Growing up, artist Kelvin Atmadibrata played a lot of RPGs (Role-Playing Games). As an adult, he often creates images and experiences in which he destabilizes ideas of identity, power, audience, and play. In the conversation below, I use my skills as an oral historian to guide Atmadibrata to consider the connections between his playing and his creating. During the conversation, what emerges is a map of influence, in which games and geography seem to play a bigger role in the work he makes than other possible factors, such as his HIV status. The interview begins with me getting up to speed on role-playing games.
- Benji de la Piera
Benji de la Piedra: Since I’m an oral historian, I’m going to ask you to start briefly at the beginning. When and where were you born and raised?
Kelvin Atmadibrata: I was born in 1988, in Jakarta. I was born into a Chinese-Indonesian family, which is a kind of minority in Indonesia. I moved to Singapore when I was 13-ish, and prior to that was in Kuala Lumpur for three years. So, I spent most of my growing-up years overseas, and I only came back to Indonesia about four years ago. That was because I was diagnosed with HIV, and Singapore does not allow foreigners to stay in the country if they get the diagnosis.
BD: In terms of your work, I know video games are a major influence for you. I’m wondering if you can take me back to when you were, like, nine years old: What games did you play? What captured your imagination?
KA: Most of the games I played were Japanese Role-Playing Games (RPGs), like Final Fantasy, for example. I’m not sure if you’re familiar with it.
BD: I’m not specifically familiar with Final Fantasy, but I used to spend a lot of time playing other video games, so tell me.
KA: Japanese RPGs are much more focused on story and characters and the development of narrative. They’re very different from first-person shooters or The Sims, for example. I found that playing Japanese RPGs is more like reading novels. There are a lot of influences from folklore. Some people consider these games to be really boring, because they are very easy to play. You can usually finish them in ten to twenty hours of gameplay. But somehow the story gets really, really complex. I think most of the fan base is attracted because of the storylines.
BD: You mention these games are infused with folkloric elements, which is super interesting to me. Would you be able to talk to, say, your grandparents about video games?
KA: When I was growing up, video games were considered a children’s thing. And they still are, so adults don’t really talk about them. But now that you mention it, I think in terms of the narratives—and I’m talking specifically about the narratives—you might actually be able to talk to someone who is much older about them. But when you try relating it back to the gameplay, then you would lose their interest. So, it’s a distinct approach you would have to take with someone of the older generation.
BD: As an artist, why pick video games to be in conversation with? What about the video game as a place of narrative is exciting to you?
KA: To be honest, I’ve never really thought much about it. I think it’s a natural response. Only recently I found out that it’s very common for Indonesians who grew up in the ‘80s and ‘90s to play a lot of video games. The games are quite expensive, but the pirated versions made it very accessible for almost everyone. So that was a natural growing-up experience, playing a lot of video games, especially Japanese RPGs.
BD: This may sound like too much, but I sense almost a pan-Asian-ness to what we’re talking about: You’re Indonesian, but part of a Chinese minority, you grew up in Singapore, and your greatest inspiration is Japanese. We Americans easily forget how much diversity there is on your side of the world, and that you may not identify yourself as “Asian” first, or even at all. So, I’m wondering how, if at all, some of these more precise cultural markers show up and intersect in your work.
KA: I’m thinking of my childhood in Indonesia. The majority of people in the area I grew up in were of Chinese descent. Economically, we tended to have more than other racial groups, so I think that actually gave us more flexibility in terms of video game consoles. Most of my classmates in primary school had at least two consoles at home. Whereas people not living in the city might have to share one console for a whole village. So that made games like Japanese RPGs more accessible.
Most Indonesian kids grow up with Japanese pop culture, even today, especially anime and manga comics. Again, it’s very affordable, because the local publishers actually translate the comics, so it becomes very cheap for us to consume them. And because of all these cartoons that you watch every weekend, and the comics that you read every day, and the video games, I guess that “Asian-ness” just becomes commonplace.
That's kind of interesting, too, because it's only quite recently that Western or American cartoons and pop culture have been getting more popular here. If I remember correctly, Marvel superheroes, for example, were not popular back when I was a kid. But we watched a lot of Power Rangers, Sailor Moon—which are basically Japanese products. Maybe it has to do with the diplomacy that these two countries had in the past, though I’m not sure.
