During the last weekend of February, Sarai, arguably the first new media center in South Asia of its kind, opened its premises with a three days conference on the Public Domain. Sarai, which means an enclosed space, tavern or public house in a city, or, beside a highway, where travelers and caravans can find shelter in various South-Asian and Middle Eastern languages, is located in the basement of a newly erected building in Delhi (India). The Sarai initiative describes itself as an alternative, non-commercial space for an imaginative reconstitution of urban public culture, new and old media practice and research and critical cultural intervention.
Sarai receives key additional support from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Research Division of the Development Aid Section), the Daniel Langlois Foundation for Art, Science and Technology and the Dutch aid organization HIVOS. The inception of Sarai coincides with a three yearlong exchange and collaboration program with the Society for Old and New Media (www.waag.org), Amsterdam. The Dutch Foreign Affairs Ministry also supports this partnership. Sarai is in the process of developing local links with initiatives in Delhi and India and international links with partners in South Asia and elsewhere. Significant amongst these is an effort towards the setting up of an informal South Asian New Media Network to collaborate with like-minded initiatives in the region as well as an emerging relationship of partnership and cooperation with the Australian Network for Art and Technology (ANAT).
Sarai is a unique blend of people and disciplines. The main background of the initiators of Sarai is in documentary filmmaking, media theory and research. Historians, programmers, urbanists and political theorists have subsequently joined them. One of the founders, Jeebesh Bagchi, describes Sarai as a “unique combination of people practices, machines and free-floating fragments of socially available code ready for creative re-purposing. Here the documentary filmmaker can engage with the urbanist, the video artist jam with the street photographer, the film theorist enter into conversations with the graphic designer and the historian play conceptual games with the hacker.”
Sarai is a program of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, an idendepedant research center, founded in 1964. CSDS funded by the Indian state and a range of international donors. The center has welcomed dissenting voices in South Asia and it is well known for its skepticism towards received models of development. Sarai is a pilot project for the Dutch ministry of foreign affairs. So far most of the money was spent on building water pumps in rural areas. For decades Dutch policy had been to only support the poorest of the poor. However, recently more and more NGOs in the field started using Internet. There is a growing awareness of the importance of IT-use within development projects—and society as whole. New media are becoming an important part of the rapid growing and diverting process of urbanization.
With a public access space full of terminals and a cafe, Sarai neither has the feel of an isolated research facility, nor does it have the claustrophobic agenda like many new media arts institutions, let alone does it equal an IT-company, even though the place is flocked with young computer hackers. Monica Narula, (another co-founder of Sarai, member of the Raqs Media Collective) is a filmmaker, photographer, and in charge of design at Sarai. She is responsible for the look of both the website and the internal network interface. She says: ” Delhi is a polarized space. Young people and students have nowhere to go. Either place for them is expensive or nothing is happening. People can come to Sarai and use the internal network interface via one of the terminals in the public space, have coffee and also interact. The internal Sarai interface is much more sophisticated compared to the website. In India download time means money; people don’t have the necessary plug-ins installed. After a fierce internal debate we decided to develop a more interesting, creative interface for the public terminals and have the website really light.”
The atmosphere during the opening was one of an exceptionally high intellectual level, the air filled with lively debates. The Sarai community, now employing 13 staff members, is open for everything, ready to question anything. Jeebesh, himself a filmmaker and another member of Raqs Media Collective says: “I was not happy with the way in which classic research feeds back into society. I don’t like being specialized. The idea is to proliferate and multiply, creating a new hybrid model in order to discover something and not get stuck with the form in which we are producing it.”
