RELEASED ON 23 September 2020
Written by Lin Junye
Photography by Lin Junye
Footnotes by Murphy Hsu
Translated by Joanna Lee
SOKONG! Publish is a party of five: Deni, Nia, Gobi, Albab and Pras¹ – all of whom went to the same art school for photography. If we’re really counting, none of the members of SOKONG, which began life in January 2018, are originally from Yogyakarta².
“We went to the same school and always hung out together. We all happened to study art, so, as it happened, we decided to start something. SOKONG began just like that,” Deni says, casually. “Compared to other cities, we have a lot of time to spare in Yogyakarta. Everybody likes to get together to do a bit of this and that.”
“I suppose this is the Jogja spirit.”
In the ‘50s, artists filled the city’s streets. Yogyakarta was home to Indonesia’s oldest art school, ASRI. By 1984, ISI Yogyakarta combined all three art schools in the city, forming the first national art university in Indonesia. You’ll often hear people speak of the city as the country’s cultural hub, a place with a plethora of young artists. Here, making art is like a reflex. When they decided to kickstart SOKONG, Nia, Gobi and Deni were just about to graduate from ISI.
SOKONG became very active in just under two years. Since the project’s inception, the five members have held open calls for monthly themes, with photography works curated and digitally published in SOKONG!. Apart from regularly gathering works, they have also helped a young photography practitioner and an amateur photographer from a non-profit organization to publish hard copy photo zines. Additionally, SOKONG also takes on commissions related to book production, collaborating with not only the different art communities of Yogyakarta, but also overseas artists in town for artist residencies. As long as it’s related to photography and publishing, SOKONG will happily mess with it. According to them, “We just want to try to open up and connect with all kinds of mediums through photography.”
SOKONG may be flourishing now, but its beginnings were comparatively humble. In 2017, Albab, who was working at Awor Cafe at the time, had organized a photobook exhibition on a café table. He invited publishers from all over Indonesia to send in works to be sold for one week. “When we got there, we realized that photography publications from Yogyakarta were close to zero,” Pras says. “I didn’t see people within our own friendship circles doing photobooks, nor did I really see works by local photography students or young artists.”
“Why was it so hard to publish photobooks in Yogyakarta? Why, why, why?” Nia straight-shoots more questions: “So why don’t we start doing our own independent publishing?”
The very next year, SOKONG! Publish was born.
With their minds set on supporting young practitioners, ‘SOKONG!’ took their name from the Indonesian word for support. Everything they do comes from self-experimentation first. In the photography publishing ecosystem as imagined by SOKONG, no formulas have yet solidified in this city.
A bit more than photography publishing
“Yogyakarta doesn’t have many publishing groups focusing on photography.” As Deni sums it up, “Aside from us, there’s only FLOCK Project³.”
“And Kamboja Press4,” Nia adds.
“FLOCK is purely an artist collective,” says Pras, who usually takes on the role of the editor. “They only publish their own works.”
“Maybe we were all pushed into it by FLOCK,” says Gobi.
Viewed as the pioneer of independent publishing in the local photography scene, FLOCK was once invited to share their self-published photobooks at ISI. Kurniadi Widodo, one of the members, was the guest editor of SOKONG! Vol. 01 – a hard copy publication featuring works from editions 1 to 9 of the SOKONG! digital publication from 2018. A total of 370 images from nine months and nine different themes were whittled down to just 60, for Widodo’s new edit. And with that, nine volumes of downloadable pdf files were reincarnated as a new physical photobook: SOKONG! Vol. 01.
Scrolling through the website, one will see that editions 1 to 9 of SOKONG! consist of the themes ‘Fetish’, ‘Couples’, ‘The Aesthetic Moment’, ‘Exchange’, ‘Belief’, ‘Encounter’, ‘Landscape’, ‘Still Life’ and ‘Portrait’5. Tearing down its original digital foundation, the hard copy publication uses the same visual materials to rebuild itself in the physical world – recontextualizing the digital publications of SOKONG!, which are either independently edited or co-edited by all the members. Through the various online and offline transformations of photography publishing, the contexts behind the links SOKONG has established with various groups and individuals are also continuously redefined. As they explain, “We did open calls from the get-go, to build connections with others.”
