On Coevolution, and the Spaces We Build for Ourselves – Dialog on KB22
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On Coevolution, and the Spaces We Build for Ourselves – Dialog on KB22

Art and technology have carved an instrumental, multifaceted and significant presence of working together in today’s digital world; each influencing the other, constantly evolving together and generating new ideas and approaches. Art encounters change with every new advancement in technology. This doesn’t just apply to its production and assembly, but also to the way it is disseminated, consumed and economized. Technology has not only made art more accessible but has also opened the industry to a wider and more diverse scope of creativity and ingenuity through the ways artists pave transdisciplinary pathways in new media art, and the ways that artists innovate and navigate from within artistic disciplines. It is evident that the art world is experiencing a radical revolution as it interlocks with technology.

Collective Imagination- Now and the Next reflected on, and allowed its audience to experience current and emerging practices developing at the junction of arts and digital technologies. Allowing artists to adopt and experiment with tools and technologies, the iteration engaged with plotting parallel pathways in art forms, allowing unique interactions and relationships with art. Emphasizing the creative, alongside the efficient characteristics of the medium, the tech-centered thematic of the third iteration of the Karachi Biennale (KB22) 1 enabled the artists to upraise the artistic, social, political, and educational facets of working with technology and codes.

Looking back at history, spanning onwards from the 1960s, the conception of installations had gained a prominent standing in modern art in the West— with mixed media, including light and sound becoming central to installation art. Video became a popular medium for technical and creative investigation and experimentation for artists all over the world. The trend did not catch up in Pakistan quickly. It took David Alesworth’s ‘Mind the Gap’ (circa 1996) to be one of   first video installations to be displayed in Pakistan2, to be followed by a video installation by Asma Mundrawala almost eight years later, in 20043. Digital prints were exhibited by David Alesworth, Asma Mundrawala, Huma Mulji during these times. Over subsequent decades the trend did catch up, albeit sporadically and at a nascent stage particularly when we talk about experimentation, exploration and quantity (of production) through early digital mediums. In the last decade, however, there has been a steady growth in the use of digital mediums and other art-forms to create diverse methods of storytelling. In recent years companies including SOC films4, digital technologists like Abrar Qazi, and artists such as Faisal Anwar, Rashid Rana, Arsalan Nasir have centered technology as core to their practice, creating a landscape induced by multimedia experimentation and technological development— working across art practices and technologies to cultivate media-rich environments, performances, and events. Amongst other artists, who are also experimenting with audio-visuals are Basir Mahmood, Mohsin Shafi, Mehbub Johkio, Ammar Faiz, to name some. Most recently, Muzzmil Ruheel’s Meeting Point utilized Augmented Reality (AR) technology during India Art Fair (2022) 5.

In the first iteration of the Karachi Biennale, KB176, Ayessha Qureshi, who’s practice mostly employs gestural mark-making, integrated digital media to talk about impermanence and memory through the powerful installation, Sky Frames7. During KB198 a TCS Project, in collaboration with Rashid Rana, transforms the TCS boxes and envelopes into art powered by Augmented Reality (AR) through an app designed by the artist that worked in tandem with the TCS packaging.

AIR RIDER,Yasir Darya, air bike, installation e-bike and IoT, Live Video, Collaborators: Sophia Hasnain/Linked things, Pakistan

