Nongkrong and Collectivity in Yogyakarta’s Contemporary Arts:
by Sonja Dahl
In Praise of Non-Productive Time
Literally translated, the Indonesian word nongkrong approximates “squatting by the side of the road with a cigarette” or “sitting around because you’re not doing any work.” Though it’s tempting to judge such activity as a waste of time, the process of nongkrong (essentially, non-productive social time) actually serves a very important role in building social relationships in Indonesia. It describes the act of hanging out, of bodies leaning into space together, of social, mutual space and slow time. Nongkrong is the hum of relationships, an activity that through its ubiquity, especially in Java, acts as social ‘glue.’
Within the contemporary arts circuit in Yogyakarta, Java, an incredible proliferation of artist collectives and collaborations support the vast number of young and emerging artists. For many of Yogya’s artists, nongkrong is an essential aspect of how both their art practices and communities function and flourish. In the words of one such artist, “Nongkrong is our school.” Its looseness allows for an open and generous exchange of ideas and information, a casual knowledge-share that many artists claim is more influential on their development than their educations in school. Rather than focusing on end-product productivity, nongkrong offers a holistic view of art as a long-term social process.
Taking the Indonesian concept of nongkrong as its pivot point, this paper extends the idea outwards from its specific locality to think through the importance of such non-productive social time in the broader contemporary arts. I draw on the work of a number of scholars and theorists, most particularly Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, who conceptualize ‘study’ as an informal social process and collective intellectual practice. I contend that the casual hanging out entailed in nongkrong supports collaboration and defines what is at once a representative thread of contemporaneity in art worldwide at this historical moment, and a peculiarly and vibrantly Indonesian form of collective practice.
Sonja Dahl is an independent artist and researcher with a fluid, traveling, and collaboration-focused practice. She is a member of several ongoing collaborative projects including Craft Mystery Cult (United States) and The Poetic Everyman Project (Indonesia and Australia). Her 2012-2014 research projects in Indonesia, supported by the Fulbright Foundation and Asian Cultural Council, focused on the culture of collaboration, artist collectives, and participatory projects in Yogyakarta, Java’s contemporary arts, as well as in-depth study of textile and indigo dye production in Java, Bali, Sumba, and Flores. She holds a Master of Fine Arts from Cranbrook Academy of Art, 2012. Her artwork has been exhibited nationally and internationally, most recently at Bezirksmuseum Neubau, Vienna, Austria; The Darwin Visual Arts Association, Darwin NT, Australia; and The Museum of Contemporary Craft, Portland, OR, USA. Her writing is published with Carets and Sticks Contemporary Arts online, Textile: The Journal of Cloth and Culture, and Dilettante.