The festival with soul: Listen, share, speak at Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2018
In the days leading up to the fourth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB), the festival hosts were sure to make the impression that they are very serious about their efforts — and not just to do with the art. At a meeting held a few weeks earlier in November, festival curator Anita Dube announced the Kochi Biennale Foundation’s intentions to contribute to relief efforts after the deluge and landslides of August 2018 that ravaged the state of Kerala.
Among other initiatives, including an art auction, Dube explained how all the raw materials used at the festival will be subsequently repurposed to construct houses for the flood-affected. Bose Krishnamachari, founder-president of the Kochi Biennale Foundation (KBF), explained that at least a dozen homes of 600 sq ft each will be built next summer, from the remains of the structure that is currently being constructed at Cabral Yard, Fort Kochi. This will also be a way for the KBF to join the state government’s ‘Rebuild Kerala’ mission, the hosts noted.
Cabral Yard, one among the many venues at the Biennale, has witnessed many interesting community projects over the festival’s last few editions. At KMB 2014, for instance, the artist Valsan Koorma Kolleri led a site-wide intervention within the yard’s premises, which at the time stood entirely untended, and overrun with dense shrubbery. Kolleri gathered masons from his hometown of Pattiam, Kerala to join hands with architects from Ahmedabad’s Clay Club, to fill the yard with sculptures of laterite, mud and baked earth.
The work was titled, How Goes the Enemy, with reference to the gradual erosion of the sculptures and assorted works, on being exposed to the elements of rain and humidity. To drive home his Daliesque message of a certain ‘persistence of memory’, Kolleri also included a giant sundial-like structure of mud, featuring a magnificent 24 ft dial — all of which slowly, and naturally, dissolved into the soil in the months after the festival.
Listen, share, speak
Dube’s curatorial note, which she released earlier in September, made ominous note about paying heed “to the whispers and warnings of nature — before it is too late”. In some way, Dube almost echoed the concerns voiced four years earlier by Kolleri.
While explaining her ideas behind the theme for the festival’s 2018 edition, ‘Possibilities for a Non-Alienated Life’, Dube expressed her views about “virtual hyper-connectivity”, and “a desire for liberation and comradeship (away from the master and slave model)”.
The ideas might take a while to get one’s head around, and more than a few re-readings. In essence, nevertheless, is a vision of a place where “we could dance and sing and celebrate a dream together”.
The disaster of the monsoon did, however, prompt Dube to modify her curatorial purview, offering the chance to participating artists to alter their work in response to the tragedy. Her overall intentions are still more or less the same — to enable a sense of “decentralised collaboration”, or in simpler terms, to foster the spirit of good-fellowship and build camaraderie.
“While preparation has been key,” Dube offered, “my vision for the Biennale can only be actualised with the active participation of the public.” She went on to reinforce the Biennale’s original proposition of a being ‘A People’s Biennale’ by adding, “We are working at full capacity to create the structures that I hope everyone can claim, by listening, sharing, and speaking.”
Back at Cabral Yard, amidst hangers-on lingering about the ongoing construction being conducted under floodlights after sundown, the talk inevitably veers towards the venue’s history.
Every venue at the Biennale has its own dusty chronicles to speak of, often dating back over many centuries — from the sprawling, sea-facing property of Aspinwall House, and the cosy Pepper House, through David Hall, the technologically enhanced Durbar Hall and the hotspot of Kashi Town House, all the way to the Uru Art Harbour, the Dutch Warehouse and the Anand Warehouse.
Many of these ancient tales lead back to Aspinwall & Company, which began trading in coir, in the port-city of Kochi, at the end of the 19th century.
The company acquired the Cabral Yard property in 1904, in which they constructed a hydraulic press for coir yarn, and named it after the Portuguese navigator Cabral, who made the first shipment of merchandise from Cochin in 1500 AD.
A Knowledge Factory
For KMB 2018, Cabral Yard is the designated site for the Biennale Pavilion, a multi-functional central hub of sorts that was assumed by Aspinwall House in the festival’s previous editions. Dube also extends her curatorial vision to the Cabral Yard structure, lending it the added distinction of ‘A Knowledge Factory’.
In Dube’s eyes, this will be the central space for dialogue at the festival, one that will continuously shape the Biennale throughout its course, both in a thematic and experiential frame. She likes to describe it as “a discursive, performative, architectural space where everybody potentially can be a curator”.
