Blessed Bandwidths in the Times of Pogroms
Amrita Gupta Sigh, ArtConcerns, Interview, April 2007

Shilpa Gupta has been involved in creating interactive multimedia art project for the last few years. She speaks to Amrita Gupta Singh about her initiation into the world of multimedia art, her socio-political concerns and how she engages herself with the issues of articulation, dissemination and copyright. Excerpts:

Amrita Gupta Singh: You have graduated from the Sir JJ School of Arts, where the pedagogical models still align to western academism and there is also a strong resistance to new models of learning. How did you negotiate in this space, given your leanings towards new media art, which you had already started exploring while in college?

Shilpa Gupta: There were times when it was extremely frustrating of course, but looking back, I also think the vacuum and absence of a strong preconditioned model also provided a freedom in which case one looked at the everyday life, the city, the hoardings, signage - and overwhelming presence of media which surrounds us. There were also exciting times in college with an interesting set of peers were doing vibrant work such as Jitish Kallat, Reena Kallat, Girish Dahiwale, Riyas Komu; In 1996-1997 while at college, an initiative had started, where small new letters with artists talking on art happened, so there was a lot of energy in the air. And it would be incorrect to say that all faculty was the same, as there were teachers like Salve Sir, Anil Naik and Wangere Sir who were extremely encouraging and positive despite the fact that other teachers opposed; In fact opposition is not all that bad, as it can enable in clarifying what one wants to do - and computing was something that I have always been interested in, having studied it in various forms since 1990 in high school and continued to study it in parallel courses while attending classes at the JJ School.

AGS: Was there any hostility in this institute towards your ideological premises, or did the fact that you came with an English speaking background give you an edge over the vernacular students, in the sense of an easier access to varied knowledge systems?

SG: It is very true and disturbing about how language continues to create an uneven access in an art school also – very little is published in Marathi in terms of art history books and magazines and even the art history classes were primarily in English. The way that the question is framed, if there was hostility because one happens to speak in  English – I think this is a somewhat biased way of looking at the teachers - as I also remember when I was in college, in my batch, Trudy, who could hardly speak any Marathi would often get the best marks – she was just a good student doing great work and I do think that what matters most in the end is what you learn and learning academic work is not as bad as it may seem; There can be many advantages being a good drafts-man.

AGS: What were your first forays into interactive media art?

SG: I had worked in video in 1995, but interactive media in the form of web design was something that came after some time. I first made rough sketches, incomplete photoshop files with imaginary clicks was in 2000 and after a few months, I finally hosted a website called Diamonds and You at the free Geocities server – this was during the time I used to work as a web designer from 1999 onwards.

AGS: The Internet offers the power to publish one’s own work to a massive potential audience; to ask for, and receive feedback; to exhibit without censorship, and retain total curatorial control. It suggests possibilities for artists to control both the content and the means of dissemination, and away from the object towards the process. Does this align to your thought processes?

SG: Yes, there are many exciting possibilities over the internet – when Blessed Bandwidth was launched there were more than 3000 visitors a day, much more than a gallery may have in one month! And not just from the art audience – for example I found the website on the homepage of Christian Post newspaper based in Pakistan, from where many visitors came, or had 409 clicks from a blog run by teenagers from a website called Portal of Evil discussing how God looked like - many having downloaded god.exe – this I think is most interesting part for me – which is to get a wider audience where participation and interaction is part of experiencing the work.

The part of your question, ‘retain total curatorial control’ is possible, but there are several instances when net art works have been curated or commissioned by organizations which can help generate audiences. As just as you may have a gallery on a street and not everyone in the city visits it, in the same way an artist may have an artwork on a url which not many may come to. For artists interested in wider audiences, not just creating the work, but actively disseminating is crucial for which a curatorial / institutional network can lend support to via their existing database of interested viewers.

AGS: Your works appear both in the private elite space of galleries and the public sphere of everyday life. You seem to traverse across both these spheres with considerable ease, theoretically, these two spaces are polarized junctures; how do you deal with this?

SG: It is true that these are two structures are different – one which is in the private gallery realm and the other in the public. When I have worked internationally, I have mostly shown in public / state run institutions or contexts, but in India as there is an absence of these, I have shown both in public spaces such as streets and shops, in institutions like Apeejay Media Centre and in private galleries too.

I don’t think the relationship need be extremely polarized, instead it should be of challenges and change – where the center challenges the periphery and the periphery can change the center. In a case of extreme polarization the center would choose to conveniently exist ignoring the periphery whose only position would be to question, unable to provide change or propose  alternatives, especially in countries where there is neither state funding nor non profit institutional support.  

AGS: You have spoken of “default politics and alternative structures” in your choice to use new media. Can you elaborate?

