Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Transition Towns

In the wake of global warming induced climate change, can we make our lives more sustainable and less dependent on oil? Transition culture is a bottom-up initiative to rethink and rework the ways we live. Concerning Jakarta, I seriously doubt that this is the answer: 'gotong royong', i.e. reciprocity. The mega-city of Jakarta is a collection of strangers. The future of Jakarta is not in an idea that might have worked on the village level.

On art (and philosophy)

Do artists care about defining their work? Or if they do, should they? Do art lovers care about the definition of art? Or if they do, should they? What does it say if we claim that art is about beauty or that something is art if it is put in a certain context (for example a museum)? I don’t care too much for a definition of art. However, if you do, here is a good essay. I, on the other hand, think that art should not be overintellectualized. Now, it seems that philosophers have to come to rescue art, to justify it with fancy words and theories in curatorial essays. References to Derrida and Foucault in catalogs are the rule these days. Art, though, can say something philosophy cannot. Art can show what we cannot say. To see this, we should engage with art works. This is a physical engagement – to experience art in the stomach. As soon as we ask ourselves the question what the meaning is of a certain artwork we have to realize that the artwork did not succeed. A good artwork does not make one ask the question ‘why?’. Questions about brush strokes and camera standpoints are secondary. Looking at details makes a physical engagement impossible. A great artwork is felt in the stomach.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

this mess we are in

The Polly Jean Harvey and Thom Yorke song 'this mess we are in' from the album stories from the city, stories from the sea; the images are edited by Mirtov.

My voice – tomorrow

I have read the prophets, poets and philosophers. Not in search of wisdom. In search of life. My voice. Style and life are the two inseparable sides of the same currency. A style cannot be copied for the simple reason that a life cannot be copied. No matter how impressed I am, for example, with Ecce Homo and the Tractatus, these are not my voices, not my books. A style is one’s perspective on the world. Style, therefore, depends on the contingencies of one’s life. However, reading is part of the art of living. Without reading voraciously – a funny coincidence: Voragen, my surname, means ‘to eat a lot’ – one’s own voice cannot be developed. My voice – tomorrow.

Misery is a Butterfly

The music is by Blonde Redhead, it is their song 'Misery is a Butterfly', and the images are from the 1959 movie A bout de souffle (Breathless) by director Jean-Luc Godard.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

On the act of unfinished reading

Reading – comprehensive reading – is something we learn along the way, step by step. A learning process – a never finished process. We learn the alphabet and how to form intelligible words and sentences. We learn how words are used. Meaning is established in use. We learn how to use words by example of parents, siblings, teachers, friends, etc. – in sum: our peer groups. Within a group of significant others meaning – and its normativity – is established through interaction, reflexively. And the other is not necessary proximate. Meaning is thus not a characteristic of the individual mind. Subjectivism cannot generate normativity. Interpretation is needed but bounded by rules – otherwise: anything goes and a total regression leaves us without meaning. This, however, does not rule out indeterminacy for hard cases. Poetry – some poetry – for example. How to read a poem? How to understand it? Rival understandings are possible, these refer to rival peer groups of readers. Here an example:

The Arrival

a goni a piece. strung by
graven hands on
prison floors. astride the wind.
clung by the ocean. caught
in the kindness of
krinyu, the local doctors
pale as green. witness
to a lost birthplace glimpsed
at a jaundiced dawn.
the sky leaks like the amber
from your eyes. come
closer and smell the country

Laksmi Pamuntjak, the Anagram, section “From the Buru Notebook,” p64

At p77, “The Poet’s Notes,” she writes: “Krinyu is a native plant found widespread on the island of Buru.” And Buru is where Suharto’s New Order concentration camp was located. The most famous of prisoners was renowned author Pramoedya Ananta Toer. However, what to make of above poem? It feels airtight – where to enter to start comprehending these words? What does, for example, goni mean? The name of a guitarist, a town or a president? Google does not help here. Style matters. Style is not mere decoration of a content. The what is conveyed through a how. What does a hermetic style convey? Perhaps I am too impatient of a reader. I browse – so now and then my eyes are glued to a phrase.

I also started a few times in her The Diary of R.S.: Musings on Art, which is also originally written in English. And again, I do not enter. (Her Jakarta Food Guide, on the other hand, is very accessible, of course, she had a different audience in mind.) She also translated work of Goenawan Mohamad (On God and Other Unfinished Things and a collection of his poems).

shared space

Hans Monderman was a Dutch traffic engineer. He designed the very counterintuitive concept of shared space. It is counterintuitive, because it entails in removing unnecessary road signs. It is counterintuitive, because we suspect that it would lead to utter chaos and disaster. Nonetheless, it leads to increased safety and less fatalities. This is so, because car and bicycle drivers and pedestrians are now forced to interact and communicate with eachother before making the next move instead of looking solely at inert signs. When we are forced to negotiate how to move around space we are forced to share there is less danger of accidents and road rage. However, I wonder if it could be implemented in Indonesian cities. For a good article on Monderman's concept of shared space see here.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Ten years after…

