Jane DeBevoise (JD): Tonight we’re delighted and honored to have Shaina Anand and Ashok Sukumaran here. This afternoon we organized a screening focusing on their pad.ma work, which is an archive of moving image footage, an online resource that we can talk about later. But at tonight’s event we thought we could focus on your practice as CAMP that in turn is in some way connected and indebted to archival materials that may or may not come from pad.ma. CAMP’s projects are interesting, complex, and long-term, and I’ve seen them at the Kochi Biennale, at the recent dOCUMENTA, and at the New Museum Triennale which Eungie Joo put together in 2012. Shaina and Ashok are based in Mumbai (Bombay) and are here in New York for several reasons, of which one is NYU’s two-day symposium Radical Archives. Shaina and Ashok, it’s great to have you here.
Shaina Anand (SA): Thank you all for coming tonight and to some of you, thank you for coming to the screening that happened at 3:30 this afternoon called People Act Dance Make and Annotate which is an acronym for pad.ma. pad.ma is a public access digital media archive and what we did at this afternoon’s screening was look at the everyday life of video through some of our practices and material that have gone into pad.ma. Our presentation this afternoon was a playlist which was created by taking in and out points from this archive, from material that spanned the last twenty-five years. We have a script and a bit of software in pad.ma that lets you do these in and out points and throw them into a box and say, ‘now play this movie in this order’ [and that’s what we did this afternoon]. Screened all together [this playlist] formed a chronological history of sorts, of video practices, of independent, autonomous, and personal video practices in India. I wish you all had seen it, but we’ll put it online and all you’ll have to do is press play and watch it.
pad.ma as an archive was formed in 2008 in collaboration with members of Alternative Law Forum, based in Bangalore, 0X2620 in Berlin, and CAMP in Bombay, but we like to say it’s a collaboration between eight close friends who are artists, coders, artists who learned to code, lawyers who learned to become film scholars, artists who became pirates and so on, but it’s really just eight close friends who run pad.ma. In 2012 we began working with Mariam Ghani who asked us whether we knew about an Afghanistan-based film archive. There’s this apocryphal tale that the Taliban burned it all, but in fact every single negative still exists. Much of the staff of this archive, the National Commission Agency, which had been set up since 1968, had worked there since that time, and a lot of them became stakeholders in their own film heritage and protected it. There are other apocryphal tales, which we like to believe, which are that the staff put posters of Mullah Omar on fake walls and said ‘there’s nothing here’, or they hid film cans under steam cans in the darkroom where they said there was no electricity. And that the staff was selective in what they did give up to be burned. Some of you probably attended the Radical Archives conference over the last two days. This is a spillover of that. Asia Art Archive helped support that conference and Jane very graciously hosted us.
So that’s pad.ma and now over to CAMP, which also has many acronyms, for example Culture According to My People, which has a logo of a pink lotus and not a saffron one. That’s the business card we pull out when we’re talking to the government. We’re voting in India right now and we might just have a saffron lotus which means right-wing Hindu fundamentalist government in power, but our lotus is always pink.
This is a list of the acronyms for CAMP. It’s a joke.
Ashok Sukumaran (AS): It’s an old joke. It came from working with too many NGOs.
SA: In India there’s this tradition of NGOs having really affected names like PUKAR, which means to call out but what does it really stand for? Partners Urban Knowledge Action and Research. So our website picks out a new name for CAMP every time. We like some of them. We like Comrades After Missed Promises. That’s the card that goes from Red to Black that we give dear friends from the old Left. There’s Challenges After Media Practice, which speaks to the CCTV cameras in the city. Our documentary friends ask us ‘how will your media practice change when there are all these cameras in the sky, and why would you pull out a new camera, and if you do, what would be a new image?’ There’s also Conversations Around More Philosophies, or Many Philosophies or Missing Philosophies. Collective About My Privates is another! These are things that people put up on the site.
AS: There’re thousands of them, many permutations and combinations….
SA: Our footprints at CAMP and also at pad.ma are many. Today we won’t be doing an artists’ presentation because we’re a bit burned out. We’ve been put on stage way too much in the past two weeks. We’ve been traveling through North America. Also this is a more intimate gathering, so we thought we’d just talk and maybe go deep into one or two projects.
