In June this year, in the middle of the pandemic, New Delhi-based Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia invited visionary ideas, thoughts, experiments from artists and organizations in the region through its open call entitled “Now On”. It was an invitation to artists’ visionary responses to the current crisis, and how the latter impacts the core work of promoting arts and international arts exchange.Akshay Pathak, Director of Pro Helvetia New Delhi- photo by Sahil Ali
Pro Helvetia invited artists and organizations to explore new media and innovative formats to continue artistic creation, research, development, presentation, and collaboration. The open call received a slew of innovative ideas and formats addressing our immediate future – from creating new models of meaningful communication and community, to rethinking our place in ecology. Of the 100 applications received, eight were chosen for the ‘Now On’ grant and announced in August 2020. From September 2020, the Now On grantees kicked off their projects until their culmination at the end of the year, where there will be a final showcase of the projects. We speak to the Akshay Pathak, Director, Pro Helvetia, about the significance of the Now On grant and the work done.
How did the idea for Now On take shape? Was it in response to the pandemic? And what were you hoping to accomplish with the concept and the resulting projects?
When the pandemic came, it put a stop to much artistic exchange and mobility. It was clear that artists and organizations would also be facing an enormous challenge. Now On was a call inviting artists and organizations to think of new and creative ways of continuing to do artistic work in spite of these challenges posed by Covid-19.Dhruv Saxena of Idée Fixe
How many entries did you receive – and just to give an idea – from where all?
We received about 130 unique entries from across South Asia – India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Myanmar. We were really happy to have such an overwhelming response; it showed that artists and organizations were equally excited about the opportunity. Added to the fact that it was a short deadline of roughly a month from when we announced the call.
apprentice 4.0 artefact sketch, part of Dhruv Saxena and Praveen Sinha's project, Idée Fixe, which deliberates on the idea of crafts in our communities
Are these young artists who are responding – or also some established ones?
There was a good mix of emerging and established artists and organizations. Now On grants were given to emerging artists such Dhruv Saxena and Praveen Sinha whose project, Idée Fixe, proposed anticipating the future of crafts, and Tejas Pande who is looking at how information circulates in WhatsApp groups. There are also established organizations such as Attakkalari who proposed a hybrid online and offline platform for performing arts through their project ‘Spaarkk’. We were happy to support both emerging and established artists and organizations.
Aqui Thami of Sister Radio
It seems these were creative hubs where people can come together – so can you explain the different media – photo books, radio, the 3D orange webinar, the dance studio, the Dhaka curatorial and the What's App university?
Art thrives on connection and in a time where mobility and exchange were restricted, these innovative ideas sought to bring people together in creative ways. Guftgu Series brings together a variety of people for conversations around images and photo books, Sister Radio celebrates a community of sisterhood through the medium of podcasts, Virtual Segments by Round them Oranges provides a 3D virtual gallery space where artists can showcase their work, Spaarkk is a platform that allows for performing arts to continue despite the inability for face-to-face interactions, Curatorial Collaboration as Method brings people from different artistic practices together to collaborate around one physical monument, and WhatsApp University studies the flow of information in WhatsApp groups. Also, the Packet brings together artists for a collaborative study for a collective project to emerge, and Idée Fixe is a project that sets out to imagine and present the future of crafts.Tejas Pande's Whats App-free University looks at how information and their biases circulate in WhatsApp groups
How can people actually use these hubs, and is there a process how people can use them – are these just concepts or would these be turned into reality? And what is the purpose of these projects?
The purpose of these projects is to allow artistic work to continue from Now On, from an era of the pandemic and into the future. The knowledge and models created from these projects are meant to be shared. The grant is for a proposed budget by each applicant for a period of four months ending this year, following which we hope that the outcomes and learnings lead to collaborations as well as adoption of these models wherever it makes sense.Sister Radio celebrates a community of sisterhood through the medium of podcasts
Is there a final winner among the eight finalists?
There were eight Now On grantees from over 100 applicants. There is no competition among them and they’re all doing different work. We hope to see a culmination of their projects around the end of the year, so you might see a showcase then.
What will be the results of these different projects and where can one follow or see them?
These projects are ongoing and you can hear more about them on our website prohelvetia.in/nowon. They will also have a final culminating moment as I said towards the end of the year.
Who funds each project?
Pro Helvetia has given a grant based on the budget submitted by the applicants. The budget cap was at CHF 10,000 but had to be discussed in detail with each applicant based on our funding guidelines.Whats App-Free University by Tejas Pande shows how biases originate
Do the artist receive any grant from Pro Helvetia?
Yes. They have all received some grants from Pro Helvetia New Delhi.
Is this something that you will take internationally?
