Allgemein, Blog, Blog 2022, TC 2022

Interview with Brigitta Isabella

Brigitta is a member of the art collective and study forum named KUNCI. It experiments with methods in producing and sharing knowledge through the acts of studying together at the intersections between affective, manual and intellectual labor. Since its founding in 1999 in Yogyakarta, Indonesia, KUNCI has been continuously transforming its structure, ways and medium of working.

In 2016 KUNCI started the School of improper education, what was your vision for the project?
“At that time, KUNCI started to think about the sustainability of our organization, after being around for almost 20 years experimenting with different ways of togetherness. However, when we explore the questions around sustainability, we realize that oftentimes it is addressed in terms of financial sustainability. For example, it would be about whether in the future we will have money to pay for our rent, for our members, etc. It is a valid concern, but what is equally important for us is the immaterial aspect of sustainability, which is friendship, community, network and critical ideas. Other than monetary or property ownership, what resources do we need to sustain our organization? Precariousness is a common problem in many independent and small organizations, but at the same time, within such uncertain conditions, practices of solidarity and mutual aid also often emerge as a response to the economic and political situation where we cannot count on government support or the exploitative capitalist-based market.
The intention to develop a school then is to study how can we sustain, reproduce, and self-organize the practice of knowledge production collectively.”

And why is it improper education?
“First, we use the term improper as a subversion against the so called “proper” school, the hegemonic school system. When we published our open call for the school, we said that we invite the participants to create and destroy a school at the same time. It’s not about we in KUNCI are experts on something and then we teach certain topics to the students. We want to dismantle the hierarchy between student and teacher that is often times the main pedagogic mode in the “proper” school system.
Secondly, it is to rethink about success and failure and about grades in schools. As we reorganize the whole system of school, we also need to practice an alternative way to evaluate a studying process, that is by creating new tools to create an environment of togetherness instead of competitiveness and by building new values to appreciate things that emerge from the process of studying together, such as friendship and solidarity.”

How do the participants of the school find their topics? And are they working collaboratively?
“In our open call for the school, instead of starting with a topic, we offer four methods of collective studying. The first method is inspired by the Jacotot–method, which was reconceptualized in Jacques Rancière’s The Ignorant Schoolmaster. In this method, we set up to demand the recognition of universal intellectual equality and to propose possibilities for creating a learning environment in a situation where the students and the teacher do not know anything about a certain subject.
The second method is called the turba method, an acronym formed from turun ke bawah (literally “going below”), which is an approach to art, research, and activism formulated by the LEKRA (Lembaga Kebudayaan Rakyat, Institute of People’s Culture) in the 1950s and 1960s. Turba encourages artists and intellectuals to seek knowledge by generating dialectical practices that work the wisdom of the masses. It includes, among others, the principles of “tiga sama”, literally means “three same.”: same in working, same in eating and same in sleeping. So when you’re an artist and you want to make an artwork that would reflect the lives of the people that you’re in solidarity with, you have to do the same work as the people, you have to eat the same thing that the people eat, and you have to sleep in their house to really live like them. In practice, some of the participants went to take part in a struggle against land grabbing in the development of New Yogyakarta International Airport, others learned local architecture and water irrigation system called subak in Bali, while me and Khairunisa (one of SoiE participants) tried to be a driver in an online ride-hailing service.”

The first criticism that would come to my mind would be if this is not some kind of class tourism. You just live the experience for a short time and then you go back to your privileged lifestyle?
“I agree it has the risk to be that way. In fact, LEKRA intellectuals had also self-evaluate turba practice and warned artists to not act like “a horse rider gazing at a flower garden” when they go down to the people and experience the way they live. It means artists should not romanticized the lives of poor people and, to use your term, turn turba into a class tourism. In addition to that, these days Indonesian elite politicians also often used the term turun ke bawah to polish their own image and performatively justify their rights to be the representation of the people. Turba can be exploited to maintain hierarchy and accumulate elite power.
Seen this way, turba is never a neutral method. Intention, positionality, and aim will really determine whether it will be an act of exploitation, a feel-good activism, or a form of radical study. So just to expand on the method, besides 3 Sama (Three Same) there are also a set of ethical principles called 4 Jangan dan 4 Harus (Four Donts and Four Musts): Don’t sleep at the village bloodsucker’s house; don’t teach the peasants; don’t harm your hosts and the peasants; don’t take notes in front of the peasant. The four musts are: must do the “three same” fully; must show humility, politeness, and curiosity to learn from the peasant; must know the local language and culture; must help the host and the peasants problem. These ethics—and by the way, there are several other creative formulas that makes Turba a very interesting as a studying method!—serve as some kind of corridor to draw a line between class tourism and political solidarity.”

