the classical idea about art as proposed by Aristotle in his Poetics. Boal argues that Aristotle’s conception of tragedy in particular (while implying also the general idea of the Aristotelian notion of the well-made play, and for the purposes of this presentation, also high art) is coercive in nature, as it serves as an instrument for the ruling power to enforce control over the imagination of the people subject to the ruling power. The Aristotelian ideals which Boal critiques are also apparent in the writings of such eighteenth-century Neoclassicists as Alexander Pope and nineteenth-century literary figures as Matthew Arnold, who uphold the idea that art should represent “the best that has been thought and said.”

However, we also know of art which critiques social conditions, art which satirizes. We are acquainted with art which instead of representing the established, accepted norms, it represents views in opposition to normativity. We are able to see this in the literature and theater rising out of the Renaissance, for example. Yet, there are similarities in the two opposing roles of art and the artist,  in that they both assume the special privilege and place of the artist in society. Art is, as Scholes (1985) has suggested, the Saturnalian space reserved for unorthodoxy by orthodoxy to ensure that the unsanctioned may be contained. This special place provided for art and artists separates them from the normalcy of real social and political life of the general population. For, the present time this is problematic, in Indonesia as anywhere else. Alina Campana observes that “[a]rtists … embrace or struggle against the notion that they are isolated and alienated from society. Exemplary of the modernist era in art, but with roots back to the European Renaissance and the Enlightenment, the stereotype of the isolated, alienated artist and his or her accompanying artistic genius has permeated mass media, our schools and institutions, and the general public’s ideas of art and its place in our world” (2011: 279).

Here, Campana is proposing a new definition of the artist’s role. Similarly, she also offers a broader conception of the activist as not “limited to individuals protesting in the streets,” but rather,” referring to Giroux, conceiving activism as including “a variety of work toward social and political consciousness, empowerment, and change” (2011: 280). Campana warns that the conventional idea of activists and academics as educators often shows in practice where the activist and academic become agents of “indoctrination or the masses being led by the few,” which becomes a risk for democracy when only the activist and the academic come together. The kind of activism initiated by individuals or groups, who simultaneously play the roles of artist, activist, and academics have the potential of fostering democratic social and political life by opening alternative avenues where “insurgent citizens [who] challenge those with political and cultural power as well as honor the critical traditions within the dominant culture that make such a critique possible and intelligible” (Giroux, 1995). “This version of art and artists,” which conceives artists as being solitary ascetic dissociated from the realities of social life, unaffected by political struggles and contestations, Campana comments, “though valid and valuable in its own right, can obscure the more integrated roles that art, artists, and educators can have in community-building, cultural affirmation, and articulating a need for change. In these broader social functions, the boundaries between art, education, and activism fade” (2011: 279).

Therefore, Campana is fascinated by the figures, who become the focus of her study as, namely,

G.E. Washington, a African American, gay male performance artist in his forties; Josh Schachter,   a White male photographer; Kimi Eisele was a White female writer and dancer; Jason Gallegos, a

Chicano male media and film artist in his thirties; Kristen Suagee-Beauduy, a mixed-ethnicity female mixed-media artist and aspiring artist/educator/activist; play all three roles “artist, educator, and activist—at once.” She further underlines that “[i]n practice, these three roles come in no specific order, and depending on context, one may take precedence over the others. Their intersection leads to something more than the sum of the three parts. And the ongoing manifestation of that sum is rarely static or confined to itself, as it is also influenced by the needs and contexts of a collaborating community or group. Working in communities and dedicated to social change, the role the artist/ educator/activist plays is significantly different from artists or teachers as we have experienced and sometimes assumed them to be” (Campana, 2011: 279). Campana explains that the fact that these figures are able to play all three roles at the same time in doing their enables them to become “agents of possibility,” revealing alternative ways of seeing, knowing, and living within their respective communities, which brings her to the question: “What are some of characteristics of artist/educator/ activists’ backgrounds and identities that might shed light on the role higher education could play  in their preparation and support?” (279). This is, also, I believe, a question which we in Indonesia must answer so that artists, activists, and academics do not find themselves trapped within their fixed ideas of common and “best” practices, betraying their own social roles, their, dare I say, obligations to society.

