The death of Kemang’s musical identity

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Where the vibrancy once was on Lower Kemang

Walking through parts of Kemang today feels like walking through desolation. Gone are the vibrant lights that used to light up the area around Jl. Kemang I and Kemang Raya’s intersection, gone also are the masses of people wasting away their nights eating and drinking the night away while their parked cars cause massive traffic. The crowds and the subsequent traffic jams were initially an annoyance for this longtime Kemang resident, but looking back now, I kind of miss it all.

But whenever I am talking about Kemang to someone, I can never talk about it without remembering what a great place it used to be to discover, watch and play music.

I have been living in the same house in Kemang Utara for about 21 years now, since my family moved here to a bigger house to accommodate the birth of my sister, and I have watched this area grow and change drastically. When I was a kid, there used to be a huge skatepark in what was once the Kemang FoodFest area. In my teens, that area was turned into FoodFest, where I’d usually spend time browsing through pirated DVDs, and occasionally eat. Also in my teens, the Aksara store was a place nice enough to check out books and local records (and buy them too of course), before it became a quirky knick-knack store with very little books or records left.

What really made me love Kemang was its vibrant musical identity. Especially for the indie scene, Kemang used to have many places for bands to play and events to happen, and I felt blessed just to live in an area where so much interesting music was being showcased. If a music-loving newcomer were to pass by the lower Kemang area, they would have not known the fun they would have if they had been there a few years earlier.

Not so much as 2 to 4 years ago, the lower Kemang area in and around Aksara and La Codefin (which now houses part of Lotte Supermarket and Happy Puppy Karaoke) used to be teeming with venues. There used to be this small place called Saffron, situated in a small building jutting up out of nowhere at where the Laser Tag place once was. Nearby, those into jazz can enjoy a chill atmosphere at what was probably the best jazz bar in Jakarta, The Red and White (its building now sits literally in ruin).

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The (former) Red and White Club

Go through the dark, back trail (or the front way next the main road) leading up to Aksara and one would have found its neighbor Ecobar 365: a small venue where indie gigs are usually held, which always attracts the liveliest and most raucous of crowds. Take a longer walk to the area behind La Codefin and you’ll find the hipster haven of Treehouse, where interesting DJ gigs happen, sometimes on its parking lot as well.

That one small area of Lower Kemang alone offered hope for indie artists to share their music with the public, and the gigs were not too shabby either. The gig I remember most at Saffron was a debut gig by Efek Rumah Kaca reincarnation Pandai Besi in 2013. It was tiny, but the open air made the music much more enjoyable. It once hosted a Cassette Store Day event that year as well.

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Pandai Besi @ Saffron, 2013
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Where Saffron used to stand

Meanwhile, Ecobar was host to a number of rockin’ gigs, such as the monthly Thursday Noise events and it even hosted internationals, such as American psychedelic duo The Garden and Malaysia’s Killer Calculateur in 2015 (which during their set, I thought they were blown the fuck away by the opening band, Vague).

Members of the Kemang public have given me varying answers to what they think happened to these places. One warung keeper nearby La Codefin, whose been in the area for years, tells me it’s probably because the land owners didn’t want the noise and rowdiness anymore. Another person hanging out at the warung told me that it was a simply a matter of going broke for these venues, because (unless you’re running an established brand), “places that offer live music usually don’t really last long in Kemang”.

He may be right. Saffron and The Red and White did not even last 3 years, while TreeHouse lasted about 6. EcoBar lasted around 8 years but has simply “evolved” into something else. In a district of Jakarta that reportedly charges astronomical rates of rent. Not to mention that most of the land these venues once sat is apparently owned by the Indonesian military. Could the desolate state of lower Kemang be the result of a self-righteous moral cleansing by the uptight, elderly people of the military who are fed up with the noise? I wouldn’t be surprised if it was.

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“This land belongs to the TNI-AD”

But even if it wasn’t, what’s true now is that lower Kemang is an even quieter place than it was two years ago. The land that used to be occupied by these hangout places and venues now sit bored, fading and overgrown behind aluminum sheet fences, their buildings bulldozed from existence. Peering into these fences gives a slight feeling of sadness: what used to be such a lively place is now literally dark and lifeless.

