The idea of Khoj was a gift.
Offered to us by Robert Loder, the visionary founder of the Triangle Arts Trust, the gift was one of possibility. At a time whenIndian artists felt isolated and unsupported, it provided the possibility for young practitioners to create an open-ended, experimental space for themselves on their own terms; a space where they could make art independent of formal academic and cultural institutions and outside the constraints of the commercial gallery. It offered the chance to establish international networks without institutional support. Artist-led, it was an initiative for artists by artists. It provided the liberating potential of creatively intervening in the prevailing status quo.
The rapidity of change in the ten years since Khoj’s founding has not left it unmarked. With no models to emulate, Khoj, as an ‘alternative’ space for contemporary art practice, has traced a distinctive, if sometimes lonely, course.
It has been a journey of shifting definitions - a freedom ‘from’ and responsibility ‘towards’. A route marked by opportunities lost and seized. A path charted by those who talked and those who whispered; by those who were included and those who were not; by those who revelled in the journey and those who left disappointed.
It is impossible for me to fully articulate the complex genesis and cartography of Khoj; inevitably, some things will remain unsaid.
The India of 1997, when Khoj began, was a very different place. It was a time before McDonald’s and Barista cafés were part of our urbanscape; before high-speed internet and communication technologies radically altered our perceptions of work and play; before the existence of plush galleries and a seemingly networked art world, high on energy, anxiety and celebration; before artists and gallerists raced between Basel and Shanghai, and international curators, once a rarity, were ubiquitously present in the Indian subcontinent. In 1997, our encounter with international art was limited to exhibitions brought in by the cultural arms of foreign embassies or the Indian Council for Cultural Relations, and opportunities to travel abroad came only via personal invitations or scholarships offered by the Inlaks Foundation and Charles Wallace Trust. Public museums were apathetic and the few commercial galleries that existed extremely conservative. The spotlight was not on India. We felt ‘third world’, isolated, on the periphery.
Within this milieu, Khoj as ‘idea’ was made tangible by the first workshop held in Modinagar, on the outskirts of New Delhi,for two weeks in 1997. The gathering of 24 mid-career artists - half local, half international - resulted in a dynamic explosion of energies - a crucible that catalysed and configured new imaginings. Working together, drinking, dancing and debating, the workshop encouraged experimentation, stimulated conversations, threw up discomforts and differences, but nevertheless forged contacts that extended well beyond the limits of time and place.
As Anita Dube, one of the founding members, wrote in the first Khoj catalogue in 1997: ‘Our aim was to function as an experimental art laboratory that would bring artists together from different parts of the country, from the subcontinent and from around the globe, setting up a cooperative, non-hierarchical work situation where dialogue, exchange and transfer of information, energy and skills could take place as an intensely lived experience. Khoj is an emblem of our vision of working together in difficult situations, somehow pushing under the establishment’s grain the rubric of creating sensitising encounters, opening up insularities and closures to address the binary polarisations that have hardened into unchangeable positions both inside and outside.’ This was the closest Khoj ever came to writing a manifesto for itself.
Over the next four years artists from across the world participated in our annual workshop at Modinagar. Invitations went out to artists from Triangle’s vast networks in Africa, Cuba and Europe. Back then, the term ‘periphery’ - and ‘other’ - had a different resonance. Hungry for direct contact and keen to develop connections with the ‘global South’, we mined our neighbourhood of South and South-east Asia, drawing in artists from mainland China, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Indonesia, Singapore and Japan, extending the Triangle family in mutual reciprocity.
From the start, we wished our direction to be towards the empowerment of so-called ‘third world’ artists. ‘The third world,’ wrote the Cuban art critic Gerardo Mosquera, ‘seems to lack the capacity to legitimate artistically: this arises from a deficit of logistics, but also from a lack of “assertiveness”, of initiative from “inside towards the outside”, and from not strengthening enough its own epistemes. The absence of South-to-South prestige is not surprising since the art that circulates South-South is insignificant.’ We conceptualised and structured our workshops in a manner that would allow us to initiate processes “from the inside towards the outside”.
They did more than that. For when Fuji Hiroshi spent a week cleaning a sewer to enable goldfish to live, or Simon Callery used the shifting sunlight to create an imagined painting on a boundary wall; when Michael Shaonawasai cross-dressed at a local beauty parlour, or Sheba Chhachhi excavated the personal stories of abandoned mill workers in Modinagar; when Tania Bruguera collected the workshop’s used teabags, imbuing them with memory and history, or Peter Isuge made sculptures of trash; when Anita Dube’s use of human bones became a crisis of belief for the Australian indigenous artist Fiona Foley, or DavidKoloane’s paintings belied his history of living through apartheid - much more than art and ideology was shared. Stereotypes were challenged and cultural differences prised open. Knowledge was created in a manner simultaneously subtle and forceful.
