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Radical Housing and Socially-Engaged Art

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There is a difference between what an artist does and what a work of art does. The former creates something, makes an idea manifest in a form other than the one it was conceived in. The latter alters the space it is placed in, arrests attention and demands to be seen. In that process it removes the viewer from her/his immediate position and frame of thought to one dictated by the work, within a space commanded by the work. It affects and is equally affected by the social situation and spatial position it occupies at any given moment in time, takes on a life of its own, and is simultaneously fed by the people who draw connections towards and away from it.

A few evenings ago, Vrishali spent a few hours going over Grade 6 math with Aneesh, who plays football around here and hails Manohar as his Ronaldo (to which Manohar responded with a pleased dismissal, “Kuch bhi bolta hai”). My larger interest lies in the nuances of their interaction- Vrishali, who also takes art classes for children in an institute that is ironically, simultaneously stifling expression, and Aneesh- an extension of her life in Pune unfolding in Delhi, somebody she goes out of her way to help.

I’ve realized that most of my conversations keep returning to that same first square- a search for social interaction and grounding in works of art. Can an artist, a writer, or anyone with the power of expression in her/his ambit afford to work with the ars gratia artis sensibility anymore? What is the value of art that doesn’t create some form of disturbance, incite conversation between people with differing opinions, art that simply has mass and occupies space, that is matter as opposed to that which matters?

A practice, in its search for diachronic relevance should be able to engage with people, with its receiving end in more ways than a simple, one- directional supplier-consumer dynamic. Once Tanaya asked me why people bother to make art at all, a landmine of a question. I said “Because they can”, a simple thing to say really, and seemingly obvious. If you can create something that others cannot, maybe put that innate privilege to good and sound use. But that’s not the whole story. Art is not simply the making of “a thing”, or “a something”. There is always a piece of the artist left behind in the work, whether intentionally or otherwise, and it is processed through a journey from idea to final piece, and some version of it is transported to the viewer. There is an intimacy perhaps, that enables the work to contain a memory of the artist, a physical touch, a process that survives the age of mechanical reproduction.

A ‘work’ as opposed to a ‘product’.

There is no balanced, unbiased answer for why some things become art whereas some are left aspiring to be so, but perhaps art is something that is not fully articulated, that transcends explication and hangs above language, an entity that can at best be intangibly experienced, that can crawl inside of you and make a home there. There should be more to art than a label, a designation, or an inflation of the persona of the artist. There should be an honesty, a vulnerability that comes with opening oneself up to a restrictive medium, with moulding a half-stuttered experience into a physical culmination, with facing reinterpretation and misinterpretation by experts and otherwise, while continuing to work without reworking one’s intentions to fit a narrative that might be popular or easy.

The opening up of the self is also a social process; it cannot happen within the shell of solipsism. Interaction creates the space for both vulnerability and perspective, and when an idea or experience, through its conclusion into an art piece finds recognition or brews a disturbance in someone external to itself, a viewer who may otherwise be purely incidental to the work, in some measure it succeeds as a work of art and holds the capacity to survive and enable survival.