The knowledge and takeaways are meant for everyone’s benefit. These projects are meant to show a way into what the future can look like from Now On. So yes, the learnings will be showcased and shared, and we hope they will be picked up by artists and organisations worldwide. Also, a similar call was first announced in Switzerland (Close Distance) and has subsequently been announced by the various liaison offices of the Swiss Arts Council Pro Helvetia in different regions of the world. www.prohelvetia.in/nowonAnshika Varma, founder of Offset Projects - creator of Guftgu Talk Series - photo by Adil Hasan
Photographer Anshika Varma on her Guftgu Talk Series:
Offset Projects is like a laboratory for questions I have with photography. I wanted a space, not defined by a room or a studio, where photographers can come together to experiment and share ideas on how we can use lens media in different ways, keeping the ethics and intent of the work as a priority. We have a big focus on how books can be this medium to communicate. With the same in mind, we organize artist talks, pop-up reading rooms, workshops, programs in universities, an online bookshop and are currently working on a residency program. Along with this we are also in conversation with artists working on their own publications and might need any help or assistance with it.Guftgu Talk Series by Anshika Varma - screen grab of Anshika Varma conversing with a fellow photographer
At Offset, we really value the process of collective engagement through introspection and reflective inquiry. The Guftgu Series emerged as a part of our pop-up libraries, the Offset Pitara. With every curation and edition of a Pitara, I would program for a talk or a space where readers (whether they were photographers or not) could have a moment to reflect on and share about a book they had engaged with. We would leave postcards for our readers to respond to the book, to write letters to people they knew or to objects, feelings and thoughts contained within the book itself. Over time the format expanded and has brought artists to share their process and concerns of book-making as an exercise.
With the restrictions that came up during the pandemic, our scheduled workshops and talks had to pause. This offered us time to understand and think of ways in which we could engage with practitioners across the region. Within our own isolated worlds, we felt this was a time to open the conversations to South Asia, freed by the limitations of logistics that might be involved in executing something similar in a physical space. The Now On Grant was serendipitous as it focussed on processes that were dealing with the same questions and I felt it might offer us room for an expansion. We decided to organize talks that can be available online where participants can engage with artists and hopefully, in the process, create an archive of book practitioners from South Asia to look at their concerns and the works in the region.The Packet - a community of artists that meet in an apartment in Colombo for Instigating Collaborative Study
The Packet, a community of artists in Colombo, on Instigating Collaborative Study:
The Packet began as a community of artists and friends meeting in an apartment in Colombo. It is currently made up of Imaad Majeed, Venuri Perera, Cassie Machado, S P Pushpakanthan, Dinelka Liyanage, Ephraim Shadrach Abdul Halik Azeez and Sandev Handy. What emerged was a collaboration on a deconstructed art book, and has since evolved into a larger group practice. Instead of “speaking at” or “speaking to”, we’ve been asking what it means to “speak from” and what it looks like to do thinking in public. We adopt a model of collective study that is encompassed by, to paraphrase Fred Moten, “what we do with other people”, with a particular focus on hyperlocality, collaborative processes and conversation.
Instigating Collaborative Study (ICS) is an attempt to create space for the forming of a temporary community that will come together to explore ‘thoughts in flux’, and the ways one might give voice to them. The project will take as departure points; a zine archive, a series of curated texts, discussions, workshops and weekend residencies as frameworks to structure this community space. It invites 8 art practitioners in Sri Lanka to spend 3 months in a regular community process varying from selfpublishing to cooking together.
The Now On grant was an invitation to further experiment with new formats for artistic creation and collaboration under the current conditions of restricted mobility. For the Packet, however, the ‘current’ was inextricable from the future. We had been experimenting with a different way of working and speaking that only intensified under the conditions of the pandemic. The ‘Now On’ call, therefore, felt like an appropriate opportunity to reflect, expand and put further into practice what had been swirling in and around our group practice. In the current framework of our world, we feel it is liberatory to continue to speak from the intimate, and to think in public through the vehicle of ‘what you do with other people’ and ‘time spent with each other’ (Fred Moten).
For us, the question is less about how to promote artistic work despite the pandemic, and rather what the current conditions brought about by the pandemic might reveal to us about our ‘always already’ existing ways of working, speaking and being together. While this time has brought out incessant calls to theorize about the future and about what might become of the world, we are interested in refusing this rush to theorize. What we are aware of, is that artistic communities are working from within limited capacities, much of which existed pre-pandemic. It is precisely in response to these conditions (that may have intensified under the pandemic) that we hope ICS will be an opportunity to work collectively on art forms that circumvent traditional means of artist work. How can this turn toward community and the hyper-local open up possibilities for the future, and expose the failings of our present?
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