Interview with Shubigi Rao

Critical Collective (CC): The present global crisis cuts at the heart of the global art event like the Kochi Muziris Biennale (KMB) through the challenge that it throws to sociality, and even the broader question of hospitality in the reception and dissemination of art. How does a curator of an event of the magnitude of KMB deal with this?

Shubigi Rao (SR): This is at the heart of my curatorial work here - retaining and expanding sensitivity to multiple contexts, and adaptability in practice that includes rethinking forms of sociability and gathering. The expansiveness of the artistic responses to the current global crisis would not be antithetical to my curatorial process, especially since I’ve considered this edition of KMB as a crucible within which to hold very disparate conversations. Since much of this new global discourse is still marginal, there is now the possibility to create more intimacy, to have quieter moments within the expanded idea of the biennale. A biennale is so much more than a mere accumulation of coincidental collisions. As a possible knowledge commons, the conversations that would emerge from the exhibition, the seminars and other programming would be vital in demonstrating the diversity of strategies that artists employ, especially in response to the current crisis.

As artists respond to their local situations, anxieties, and constraints, they have also embraced previously overlooked forms of interaction, process, and method, as well as inventing and expanding their processes of making, collaborating, and sharing. In reflecting that, this edition of the biennale will be very much a product of its time, as it should be.

CC: In your own practice there have been specific areas of interest, such as the archive, the material cultural artefact, sourced in sites like the museum and the library. Can you speak of how these interests translate into a curatorial method or framework for the upcoming edition?

SR: These areas of interest may inform certain aspects of my curatorial framework, though that influence is more through method or approach, rather than as a dominant aesthetic or core issue. For instance, my work around libraries is less a valorisation of books and sites of knowledge, but rather an exploration of their contexts and issues, like knowledge custodianship, access, and the conjoined trajectories of literature and violence. My method involves listening as much as it does collecting, and making apparent the connective tissue between ideas, material and practice. As an artist, my texts, films, and artworks have examined ecological and human interactions through the movements of objects and language. This involves pinpointing multiple historical and contemporary crises to plot cascading effects - from the celebration of scientific ignorance as a cultural right, to the ascendancy of certain language forms dovetailing with cultural exports as ‘softer’ imperial expansionism. These flashpoints are perspectival shifts to examining contemporary crises of displacement, whether of people, languages, cultures, or species. It also addresses a key argument in my current research - that current geo-politics is invariably influenced by language, cultural shifts and destruction in a proportion often underplayed in history.

In a piece I wrote last October on my curatorial process, I also considered the question of creative endeavour as necessity, not luxury, and I believe it is relevant despite being written before the crisis: “One of the objectives/desires of cultural institutions, artists, writers, academics, etc. is to contend with the urgencies of their times. In doing so it is easy to become disenchanted with, or apathetic about the state of our societies, our collective futures, and the planet. Yet I would argue that our fears for the future do not detract from our abilities to think and to make, but fuel our yearning to articulate through art the complexities of our realities. This affirming power of artistic work, no matter the medium, has been a keystone in my practice, and will continue to inform my curatorial work for KMB.”

CC: If we consider the significant but especially Asian disasters of the last two decades, the wars in West Asia and the destruction of cultural sites would be a preeminent cultural narrative. These have had a powerful register and representation in the artists of these regions. In contrast Covid-19 as a miasma is invisible and its effect on the art world in terms of language and translation is still unformed, even though disease is historically associated with conquest and enslavement. Caught as you are in this time, how do you address the particular challenge of a changing art/world order?

SR: The concept of nation and inviolability of borders is a depressingly pernicious myth that denies the diffusion of languages and ideas, and the way digital spread resists nationalisms. We can see this reflected in growing investigative methods in artistic practices that directly excavate and implicate the monetisation of everything-environment, activism, crisis, knowledge production, transmissions and access, global capital flows and inequities. Perhaps the difference here is the rejection of the narrative as singular, choosing instead an embracing of submerged and manifold stories, and where and how and through whose agencies they diverge.