The selected design for the Cabral Yard structure was submitted by Anagram Architects, a fairly new New Delhi-based firm, who captured the intention of moving beyond a physical venue for programmes — as in a dedicated space for forums, music performances or cinema screenings and workshops.
Instead, the new pavilion will serve as an open space for anyone to share material within collaborative social and cultural discourses, explain the festival hosts.
In addition to an auditorium space, an integral part of the Cabral Yard Knowledge Lab will be a web-integrated space that will allow anyone to display their personal work or online content — from music to film, literature and videos.
There’s more to get viewer engagement going, as participants will also get to perform and speak on open microphones, or if they choose to, they can write and draw on installed chalkboards — all of which will make for a sort of daily buildable archive.
As an artist, Dube herself is known to have constantly challenged cultural norms and championed critical engagement across media. The open forum at the Knowledge Lab will be in keeping with her stated aim of encouraging discussion, and engaging cross-dialogues of ideas.
As she puts it, “The laboratory will attempt to remove hierarchies of knowledge.” Her hopes driving the building of the structure are to “accommodate many modes of expression”, emphasised Dube. “And it’s for people to claim that structure,” she adds. “I think it will work best if treated like one big learning experiment.”
Dube assures, “Each visitor can enact or tell each other their ideas. It’s going to be thoroughly interactive.” The Knowledge Lab thus extends her curatorial vision of creating a space “where pleasure and pedagogy could sit together and share a drink, and where we could dance and sing and celebrate a dream together.”
We’re every woman
The other salient aspect about KMB 2018, given Dube’s direction, is to do with the significant number of women artists participating: an unprecedented total of 53 out of the 95 projects feature women, while overall, 62 out of the 138 participating artists are women, including those involved with infra-projects and collectives.
There’s also an ongoing Graffiti Residency, where artists are invited to mediate within the public art form around the city of Kochi - a proven way to keep the streets clean, and spruce up its neighbourhood vistas.
The Infra Projects, meanwhile, another first at the Biennale, will involve gatherings of artworks, put together by external curators. Five such projects have been included by invitation, including the Biennale Pavillion, apart from the Edible Archives (Prima Kurien, Anumitra, Kiranmayi, Priya Bala), the Sister Library (Aqui Thami + Himanshu), the Srinagar Biennale (Hina Arif, Gargi Raina, Sanna Mattu, Khytul Abyad), and the Vyams Project (Durgabai Vyam).
Also look out for interesting works by the duos of Anjali Monteiro & KP Jayasankar, Mochu & Suvani Suri, and the groups Pangrok Sulap (Rexella Mahir, Nur Tasyareena Jekaira Abdullah), Heavy Industries (Young Hae Chang + Marc Voge), Otolith Group (Anjalika Sagar & Kodwo Eshun) and the Guerilla Girls, an anonymous group of female artists devoted to fighting sexism and racism within the art world.
Among recognised names, expect new works by Nilima Sheikh, Anju Dodiya, Annu Palakunnathu Matthew, Anoli Perera, Madhvi Parekh, Chitra Ganesh, Mrinalini Mukherjee, Rina Banerjee, Shambhavi Singh, Shilpa Gupta, Lubna Chowdhary, Sonia Khurana and Tejal Shah.
There’s a considerable contingent of visiting artists too, including Israeli-born painter Bracha Ettinger, the contemporary Cuban duo of Celia-Yunior, Goshka Macuga from Poland (now based in London, and one of four nominees for the 2008 Turner Prize), Julie Gough from Australia, and Juul Kraijer from the Netherlands.
There’s also London-based Rehana Zaman, Palestinian photographer Rula Halawani, Iranian visual artist Shirin Neshat, Sue Williamson, Marlene Dumas and Zanele Muholi from South Africa, and interdisciplinary artist Vanessa Baird from Seattle, Martha Rosler from Brooklyn, USA and Cuban installation and performance artist Tania Bruguera, along with Tania Candiani and feminist artist-activist Monica Mayer from Mexico.