AS: Part of the problem with performing in front of different kinds of gatherings, particularly intimate ones, is that some people know everything about you and call your bluff, but others don’t know anything, so it’s always difficult to create a balance, but today we thought for our 15th public talk in two weeks, that we would maybe try to show you some of the things that we show publicly but also show you some sequences from one work that might help you understand our practice in a slightly deeper way.
Broadly we are CAMP. There’s a line there in the beginning that says we’re not an artists’ collective and we still stick by that, because we are not made completely of artists, and we don’t always work mainly in the art world. Also we feel the whole genre of artists collectivity is being co-opted, and in a sense there is no difference between single artists and artists’ collectives in terms of their branding and appearance. So we like to call ourselves a studio and a space where different kinds of people can meet and do creative work and engage in life, politics, and creativity. We run several websites. Shaina mentioned pad.ma. pad.ma as an archive has just about 1200 hours of footage, but all of it is densely transcribed, usually written over, and it’s a form of creating for us a broader sense of the city that we working in. It came from that. Perhaps if the city were seen through these images there would be a very different history. Also a different social and political history than we read about in books, and this intersected strongly with Shaina’s pre-CAMP practice as an experimental documentary filmmaker.
A new website that we’re working on, indiancine.ma, has over 30,000 [movie] entries at the moment and is meant to be an encyclopedia, a partly pirated encyclopedia of Indian cinema, because we didn’t ask any producers, etc. for permission. But of course not all the films are up on it. We’ve recently concentrated on films produced before 1954 which is when copyright expires, after 60 years in India. There are encyclopedic entries for many films because we’ve [absorbed] several books, and IMDb, and various online sources.
SA: Including The Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema.
AS: If you want to get a sense of the breadth and scope of moving image produced within the century of Indian cinema, this is a good place to start.
SA: The primary source is still The Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema which was a book published in collaboration with the film archive of India and the DFI and co-authored by Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen. [The material in it ends in 1996.] Ashish’s book is a core part of the project and our task has been to build the index and to update that Encyclopedia from 1996 to 2013 which is where IMDb comes in. We sucked out a lot of their data, but there were also gaps because when Ashish did the book, it was in a pre-Internet time.
SA: This is the Umbrella Library project. It is an index of two bookshelves at CAMP and we’re updating the meta-data, but the umbrella name comes from other artists’ initiatives in the city and other organizations. The idea basically was to index everybody’s art books.
AS: Many of [the written materials] exist as PDFs and some of them come from friends. This pre-publication print came from Siddhartha here. It’s starting to exist as a book collection.
SA: This somebody lovingly scanned and we were really happy for it –it’s beautiful.
AS: The idea of showing this was to provide the broader context in which we work. This project is outside of what we do that you might call art practice. These are broader collaborations and interests, in the capacity of new technologies, and often produce a different landscape than the one we receive through given histories, through books, through education. You can change the landscape in which you act, for example, when you know every book that exists in art spaces in Bombay, right? This is 10,000 really incredible volumes of stuff that changes the perception one has of the city. These things all happen parallel to our work as artists, as collective and individual producers, but today we wanted to show one project.
Some of the people who were here this afternoon saw our argument about the everyday life of something like video, which produces a very special kind of everyday or ordinary which is perhaps not always capturable in films or artworks. And we tried to produce a sense of that landscape. Drawing from that and those kinds of things, I wanted to show you a very specific project that Shaina has spent most of the time on. I wanted to connect it briefly to the conceptual problem.
While working very closely and very intensely with technology, one of the things that we say on our website is that we’re suspicious of the main metaphor used to describe technological systems which is ‘networks.’ We can get into this more, but we’ve always felt that networks in the context that we were part of were exclusionary, and the word itself has lost all meaning somehow, because everything has become this connected, network-y, meshy thing. We were always interested in finding other words, other descriptions. We want to talk about what was left behind from networks, but also what can generate and has the capacity to produce them.
