Report from 48c Festival in Delhi, India

This was my first trip to India and I was filled with hesitation for various reasons. East Coast curator for ecoartspace, Amy Lipton, was originally invited to speak and decided last minute to pass due to scheduling conflicts, so I was to go alone. Most of all, it was a long way for me to travel (from San Francisco) to stay only for 5 nights. Plus, we were scheduled to stay in a nice hotel and after the Mumbai attacks, it felt a bit conspicuous. Despite all my reservations, I boarded Virgin Atlantic on 12/9 to London, where I was able to spend the day, and have lunch at the RSA Café with former Dartington Art and Ecology Professor, Alan Boldon; then a short walk over to the Tate Modern to see the Cildo Meireles exhibition, a series of full room installations, lush and immersive. Meireles is a Brazilian conceptual artist who was inspired by the Neo-concretism of the late 1950s.

After leaving London late that night, I arrived in Delhi the next day, Thursday 12/11, in the early afternoon. We were greeted with a dense fog
that is typical in the month of December. At first I thought it was all pollution and then the pilot described it as fog. However, I later learned that it is associated with the winter monsoon (November – March/April), where there is no rain to wash pollutants from the air, and is referred to as the “Asian Brown Cloud“. This condition occurs when humidity forms haze, which carries airborne particles and pollutants from combustion (e.g. woodfires, cars, and factories). The cloud is said to cover India, Pakistan, and parts of South Asia, Southwest Asia, and China.

Driving from the airport to the hotel re
minded me of time spent in Mexico City. Streets filled with people walking on dirt roads with baskets of goods. Except in India, many people wear turbans; some black, some white, some orange. Children run up to taxi’s begging for money to buy food (motioning with their hands cupped as if they were eating), many have limbs missing. When we arrived at The Park hotel, security was high with car inspections and metal detectors at the entrance. Men patted down by men and womens handbags were searched. After a long rest, I was up late for dinner and could not go back to sleep. I took this opportunity to work on my presentation. I was requested to give a talk providing multiple examples, a chronology of art and ecology from a Western perspective. The title of my symposium session was “Art in Public” and I decided to emphasize examples that had a performative aspect, which included works by Alan Sonfist, Mierle Ukeles, Christy Rupp, Agnes Denes, Buster Simpson, Dominque Mazeaud, Mel Chin, Kathryn Miller, Shai Zakai and Eve Mosher.

On Friday, all the symposium speakers met at The Park hotel (48c symposium venue) for lunch to familiarize themselves with e
ach other and the presentation format for Saturday/Sunday. After lunch we were all invited to the opening ceremony at Max Mueller Bhavan/Goethe-Institut, where the kick off of the 48c Festival took place. Fellow Americans, including Mary Miss and American/Canadian artist Chrysanne Stathacos, were in attendance; as well as Ichi Ikeda (Japan), among many other talented international artists. Stefan Dreyer, Regional Director for South Asia with the Goethe-Institut, gave thanks to the organizers including festival curator/producer Pooja Sood, a Delhi independent curator and director of an alternative/residency space KHOJ, who was responsible for pulling together this international pool of artists for 48c, to create site-specific works along the Delhi Metro line, the first of its kind in Delhi.

Following the welcome and acknowledgements, participants were invited to head out with maps to visit any of the 31 project sites (25 artists) in New and Old Delhi. A group of us headed out together (Michaela Crimmin – RSA London, Clare Cumberlidge – General Public Agency London, Heinz Schuetz – curator and art historian Germany, and myself) by taxi to the closest Metro station at Cannaught Place. We went underground heading North about 15 minutes to Kashmere Gate Station to see four installations. It was dark and we relied on artists Sabine Haubitz and Stefanie Zoche, who had been navigating the city for the previous two weeks while creating their installations, to lead us to their site.

We were greeted with a very large stainless steel sculpture of a water pail on a pedestal created by one of India’s most prolific artists, Subodh Gupta, who lives and works in New Delhi. With this work, Gupta provides an icon for residents to consider their illusion of an endless supply of water. Adjacent to this work was a large tower made of bamboo symbolizing a media communications transmission station with a single projection of multiple still images onto a circular platform below, a metaphorical pond of water. This work entitled "The Yamuna Blues," by Sabine Haubitz and Stefanie Zoche, presented images of water use by humans along the Yamuna River. Their hope is to point out, make evident to residents, that deeply embedded Indian rituals performed along the waterways, have a direct impact on water quality (among other destructive activities which are compounded by monsoon flooding).