On this issue, Suzi Gablik notes that indeed “individualism and freedom were the great modernist buzzwords, but they are hardly the most creative response to our planet’s immediate needs, which now demand complex and sensitive forms of interaction and linking” (1992: 2). She further says that “Such relationships require a consciousness that is different from the structural isolation and self- referentiality of individualism” (Gablik, 1992: 4). This is especially urgent in our current time almost two decades after Gablik proposes her concept of connective aesthetics. In the world view of our time, what Gablik calls “the post-Cartesian, ecological world view that is now emerging, the self is no longer isolated and self-contained but relational and interdependent” (1992:4), especially with the prevalence of information technology which connects people beyond boundaries and the limitations of the physical body, where individuals’ consciousness and selves cybernetically merge and fade into global informational networks. Gablik (1992: 4) asks: “What are the implications for art born of these changes in our notions of selfhood?”

Perhaps, we might be able to look back to the idea proposed by Hannah Arendt when in her seminal The Human Condition talks about the shift from work to action, from the mere production of artifice to producing social relations, which forms the basis of human interaction and ultimately society. In this spirit, I think, Boal provides the model for art as action, as he also proposes to dismantle the separation between actor and spectator in theater, and for our purposes today, of the artist and the public.

I myself began to think of this urgency as in my explorations of how gendered, raced, and classed bodies figure in postcolonial discourse, as I carry out my day-to-day academic activities in literary studies, ask the question of whether it is sufficient to talk about bodies, and whether there are other means of exploring how gendered, raced, and classed bodies find their way and place in social life. This is also the concern that Campana presents in her work, where she proposes a new definition of the artist’s role. Similarly, she also offers a broader conception of the activist as not “limited to individuals protesting in the streets,” for example, but rather, referring to Giroux, conceiving activism as including “a variety of work toward social and political consciousness, empowerment, and change” (2011: 280). Campana warns that the conventional idea of activists and academics as educators often shows in practice where the activist and academic become agents of “indoctrination or the masses being led by the few,” which becomes a risk for democracy when only the activist and the academic come together. The kind of activism initiated by individuals or groups, who simultaneously play the roles of artist, activist, and academics have the potential of fostering democratic social and political life by opening alternative avenues where “insurgent citizens challenge those with political and

cultural power as well as honor the critical traditions within the dominant culture that make such     a critique possible and intelligible” (Giroux, 1995: 9). In this sense art is an intervention, working and acting not only in its own privileged space isolated from the real goings-on of everyday life but also into political life and the academic sphere. Art, as the Russian theorist, Viktor Shkolvsky puts it, enables members of society, its appreciators and beneficiaries to defamiliarize themselves from the normal, allowing them to simultaneously emphasize the significance of the everyday and conceive of other possibilities than what has already prevailed.

Art as/in Activism

As soon as I began my undergraduate studies in the late eighties, I was introduced to activism on campus while at the same time ironically enough, even on campus “activism” and “academic activity” were spoken of as separate, and even incompatible spheres of action. However, even then, in the late 1980s, art and activism had already presented themselves as mutually supportive, as also often the people were identified as artists are also those who were known as activists, or at least, activists  and artists mingled in the same social circles. One artistic/activist phenomenon very characteristic of Bandung was Jeprut, literally “snapped,” as in a broken piece of string, which may be likened    to happening or performance art, in which artist-activists performed in public spaces, as form of resistance to the Suharto regime and its coercive apparatuses, particularly the military. This may   be of the same trend as the theatrical performances in the streets by PETA as a form of protest in resistance to the authoritarian Marcos regime in the 80s. Jeprut’s main characteristic, like that of happening art, is the introduction of objects and actions out of the ordinary into ordinary, common events and situations. “Art is,” after all, as Chalmers notes, “not just a private affair but can be   seen as a social function which demands sensitivity toward cultural values and meanings. It assists the individual in developing a personal philosophy and a habit of belief having application to his immediate social world” (1974: 23). It is in this sense, that art as intervention is already similar to activism, as it provided new perspectives to social and cultural events that we have come to take for granted as givens. Jasper even notes that “[a]rtfulness appears in all the dimensions of protest, singly or simultaneously” (1997: 65), for it takes such imaginative faculties that art offers to question the normative. The kind of artist-activist alliance from which Jeprut was born characterizes the cultural life of urban Bandung as well as in other cultural centers as Jakarta, Yogyakarta, and Makassar.

