Notes from The Kelp Farm

Gatari Surya Kusuma

I am starting to write these notes on my second day off from the kelp farm, after I got used to the feelings of exhaustion and tiredness of working on the harvest. This writing is a collection of my thoughts, questions, and feelings of excitement about the experience. What brought me to the kelp farm was that I wanted to learn how the kelp or seaweed was being processed. Even after two weeks of work there, I dwelled in a long reflection about what a curator should do in the middle of the ruins of capitalism, socio-ecological injustice, and era of industrialization. I started this residency program without any expectations, apart from a willingness to learn and gain new experiences. 

I am working on a Kelp Farm in Yaksan-myeon, Wando-gun, Jeollanam-do, South Korea as part of the program Song of the Wind, directed by Sunyoung Oh. I am here with my other co-artists-in-residence: Christine Mackey, Marco Kusumawijaya and Vincent Rumahloine. We stayed in a community center that had been reconstructed into a residency house with one shared kitchen and dining room, two shared bedrooms, and two shared bathrooms.

On the first day of work, I doubted whether I could finish the whole month of kelp farming or not. Definitely, those feelings came from how I found my body responded to the difficult process. My whole body was sore. I was always sleepy from waking up at 4 am and starting to work at 5 am every day. Until the third day, I was still figuring out whether to continue or to stop. I decided to continue when I got an offer to take time off in the middle of working days. This was a big deal for me, as I was struggling with the working rhythm and physical endurance.

 I am working with seven co-workers from Thailand. They seemed to know each other previously. I could catch a sense of that from how they interacted, made jokes, and used familiar gestures with each other. I do not speak Thai and Korean, meanwhile, some of them speak both languages. It created a feeling of alienation until I found a way to communicate, other than through language, as a result of my making mistakes during work, or my innocent responses to their joking gestures.1

Sajangnim (boss in Korean) and the Working Team

Farming tends to involve teamwork, as opposed to individual labor. Individual work takes longer and would only be feasible on a small farm. Kelp is a seasonal plant that has a seven-month life cycle and the harvest month comes in summertime. The duration of farming only happens for a month before the fall season comes. This short harvest duration necessitates a division of labor and strict working dynamics.

As the duration of the harvest is limited, the farmer needs to divide a working task into several labor divisions. Therefore, the physical width of the farm dictates how many workers they should have. The farmers could not save money by reducing the work and doing it by themselves unless they missed a season. Labor requirements are met by migrant workers of various nationalities such as from Russia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Kazakhstan, who come specifically for the summer kelp farming season. 

My boss is from a typical wealthy family. They inherited the farm from their parents as the second generation. They have luxury cars and wear gold necklaces and own goods from the well-known international brands I am familiar with. Those are the most recognizable indicators to show how much wealth someone has. Even though not all wealthy families choose to display their wealth in this way, at least I could estimate how much money they need to make to buy all those things. Furthermore, almost every day, they serve meat dishes for all workers, including me. For me who grew up in an Indonesian middle-class family where meat was a luxury dish and not a daily food, this became an unaccustomed moment when I could eat meat until I felt like I wanted to say “no” when they offered me it. From this routine, I could affirm that my boss was passionate about food.

Figure 1. One of the lunch dishes that we had which is called Baeksook (Korean style chicken soup, Chicken filled with spices, herbs, and ginseng), Gatari Surya Kusuma, 2023.

Figure 2. Sajangnim cooked us a lunch of meat stew and abalone, Gatari Surya Kusuma, 2023.

Figure 3. Sajangnim was not available to cook us lunch, but she gave us (more or less) 2 kilos of meat. My Thai co-worker cooked our lunch Thai style, Gatari Surya Kusuma, 2023.

Returning to the daily routine of working: we started work at 5 am and ended at 6 pm. We performed various tasks but there was no regular daily schedule, as what needed to be done depended on what had been the last task of the previous day. We could start by putting all the fresh wet kelp onto the field to dry; with packing dried kelp; or with the first quality control of the kelp. In kelp farming, quality control has several stages, and the first quality control is to make sure that none of the kelp is folded or glued to each other. Then, we would then continue with other work, depending on how much kelp was arriving from the sea. I could not work at sea to cultivate the kelp due to my type of visa, which did not allow me to do that job. If no kelp was arriving on the farm, then we would pack the dried kelp, or clean the ropes whichwill be used to seed the kelp for the coming season.

Figure 4. The Thai worker lays the fresh kelp on the field to be rinsed and dried, Gatari Surya Kusuma, 2023.

Figure 5. The truck brought us fresh kelp from the sea to put on the field. One truck could fill half of the field, which is approximately 500 pieces of kelp. Usually, there would be three trucks arriving each day, Gatari Surya Kusuma, 2023.

As an unskilled laborer, I could affirm myself to be the slowest worker. I did not know what I should do and I could not speak either Thai or Korean. I followed the example set by the other workers but with some mistakes and therefore misunderstandings. When I made mistakes, my Thai co-workers helped me quietly or warned me politely. One example was when I laid out the kelp in the wrong direction, and one of the workers showed me how to do it correctly. I felt as if I were in a running race. Everyone was super-fast and accurate. Meanwhile, I was trying so hard to understand all the tasks. After just one day’s work, I could understand the reason why I should be fast and accurate. If I were slow, it would break the work chain and destroy the work rhythm, therefore we would miss the daily target. In kelp farming workers do not gain personal affirmation, instead, Sajangnim will only say that we all did good work because we reached the daily target.