Sarai has five research areas: ethnographies of the new media, the city and social justice, film and consciousness, mapping the city and language and new media about the role of Hindi. The Internet provides an occasion for a new form of Hindi language expression, different from the culture of the Hindi literary establishment. Apart from research programs the “CyberMohalla” project is under construction. It will focus on tactical, low cost hard and software solutions for web authorization, scanning, streaming of audio and visual material. Sarai will provide schools and NGOs with solutions that are resulting from this project. From early on, Sarai has been collaborating with the Delhi Linux user group which led to the Garage Free Software project whose aim it is to set up a gift economy, working on alternatives to expensive proprietary software. It will also develop user-friendly interfaces and develop Linux based applications in Hindi.
Over the last half year all those working at Sarai members have been busy creating the space, installing computers on an entirely open source network, designing and uploading the website (www.sarai.net), doing basic construction work in order to prevent the monsoon storm water from entering, and setting up the groundwork for the Sarai archive so as to enable it to hold a variety of platforms, from books to DVDs, and connect it to a database with material accessible to visitors of the public access area. The Sarai database is best accessed via Sarai’s internal network interface.
Monica Narula: “We have been working on three versions of the site. The second one was slick but slow. The new one is faster and more complex. What I will start working on is the idea of multi perspectives. We want to combine elements from traditional work with the contemporary street feel with its bright colors. Here we are experiencing simultaneous time zones. Old representations show up in the most unexpected places. Here we have a non-perspective approach to representation.”
Already before Sarai started, Monica had the idea of the computer taking you on a journey through the city. Monica: “The experience would be interactive but also would give you a path. Icons representing concepts would lead you through a narrative space. That idea was a little ambitious. We started to realize that such a difficult design was all about coding. A sense of discovery remains important. You click on a certain motive and get somewhere else. You think you know the city, but you discover you don’t. By looking at it you start seeing new elements. That’s the motivation behind the Sarai interface.”
For the handful of international guests visiting the opening, the quality of the Internet connection was a surprisingly stable 128K ISDN leased line, supported by back-up battery systems in case of “load shedding” which indeed frequently happens. At one occasion, last year, North Delhi had a 36 hours electricity power cut. The batteries for the Sarai servers is worth more than the servers themselves and can hold for up to 4 1/2 hours. Apart from that each PC has its individual USP system.
Using both old and new media is a key element in the design philosophy of Sarai. Monica Narula: “It’s all going to be interpretive and subjective. Our “Mapping the city” project is not going to give a demographic or ethnographic account. Our question is: how does the city feel to us? Questions of class and gender are involved in this. There are so many untold stories, from people that usually do not matter. I like reading but I much prefer talking, and listening. We will focus on the dialogue aspects, looking into storytelling and oral traditions. Using film, photography and sound we would like to do an anatomy of one specific location, a little zone, making a cross section from the rich trader to the man who is pulling the street car, all within a square kilometer. Take the example of Old Delhi, where at one place someone registered twenty-one different ways of transport.”
The city of Delhi, with its approximate ten million inhabitants, is an endless source of inspiration for the Sarai members, lacking the disgust for poverty, pollution and noise of the elite and innocent Western tourists. The setting is post-apocalyptic. Shuddha, also a member of the Raqs Media Collective and one of the Sarai founders: “In Delhi we are in some ways living in the future. In a situation of urban chaos and retreat of the public and the state initiatives. Tendencies that are currently happening in Europe. The young generation in Europe will face some of the realities that many of us are accustomed with in India, whereas we may leave some of these realities behind. The difference between a contemporary moment in India and Europe is one of scale rather then of an essential nature. There is more of everything here. More people, more complexities, and also more possibilities.”
Geert : Would you therefore say that Delhi is a global city as Saskia Sassen defined it in her book “Global Cities”? Delhi more looks like a national metropolis rather then a node for global finance.
Shuddha: “Earlier Delhi was not considered a global city because it did not have a harbor, unlike Calcutta and Bombay. In global capitalism that doesn’t count any longer. What’s important is the capacity of a city to act as a network with other cities. Delhi is a center of the extended working day, providing the global market with back office accounting and call center services. There is an emerging digital proletarian class which is connected to the world.”
