In a forum such of PEERS it is the blending of people of diverse backgrounds, views and ideologies, to network and interact, that allows for critical debate, experimentation and practice. This diversity was represented by the artists at PEERS 2006, Atanu, Thara, Surabhi, Atul and Lalit, and me, the critic-in-residence. Each of us as individuals came with distinct ideologies and worldviews, but came to be a part of the collective experience that PEERS is.
The Peers workshop is a platform for equal amount of creativity and self-analysis. It is the time when the young art students are given their first glimpse at both the sides of the coin, with regard to art practice and the wider sphere of the art market. The forum itself is like a stepping stone that assists students to make the transmission into the professional world. It is designed to expose and introduce the peers to a diverse audience and varied responses to art.
PEERS is also the time for the artists and critic to re-look at their practice with a more critical eye and to gain extra focus. It is about greater exposure to and awareness of the workings of the art world. KHOJ also puts the peers in direct contact with a large number of practicing contemporary artists, critics, curators and other professionals. It is this inter-disciplinary environment that gives this forum a wider spectrum for analysis. Interaction with such a varied and experienced group gives the peers much needed guidance and confidence. (The advantage of this type of interaction was felt by all of us. The regular dialogue with Pooja and Anita were particularly interesting, as it gave us all a lot to think about and greater clarity of thought. The encouragement by all the artists helped us get rid of our hesitancy in trying something new and taught us to just go for it). The forum also provides for multi-directional mode of communication.
The other crucial facet to PEERS is the networking of students from across the country. Each art college is known for their emphasis on a particular aspect of art and each has its strengths and weaknesses, and its distinct ideology. The conscious blending of students from these various colleges has allowed for great balance in the Peers group. The effect of this was particularly felt during our long hours of discussions. Each artist’s mind is greatly conditioned by their respective colleges, its ideology and positioning, and the Peers program in this manner was a challenge directed at each of the peers, to re-look at their own individual stance.
Another aspect which I felt was most important, and perhaps not discussed in detail during the time of the residency, is the artists’ view of the art gallery and of the booming art scenario. The popular artist’s mindset, especially among young artists, places “creativity and artistic freedom” on one side of the scale and the art gallery and market on the other. This feeling was rather strongly felt among all the peers, as we were witnessing a dramatic new current in the art scenario, where art students works were being picked up for huge sums of money by big art galleries/investor. The academics saw in this the death of creativity among these young artists, who were “producing” works as per the gallery demands. What PEERS successfully did was to show us the positive side of such an art trend; that working with a gallery didn’t necessarily mean compromising on one’s creative freedom, and how this gave the opportunity for young artists to showcase their works to a wider audience (this is with particular reference with our discussions with Bharti and Subodh).
PEERS: the triple E
Experimentation, exploration and exchange, which were the key words that described this residency, were also the focal point of much of the discussion and practical enquiry. What do we mean by Experimentation? Who defines the boundaries which we explore? When does Exchange become Collaboration?
Experimentation is a constant in every artist’s practice, for what is art which does not strive for change? However is change alone experimentation? Each artist’s take on the term added a different facet to our understanding and art practice. Each of the Peers came with certain ideas for their work, of what style they wanted to work with, what material, medium etc. This idea came to be molded, reflected upon, altered and negotiated with by the end of the four weeks. Experimentation became the process which defined the works. The KHOJ workshop wasn’t just a space which allowed experimentation- that would be a rather shallow definition of it. It was a space that provided greater exposure, wider possibilities and the appropriate climate for the process of experimentation. I would compare the workshop to a pit-stop in a race, where the artist is, in a short time, given the necessary tools and exposure, to keep going in the race ahead. One of the visitors who viewed our blog gave an appropriate definition of experimentation in the arts. In art, unlike in science, experimentation doesn’t really have an end or a conclusion (this holds good to not just visual arts). It does not look for answers through experimentation but looks at experimentation as a process in itself.