KB22 set into motion a public exhibit which preoccupied itself with a vision to engage new possibilities— of narratives and practice— through conventional and advanced digital technologies employed by the showcasing artists, with the aim to connect people to the works as participants, and not just as ordinary viewers. The exhibitions served as a stimulus for learning, moving away from the customary role of engaging with formal aesthetics and visceral narratives; it served as a locus of action towards a socially responsible, collectively aware and perhaps a more optimistic future. Curated by Faisal Anwar, Collective Imagination- Now and the Next, maps and constructs inquiries into the competencies of digital technologies— multi-, trans-, or post-disciplinary practices, with artists working in virtual, physical, and hybrid spaces. It showcased contemporary artists writing and using code, data, and computation as vital edifices for artistic creation, developing into imaginative works that are conceptually new, and not based in prior art forms and disciplines. Coding has been compared to creative writing by artist John F. Simon, Jr., emphasizing that “writing software is as creative as it is technical.” 9 The School for Poetic Computation (SFPC) lives by the core motto of “more poetry, less demo” to encourage the creation of “strange, whimsical, and beautiful work” rooted in computational thinking. 10  Solimán López’s Airdrop Olea, Yasir Darya’s Air Rider, and PluginHUMAN’s Disco Apocalypse generates awareness into collaborative projects often traversing traditional disciplinary boundaries, to give a comprehensive insight, and glimpse, into how and why artists employ digital tool-building in order to push the customary experimentation while influencing education, commerce, and entertainment. Audio Placebo Plaza’s Collaborative and Community-driven Sound Art can also be a contender for this category. Through its participatory nature it invites appointments to discuss how an ‘audio placebo’ could help improve lives. A variety of audio techniques are developed to provide care— personalized ‘music is made to create repair’. Airdrop Olea’s use of code— and anchoring it to the immersing concept of cryptocurrency— as a creative medium gives life to ideas offering meaningful outlets for expression.

Invisible Flock with Faqir Zulfiqar and Allah Jurrio exemplified cross-sector collaboration, bringing together artists, engineers and musicians from across disciplines and borders. The performance and exhibit titled Microtonal becomes an interactive, data-driven sound sculpture which was created from two hundred Borindos11made by Allah Jurrio and Faqir Zulfiqar, both native residents of Badin. Another example of cross-sector collaboration was that of the Karachi Community Radio (KCR). KCR commissioned sensory technology, Arduinos12, electronics, artificial intelligence (AI), generative visuals, sound, and performance to create Saaz which invited the audience to interact with technology and classical music simultaneously.

Although AI-Generated Art is still evolving, it cannot be denied that it’s obscuring the line between human and machine. Through the application of Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics, and video documentation Justine Emard’s Co(AI)xistence uses a deep learning AI system, creating an artistic medium between data and human motion. A primitive intelligence, with a neuronal system, interacts face to face with the Japenese actor and dancer, Mirai Moriyama. The AI intelligence, created in the Ikegami and Ishiguro lab, learns from experience but characterizes a non-human way of understanding things. According to Emard, ‘the human and the robot try to define new perspectives of coexistence in the world.’

IT LIES BEYOND, Rashid Rana, inject print on vinyl, Augmented Reality (AR), 2022, Pakistan

Using headsets, QR codes and supporting technologies, artists Shezad Dawood, Dennis Rudolph, Amin Rehman, Nobumichi Asai and Rashid Rana experimented with virtual and augmented realities to design and share dynamic and immersive art experiences. Mobile devices and smartphones offered artistic production and creation, consequently enabling playful interventions in public space for the users.  Creating simulated, three-dimensional environments is possibly one of the most stimulating experiences and advancements in art; one that offers artists avenues for worldbuilding, to completely transform the creative experience.

Bilal Jabbar and Rabeeha Adnan modified and repurposed ready-made products and found objects, for creative use. Adnan’s Mukaalmah: We Can’t Both Be Right!,  a musical play performed by instrumental objects sourced from Jamshed Memorial Library, displayed an  ingenious use of video projection mapping, immersive sound design and light on mixed-media installation. Syeda Sheeza Ali’s interactive piece Lines of Force utilized gravitational, magnetic, and electromagnetic forces to create a scientific phenomenon whereby viewers spontaneously interact with the piece which ‘can be disturbed and reformed’ through mechanisms and structures such as sensors, irons and magnets.

For Anwar, the premise for creating art is to pose questions, to reflect, ‘trigger thinking, and instigate alternative ways of understanding about our stories, our surroundings, and our place on this planet’. He began his journey with three broad questions in mind: Through the evolution and new-found dynamics of making from conceptualizing to its physical manifestation are the artists finding a significant voice through the interaction of art, technology and emerging mediums?  The second question revolved around the decentralization of power, and artistic ownership and exploring what the new art economy does to impact the process of art-making. The third questioned the impact of disruption, with the technological evolution and advancements, and it’s social and cultural impacts on art over time— present and future.