Rather than putting works on Instagram, or storing them on a harddrive, the images given to SOKONG await to be extended, from their respective planes. They are curious: “Just what are the young photographers in Indonesia doing? What kind of photography are they referencing?” Whether traditional or digital, SOKONG members hope they are able to catch hold of fellow young talents, with a multi-publishing platform for them to submit to and get published on. As such, SOKONG! Publish is doing a bit more than just a photobook publishing.
“In 2018, our publishing activities were all concentrated on the digital publishing of SOKONG!. Everything happened on the internet, in these virtual spaces and social media platforms,” Pras explains, providing context to SOKONG’s first year. “We kept thinking, ‘Who is the community?’”
As SOKONG entered its second phase, they began to creep out and get involved in the publishing and production of artists’ works. Familiar Gaze6 and The Only Things Left7, for which Pras was the editor, were produced and published successively by SOKONG in 2019.
Familiar Gaze consists of photographs of everyday items, from which visual metaphors of male and female genitalia are derived. The author had published the photographs on Instagram, throwing out all kinds of associations and fishing for responses from Indonesia. Pras handmade several dummies, interspersing the photo narratives on each page with social media screenshots.
“In Indonesia, the line between the erotic and the taboo generally depends on the religion of the region,” says Nia, adorned in a pink hijab, the only woman in the group. “Social media is a digital space, and theoretically shouldn’t be divided by regional religions. But Instagram users themselves are.” While the internet may have no borders, people have a sense of belonging. When Familiar Gaze was exhibited in Jakarta, the work was asked to be moved from the main space to the walkway leading to the toilet.
The Only Things Left is a compact booklet, fitting in the palm of one’s hand. It details the earthquake disaster of Lombok Island. According to Deni, news reports of natural disasters are only ever about refugees and misery, and everything being in ruins. “That’s the nature of the media business,” he says. “After the news hype dies down, no one will come back to report on the place. There isn’t ‘another way of telling’.” The visual documentation of a volunteer forms the basis of The Only Things Left, making it closer to a day-to-day post-disaster journal, rather than traditional reportage. The presentation of the physical and visual aspects is light, which is juxtaposed against the gravity of disaster. Many non-profit organizations have shown their interest in the book. “We discovered different readers of SOKONG; turns out it’s not just photographers who like these photo zines.”
“We are here looking for something different,” Deni says. “Maybe there are other people doing similar photography to that of Familiar Gaze, but it’s mostly just for pure aesthetic pleasure.” Deni’s criteria for choosing collaborators may be how their work pertains to the uniqueness of the local area, but as he says, the only person who could put these kinds of photos onto social media to experiment is Widie Ravita.
“I call it ‘facing new frontiers’,” Nia adds. “Those who deviate from convention, or where the boundaries are not yet clear enough, and have not been boxed in…” To her, publishing is like casting the net in an unknown atmosphere: “We can play with it, and do something with this ‘undefinedness’; this is the thing that belongs to SOKONG.”
“That’s the intersecting point for us,” Pras concludes.
Building bridges in art communities through photography publishing
Outside of SOKONG, the five members all have crossovers with other art fields. Nia and Pras have their own respective performing arts groups, taking on duties ranging from artistic direction and execution to administration and photography. Deni, who only turned up halfway into the interview, is currently responsible for the visual documentation of the Jogja Biennale. Meanwhile, Gobi is a member of MES 568, one of Yogyakarta’s oldest photography artist collectives. Mining the archives of MES 56, his graduation topic was centered around the history of Indonesian street photo printing – the ‘Afdruk Kilat’, a mobile photo developing cart that has pretty much vanished in recent years. Lastly, Albab, the only one not present for the interview, is currently working on a thesis related to photography exhibition at ISI. Armed with an art school background and extensive engagement in the arts, SOKONG uses photography and publishing as a way to seamlessly bridge mediums and communities in the contemporary scene.
