We Do What We Do: A Conversation between Bani Abidi and Sharmini Pereira
Bani Abidi, The Speech Writer, 2012, artist’s book, published by Raking Leaves.
Asia Art Archive in America
Sep 24, 2015
Transcribed by Hilary Chassé and edited by Jane DeBevoise.
Jane DeBevoise (JD): Tonight we are delighted to have Bani Abidi and Sharmini Pereira here. Bani is not often in the United States, but she is here now for a show at the Dallas Contemporary art museum, [entitled An Unforeseen Situation]. We took advantage of her being “close by” to bring her to New York for this event. And Sharmini, we’re delighted to have you here too, to talk about your recent collaboration with Bani. Sharmini is the founder of Raking Leaves, a really interesting non-profit publishing organization based in Sri Lanka and focused on artist books.
Bani Abidi (BA): Thank you Jane. Today we’re going to begin by showing a clip from a video that was the first collaboration between Sharmini and me in 2006. I shot and produced this video in Karachi. It’s called Reserved, and it’s a double channel video installation. For the purpose of this screening, however, we have put both screens on one monitor.
Bani Abidi, excerpt from Reserved, 2006, 2-channel video, 9 mins.
BA: This video was produced by the Singapore Biennale, for which Sharmini was a curator. It may have a particular resonance for you all here tonight, given what’s happening in Manhattan today.
Sharmini Pereira (SP): The 2006 Singapore Biennale was the first time I met Bani. I was tasked with choosing a selection of artists for South Asia and was told that I could choose 20. Of course I was quite happy to work with Indian artists, but I also wanted to consider artists from Bangladesh, Pakistan and Sri Lanka. In the end, there was a very important trip to Pakistan. It wasn’t my first trip to Pakistan, but it was the first time I met Bani, and I was researching artists for the Biennale. I was on my way to Karachi and Bani was one of the people who was really helpful and put me in touch with many artists there. It’s often incredibly hard to make all the arrangements yourself when you are visiting a country, and introductions like hers, helped me prepare the ground. After making so many introductions to other artists, of course, she was someone I wanted to meet too. We ended up meeting on Muharram, a public holiday in Pakistan, commemorating the death of Hussein ibn Ali.
BA: Muharram commemorates a historic battle and is a day of mourning.
SP: It was on that day that Bani invited me to visit her studio at her home. Her family was all fasting at the time. That was my first contact with Bani, being part of her home, and part of her family, and I fasted with them. And what we discussed during that visit included this work, a fictionalized portrait of a city, made in Karachi.
BA: It was the longest visit that I’ve had with a curator. Usually these visits last a half an hour or one hour at the most, but Sharmini came and spent the whole day. It was a really important moment in what was going to become a very definitive part of our relationship. It was a very detailed engagement and conversation. I got the opportunity to go through all my work, and we brain stormed about what things were important to me. She didn’t project any particular idea about what I should be doing; it was quite an open-ended conversation.
SP: Yes, I was interested in her making a new work but our conversation revolved around the fact that she was born and grew up in Karachi and then left to go to Lahore, to study at the NCA (National College of Arts), and then from there, went to Chicago. She had this very early history with the city, but then left and stayed in touch vicariously. Being a Pakistani in Chicago, in fact, led her to become more aware of being Pakistani, as it were, because she was not an American. This was a conversation that both of us were very engaged in, this idea of what it means to be located somewhere. And at the same time, when I was in Karachi, I was watching the BBC news on TV in my hotel room. And this news program was reporting on a cartoon about Mohammed in a Danish newspaper in 2005. What was really astounding to me was this news story was accompanied by images of Muharram. And further, during Muharram, as I got to learn, there’s a procession where people flagellate themselves and there’s a lot of blood and it’s quite gruesome. This was the imagery that the media was using to talk about this Danish cartoon.
BA: Completely unconnected.