Process-driven, the workshops pushed for a radical rethinking of the current trajectories of knowledge production, and countered the tendency to privilege theory over practice. They created an alternative learning space outside of formal educational institutions with their hierarchical structures of teachers and students, and built a powerful repertoire of ideas and practices through the sometimes frictive juxtapositioning of individuals from diverse contexts. As entrenched values jostled and challenged one another, new perspectives and positions emerged. For those two frenetic weeks, Khoj was simultaneously ‘part laboratory, part academy and part community centre,’ with the artist squarely centre stage as practitioner, curator, critic and friend.
By the end of 2001, Khoj had held five successful workshops in Delhi - the annual pilgrimage to Modinagar had become a part of an increasingly lively contemporary art scene - but there was a feeling that they had run their course. Something newwasneeded. Khoj, as idea, had to move elsewhere.
The itinerant workshop
Khoj was a gift, and ‘gifts open doors to our own possibilities of generosity.’
While we struggled in Delhi with our own institutional logic, morphing into a temporary, office-based structure, we offered the workshop to colleagues in different parts of India. This was more than a matter of mere relocation; of repeating the same activity in another space. It was based on a desire to create a new set of relationships and spin-offs: to support autonomous groups of artists working at sites that held local meaning; a vision of what Khoj , as ‘idea’, could mean for different artists.
The first ‘itinerant’ workshop was held in 2002 in Mysore - the acclaimed cultural capital of south India. Moving across the invisible north-south divide that characterises social mindsets in India was a valuable decentring process. Aware of the challenges of introducing site-specific contemporary art practice in a small city, the working group managed to combine the strengths of Mysore’s existing visual arts organisations with the participating artists’ projects. The attendance of more than a thousand people on the Open Day vindicated the enterprise: Khoj Mysore had the flavour of a mini festival wherein the whole city seemed alive to the possibility of contemporary art.
The contained energy of a workshop held in relative seclusion was traded for an intense encounter with the city the following year when the workshop moved into the hands of an extended working group and was held within the precincts of the Government Museum in the centre of the then emergent metropolis of Bangalore. Khoj Mumbai, held in the vast grounds of the Jindal steel factory on the outskirts of Mumbai, followed in 2005, with Khoj Kolkata in 2006. The site for the latter was a stately, though dilapidated, colonial estate called Chaudhari Bari, used as a de facto film studio, on the city’s southern fringes. Then, in 2007, as the sound of gunfire dulled for a few hopeful months in Kashmir, we were able to organise Khoj Kasheer at an old but gracious house nestling among chinar trees in Lalmandi, Srinagar. It was the first international art project to be held in Kashmir since 1947.
The practices developed at workshops have been equally varied, allowing for an expansive understanding of art. While several of the artworks were embedded in or excavated from the site as physical and social construct, a number of projects have unpacked the definition of the performative. These ranged from the theatrical performance of Michel Tuffery, from New Zealand, replete with a bull mask, fire and beating drums to the singularly poetic rendering of multilingual text by the South African Tracey Rose; from the politically charged painted action of Nikhil Chopra in the midst of Srinagar’s bustling Lal Chowk, conducted in full view of gun-toting soldiers, to Simon Gush’s absurdly futile gesture where 12 cycle-rickshaw pullers strained against iron chains to heave the Chaudhari Bari mansion out of its colonial slumber.
But perhaps it was a project in Bangalore by the visiting artist Sigit Pius that provided a paradigm shift for the artistic community. Via autorickshaw, he invited audiences to an obscure and beautiful graveyard, a retreat he had discovered through his friendship with a local rickshaw driver. As one wandered among the dead there was a perceptible stilling of energy, the agitation of traversing the hectic metropolis giving way to moments of deep reflection: of loss and pain; of death and the inevitability of mortality. Pius offered as ‘art’ a moment of reflection on what art could be.
While the workshops have clearly impacted individual art practices, evidenced by work before and after, and have nurtured growing audiences for contemporary art, their longer-term ramifications for the Indian art scene are perhaps less obvious.
The Khoj workshops have brought a disparate group of artists together, and, in doing so, helped to create a collective organising device among normally individualistic and competitive artists. By foregrounding the artist and his art as a basis for mutual respect and collaboration, the hegemony of one school over others was neutralised. Khoj legitimised a variety of practices that had hitherto been viewed with suspicion in the minds of artists, throwing up difficult questions about the prosaic and conservative teaching methods of our local art colleges. By making a concerted effort to invite artists from smaller cities within India, it helped to connect our often isolated artistic communities. It brought an understanding of the international to the local: to artists and audiences who were miles away from being able to access this art first hand. It gave an insight into the cultural practices of the global South just as the global South exploded as a compelling entity into the mainstream.