To the North of Kasmere Gate, Delhi based artist Atul Bahalla, who studied in the USA and was featured at the Frieze Art Fair in 2007, created a video projection sculpture entitled “Chabeel.” This work presented a very large, oversized white tiled replica of a white plastic water container, the kind carried by pilgrims to transport water from the Ganga River to hand out drinking water to passersby. This is something the artist remembered from his childhood. Inside the bottle sculpture is a " water station" where he requires participants to fill out a questionnaire: How long have you been in Delhi? When was the last time you saw the Yamuna? When was the last time you touched the Yamuna? The water bottle sculpture operates as a chabeel- a tradition in the Punjab practiced by Hindus and Sikhs that involves the distribution of water or, more often, a kind of lassi to the public for religious festivals. Stickers in Hindu and English were distributed that state "Have you ever seen the Yamuna? Have you ever touched the Yamuna?”

Adjacent to Bahalla’s work was Chrysanne Stathacos installation entitled “The Wish Machine.” Originally commissioned as an interactive public artwork for Grand Central Station in 1997-98 by Creative Time, a refabricated vending machine dispenses wishes to the public, wrapped in the image of a wishing tree from India (Banyan or Bodhi Tree). There was also a second machine at Cannaught Place.

With only a short time before we had to return to the Max Mueller Bhavan for dinner, we met up with Indian American artist Nitin Mukul, who then guided us to the next metro stop at Chandni Chowk Station (and Old Delhi Railway Station). Walking through highly populated narrow alley ways, we found Ichi Ikeda’s installation entitled “Waterpolis: Missing or Promising?” Ikeda from Japan has addressed water issues for many years. The site for his 48c installation was in the garden of the Town Hall in Old Delhi, where the last remaining Mughal water channel is located. The channel, currently sits with no water in it. Ikeda proposes in this work that all residents of Delhi should have access to water, and that this channel, which he has transformed into a sculptural vessel, is “rowing in the stream flowing between Metropolitan Mega Dream and Community Aspiration."

As we made our way back to Chandni Chowk Station, it was noted that the graphics and signage were highly visible, with bamboo stations sitting near each site and arrows on the floors of the metro leading you out to see the public art works. Also of note, while riding the metro, which is new and very smooth, the demographics at night are probably 90% male. This presented a delay for our male symposium speakers and artists who had to negotiate a very long line, probably 50 or more men at a time, to get through security to ride the trains.

Saturday, December 12th, the first day of the two-day symposium

In the morning session, entitled “City Space and the Everyday,” Clare Cumber
lidge of General Public Agency in London, gave the keynote talk on developing a public art plan. She gave examples of projects outside London (Thurrock) and in South Africa (Ivory Park, ecocity) and emphasized her work in creating multiple layers of data/portrait maps when doing research to develop a Master Plan. Her respondent, Dunu Roy, a social scientist and political ecologist from Delhi, talked about how Delhi strives to be a world class city and that there are 14,500 parks in Delhi, which equals 1 park per 1,000 people! Roy also talked about how the waste program is illegal because an official program would legitimize waste renewal. He discussed how slum projects develop and how they are removed to prevent them from becoming legal space. And, he proposed the phrase “Every Day, No Where People” describing those who navigate this illegal system.

Provocateurs, AGK Menon, an urban planner, and Bart Vandeput of FoAM in Brussels, presented additional ideas. Menon proposed the question, “How do you plan for all people in such a diverse environment, rich/poor, multiple religions, male and female?” This was something I considered before going to Delhi and then experienced while I was there. We take the public space for granted in America. Depending on what time of day it is and in what location, women and men have specific places that they are allowed or not allowed, and different religions as well. There are many boundaries of social space, on many levels. It will be interesting to see how this festival is perceived by the populous of Delhi in this regard. Vandeput talked about how the economy is part of the environment and not the other way around. He also presented how technology can be utilized to promote peace and gave the example of solar powered water pumps distributed in isolated areas. Overall, this session captured the struggle to meet all the needs of economy, scale and community, when designing a sustainable city.

In the afternoon, I gave the keynote for the “Art in Public” session. The session Chair was Geeta Kapur, Art Critic and Art Historian in Delhi. The respondent, Nancy Adjania, Curator and Art Historian from Mumbai. And following, four provocateurs including: Heinz Schuetz, curator and historian from Germany; Mumbai artist Navjot Altaf, who was in the American exhibition Groundworks in 2005, and Michaela Crimmin from the RSA in London with the Art and Ecology Centre, as well as Delhi 48c artist Ravi Agarwal. The format was a little confusing to me, as no one really responded to each other's talks, which made it hard to connect the dots (this was due to not enough pre symposium dialogue I suppose). Because the chair requested that I present multiple examples of ecoart from a western perspective, my lecture was primarily a historical voyage through the earth art, land art and early ecoventions through to the late 1990s. Since I was also encouraged by the chair to make a strong argument while offering these examples, I came to a solid conclusion that historically, most of the well-known or successful projects, had been self-initiated and privately funded, and that having a public agencies support, was not really needed. SILENCE.

