by Shailaja Tripathi Aug 12, 2020
Shubigi Rao is the first non-Indian curator of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB). Her own practice as an artist focusses on concerns around history, layered with ideas of knowledge creation and sharing. The forthcoming edition is being conceived in the backdrop of a global climate of political unrest, cultural and literary pluralisation, and the relatively recent crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic. “This edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale embodies the joy of experiencing practices of divergent sensibilities, under conditions both joyful and grim. There is optimism even in the darkest absurdity, and this is what leavens the direness of our time. It is in the robustness of humour that we can imagine the possibility of sustained kinship, and remember that we are not isolated in this fight. And that perhaps all that is required for an impossible ideal to exist is enough for people to live, think, and work as if it already does,” says Rao in her curatorial note. And for her, Kochi provides for a unique location that is deeply entrenched in culture and heritage, yet embraces the curatorial platform to engage with contemporary art that is oriented towards a larger discourse.
I speak with the Singapore based artist-curator along with Bose Krishnamachari (founder, director of KMB) while they are in the final phase of the making of the Biennale scheduled for December 2020. They discuss the curatorial framework and context of KMB-2020, and how the team is reacting to the current complications owing to the pandemic.
Need I say that the mood is that of ‘The show must go on’…!
Rahul Kumar (RK): KMB has been an artist-led and curated event. What are your views on the advantages and shortcomings of such a construct? How do your artistic concerns (e.g., reference to history, education, and knowledge-sharing through your work titled Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book) impact your curatorial viewpoint?
Shubigi Rao (SR): For a biennale that has always been artist-led, every edition of the KMB allows for an unconventional exercise in curating. As curator of the 2020 edition, and as an artist in conversations with other artists, I think about curating the Kochi-Muziris Biennale beyond the final production. For me, when an artist curates, they curate from a space of empathy, practice and affinities – an understanding of craft, process, techniques and ways of seeing – whilst also acknowledging limitations, pressures and fatigue. While this edition will celebrate the diverse strategies that artists conjure in the face of diverse circumstances, it will also celebrate process, method, technique, undercurrents and friendships.
At the outset I decided to keep in abeyance the issues of my practice whilst retaining the impetus and drives behind my work – the belief in storytelling as strategy, in the subversive power of humour, and in creating as resistance. This approach allowed for a porous process of research, and underpinned my conversations with the artists I met across the globe. I think the impulse was to be taken by practice, by ideas, and by nonconformity, and to bring together a set of practices that spoke to me or had heart. Not being separate from my artistic practice has meant an inclusive research and curatorial method.
RK: Bose, you are a practicing artist and founder of KMB. What was the thought behind keeping it an ‘artist led/curated’ initiative?
Bose Krishnamachari (BK): Back in 2010, the Kochi Biennale Foundation was envisioned to be and established as an artist-led and artist-run initiative. Having an artist-curator was much in keeping with the vision with which the Biennale was conceived. What could be thought of as possible shortcomings - inexperience, the research required to erect an exhibition of this scale - we see as critical possibilities. There is a certain freshness in perspective that you see when the artist’s sensibility bears on the entire curatorial process.
RK: How does the Biennale balance the desire to keep local and regional specificity while keeping the context global?
SR: Perhaps one method would be to recognise the way so many of these contexts intersect. An obvious example would be how post-colonial nations continue to grapple with generational trauma, and how artists navigate the collisions of borders, communities, languages, media, and so on when negotiating this. These approaches may be similar or divergent, but what is notable is that they remain imperatives that are still current. This is especially when we think about the way so much of the global South continues to cater to the North in terms of resources, but also in the neo-colonising of nations as ideological battlegrounds. It isn’t simply about the ‘balance of power’—itself a hierarchical phrase that denies other forms of power within communities and collectives—but about recognising that the rhetoric that privileges certain groups over others is already being reframed or dismantled, and a key aspect of this reframing involves the acknowledgement of intersecting contexts. I am especially enthused by the effectiveness of collectives in decolonising and recording subsumed histories.
To shift the lens through which we read the spectacle of an exhibition, especially biennale spectacle, we must reposition dialogue and practice through acknowledging intersecting narratives, and retain, as much as possible, the original contexts of the works. I believe it is possible for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale to retain regional realities and histories through cementing existing affinities and establishing new commons.