CO(AI)XISTENCE, Justine Emard, Artificial Intelligence (AI), Robotics, Video Documentation, France

With these questions in mind, Anwar invited, artists, collectives, researchers, scientistic, academics, technologists, musicians, and designers to share their work and ‘create a collective imagination and a point of reflection for the city of Karachi,’ at a time when the city is also celebrating Pakistan’s 75th year of independence. Anwar’s practice, and curatorial vision, anchors to an understanding that working with technological advancements does not, and should not, create a conflict with the history of art, nor should it challenge the overwhelming works of artists and their contributions in the past and the present. The intention is to offer another perspective— a reflection on contemporary art movements, emerging mediums, real time technology, and new forms of engagements with the process of making; weaving technological advancements into cultural ecosystems and communities.

‘What happens when we break legacy-based silos and processes and collaborate with other disciplines to imagine, create and tell a story? What if we reimagine indigenous knowledge, and history to create an artistic expression with fresh and exciting engagements to form a future?’ 13

Alongside investigating the process of production, analyzing and shaping its boundaries, emphasizing on the clusters of activity and artistic energy, navigating the ecosystems, and strapping contemporary practice to enterprising technologies, artists were able to establish a structure for progressively creating a commentary on societies and ecologies, on the injustices of the present, as well as the overlapping of science fiction with a dystopic future. The range of practices is a mere glimpse of the many ways that artists worked with digital technologies as creative materials for a greater narrative. The installations created narratives to unfold across spaces. KCR14 conceivably unifying the spiritual with the profane. As the digital encroaches into the domain of the physical and the human, they posit the question: Can the domain of performance, virtuosity, and the expression of the soul, through an instrument, remain sacred? While Adnan’s Mukaalmah comments on institutional, and religious beliefs, and the way they limit and affect human relationships, Imran Qureshi’s Deen o Dunya merges the boundaries of religious rituals, culture, and modern technology to pave way for spectacular and carnivalesque experiences faced by residents and neighborhoods during specific times of the year. The collaborative performance of Invisible Flock with Faqir Zulfiqar and Allah Jurrio utilizes deep cultural and personal history with objects, to explore the encoded symbolism held within the Borindo. Dennis Rudolph’s Simurgh App creates a new ‘virtual’ way of connecting to one of the longest epic Persian poems, Shahnamah.

DEEN O DUNYA (THE SACRED AND THE EARTHLY), Imran Qureshi, Sound, Neon lights, Video Projection installation, Pakistan

Nobumichi Asai’s My Heartbeats and Amin Gulgee’s Memory Room project feelings, nostalgia and the wholeness of the self. On the other hand, Madyha Leghari’s Speaking in Tongues prompts questions of eco-anxiety, individual agency, an author’s intent, and the ever-presence of the narrator. While Rashid Rana’s It Lies Beyond, addresses the serious problem of climate change, natural calamities and the recent floodings in Pakistan, Amin Rehman Water Wars addresses the geo-political stance on water across borders, land reclamation, and a dystopic discernment into the changing climate in the Indus River basin regions by 2040. Herwig Scherabon’s dystopic Remembering You the City of Light projects the old ruins of Bhambhore and the landfill Jam Chakro at the edge of Karachi, allowing the viewer to go beyond human time to understand the issue of land, ecology, and global warming. PluginHUMAN’s Disco Apocalypse’ is an ‘almost unbearable reality’ where audiences are invited to question excesses of self-indulgence on the edge of the abyss. This immersive installation highlights how humans draw on rich environmental and cultural resources for hedonistic pleasure and our unwilling to fully address climate realities. The disco combines features visuals of First Nation Australian Aboriginal war shields, the latter are re-imagined by an indigenous artist, as a tool for the protection of the environment and traditional cultures.  Yasir Darya’s Air Rider, and Cosmic Tribe’s Sentient of Lights address the serious problem of air and light pollution respectively.

