During this disorienting time of pandemic and lockdown, with restrictions on the freedom of assembly and mobility, “Blurring Boundaries” – an eight-week virtual studio – has brought six artists, located in various parts of the world, together in a digital environment of conversation, exchange, and collaborative endeavour. This making-space, as one might think of “Blurring Boundaries”, proposes a paradigm for future collaborative practices on the Indian visual arts scene.
The participants in “Blurring Boundaries” are Arshi Irshad Ahmadzai (born 1988), Manjot Kaur (born 1989), Amshu Chukki (1991), Sanket Jadia (1991), Salik Ansari (1991), and Tonoy Sarma (1992). Their working methodology has unfolded in three stages. In the preliminary stage, they came together to discuss ideas, share drawings, images and videos, and to collate these materials into a collage. Each artist then selected an element or array of elements from the collage, to process further, after which they worked in parallel, comparing notes, developing their own projects, and collaborating on a co-authored art work that will be launched on October 22.
Ahmadzai, the oldest among the artists, is 32; Sarma, the youngest, is 28. Their generation came of age in an early-21st century India shaped by economic, political, social, and cultural forces that had been unleashed around the time they were born. Theirs is an India whose economy, reshaped by the 1991 liberalisation, has dramatically widened the gulf between the poorest of the rural poor and the wealthiest of the urban wealthy. They must craft their life journeys through a society threatened by the divisive, polarising and authoritarian politics of religion inaugurated by the destruction of the Babri Masjid, Ayodhya, in 1992.
Theirs is an India, also, that was shaped centrifugally by a coalition politics that strong regional parties dictated; it has now been re-directed towards centralisation by a populist authoritarianism intolerant of difference. As Liberalisation’s Children, these young artists have grown up and gone through their formative socialisation in a society where aspirational groups that have benefited from the liberalisation collide with neo-conservative constituencies that feel threatened by the new openness to global trends of social behaviour and possibilities of individual choices in lifestyle.
In the midst of this turbulence, the six participants in “Blurring Boundaries” have gone through their academic training, built up communities of friendship and collegiality, and developed their artistic practices. What has sustained them, as much and sometimes more than the formal academic institutions which they have attended, are the networks they have created, often through the workshops and residency programmes in which they have participated. They have been offered both provocation and nourishment in the hospitable discursive spaces and spaces for practice created by such initiatives as the Raqs Media Collective, Khoj, and 1ShanthiRoad in India, and by residency programmes elsewhere.
This making-space of “Blurring Boundaries” is itself a collaboration between two institutions that have contributed actively to the Indian visual arts scene: AVID Learning, the Mumbai-based public pedagogy platform devoted to culture and creative inquiry, and the Inlaks India Foundation, which, as part of its philanthropic mandate to assist Indian students enrolling in academic programmes overseas, supports young artists with scholarships and grants.
Of Afghan ancestry, Arshi Ahmadzai has a BFA from Aligarh Muslim University and an MFA from Jamia Millia Islamia, Delhi. She works with painting, printmaking, calligraphy, and embroidery. Her practice engages with the lives and struggles of women in patriarchal societies. Her project within “Blurring Boundaries”, Naqsh-e Dhund-o-Hudud (translatable as “Maps of Mists and Borders”, with hudud carrying the additional nuance of religious strictures), references the work of women mystics such as Asma bint Marwan, Rabia al-Basri, and Lal Ded, as well as the radical Urdu woman writer Ismat Chugtai. Ahmadzai has worked, in the course of this project, with flower dye paste and ink on manjarpat fabric.
Manjot Kaur, who studied in Chandigarh, is currently artist in residence at the Jan Van Eyck Academie, Maastricht, Netherlands. Describing herself as a multi-disciplinary artist, she is committed to an inter-species and post-human vision of the planet in which natural landscapes too have a lived reality and deserve the right to be represented as protagonists in narratives. Her project, titled ‘Pink Poison’, is a series of mixed-media works deploying image and text, rendered in gouache, watercolour, and ink on Wasli paper. It ripples out from a sustained reflection on why people would want to reproduce and bring children into a world haunted by apocalypse.
Amshu Chukki, who took his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in the visual arts at the Maharaja Sayajirao University, Baroda, works at the shifting border between reality and fiction, interrogating the deep structures that hold up our normalised conceptions of the real and exposing their dystopian actuality. The grammar and vocabulary of cinema offer Chukki a vital framework through which to experiment with narrative structure and embark on a reimagining of time, place, and object. “As the Camera Pans”, his project, is a venue of collocation where, as he puts it, “fragments of scenes deciphering different landscapes contributed by individual artists come together as a screenplay”.