Ravi Sundaram, a Sarai founder and a fellow at CSDS adds: “Saskia Sassen’s book “Global Cities” came out right after the rise of finance capital in the late eighties. I think we have to rework that notion. The new phase of globalization in the nineties does not only depend on financial nodes anymore. They are complex network of flows. Delhi is a new global city and there are many of them. In the new economy people are trading in global commodities, using global technologies, increasingly using the Net, surrounded by an empire of signs. Delhi used to be like Washington DC. That was 15 years ago. Now it is a mixture more reminiscent of LA South Central with its urban chaos, migration, and uncontrolled growth of suburbs, informal networks and capital flowing everywhere. In that sense I would not limit global cities to financial nodes and labor flows. The narrow definition of global cities borders the sociological. We should move to a more cultural, political and engaged form.”
I met Sarai co-director Ravi Sundaram for the first time in June 1996, at the fifth Cyberconf in Madrid. He delivered a paper about the difference between coming of cyberspace in India and previous national industrialization policies such as the building of dams. Ravi’s research topic within Sarai is electronic street cultures, the grey economy of hardware assembly and the role of software piracy and cyber cafés in the spreading of PC usage and the Internet. The aim of Sundaram’s investigations into the local “ethnographies of new media” is to add complexity to the elitist view that computers are a conspiracy of the rich against the poor with only the upper class benefiting from information technology. Sarai rejects such clichés. Ravi: “The elites in the West and India share a culture of guilt. In the view of these elites, “their” technology and creativity cannot be a property of daily life. Rather, the domain of the everyday is left to state and NGO-intervention for upliftment. Sarai does not share that agenda. “We live in a highly unequal, violent society. But there are very dynamic forms of technological practice in that society. We speak to that, and not just in national terms. We speak equally, within transnational terms, which marks a difference to earlier initiatives in cinema, radio or writing. We are not the third new media (like in third cinema).”
How does Sarai look at the development sector? Jeebesh: “Development often implies the notion of victims of culture. I don’t think in those terms. People live, struggle, renew, invent. Also in poverty people have a culture. I feel a little lost in this terrain, knowing that Sarai, to a large extend, is financed through development aid programs. I would never use a term like “digital divide”. We have a print divide in India, an education divide, a railway divide, an airplanes divide. The “new economy” in India is definitely not conceived as a divide. It is a rapid expansion of digital culture. The digital divide is a ‘social consciousness’ term, born out of guilt. We should interpret the media in different terms, not just in terms of haves and have not.”
Sarai rejects the “Third World” label altogether. Jeebesh: “Within arts and culture, the human interest story usually comes from the Third World whereas formal experimentation is done in Europe and the United States. That’s the international division of labor between conscience and aesthetics. It would be unfortunate if this would happen with Sarai. Working within the Net, with different forms of knowledge, no longer can have discrete spaces. Working from a so-called developing country means that you are constantly put under the techno-determinist pressure to be functional. At present there is no other domain to be creative outside of the development realm of sanitation, water and poverty. The pressure will always be there. But what worries us more is what discourse critical minds in Europe and the States will construct around Sarai.”
Being the South Asian early bird on the global screen comes with certain responsibilities–and pressures. The thread of being instrumentalized, having to act within Western parameters is a real one. Sarai members are aware of the danger of exoticism. Jeebesh: “I am afraid of over-expectation and over-burning. Ideally Sarai should not become representative of its country or the region it is located within. We should break with the tradition of national cinema and the national filmmaker going to international festivals, saying “I am from India, I am from Germany, etc.” We can lose focus if that’s happening. We are interested in a dialogue amongst equals and do not want to get caught in the curated festivals of the world.” Monica: “Showing work abroad has a good side. It gives you deadlines. But I am not interested in becoming the authentic Third World voice. The aesthetics have to be driven from here. An equal collaboration has to integrate the smell and texture of a city like Delhi. For Sarai there is a danger of supremacy of the text. This has to be fought. You can say a lot with images. Images are either highbrow art or kitsch from the street.”
