Critical Collective: Your curatorial programme for the 4th edition of the Serendipity Arts Festival, 2019, includes two exhibitions and a series of artist talks. What frames these three different endeavors and is there a common link running through?
Ravi Agarwal: The program has actually 4 components. The main show is “Imagined Documents”, and the public art component is called “Urban Reimagined II”, besides the artist’s talks. I had followed the same format in 2018.
The latter is a public art project, and it has two sets of commissioned works, by Sahil Nayak and Achia Anzi who work with sculpture, photographs and text respectively. Their work speaks of displacement, community, memories, exile and the teleological idea of ‘time’ as has been proposed in modernity.
Besides I have invited the artist and educator Munem Wasif from Patshala School in Dhaka to conduct a workshop with participants invited through an open call on Staged/ Constructed photography. I feel that we need to create education spaces for practitioners to enable them to develop their own language. These opportunities are very limited in India and I wish to gesture towards their critical importance.
Lastly, as in 2018, I have again partnered with the artist Vishal Rawley who lives in Goa, to conduct food walks to take people to places where the food we eat is produced, and to interact with the local community there, such as fishers, rice growers etc. I wish to make the linkage to the idea of food as part of an ecological space, and to help people think of local spaces more deeply. Goa sits in a biodiversity hotspot, but tourists only see its casinos and beaches. This last initiative comes from my deep interest in ecology and the need to see its everyday connections.
Overall, I am interested in showing the idea of photography as a serious practice, to examine image making in South Asia, which reflects what its situated practitioners are looking at, what are their concerns and what specific languages they are developing and employing, as well as help open up the question of ‘urban’ and ‘ecology,’ as contemporary political spheres. The artist’s talk will provide visitors to engage with these practices more deeply.
CC: “Imagined Documents” looks at the staged photograph. The latter has always posed something of an ontological conundrum, contradicting the notion of (analogue) photography as transparently representing the world. Staged photography troubles this conceit, indicating the artifice underlying the taking of any photograph. Your work has from the very beginning rejected the perceived transparency of the image. Even in early series like A Street View and Down and Out: Labouring Under Global Capitalism, the documentary drive to capture the historical experience of India in the nineties, undergoing unchecked development, the photographs are far-from self-evident images attesting to some generic idea of marginalisation. Rather, they seem intent on disclosing hidden networks, the juxtaposition and framing of disparate elements throwing light on connections that remain elusive/invisible otherwise. This kind of revelation it seems is the special reserve of an aesthetic practice; an ethics of construction as it were. Has this in any way motivated your art practice as a companion to your activism?
RA: I believe the world I live in is largely a matter of my own interpretation and perception. There are today dogmatic ideas which are insisted upon as ‘facts,’ and have become dominant. This is in my view, a regressive attempt to interpret the world for a particular purpose and contain its infinite possibilities. It is uncontainable and no neat narratives can hold it together. It is this ambiguity, which I find most productive and which I inhabit, and I suppose it shows in my work. For me, the only underlying ‘truth’ of the photograph is that it reflects the gaze of the photographer. In my labour work, I did not see ‘them’ as only oppressed and marginalized but as deeply human and much more human than I then considered myself. It was a learning experience for me, which unlocked what I thought I knew. I saw a raw connection the laboring people had to everything around them, which was very humbling and revealing. Expressions of these unsaid ways and connections, which are present but hidden by dominant narratives is important. The idea of staged/constructed photographs is historically a post-modern turn in photographic image making, which counters ‘truth’ claims. It is one kind of practice which tries to do this. I am not sure if the conditions of our current and increasingly unsettled claim to ‘truth’ is a linear progression in time or has been an underlying condition of all times. Maybe in certain kinds of linear history making, we mark it like this, but then that it is equally a cultural and political marker, as it is a temporal one - and culture or politics are not singular things- in fact, far from it.
CC: Your work in a sense has become decisively framed by its placement within the networks of art as opposed to other channels of circulation for images. How does the act of framing inflect the work differently? What, for example, were the transformations triggered by the exhibition of Down and Out at dOCUMENTA 11 from their original context in the book authored by Jan Bremmen? How does the photograph placed in a critical, discursive art context perform differently from the communicative function of the documentary image in media?