Sanket Jadia, who earned a BFA at South Gujarat University, Surat, and a master’s degree in visual arts from the Ambedkar University, Delhi, is preoccupied with the interplay of “the narratives and counter-narratives that formulate the public discourse” around pivotal moments in public life, and how this interplay informs the collective memory. He attends to the manifest as well as subtle evidence of such a politics. In “Residual Gaze”, Jadia reflects on violence and atonement. The outcome of the project will be a set of 3-D rendered bricks, each embodying an idea donated towards the reconstruction of a monument.
Salik Ansari’s practice explores the increasingly porous interface between digital and physical space. His formal training in the visual arts at the Sir JJ School of Art, Mumbai, and in communication design at the Industrial Design Centre, IIT Mumbai, equips Ansari to bridge various media, including installation and video as well as drawing and performance. “The Depository of Attention” was triggered off by his responses to “a series of letters created by Ahmadzai, a poem by Amshu Chukki and a powerful image by Sanket Jadia”. The final work assumes the form of an interactive webpage.
Tonoy Sarma is a graphic designer trained at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, and a visual artist deeply interested in the possibilities of humour in online art. “Unterpreter”, a sly play on “Interpreter”, is a series of animated GIFs that he has created during “Blurring Boundaries”. It articulates his responses to the works of his colleagues. In one work, he responded to a drawing by Kaur, showing the growth of a seedling, by way of a looped video evoking an immortal, eternally self-renewing plant. Another work encodes his translation, in emoji form, of the letter forms that he found in Ahmadzai’s work, which draws on Urdu, Arabic, and Persian calligraphy.
The Indian art scene has been largely fixated on individual artists, singular styles, and individual authorship of art – with some exceptions, during the last two decades, such as Sarai/ CSDS, the Raqs Media Collective, the Desire Machine Collective, and CAMP. In such a context, the new and distributed operational architecture that “Blurring Boundaries” has developed is unusual. It is, meanwhile, standard practice in the fields of design, management, science and technology, where specialists working on transnational projects use digital space routinely to discuss, collaborate, prototype and test-run their ideas.
And while observers, especially of an older generation, may be excited by the media through which the “Blurring Boundaries” exchanges have been conducted – GIFs, 3-D renders, interactive webpages, but also drawings, paintings, and text – these are the regular tools at hand for this generation. They are not startling in themselves. What is more specifically interesting and can prompt surprise and wonder is the manner in which these tools have been used, and the manner in which the outcomes of this virtual studio manifest themselves beyond the conventional circulations of the gallery world.
Having myself participated in a number of dynamic and fruitful mid- and long-term collaborations over the last two decades – across art forms, countries, generations, institutions, and languages – I would imagine that some of the traditional questions around collaboration remain relevant to “Blurring Boundaries”.
How does such a virtual studio address the varying tempi of collaboration, as – in any such group – some participants are swifter, more responsive and enthusiastic, while others are slower, more cautious and gradualist in their embrace of new stimuli? How do the participants identify points of affinity across practices that are dissimilar, sometimes highly so, in terms of preoccupation, thematic focus, technical preferences, political context, and chosen medium? How do the participants formulate a common objective, as far as the collaboratively produced work is concerned? How is the balance between individual and distributed authorship maintained?
And then there will doubtless be the new questions of a new generation, its distinctive approach to existing predicaments and crises evolving in real time. How to bear witness to potentially fragmenting chaos in politics, culture and the planetary environment, while striving for cogency of thought and effectiveness of artistic outcome? What does working in an environment and manner that are, perforce, predicated on digital reality do to the artists’ sense of materiality?
Optimistically speaking, “Blurring Boundaries” proposes a new laboratory format beyond the institutions of the studio as classically conceived, the academy, and the gallery. It is evidently sustained by a model of mutual pedagogy and dialogue. Extrapolating from this, what might such experiments offer to formal pedagogy? “Blurring Boundaries”, like online education at all levels during the Covid-19 crisis, throws into sharp contour the problems of a formal pedagogy that moves slowly and is unresponsive to the urgencies of the time. Participants in such systems are already looking beyond it, to other sources of knowledge, forms of research, and forms of mutual education.
But troubling questions arise as well. I fear that – whether in the arts sector or in education at large – the utopian assumption of readily available technology may well exclude, in reality, those who face economic barriers of entry to the world of digital experience. In simple terms, what will students who cannot afford a laptop or lack access to a regular supply of electricity do?
Already, with the prolonged closure of schools and colleges and the switch to online education, we face a future that will be divided along a new digital fault line, which will exacerbate the existing schisms of class, caste, religion, ethnicity and geographical location. Will such a divide between the digital haves and the digital have-nots also affect generations of Indian art students and Indian artists to come?
Ranjit Hoskote is a poet, cultural theorist and curator. He is research and curatorial consultant to the Mathaf Museum of Modern Art, Doha.