Three is Company
‘WHORLED EXPLORATIONS’, THE THEME OF THE SECOND EDITION OF KOCHI—MUZ|R|S BIENNALE. WAS HURTLING AT BREAKNECK SPEED TO MEET ITS OPENING DATE ON DECEMBER 12, 2014, WHEN I MET ARTISTS BOSE KRISHNAMACHARI, RIYAS KOMU (CO— FOUNDERS OF KOCHI BIENNALE FOUNDATION) AND JITISH KALLAT(ART|STIC DIRECTOR) . THEY WERE ON A SPIN WITH IDEAS, INNOVATIONS AND IMPROVISATIONS PUTTING EVERY LITTLE PIECE IN THE PUZZLE OF THE BIENNALE IN PLACE. BOSE AND RIYAS. WHO HAD MIGRATED TO MUMBAI, HAVE RETURNED TO THEIR BIRTHPLACE WITH THE BIENNALE. THEY PULLED OFF A COUP OF SORTS WITH THE INAUGURAL EDITION OF KOCH|—MUZIR|S BIENNALE. AS IT BECAME THE TOAST OF KOCHI AND THE TALK OF THE WORLD. NOW. THEY HAVE ROPED IN JITISH. THEIR COLLEGE MATE FROM J J. SCHOOL OF ART, ALSO A MALAYALI BORN IN MUMBAI. TO EXPLORE NEW VISTAS OF CREATIVE ENERGY TO EXPERIMENT AND PRODUCE EVEN NEWER FORMS OF SPATIAL PRACTICES ON THE SITES THEY HAVE CHOSEN IN KOCHI TO SHOW THE WORKS OF THE 94 ARTISTS THEY HAVE INVITED. I CAUGHT UP WITH THE BOMBAY BOYS AT PEPPER HOUSE LIBRARY IN FORT KOCHI AND FORCED THEM INTO A CONVERSATION IN WHICH THEY SHARE THE TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS OF HOLDING SUCH A GALA EVENT FACING A PALPABLE PAUCITY OF RESOURCES.
EXCERPTS FROM THE CONVERSATION
Manoj Nair : Let’s start from the beginning... Can you describe the journey From its inception till now?
Bose Krishnamachari :The idea of the biennale originated on l\/lay 50, 2010, when Riyas suggested ‘Kochi Biennale’ as an idea to the then Cultural l\/linister. M A Baby, in a meeting we had, along with renowned painter ]yoti Basu From Muinbai. We started working immediately on it and sought the Kerala governmentls help. At that moment we realised that we needed to make a Foundation and get back to them with details of the project. We were thinking oforganising the Biennale on a large scale without Following any other model. The idea ofhyphenating the name with l\/luziris evolved during Further conversations.
Riyas Komu: The energy For the Biennale is very much derived from the histoiy of public action in the state and the strength of political engagement: the political discourses and the social engagement makes this region much more interesting and has produced a great number of creative minds... and this region has a strong history in relation to lndian contemporary art, through several movements. T would say that the journey of the Biennale actually did not start with the inception of the idea. The journey of the Biennale started with the execution of the project because we got people to walk along with us; we got the community to walk along: we got young artists to walk along; and we got senior lndian contemporary artists to walk along with the dream. it is almost like the Biennale has taken a revolutionary step to walk with people and that is the kind of space artists need to change the existing perceptions.
Bose Krishnamachari: lt is the support. The Biennale became important because it succeeded. Before that there were a lot of Failures; many people tried to organise a biennale and Failed. I-\s Riyas mentioned, there was a dream and the dream came true through the execution of the project.
Manoj Nair: So it is an accepted Fact that the first Kochi Biennale was a huge success despite the apprehensions. Then what did you decide to do.‘ \Where did you think of taking it to.’
Bose Krisbnarnacbari: There was no gap in between one Biennale and the other; there were no grey scales after that. I think there was always action. You take the ‘T_etlS Talk’ (a series oflectures that KMB has been conducting since 2012); you take the residencies: the programmes we organised in diFFerent parts ofKerala. These were all part of the process. We wanted to turn it into an institution; we are not just making the Biennale, but we also wanted to simultaneously make this place a kind ofart hub, Forever.
Manoj Nair: For the first Biennale you had an idea about that and you executed that, you had a concept For that and executed that. But since then have you been rigidly sticking to the principles on which it was based or have you allowed it to take its own course?