Kelas Pagi9, a photography organization, established a visual literacy class in their Yogyakarta branch. Students needed to pen photography criticism based on other students’ works, and one essay happened to mention Familiar Gaze. Wanting to transform the lesson into a photography anthology, Kelas Pagi invited SOKONG to produce KPY#7 Literasi Visual (KPY#7 Visual Literacy). In Indonesia, photography criticism and narratives are hard to come by, so in terms of both education and publishing, KPY#7 Visual Literacy can be seen as the first. Nia, who was behind the book binding, jokes that she is the group’s ‘binding girl’. As someone whose photography practice revolves around writing and archives, Nia says she hopes more of these kinds of photography publications can be published.
SOKONG! Challenge, on the other hand, is a metamorphosis of publishing. MES 56 artist-in-residence Ramesh Ramakrishnan Iyer was researching the hidden reliefs in the Karmavibhanga part of the Borobudur temple. SOKONG! Challenge transformed Ramesh’s project, calling for entries from the public on fresh interpretations of the Karmavibhanga images. During the exhibition period at the MES 56 library, they printed and displayed all of the submissions, allowing audiences to act as editor – picking and choosing photos to go in their own Karmavibhanga zine. “We called this exhibition ‘SOKONG! Challenge: Post-post-production’,” they say, laughing.
SOKONG also participated in the recent exhibition ‘Némor’, held by contemporary art institute Cemeti. Commissioned by French photographer Rèmi Decoster to produce an artist’s book, SOKONG made an ornate wedding album. “We wanted to make art through publishing, producing different kinds of photobooks, zines and artists’ books based on different spaces and contexts.”
Yogyakarta’s contemporary art scene is at once contextually complex and comparatively flexible, with an abundance of art communities and projects. For many years, MES 56 has been developing visual art through photography, and contemporary art space Cemeti also supports photography exhibitions. “The art scene of our time in Yogyakarta has been formed together by art institutions and art schools; it is a melting pot of rules, both within and outside the system, mixed together with different communities,” Nia observes.
So, do contemporary art and photography in Yogyakarta interact with one another?
“Of course,” they say in unison.
“Yogyakarta’s communities are very open,” Nia follows.
“There are so many exhibition openings every month, and you will see the same people at different places,” Deni adds. “This is often the beginning of everything.”
Is the mixing of different art scenes the strong suit of independent publishing?
“Of course,” everyone answers.
“I agree,” Deni yells.
“You could call it a form of post-photography,” Pras laughs.
Though the project may seem to have been born of jokes between friends, the five members’ photography practices are not without their differences. As is the case for most young art projects not supported by funding, SOKONG members often take on side jobs, or foot the bill themselves. Focusing on photography publishing isn’t easy, given that the balance of time and resources is often predicated on fixing one problem after another.
So why persevere with independent publishing in photography? The four interviewees initially open with, “Ah, it’s hard to say,” but traces of silliness quickly vanish as they think deeper about it, one by one.
“Publishing is the process of developing connections with others. As a photobook editor, it’s a wonderful thing to be able to reach people outside one’s imagination. Publishing is fun, just like an event,” says Pras. “I think we should move towards establishing a photobook ecosystem in the coming two to three years.”
“Photography is closely tied to the choice of the medium. This work is good as a zine; that one might work better exhibited in a space.” Deni believes that photobooks are a specific medium for presenting images. Whether or not a work fits in a book form requires repeated consideration.
“Exhibitions are seen just once; but as long as you want to read, the photobook can be there in your hands.” Gobi says. “I want our practice to be art hyphen reportage hyphen wedding photography hyphen whatever.” Recently SOKONG has also started doing interviews on YouTube, with Gobi as the host. “My expectation for SOKONG is to circle in on every facet of photography.”
“I agree with everything they said. Even though it’s not that common in Yogyakarta yet, I really do believe in photobooks,” says Nia. “Photography is everywhere. We just need to find our own way.”
“I want to know how far photography publishing can go.”
The photography that only SOKONG can do: to be continued.
What’s SOKONG’s plan for the next five years?
Deni laughs as soon as he hears the question.
“Maybe it’s a space” says Pras, who is more practical. “A zine library.”
“Maybe it’s… we’re still surviving?” Deni says.
“We’re still making a living from photography,” Gobi answers. “And nobody has opened a food stall yet.”
“Or become a painter,” Deni retorts.
“You totally want to be a painter!” Nia points the finger.
“Ah, well…the market is bigger!” Deni comes clean.