Bijli, Sadak, Makaan: Art at the Crossroads of Infrastructure and Culture

25 Jun

Profile of an artist: Ashok Sukumaran

The questions that Ashok Sukumaran asks of us are to the say the least, unusual. The way he asks them is more unusual still. Yet these are questions are uniquely applicable to India – especially an India that is in throes of globalization, and a technological revolution. Mr. Sukumaran through his art asks us to question the meaning of public and public space, the adequacy of current communication media, the meaning of being digital, and the role of art and the artist in helping pose and answer these questions.
Mr. Sukumaran is foremost an astute and nimble observer. He is also a precocious talent and an incisive questioner. He doesn’t practice art that is produced and hung in galleries and for the intellectual consumption of the cultural elites, who consume art for the singular purpose of negotiating their social and cultural status.

Mr. Sukumaran practices media art. In other words, he doesn’t limit himself to a medium; he uses whatever is necessary to convey a point or understand an idea. And often this means going outside museum or gallery spaces and on to the city street to answer (or pose) questions that can only be understood in the public realm.

In this recent recurrencies project, Mr. Sukumaran explores, via reconfigurations of urban electricity, “new and old ideas of equitability, exchange, pleasure, negotiation, and sociability.” In the installation, 14th-road: where we live, “a remote switch hangs from a tree across the road from [the artist’s] apartment, connected to the lights in [their] balcony”. Mr. Sukumaran uses this setup to see how public infers what this is, what is allowed and what isn’t. People who flick the switch, as the notes alongside reveal, are wary of the claims that artists make about ‘redistributing connections’; they ask questions about how the apparatus works, how much it costs, call to see if there is a “secret meaning” etc.

It is interesting to see how the social structures and expectations become exposed as the days progress. We get to see certain ‘street level epistemologies’ of meaning, authority, social relationships, and technology. When I asked Mr. Sukumaran whether he was concerned about the fact that some of his pieces had become public spectacles, he said no. In fact, he said, spectacle – mingled with the anxieties, expectations of authority, etc. that it invokes – is sometimes the perfect mechanism to explore the relationship between society and authority.

“Infrastructure is culture,” says Ashok Sukumaran while explaining how access to infrastructure comes to define what is possible within a society. There are two particular facets to how we can understand the impact of infrastructure – firstly society rations access to infrastructure in a way that is largely commensurate with its existing hierarchies and priorities, and secondly and more importantly infrastructure– be it electricity or telephone or the Internet – tampers with the existing social hierarchies, and creates its own. Infrastructure comes with its own command economies – be it the petty government Babu or the humble Chowkidar – society installs gatekeepers or gatekeepers emerge as society lays down mechanisms for distributing infrastructure. Infrastructure also signals what is permitted and what isn’t. It thus sets up norms of behavior and social conduct. There are a host of questions that Mr. Sukumaran brings to the table around this issues – how do we react when the norms are broken? Who creates these norms? How are these norms institutionalized and then propagated and socialized? What are the power structures that underpin these norms? How is infrastructure and access to it understood on the street – by the doodhwalla and the fruit juice operator and the Mumbai housewife? These are only a small set of questions that Mr. Sukumaran has been trying to answer. He has many more.

Ashok Sukumaran was born to a Japanese mother and an Indian father in 1974. Mr. Sukumaran spent his childhood in Shimla, the summer capital of the Raj which still hosts a somewhat eclectic, variegated set of people, according to Mr. Sukumaran. He describes his childhood as fairly normal, middle-class and “very dal-roti” except for some exposure to Japanese toys and electronics that his relatives sent from Japan. Mr. Sukumaran traces some of his fascination with technology to the access he had to these “smuggled” goods.

After finishing school, Sukumaran went on to study architecture at the prestigious School of Planning and Architecture in Delhi. A certain amount of architectural training is distinctly visible in his work. A fascination with form, color, and space are very much on display, but in a mode that is quite different from traditional design. After finishing up with SPA, Mr. Sukumaran worked for some time as an architect. He says that during this time he got to work closely with local mistris and artisans and found the experience unique and deeply satisfying. Mr. Sukumaran often collaborates with local electricians and decorators and finds it an integral part of producing his art.

In 2001, just before the 9/11 attacks, Mr. Sukumaran landed in the Los Angeles to study at the Department of Design|Media Arts at University of California, Los Angeles. Being in this politically charged and emotional moment was edifying in some ways, according to Mr. Sukumaran. After graduating from UCLA, Mr. Sukumaran worked at a variety of places including as the project director for NANO, “an exhibition that blended multiple scientific disciplines to explore the intersection of digital art and nanoscale science at LACMALab, Los Angeles.” He has also harvested a slew of prestigious residencies and awards including winning the first prize in the Universal Warning Sign Design Competition for his breathtakingly creative ‘Blue Yucca Ridge’ at Yucca Mountain, the first Sun Microsystems ‘ZeroOne’ residency, and the UNESCO Digital Arts Award for 2005 for his “poetic yet pragmatic” project SWITCH, a subset of the recurrencies.net project described above.

It is a testament to his ability that Mr. Sukumaran has managed to create an impressive body of work in the short span of about four years. Both the variety of questions he has dealt with and the techniques he has used to explore them are striking.

Mr. Sukumaran’s quest for answers to complex questions around society and technology has often extended into the digital realm. Mr. Sukumaran has tried to explore what it means to be digital. In particular, he questions the seemingly infinitely tensile, manipulability of the digital by exposing both the “hard chemical” and “soft social” processes that underpin the digital.

Mr. Sukumaran, to his credit, in spite of the success and accolades that he has received, continues to struggle with the role of art in society. He stridently believes in the importance of art and argues that art is one of the only places left where one can ask meta cross-disciplinary questions. Yet, he seems deeply perturbed by the commercial expropriation of art, and the Kuspitian notion that Contemporary art is merely busy with making clever commentary. To that end, Mr. Sukumaran has striven to distance himself from the commercial aspects of art and dispense with the elitist pretensions of art by deliberately choosing to raise his questions outside traditional venues, and forms.

Final Words

Contemporary Art would still live, defying Donald Kuspit, on the strength of artists like Mr. Sukumaran who produce art with self-conscious rigor and perceptive incisiveness. The hope is that such threads can make the much-abused Contemporary in art intellectually invigorating, fertile, and genuinely provocative.

Bibliography

UNESCO Portal

Sun Microsystem’s page on the artist.