Unmediated by the existing institutional framework in India, Khoj went on to provide opportunities for a wide number of artists to participate in residencies and workshops - not only in India but, via the Triangle network, internationally and, more importantly, within the region. As the art historian Kavita Singh has remarked: ‘Outside the market, beyond and before it, Khoj and other artists’ networks set up in the past ten years in India have been a crucially important part of the experience of globalisation in Indian art.’
Looking back, these workshops were perhaps the embryonic beginnings of a network of artist-run spaces in India: spaces with similar values and beliefs which, over time, could develop different operating models and approaches to presenting practice.
khoj as place
While the workshop took on a nomadic identity, Khoj in Delhi morphed from being a fluid annual entity into one situated in bricks and mortar.
In 2002, Robert Loder helped us acquire a studio building in Khirkee village, Delhi. An anomaly of both the rural and urban, Khirkee lies in the middle of posh South Delhi. Once a sprawling acreage of agricultural land, it is now a bustling and chaotic area of narrow unpaved lanes, where three-storied residential apartments squash up against chai and samosa stalls, a barber’s shop, local internet café, photography and design studio, stray dogs, domesticated buffaloes, discarded trash, a horse stable, a 13th-century mosque and newly constructed Sai Baba temple. Shimmering across the road from the village, and in surreal contrast to it, are a series of gargantuan glass and steel malls built in the past two years. Khirkee is a microcosm of the multiple and stark dichotomies that constitute India’s rapidly globalising capital city.
In the heart of this ‘urban village’, we discovered a charming two-storeyed building, purpose built as an architect’s office, where six well-ventilated rooms overlooked two internal courtyards. These became five studios and an office-cum-library,thestudios doubling up as exhibition space when required. Much like the architecture of older Indian homes, where the internal enclosure is a community space, these courtyards play host to many packed openings, with artists and audiences lounging over chilled beer, borrowed cigarettes and hot momos.
Since 2002, Khoj Studios has seen a spate of residencies. While both workshops and residencies are process and exchange driven, the intention and outcomes are slightly different. With 20 to 24 artists, workshops occur in fairly secluded and, in a sense, protected environments; together with their shorter time frame of two weeks, this generates intense, catalytic experiences. The slower-paced residencies, which generally last six to eight weeks, are limited to a smaller number of participants - at most, six - allowing for a sharper interrogation of the city, as well as a more intimate and meaningful exchange between artists and their work processes.
As the programme developed, we began to use a media-based focus to curate residencies: ceramics, photography, a foray into collaboration with an environmental activist, a public art project in a university complex.
Regular meetings, consensual decision-making, brainstorming, arguing, fierce debates about which artists to invite, what next to focus on, made for an exciting moment. Even as we struggled with the administrative aspects of the studios, we became ambitious for the space: our programme began to include exhibitions by younger artists, a summer residency for new graduates from art colleges across the country (the Peers programme), and informal presentations by interesting ‘friends of friends’ from across the world who dropped in.
Our resource centre developed from a few arbitrary catalogues and DVDs left behind by visiting artists to a reasonable collection of books and catalogues from across the country and South Asia, collected with deliberation. The web became an exciting new space to inhabit and, despite a few false starts, we explored the possibilities of web 2.0, aspiring to develop a growing archive.
There was never a shortage of ideas, but we desperately lacked manpower. With many members having given time generously over the years, there was a sense of fatigue in the working group. Individual careers were flourishing, the art market became more active, and opportunities to travel and exhibit abroad became plentiful; meetings began to be thinly attended. Working group members who also managed a residency found it exhausting and distracting to their own projects; it was agreed that a residency co-ordinator, who would assist the artists, was necessary.
Now building-based, we were ambitious for the organisation but short on staff; we were overworked and underpaid; the board in its voluntary avatar had rights without responsibilities; the residencies suffered from lack of attention. We were a classic case of a small, organic structure, once built on goodwill and common concerns, feeling overstretched and ill-equipped for inevitable change. We were in urgent need of a new model of governance.
Khoj was in transition, and transitions are difficult and often disturbing. In early 2005, a challenging residency project became the peg for a flurry of resignations and allegations. Khoj was accused of becoming ‘institutionalised’; it was succumbing to the diktats of funders, and losing its edge as an artist-run space; a space that had been posited as an ‘alternative’ to the hierarchical power structures of the art world was becoming one itself. Moreover, in the rapidly escalating art market, commercial galleries seemed increasingly supportive of ‘experimental’ art practices. The very need for Khoj as an idea and a place was being questioned.