Believe me, I do not think that public art agencies should not support this work. It is that there are boundaries that public agencies may or may not be able to permeate with regard to liability, risks that deeper pockets than an individual artist are willing to take, especially historically. I also made the case for actions over objects with the immediacy of environmental concerns. I gave the examples of Eve Mosher’s HighWaterLine and Preemptive Media’s AIR project, both which display how artists are employing scientific knowledge and technology to empower individuals rather than externalize fears in the form of object making. I was told to make emphatic arguments . . . . it is Indian I am told! (And, I'm also very interested in working on infrastructure projects with engineers, planners, and architects).

The following responses ensued, although not in response to the arguments I made: Nancy Adjania proposed a study of the political implications of public art in India and questioned if there is really such a thing as public art or simply artists who create work in the public sphere? She also stated that she felt there was no “unmarked” space in India and that the blurring of boundaries of the white cube and the environment was moot. She feels that working outdoors is not always radical and proposed ephemera as tools for dialogue. In India, she feels that public space is a place for opposing views, but not simply to acknowledge differences, more of a place to “heal.” She proposed a performative citizenship (which is where my talk also led), in a hybrid space of public domain versus public sphere. Feel free to comment on this Nancy, did I interpret you correctly?

Heinz Schuetz, who curated a Performing the City: Actionist Art in the Urban Space 1960s/1970s, talked about how the term public art developed and how artis
ts became more conscious of their movement as art, as an evolution of the ego. A process of discovery, if you will. He noted three elements of public space. One, is the site itself. Two, is the context of the site. And, three, is the social/political forces at the site. Schuetz brought up that ecology is an exchange system between man and nature, and that there is not a nature versus ecology debate. Humans are a part of nature. And, he completed his talk with the idea that it is NOT necessary to use the word ART for this type of work in the public sphere and that we need to invent a new word!

Navjot Altaf advocated for more long-term projects where community dial
ogue can have a lasting affect, rather than short-term projects. She advocated for active listening when working with communities and felt that building relationships is a part of the art. Ravi Agarwal brought up the crossover of arts and activism and felt sometimes it is difficult to distinguish the two. He also talked about institutions mediating artists’ installations and that this is problematic. Michaela Crimmin presented projects that the RSA supports, like inviting Danish artist Tue Greenfort to address waste disposal for the Frieze Art Fair in 2008. Crimmin has been collaborating with KHOJ in Delhi since 2007, to develop residencies and workshops in India with artists from the UK (including Kayle Brandon and Heath Bunting).

After a full day of sessions, Ravi Agarwal i
nvited our panel to see his 48c installations, so we headed out in a taxi to take in as many site works as we could before having dinner at the Norwegian Embassy, the sponsor for the symposium.

Directly across from our hotel, The Park, was a designated protest area where Delhi artist, Amar Kanwar created a text/film installation. It was executed beautifully with painted signage panels and billboard lighting, and a video monitor playing a complex narrative film in Hindi at the end of a long fence. Here people could officially gather to interact about Indian Parliament, in anticipation of the winter session that would take place at the end of 2008. Kanwar received an honorary doctorate in Fine Arts from the Maine College of Art (USA).

Next we ventured to the Mandi House Metro Station to see Ravi Agarwal’s multiple site works addressing the endangered white-backed vulture, indigenous to India. The work entitled “Extinct?” consisted of stretched architectural screens with video projections of vultures located in the center of a medium-sized roundabout/park. There were also photo-based billboards stills on the exterior of the roundabout, and sites inside the adjacent National Museum of Natural History. With this work, Agarwal, attempts to revive the memory of the vulture in the city, where its presence some 15 years ago was normal. They are now 97% extinct. Vulture Walks were planned as events with the public and scientists to promote conservation (most likely rodenticide education).

We piled back in the taxi and headed to Barakhamba Road, at Barakhamba Metro Station, where we encountered two works addressing the expansion of the road into a wide boulevard, and the transition in this area from residential housing to high-rise development. "Crane + Tree" by Bangalore-based Kaishnaraj Chonat, is a very dramatic, Smithsonesque, dead, hanging tree, above an abandoned residence in a commercial area. For this installation, he uses nature as a metaphor to symbolize the conflict between urban and semi-urban and rural sectors who struggle for space as the city expands. It felt violent and the tree violated. I wonder how the public will respond to this work; if such a dramatic spectacle will help the situation?

