published in SalonIndus
The fact that I’m sitting in my apartment in New York City scribbling for an art publication out of New Delhi is just another bit of proof that the world is getting smaller. Social circles are connecting, globalization is happening in the arts and across nearly every discipline. As markets merge, we’re starting to see global scale problems: massive multi-nation financial collapse sparked by the Global boom of credit-based value. And this pales in comparison to the meltdown of the planet’s climate. I don’t want to impose US-style Armageddon thinking here, it’s true that my nation loves to consume disaster movies, but years into a historical economic crisis and weeks after Hurricane Sandy submerged the New York subway system for the first time, a distressed global future seems to have arrived. This present-future necessarily becomes the backdrop for culture making, because art, though consciously historical, is always of its time. I believe that artistic practice is sometimes finely calibrated and sometimes rather randomly, well suited to respond to change. As an artist, it’s my job to explore these potentialities, pushing art toward greater relevance. How are the meaning, value, and authorship of art changing in the information age? Which art practices and historical models best respond to the unstably shifting world picture?
Random Randal was created in 2010 at the invitation of Anil Dayanand, professor at the RLV College of Art in Tripunithra, Kerala. With Anil’s invitation came a mission to connect my artistic practice into collaboration with a wide range of artists I had never met before. The community at RLV College proved adept at cohering into a body that collectively designed and carried out a project of high complexity. Random Randal responded to a growing global need for sharing and trans-national community.
Ironically, I played the role of Neoliberal culture-colonizer when I was first introduced to the Indian art world in 2006. Fresh from my MFA degree at Columbia University, I was hired by a blue chip gallery in New York to make recommendations about which hot contemporary Indian artist they might include in their “stable” (group of gallery artists). The sad fact is that I knew absolutely nothing about Indian art, had never travelled to India, didn’t even know many India Americans…nothing. A prominent curator who also knew nothing about India had recommended me as a favor and this landed me the job. Airfare wasn’t part of the contract so I became an Internet traveller to the Subcontinent, feverishly googling “India” and “contemporary art” and occasionally picking up the phone and calling curators or critics or artists whose name would come up in searches. I accessed lists of artists included in Biennials or represented by German or Australian or US galleries, or selling at auction. The finer grain, local networks of artists were invisible to me. More alarmingly, I had no real sense of the context or history of Indian art. I was operating at a speed that precluded an understanding of what I was looking at, hungering for highly visual images and easiest-to-digest concepts. In the end, the superficiality of this cultural foray was quite depressing: art converted to information more for the love of profit than culture. But through this research I met Anil Dayanand online, who at that time was writing for Matters of Art, an online publication out of New Delhi.
I made my first trip to India in 2009. This was after a rollercoaster ride when the market energy was buzzing in New York and I was exhibiting internationally. Then in 2008, the market fell off a cliff in the US. I had a solo show up at the time, collectors were walking around in shock and nothing sold. My gallery brought me to the 2008 art fair in Miami, and it felt discordant to attend luxury pool parties at a time when many Middle Class people were losing life savings. That was time for a change and I bought a ticket to India, a journey in which I would nearly circle the country. I stopped to visit some of the people I had met virtually.
The next year, I decided to return. I had been in a correspondence with Anil about a possible collaboration and the timing worked out just right: he was able to invite me as a participant in the “Trans-Trends Festival” hosted by the RLV college of art. The festival had been conceived by the students and professors at RLV and given the theme of “inter-visuality,” which was a passport to cross-pollination of traditional media and where new media such as video and online work took prominent place. Anil and curator Bipin Balechandran had designed the festival for a constituency of art students from all over India for a program of critiques, studio visits, music and dance performances, parties, meals, and lecture-presentations by visiting luminaries such as Shivaji Pannikar and Gulam Muhammed Sheik. My presence in the festival was a bit of a wild card, but my previous work certainly fit well into the theme of inter-visuality.
I knew that I wanted to work primarily with human energy as a medium. At the time, I was interested in a kinetic experience that drew social and physical bodies together into a functional “human machine.” This concept developed from a previous body of mechanized installations, some quite complex such as Pop Ark (2008) employing lights/motors/soundtracks and running mechanically on their own. Parallel to this, I was also involved in experimental theater in Europe, which got me addicted me to the cathartic power of the “live moment.” My first human machine was called Electrical Forest: made in Troy which was an assembly line in which hundreds of volunteer “workers” mass-produced artistic leaves in timed work-shifts. We ended up with a huge production of leaves printed on film but the surprising by-product was a great amount of uplifting energy and a creative spirit of adult play.