Weather and Day Off

Who would expect that in kelp farming, workers will get a week off due to bad weather? As kelp is a plant that has a seven-month life cycle from seed to harvest, there are relatively few tasks to be done before the harvest season. Once harvested, the process of drying kelp depends on constant sunlight during the day. If the kelp does not dry well, it leaves a fungi stain, which could decrease the value of the kelp. It is impossible to dry the kelp crop on rainy days.

I spent my morning doing some domestic work. I did my laundry, washed the dishes, mopped the floor, and went to the grocery store to buy some bread. When I did my domestic work, I reflected on how precious it is to do such work. I could not imagine how should I maintain my domestic life if I spent my day working on the farm from early morning until evening. This thought mirrored how my Sajangnim managed to work on the farm, cook for us, and do her own job in the port. She was showing us how the labor of this kelp farm is not an easy task but the key is about how fast you can work and solve many tasks. As long as you are fast and get many things done, then you can fit in tasks other than those of the kelp farm. Eventually, I saw this writing as a luxury activity as, if I am working on the farm, I am not sure I could reflect, write, or just think out loud about many things.

When I went to do a grocery shop, I met only a few people. I assumed that many people have little time for outdoor activities because they are busy on the farm. I did not see any boats operating. I did not see any trucks passing by with kelp. I saw some mothers wearing pajamas instead of working clothes. It created a feeling that how lively this island is depends on the weather. Migrant workers will have many days off, but I am not sure if they get paid daily or monthly. If they get a daily payment, that means the rain will not be blessed by them, as I blessed these rainy days. Sajangnim might do any other work or just enjoy the days off. But, I am not sure if we still meet the expected days to harvest all the kelp from the sea. I could not imagine how much profit they might have lost on these rainy days. I could not imagine how anxious the workers might be if they were paid daily. I should affirm that, for me, the feeling of joy when having days off work was a luxury and a privilege. 

Figure 6. One of neighborhood areas in Yaksan-myeon. The green area is supposed to be filled with the kelp, but not on rainy days, Gatari Surya Kusuma, 2023.

Figure 7. One of the roads that is supposed to be the most crowded with the trucks that transport the kelp from the sea to the field, Gatari Surya Kusuma, 2023.

Seaweed Food and Its Transgenerational Knowledge

This kelp farm constructs a relationship between the land and the sea which invites seasonal workers to come. The term seasonal worker was raised in a conversation between my fellow Indonesian artists-in-residence, Marco, Vincent and me, and we wondered how to define the situation where there is a peak season when people come to the island not for reasons of tourism but as kelp farm workers. 

The presence of seasonal workers has created a seasonal infrastructure. There were food trucks that only sold Thai ingredients, snacks, and staple food. This is because the number of Thai workers was far higher than the number of Russian or Vietnamese workers. The situation shows how seasonal workers contribute to cultural migration. I got a chance to taste Thai cuisine during my farm work as the Thai workers brought their home cooking every day to the farm in a small lunch box. For them, bringing their favorite food was a way to comfort their tongues and keep up their spirits. Sajangnim had never been to Thailand, but had tried Thai food and did not like it. 

 Seaweed is a commodity that has migrated all over the world. It is processed into foods, snacks, medicines, cosmetics, etc. The farmers in Yaksan have the knowledge of how to process seaweed into products and food because it is part of their business. Unfortunately, even though Indonesia is one the biggest seaweed producers in the world I, like many other Indonesians, feel distant from the knowledge of seaweed. I cannot recognize what is food made from seaweed. I do not have any memories of the seaweed food culture in Indonesia. It cannot be denied thatseaweed has the charm to mobilize people to build an industrialized island, and also construct a food culture. However, it does not seem to exert any charm on younger Korean people to work in kelp farming, or to choose to stay on the island. The younger generation leave for the city to pursue a degree, get a job, or live with their families. I wondered what will happen if there were no younger generations to do this farming or recognize seaweed as a valuable food?

After my experience of working on a kelp farm and gaining an understanding of its whole complexity, I am reflecting on how I should position myself as a curator. If the work of a curator is about building a bridge between community and art then I am reflecting on my presence at the kelp farm to answer what kind of bridge that community needs to connect with art practice. In this context, a tool for archiving and circulating seaweed knowledge becomes an option to create that bridge, because the seaweed industry is mainly interested in making more capital and is less interested in domestic knowledge and who might inherit its stories. Therefore, the idea of making a recipe book will become the continuation of these notes. The recipe book will consist of seaweed recipes, family stories, and further notes on the migration of seaweed between Indonesia and South Korea.  

Gatari Surya Kusuma, called Gatari (1993~ ), is a researcher and curator based in Yogyakarta, Indonesia. She graduated from the Indonesian Institute of Art, Yogyakarta (BA). During her study, she developed her art practice in a collective. She joined KUNCI Study Forum & Collective in 2014 and Bakudapan Food Study Group in 2015. Her joining in collective and background in art study are sharpening her view and practice on collectivism and its relation to art critical pedagogy.

She is working back and forth between collective and personal work. But, most of her collective or individual work is about building the entanglement and knowledge production of togetherness to create a solidarity network under the concept of collectivity. She believes that collectivism is not limited to productiv
e work but also gives the space for liminal space, such as; care work, affective work, emotional aspect, and also the commons infrastructure that supports the collective; she also about how collectivity could strengthen the network without making a space for being competitive but for contaminating the collaboration. Currently, she is curating a walking project as a practice to exercise the body’s senses to the city as a space.