The balance between developing new media and doing research is a delicate one. The exciting and demanding production of new media works can easily take over from theoretical reflections. Sarai is in the first place a research facility, but the pressure will be strong, from both in and outside, to show concrete results in terms of interfaces, software and new media titles. I asked Jeebesh how he would stop a hierarchy between new media production and research from happening. “It’s a deep, institutional tension. There is an academic codification of research. In India there are only a few independent researchers. The academy here is creating systematic knowledge, but it’s not creating dynamic public forms. In the early 20th century most of the brilliant thinkers were independent researchers, creating a dynamism of thought which we still carry on.”
According to Jeebesh Bagchi, Sarai should create media forms, which the academy cannot neglect. “Feature film has been respected as an equal, artistic art form, whereas the documentary form has been patronized by the academy. We should create such a dynamic tactical media form that it becomes equal to academic knowledge.” Sarai intends not become a production house. Jeebesh: “We are into experimenting. Still, there is certainly slackness amongst documentary filmmakers. We shoot and there is an equation between what has been shot and the film itself. The claim to be the makers of reality bites has created a climate, which is not very self-critical. There is a crisis of representation. I do not want to represent anyone. So what then is an anti-representational documentary? With new media we would like to emphasize that intellectual crisis.
Where in Delhi does Sarai look for collaboration? Jeebesh: “Some of the intellectuals are experts, a technocracy which is being taken serious. After 1989 you can more freely say what you feel because the burden of state socialism and communism is no longer there. We will therefore see more interesting things happening. It will not only be about talking but about doing. From the beginning Sarai did not want to network with people who have already established themselves. We can collaborate with individuals, on a mutual basis. More challenging is how you engage with the popular design sensibility. What kind of dialogue with this strange and eclectic world do we want to create, not based on domination or populism. How does a programmer create software for a non-literate audience?”
So far in India popular culture has been defined by film. There is a tradition in India to interpret society through film. Jeebesh: “Film will remain an important reference. Till the mid eighties film was looked down upon. In the nineties different readings of film and social inequalities were created. These days film has a strange presence through television culture. The music video clip does not exist here. What we have is television relaying film songs. India is a song culture and visual sign board culture. It is deeply embedded in the stories you tell. New media are reconfiguring narration and codes of self-description. There is interesting science fiction now. The problem is that film and television may be imaginative but it is not creating a productive culture. There is a tension with new media, from which potentially something new could grow. We are still surrounded by 20th century broadcasting concepts: inform, educate and entertain. New media should not follow that rubric.”
There are numerous obstacles for Sarai in building public interfaces. Will the general public finds its way to Sarai and how will Sarai reach out? Jeebesh: “Let the practice speak over time. We must become a place where young people feel at home and become confident so that they will start using it. An intellectual place where different opinions can be articulated, not a ghetto where people feel they have to say correct things.” The balance between dissent and power is a delicate one, constantly having to question and re-invent ones self while slowly becoming an institution. Co-director Ravi Sundaram: “One has to be deeply skeptical of all institutions, including our own. Being part of an institution means being part of power, whether we like it or not. Both universities and arts institution are strong nodes of power. In India both of them are in a financial and intellectual crisis. For a long time arts institutions were a monopoly of the state. That’s over now.”
Jeebesh: “Recently an American media artist was visiting Sarai and at a certain point the conversation focused on the question how to map a database onto a surface, if I want to see the content of a database as an image? What is the aesthetics of a database? That’s productive discussion. If people that takes an art form, and see it as an art work, that’s fine, as long as it comes from an internal curiosity. In a non-visual, non-literate culture we have to somehow work out how the database relates to the surface, which is not text based.”
Shuddha: “People may be interested in such arts-related issues on an individual basis. There should be an open space for the creative pursuits that people wish to follow on their own instinct, without taken away the concerns that Sarai has as a collective body. We are not here to provide a platform for Indian new media artists to engage with the international community. Nor is it in our interest to stop it.”
