As the world of photography grows ever bigger, artists are coming together to form collective working practices that harbour a sense commonality and togetherness. At Unseen Amsterdam, we are dedicated to showcasing photography in the here and now, which is why we have introduced a new programme element that will give you an insight into the 13 best artist collectives working in the field of photography today. In this feature, we introduce you to all the collectives that will present work at Unseen CO-OP 2017.
This week, we have the pleasure of introducing Ruang Mes 56, an artist collective based in Indonesia that works cooperatively with their communities and networks to manage a living space, studio, education space and playground. Founded in 2002, this self-funded community focuses on photography, contemporary art and its crossovers with other disciplines through critical and contextual works.
Photo: from the series “The Dutch Are Already Near!”, 2008 © Wimo Ambala Bayang/Ruang MES 56
What is the main reason you formed the collective?
Indonesia has a long history of collective and communal living traditions. We live under the bright tropical sun that shines throughout the entire year. In this hot and sunny weather, we open our windows and doors, hang out in the living room, in the garden, in the corner of an alley or in any space. The people are open and help each other, and we have what we call ‘gotong royong’, where communities work collectively to maintain the neighbourhood, from preparing weddings, to fixing a bridge, building a house, or organising the national independence day festival. In the art scene, we have a communal group of artists called ‘sanggar’. Sanggar is usually led by established artists who offer their houses for young artists to live, learn and work as apprentices. In the late 90s, Ruang MES 56 was one of the emerging artist groups that started to adapt this practice into something more egalitarian. We shared responsibilities, rewards and bills and have always been self-funded. We learn and work together as a peer group.
At the end of the 90s, photography was not considered as art and our photographic works were not accepted in the photography scene. It was a great challenge for us as we struggled to find a space. The only logical solution was to make our own space and to claim our own crowd and supporters. In 2002, we initiated our own gallery in our shared house. We curate exhibitions, organise collective art projects, workshops and publishing to nurture our practice and discourse.
Photo: “MES 56 Strategy Papers” 2017 © Angki Purbandono/Ruang MES 56
What sets you apart from other collectives?
We don’t have a typical artist studio set-up like in the west or in modern cities in Asia. Artists mostly work in their houses, which they use as a combined studio and living space. Ruang MES 56 started in the living room of our boarding house. We rented rooms and used the living room as a gallery, while our bedrooms functioned as studios and offices. MES 56 is a bit like an orphanage, we didn’t know each other before, but now we share a family and a home after coming together with the same purpose. While it is a common practice for Indonesians to adapt a personal space into professional one, we do the reverse; we transformed a professional space into a personal relationship. Tasks and responsibilities are shared by a mutual understanding of our personal strengths and weaknesses. To organise a collective is to understand and handle problems together. MES 56 is a place for us to hang out, waste time, learn, work and contemplate. It is a family home.
Photo: © Ruang MES 56
Could you give us an insight into what you have in store for Unseen CO-OP 2017?
For Unseen CO-OP 2017, we are interested in investigating our sense of belonging and personal feelings towards our collective and home. We ask our members to make a portrait or photographic work about how they see themselves in this structural, professional, personal and domestic context. It is a form of reflective endeavour of our 15 years of collective practice. There will be a series of portraits, performative works and a book about our practice within the history of contemporary photography in Indonesia.