The making of a hybrid biennale

What it takes to put together a two-month multi-venue international event

By Rohini Kejriwal.


Photo by Omid Armin
Image credits: Chennai Photo Biennale

In 2016, Varun Gupta and Helmut Schippert (the then director of Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan, Chennai), brought their shared vision for public art, and gave it the shape of the Chennai Photo Biennale (CPB). Photographers, and friends Gayatri Nair and Shuchi Kapoor were invited to join the founding team. Their aim: to establish a collaboration and showcase point for talent from South India and the world and to position their city, Chennai, on the international photography map.


CPB’s third edition, postponed by a year because of the pandemic, is now live. Called ‘Maps of Disquiet,’ it is curated by Arko Datto and Bhooma Padmanabhan from India, and Baoz Levin and Kerstin Meincke, both from Germany. This edition is in a hybrid format, with physical and virtual exhibitions, screenings, student workshops and showcases, artist talks, and more.


Rohini Kejriwal chatted with Shuchi Kapoor, one of CPB’s co-founders, about what it takes to put together an ambitious project. Edited excerpts from the conversation below.


Rohini Kejriwal: What does the production of such a large-scale festival entail?

Shuchi Kapoor: We started CPB as three photographer friends who wanted to create a platform to showcase the talent from the south along with other artists from around the world.


In the first edition, we did everything in-house — curation, production, logistics, venue coordination, administration, operations, finance, communications and design — in three months, after the floods. We had limited knowledge and budgets and worked with simpler forms, for instance, flex for outdoor exhibitions, which is not ideal, but we wanted to make sure we could put art out in public spaces and get the crowds interested in seeing it.


In the second edition, we brought in Pushpamala N, an artist of great repute, who gave shape to photography being seen as an art form under the theme ‘Fauna of Mirrors,’ reimagining photography in new forms, and presentation played a critical role. We attracted a diverse audience by stepping outside a gallery, converting libraries, beaches, train stations, parks, university campuses into gallery-like spaces, making it accessible to all sections of society. We had converted heritage spaces — like the Senate House and the Government College of Fine Art — to temporary galleries, which meant more challenges with production. Just cleaning the Senate House, which had been closed for 40 years, was a big task and responsibility. The Biennale became five times bigger and the budgets increased exponentially.


We are conscious about curating a balance of Indian, regional and international artists, and to fill the gender gap in representation in the arts. We established the Kanavu Fellowship programme in collaboration with Studio A, for women from less privileged backgrounds; they are being trained in photography, video and media arts. Their work is showcased at Dakshinachitra from 9th to 31th December, 2021.


RK: What is the management style you follow? Is there a hierarchy when it comes to decision making?

SK: [Gupta, Nair and Kapoor] focus on different genres of photography and manage different wings and audiences. I lead community engagement, cultural partnerships, press, social media and programming; Gayatri leads education and operations and is in charge of CPB Prism, which promotes lens-based arts education for children and students, especially from the government school networks; Varun works largely with numbers — finance, production, business — and also alternative photography processes as part of our skill development offerings.


None of these ideas and programs are possible without the support of the hard-working CPB team, who are equally involved in ideation and execution. We are a team of 15 people, including office managers, designers, video editors, archive managers and programmes managers, and our two office cats. We also work a lot with interns, who are in college or just finished college.


While the Biennale tends to have a fresh team in each edition, most of them join us as interns and then become part of the team to shape and build programs for the foundation through the year. The foundation now has a few permanent members who work on the programs and others who join in on a project basis just for the Biennale. Many are fresh out of college and go on with their academic journeys after getting a Biennale experience with CPB, and some team members have continued to work in parts over the two editions.


RK: What does the hybrid model look like?

SK: CPB III was supposed to be in 2020, and a physical experience, but due to the pandemic, we had to shift to a hybrid format. The core Biennale experience this year is digital; all 37 artists’ works and projects are being shown on the website, and there are virtual guided tours for colleges and our online audiences. We are being conscious of our virtual programming because there is too much screen fatigue, but there is an interesting line-up of talks and screenings that must not be missed.


We have physical exhibitions across seven venues. On December 19th, we are hosting a photo activity day with a live cyanotype workshop, sale of prints and photo books, a students’ activity corner for the public to engage with photography and have fun. Our student showcase, photobook launches and conversations (8-9 Jan) are coming up soon!


We are also back with the CPB Photo Awards to highlight work by photojournalists, who risked their lives to report during the pandemic and at other critical moments in the last year. The deadline to apply is 15th December.


RK: What goes into funding such a large-scale event?

SK: Fund-raising in the arts is incredibly tough, especially in India. In the West and Europe, the support for the arts is incomparable and they have major grants and funding. Unless a patron or partner is personally invested in supporting the arts year after year, CPB and similar arts initiatives will find it hard to sustain themselves. Since the beginning we have had tremendous support from Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan Chennai, but we need more patrons to sustain this work.


As a solution, we referenced the Kochi Biennale to show the Tamil Nadu government what can be possible with their support, and we have been fortunate that they have made CPB a part of the cultural calendar of the tourism department this year, and we hope that they will continue.


We also look at grants to secure some funding for projects, but that is not a long-term solution as they may not continue year after year, so one is back to square one after the project gets over. The other kind of funding arrangement we explore is barter with brands and partners who cannot give cash but cover a substantial production cost, like for plywood and paints.

We have also started our crowdfunding campaign recently, which was meant to be launched in 2020, when the third Biennale was to happen.


RK: Given that it is an international festival, tell us about the artist management involved.

SK: Backing from international cultural organisations lets us host international artists.. But we have to raise the funds to support the showing of our Indian artists. Even though CPB has built its credibility over the last couple of editions, we are still seen as a young festival. So we have relied on travel and hospitality partners who have helped us with the artist management side of things.


RK: Has the marketing strategy changed for CPB 2021, given the hybrid model? Are there other directions you are exploring?

Our social media and website design have also evolved. We were not in favour of using gimmicky virtual gallery formats for the web showcases. Instead, we focused on a modern website design for the online journals with the support of Pro Helvetia and with inputs from the curators and designers, and introduced a simple and easy to navigate look and feel to our overall design.


The first issue of our journal, Through the Glass Darkly, an amalgamation of podcasts, writing and photo-based work, is a response to the pandemic, asking viewers to slow down, look and reflect. The second issue will be out soon.

Another format to look forward to in January is the Biennale catalogue, representing all artists, contributors and student works.


RK: How was it navigating this period of uncertainty in the world while working on CPB?

SK: The biggest challenge was the lack of physicality of things, and rethinking the festival format. We had to push the Biennale by a year, and adopt the hybrid format. Another key challenge was funding, which has been a constant struggle,.

Despite the challenges, we started two new initiatives during the pandemic. We decided to explore photography as therapy. And we created an e-learning module on creative and conceptual photography that helped even non-artists to be involved with the medium of photography from their homes.


We also hosted the PhotoSolidarity Fund to support non-profits working on-ground. In India artists have to support themselves and there are no artist relief funds. Despite that, in the pandemic, it was great to see the photography community come together, with 130+ artists contributing their work for free. We raised ₹15 lakh, which shows the power and resilience of this community that people do not find important enough to support.


RK: Any final takeaways you’d like to share with our readers?

SK: One of our biggest takeaways has been seeing photography as a democratic medium of expression. Photography is more forgiving as a medium and has the power to communicate and witness the world as we see it. We exist to make this form a part of everyone’s lives and to bring everyone together through this art form.


The Chennai Photo Biennale runs from 9 December 2021 – 6 February 2022. For more details, visit chennaiphotobiennale.com.