Furthermore, Lee also observes that this “tradition” had also continued the artist-activist culture following the Reformasi, as she thoroughly studied the street art of the youth of Jakarta as well as the particular example of the Jatiwangi Art Factory, which for me is really an offshoot of the artist-activist culture in Bandung. While the artist-activist community of Bandung created this pastoral sanctuary in Jatiwangi, it also had to address, even after the presumed socio-political reforms, in the specific cases like that Babakan Siliwangi, the urban green space as well as a meeting place of artists-activists, where the increasing efforts of commodifying the landscape of Bandung to serve the commercial goals of Bandung tourism. Another site of contention between artist-activists and the coalition of state and corporations is the area around the Bandung city square or Alun-alun Bandung commonly known as ex-Palaguna, after the demolished shopping center, initially thought to be the site of a cultural and public center.

While the friction seems to have died out in the case of Babakan Siliwangi, the ex-Palaguna remains a site in which three-generation of artists-activists continue to perform as a reminder of the unresolved struggle. I had been involved in both sites. Two of the most memorable would be when an installation by Tisna Sanjaya which symbolized a critique of the military was burned down by the authorities in 2004, which prompted a protest in the form of a series of performances at the site of the act of state violence. The other is in a collaborative performance in relation to the ex-Palaguna issue, which ended in our dispersing under the order of the police on site.

Despite the fact that the area is a common venue for street performers to make a living, and that the group of performers with which I was involved was not busking, the police said that our performance had the potential to incite public disorder. We assumed that the police at the time was exceedingly vigilant of any kind of public activity out of the ordinary because in that very week      a theater performance was forced to be cancelled (though unsuccessfully) because it presented a monologue written by Ahda Imran and performed by the Mainteater company, focussing on the historical figure Tan Malaka, with whom an Islamist group aassociated with communism, thought to be a danger to the moral well-being of the nation. The monologue was still performed as the artist/ activist groups in Bandung negotiated with both the authorities and the Islamist group, insisting that the performance was in no way promoting communism (officially banned in Indonesia) but rather an effort to reintroduce a neglected significant figure in Indonesian history. The unrelated proximity of the two events is testimony to the fact that the artist-activist alliance had existed in Bandung since the 70s as Lee (2015) has also noted, and had become an integral part of the culture.

My just being in that particular community (although I was not particularly identified as either an artist or an activist) had also taken me to be involved in the making of a documentary to be    used as educational material for labor education. The documentary, Globalisation Tapes, was carried out under the direct charge of the Indonesian office of the International Union of Foodworkers in Bandung. It was then that my academic endeavor in postcolonial studies initially found its way into activism. The project was designed so that ultimately the daily workers of the plantations in North Sumatera documented and commented on their place in the global economy which exploited them, making them have to research the history of global exploitation of workers from colonial times.  The project, directed by Joshua Oppenheimer and Christine Cynn, intervened the normalcy of the plantation workers daily lives and in turn the workers as filmmakers carried out intervention in public spaces in Medan the capital North Sumatera. The project also brought Oppenheimer’s attention to particular instances which became the germ his acclaimed as well as controversial Act of Killing and Look of Silence. What was for me personally important was that the project showed the possibility of cross-overs and blurring of roles and social identities, between artists, activists, and educators, no so much in that it gave me the opportunity as an academic to cross over to art and activism but more importantly, to the plantation workers themselves who became all three at once.

