Jalan: Celebrating the strength of urban dwellers in High Definition
By Pitra Hutomo
Fourteen years ago I got off the Taksaka Train from Gambir in Jakarta to Tugu Station in Yogyakarta. I then followed a map and walked to what was going to be my boarding house. It was not long until I realized; the UGM sign on the map showed only the most southern point; nowhere near my destination.
I try to maintain the habit of walking throughout living in Yogyakarta though it has become the less effective mode of transport. One can hardly find any facility for pedestrians. Sidewalks have become more and more occupied with parked vehicles following the city's economy growth. Suffice to say, the pace of life in Yogyakarta expects you to ride and drive. Sometimes I even wonder if anyone still rides on a becak. Yes, the pedaled becak, not the ones attached to a motorbike, which is of course much slower. I can still see a few of the pedaled becak in tourist areas especially in front of hotels or restaurant. I guess a few still hangs about in the kampongs to transport local residents, or at the market. While most of them have decided to alter their habit of waiting to actively finding passenger by going around in motorbike becak, another issue has come to rise. Yogyakarta's inner-city streets are narrow while anything on wheels goes on them: becaks, bicycles, motorbikes, cars, buses, cartwheels pulled by men or horses, etc. The effect from the difference of speed and purpose carried by each vehicle is almost unpredictable, and the streets become overcrowded. Motorized becaks with their size, shape and speed increase the intensity. I can assume that for some, being in a becak is somewhat inhumane; manpower behind the passenger seat. Nonetheless I still ride on it especially for two ways destination, because they would rather wait and not take an empty becak on their way back. Competition is high, now that motorbike services are accesible through smartphones. But if one look at the issue more carefully, motorbike becak is not a solution. Becak pedalers often live in their vehicle so it is in their nature to wait for passengers. When riding on a pedaled becak, you might not make conversations with the guy on the wheels, as it is difficult to talk with all the noise around you. But you would have enough time to look around and you might cherish that moment given to you through the strength of the pedaler. In short, there is a reason why there is no fixed price unless you're riding on a becak as part of a tour program. Becaks rely upon regulars, be it tourists or locals. Each pedal reflects the city's spirit found in slogans such as Jogja Slow City or Jogja the Special Region. So why speed up the pace? Why compensate on such change of quality when it only shows the inability of local authority to provide a better living for their residents?
The management of the growth of the city of Yogyakarta is sorely substandard, if judged by the consistency of work on the labeled plans they designed themselves. Construction of hotels all over the place crowd out the homes, schools, and cultural heritage buildings. Transfer of landownership to large capital businesses frustrates many people, but only a few know how to make a complaint heard by policy makers. Ordinary citizens as well as observers of urban problems should be able to feel the ill effects of the acceleration of development under the present mayor of Yogya, and the accompanying cacophony of the branding of Jogja the Special Region. The absence of property rights to land is due to the people of Yogyakarta living on lands loaned from the Kraton. This condition weakens the position of the citizens who might actually wish to support growth, but do not have bargaining power against the financiers because they are living on borrowed land.
Indeed, the initial city plan of Yogyakarta makes for an interesting study: growth on either side of the imaginary axis between the South Sea and Mount Merapi should make for a friendly city that would be relatively easy to manage. However, when the idea of the imaginary axis was brought forward, it was only to be drowned by the Free Market logic. It has demolished the rights of Yogya citizens and stupefies the thinkers who also grew up along the streets of Yogyakarta.
I guess not much research has been done on the contrast of the presence of those many thinkers in Yogyakarta and the absence of comprehensive urban planning, which supposedly advances the welfare of its residents. Allowing the free market logic lead the planning, gives rise to excessive institutionalization within those learning spaces. Academics return to the universities, and galleries meet the need for interaction in the case of the artists. Parallel to this trend, the streets become no more than an economic battlefield; the gap has widened between the notion of locals and non-locals, under conditions that merely privilege the wealthy and powerful.
Before moving to Yogyakarta I was aware of the city's reputation for education and culture. Experts were often invited by national mass media to share their insights on various subjects. These are people who teach or have studied at UGM, UPN, UII, or one of the many universities founded in Yogyakarta. I wanted to be part of it. Knowing later that social surroundings in Yogyakarta have enabled people to be both intellectuals as well as commoners, made me feel safe. Amidst the social hierarchy, scholars are welcome to enter as much as tourists. There were more informal spaces to engage back then, nonetheless Yogyakarta remains conducive in a way, especially if you delve into cultural spaces to sip on thick warm tea while listening to a public discussion. One may be nostalgic of the kinship developed in spaces like Angkringan, under the Senisono banyan tree, etc. These spaces are said to have brought together intellectuals (scholars, poets, artists, etc.) to discuss the actual issues in the street, take action, create works, write for the media, or develop further initiatives that extend beyond the territorial limits of Yogyakarta.
Fast forward to this day, I've managed to be where I wanted to be in the first place. My job has given me a chance to connect with Su Tomesen some five years ago. I can affiliate to her concerns on living in the city, as we both fit the category of non-locals. She has always liked going around the city, particularly on the bicycle. The slow pace I talked about earlier is present in her videos, which also brings curiosity to explore the city more. She was thrilled to finally receive a funding for a script she'd worked on for years, and I was lucky enough to be involved in some of her process. Su has had immense study of activities and behaviour of people on the street. The script shaped these studies to new footages, which she arranged according to a time frame from 5 pm to 7 pm the next day.