Forty-five artists, including collaborators, showcased in the third iteration. The artworks, in the form of installations and performances, spread over nine venues across Karachi including NED city campus, Jamshed Memorial, Hamid Mansion, NJV School, IBA city campus, VM Art Gallery, Sambara Gallery, Indus Valley School of Art & Architecture, and the Alliance Francoise and was open for public viewing for two weeks, free of cost. Ushers and volunteers were present at all venues to guide the public throughout the duration of KB22. Extensive key-note talks, under the KB Discursive’s Critical Knowledge Lab, were arranged throughout the two weeks KB22 took place. National and international research scholars, art historians and critics of repute were invited to read their papers and engage with the audience. IBA city campus, NJV school and NAPA hosted the talks. GEMAH Art and Wellness Workshops were also conducted and led by GEM’s Founding Director, Ange Weinrabe.  Coaches, artists, and musicians guided participants in using art and music skills, and the proprietary GEM Method as the wellbeing component, to work through personal challenges and stressful environments.

THE TERRARIUM, Shezad Dawood, Virtual Reality (VR), UK

Amongst the festivities of the Opening and Closing ceremonies celebrating KB22, prizes were announced including the EngroCorp Juried Prize which was awarded to Invisible Flock with Faqir Zulfiqar and Allah Jurrio, Prize for Emerging Artist went to Bilal Jabbar, Lifetime Achievement Award was presented to Mussarat Mirza, Award for Best Performance went to Cosmic Tribe, and the Popular Choice Award15 was won by Syeda Sheeza Ali. Although prizes are welcomed, one also feels that they do injustice, pushing back the hard work of the others. Perhaps the Prize for Emerging Artist16 and Lifetime Achievement Award17 warrants a merit.

Since the announcement of Faisal Anwar as curator for KB22 in 2019, and its consequent launch and galvanization on October 31, 2022, the whole heartedness with which the art fraternity and the public responded to the artworks and the thematic, I couldn’t help but applaud the selection of the curator. However, I was curious to know why wasn’t there an open call for a curator for KB22 and what was the criteria of selection a curator then? And, did the thematic arise out of Covid? Instinctively, I turned to Niilofur Farrukh18 for answers, to which she responded promptly and effortlessly.

Since 2016 KBT supported art and technology workshops in schools of Orangi conducted by German new media artists Wolfgang Sphan and Stefan Kovats. The trustees observed the growing interest in new media and digital technology among local artists and felt that a tech-based biennale would create exposure to global art revolving around, and evolving through, technology. The aim was to create opportunities for local artists to collaborate with coders and programmers, enabling both to discover new creative thresholds. In early 2020, the trustees unanimously came to the verdict of holding a hybrid art biennale.

Farrukh candidly spoke about the trustees’ experiences from KB19 when they had an Open Call but did not get a very wide pool of curators to choose from. Hence, for this iteration, KBT opted to painstakingly search for an artist who was a Pakistani (or of Pakistani origin), had proficiency in hybrid art, and had the ability to interact with communities19. A new media artist, Anwar’s art practice revolves around ‘creating odd configurations integrating culture and technology’, while exploring social interactivity and collective behavior in modern urban cultures by tapping into people’s perceptions of public and private spaces. Most of his projects are participatory in nature inviting his audience to interact and evolve.

Right after being announced curator for the upcoming biennale, Faisal Anwar set to work. He focused on identifying artists who worked with new media and technology shaping at the intersection of mediums and disciplines, who were experimenting with form, scale and materials through technology, and had the ability to work as collectives or engage in collaborations. There was no open call for artists, they were handpicked with great care by Anwar, purely basing the selection on merit. The advantage of this decision was reflected in the biennale quite evidently. However, the disadvantage and burden this decision carried cannot go unnoticed either. A small yet significant number of Pakistani artists and digital technologists, developing a momentous presence in Pakistan through their technology-driven artworks, were not invited to submit a proposal or participate.

