D E L H I L O V E S M E ?
I am interested in’ P u b l i c A r t ’ that emphasizes a process of engagement with issues, and when the work emerges out of extended dialogical and personal interaction with the groups of people and individuals; the dialogue becomes two–way and interactive which respects and invites multiple points of views.
At the time when invited to be part of ‘ Public Art Project –2006 ‘ from KHOJ, Delhi government’s dream / plan / action to transform the city into an international city with international standards of public and privately owned spaces was going on in full swing and was often discussed in the media – a number of bastis were being dislocated to vacate the prime locations. Preparing for the Common Wealth games to be held in Delhi in the coming years has been another reason for clearing certain locations – by displacing the poor to far away under developed sites without any basic facilities.
Since I do not live in Delhi - f o r D E L H I L O V E S M E ? – I chose a location around Khirki where KHOJ is situated. People / communities living in Khirki and Hauze Rani to an extent are aware of KHOJ Studios and to begin with could relate to - where I was coming from.
These habitants primarily migrants from different socio – cultural backgrounds work in all kinds of fields including driving auto rickshaws and taxis- quite a few have migrated permanently but most depend on temporary jobs on a daily basis. Since, right from the beginning on my part, there was a dialogical approach, through initial meetings and then during the process of discussions and interviews (over the period) with the groups and individuals; people got interested in sharing their experiences and it encouraged communication between us about their lives in the city of Delhi, its politics/policies of development/law and order/short-term thoughtless problem solving tactics of the planners and the implications /actions on quality of human life and environment. Since most of the participants have roots in the villages the discussion also revolved around the villages in many states not being developed enough to provide job opportunities to the youth or not having proper irrigation system for the farmers especially when the monsoons fail. And around the issue of working class people / migrants dealing with the uncertainty of their present and future work situation and their relationship and nostalgia with the city of Delhi, they have been for generations, coming to the city - primarily for livelihood out of compulsion and in some cases to experience life and work ‘outside’ their immediate environment. Meeting with the members of Bhartiya Labour Union in Hauze Rani I learnt about the changing work possibilities in private and public sectors and the role agents play in the lives of the laborers.
The text - I L O V E D E L H I / I L O V E I N D I A / I L O V E B O M B A Y on the stickers , T-shirts ,Caps , toys, mugs etc is popular but through the process of dialogical interaction emerged the counter text - D E L H I L O V E S M E ? . Which enacted people and some of them, now participants with critical approach, consciously / subconsciously started narrating / composing poetry / shairi individually / jointly related to questions relevant to their lives and the targeted communities in Delhi. At this point we realized the possibilities of developing an aesthetic structure – jointly.
Ideas of images, text and poetry which developed from the consistent communication between some of the community people and Rikkimi (student of art and aesthetics / participant )and myself were selected mutually to be transferred on to stickers, planned to be installed on auto rickshaws plying all over the city at one level. And then approaching the auto rickshaw drivers to know their response to the idea of carrying the installed stickers from one area in Delhi to another. During the process of working out the aesthetics of the stickers, participants understanding / opinion of how (once installed on the Auto Rickshaws) people in general wiould respond to the selection of poetry / shairi on the photographic images of the specific locations in Khirki and Hauze Rani prepared on photoshop with the help of Manoj (printer) and Rikkimi, I regularly was in touch with the interested participants from the locality and their ideas / sense of aesthetics was keenly / seriously taken into consideration as well as of those who remained with the project throughout. What emerged is a different way of thinking about the purpose of artwork in totality. This is not just a case of a final product or object to which all else is preliminary.
With 25,000 printed stickers (12 different ones) we met Auto Rickshaw Union near I I T premises for their response and support to approach rickshaw drivers in the city. With the support and participation of three auto rickshaw drivers, art students, artists, community persons, and a volunteer from KHOJ -on three consecutive days we approached the drivers while they waited to fill gas at CNG petrol pumps at various places and at auto rickshaw stands in Delhi. Since we believed that listening is the beginning of communication we individually or in groups listened to their responses / reactions to the stickers as many of them took time to read the text before they conveyed their consent or refusal to let us install the stickers on the back of their auto rickshaws. They had many questions - such as what do artists gain from such a process and who is funding the project? Even though most of them liked the aesthetics of the stickers especially the text on them, they had not heard of ‘ Public Art ’ as an art practice. But saw it as a move to include common man and his / her views in the art making process. As generally work of art is associated with a gallery / museum space.