This was a crucial moment for Khoj: a signpost for introspection, it threw up several questions that needed serious examining.
What, for instance, did it mean to become ‘institutionalised’ in the Indian context?
We saw ourselves as free and dynamic, a catalytic space for the incubation of new ideas; a place in which to ask questions that were somehow in ‘advance’ of mainstream practice. In the absence of a developed discourse on artist-run initiatives in India, one looked for parallels in countries such as Canada and Australia where such centres have a long history. As the Canadian curator Barbara Fischer has written: ‘Artists who initiated centres in the late 1960s and 1970s in Canada were concerned with the very lack of an “institutionalised” art environment, with the lack of both private and institutional curatorial and critical support for contemporary art, and for the social aesthetic and political interests of artists living and working in Canada.’
Khoj, too, had come together in order to create space for experimental art practice, a practice that was neither supported nor acknowledged by public or private institutional models in the country (themselves poorly funded and hardly in existence). So, in many ways, this alternative space was premised on trying to fill an institutional void. In our ignorance of the trajectory that artist-run spaces often take, was the anti-institutional rhetoric being confused with the growing size of the organisation, its ability to attract funding and the administrative infrastructure required for efficient functioning? Was it fair to conflate this with an assumption that its critical or radical capability was being neutralised?
There were concerns that despite its ‘alternative’ positioning, Khoj was becoming another voice of authority and arbitrator of quality; that it was being co-opted by the mainstream. As Fischer once again points out, ‘The partisan interests of a group of artists engaged in issues based on their own work interests tend to become identical with the functions of the so-called establishment: to select, to judge and to create value, hierarchy and meaning.’ In the Indian context, where the so-called ‘establishment’ of contemporary art practice consisted of an apathetic and uninformed public sector and the market (with a handful of art critics) as the only arbitrators of value, was it indeed wrong to have a distinct and autonomous voice? But more important, in a rapidly globalising art world, was Khoj becoming irrelevant? Were we flogging a dead horse? It was true that the commercial galleries, encouraged by the burgeoning international art market, were stepping in to support hitherto ‘experimental’ art practices. It was also true that artists were flying across the globe to the multiplying biennales and art fairs, and that the need for ‘international exchange’ per se was less pertinent than it had been a few years previously. However, did this necessarily dilute the need for a space for experimentation and interrogation? Given that the production and discourse of art was increasingly skewed in favour of the market, perhaps the need in such a dizzying time was for several moresuchspaces.
What Khoj urgently needed was to ask different questions and to look far more sharply for practices in the interstices and the shadows, with less focus on those that had already entered the ‘attention economy’.
To understand the limitations and possibilities of artist run spaces, it seems crucial to renegotiate the philosophical and practical meanings of the term ‘practice’.
Over its ten-year history, Khoj had seen several of the artists who had been engaged with it move on - in body, if not in spirit. It seemed to be only a matter of time before an artist playing the role of curator or administrator felt the need to get back to his or her own ‘art’ practice. For the most part, artists have been unable to see the ‘practice’ of running, curating and administering the activities of artist-run centres as a valid form of art practice. So: is it possible to merge an art practice with a curatorial practice, or must they remain separate? Can they both be seen as creative practices that have ‘artistic’ outcomes, or do we need to delineate them due to the different decision-making and administrative processes required, especially in relation to issues of accountability? Could this lack of a sophisticated understanding of ‘practice’ and its possible dimensions be the limitation that has hindered artist-run spaces in India?
It was a moment of personal redefinition for me as well. I had been the single continuous paid person in Khoj from 2000. Working on all fronts - fundraising, reporting to funders, participating in the curatorial choices, planning and supporting workshops in other cities, researching and developing the South Asian network - my contribution remained in the inexplicably ambiguous and often overlapping zones of art manager, curator, institution builder.
As a curator working with a space on a long-term basis, one has the opportunity to shape the greater context of that space. If context is the chief tool of a curator, whether it is that of a specific exhibition or grouping of artists, or the larger context of an organisation’s history or mandate, could one then begin to look at this work as curation, in the broadest sense of the term? Could one look at curation - beyond exhibition-making - as a ‘site-specific’ project; an on-going assignment, without a fixed beginning, middle or end? As the architect and theorist Nikolaus Hirsch has suggested, can institution building be understood as curatorial practice?
