By Benny Widyo, Gulung Tukar

26 September 2023 - 20:57

A person dressed in a costume resembling a jellyfish. They are standing beside a body of water on a swamp landscape. Photo taken during the production of Bodies of Water (in collaboration with Anugrah Natalin), one of the seven works from The Trees and The Wires art project and residency. ©

Doc. by Benny Widyo.

Benny Widyo of Gulung Tukar (ID) invites Ella Chedburn (UK) for a residency project at Gutuhaus, Tulungagung, Indonesia, to explore various narratives surrounding the founding of Tulungagung involving the planting of seven banyan trees.

The Trees and The Wires is a title for an art project and residency inspired by the name of a band, The Trees & The Wild. This kind of tongue-in-cheek naming is common for my artistic group, Gulung Tukar. Trees and wires are two things that came to mind when the initial idea of this project was being conceived—an art project collecting various narratives of planting seven banyan trees as markers in the process of transforming a swamp into a city.

This swamp-turned-city is Tulungagung. Often misinterpreted as meaning ‘a great (agung) favour (tulung)’, ‘tulung’ in this context refers to the Sanskrit word ‘telang,’ meaning swamp or peatlands. 

In this project, we explored all possible data, from stories and myths to local library archives, from the scientific to the mystical. We visited places directly related to places related to the Seven Mythical Banyan Trees (Ringin Kurung) and the Tulungagung floods, as well as sites that would help us understand more about the city’s historical context.

We met several informants who helped us unravel the diverse narratives. The findings of this research are not used to refute or correct history—as part of an art project, the narratives we encountered should not be forced to cohere into a singular narrative, but instead provide a context for transformation into artworks and associated programmes.

A fun process with spontaneous improvements

‘Fun’ is the best word to describe our process. We exchanged knowledge and stories of our experiences, with language and cultural barriers with foreign artists presenting its own sense of excitement.

During our research period during Ramadan, for example, Ella had to adjust to the tempo of the Gulung Tukar team members who were fasting, but these kinds of experiences only made us grow closer together through new habits like dining together during the iftar fast breaking.

For the most part, The Trees and The Wires project went according to plan. We had to make adjustments to the timeline in the beginning as we had to make room for administrative matters. The plan to conclude the exhibition and public programme with a project presentation and book launch had to be postponed because we needed more time.

We took advantage of this extra time to expand our audience. The art project presentation was held on campus to reach more scholars and academics. The book launch was scheduled to include as wide an audience as possible, including government officials and stakeholders.

The final project presentation of The Trees and The Wires art project and residency at Aula Arief Mustaqiem, UIN SATU Tulungagung. ©

Doc. by Farhan Nawawi.

A person with a jellyfish-looking costume standing next to another person in a costume resembling roots and branches. It is the live performance of ‘Air Beriak, Akar Menjalar’ (‘Rippling Water, Spreading Roots’) at Alun-Alun Tulungagung. The performance marked the presentation period of The Trees and The Wires art prroject. ©

Doc. by Aqilla R.Aisya.

Several young people, each with a sash indicating they are the Young Ambassador of Culture and Tourism of Tulungagung 2023, surrounding and listening to Benny Widyo speak at the centre. It is the curatorial tour for the Jatmiko - Puspito Ambassadors. ©

Doc. by Aqilla R. Aisya.

Making success out of a past failure

It’s interesting how our collaboration started from a failure. In mid-2022, I applied for a residency programme in the Bavarian Forest, Germany. Ella and I both failed to make the cut. During the Connections Through Culture 2022-2023 open call, I contacted Ella once more and offered to collaborate for a residency at Gutuhaus (Tulungagung, Indonesia). 

Ella welcomed the offer. This was Ella's first residency experience, where she travelled all the way to Southeast Asia.

Since then, Ella has received an offer in the UK to present her experience during her residency in Indonesia. Upon her return, Ella gave us good news: photos from The Trees and The Wires have been selected for inclusion in a book by Art Forestry England.

Eventually, we would also like to be able to present our collaborative work in Somerset or Bristol, Ella’s hometown. We’d like to continue this process to exchange knowledge and experiences.

Ultimately, we want this collaboration to be sustainable, and we welcome all kinds of criticism and feedback, as well as new perspectives and audiences.

Benny Widyo and Ella Chedburn have generously made the PDF version of The Trees and The Wires free to download. Fill out their form to get a copy delivered to your inbox.