by Shraddha NairAug 30, 2021
The American writer and academic Joanna Russ famously observed, ‘Art is collective. It always has a tradition behind it'. Art collectives have been an important segment of our cultural history, dating back to the sculptural workshops in Renaissance Italy, the salons in 1920s Paris, even art movements like Futurism, Dadaism, and the Situationists at their core bear traces of the collective. For centuries the collective has prevailed as a mode of creation emblematic of certain hallmarks like community collaboration, a creative process that is built on relationships - ideological, political, aesthetical - providing a common platform for voicing the sentiments of the collective. In the age of the internet comes its hyper-connectivity, which has contributed to today’s art collectives experiencing a revitalisation. It is with a greater urgency that these platforms are being recognised as representational grounds, holding space for voices that matters from the margins and the under-served. Speaking with The Confluence Collective, an India-based collective of photographers and researchers bringing visual and oral tales of the Darjeeling-Sikkim-Himalaya region, we unravel the pertinence of the Collective in the contemporary art landscape.
“Our efforts at The Confluence Collective (TCC) first and foremost are directed towards creating a space for us and for emerging practitioners from the region, but also using this group effort to collectively build an archive of this belt,” says TCC, “we think of it as an endeavour to explore the significance and the possibilities of the visual medium as a unique tool for retracing collective memories". The North-Eastern belt has historically received marginal representation in the visual cultural tradition of the country. The collaborative effort of the collective has charted a route to reconfigure power relationships, and take a departure from the traditional framework towards an original and creative discourse. It is taking into account a synergistic approach to cultural knowledge sharing methods, representation, while tackling important lines of questioning such as who gets to decide the story which has to be told? And who’s story is that?
“One of the primary motivations for the collective was to create a community space for art practitioners in the hills who through the medium of arts can also work to engage with the local community. Over the pandemic many levels, margins, and axis of differences and inequalities have come to light,” TCC says. “We could direct our actions towards providing basic support through fundraising whilst also providing space in our online blog to highlight the devastating impact on the people. It started a conversation.” The idea of community engagement is held central to TCC and their artist mandate - to work towards strengthening the local - this engagement ranges from the support provided through the exploration, discovery, and documentation of local histories, stories, and legacies, all rich sources as creative raw material. Yet, the question of community support for TCC goes beyond representation to embody a traditional model of empowerment done by providing tools via workshops or funders or by highlighting stories of the region which places the agency back into the local.
In the age of the ‘crisis’, the Collective which was formulated in the midst of the pandemic has had to experience the harshest challenges and limitations in terms of their own art practices. Despite the obstacles brought on by social distancing and isolation they continued a series of workshops and exchanges, to keep alive the research, the conversation, and the visual investigations of their individual artists. The resilience of the model perceives the arts as commons and collaborative rather than individual and solitary. “The ‘arts’ spaces are yet to reach a point where it can be imagined as in the domain of the commons - both in terms of artist bonds or free access to a wider more diverse audience. It continues to remain an elite space but it also depends on what is perceived or accepted as the ‘arts’,” says the Collective, “We think that with the kind of digital outreach available and even through other mediums the ‘arts’ can be made truly accessible and inclusive if we make these efforts collectively.”
The collaborative and the collective have been the free space for communities having experienced conflicted histories and complexities of birth, and for them art and artistic expression has been a powerful medium, “a vehicle for change and that is the kind of vision that we have for the Collective. TCC is an important collaboration because the members are driven by their sense of understanding the need for preserving our stories as they are,” says the collective. For TCC this is an opportunity to not only reclaim the narrative of their region but to also share it via the introspective lens of the local rather than through an outsider’s gaze bent upon exoticising the landscape. “Whether it is through building up archives, workshops, providing relief work, etc. our endeavour is to build a space that is healing, safe, inclusive, and democratic. In that sense, we believe that rather than making the Collective an ‘elite’ exclusive space if we want to truly make the arts as ‘common’ we need to move forward with fostering collaborative engagement and dialogue that is inclusive of our local communities.”