My most recent involvement in the merging of art, activism, and academic endeavor was my participation in projects organized by the Bandung Performing Arts Forum or BPAF for short, a group of young artist-activists, whose aesthetic project constantly require rigorous research and serious theorizations and involve direct community participation, which both merge the artistic, activist, and academic efforts and dismantles the separation between the artist and the public, as community members become artists and artists recognize themselves as being involved members of society. And, it is in this condition that what acts constitute art is redefined. Their projects included a collaboration with the metal musicians and community of “metalheads” scene in Bandung and the artistic intervention into the residents of the Rancacili housing project to which citizens displaced from their homes from various boroughs of Bandung to make place for the city’s commercial development and infrastructure projects. BPAF’s projects allowed artists to see themselves as community members and enable community members to see their situations in alternative perspectives.

Activism in the Classroom

My experiences being involved in projects which bring theater and performance to address and become part of social issues, had also changed my way of viewing my role in higher education and redefining what it means to carry out academic endeavors. My colleagues and I in the Department of Literature and Cultural Studies, have not only brought learning and research to the community as stipulated by the authoritative policy about Higher Education, the so-called Tri Dharmas of Higher

Education—teaching, research, and community service—but also have brought in the community, artists and activists into the classroom. Jasper asserts that

Art pulls these dimensions together succinctly for it consists of experimental efforts to transmute existing traditions into new creations by problematizing elements that have been taken for granted. The resulting projects can be either large or small, extending over a lifetime’s work or a month’s, and an artist is likely to have several of each kind of project going at the same time. Protestors, just as clearly rethink existing traditions in order to criticize portions and experiment with alternatives for the future, in both large and small ways. They also offer ways of getting from here to there. (1997, 65).

What Jasper points out is, I believe, the kind of endeavor that students, especially in the liberal arts at the tertiary level must be accustomed to as part of their learning process. Gablik eve goes so far as to say that in a sense such academic work is in itself already activism, “not activism in the sense of the old paradigm, but an empathic means of seeing through another’s eyes, of stretching our boundaries beyond the ego-self to create a wider view of the world. The relational self knows that it is embedded in larger systems and tends toward integration” (1992: 6), which I think what learning and research is in essence.

I have on several occasions collaborated with for example literacy activists and BPAF in developing the syllabus of and teaching in the courses I teach. What I’ve learned from art and activism have enabled me to deal with the varied learning aptitudes of my students. It has also made it possible for students to be acquainted with the kind of connective aesthetics and activism as an integral part of their academic activities. As artist-activists are brought into the classroom, students are prompted to see their learning as an opportunity to be concerned with and participate in the bringing about social change beyond the confines of the classroom.

Such collaborations and crossovers open up opportunities for both teachers and student to be, in Campana’s words “agents of possibilities.” As such, Chalmers asserts, “students can use the arts to help maintain, perpetuate, and change their own culture as well as to decorate and enhance their environment. (1974: 25). It does not only allow students to be more engaged members of society. It also enhances their learning experience, as such participatory practices common in art and activism enable students, who inevitable have varied learning aptitudes, to develop learning styles and methods that cater to and is best suited for their respective personalities and beackgrounds—social, economic, and cultural. I have elaborated elsewhere that the kind of kinesthetic and participatory learning that art, particularly performance, and activism exemplifies has helped my students to acquire and develop better critical thinking skills (Adipurwaridjana, 2018). In this way, my students are able to, as Scholes (1985) suggests, become active producers of texts and actions instead of mere passive consumers  of other people’s thoughts and works. Learning becomes a creative act as art is as well as mode of resistant practice as activism is.

At present, taking advantage of the pandemic, we now at Universitas Padjadjaran have artists and activists as well as students from other universities take our courses online together with our registered students. In the classroom context in which such identities as students, teachers, artists, activists, and ordinary members of society become blurred and overlap onto each other, collaboration become more possible. By bringing the long-tradition of the art-activism alliance in Bandung,      we hope that academic life can be fueled with the kind of spirit for social change that we find in connective aesthetics and activism. And, in turn, academia may return the favor by taking advantage of its institutional nature help to ensure the sustainability of the efforts of art and activism.


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