Anita Dube sounds preoccupied as she puts off the interview for the second time in as many weeks. “I’ve just come from a big installation,” apologised the acclaimed artist and the curator of the 2018 Kochi-Muziris Biennale. “My head is somewhere else.” It’s understandable, too.

There’s a few days to go before the fourth edition of the Biennale, and for its first female curator, it’s time to see her vision take shape. As many as 90 artists from India and abroad are displaying their works at the three-month exhibition, which will also feature a “Knowledge Laboratory” and “infra-projects”.

When we finally do get to talk, Dube is precise. The theme for this year’s Biennale – Possibilities for a Non-Alienated Life – draws heavily on her politics. Starting from the 1980s, when she wrote the manifesto for the Indian Radical Painters and Sculptors’ Association – a group of artists who believed in freeing art from market influences – Dube’s works have been “politically informed, if not charged”. From feminism to consumerism, Dube’s art delves into some of the most pressing issues of our times, and these form the core of Possibilities for a Non-Alienated Life as well.

In her role as curator, the 60-year-old set herself several challenges. How could she turn the Biennale into a space where people could become producers as well as consumers of culture? How could she create an experience away from the alienating vocabulary of the art world globally? How could she transform it into a platform where marginalised artists speak “not as victim, but as futurism’s cunning and sentient sentinels”?

The results manifest in various ways. First, this Biennale features more women artists than the previous editions. And even among the women, there’s a sharper focus on older artists, such as Austria’s VALIE EXPORT, whose work in the 1960s and ’70s challenged the way viewers looked at the female body in public spaces.

Second, a “Knowledge Laboratory” this year will feature a web-integrated space where visitors can show as well as see works. There will be open mic sessions, lecture demonstrations, film screenings and music performances. Visitors can play music and viral videos off the internet or look up information about a participating artist.

When the Biennale opens on December12, Dube hopes that visitors will find more to do than walk in front of the artworks. She spoke to about the Biennale’s theme, the choice of artists and how her sensibilities have influenced her curatorial role. Edited excerpts:

The pavilion under construction.

Could you tell us about the theme? What alienates us, and what are some of the possibilities of a non-alienated life that this Biennale presents?
There is no one answer to the question of alienation. As I say in my curatorial note, in order to begin fighting this, we must reject living in the service of capital – which feeds into other systems of oppression and exploitation, such as Brahmanism and patriarchy.

The invited artists offer glimpses – and sometimes questions – into a different mode of living. At the least, the artworks, and the conversations between them, initiate a dialogue that is a crucial step in formulating a non-alienated life. The expressions, as evident in the artwork, are sort of messages from the future in this sense: cunning sentinels that bring us possibilities.

Apart from the artwork, I hope that the pavilion can be an experiment, too, in providing these possibilities for living, by creating a space of open exchange – through listening and collaborative learning. It is a challenge, perhaps to the point of impossibility, to build a space that is non-hierarchical in its positioning of various knowledges, but I hope this can be a worthy attempt.

In your curatorial note, you talk about hyper-connectivity as a tool for fascists...
In this case, I was not so much talking about the internet being used by fascist powers, but rather highlighting the paradox of simultaneous hyper-connectivity with, in my view, equal parts isolation and alienation.

I would like to stress that the curatorial approach is not based on a technophobic idea that virtuality is damaging or harmful – instead, I hope to address what is missing in these partially-formed solidarities.

I think that the Biennale Pavilion, which will play a huge role in this edition, will get at...the possibilities and capabilities of the internet... for building real conversation – open dialogue, with listening. We also have a few fantastic participating artists who are dealing specifically with internet culture and connective virtual technology.

How has your politics as an artist informed your approach to the Kochi Biennale?
My involvement with the arts, from the beginning, has been politically informed, if not charged. From the time of writing the text Questions & Dialogue for the Indian Radical Painters and Sculptors’ Association, I found that political engagement was often a crucial part of my practice.

In the same way, my curatorial vision takes into account social conditions as well as possible futures. I am always inspired by artists who can change the way we understand art and art-making, and it has been particularly exciting to encounter so many new methodologies and practices.

That said, although my work deals quite directly with political systems, I don’t want to push a certain idea or narrative in the Biennale. This isn’t about me trying to prove a point or authoritatively set a standard – I am assembling a malleable, affective body, an experiment, for consideration and interpretation by an audience.

There are more women artists in this edition of the Biennale than men. Was this something you set out to do?
Yes, certainly. I think this may be the first large-scale biennale exhibition, perhaps even internationally, to feature more women and queer artists than men. To me, this is a symbolic gesture, in response to a long tradition of exclusion in the arts, and in cultural narratives.

Even within women artists, I have placed an emphasis on an older generation, whose work is often forgotten within contemporary feminist narratives. Older women are making work now, and have changed throughout the course of their careers – this was important for me to highlight.

'This isn’t about me trying to prove a point or authoritatively set a standard'.

Could you give an example?
First, let me say that all the artists have offered dynamic and profound projects that are vital to the curatorial vision. One artist who is particularly important to me is VALIE EXPORT, a canonical feminist practitioner who has really paved the way for feminist discourse and performance artists at large. Her pioneering and often quite daring work has also been very important in informing my own practice, and I am thrilled to be able to showcase her works at the Biennale this year.

What are the infra-projects? How do they fit into the theme of this Biennale?
The idea of infra-projects is a new addition to the model of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. One could say that it is an extension, within the exhibition, of my general wish to open up the Biennale as a platform. Not only did I want active public participation in the making of the Biennale, by creating the Knowledge Laboratory at the pavilion, but also collaboration in curation of the exhibition itself, at different scales and capacities. These were all simply intriguing and original projects that, like all the artist-projects, enrich my ever-developing vision, with creators and curators with whom I aligned and trusted conceptually…We have fantastic artists and curators involved in this capacity this year, from the food-memory project by Edible Archives, to Srinagar Biennale brought together by Veer Munshi, among others.

All photos courtesy the Kochi Biennale Foundation.

The Kochi-Muziris Biennale will be held from December 12 to March 29, 2019, across various venues in Kochi, Kerala.