Shanghai - II / Litanies

Wednesday, June 28, 2017


Mobile Apps and Softwares: 

  • Psiphon Pro - VPN on the phone, it worked well - it was free too.
  • Lantern - VPN for computer
  • Chinese Lite - for quick translations
  • Google Translator - really helpful, even if rudimentary - reads chinese text too.
  • Offline Google Map for Shanghai since baidu will be in chinese
  • WeChat for connecting with friends quickly
  • QR code Reader because everything has a QR code
  • ShareIt - for android users, so that you can share apps without google play. Google Play will not work
  • Explore Shanghai - Shanghai Metro Map app
  • Have a non-gmail email id like Rediff or Yahoo or Hotmail etc.
  • Good to have Alipay paperless cash or some such service - easy to rent bikes and make payments

List of Museums and galleries (and the exhibitions) I visited in Shanghai:

The Long Museum

The China Government Museum

The Power Station of Art - Lecture by Apichatpong, Toyo Ito, Danish Design

The Minsheng Art Museum:

'Listening to Transparency'
Pierre Alain Jaffrennou, Michel François, Pascal Frament, Fujui Wang, Dominique Blais, Stéphane Borrel, Christophe Lebreton, Denys Vinzant, Pierre-Laurent Cassière, Matt Coco, Yann Orlarey, Jean-François Estager, Henri-Charles Caget, Julie Vacher, Dania Reymond, Iuan-Hau Chiang, Christian Rizzo, Gregory Chatonsky, William Anastasi, Thierry De Mey, Luc Ferrari, Manon De Boer, Thomas Leon, Li Yuhang, Deng Yuejun, Xiao Yu

The Urban Planning Museum

The Tongji Museum


at the Power Station of Art

'Home and Lights' by Apichatpong Weerasethakul

Apichatpong Weerasethakul is a well known Indonesian architect turned film maker who presented his work at Power Station of Art while I was visiting. Here are some thoughts that I took away from his lecture.

Memory and light are malleable. Same can be said about history and storytelling. 
Identity as a function of fact and fiction... Our identity keeps on changing since we are also transforming. 
24 fps in cinema is a very rudimentary form of medium. Cinema, TV, mobile phones just put a frame around images.

Parts of things which are not visible to us even when out eyes are open. 
For me dream and cinema are similar. I face dream has much more potential. 
Dreaming is the only action which has freedom. No one can control it. Even ourselves! 
Length of cinema cycles evolved from the length of stages of dream. In dream you have 4 stages that last about 90 minutes...which is also almost the length of the film... 
Jungle is a place where you don't need to follow rules. Cinema is also one such space... 
Seeing animal sculptures in fireworks. 
Immersing the spectator in darkness. 
The colour of the movement is black...
Travel as a trigger to go in different cultures and slow down and concentrate and look at the world like a kid and be skeptic. 
To press the button in the elevator and not feel the pressure of reaching your floor.

Walk instead of running wherever you can...

Works by Apichatpong:

Fireworks (archives)

Future vehicles

Tropical Malady, film

Cemetery of Splendour, film

Of Provocations and Induced Doubts

Monday, June 19, 2017

Having worked out neatly the history course structure for semester two  (to five) at SEA, I called for a meeting with the entire team to fix up the nuts and bolts for its delivery. What I presented was a course structured over 10 sessions that would discuss different materials across history (from stone to plastic), their materiality and experience, phenomenological aspects on one hand, and tools and techniques and the resultant forms and shapes that have evolved to work with these over the years. My colleagues who earlier seemed to be convinced, strangely came forward doubting the trajectory. What to my mind seemed an interesting in-depth investigation hardly found a common ground with Prasad.

Often in his pursuit to avoid "criticism" and be considerate, Prasad's feedback diverges to an extent that his comments become cryptic. Sounding unconvinced, and with an intention to therefore make me reconsider my entire structure, he began by asking: "How will you talk about the experience of the material?" - he meant in a manner to confuse, perhaps, assuming that's not something that I had considered. I confirmed and understood that he was referring about the historicity of experience of a particular material under consideration. "In that case," I responded, "we should never be talking about experience...since talking inherently creates the gap between experience and its knowledge. It will never be possible to understand experience. We can only speculate." Prasad had a mysterious smile - an expression that troubled me. I tried to look for confidence into myself.

I elaborated: "Experience can never be ascertained and articulated. The way in which a limping man physically (as well as emotionally) experiences a piece of stone on his body will be quite different from what a completely healthy person experiences. Quite obviously, the forces acting on both bodies are different, and their emotional outlooks are also different. Further, how does one situate the "historic" in such a case? We merely assume the present body in the past time. However, today's human body is augmented through so many material and immaterial factors that the dimensions of space itself are quite different."