Re-envisioning the direction that Khoj needed to take at a time when the spotlight was trained on the ‘edifying’ rubric of the art market, the international exhibition and giddying auction prices, was a challenge. We began to examine a range of artistic practices that were temporal, research-based and collaborative; projects that employed radical new digital technologies as well as those that were concerned with older, more activist, modes of engagement with communities. These approaches were situated outside the supportive structures of the gallery and within the extended idea of the public realm. In short, the focus on the market and exhibition-export was eclipsing the socially engaged and post-medium art practices being explored by Indian artists; and we decided to make these our key areas of inquiry. In doing so, we were also trying to create alternative art worlds - worlds populated by creative practitioners whose work failed to fit neatly into existing categories of art. Thus far, audiences for Khoj had consisted of visual artists, curators and writers. As we extended our gaze to other practices there was a corresponding shift in audiences.
The curatorial shift implied a shift in the perception of what Khoj stood for. Increasingly, Khoj was being pigeonholed as a place for the incubation of emerging artists. We felt it was equally relevant for established artists pushing in exciting new directions: for the incubation of new ideas. And that it was important, as Suzie Attiwill of Australia’s RMIT University has succinctly said, to ‘invert the understanding of “emerging”, tagging it to the “art” rather than the “artist”… In this way, artists’ organisations become spaces of “emerging art” where the art must always be emerging in the sense that it needs to be speculative, transient and open to change.’ This is not, however, to negate the necessity of supporting emerging artists who need spaces to work and exhibit their ideas.
That Khoj has supported both the emerging ‘artist’ and emerging ‘art’ was made manifest in its ten-year celebrations held in 2008. These foregrounded the Peers programme with the exhibition ‘Filament’, as well as performance art as an ‘emerging’ practice in India with the festival ‘Khoj Live 08’.
‘Filament’ was curated from more than 25 artists who had participated in the Khoj Peers residency over the preceding six years, revealing their professional and artistic trajectories in the short term. ‘Khoj Live 08’ was a pulsating six-day event with four to five performances each day by more than 25 artists from across Asia, Europe and Africa. With its slippage between dance, theatre and the visual arts, it contributed some radical offerings within the established Indian context of performance and the performative.
In retrospect, then, can such moments of rupture and departure be seen as something positive? Can they be viewed as significant opportunities for introspection, growth and change?
khoj as network
If a network can be loosely defined as a social structure made of individuals (or organisations) connected by one or more specific types of interdependency - in this case, friendship and relationships of difference, belief and knowledge - the Khoj workshops and residencies have helped practitioners in India forge such networks with artists from across India and the world. Ironically, however, it has been across our most obdurate borders within the subcontinent that Khoj has made its most radical contribution.
The past few years have seen an explosion in the exposure of Asian art across the wider world. The profusion of Asian biennales and triennials during the past five years has resulted in diverse and cacophonic definitions, redefinitions, interpretations, reinterpretations, imaginings and reimaginings of the very notion of Asia. In 1997, this was not so. The circulation of and information about artists and practice within Asia was thin; and, despite profound historical connections and commonalities between different Asian countries, many of us were largely unaware of what existed within our immediate neighbourhood. Our instinct had been to establish comparisons between each location and the ‘West’, leaving inter-regional connections largely unexplored. Asian initiatives such as the Fukuoka Triennial in Japan, Asia-Pacific Triennial (APT) in Australia and Gwangju Biennale in South Korea had just begun to gain currency, and while they provided a forum for artists from the SouthAsian region tocome together formally in another country, circulation within the region did not get addressed.
It was only by default that we made our first connections with artists across our borders. The first Khoj workshop in India in 1997 coincided with a series of exhibitions called ‘Mappings’ that I curated for a private gallery in Delhi to mark India and Pakistan’s 50 years of independence. It was not an email-friendly era and information did not magically appear at the click of a mouse. Like others, I was convinced that direct contact with Pakistan was impossible and was looking, as we were wont to, for artists of Pakistani origin in the diaspora.
However, a chance discussion with one of the participating artists, Nalini Malani, who had worked with the Karachi-based artist Iftikhar Dadi in Copenhagen led me to pick up the phone to invite him to take part in the exhibition and, by extension, in the Khoj workshop. Thereafter, in what even now feels like an incredible series of connections, we were introduced to artists from Sri Lanka by Suhanya Raffel of APT in Australia, to practitioners in Nepal by Raiji Kuroda of the Fukuoka Asian Arts Museum, Japan, to artists in Bangladesh via curators of the UK’s Shisha, to practitioners in Bhutan by Sebastian Lopez of the Gate Foundation in the Netherlands, to artists in Tibet via Clare Harris from the UK, and to practitioners in Myanmar by artists of Singaporean origin based in Cologne!
Buoyed by our ‘discoveries’, we exuberantly invited artists to participate in our workshops and received matching responses - mirroring, perhaps, the long-felt need to connect. Having participated in Khoj or one of the Triangle workshops abroad, some regional artists were enthusiastic about initiating similar projects in their respective countries. I was privileged to travel and research further, and, together with Triangle, we helped to develop a series of workshops in South Asia.
