Jalan Terus: Living Hopefully and Precariously with Social Infrastructure
By Cindy Lin Kaiying
Shifting from the familiar street-side stalls to makeshift plastic recycling centres, the scenes of the marginal yet everyday actors of commerce and labour in Su Tomesen’s film Jalan represent the less visible exemplars of resourcefulness in Indonesia. In Jalan, the backdrop transforms consistently; collections of people, material and spaces disappear and reappear as functional assemblages of customers, stir-fried noodles, dangling light bulbs and wooden carts throughout the day. While developed countries in the Global North are familiar with seamless and interconnected infrastructure, Tomesen’s film demonstrates how different collections of people, materials and resources in the Global South co-construct a different kind of infrastructure. In this short essay, I reflect upon the social nature of infrastructure in Jalan which stems from the kind of resourcefulness Yogyakartans possess. I also discuss the perils of such an infrastructure in relation to Indonesia’s socio-economic and cultural context.
The term 'infrastructure' can be thought of as the underlying system, structure, or facility that supports an organization or society. Infrastructures are interconnected systems which facilitate daily activities such as power supplies and telecommunication facilities, conceptual abstractions such as classification systems and groups, and other connections between “politics, individuals, organizations, and technical systems”. While infrastructure is often invisible until broken, infrastructure in the Global South and in this case, Yogyakarta remains less than invisible, seamless, standardized and quiet. In fact, a lot of the depicted everyday commerce in Jalan represents and is part of these important nodes and systems of connectivity and distribution of goods, information, people, power and relationships.
By examining the kinds of economic and social relationships built between unlikely actors, urbanist AbdouMaliq Simone(2004) extends the concept of infrastructure to include the activities of people who remake the inner-city of Johannesburg. Simone describes this inclusion as “people as infrastructure”. Simone’s robust concept of social infrastructure is particularly nascent in how the marginal tukang (handy(wo)man or worker), pemilik (owner) and penjual (seller) in Jalan act as interstices and in-betweens which support “spaces of economic and cultural operation”. The street-side stall owners, handymen and sellers actively configure themselves and their surroundings, to “take chances, hedge bets, make small experimentations” and build networks of relations critical for tapping into further opportunities, networks, and the exchange of resources.
Infrastructure in Yogyakarta is social. It is social because of two reasons.
Firstly, an infrastructure that is social occurs when people, practices and things assemble and reassemble to re-create nodes of economic production and distribution. Tomesen’s work focuses on these particular assemblages of people, practices and things as part of the ‘half-developed’ physical infrastructure of Yogyakarta. Her series of carefully composed and combined film work illustrate how the resourceful everyday actors of commerce assemble and dismantle these ephemeral yet almost ritual-like social and economic spaces.
On one side, Tomesen captures a kind a resourcefulness that enables and supports the half-developed physical infrastructure of Yogyakarta for example, the self-assembled light bulb and power supply connectivity, self-made shop setups, and mobile gas tanks. On the other side, she pays attention to new assemblies of variously arranged economic activities, offering viewers a preview of the highly invisible yet innovative economic infrastructure of Yogyakarta. For instance, street stalls interlaced tightly within a two-meter span and the dawn to night work of backyard plastic sourcing, recycling and sorting. Jalan illustrates how the working-class produces, collects and distributes resources, activities, information which demonstrate how infrastructure is social.
Secondly, infrastructure involves care. When infrastructure fails, repair is crucial for its continuance. Steven J. Jackson (2013) sees repair as “acts of care” wherein sociotechnical systems are maintained and transformed, human values undergo changes, and a complex combination of “organizations, systems, and lives” emerges. Maintenance work not only revolves in the realm of repairing material goods and infrastructures, but also in the social worlds we live in. Such caring acts of repair are also documented in Tomesen’s film for instance, the skilled expertise and meticulous craft of the tukang lampu (lamp repairman).
Maintaining Infrastructure: Temporality and Certainty
The work that goes into making and maintaining infrastructure is an everyday act of creative coping in Indonesia. While it is important to show how citizens’ resourcefulness addresses what poor governance has failed to provide in Indonesia, a lot of invisible work goes into maintaining such an infrastructure. In recognizing that these marginal actors become and are part of Yogyakarta’s infrastructure, we should not discount the kinds of work that goes into maintaining it. Jalan uncovers the work that maintains the consistently broken web of infrastructure so that these ephemeral yet important interchanges of people, materials and resources continue to exist. This maintenance work can be viewed in relation to the connections between an unpredictable economy and how Indonesians view certainty.
When the currency crisis swept across Southeast Asia in 1997/98, it devastated Indonesia’s corruption-ridden economy. The crisis’ ill impacts were largely felt by the growing urban middle-class fostered by Suharto’s foreign investment-friendly policies. After the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis, the urban middle-class, especially college students, became largely involved in the reformasi (reformation) demonstrations that ended Suharto’s reign. The economic situation worsened as 50,000Rp depreciated from USD20 to USD5 after the 1997/98 Asian Financial Crisis during the Post-Suharto Regime. When affluent lifestyles became unattainable for urban middle-class youth, many embraced DIY and pirate culture to create and produce things they could not afford. The New Order period saw an increasing number of fakes or aspal, a short-form of asli palsu (genuine fake), which continues to persist in the Post-Suharto regime in the form of “counterfeit money” and more commonly, pirated wearables. This aspal became a way for DIY-ers in Indonesia to acknowledge that the “ground under one’s feet was something less than firm” and injects everyday life with “ambiguity”. In other words, an Indonesian’s sense of certainty only lies in what is the ‘present’ – the shifty and mobile infrastructure as a relational and physical representation of such ambiguities surrounding Indonesia’s future.
Before I end this short essay, I discuss Tomesen’s focus on plastic waste, use, and dissemination in Jalan. I call these processes involving plastic, plasticity to serve the descriptive purposes of the circulation, production and repurposing of the almost indestructible material in Jalan. Plasticity reminds us of the inescapable fate of living with plastic. To quote philosopher Timothy Morton (2013), plastic is a “hyperobject” – an entity distributed across vast amounts of time and space relative to humans. Jalan captures the multidirectional, expansive and almost eternal lifespan of the hyperobject plastic. Plastic never escapes us; we never escape plastic. Plasticity is the intimacies we share with plastic in Indonesia; from red plastic bathing tubs to es teh (cold tea) drinking bags, wasted bottle caps to dripping transparent bags of pet fishes.
While Jalan reveals a particular kind of resourcefulness which constitute the social nature of infrastructure in Yogyakarta, Jalan also shows the tenuous work that goes into maintaining and caring for such social infrastructure. In cities with poor governance, Jalan has successfully shown how the standardization and invisibility of infrastructure consistently breaks down for citizens to continuously remake, adapt and design differently. It remains difficult, however, to discern between the hopefulness and the precariousness of living inventively with half-developed infrastructure and inescapably with plastics – a man-made global warming catalyst that refuses to die. Perhaps we can only know for sure if we jalan terus. And we will.
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About the author
Cindy Lin is a researcher, bio-enthusiast and artist dedicated to the critical understanding and intervention of and around shared technological and scientific spaces such as hackerspaces and innovation cultures in marginal sites. As a PhD student at the School of Information, University of Michigan, Cindy continues her multi-sited ethnographic work on the politics, social organization and material production of DIY maker and hacker culture in Indonesia and the American Midwest. She also continues developing physical prototypes and writings on how humans can respond to the Anthropocene by designing with hope and an anthropomorphic reflexivity.