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The rise of the artist-techie

  • A survey of contemporary Indian names exploring the borderlines between art and technology
  • Case in point. Today, machines take on more complex roles in the conceptual and creative framework

’Cabinet 6-order Coleoptera (Beetle)’ made using video feedback from Rohini Devasher’s ‘Hopeful Monsters’ Photo: Project 88 and Rohini Devasher
’Cabinet 6-order Coleoptera (Beetle)’ made using video feedback from Rohini Devasher’s ‘Hopeful Monsters’ Photo: Project 88 and Rohini Devasher

In April 1969, a studio on Nepean Sea Road in Mumbai witnessed early experiments with technology. Vision Exchange Workshop (VIEW), set up by artist Akbar Padamsee, provided artists with resources rare at the time, such as 16mm cameras, film editing and projection facilities, and a set-up for experimental photography. The workshop brought together artists, film-makers, a cinematographer, an animator and even a psychoanalyst. The initiative ended in 1972 but fostered innovations ahead of their time, like Padamsee’s seminal and now lost film Events In A Cloud Chamber. Shot entirely on a 16mm Bolex, the 6-minute film featured a single-colour shaky, surreal landscape. Padamsee reproduced one of his own oil paintings using projected light, tinted filters and stencils, instead of pigments. Misunderstood and rejected then, this abstract work, along with Padamsee’s other film Syzygy, started art’s tryst with technology in India.

Fifty years later, the ever-expanding internet, virtual assistant Alexa, biotechnology, virtual reality, augmented reality and humanoids are here but, until the last decade, technology was a mere medium, rarely a conceptual participant in contemporary Indian art. Let’s take the case of machines in art. Ready-made appliances like fans, motors or simple circuits were used initially to add simple animations to static artworks. Today, machines take on more complex roles in the conceptual and creative framework. In some instances, machines function as co-participants, also contributing visuals, as in the work of Delhi-based artist Rohini Devasher, who has experimented consistently with video feedback to create diverse bodies of work, including Arboreal (2011) and Hopeful Monsters (2018). A hand-held camcorder is connected to a cathode ray tube TV, and points to the television screen. The machine in this mirrored interaction creates random patterns. The footage captured is then rendered frame by frame by Devasher, hundreds at a time. Her recently concluded solo Hopeful Monsters at Project 88 in Mumbai had creatures like flies, wasps, bees and beetles created using video feedback.

Alternately, the machine itself is art now, in its bare, metal, wired forms. DIY (do-it-yourself) machines, as in the works of Mumbai-based installation artist Kausik Mukhopadhyay, are back. Mukhopadhyay is interested in the aspect of technology from the recent past becoming obsolete owing to slicker, advanced and lighter options. Clunky telephones, computer monitors and mixer grinders collected from his friends and students form his raw material. His installation Small, Medium But Not Large (2009-16) uses discarded gadgets and appliances that move in random order and against their original function. The movement creates an amusing theatre of functional harmony and accidental music. The work is his ode to jugaad, or crude engineering skills to quick fix faulty technology.

Kaushik Mukhopadhyay’s ‘Toofun Mail’ repurposes broken machines
Kaushik Mukhopadhyay’s ‘Toofun Mail’ repurposes broken machines

Artists are also working with high-end and complex technologies like robotics. Most of these works are in collaboration with scientists and engineers to manoeuvre the medium to respond to artistic concepts. Pors and Rao (comprising Aparna Rao and Soren Pors) are at present developing PATHOS (poetic animatronics through hands-on systems) in a laboratory at Wyss Zurich. With PATHOS, they hope to elicit unconditioned emotional responses like shyness. Their work Pygmies (2006-09), for example, comprises 509 silhouettes of tiny black-paper figures that peep out from white panels. Each one of these moves differently and reacts to sound by retreating like mice.

More takers for tech

While the integration of technology with art has been slower in India than in the West, this decade has seen an exponential rise in the number of Indian artists responding to or working with technology. Several open source and free software applications have actualized imaginary worlds with computer-generated imagery (CGI) and 3D technologies.