Had there also been an open call this may have been avoided. Yes, we are aware that it’s a standard practice for curators all around the world to select artists based on merit and observation— due to the magnanimity of the task— but in a country like Pakistan where the art fraternity is but a handful, and where such events serve as launchpads for national and international recognition and opportunities, the absence of an open call was a miscue!

I was struck by the brilliant body of works, on display by Arsalan Nasir in a group show titled People You May Know showcased at Art Chowk on November 10, 2022 around the same time KB22 was taking place. His works utilized microcontrollers, stepper motors & PIR sensors to come up with an extremely strong narrative through use of technology. His practice involves the amalgamation of engineering and electronics, the play of physics and mediums, the understanding of processes, techniques and material. According to Nasir, ‘These are 21st century methodologies (not necessarily limited only to conventional mediums) that result in interactive or sensory experiences that simultaneously construct a contemporary discourse’. Nasir had also won the Emerging Artist Award during KB19 for inventing a game that could be played on toy mobile phones. The interactive interface20 invited visitors to engage in a game of ‘ring-toss’ that traps birds with rings and points to endangered avian species, in context to the thematic of the biennale. Nasir’s sound installation for KB17, Absent/Present21, was also technology driven— a visual and sonic representation of shared experiences and the subjective memories activated through motion sensors.

After stepping out of the gallery space I just couldn’t shrug off the thought and the need to find out more about young artists who were working with new media and technologies. Coincidently, Aarish Sardar22 shared his article with me, The notion of the unprecedented23 published in Encore24, on November 20, 2022; it enabled me to get a glimpse into the practices of emerging artists such as Abdur Rehman, Rehman Zada, Abbas Murad, Usman Saulat, Fatima Ashraf and Sara Aslam, who are committed to working in new media arts.

MONOLITH YW, Andreas Lutz, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Kinetic Sculpture (Audio + Visual); Actuators, LED lights, stretchable fabric, custom software, Germany

Is there a possibility that emerging artists working in new media arts, and with technologies, had been overlooked unintentionally by the curator who was working long distance for the most part of the planning stage and was not aware of their work in this area? Or, did the allotted budgets pale in comparison to the mega-thematic? Could it have been because of the small-sized teams’, who although based in Pakistan, were either overburdened or unaware of such artists and their respective practices? Or, was a large chunk of the budget allotted to international artists’ projects leaving aside a small sum for homespun artists? I turned towards Anwar to get a response and he ticked all of the above boxes even before I could lay down the options. He was quick to mention the limitations he had to face, and tough decisions he had to make, due to the unexpected and rapid depreciation of the rupee thus affecting the funds by almost half. Moreover, KB22 was perhaps the most expensive biennale in terms of its thematic which banked on the most expensive artform and medium— technology. According to Anwar he also did intend to make an open call but due to the small sized team, and constrained budgets, he felt restricted.

Anwar, thus set out to strategically and prudently focus his energy to work towards an exclusive biennale, smaller in scale and production (in terms of quantity). At the same time, he used this approach to create a unique atmosphere and environment which offered an intimate and engaging encounter with the interactive artworks, allowing spectators to experience contemporary art immersed with technology, right at their doorstep. His vision motivated opportune deliberations and dialogs which will subsequently propel developments and innovation in the contemporary Pakistani art-world, as art intersects with technology on a daily basis. It can be said safely that the decision to appoint Faisal Anwar as the curator for KB22 was a calculated and clever move by the trustees of Karachi Biennale. A clear triumph in terms of dynamics and pace it has set!

