Chemould Prescott Road’s presentation of CAMP’s As If – IV: Night for Day, surrounds the viewer in an animated darkness framed by reflections of the outside world. These words—“outside,” “animated darkness,” “surround”—could sum up what CAMP (Critical Art & Media Practice), a Mumbai-based studio for transdisciplinary media practices, is setting out to do. Over the years, CAMP principals Shaina Anand and Ashok Sukumaran have engaged with media in both the artistic, material sense and through the conceptual mediation of the world at large. Video, CCTV, artist, layman, inside, outside, real, altered real, land, sea, electricity, and the internet—these themes, subjects, and media creep repeatedly into their practice, as they visualize a world that we live in but perhaps are not aware of—the reality hidden in the virtual. Darkness here, then, refers not just to the nocturnal oblivion of the sun, but the darkness of digital ether too, an immaterial reality surrounding our quotidian lives—where community lives at once locally and globally.
Comprising a series of exhibitions across four venues in Calcutta, New Delhi, and Mumbai, As If I–IV is “retrospective in spirit.” Since their founding in 2007, CAMP has negotiated the social, geo-political, ethical, and theoretical implications of the technological takeover of humanity in the 21st century. In this transient state of understanding, CAMP involves all actors in its practice: they do not stand alone, but with the communities that live in this “outside darkness.” What is it to live in a post-Snowden world? What if WikiLeaks enters the gallery space? What if electricity is not a virtual non-entity, but a material—an artistic medium to light up night, to negotiate government-run grids? What if you watch others watching others? What if you are the subject being watched even as you watch? These are not fanciful questions, airy artist ponderings, or impossible situations; these are situations taking place as you read this, in the larger world, and within the gallery.
CAMP, As If – IV: Night for Day, Installation view at Chemould Prescott Road, 2015. Video on left GPS (Glow Positioning System), 2005.
Courtesy of the arists and Chemould Prescott Road
Surveillance has entered our lives by stealth in the last two decades, whether through increased security at borders, expansive CCTV in public areas, or the home videos that pervade YouTube. Wikipedia even has an entry on “Surveillance Art”: post-9/11, the number of artists working with surveillance has increased, in many cases because the artists themselves have been subject to surveillance. Bangladeshi-born American artist Hasan Elahi put his entire life online after erroneously being put on a terrorist watchlist. Recording mundane details like credit card transactions and GPS locations, he creates a virtual alibi for where he is, making his state surveillance an act of banality. Filmmaker Laura Poitras, already on a watchlist for her documentary work, recorded the lengths she and reporter Glenn Greenwald went to meet Edward Snowden in hiding and make 2014's award-winning documentary Citizenfour.
It is this world that CAMP examines in fictive geographies and public stagings. According to their bio, the collaborative studio, founded in 2007, “has been producing fundamental new work in video and film, electronic media, and public art forms, in a practice characterized by a hand-dirtying, non alienated relation to technology.” This hand-dirtying is apparent in their video project The Neighbour before the House (2009–2011). From CCTV cameras set up in the homes of displaced Palestinians, we watch Palestinians tell stories and recount memories while they watch CCTV images of occupied East Jerusalem on TVs in their bedrooms. It captures the surveillance and voyeurism so characteristic of our times. Exhuming archives (as in CAMP’s Afghan Films: Archive Practicum at dOCUMENTA(13) in 2012) and establishing new ones is another critical part of their larger practice. Both Pad.ma, a digital media archive, and more recently Indiancine.ma, a digital first-of-its-kind in Indian cinema, are collective efforts of Anand, Sukumaran, and CAMP studio collaborators.
Flipping the term “nuit américaine”—the process of filming a night scene in the day using tungsten lights, synonymous with Truffaut’s Day for Night—CAMP lights up the night in As If – IV: Night for Day using airwaves, sound waves, and the crackle of energy. Sound—ambient or on headphones—is rife in the immersive Chemould Prescott Road presentation. The projections soar and the surrounding darkness makes viewers part of the exhibition’s real-life scale. In KhirkeeYaan (2006) neighbors connect with anecdotes or song through TV interfaces; GPS (Glow Positioning System) (2005) sees a bewildered public use a hand crank to light up Bombay’s General Post Office traffic crossing, where lights race in sequence illuminating the Gothic and other architecture styles; in Four-Letter Film (2015) an eavesdropped telephone conversation is beamed on the exterior wall of a house in Jor Bagh, New Delhi. CAMP’s interventions unsettle the scene—norms are intervened with, manipulated, or made manifest. With these gestures, they question what is unseen—or unheard—but negotiated by us all in the everyday.
