by Dilpreet BhullarOct 29, 2022
Khoj is set up as a not-for-profit contemporary arts organisation and is based in New Delhi, India. Dedicated to investigate how art can influence change in the society, it was set up in 1997 with the objective of working with practitioners globally.
Khoj has a history of public interventions, responding to contemporary times. Through its current project titled Does the blue sky lie, there is a continuum of emphasis on the climate and agrarian crisis as a point of inquiry. Khoj believes that artworks become a moment of community conversation. The first episode of the tripartite initiative presented immersive art and interactive works by contemporary artists. Titled air expo 22, the works responded to the menace of air pollution. Viewers heard feedback provided by strangers. There was excitement and it opened up a unique way of talking about the common concern of air pollution. What made the experience particularly interesting was its venue – a retail, commercial mall. With an aim to makes the aspirational middle-class India to question those aspirations and the so called ‘development’, the project brought to attention that this cannot be separate of the climate risk.
I speak to Pooja Sood, Founder and Director of Khoj, about air expo 22.
Rahul Kumar: What triggered this initiative and how did you decide to invite the artists to respond to the climate issue, more specifically air pollution? At the cost of sounding pessimistic, do such presentations make an impact? Isn’t it too little-too late?
Pooja Sood: Over the past two decades, Khoj has actively led community-based art interventions where we have researched, questioned, addressed and developed strategies to creatively address problems in small but palpable ways. In 2008, Khoj presented 48 Degrees Celsius, a nine-day festival of public experiments and interventions situated around Delhi; in 2014, Hamara Jamun Bagh, a project by artist Shweta Bhattad, which invited artists and farmers from around the world to sow the seeds of native crops in form of I Have A Dream in their own local language; and In Context: public.art.ecology, a program initiated in 2007 to create public dialogue around ecological issues through artistic projects and intervention. In 2011, Khoj had also initiated Negotiating Routes – Ecologies of the Byways, which invited creative practitioners to propose site-specific and interdisciplinary projects in response to the National Highway Development Program (NHDP).
Given Khoj’s history and involvement in socially-driven causes, we believe that we need to respond to our times and as the climate and agrarian crisis in our country grew more critical, it became the starting point of our inquiry into Does the Blue Sky Lie?: Testimonies of Air’s Toxicities. Three years ago, it was programmed as a small-scale project with site-specific interventions for which Khoj had put out an open-call for artists. However, given the pandemic and limited resources, we had to rethink our ways and identify a quasi-public space which led us to map out the air expo at the Select Citywalk mall.
Taking from our learnings from Public.Art.Ecology and 48 Degrees Celsius, we have witnessed how artworks become a medium of community-led conversation and meeting at the commons to build discourse about the commons like air. At public interventions such as the air Expo, art has the ability to transform into a site of activism without falling into a more canonical form of it.
Contemporary artists, activist groups, game developers and urbanists coming together in a space like the mall, gave way to strangers for air-attuned sensing and to hold discourse about different approaches and concerns around the air. We collected testimonies and feedback for each artwork from the aspirational-middle-class which invited them to question their aspirations of development and the climate-risk involved.
Rahul: It is ironical that the exhibit is presented at a mall – the epitome of capitalism and overconsumption…the very ideas questioned by the artists to cause the ecological disbalance. Was this a conscious choice and how does it layer with the context of the show?
Pooja: The choice to hold a public programme such as air expo at the mall was certainly a thoughtful and conscious decision. It was a critique and to some degree, played on the idea of attempting a subversive act at the frontier and exemplar of capitalism. We believe that having both the mall staff and visitors engage closely with the works, propelled them to re-evaluate the notion of where climate vulnerabilities lie and how individual-everyday habits contribute to unprecedented climate crisis to occur.
Rahul: Please discuss the interventions of Achia Anzi and Center for Genomic Gastronomy. Both the works use sensorial experience of sound and smell. What is the intent of the works to engage and sensitise the audience on the issue being discussed? How has it been received?
Pooja: The two works were sensorial and affect driven contemporary artworks. It was a deliberate choice to place them in a public space for viewers to have an attuned and body sensorial experience other than visual, and to push mediums through which people can engage with the ecology.
In matters of air, which is invisible, the transformation of the body as a sensorium can help develop and broaden the gamut of how our bodies can care for and respond to air.
Achia Anzi’s Artist’s Breath II (2022) is a sound work which was recorded by the artist in a sleepless and breathless night. It invited the viewer into a labyrinthic space in order to hear the audio, the work attempted to replicate the suffocating experience familiar to many of Delhi’s residents. The Center for Genomic Gastronomy created Guided Smog Smelling to meditate on the ways that conditions and events, like car exhaust, power plant emissions, weather, altitude, and possibly pollen, plant oils, and airborne spores can contributes to the unique smell and taste of a place. Guided Smog Smelling was an invitation to slow down, focus on your breathing and reconnect your body to the flows in and out of your airshed.
Rahul: Further, interactive experiences through Dumm by Bhagwati Prasad, and gameplay by Fields of View and Thukral and Tagra are unique in their approach. How open were the viewers to invest time for these? Does such format create a longer lasting impression than say a typical work of visual art?
Pooja: The viewers were remarkably invested and open to engage and learn through the gameplays. We saw that viewers were immersed in these works and were eager to hold conversations with the artists and share their knowledge and lived experiences relating to the works. Having different formats of engagement also kept them curious and receptive throughout.
Rahul: Please tell us the conceptual framework of Gigi Scaria’s work, Elevator from a No Man’s Land. How is he creating a layered narrative in the act of going ‘upward’ in an elevator, the trapped air within it, and our “suffocating reality”?
Pooja: Gigi Scaria’s Elevator from a No Man's Land is an attempt to experience everyday of an upward movement of air which gets stuck within our lived experience of suffocating reality. At times intense experience of suffocation brings us to a confused, unidentified territory where the ownership and responsibility disappear, pushing us to a no man’s land, yet again we imagine that we are on an upward journey where prosperity and clean air is in abundance. The movement of an elevator with trapped air of our own breath opens up many readings of the human condition in such an environmental era of ours.
STIR was a media partner with KHOJ as they marked the 25th anniversary with a tripartite initiative titled "Does the blue sky lie: Testimonies of Air’s Toxicities".
Part II: 'Does the Blue Sky Lie?’ at Khoj looks at testimonials around air
Part III: 'Café Classroom': a pursuit to relearn relationship across humans and nature
Part IV: Twenty five years of Khoj in support of expanding the idea of art in the region