Managing luggage through Yogyakarta’s international airport can be a bit rough. After passing customs, passengers watch behind a rope as all the checked-in luggage pile up until it can’t be staked any higher.

Then, all of a sudden, the rope is lifted and the competition begins: those with greater agility move through and grab their bags; those travelling in small groups form human conveyor belts for passing luggage through the sea of people. 

This anecdote is telling of how things work in Yogyakarta. Amid active volcanoes and occasional earthquakes coupled with insufficient improvement in infrastructure since the fall of former president Suharto, people here rely on collectives to get things done.

Mention the sharing economy and many would think of young entrepreneurs from the Silicon Valley and beyond — house and car sharing, co-working spaces, crowd-funding and micro-financing, to name a few. At the heart of all these arrangements is friends coming together to help one another and share resources.

Interestingly, the collective activities here predate many tech-savvy examples. Arisan is a form of rotatory savings where members of a community put small amounts together and everyone takes turn to yield returns. For affluent Indonesians, it is an essential form of social gathering; for the less privileged, it functions like micro-financing. 

Yogyakarta is also known as kota seniman  — the city of artists. It is not surprising that artists here take the arisan tradition to the next level. 

On any given day, one finds half a dozen motorcycles parked outside KUNCI, a cultural collective founded in 1999. Co-founder Antariksa was attending three meetings when I paid my visit. 

While an undergraduate at Gadjah Mada University in the late 1990s, he got involved in the protests that toppled Suharto. Frustrated by the lack of independent research in Indonesia, he co-founded the country’s first cultural studies centre KUNCI. Currently, KUNCI has eight team members and many volunteers occupied with critical knowledge production and sharing through media publication, cross-disciplinary encounters, research action projects, artistic intervention and vernacular education1.

Antariksa, who just got back from a four-year research residency in Japan, elucidated how they did not give up even though they did not receive any funding in the first seven years. They obtained project grants from local and international bodies gradually in recent years. 

Another member Brigitta Isabella, an anthropologist, introduced herself before hopping to another meeting on the front porch. Her upcoming project in Hong Kong with Para Site will be a series of writing workshops with migrant workers in Victoria Park.

At sunset, one can try out Gudeg prepared by street vendors, or dine at a fancy artist-run establishment, such as Kedai Kebun Forum (KKF). KKF consists of a gallery, performance space, a shop and a restaurant. Almost all activities are supported by the income generated from the sale of food and beverage. The products sold in the shop raise funds for the Kaleidoskop Project, a biennial exhibition for young artists to present their work in Yogyakarta. 

Just around the corner is Cemeti Art House, one of the most established and influential artist-run spaces. Founded by Nindityo Adipurnomo and Mella Jaarsma 27 years ago, it has been a hub for local artists to springboard onto the international arena. They currently focus on international exchange through residency programmes and process-based practices.

During my visit, Adipurnomo was very kind to have hosted a sharing at which I witnessed Cemeti’s “fans club’. Besides local practitioners, Professor John Clark of Sydney University, Taiwanese curator Amy Cheng and artist FX Harsono were among the guests there.

Those not ready to call it a night may wander down to Mes 56, a collective working space with photo-based media. Originally, it was a place where artists share equipment and facilities. After the country introduced a ban on small shops and convenience stores selling alcoholic drinks, it became a go-to place for cheap beer and home-made wine. 

For Hong Kong, with the temporary closure of the Museum of Art and a long way to go before the completion of M+ and Central Police Station, perhaps much can be learnt from cases like those found in Yogyakarta, where artists do not only create works of art, but collectively cultivate a sustainable ecology for all. The arisan model is capable of building a vital infrastructure for many generations to thrive.

1 “About Us | KUNCI Cultural Studies Center.” Accessed August 3, 2015.