Looking beyond the Visual in Art: Exploration and Exchange
PEERS is also opportunity for young artists to engage with their art from a wider perspective without isolating it within the confines of the visual arts discipline. The multi-disciplinary group of professionals that the peers get to meet enables them to look beyond the boundaries of visual arts and engage with questions of a multi-disciplinary nature. A city like Delhi with its buzzing cultural scenario allowed for greater interaction and exchange, even outside the confines of the studio space and the designed PEERS program. The peers ventured out and met professionals from theatre, performance artists, and musicians, who contributed to each of their works inversely.
“KHOJ positions PEERS as a model for practice as research within the ambit of the visual arts”. But the enquiries and exploration wasn’t restricted to the visual arts alone. Even before the KHOJ experience each of them had developed a distinctive approach to their work, with certain concerns, styles and even mediums. Collaborative works, working in public spaces, interactive instillations, and experimentation with performance/music were areas into which they had already ventured. Each of them consciously chose to extend their earlier explorations for this forum. In today’s visually stimulating world of multiple realities, where the image takes center stage, these artists (especially as seen in the works of Surabhi, Thara and Atul) extended their experimentation beyond merely the visual, and attempted to create a wider sensory experience. This is a critical direction that their works took in this forum and has to be recognized as the most significant feature of PEERS 2006.
Two heads are better than one- exchange of ideas, technical know-how and critical questions contributed a great deal to the works of all the artists. The exchange probably didn’t manifest as a collaborative work but the exchange of knowledge allowed for the artists to try new mediums of expressions despite no prior experience. Each artist became a critic in their own right, and initiated some very energetic debates. This exchange created a wonderful support group among the peers- an experience that many young artists would really benefit from.
When talking about the artists and their works I cannot but look at each as a part of a larger practice. Speaking of their work as an isolated project would be highly misleading and un-true. It is this that has forced me to give a brief introductory paragraph on their earlier practice, as their works here was a partial continuation of their earlier journey.
One of the most significant experiences for us all was the process of research, experimentation and production. The process might not be manifested in full in the final work but it is this that has shaped the artists’ practice. To emphasize the importance of the process in their PEERS experience I decided to make it a part of the final Open Day. A video-loop with images of the artists-in-process played the whole time much like a work in itself. The PEERS 2006 blog was also projected as a backdrop, thus making the everyday process very much a part of the final presentation.
Kanoria Centre for Arts, Ahmadabad
Surabhi’s work started right from the time she stepped into the KHOJ studios. The distinct and native sounds heard in the studio space and the visual maze-like feel of the studio appealed to her artistic sensibility- both as a visual artist and as a dancer-musician. Right from her early work one can clearly see both these sensibilities working in tandem, where the visual was often juxtaposed with audio. A dancer, with a sound knowledge of music, she past works laid great emphasis on the performative aspect, and this trend continues in her present work. Like she would like to say, it is the “multi-sensory” experience that she like present to her audience, not just a visual imagery.
Even before coming to KHOJ she was pondering with the idea of working with “sonic-art” (a term I was introduced to in this process) and the aesthetics of ambient music. This led her to start exploring into ‘sounds’ (not music) that enhanced the feel of the space, and heightened the visual experience of the space. Acoustic comes to play a significant part in her experimentation with sound and space.
The work emanates from her room (the room sort of like a nerve-center) and runs across the entire studio space, up and down, in and out of the archways. The setup is highly technical, with multiple speakers, amplifiers, sound mixers and live recording mikes. These gadgets are themselves like an installation creating a stage for her performance. Much of her work came together as a result of continues practice with the mixing equipments and composing the primary track.
The final work is a “performance”- live and spontaneous. Performance not in the conventional sense, where there is a ‘body’ performing, but her mixing the sounds was in itself the main act. The performance is heard and seen. Modulating, distorting, and re-mixing the native and mechanical sounds (the creaky old fan being the predominant feature) in the studio she put together compositions. This set the rhythm to her work. The final performance involved her mixing ‘live’ in front of the viewers, using ‘live’ recordings of the creaky fan along with these recorded compositions.