This is a somewhat abstract comment, but one of the words we use to talk about life outside of networks, or against them somehow, is the figure of the neighbor, and this particular film’s title is The Neighbor Before the House which has two meanings. It’s a film shot with Palestinian families in the city of Jerusalem and uses the house as a kind of tripod made of stones and a camera that is unable to move. It explores spaces and various social networks that we are part of, and the idea of neighborhood which is completely broken in a place like Jerusalem because there are various borders running through it. It also explores how we could reinvent that spatiality and think about it from the point of view of a Palestinian home, eight in the case of this film. Shaina will describe the clips that we’ll show now.
SA: It’s called The Neighbor Before the House in English and its Arabic title is Al jaar qabla al daar (الجار قبل الدار) which is a Quranic saying. This saying continues ‘The neighbor before the house, the comrade before the journey.’ In other words, consider your neighbor before you consider yourself, or love thy neighbor, which is also a Judeo-Christian, monotheistic way of thinking. We say Atithi Devo Bhavah or ‘The guest is as good as god, or is likened to god’, which is a kind of radical hospitality. Of course ‘neighbor before the house’ in a place like occupied Palestine, particularly in the city of Jerusalem, is a really corrupted thought and is also a corrupted phrase.
This project took place in 2009 when we were invited to do a new commission in Jerusalem. For us in India this meant getting a new passport because we didn’t want the Israel stamp on our passport. We were going to U.A.E a few weeks later, and Beirut a month after that, and so on. Since India does a lot of business with Israel (there are a lot of diamond traders between Bharat, Antwerp, and Tel Aviv) the Indian government said ‘OK, here’s a new passport’ and it’s handwritten in the back ‘For travel only to Israel.’ I went first on a research trip and then went back later. The problem we brought to the table was this fraught relationship of itinerant artists, going into places to make artworks, which is made worse by the fact that we do community engaged artworks. One of the reasons we formed CAMP was because we didn’t want to do this, because we wanted to have the infrastructure for longer engagements and to make projects that would continue over time. This moment was a classic trap. We thought ‘should we go, should we do this?’ In the end, we decided to stay with the trouble.
Another thread to CAMP’s practice is really through our video practice, technology and its relation to the subjects we work with, as we try to visually portray this relationship between subject/subjects, author/authors, and technology/technologies. We have a good image for these forces that is this game called rock, paper, scissors. They are all three beautiful symbols, but the scissor can cut the paper and the rock can smash the scissor, so we like to tweak these relationships and forces at play. There’s a body of work that preceded this and follows from this, but I think this a good moment to show the clips that we have lined up.
This was a project where eight different Palestinian families did the filming in Arabic entirely on their own, so while it was happening, sometimes I wasn’t even there, or if I was there, I may have only triggered a few things by asking a few questions. One CCTV camera was purchased on Edgware Road in London, where we were living for another project. It was a PTZ camera, [‘PTZ’ means pan/tilt/zoom] and it is shaped like a dome. It looks funny there because it can’t hang onto concrete; rather it’s up in the sky and we made a little box for it. You’ve seen them in malls and airports, in a little casing that holds a camera that can pan 360 degrees, tilt up, down, and zoom. These cameras are getting better and better; soon they’ll be able to go into your iris. They are controlled with a keypad and joystick from a control room. Those of you who were here for the screening in the afternoon have seen the CCTV control room we used for the project in Manchester. That is when I decided I wanted to buy one of these. A decent PTZ camera costs about £300. So in this project the eight families we worked with chose where to place the camera.
You saw in the previous photograph one location was on a roof. The tripod was made of stones. In that particular case the family had been evicted so it was their neighbor’s roof. The orange wires you see coming down are the power [source]. The joystick and keyboard were located in the safety of their homes. The family was sleeping on mattresses in a neighbor’s apartment, so the camera was up on the roof and the wires went into their rooms, into a private space, from which they controlled the camera. The clips are from three different locations. Maybe we can talk more about the process after we watch the clips.
AS: Just a note. These three clips are from different locations in the center of the city and East Jerusalem, a suburb. It starts with a Mosque in the middle of the old city, goes to Sheikh Jarrah, then Silwan, and back. This image is taken from the top of a Mosque.
