Cosmopolitan, adventurous, multicultural, liberal, economy conscious, power sensitive, and enthusiastic about science and art updates. “They want to spearhead their time”
These are the characteristics of the Batavia people; ‘Bataviasche’ Jan Erdman Jordens wrote, the founder of Bataviasche Nouvelles, the first newspaper in Batavia which was published in 1744, quoted by the curators during the brainstorming sessions for the Jakarta Biennale 14.
Quoted also was Lance Castle who in his book Profil Etnik Jakarta (2007) mentioned that half of world’s people was created in this city. Jakarta is a city of diverse society. Different groups, ethnic, religion, race and status have long resided in the city. The same goes with Old Jakarta researcher, Mona Lohanda, who said that since known as Batavia, Jakarta has evolved as a global city. The VOC (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie)-a West Indies company- made the city an administration center for African nation and Middle East regions. Just like any other colonial government, however, VOC implemented an administrative city with a social hierarchy structure. Dutch and other European settlers lived in an elite area now known as Kota Tua (Old City), and since the second decade of the 20th century they lived in the Menteng area.
They were the ones who reffered to themselves as the “Batavische”-a name equally grand as “Parisian” for Paris residents, “The New Yorker” for that of New York, or “The Berliner” for that of Berlin. The term referred to the high taste of the Batavia tenants. The characteristics of the Batavische according to Jan Erdman Jordens were cosmopolitan, adventurous, multicultural, liberal, economy conscious, power sensitive, and enthusiastic about science and art updates. They simply wanted to spearhead their time.
The Batavia middle class were Chinese and Arab communities who are generally merchants. Then there was the lower class comprising of indigenous people from Bugis, Bali, Ambon, Sunda, and Flores. They lived in the villages surrounding the city and the establishments frequently disrupted the development plans of the colonial government, like Manggarai, Kampung Melayu and Tanah Abang.
During the colonial era, there was a segregation among the upper and middle classes and the lower class. At the same time, intermarriage was common across the classes along with other affairs, especially business. European and local cultures amalgamated, as were the cultures of urban and county customs influencing each other.
The same thing happened in the development of social-political interrelations based on economic interests. In the era, there were famous names from the upper class from different ethnic groups and were considered equals (tot gelijk aan) to Caucasians. To name a few are Raden Saleh (1807-1880), Oei Tay Lo (-), and MH Thamrin (1894-1941), who always donned a suit.
Batavia was a cosmopolitan city, a melting pot that was capable of virtually melting anything in it to become a new identity: the identity of the Batavia residents, or the present Jakarta.
In the melting pot, however, the diversity brewed many problems like city planning and social and cultural issues. Since the independence, Jakarta still faces myriad problems regarding diversity. To make things worse, the city exploded into the category of densely populated city in Asia. Jakarta even penetrated the outskirts like Bekasi, Depok, Tangerang, and Bogor (thus the acronym Jabodetabek). The number of residents reached 9 million, but it was bigger with 12 million settlers if including the workers who flocked the city during daytime.
Jakarta also experiences implosions in other facets of life: housing, office buildings, commerce facilities, automobiles, and motorcycles. The city grew dramatically to the point of its level of tolerance in regards to capacity and support system. With such an overwhelming condition surpassing its normal ability, Jakarta and its surroundings is inevitably a crowded city. The general overview is in line with the thesis from a Journalism Professor from New York University by the name of Suketu Mehta in his book titled Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found. He described Bombay, India, as “The Maximum City”. Visually speaking, the description of Bombay’s maximum characteristic is well-represented in the Oscar-Winning flick Slumdog Millionaire. Yet Bombay is not Jakarta. Even though it may be in tune with Jakarta, they play different notes and tempo.
There some negative aspects that are similar: old problems inherited creates new and more complex problems for Jakarta. A unique trait like floods that have occurred since the Batavia era is still a recurring and unsolved problem. Clean water crisis is becoming more real. Waste management is never a concluded issue. Congestion is becoming common. Suicide tallies increase. Violence and crime surge, including the level of brutality beyond expectation. Mutilation, law mafia, and shootings are just to name a few.
Tolerance level towards diversity in Jakarta has lately dropped. There are more groups, some with religious backgrounds, forcing their perception to others in their black and white vision. Intolerant behaviors are also building up.
The different problems of the city life have yet to find their ends. The local government and their staff should been more responsible in organizing the city but they are faced with more problems when they have to find a way to implement regulations which are often misinterpreted by the people who are from different backgrounds, economic levels and cultures. Jakarta as the capital city seems to be lacking in help from the central government. The city is beating unclear beats. The booming growths of the population and economics have lowered their alertness and capability in handling problems and finding solutions far behind other South-East Asian cities with the same problems but different quantities such as Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and Singapura.