SP: Completely unconnected! And it made me think about how far we are removed from the truth. How far we are removed from the things we’re looking at it. There were also things that I learned from Bani and her father about being in Karachi because we went to the procession. There were things that he enlightened me about. I’m not Muslim and in Sri Lanka Muslim culture is seen as a minority culture. Our personal connection came from, I think, comparing and contrasting the different ways we saw ourselves – where we were coming from, and being of a certain place.
BA: For me, what was most important was that Reserved was the first video where I had a budget to work with. I got a budget from Sharmini, and she produced the video. Just now we were looking at the clip – only a few minutes of a 9 minute video. It actually looks a lot like a documentary, but every bit of it was produced. A lot of it had to do with the memory of forever having to wait for VIPs as a child, as a teenager, as a young adult; for any event to begin we had to wait for the mayor or the governor or somebody to arrive, so there was always this perpetual waiting.
BA: And that was a big part of why everything comes to a standstill. But now I had the funds to do things in great detail so I got really involved in what a traffic jam would look like, if the traffic came to a halt. All the details that I love about a traffic jam, for instance, the little Suzuki vans in which furniture is being transported from one place to another, the balloon seller who’s selling red Chinese balloons, the vendors who are making their way through traffic. I very much enjoyed these details because we were often stuck in traffic jams and now I could recreate it. So I produced the whole video that about a VIP who’s arriving in the city, how everything has come to a standstill, a narrative that doesn’t really have closure. On one screen [of this two channel video] is a VIP motorcade is coming through the city, and on the other screen are shots of people waiting.
SP: When I started working with Bani I had never commissioned a video piece that involved that level of production. But her work was very carefully choreographed and thought out in detail. One doesn’t often find this level of attention to detail [during the planning process], but in Bani’s case, where everything was staged, the production was hugely involved.
BA: Everyone in the video was an actor, and for me it was an exercise in remembering things that I loved. Of course it was a critique in some ways, but it was also an homage to everyone who has also waited. It was like drawing something with video. It was a very important work for me because it set the tone for a lot of things I did after that and my whole relationship with locality. This was the definitive moment, because I understood what it meant to work with language and motives and humor — moments which are shared with the audience. A Pakistani audience was, and is, my primary audience. I often don’t get the opportunity to show my videos there. But I realized when I did eventually show this video in Pakistan, that despite what about people say about the masses not being able to understand contemporary work with its unending narrative, loops and video, the audience completely got what was happening. Even the most conservative of art critics said it was really good. My experience calls into question those who say contemporary art is alienating and foreign, for it’s actually about the world. What I found was a recognition, however abstract it may be, and a comprehension and enjoyment. It was a very successful exercise for me and gave me the confidence to do more. I firmly believe that I’m from a certain city and that I understand certain cities better than others. I don’t claim to be able to travel all over the world and equally represent each city I’m in. I think the whole relationship that Sharmini and I have with locality is very important in this exercise. Sharmini, maybe it’s time for you to talk about Raking Leaves a bit?
SP: Raking Leaves is something that developed after my work with the Biennale. Having done the Biennale, I was very clear that I didn’t want to have a career that was bound by exhibition making and biennale events. For me, exhibitions were about bringing together a number of objects, putting them in a space to create an experience that is in some ways immersive, that causes visitors to look closely at things. But what I was interested in doing more was the reverse: taking something and inserting it outside of the gallery. My approach takes form in a book — I commission artists to create an artwork that takes the form of a book. And I am not talking about a monograph or an exhibition catalog; I am talking about how an artwork has an inevitability about it in book form. It’s a proposition that has been explored more and more in my projects.
Bani has been talking about locality. Regarding the diaspora in relation to Europe, Stuart Hall has said that the diaspora are of Europe, not from Europe, and this has stayed with me. Bani said that she is from a place and being ‘from’ somewhere is imagining yourself having a beginning in a place, but being ‘of’ somewhere is about having a connection to it. Raking Leaves began in the UK and then moved to Sri Lanka…
BA: But all the artists you have worked with, for these book projects are from South Asia.