In January 2001, the first Vasl international workshop was held in Gadani, in Baluchistan near Karachi, at a location sandwiched between a ship-breaking site, a fishing village and the ocean. In September that year, Theertha international artists’ workshop was held at Lunuganga, the sprawling estate of the famous architect Geoffery Bawa, near Colombo in Sri Lanka. In early 2003, Britto held it first workshop at Tepantor, a site near Dhaka frequently sought out by the Bangladeshi film industry.
Then, in 2004, Sutra held its international workshop in Patan, near Kathmandu, in Nepal. Funding for each workshop was raised locally, with Triangle supporting the travel of some of the international participants. While artists from Egypt, China, the UK,
Singapore, Myanmar, Thailand, the Netherlands and Nigeria attended these workshops, the core invitees in each case were from the Indian subcontinent. And while the workshops forged alliances between local and international artists, they also empowered local artists to address local issues in new, distinctive ways.
In November 2001, in an attempt to give coherence to the idea of regional collaboration, Khoj, along with Triangle, organised a modest two-day closed-door gathering of about 25 artists, critics and art historians from the region to discuss the possibility of developing a sustained network in South Asia/Asia. Concurrently, we organised the first public forum on contemporary art practice in South Asia/Asia in Delhi, entitled ‘Chaos or Congruence?’ In addition, at Khoj’s invitation, Virginia Whiles, a British curator teaching at the National College of Arts in Lahore, curated ‘Manoeuvring Miniatures’, an exhibition of contemporary miniature paintings from Pakistan. Despite drawing on a tradition of pre-modern painting that Indians consider their own, it was the first time these images had been displayed in India. ‘An emblematic event… in its utter familiarity and profound strangeness, contemporary Pakistani art came to the Indian art scene as both trauma and catharsis.’
The year 2001 was a dark one for the subcontinent. Inevitably, the aftermath of 9/11 radically altered the region’s fault lines.
But the Royal Palace massacre in Nepal and the ensuing Maoist politics there, the increased Indo-Pak tensions bordering on war after the failed Agra summit, and the intensified civil war in Sri Lanka, with the destruction of half the country’s aircraft by LTTE suicide bombers, made it a particularly volatile moment. Against this backdrop of political violence and instability, our nascent artistic partnerships offered precious reassurance of community, of our existence as sub-continental practitioners committed to liberal and democratic cultural values.
Funding is a serious concern for any artists’ organisation. Since government funding in the subcontinent is next to nonexistent, sizeable corporate sponsorship is still to come of age, and private donations from friends and family are, at best, limited, most groups have to rely on international donors, the majority of which fund only registered societies. In Bangladesh, getting oneself registered as a non-governmental organisation to enable receipt of funds from abroad can take anything up to five years. In India, the receipt of foreign funding by an NGO is a legal offence unless approval has been granted under the Foreign Contribution Regulations Act. Pakistan and Sri Lanka are relatively more fortunate in this regard.
The success of the annual workshops and sustained support from Ford Foundation made it possible to institute temporary office-cum-residency spaces in each location thereby developing the regional network. Simultaneously, each organisation has made a serious commitment to support its local artistic community and connect it globally : creating dynamic websites, archives , newsletters and in some cases , a much needed contemporary art gallery or an international new media festival.
Sensitive to its political imperatives, amongst other initiatives, Theertha in Sri Lanka organised an exhibition of Sinhalese art in Jaffna, the former stronghold of the LTTE, and has consistently built deeper connections with artists from south India. Britto has created a node in the harbour city of Chittagong, and has developed lively links with artists in the isolated and contested hill tracts of Bangladesh.
The problem of the workshops being held annually or sometimes even once in two years, limiting the exchange of artists in the region was overcome with the institution of the residencies which were more frequent and allowed for a wider circulation of artists. Keeping the network open and alive, and being aware that it could easily be viewed as, or worse still become an exclusive coterie of self serving individuals called for integrity and a collective vigil from all its partners.
Mutual respect, trust and the will to share resources are thus the basis for effective intercultural work and our greatest strength today is undoubtedly the poolof artistswillfully linked to each other. In the face of increased political volatility post 9/11 and the enhanced securitization across borders., maintaining such connections is becoming even more challenging than before and simple procedures, such as obtaining visas for visiting artists, are often fraught with difficulty.
However despite all odds, each group has generated significant ripples. The projects between India and Pakistan have been particularly fruitful, spawning invitations to practitioners to collaborate, curate and teach in one another’s countries, including, in 2005, the mounting at the National Gallery of Modern Art, Mumbai, of a major exhibition of Pakistani art, ‘Beyond Borders’. When such ripples intersect, they create eddies of deep significance.