Across South Asia, East and Southeast Asia, West Africa and South America I have had the privilege to encounter a number of practices that demonstrate a sureness of context and purpose. Of special note are those that examine the politics of language hegemonies, historical record, suppressed or vanishing languages and indigenous ways of life. This is cause for optimism as well as damning counterpoint to hegemonic and monolithic narratives. Sometimes embodying a spectacular materiality and tactility, these works range from the filmic, literary and text-based, or even nonverbal and nonmaterial articulations, to critical reinventions of craft traditions and performative gesture. The critical reinventions here refer not just to the influence of traditional medium, tactility, texture, technique and craft. There is a strong understanding of generational heritage, for instance, as disruptor of hierarchical global market forces, convention, and fickle trend.

CC: In the present crisis, there is a marked difference in the responses of the East and the West, to the nature of the public and the human condition, the understanding of ecology, even the temporal and spatial nature of contamination itself. Do you believe that going forward our understanding of public spaces will need to be recalibrated beyond the critical and theoretical frameworks of citizenship as we have understood them so far?

SR: I must say I’m uncomfortable with a dichotomousEast/Westdescriptor. While I was formulating the curatorial structure of a biennale such as this, I kept coming back to the problem of constructing region. As the first KMB curator who isn’t based in India, and as a Singaporean, I am excited by the opportunity to spotlight the vivid practices and discourses in Southeast Asia, while simultaneously being troubled by this geographical classification. The main reason, for me, will always be the dangers of the appeal to authority, or the claim to speak on behalf of a region from a position of knowledge that, as a curator, is sometimes expected. Classifications such as “South Asia” or “Southeast Asia” are difficult to reconcile. They appear to bring together states that diverge quite radically, but also given the complex geo-politics, histories, and cultures with porous ‘boundaries’ here, “South Asia” would present them as a supposedly unified geographical region. For me, these terms are especially troubling because it assumes that we must read this rich tapestry, this multiplicity, primarily as state (or nation) first. This is especially applicable when we see how the interaction between cultures or communities is invariably framed as transnational or statist, where national identity is regarded as the signifier of all parties in the conversation. At the same time I do recognise the importance of cultural production (in thinking, writing, and in making) in postcolonial states having to grapple with what constitutes statehood, nation-building, and regional allyship, and in recognising other forms of power within communities and collectives. Critical cultural production here is also about recognising that the rhetoric that privileges certain groups over others is already being reframed or dismantled, and that a key aspect of this reframing involves the acknowledgement of intersecting contexts.

I must also point to citizen action being vital in any discussion here. With Covid-19 lockdowns, street protests across the world were affected. That doesn’t mean the dissolution of intent, or the ability to organise effective action. In Hong Kong for instance, the credit for the success in maintaining a low rate of infection lies more in the actions of its citizenry rather than in any action by Carrie Lam’s government.

So in response to your question about the necessity of recalibration, I would say it is absolutely necessary, though this work was already being done by numerous groups and individuals. I hold out hope that this labour of rethinking the habits and avarices of our species will also be shouldered by previously apathetic and insulated people and institutions.

CC: The age of the anthropocene, and its intense articulation over the last two decades appears to have entered a phase of redefinition; how do you as an artist and thinker see the unfoldment of repeated bouts of contamination and the challenge that they pose to the artistic and societal models of our times?

SR: It’s still too early for me to indulge in predictive analysis - that would be invariably more gestural than effectual. I am more heartened by the way the discourse around the Anthropocene has shifted from the academic and cultural spheres, seeping into more mainstream discussions of work, value, exploitation (of people and the planet). It is also heartening to see the previously unacknowledged labour of those who have worked on these issues being recognised and adopted by individuals, groups, and communities.

We sometimes seem doomed to repeat the mistakes of history - note how much of contemporary geo-political farce and tragedy is performed by those secure and smug in the supremacy and primacy of their culture, their language, their nation, their tribe, their religion, their ideology and ‘values’. The inability to read the cultures and mentalities outside one’s own is a miserable state, of one that we should be ashamed, not smug. A commons as I see it is not just an archive that holds in stasis till activated. It is prolific, shapeshifting, and impure. Here we can read and listen, here meaning and implication can be glimpsed, parsed, reinterpreted and so live on in the minds of others, an ever expanding, rerouting, mutating web. This web also reaches across narrow geopolitical, theological and political concerns -solidarity crosses over, solidarity in the shared ideal.

