Interview: Alif Ibrahim

Birthplace: Rotterdam, The Netherlands

Grew up in: Indonesia; Singapore; Wales; U.S.A.

Currently living in: London, England

Age: 25

Find him: Website | Instagram 

(Photo courtesy of Alif)


This interview has been edited for clarity and length. 

Q: Tell me more about yourself.

Most recently, I did a master’s in digital media at Goldsmiths, which is about technology and society and how you think about it. Before that, I was working in Boston, doing strategy for a textbook company. Most recently, I was an editorial assistant at an arts publication, so I was doing a lot of writing then, and I’m trying to do it more. I’ve been doing more art practice, getting into sculpture, some interactive installations. I also made zines in the past, which I really enjoyed and would love to get back into, but unfortunately, I don’t have free printing anymore.

Q: Tell me more about your creative journey. 

I took a class senior year and then everything suddenly made sense. I think a lot of digital media theory, not from the recent years but from the generation before social media, was about how on the internet you can be anyone. Now, it’s a lot about social media and fake news and AI. But before that, people were talking about how people can build themselves online. I came across this writing about cosmotechnics in China, sort of redefining what people’s relationship with technology was — the whole framework there was about how technical activity, like writing, is a way for you to negotiate between the cosmological world, so the universe, as well as with the moral order of the world, the rules of society. If you think about things in Indonesian culture, the supernatural stuff, you can put this framework onto that as well.

You start to think of how we relate to technology is, not imposed on us, but taken for granted, like there’s only one way to think about technology. That’s why I’m interested in it. The journey through it is a bit more boring: I made films in college and wanted to keep making it, but it was expensive to do it. When you have a lot of things you want to say, you want to say it somehow, but for me, I’m still trying to find the right way to bring out these thoughts and ideas. It’s really about having an overactive mind.

Q: You’ve lived in a lot of different places. Tell me more about your experiences with moving around a lot. 

I moved away from Indonesia when I was 10, 11, 12 — 2005, so I was 11 then. I moved to Singapore and stayed until I was 16, and then coming back every break during high school and college back to Singapore. Living in different places, going to boarding school in Wales, and then going to college and working for two years in the U.S., and I go home to Singapore, not Indonesia, until my parents moved back — I think ultimately what it was like, I sort of had to make my own rules. I couldn’t really say that things I did were things that Indonesian people did, because I felt like I couldn’t claim that. It’s simpler to tell people I’m Indonesian, but in practice, a lot of my norms or the way that I relate to people are things I have to make up on my own and largely influenced by the internet.

Q: How did you start thinking of yourself as a person with Indonesian heritage?

I can’t tell you when I started thinking about it, but I had to identify myself as that when I was in Singapore. I didn’t sound Singaporean, I didn’t adopt Singlish, so I already was different.

My great-grandfather is Chinese, so when I’m in Indonesia, I’m identified as being Chinese-Indonesian, although, culturally, I’m not. We don’t celebrate Lunar New Year or follow any traditions — I just grew up as any random Muslim person. But, even when I was in Singapore, I was considered an Indonesian, but when I’m in Indonesia, I’m Chinese. So I think that was when I had to start inventing who I am, in a way, because it didn’t fit neatly into other people’s expectations.

Q: What were some stories that your family passed on to you?

Whatever that is came from being Muslim, I would say that was the biggest part. I think stories from my ancestors and where my roots came from, I think that only surfaced in the last two, three years.

Recently, I’ve been trying to ask my family more about my family history. I went back to my maternal grandfather’s hometown in Gorontalo (in Sulawesi) this last summer. It turns out I had a lot of aunts and cousins there that I’d never met in my life. Most of my extended family is in Sumatra. But everyone there was telling me they came from a family of teachers, and they showed me around town. So it was more recently that I had to be more curious myself.

Q: What does your Indonesian heritage mean to you?

I don’t know what that question means. I would say that what I want it to mean — I don’t know what it means — is that it’s for me to sort of go against the norms in this world. I probably wouldn’t feel this way if I had to live in Indonesia my whole life, but I would say that living abroad for so long, it gave me somewhere to come from to sort of question the world. It serves as a very good way for me to not take anything for granted.

Q: Is there anything else you would like to add?

The tech industry is going in Indonesia, and what I want anyone who’s reading this who is involved in that industry to think about is your relation to technology and where your relation to technics comes from, and how much of it has been imported from a long genealogy of Western technics. I think it’s important to make your own technics from your own culture, from your own history. It’s really easy to adopt what is there and adopt ways of doing things that have been casted as “Best in Class,” because it’s rooted in a certain philosophical system, but I think what everyone should do, if you ever make anything, is to investigate your own culture and come from there. I think that’s something we need more of.