As I wander through the road leading from Kem Chiks to McDonalds, the main changes I saw were mainly the new premium eating and fashion establishments popping up.

A new steakhouse has opened on the very corner connecting Bangka and Kemang Raya, and most of its customers, at a glance from outside, are mostly old people. There’s a new Patbingsoo place opening up at a space near Al-Azhar Kemang that was once used as an art gallery. There’s a premium-looking place, looks like a bar or restaurant, opening on Jl.Kemang I’s small corner hook adjacent to FaveHotel and Amaris Hotel. Ecobar 365 has evolved into a lounge which explicitly caters to the upper middle to higher class, with no music in earshot. While all these new additions have different concepts, to me, they’re all the same. They don’t cater to a wider public as much as music or art may have. Not that the places before catered wholly to the general young per se, but compared to high-end stores and restaurants, music is a lot more welcoming.

Heck La Codefin used to hold music events too! Back when it was an open-air minimall-esque place, it used to hold occasional gigs, usually major indie radio or cigarette sponsored sessions, in their atrium or front outdoor area. Now a large part of that building is taken up by a one massive furniture store, who at one point in 2016 publically advertised on their marquee a discount promo that celebrated the birthday of Donald Trump (I wish I was making this up).

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La Codefin building

Now I’m not saying that the newer, affluent stores opening in Kemang are entirely a bad thing. Any business opening in Kemang deserves the luck they need in making themselves sustainable and successful. Speaking through my ego as an artist and a fan of live music, it is merely the previous identity that I miss and because gentrification is a thing that is killing cultural districts around the world, I’m saddened that it has eaten up the area that was once so musically vibrant.

Of course, the music hasn’t really completely died, mainly for those who enjoy dance floors. Lobbyn, PARC19, FJ on 7 and Lost and Found are still there (with the last 3 places located in the same Lower Kemang are only seconds away), and they all sometimes hold interesting DJ gigs (or small live sets if we’re lucky).

Its no wonder that the indie scene is suffering because Jakarta itself is going through a severe shortage of music venues. There seems to be a cultural shift away from music towards something more materialistic and consumptive. New spaces that have popped up anywhere in Jakarta recently are either stores or eateries: almost no new music venues anymore. Venues generally can’t keep up their businesses when they’re not selling drinks at gigs, except if they manage to become a successful restaurant during the day, which isn’t the case for many. Venues need to cover the rent, and in Kemang, it isn’t possible if they don’t rake in enough.

That’s one of the reasons why my favourite music venue, Café Mondo, was forced to move from their Upper Kemang location by the Kemang Selatan intersection and resettle in the unforgivingly traffic-jammed Fatmawati area, above Rossi Musik. The former Kemang site now sits literally empty, with nobody taking up the space yet. Every time I go by that place, I couldn’t help but feel emotional because of the amazing gigs that happened and the memories I had in specific corners of the Kemang Mondo. But at least this venue, now named Mondo By the Rooftop, still exists (and still keeps it realer than any other venue in the city).

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Cafe Mondo in Kemang, 2014

From the top of my head, the only venue in Kemang that still holds that same musical spirit is the Borneo Beer House, where the venue Tokove was once in on Jl. Kemang Selatan, although I have my fears that they too might suffer the same fate. To an extent, the Basement Café right below Arion Belhotel also holds this spirit as it occasionally hosts indie rock gigs (and once hosted fucking Deafheaven!)

Borneo Beer House, particularly, has become kind of a last refuge for indie acts to perform in Kemang, be them indie rock acts, electronic or DJs. I performed there back in February as Logic Lost, and from what I have felt, it may not be the best venue, but it might be the best we have right now, right here.

Back in October 2014, I remember holding one of my first gigs at Café Mondo, and I discovered that two other huge events were taking place on the same day, in the nearby venues of Ecobar and the Basement Café. I was worried that nobody would show up for my gig because I was going up against a one-off performance by legendary Indonesian psychedelic band Shark Move at the Basement and an indie band that had bigger cred up at Ecobar.

But how many people showed up was not the point.

Having three great gigs happening at three venues not far from each other in Kemang. What I’d give to have that choice today.