SP: Yes, all of the artists are from South Asia. The book form addresses many things, including the gallery space, and how to show art in a format might itself become the vehicle for circulating work by an artist.
BA: It’s important to know that Raking Leaves is a curated project. A lot of people think that Raking Leaves is a publishing house, but I see it as an alternative form of curating.
SP: It’s a curatorial publishing organization.
BA: You’re a curator who works extremely closely with artists and who choses to make books that can be distributed. Sharmini makes only two books a year and works in such detail that I’m now addicted to her process and go back to her [whenever I can for her advice] on projects that she has nothing to do with.
SP: The feeling is mutual! Given time constraints, I know I’m not going to be able to cover all the things that Raking Leaves has done nor all the various ways in which one can think of the book as an artwork, but as an anecdote, I was recently speaking to an artist here and he mentioned Ray Johnson who was one of the early artists who started working with mail art. Evidently Johnson tried to get his work into MoMA, but because MOMA categorized his art as letters, he was never admitted. I love those kinds of anecdotes, because at Raking Leaves we think about how can a book be circulating and still be a work by an artist, about how can these works be purchased by a museum, which is starting to happen, and how a museum can show the work.
Bani Abidi, I Love You, 2003, Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, 2013.
BA: This work is from 2003. While I did not produce The Speech Writer, until 2012, i.e. almost ten years later, this is the project that started the whole conversation. For this (2003) project I made videos of all my friends saying ‘I love you’. At the time I was really interested in the idea of romantic love and the privacy of it as well as the awkwardness of it, so basically I shot these videos and made these flip books for an exhibition, and then gave each person a copy [of the flip books. The recipient then] passed it to the people they loved who kept it for themselves. Of course, while many of these couples have since broken up, they were still left with these lovely little books that say ‘I love you’. This was the only flip book project that I had done at that time, and I was also interested in the idea of silence in this particular context…
Bani Abidi, The Speech Writer, 2012.
SP: This was our starting point Bani and I wanted to do something that involved flipbooks. I was really pleased because it got me thinking about all the different forms a book can take and about how flip books have a very specific history. It’s where early cinema and silent cinema began. So I was very excited that not only had Bani already made a flip book, but that she was also very familiar with the actual engineering of them and she wanted to do something that took that work further — further behind the stage, so to speak. Because we already knew the form, our discussion was then very much about the content. What happens at Raking Leaves is that I bring a designer onboard very early in the process. The designer then works very closely and in a very collaborative way with the artist. It’s often quite a learning curve for an artist because they often don’t know how a book is put together, and so the designer’s knowledge is really helpful in moving the process along.
BA: I should speak a bit more about the design process. The Speech Writer developed out of the idea of the flip book which is basically a short film distributed by printing it on pieces of paper that you can sit at home and watch. The idea of silence was very important to me. At that time I was very interested in this whole generation, my parents’ generation — people who are now in their 80s — who saw the creation of Pakistan and the Partition. I was interested in what role this generation and my parents played in this process. My father passed away but my mother is alive, and my interest revolved around the mental and psychological space that they occupied, having lived through the creation of a country and seen, in the context of Pakistan, it completely fall apart. I wanted to explore what that does to people like them and the eccentricities that it creates.
So I created a fictional character — a speech writer. The idea developed in stages, but ultimately the book is about a retired speech writer who, although he is retired, still has a lot of ideas, thoughts and dreams that he had tried to advance in the past through writing political speeches for others. But no one really cared about his ideas. He became an ineffective human being, for all practical purposes. And now, in his retirement, he goes through this daily ritual of sitting in his study on a chair with a microphone and reading out old his speeches.
And as you go through the flip books you begin to realize that he’s reading out his speeches to no one – that there are all these speakers outside his house that are broadcasting his speech to no one. It’s a mad gesture.
