ruangrupa’s ecologies: Horizontality, friendship and fluidity as core values, by Veronica Grazioli

Tuesday 6th December, 2022

In partnership with CSMdocumenta, a collective of students from Central Saint Martins' MA Culture, Criticism and Curation and MRes Exhibition Studies, Project Credit features articles, projects and documentary photographs to discuss concepts that ruangrupa, the Indonesian curatorial collective, explored during this year’s edition of the 100-day international quinquennial.

Emerging in a vibrant historical and political moment, that of Reformasi, ruangrupa is a Jakarta-based collective that has been working in Indonesia and around the world with art projects that create collectivity and sharing for the past twenty years. Given a lack of local infrastructural and institution networks capable of supporting artists and alternative forms of culture, ruangrupa was born out of a necessity. What I believe there is behind ruangrupa is an effort to build a community within Jakarta: a heterogeneous and fluid community, based on exchange and friendship, where there are no hierarchies, and that is aware of what is happening in the contemporary world. This factor, to my understanding, reflected on their methodology, which is based on horizontality, friendship and fluidity. These elements will be analysed through considering Jurnal Karbon – born out of the mixing of ideas, through friendship and networking, and was able to survive twenty years because it was able to adapt and change shape – as a case study. The objective is to illustrate what makes up the ruangrupa methodology and how, thanks to horizontality, friendship and fluidity, it is a long- lived artistic collective of relevance.

Horizontality, heterarchy and distributed leadership

How is it possible that a collective has been functioning for twenty years? In these terms, I believe that ruangrupa’s tension towards the horizontal structure worked, especially considering the concept of heterarchy. In “The Sense of Dissonance: Accounts of Worth in Economic Life,” David Stark introduces the concept of heterarchy as organisations that act in contrast to the vertical authority of hierarchies, characterised by more transversal network structures. As a more general process, heterarchy refers to an organisation in which a given element – an assertion, an agreement, an identity, an organisational block, a genetic code sequence, a computer code sequence, a legal code sequence – is simultaneously expressed in multiple transversal networks. According to Stark, heterarchies, moreover, are neither harmonic nor cacophonic, but are an ‘organized dissonance.’For me, this expression resonates with ruangrupa’s methodology. According to Stark, heterarchies are organised dissonances because different, sometimes antagonistic, overlapping performative principles occur in them. The result? A noisy clash, like that of ruangrupa. The collective, by form and essence, cannot but be an organised dissonance, especially if we consider that, thanks to fluidity and apparent chaos, they are able to curate projects of major importance, nationally and internationally.

Furthermore, I believe that the horizontal structure works and forms the basis of the ruangrupa’s methodology because distributed leadership is embedded in it. Each member of the collective has their own area of expertise, their own points of interest within a shared direction. Each member of the collective, in order to work productively through a collaborative effort, has their own project and is encouraged to manifest themselves within the group as an individual. In ruangrupa there is a mix of collaboration and individualism that is beneficial to the collective. Furthermore, each member has a specific role in the different departments or platforms within ruangrupa ‘has two advantages: distribution of leadership, and a way of dealing with conflicts that may arise.’[2] Moreover, each member chooses their amount of tasks, fitting best with their own abilities and skills.

Regardless of the role, each member is considered indispensable. In addition, there is no formally defined way of how tasks should be executed. This rule also applied to Jurnal Karbon, which started as a parallel publishing project in ruangrupa. The content of the journal was chosen unanimously, and each member brought their skills and knowledge, using the publication as a space to express themselves. In these terms, Jurnal Karbon has always been characterised by polivocality. For these reasons, I believe that the ruangrupa’s methodology provides horizontality in its usage of heterarchy and distributed leadership. Horizontality, however, can be reinforced by the presence of two other elements: friendship and fluidity.

From left: Gudskul, 2022, 50-day collective practice, Fridericianum, Kassel. 2022. right: Fondation Festival sur le Niger, Yaya Coulibaly, The Wall Puppets, 2022, installtion view, Hübner areal, Kassel, 2022. Images: Amanda Mu.

Friendship, co-evolution and generous structure

‘Make friends not art’ is one of ruangrupa’s most recurring statements. For ruangrupa, friendship forms the origin of the collective. This friendship made up of sharing moments, of hanging out, and of creativity. Reflecting on ruangrupa’s methodology, a few questions arose for me, such as “What is the value of friendship in the collective?”, “Is it fundamental in order to be able to work at one’s best?”. In order to introduce my reflection, I start from Nuraini Juliastuti’s and her text “Wok the Rock & Co. : Making sense of friendship in Yogyakarta’s art scene,”. As Juliastuti points out, friendship is a form of resource, always ready to turn into a working association or partnership when the need arises. The author conceives it as a form of proprietary access to an open network of feelings between individuals, never aiming to achieve particular goals. The processes of formulating ruangrupa goes hand in hand with a deepening understanding of the potential capacities residing within each individual and forming a circle of friendship. Friendship, then, is a type of situation that can be transformed into parts of a support system or infrastructure for the arts. Following Agamben, as echoed by Juliastuti, friendship is not a property, but can be seen as an open arrangement, where its strength can be activated and maximised at any time.

