Sunday, November 29, 2009

We Shall Overco-o-ome

The wheels seem to have well and truly fallen off the Indonesian democracy wagon of late since the various Machiavellian machinations of the KPK (Corruption Eradication Commission) saga have come to light. The president has depressingly resisted standing full square behind the KPK and its anti-sleaze drive, which was seemingly the main reason that people voted for him in droves earlier this year. And so the country's anti-corruption efforts, after gaining some traction over the past few years, look set to hit the buffers.

Thankfully though, there are those willing to take to the streets in an attempt to once again put the venal, money grubbing elites on the back foot. I read recently that a group of students had pitched their tents outside the KPK's office in a show of support, demonstrating that campus activism is still alive and kicking here. Then it occurred to me: I have a tent and enjoy the occasional camping trip in the wilds of West Java, why don't I pack up my troubles in my old sleeping bag and head down to the KPK building for an evening enjoying the natural splendor of Jl. Rasuna Said?

Long-term, tent-based protests have quite a history in my country (the UK). During the 1980s, the Women's Peace Camp at Greenham Common was established to protest the nuclear weapons sited there and remained for years. More recently, in 2001, anti-Iraq war activist Brian Haw pitched his tent in Parliament Square in London and has remained there ever since. There is also now a permanent Camp for Climate Action which has been set up outside the perimeter fence of London's Heathrow airport.

There would seem to be something about camping that political activists find particularly enticing. It's the old slogan, "We shall not be moved," manifested in even more concrete terms I guess: “We shall not be moved and further more we’ll be cooking up baked beans over small gas stoves here in a couple more hours if you fancy a quick bite."

And so it was that I turned up unannounced at the KPK office last Monday evening and found a spare bit of the miniscule grass verge at the front on which to pitch my tent. The various undergraduates who were sitting outside the front of their tents, strumming guitars without their full quota of strings and passing the night away merrily told me that they came from many far-flung universities, including institutions in Aceh and Makassar, whilst others were from more local Islamic universities such as UNISMA in Bekasi. All however, are members of the LMND (Liga Mahasiswa National untuk Democracy - the National Student League for Democracy). They informed me that they planned to remain under canvas for a hundred days, well into next February.

I learned that the police leave them well alone and that the KPK staff has even run an extension cable out of the front of the building to allow them to recharge their mobile phones and run a TV on which they can watch SBY equivocate and prevaricate every evening. In fact, what with Facebook and social networking, Indonesian campus activism is extremely well coordinated these days.

Alas however, being from Muslim strongholds such as Aceh and Makassar, they didn't have any booze on them with which to make my evening under canvas on Jl. Rasuna Said more bearable. I did ask one of the Acehnese students what he thought about recent moves towards full on sharia law in his home province. He told me that if the people wanted it then it was democracy and fine. I didn't push him although I reckon you could drive a Metro Mini bus through the holes in this specious argument.

After a good chat, I eventually turned in for the night and tried to contend with the heavy goods vehicles roaring past my ear every two seconds. Some of the students were still awake however and sloped off down the road in order to spray paint political slogans on some of Kuningan's abandoned monorail pillars, might as well put them to some use ay?

Inside my tent, running dog mosquitoes were out in force while outside a counter revolutionary cat was continually trying to gain entry. Perhaps I should have taken the camping test first to see if I qualified for the KPK experience, namely take a camping torch and shine into one ear, if a beam emerges from the other ear, you're good to go.

In fact it was the most unpleasant night under canvas that I think I've ever spent. Call me a yellow belly but, unable to sleep, I packed my things at around 4:30 a.m., before the rush hour, and shuffled off home to the comfort of my boudoir. I have to take my hat off to the obdurate, guitar strumming defenders of democracy down in Kuningan. It's going to be a long haul until February with plenty of rain to contend with. If you’re passing the KPK building then maybe you'd like to consider dropping them off a few groceries (minus Bintangs and condoms of course). Stand firm comrades!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Eyes, Dark Grey Lenses Frightened of the Sun

Thankfully, last Saturday, the weather held off as I headed up to Ancol in order to attend the Surya Slims Playground Festival. The whole shebang luckily didn't dissolve into the Sidoarjo style mud bath that many European and North American music festivals end up becoming. Surya Slims isn't in fact a supergroup comprising of Fatboy Slim and Chris Rea's sister Sue, but a local brand of cigarette. We were all correspondingly presented with a packet of said brand upon entry to the festival, something I'd find it hard to imagine happening at a Western gig.

