In 2005, anyone paying a visit to the General Post Office (GPO) in January, would have been tempted to turn the crank that mysteriously appeared one day in front of Kabutarkhana chowk. When turned, the crank operated a string of lights 2,000ft long that ran through the entire square, silhouetting the turrets of the
gothic GPO, turning on lights in people’s flats, and jetting up and over across trees, and around windows. At night, the light show, called GPS (for Glow Positioning System) became something of an outdoor spectacle, with pedestrians, post office employees and street kids jostling each other for a chance to play master of ceremonies.
Daytime view of GPO chowk with panorama outlines. Credit: Courtesy of Thomas Erben Gallery, New York
Ashok Sukumaran, the soft-spoken artist responsible for the project, had for those few days achieved the unthinkable: the undivided wonder of some of Mumbai’s masses. Sukumaran, born in Japan, but brought up in Shimla, and trained as an architect, has somewhat of a penchant for public work projects that involve lights and people. In one project he ran a string of fairy light between road lamps, in another he had a street vendor “leech” off the electricity from a nearby apartment building (when the vendor turned on his one dangling light bulb, the lights in a flat would go off). In House he hung a switch from a tree, along with a sheet of instructions that informed curious bystanders that it operated the lights of 23 Surya Kiran, the apartment of Sukumaran and his artist wife Shaina Anand, who when signalled by the light, would come to the window and wave to the “pusher”.
Entertaining though the experiments are, Sukumaran insists that they have a point. “If you’re an artist and you’re autonomous, how do you work? How do you do public art?” Sukumaran asks. (Answer: get public funding. Which is what Sukumaran did, partly from the India Foundation for the Arts).
Secondly, “the history of electricity is also the history of insulation–the wires are insulated by plastic but also in the broader sense that electric systems are designed to prevent people not paying the bill to get to them,” he says. “So, you’re a slave to all these systems.”
Sukumaran, who insists he isn’t a new media artist (electricity is a 100-year-old medium he points out), has also launched an archiving project called Pad.ma, that is an online repository of donated cuts of footage that never made it to the public domain. With 120 hours already in the bank, Sukumaran hopes to launch the project next year, and in the spirit of artistic collegiality, will make the footage free and available to anyone who wants it.
Videos of works by Ashok Sukumaran will be shown at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai on 25 September at 6.30pm