As a person who has been involved with Sarai from its inception, I am obviously not a disinterested, objective observer. What I am going to share with you in the next few minutes is not an ‘annual report’ on our activities. It is rather an attempt at communicating some of the excitement of being here, and I hope that by bringing the reasons for that excitement into what we (ever since the last Sarai Reader) have grown accustomed to calling the ‘Public Domain’, I can invite you to find your own points of engagement with what we are doing at Sarai.
You might as well ask, what do we do at Sarai? Where in all the spectrum of activities and projects is the focus that animates Sarai? I will try and answer this with a series of instances of the kinds of work and the processes that have been at play here. But before I do that, I would like to dwell on two terms – “Collaboration” and “Commons” – that have translated themselves into key concepts for us. Perhaps then you will see how the work we do connects with the City, with Media and with the Public Domain.
So what are these two words – ‘Collaboration’ and ‘Commons’ – and what do we mean when we deploy them to describe or qualify what we do, and also who we are. For us, Collaboration denotes those encounters and processes that entail a synergy between discrete forms, practices, and cultures. These can be between media practice and media theory, between designers and researchers, between programmers and artists, between people in a basti and people in a digital lab, between practitioners across borders and cultures in an electronic public domain, and between languages.
Typically, the city as a cultural form is the arena where such encounters are played out to their fullest potential. A programme such as ours which foregrounds the urban as a category for reflection in this sense mirrors the sensibility of the city. It does so by welcoming a range of collaborations that describe an array of origins including scholarship, activism, media practice, technological innovation, cultural intervention, creativity and play, all of which taken together constitute an ensemble of energies that are animated by each other. All these communicate with each other through a constellation of media practices ranging from print, video, sound, to the internet and digital art. All this contributes to, and takes place within, a notion of the “Commons” – a metaphor taken from the ways in which resources and space have been held together through history, and which is now deployed to suggest an accretion of cultural energies and materials that are openly available and that are built over time, through shared endeavours, in the Public Domain. The “Commons” is the frame within which “Collaborations” take place. This, we would suggest is how the City, Media, and the Public Domain hang together in our frame of things.
How then does this translate into actual practice. I would like to offer you a few instances from the last year at Sarai. A residency that Sarai shared with Khoj, an artists network, to host Syeda Farhana, a photographer from Dhaka, Bangladesh led to her creating a hypertextual photographic installation on Bangladeshi migrants in Delhi in collaboration with Joy Chatterjee in the Sarai Media Lab. The work done by her constituted not only a stand alone digital work, but the nucleus of a set of materials in the Sarai archive of the city. There are several levels of interaction here, between Sarai and another institution, Khoj. Between Farhana and us at the Media Lab, between photography and digital media, and between art practice and an archival imperative. This is an example of the ways in which the word collaboration comes to mean what it does at Sarai.
One of our print media fellows – Frederick Noronha – is working on a documentary history of the free software movement in India. His research methodology involves an active ‘posting’ mechanism. He posts his queries on to a series of electronic lists, and the queries and the responses, as well as what he writes in the form of notes, observations and essays are made available online. In this way, an archive of materials is formed out of the growing correspondence between him and his subjects, for all of whom the project that he has embarked on is essentially a collaborative venture to write their history together with him.
Ravi has already mentioned the Publics and Practices in the History of the Present, work for which has begun, as a unique set of activities that involve practitioners, theorists and researchers in a repertoire of explorations. While on the one hand it might involve me photographing the lobbies of old cinema halls, or the electronics bazaar at Lala Lajpat Rai Market, and Bhrigu or Parvati taking notes for a detailed ethnography of a media space, it also involves me and my colleagues in the Raqs Media Collective, Jeebesh and Shuddha, working together with Ravi Vasudevan and Ravi Sundaram to arrive at conceptual categories with which to think through the very idea of what Ravi Sundaram likes to call the ‘messiness’ of the contemporary!
Collaboration also informs the making of this Reader – “The Cities of Everyday Life”. It has been from the very beginning a collective endeavour, with five of us at Sarai interacting closely with Geert Lovink from the Waag, who is now in Sydney, and then with us at the media lab working in tandem with Pradip Saha, the designer of the book over the last few months. I think that in this case the results of collaboration are very visible. The richness of textual forms, and of approaches, and yet the clear presence of a focus on the city as an object of knowledge, interpretation and reflection of this order is seldom possible to achieve without the coming together, the concert, of many energies, curiosities, and passions.
