Published on Interventions Journal, September 2011.

City-as-Studio: Process as Frame

It wasn’t important to find a rhythm. Collective energies without the insistence of collaboration, made it easier to be impacted by each other’s practices, and for practices to be honed and diverted and transformed for a while.

--Notes from the Sarai Media Lab

During the summer of 2010, Sarai and the Raqs Media Collective launched a new initiative, the City as Studio fellowship and residency. City as Studio was a complex artistic/social experiment about the space of the city in India. I will read it as primarily a pedagogical space, Sarai’s attempt to infuse post-studio criticality into a generation of emerging Indian artists that is still largely bound to a medium—painting, film, or sculpture. Like any successful art school/summer academy/collective residency, it engendered passionate and laborious group critiques, densely packed theoretical workshops, and late evenings spent in discussion and feverish collaborative production. Sarai’s notes emphasize, however, that while the “space of making and distributing was thrown into question, [it was] always kept in conversation so [that] it didn’t dissipate into meaningless acts and particles.”

Structurally, the fellowship provided nine months of financial support to a wide range of visual, performance, and textual practitioners so that they might explore the boundaries of their own practice. This nine-month span began in January 2010; the residency period fell in the middle of this. All eleven fellows were invited to live and work in Delhi for six weeks along with two interns—Swedish sociologist Irmelin Joelson and myself, working mainly as a curator. We produced two exhibitions collectively; one, on July 31, 2010, was considered a private exhibition of works in process, and the second, on August 20, functioned as a public event, the finale of the residency. Sarai also hosted a poetry reading, for which it produced a chapbook with several of the fellows’ work; there was a weeklong workshop with renowned urbanist and activist Solomon Benjamin.

Fellows were provided with rooms to work in as they would in a traditional pedagogical setting, as well as access to the Sarai Media Lab. However, the residency asked fellows to consider the city—as opposed to the artist studio—as the site of production in contemporary post-studio practice. Fellows were encouraged to work in the public realm, physically, but they were also urged to frame their practices using the urban experience during the six weeks they were in Delhi. In other words, they were asked to observe the logic of the city and respond to it in whatever form they wished. Fellows were also encouraged to complicate the conventional binary between the city and the village: urban/rural, global/local, industrial/agricultural, networked/isolated, technological/mythological. Sarai proposed that the mega-city (Delhi in this case) voraciously assimilates all of these oppositions, thereby demanding cultural analysis that forgoes an inside/outside bias altogether.

In the book Sarai produced upon the fellowship’s conclusion, two contemporary urban theorists are called upon to frame City as Studio’s methodology – Solomon Benjamin, an urban theorist based in Bangalore whose work focuses on grey economies and vernacular architecture, and AbdouMaliq Simone, a sociologist from Goldsmiths University in London and a critical geographer studying the African city. Both Benjamin and Simone argue that so-called failed or chaotic cities in India and Africa respectively should rather be understood as examples of resistance against unjust and inappropriate precepts of centralized urban and development planning. [1] According to them, when the urban fabric is at its most dense, when it is least compatible with clear and legible plans, the city is the most successfully resistant. A passage from Simone’s introduction to Urban Africa: Changing Contours of Survival in the City (2004) is quoted in the City as Studio book to this effect, articulating Sarai’s framework for the residency quite eloquently:

In the midst of every city, there is a substantial and groundless complexity of arrangements and interactions—among people, objects, territories, climates—that take the city outside of its confines. To draw upon this capacity is not an act of a particular remembering. It is not an act of repositioning or relinking an observer to a more perspicacious line of sight. Rather, such complexity is revealed in those moments … in which a place is “blown apart”—the convergence of trajectories (movements, folds, expulsions, gatherings) linked in an apparent impossibility—and thus redistributing what has come before and opening up to what is yet to come.

