Dense and Urban - the Cybermohalla in Delhi

Posted by nathaniel stern | Tue Aug 17th 2004 10:02 p.m.

Dense and Urban - the Cybermohalla in Delhi
by nathaniel stern

"In its broadest imagination, one can see Cybermohalla as a desire for a
wide and horizontal network (both real and virtual) of voices, texts, sounds
and images in dialogue and debate" (from sarai.net).

Sarai: the New Media Initiative is a non-profit space that fosters new/old
media practice and research towards critical cultural intervention. This
project, the digital mohalla (or, 'dense urban neighborhood'), is a
collaboration with Ankur, an NGO working on experimental education. It
consists of working class youths, aged 15-25, creating work in various parts
of Delhi - a resettlement colony in South Delhi (Dakshinpuri), an illegal
working class settlement in Central Delhi, LNJP, and the Sarai Media Lab in
North Delhi.

Cybermohalla's young arts practitioners work on free software and low-cost
media equipment to produce experimental / playful multimedia works, ranging
from texts, collages, posters and print publications, to videos, and
large-scale installations. Together and apart, each person, project, space
and marked-up page in the online archive is an individual voice, and a node
in the networked dialogue between the disquiet doubt of Delhi, and its
growing arts and media scene.

As a practitioner and teacher in the third world myself, projects like this
one do indeed speak volumes back to the uninclusive, supposedly utopian,
networks of the first world, which are always already shot through with
inaccessible desire. I've been caught myself, saying things like, "if we
can't imagine it, it won't happen," but, all sentimentality aside, it's nice
to see new media speaking back to sociopolitical questions other than those
that arise only from new media itself.

The not-paradoxical thing, ever-present in the Cybermohalla network, is an
acute sense of place. I've never been to any of the nodes, or to Delhi for
that matter; I've only surfed their artworks and archives. Still, where I am
when I surf is completely apparent.

The first poster linked from their 'text-screens' page -
http://www.sarai.net/cybermohalla/works/text_screens/ - asks us, "Before
coming here, had you thought of a place like this?" This question is a
recurring theme in their archived projects, including wall-art, stickers,
booklets, net.art as animated gifs, performances, and is even the title of a
traveling installation. Whether we had 'thought of this place' or not -
perhaps we imagined it into existence, or are doing so now - it lives and
breathes with us in the present tense.

So I guess that romanticism is alive and well in Delhi.

On further investigation, I found that for the creators, this
question-as-title signifies the fact (possibility?) that contemporary Indian
artists worldwide, regardless of their vastly differing use of media, and
potential displacement, are striving to engage in the issues of local
situations, as well as those related to translocal phenomena and global
conditions. They believe that, in sharp contrast to the generation before
them, they are not using Western rhetoric to take part in this discourse.

This is actually something I noticed right away; the works shown are not
attempting to provide answers from a distance. Rather, they ask difficult
questions, pose provocational scenarios and movement, in order to engage in
something bigger than themselves. The Cybermoholla is not a non-curated
net.art exhibition; it really is a community of independent thinkers asking
to be heard, asking the world what it believes is worth listening to.

'by lanes', for example, glimpses into the diaries of twelve of Sarai's
young artists, and shares the narrations, reflections, commentaries, word
play and observations they were engaged with over the course of one year at
the LNJP basti (neighborhood). The small PDF files act as proposals of what
was, and what can be. "Streets make for great conversations," begins an
introductory line of text in the first file, which goes on to ask why and
when we do or do not walk the streets. Providing counsel, it tells us that
the "dangerous, unpredictable street" may not be a legitimate reason to stay
at home. This, as a resident of Johannesburg, South Africa, I understand.

The compelling language of the Cybermoholla is, quite simply, struggle-,
rather than goal-, orientated. There's a certain level of maturity in the
articulation of reflection; we are invited into a mediated space, but one
whose biases are both subtle and transparent.

I want to know more; I want to do more; I want to belong.

There is, of course, playfulness and naivete in the space, too. After all,
it is mostly made up of teens and young adults. After I had already begun
researching and writing on their work, Jeebesh Baghchi - a facilitator at
Sarai - sent me links to their new blog pages.

These range from open source blogs completely in Hindi (which they are all
apparently, and rightfully, very proud of) and friendly, poetic (English)
narratives about how we can phrase, and re-phrase, and ask again, to little
text excerpts about the 'incidentally quite hot' new girl from Argentina
[sic!]. I especially liked envisioning a described scene where our hero,
Karim the blogger, had to go to babelfish to translate her Spanish to
English. He then translated the English to Hindi, himself, for Chintu -
another Compughar (Abode of Computers) resident. After all, one must know
what the hot new girl is saying, yes?

Recent public performances and exhibitions by Cybermoholla participants
include an International Theatre Festival in Hamburg (Feb - Mar 2004),
followed by a run of the same performance throughout areas of Delhi, a
complete CD of the Cybermoholla works ( temporarily online at
http://www.sarai.net/cybermohalla/cybermohalla.htm ), a 'Wall Magazine'
called 'Hadsa' (Incident) whose subject is given away by the title, and the
aforementioned installation - "Before coming here, had you thought of a
place like this" - at the Culturgest Museum in Portugal (closed June 2004).

I can't help but wonder if this is not what pervasive technology can mean to
a world outside of the US and Europe. We carry on 'being' the same, but are
louder, better, more accurate in our inaccuracies and odd juxtapositions.
We are not mirrors to the first world, or even to ourselves, but we are
storytellers, continuing on our journeys with slightly nicer pens, pads and
PowerPoint presentations.

nathaniel
http://nathanielstern.com
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