What are the other two methods?
“The third method is nyantrik. Historically it has roots in 14th-15th century Hindu Buddhist practice and later also adapted to Islamic boarding school tradition. In a way, this method is a bit contradictory with the Ignorant Schoolmaster method where the figure of the expert teacher is deliberately made absent. In nyantrik, a studying journey is a journey to find the right master whom you can gain knowledge from, a true teacher who will enlighten the student. In contemporary times, nyantrik is often practiced among performing art students, those whose knowledge cannot be gained by merely reading a book or following instructions, but rather from embodied experience and a cultivation of rasa (a term which has a long history and hard to translate, but to make it short, it is like emotional capacity and affective knowledge rooted in Javanese spiritual practice). Nyantrik becomes interesting because the students don’t just learn from the master’s artistic practice but also their way of life, their everyday act in daily life which accumulates sensitive perception and a deeper relationship between one’s body and the nature.
The last method is called Taman Siswa, which literally means “garden of students.” It is a network of “wild school” established by a nationalist intellectual and teacher, Ki Hadjar Dewantara, in 1920s during the colonial era as a response to the discriminatory colonial policy which restrict studying access against non-European people. The growth of Taman Siswa was seen as a threat by the colonial government and thus they banned it and labelled it as a “wild school.” After Indonesian independence, Ki Hadjar Dewantara was celebrated as “the father of Indonesian national education” but at the same time, over time, when Taman Siswa was institutionalized and even bureaucratized the State, it lost wilderness and it’s subversiveness. Through Taman Siswa method we ask question about whether radical study can or should be institutionalized. What form of alternative school can we imagine and practice together? In short, with these four methods we don’t just apply them or treat them as neutral. These methods are also tools, we have to work with it and sometimes even redefine and rebuild it when it doesn’t perform well for our contemporary realities.”

People have different personalities, some take up more space or are louder and faster, others are more quiet and so on. How do you work with different personalities? What are perhaps the methods that you have developed?
“You’re right, personalities of different people can really define how a space is created, maintained, and shared. One of the tools that we use is to facilitate the process of producing and sharing a space of participation is by delegating four roles among the participants in every school meeting. The first role is the host or the moderator, the second one is a harvester who documents the meeting, then a timekeeper and the last one is the guardian of attention. This role pays attention to people who haven’t speak, but seem like they want to speak or to look at people who maybe already talked too much. By redistributing these roles to the participants, the role of the host is not being centralized around KUNCI members. This method also allows the participantst to feel like they are not just participants who are waiting for us to facilitate them. Building a participatory space of study requires everyone to learn how to participate and know what makes their participations meaningful not just for themselves but also for the others. It also means we have to know when to step up and to step down, we have to learn how to participate but more importantly also learn how to allow others to equally participate.
The second challenge is time. All participants have different work and responsibilities outside the school. For example, university students relatively have more time to join our school although it is not the case if they have to take a part-time job to support themselves. And it’s harder to join the school fully when someone has domestic works at their hands. We have to learn how to organize a school routine that is inclusive to the heterogeneity of times that people have in their respective life situation, and I cannot say that we have solved this particular challenge.”

And if they cannot attend the class a lot?
“That’s also the difference between our school with the regular school system where students . are like laborers in a contract with the school and there is punishment if they don’t attend. We realize that having a time to study is a privilege for some people. In our school, there is no punishment, and there is also no offer of financial reward or certificate that the participants can obtain through our school.
It then brings us back to the first question of sustainability. How can we sustain collective study when there is no reward in such a normative sense? What is actually the modality that our kinds of school creates to sustain the passion for learning and sharing? Perhaps friendship and solidarity are one of the main immaterial resources that can be cultivated to sustain the joy of studying together.”