No Spare Change

Srimoyee Mitra

When the Indian economy opened up in 1991 there were three types of cars in India: The Ambassador, Premiere Padmini, and Maruti Suzuki. Every Sunday afternoon we watched the children’s programs on one of the three television channels that we received. The transformation of economic “liberalization” changed our lifestyles overnight. One day I got home from school and instead of three channels we had 100! Along with the explosion of television channels, when the first McDonalds opened in Mumbai the line up went round the building almost five times and very quickly the market was flooded with brands of all kinds. Almost twenty years after liberalization took place, India’s car consumption is ten times what it used to be in 1991 (Rana Dasgupta, “Capital Gains,” Granta 107, 2) and is rising rapidly, burdening the space-starved cities further with chock-a-block traffic and pollution. The rhetoric of economic growth, development, and “progress” manifests itself in public spaces in the form of AC malls, the demolition of slums, and unprecedented consumption by the Indian middle-class. In the midst of the hyperbolic excitement of India as an emerging power are many artists, activists, and intellectuals who critique the high cost of “growth” and look for innovative, local solutions. Here are just some of the artists and project spaces I visited when in India this summer.

Experimenter
Located in the heart of southern Kolkata’s most bustling market, Garihat, the Experimenter art gallery is the latest addition to Kolkata’s nascent contemporary art scene. Experimenter opened in April 2009 with an ambitious mandate to show the work of emerging and mid-career contemporary artists from India and abroad whose work challenge the boundaries of their art practices and engage in public dialogue. The gallery is housed in a 1930s building behind the famous sari store Kanishka, best known for its innovative block prints and designs. As a gallery dedicated to the development and promotion of experimental art practices, there is a great deal of potential for Experimenter to emerge as an important player in the Indian contemporary art scene as a centre that supports critical art practice that isn’t primarily motivated by the “forces” of the art market. So far, the two exhibitions commissioned and held at the gallery have lived up to its vision. The first exhibition, Tell Tale: Fiction Falsehood and Fact, examined the notions of “authenticity” by referencing the rich legacy of narratives and story-telling in nineteenth century Bengal while the more recent exhibition SEZ Who? resonated deeply in the Eastern metropolis city of India, which has been struggling with Special Economic Zones since 2007. The exhibition served as a catalyst to bring a wide-ranging audience together with artists, academics, activists and students to discuss the pertinent issues surrounding SEZs through contemporary art.

SEZ Who?
SEZ Who? is a research-based conceptual art project initiated by Mumbai-based artist, Tushar Joag, who, in collaboration with four contemporary artists (Justin Ponmany, Prajakta Potnis, Sharmila Samant, and Uday Shanbhag) examined the controversial and contradictory media attention surrounding the proposed development of Special Economic Zones (SEZs) on fertile agricultural lands and fishing villages outside of Mumbai. In his curatorial statement Joag states, “I invited four fellow artists to take on the role of a fact-finding committee. This enabled us to gather first hand information from the local people. For a period of six months from January 2009 onward we made several trips to the region. We gathered notes, video footage, and sound bytes from a wide range of people in the community through numerous interactions, interviews, and even protests organized by them.” This independent artist-led investigation into the SEZ policy that is being promoted as a crucial factor for India’s growth, development, and foreign investment, resonated on multiple levels. In SEZ Who?, the artists questioned media coverage, government negligence, and artists’ and publics’ complicity in the ongoing displacements, food shortages, loss of livelihoods, and erosion of workers’ rights, all occurring under the banner of “progress.” For their exhibition, the artists transformed the gallery into a discursive project space that required ongoing interaction with the audience. Every week of the six-week-long exhibition, they unpacked the impact of establishing Special Economic Zones outside Mumbai in the Gorai-Uttan belt or the Dharavi Island and spread awareness to their audiences through innovative and dialogic interactions. Joag and his collaborators highlighted the daily struggle and unanimous resistance offered by the affected communities against the large-scale projects for private profit, drawing from daily practices of fighting pests by farming communities, making salt, and fishing. They held film and video screenings, facilitated discussions between the audience and the community members via Skype, and engaged public opinion with mock survey forms that mimicked governmental forms. Altogether, SEZ Who? was a powerful critique of the government’s unsustainable strategies of “growth” and “development,” at the same time as it subverted the many hierarchies within the white cube (elite viewers; authorship) by engaging the audience and connecting them with the people confronting the threat of losing their homes, livelihoods, and territory.

Harappa Files by Sarnath Banerjee
The chaos and deadlock on the roads of Indian cities is where the different worlds of urban society collide and co-exist. The dizzying and relentless pace at which the urban landscape is changing is best encapsulated on these city roads. Where the screeching noise of honking by impatient commuters, the churning of the cement machines, music from tea stalls located on the pavement right next to a new mall all blend in with the strong smells and intense heat of Delhi. Sarnath Banerjee’s new series of work unfolds in the heart of this commotion almost in the form of a social commentary on the ironies and contradictions that flood the changing urban environment. Born and raised in the city of Kolkata and currently based in Delhi, Banerjee is a graphic novelist and artist. His work constructs layered and fragmented narratives that draw on interconnected histories of displacement, colonization, and movement. Harappa Files is an ongoing series in which Banerjee combines his drawings with text to present glimpses of his main protagonist: the city.

Cybermohalla by Sarai
Mohalla in Hindi and Urdu means neighbourhood. Sarai’s Cybermohalla project takes on the meaning of the word mohalla — its sense of alleys and corners, of relatedness and concreteness — as a means of talking about one’s “place” in the city and in cyberspace. Cybermohalla (May 2001-) is a collaborative project with Ankur: Society for Alternatives in Education. Initiated by Sarai, Cybermohalla is a group of artists, intellectuals, and academics whose research is based in urban experience, city, publics, open and free software, and digital culture. Cybermohalla began in 2001 in neighbourhoods such as the LNJP colony, followed by Dakshinapuri (2002) and Nangla Maanchi (2004-06), all of which started as informal settlements and developed into fully-fledged slums. These areas are often considered illegal by the government and constantly face the threat of demolition. The project began as a one-room lab with the basic technology of three Linux-operated computers, a dictaphone, a still camera, and 15 young practitioners between the ages 15 and 20 years. The lab created a space for writing, researching, experimenting, and tapping into different forms of knowledge, modes of cultural expression, and infrastructures of circulation within the local neighbourhood. Almost ten years after its initiation, Cybermohalla has become a rich and vibrant resource of videos, soundscapes, and texts that document, interpret, and express the major transformations by artists and youth from these areas. All the information generated through this project can be found online at: http://www.sarai.net/practices/cybermohalla/generative-contexts/locality-labs


Other weblinks:

Experimenter: http://experimenter.in/

SEZ Who?: http://www.experimenter.in/sezwho/pics.html

Sarnath Banerjee: http://www.sarnathbanerjee.net/

Sarai: http://www.sarai.net/

A few more spaces and artists to check out:

CEMA (Centre for Experimental Media Arts): http://cema.srishti.ac.in/content/about
CAMP: http://www.camputer.org/
Abhishek Hazra: http://abhishekhazra.blogspot.com/
Kiran Subbaiah: http://www.geocities.com/antikiran/
Khoj International Artists’ Workshop: http://khojworkshop.org/

Srimoyee Mitra is an emerging writer, curator and performance artist. She has worked as the Art Writer for publications and newspapers in India such as Time Out Mumbai, Art India –The Art News Magazine of India, and The Indian Express newspaper. In 2008, she completed her Masters degree in Art History at York University and has been working as the Programming Co-ordinator of SAVAC (South Asian Visual Arts Centre).

15 September 2009