Patricia Spyer on her book, Orphaned Landscapes

Interview by Karen Strassler

Karen Strassler: You are writing about a moment of profound destabilization and disorientation: a religious war that has torn apart the city, and in the national context, the end of a thirty-two year dictatorship. Perhaps we could start with some of that context by way of an explanation of the title of the book. Why Orphaned Landscapes?

Patricia Spyer: The title Orphaned Landscapes operates across different registers in the book, both ethnographically and theoretically. At the same time, it is meant to highlight the general predicament of uncertainty, crisis, and rupture that animates all of them, if differently. Nationally, it designates the ‘orphaned landscapes’ and sense of “looseness at the center” left in the wake of the Suharto regime’s collapse and the withdrawal of the longstanding authoritarian leader who styled himself the father of the nation and Indonesia, by extension, as one big family (Kusno 2010: 36). As the regime unraveled, the figure of the lone child, standing apart from violence, witnessing brutality and national destruction yet safeguarding the nation’s integrity and future, proliferated. Crucial here was the oscillating position of this figure–at times literally orphaned–between belonging to the nation, on the one hand, and a detachment from authority and position beyond it, on the other.

To be sure, the broader circumstances of the regime’s end provided a significant if distant backdrop to the events I describe in Ambon. But the book also homes in closely on the Christian men and women who identified with the city’s old Dutch colonial-derived Calvinist church and their sense of waning privilege and abandonment by authority within the violence that inflected the national situation at this eastern end of the archipelago and the country’s islamicization since the 1990s or another sense of orphaned landscape. A central focus of the book is how these Protestant Ambonese responded to and attempted to shape these circumstances discursively, performatively, and especially through the street pictures. In yet another register of the book title, I argue that the Christian pictures may themselves be understood as a kind of orphaned landscape since, in many respects, they were at odds with—indeed a form of graphic protest within—the environment in which they emerged.

Karen Strassler: Can you talk about how this moment of abandonment and collapse gave rise to an intense “turn to the visual” and, in particular, to the emergence of monumental images of Christ around the city?

Patricia Spyer: While the situation in Ambon and the “turn to the visual” within the Muslim-Christian conflict of the early 2000s had its own dynamics, the uptake locally of the prevalent political discourse of transparency and the demand to bring hidden things into public view associated with the Reformasi movement that brought Suharto down was certainly an important dimension. But there were others as well, including some that were probably more salient in the context of the war carried out in Ambon in religion’s name. These include the longue durée history of the unequal recognition and visibility of Christians versus Muslims in the region. A more immediate factor was what I characterize as the “extreme perception” that emerged during the conflict as the fog of war—a formulation indebted to the nineteenth-century Prussian military general, Carl von Clausewitz—cloaked the city, presenting new challenges to seeing, knowing, and understanding what was seen, the erosion of trust in what could be apprehended, and the emergence of “anticipatory practices” that aimed at piercing wartime’s lack of clarity and heading off its myriad dangers. The sense of a pervasive blindness accompanying war’s uncertainty and murk stood out in conversations I had with Ambonese about the war, whether Christians or Muslims. Among Protestants, specifically—not the least the young male motorbike taxi-drivers who threw up the huge painted images of Jesus Christ and Christian scenes around the city—there was an overwhelming sense of not being seen and of having been abandoned to their plight, including imagined genocide at Muslim hands, by the authorities, from the national government in Jakarta to the United Nations, European Union, former Dutch colonizer, and IMF. Some even speculated—or, more often, claimed that other Christians speculated—that even God appeared oblivious and unaware of their dire predicament.

At the same time, some of the motor bikers also told me that they were driven to paint Christianity in Ambon’s streets because they knew he was here, insisting on God’s presence among them in wartime. This, I argue, was a case of protesting too much. Moreover, by bringing the Christian god into vision through monumental images at major urban crossroads, along highways, and at the entrance to Christian neighborhoods, they visualized and materialized his presence in their midst while simultaneously bringing themselves into view as Christian subjects. Given the identification of the young men with the aniconic tradition of the city’s Calvinist church, bringing the Christian god into vision was daring and experimental. And it had numerous ramifications that I describe in the book.

