A Burak—a winged horse with a woman’s face, the mythical creature on which Prophet Mohammed is said to have ridden to heaven—now floats in the 800-year-old water reservoir known as Hauz-i-Shamsi in Delhi’s historic Mehrauli area. But this imitation tin avatar isn’t simply a passive representation of the myth. Visitors can communicate with the Burak from the vicinity of the pond by calling a phone line. They can say “hello” and watch it light up. One can also connect to the floating installation remotely via Skype (Skype name: hauz-i-shamsi) and track it on a webcam.
Thirty-five-year-old artist Vishal Rawlley’s installation is part of an ongoing project called Beam Me Up organized by the Swiss-based Xcult.org that curates Internet-based art. Artists and writers were asked to ruminate on the concept of real and virtual space. The brief said that while terms such as “Cyberspace”, “Globalization” and “World Wide Web” had been concretized in the digital world, the new-age world allowed for audio-visual transportation that lets users conquer new spaces and redefine these terms.
New circuits: (top, left) The Burak floats in the Hauz-i-Shamsi; and Abhinav’s Bhatka Bhatka shoes. Pradeep Gaur/Mint
The other Indian artist who was part of this project, Abhishek Hazra, worked on a live Twitter performance. The fact that it isn’t available any more is an important point of departure for Gitanjali Dang, curator for the Indian leg of Beam Me Up. “The performance existed in the form of Tweets but we can’t find it any more—the hash tags have disappeared. That’s poignant when one thinks of what space that art really occupied; what’s real, what’s virtual,” says Dang.
Artists are also using technology to turn its very connotations upside down. Twenty-eight-year-old Prayas Abhinav has used global positioning system (GPS) technology, that helps users navigate spaces, to create shoes that allow one to get lost. The Bhatka Bhatka shoes use a Java code, an LED and a vibrator. They have a button for the wearer to store familiar locations—while walking, these guide him towards locations that might possibly be unknown: The LED in the shoe blinks red when in a known location, blue in a known neighbourhood and green in an unknown area. The shoes, priced at Rs75,000, were part of a group show Continuum Transfunctioner at Gallery Exhibit 320, Delhi, in February.
Young artists such as Abhinav are moving beyond merely incorporating the hi-tech into their artworks. Technology is now being used to examine its very role in our daily lives. It not only plays the role of a canvas, but of paint and brush as well.
Abhinav is a 2009 graduate of the Center for Experimental Media Arts (Cema) at the Srishti School of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore, which encourages projects such as this. He was selected as a TED (short for Technology, Entertainment, Design) India Fellow for 2009-2010, another sign that artists are increasingly blurring the boundaries between art, science and fundamental research. His most recent project, created two months ago at the Art + Public workshop organized by Lalit Kala Akademi and Periferry in Guwahati, is a digitized version of the “message in a bottle”. He is in the process of installing a giant screen on the banks of the Brahmaputra in Guwahati. Those traversing the river can text-message the screen and leave a message. This will then possibly be picked up and answered by another traveller.
Manoj Magoo has been an electronics hobbyist for the last two decades. In 1987, he set up a small workshop, Melody Projects, in Janakpuri, Delhi. The idea was to help students with college electronics projects. But in the last two years Magoo has seen a large influx of artists coming for technical assistance. Projects vary from creating elite sound-synthesizing circuits to circuit boards for projects such as Rawlley’s Burak (see box, The Burak’s Innards). “Young artists don’t feel that technological components are an impediment in their work. They are either adept at creating their back-end themselves or they seek the help of experts such as me,” he says.
So far, a majority of these projects have found support through NGOs such as Khoj or funding bodies such as Pro Helvetia—Swiss Arts Council, which funded Beam Me Up. But as a curator Dang believes that the market is opening up to these sort of experimental works. In the last two years, she has curated three shows focused on the digital world: third_life at the Bombay Art Gallery in 2008, Godown at The Guild Art Gallery, Mumbai, in 2009, and Caturday is Cleaning Day at The Loft, Mumbai, also in 2009.
Rawlley says one way to monetize these projects is to present them as media—books, CDs or films—that can be consumed. He thinks it is possible to develop an economic model which can perpetuate the existence of such works beyond the support from art and cultural institutions. For a start, there’s a Burak song that has been written and sung by Rawlley’s wife, Abhinandita Mathur. It’s called the Lament of Shamsi Talab (Hai re Shamsi Talab in Hindi) and he hopes that he can sell it as a ringtone to local cellphone service providers.
If the Burak’s lament works, it might just pave the way for other electronic voices.