SG: The alternative structure that I was referring to was in relationship of a work being more accessible and democratic while also challenging notions of consumption in an art world that increasingly mimics traits from capitalism – by being, private/ not shared/ unique via which the monetary value goes up. However in new media, the works by default are mass producible on Cd’s, Dvds or on the Internet, they are easily transportable with no large insurance required and they can be simultaneously seen and shared by several people.

AGS: Your works probe and question consumer culture, social inequities, religion, gender, war and the glocal situational politics. Do you see an artist as an agent of social change?

SG: One of the crucial functions of art is that it is a space for individual opinion, in a time, when all visual imagery around us is dominated with either corporate or political propaganda. And since advertising, the most dominant of them all, does more than its required share of how- to-feel-good campaigns (always more instantly than always ever before) we artists tend to be more reflective and somehow quite critical, in a world that finds it convenient to look the other way. However there is a large gap between the production, dissemination and possible change.

AGS: In negotiating with the everyday and the public sphere, do you think, over the years of committed art practice, your works have in anyway influenced public opinion? What is the kind of feedback, the sharing, you have received from such public?

SG: One of the few moments when I have been able to get immediate visible responses have been while distributing Blame on trains for which the feedback has been varied, from suspicion, astonishment, agreement, disagreement and also times when people have returned to get more Blame bottles for their friends and family.

AGS: Given the fact that you work with programmers, computer specialists and printers, how do you deal with the question of ownership or authorship of an artwork?

SG: As in a film, the camera person and editor is acknowledged - so in the same way, in video and new media works, the technical support is acknowledged, sometimes at the end of a video loop or in links of a website or in accompanying texts / catalogues. And I have also seen, that the people working on the project say as programmers, camera persons, - they do would not care to be the so called ‘artist’ as they enjoy and are very proud of their own job! And for many, cracking the code and programming is an art in itself.

AGS: Many of our public art projects, when shown within the gallery space, get either framed in photographs or become installations, like Blame. Does the role of your work placed as it is in a static gallery setting, in a modernist grid of transparent shelves, fade out the original performative context in the process?

SG: For me, a gallery is also an indoor venue which has its own audience which is great to be able to share work with. As for Blame, it was first shown as a little cabinet inside Jehangir Art Gallery and then went to the trains / streets. The piece has been shown in several spaces, in different ways, containers on streets, on racks, in rooms and sometimes just lying on a desk; On one occasion, in this show the documentation of street interaction has been made available on a monitor in the gallery – a practice which is quite common now as performances take place and get over and this is a way to share one aspect of the work.

AGS: You project yourself as the protagonist in many of your works, in many avatars, performing, but never overtly confrontational or narcissistic. It is a fine balance you achieve, especially from the point of gender. Can you throw some light on this?

SG: A lot of people have asked me about the gendered aspect in my work. But, I think being a woman is as natural as being a man. I do not position myself as a feminist in a hierarchical way. I see art as an ordinary, everyday phenomenon, and how I negotiate myself in this everyday activity. I project myself as the protagonist for the simple reason that I am the cheapest actor for my project. I project myself in clones; I am the same person in multiple selves, so in a way, that deletes the individualistic aspect of being a woman. In some works, where I dealt with menstrual blood, one could see it from the point of gender, but there too, I was pushing the fact of understanding menstruation as a normal, natural phenomenon, which happens to every woman. Again, in the work, Diamonds and You, the viewer clicks on a close-up of my body parts, but it is a click on a patch of skin, a patch which can belong to anybody. I use myself as a strategy than as a gendered body; You have said that you noticed a male viewer clicking more on my image in hot pants in the Untitled work in camouflaged gear, rather than any of the other images, it is irritating, yes, but one could also see that as a manipulation to induce the viewer to enter the work!

AGS: Your latest interactive shadow video installation, speaks of many shadows of the self, dark shadows which we project on the outer world. You appear in multiples, sit on viewers’ heads; This work seems more playful, less hard-hitting like Untitled video installation which dealt with menstrual blood and its gender politics in the Indian context/ Kidney Supermarket/ /Untitled Video Installation in camouflage gear. This work can be placed in any context, across any location in the globe, more universal in nature. Do you see this in this manner?

SG: There is not a conscious attempt to make a universal work – which is extremely challenging as we all come from such different histories and locations. What I have liked about the shadow works is that for the first time there has been participation from teenagers and also very young visitors; the responses we expect from the three year old, is totally different from the feedback as from a 45 year old. So it is this varied feedback which ranges from the playfulness of a toddler to the serious understanding of an adult which is the most challenging aspect of this work, it opens the work up to multiple views in multiple locations and contexts.