One such occasion was the exhibition ‘Six Degrees of Separation: Chaos, Congruence and Collaboration in South Asia’, held in September 2008. Five editions of the exhibition opened simultaneously in Karachi, Colombo, Kathmandu, Dhaka and Delhi. Curated by Vasl, Theertha, Sutra, Britto and Khoj respectively, they displayed more than 45 projects conceived and produced by South Asian artists from neighbouring countries in the many regional residencies and workshops that had taken place since 2001. Faisal Anwar, an artist of Pakistani origin from Canada, travelled between Karachi, Dhaka and Delhi and, using new technology, connected us in cyberspace - making us acutely aware of that insidious gap between our nations even as it was momentarily bridged, as well as the tenuous bonds painstakingly facilitated over ten years by the South Asian Network of Artists. For while ‘six degrees of separation’ refers to the notion that everyone on the planet is linked to everyone else by a chain of six people, and connectedness seems idiomatic of the globalised world, the phrase assumes a somewhat different complexion in South Asia where historically embedded prejudices and complex socio-political realities have made separation the
However, today, when the largest permanent collection of contemporary art from South Asia is housed at the Devi Art Foundation in Delhi, when exhibitions of Pakistani artists at leading art galleries in India are no longer exceptional, when a South Asian journal of visual culture is edited from Colombo, when artists regularly criss-cross borders to teach, exhibit, mingle and celebrate - and abiding friendships (even marriages) exist across borders - we believe that our attempt at connecting the erstwhile ‘zones of silence’ has reached a tipping point: the point when small things begin to make a big difference.
Khoj has been referred to as an ‘engine of mobility, connectedness, and cross-fertilisation’  in the Indian and South Asian art world. While it is true that it has endeavoured to create an informal network of artists across the globe, and more particularly within South Asia, a truly robust network within India took quite a while to materialise. Khoj’s circles of influence have been strangely inverted: the initiative began by connecting internationally, then regionally, and was finally left with a more felt need for sustained connections within the local.
The itinerant workshops across India had created invaluable catalytic moments for artists and communities alike; in some places, such as Kolkata, the workshop has transformed into a semi-permanent structure, organising projects in an autonomous manner. Over the years Khoj studios had worked with many extraordinary individuals across India. Some were keen to set up alternative spaces for a diverse range of practices and looked to Khoj for friendly advice. While this was freely shared, the logistical and legal aspects of setting up a space often proved to be a deterrent to the realisation of these initiatives. Seeing exciting ideas lapse for want of support compelled a revision of strategies. Could we, for example, use our resources and goodwill to foster a vibrant network of experimental spaces across India? An extended network, as the critic Nina Möntmann has suggested in her essay on new institutionalism, of ‘organised collaborations [that] could serve as an information pool, a hub for various trans-disciplinary forms of collaboration, in legal matters as a union, and as an entry for audiences to participate locally and exchange internationally’? Or were we being overly idealistic? Perhaps it would be impossible to negotiate the various sizes, programmes, directions and ideologies of such spaces - creating more competition or, worse still, unhealthy hierarchies.
In the mode of idealism and risk-taking that characterises Khoj’s praxis, in 2007 we applied to the Sir Ratan Tata Trust for modest funding to test the possibility of developing such a network. We decided to support three distinct projects across the country for a period of three years with the intention of providing backing long enough for them to test their agendas and to acquire the legal affiliations needed for independent growth in the long term.
Located in geographically different areas, their models were equally varied. ‘Periferry’, started by the artist duo Desire Machine Collective, uses an old riverboat on the banks of the river Brahmaputra in Guwahati, Assam, as its site. Committed to investigating the interstitial spaces between art, science, technology and ecology, the name plays, of course, with the nature of being at the periphery (the north-east is considered a militarily and ethnically sensitive border region by the Indian government), a position they see as ‘positive and productive, a mediation of structures beyond centres’.
In contrast, the CAMP initiative, founded by the new media artists Shaina Anand and Ashok Sukumaran, is situated in the metropolis of Mumbai, a global centre for film, televised media and art, which tends, however, to lack robust art practices independent of the market. 1 Shanthi Road, on the other hand, is an existing, albeit fledgling, studio-cum-residency space in the centre of Bangalore. Run by the artist and writer Suresh Jayaram, a working group member of Khoj Mysore and Bangalore, it has a clear affinity with Khoj’s core values.