Equally relevant in considering Ambon’s “turn to” and valorization of the visual was the impetus given by the conflict to the spread of visual and audio-visual technologies from the national center to the beleaguered Malukan province. These enabled the production of incendiary Video Compact Disks (VCDs) and Public Service Announcements (Patricia SpyerAs) against violence aired on radio and television but also, crucially, new experiences like seeing one’s own street broadcast on national or even international television.

Karen Strassler: I’m wondering if you can comment on your book’s intervention into how we theorize images and violence. So often, the focus has been on photographs that expose violence and the conversation is about the political efficacy or failure of such images, their uncertain status as evidence, their affective potency, and whether they have the desired effect of moving people to action, desensitize the viewer, or turn violence into entertainment and spectacle. It seems to me you are working towards a very different way of approaching the relationship between violence and images. Some of the images are clearly poetic, that is, world-making responses to violence—efforts to repair and restore a Christian presence in the city, efforts to reclaim a sense of place. But the images are also very much part of the violence itself, rather than belated reflections on or reactions to it. Can you say more about how your book might help us think about violence and images in new ways?

Patricia Spyer: Indeed, part of my argument is that the immense public images put in place by the city’s Protestants were recuperative, a form of “representational redress” aimed at reinstalling the former Christian ‘look’ of the city and the hitherto taken for granted hegemony of Christians in Ambon and the neighboring islands of Central Maluku (Makhubu and Simbao 2013). When Christians described the street paintings as ‘comforting’ it is this particular efficacy that they singled out. But in many respects, beginning with the sheer monumentality and adamant presence of the images in urban space, they were violent. Towering over passers-by and traffic moving below, they forced themselves into public view making it, at least initially, impossible not to see them. So, one key dimension of the violence of these images was their scale and strident presence in the city. The large majority of the images also stood on public land, along highways and on sidewalks, that, in principle, is accessible to all. Rising up in these locations, the street art laid exclusive claim to these places for Christians while Christianizing the space around them through the Christian scenes and monumental Christ faces they portrayed. Standing, in many cases, at the gateways to Christian neighborhoods, the pictures branded and territorialized community in a city that became a zoned patchwork of Christian ‘red’ versus Muslim ‘white’ areas in wartime. These gateways, moreover, were commonly the location of neighborhood guardhouses where men gathered and rallied themselves during the conflict before heading into battle in city streets. Not surprisingly, given the defensive function of such sites, young men occasionally had themselves photographed brandishing weapons with the Christ images as backdrop.

Emergent in violence, the street art participated in and helped to produce the heightened energies and affective intensities of wartime as exemplified by the assertiveness and speed with which they rose up and spread across the city. Representationally, they installed a wholly Christian world either because they faithfully reproduced the images of the canonical Protestant calendar on which the majority of the street art was based or through their depictions of Christ overlooking an embattled city in unabashed portrayals that publicized a highly partisan view of the conflict. In short, the Christian pictures and violence were entangled and mutually constitutive in myriad ways—politically, affectively, socio-spatially, historically, and temporally since their role and how they were apprehended also evolved as the conflict went on and after the city’s official peace.

Karen Strassler: You use the language of atmospherics and ambiance quite a bit in the book, and although you give rich analytic attention to particular material images, you are also thinking in broader terms about visuality or what we might call the visual dimensions of the sensed and imagined world.  What is the relationship between concrete images and a broader visual terrain of seeing and unseeing?