BD: That’s fascinating. I know that Shogun and Harakawi are important influences for your work, so I’m also wondering if you can walk me through your early exposure to these visual languages. Did you notice a homoeroticism in them right away? Or did you develop a view of it over time and start to inject more homoeroticism into these languages through your work?
KA: I guess subconsciously I realized it all along, just from reading these comics and watching these movies and playing these games. But it’s only recently that I have purposely injected these elements into my work, after having studied in greater detail the particular Japanese obsessions with things that are considered erotica, how acceptable it is in their social climate.
Two or three years ago, I had this idea that I wanted to try out in my work, about the different perception of Japanese superheroes versus American or Western superheroes. It was something I experienced back in Singapore, where there is a wider range of popular culture to be influenced by. There was a whole group of kids who grew up with Spiderman and all the Marvel superheroes. On the other hand, there was another set of kids who were anime maniacs. I noticed two very distinct personalities resulting from these attractions. The kids who are into American superheroes tend to grow up more what we perceive as masculine. Those who are into more Asian or Japanese comics and animes are more feminine, more bookwormish and nerdy. For me, this was an interesting opportunity to consider gender and the influence of popular culture on how we grow up.
BD: Has that influenced the way you go about putting on your work, your installations, your performances?
KA: I don’t know. Maybe not so much. It’s an observation I had a couple years ago. My works tend to fix on narrative, which is still very heavily based on the Japanese RPG that we talked about earlier.
BD: Right. Let's talk about your development as an artist. When did you start making art, or putting on performances?
KA: I started drawing when I was a kid, but I wasn't really allowed to grow up as an artist. Only when I was in Singapore, when I was away from my family with a lot of personal freedom, did I start to make my decision that I wanted to become an artist. That was 2006. And even then, I’ve never considered myself a painter, or someone who draws. I’m more excited by works which are not that conventional, or works that are really, really weird. I guess it's one of the reasons I started making installation work, and gradually developed into performances.
BD: So, Singapore was the place that you decided to become an artist. Can you talk about the contrast between Indonesia and Singapore? Was it because Singapore itself had some kind of effect on you, like the culture or the space there?
KA: Culturally speaking, they’re very similar. But Indonesia is still considered to be a developing country, while Singapore is pretty much like New York. There's a lot of tall buildings and central business districts, etc. But when it comes to my personal experience, it was more about how far I was from my family. My family stayed in Indonesia, and I think that gave me a lot of personal freedom to try things out. I tried out different phases of sexuality and experimented a lot with my career path.
BD: Makes sense. Is there a strong artist community in Singapore? Did you find it incubated you there?
KA: Yeah, definitely. I started out my practice being really, really close with some of the more senior artists there. They gave me my first few opportunities to show my work. The artistic community in Jakarta is pretty similar, but more politically inclined compared to Singapore.
BD: I want to ask about a couple of your pieces. I was hoping we could talk about Death Saves the Strawberry first. Can you walk me through its development?
KA: That work is more of an exploration than a strong piece. It was a time when I was trying to create new narratives from existing ones. Growing up in Singapore, all of the boys have to serve in the army for two years once they reach 18. But I did not have to, or was not allowed to, because I was not Singaporean. Being in the army was one of my aspirations as a kid, so it felt like a missed opportunity, though it’s not something I regret. So, the work is, in a way, a playful recollection of that memory alongside all these stories, all these movies, all these characters, which I managed to compile.
BD: What was the audience response?
KA: That particular work did not require an audience, because it was meant to be performed for the camera. That is why the choice of the site was specific. It had to be performed in a place that used to have barracks. We have a lot of those in Singapore. At that same time, I was also having to fly back to Indonesia, because of a visa issue and possible deportation. I came across some strawberry fields in a city near Jakarta, which are pretty common, so I found it quite interesting to implement these contrasting sites and make a new narrative out of it.
BD: In the description of the work you write, "Growing up as an urban kid did not give me a lot of spaces to be physically free and playful." But in the next paragraph, you write, "The performer takes the role of an adolescent character.” So, it starts off personal, but then it's almost like a set of instructions for someone to replicate it on their own. Is that something you envisioned when creating the performance, that others might do it themselves later?
KA: I never thought about that for this particular work. But for some of my other works, yes. I'm interested in the relationships that adults can have with video games. I played a lot of video games growing up, and I absorbed a lot of video game narratives during those years, but unfortunately I have completed stopped playing Japanese RPGs now. So, those narratives are contained within a short period of my life, maybe ten years.
