Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy
27 January 2022

Figuring the Urban through Street Art in Indonesia

Interview with Patricia Spyer on her new book

Professor Patricia Spyer, a faculty associate at the Albert Hirschman Centre on Democracy along with her other roles at the Institute, has published Orphaned Landscapes: Violence, Visuality, and Appearance in Indonesia, a book in which she theorises that ordinary people produce street art and other visual media as part of a wider work on appearance that allows them, wittingly or unwittingly, to refigure the aesthetic forms and sensory environment of their urban surroundings. Far from epiphenomenal, that work on appearance is inherent to socio-political change.

What was the motivation behind writing such a book?

I was interested in the role of media, in particular, the disproportionate impact of so-called small or tactical media in the context of a Muslim/Christian conflict that racked the eastern Indonesian city of Ambon from early 1999 through 2003. In the charged atmosphere of urban warfare, a slew of such media – from incendiary pamphlets and video compact discs displaying violence inflicted by the enemy and victimising the self, produced on both sides, to graffiti sprayed on city walls – circulated with stunning effect, aggravating and giving shape to the violence in the city and helping it spread to the surrounding islands. When I arrived in Ambon to begin fieldwork in 2005, attuned to the import of vernacular media forms, I encountered a city crowded with enormous billboards of Jesus Christ and Christian murals that had proliferated during the conflict and continued to be produced in its aftermath. In a city known for its Dutch-derived Calvinist Protestantism where such public displays of Christian piety had previously been absent, the discovery of the gigantic pictures was surprising. The book tracks the public pictures’ spread and uptake in the city within a larger turn to and valorisation of visual expression and experience, not just in Ambon but across Indonesia in the wake of the Suharto dictatorship’s 1998 downfall. This is also what makes the violence of Ambon’s war and the decade thereafter such a fertile site for exploring the contribution of visual phenomena to social and political life, more generally, especially today.

How did you go about theorising that contribution?

Throughout the book I return repeatedly to Ambon’s monumental pictures, attending to the energetic dynamic between the impulse that compelled some Protestants to paint Christianity in city streets – in a striking departure from the aniconic tradition of the Calvinist church, thereby inaugurating a new relation to the divine – and the disfiguring momentum of the violence that altered the city’s everyday rhythms and familiar texture over time. I theorise the production of these images as part of the wider work on appearances through which Ambonese and others – both intentionally and unintentionally – aimed to manage and make sense of a wartime environment that often defied their understanding in startling and disturbing ways. Somewhat differently, the related work of appearances foregrounds the more diffuse effects on people of the devastation of the war, such as the zoning and mass displacements that turned Ambon into an increasingly unfamiliar place for many, and the effects of the murky, often terrifying fog of war.

Neither extrinsic nor epiphenomenal to the violence, the work on and of appearances builds on the French political philosopher Jacques Rancière’s concept of the distribution of the sensible upheld by a given socio-political order. In identifying the inherently political determination of the experiential conditions that enable and privilege particular forms of sensory perception, thought, and action while foreclosing others, the theory posits an intimate connection between aesthetics and politics. In the book I home in on moments of instability when, no longer taken for granted, the sensible begins to change, contributing, however incrementally and diffusely, to disruptions and alterations in the ways this was experienced before. Equally important are the numerous colour reproductions of the street art that unfolds across different chapters as a diffuse urban gallery forming a counterpoint to the text and offering a sense of their strident materiality and visibility in the wartime and post-war city (with thanks to the Swiss National Science Foundation for its generous support).

You call your theorisation Orphaned Landscapes. Why did you select that name and how does it encapsulate your argument?

The book’s title serves as a gloss that draws different strands of the argument together. Orphaned Landscapes evokes the general predicament of uncertainty, crisis, and rupture, or the orphaned landscapes that issued in the wake of the Suharto regime’s collapse and the withdrawal of a leader who styled himself the Father of the nation, Indonesia, by extension, as one big family, and addressed even his cabinet ministers as children. While this situation provides a significant if distant backdrop to the events in Ambon, the book homes in on the Christian men and women who identified with the city’s oldest church and their sense of waning privilege and abandonment by authority within the violence that inflected the national situation at the eastern end of the archipelago and the country’s Islamicisation since the 1990s – or another sense of orphaned landscape. One of the book’s main foci is how these Protestant Ambonese responded to and attempted to shape these circumstances discursively, performatively, and especially through the street pictures. At odds with – indeed a form of graphic protest within – the environment in which they emerged, the Christian street pictures may themselves be seen as a kind of orphaned landscape, an argument I develop in the book.

Where would your framework apply in other places in crisis?

Besides the work on and of appearances which I see as one of the book’s main contributions, applicable elsewhere, I elaborate what I call a symptomatology of crisis as a methodological tool through which to examine the messy, challenging realities of crisis and war. Ambon’s street pictures were only the most obvious and assertive among a wider array of symptoms of the deep crisis that afflicted the city. In contrast to other manifestations of crisis that I discuss in the book, these pictures were deliberately made and unleashed in public space and represent therefore not only symptoms but also highly creative, provisional solutions to the crisis. I have coined the expression symptomatology of crisis as a gloss for things like the pictures that were simultaneously symptomatic of crisis and energetic rebuttals to it. Along with other phenomena, they are revealing of the degree to which non-human actors and material stakes in the conflict had effects on the violence and the particular forms it took. Similarly, I propose that other symptoms that surfaced within the flow of everyday activities, inciting surprise, confusion, and terror, should be seen not as expressive of crisis but as central components of it, with wider implications for the manner of its unfolding. Finally, the book focuses on a range of ephemera, from the Christian street pictures to rumours, incendiary pamphlets, children’s peace drawings, and elusive, difficult-to-grasp phenomena like atmospherics and the fog of war. I argue that such fleeting, ephemeral aspects of social life, perhaps especially in situations of profound, socio-political upheaval and change, deserve our acute attention. For even as they come and go, they can have lasting impact. Depositing their traces in an assortment of practices and forms, they bring about new distributions of the sensible, altered landscapes of living and cohabitation, and subtly different ways of seeing, dwelling, and engaging the world.

What do you plan to research in your future studies?

In September 2020 I began a new SNSF Division 1 research project “Images, (In)visibilities, and Work on Appearance”, that builds on some of the arguments in the book but takes them in new directions while expanding the ethnographic focus beyond Ambon to the cities of Makassar in South Sulawesi and Ternate in North Maluku:

Full citation of the book:

Spyer, Patricia. Orphaned Landscapes: Violence, Visuality, and Appearance in Indonesia. Fordham University Press, 2022.

Interview by Bugra Güngör, PhD Candidate in International Relations and Political Science; editing by Nathalie Tanner, Research Office.

Banner image: The cover photo of Orphaned Landscapes: Violence, Visuality, and Appearance in Indonesia.