Viewers may find themselves immersed by the preoccupations of her 'actors' making a living on the streets. Each one in turn emerges; food and beverage vendor, parking guard, plastic bottle scavenger, the odong-odong man, retail gasoline sellers, sellers of banana leaves, tire services, the people who can renew dead fluorescent lights. These are the experts who have taken to the streets and whose activities are always in the margin. Their concept of work is an effort that goes beyond carrying the body out of their personal space (at home) to places of interaction. They are the urban dwellers that maintain the economy of exchanging goods and services with money, while systems are developed in the surrounding to control, authorize and eventually gathering unofficial taxes indifferent to formal business within confined walls. I'm not entirely optimistic with existing models of informal trade in Indonesia due to the lack of protection, especially for those who operate on the streets. Ideas for city development tend to reside on centralization of the businesses in the forms of integrated marketplace or food courts. However these models seem to aim only to clear the streets, without considering the effects of urban sprawl. Centralization approach tends to limit development for inner-city surroundings for basic means such as transportation or other public facilities. This is a long-term process and it is not resolving any soon around the peripheries of Yogyakarta. However as problems rise, the urban dwellers discover and invent their ways to recuperate, to endure, to survive.
Su Tomesen’s body of work, especially her videos and documentaries, represent the spirits found among urban dwellers in many under-developed regions of the world. The 'actors' may appear almost mechanical because they know the sequence of procedures by heart. I noticed that some of the practices are well coordinated between one another. Some of them occupy the same place in turns, busy concocting food and drinks, helping each other in assembling different components into a stall etc. With dilligence Su shifts our view now and then without skipping one step from each ritual. There's a comfort knowing that without complicated formal consent, each person had allowed Su to work through filming the way they work. As they do not feel the need to ask for financial compensation, the results also show that Su positions herself as an extension of sight and hearing of the audience. She also did not attempt to insert herself to obtain confirmation of the rituals by doing interviews or providing precise location in the footages.
As a side note, the jobs shown in "Jalan" were invented not more than two decades ago. Though a few left off from the rationale of making a living in the city, some are corresponding to recent developments in human civilization (to name a few: plastic waste management, mobile children entertainment/odong-odong, fast food stalls). These people look at establishment in a different way, as they go around the system without pushing forward their anxiety of receiving care from authorities, if such ever exist. They allow themeselves taking naps in between working and they have made the city's periphery alive from their presence in any given hour, regardless of poor decision made by policy makers.
I wrote the following letter to a 50 something woman who comes every day to my workplace, selling food. My colleagues and I have been calling her with a codename "Angel". We never asked for her real name. In a way I have avoided any form of intimacy with her, although certain dynamics have been building up from our encounters in the past 5 years we've known each other.
Sometimes I've thought of asking her: What time do you get up? What do you do before going to the food market? How do you choose the food you are going to sell? How do you set the price? Do people ask for price reduction? What time do you finish? How much do you make in one day? Is it enough for the purchase you'll have to make the next day?
When I'm feeling sombre, I worry for her. Some of my colleagues called her 'mbah' as respect to elders, which translates to grandma/grandpa. A person her age still has to earn money by carrying a heavy three-tier basket around. I would feel uneasy although I know that it is common to see middle-aged women ride their bicycle filled with agricultural products to be sold in the market. These women conceived amazing spirit, as they would not stop working until their bodies give up.
Ah, there's always that trap of finding beauty in trying to resolve urban matters. Especially of you're living in a city that puts forward the idea of cultural value, no matter how superficial it may seem.
It has been almost five years, since you first came to my workplace. We do business almost everyday, yet until now I have never asked your name. We just understood each other everytime you come with a basket of assorted contents.
"Bu Angel is here looking for you Pit"
Then I would look inside my wallet.
I do not always want a snack, and when I do, I prefer fruits. I have often hesitated to buy what's inside your basket, because I certainly will not eat it all. Now, many people want oil-free foods, low salt, and organic. They will not get it in the food you offer. The more so because this food does not come from your kitchen, you did not make it yourself, and there is no information about the contents.
I tremble with the thought of you bearing the basket, the contents of which in a few hours will be spoilt. If I buy what you're selling, it means I dull the critical thinking that on other occasions I try to develop.
I'm not sure if we can agree on this at all, because what can I do? Shop with you?
My fairest option is to request you to not give me food in plastic bags, not because I have to pay for the bag nor because it is free as part of the service. Out of respect for the buyer, you would express obedience: "Oalah mbak, mbak, njiih"
If by any chance you would like to know why we call you 'Bu Angel',...
I resort to the name because you try to be subtle with the business. We buy the contents of your basket out of pity, perhaps. However I have never felt aggresiveness as I have experienced with other sellers who come inside our building, creating that awkward feeling of violation.
I look forward to the days when you have more fruits in the basket.
Pitra Hutomo, March 2016.
About the author
The author is currently working as a researcher in the Indonesian Visual Art Archive (IVAA), a visual art archive based in Yogyakarta. The organization has fostered Pitra Hutomo’s insight, and encouraged her to study Indonesian art through written and visual records. Her other activities are with Hyphen, a discussion group with two best friends founded late 2010. Pitra writes about artists’ work with a sociological approach imposed upon the artists' choice of expression. She places herself as a spectator, willingly immersed herself to the work, and thus rarely requires confirmation from the artists themselves.