by Catriona Mitchell


When I heard that the Indonesian chief of police had planned an impromptu visit to the Setia Darma House of Masks & Puppets on Saturday 20th May, an hour before TEDxUbud was due to start and despite the fact that the venue had been closed for this ticket-only event, my heart sank. As a festival maven myself, I knew the kerfuffle this would cause for the organisers.


And yet, arriving at the venue, I was hugged by co-producer Mila Shwaiko, looking fresh and relaxed.


Guests were gathering on the lawn: an impromptu lounge had been created with brightly coloured beanbags from the Kul Kul Farm and hanging lamps carved from coconuts, and surrounded by food stalls that were to distribute refreshments throughout the event. My friends and I were immediately plied with coconut coffee (delicious), tropical-fruit popsicles from Balipop (the lucky ones were given the flavor laced with vodka), sticky cinnamon-pistachio balls (what’s an Ubud event without a bliss ball of some description?) and a multitude of global snacks such as Indian samosas and Russian salad (reflecting the variety of nations in attendance).


No sign of the chief of police and his entourage of 100; only the buzz of like-minded people meeting and greeting one another, and a sense of anticipation for what was to come.


When a bell summoned us to an outdoor amphitheatre, the organisers’ decision to change venues this year immediately became clear. The theme for the 2017 event was “Make the Light”, and given that the event kicked off at 5pm and ran into the night, there couldn’t have been a better setting than here, overlooking the jungle at dusk, and then, situated directly under the stars.



After a traditional Balinese welcome dance, TEDxUbud host Rio Helmi took the floor (wearing a beautifully ironed shirt, if I say so myself). And it was time for the first speaker.



Kartika Jahja: Musician & Feminist

(Lead singer of the critically acclaimed Indonesian band Tika & the Dissidents)


Tika bounded onto the stage wearing a camouflage-print vest decorated with pink pom-poms, a pale blue hooded mini-dress, and high-heeled basketball shoes – her choice of attire already playing with gender conventions. Her talk was centred around the body shaming of women. “It’s always women’s bodies that become the object of scrutiny… It feels as if we’re living inside a beauty pageant that we never signed up for, where everybody else gets to be the judge.”


When Tika started out in the music industry in the 1990s, her record label asked if she could put on 10-15kg in a month, “Because we can either market you as a ‘hot singer’ or as a ‘fat singer.’ ” A few years later, she heard the same marketing person saying, “Sexy is out. Demure is in. The market no longer wants a pop star that they can masturbate to. They want a pop star that looks like wife material.”


Tika made sure to point out that this kind of misogynistic behavior spoke to a global problem, and wasn’t specific to Indonesia (or, in fact, to the music industry). “Women’s bodies are used as political leverage, to sell products; or worse yet, we are the product itself.”


Tika is perhaps best known for the hit song Tubuhku Otoritasku (My Body, My Authority) which we were lucky to hear performed live at the end of the evening. Tubuhku Otoritasku and its accompanying video caused a sensation in Indonesia when released in 2016, for featuring a range of women re-claiming their bodies, by writing short, powerful slogans in black letters across various bodyparts, which they then displayed to camera. “Who would have thought that a woman claiming things about her own body could be so controversial?” Tika asked. The response was both positive and negative: women from far-flung countries contacted Tika to tell her the song was helping them to learn to love themselves again.


Unsurprisingly, Tika was named one of BBC’s 100 Most Inspirational Women in the World in 2016.


From the Tubuhku Otoritasku video


Trudy Rilling-Collins: Scientist & Mosquito Whisperer


Twilight was creeping in as Trudy took the stage, and this was an artful piece of programming: the mosquitoes came out as if on cue for this speaker who refers to herself as the “mosquito lady.” Trudy didn’t mess around with communicating the urgency of her message. “The female mosquito is the most deadly creature on the planet,” she said. “Mosquitoes and the diseases they carry kill more than three quarters of a million people around the world every year.”