Riyas Komu: See Manoj, what the Biennale has disclosed is a certain hidden history, which generations did not realise but had lived through. It brought history into contemporary focus, a history of co-existence, a solution for larger issues; so that means Biennale as a forum has begun a new discourse. That also means you have made yourselves much more responsible for continuing that discourse. At the same time, many had the impression that our mission statement was focused on issue-centric thinking, but it proved that this biennale’s evolution has different commitments. This also brought in the impression that this is the one democratic or liberal space that is available to a larger region, not just India. So you have a much more responsible role to play through the projects that continue to get curated through different ideas, like the one Jitish is attempting to achieve.
Bose Krishnamachari: Other aspects too, like what the Biennale could do: we could erase certain notions about mediocrity. At least, we could try to stop some part of it. Or we could bring some interesting projects from different parts of the world like, for example the shows of KG Subramanyam or A Ramachandran. Without the ‘Durbar Hall’ and its climate- controlled space, which we had created for the Biennale and opened with a German show, none of those curated projects would have come here. You can see the ripple effect in many spaces.
Manoj Nair: Riyas mentioned that, Jitish, you came in with something ready to work with. But before that you were just a visitor. Having been a visitor first — and then all of a sudden the responsibility of curating the next edition was thrust upon you — were you aware that, apart from curatorial and creative work, there is another added responsibility of, you know, a shared burden that you will have to carry?
Jitish Kallat: I was aware of it but I try to not think about it; I don’t try to articulate it like that. But I know every step one takes, every decision one makes has effects beyond the project. I think my fundamental responsibility would be the curatorial vision, that would create an extended grammar to the project from where Riyas and Bose have left off, so that it takes the narrative into another dimension and I think, that anyway has an effect.
Bose Krishnamachari: That is one of the reasons we find that people are interested in associating with the Biennale. Whether you take musicians, architects or schoolteachers, you know, people love to associate with the Biennale… how they can take some part of it from here to the part where they are living. An interesting mapping is happening. It is more like a fluid situation, you know, working like a cultural magnet.
Riyas Komu: The physical presence of the Biennale is what inspired people. Because we have always been a society that is short of spaces for art. This Biennale is going to be a higher education about spaces for artists, in partnership with Jitish and Bose. And the way the Biennale is provoking the arguments for such spaces is also one of the aims of the Foundation. Art making has its own requirements and one needs to make the world aware of it. There is a larger learning process. Look at the number of students coming in to support this project. I would say that a very interesting pillar is being built through Jitish’s project because it has got its own identity, its own schematics and its own relationships with Kochi.
Manoj Nair: Because we are talking about the youngsters finding a place, where they can see it as a larger learning process, can we look at the guidelines you followed while creating an agenda for your programming? Do you have to tap youngsters or are you looking at a wider audience?
Riyas Komu: See, there are several things falling in place very organically. There are conversations happening at different points and levels because we have left these access points open for people, to come and have a conversation with us. We have never been rigid with anybody. For certain logistical reasons we might have rejected people, but more or less we have kept the doors open. We need to put the support system in place where all come together, to take the Biennale to the next stage. That also has to be discussed. And it is not just that. This Biennale is a success because we spoke less and did more.
Bose Krishnamachari: I would like to add to that. That is one of the reasons we made the things. The making of this site. We did not talk much.
Riyas Komu: And one area, like, the Students’ Biennale is an example in this year’s edition. We always say that our institutions are ‘like this and like that’ and are not capable of negotiating or adapting to the times. We are collaborating with FIAE, an organisation focused on art education, with a small office in Goa in association with several of the important artists of our country.
Manoj Nair: What is FIAE?
Riyas Komu: It is the Foundation for Indian Art and Education. Their idea is to change the existing academic system. They have been working on it for about four or five years now. This Biennale has given them a forum to physically collaborate with us. So we are handing out a questionnaire to all, on the subject prepared by them, based on their research. Then there is FICA (Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art) whose Vidya Shivdas is a coordinator of the Students’ Biennale project. We need to get into these phases with larger ambitions. We hope there will be hundreds and thousands of students coming to see the Biennale and the Student’s Biennale – a curatorial project standing next door — which will be on show from December 13. And when the show gets over in March, the participating artists would have passed out from college. So they become professionals along with this Biennale.
Manoj Nair: Just taking off from Riyas; Jitish, when you were curating your project, you must have conceptualised something and must have had a vision behind it; but was what Riyas was saying in the back of your mind? That what you do has to be inclusive of, or it should be inspirational for students?
Jitish Kallat: Ideally, I like to make the project just as I would proceed with a work of art, by which I mean that I would rather not predetermine the end.
Manoj Nair: By which you mean you don’t think of the audience. You don’t think of after-effects?