Patricia Spyer: My thinking about atmospherics and ambiance and the impact such elusive yet potentially powerful forces have on social life, on setting the scene in which events unfold, on inflecting and patterning action over time, emerged at the very early stages of this project. It came out of the realization that in descriptions of Ambon’s conflict, scholars, journalists, and other commentators would often resort to words like climate, atmospherics, or milieu to designate a key dimension of the violence or deploy such terms as explanatory backdrops without further specifying what was meant by them, or how what they allegedly conjured impacted events in the war-torn city. In my first writing about the violence in Ambon I tried to determine analytically what these atmospherics might be, how they came about, of what they were made, and what effects they had in the conflict and emerging violence in the city. Analytically, I specified what I called an infrastructure of the imagination comprising truths, half-truths, rumors, and hearsay, but also graffiti and slanderous language sprayed on city walls, as well as popular circulatory media forms rampant during the war like incendiary pamphlets and Video Compact Disks (VCDs) that portrayed atrocities committed by the enemy other and the victimization of the self, produced by both parties to the conflict.

In the mid-2000s when I encountered the monumental Christian street art I was not only taken by their striking demonstrative presence in a city where such public displays of piety had previously been largely absent but also by the figuring impulse behind them within the larger disfiguring momentum of the war. Over time, I came to understand Ambon’s striking street pictures as potent stakes in a world that was not only spiraling into chaos and violence but for many Protestants losing the very image that they had hitherto taken for granted. In a somewhat perverse take on poetic world-making, Christian Ambonese aimed to seize hold of a disappearing world, one that upheld their historically accumulated privileges, not the least the Christian domination of the city and provincial civil bureaucracy including prize positions like that of Maluku’s governor. Via the pictures, they recalled a world that reflected back to them its reassuring Christian contours in socio-spatial and political terms and, through these, the image the Protestants had long held of themselves. This is an embattled vision, one that looks to the past and relies on and recasts old iconographies, albeit necessarily in experimental and innovative ways.

As such, the paintings were at the very center of a concerted `’work on appearances” through which the Protestants, wittingly or unwittingly, intervened in what the French political philosopher, Jacques Rancière calls “the distribution of the sensible,” or the systematic arrangement of the self-evident facts of sense perception, comprising a delimitation of spaces and times, speech and noise, and thereby, too, of the particular place and stakes within which politics unfold (Rancière 2004). In the book, however, I am especially interested in the visual dimension of the sensible’s distribution as well as how the inherently political determination of the experiential conditions that enable and privilege particular forms of sensory perception, thought, and action while foreclosing others, can become undone and transformed.

Karen Strassler: You are looking at a variety of media in this book: paintings, posters, calendar images, video cassette discs, children’s drawings.  How do you think about the relationship between these different media forms—with their material, historical, and ideological specificities—and what you call the “work of appearances”? Maybe this would also be a moment to ask you to talk a bit about your methodology.

Patricia Spyer: My work on this project began as part of a Dutch-Indonesian research program, “Indonesia in Transition,” launched in the immediate aftermath of Suharto’s fall. My own research was part of a subproject in the program, “Indonesian Mediations,” in which I planned to explore broader questions of the mediation of violence and, subsequently, postviolence through close examination of a range of media and circulatory forms over time in Ambon City. My startled serendipitous encounter with the Christian pictures caused me to recenter the project, at least to some extent, around these novel productions. At the same time, the original focus of the project remained insofar as I analyze the street art within a larger evolving ecosystem of mediations of violence and postviolence centered on Ambon.

My methodology consisted primarily of fieldwork carried out among predominantly Christian refugees in Manado and Bitung on North Sulawesi Island in 2000 and 2001, and subsequently Ambon City and the neighboring islands for periods of up to three months between 2003 and 2011.  Besides motorbike taxi drivers, I worked with ordinary women and men, Christian as well as Muslim, media practitioners, representatives of religious institutions, humanitarian organizations, NGOs, government officials, and others in the city and beyond, including Jakarta and Yogyakarta. The book also draws on my extensive experience in the region, beginning with doctoral research in Aru, Southeast Maluku in the mid-1980s, and on an ethnographic archive of ephemera that I have built up since the late 1990s comprising photographed graffiti, posters, street banners, poetry, pro-peace Christian music CDs, my own documentation of the street art, and children’s drawings, among others.