While living in the beautiful Maldives six years ago, Trudy was appalled to learn that neurotoxin pesticides were being sprayed across the island three times a day. “When the fogging would set in, I would run to the far end of the island to try to escape it. Once, when I was running from the fogger, I realized that I needed to do something about this terrible problem.”


Mosquitoes adapt to pesticides very quickly – they become genetically resistant and the pesticides become less and less effective – and so the Maldives were still riddled with mosquitoes despite the toxic treatment. With this in mind, Trudy founded “Mosquito Lady Solutions,” offering simple yet effective, environmentally conscious alternatives. Her method, called ‘source control,’ eliminates mosquito larvae in water before they have the chance to emerge with wings. Adult mosquitoes in the air are a lot harder to find and eliminate, because they disperse; water, on the other hand, keeps the larvae more contained.


Trudy has worked from Kazakhstan to the Caribbean in her mission to reduce use of chemical pesticides. Brava!



Kevin Kumala: Environmental Entrepreneur


The TEDxUbud site describes Kevin Kumala (amongst other things) as an adrenaline seeker, and when he sprang onto the stage, the energy in the entire venue lifted, and I had the distinct impression that this is precisely what has made his achievements possible.


Kevin believes it’s the responsibility of young people to make the planet cleaner and greener. As someone who walks his talk, he spent four years, without income, experimenting with bio-plastics until he had come up with effective products made with raw materials such as corn, soy starch, cassava and sugar cane fibre.


Although his company, Avani, makes tableware, cutlery, eco ponchos and more, Kevin named the drinking straw made from corn starch as his favourite product, perhaps because he’s fed up with plastic straws getting stuck up his nose when he goes surfing. “I’m going to give you guys one mind-boggling illustration,” he said, to demonstrate why he does what he does. “Let’s take Indonesia for example – a population of approximately 260 million people. Let’s assume that a plastic straw is about 27cm long, and assume that one person consumes one plastic straw a day. Let’s do the math. That is 52,000km of plastic straws being discarded every single day. You know what? Unfortunately our equator is only 41,000km long. So as Indonesians, we are actually discarding 1.3 times the length of our equator just on plastic straws alone.”


In December 2016, a video of Kevin went viral. It showed him dissolving an Avani plastic bag in a glass of warm water and then drinking it. He didn’t disappoint at TEDx Ubud: a glass of bluish water – the product of a durable plastic bag dissolved in front of our eyes – was consumed in front of us, a curious type of eco-cocktail.


I was only sorry there wasn’t one for everyone in the audience.



Lana Kristanto: Monitoring & Evaluation Specialist


“Consider how hard it is to change yourself,” Lana began, “and you’ll understand what little chance you’ll have in trying to change others.” This set the tone for her talk on decision-making, and how human foibles impact upon health amelioration and poverty alleviation.


Lana works with Kopernik, an organization that (amongst many other things) has distributed 10,000 biomass stoves across the archipelago. 450 people per day die prematurely in Indonesia from respiratory illnesses caused by household air pollution – that is, as many people as were seated in the audience at TEDx – as the result of cooking on open fires with solid fuels. The smoke-reducing stoves seemed a brilliant solution to this problem. Until a flaw in the plan became evident.


Wood must be chopped into fine pieces before the biomass stoves can be put to use. Research uncovered that 20-30% of people weren’t using their stoves because they didn’t want to go to the trouble of cutting wood, despite the obvious health benefits of doing so.


”In the social and health sector we’ve seen this behavior a lot.” Lana said. “It turns out our brain is hard wired to over-value small but immediate gratifications. It’s called the ‘present bias’. We all struggle with the present bias. It’s the procrastinator in us… It’s erroneous to suppose that technology alone can cure problems such as poverty and ill-health; the brilliant solutions only work 70-80% of the time. For them to work 100% of the time, we need to consider the human.”


“Combining rigorous research into empathy, in order to help the human despite the human, will help us get better impact through our actions,“ she concluded. “And who knows, we might even learn a thing or two about ourselves.”