Digging into Agamben’s text, “The Friend,” I lingered on his choice of taking Aristotle as a point of reference. This is a very accurate choice if one thinks of the conception that friendship constituted in ancient Greece, namely as a form of virtue or something that goes with virtue, founded on free choice. According to Aristotle, friendship is when ‘we feel that we feel, and if we think, we feel that we think, and this is the same as feeling that we exist: to exist (to einai) means in fact to feel and to think.’3 Friendship is being recognised, hence existing. Recognition is the desire to exist. To exist together is, finally, community. This idea ties in with Agamben’s definition of friendship, which is ‘con-sentiment of the pure fact of being’. 4 According to Agamben, friendship is a form of cohabitation, it is a sharing which precedes all division. Moreover, friendship is ‘sharing without object, this original con-sentence that constructs politics’.5 Politics has its origin in objectless sharing and community. In this sense, I find it relevant to report the study conducted by Adrienne Maree Brown about emergent strategy and co-evolution. The emergent strategy is about shifting the way we see and feel the world and each other. In other words, if we begin to understand ourselves as practice ground for transformation, we can transform the world. According to Brown, friendship is a political form that can liberate us and, consequently, allow us to change the world according to our desires.

Relationships heal and create collective space, healed movements and worlds. As Brown has stated, sometimes we as human beings forget our complexity and friendships when there is so much work to do; however, the deepest work to practice is coevolution through friendship. Friendship is an essential building block for co-evolution, i.e. ‘the change of a biological object triggered by the change of a related object’. 6 We evolve in relationships of mutual transformation, sharing and support. In this sense, I found relevant to these notions of friendship the concept of generous structure, which ‘offers an alternative to a calculating world, a mainstream world, a world in which we only offer our time and energy with a specific goal in mind’. 7 This is put into practice by ruangrupa’s decision to work by simply hanging around, engaging in informal conversations (to return to nongkrong). 8 Generosity, in the case of ruangrupa, manifests itself in mutual support and the fact that the ruangrupa’s house is open 24/7, with a place to sleep or someone to talk to. Furthermore, I believe evolution then allows for the continuity of a collective project, such as that of ruangrupa. For ruangrupa, forming a group was a necessity given the historical moment in which it was born. Or rather, the expression of a necessity, that of sharing one’s artistic and research practices. Friendship was the necessary mean, as was networking to grow and operate locally and globally.

Finally, I think ruangrupa continues to function as a collective because it conceives friendship as a political form of sharing and mutuality, as an activator of each project. This is also valid in the case of Jurnal Karbon, born out of ruangrupa’s generosity in sharing the idea of a publishing project with two other collectives. Jurnal Karbon, in fact, grew out of a workshop led in June 2000 in Yogyakarta with two collectives, Apotik Komik and Taring Padi. In this sense, the journal was born from the mixing and sharing of ideas in a moment of collectivity and harmony. Jurnal Karbon was also extremely fluid, as I will illustrate in the next section.

From left: ZK/U - Center for Art and Urbanistics, 2022, installation view, Karlsaue, Kassel right: Foundation Festical sur Le Niger, installation view, Hübner Areal, Kassel, 2022. Images: Amanda Mu

Fluidity, adaptability and the power to change

According to Reinaart van Hoe, ruangrupa has a formal and informal structure. 9 In my opinion, this structure makes the work fluid and flexible. ruangrupa is a voluntary activity, many members come and go and consider flexibility as a working style. This makes the collective an alternative space, different from the disciplinary routine of office work. The collective operates with the understanding that each member has his or her own preferences and desires, his or her own ways and times. There is a sense of fluidity, a desire to mix-and-match skills and activities. In the words of ruangrupa’s co-founder, artist and curator Ade Darmawan:

We are in the middle of failed modernism, illusive nationalism and national identity , and the products of corrupted power. Instead of keeping clear orientations, they lead to disorientations. [...] What I am trying to say is that through our works we are developing an alternative system. As the consumers of the products of social and cultural history, we are capable of developing an attitude that is a mixture of collaging, mix-and- match activities and destruction and reconstruction of practices so as to accord with local needs. What is dysfunctional is functional. 10

In ruangrupa adaptability is present, as well as the search for need, the ability to change according to the demands of a given place and/or project. There is deconstruction and reconstruction. And all this is nothing but fluidity. Intrigued by the fluid way of working, I came across a study conducted by the business and brand innovation engine Athena Jones, which I believe can produce an understanding of ruangrupa’s methodology through an economic lens. What struck me in the research conducted by Athena Jones is the choice to take inspiration from the natural world in order to think of a fluid structure of work within an organisation. Athena Jones’ contributors (Elsa Perushek, Adrian Ho, Kenzie Ross and Jack Samels) decided to take inspiration from the octopus. Why? Because octopus are not only one of the most clever creatures in the animal kingdom, but they are also adaptive, efficient and always find a way to figure out where to be at the right time.
The authors identify four keys that are attributed to the octopus. The first key is sensing, or the ability and devotion to take in and embrace the world around us. The second key is decentralised, or communication seamlessly throughout an organisation. The third key is adaptability, stimulating progress rather than efficiency. And the last key is future-focused, i.e. planning long-term projects by reacting as if they were short-term.

