The safety (inter)net

How art survived a pandemic and reinvented itself online By Taniya Sahni

Lockdown took its toll on the sector, but in adversity, new ideas took shape, arts and culture spaces realigned their visions, and perhaps most important, dialogue flourished.

Adapt your offerings

Serendipity Arts Festival, Goa, was an early mover, with youth festival SAF 2020 x You back in April, and the lessons it learnt are no doubt being applied to the ongoing Serendipity Arts Virtual 2020. Smriti Rajgarhia, director of the festival and its eponymous foundation, said that they had used everyday technology like Zoom, WhatsApp, and social media platforms to keep things accessible. “We worked with curators, many of whom had not worked in the digital space previously,” she says. “Together, we worked towards taking this idea of stringing concepts online forward, through various modes like labs, websites, reactive performances and cyber theatre. New codes to create cyber theatre have been used for projects like Amitesh Grover’s The Last Poet, in the hope that it will be a marquee project for the way it has been directed and produced. Talented coders are creating a website for Veerangana Solanki’s project to make it interactive and engaging, exploring sound art, archives, and photography.” [Culture Wire spoke to Ms Rajgarhia before the festival commenced.] Another major, the Kochi Biennale, is also adapting. Faiza Hasan, Programmes Manager of the Kochi Biennale Foundation, says, “The fourth edition of the Students' Biennale exhibition, the largest education programme of the Kochi Biennale Foundation will be hosted on a custom-built online platform.” They will also use Zoom to host workshops by curators. The students’ event, she says, has experienced artists and art educators as curators and mentors. Since curatorial visits are currently impossible, “the focus has shifted towards developing effective communication strategies for them to mentor participants.”

Chennai’s Prakriti Foundation also embraced the technology that has become staple for workers in other industries, using it to widen its audience. Meera Krishnan, Senior Program Coordinator, says that their annual Poetry with Prakriti festival had stayed Chennai-based, limited by its resources, but has now gone all-India with readings three Saturdays of every month for a year. “The pandemic led us to explore the flexibility of poetry as an art form via Zoom reading sessions with poets. With 50–150 people viewing these sessions the audience response has been encouraging.” The foundation also launched a year-long retrospective of Manjula Padmanabhan’s plays and shorter performance works, with adaptations being webcast once a month. Krishnan adds that Prakriti started free counselling sessions and webinars on mental health from almost the beginning of lockdown. “We mostly work with freelancers and understand their mind space.”

ThinkArts India launched Isolate > Create > Connect in collaboration with Barking Gecko Theatre, Australia, showcasing experiences of children around the world during the pandemic. Analina Sanyal, Programme Manager, says, “Previously, we had only focussed on live arts; virtual programming was never on our minds. Isolate > Create > Connect allowed us to encounter the reach of a digital venture. Sadly, the medium, however effective, cannot replace live arts and the warmth of physical interactions and sensorial experiences.” Another factor they are conscious of, she says, is that there should be a limit to the screen time children get exposed to. That is, those who actually have access to digital devices; “The digital divide in India is massive,” she says. “Despite attempts to bridge this gap, the reality remains that many children are unable to access digital arts engagements.”

Supporting cast like ticketing platforms have evolved quickly too. Paytm Insider’s founder & CEO Shreyas Srinivasan says that the company has been introducing interactive features for audiences and simpler tools for organisers to build digital experiences. “We have enabled this vision via the ‘theatre mode’ dashboard which content creators can use to upload video files, set up a show, and ticket their event.” Their biggest challenge, however, was to get performing art groups move from physical spaces to the digital medium. An early adopter was Team Naach, which used the improved platform to take their workshops to their huge social media following.

Think fresh

After releasing Masaba Masaba on OTT, Harkat Studios began work on its Virtual Interactive Stage, an innovative format harnessing the internet, video technology and film aesthetics. Karan Suri Talwar, founder, says he and his team went through all the stages of grief, but “we were left finding a purpose in the new context and thought of the internet as a medium for performing artists. Today, we look up, hopeful.” Thanks to a close-knit team, he says, they re-imagined the future. Harkat Studios takes pride in being an alternate space, and they did not want their transition to digital to be half-hearted. “We did not want pre-recorded shows,” he says. Their first multi-channel interactive show via their new platform is tentatively due by end-December. Harkat Studios has used a ₹75,000 grant from Goethe-Institut to commission three projects for the Virtual Interactive Stage. “The survival of the artists is at stake, Talwar says. “The grant will enable a new medium and stage to take form.”

On May 17 and 18, to celebrate International Museum Day, Paytm Insider and Mumbai-based The Art X Company launched 2020, Ghar Se Museum via Zoom. [Disclosure: Art-X is the publisher of this newsletter.] It worked well, and yielded enough useful audience preference data, for the team to do a second edition in late November during World Heritage Week. The edition featured virtual visits, lecture-demonstrations and workshops from Piramal Museum of Art, Ashvita’s Museum (Chennai), Indian Music Experience (Bengaluru, Raja Dinkar Kelkar Museum (Pune), and the Partition Museum (Amritsar). Paytm’s Srinivasan says, “We were able to provide a more evolved experience with the right mix of products this time.”

How does one show, sell, or buy art when public gatherings are restricted? The Art Platform India has shows from 14 galleries on its revamped website, which now has ‘viewing rooms’ as well as a buying platform. Also planned: Indian and international personalities will share tips and engage in conversation on art with existing and new buyers. Sharan Apparao, founder and director of Apparao Galleries, who conceptualized the platform, says, “Art presenters are able to reach a wider audience through TAP India even though the end consumer of art may be the same. Collaborative platforms such as this help with cross-marketing.” The challenge, she says, is to keep the choice on offer high-quality, and also educate viewers on what that means.

Down, but not out

Not everyone was able to adapt.

An exciting Mumbai space, Godrej’s India Culture Lab, is “on a long sabbatical” as is their leadership programme, which immersed humanities students in the city’s culture sector. Its Capstone Project, in which students curated a Lab event may go entirely online in 2021 as a multimedia project. The lab’s rich archive keeps vigil in the meanwhile. Delhi’s Oddbird Theatre and Foundation, says co-founder Shambhavi Singh, has given up its physical theatre in April. “We’ve used the past few months to hibernate, learn more, and tinker about internally. Our work will remain in the realm of art and community, but one doesn't concretely know what the next stop is.” Oddbird kept a lifeline open with their Quarantine Video Project, funding for artists to explore video. “It kicked off early in the lockdown in response to the physical isolation. It was an experiment in creation and collaboration without the fundamentals of physical space and contact that we usually take for granted.” The Piramal Museum of Art in Mumbai downed shutters and let go its employees in July. The Piramal family-endowed museum’s private collection, one hopes, will at some future date resume its efforts to bring art to the public eye. Back to normal?

Some arts spaces are cautiously opening their physical doors, but until vaccines reach the public at large and viable treatments are found — and it’s anyone’s guess when that will be — the arts and culture sector must continue to find new ways, or take lessons from those who have, to reach audiences and earn an income. And it’s a good bet that even when better times arrive, many of the skills and technologies learnt during this pandemic will continue to inform and guide our work and practices and arguably, show us entirely new directions.