SA: This is another clip from Silwan, where 88 Palestinian families were going to be evicted. They had been given their houses in the mid-50s by the U.N., but now this district is going to become part of the City of David and an amusement park, so 88 houses have to go.
These images are towards the end of the film, back in Sheikh Jarrah.
AS: This is the last clip, taken in the center of the city, the Old City. The Wailing Wall is right over here, and the al-Aqsa is just opposite.
To end very quickly, among many other things, one of the immediate considerations that we wanted to share with you all was something we’ve been doing these past few days and actually something that happened three weeks ago to a group of us which I felt, in the context of New York, deserved a mention. Since Hans Haacke and Mariam who know about this are here, we felt it was important to share with the larger group. The context is the building of the Guggenheim in Abu Dhabi, and we’ve been involved in a campaign to secure better conditions for the people who are actually building this kind of monstrous out-sized piece of cultural infrastructure. We saw a model in the Guggenheim office that perhaps others have seen, which shows the Guggenheim New York compared to the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi. One is the size of a saucer, the other the size of a table.
SA: It was like a coffee cup and a table.
AS: They’re quite proud of that model. Last week a few of us actually went to Abu Dhabi, so I wanted to share with you a few basic things that we found. These I think are very relevant to the question of how culture gets produced, built, how the infrastructure gets made, and how we may or may not acknowledge its presence. Here are two or three small pictures literally from my phone. We have followed this for a long time, but Shaina and I were quite dismayed by what we found. I’ll just narrate this in two minutes.
Two kilometers from any other habitation, deep inside a part of Abu Dhabi that no one can see — from the main highway you need binoculars to see this camp properly — are up to twenty thousand workers who are building the Guggenheim Museum, the Louvre, and other large museum infrastructures. There are four or five large museums planned on that island. This was the camp we were taken to, invited by the Abu Dhabi government, so undoubtedly a best-case scenario. I just wanted to share our discomfort with this whole development, which in a way implicates the Guggenheim in New York specifically. The Guggenheim workers aren’t there at the moment, but the Louvre workers are. There are 6,000 men in this camp, and two women. They work 10-11 hour shifts and the average income of a worker working on the Louvre is between 200-250 USD a month. Inside the rooms, which are six to a person, conforming to the known minimum standards by the IOC, the workers are required to follow a set of conditions: no eating, no cooking, no loud music, no pornography, no arguing, no smoking, etc. Slums in Bombay that we are familiar with are way better in terms of quality of life, so we just wanted to share these images with you. These are just two weeks old.
Many of the pictures have this strange way of communicating normalcy and somehow comfort, but the people who run the camp are basically like camp bosses whose previous gig was in Iraq. They are people who have to manage conflict and violence. The Palestinian and Bangladeshi workers are segregated because there were incidents of violence on the site. There’s a lot more detail about this that we found but the most important issue is that the all the workers we met on the site, 25 of them that we spoke to, had all paid large sums of money to come to Abu Dhabi from their home country Nepal, Bangladesh, India, etc. The sum of money was so large that it takes an average of two years to pay it off, but the visa for working in the U.A.E. is only two years. So you’re really talking about people who are doing indentured labor. They are working for free. They are working just to pay back loans, and these are the people who will be building the Guggenheim over the next two years. This is just something we wanted to mention.
Actually there is a very cynical sense in which the Saadiyat Accommodation Village tries to produce an image of itself, which the larger report that we’re preparing will try to address. For example, they have a Facebook page in which workers do paintings, participating in art competitions, but you can tell by the content of the paintings that there’s something strange going on with this art competition. I met this guy who runs the gym. These are just random grabs from 700-800 images of body-building. If this is the future of how we imagine workers rights or more broadly how we imagine offshore culture infrastructures, and if this is the kind of response we get to pressure people like us having been putting on Abu Dhabi, (i.e. by having this prison camp make this Facebook page) then we feel we’re doing something wrong. So I just wanted to say that we feel there’s something cynical about the ways in which the people who build the places where art will live are being treated. Thank you for listening.
