According to its concept note, at CAMP, you ‘try to move beyond binaries’ (art/non-art, commodity markets/free culture, individual/institutional will) to build what’s ‘possible, equitable and interesting…’. What prompted its formation?
That note is from 2007, when, among other things, we were in the middle of an art-market boom. The effect on many contemporary artists of our generation was larger-sized works, art mutual-funds, international fairs. We were interested in other possibilities, especially in a long-term local presence and global collaborations beyond markets. We were also interested in new kinds of art. Those involved included a filmmaker, coder, media artist and architect, and others who were pushing their ideas/work into an unfamiliar zone that contemporary art could, temporarily, hold or exhibit. To do this, we needed to set up our own scene of production, thus CAMP was born.
The work A Passage Through Passages (2020), on the culture of road-building in South Asia, emerges from five years of ethnographic and archival work. Could you share your findings?
This video project is a result of a collaboration with a group of anthropologists studying new infrastructure, with the backdrop of the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative. In our case, it centred around two Indian roads and others in South Asia: Sri Lanka, Pakistan and the Maldives. We deployed artistic instincts and methods to social sciences which are themselves entering new territory by studying infrastructure, and not just doing ethnography. Engaging another discipline in their use of images, video, sound, maps, data, form, language, etc., and, in general, learning to interpret and inhabit the landscape together.
Whether in India, Sri Lanka or Pakistan, one can see roads being built at a speed and with a logic of ‘development’ which would have been necessary and logical half-a-century ago, but now is full of doubt. Several empirical studies now say, the economic benefits of roads are far from clear. Climate change further adds to the doubt, since more transport capacity begets more emissions. We found both subtle and tremendous social change brought about by new roads. Beyond ‘is x connected to y?’, the question becomes about what flows along the path, and in what patterns.
How come every dhaba on a road in Madhya Pradesh is intensely localised (inviting truckers from HP-02/Shimla or PB-04/Faridkot, for instance) while the profits from the road’s toll booths go to an international consortium?
Our five-screen video edit has its own proposal of how to narrate such things, along a faceted journey no single person can take.
In what way do the public histories in Past, Present, Future (2020) engage with the urban landscape of Mumbai?
The urban landscape is continuous with other landscapes. Some of its features are interesting to us: more density, more built infra, less established social protocols, more established social movements. Cinema is a general inspiration. In the present, we can have the 2020 hindsight. The past is full of options and paths not taken, which are not there in the present, but the present has a kind of deep access to that via digitisation. The future is that vision or calculation which shapes the present (like risk-trading and insurance does in a narrow financial sense). As we are laying down our own paths, we should sense these dimensions and possibilities acutely.
One of the first concrete works to come out of this long-term project is Ghar Mein Shehar Hona: City Housing in a Cultural Matrix (2019-20), a 70-year-long journey through the city and its housing questions, told in three two-hour parts, that we started doing first on our rooftop in Khar, then at architecture schools. This has just been published as a Web trilogy, linked to dense resources of film, video clips and documents from the online archives Pad.ma and Indiancine.ma.
You make a lot of use of CCTV cameras. Does that provide a wider perspective?
A CCTV camera, for us, is an example of ‘general purpose technology’, which isn’t limited by its supposed use. The aim is to make people aware of the extent to which this tech is ‘environmentally present’ today. If instead of using film cameras we use CCTV which is already everywhere, this may flip over to yield a new cinematic language and new ethics. In 2008, we made a film with 208 existing cameras in the UK’s largest mall. In 2009, we took a camera to Jerusalem, and Palestinian families filmed from inside their homes, with the camera mounted on their roofs. As a part of the 2017 MAMI Film Festival, we mounted a camera on top of Phoenix Mills’ PVR hall to project a live, panning-zooming view of the outside onto the IMAX screen, with three of us speaking over it about Parel and its 150-year history, like a live movie. To understand such landscapes in a deeper way, you have to experience them in a way that neither social media, mainstream cinema, nor any ideology can give you. It emerges from explorations parallel to technical progress.
Sukumaran is part of Gulf Labor coalition, a global boycott by artists to fight migrant labour exploitation in the construction of museums on Saadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi. How important is it now for artists to voice concerns?
The art world has been intensely global in its horizon, and there are attempts to cut-and-paste it into national ambitions, while exploiting global labour flows (in that specific case, Indians, Bangladeshis, Pakistanis, Nepalis, Filipinos, etc., who are in debt and are being paid less than in many parts of their home countries, to build super-luxury museums). Such moves should be de-legitimised.
It is quite a transformative time we are living in. It used to be that contemporary art was all about being open-ended, a bit shapeless and indeterminate, but we are against that. Art is not a blur-filter, and randomness in math is very specific. We think it’s time to be lucid, and to be ambitious. We don’t have to speak in the existing languages or in expected directions, of course. But in the importance of laying down some tracks we described above, we do all have to participate in remaking the world, even if it’s from a village in Mumbai.
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