What is even more interesting is that it is clear to us, that this book in its print form is very much a new media work. Of course this can be substantiated by the fact that this is a copyleft work, and with collaborative authorship. But I think that this is true even of the form and argument of the structure of the book. The texts that constitute the book may be arranged sequentially, but they follow a hypertextual logic that is also a result of our online engagements. Also, for instance, the online dialogues culled from the Reader List. The list itself emerged from the publication of the first Sarai Reader and has entered this year’s book. A book gives rise to an online community, and the online community gives rise to content for a book.
Similarly, an important section in the book emerged out of the workshop on cinema held at Sarai, and Ranjani Mazumdar, Ira Bhaskar and Moinak Bishwas, each of them independent film scholars, have had their insights relayed into the book via the workshop. Even a series of film screenings – Nitin Govil’s curation of Science Fiction Films at Sarai – has translated itself into an essay on the city in science fiction for the Reader. This model of creating works and processes that embody an encounter between different communicative practices is something that we have been able to arrive at over the past year, and we have been able to do so because the work we do at Sarai is inter-disciplinary. It is an assemblage of practices and discursive acts as an interweaving of different rhetorics, of different modes of address, of diverse technologies of communication. We will carry this further through the publication of a book from the Cybermohalla project, a sense of which you can already get in this years Reader and a Sarai Reader in Hindi, both of which, are slated to come out early this summer, as well as in all the ways in which we make our work public. In the book itself, “The Cities of Everyday Life”, the coming together of forms and practices has pushed open possibilities of what the pleasures of making a book can be. This is why the the term “new media” for us is not so much about the novelty of computers, multimedia and the Internet, as it is about new forms and strategies of practice, about innovative re-combinations between “Old” and “New” media, between and across, print, film, video, television, radio, computers and the internet.
We are keen to effect crossovers and transgressions that displace both old and new hierarchies, which privilege neither tradition nor novelty for their own sake, and give rise to a more layered and agile form of media practice that is more reflective of the contemporary in our spaces. This means being as invested in the making of print objects, visual works and soundscapes as in the creation of web content, and looking for ways in which practices and objects can straddle off-line and online trajectories.
We are also working on a number of new media projects which examine questions related to claims and contests around issues of space and access in the urban environment and explore the idea of a “digital commons”. We hope to realize at least three to four major new media projects around these themes this year on a variety of platforms – on the internet, as installations, and in the form of publications. Significant amongst these is the OPUS project, an online inter-media platform for collaborative digital practice. OPUS will be a space where old and new media can meet online, and create hybrid works through dispersed authorship. It is a translation of the basic principles of openness and collaboration that animates the free software milieu into general cultural practice. This presumes the cultivation of a sensibility of creative and intellectual collaboration and free exchange. The OPUS project has benefited enormously from the contributions of Silvan and Bauke, students of digital media, who have been with us on extended residencies, alongside Pankaj and the rest of us on the project. Their sheer energy and tenacity in terms of coding has been one of the anchors of the OPUS project, and this is one collaboration that we know has an exciting future.
A central thread running through our work is the politics of communication itself. Who can access which tools to say what to whom. Hence our engagement with technology as cultural form and as the crucible of a new contest of power. This is certainly a conscious choice on our part. We are interested in Free Software not only because it makes economic sense in an Indian context to not spend a lot of money on expensive proprietary software, but also because we believe there are crucial issues of cultural freedom and creativity that are at stake here. And the insistence that access and control over the technologies of communication and information must be opened out is central to democratic practice of culture. We want to contribute to autonomous, collaborative energies in the field of software, culture and communication technology, which are conducive to conditions of diversity. That some of these energies challenge, or at least are skeptical about the commodification of digital culture across the globe, is something that we would like to see foregrounded in a lot of the work that we do. We are also organizing a workshop on Information and Politics from tomorrow which will include discussions and presentations by activists, media practitioners and researchers on surveillance, censorship, free speech, free software, cyber laws and the right to information campaign in India. This workshop will, we hope, open ground for a serious public debate on the politics of information, as well as the domination of the media and communication technologies by entrenched interests.
Sarai is interested especially in those media cultures that lie in the shadow of technological and social elites. We are interested in speaking to critical voices that produce and live the new media, which may exist in the street, the software factory, the worlds of the local videowalla, the neighbourhood Public Call Office/cybercafe, the gray markets in music, computers and other media-ware. This is the electronic everyday, which resides in the shadows of the spectacular media space conjured by the media empires in South Asia, and will be very much an area where Sarai’s work is slated to grow in the near future.
I hope that all this gives you a sense of who we are and what we have been up to in the last year. It is evident, but I will say it regardless. We are busy, we are public, we are open and we intend to stay that way.
Thank you for being such a critical, patient and friendly public.
Sarai:The New Media Initiative
29 Rajpur Road, Delhi 110 054