by Rahul KumarMay 04, 2022
Being a maker myself, the ideas of research, experimentation, analysis, and applying the learning to develop my practice is inherent to what I do. Behaviour of materials, possibilities through processes, and eventually creating a spectacle is critical to manifest any expression or intellectual idea. There are, however, practices that are more academic than visual, that are more concept-based than process-based. Can the sensorial experience (of seeing, hearing, or feeling) be separated from the ‘intellectual’?
The Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA) in New Delhi has an ongoing program investigating 'Research as Practice' in the context of visual arts. Initiated as a lecture series in February 2021, the museum has welcomed the likes of Hammad Nasar, Grant Watson, Nida Ghouse, Saira Ansari and Alexander Keefe. The series invites researchers, curators, and artists to share and discuss their individual research practices, inventive forms, and manifestations of research. It attempts to address the complexities of research-forms, be it as ‘research-exhibition’, creative research, curatorial, artistic or post-institutional research, or artworks as knowledge-systems.
I speak to Akansha Rastogi, Senior Curator, Programming and Exhibitions, KNMA, who has conceptualised and organised the program.
Rahul Kumar: Research in any field has its significance. What is special and different about it in the context of creative disciplines?
Akansha Rastogi: We all research. Even in our daily lives we collate, interpret, and analyse sets of information to make our choices, and sift through scores of materials and things. Research is part of life and we all develop our own methods to navigate and reach conclusions. Each one of us processes research uniquely to produce something meaningful and readings of the world around us.
However, what makes research in creative disciplines very exciting is the search for poetic truths and the liberty one can take to go beyond the received processes and accumulated knowledge and data, and speculate. In creative disciplines, practice and research often overlap. Most artists and creative practitioners make seamless journey from practice to theory and theory to practice through their work, very beautifully challenging their mediums, methods, and materials in unforeseen ways. To be able to recognise that and find a language to talk about these minor or major shifts is really special. At the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, we initiated the lecture program Research as Practice to focus on the figure of the researcher in the discipline of arts, who otherwise is hidden or side-lined by other more visible roles within the infrastructures of the arts.
Rahul: Curatorially speaking, research lays an important foundation to shape an enquiry. If the purpose of a curated experience, in visual arts particularly, is to present a cohesive experience, how important is it to make it intellectual when the medium to communicate is visual?
Akansha: One doesn’t need to approach research practices in the visual arts through the binary of visual versus intellectual. Seeing and sensing are so multifaceted, the ‘whole person’ is involved, not just the mind, in the making as well as experiencing a work of art as a viewer. Learning happens in the realm of ideas and concepts, but also feelings, emotional events and intuitive experiences that are hard to quantify and communicate. For instance, seeing something for a moment, seeing repetitively, seeing it in spurts of growth, seeing in intervals, changes your inquiry, experience and questions, and how you think as well as how you digest it. Subjectivity plays an important role in creative research, which makes the journeys of researchers, tied to their life and practice, a crucial aspect to be seen alongside the subject of their research. That’s why to address the personal and subjectivity in research, we evolved this unique format for the ‘Research as Practice’ series. It is like a relay in sets. We invite a creative practitioner who then further invites four to five curators, art-historians or artists in whose practice he or she is personally interested in deeply engaging with and learning from, and develop those sessions. This allows us to open up the layers in research outputs of these practitioners, be it in the form of an exhibition, a work of art, a book or series of essays, a building or long term collaborative projects.
Rahul: Further, the idea of ‘crafting a thought’ is intriguing. Are there ways to ‘think’ within the arts?
Akansha: All artists and creative minds think through and with their mediums, materials, processes, and bodies. And by putting their work out into the world they respond and add to the knowledge systems they have encountered as part of their growing up, formal institutional structures, and informal circles they form around their work.
The second relay of lectures in our ‘Research as Practice’ program have been thematised under ‘Crafting Thought’ which is anchored and conceptualised by art historian and designer Annapurna Garimella. The invited architects, pedagogues, scholars, publishers and artists, very generously talk about their tools, methodologies, failures and share how they craft and re-craft their thoughts as they engage in fieldwork, archives, and forms of art. For instance, the last three sessions with architects Sankalpa and Shahed Saleem, and textile scholar Annapurna Mamidipudi, drew our attention to ‘making’, makers’ relationship with materials, and challenged what constitutes knowledge when it comes to making and makers like weavers, craftsmen, masons etc. Hearing examples and experiences from fieldwork and their articulations of practice-led research, made me think of ‘research’ more as a place rather than a phase in a project, where real-life struggles and conflicts are resolved and worked upon through ‘making’.
Rahul: Please share some of the key findings from your ongoing engagement with global practitioners on the subject of ‘research as practice’.
Akansha: Through this series at KNMA we hope to survey individual research trajectories, inventive forms, formats and manifestations of research and address the complexities of research-forms, be it as research-exhibitions, creative research, curatorial, artistic or post-institutional research, or artworks as unique knowledge-systems in themselves. We have hosted some remarkable speakers from the around the word. Like curator Nida Ghouse, currently based in Berlin, shared her proposition and research on ‘an exhibition of listening’, based on her long-term collaboration with self-taught acoustic archaeologist Umashankar Manthravadi, who has been building experimental ambisonic system to map and measure the acoustic properties of ancient and medieval sites across India. Imagine listening to an ancient architecture through its sound, Umashankar and Nida’s work on Rani Gumpha in Odisha and other sites is inspiring.
Another speaker Saira Ansari, a writer and researcher based in Dubai, took us through her work on the archive of modernist artist and gallerist Zubeida Agha, whose legacy has largely been underwritten in Pakistan’s cultural milieu. Talking about challenges, failures and pathways she navigated in evolving her writing practice as an independent researcher in the contemporary artworld of South Asia, her lecture and ensuing conversation addressed problems of gender, race and other biases in the art historical and contemporary narratives of art. It resonated a lot with younger researchers who face similar issues.