Jitish Kallat: Yeah! You actually begin, literally, one step at a time, which means that, ideally, I don’t begin with the end. I wanted to arrive at the Biennale that produces themes through a deeply conversational curatorial process rather than reproduce a preconceived curatorial theme that I propose in the beginning. So, in a way, there has been a cluster of images (in textual form) in the letters that I sent to the artists. But they are, in a way, circulating intuitions as a way to let the Biennale emerge out of an infiltration of prompts rather than a suggestion of a singular theme. So the process of actually curating the Biennale becomes as close to the creative process as possible.
Manoj Nair: You mean to say that you leave it openended.
Jitish Kallat: It is structured as a sequence of citations and sightlines, but I did not want to administer this in the beginning For instance, if you read the curatorial note, which is similar to what most artists have read, there are two suggestions. One, making a gesture of historical recall, whereas the other, also an axis of time, suggests, that you rethink the present moment. One being a reflection on time, the other addresses the present through a celestial view back at this terrestrial moment… Have you seen the curatorial note?
Manoj Nair: Yes.
Jitish Kallat: So the other proposition being a kind of a galactic view of the present moment. So it makes an idiosyncratic suggestion but in that lies a lot of images and possibilities
Manoj Nair: Did you have exactly this in mind? What do you expect in terms of people liking the Biennale or responding to it?
Jitish Kallat: I was not thinking that students are coming to see it, people are going to see it, people are going to like it, not like it. No! I think even today, my own personal view is that, ideally, I would invite people to come to see the world through the Biennale. So the Biennale is a viewing device rather than the object of viewing. So I am not necessarily thinking of like or dislike. The social media epidemic of liking and disliking was not in my mind.
Manoj Nair:: Social media can only like, not always dislike.
Jitish Kallat: Ideally, my suggestion is that the Biennale itself is something you look through which is why I thought of, I mean, I think of the Biennale as an observation deck.
Manoj Nair: When you were approaching artists, Jitish, did you have apprehensions before approaching them or an anxiety after having approached them?
Jitish Kallat: I would look towards the headlight (looking at Bose… laughs). There was never a fixed budget to begin with, so each invitation was made intuitively measuring the optimism and getting a general feedback from the team. My list of artists that I was going to invite was always visible to the whole team in a shared Google doc. They were colour-coded in way that the team could see who I was going to invite and this was a way to remotely communicate as I was also moving time-zones. Part of any creative process is really not knowing the end. This continues in all its practical dimensions even while walking through a site that does not have electricity. I think that is the beauty of the Biennale; you know, in fact, even to walk through Aspinwall, you walk with a torch light, flashlight. It is part of every process and I think the belief comes from… it is purely instinctual; one morning you feel very sure when an invitation goes out, next morning you don’t feel sure. There is nothing on paper that explains either of the two. I don’t think Bose and Riyas set out to do this with a map in their hands. Being artists I feel we proceed with the feeling that solutions self-emerge.
Riyas Komu: The process reflects the situation that we are in, in the area of contemporary art practices. So it is a kind of a shared challenge in the end. Even artists are also waiting for things to fall into place. Jitish Kallat: If you look at the direction in which the wider art world, global art world, is going — everything is supremely administered, mostly topdown. Bose Krishnamachari: (laughs) That’s why, most of the time, you don’t get inspired by it. The beauty of it is that it is created from nothing. It is kind of a great way of making art, you know.
Jitish Kallat: The very first gesture for me was to meet Bose and Riyas in the very first fortnight of really taking this on. I was to hear a lot of stories from 2010 and 2011. That is more important to me. Not that it becomes part of the curatorial process. It becomes part of plunging in, to understand fully the inheritance within the infrastructure, which is also your team, your friends, your colleagues… to understand the whole story of how they began the process.
Manoj Nair: When you understood it, did you find it overbearing?
Jitish Kallat: No. No. Just to hear of it all is amazing. How the team was held together. Bose is not one to complain about difficulties. He doesn’t speak that. That’s not him. When I look at the way the team was held together the last time, it gives me even more certainty that this is the same team that is going to hold it together this time.
Manoj Nair: So that actually gave you the confidence to increase the number of artists?
Jitish Kallat: The scale of the Biennale does not change too much there. Like I told you, there are artworks that are the size of your palm, so the number of artists is not significant. The scale is more or less the same.
Bose Krishnamachari: I find the only difference is that I think the last time the site was given more importance and there were lot of site-specific works. This time the conceptual scale is huge; his (Jitish’s) conceptual framework is huge.
Jitish Kallat:: Even in this Biennale, about 70% of the works are new. I was surprised because I did not even feel it like that.
Manoj Nair: What was your reaction, Riyas, when this proposal was made?
