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Interview: House of Natural Fiber
Text & Interview by Omar Almufti. Photography by Jesse Untracht-Oakner.
Communication and education through an effective and aesthetically aware methodology are central to the practice of Yogyakarta, Indonesia-based new media artist collective House of Natural Fiber. An amorphous, socially relevant body of work embodies their principle focus; they exchange information through art, installation, conversation, and, at the forefront, collaboration. A growing worldwide network of scientists, musicians, artists, videographers, and professors (among others) contribute to the collective capacity. As the founding members mentioned frequently in our conversation, any and all who have interest in a particular project are welcome to participate, and it is through this open interchange that each endeavor is defined.
The works often manifest in adept investigations of localized social and environmental issues, translating cultural borders and speaking to our ability as individuals and as a society to affect and be affected by the world around us. Their installation for “The Ungovernables,” this year’s New Museum Triennial, is no exception. IB:EC [Intelligent Bacteria: Eschericia coli], The song of the river (2012) analyzes tainted water from Yogyakarta’s sacred Code River following the eruption of Mount Merapi in 2010, considering the social and ethnographic implications of contamination and proposing a simple, DIY solution. Microscopes built from repurposed web and CCTV cameras are used to examine the bacteria populating the water, and the vivid movements of these microorganisms are projected on the walls of the exhibition space. This water is then run through a simple filter composed of coconut fibers, gravel, and sand—all substances readily available to those who live near the riverbanks and are reliant on this water for daily use. Once the toxins have been removed, the water is used to feed a row of ferns placed neatly at the forefront of the installation to demonstrate the collective’s intention. A series of basic circuits and an amplifier adorn the installation; thin wires and small alligator clips connect the devices directly to the stems of the ferns, creating a pulsing series of low-frequency tones that clarify the title of the piece, The song of the river.
This deeply symbolic, pedagogical practice—a stunning yet simple materialization of the social life shared by organisms and material elements, envisioned through gathered intuitions and input from an interdisciplinary network of partners—defines the works developed by House of Natural Fiber and continues to inform their collective conscience moving forward.
I had a chance to speak with founding members Venzha Christ, Irene Argrivina, and Tommy Surya following the second evening of their two-part installation event for “The Ungovernables,” and discuss process, intent, collaboration, and education.
What are some of the overarching themes of the project, and how does the project fit with your mission or ethos as a collective?
IA: When we started, actually we were looking for a possible way to relate art and science, and we realized this could be sexy. We tried to find the relation between art, science, and technology—which is very far maybe, from the artists of today, and maybe also from the scientists. They think we are a bit crazy, but that’s according to the society around us. So we also have to give back the knowledge that we gain inside the laboratory.
VC: From the beginning, the reason we decided to work in this kind of field is that we realized—for example, in our society—we feel that things are always working in a traditional way, in a very primitive characteristic of view. For example, when an artist wants to produce some artwork, the artwork stops on the gallery or stops in the art market. It stops in one room, so that people can see it and can grasp the concept. This is very good—but we feel also that it’s not right when we are not developing ourselves. Aside from that, we have a lot of communities and a lot of friends around us from different backgrounds who are interested in creating something—create, meaning not only projects that are related to what they study, but also projects in art, science, or other fields relevant to students or to our friends or to us. At first, we didn’t pay so much attention to any particular field; our community is more interested in exploring something strange maybe in the beginning, but when we follow up and do real research and analyze something more clearly and in a more specific way, we assume that this will be really useful for us and useful for people around us.
Also, as a general question, could you talk about your practice as a collective in developing your works?
TS: Actually it is very informal—we meet friends, friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends, etc. Then we know what their interests are, we know what their background is, and what they want to learn from us. It starts with a conversation, just like this, and then we talk about some issues, for instance, alcohol or the river, many things, and from this ideas arise. For instance, when more tax was added and alcohol prices were getting higher, the question came up: “why don’t we make our own alcohol?” Then, one guy knows how to make it, and one guy knows how to get the bacteria out or something like that; we started with a very simple idea. This goes for our other projects as well.
IA: And because we come from interdisciplinary backgrounds, one project can have a lot of input from everywhere. That’s why we call our space a laboratory. When someone raises a project, it’s open: everyone can be involved, everyone can add something, everyone can take something or everyone can develop it into other projects, so it’s open source. Also with the technologies we use, when people want the knowledge it’s free, it’s not an exclusive work that we hide in the galleries, it’s open, also to discourse and everything else.
You all come from a variety of backgrounds and have various specialties, and the work you generate embodies this fact quite naturally. How have you found this diversity helpful or difficult in conceptualizing and executing ideas as a collective?
VC: The difficult part is how to ask the people that we really need for information, or for connections, or for instruments and tools. So these difficulties are more technical in the beginning: how do we get to know these people? But in Indonesian society, we didn’t have any difficulties communicating or growing the conversation after we got to know each other. For example, if I’m a student and you’re a professor, in some ways, we are not connected at all. But after we meet for the first time and we have one or two, or three conversations, we feel like friends. This is the culture we have. So the difficult part is how to jump in the first time, how to know the names and how to meet the people. Talking about the benefits, they are huge benefit because we can create numerous experimental installations, like the one at the New Museum. We can even create some new methodology or way of thinking, or we can create some new way of transferring knowledge from one place to another, one community to another. This is how we work, because we are working with media, and media has a large number of possibilities. So I think we always desire to do more and more, because the benefit always follows the process.
