Shreyas Karle Interviewed by Alessandra Ferrini in July 2013
Click here to read our review of Shreyas Karle’s work while in residence at Gasworks, London.
AF: What does the research you undertook while at Gasworks originate from?
SK: Well, that actually goes back to when I finished my Masters in India. I was looking at pedagogical practice in the art schools there. As a student I was always interested in creating alternative situations within the academic structure, which would help us improvise on the established norms of teaching. At my art school in Mumbai, we were supported by a couple of professor to do things outside of the school curriculum and we spoke about music, film, and everything else that connected, on an aesthetic level, to our art making process. For me it has always been about looking at the grammar of art, rather than its result. In my work the result has never been that important, it has always been about the process or the way I have approached an idea.
So it starts from here and then it links to becoming part of an artist in residency program, Sandarbh, which I started working with in 2007 and later went on to become the director in 2011. Even in this context, the way the works were produced and the negotiations enacted by the artists with the given space, the surroundings and the local community, was more important to me. I felt that this was closer to the pedagogical structure. However, sadly, lately academies and university concentrate on the degree show. This is because of its connections to the economics and also because it is conceived as a final evaluation of the students’ entire academical understanding. The students will be the artists of the future and this thought is cemented in their minds. Academia creates a certain pressure to excel rather than fail, and failure is not considered as a virtue, but rather as a vice that one needs to get rid off. However, I think an art college does not necessarily teach you how to be an artist – it tells you to unwind yourself by understanding and expressing your thoughts through visual language.
Then, last December, with a group of friends, I opened a residence space called Cona (in Hindi) meaning ‘corner’. Cona can also mean periphery of a space, or a place where people meet and chat, similar to ‘adda’, a place where people meet for a cup of tea and to discuss.
Also for me and my wife the experience of teaching at an art school became a catalyst to looking at Cona as an alternative pedagogical practice. So, with Cona we could do what we were not allowed to do in the art school. We established it as an alternative space for artists, art students, the community, the neighbourhood and for ourselves. We are still very conscious that we don’t want to be sucked into the bandwagon of the art fraternity, where you know the path you are following and the destination. Rather, we thought it would be interesting to not know where you are going, or the people you are travelling with.
AF: What is the actual starting point of your research in London?
SK: Arriving at Gasworks with all this baggage, I realized that Gasworks can help you not only in the sense of your capabilities, but also in terms of what I call ‘human capabilities’. Obviously you are here as an artists, but you are more than that, you don’t really have to generate in a particular manner, or facilitate yourself in a particular way. You can be much more diverse and at the same time being just who you are and – as Rowan Geddis (Gasworks’ Residencies Programmer) has always described – you can wear different hats. Then I was introduced to a show at Tate Britain – Basic Design. When I saw what was happening around Basic Design I was very interested as I felt that this was something I was already doing subconsciously. So, I have started this research into Basic Design, not only into its history, as the linearity of time is not important to me. It is a research that goes back and forth from past to present times and which will go further, so it kinds of jumbles up all of the three dimensions of space and forms a non-linear line. That’s how this whole research began.
AF: Could you tell us about your research in the National and Educational Archives in Yorkshire and the connections you found with Indian art pedagogical systems?
SK: I got to know about the archive from the curator, Helen Pheby, and so I decided to begin with my research there. It was interesting to be at the archive as I was able to handle the files in the vault and to get help from the people working there. Also, there were a couple of more artists doing their Phd research. My project was received with much interest as it involved the eastern history in comparison to western.
In relation to the Indian pedagogical system, I chose to focus on it because for me, as I said before, it is not only about history, but also about present and future and so I looked at the current academical structure in India. As a result of the British Raj, the first art schools that appeared in India began with a colonial perspective, with a very classical, European way of teaching as in England. However, actually, the Basic Design movement came as a void within this structure. I was interested in looking at this void and to see if it also existed in India and, if so, in which manner it existed, or, on the other hand, what would be the reasons for its non-existence? Actually, it did exist. Not in exactly the same way, but with a similar pattern. What was interesting for me, was to look at these patterns.
In UK, Basic Design began in the 1950s-60s and then went on to become a more established foundation course. In India, the foundation course based on the Bauhaus was established in the 1960s for the first time. So I found out that the Bauhaus could be a link between UK and India and I have been looking at how and why, as well as at the protagonists in Bauhaus – like Paul Klee – who played major roles in creating new rules or philosophies. At the same time I was looking at the protagonists of Basic Design in India, trying to figure out what these people had in common, in terms of research and other influences. Then I realised that these people were following the same philosophies and that there is a similarity in aesthetics. They are like parallel lines, each line has its own identity but they never meet. This research, as I said earlier, was around how the subject was formulated.
AF: What kind of strategies did you put in place in order to translate your research visually and performatevely for the Open Studios event at Gasworks?