It certainly wasn't Woodstock up at Ancol last Saturday in fact and those in attendance were basically polite middle-class kids after a bit of weekend escapism from Jakarta's unremitting grind. Mind you, the hippies at the original Woodstock ultimately proved to be more Ivy League hedonists than revolutionaries and have subsequently proved as much by taking the reins of the capitalist world. I guess what I mean to say is that the event wasn’t an orgy of free love and brain altering chemicals.

How do I know this? Well I've long noticed a kind of dance floor diffidence in Indonesia, a seeming reluctance to really let go and be physically possessed by those voodoo popular music rhythms. Ironic perhaps for a land known historically for its dance culture.

Certainly, my friends, used to the enthusiastic free for all of Western festivals, noticed a strange lack of audience movement. Much of Indonesia's popular music has long struck me as whiter than white. Whether it's bland, whining, anemic three chord rock bands, soppy ballads pierced by soft metal guitar solos or local clubs largely opting for the whitest, most funkless and frigid forms of West European techno, there doesn't seem to be enough Africa, African America or Jamaica in it for me. However I don't want to go up in a balloon over is this as there have been more interesting signs of musical life in the country in recent years, what with the spread of file downloading and new technologies.

Anyway, back to the matter in hand, after a quick Red Bull and vodka (a purely functional necessity you understand) we headed over to watch the first big act of the night, Peter Hook. Peter (or Hooky as he is known), was the bassist for the seminal Mancunian band Joy Division before lead singer Ian Curtis decided to fully live up to the existential terror of the band's lyrics and killed himself. The group then became New Order and churned out a slew of perfect, angst ridden, sequencer driven pop records in the 80s and early 90s.

Hooky has now left the band however his DJ set was liberally peppered with tracks from the old back catalogue and thus the icy, metronomic sturm und drang of tracks like Joy Division's "Transmission" and New Order's "Blue Monday" were surreally blasted into the humid, tropical beach air of Ancol. Fair brought a tear of nostalgia to my eye it did.

Next up, over on stage two, the ambient techno of Cafe del Mar favourites Chicane was in full flow. As with a number of other electronic acts before them, Chicane had drafted in a live singer, bass player and drummer in order to negate the essentially faceless nature of modern dance music and render it more palatable for mainstream audiences. Thus, alas, the groups set sounded more like top forty fodder than the inhuman, machine age transcendence that is club music’s aesthetic forte.

Following this, it was a return to classic rock as the mega selling Franz Ferdinand took to the main stage. FF look the part for sure, four Scottish milquetoasts in sharp threads, sporting even sharper fringes. They also know how to put together a set of driving, spiky rock though. I could clearly discern the influence of late 70s new wave acts such as Gang of Four, Wire and even early Talking Heads in Franz Ferdinand’s oeuvre but I guess most of the audience here tonight weren't even born when those guys were around (in fact, I was only about seven years old at the time myself, I'm not in my dotage yet I'll have you know).

The final word of the evening went to the man they call, Sasha, perhaps the UK's most iconic superstar DJ and often dubbed 'God' by many enthusiastic clubbers. Known for his 10 hour sets that take thrill seeking ravers on spaced out journeys to the edge of the cosmos and back, Sasha was here restricted to a couple of hours of tranced out, ambrosial digi-bliss. The crowd swayed, deep in their own musical universes (and possibly psychically orbiting a tremendous altitude due to the effects of various non-prescription medicines).