In a way the virus has shattered the protective bubble of complacent positions, laying bare massive inequities, and the rapaciousness of our species. It has brought home the urgency of rethinking our role as a virulently terraforming species, and the necessity of voting in leaders who embody compassion rather than bluster and bombast, and in dismantling outdated Industrial Revolution ideas of productivity and neoliberal wage slavery, and the malignancy entrenched caste, class and other hierarchies. Within arts communities much is being redefined, and again, this is not a bad thing. We have always been sensitive to context and the anxieties of our age. Though we may share the same concerns of land, migration, the climate crisis, rising neo-fascist, totalitarian and theocratic regimes, intrusive technology and surveillance, for instance, we diverge in our methods and approaches in thinking and in making. This adaptability of approach is necessary. We could do with more soul-searching as a species.


Interview with Bose Krishnamachari

Critical Collective (CC): Faced as the world is with a pandemic like Covid-19 that enforces isolation and a lockdown for public spaces, how do you, as director of the Kochi Muziris Biennale, respond to this? How does an event like a biennial, which depends on the visiting public for its lifeblood, adapt to the dramatic change enforced by social distancing?

Bose Krishnamachari (BK): There's no easy answer to this situation, since we are talking about such a fundamental element of human life: the capability to gather, to come together. Without ever giving up this element, we would have to break the problem down into its several practical parts - travel related to research and production, determining the kinds of artworks, producing works on site, exhibition design and layout, spatial distribution of venues and galleries, visitor management, communication, etc. We should respond to the large question by retaining its urgency, but unpack it into smaller questions. This requires us to think creatively, and the KMB team has already begun working on the possibilities.

CC: There is much public anxiety about the economic consequences of the crisis. As the president of an art foundation, what would you say would be the impact of the virus on the art economy? Do you think you will have to curtail the size of the Biennale? Further, what measures can be taken now to cushion the blow, particularly with regard to local communities and labour, in a statelikeKerala.

BK: We are in touch with many of our stakeholders in Kerala and particularly Kochi, for whom the Biennale is not only a cultural, but also an economic generator. The floods in 2018 also damaged the state's economy considerably, and we were able to play a small part in restoring confidence in Kerala. Of course, the implications of the pandemic are global, and we are faced with another kind of challenge this time. We're also aware that it is not only the second-order effects of the Biennale - economic activity due to visitors coming into Kochi - that are important, but also the organising and producing of the Biennale.

We're not thinking about reducing the size at the moment, but obviously we will have to do some things differently. Precisely what these things are we can only develop in the next few months.

CC: In an interview earlier this year you had said that the curator's focus will be on the global south, and the bringing in of art and artists works from Africa and South America. Clearly, the health of each nation with regard to the virus will have a different timeline. How do you plan to counter the obstacles to international travel?

BK: Regarding curatorial research, Shubigi had managed to complete travel to about 35 countries before international travel came to a halt. So the largest part of curatorial research is finished. The curatorial team has been in touch with the artists to come up with ways to adapt their proposals to the situation.

CC: In times like this, the digital space has emerged as a (temporary) alternative to the brick-and-mortar structures. The KMB Instagram page has posted images of KMB artists at work during the lockdown, and older photographs from the KMB archives. However, can a cultural event like the Biennale, which includes other programmes like educational workshops, film screenings, lectures, and performances, adapt itself to the virtual medium sustainably?

BK: For many years now, exhibitions and artworks have had a digital or virtual existence. These could be in the form of online galleries, images circulating on digital media, visitor engagement online, etc.

However, we don't ever want to propose that the digital replace the exhibition or performance or pedagogic experience. They flow into each other anyway, so cultural institutions should think about how best to critically develop and refine the points at which they come into contact. At the Foundation, we've been trying to put in place a digital programming track, and the coronavirus situation is asking us to work harder on that.

CC: As you mentioned, Kerala first had the floods before the 2018 edition of the Biennale, and this year there is the global pandemic. How does this affect funding, and the related issue of cosmopolitanism and community outreach?

BK: Our activities are sustained by support from various sets and kinds of stakeholders. These include the State and city government, artists, local partners, individual patrons, vendors, corporate support, etc. Support is not only financial but also in-kind. Obviously, all parties are going to be affected. We are in touch with all our partners to hear what they think about the situation. We know it won't be easy, and that we will have to do some things differently. However, all of them are convinced about the value of the Biennale, will continue to support us.

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