So, now I’m interested in that attraction in the context of being an adult. There’s a period where people generally change from being innocent to being teenagers. It’s quite interesting because that’s very much reflected in the development of the main characters in most Japanese RPGs. You start with a character who is extremely weak, level one, without good equipment, no skills, nothing. But as the story goes, and you’re being told a lot of different storylines, the character grows up. So, it becomes a kind of parallel to how the players are growing up.
And now that I’ve been reflecting about it, I realize that some of the games I played were fifteen years ago. It’s almost as if I’m the character, in a metaphorical and physical way. That idea of adolescence was immortalized in a way. I think that’s one of my attractions to it. Those adolescent years are when people begin to question their sexuality and think about gender and sexual politics.
I think I have not really answered the question directly in terms of performances that are personal vs performance as instructions. It really depends—my practice has shifted—not necessarily better or worse, but I guess artists who create performances (in fact, artworks in general) started off with what is considered personal. Whether or not it eventually sustains one throughout one’s practice, I cannot say for sure, but in my case the personal perspective is important—but likewise, how they can be relevant to audiences who are foreign to my memories. So, in the process of making recent works, I try to start from what is personal and then seek potential unexplored spaces in which the work can still be presented by others—hence (maybe) universally more inclusive.
Ultimately, I do not think my works (which in themselves are often considered fan-fiction of existing narratives) are entirely mine per se. I always seek opportunities for others to be involved, in forms of following instructions (delegate performances) or collaborations.
BD: That makes me think of your work Deep Throat. How did it come to be?
KA: I did that in 2017, at the invitation of a festival in India. By then I was already back living in Jakarta. Making work with strong elements of erotica is not really possible here, because of the social climate. The festival gave us a theme to work with, which was “Silence.” So, I took that as an opportunity to perform something with more freedom to explore. Since it was abroad, I decided to create with more homoerotic elements.
BD: What was the audience like and how did they respond?
KA: The response was positive. The artist community there tends to support each other, so they don't really give negative criticism. But that was in India. I managed to re-perform this piece in November for a competition in Indonesia. When I was selected as a finalist, the response was pretty positive. I guess they were accepting, but there were rumors going around that I wouldn’t advance further because of the subject I chose to discuss. Erotica, especially homoeroticism, is still quite questionable in Indonesia.
BD: Can you tell me about your decision to sign up with the Visual AIDS Registry?
KA: I knew about the site when I was in Singapore. I was part of a small group of artists that had come upon it. I can’t remember when I made the decision to put myself on it. But I remember that shortly after I did, I put the link onto my website. It's just a one-line link, but it’s there so my audience can discover something. It's like an Easter egg.
BD: I like that. Has anything changed for you since you listed yourself on the registry?
KA: Not significantly.
Deepthroat, 2017, Performance images courtesy of artist.
BD: Is there's a way in which being an HIV-positive artist affects the work you make? Are you addressing a certain audience or trying to get a certain point across related to being positive? Or is your status just another fact that is part of the mix?
KA: I don’t think too much about it when making my work. Now that you mention it, maybe I should be involving it more actively in my thinking process. But in terms of how and when and what, that’s something I still need to experiment with.
BD: Is there a community in Jakarta of people that are positive? Are you able to have conversations about HIV?
KA: There are communities, but I'm not really having these kinds of conversations with them. But then again, it’s just not that big a deal to me personally. So maybe that’s why I’m not having those conversations, because it’s never been a big part of who I am.
BD: What is next for you? Is there anything you want to tackle? Confront?
KA: Because of the political climate here in Indonesia, a lot of artists, myself included, have barriers towards making and showcasing our own work. We have to be extra careful. That said, I feel I will always inject elements of eroticism into my work, whether it's very, very vulgar or just beneath the surface. It will always be present in my work.
Kelvin Atmadibrata is a visual artist living in Jakarta, Indonesia. He works primarily with performances, often accompanied by and translated to drawings, mixed media and objects compiled as installations.
Benji de la Piedra is an oral historian and writer based in Little Rock, Arkansas. Among other projects, he is at work on a biography of Herbert Denton, Jr., an African American journalist at the Washington Post who died of AIDS in 1989.