Through this work Surabhi created an ambience, where the sounds flowing across the space sensitizes the viewer of his/her surroundings. The work is conceived as a ‘virtual web’ of sounds, crisscrossing one-another across the studio spaces. As one moves about the space their experience of the space constantly changes and is determined by their position in space. To further enhance this experience was the web of wires (of the amplifiers itself) that ran across the walls and video projections. (The sound of the creaky fan was accompanied by, (a) a video projection of a rotating fan on the corridor wall, (b) a video projection of the sound waves on the actual fan). The audio and the visual mutually reinforced each other and enhance the final experience.
Surabhi’s working method is vigorous, as she combines practical experimentation with theoretical know-how. Her final work though ‘live and spontaneous’ was born out of days of practice and one cant ignore the process in the making of her work. Although the concept didn’t materialize and communicate quite as effectively as conceived, it was aided her with great pointers for her next work. In this project which she later named NOMONOSOUND she takes her first steps into experimenting with “sonic art” and she hopes to continue further from here.
M.S. University of Baroda
Atul’s interest in space, and more specifically “air”, came about during his college days in Baroda. As a sculpture student his first enquiries began as he searched for newer materials for his sculpture. In his attempt at breaking away from the conventions of sculpture-making he started working with latex/rubber and therefore inflatable rubber “sculptures”. The impermanence of inflated rubber sculptures, opposed to the permanence of wood or stone, was an aspect he particularly enjoyed.
Although he had worked on several such works earlier he found the environment of KHOJ very appropriate for further experimentation along the same lines. Practically speaking, this was a chance for him to work on a larger scale as he had always wanted to (galleries weren’t particular about buying large works!!).
His work plays a dual role- as food for critical thought and as entertainment. There is a cheeky sense of humour in his works (especially with regard to his earlier works) which he consciously presents to the viewer. Atul is particular that his work has to provoke a response from the viewer- surprise, laughter or just shock, and this is exactly what his ‘sculptures’ do at first glance. However as one looks more closely they will notice the critical statement he makes or the question he puts forth to the audience.
The final work is something like a performance of shadow puppets, serpentine forms that come to life as the viewer steps in, casting a shadow on the surface of the coffin-like box. Connected to air pillows these forms spring up as the viewer walks around the work. They are alive only for the brief period when the viewer is present, thus making the viewer the most integral element in his work. The humour in the work wasn’t lost on anybody, it was provocative and mischievous.
Through this work Atuls enquires about the ‘space’- not only the space that a body occupies, but the space it displaces. The intangibility of space is given a form- the form of the shadows. Atul also reads this work at a deeper level, where he looks beyond the veil of humour. His interpretation turns the whole coffin, the forms inside and their shadows into metaphors, for death, the body and the soul.
Atul’s experimentation was through art practice itself. He challenged himself by trying new materials and attempting to present a large-scale work. He also came to acknowledge that pushing the envelopes and breaking boundaries shouldn’t be confused with setting personal limitations. Experimentations such as this were after all stepping stones and not the final goal.
Srishti School of Art & Design, Bangalore
Coming from a rapidly developing city such as Bangalore, Thara had already extended her personal critical enquiry into the public realm. In her search for alternative spaces for art practice she had already ventured into working in public spaces and with the residents of these spaces. This had led her to looking at already existing art in public spaces, such as signage. Signage is a constant in every urban space, and determines the way the space is conceived.
This was her point of departure for her work here. She arrived with no preconceived idea as to what she wanted to do and went about searching for inspiration from the city. Much of her energy went into the initial travel across the city, into the old and new, as she captured on video images that told her story. Her major concern was that her work had to have relevance to this city, and her experience if it. It was also her (dis)location and the new relationship between the city and her self that initiated this project. When she viewed the city spaces she saw an order or structure through the use of signage. The signage to her is a mechanism for social conditioning- the road signs, traffic lights, the row of reflectors on the road. They determine the nature of viewing a space.