SK: It was a very difficult task to put in place a presentation of my research because I was really just scratching the surface of the subject – it would have been like a half-baked cookie, it would not taste very good. I was thinking about how to make this into a good supper and how it could satisfy the audience, as the audience is an integral part of a presentation. I wanted to find a different way of presenting my research that went beyond the mere reading and talking about it. I wanted to edit it and create a sort of constructivist poetry through stop-motion animation. It was hard work, but I was ready to make it because I knew that it would be a good presentation and an enjoyable moment for me. I am very conscious of the fact that I am not a theoretician and I did not want to do a theoretical presentation. I am a visual practitioner and I wanted to use visual language to present the research. The stop-motion shows almost the entire research I did, in an animated form. The paper that I wrote was also the translation of the whole experience of the residency, and the way the research is influenced by my day-to-day activities, like the books I read. I feel that, as an artist or creative person, you cannot really negate your personal life, as it does shape your thoughts and practices. It is important to give this a place, rather than pushing it aside.
AF: When you started you research, what did you hope to find out or achieve?
SK: There were quite a few things that I wanted to achieve as a result of this research. One is that I have been offered to do a PhD about this, which I am considering. This is a much larger commitment. It would mean to narrow down the research and work in a different direction. Another aspect is that I am looking at the research as a curatorial project, to create an exhibition, which could take place both in UK and India. It would be based on the exchange of archives and I would act as the mediator, while my research could be the backbone of the exhibition. As an art practitioner I have the liberty to do all of this. I can work towards the presentation of a work that could benefit the mass, the art society and the schools. On the other hand, it has the potentiality of converting into a book.
The research also most definitely benefits my ideas for the project space that I have started. Simultaneously, I have also been asked to teach again in art universities. So I am working towards making a proposition to the university, to allow me to work from my project space, taking the class there. It would be a supplementary structure, where I could have more freedom in terms of teaching style. It would create a new way of learning and it could allow me to find other spaces, like artists studios or outdoor, and use my connections within the art world to really benefit the students’ learning. This is something I really want to execute and it directly comes out of the research I have been doing while at Gasworks.
AF: How do you wish to continue, develop and deepen the research undertaken in London?
SK: Now I have a good understanding of what was the Basic Design situation here in the UK, but I have a rather shallow understanding of what were the pedagogical practices in India. I only have first-hand experience, as a student and teacher there, but there are still things I do not know. Once I will be back I will probably apply for a research grant that could allow me to research more in India, travelling between different schools and meeting with the professors that taught at particular points in time, both at the time of Basic Design and today. It would be interesting to find out what were and are their ways of teaching, their pedagogical methodologies and what exactly is the whole outcome of an art school today. Does education stop with the graduation or does it go out of the institution? The contemporary landscape will be shaped by the students who go out to become the artists of tomorrow, so the pedagogical system does have an influence over it. However, we do not really think about the pedagogical practices.
AF: You are both the director of Cona, a residency programme, and a practicioner with experience as artist in residence. In which way do you think that the format of the residency contributes to the development of contemporary art practices?
SK: The format of residencies is a new language of contemporary art practice. I do not really know how much it contributes to its development though. The problem with contemporary art today is that it is running out of ideas and it tries to hold on to anything new. Residencies are just another, new structure. I am sorry to have such a critical view, but that’s he result of having being part of many residencies programmes and running such a space. However, I think that what residencies are doing is to create a kind of nomadicity in the life of artists, combined by the site-specifity of the contemporary art situation. It is no longer important to just sit and work in your studio, making it into a sort of temple, in which you are like the god of the temple. Residencies, instead, break with the idea of the temple, making you into a mere priest who is supposed to perform within the given situation. When you are in a residency situation you do not really know what you are dealing with, you are negotiating with it, constantly adapting, challenging and trying to erase everything that is from the past. I mean, that’s what I think one should do, rather than trying to recreate his/her own temple. In this sense residencies help your practice become more site-specific, understanding both physical and mental space – it challenges your norms and ways of working. For instance, I would have never thought to be working like I did in the last three months. I generally create fictional stories, but this time I could not do that as I knew it was not supposed to happen. So I have really challenged myself. And this is what I think the residency really contributes to the contemporary art situation. However, as I stated earlier, I think that the contemporary art situation do not want the artist to challenge him/herself. Rather, it wants the artist to be more compliant, a sort of a one-way philosopher and not a person that evolves different philosophies each and every day. On one hand residencies are a really interesting possibility for the contemporary art system, however, I do not believe that the system is looking at residencies as a platform to reinvent art practice, but just as a way to perpetrate the same old methodology.
AF: How do you think your work relates to archival art practices in general?
SK: It is interesting to see how my work does not fit in this larger practice. My practice is very undefined, it is like having a child but not knowing if you are the father, even though you know that he/she kind of looks like you. I was interested in trying to work with a different methodology, in a research-based way, that I have not tried before, to travel a new path. But this does not mean that this will become my focal point, there is no central path for me. Sometimes I joke and call myself a ‘primitive nomadic artist’. A friend also introduced me as ‘a person displaced in time’. I like that, it is like owning many dimensions, the present and some other time too. This can be problematic, because curators find it hard to place my work, but I am not bothered with this, at least not for now.