Art News & Views

Tryst With New Media Art


by Tanya Abraham

The art scene in South India has warmed up to the practice of new media art only but recently. There are just a couple of institutions that concentrates on it. Tanya Abraham discusses the situation and hopes that a change would occur as technology starts making its presence prominent in the framework of society and this form of art practice begins to be accepted widely.

How far New Media Art in South India has developed and sustained itself has been a debate. Why it takes upon a tendency to emerge and then struggle to survive relates to the very format this art form has had - one of a secluded or niche existence. One cannot blame South India per se for such a slow momentum of growth: new media by itself has had to edge its way through India’s traditional thought patterns, ignoring the demands of the masses to exist on its own as an art- form which delves upon a format new and technology oriented. When the debate regarding the survival of new media art itself arose, it has been time and again discussed that India by itself has had a rather tumultuous time accepting it as an art form. In a county seeped in ideologies marked by a traditional framework, new media is viewed as strange as new-age science. Both carry the word “new”, which throws up in minds a gamut of thoughts which relate to ideas far from what can be related to. With this disassociation, naturally starts a series of ideas that tend to keep the word new [in art] at bay. The idea of technology and art don’t seem to have gelled well, so much that when foreign artists traversed India (in the’90s) their search for using India as a platform to depict art through new media were left shunned to a corner.

India to start with does not have a history of associating art with science and technology. So when Western curators came to India looking for new form of art practices, they were left disappointed with little to find. When new media art began to be appreciated in Western nations, India chose to remain aloof from this new development. Installations, video and performance arts were alien, India it seemed, lagged behind with some sort of an “age-gap” in art practices. But later this very idea of Indian artists being left behind, and being stuck in traditional thinking practices started, also brought about the thought of art in terms of science amongst Indian artists. They delved into the nuances of such art practices, dabbling with the idea of juxtaposing the two, to bring forth a new genre of art. Yet, it showed a difference in the type of art practices practiced by Indian and Western artists, the idiom of expression by itself remaining different. It was initially argued that this arose from a difference in culture, that when artists who were submerged in centuries of a single thinking pattern suddenly move to a new platform, there is the likelihood for there to be a difference –Their Western counterparts did not face a similar issue of expression. But the difference remains not in culture (alone), but it being a practice which is based on development and enhancement of an economy - India at the time was not on par with Western nations. Art practice in new media depends on a country’s technological development, how technology has seeped into a nation’s cultural and social fabric, offering a framework within which its citizens operate. Art in these terms then becomes a natural means of being, where strenuous effort to unearth such a practice does not exist any longer. The changes in economy cause a natural transition in the way art shifts – individuals (including artists) naturally relate to this idea effortlessly as a sign of progression and finally transition. No doubt that new media art is directly proportional to the technological advancements of a nation. Communication for example, like the use of radio as an early form, is likely to have a strong impact on art years later. When such means remain basic or even stagnant so to speak, its impact on how art can use it also remains extremely limited.