Riyas Komu: My immediate reaction has a strong relationship with one of the seminars I attended in Delhi after the first Biennale. It was in JNU, where Shuddho (Shuddhabrata Sengupta, a media practitioner,filmmaker and writer with the Raqs Media Collective), a well-known spokesperson of contemporary art scene in India, made a remark countering the project. He said “Kochi can also be poisonous”. This thought lingered with me. Why did he say that? Is it because of its colonial past? Its politics? Its long history? Or because of all the influx despite being situated in one space? I began thinking… when you excavate you can create fictions… in a country like ours where superstitions are celebrated, myth could be manipulated. As you know, we have suffered from it, when an issue like Ramjanmabhoomi, idealised for political reasons, kept the whole nation under the shadows of conflict. So Kochi could also be poisonous? The comment continued to disturb because I believed it to be a remedy against poisons. And then, I realised that I had an answer seven months before when I spent time with my friend Shahbaz Amam, a great thinker and Malayalam music director and a ghazal singer. I believe in Sufism and in one of his albums I found the solution. There was a beautiful conversational campaign which he did for his album titled KEF 1126. And I was struck by his beautiful voice and lines in a Malayalam colloquial idiom: Irunnal ningalkku panikittum (Stillness created by stagnation is poisonous), Karangikondeirukkumbol undakunna stillnessaanu sheriyaaya Tawaf (the stillness attained through whirling is the ultimate form of stillness). Tawaf is one of the Islamic rituals of pilgrimage where you circumambulate the Kaaba – the most sacred site in Islam – in a counterclockwise direction. According to me, the relevance of time is in its timelessness. The wisdom shared by Shahbaz is apt in the context of the Biennale, the stillness created by stagnation is poisonous. Perhaps that’s what Shuddho was hinting at? Here in Kochi we are attempting to attain knowledge through whirling around its amazing history. In this context I believe this edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is a step in the right direction and one to be celebrated.
Manoj Nair: Do you agree with what he is saying? Jitish Kallat: Yeah I think so. Enlightened.
Manoj Nair: You don’t have to be politically correct… Jitish Kallat: No. No. See, for instance, when you said political, the way to investigate politics is perhaps by investigating yourself. This might not be, might not seem, like activism, but how else would you investigate the world unless you investigate yourself? In this Biennale you might not find the examination of history, but you see the history invoked to the service of the present. You might not see astronomy, but you might see the skies invoked to understand the present. Because, what is the sky but the past? It is the deep history. Most of the stars we are looking at is the pre-human kind, isn’t it? Because that doesn’t have stories, it doesn’t seem like history. However, the arrival of some navigator seems like history. That too is history. In a way, I think one cannot stop at one point. It is the inflection of one story into the other, into the other. That should ideally create a multi-sensory conceptual premise.
Manoj Nair: Since you have said this, was it something that also inspired you to take this direction because for the navigator in the sea, in deep oceans, the star is the guiding light?
Jitish Kallat: All these things come up in my work; they are there if you read the text really closely. Actually there is a sweeping suggestion of the celestial navigation. This is absolutely deeply inscribed in the first letters I wrote to the artists. When I started, the provisional title was much longer; it was called ‘Dead Reckoning’. Dead reckoning is no other way but imagining yourself going in the same direction and once in a while you look at the sky and guess the destination based on imagined direction and speed. So, it will come up in sequences when Australian artist Daniel Boyd invokes an ancient navigational map, which is nothing but celestial navigation. But it all depends on how closely people might want to read it. There is also something for the surface reader as well. Like Riyas said, there are multiple levels of engagement that are possible.
Riyas Komu: I am provoked by the very Malayali idiom: There is a sea below our midriff. When we are sitting here in Muziris, it is interesting to note that such messages and metaphors were carried across the seas. If we are able to tell these stories, then it becomes a magical project and it will never become poisonous. In that context, ‘Whorled Explorations’ has that implication in it. It becomes the second pillar for the first.
Manoj Nair: What are your expectations, considering the lack of funds?
Bose Krishnamachari: Expectations… I do not really think about it.
Jitish Kallat: See, nobody wants to stay in a space where there are no funds to…you know that is not a desirable situation. I might also add here that it is not the Kochi Biennale Foundation’s drawback. It is also reflective of the wider philanthropic landscape in the arts today. If somebody really wants to fund such an initiative, the individual or corporation can reach out on their own and say, ‘We support you’.
Manoj Nair: Will there be a change in the situation where you have to beg, borrow, steal and negotiate? Jitish Kallat: See, the struggle continues. And if the struggle continues, how can we know?
Bose Krishnamachari: It is all destiny, you see. I think everything is for the good. I’m an optimist. Everything is for the good.
Manoj Nair: Everything is for the good?
Riyas Komu: No. Not in political terms.
Jitish Kallat: No. Bose is right. I’m with him. I’m with both of them. Everything is for the good, except that you haven’t touched your coffee. It’s gone cold.