Audience Member: Could I just ask quickly if there are any windows in that living space?
AS: There are some windows, but as you can see they’re very small. They say this is temporary and that it’s an ‘accommodation village’ but where do you get ‘village’ from?
SA: From the PR department telling us.
Audience Member: Things have to have air conditioning in the Gulf to be livable but there have been a lot of complaints in the Saadiyat housing regarding the air conditioning, when it’s functioning, how often it’s functioning properly, and whether the units are dripping and creating unsanitary conditions. Air conditioning is actually vital to life in the Emirates, and until air conditioning was invented there weren’t large cities in the Gulf; it wasn’t possible. The bus stops are air conditioned in the Gulf.
AS: For updates please go to gulflabor.org which is a website that we and many other people in New York contribute to. The key documents are here. There are several human rights watch reports. There is one coming out this month and there’s an incredible amount of press about this. In March 2014 there were protests in the Guggenheim space itself, but somehow we are unable to convince Guggenheim New York to take this problem seriously, not for us but for the conditions that are relatively obvious by now. And we are trapped in this situation because TDIC has made this model camp that they’re very proud of, but we think it is a prison. So now we are focusing on the question of the enforcement of minimum wages and the recruitment issues, which we are working on also on the India side.
Audience Member: I follow soccer quite passionately. The 2020 World Cup is going to be played in the summer in Qatar at night. There’s been a kind of trade-off with FIFA, the world’s greatest sports organization after the IOC Olympics was presented with a lot of money, some soft-bribes, to get this. They’re following the template [of the U.A.E.] and Qatar has actually worse conditions of labor. There are more debts there. I live in India so I can follow this because many of the workers are Indian, and some Nepalese. Qatar is following the Guggenheim to some extent in their discourse, in their pitching, in their soft-languaging. They actually sent somebody from the IOC to the FIFA meeting about this in Doha. What’s going to happen in the Middle East is that there is going to continue to be bigger and bigger events like this. This struggle is a signal, a template to follow for both sides into the future, because there’s even more money at stake with FIFA, more eyeballs.
Audience Member: Did the Guggenheim invite you to come do a project?
SA: A lot of the artists in this room have officially boycotted the Guggenheim Abu Dhabi, so there’s no project.
AS: The master planner of the island, called TDIC, Tourism Development Investment Corporation, which is a semi-governmental organization in Abu Dhabi, invited a group of us to see the conditions. They also invite British MPs and so on, to their model village.
Audience Member: What was their idea?
AS: Their idea was that we’d look at their nice camp and say ‘oh well done’ and stop protesting.
Audience Member: We were very polite after the first time we visited, which was some years ago, but we’re being much less polite now.
AS: Nobody talks to the workers, or [communicates] the basic things. The first guy I met in the Saadiyat Village was among 125 people who had been moved there last night. They were told at 3 pm that they were being moved to the island. They were bussed across and moved into these rooms and left for work at 6 am as usual. Then they were left to fill these TV rooms that we saw. Nobody was expecting us to talk to them.
Audience Member: A central part of their position has always been that we’re criticizing them from a place of ignorance, we are artists who have nothing to do with the region, we have nothing to do with South Asia, and we have nothing to do with the Middle East. But they forget that there are many people among us who speak the language of the workers and who also speak Arabic. They forget that we can do that, that we can find out the things that they don’t want us to know when they invite us there. They forget because they’re so set on this position that we don’t know what we’re talking about.
Audience Member: The whole trip was organized by a New York based P.R. company, from the Guggenheim here.
SA: That is the problem, this engagement, is always just a PR game. So when a letter is written, the Guggenheim will reply, but it’s actually the PR department that will draft the banal 140-word response. It was really bizarre. On the last day there was a group of us. We were talking to three people who said ‘we’ve done this research and we’re really invested’ and later we asked them ‘where do you come from?’ and it turns out they used to work for Reuters. They’re not human rights people, they’re not a HR people, they’ve just been brought here to dress things up for us, but you could still sense their anxiety. The formerly Reuters guy (the head of the PR department) said ‘you attack us all the time. Human Rights did a report. The Guardian did this report. The Observer did this report’. And we said ‘They’re not us. If others have done reports, we’re not the ones attacking you; it’s only because people are getting concerned’. Maybe the boycott catalyzed it. People have to make a stand.
