June 13, 2021
Three Conversation Pieces II
As India continues to find its bearings amidst Covid tumult, we invited writer Aveek Sen to consider his shifting everyday in a country living a moment he calls "beyond grim." Honing in on the idea of the 'conversation,' Aveek explores how his own conversations have become at once more vital, yet oddly unfamiliar in the channels they now inhabit.
At a time when a physical gathering of like-minded strangers has become fraught with danger, my mind keeps going back to three communal tables—and their relationship with what we call art. Each of these three tables gathers people around differently. The first is a long dining table in a spacious, light-filled kitchen. The second is a large, square, seminar-room table with a moon-shaped lamp hanging low above it. The third is a sturdy old work-top in a print studio, stained with inks, spirits and oils, and covered with layers of paper, bits of rag, and an assortment of tools. The first two have chairs or benches around them. People stand and work around the third. All three are part of the same establishment. Each organises and enlivens the same set of people through conversation and work of a distinct kind. But the unity of these three seemingly distinct situations defines the character of the house in which these tables have found their home and separate functions.
Unlike the Idea of a bed in Plato’s Republic, the tables I’m writing about here do actually exist. They belong to the premises of Cona Foundation, for many years in Mumbai and now in Goa, run by two of my artist friends, Hemali Bhuta and Shreyas Karle. Cona is their home as well as something else that somehow resists definition. It is what it is not—not a collective, not an exhibition space, not an institution. As a foundation, its founding principles have more to do with improvisation and flux, than with a secure and stable identity, structure, hierarchy or manifesto. The space becomes the sum of the people and their activities at any particular moment in the vicissitudes of its existence as a place. Yet, despite this shape-shifting precarity at its heart, the essence of Cona exists in my mind as a real house with these three real tables in it. Around those three pieces of furniture, the pleasures of preparing and eating food, the work of looking, listening and learning, and the labour of making images, objects and artefacts turn out to be inextricable from one another. So, what it means to be an artist, a writer, a teacher, or a student becomes that much more difficult to pin down, as we move and morph from table to table, yet somehow remain the same, in the course of a typical day at Cona.
Over the years, I have lived for extended periods of time, taught, written, and forged many lasting friendships and collaborations there. Last year, when Covid made it difficult for us to travel and meet in person, we decided to run a series of experiments at translating Cona into a virtual space. We wondered how, if at all, the gridded rectangles of our individual screens would manage to bring together the distinct yet vitally interconnected functions of those three tables. Together with the artist and teacher, Amarnath Praful, we issued an open call on social media for a category of participants we had begun to call among ourselves the “Art In-Betweeners.” They were students who were about to complete, or had recently completed, an academic course in the fine arts or media arts, and who felt uncertain, doubt-ridden, dissatisfied, yet excited about this precarious place between academia and the art world.
We believed, and still do, that anxiety, doubt, uncertainty, scepticism and a sense of crisis could become productively risky starting-points not only in the making of art but also in thinking, talking, and learning about it. Such feelings could be both individual and collective, utopian and practical, institutional and counter-institutional. But the idea of conversations that were at once structured and open-ended was at the core of our experiment. We felt that this experience of in-betweenness—a seemingly horizonless liminality—could become rich and strange if enjoyably shared, rigorously thought through, and entertainingly mentored. And these spaces of sharing had to be inclusive and trusting, free of commerce, competition, intimidation, and jargon. We did keep in mind the possibility of an exhibition or publication at the end of these sessions, but didn’t want to project a goal for what we preferred to imagine as a series of consciously directionless—and, in that sense, endless—meetings and conversations. We would go where the experiment would, or wouldn’t, take us.
The response to our open call was immediate, overwhelming and, because our meetings were going to happen on Zoom, international. Over a period of a little more than two months, we chose to work with around thirty “in-betweeners.” Each of the four of us met them once in groups of ten as well as individually. Very soon, the groups were also meeting among themselves without any of us being present.
I remember those months as a time of immensely rewarding promiscuity—a word that begins to expand and resonate once it is allowed to shed its ambiguous history. Intense yet freewheeling, often exhausting but never boring or anodyne, sometimes focused on work and sometimes on nothing in particular, the repeated opportunity to talk and listen to such a wide and various range of perfect strangers was truly a gift in the midst of all that pandemical gloom. None of us on either side of the virtual table had a clue as to where our personal and professional lives were heading. But, during those conversations, I began to realise, with a clarity that is yet to lose its freshness, that outside the conventional bandwidth of institutionalised higher education in the arts lie two vital, and vitally difficult, realms of human experience: the ordinary and the visceral, or, if you will, the domestic and the inexpressible.
The pandemic had made it impossible to keep the two realms apart. Why is it, then, that neither of them falls within the purview of what is formally taught or learnt, when both are integral to the shared as well as solitary endeavour of producing and consuming art? Is it because, once these modes of experience are acknowledged and addressed, the very category of Art itself begins to lose its cherished boundaries, receding like a mirage toward the beckoning shimmer of what would then have to be met as Life?
Aveek Sen lives in Calcutta and writes on literature, art, cinema, music and everyday life.