Edges & Contours

Some Reflections

I’m writing this back in England, trying to remember some of the things I thought and felt whilst taking part in the lab and attending Unbox Festival. An impossible task of course, but interesting to see what’s surfacing today… or… perhaps instead, to draw from one of the experiences I had during it, what’s being reflected right back at me as I peer over the lip into a deep dark well, searching… not exactly sure for what… but something.


Reflection number 1

I’ve got a kind of warm glow while I write this… The kind when you feel satiated, and that’s because I loved this lab. It felt urgent and over-due for me. Being of mixed heritage (Gujarati / English) I’ve been trying to explore my practice in India for (what feels like) ever, continually surprised that my heritage hasn’t been enough for various people to trust that even me just stepping onto the soil of the country would be of impact artistically, and, in the long term, of some worth to others beyond myself.

‘But, what are you going to do there exactly?’  

Cut to me, blinking blankly back, feeling a bit unsure as to how best to reply…

…because how would I know without going first?

…because how do I explain that ‘it’s a kind of feeling in my blood’.

…because what’s the worth of an artist compared to say a medic or environmentalist anyway?

…because what do I have to do to completely sidestep this relationship? What other strategies could I employ? What else should I be doing?

and so on… and so on…

My work has always been research and context-led, emerging out of experience, conversation and following Scooby-doo style trails here and there, a mixture of trusting my gut and trying to notice forgotten or overlooked histories and exchanges along the way (who or what has been sidelined, edged out, off in the distance). Staying alert to the invisibles… such as my own mixed heritage…

So this lab, with it’s invitation to come along and see if anything might emerge out of conversations and simply sharing some space and time with others, really did feel like a gift…

All hail any context which really does allow you to ‘not know’…

Which really understands the worth of that in this end-gaining world…

Reflection number 2

Of course, although grateful to be there, as I experienced it, there were lots of clunky awkward moments. Imagine being in a social situation for nine days with a dozen or so people that you’ve only just met… with limited time… trying to see if you can collaborate… whilst also taking in a big busy city…and adjusting to another time-zone…

This is perhaps where one of the edges in ‘edges and contours’ emerged for me, because although I’m all about co-creating work with others, the stretch towards another - really trying to listen - really trying to connect - well… I became aware (and not for the first time) of the languages I’m missing… Not to mention an awareness of the privilege of the whole situation.

It didn’t matter somehow that Babitha, Ben, Vic and Catherine had made it overtly clear that it was ok to not produce anything…

Feeling that edge face on and then re-calibrating myself over and over was intense… Epic and amazing as I’ve already mentioned, but also intense…

I felt a bit of relief when Bhaggu and I settled on our idea ‘Perform, Draw, Search’ a mapping of some of the cities invisibles - dog, water, marigold, coconut, other. An idea proposed by him and then lightly developed together. We would do this for an hour, with chalk, on the floor in one of the festival’s passing-through spaces (where I often seem to show work), an experiment in collaboration as much as a moment together to make some things appear. People would be free to watch, join in or drift off… I liked this idea as it would unfold in real time and required little preparation, thereby also freeing me up to think about some of the other things I was interested in. It would also allow us some focussed time together to really do some ‘thinking through doing’, albeit only for an hour.

I did however (despite our own title including the word perform) find myself very resistant to the idea that what we would be doing in public space was a performance. In fact I kept hearing myself saying exactly that: ‘its not a performance’.

Today sitting here, I’m wondering what that was all about… something to do with the constant swing between not wanting to waste the opportunity of being in India (at last!) and trying to remain true to the process and hold all of those feelings at bay.

Because of course what we did was a performance and absolutely part of what I would now say we were interrogating…

The most interesting outcome of our experiment though, was the way it began to choreograph the space and people in it. Those who encountered us (or the drawings) moved and behaved differently… So turning our attention towards some of the invisibles, did ‘do’ something…

Reflection number 3

Perhaps another part of my resistance to hearing the word performance was to do with the fact that just before coming to Bangalore I was awarded some money to literally ‘press pause’ on my practice. So as to get a chance to look back and review…To work out whether the narrative or story I’ve been telling about what I do as an artist still fits, in order to help me work out what my next 20 years might look like going forwards… A chance to check in and perhaps re-write my personal manifesto… So I also arrived with that in my head - a desire to not produce anything, but to just absorb, consider and reflect.

The question buzzing about in my brain was, ‘what are the stories that need to be told right now, and to whom?’

