Hacking Public Space and Influencing People

Irwan Ahmett

Die deutsche Version des Beitrags findet sich hier.


In 1942, after three and a half centuries of colonization by the Dutch, Japan, as “the older Asian brother,” promised to liberate Indonesia. Instead, the Japanese became the colonizers for the next three and a half years. When the atomic bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Japan lost the war, Indonesia was still a colony. Freedom fighters proclaimed the Republic of Indonesia on August 17th, 1945. But the British, US-American, and of course Dutch allied forces were not willing to see the colony go. One month after Soekarno and Hatta (Indonesia’s first president and vice president, respectively) proclaimed independence, the Dutch returned and the allies refused to acknowledge Indonesia’s independence. Unilaterally they flew the Dutch flag from high buildings. This provocative action escalated the situation until an incident at Yamato Hotel, Surabaya, East Java: the Indonesian people forced the Dutch to lower the tricolored (red, white, blue) flag, which culminated in a bloody battle. Behind this incident on November 10th, 1945 lie several stories beyond the open war between Indonesia, the Netherlands and the allies. Indonesia was born as a nation during a global crisis that had changed the face of the world.

One thing I take as a good note from that incident is the ripping of the flag at Yamato Hotel. The flagpole on which the tricolored Dutch flag hung was climbed by a group of brave young men armed with spoils-of-war weapons and sharpened bamboo sticks. The battle was unequal because the allies had more powerful armaments, but the real power lay with these young men, who were prepared to die. At the end, the blue color of the Dutch flag was ripped off, leaving only the two colors, red and white, of the Indonesian flag. The picture of that heroic action, which was disseminated by the media, inflamed resistance movements across the whole nation. For me, this incident is the first intervention in public space in Indonesia, and it remains the most important influence in every intervention project I have done.

65 years after Indonesia’s independence, a middle-aged man illegally climbed onto the roof of Indonesia’s parliament building in Jakarta. He wrote three words that brought home to many people what had actually been happening. The weapon he used was a two-dollar can of spray paint. Pong Harjatmo’s action had a collective resonance because simply raising your middle finger at that glorious building no longer had any meaning. The countless corruption cases were only the tip of the iceberg. Mr. Harjatmo, an ordinary person, was delivering a message from his deepest conscience to the country’s representatives: “Honest, Fair, Firm.”

Syncing what’s in your mind with action is the key to achieving what we want to achieve. In certain situations, your mind gives control to your body to use tools for self-defense or attack. In many cases, the weapon is made from common materials. Indonesian freedom fighters used sharpened bamboo sticks, simple weapons that they could get from their yards. Mr. Harjatmo got the spray paint at a hardware store.

Weapons and battles are inseparable. I have always believed that the power of a weapon does not depend on the strength of the person who uses it, but on how the weapon is used.

I would like to share two of my main weapons in doing interventions in public space. The first weapon is “playing.” It’s a natural activity/ability, but we often forget it as we grow up. Through play, we stretch our minds and become capable of infinite creativity. Maybe I watched too many Jackie Chan movies as a kid, but I prefer empty-handed strategies as weapons and only focus on the main idea to “defeat” the enemy. These strategies include reinterpreting found objects, distorting habits, ridiculing obedience, creating a situation, conditioning elements at a specific site, and guerilla tactics to deal with a more powerful system. The second weapon is something in the air, something that is unseen but has a real impact—“effective distribution,” online or off.

These two weapons are insufficient unless they are accompanied by an adequate tactic, however. Tactics are often considered rude and anarchic, and even as justifying any means of action. For me, however, tactic is how I can shoot my weapon at the right target.  

I have an example of a tactic: go to your house, burn it and leave it! I bet I wouldn’t dare to do it, but people in Indonesia once did it. Four months after November 10th, 1945, about 200,000 people in Bandung (West Java) decided to burn down their city in what has come to be known as “the Bandung Sea of Fire” because they did not want it to again be subject to Western colonization. There was a big power boost, as happens to Gatotkaca. When Gatotkaca is shot by the Konta arrow—Karna’s deadly weapon—he knows he will die soon. So while flying and dying, he enlarges his giant body as much as possible so that it will destroy thousands of enemies when it falls back to earth. When we have nothing left in this life, we are free to do anything!