You frequently address social and environmental issues; what are some of the methods you like to explore in terms of contextualizing these issues?
IA: Actually, it’s easy if you are in Indonesia [laughs], because you have to face it every day. But it’s also a bit difficult presenting it in another culture, which is so far away and doesn’t know what happens in Indonesia or what we face every day. That’s why we need a research space because we have to make something that can be useful in society. The research space is not only for that, but also to find out how the audience can understand the message. So one project can take two years, like the alcohol project, and the message we convey is that people in Yogyakarta can make their own alcohol. But we also address issues like the government raising the [alcohol] tax. So we have to face it, but we also propose a solution: now you can make your own alcohol, in a safe way.
Your research methods are quite admirable. Tell me a bit about the Code River Expedition, some of your findings, and how it informed the concept and perhaps aesthetic of IB:EC?
TS: The expedition began two years ago, after the eruption of Mount Merapi. The Code River actually flows directly from Merapi to Yogyakarta, so when the eruption happened, volcanic materials flowed into the cities through this river, which is also one of the sacred rivers that people in Yogyakarta believe is in some way—
IA: A border, between three kingdoms of Yogyakarta.
TS: After the eruption, of course, we wondered what would happen to the river, because there was so much material [from the eruption]. How are people still able to live [near the river] and use the water for daily use? Many were curious about the level or intensity of the water and what was in it after the eruption, because we know that volcanoes contain numerous kinds of sediment and chemicals. We started the expedition, not only to analyze the water, but also to see the social life of the people on the riverbank, how they consume the water, how these activities continue, and what effect the water has on them, and so on.
IA: It’s a sort of ethnography of the people living around the Code River. When we went to the lab we found that some elements of the water are poisonous, so we wanted to make a kind of generic infrastructure, a generic device, that could make the water safe to drink, safe to use.
I really like the DIY elements of the piece, considering the number of people affected by water crises worldwide, it seems particularly important at this moment to explore methods of non-commercial water purification. How was this materialization of the theme or concept developed?
IA: Part of the reason we focus on DIY devices or generic infrastructure is because we have a lot of information, the internet is almost free, and people are consuming the technology without knowing the basics. So we want to teach young people about these basic technologies—you have to know this first and then you can go wherever you want. So that’s why we intended to do something DIY, open source.
VC: It’s easy because HONF is not just one community with members. Of course we made this platform, but actually, year by year, as we move to new areas and meet new people, that also becomes part of HONF. And when we move somewhere else, the combination of all these people is also part of HONF; the small group of people here working on one project are also HONF. So HONF is the name of the platform, and not the name of a single community in which there are a lot of experts, because the expertise will come to every project from different people. For example, for the water idea, the microscope idea, or sound art idea, video, and so on, these are from different people involved in each project. So I think the idea from the beginning is to come up with the question of “what if?” Then in the structure of the question, we can find many layers of ideas from each person involved in the project. And from those questions we can move to further expectation and speculation. The experimentation means that we have to use the tools, we have to use the stuff, we have to use the materials, we have to touch the system, we have to analyze the programs. These processes usually take months or years, and during the process, sometimes the people involved change and that’s why it would be a bit difficult to say that one specific project belongs to one specific community or belongs to this person or something like that.
The sonic element of this installation is quite fascinating. What was the inspiration? How do you approach experimentation with sound in your works?
VC: We believe that the audience gets the idea more easily if the work relates to something we can feel, hear, or see. We need sound, because people get more excited or more interested in the art piece or in the room or the museum with the art piece when the artwork moves, produces a sound, or produces a visual and doesn’t just stand as a sculpture or as an installation.
IA: I think it’s also maybe a way of communicating. For example, when we do a science experiment, this is a way for the science to communicate. If people just see a piece of paper with all the data it would be boring, so it’s a way to make it interactive with the audience.
TS: It’s a visualization of the science, like what Venzha and other members of HONF did to visualize bacteria with fractals.
IA: It’s fun and also very artistic in a way. It’s a bit impossible, but we try to please the curator, the audience, and please the scientists.
I’m also quite interested in the educational aspect of your practice. Can you tell me a bit about some of the projects undertaken through the Education Focus Program?
TS: The Education Focus Program is actually the main platform; every project is based on this. Of course, we do it in an informal way, but we work with some universities and high schools. But like I said, we also work in a non-formal way, because sometimes it takes too long waiting for the bureaucracy, waiting for the paper work, so sometimes we just go through friends or people we know. The important thing is that we can transfer knowledge and share.
IA: We hold a lot of workshops and events that involve the transfer of knowledge from our research space. We also create a lot of discussions between artists or scientists or musicians, looking for the possibilities and turning the knowledge from the discussion into more laboratory work. Because the education system in Indonesia is also very far from efficient, perhaps we have to make a new system, rather than follow the existing one.