Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Monday, April 19, 2010
Ayisha said to tell the driver that Jaaga was across from the hockey stadium.
We snaked through the dense, unending, hive-like traffic of Bangalore. Car horns beep constantly, a persistent avant garde percussive opera of noise and rhythm. I was worried whether Vreni, our driver, would find Jaaga, and if we would get there on time for me to set up my powerpoint on a computer.
I had rolled up a black dress and a purple and pink striped silk scarf in my blue and yellow checkered Envirosax bag so I could switch out of my loose fitting, crumbled, sweaty and dusty pink linen capri pants and baggy top once we arrived. With traffic as dense as bricks, it was impossible to return to The Green Path, our eco-activist hotel, to freshen up and change into a more formal lecture outfit.
An experimental filmmaker, writer, archivist, arts activist, Ayisha Abraham is an old friend who lives in Bangalore. She had invited me to give a talk at Jaaga.
After reading about this arts, technology and social change workspace, with Ayisha’s guidance, I decided to do “The Open Space Project: Towards a Theory of Open Space Documentary “ a research, writing, multimedia and public speaking/activist project I’ve been working on with American filmmaker and arts activist Helen de Michiel for the last year. It’s also the theme of FLEFF 2010. Ayisha and I met at the Robert Flaherty Film Seminar about 16 years ago and immediately bonded over our passion for preserving amateur film. She’s helped to connect FLEFF to activist documentary and experimental film in India.
In Bangalore, she and her husband, Jittu, a molecular biologist, invited my family (Stewart, my partner, and Sean, our 16 year old son) over for a dinner of home-made chapattis, chicken curry and mango chutney the night before. I had gotten a bit sick from the pollution and some food I had consumed earlier, and could not eat. They knew the remedy: ayurvedic medicine—isabgol powder in water and organic mint pills. The combination was miraculous: it worked immediately. I could speak the next night.
Founded by technologist Freeman Murray and visual artist Archana Prasad, Jaaga is an “urban community arts technology experiment,” according to their website. It contains a workspace, a café, and modular, adaptable public space. Built on land donated by Bangalore-based architect Naresh Narasimhan, Jaaga mobilizes open design, collaboration, modular, low cost building materials, and social entrepreneurs to build sustainable, eco-friendly, high density buildings. Built from pallet racks, plywood and metal, Jaaga looks like some morph between a movie set, a jungle jim, and a high tech tree house. Translated from Kannada, the language in Karnataka, Jaaga means space.
But these mission statements only tell half of the Jaaga story.
When we arrived, we were not sure where to go. The main floor was gravel. Women in saris, women in jeans, men in workboots, guys in dress shirts, and backpackers from Europe and the US in baggy cotton clothes to beat the heat milled around on virtually every floor, talking and working.
We climbed to the second floor. People were moving pallets and pipes. My son Sean was immediately drafted to help move a bunch of 50 foot long pipes with a crew. Stewart found a spot on the second floor pallet to dump our backpacks.
We explored the structure. I think Sean was initially somewhat resigned to hearing another talk in Bangalore. But once he started climbing around the mobile structure, exploring from floor to floor between work tools, sleeping bags, laptop computers, and tents, he casually mentioned to me that he could have a great time at Jaaga with his Ithaca friends, hanging out and building structures.
A New Way to Do Media, Arts, Activism
I realized that changing into my black dress was…uh…unnecessary. Jaaga felt like a construction site, but it also felt like an edgy new media think tank. A long black tank dress and heels was about the worst outfit imaginable for this space, which pulsed with people, computers, tools, conversation and construction.
The exhilarating range of activities at Jaaga map how much international public media and activism has changed in the last five years: a Facebook developers group, a photo exhibition, a brinjal (eggplant) four way cooking contest, an experimental film festival, a dance event, an entertainment industry meet up, activist circle sessions on Indian microfinance.
A new category of public media practitioner has emerged: technologist, a person who helps people and organizations mobilize digital media for blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and online advocacy. Separations between technologies, art forms, politics, experimental work and industry, new and old media, are remnants of an older, more staid, disintegrating media landscape.
Stewart pointed out that this place epitomized open space and was probably the best venue imaginable for my talk. But I started to worry that I was at the wrong place, because I could not figure out where the lecture would be, and if there was a screen, a projector and a computer. All I could see was gravel floors, stacks of plastic chairs, and tarps hanging from the pipes to fashion make-shift, movable walls. The sound of cars horns blaring from the busy street overwhelmed everything.
Suddenly, the entire space changed.
Ayisha arrived. She started to move chairs into the space. Kirin D, a former builder who had worked in Texas but moved back to Bangalore who I had met at some Bangalore Film Society screenings the day before, carried in a plastic table and a projector. A group of people rearranged the red plastic chairs. The computer didn’t work. Someone went to get a PC laptop.
Another woman got a microphone and positioned it at the table with the computer so I could sit and chat easily, looking at the computer and the audience. A sound system amplified my voice to drown out the traffic noise. A young women inserted my thumb drive into the computer and there it was on the screen: my first slide, The Open Space Project. Kirin had me check that the wireless was working so I could show websites in my talk live.
The room was suddenly packed with people, spilling out of the structure on all sides. Sean and Stewart grabbed bean bags and perched themselves on the second floor, peering down. Before I could fully absorb the transformation of the pallets and pipes into a lecture space, Ayisha was introducing me and the crowd was gathered around me in this space, now transformed from a workspace into a new media meet-up.
My talk argued for a new collaborative, horizontal model of documentary that is modular and continually changing in fluid ways across multiple technologies, that rewires social media and new media to open up space rather than to push out ideas. As Helen and I like to explain, open space is where technology meets place meets people. About ten minutes in to my explanations of open space concepts, I looked out at the people assembled and had an intuition that I should speak shorter rather than longer, focusing on the “people” part of open space.
Technologists, NGOs, Arguments, and Car Horns
The dialogue that ensued post-talk featured the kind of vigorous debate that forms the core of arts, activism and civil society in Bangalore. A former producer who now works with a NGO dealing with HIV intervened that new media was perhaps out of reach and not effective in the kind of work she did, where radio was accessible and could reach rural communities. Another documentary producer shared how difficult it is to collaborate: many arguments erupt, stalling the process and often damaging the utopian goals.
A man in the back raised a point about the central issue of social media for activist purposes is the tension between curation and aggregation. A technologist in the front who works with NGOs dealing with housing and sustainability shared the challenges of moving from social media campaigns to social media spaces.
People argued with each other, debating low end technologies versus digital media, different forms of making work, different ways of thinking about embodied performance and disembodied social media, new technologies and civil society. Someone wondered if social media was simply first world privilege, where people talk to like minded people but never encounter difference. Another camp contended that social media needed to be apprehended and hacked. Everyone seemed to agree that understanding new technologies--their glories and their contradictions--was a necessity.
After the talk, the space emptied out.The blare of beeping horns crescendoed. Jaaga means space. Making space, rearranging space, building, shifting space, opening space.