Take the open source Blender that calls itself a public project. Steadily developed by studios, individual artists, professionals, scientists, students, VFX experts, animators, etc., it has everything an artist working with 3D and animation would need. Vadodara-based artist Pranay Dutta continues to use and learn from Blender, creating his ongoing 3D video work Beneath A Steel Sky (started in 2017). Recently granted the Inlaks Fine Art award for his work, Dutta brings together 3D, aural mapping and CGI to create a landscape of dimly lit icy structures on silver waters.

Infrastructure for AI in India is limited. Besides being expensive, it requires a specialized skill set, and channels to avail of these are few. Last year, gallery Nature Morte in Delhi presented Gradient Descent, touted as India’s first AI-based exhibition. It set out to explore how contemporary art could offer possibilities for a vibrant human-machine relationship. The only Indian artist in the exhibition, Bengaluru-based Harshit Agrawal, presented The Anatomy Lesson Of Dr.Algorithm. Agrawal curated a dataset of about 60,000 images of human surgical dissections and then let AI create impressions of what it thought the interiors of the human body looked like.

Unlike Agrawal, who learnt at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) Media Lab’s Technology’s Fluid Interfaces group, most artists in India are unable to access the medium of AI without outsourced assistance. A few artists are choosing to self-learn, like Mumbai-based Sahej Rahal. His exhibition, based on interactions with a video game, Juggernaut, uses a self-driven AI code that understands virtual space, chooses the debris of dead architecture, picks up what it likes and then learns to use it.

Gaming continues to be the most visible advocate of this relationship between art and technology. Several artists are dabbling with the “art game". The immediate reasons for this, I speculate, are easy interest points—games offer immersion, entertainment and motion and are able to foster engagement, involving the audience as active participants. Games are not only being used to drive messages home, but as therapy or even education. Goa-based Afrah Shafiq hopes her multimedia interactive work Sultana’s Reality (2015 onwards) is available freely on the internet. Shafiq’s work documents Indian women who have challenged societal conventions and is an immersive game-like space navigated using the mouse. It invites the viewer to explore the relationship between women and books in a five-chapter multimedia story. Shafiq uses tropes of gaming like hidden notes, jokes, GIFs and animation.

Challenging conventions

After having made their way to all the major global fairs in 2018, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are touted to take simulation, immersion and alternate world-building to a new level. AR, which superimposes a computer-generated image on to our world view, is already on an exciting trajectory. In January, Vishal K. Dar exhibited his ambitious global project at the Headlands Center For The Arts in California. In an attempt to stretch our perception of vision, scale, motion and time, Dar’s work Edge Of See: Twilight Engines invites viewers to see site-specific light sculptures through an augmented reality app. Dar superimposes former military batteries with abstract light sculptures, or interactive engines that “spin, turn, and tumble in response to the environment", reads an announcement on publishing platforme-flux. Aided by an AR app, viewers can view virtual light sculptures and other elements overlaid on the scenery.

It is perhaps difficult to think about the relationship between art and technology without bringing up the diverse politics associated with technological development. The works born between these disciplines interestingly address a near-future dystopia: Dutta references themes like the Anthropocene, climate change and ocean colonization in Beneath The Steel Sky; Mukhopadhyay continues to think through technological living, capitalism and urban detritus in For Small, Medium But Not Large; Devasher contemplates mutation and morphology of flora and fauna, accentuating that which we take for granted; and Shafiq reminds us of histories of women who resisted and dissented, in Sultana’s Reality and St.itch.

The arts in 2019 will continue to forge new collaborations, speculate and question the prowess of technology in these times of AI and machine learning. This brings us to the big debate—are artists creating art or is technology creating art? Artists, however, have to build and code their program as well as train the AI used. Agrawal exposed his AI to thousands of images to train it to identify and understand what human organs look like. It may perhaps be more productive to think about the new art experiences technology is enabling rather than who and what is creating the art.

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