Jasmine Okubo: Dancer & Choreographer


Japanese dancer and choreographer Jasmine Okubu studied Balinese dance at the Indonesian Institute of the Arts in Denpasar. At TEDxUbud she performed with a small community of hearing-impaired dancers, whom she has trained herself. The result was magnificent. The hairs on my arms were standing on end from start to finish.


Made Sidia: Puppet Master

Another major highlight on the performance side was a shadow puppetry performance with a difference, by one of Bali’s most highly acclaimed wayang (puppet) artists, I Made Sidia. This was one of the high points for me because of the wit and sheer ingenuity that went into the performance. It combined Balinese traditional storytelling methods with projection and technology. Pure wow. {Photo by Catriona Mitchell}


Grey Tan: Astro-photographer & Start-up Founder


Astronomy photography is inaccessible because it requires bulky and expensive tools. Or, that remains the case until next month.


Grey Tan and his company TinyMOS have changed the future of photography. “We wanted to put the power of capturing the night skies into your hands,” he said to a rapt audience.


TinyMOS has invented a camera that “can give you the correct capture settings to capture it like the professionals do…. You can capture night skies with one click of your hand.”


“When you look at the night sky, there are so many stars, you don’t really know what you’re looking at,” said Grey. TinyMOS has created a star map to tell its users exactly what stars and constellations they’re looking at; and then it gives instructions on how to take professional-style imagery.


It felt like something of a sacred moment when he pulled a brand-new prototype out of his pocket. “After three years of R&D, I finally have with me the world’s smallest astronomy camera.” There were whoops, and cries, whistles and wild clapping from the audience.


Last year, the company launched a crowd-funding campaign, and managed to make US$100,000 within the first four hours of the launch. Today, it has raised more than half a million dollars in pre-orders, and units will start shipping in less than 30 days from now.


“Before I end today’s speech, I would like you guys to take a look at the skies tonight,” he said. Many a neck was craned upwards with, I suspect, an all-new appreciation.



Joe Crossley: New Media Artist


“I’m Joe Crossley and I’m here to talk to you about empty spaces,” began the curly-haired Welshman, looking more like an easygoing surfer than a high-tech wiz. Starting out in life as a rugby-playing cellist, Joe has since forged a dynamic and progressive career in ‘projection mapping’, or using light and projection to turn blank walls into multi-media environments.


A favourite project Joe has worked on, to provide an example, was giving indigenous Australians new technological means to tell their stories by projecting them onto the exterior walls of an Australian university. This is what he’d like to see more of: new media used to address meaningful subjects. “Can you imagine the rock face of Uluru in Australia coming to life with the story of the Aboriginal people? Or even the Balinese temples waking up with the gods that they’re dedicated to?”


“We don’t need to go into the super tech. We can do it super simply,” said Joe, though I must confess that this luddite in the audience got a little lost when he started to explain how projection mapping might permit us to harness microscopic processes to “grow plants and trees faster than we’ve seen before, to help us prevent things like climate change. Or maybe we can develop systems for farming in space. These are all possibilities of projection mapping.”


I believe him, even if my wheels started to spin at the mention of Artificial Intelligence. I felt more at home speaking to his giant bird sculpture near the lounge area, which burst into a rainbow of lights when you spoke to it through a microphone. (Rio and I discovered that it particularly liked the Beatles. And the Heart Sutra.)



There’s wonder that’s fathomable, and then there’s wonder that’s unfathomable.


TEDxUbud managed to share a bit of both, presenting a feast for the senses, the intellect, and the imagination. TEDxUbud shed light on a multitude of new ideas for its audience, and no one left disappointed. We can’t wait to see what the stellar organisers and their passionate team of volunteers will cook up for us next year.


Ubud Now & Then’s Rio Helmi, the TEDxUbud host for a second year running, did a magnificent job (and was called “the coolest MC on Earth” by one of the event’s co-producers, Gika Savitri).

Our thanks go to Suki Zoe for providing these photos of TEDxUbud 2017.