The gentleman who acted for the video is a friend of my father’s. He is an Indian theater actor and I was very interested in his relationship with my father, as he belonged to the same generation. All kinds of things have been read this piece – like the kind of ideology the speech writer is professing, because none of that is revealed. What he’s talking about and his dreams are left unanswered. But from my perspective, this piece is very much about the young people, the freedom fighters, who saw the creation of Pakistan and their ideas of nationalism.
SP: [Regarding the physical book], when you open it, you will find ten flipbooks [which together will form one image]. The reverse side of the flipbooks will form another image. So the way this book is formed, you’ll never see the whole piece in its entirety. The two sides present the interior and exterior. If you look at Bani’s other works, there’s always some tension between a private and public space.
Bani Abidi, The Speech Writer, 2012
This piece is an embodiment of silence. The house has become something like a retreat, where the person inside the house communicates with the outside world only through these speakers. But we don’t know what he’s saying. We can’t hear anything. The silence is slightly crazy.
Bani’s script is the only text in the book, which might give an idea about what’s going on inside. The script is formatted into something that looks like an interview – an interview with someone who has gone to visit the Speech Writer. Bani, why don’t you read it?
BA: “I’d arranged to spend Tuesday morning with him at his house. I find him crouched on his terrace floor upstairs in the warm sun, fixing a loose wire in his equipment. We slowly walk back indoors. Seated in his study, I ask how he started writing for others. He no longer remembers. ‘Maybe it started in college,’ he tells me, ‘I wrote a debate for my roommate who spoke well but needed help with framing his ideas.’ The words, the sentence constructions and the rhetoric had all come later. ‘I have written them all: campaign speeches, victory speeches, inaugural addresses and all the rest; many were broadcast live to the entire nation. Those were my words that reassured and spoke of change and made promises… I made those promises. When I started out, I thought naively that writing for these people would be a good thing. I wrote for them and thought with them for so many years,’ he says, wistfully, while wiping the dust off an old file, ‘but to what use? These ideas were just words for them. There are some of my best pieces. They were never used,’ he says, holding up a sheaf of papers. ‘I was told that they spoke of more than was needed.’
SP: Next I’m going to talk a little more about the process of making this book, by showing you the first set of videos that Bani sent me.
BA: I shot a video and sent it to Sharmini for her to get an idea of the narrative.
SP: The video wasn’t called The Speech Writer then; it was called The Daily Oracles from House No. 14. It changed from there, but No. 14 gives you a sense of this being an actual house.
SP: And there are ten of these books so there are ten short videos.
BA: We’ll pass the book around so you can see how both channels are within one book.
SP: Because the books have images on both sides, it’s a bit like a dual channel. And if you flip them the wrong way, you get the reverse.
BA: Which is fine. The thing about flip books is people are always excited by them, but when they’re over that initial excitement, and they come to the realization that they actually tell a story, that’s when the excitement deepens.
SP: The individual flip books are numbered in sequence.
BA: That’s another reason why I was interested in doing a flip book; it demystifies film. With flip books you can see how film works.
SP: These are some early working designs. Astrid Stavro was the designer of this book. She’s a designer from Spain. I put Bani in front of a couple of designers and she was the one about whom we felt most strongly, as she had already done a lot of projects that engaged works in series. Here are some of her proposals.
BA: What was really interesting about this project was that there were three professionals working together on this — a curator/producer, an artist, and a designer. So it just wasn’t me saying ‘these are my ideas. Now put them together’. It was really nice collaborating with a professional designer, someone who had very good ideas of her own.
SP: The printer should be mentioned as well. The final proposal was ten books inside a slip case. The whole process took quite a while. We began talking about this project in 2010 and it wasn’t published until early 2012 – a long period of gestation.
Bani has already mentioned her interest making her work engaging for a particular audience — a Pakistani audience.
BA: Or at least making work that is more accessible to them. Maybe they can’t buy art, but with the book they can access it.
Bani Abidi, I Love You, 2003, Aga Khan Museum, Toronto, 2013.