BK: The idea is to be able to have a universal conversation. Our existences may be distinctive, but our experiences are intersecting. And so, although we may make a conscious decision to diversify our participating artists, when their works come together as an exhibition, ideas flow into each other quite seamlessly. We have seen visitors from Kochi be able to connect with art about urban Korea; and also, visitors from around the world connect with artwork about gender and caste-based conflict in Kerala.
RK: Please elaborate your intent with the curatorial theme “In our Veins flow ink and fire”. How are you exploring the strategies of storytelling, layered with satire and in context of unpredictable times? Are you expecting reactions to the immediate global crisis (of isolation and looking inward) through the works at the Biennale?
SR: To quote from my curatorial framework, “Optimism in practice—in artistic practice and in collective work, especially in regional or local contexts and forms—includes questions like the possibly redemptive and revolutionary power of practice beyond the market”. This has underpinned my practice (and especially when I have made new artwork for biennales) and is an important aspect of my curatorial research. While I accept the various criticisms of the Biennale as a vehicle for activism, I think it is important to recognise that political awareness does not inevitably mean humourless, dour, over-earnest or aesthetically lacking art. Such simplistic dichotomies are reductive and dismissive of what is patently obvious—that artists are as affected by their environment, as much as shared urgencies and critical turning points in discourse. To argue for a non-political biennale (and what does that even mean?), is to argue for intellectual and creative isolation from lived experiences, realities, fears, and aspirations. I might go so far as to call it reductive escapism, a pernicious desire to separate artist from environment, and art from lived context.
RK: The first list of artists has recently been announced. Please speak about a few projects that you are particularly excited to display and weave your narrative of the curatorial thematic of this edition.
SR: I am reluctant to foreground some practices over others, especially as illustrative examples. Each artist in the exhibition brings to us a unique experience and reality and I am truly humbled by their contributions. The main reason, for me, will always be the dangers of the appeal to authority or the claim to speak on behalf of a region from a position of knowledge that as a curator is sometimes expected. It is about recognising other forms of power within communities and collectives. As a Singaporean and the first curator who isn’t based in India, I am excited by the opportunity to bring vivid practices, enriching diversity and discourses together. In speaking with overlooked artists, emerging voices and collectives, my conviction remains that the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is well-suited to hold these practices, ideas, and conversations from the majority world. My time in Latin America, in Sápmi (the Sami lands in Northern Europe), Asia and in Africa will deeply influence the exhibition. For now, I’ll allow for the works to weave their own narratives, to speak their own stories.
RK: The pandemic is bound to have an impact on both making of the exhibition itself and viewership. What are some of the key alterations that you hope to make in your plan by way of reaction to the current reality?
SR: The current global pandemic continues to be a challenge but there are always challenges to exhibition-making, especially one on the scale of KMB. I do believe that it is a creative act to think through problems, to circumvent obstacles, and to work with people to collectively, inventively dismantle challenges. Having said that, all the works in the Biennale continue to retain their original ideas conceived before COVID-19. Over the last three months, my team and I have been in constant touch with the artists through calls and online meets, figuring out solutions to halted production and lack of access to sites. In some ways, this has been an opportunity for a number of the artists to rethink their approaches, methods, and the reliance on conventional resource-intensive processes. Many artists manage and perform diverse forms of artistic labour and production, and are almost always reflecting and rethinking. Challenges to me are creative opportunities, and a chance for people to work collectively to figure out the challenges we face.
BK: Modifications are going to have to be made at every phase. Artists project proposals had to undergo significant changes, so that they are still realisable, despite limitations that we may face in production. Venue preparation and on-site production are being strategised to keep the health and safety of workers and staff as a top priority. We will be thinning down the workforce and phasing out stages of production. We are also exploring taking a part of the exhibition and programming online, such that the section of our audience that is unable to come down to view the physical exhibition owing to travel restrictions does not entirely miss out on what we have to offer.
RK: At this juncture when KMB is approaching its fifth edition, what has been your biggest learning, and what is it that you will do differently in the future editions of the Biennale?
BK: Our biggest learning would perhaps be that there is a significant visitorship for contemporary art practices. The Biennale is able to create a large surface area of contact between art and the public, which in turn enables an exchange. So far, our editions have largely concentrated on physical audiences. The pandemic has necessitated us to think about an online component but this definitely a serendipitous outcome. There is not only a sizeable virtual audience but also numerous possibilities of going online.