During the Indonesian War of Independence, many Bandung women famous for their beauty also bore arms on the battlefield. When I was searching on the Internet for “Bandung Sea of Fire,” I was surprised to find so many teenagers’ love stories and sex scandals instead. In Indonesia—the largest Muslim country in the world—part of the country’s struggle for independence became a controversial issue. In 2001 there was a scandal: for the first time, a sex video of a couple from Bandung had gone viral. This amateur video was even named “Bandung Sea of Fire of Romance.” In the following years, many sex-scandal videos emerged. It seems that there was a dramatic shift of meaning from a heroic struggle to a “struggle” of two lovers in bed. Yes, that is technology: it moves at the speed of light, and it has two opposing sides.

The followings are my six tactics as an urban interventionist.

1. I don’t work commercially

It’s not easy to survive as an artist in a country that has weak art infrastructure and very conservative taste in art. I was once offered commission jobs to make art intervention projects for a famous global shoe brand and the biggest search engine in the world to promote their products in Jakarta. I experienced a big dilemma, but finally I turned down the jobs. I have a background in graphic design, so I understand well enough how advertising works and how it fools the public. No matter who sells dreams, people will buy them. Moreover, Third World countries have always been lucrative markets for First World countries.

To survive, I choose to work with people who have the same anxiety, make non-monetary exchanges and support the people who are closest to me in order to build trust. This tactic allows me to make my art free from any hidden agendas and indirectly helps build a healthy network that is stronger than the existing formal infrastructure.

In my project TV Milisi, I, together with an anonymous group of people, took control of the TV channels in private and public spaces by using universal TV remote controls. We changed channels and turned off TVs. I choose TV as the target because most of the programs are rating-oriented only, no matter how bad the content is, and they foster mental plagiarism. TV is an addiction: viewers watch continuously because of the materialistic dreams they offer, as if TV were a means to forgetting real social issues.

2. Create momentum

Sondang Hutagalung was in his final year of university, and a human-rights and law-enforcement activist from Jakarta, Indonesia. He was almost 22 years old. He died in 2011 from self-immolation in front of the Presidential Palace in Jakarta. The alleged motive was his great frustration over the complex problems regarding law enforcement and human rights in Indonesia. The impact of his act differed from that of the self-immolation of a fruit seller in Tunisia, which could lead President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali to resign. Sondang’s sacrifice only caused a small ripple in the giant wave of greedy rulers. I suspected that the difference lay in the lack of momentum in the Indonesian case. Could momentum be created just like the snowball effect? To find out, I made an intervention in an illegal dumping. Everyone knows that littering is wrong, but still people do it. We don’t have snow in Indonesia, but we do have a lot of trash. In the beginning, I alone was picking up the pieces of trash one by one and rolling them into a ball. I felt frustrated and had problems getting the people around me to join my action. They might have thought I was crazy. Then, when the ball reached a certain size, the interaction started and created a new game between me and the people around me, especially children, who helped me collect trash and make the ball bigger. They looked very happy. I was touched when almost everybody around me joined in. Through crowdfunding, Trashball received support from the public. A year later, the ball weighed more than 300 kg. Play can be a trigger to creating a collective experience and building dialogues about problems. Play is capable of making us see problems differently.

3. Conquer the public’s emotion

One afternoon in August 2011, I was walking on a street in London. It was unusually quiet. I heard fire-truck sirens, and the faces of the mounted police looked tense. A few hours later, I realized that the city was paralyzed. Riot and looting had created the chaotic atmosphere of war. I had experienced this before, during the much worse riot in Jakarta in 1998, which was even more tragic because it included acts of racism and rape. Indonesia as a culturally diverse country was in jeopardy. That riot occurred at the end of Soeharto’s dictatorial rule. But I couldn’t understand how the riot in London could happen. I was confused when the riots spread to Liverpool, Birmingham, Nottingham and other cities. Later the condition was successfully controlled, but the trauma wouldn’t disappear easily. London was tense, police were constantly patrolling and even the sun couldn’t make Londoners smile. By using play, we were able to change the atmosphere. Before the intervention, you felt nothing, but after it you felt happy. Or you had nothing in your mind, and then you thought of something. Through the project Squeaky Sidewalk, I created playful sounds on the broken pedestrian sidewalks by smuggling squeaky toys underneath them in several spots in the super-hectic city of London.