For cutting-edge new media projects, look out for Thai film and video artist Araya Rasdjarmrearnsook, the multimedia performance art duo of Ines Doujak + John Barker and media artist Valie Export from Austria, filmmaker and video artist Rania Stephan, Mireille Kassar and interdisciplinary artist Rana Hamadeh from Lebanon, video artist-researcher-healer Tabita Rezaire from Cayenne, French Guyana, and sound artist Vivian Caccuri from Rio de Janeiro. In summary, guests can expect the entire gamut of contemporary art — from fine art to photography, performance, video and the moving image, apart from community-based projects.
Much like the previous editions, the festival will also make room for a Students’ Biennale, a ‘Let’s Talk’ lecture series, Music of Muziris concerts, Artists’ Cinema film screenings, ABC (Art By Children) initiatives, the Pepper House Residency Programme, and Master Practice Studios, apart from an Art and Medicine therapeutic concert series, and Video Lab for archiving, experimentation and research on contemporary arts.
Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2018 will be inaugurated on December 12, and remain open until March 29, 2019. The ARK (Art Rises for Kerala) auction will present paintings, sculptures and installations by more than 40 artists from India and abroad to go under the hammer, including Dayanita Singh, Subodh Gupta, and Anish Kapoor, in an initiative co-hosted by SaffronArt, to be held on January 18, 2019, in Kochi. All proceeds will be directed to the Chief Minister’s Distress Relief Fund. Along with the distribution of basic goods, resources and immediate care, the fund will also help rebuild infrastructure all over the state. Now, that’s what we call art with a cause.
ART FOR THE PEOPLE
Art Room Project | The Kochi Biennale Foundation launched the Art Room Project earlier this November. As a part of ABC 2018, the KBF will establish Art Rooms for children to engage in art making, led by artists and art educators. In its first six months, 10 model Art Rooms will be set up in different schools across Kerala, starting with regions most affected by the recent floods. In addition, a model Art Room will be set up at the Biennale Pavilion, to host workshops throughout the 108 days of the fest. The project is being spearheaded by Blaise Joseph.
Art from garbage | Marzia Farhana, the visual artist from Dhaka, Bangladesh has made a name for her works that speak of an individual idiom involving different media including painting, assemblage and video installations. Seen here on site at the Biennale, collecting material for her new work, Farhana has statedly devoted herself to investigate more on contemporary fine art practice, even as she often explores and investigates her interpretations of art by discussing, collaborating and exchanging ideas with her fellow artists and friends from Dhaka.
Afrah Shafiq | A documentary filmmaker and artist based between Goa and Bengaluru, Afrah Shafiq brings together her numerous experiences in various worlds ranging from visual art to television, while her art practice moves across platforms and mediums, seeking a way to retain the tactile within the digital and the poetry within technology. Her work moves across mediums, drawing from the handmade language of traditional folk forms and connecting them to the digital language of the internet and video games. Thus, animation, interactivity, archival material, video, web-forms, sound, glass mosaic, painting and objects come together to create an alternate reality.
Veda Thozhur Kolleri | Veda Thozhur Kolleri tends to collect traces, while exploring her surrounding environment on foot — to develop specific associations based on the experience of travelling. Kolleri works with organic remains in various states of degradation and decay — parts of trees that were shed, soil, dried leaves, cut grass, dead plants, animal bones, quills and hives. While these become the medium with which she works, she’s interested in the length of their life. For instance, soil and dried leaves are rearranged to make large-scale drawings or patterns on the ground that wind or rain might settle into, attempting an imitation of wind and rain.
Pavilion designs | The 2016 Biennale Pavilion designed by Tony Joseph has been shortlisted for the World Architecture Festival Awards 2018 in the Culture - Completed Buildings category, which also includes entries from other international practices like BIG (Bjaarke Ingels Group), Rem Koolhas (OMA), and Rojkind Arquitectos. The shortlisted entries will be presented in Amsterdam from 28-30 November at the World Architecture Festival.
Graffiti in Fort Kochi | As a part of the Pepper House Residency, a bunch of young graffiti artists have begun researching and creating street art in public spaces all over Fort Kochi and Mattancherry. The projects, which will be ready in time for the Biennale, will be in response to the artists’ experience of the surrounding areas. The participating graffiti artists are Shanto Antony, Nikhil KC, H11235, Luanna & Tito Senna, Parag Sonarghare, and Do Khatra (Siddharth & Nikunj).