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Soydivision: Creative blends of Indonesian food, art and music

Katrin Figge

The Jakarta Post

Berlin, Germany  /  Wed, June 3, 2020  /  11:35 am
Soydivision: Creative blends of Indonesian food, art and music

A taste of Indonesia: Soydivision was founded by Ariel William Orah (second right), who moved from Jakarta to Berlin in 2012. (Courtesy of Olivia Kwok/-)

When Ariel Orah first visited Berlin 13 years ago, it was love at first sight. Even though he was still based in Jakarta at the time, working as a corporate designer and part-time musician and DJ, he pinpoints this first weekend in the German capital as the moment that changed his life.

“I made up my mind that someday I am going to move there,” he says with a laugh.

Back in Jakarta, he realized that if he wanted to move forward with his career, he needed to sacrifice his activities in music. But it was more than that; life in Jakarta, Ariel says, had taken a toll on him.

“You spend hours stuck in traffic jams every day, and when you want to spend some quality time, all you have are giant malls and overpriced entertainment goods,” he explains.

After saving money and focusing on finding a way to move abroad, Ariel was granted a study-seeking visa and internship opportunity in Germany. And finally, in 2012, he fulfilled his dream by starting a new life in Berlin.

After studying and working in the German capital for a couple of years, Ariel became a father and decided to take a step back from corporate projects to focus solely on his artistic practice, producing albums, performing and his passion project, Soydivision.

“When my partner Lisa and I listened to Joy Division, she mocked me with the word ‘soy’, referring to tempeh because it is one of the ingredients I use the most when cooking,” Ariel recalls, adding that when they hosted dinners, he was usually in charge of the food.

“As a Christmas gift in 2017, she gave me the web domain soydivision.berlin, hoping that I could take my cooking and dinner events to the next level.”

Culinary experiment: Soydivision, an Indonesian art collective based in Berlin, aims to explore identity through food and art. 
Culinary experiment: Soydivision, an Indonesian art collective based in Berlin, aims to explore identity through food and art. (Courtesy of Mega Lianti/-)

A few months later, Ariel was invited for a sound performance at Motif Natural Wine Bar, and the owner asked him if he’d be interested in hosting an Indonesian pop-up dinner as well.

“It was the birth of soy and synth, a pop-up event that combines experimental electronic performances with Indonesian food,” Ariel says.

The event was very well received and became a regular fixture at Motif, which allowed Ariel to meet other Berlin-based Indonesian artists, with many of whom he would later collaborate. They eventually evolved into a collective of multimedia artists from Indonesia who regularly perform and cook together.

“One of the artists who worked with me extensively and became the cofounder of Soydivision is Jan Thedja, an anesthetist who also happens to be a brilliant DJ, photographer and writer,” Ariel explains. “Together, we started to come up with a clearer structure and concept for Soydivision.”

With Soydivision, they want to provoke a discussion about the exploration and expression of identity through art and food, drawing on their own experience of being both foreigners and long-time residents in a country that doesn’t necessarily share the same characteristics as the one they hail from.

“It forces us to reevaluate our standing in a new society while retaining the aspects that consolidated our pre-formed identity,” Ariel says.

“One of the most significant parts of this particular struggle comes from the different eating habits on one hand and the scarcity of familiar food on the other. Exposure to and interaction with different people, mediums, environments and designs lead to experimentations that Soydivision chose to tackle from an artistic and culinary perspective.”

Going global: Starting in Berlin, Soydivision gradually began to introduce its unique concept of food, art and music abroad. Going global: Starting in Berlin, Soydivision gradually began to introduce its unique concept of food, art and music abroad. (Courtesy of Olivia Kwok/-)

Ariel’s father once lovingly teased his son, saying that he doesn’t have just “friends”. Instead, everyone he is acquainted with seems to be involved in a project with him. There is perhaps more truth to this joke than he anticipated because Soydivision puts a strong emphasis on collaboration. For every event, they team up with a guest artist.

“We aim to explore all possible permutations, mixing, matching, amplifying, reducing in a performative as well as culinary context, ultimately translating our gigs into an interface for experimentations in the hope that it will help make sense of the environment we live in,” Ariel explains.

Besides himself and Jan, Soydivision consists of different artists with various backgrounds: sound artist and musician Ghaliz, light artist Nina, visual artist OQ, sound artist Morgan and scriptwriter Bilawa. But even outside of this circle, Soydivision seeks collaborations across disciplines, genres and often even nationalities and borders.

They brought their Empathy Supper format — which combines a five-course Indonesian dinner with a multisensory experience and an audio-visual performance — abroad several times, with invitations coming in from festivals, collective spaces, cultural institutions and galleries.

Last year, they organized an Empathy Supper in London with Indonesian writer Feby Indirani, for which Ariel and Jan created a music and audio-art composition as a response to her short story “Porky Wants to Be a Muslim”.

“SoydiviSion is very innovative, they have a fun and creative concept,” Feby says. “They are doing a great job introducing Indonesian cuisine and culture in a contemporary way.”

Dinner with a difference: Soydivision's events not only include a delectable dinner but also live art and music performances. Dinner with a difference: Soydivision's events not only include a delectable dinner but also live art and music performances. (Courtesy of Olivia Kwok/-)

When the coronavirus hit, Soydivision was on a four-city tour in Indonesia. Ariel’s first concern was to get back safely to Germany as he was traveling with his son but as borders started to close down, his concern quickly grew.

After quite an ordeal, he eventually arrived in Berlin — only to realize that his upcoming projects and events were all canceled due to COVID-19 restrictions.

“For the moment, we have switched our performance into an online format and luckily, we still offer a take-away food service on a weekly basis to sustain our life,” Ariel says.

“The support is amazing. We also uploaded our artistic content such as live performances on our YouTube channel and organize online exhibitions in our new weekly zine. One upcoming online project series we have is called ‘Rasasuara’, a digital performative sound and culinary diary from several sound and visual artists during this time of quarantine.” 

Once things return to normal, Ariel and Jan want to continue with the plans for Soydivision they talked about at the beginning of the year.

“After all the experimentation of event formats and performances, we want to focus on building our own performance piece, while our other focus is more on the culinary side, as we started to develop our own Soydivision products such self-made bio tempeh, sambal [chili paste] and jamu [traditional herbal medicine],” Ariel explains.

While Ariel concedes it is hard to be away from his family, especially in the middle of a global pandemic, he still thinks of Berlin as his home. He is also grateful for the support he has received from the German government during the coronavirus crisis.

“It’s been a rocky road, full of uncertainties, but it feels very rewarding at the same time because I am doing my own thing,” he explains. “I could finally follow my passion and stand up for what I believe in, and Berlin has been the most supportive and flexible city to pursue my kind of dream.” (ste)

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