Ten years ago I was knocked out in tram 14 at a stop next to the Portuguese synagogue in central Amsterdam. For no reason whatsoever. Not because I cannot figure out why that fist hit me, but because the perpetrator had probably no reason for a hostile attack – against me or whoever else. And that was a shock. Trained in a Kantian worldview I was acquainted with a world where everything – good as well as evil – happens for reasons. We, though, are not rational. The uppercut broke my lower jaw at three spots. As a consequence I had to eat everything through a straw for weeks. A diet, one could remark, if I only needed one. I mixed all food with full-fat milk, butter and sugar, supplemented by a daily dose of milkshakes – McDonalds has the best straws for these sorts of things. The other wake-up fright was the indifference I met in the tram – blood gushing while the perpetrator ran off – the hospital and the police station. After a few days, when I was released from the hospital, I temporally broke of my studies to just wait and get better. Only after, I realized there were more scars. Fear and anxiety when walking around the city’s streets. Fear and anxiety only ebbed away slowly. I wrote dozens of poems. Starting off with a piece of poetry reworking the base ‘facts’ stated in the police report. However, there are things, to speak with Wittgenstein – whom I discovered at that time, that cannot be expressed. Fear and anxiety are perhaps too much of a personal nature. While white lines are part of the form that gives meaning to a poem, leaving a reader with only a blank sheet of paper is no poetry, let alone meaningful. In that period I also made photographs – mainly night photography, mainly self-portraits. Ultimate narcissism was leading nowhere. I would swim laps in a confined pool and take a portrait. Well, that was then. It made me whom I am now. So, it is good that it happened. The ‘accident’ is no longer accidental – not forgotten, not forgiven, no revenge, no resentment. (Nietzsche as psychologist.)

Monday, June 15, 2009

Butcher Project

In Bandung the textile industry meets the art world in interesting ways. Many graduates of the local art school have prospered in clothing design. Perhaps the most famous one is the 'distro' 347 founded by, among others, Dendy; 347 started a decade ago (last December the book After ten years they call us Unkle was launched). Bembie is another graduate from ITBs art school who is making his name in the designing world by his Butcher Project. The relative low production costs make it possible to experiment in making designs.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Spooning Couple

The under-sized sculpture 'spooning couple' (mixed media, 2005) by Ron Mueck. I feel intrigued by this sculpture, however, on the other hand due to its hyper-realism the portrayed intimacy seems too private.

Monday, June 8, 2009

GM on identity

Last Friday, Goenawan Mohamad (1941) – or: GM – gave a guest lecture at the Faculty of Philosophy, Parahyangan University, on identity. GM is an Indonesian poet and founder of Tempo Magazine. He still writes columns for Tempo, called ‘Sidelines’, in which he criticizes narrow-minded and one-dimensional views, instead he supports open-endedness to encourage the reader to think for her- or himself. He claims that unidentifiable identities are transformed into foreigners by rejecting the strangeness of strangers. Through metaphoric space, borders function to exclude the alien. Identity should be readable and is therefore shaped by fixed demarcations. However, boundaries do in fact shift. From time to time, different interpretations are ossified, i.e. borders are volatile. This volatility signifies contingency with a never fulfilled desire: a desire for clarity without surprises. However, identity is a never-ending search, an on-going formation, always tentative. A frontier can therefore also be seen as an invitation to other, unknown places – anxiety as a move towards freedom, as Camus would have it. And language is of utmost importance for identity. Language is the infrastructure of our voice. The Dutch colonial regime and Suharto’s New Order ossified this infrastructure. Countless army boots trampled upon the language to enforce uniformity. Symbolic markers were created by decree and became, over time, fixed in countless euphemisms. It is, therefore, no surprise that GM employs techniques of deconstruction to create new spaces, new vistas. He wants to see identity as open-ended. He urges us then to become poets: to be playful, ironic and recognize the contingency of language.

In the Jakarta Globe I published an essay on GM, see here.

Goenawan Mohamad wrote the libretto for The King's Witch, which is composed by Tony Prabowo:

The 'I' as mobile space

We should not say that the ‘I’ has a body. We should say: the ‘I’ is a body. To have a body means to be the owner; the knowing ‘I’ – the Cartesian mind – is then superimposed on the body to make the body act. The ‘I’ obviously occupies space. To be more precise, the ‘I’ is space. The ‘I’ is mobile space – space on the move within space. This implies a reflexive relationship, which has consequences for the identities of the ‘I’ as mobile space and the space within it performs various moves (i.e. performativity and heterogeneity).

Saturday, June 6, 2009



Only in my poems can I reside,
Never I found anywhere else shelter
For one’s own hearth I never felt tender
A tent taken along by the storm.

Only in my poems can I reside.
As long as I know that I in darkness,
In urban savannah and forest that shelter
Can discover, harms me no fear.

It will take long, but the time will arrive
That before the night my aged strength is lacking
And in vain for soothing words is begging,
With which of yore I could build, and the earth’s crust
Has to store me and I bend myself down to the
Place where my burial pit cracks open in the dark.

J.J. Slauerhoff

Slauerhoff was born in 1898 and he suffered bouts of asthma. He studied medicine in Amsterdam, while a student he made a number of enemies, so it was hard to find a job in the Netherlands and he signed up as a ship’s surgeon for the VOC – the Dutch East Indies Company. He traveled around the world: Indonesia, China, Japan, Hong Kong, Latin America, and Africa. He died untimely at the age of 38. Slauerhoff’s work is translated into several languages, but not into English. I translated above sonnet, the original poem had the rhyme scheme of abba/acac/addeef, I was unable to retain it. One can blame Slauerhoff of being an escapist, however, he is not. The act of writing – at least great writing – amounts eventually to immortality. The writer is resurrected again and again when we sincerely listen to his words. A grave is then never a last resting place.