Collective Curiosity: Thoughts on Art India’s “Artist’s Collectives” Issue; Volume XVI, Issue III, Quarter III, 2011-2012
Art collectives are rising stars on the Indian art scene. But how did this phenomenon start? Who are the major players—and the major players that make them up? Art India’s most recent issue offers some much needed background. This volume features nine brief profiles of artist’s collectives that have been active in India from before partition up until the present moment. Some of the articles, such as Shukla Sawant’s piece on The Progressive Artists’ Group (pp. 28-30), and Meera Menezes’ interview with Khoj director Pooja Sood (pp. 52-54), were too brief to offer much new insight on these major players. Not to have addressed Khoj or the Progressives at all, however, would have been a sorely-felt omission. The rest of the pieces—though also short—offered up excellent insights about a range of groups whose practices are often so flexible and multi-faceted that they are hard to even define. Although each article was too brief to allow for any significant depth of analysis, this condensed collection is a vital starting point for our collective curiosity.
The opening few pieces set the stage with some historical perspective. The subject of the first article was the Calcutta Group, which I had come across in my previous research on the Bengal School, but never researched independently. Partha Roy’s piece helped clarify why. They formed in the wake of the Bengal Famine of 1943, and were guided by Marxist ideology on the one hand, and a reactionary impulse against the Bengal School on the other. However, they never developed a unified direction or aesthetic, and dissolved in 1953. The next piece traced the progress of Group 1890, which I had not previously heard of. Like the Calcutta Group, however, they never really gained much momentum, partially explaining why they have been marginalized by Indian art history. They began in 1963 in Bharnagar, Gujarat, and later became associated with Baroda. In 1963 they wrote a manifesto rejecting previous trends in Indian art, and proclaiming a process-oriented philosophy. Their inaugural show was held at the Lalit Kala academy in Delhi, and was attended by Nehru and Octavio Paz, the ambassador from Mexico at the time (p. 33). However, the collective disbanded soon after. The story of these two early groups foreshadowed the fate of many of the collectives-to-come. Revolutionary ideals with a somewhat ever-inchoate aesthetic.
The Cholamandal Artist’s Village in Tamil Nadu was the subject of the next piece (pp. 34-35). This excited me because I visited the place years ago but had the feeling that I didn’t understand what it was really about. According to Geeta Doctor’s piece, it was begun in 1964 by a man named K.C.S. Paniker, who was the current principle of the Government College of Art. From the beginning it had a philosophy of self-sufficiency, and hence a commercial space was developed in addition to residency quarters in order to sell fine arts and crafts. As time went on the crafts portion of the workshop became increasingly successful and the Village’s focus shifted progressively away from the fine arts. This corresponded well to what I remember and helps to clarify the position of this initiative.
Marta Jakimowcz wrote a really interesting piece on contemporary Bangalore-based collectives, focusing on Bar1, which I was previously unaware of. It was begun by the Swiss artist Christoph Storz and consists of residencies and workshops that bring together Indian and international artists for explicitly process-based projects. I was quite surprised to learn of all the activity down in Bangalore. How had this escaped my notice? Next trip to India—train to Karnataka it is.
Sandhini Poddar adopted her essay from the Guggenheim catalogue focused on decoding the work of Desire Machine Collective—a group formed by NID students in 2004 in reaction to the Gujarat riots. In 2007 they established Periferry 1.0 on a defunct river ferry that they planned to retool in order to conduct community-based art workshops along the banks of the Brahmaputra. However, government interference has prevented them thus far from launching the boat up the river. Poddar goes on to describe the group’s video work, yet her descriptions and the connections made to contemporary French theory were too condensed to be of much use—study of her original Guggenheim essay is in order.
Ashok Sukumaran, Installation View: Glow Positioning System, 2005; Image courtesy of the artist
The next piece describes the activities of CAMP, a Bombay-based initiative currently made up of a core of three members: an artist with an architectural background, an experimental filmmaker, and a computer programmer. However, the nature of the group is very free-form, and their numbers are further swelled by creative folks who join for the duration of a single project or a couple of months. They seem to do everything—produce artworks, write books and computer programs, initiate community projects. I have always had a soft spot for their work because the artist-architect, Ashok Sukumaran, was responsible for one of the first projects to ignite my interest in public/relational art, through the light-installation in Bombay “Glow Positioning System.”
Finally, the Otalith Group—another one I had yet to hear of. Named after the micro-crystals in our ear that are responsible for our sense of balance, the Otolith Group is made up of two film-makers: British-Ghanian Kodwo Eshun, and London-born Anjalika Sagar. Their work is described by the articles’ author Zehra Jumabhoy repeatedly as "boring" (p. 49), yet, according to Eshun, this is not a bad thing. “Our videos can be quite un-pleasurable. I think boredom can be the irritation that gives birth to the new” (p. 50). Perhaps. But neither Eshun nor Jumabhoy actually give convincing reasons why there is more value in being bored by the Otalith videos than other modes of mediocre media…a question that seems pressing in the context of such an anti-enticing description at large.
Padmini Chettur, Beautiful Thing 2, 2011, Supported by Clark House Initiative; Image courtesy of the artist and Clark House Initiative
There seems to be something special about the Indian collective. Sure—there are collectives all over the world. But there seem to be more in India. They seem to be looser. More ambitiously free-form. If there is a meta-theory to make sense of this epidemic, I don’t know it. There’s an anti-logic logic at work that I can’t quite put my finger on…or at least, not without a little help from my friends.
(Image on top right: Desire Machine Collective, Periferry; Image courtesy of the artists)