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Radical Housing and Socially-Engaged Art

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The planting of seven thousand oak trees is thus only a symbolic beginning. And such a symbolic beginning requires a marker; the intention of such a tree-planting event is to point up the transformation of all of life, of society, and of the whole ecological system

Joseph Beuys-7000 Oaks, Documenta 7, Kassel 1982

7000 Oaks functions not just literally in environmental terms, but also symbolically as inspirational imagery. It embodies Beuys’ utopian and poetic metaphysic of a social sculpture, designed to initiate a revolution in human consciousness, by means of its permanence and longevity: “the human being as a spiritual being.” The work also sought to render “the world a big forest, making towns and environments forest-like”.

In 2006, the Taiwanese artist Wu Mali floated the idea of diverse artists groups planting trees across the Tropic of Cancer: a queen’s necklace adorning the earth – a project that was the outcome of individual initiation and could work as an intimate, small scale project, as well as a highly ambitious, potentially vast undertaking intended to be replicated elsewhere.

At the time of its inception, the Negotiating Routes project was inspired by this sentiment: the need to render “the world a big forest, making towns and environments forest-like”. First conceived as a two-year project, Negotiating Routes: Ecologies of the Byways, initially invited artists to reflect on the anxiety of ‘development’ as embodied in the rank infrastructural changes taking place across India, and the tenuous coexistence of this development with local ecologies. The impetus for the project was responding to a major National Highways Development agenda, in which the Road Transport Ministry chalked out an ambitious plan whereby 15,000 km of roads and highways would be developed across India, resulting in the golden corridors which would run north to south and east to west across the country. To expedite the implementation of over 165 projects under the National Highway Development Program (NHDP) during the year, steps were taken to put land acquisition on fast track, which would involve shifting of utilities, obtaining clearances and taking legal and police action against non-performing contractors, displaced villagers and indigenous inhabitants alike.

Negotiating Routes: Ecologies of the Byways aimed to create an alternative road map where artists and communities could come together and be involved in discussions on the regeneration of the local ecology of the cities or villages that they inhabit. The projects in Negotiating Routes were site-specific and had an inter-disciplinary approach that combined research and art creation by artists and local communities, addressing the visible and invisible transformations currently taking place in their immediate environments.

Encouraging the archiving of local knowledge and mythologies about various ecologies like the flora, fauna, home remedies, stories and folklores, so far artists have established community interactions in 19 sites over a period of five years. Using the nomenclature of the National Highway or NH1, each site, ironically, named NR1, NR2 and so on, forms the nodal points of this alternative mapping as they connect to each other metaphorically, a route marked by art where transfer and exchange of knowledge has taken place.

In 2015, KHOJ felt the need to pause and reflect upon the work achieved thus far under the Negotiating Routes umbrella. Thus the Negotiating Routes: 5 Year Meeting was conceived as an opportunity to bring together participants from all 5 editions of the project and create a forum for dialogue and exchange. Over the years, the range of projects undertaken, have given rise to pertinent questions related to the nature of the project. This included the use of methodology and resources; the role of theoretical and practical knowledge; the implication of community, collaboration and ‘local’; the tenuous relationship with process and time; and the measure of impact and value of a project rendered. The questions applied not only to the nature of the Negotiating Routes project, but sought to address the burgeoning shift towards social practice in contemporary art today. The 5 Year Meeting served as a moment to consider the future of Negotiating Routes at KHOJ, as well as the growth and changes being experienced in social practice today.

In 2010, the Negotiating Routes programme was initiated by Varsha Nair and Pooja Sood at KHOJ. Subsequent editions of the project have been curated by the KHOJ curatorial and programme team.


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