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Radical Housing and Socially-Engaged Art

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The PEERS residency program has been running annually at Khoj since 2003 (with the exception of 2012, when there was a break as the building was under construction). When the program begun, it aimed to bring together a medley of young artists from far-flung corners of the country, and juxtapose the sharp differences in their backgrounds and practices through a 4 – week artist in residence program. From reading past critics’ essays and Peers’ blogs, it seems that almost every group thrived through their differences;the young artists revelling in the fact that despite their contradictory experiences and past work- they all had overlapping interests and sights of investigation (often inspired by their surroundings in Khirkee Village). I have little doubt that the 2014 edition of PEERS will be different, the week past already revealing that the residents have been bonding over these same factors. One marked change from 2003 however, is the role that Information Technology now plays in the way that people interact with one another. As one of the residents gleefully announced on their arrival, “I’ve already ‘stalked’ the heck out of all the other artists”, suggesting a significant shift in the way that the peers artists now get to know one another, having had the opportunity to view each others work through personal webpages and other sharing platforms. Of course, as the first 10 days of the residency play out, its clear to see that relationships and exchange are still built upon personal interactions, the social media platforms serving as an added extra site of exchange.

As PEERS 2014 marks the 11th edition of the residency program (by far the longest running of any Khoj’s residencies), I’m eager to look back at the last 10 years, and consider the significance of the program today. I’m especially curious about the role that social media  plays in the ways that the PEERS residents will interact with one another- the former comment indicating a level of savvy and self-promotion that didn’t exist in quite the same way when the program begun. Ultimately, even if these relatively newer platforms of self expression and communication do not play a pivotal role in the Peers stint at Khoj, surely it will heighten the chances of them sustaining these bonds after they leave the cocooned  environment of the Khoj apartment.

The first interaction with Khirkee Village often leaves one feeling slightly awe-struck at the density of activity and frenzy taking place in this dense, semi-urban, semi-rural locale. Hosting a plethora of immigrants from various national and international locations, Khirkee offers up an amalgamation of labour and leisure that one often describes as ‘an artists’ paradise’. Labourers from Bihar and U.P. are grouped in tight huddles, drinking hot cups of sweet milky tea with a backdrop of fantastical graffitied walls, painted by international artists. The smell of frying fish drifts down from the hidden african kitchen, mixing with the aroma of hot bhajjis and afghani breads. The crumbled, ad-hoc buildings, home to the Khirkee residents- are an equal stone’s throw away from the startlingly polished Malls built less than a decade previous, and the 12th and 13th century Masjid structure.

For Sangita Maity, an artist hailing from West Bengal, who has previously been working at mining sites near her home, Khirkee is a paradise that elicits squeals of joy. From her previous work, she carries on her investigations into the lives of labourers, documenting her process and interaction through video and photo. In her past work, Maity often transferred her images of the Mining sites onto metal plates, the materiality of the work echoing the sentiments which she attempts to unpack. So far, her time at Peers had led her deep into the streets of Khirkee to conduct interviews with various workmen, and also the local Malviya Nagar ‘Labour Chowk’ – where she was amazed to see the swarm of people crowd her, hoping that she would be able to offer them a day’s job.

Amshu Chukki, has also been spending a significant time in the streets of Khirkee, visiting the basement level shops of tailors and leather-workmen, where has been diligently filming the men at work. In some of his past work, Amshu combined video and installation, often projecting miniature scale film-scapes onto different 3-D objects. This work evidenced a highly cinematic influence, often paying tribute to some of the great names of art-house films, including Andrei Takovsky and Wong Kar-wai. It is currently unclear whether this cinemascope will make its way into the work being produced at Khoj, but the artist did express an interest in returning to oil-painting – a medium from which he has removed himself in the last works. For the current moment, the artist is collecting footage en-mass from the particular sites that interest him, while also mentioning his interest has slowly shifted from the workers and their craft, towards the spaces they occupy and create. Amshu has most recently completed his M.A. from MS University, Baroda, and is eager to take full advantage of the space for experimentation and interaction that is offered by the Peers program.