CAMP, Interior Design II, Installation view at Chemould Prescott Road, As If – IV: Day for Night, 2015. Courtesy of the artists and Chemould Prescott Road
In Interior Design II, a screen moves up and down eerily in front of a gallery window. Lured to window as the screen rises, you see the trees outside, lit up and rustling in the artificial glow. The screen lowers, obscuring the view, and suddenly your silhouette, looking out the window, is projected onto an adjacent wall—you’ve been filmed. It’s a life-sized, time-drawn “click” of a camera in its modern day avatar that at once recalls camera obscura, Big Brother, and the ubiquitous selfie. A “flash” and “click” would have made it a perfect metaphor—the lurking paparazzo in public space.
Three weeks earlier, As If – III: Country of the Sea opened at the Dr. Bhau Daji Lad Museum, also in Mumbai. With a screen extending from the ground to first floor gallery, the museum’s atrium becomes a makeshift cinema. I first saw the entrancing From Gulf to Gulf as a submission to the Mumbai Film Fest, where it was almost a rough cut, a work-in-progress. It has subsequently been screened at venues such as BFI London Film Festival and the 2014 Viennale. Comprising four years of mobile phone camera footage, the collaboration between CAMP and Kutchi seafarers captures life on the seas from the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Aden. Personal recordings that might otherwise slip through the cracks of history catch the humdrum life on the seas—song, dance, chatter. Somehow intimate across the vast geographies traversed, the film tracks language (Kutchi, Farsi, Balochi, and Saraiki) and commodities—from livestock to electronic goods—weaving unseen worlds that sustain romance as much as they do trade—everything “perpendicular to piracy” that exists on these routes.
CAMP, From Gulf to Gulf, Installation view at Bhau Daji Lad Museum, As If – III: Country of the Sea, 2015. Courtesy of the artists and Bhau Daji Lad Museum
The exhibition’s title work is a collaboration between Gujarati sailors and artists from the Clark House Initiative. Country of the Sea is a map referencing a Gujarati chart of the Gulf of Aden from 1810 (from a drawing of the Arabian and Somali coasts and their familiar link with Gujarat since the 17th century). The map, a 22- by 5-foot solar-exposed cyanotype print, draws together the coastlines of Africa, Iran, and India, seemingly making the sea a country of its own. It unites cultures in more than 100 cities and small ports—from Khor al Zubair, Basra, to the Mozambique corridor and from Mumbai to Berbera, Somalia. In situating the viewer on this sea mass it offers an alternative view that makes sense of history and the present through the hows of anthropology and whys of trade and exchange. Its simple, graphic effectiveness belies a deep reading of the Indian Ocean and those who have lived on it for centuries. In imagination, invisible connections are made apparent; a country of the sea comes to life.
CAMP, Country of the Sea, Installation view at Bhau Daji Lad Museum, As If – III: Country of the Sea, 2015. Courtesy of the artists and Bhau Daji Lad Museum
Across its four venues CAMP’s mini-retrospective shows a sustained engagement with community and media. The work engages viewers in ways that news stories or legal hearings over contentious issues like phone tapping or surveillance might not, immune as one is to the outpourings of daily news. It examines the very infrastructure of new media, setting up propositions that are personalized, placed at your doorstep, or placing you in community. It is a form of resistance that is inventive, a performative participation of, and in, civil society; it is advocacy that is subversive in its exposure of mechanisms, in its making public of hidden intents.
CAMP negotiates an intangible world that Big Brother is just one notion of, making an unseen “darkness” tactile, real, affective. In trying to make sense of how we live within the possibilities embedded in new technology, are we beginning to realize the manipulations of this ether “darkness” as the new global colonizer that reigns, even as we slowly start to comprehend the power of its dangerous ways/waves?
(Image at top: CAMP, As If – IV: Night for Day, Installation view at Chemould Prescott Road, 2015. Courtesy of the arists and Chemould Prescott Road)