SP: This is an image showing I Love You, the flipbooks. Last year at the Aga Khan Museum in Toronto. We curated the opening show and we installed the flip books on a very low ledge. Even a five year old would have been able to reach them. It was interesting to see how everyone stooped over to look at them and flip them.
BA: In a recent show in Karachi we put The Speech Writer on display and listed 6,000 rupees as the price. The curator said people could not believe that there was something available for only 6,000 rupees! That was less than they would spent on an outfit. On the opening evening 25 copies were sold and I was euphoric. I thought this is incredible. We should all make multiple editions and price them at an affordable rate. As a beautifully designed object, it could even be viewed as a luxury good. So it was really wonderful for me that something I had worked on, something that communicated what I was interested in, was so accessible. We feel this says a lot about making artists books and distributing them.
JD: Thank you Shamini. Thank you Bani. Let’s now open this up for conversation. Your book raises questions about the relationship between still and moving image, silence and sound, the ability to communicate and the inability to make a difference when you’re communicating, as well as issues around accessibility. On this last point, last weekend was the Art Book Fair at MoMA PS1, and I was struck by the fact that there are so few exhibitors from Asia, except from Japan. Have you ever thought of exhibiting there?
BA: I generally enjoy art book fairs more than art fairs. For example, I recently attended a book fair in Berlin, and there was this sense of lightness of production, distribution, and thought. It was refreshing compared to the work and attitude you find at art fairs, where everything feels quite heavy and precious.
Audience Member: Bani, having visited Lahore and having looked at your work over several years. I feel they are both personal and local. Yet I’m still trying to understand who’s the viewership for it. You are well known around the world, in India, Europe, and the Americas, but in Pakistan? As an artist who takes so much pride in the local, what’s your sense of who your audience is?
BA: Unfortunately, in Pakistan the big dilemma has been that most galleries and museums don’t have the resources to hire projectors, so I often don’t get the opportunity to show my work in an exhibition context. So when I’m working towards doing a big show, I have started to think about whether I should buy my own projects, because for ten years I’ve been making work for this hypothetical audience who only sees my work when I’m giving a talk. I go back to Karachi twice a year, and give a lot of talks, which is why students know my work, but a lot of other people don’t. In Pakistan contemporary art people are more interested in who’s selling for how much; that’s really the qualifier of “cool”. But the contemporary art scene there still is growing, and I do now try to be part of it. A lot of younger curators have asked me to participate in their group shows, so I’ve taken part of three shows in Karachi this year. But yes, it’s tough, but something like this book offers an interesting solution, because people not only get to see my work but they can also own it. And regarding videos, there’s just a couple of collectors. And even if they collect video, are they able to show it to others? So I have to find a solution which might have to do with buying my own projectors.
JD: Regarding artist books and accessibility, is there a big difference in other parts of Asia? Even in the United States, people often collect art because it’s expensive, not because they have developed a deep appreciation for it. Perhaps, in Pakistan and other parts of Asia, this situation is exacerbated due to the lack of art infrastructure and exposure, but I think this phenomenon exists everywhere.
Audience member: How many editions have you made?
SP: They vary, maybe 2,500 to 3,000. Just to give an example, when a museum publishes an exhibition catalog, depending on the size of the museum, they print anywhere from 700 o 10,000 copies. So it can really vary, but a big problem all publishers face is distribution. Most people do not want to have administrative relationships with a lot of individual publishers; they want to have a relationship with one distributor who may represent 150 publishers. It’s the distributors who really hold a lot amount of power in this game.
BA: Compared to the dynamic in the art market, artist books offer an interesting alternative. In my case, the people who bought these books didn’t buy them as an investment; they bought them because they enjoyed them. Artist books offer an interesting way for people to experience art in places where the number of art spaces and museums is limited. I think print, sound, and radio are forms that artists can use really intelligently to broaden access.