Ragini Bhow and Dheer Kaku have also been inspired and influenced by their surroundings, but perhaps in a different modality than their peers. Bhow’s practice as a sculptor and a performance artist is highly dependent on process, and she spends a significant period of time become acclimatized to her space. For her, interaction with these new environs come from a subtle engagement with its forms and materials, rather than directly interacting with the more distinctive elements of Khirkee. She has slowly been collecting fragments of Khirkee and Delhi, and bringing them back into her studio. In her past work, Bhow drew attention to the duality of organic and inorganic materials by drawing them in sharp contrast with one another, or attempting to displace/replace them from their point of origin. The neighbouring Khirkee Masjid has also served as a place of attraction for Bhow; her work may tend towards a site-specific performance/sculpture involving this site.

Dheer Kaku’s work prior to visiting Khoj has largely involved experimentation with sound, drawing and still and moving images. For him, the camera serves as a tool to manipulate the medium of time, and his work often tests the limits of this capability, inverting the meaning and relevance of photo and video. In his most recent sound and video works, Kaku has been returning to the idea of ‘loops’, using the short glitches of sound and video as layers, which are manipulated and transformed until he reaches his desired result. While the sights and sounds of the immediate Khirkee surroundings have not yet markedly appeared in this artists’ production, there is a definite sense that his process is highly influenced by the interactions that take place with his fellow Peers. For some, the ‘final’ product, or the physical manifestation of work, is only a fragment or even just an echo of the larger narrative being constructed. In Kaku’s case, the process of consistent questioning and challenging all around him is definitely feeding into the larger body of work. Kaku has also been collecting sound footage as we move through Delhi, perhaps pushing his work towards an auditory and sensory experiment.

Several of the artists’ work has shown a strong interest in materiality, and experimentation of forms and structure. As Peers is one of the only current residencies at Khoj that shies away from an overarching theme, it is this play of medium and material that tends to bring these artists together. Sanket Jadia’s work continues his long rumination on ideas of form/formlessness, and presently at Khoj, he is working to unpack the idea of ‘form’ through the shape of an ordinary plastic water-bottle. Curiously, Jadia’s work is adhering to some of the more traditional ideologies of art practice, but all while manipulating them to take on new characteristics and new meanings. At the core of Jadia’s experimentation, there lies the syllabus for the classic ‘Art Theory course’, with words like ‘representation’, ‘visual culture’ and ‘iconoclasm’ faintly audible in the background of his conceptual process. Yet if the artist remains true to the quirky, tongue-in-cheek style that has occurred in his past works, his time at Khoj will surely produce something with a totally unexpected twist. In reference to past work, it is difficult to club the artists earlier endeavours under a single banner, as he has experimented with performance, installation, video, sound and now sculpture. What remains consistent however, is the poignancy with which he questions and freshness with which he delivers.

Diptej Vernekar’s artistic process has experienced several upheavals, each pushing his work in a new and previously unexplored direction. While pursuing his B.F.A. in his hometown Goa, Vernekar focussed on portraiture. When he moved to Hyderabad for his M.F.A., Vernkar shifted away from portraiture and began to focus on painting detailed interior spaces of middle-class Indian homes. For one, he was fascinated with a particular kind of rice paper, the warm cream colour and gently speckled surface of which reminded him of the polished terrazzo floors that him and his siblings dreamed of having when they younger, reflecting upon the symbols they attached to upward mobility. Elements of these wishes and dreams often found themselves into his images of luxurious living spaces. Eventually, Vernekar began to feel that he should value being in this new location by making the leap off paper, and engaging with his surrounding environment. In his younger days, he had trained with a mechanic, and therefore had a natural inclination towards kinetic sculpture. He begun to do subtle interventions using the form of kinetic sculpture, often combined with projected video or sound installation. The subjectivity of these works addressed a number of different things, including reflecting upon his own past, his relationships with his family members, and references to his childhood in Goa. While at Khoj, Vernekar hopes to continue to experiment with this format of Kinetic sculpture, and perhaps once again push his work in an entirely new direction.