Within the productivity of travel: On connectedness, limitations, and the economy of relation in a collective

Travel is an important element to indicate contemporary art practices. This should not be seen initially as an overstatement, or as redundant, as doing art today is loaded with the possibilities and the impossibilities of travel. Travel comes in multiple forms—contingent on how it might be received by those engage with it—residency, research residency, site visit, fieldwork, exchange, and so on. The variation of the name does not matter; for the moment I see travel as an act of going somewhere, and back again. Here, I use my personal limitations on travel as a lens to approach the productivity of travel. 

The premise of travel is productive. Each decision on going somewhere is based on the assumption that it might lead to expanded networks, further collaborations with different people, and an investment in mining vocabularies of specific keywords related to our work. The members of Kunci, of which I am one of several, are growing to form a well-traveled collective. Kunci has grown from being self-funded organization, to receiving material and immaterial support for our programmes. Not only do we travel more frequently than we did before, but we are also gaining experience in hosting artists, researchers, and students, from myriad contexts. 

With this, we realise that travel is never a simple thing. It involves a complex arrangement of travel logistics, from preparing visa applications and dealing with immigration bureaucracies (visa and travel costs), accommodation, per diem and institutional or personal fees, jetlag anticipation and repercussions. 

With this comes related questions; will we be paid to travel where an embassy office might be located outside of our home city? Will we receive an institutional or personal fee? And will this be issued by those who invited us? Organising travel always involves careful management of our supporting resources. 

The willingness to travel also means the readiness to pause works being made. We commit to resume everything on returning ‘home’. There have been occasions where an invitation to travel had direct impact on our ongoing projects. But on other occasions, they have broadened our interest toward other exciting things. At once, they might distract us from what we are doing. There will not be much time to finish what we have been doing if we travel too often. Being ‘mobile’ is a desired state; being ‘stagnant’ is feared, undesirable. Traveling to new places, meeting new people, working in new ways is both challenging and comforting. 

A row of coconut trees in the backyard of Arte Moris (Dili, Timor Leste). 

While we support the idea that travel is generative, yet it propels us to problematise the meaning of being productive. Thus this essay forms a part of the ongoing discussion about travel in Kunci. It explores narratives around viabilities of travel, and how these both open expanded questions and speculate on the economy of relations within Kunci. It describes the process that we have been going through, as a collective, or as a form of friendship and an extended family, when considering travel.

Over the past six years, I have been living in places, away from Kunci, and Yogyakarta, the city that had a vital and formative role within my developing intellectual and emotional years. Much as we have tried to maintain the collective ethic, trans-local work relationship, and endure the absence of each other, through practicing steady communication patterns using various modes of communication—email, Yahoo Messenger, Facebook, Line, WhatsApp, Skype, and Google docs—finding ways to be together, and learning to trust each other, I am not in Yogyakarta on a daily basis, and cannot experience and feel so many things first hand. To write this essay is partly my way to engage in discussions about travel that have happened in Kunci. To be away from home informs my social imagination about travel. It encourages me to reimagine my relation to and with Kunci. 

If we adhere to the view that travel is productive, we should accept every invitation to travel. There is more at stake. Further, we do not feel as though we have to accept every invitation extended. At this point, we question what indicates or determines what we perceive to be ‘useful’ travel. What does it mean to be useful? Priority becomes a keyword. By which metric do we determine what ‘thing’ is more important than another? We are learning to check the compatibility of the residency topic within the domain of Kunci’s works and activities.  

There have been many discussions and conversations among us, with an imperative urging the importance of building an articulate body of works. There is less emphasis on creating linearity on and for its own accord; instead on the intent to make a project that reverberates and opens discursive relation with both past and ongoing works. 

We decided to do a residency in dislocate, a Tokyo/Yokohama-based organisation, in late 2015, because the programme revolved around notions of work and labor. It allowed us to reconnect with and reflect on our Afterwork Reading Club (Klub Baca Selepas Kerja), a reading club dedicated to literature on modes of gendered migration. The participants of the reading club were Indonesian migrant workers in Hong Kong. The project collaborated with with Para Site, a contemporary art organisation in the city during 2015. 

We decided to partake in a project called, Politics of Sharing in Artspace, Auckland, in early 2017 because it was a continuation of the same project we had done in ifa-Galerie Berlin in mid-2015. Both occasions served as a platform to complicate the idea of commons in our Made in Commons project. We hoped by making the Glossary of Commons for Artspace, it would contribute to completing the Glossary of Commons project that we had started two years ago. 

We decided to take part in a research residency in Tropenmuseum in mid-2017, seeing it as a good opportunity to connect the archival-based research in the museum with concepts around education and hierarchical forms that we both learn and unlearn in our current project School of Improper Education. 

