Artists in Colombo often talk of how different the post-war cultural and civic landscape was, just a few short years ago; how they navigated and intervened in this precarious space in a range of ways, from activist pursuits to selective self-censorship. It was against this political backdrop that the interdisciplinary arts festival Colomboscope was first [...]

The Sunday Times Sri Lanka

Art as a Place – From here on

Jyoti Dhar takes a closer look at last month’s Colomboscope

Myth and medicine: ‘Emerge and Tech’ an exhibit by CoCA. Pic by Govind Dhar

Artists in Colombo often talk of how different the post-war cultural and civic landscape was, just a few short years ago; how they navigated and intervened in this precarious space in a range of ways, from activist pursuits to selective self-censorship.

It was against this political backdrop that the interdisciplinary arts festival Colomboscope was first conceived. Its inaugural edition in 2013 particularly sought to plug a gap in public fora, as that year saw both the Colombo Art Biennale and the Galle Literary Festival in hiatus.

Inclusive of international voices, the programme for Colomboscope 2013 was largely rooted in, generated by, and relevant to its immediate context. Its well-attended talks including “Who counted all the bodies?” reportedly  saw members of the Sri Lankan Army, government and press publicly confront divisive issues, some for the very first time.

Fast-forward to 2016 and the capital is still grappling with redressing the past and re-interpreting the present, but this time through democratic committees and reconciliation policies under the new government. Despite a set of new socio-economic challenges, Colombo seems to be investing, in more ways than one, in imagining its possible futures.

The location for last month’s Colomboscope 2016 fit well into this temporal trajectory. Situating the festival within the crumbling and ornate 19th century former General Post Office building – which had been out of commission since the Central Bank bomb attack of 1996 – tied together the city’s colonial, conflict-ridden and contemporary histories.

The potential for a more in-depth conceptual conversation, however, was somewhat limited by a number of factors, beginning with this year’s overarching theme, “Art and Digital Cultures in South Asia and Europe.” Survey shows can be reductive at the best of times, without being hampered by loaded framing; positioning a field from the very outset as “emerging” in one region and “established” in another.

Starting with this skewed perspective, organizers then sought out specialist curators to select appropriate artworks. This top-down approach may have been less problematic if practitioners of the two prescribed regions had been found to co-curate the festival together. Unable to source a local counterpart who fit the bill, however, and with only four months to go, the organizers decided to go ahead anyway.

Given this framework, Berlin-based Susanne Jaschko, who has been curating digital art in Europe for over 20 years, brought in some critical heavyweights. Online installations such as “Citizen Ex” (2015) by James Bridle (who coined the term ‘The New Aesthetic’) and “The Revolving Internet” (2010) by Constant Dullaart were consistently explorative of internet subcultures and power dynamics through virtual vernacular alike.

Together with a presentation on making your own Net Art by Marc Lee; a workshop on Facebook-related privacy issues by Tactical Technology Collective; and a conversation on the progression of art and technology since the 1980s with Josephine Bosma, these artists, media activists and critics respectively, presented some insightful examples of post-internet practice in Europe and North America.

At times, these aspects of the curatorial programme tended to be more informative than generative of dialogue. This outlook seemed to filter through to the selection of certain physical exhibits – such as Jocelyn Robert’s “Blue Empire New-York Babel Billboard” (2012), a riff on Andy Warhol’s movie “Empire” (1964), using 3,600 images sourced online of the eponymous building,” and Ivar Veermae’s secretly filmed video of Google’s largest data centre in Europe, “Crystal Computing” (2014).

Jaschko explained that she had been “looking for works that are accessible; that deliver a story; and that can also be understood by a non-art audience.” Due to a lack of local technological infrastructure, work that was deemed “too complex” was not selected. The funding structure of the festival, which was distinctive for each region, was also said to pre-define what was shown.

Similarly a shortage of time meant that there was no room to create site-specific works in the wonderful historical location, or commission too many new artworks. Faced with finding “hardly any [artwork] that would fit under the theme of digitization,” on her visit to Colombo in March, Jaschko decided to organize a matchmaking workshop on technology and art in May.

This exercise proved to be fertile ground for discovering some ongoing collaborations – between those in the field of journalism, music, poetry and theatre – incorporating components of bio-technology, social media, visual software or sound art into their work. Some of the festival’s highlights were from this experimental cohort.

Arun Welandawe-Prematilleke and Isuru Kumarasinghe’s dramatic performance “Close to the Bone” (2016), used live-stream audio and intimate staging, to probe at the psychological state and personal space of Colombo’s elite. Whereas Aamina Nizar and Megara Tegal’s almost anthropological installation of photographs and video interviews, “The Colombo Project” (2016), shed light on the city’s economic, social and digital disparities.

Another work that engaged audiences was the musical sculpture “Emerge + Tech” (2016) by the Collective of Contemporary Artists (CoCA), made up of myth- and medicine-associated plants which emitted high-pitched xylophonic notes when touched. “Revery” (2016) by Imaad Majeed also garnered attention for its abstracted image of the national flag, juxtaposed with an algorithm-generated poem from comments on Facebook posted in response to the image.

Within the parameters of a hastily-produced arts festival, these works came across as conceptual drafts, reflecting the exhibition title “Testing Grounds,” more than others. In contrast, the talks programme, encompassing a greater range of practitioners – including those from Groundviews, YAMU and – provided a more even ground for conversations on universal post-connectivity issues; such as data privacy, online relationships, trolling and censorship.

As blogger, writer and columnist Nalaka Gunawardene said in his talk, Sri Lanka has been connected to the internet since 1995, so discussing digital culture is “not a new debate.” However, in a place where multiple timelines co-exist and overlap, and development tends to leap-frog and side-step rather than take a linear path, these discussions are often fraught with complexity.

Given this, it is important to allow for art engaging with the post-war, post-internet condition in Sri Lanka to also take variegated shapes and trajectories – which don’t neatly fit into the binaries of developing versus developed. Viewing what is produced here and now through ‘established’ lenses only serves to pigeonhole them into the category of derivative rather than alternative.

For example, practices looking at the changing space of cultural activism (as outlined in the book “3D Things: Devices, Technologies and Women’s Organising in Sri Lanka,” 2015), the notion of state surveillance (as shown in Danushka Marasinghe’s video installation “The Eyes,” 2012) or the ‘glitches’ in political narratives (as explored in Chandragupta Thenuwara’s recent painting series “Glitch,” 2016) would all be relevant inclusions for next time.

And for so many reasons, it is essential that there is a next time; not just of an exhibition looking at digital practices in Sri Lanka, but also of the festival Colomboscope itself. As something that has successfully shape-shifted in the past in response to the city, one hopes that future editions will provide more productive frameworks for contributing to fields of enquiry that stem from here and extrapolate out to the rest of the world – rather than the other way around.

* Art as a Place derives its name from the Sarai Reader 09 exhibition (2013) in New Delhi, curated by Raqs Media Collective

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