RA: Photographs I think have circulated in, and even determined by institutional networks at all times - and these networks are not innocent of their histories and politics. Journalistic photographs for example follow the ethics of their papers. In the non-art world images are widely embedded in textual frameworks, but then of course one can argue, in the art world this is also framed through curatorial intentions. In Down and Out, the main author, Jan Breman, a renowned scholar, proposed a framework for the book. However, I naturally went in with my own ‘gaze.’ The work then came back as part of a book which obviously (and rightly) had the original idea foregrounded - that of the political condition of migrant labour. There were two languages at play here. One what the visuals revealed, and the other how these were contextualized in the book.
In the art world there is, I feel, emphasis on reading the visual language on its own terms. It allows for it and opens up the image to other interpretations. In Documenta XI, aside from the overarching curatorial intent, the work physically sat next to diverse practices and works by the Bechers, William Eggleston, David Goldblatt and others. It suggested another connecting condition of our capitalistic times, a complex truth, which I think was more layered and suggestive rather than normative. Itrevealedalayer of the what could be called a political moment. Art can do this - reveal nuanced underlying connections and moments.
CC: You also have works which combine performance and photograph like the Immersion. Emergence series and the Impossibility of Being Feminine, the latter of which is at a certain remove from the rest of your practice. What do you conceptualise as the role of performance in these works? What is the difference between performance in general, and a performance that is generated specifically for the camera?
RA: I have never considered myself a performer. The works you mention are deeply personal and reflect probably my ontological positions. The photograph is the medium which I consider mine so there is a coming together of an expression. I feel my practice has always been personal, engaged with the questions and concerns which occupy me at any given time. In fact, I was not aware of ‘performance’ per se when I did Immersion. Emergence. It was what I wanted to end my long tryst with the river Yamuna since I felt I wanted to express what I was not able to in the documentary part of that body of work. With that work there was a sense of completion, and that engagement with the river was finally over after two and a half years - an exhaustion. An image appeared in my mind, and I set about fulfilling it - that was all. It was a relief as well as a release! Subsequently I have done a series of works where I have performed for the camera - in fact one only this month! I have only performed live once - in Landscape as Witness - it was a wonderful experience. I don’t write it off, the public physicality of it, but right now it is an open question.
CC: Your recent video works have moved even further away from an ostensibly documentary practice. Is there now a division between your work at Toxics Link?
RA: I feel the impulse between immediacy and distance. My work at Toxics Link, which is very immediate and in the physical world, was always separate in its form from my other expressions. Possibly it is informed by the same ideas of a sense of injustice and trying to rectify it, and a desire to act, reflect, help change, informed all forms. But I have never consciously mixed them or wanted to, nor would I know how to even if I tried. They seem to be on different planes of existence in the way they manifest, though not so separate in my thoughts and emotions. In many ways to the outside world the practices, as I follow them could be mutually useless to either worlds.
CC: When so much contemporary art increasingly engages photography and the moving image, it is interesting that in the festival photography is a separate section from the visual arts. Do you feel, in a time of inherent intermediality, that these in fact constitute different categories? Do you feel they beget two different contexts of reception?
RA: Even a decade ago, it would have been easier to answer that question. Now the boundaries are blurring. Photography and art were received differently, it is unclear now. In some ways they possibly still are, though in a show context like Serendipity, which has different media-based shows at the same time, this is fuzzy, since even curatorially these differences are not so clear. Visual arts and photography curators have both engaged with the photographic image as well as other objects and media. Even though photographic and art histories are distinct, this is becoming less true in contemporary practices. On the other hand, it has to be acknowledged that a separate show on photography is received as only a photograph can - as an object of many slippages between fact and fiction - since a photograph cannot escape this interstitially. It also depends on the photographs itself and what it is proposing.
CC: What are the concerns that drive you as a curator as distinct from your preoccupations as a practitioner? In your own practice, works are strongly anchored to site, with the Yamuna river of course recurring as a topos for thinking on ecological change and urban development. As curator, are you freed from the cartography onto which your own work is mapped? Is there any continuity, especially in the works that will form part of the “Urban Reimagined 2.0” section in the festival?
RA: As a curator I am keen to recover the idea of photography as a specific language and a practice. Also, I am interested in looking at what was happening in South Asia and around, where is the camera ‘looking,’ and what strategies are being employed. I am not thinking of my specific engagements in my practice, but engaging with my deeper and longer engagement and love for the photographic image and image making per se. In that sense both Intimate Documents of 2018 and Imagined Documents of 2019 are connected. This is also true for Urban Reimagined 1 and 2 - both are reflecting on the urban condition.