Simone’s portrait of the city is affective, psychological, and kinetic. It is founded on a groundless space, as opposed to lines of sight or trajectories. This image of the city is presumably in debt to Deleuze and Guattari’s theorization of “lines of flight,” which are straight lines moving towards infinity that structure projective space, or the space of “apparent impossibility” that is also the space of the future or the plan. Lines of flight bisect smooth space, the domain of the “nomad”—the aggressively creative antithesis to the “State.” According to Deleuze and Guattari, smooth space is a vectorial space rather than a metrical one, for example the sea or the desert as opposed to the field. Like felted cloth as opposed to woven cloth, its texture is produced by “traits,” threads made up of the perpetual variation of free action. Smooth space is haptic as opposed to optic—it does not produce lines of flight because it is not experienced primary through vision. Striated space is governed by the logic of the grid; the shifting social and phenomenological relations of the nomads that inhabit it govern smooth space. Lines of flight ultimately transform smooth space into striated space by producing an axis and, therefore, symmetry between what is one side of the line or the other. Simone’s analysis shows how the city, the epitome of striated space in the West, can be re-articulated as smooth space at some deep structural level and thereby re-invested with some agency for political resistance.

City as Studio practioners were thus tasked with observing Delhi’s groundless complexity instead of observing it as an ordered space bisected by lines of flight. When an artist sees his or her practice as one aspect of something that is vast and underpinned by groundless complexity, instead of the strict and progressive linearity of an art historical canon for example, an enormous space for experimentation across disciplines and other hierarchically ordered spheres of activity is opened up. The city is redefined as the site of resistance par excellence, which then becomes the grounding spatial and logical metaphor for creative practice.

Shamsher Ali and Ashavari Majumdar

Kathak or storyteller in Sanskrit, is one of eight officially sanctioned forms of classical Indian dance that evolved from ancient performances of myth or moral scripture. Nomadic bards and Brahmin priests in northern India used gestures and song to embroider their mythological episodes. When Kathak began to be performed in Mughal courts, costume and some content were adjusted to Islamic norms. The nomadic tribes of Rajasthan (including Kathaks) traveled through West Asia, North Africa and Eastern Europe, leaving behind traces of their dance styles in local genres—the most discernible vestige today can be seen in Spanish Flamenco. Over the centuries the gestures were codified to a system common to all Indian classical dance and dance-theatre styles, where each movement becomes a signifier independent of the episode. For dancer and choreographer Ashavari Majumdar, Kathak has always been about place, landscape, the sensory experience of the body in space. The traditional form, however, responds to the places of an ancient society quickly vanishing from major cities. [2] Majumdar defines her continued practice of Kathak as a political decision to re-invest in ancient forms rather than abandon them for imported ones, and this involves re-imagining what experience of place the dance can refer to.

Majumdar observed that the city actually directs people through space by way of urban planning and architecture; it focuses attention on culture in some places and not others, and it structures the body’s relationship to history when it restores and enshrines ruins and monuments. When she finds dance forms for the Kathak of water shortages or the Kathak of traffic, Majumdar not only draws on the city for inspiration, but also presents it as an experience of life to be treated as equally mythic, equally urgent to more traditional or rural ways of life. Her gesture is also a very literal embodiment of Sarai’s prompt to take the logic of the city as a starting point.

Her work for City As Studio culminated in a choreographed performance at Mandi House in Delhi in the fall of 2010, but Majumdar also conducted a research performance in collaboration with Cybermohalla Ensemble practitioner Shamsher Ali during City as Studio’s residency in August. For their collaborative experiment, Ali and Majumdar brought the ancient form into confrontation with new forms of urban life, as the photograph above illustrates. The moving tour bus in the background blocks out the horizon and with it any sense of environmental context, or lines of sight to structure the space of the future; the man with a bicycle watches, but there are others beside him who are oblivious, locked into their individual trajectories; Majumdar arches her entire body towards the sky, her face open to whatever might be written there.

In another image, Majumdar reclines on a pile of street tiles destined to re-surface the sidewalks of central Delhi as part of a massive cosmetic effort city officials initiated to prepare for the Commonwealth Games in the fall of 2010. She squares her leg to the ground and her gesture unconsciously frames the phrase “Delhi Police” on a patrol car in the background. The car and its occupants are held in suspension by her movements, watching without interfering; dominating the photograph entirely while remaining passive.