Within the larger ecosystem of violence and postviolence related to Ambon’s conflict there are a host of media forms of diverse scale, duration, affordance, materiality, mode of address and circulatory form, ideological and historical genealogies. Some of these were closely connected or even in dialogue, most obviously, the wartime call and response of Christian and Muslim graffiti, but also less explicitly, the belligerent Christian graffiti and the street art as different modalities of articulating conquest and territorial claims. Others like the incendiary Video CDs, produced by Christians and Muslims alike, were almost identical in style and content, even if they reversed the respective identities of victim and enemy. But they circulated in very different ways—the Muslim VCDs echoing those from, say, Bosnia and Palestine, were sold openly under traffic lights on Java and on boats heading from there to Ambon. By contrast, those of the Christians bore labels with warnings to not circulate them beyond “one’s own group.” As a result, the latter spread covertly in Ambon and to Christian villages on the island as well as among Dutch Malukans if and when the VCDs made it to the Netherlands.

As for the book’s main example, the monumental Christian street art, this was directly inspired by, and often literally copied from, the globalized Christian print media of calendars, posters, and embroidered Last Supper scenes long available in Ambon. I argue that, with important implications for their efficacy and uptake, the street art remained affectively tethered to the interiors of Christian homes and stores where such print artifacts were conventional props. This is how I understand the supposedly comforting presence that Ambon’s Protestants often attributed to the huge public pictures that, to some extent, remained beholden to the their print models and their longstanding association with the intimacy and interiority of Christian homes and stores.

Another example are the children’s drawings with their paired smiling mosques and churches and peace handshakes conjoining Muslim and Christian leaders prevalent in reconciliation programs in refugee camps and countless post-peace initiatives. These drew affective and ideological potency from diverse sources of inspiration and histories ranging from the longstanding popular genre of children’s Letters to the President and the lone child-in-violence figure dating to the fraught period of Reformasi to an infamous PSA featuring a Muslim Ambonese boy, Acang, and his bosom Christian friend, Obet, that went both viral and awry in Ambon, and ended up providing the most popular names for the mutual enemies in the conflict. Equally importantly, the efficacy of the children’s drawings relied on their embodied connection to the hands and eyes of their young creators.

These are only a few examples that foreground the relevance and efficacy of medium specificity with respect to different circulatory forms characteristic of Ambon’s war and peace but also that of intermediality, of different media operating and circulating not only in tandem but often in interconnected, iterative ways. All of these material, ephemeral mediations of Ambon’s violence and postviolence, although some clearly more than others, formed part of the diffuse “work of appearances” that fed into and inflected the larger ambiance, unfolding, and shape of the violence and its longstanding repercussions in the city.

Karen Strassler: There has been a great deal of anthropological writing in recent decades on the ways religion always depends on mediation and on how particular media forms shape and transform religious practice and imagination. Can you talk about how this book draws on those conversations and what it contributes to conversations about religion and media?

Patricia Spyer: In the early 2000s I was involved in a series of provocative conferences focused on questions of religion and media, and religion and violence, organized by Hent de Vries and Samuel Weber. Subsequently, I spent a good deal of time, over the course of five years, first as fellow and then as Global Distinguished Professor, at NYU’s Center for Religion and Media, co-directed by Faye Ginsburg and Angela Zito, and Department of Anthropology, then chaired by Fred Myers. These different venues put me at the very center of discussions and evolving work on questions of religion and media, broadly conceived, and have been fundamental to my thinking about these issues and to the book’s conceptualization.

If Orphaned Landscapes is centrally about what I call the work on appearances (as well as the work of appearances), then it is also about how appearances do not work. Exemplary of the latter were the constant adjustments made by Ambon’s street artists to the Christian print canon that most claimed to be faithfully copying in the street.  The first adjustment was their own pictorial turn involving not only an embrace of pictures but, with it, a significant departure from the aniconic tradition of the Calvinist Protestant church. To be sure, as noted above, elements of décor like calendars, along with Sunday school manuals, are a familiar component of the global Christian print repertoire found already for decades in Ambon. And despite the long history of Dutch-derived Calvinism in the area, Ambon’s Protestantism was never as adamantly aniconic as that of the former colonizers. Yet if the Christian sacred was never invisible or faceless in the city, prior to the war it was—visually at least—not a privileged focus of attention, public or otherwise.