In particular, I would like to focus on their concept of adaptability. Adaptability and fluidity are superpowers of the octopus. Octopuses are well known for their impressive survival skills—from their ability to fit into impossibly small spaces and regrow lost limbs, to their quick camouflage capabilities and ink that clouds predators’ senses of sight and smell. I believe that ruangrupa’s superpowers also include adaptability and fluidity because it is able to change shape and resist, while retaining its roots. The strength of the collective also lies in its ability to work locally and globally, in alternative spaces but also in institutions. The structure of ruangrupa itself has changed over time, adapting and mutating from an alternative space (2000-2002), to a platform creating connections with socio-cultural activities and partners in Jakarta (2002-2007), to building a network and becoming an institution.

A case in point is certainly Jurnal Karbon, which has been able to change, adapt and evolve according to the needs and desires of different ruangrupa members. The journal, in fact, originally published on paper, has always accompanied ruangrupa; it was an expression of the collective’s projects and a place for the dissemination of contemporary art. Initially, each issue was designed to reflect on the collective’s programme and to provide space for research, later developing into a separate research division. It also had a fluid connotation because its issues never had a specific date. Each issue depended on questions of time and funding, as one of the first members of Jurnal Karbon, Farah Wardani, has explained in an interview. 11 Between 2000 and 2006, seven print editions of the journal focused on public art, urban print, video art, performance art, and alternative sites. Jurnal Karbon discontinued its print publication to make room for an online edition, which was launched in 2009 and currently features regular articles and photo reviews on art and culture. In 2020, due to a lack of funds and contributing writers it became first a radio station and then a podcast. Despite the changes in form and content, the project has existed for a good twenty years.
And it is perhaps its ability to be fluid that has kept it alive.


  1. David Stark, The Sense of Dissonance: Accounts of Worth in Economic Life (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 2009), p.35.

  2. Reinaart van Hoe, Also-Space, From Hot to Something Else: How Indonesian Art Intiatives Have Reinvented Networking (Rotterdam: Onomatopee, 2016), p. 39

  3. Giorgio Agamben, L’amico (Roma: nottetempo, 2007), p. 13. Personal translation from the original ‘[...] In modo che se sentiamo, ci sentiamo sentire, e se pensiamo, ci sentiamo pensare, e questo è la stessa cosa che sentirsi esistere: esistere (to einai) significa infatti sentire e pensare’.

  4. Giorgio Agamben, L’amico (Roma: nottetempo, 2007), p. 19.

  5. Giorgio Agamben, L’amico (Roma: nottetempo, 2007), p. 19.

  6. Adrienne Maree Brown, Emergent Strategy. Shaping change, changing worlds (Chico, AK Press, 2017). Note: the number of pages was not printed in this book.

  7. Reinaart van Hoe, Also-Space, From Hot to Something Else: How Indonesian Art Intiatives Have Reinvented Networking (Rotterdam: Onomatopee, 2016), p. 33.

  8. In “Nongkrong and Non-Productive Time in Yogyakarta’s Contemporary Arts” by Sonja Dahl I came across the term nongkrong, which can be translated as chatting, an informal conversations not focused on a specific goal. Nongkrong made me realise what ruangrupa means when it claims that hanging out is crucial to the creative process.

  9. Reinaart van Hoe, Also-Space, From Hot to Something Else: How Indonesian Art Intiatives Have Reinvented Networking (Rotterdam: Onomatopee, 2016)

  10. Nuraini Juliastuti, “Ruangrupa: a conversation on horizontal organisation,” 7th June 2012, Afterall 30 (Summer 2012), organisation, p. 122.

  11. Farah Wardini, interview with Jurnal Karbon editors by UAL CSM MA CCC and MRes Art: Exhibition Studies Students, 18th May 2022, video, AADB0sOsPBdHMKp7ixzm4DxYa/Zoom%20recordings/ Karbon%20editors%2018%20May%202022? dl=0&preview=GMT20220518-130945_Recording_1646x1096.mp4&subfolder_nav_tracking=1.

Cover Image: Gudskul (ruangrupa, Sarrum and Grafis Huru Hara), Nongkrong Curricula for Temujala School, 2022, 50-day collective practice, Fridericianum, Kassel, 2022. Image: Amanda Mu.

Special Thanks:
The author would like to thank MRes Exhibition Studies Course co-leader and Afterall editor David Morris for his constructive input to the text. The author is grateful to Amanda Jy. Mu, Lilia Jackson, for their inputs on text editing and editorial design.

All images copyright and courtesy of the artists and ©documenta15