In any case, the question of historicity of experience of material was implicit in my objectives - something without which it is impossible to theorize about materials.

Continuing to push me to reconsider, Prasad's second response to my overall idea was to not treat materials and technique as an insular category. To me, these categorizations were important so as to go in depth of a subject. Often, histories are reduced to statements that bring together factual comparisons in a manner to produce contrast and provocation. For example, I pointed how the quick one-liner history of "how after the invention of photography, the paradigm of painting changes"  - something that I've found Prasad iterate in his lectures in history, is not the manner in which I would have liked to orient students to understand it. Another example is what he went on to give - that of how "the history of Taj Mahal can be read as the story of exploitation". As someone who has invested in in-depth studies of visual culture, I find this reduction invaluable, even if not incorrect. It is important to understand the finer details and nuances within particular contexts to be able to make meaningful interventions. To me - both the above examples, often heard in Prasad's delivery are methods of provocation.

"Whether you choose or not, students are constantly get provoked..." said Prasad. My quick response was on two fronts of the politics of provocation. Firstly, the kind of questions that provocation mobilize was not a part of my course objective. For example, the social, political and cultural questions opened in thinking of the building of Taj Mahal as an exploitative practice is not something that this course aimed at. (It aimed at understanding material as experience and phenomenon). The second, and more important one is the way in which provocation works. Often, the soft sensationalisation of certain historical facts - putting them together in a manner that bring in a completely new, unimagined dimension of otherwise familiar history - gropes the audience in a dual space of wonder (of new way of thinking) and perceptual limitation (of our own imagination). In such a space, history is actually lost to the effect of the provocation.

Anyway, provocations have to be affective, I said; those which last and operate over a longer cycle of time. Soft sensationalizations of historical facts take one only so far. Often, they end up just as statements, and in essence, they are not historicized readings themselves (in the favour of which, Prasad was arguing in the first case). It's an altogether different reading of history facilitated by the faculty of modern day social sciences. Provocations in history have to have enough gyration for students to construct deep, solid arguments. Presentation of historical facts quickly juxtaposed in a manner to produce effective contrasts are not much useful beyond pulling the momentary attention of an uninformed bunch of students. Its value is often lost towards to the reverence that listeners may develop towards the innovative analysis at hand, strategically presented by the speaker. The politics of provocation, and the momentum it creates, should allow for foundational new understandings of history by empowering students to get deeper into the subject itself. Provocations can be subtle but deep, soft but impactful. - both, at a personal and academic level.

Such a discussion led Prasad to conclude the modernist mode through which apparently my course was formulated - that which discusses history spoken in a manner of "from beginning to end". "The modern canon believes that history has to have a beginning and an end, that everything has to be situated in a continuum. But it may not be important for anyone to know the entire history to make sense of it", Prasad said. "We are taught to think in such modernist mode." I may have mistakenly taken this critique far too personally - something that was originally meant to point at the method in which history is often delivered. Certainly, Prasad's critique was on the deterministic aspects of modern thinking, within which my thinking was aligned. My endavour in history courses is to find through my lectures, a meaning in the past. Talking of contexts that are not ours, and far removed from our reality is very difficult. To present them in an interesting manner is a challenge. But I believe that if students are presented this material with interest and depth, it is possible to build some interest.

At Yale, History and Theory was taught with deep focus and lot of care. I inherit such a modernist method, something I have come to value deeply. In my practice, I therefore try to put in substantial research and figure a way of making it interesting. My trouble with Prasad's criticism was the rejection of this method, and therefore my effort. Prasad had already assumed that the delivery of history as a linear narrative will bore the audience. I would like to locate the problem however, in the content and not the method. Because the same method, when applied to lectures on the history of modernism, for example, garners much more interest and attention. Simply because the content was closer to the students and they could relate to it, they were more attentive.

I could not just accept the team's critique thus - for it didnot evaluate my notes within the objectives I enlisted to be achieved - something that was made clear much in advance. The objectives were digested back then without resistance. At the moment, all critique was outside this set framework, almost confused and misplaced. It began in questioning the method to decipher experience, then jumped to the categorization of material and content and went on to suggest employing a provocative politics. I did not understand what the real critique was - since these criticisms seem quite incoherent. What I could only crystallize thus is a certain reluctance for deploying the course I suggested in the programme.