At around 3am, the effect of having imbibed a skinful of Red Bull and vodka was beginning to take its toll and I began to feel the heavy hand of an imaginary bouncer on my collar, ready to boot me back through the doors of perception into the real world. It was time to take my still untouched packet of Surya Slims and head for the exit. I soon found myself back in the centre of town. Those Jakarta weekends ay? The city that never sleeps, which is presumably why it looks so bloody awful the next morning.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Goodbye Blackberry Way

As Sir Walter Scott once said, "What a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive." And so the KPK/National Police/Parliamentary Smackdown continues apace and its Machiavellian twists and intrigues are starting to become more than a little confusing, for me at least. I think I need a break from reading about the whole 3 ring circus to be honest. Perhaps, along with batik, endemic corruption should be recognized by UNESCO as a unique part of Indonesia's, "Intangible cultural heritage."

The KPK saga has certainly been a bit of a reality check. From some international media reports you'd think that the country had transformed itself into some kind of post-Fordist, techno-capitalist paradise over the last five years. Sure, there was a peaceful election but the Indonesia I stick my head out of my front door into seems pretty much the same as ever. Except in one respect though: namely that everyone from 'ojeg' drivers to fried rice sellers to maids are all pumping some kind of handheld device as if their very lives depended on them (which perhaps they do, as calling or texting a regular 'ojeg' driver to come and pick them up is becoming an increasingly common occurrence amongst acquaintances of mine).

This week, this paper reported that shoppers queued for hours to get their hands on the latest Nexian mobile phone. The item in question costs only Rp.599,000 and allows one to use Facebook. Most importantly however, as many of the shoppers confessed, the thing looks almost exactly like a Blackberry. The Blackberry is currently the de rigueur item of urbane urban sophistication of course and has elevated techno-fetishism to a new level in Indonesia. Between January and June of this year, mobile advert requests on Blackberry telephones increased by a whopping 842%.

Post-modern, post-Marxist critiques of capitalism have tried to get a handle on such consumer lust and have theorized that there are four main ways in which an object obtains value. The first is its functional value, its instrumental purpose. A pen, for example, writes, or a Blackberry can be used to surf the Internet or call someone up. The second is the object’s exchange or economic value. One Blackberry may be worth three imitation Chinese models, or the salary earned by three months of work, for example.

The third value making process is an object's symbolic value. This is the value that the subject assigns to an object in relation to another subject. For example, a diamond ring may be a symbol of publicly declared marital love. Similarly, a Blackberry may symbolize a person's rite of passage into the tech-savvy, urban elite. The last value is the sign value of an object, namely its value within a system of objects. A particular phone or mobile device may, whilst having no functional benefits, signify prestige relative to another mobile phone and may also suggest particular social value such as taste, class and refinement.

The first two values here, it is argued, are constantly and increasingly disrupted by the third and fourth. The consequences of this are that advertising and public relations have become huge worldwide "industries", ones that increasingly subsume even politics and ideologies themselves.

I myself am not always able to resist such techno-consumerist seductions, despite hating our new Blackberry republic with a vengeance (mainly because the thing's buttons are too damned small for my sausage like digits to cope with). I was thus powerless to prevent myself from popping along to the JCC last weekend to check out the latest technology trade fair.

Inside, the Hewlett-Packards and Sonys of this world mixed with cheaper Sino-Asian silicon, and all were lovingly presented by some very comely sales girls. Blackberry knickknacks were all over the place, of course, however the new Windows 7 operating system was also attracting a lot of attention. The various different versions of Microsoft’s new baby were all going for around the Rp.1,000,000 mark. A lot cheaper than in the West for sure but, on the other hand, considerably more expensive than buying a pirated version for Rp.50,000 from Ambassador Mall, or plumping for the increasingly popular open source option (Ubuntu 9.10 has just been released to much geek fanfare and rustling of anoraks).

Local Internet dongles (Telkomsel, Speed Up, Smart, XL Connect) were all on sale and all offering speeds of, "Up to 3.1 Mbs". I should imagine that "Up to" are the operative words here. Also, a mini netbook computer can now be had for around Rp.3,500,000, which is cheaper than a decent Blackberry.