SP: But I sometimes also think that conversations like this are kind of idealistic. We like to say the book is more accessible, but is that really true? When you look at the history of artist books, they remain more rarefied than they set out to be. For example, in the 1960s Ed Ruscha created a book called Twentysix Gasoline Stations. He envisioned it as something people could put in their back pocket, but that never quite happened. It went into several editions and reprints, and the price went up and up. The economics of the art world throws a long shadow across any kind of practice that is attempting to have broad public appeal. Although for me, “public” and “publishing” share this nexus connection. The idea of the public and the idea of publishing are inter-connected, because by publishing, things can be made known to the public. That is where the idealism still lies.
Audience Member: Picking up on what you said earlier about sound and the frustration of sound in the silence that is there, I was thinking, as this book was being passed around and as you were reading the Speech Writer’s text, is there a way in which you can envisage these books being performed like readings. And with in mind, I was also wondering, in the context of locality, how would translations work and what form would they take.
BA: That is very interesting. About the performance of flip books, there was an instance of a film maker who made an entire film using flip books. Everyone sat in the cinema with a flip book on their seat. People then had to rotate them. The whole performance took place in silence with very low lighting, with flip books getting passed around. There was just the sound of flip books.
SP: In fact, we talked about doing this for our launch. But to the question of translation, the more I think about it, the more I feel that some things just remain untranslatable, and that’s part of [the work]. And sometimes this notion of unintelligibility (and invisibility) can be used to describe how things are not represented. I think it’s quite interesting to think about silence. There’s some really interesting work being done looking at prisoners who are being interrogated and how they adopt a position of silence; how they withdraw as a form of defense. But silence, I think, is also something quite peculiarly South Asian. When I was growing up, “a good quiet child” was someone we were all trying to be. I remember once being in a car with my cousins and my aunt in the backseat. There were five of us sitting on top of one another. We all wanted to cry or scream,or make some sort of noise, but my cousins and I suppressed our sounds. That’s what is taught in South Asia — to be silent is to not question. There’s something about this idea of silence that Bani’s work touches on.
Audience Member: My question is about the first video. My summary interpretation is that it’s not just the form and the aesthetic or even the circulation that’s “contemporary” about it; it’s also what it’s about. People are seeing this thing that is reflecting their present day reality and it’s a reality that is free from a kind of history of political conflict or ideological interpretation or attachments to the idea of the nation that has this long dramatic history. It’s sort of like holding up a mirror to that what we are now –a nation stuck in traffic! Is this what your work is about? Is this piece suggesting a sort of reopening and an imagination of what our nation can be, free of those historical attachments?
BA: I don’t know if it’s a future, but it’s very characteristic of Pakistan with these hierarchical manifestations of power and the subservience of civil society. Because even among the people stuck in traffic, there’s an acceptance. People get weighed down and it’s very classist. People have very little agency; they never say that they’re not going to do that. It’s a comment and an exploration of that space.
SP: [As you can see in the film], we don’t know who the VIP is; it’s generic.
BA: Right, because it wasn’t about the VIP; it’s about the people.
SP: It speaks to the invisibility of power that can bring a whole city down, hijack and silence it. But about this, I don’t think that Bani’s work is proposing an answer.
BA: It’s interesting because at the same time I am doing this film a Pakistani writer, Mohammed Hanif, wrote A Case of Exploding Mangoes. This is a very well known book, and one of his chapters is about a traffic jam; the president is arriving and it’s a very detailed description of a traffic jam. We didn’t know each other, but I love his work, and it was fascinating that he was, perhaps, thinking about the same things [I was]. VIP culture is so important in Pakistan. It says reams about who Pakistanis are, how we articulates ourselves. It’s not necessarily a position for the future. I talk to my friends about this all the time, about why I feel very connected and why I feel I owe something to where I’m from. I’m in the business of trying to articulate and archive the everyday in the period that I exist.
JD: Well, thank you very much Bani. And thank you Sharmini. I think we have run out of time, but I know we all look forward to continuing this conversation.
All images courtesy of the artist and Raking Leaves.