Leiden view from De Valk-NJ
A view of Leiden from Molen de Valk (Leiden, The Netherlands). Andy, Cahaya, and I went to Leiden for my PhD Defense and graduation in May 2019. 

Here, I feel like laying out our travel experiences; setting them alongside our projects, and drawing some connections. In this, I hope to more strongly grasp the ‘usefulness’ of travel. 

But is this enough? It takes considerable effort to see travel as useful and worthwhile. A series of conversations with different people and organisations do not automatically transform into a productive network and collaboration. Ideas and inspirations that often spark during travel take time to mature and enter into specific projects. 

Can a discourse of ‘usefulness’ accommodate the unwanted or unexpected during travel? We want to hear everything. We need to devise a way to write a travelogue that embodies the needs of our organisation. 

The next question is how we might create a mechanism from which the layered dimensions of travel are felt by all members of the collective, not just by those who travel—some of us travel more frequently than others. We have attempted forming public mechanisms to discuss past travel experiences for those who could not come. But more often than not, what we call ‘post-travel’ equates to tiredness. Post-travel also means to resume paused activities—it never ends; it provides little room for reflection. 

To think about travel is to consider the privilege that I desired, or rather, the desire I used to have but exists no longer. Logistically, it has become difficult to travel for long periods of time for a mother of one and a PhD student like myself. There have been occasions where I have had to turn down an invitation for a residency, or cancel planned travels—the reason being duration of travel, combined with the obligation for discipline within my dissertation-writing schedule. A residency usually extends over 2-3 months, and that is long enough for me—I cannot bear leaving my family for too long. Unless necessary resources are provided for my little family, like travel cost, accommodation, per diem, it is impossible for me to go. I have had to learn to limit my traveling. When I am able to travel alone, which does not occur often, it always feels slightly overwhelming and tense at the same time—because of thinking about home. Travel is emotionally taxing.  

During the final days of our residency in Amsterdam in June, in one or two moments of nongkrong, relax and informal chitchat, I had a conversation with my friends in Kunci about how we had liked this project, more so than others. We compared what we were doing in Amsterdam with what we had done in other places, and we began to see connections with this or that project that we had done previously. Throughout the conversation, I realised how rare this kind of nongkrong has become to me, given I do not live in Yogyakarta anymore, I do not get this opportunity often. 

Traveling to Amsterdam allowed us to be together and reconnected me with many things of which I was familiar. I enjoyed every moment when we had breakfast in the morning, followed with gossip, and then jumped into what we might do in the project. I treasured moments where we cooked dinner together every night during residency. The opportunities for having deep conversation with colleagues and friends are significant measures of a good travel experience. Are these not enough? But the fact that I traveled to the Netherlands alone often made me sad. It is the country that my family and I lived for five years. 

I realise that to build a trans-local work relation is not an easy task in both literal and conceptual senses. I think it is time to make a trans-local work relation into a practicable method. To be a migrant means to be under conditions wherein the ability to deal with impossibilities of being together is perpetually challenged. Meanwhile, I still struggle with getting things done in my own domestic realm. I need to make sense of the long distance relationships, and turn this into an advantage for us all. In doing so, I am mentally checking in on the state of our camaraderie. 

As we continue to live and work from different places, I realise that for it to work, I need to pace the mode of personal contribution in accord with my condition. To be able to travel anytime, anywhere, without restriction, to be a nomad, is a form of privilege. This should be taken for granted. However, in arts and cultural environment where mobility might indicate desirable and structured art practices, attempts to critique travel have no place, and are discouraged even.

While my contribution to Kunci might not necessarily be considered ‘new’, it takes place within existing activities. 

My proposal is based on the thought that it should derive from exploring what can be done at home. I have introduced writing as part of my initial attempt in making trans-local work relation possible. 

In its inception, Kunci started as a newsletter. To claim writing here might sound strange. Although we began as an organisation with publishing as the main activity, there were many aspects of publishing that withered. We have many sub-websites, but we do not update them regularly anymore. They need to be revitalised and reenergised. 

Here is where I found my way of contributing to the organisation. I found the act of writing a simple step; flexible in terms of how it is conducted. Writing is also a matter of consistency. I need to be reminded that we are still doing things together despite being so far apart. Writing is a decent device for showing attentiveness. But what form of writing will accommodate my nomadic existence as well as my need to contribute to Kunci in a productive manner? 

I shall be able to come up with something brilliant while pushing the pram to kindergarten and cooking dinner. 

(This writing is originally appeared in my Domestic Notes Vol 2: Art, Travel, and Brief Visitations)