More on KB22, the curatorial vision, participating artists and artworks, performances, talks, workshops, can be accessed through the following link http://karachibiennale.org.pk/

Title image: SAAZ |ساز  ,Karachi Community Radio (KCR) Studio, Sensory tech, Electronics/ arduinos,, artificial intelligence (AI), generative visuals, sound, and performance, Pakistan

Video: Rabeeha Adnan – Mukaalmah: We Can’t Both Be Right! (Grid), courtesy – Rabeeha Adnan

Images courtesy: KB22 Curatorial Team

Endnotes

  1. KB 22 took place from October 31, 2022 till November, 13, 2022 at nine venues across Karachi.
  2. At the Alliance Française de Karachi. However, there is no documentation found on the installation either online, in the archives of the gallery or with the artist.
  3. The artist does not recall exact date and details and there is no documentation of the video installation either. She vaguely remembers the year to be 2004 but isn’t exactly sure.
  4. Sharmeen Obaid Chinoy (SOC) films premiered the virtual reality documentary titled Look But With Love, as part of Karachi Biennale’s first iteration (2017)  at Frere Hall. KB17 was curated by Amin Gulgee.
  5. Meeting Point was held between April 28-May 1, 2022 at The Studio, India Art Fair Grounds, New Delhi.
    The project invited viewers to step into an eerie landscape, where they can interact with all that silently inhabits this space, witness ghost words and watch them inaudibly present around the viewers..
  6. KB17, the first iteration of the Karachi Biennale, was curated by Amin Gulgee and was titled Witness.
  7. Sky Frames won the ADA Award 2020-2021
  8. The second iteration of the Karachi Biennale was curated by Muhammad Zeeshan.
  9. Simon, Jr. “Code as Creative Writing.”
  10. School for Poetic Computation, “Mission.”
  11. The Borindo is an instrument that can be dated back 5,000 years and was revived and modified by Faqir Zulifiqar’s father and Allah Jurrio. The Borrindo, Bhorrindo or Borendo is a musical instrument built in pottery or clay. It is a globular, spherical or ovoid flute with three or four holes; the larger hole is for blowing and the smaller ones to type in order to create melodies synonymous with the South Asian region.
  12. Open-source electronic prototyping platform enabling users to create interactive electronic objects.
  13. Faisal Anwar’s closing remarks at the Closing Ceremony of the third iteration of the Karachi Biennale (KB22), Collective Imagination, Now and the Next which was held at NED city campus on November 16, 2022.
  14. Karachi Community Radio Karachi Community Radio is an audio-visual intervention in the city’s musical culture.
  15. Based on public voting through the KB app available for downloading on both android and apple phones.
  16. This prize shapes through Open Call for proposed projects submitted by upcoming artists, and the selection is based on merit by an impartial panel.
  17. This award recognizes and promotes individuals who have made significant contribution in the field of arts and its paraphernalia over a period of 40 years in the area through their practice. A panel is selected and is provided with a clear set of criteria to follow to nominate a candidate.
  18. CEO and Managing Trustee, Karachi Biennale Trust
  19. Faisal Anwar had diligently worked on a project in Orangi Town and at NJV School in 2017 during the first iteration of the Karachi Biennale.
  20. https://catalogue.karachibiennale.org.pk/ pg. 164
  21. https://www.kbcuratorial.com/artists/arsalan-nasir
  22. a multi-disciplinary creative practitioner & an educator  and Head of Department of Visual Communication Design at BNU.
  23. https://www.thenews.com.pk/tns/detail/1011220-the-notion-of-the-unprecedented
  24. The News on Sunday

Saira Danish Ahmed is an art critic and independent curator. She has a postgraduate degree in Art & Design Education from the University of New South Wales, Australia and another in History from Karachi University. Art history and academic writing have been Ahmed’s core areas of interest. With an academic career spanning over a period of 20+ years she has been associated with Karachi’s leading degree awarding art colleges. Currently she is engaged in a leadership position, serving as Head of the Fashion Design Program at the Imperial Tutorial College (ITC). Her goal is to devise an implementable method in order to address the gap between the academic curriculum and the design industry both within the local and the global context. In 2021 she founded The Karachi Collective in order to create a discourse and scholarship on Art, Design and Interdisciplinary Humanities. She serves as the Editor in Chief and is an active member of the Editorial Board comprising of five global representatives.

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