I resisted splashing out on my real objects of techno-lust (a fancy midi keyboard and a pair of extremely sexy Sennheiser headphones) and instead made a more modest purchase. I found one of those Micro-SD cards, the ones that are about the size of a pinky nail for putting in mobile phones, that had a whopping 16Gb capacity. When I first bought one of these minute slivers of memory about five or six years ago it only had 128Mb to play with. That's a storage increase of 125 times. Amazing. If only my wetware noggin could keep up with all of this.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Play for Today

This week, I thought that I'd indulge the big kid in me and check out a couple of options that frustrated parents can employ in order to shut their offspring up for a few hours and get a bit of peace. Now I don't, to my knowledge at least, have any children myself as I am always scrupulous about taking precautions. In fact, I usually don a full beekeeper's outfit during my romantic dalliances. However, there is no law to say that you have to have kids in order to enjoy a bit of playtime and so I scuttled down to the Waterbom Park in Pantai Indah Kapuk as I had a complimentary ticket for its second anniversary day. I then relived my childhood with an afternoon of splashing about and sliding.

Pantai Indah Kapuk itself is a pleasant suburban area up by the coast, about halfway down the airport toll road. Apparently, PIK has been known to flood like a bitch in the rainy season however during my visit, the green fields and open spaces proved a welcome relief from downtown Jakarta. Inside, Waterbom was packed with nuclear families all out for a few snatched hours of fun before their WiFi brained sprogs threw up in the SUV on the way back into town.

The slides proved to be great fun and include one that shoots those brave enough to take up the challenge, down into a splash pool at, allegedly, 70 km per hour. Once was enough for me on this particular thrill ride and I’m man enough to admit to being utterly terrified on my rapid descent. Indeed, some of the more portly sliders also made me fear for the structural integrity of the slide itself. Some of these kids will never make the Olympic Games at this rate I fear, unless fried chicken eating is introduced as a new event.

Waterbom also features a mini rafting river which transports one under waterfalls on an inflatable tube. This was absolutely jammed with punters of all ages during my visit. Probably it would have been better if I had donned one of the natty full body 'burkinis' that some of the more devout ladies were wearing in order to protect my peachy skin, as I suspected that the junior urine content of the fluid sloshing around in said attraction was pushing 50%.

It was all good fun though and after a thorough shower I headed back into town for a spot of go-karting down at Speedy Karting, which you'll find on Jalan Gatot Subroto opposite the Hero near Pancoran. Here, budding Jenson Buttons can enjoy a five minute race in a motorized shopping trolley, navigating a track marked out by used car tires. Now this was actually enormous fun and sure beats crawling through the city's traffic jams. All of your thwarted pedal to the metal aspirations can be thrillingly indulged down at Speedy. A five minute race will set you back Rp.55,000 and you even get to take your racing balaclava and gloves home with you. A nice little bonus if you're the sort of person who enjoys wearing a balaclava and gloves about the house.

Alas, many of the city's poorer kids don't have the necessary folding stuff at their disposal to be able to afford such bourgeois pleasures as water sliding and karting. Sadly, what with Jakarta's woeful lack of parks and green spaces, the best that my local urchins seem to be able to get up to is a quick kickabout in the street. This entails them having to stop their game every 30 seconds as yet another car comes past. Rapping on my windscreen and clapping arhythmically comes a close second as the hobby of choice. Rp.1000 kites are also popular and perhaps, at some unconscious, symbolic level, seductively embody the idea of escape and slipping the bounds of the city's surly, sweltering gravity.

The lack of parks in the city is indeed a sad thing as I believe it's very important for kids to have somewhere to go where they can climb trees, set fire to things, sniff adhesives from plastic bags and get invited to see puppies by strange men. All kids need their play.

According to the noted play theorist, Stephen Nachmanovitch, play is the root and foundation of creativity in the arts and sciences. Writing, painting, composing, inventing... all creative acts are forms of play and thus adequate freedom to play and explore as a child is vital for person’s future creative development.

Play is also explicitly recognized in article 31 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on November 29th, 1989. The convention states that:

"Parties recognize the right of the child to rest and leisure, to engage in play and recreational activities appropriate to the age of the child and to participate freely in cultural life and the arts."

So there you have it. Refuse to give the little horrors their ball back and you could find yourself in The Hague with Radovan Karadzic.