As I write, we are still grappling with the challenges involved in these partnerships: the implications of perceived hierarchies when funds flow through one organisation to another, and the hardening of fluid relationships into accountability structures. It is a steep learning curve for all. However while negotiating inner shifts and tensions, Khoj persists in stretching its limits and taking risks in the domain of cutting-edge contemporary art practice in India. Excited by the potential of an idea, it continues to make things possible: enabling artistic ideas and initiatives alike. The international workshop, meanwhile, retains credence with artists who believe that it can energise a local artistic community; and Khoj Bihar,which will takeplace in Patna, is being planned for 2009.
Khoj Studios remains committed to an intense programme, envisioning the potential and the boundaries of untested practices. And a slew of opportunities seems to be flying in through its doors: to nest a curatorial node; to support and develop public art as an initiative; to grow the research possibilities of its archive - opportunities that are exciting in and of themselves,
and which would, no doubt, make a valuable contribution to the visual arts discourse in India.
But what are the implications for Khoj itself as it is compelled in these directions? Through its flexible and sometimes audacious response to the demands of the contemporary arts sector, is Khoj outgrowing its mandate? Is it, in fact, setting itself up to implode?
We have no immediate answers. But standing at the threshold of change once again, the question of overriding importance for Khoj as it aspires to be an institution of excellence is whether it can simultaneously function as an effective engine of sectoral support. Paradoxically, if the very existence of Khoj as an institution is dependent on a thriving experimental art scene, does it have a choice?
Viewed from the inside, the making of institutional history and related notions of success seem irrelevant. In writing about what Khoj has (or has not) achieved in the past ten years, I find my headspace occupied with issues that Khoj is struggling with today: on the one hand, its intrinsic economic fragility, and, on the other, its ambition for the future - its raison d’être, if you will.
Khoj has nurtured and developed itself largely via support received from international institutions. As funding cycles come to an end, we find ourselves precariously poised. In the absence of generous local patronage, we urgently need to rethink our funding model and plan strategies for sustainability. This is Khoj’s main challenge for the future.
Over the years, Khoj as ‘idea’ has evolved into an amphibious creature which is, at once, a physical space and an extended network; simultaneously curatorially led and artist run; an active player and a passionate facilitator. It has challenged ideas of what can constitute art practice in India; it has acted as a site for both emerging artists and ‘emerging art’; it has formed networks, introducing and connecting non-local artists into local communities, and vice versa.
Of greater valence is the fact that Khoj has anticipated change and worked to keep pace with it. It has viewed disruption as a challenge and has been persistently self-reflexive while walking the tightrope of institutionalism.
But, mostly, Khoj has always looked ahead, even while looking back and looking around: constantly walking - constantly moving - constantly searching.
 An avid collector and art lover, Robert Loder organised the first Triangle workshop in 1982 in New York together with the artist Anthony Caro. Amazed by its capacity to generate energy and enthusiasm between artists, he initiated workshops in South Africa. Bringing artists from different backgrounds and regions together during the apartheid era had a powerful impact, subsequently inspiring a number of artists to set up similar workshops in Zimbabwe, Botswana, Mozambique, Senegal, Jamaica, Cuba, Australia, Egypt and, in 1997, India. Some of the founding members of Khoj had been invited to attend workshops in Africa; they returned eager to establish a group based on Triangle’s model. Loder’s initiative has become virtually a workshop movement, with new initiatives being set up almost every year in different parts of the world.
 See G Mosquera, ‘Some Problems in Transcultural Curating’ in Jean Fisher (ed), Global Visions: Towards a New Internationalism in the Visual Arts (Kala Press in association with Iniva, London, 1994).
 As noted by the social scientist Rahul Srivastava in a private conversation with the author.
 See N Möntmann, ‘The Rise and Fall of New Institutionalism: Perspectives on a Possible Future’ (transform.eipcp.net, 2007).
 See Raqs Media Collective, ‘A Concise Lexicon of/for the Digital Commons’ in Will Bradley and Charles Esche (eds), Art and Social Change: A Critical Reader (Tate Publishing, London, 2008).
 See B Fischer, ‘YYZ: An Anniversary’ in Decalog: YYZ 1979-89 (YYZ Publications, Toronto, 1993).
 Conversation between Jonathon Middleton, exhibitions curator, Western Front Society, Vancouver, Canada, and Brett Jones, co-founder and chair, West Space, Melbourne, Australia. (http://www.westspace.org.au/discursive/jonathon-middleton-in-conversation-2003.html, 2003).
 See N Hirsch, in Nikolaus Hirsch et al (eds), Institution Building: Artists, Curators, Architects in the Struggle for Institutional Space (Sternberg Press, New York/Berlin, 2009).
 Suzie Attiwill, quoted in conversation between Jonathon Middleton and Brett Jones (2003), op cit.
 See K Singh, Six Degrees of Separation (Khoj, Delhi, 2009)
 N Möntmann (2007), op cit.
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