Since the drivers, many of them migrants belonged to different socio-cultural backgrounds and responded differently to different stickers and the text, it was significant to observe and know their views on the issue of migration, their struggle to survive, advantages / disadvantages of migrating to big cities, rapidly growing inflation, State government’s future plans to stop auto- rickshaws from the roads in Delhi, and commuters attitudes towards the drivers at odd hours etc. Along with the stickers we gave each person a slip with KHOJ address on it, inviting him or her to send their views or poetry on the subject. Some in different locations participated in composing lines linked to their experiences in the city and its politics and handed it over to us. And a few expressed their perception of art / artists and the relationship between the viewer and the artist and the process itself by appreciating artist’s interest and engagement with the public. Apart from the ones who contributed to the realization of the project or rickshaw drivers who participated in action that traveled, permeating parts of the city, viewers in this case also included those who saw and read the text (on the stickers) on the moving rickshaws or while waiting at traffic lights. Stickers installed in the southern part of Delhi could be seen in the east / west /north of Delhi.
Stages of the process of meetings / discussions / response to the counter text concept - D E L H I L O V E S M E ? , different people reciting poetry / shairi in Khirki and Hauze Rani areas was (audio ) recorded and interaction / communication with the auto drivers / observers and installing of the stickers by the above mentioned team at some of the CNG gas pumps / auto stands / railway stations / and traffic lights was documented ( video ) with mutual consent, the documented audio recording and video footage (rough edit ) and stickers were played / projected and shown on the outer wall of KHOJ Studios (facing the street) on the ‘open day’ for the community persons / artists / visitors to see and hear the whole process at different levels. Since the participants in the project were now the audiences / viewers as well, there was a keen interest in the work and some who could not hear their recorded voices / conversations (due to technical problems) and had to wait the entire evening expressed their disappointment. If some had questions regarding the reasons for technical problems, others were engaged in listening to their own and other familiar / unfamiliar voices (from the neighborhood) and commented on the accessibility /similarities and differences of thoughts and points of view based on their lived experiences and observations.
Being with the participants / audiences ‘out side’ KHOJ premises made me realize the integrity of their participation / contribution and interest. For me, how the entire process brought a number of people into conversation at various stages / levels itself is a work of art. To understand this work and the situation in a larger context is to recognize that process and all associated activities.
Audiences from Khirki and Hsauz Rani were disappointed with KHOJ once again for not permitting them to enter the premises on the ‘open day’ to see works installed inside by other four participating artists in Public Art Project - 2006 . As from time to time they too had been interacting with the residents of the area at various levels.
Critique : I believe in KHOJ and its efforts to challenge the cultural conservatism. But I feel that we are continuously confronted with the hard facts of neglect / that nothing is taken care of on its own. public art needs a language to articulate its compatibility. Critical language needs to be evolved. Since invited group of artists have been engaged with such an art practice, in a workshop space, apart from the projects that artists undertook, there was a lack of interest in theoretical debate within the group including the critic in residence. Difference was visible between the projects that were developed in a private space independent of people’s participation prior to the actual events and those which were developed through the process of physical and dialogical interaction /people’s contribution /shared experiences and visions. Yet there was hardly any exchange between the artists or debate provoked by the critic who was introduced to the artists to do so. But each planned meeting to discuss questions posed when it comes to Public Art / collaboration etc, based on participants own experiences and public art as an art practice in a larger context, either got cancelled or delayed leaving no time for any formal / serious debate .At an individual level there may have been some exchange taking place but it was never made into a group discussion. Since very little has been theorized or written on such an art practice in India I believe that these are the moments when the difference in approaches / choices and understandings of art practice like public art of different artists from different countries / contexts could be fore grounded, instead, too much emphasis was on the success of the technical efficiency / aesthetic appeal; where as intensive, multidisciplinary art making /art practice in which the participant / viewer’s physical and conscious interaction was integral to the process throughout, was not understood / discussed keenly even after the open day final discussion amongst the five participants, the critic and the KHOJ representative. Nor interested participants / viewers from Khirki waiting outside to watch the projection were respected by the KHOJ staff. Requirement of a technical person to check the wrong video equipment to begin projection in time was totally ignored until much after the opening.
As far as D E L H I L O V E S M E ? is concerned, documentation itself was the work not the stickers alone .The process till the stickers meant to be installed on auto rickshaws got printed - was phase 1 - which further created grounds for a dialogue with rickshaw / taxi drivers and the observers at different locations outside Khirki and Hauze Rani areas . Hence, participant’s (from Khirki and Hauze Rani) interest to view the entire process through the documented material on the open day needed to be recognized / respected. To further invite them for a dialogue / critical understanding / approach to public art , any dialogue between the artist and the participant / viewer whose contribution was integral to the process was crucial at the time when both artist and the participant / viewer heard and watched the documentation of the entire process together. Facts of neglect in this case reduced the time for - this phase of a’ dialogical exchange’.
On the other hand at the same time inside KHOJ premises the art world viewer was being entertained as in a private / gallery space.
N a v j o t A l t a f
M u m b a i - 2006 / 07