4. Claim and occupy public space

In 2011, for the first time I had the opportunity to stay in the Netherlands for three months. I am curious about the connection between European people and public space. In Jakarta, public space is no longer friendly, what with criminal threats, traffic jams, pollution and the appropriation of land for personal gain. Residents can easily close the street and turn it into a temporary football field, a religious event, a wedding party or even just a place to dry laundry. The state and authorities don’t have enough power to control everything. Just like Ken Arok, they are too busy to perpetuate their power. In the beginning, I was very impressed by the orderliness of Europe, but after a month I felt bored. There are many great public spaces, but they are heavily regulated. The system has taken over everything, or is it just me, who am used to living in a messy city? I’m worried that if public spaces in Jakarta improve in the future, the first to take advantage of the situation will be corporations. I prefer that my city stay as it is now.

Typically, public space is dominated by two groups—capital and the state. Capital, of course, is oriented towards generating as much profit as possible. The state wants to maintain the existing system. I offered my new friends in the Netherlands new ways of claiming and taking over public space by responding to certain situations with spontaneous collective actions. I’m impressed by the way organisms penetrate the human body when a person’s immune system is weak. They will intervene and cause the body to react in a different way. We applied this concept in Organism (Luchtalarm) by responding to the alarm system that is tested once a month and can be heard throughout the Netherlands.

5. Create a system and infiltrate

It may sound naïve, but I’m really not used to living in a country full of CCTV cameras. I experienced this situation in America. Fear is a natural human emotion, and society is easy to control through the effective management of fear. To me, it was as if a ghost were watching us all the time, and that its “eye” had the power to domesticate us.

When I was there, I did several projects. One was Light Spam. I used a mirror and reflected the sunlight towards the CCTV cameras to send messages in Morse code. In another, Emergency Toilet, I played hide and seek with CCTV cameras. It wasn’t easy to find a public toilet in America—until I turned traffic devices into emergency toilets.

6. Make a conspiracy

I did a project in 2012 called Very Very Important Fish.

Jakarta almost always experiences flooding during the rainy season. The problem has persisted for years, and it can’t be overcome by either the government or the people. Garbage piles up and clogs the floodgates; at the same time, the irrigation infrastructure is poor because the government has preferred short-term populist policies to more effective long-term plans. Even sadder is that people litter in the river, which looks like the estuary of death. The fish are unhealthy and dying because the water is so polluted. In some area, residents even have to buy clean water. The problem is very complex, and some poor behavior has even been absorbed as part of the culture.

To realize the VVIF project, I organized some volunteers, mapped locations, arranged tactics and practiced stopping cars on the street. The main purpose was to conspire as a group to hack the street for about two hours. On this occasion, we chose yellow flags as our weapons. In Jakarta, this flag is commonly known to symbolize death. In tropical areas, a dead body begins to rot very quickly, so it needs to be buried as soon as possible. But during rush hour, it is very difficult for a large group of mourners in cars to make their way to the cemetery, which is why the yellow flag is useful. Other vehicles give way to a convoy flying yellow flags. It’s an unwritten law even the police can’t argue with. I used this system to stop vehicles on the road between Jakarta and Depok, about 30 km away. I also created an environmental meaning by moving a small fish from a polluted river to a cleaner river.

In the early summer of 2011, in a dim café near a suburb of The Hague, a friend asked me, “Who are you doing this for?” My eyes stopped blinking for a few seconds; my body was stiff from the freezing air; I was trying to see what was inside my head. What’s in my mind? Because power is possessed by elites who are never satisfied, it’s hard to know what I should dedicate my life to. In the past, people were willing to die for their nation and country, but today the nationalist spirit is just a propaganda tool used by corporations to perpetuate their authority. Religion, which for thousands of years had been able to influence people to do anything, is weakening because of rapid cultural changes in favor of the economy. Ironically, religions repeatedly warn of the dangers of materialism. Even the last bastion, the family, is being weakened. It has been split into individuals by technological devices that are supposed to make our lives easier, but which make us more solitarily instead. Globalization seems to make the world looks more real, but the world’s face looks miserable. I was stunned for a few seconds and felt my heart beating faster and faster, just it did when I saw the live reporting of the fire at the Fukushima nuclear reactor. Then I took a deep breath and answered, “To make the world smile again!”


Irwan Ahmett and Tita Salina are an artist and designer duo living in Jakarta. They create activities that stimulate awareness regarding the reality of their city and involve the public. They have also made interventions in other parts of the world, including Japan and several European countries.