These photographs document Majumdar’s dance performance, but they are also portraits of the collision of forms—between the city as a form and Majumdar’s gestures as another form. Thus, the photograph is both a document and a stage. Shamsher Ali’s photographic work during City As Studio took as its object this gap between the act of producing a document of the city and the act of staging an experience in the city. In response to my question about the distinction between document and stage in this series Ali writes:

If we look at it, we already have frames for staging and documentation, but both are maintained in different ways. On reaching some edge/extremity, however, don’t they blend into each other? How do we reach those edges/boundaries? Perhaps that now becomes our question. [3]

Thus, the stage of an action and its document are independent forms that, when taken to their extreme, become indistinguishable. Ali is interested in how these normally self-evident ways of marking out experience can be pushed to their limit. The photograph allows the viewer to see Majumdar’s phenomenological intervention, certainly, but it also stages the camera’s encounter with the police, it creates the conditions for their portrait. The form of the dance, the tiles that will form the surface of the city, and the police—one instance of the force that maintains the form of society—are all brought into confrontation as the document and the stage merge.

By forcing the collapse of these categories for experiencing the city—the document, the stage, the performance, the audience—Majumdar and Ali perform precisely the operation City as Studio is structured to engender: their experimentation illustrates the intersection and dissolution of these categories.

Rohini Devasher

Over the course of the nine-month fellowship Rohini Devasher compiled interviews with twenty amateur astronomers in Delhi. These were informal, mixing the autobiographical and the scientific freely, as equal parts of the force that drives people to watch the sky. Devasher describes the major themes in her report on the fellowship as follows:

We talked about the history of “observation” and how it evolved from cult-like beginnings to become a recognized form of science. […] What it requires of the imagination and the psyche to deal with a deep time science, spanning thousands of years. Astronomy as a form of archaeology. The position of the “amateur.” The schizophrenic juxtaposition of the virtual versus the real and the anxieties and false expectations that produces. [4]

The project was born out of Devasher’s own fascination with the multiplicity of motivations that bring relatively untrained people together to think, materially, about such abstract and existential questions. One amateur astronomer, when asked what drives his interest, replied that he didn’t know exactly; it began with large constellations of stars and became focused on finding objects through a telescope, and “then it was hunting for fainter and fainter objects through the telescope.” [5]

This astronomer describes the search for saturation and the resulting new horizon, a search that could otherwise be understood as the desire to get to the edge of experience, to find the final frame for existence. The science is in the background, what they are looking at is in the background, even the meaning of doing amateur astronomy is slightly in the background. Devasher’s work foregrounds what draws people to the sky and what happens to them when they are beneath it with others. [6]

For the City as Studio exhibitions, Devasher placed a series of MP3 players with the interviews edited to one or two audio tracks out on the front lawn of the Sarai building. People were invited to sit or lay on the grass, with the structurally implicit suggestion that they also gaze at the sky as they listened. Both tracks ran roughly ten minutes. In Cathexis, amateur astronomers described their favorite celestial objects. Eclipse centered on the interviewees’ descriptions of total solar eclipses they had witnessed.

The social environment produced by her installation was symmetrical to Devasher’s initial interest in the solitary, yet also collective, gathering of witnesses to the sky. People lay in the grass listening to the tracks while others lay beside them waiting for the players to be free and for their turn to listen, as if everyone had simply been waiting for an invitation to abandon the party and lay in stillness in the semi-dark, alone together. [7]

Delhi, like many other cities in the world, is losing its relationship to the sky as light pollution blots out the stars, turning the night into an opaque surface above us. Devasher’s audio compilations are evidence that people have a substantial relationship to it nonetheless, a relationship that redeems the sky from abstraction and re-inserts it into the daily lives of city-dwellers. Solomon Benjamin has argued that any social microcosm in the urban environment, no matter how small its scale or informal its structure, can be used to understand the ideologies governing a city, or to understand how resistance is formulated to those ideologies. Devasher does not investigate the ideologies that have allowed us to look away as the stars recede from the glow of our cities, but she does propose this: to think deeply and with intention about the way a group of people from the city form a relationship to the sky is such a microcosm.

I argue that City as Studio can be read as a pedagogical space for experimental artistic practice. This space is highly authored by Sarai, first by relocating production to the urban space, and second by deconstructing the city itself as a concept. What this frame produces, in the case of Ali and Majumdar’s collaboration and in Devasher’s work, are practices that engage with the city as a set of relationships between subjects and forms—a social space (smooth) as opposed to a strictly geographic or physical one (striated).

Through their interventions, the city, socially constituted, appears to be heterogeneous; its groundless complexity is revealed.