CC: You have spoken about the public engagement that projects like 48°C and Yamuna-Elbe.Public.Art.Ecology facilitate which a gallery show cannot. You have been invested in creating such alternative spaces for discourse and dissemination. In this context, how do you view something like Serendipity? What is the public being generated here?
RA: I think a very interesting understanding of public is being generated - those who not only engages in high art practices across mediums and forms, but also reacts positively to them. It reaffirms that art is for everyone, like in many public museums abroad, where people of all varieties and age visit, unlike in private galleries. It is reaffirming that the ‘hidden’ everyday engagement everyone has with culture and the arts. I’ve had the same experience in the public art projects I have curated or participated in. We in the art world need to reevaluate our understanding of the ‘public’ not the other way around!
CC: You have previously curated for Serendipity as well. How do you navigate the general atmosphere of the carnivalesque at the festival coinciding with year-end celebrations and in a place that is in any case a tourist destination? How is a critical framework and intellectual engagement elicited in such a context? Are there different terms of engagement in this setting?
RA: I have not engaged much with the idea of the celebration or idea of a festival as far as the curation goes. At the most, I have been aware of the huge number and variety of people who attend this, so this may impact the communication of the show. I have tried to show best practices of artists and keep the highest possible ethics and forms of exhibition making as I can or know. It is not tailored to ‘speak’ to a kind of audience but presented as such, respecting that people will take what they will from it. I have been supported by a wonderful Serendipity team. From what I have seen over the past years, itattractsalot of people who engage very well, and it is very humbling to present something to them.
CC: What often goes unremarked in a discussion of your works is its strong archival thrust, as in the Extinct series made for the 48°C, about the declining vulture populations in India. Interestingly, the photographs of vultures were of the stuffed ones at the Natural History Museum in Delhi. The colonial archive of taxidermy perhaps most literally instantiates the death drive implicit in the act of documenting. Could documentary, even as it purports to bear witness, also actually participate in the making past of its subjects?
RA: I think not every document becomes part of an archive. Some gather historical relevance and weight, while others are scattered and ultimately lost. It is hard to say, which one, except in the pursuit of a singular idea or path over time, documents gathers meanings and moss over time and point towards a time or times, which have become more than those moments. It’s the collective and the coming together I think, and the passing of something, pointing towards a remanence of what has been. The photographic document has a close relationship with the idea of death, its brief and instantly passing moment which becomes history even as it appears.
CC: Death is any case a recurring motif in your work, in imagery of the abandoned and the abject. In The Desert of the Anthropocene, for example, the predominating image is that of disuse and alienation. Much of your work on the developmental drive of the neoliberal state seems to countenance death. But at the same time, you have criticized the notion of the Anthropocene as assuming a homogeneity of the relationship between nature and culture, as well as continuing to perpetuate the notion that humans are insulated from their environments. The concept has also received criticism for its western teleological conception of time. Your work Immersion seems to present an alternative, eastern view of climate change, inflected by a cyclical notion of time. Here the death of the river, and with it, of the human subject imbricated in the same urban ecology as the river, is attended by funerary rites which prepare the mortal body for an afterlife. Could works from the Global South, such as this, unfold alternative visions of survival even in the midst of death and obsolescence?
RA: Time is a mystery, a puzzle and a conundrum. It cannot be resolved except in a particular frame of reason or thought. Modernity proposes a progressive idea of time. Yet, human life is though limited yet infinite in its scope. How we inhabit it is of great consequence to the planet. I think these ideas exist across cultures and societies- they are ontological ways of life and inform ideas of the self and its relationship with the world around. This is especially true in societies where narratives of Iand and ecology are reciprocal and cooperative as against in the industrialized world where they are bounded in ownership, capital and narrow individualism. I believe it starts from there - defining the world we create, and how it manifests. The self can be an identity and a cosmic connection at the same time - both temporally and spatially. We cannot fully know death or post death; we can only believe. However, what we believe changes the world we inhabit in fundamental ways. In many ways the crisis of the Anthropocene is a crisis of the ‘self.’ The idea of alienation is rooted in what is bounded by the ‘self’ in the first place, and what remains outside and then becomes alien.