Indonesian cities are hard to love. Aside from a few exceptional urban districts, the streets in Indonesian cities are typically bleak, chaotic and dirty, a symptom of years of poor delivery of public urban infrastructure.
If asked to describe an Indonesian street you might mention the unfinished structural walls enclosing major highways, miserable underpasses, dangerous or non-existent footpaths, or the fortress-like walls surrounding private residences. But the streets are arguably the only truly public spaces in many Indonesian cities, spaces that are accessible to all elements of the country’s fragmented urban society. These urban scars and hardscapes are also the canvases for visual culture documented by Visual Jalanan.
Visual Jalanan was initiated in 2012 by Forum Lenteng and Kampung Segart to document and archive artistic works and other forms of visual expression found on Indonesian streets. Its Instagram account (@visual.jalanan) and website (www.visualjalanan.org) host a collection of more than 2,000 curated photographs reflecting the visual culture of street artists and ordinary Indonesians.
The Instagram account now boasts more than 35,000 followers, many social media-savvy students and young members of the country’s visual arts community, mostly born in the 1980s and 1990s, who now supply the account with their own records of visual works on the streets from all over Indonesia.
Members of the team behind Visual Jalanan describe the streets as fluid spaces, constantly changing and appropriated by their many users. They believe that documenting this shifting landscape is a commitment to understanding the country at the level of the ordinary and everyday.
The streets are also one of the few inclusive spaces in the highly privatised urban landscape of Indonesian cities. Unlike the manicured pseudo-public squares and city parks that are designed to brand cities as modern or liveable, but often end up excluding certain sectors of the population, the streets are a free public forum, providing room for encounters and contestation of people from all walks of life.
The truly public nature of the streets can often push the middle and upper classes to retreat to the controlled and sanitised spaces of shopping malls and office towers. In contrast, the streets are harsh, a reflection of the long-standing disregard of the public and public space through the history of urban planning in Indonesia.
The fact that the only truly public urban space in Indonesia is also a largely formless, misshapen environment is a reflection of the very nature of the public or civic society in the country. Civil society, too, is formless and fragmented.
The streets appear unloved, giving us the impression that, by extension, no one cares about the public either. But Visual Jalanan convincingly argues that these spaces matter. They mediate unfiltered reflections about the country from diverse urban individuals. They contain critical voices, concerns, frustrations, humorous commentary and mockery about social and political realities. The streetscape is the most public and uncensored forum for the fringe elements of the population to have their voices heard and visualise them for public consumption (at least until the city decides to replace or erase them).
By providing these often-ignored and ephemeral urban moments with a more permanent and accessible online platform, Visual Jalanan amplifies the voices of the ordinary Indonesians on the street. With its Instagram account now sourcing most of its photographs from its broad network of young followers, Visual Jalanan has successfully brought back public attention to the ordinary but truly public spaces of Indonesian cities.
In November 2015, the Visual Jalanan team also curated an exhibition at the National Gallery of Indonesia as part of the Jakarta Biennale. The exhibition, Bebas tapi Sopan, (Free but Polite), showcased a spectrum of visual work from the streets, all of which provided a direct or implied commentary about the nation’s fragmented social and urban realities.
The late Benedict Anderson once analysed cartoons and monuments as a form of symbolic speech, a mode of communication in Indonesian politics. Visual Jalanan provides us with a rich documentation of another form of political communication: voices emerging from the cracks of everyday life in Indonesia’s urban spaces.
All photos courtesy of Visual Jalanan.