I go one step further to suggest that Sarai draws on Simone and Benjamin for City as Studio’s framework not simply as a spatial metaphor, but to imply that there are political stakes in the City as Studio’s rhythmless—and still relentlessly discursive—methodology: anarchic deconstruction runs counter to the dominant paradigm’s thirst for transparency, for lightness, for clear and simplistic articulations of site and of culture. City as Studio’s most provocative gesture is this refusal to be legible, is its insistance on process rather than production, and investment in an explicitly political framework for the project.

The work of both theorists, as well Sarai’s deployment of them in an art context, particularly echoes Claude Lefort’s writing on radical democracy. Lefort argues that when power was relocated from the body of the monarch to the body politic, or to the people as an abstraction, power began to be produced as a social phenomenon. [8] To be social is to be constituted via relations between subjects, relations that cannot be fixed objectively. We cannot know, absolutely, the relations between people than constitute power in the neighborhood factories Benjamin describes in such detail in his work on grey economies; there is always a measure of illegibility in our encounters with power. Lefort argues that this uncertainty about power is new, and that it “inaugurates a history in which people experience a fundamental indeterminacy as to the basis of power, law, and knowledge, and as to the basis of relations between self and other.” [9]

I argue that it is precisely because Sarai foregrounds this fundamental indeterminacy and its resulting emphasis on the social that City as Studio feels so urgent, so in synch with today’s larger context. But the framework for City as Studio also constitutes a political contradiction. Process-based artwork, or informal architecture and planning, or grey markets, in all their anarchic and inchoate density, do not reveal themselves and therefore do not articulate the mechanisms by which they exclude people and ideologies. A return to indeterminacy and relative illegibility may well be an appropriate political response to hegemonic art historical canons (either classical Indian ones or Western ones) or insensitive and corrupt centralized planning strategies, but it is ultimately a refusal. It is a space that does not address the contradiction between legibility’s tendency to obliterate difference and nuance and illegibility’s tendency to obscure structural hierarchies and naturalize exclusions.

Should City as Studio do more than refuse and by its refusal maintain the relative safety of its space for creative experimentation? The strength of art is its potential to act as a state of exception, therefore Sarai’s refusal may well be more generative than direct engagement of the contradiction bequeathed to us between ordered hegemony and inchoate hegemony.

[1] For more information on AbdulMaliq Simone’s work, see: “Visible and Invisible: Remaking Cities in Africa’,” in Under Siege: Four African Cities, Freetown, Johannesburg, Kinshasa, Lagos, ed. by Okwui Enwezor and et al., Documenta 11, Platform 4 (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2002); City Life from Jakarta to Dakar: Movements at the Crossroads, Global Realities (New York: Routledge, 2009); “AbdouMaliq Simone,” 2009, [lecture accessed 17 August, 2011]. For further reading on Solomon Benajamin see: “Neighborhood as Factory,” 2005, [lecture accessed 17 August, 2011]; The Nomadic City Appropriates the Street, 2008, [lecture accessed 17 August, 2011].

[2] Unless otherwise indicated, all references to Majumdar’s intentions are taken from the author’s interview with the artist, August 3, 2010, Delhi.

[3] From an email correspondence with the author, August 14, 2010.

[4] Rohini Devasher, The Light of Things Hoped For: Diary of an Astronomad:, report for City as Studio, Fall 2010, 4.

[5] Amateur astronomer, Delhi. From Rohini Devasher’s report for City as Studio, Fall 2010.

[6] Author’s interview with the artist, recorded Aug. 8, 2010. Delhi, India.

[7] This observation is from the author’s experience, but Devasher describes the installation in similar terms: “There was an intimacy to the experience that didn’t exist before that particular scenario played itself out. As few as one, as many as ten people lying down together gazing up at the sky, mimicking the act of amateur astronomers world over, and like them linked by common experience, in this case of the audio files, of the experience of this ‘collective rest or sleep.’ ” Devasher, Diary of an Astronomad, 4.

[8] Claude Lefort, “The Logic of Totalitarianism,” in The Political Forms of Modern Society: Bureaucracy, Democracy, Totalitarianism (Cambridge: MIT Pres, 1986), 279. I am indebted to Rosalyn Deutsche’s quotation and elaboration of Lefort’s idea in her work, “Agoraphobia,” in Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998), 273.

[9] Claude Lefort, “The Question of Democracy,” in Democracy and Political Theory (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988), 19.