(All pics taken by me)

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MakanMayit intrigues the curious, but frightens the unaware

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[image from “Uzumaki”, by horror manga mastermind Junji Ito] 

Widespread backlash towards a subversive art performance by Indonesia’s premier dark art practitioner Natasha Gabriella Tontey shows the general public’s lack of depth in understanding the true meaning of art.

To ban and censor artwork is to deny discussion around the art itself.

Natasha Gabriella Tontey’s MakanMayit art piece embodies the very meaning and purpose of art itself: that it is also a medium to disturb other than to please. It proves to be “too disturbing” for the Indonesian public, because the general public has been mostly raised with the idea that art is one-sidedly beautiful.

Now I am not saying that everyone should like the MakanMayit performance. Taste is subjective and nobody should be forced to like art. The main problem of the backlash is the response by those online who stumbled upon uploaded and shared images of the piece and immediately concluded that Tontey was a sick woman for her art, or the ones that said Indonesia is simply not ready for this kind of art and will therefore never understand its context.

If that’s the case, then when will we be ready?

Art itself does not demand anything of the viewer. If anything, artists are merely asking for an understanding of how they are through their works. Artists aren’t even demanding the public understand their work, so long as the public recognizes the context on why it was made.

In Indonesian general society, art itself is rarely discussed in its whole form. The stereotypes of art are taught but its depth and meaning is never explored. Without exploration, art can never be understood, nor will its capabilities to make us understand ourselves or the world around us.

Discussion is what fuels the growth of creativity, and by refusing to do so, Indonesia will never be ready to accept what is outside their comfort zone. Tontey earned the appreciation and understanding of her artistic peers because they are used to working in that field, but did not earn the appreciation of a confused public that was raised on the notion that art’s purpose is simply to comfort and entertain. It was harder for her to gain the appreciation of the general public, but her aim was never to win public approval anyway.
The idea of the piece was to explore the primal psychology of the human being through the notion of cannibalism, which has been proven to exist in the human psyche because cannibalism DOES happen, no matter how gruesome or how rare these occurrences are.

One can look at figures such as Japan’s Issei Sagawa, Germany’s Armin Meiwes or even Central African dictator Jean Bedel Bokassa as acting proof that the human desire for human flesh is real. The eating of infants is an extremely rare (if any) level of cannibalism that a human being can practice, but within the psyche, it is indeed possible for a human being to do and nobody can’t deny that. Possible doesn’t mean that everyone chooses to do so, because for many, the act does not speak to their common sense.

A similar situation to what Tontey is facing happened to Chinese contemporary artist Zhu Yu seventeen years ago. Yu’s art primarily deals with the human body and encourages the use of actual human body parts as part of his work. In 2000, he photographed a performance called “Eating People”, where he was depicted cooking and eating a human fetus. The fetuses themselves were later debunked as fake, but it stirred an emotional reaction in China similar to how the Indonesian public and government reacted to Tontey’s art. Zhu was then labelled an official menace to society by the uppity Chinese government who later banned art exhibitions involving things such as culture, corpses, and sexuality.

A sensitive public disturbed by this link to reality will obviously outrage, because they do not understand, or choose not to understand. You can’t blame them though, they were never taught to understand. In Indonesia, no medium exists that discusses art in its purest form and education in its universities are usually too safe or (in the case of public schools), non-existent.

The general consensus here is that art is still seen mainly as happy commodities for sale, for entertainment’s sake, which is also the prevalent attitude seen in creative industries such as music and film. Pure entertainment does not help advance society nor does it challenge them to innovate.

Regarding the offensive aspect of MakanMayit, it makes more sense if apologies were offered to those who have experienced the trauma of stillborn birth. Trauma is not easy to shake and some may not be able to overcome that trauma enough to be faced with artworks that are so subversive. However, apologies should not be given to those who simply cry moral outrage.

Because in essence, morality is an individual setting shaped by one’s own environment and prejudices, and is part of common sense. Common sense is also the ability to recognize art as art, without the need to drag people’s personal beliefs onto it. If one does not like what they’re seeing, they can simply look away.

Common sense is made up of criticality and reasoning, and without common sense, there is no morality.