Audience Member: I’m curious what your efforts have been to make workers aware of this before they go. Do you have any outreach in Pakistan or Bangladesh? What are your thoughts about that?
SA: It’s not like the worker doesn’t know that he’s mortgaging his house, and he is going to be in debt. There is this fragile kinship network where ‘it’s my uncle who already went’, etc. and that’s the reason they still go, because you can send some money back home. So it’s not like most of them are doing this blindfolded.
AS: This isn’t like some foreign country to many, to most workers in India, Dubai is where you go to work. It’s like going to the city.
Audience Member: You don’t go to a site: you go to a country, you’re indentured to a country, and you don’t know where you are going. The Qatar thing is becoming an issue because they’ve not been told they’re going to work in the open in 100 degree heat 12 hours a day 7 days a week.
Audience Member: So will the group take it on to make these conditions more known to people?
AS: We’ve also worked on the India side as well, and there are people trying to do work in Nepal, but the situation remains that in Abu Dhabi these workers are isolated from the majority of the population, in these far away conditions, far away from the reality of Abu Dhabi, which has a per capita income of about 50,000 USD a year. By isolating these people, you can ignore their existence. So the fact that there are 6,000 men and two women, and the fact that they’re being paid nothing, and not allowed to eat in their rooms is not part of the conscious encounter of people [who live in the city or who are building the facilities.] It’s very much a problem of priorities in Abu Dhabi, for the people building this monstrous, large-scale museum infrastructure.
SA: That’s what cynical and shocking. It’s almost exactly three years since Gulf Labor and the launch of the boycott. They’re not really trying, it’s just a PR exercise, or that’s the feeling we get. It’s seems quite superficial.
AS: That’s what struck me the most — how much money was being spent on the green cricket field, the image.
SA: The daily rent for a worker to live in these conditions is more than their daily wage. In fact, at the more informal camps we visited, the workers had their own gas cylinders, they were cooking, it had a lot more life.
Audience Member: Perhaps no one had actually been living there; they were just taken there in the night.
SA: [There were people] living there. They just took a lot more for it to appear full.
Audience Member: Going back to the middlemen, the people who are doing recruitment in the other countries for the workers, it sounds like what you described is more of a cultural problem, more than one of inaccuracy or bad information being conveyed to those prospective workers, which is to say that it has more to do with what their family members say, rather than simply that the information they’re being told is untrue. Is that correct?
AS: There’s a chain of recruitment that reaches very deep into Nepal and other places, and of course there are people in the middle of this long chain who are exploiting the weakest, rather than the company paying for this chain. The worker pays for all of it, and the company knows this but doesn’t want to do anything about it. So there’s a chain between these two large entities, workers in Nepal and Arab Tech which is building the Louvre. Arab Tech knows these workers are paying for their own tickets, for their own passports, all of that, when by U.A.E. law, they are supposed to pay for it. But they say this is a foreign country problem and they can’t deal with it. The problem is that you’re supposed to make sure that the tickets for people to come and work for you are paid by you. You’re supposed to safeguard the workers that are coming to you. You’re supposed to integrate them into the society, but no Abu Dhabi person can visit this site ever. It’s two kilometers behind a checkpoint. It’s a place where you house people who are working for you who have no other rights. But we feel these people have to be acknowledged and given a living wage.
We did a calculation that said if Guggenheim and TDIC repaid the 6,000 workers their recruitment fees that would work out to about 12 million dollars, which is a small percentage of the building budget.
Thank you Jane for hearing us out.
Images and videos courtesy of CAMP
CAMP is a collaborative studio based in Bombay that combines film, video, installation, software, open-access archives, and public programming with broad interests in technology, film and theory. CAMP are co-initiators of the online footage archive http://Pad.ma and the cinema archive http://indiancine.ma.
Transcribed by Hilary Chassé and edited by Jane DeBevoise.