Of course, notwithstanding Calvinism’s anti-materialist ideology, in Ambon as elsewhere, transcendence unavoidably relies on mediation which has an intrinsic, enabling role. Indeed, as Hent de Vries puts it, “without and outside of [it] . . . no religion would be able to manifest itself in the first place (de Vries 2001:28). Seen in this light, the white ‘empty’ interiors of Ambon’s Calvinist churches mediated the ideal of an allegedly transparent, direct connection to the divine. By bringing the Christian god into vision through the new medium of painting—a move driven by the desire to ensure his presence here in Ambon and to draw him close via his image–the Protestant motorbike taxi drivers helped to materialize and bring about a new relation to the Christian god.

One reason I became aware of how efficacious this move had been was because the appearance of the street pictures coincided with—and may even have prefigured—momentous shifts in religiosity and religious affiliation occurring in the city during the war and in the immediate years thereafter. At the same time that pictures of Jesus and Christian scenes began to be thrown up around the city, increasing numbers of Protestants were abandoning Ambon’s old Calvinist church in favor of newer charismatic ones, places where, as many put it, they found a closer, less hierarchical relation to God, a liturgy deemed “less stiff,’ and where emotional expression was allowed. Remarkably, as the majority of the Christian street pictures faded on city walls, a hitherto unseen image began to appear in and around Ambon. Depicting Christ as King or Christ of the Second Coming, the image publicized and emblematized the significant move on the part of many Protestants away from the distant, formalistic relation to God characteristic of Calvinism toward a more intimate, close bond that became realized in new forms of religiosity, numerous baptisms, and novel affiliations to Pentecostal churches. I argue that, at least in part, this shift and the Christ as King image exemplifying it was enabled by the diffuse urban gallery of Christian street art that laid the material ground for these profound transformations in urban religion. In sum, through a close consideration of the street art and its wartime and postwar trajectory, and the manner and specificities of the art’s mediation of the Christian divine, the book demonstrates the unavoidable, mutual constitution and codependency of religion and media.

Karen Strassler: I would love to hear you reflect a little bit about your trajectory as a scholar and the kinds of questions that have animated your work over the long term?

Patricia Spyer: I have always been interested in uncertainty, mobility, and questions of emergence and transformation where the grounds for asserting agency and authority are in question, where complicated issues of entanglement and positionality, vulnerability and exposure to circumstances prevail. Another related, longstanding focus has been on questions of mediation and circulatory media forms. This cluster of evolving interests is evident already in my first edited book, Border Fetishisms: Material Objects in Unstable Spaces (Routledge 1998), in the focus on trade in luxury artifacts like bird of paradise plumes and pearlshells and the transactional, transformative space of the undersea in The Memory of Trade: Entanglements on an Eastern Indonesian Island (Duke 2000), and in Images That Move (SAR Press 2013), co-edited with the late Mary Margaret Steedly, where the title comprises both the intransitive sense of images in motion and the transitive, affective meaning of images that move us, highlighting, in either case, issues of efficacy, affective power, and the capacity for disruption and change.

References cited

Kusno, Abidin (2010). The Appearances of Memory: Mnemonic Practices of Ahitecture and Urban Form in Indonesia. Durham: Duke University Press.

Rancière, Jacques (2004). The Politics of Aesthetics. Translated by G. Rockhill. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Spyer, Patricia (2000). The Memory of Trade: Entanglements of Modernity on an Eastern Indonesian Island. Durham: Duke University Press.

___________. (1998). Border Fetishisms: Material Objects in Unstable Spaces. London and New York: Routledge.

Spyer, Patricia and Mary Margaret Steedly, eds. (2013). Images That Move.  Santa Fe: School of Advanced Research Press.

Vries, Hent de. (2001). “In Media Res: Global Religions, Public Spheres and the Task of Contemporary Religious Studies.” In Hent de Vries and Samuel Weber, eds. Religion and Media.  Stanford: Stanford University Press, pp. 3-42.

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