What was thrilling for me was that this (and many refractions of it) was something I kept encountering in many of the Unbox Festival sessions I went to too. I heard it come out of the mouths of Product Designers, Architects, Geographers, Conservationists and so on… Also, on occasion, the need to press pause too…

…So as to have another go at getting some things right…

…So as to have some better ideas about how to deal with some present-day entanglements (climate, failing infrastructure, race, gender etc).

Reflection number 4 -The East India Company / Garlands

I also arrived in Bangalore with a brain full of facts about the East India Company, researched and digested as part of Common Salt a performance I’ve been sharing around the UK with fellow collaborator Sue Palmer. It’s a piece of work that takes place at a table and is for only 20 audience members at a time. In it we re-count several intertwining forgotten stories using objects that explore, nature, money, collections and colonialism. We share the true story of a hedge seeded across India by the British to collect a punitive salt tax. And we also intertwine that with the story of the Scottish born female naturalist Elizabeth Brightwen who set up a home museum on her dining room table. So I arrived keen to see if I could get a sense of how the themes in that work might play out in India, looking for traces of the East India Company (an original template for present-day corporations), and to try and understand whether they felt irrelevant now as a history, or perhaps everywhere to be seen.

For me it was definitely the latter. I saw the East India Company…

…in the name of the Cannonball Tree in Cubbon park.

…in the architecture at the KR Flower Market.

…on the shelves in the library of the festival venue.

As a part of the piece Sue and I regularly have to make small garlands. They are one of our ‘consumables’ that need to be refreshed each time we show the work (in the piece we drape them on a glass display dome which has been placed over some salt).

I love the action of making the garlands. Handling the flowers. Stringing them together.

At some point during the lab I must have talked about this to Deepa and Garima as they both mentioned the KR flower market to me as place I should visit. After conducting some quick research into the market location I discovered that it was also once the site of one of the many battles between the East India Company and the Kingdom of Mysore. There they were again, that company. Lurking around in the shadows…

…and so, in what seemed like the middle of the night in the middle of the week I went…

That morning whilst wandering in the dark around amongst the hustle and the bustle I thought about nature, trade and about the journey of a marigold or rose or jasmine flower from seed, to field, to hand, to thread, to ritual, to hair clip, to decoration, to decomposition. It sounds like a natural cycle, but actually is one full of labour, energy, water-use, pesticides, transport and toil.

Sid later shared an interesting article with me about someone else who had spotted this cycle and done something about it…(click here to read it).

For me, there’s something still left to trace here. To spend more time with and perhaps turn into some work…

Reflection number 5

Where does collaboration begin exactly?

Did it begin when I sat next to Sean on the airplane and he showed me a picture of his dog? Or when Anya hung back and waited with me as I was questioned about my visa? Or when Fletch, Catherine, Klavs and I were convinced by some locals that we could withdraw some cash? Or when all of us together felt the power of moving as a group whilst crossing a road? Or when Vishwanath sat next to me and showed me how to use my hand as a spoon? Or when I first saw Irma’s clip of the traffic in Kampala which made me think of my dad? Or when Bhaggu and I sat next to each other and started discussing maps? Or when Deepa recommended a book to me in the library?  Or when I first saw Garima’s brilliant zines? Or when I sat on the floor in Ben and Vic’s talk, wondering if everything I make from now on should also only be about climate change?

Was Bangalore a collaborator too?

Or that waiter that forgot my meal, meaning I ended up eating half of Ailie’s (it was delicious)?

Or the tree that Sid, Akeelah and I made a special trip to to gaze up at by the side of the road?

And what about the air (full of pollution), breathed in by us all?

Being lit by the sun?

Thinking about light makes me remember black mirrors.

Ailie mentioned wanting to chat with me about them in relation to one of her works after I’d shown pictures of On Reflection in my intro talk. On Reflection is a piece of work I made which explores the history and use of the black mirror - or Claude Glass - by artists, sight-seers and physicians of old whilst also considering what such an instrument might illuminate about our collective future.… We never did find the time to chat, but it was enough of a comment to re-plant the notion of scrying in my brain.

Scrying - the idea that you might be able to foretell the future using a reflective object or surface…

A fictional idea on first hearing… Until you slow right down and spend a little more time thinking about it.

Indeed, as Invisible Flock’s installation so brilliantly demonstrated, water is a reflective surface too. And in fact long before obsidian was first found, polished and gazed into, or clear glass discovered and eventually silvered, puddles of water were the first black mirrors.

Just like a well.

Something we might gaze into to learn about Bangalore’s present and past.

Scrying for the future.

And here we are just like that, come full circle.

Peering over the lip into a deep dark well, searching… not exactly sure for what… but something.

Post written by:
Sheila Ghelani

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