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Radical Housing and Socially-Engaged Art

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On the first day of my arrival at Khoj, I was as you can imagine, both excited and nervous. Nervous also more so because I was the only critic to be occupying the residency amongst the five other selected artists. But settling in and getting acquainted proved to be much more effortless than I’d anticipated. Well at least in terms of how we were all equally interested in familiarising ourselves with each other.

But what soon became apparent to me was the considerable gap in language that made communication quite challenging for most of us, all coming from various geographical regions as we did, without a shared common language.

It was then that it occurred to me how, especially within our field of practices around art, where we are so much in the business of exchanging ideas and concepts, the broken language format ended up playing a pretty significant role in making effective communication possible between ourselves.  

One of the ways I think art writing can adapt itself into a contemporarily relevant form is to adapt the texture and rhythm of its language in such a way that it also mimics the inflections of the current experiences of our sensorium.

Sohorpem Kazingmei

This in turn threw into relief for me the ontological crisis of my own medium as a writer of text, in a relationship of language with artist and a readership. We find ourselves within a new post digital context wherein the dominance of the textual is being replaced by new technologies of communication largely characterised by the visual to ambient. The implications of such paradigm shifts are fundamental to the ways in which subjectivities get shaped. There is a general public falling out of the habit of reading. What can art writing do to stay relevant? Can it still engage an audience? Is it doing its job of making art more comprehensible and accessible to its readership? 

One of the ways I think art writing can adapt itself into a contemporarily relevant form is to adapt the texture and rhythm of its language in such a way that it also mimics the inflections of the current experiences of our sensorium. The reflection of a sensorium birthed of an experience of reality that cannot be divorced from contact with the digital universe of the internet. 

This is where I’ve been toying with the idea of taking the concept of “total art work” or  “gesamtkunstwerk” as popularised by Wagner in his opera productions, as a possible effective paradigm for articulating this new experience of sensorium. The original conception of gesamtkunstwerk was understood as a general aesthetic schema that would unify all creative processes. Which is to say that there would be one unifying aesthetic logic under which all art forms would be practiced. This for Wagner was the theatre and the opera under which he aimed to unite all other art forms like painting, singing, acting, interior design, costume design, etc. The concept has evolved over the years to serve a paradigmatic purpose to other such art movements like Bauhaus, De Stijl and Art Nouveau. All of these movements have looked to gesamtkunstwerk as having the potential to hold the vision for a unifying, equitable, democratising utopia. 

I see the spirit of gesamtkunstwerk being realised in the ways in which the cultural colourings of our present age is taking shape. But it’s interesting because unlike previous artistic strategies, the realisation of gesamtkunstwerk for us has been taking place at a very unconscious and mundane level wherein a kind of totalising aesthetic sensibility began to permeate our cognitive processes as soon as we started inhabiting digital spaces in this age of social media. The Internet creates an ostensible sense of textural uniformity within its digital universe. There is an overarching digital sensibility informing our sensory experience of being online. 

At Jama Masjid during a trip to Old Delhi. Photo by Vishnu Prasad

I think that at the core of gesamtkunstwerk lies the principles of interdisciplinarity and interdependence. The notion that the whole is more than the sum of its parts. A community oriented organisational principle that gives importance to the act of reconciliation. Applied to my position within the residency, I can see how we could perhaps postulate it as a possible framework of rumination to think on the one hand about a specific type of artistic practice that is contemporary. And therefore a context that is cross cultural, internationally conscious, engaged in exploring various processes of modern technology and embracing methods and materials that are diverse. This is especially applicable to an art practitioner like our own resident artist Vishnu Prasad whose works really lie at the intersection of experimenting with materiality, along with exploring the processes of modern technology. He is also a figure that refuses to remain faithful to any specific strategy, material, or even credo. If there was any, it would be that of reinvention and experimentation and of the embrace of the truth of polymorphism. 

In a certain sense, the prioritisation of reconciliation within gesamtkunstwerk could be a lens through which we could look at the context within which Khoj is also physically situated. This is the context of Khirkee village and in particular Khirkee extension as a resettlement colony, marked by a history of migration. Khirkee is fraught with class, caste, community and religious tensions between a population made up of the Afghani community, African communities as well as Muslim and Hindu communities all converging into the congested landscape of Khirkee. 

The building occupied by Khoj has also been built with a community oriented consciousness in mind. One of the reasons why the art project taken up by Khoj for the publication of the quarterly newspaper Khirkee Voice, in collaboration with art practitioners Malini Kochupillai and Mahavir Bisht becomes important is that it could perhaps be looked at as a tangible form of a reconciliation strategy. This also brings me back to the initial challenge in communication posed by the diversity of language that us residents experienced on the first day. If we bring that question into the ambit of the gesamtkunstwerk framework, could we also hope to find effective reconciliatory strategies to be able to bridge that gap?