The curators also observed the fact that the city residents are finding their own ways to come out of the problems. They fantasize or even hallucinate about their city, the body, the identity, and the hopes of living well in it.
Escape and Survive
Even though at present the “Batavische” is no longer divided based on race, the cosmopolitan cum pluralist cum spearheaders are many folds. Now they represent a seemingly united group of races. There are no longer places exclusively for certain races. However, the problem has not found a cure to its roots. Even more, competition especially in economy frequently bases reasons to revamp ‘inequality’. Exclusivity is an identity to ensure safety and economic cushion.
Furthermore, there are people who wish to enclave ‘international-cosmopolitan’ culture by christening their homes and buildings with foreign names. There is a yearning to be “Bataviasche” in their own terms. Sometimes it may be normal, yet it may as well be ‘kitsch’ or ‘norak’ in Betawi.
In excess, there are those who felt left out and do not identify with ‘Bataviasche’ and marginalized. For those who could care less mind their own business and put effort into profiting from any situation in the big city.
Presently, the word ‘bataviasche’ seems to convert to ‘betawi’ who represent indigenous residents of ‘jakarte’ city, even though it is far from the truth.
So, how do the people from the different social, economic, and cultural backgrounds handle their problems? Although the city seems arbitrary, unorganized, dark and hopeless, the residents are essentially satisfied and loyal to the city with their ways to ‘survive’ and enjoy what the ‘maximum’ trait of the city has to offer. Urbanization solidifies because of its unique attractions.
In other words, the groups of the society have their own ways to stay alive in the crowded Jakarta. They have their own strategies and ‘creativity’ to resist and adapt with changes, bitterness, and pressures in life. Albeit normal, phatamorganic or inflicting adversaries to other people. They are in the middle of ricocheting between creative diversion and dark and escapist fix.
Whatever it is, creativity is the trait of the people who are anticipating and putting efforts to ‘make it’ in the big ‘maximum’ city. It also stumbles the curators in how to characterize all of it, and what can the artists make of a ‘maximum’ situation such as this. Who is it for?
Art and City Folks
Art (and culture) obviously show a level of civilization a society has in an era. Just like the city itself, the architecture, transportation system and other perspectives reflect how advance the city is. It is no wonder that almost all major cities in the world hold fine arts exhibition and cultural events not only to display how advanced they are but also how the society participates in improving their civilization. They usually spend their spare time not only for spinning the economic wheel (work and shop) but also enrich their spiritual side by engaging in not only ritual (or religious) activities but also for contemplation, reflection, and evaluation on their accomplishments. Art is an important aspect in a city resident’s spirituality, which unfortunately is frequently ignored due to time unavailability caused by the ‘maximum’.
The city municipality of Jakarta also realizes that besides physical development, spiritual enhancement is equally important for its residents.
In line with such realization, the next Jakarta Biennale may resemble the previous editions but it also bears a special mission. The core focus is still on recording the trails of the latest developments and levels in fine arts, a manifestation of the levels of today’s society and civilization.
Specifically, it propels the latest the developments of contemporary arts in Indonesia by presenting works from the newest generation with multidiscipline, multimedia, interactive, and innovative capabilities as well as founding their perspectives on the problems of the city and its people. Everything is within the context of the situation of Jakarta.
However, with the theme “Maximum City: Survive or Escape,” the biennale is hoped to be able to interest the artists to be aware of the problems rising from the crowdedness of the Jakarta City, and respond and express their views in their works. It is even more expected that they are capable of not only reading the situation but also provide groundbreaking forms and content, esthetically or functionally acceptable in its social and or psychological aspects.
Therefore, the event attempts to enrich and refresh the practice and discourse of arts in Indonesia, especially in engaging the people directly in the arts projects in public areas.
Lastly, in line with the characteristics of the “Bataviasche” who are cosmopolitan, liberal, and pluralistic, the event strives to introduce directly international works to the public as a reference of comparison for both the local and international artistic community.
Above all, however, the event is free and open for the mass. It is intentionally offered to the people from all status: social, economic, education, artists and or art enthusiasts in Jakarta and the surrounding area.
It is believed that by introducing, enhancing appreciation, and then engaging the people in arts, it can raise the levels of tolerance and sympathy towards diverse creations and cultures. The aforementioned are exactly the things lacking in the people of the crowded city.
It must be the way that from a ‘maximum’ city with its negative influences comes new creativities for the people to enjoy their dwelling place in a more humane way.
Jakarta Arts Council