In South India, the effects of technology have had its effects on art practices. One must understand that art by itself has had a very different mind-set here. Cocooned by years of stringent practices, it has taken its time to break forth from limited mind-sets (The effect traditional art practices has had on both the community and the market is in fact intriguing, to know how deeply it has veined itself into the fabric of society). Capital cities of the South, have been nursing their own private art practices with very limited flow of art of one to the other: Chennai has shown, for a chunk of its existence, to be revolving around Cholamandalam. Kerala is seen to have in its own struggle of existence, often desperately trying to break forth from a tight mould within which society reigns. New media practices still remain aloof, if any it is digital art and photography which has become familiar. To categorise this as new media per se is difficult, when the rest of the world has advanced tremendously using science in art. If there is change, it can be witnessed in Bangalore (spaces have been devoted to new media practices, unlike any other southern city). This explains the shift which has occurred in society- largely from the technological change. Advancements in society (as in Bangalore) have caused a natural mushrooming of new media art – both from the availability of a platform and social acceptance of such art. “Jaaga” for example, put together by artist Archana Prasad and American Technologist Freeman Murray, is an-out-of-the-box space far from the “niche” image that galleries tend to project, where ‘artists (this refers to also technology brains and new media artists as well) can work long term and exhibit their art.’ Jaaga by all means is a community space. And by allowing community and art to find a common point, it allows the exploration of practices like new media to be familiarised with local audiences. Bangalore also hosts Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology, which encourages individual talent in a changing environment. One of its kinds in the country, the schools allows the marrying of technology with creativity, allowing a whole new genre of practices to thrive. The shift schools like this have created both in community and in artists have been phenomenon, and in many ways a landmark in new media practices: The school has been challenging itself to place a grip on media developments and contemporary art practices. By doing so, they have permitted the arrival of new practices from other similar institutions across the globe to reach India - we must note that (as in the words of Meena Vaari, Dean, Contemporary Art and Curatorial Practices) ‘dialogical projects are socially engaged, they are inclusive, sometimes facilitative, sometimes reflecting society. Tactical projects make the invisible visible; bringing the audience closer to the creation gaming, interactive platforms. Entrepreneurial projects experiment with operating models which link learning, entrepreneurship and innovation in setting and running creative industries.’1 Eventually, sound, light and community media was also introduced by the school in 2004, and later interactive media and radio media.

Studying the advancements made by Srishti, the changes which has occurred (through a trickledown effect) is more than obvious. It has not only propelled change in society, but has encouraged a platform for Indian art to find space in a technologically advanced world. In 2005 Ars Electronica (a festival for arts, technology and society held in Linz, Austria since 1978) invited Srishti for a campus exhibition. Called Tana-Bana (curated by Geetha Narayanan), which refers to the ‘integration of communities or societies’, it projected an Indian curated New Media art show in a different light. In 2007 a centre for Experimental Art was set up and one of its founding members, Yash Shetty began ArtScience Bangalore for hybrid art practices (2009). They began by experimenting with art and design with synthetic biology. Acclaimed is the production of bacteria which produces the smell of monsoon, where art students worked with scientists for the International Genetically Engineered Machines competition at M.I.T. Srishti has extended to areas like space and cosmology as well, creating intriguing thought processes in the average audience. By allowing this to happen, it sparks in the mind of people a collaboration of art and science that permits understanding of both in new light. Similar practices are seen in various aspects of technology –their Kabir Project for example, supported by Ford Foundation studies the socio-economic effect of Kabir’s poems on community.

Bangalore’s tryst with art and technology is the landmark of such work not only in the South but in India as a whole. No other southern state has depicted such advance and challenge. It is clear that along with technological advancements, its place in and effect on society is important: It creates an audience programmed to the understanding of technology to start with. For others, the start of video art or digital art is a big step in itself. In Kerala, installations are what are seen – even if still viewed with question. There are no new media artists to speak of in Kerala. The one of standing having been an art show (titled Material Texts) for example, curated by Meena Vaari and Arvind Lodaya at Kashi Art Gallery in 2009. Others, work with installation which are concept based using not new media but mediums which are different from the general. Kerala Architects Lijo and Reni Jos have attempted many such installations in public spaces, ‘the whole idea being to familiarise the public with new ideas.’ They assert it was a challenge, but eventually there was a sense of a breakthrough –‘simply with feedback and questions and the need for an understanding of such art,’ they say. So much that the two artists are now taking the challenge to work with light as a medium of art. They say such new thinking is possible ‘simply because we do it our way, in spaces we choose.’

Other than Srishti, a continuous momentum in new media art practices in South India is yet to be witnessed. But change is bound to occur as technology seeps into the framework of society and when the public is able to relate to the crux of it. This and the funding of such practices will cause the required shift, even if gradual. If Srishti has moved this far, it won’t be long before there is a steady frequency in new media art practices in the rest of the southern cities.

1. Feature, Vaari Meena, Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology.

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