It is Sarai’s explicit wish not to create a new discipline. A brave statement in times in which artists either have to buy themselves into the IT-industry or, as in the case of net.art, are bailing out by writing themselves into art (history) discourses and their institutions. Shuddha Sengupta: “Sarai is not going to become an arts institution. There are many of us who are practitioners, working with images, text and sound. We look at those practices from different points of view. We would like to find hybrid forms, beyond the categories of the artist, activist, theorist or critic. Some of the work will take on the form of the aesthetic. Other work will engage with the realm of the political, of knowledge, and with the realm of understanding. None of these elements will have a primacy because we don’t see it in those terms. Which is not to say that we will not have an engagement with the aesthetic or the realm of pleasure. We certainly will.”
Jeebesh does not want identify himself with any artist specialization. “That’s the problem of net art or net culture. It limits cross conversations. We will be very sensitive about that. We should not establish formal identities and disciplines. This can create structural divisions between us. That’s why I like to call Sarai a post-institutional space where the public is always present, pushing you to be different.”
Ravi Sundaram: “I never understood most of net art. I have always been interested in avant-garde practices but I have not yet identified net art as such. These are complicated aesthetic translations and we at Sarai still have a lot to discover. Two years ago we never imagined what and where we would be today. We have a shared language and a lot of creative disagreements and we would like to share that with outsiders too. If dialogue is a transparent, honest process, not rendered in national, Indian/Western terms, it becomes easier. It is a cruel, historical baggage that we are born into. It is marked on us that you are from the Third World. We abandon that old baggage.”
Shuddha: “Working with sound, text and images over the past years we have found that the taxonomic regime of people being described as writers or film makers has been an inhibition of our work. We wanted to do more interesting work than filmmaking allows. Funding wants to classify your practice and organize it in certain modes of qualifications. Having said that we do not want to enter into another regime of qualification of ourselves as net artists. One of the reasons why we entered the new media is because we felt that it allows for a certain liberation in which qualification regimes can be put aside.” Ravi Sundaram adds: “All of us want to break out of disciplinary forms. I come out of formal academic institutions. Yet, Sarai is a program of an academic research institution, CSDS.” Jeebesh interrupts: “I like the tradition of public intellectuals, such as Ashis Nandy of CSDS who has a disdain for academia. He says: ‘I don’t write, I think.'” Ravi Sundaram interrupts again: “There might be an avant-garde urge to mock institutions. But the money and recognition will come from that very same place. We have to recognize that tension. If we do not recognize the tension we will become rhetorical. We want to be in both places. We are not innocent of power. We live in a highly unequal society. But it is important to render this public, straight.”
Let’s go back to Sarai’s original drive, to develop its own language of new media. What would it be based on? Shuddha: “The communication imperative is an important one for us. Media technologies in India so far have only been one to many. That should not happen to the Net. The relation between communication and power should be investigated, and challenged, even only conceptually to begin with. In order to get there we need to establish a truly international sensitivity. With that I do not mean national or regional identities. New media culture is not yet international. What goes on elsewhere has to be taken into account. When I used to look at the Internet and the new politics of communication that emerged earlier, I thought: our space, our city should be able to create this. I hope it will be possible for someone living in Teheran or Rangoon, parts of Asia and Africa to think that something like Sarai should also be possible here. At one time it was impossible for us to imagine a Sarai. For me, after coming back from the Next Five Minutes Conference (Amsterdam, March 99, www.n5m.org), it seemed possible. Before we were unable to bring together the energies that were necessary. There is a process of discovery of such energies.”
Sarai, The New Media Initiative, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, 29 Rajpur Road, Delhi, 110054, India. Phone (00) 91 11 3951190, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org, www.sarai.net. For the opening a reader has been produced, entitled The Public Domain, with a variety of texts about new media in South Asia. For more information how to order, please write to email@example.com.