Incidentally, as I was drafting this blogpost, Prasad dropped me a message on Whatsapp:

"Why don't you articulate a 5000 word paper on the 'critique of experience' (of space)? I think after the critique of political economy, critique of history, critique of reason.... a critique of experience needs to be written . . . I think your interest in developing an understanding of experience needs to be explored in full rigour... why don't you start with list[en]ing to lectures on Kant?"

Each of the above statements was interspersed with my sporadic responses. But in putting Prasad's messages together here, and reflecting upon them, I am compelled to think of the progression as an anticlimax. He begins in the promise that I could potentially contribute something through my own personal thoughts and investigation through a critique of experience. However, he quickly goes on to establish a crisis. By the end he mentions that my understanding "needs to be explored in full rigour" (through a reading of Kant, a philosopher he is recently obsessed with) - implying a fracture in the formulation of the history course that we discussed earlier. I still remain confused on what is expected out of the course from teachers (not students). If it was clear to them, why wouldn't they just spell it out, and if it is not, why wouldn't they allow to experiment? And if this is not how they would like me to structure this course, why don't they just ask me to focus on something that I am good at, and interested in?

Inducing constant doubts in one's abilities and expertise is a perverse way of negating ideas in academic space. Instead of freely debating, such politic makes you subservient to a hegemonic model of employing thoughts that is not even available to you, or is elusive even to those who recommend it. The random methods in which history has been deployed - as sporadic conversations, chats, or informal discussion is indeed valuable - however is an outcome of history "as smelled" - not really tasted. Can one just smell facts and ascertain what history actually tastes like? And one may argue that all what we have of history is smell. In that case, there's no point of putting down any methods of teaching. A strange unnecessary power politics that shouldn't dismiss divergent viewpoints and ideas of thinking about things constantly seems to occupy the academic space. I hope such insecurities are erased such that fresh voices and honest efforts can bloom and find a voice.

Open Site Project / Serendipity Arts Festival 2016

Monday, June 12, 2017

This is a small review of street art projects that were created for the Serendipity Arts Festival 2016 in Goa wherein we invited 4 graffiti artists from all across the world. The project was curated by Riyas Komu, who also conceptualized two other projects for the Festival - information about which can be found at


The Open Site project was conceptualised as a welcoming gesture to the Serendipity Arts Festival in Goa. Street art is the most public as well as visible form of art, at our aim was to productively use this aspect towards creating a buzz towards the festival. We invited four national and international artists for this project:

1. NemO, Italy
2. Escif, Spain
3. Faith47, South Africa
4. Hanif Kureshi, New Delhi

Each of the above artists spent 7-21 days before/during the festival painting across Goa.

We indicated possible sites where artists could paint. Although, through their interactions with the locals and they respective interests, artists went across to find more interesting spots where their art would gain more contextual relevance. This is particularly interesting since it exposed us unexplored corners of the city, and at the same time, read existing city spaces in completely new ways.

As an assistant curator on the project, coordinating with the artists, I can say that the artists were thrilled to work in an Indian context like Goa. Unlike other countries, the scale of works in Goa was different, and established through an altogether different cultural negotiation. Except Hanif, the other artists navigated the city through visuals and gestures - of course along with our colleague Sabina Banu as one of the initial interpreters. However, the subjects they chose to paint remind us about how we can take so many curiosities of our city for granted. This is particularly evident in the works of Escif who paints, for example, the thali outside a local restaurant, or an enlarged palm showing traditional methods of counting breaths copied off a pamphlet.

Other artists like Faith47, drew lotuses across different parts of the city. She explains in her afterword: "The lotus, while rooted in the mud, blossoms on long stalks floating above the muddy waters. This ability for something so strong and pure growing out of dirty water is symbolic of our struggle despite the chaos of life to find our own strength and spiritual clarity…” The liminal conditions in which people make their lives in urban spaces of India is the key observation of Faith’s work. In her subtle rendering of the lotus, symbol of the currently ruling BJP, Faith unknowingly brushes on a gentle political suggestion.

For NemO from Italy, the figure of a crippled person along the market entrance spurred an artistic response of a mermaid. Similar to the mutated body of the beggar, the mermaid became a clever motif to symbolise the contextuality of the place as well as the person. Lastly, Hanif Kureshi is a street artist who specialises in typography. He created two interesting works for the festival playing with the idea of the present-age acronyms. He painted the word “YOLO” (You Only Live Once) on the rolling shutters of a dilapidated shed which had become home to a poor cobbler. Such a context brings out the paradoxes in both - the subject and the object of art. One of his other works similarly read “FOMO” - Fear Of Missing Out - in an abandoned space across Foutainhas in Goa.

The above notes on the artists’ work is immediate, and can be elaborated upon.

photocredits: Faith47, Escif & author


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