Random Randal began with a cup of tea in a roadside tea shack near RLV College, followed by a meeting with Anil and Bipin and others in a small faculty room. I presented my skeleton of an idea about the human machine and it began to develop collectively in the room. Anil noted that languages from all over India were present for the conference and that this could be a resource and a theme. Create some kind of language machine. How would this language be organized? “It has to be Random” said Bipin. At the time I was interested in the lantern as a symbol for truth, and sculpturally the light-emitting form was perfect for the “inter-visuality” theme. So the project would be called Random Randal (Randal means “lantern” in Malayalam). There would be two stages: the carving of language stamps to create a “random text library” and secondly, the fabrication of giant bamboo lanterns with thatched coconut roofs, like little traditional huts. The lanterns would join with the text library in a hybrid festival/assembly-line, a big multi-media performance that resembled a 1960’s era art “happening,” and became a central moment in the whole festival. Finally, the completed and illuminated lanterns would be hung in the RLV main space, and wired for an electric light show. It was an ambitious project.
RLV is architecturally and pedagogically divided up into two halves: one side for contemporary visual arts, the other for more traditional Carnatic music and dance. These disciplines stayed separate as a rule. But as Random Randal gained steam in the already heightened context of the TransTrends festival, the lines began to blur, challenging the ingrained separation of disciplines. Musicians offered to drum at the center of the lantern-making festival and music became the motor that powered and modulated the event. Next, daring groups including students and instructors of traditional Carnatic dance volunteered to pitch in, choreographing movements in relation to the lantern-production. Their graceful fluidity through the space, dressed in matching orange and white, unlocked a physical capacity of all the participants, and the whole assembly line became a giant dance. Within the space of the performance itself, a “random” potential took shape and spontaneous things began to happen. Anil Dayanand appeared, dressed in clean white and led by a pack of bell-ringing students. He offered himself up to be stamped on his chest, head, and back by the random language assembly-line. As the performance went on, his skin and clothes blackened with a scrambled archive of words from multiple regions in India. Anil made an autonomous performance, which drew on and added to the collective energy of Random Randal.
The institutions that uphold Visual Art have long repeated the myth of the solitary artist. From Fra Angelico’s monastic cell in early Renaissance Florence to Jackson Pollack’s barn (and in movies such as Basquiat and Dhobi Ghat) the genius-artist struggles alone until the great discovery arrives. Certainly there is some truth to this myth; many artists do enjoy the interiority of creative space, and the mental quasi spiritual “zone” that becomes available after hours of focus. But the myth of working alone can also be isolating and sets the conditions for art to act as a prison, shutting artists off from the outside world. And behind this myth of the triumphant individual sits an economic model as well. This was reflected in my online research into the Indian art world in 2006, which furnished me with a short-list of art-stars: Subbed Gupta, Bharti Ker and the like, totally ignoring most of the people who collectively create the thing we call “culture” through learning, teaching, sharing, supporting, and collaborative work. Art stars can be wonderful artists, but economically, they are name brands that can be placed on a particular aesthetic, which can then circulate the globe at enormous profits.
Random Randal worked by a different logic. I arrived on the scene via a “random” friendship with Anil, unmediated by the chain of approval from gallery, museum, or other art institution that creates cultural capital and often prompts international invitations. Likewise, the participating students were ambitious: some very interested in entering the market, but they were above all eager to learn and the theme of the festival was boundary- blurring, which set the groundwork for spirited collaboration. Random Randal was collectively developed from the start, with Anil and Bipin and also with the input of the students involved and this collectivity moved it away from my authorship and toward a cultural experience that was widely shared and could be modulated into smaller autonomous projects like Anil’s performance. As the lanterns took shaped within an energetic process over the week, it came apparent that the art objects (lanterns) rather than commodities were mediating objects for connection, and information/experience sharing. Their illumination stood for the temporary brightness of making new friends and sharing a heightened experience. The American artist Laurie Anderson speaks about art as an instrument for special sensorial experience: the transformation-possibility in seeing rather than a museum-quality object is her goal. I would agree with her, but add the goal of social connection.
In the few years after Random Randal, though I have not travelled back to India, I have stayed in touch many of the student participants through Facebook. Updates of designer Bibil Kumar, painters Sudipta Das and Eldho George and many others pop up on my wall, we chat and share work or random thoughts. This relatively new culture of algorithmic networking creates one big jumbled conversation of random thoughts, news headlines, ideas, and kinetic streams of more information that we are coming to accept as our culture. Perhaps this points to a future where culture is better understood as a collective project than it is today, and perhaps tools and models that acknowledge and support a broader cultural ecology are on their way. Random Randal was like an physical embodiment of an random online world: we danced, sweat, shared, and created together with our hands, challenging conventions as traditional music merged with an assembly line. The text library representing numerous Indian languages, numerous voices, was filtered into a dance. It was a project about communication and sharing which included but surpassed words. Art is an ancient practice and a human necessity. Within it, there is much promise for a globalized future where “global” means merging differences, taking chances and supporting the roots of culture.