The work finally came together as a video-installation, which brought her experience of the city and the people into her studio. Her public experience into a private space. To extend the idea beyond the 2D video screen the work extends into an installation. The thread pillars recreate the feel of the crowded streets, where one has to maneuver carefully for space of their own. As the video runs in the background a line of DOTS, like the signal on an air strip or the reflectors on the road, appear and disappear in front. The dot-dot-dot-dot sets the mechanical visual rhythm to the video- the monotony beneath everyday life. Thara uses the protagonist in this video to lead the eyes of the viewer over the screen. In one transitory moment, when the protagonist’s eye looks right at the viewers, the thin screen between the reality of the viewer and that of the video completely shatters. This completely subverts the viewer-object binary; the gaze is turned back upon the viewer himself/herself.
To Thara this is an experiment with the image itself, where the image isn’t used to replicate reality but to reinforce the viewer’s experience of their reality. Though the video communicated with great strength, the installation didn’t materialize and function as envisioned. To Thara this was a reminder that installation with all its possibilities is a complex medium as any other and needs a greater deal of thought.
Kala Bhavan, Shantiniketan
As a graphic artist Atanu found great enjoyment and excitement in experimenting with new surfaces and techniques. His journey into working with found objects and three-dimensional surfaces started in his college days, where he took to etching and printing on surfaces of sculptures and unconventional surfaces. At KHOJ he chose to extend his earlier practice and work with a found object- a rocking chair.
Through his work he set about translating his discomfort with his present situation in life, at cross-roads with difficult decisions to make. His state of confusion during this period of transition from a student to a professional is manifest in his work. He also pours into the work his experience of dislocation, as he finds himself suddenly in the large buzzing metro after being accustomed to the quite environs of Shantiniketan. This found-object sculpture/installation manifests his extreme dissatisfaction with his own life, where he finds no comfort and cannot capture what he desires. The bed of nails draped on the easy-chair frame and on the floor unmistakably portrays this discomfort. The multi-colored apples which are strewn just out of reach are metaphors of his unfulfilled desires.
To Atanu the process is of great significance and finds working on different materials highly challenging adventurous. Usually an artist of very few words, this forum prompted and encouraged him to be more articulate about his work. The highly personal nature of his work however didn’t allow for exchange to happen beyond the material level.
Jamia Milia Islamia, New Delhi
Lalit was the ‘late-comer’ to the PEERS, joining us after the first week, but blended right in. A student of sculpture, his interest lay primarily in material and technique. His works, prior to PEERS, were part-sculpture part-installations. Through his works he articulates his strong views on the contemporary social conditions.
As an urban Indian, and particularly a Delhite, Lalit expresses obvious concern over rising population, increasing urbanization and skyrocketing land prices in urban India. His work here is built around his hypothetical perception of the future of Delhi where public space becomes extremely scarce, to such an extant that personal vehicles have no place in public roads! He consciously chooses to portray the ‘life of the scooter’, (not a car) finding it an apt analogy for the middle class population. The scooter is transformed into household decorative furniture, a showpiece, completely loosing its original identity. He completely transforms the very look of the scooter, welding-on flowers to its surface and giving it a glass top. The scooter stands on a ‘No Parking’ sign, which reads like a subtext to the main story.
Lalit poses a question, a thought to ponder over, rather than providing the answers. The scooter is presented as a bizarre piece of art, displaced from its original space. Aesthetically what could have been dismissed as baroque, this became the most interesting aspect in his work, as this provided the vital contrast necessary to recognize the underlying questions.
How transparent the meanings were in each of their works or how successful their experimentations were, are not questions I am trying to find exact answers to. Some of their ideas did not communicate as desired and the final work was far from what it was conceived to be. However this only reinforced the point that the work is a result of the process of experimentation, and not an end. The successes and disasters during the making of the work are the critical aspects that mould the artist’s practice. Some might feel that I might have over-read their works, or even misread it, but I have chosen to read into the whole PEERS experience and not the final works alone. To all the peers this wasn’t just isolated experiments in art, but a collective experience.
To each of us PEERS was a platform where criticism and encouragement came hand in hand and pushed us to take a chance, to experiment, to explore beyond conventional boundaries. This period of transition in an artist’s life, from being a student to being a professional, can be rather confusing; PEERS however has made us realize the actual possibilities that are open to us at this crossroads and has aided us to understand and make the right choices.