Immediately off the Road in front of the Crane + Tree installation was a two-channel video projection entitled "BARAKHAMBA" by Navjot Altaf. The footage is previously captured interviews with local community members soliciting responses to the changing landscape of Barakhamba Road, on a continuous loop. This work was very popular with passersby as a big screen video projection is hardly common. There was also a live feed on a separate screen of the audience watching the taped interviews, where viewers become a part of the art.

Sunday, December 13th, the second day of the two-day symposium

The first session of the second d
ay focused on Sustainability and how Delhi should strive to be more “green.” The keynote speaker was Chi Tinan of Chi Ti-nan Architects. Chi is Taiwanese, although currently resides in Norway, where he is getting his PhD in architecture. He presented on micro urbanism, a combination of fengshui and social activism, in developing a holistic landscape. Provocature Frederica Miller with Gaia Architects, also in Norway, talked about how “conscious construction” can help prevent climate change. And, Provocature American artist Mary Miss, discussed a wide range of opportunities for artist participation on design teams in developing master plans, as well as the draw backs, which she knows all too well.

NOTE: I have to admit that on this day, I was fi
ghting jet lag really badly and did not take notes. I cannot remember the outcome of this or the following panel. In fact, I left early this day and went straight to bed for a nap . . . . (sorry).

On Sunday evening we were invited to Dr. Stefan Dreyer’s home for dinner (typically served around 9-10pm). So, we headed out to view one more site work because many participants were scheduled to leave the next day. We walked from the hotel over to Palika Bazaar in Connaught Place, where Copenhagen-based LEARNING SITE, Rikke Luther and Cecilia Wendt (co-founders of N55 and creators of the N55 Manual – one of my all time favorites), created a paper mache replica of a concrete dome (the original adjacent in the park) with hand painted images and text, somewhat glyph like, entitled "Poster Dwelling for Land, Market and Economy.” This highly didactic work (in mostly English), although made from recycled paper, links the park setting (nature) with the local market (economy) and historical origins (land-use). More comments to come here, check back.

My last day in Delhi, Monday 12/15, I hired a car for the entire day. I had scheduled a video interview with Mary Miss in the morning at her site in Roshanara’s Garden. Entitled “Roshanara’s Net,” this work is located several blocks North of the Pulbangash Metro Station, an area where there was a real sense of community around the garden, outside of the city center. Miss decided to integrate both patterns from textiles and ancient information about ayurvedic plants in the form of a landscape bathed in colors and plant life, as a reminder to those who have lost access to this information. Each generation loses this connection with nature living an industrialized life style in Delhi.

Two other works in Roshanara’s Garden were "Floatage” by Vivan Sundaram of Delhi, with a sea of pink bottle tops in the shape of a swimming pool (the same Himalayan water I would drink each day bought at The Park hotel). And, the other, a brilliant work by Mumbai-based Ashok Sukumaran (MFA - Architecture degree from UCLA) in collaboration with Shaina Anand, a filmmaker, who together founded the collaborative CAMP. Entitled "Motornama Roshanara" the artists created a bicycle rigshaw tour of the immediate neighborhood, which is known as the motor industry of North Delhi. Although I was not able to take the tour myself, this is the type of work that inspires me. I think it is important for the locals to take this tour and see their own community with new eyes.

I left Roshanara’s Garden at 1pm
and heading south to see Humayun's Tomb and go to Dilli Haat outdoor craft bazaar to buy scarves and bedcovers as gifts. Then, colapsed in my bed for the night. Tuesday morning before I headed to the airport, I made one last jaunt to see the Gurdwara Bangla Sahib, the most prominent Sikh gurdwara in Delhi (within walking distance of The Park hotel). You must cover your head and remove your shoes . . . and you get to eat something warm and yummy when you leave the temple.

Overall, it was a good trip. I’m just sorry it had to be so short and that I did not have the time to go see the countryside, to visit the farms, or see the Taj Mahal in Agra.
I would really like to thank Nita Soans for all the time she spent making travel arrangements and for working to keep the symposium participants happy! And, Geeta for making sure that the audience would benefit from the presentations. Special thanks to Nancy Adjania, who responded to my keynote with an enlightening talk sharing her keen understanding of the Indian public sphere. And, Pooja Sood, a big congratulations. You should feel good about this festival, being the first of its kind, it was very impressive. I hope to see you all again soon! Tricia