Art Papers  

more from the
May/June 2014 issue:

Àsìkò in Dakar
by Amanda H. Hellman

Give Us CPR
by Gerald FitzGerald

First Person Leaky

by Rosa Aiello

To: Constant Dullaart
From: Carson Chan
Re: Balconism

Amar Kanwar and Stephen Willats

Text / Stephanie Bailey

Two distinct, collaborative projects, initiated by two different artists, decades apart and on opposite sides of the globe, converge in the commons of contemporary art. Stephen Willats, a conceptual artist born in London in 1943, and Amar Kanwar, born in New Delhi in 1964, have both derived social processes from interacting with communities on an intimate level. Both contribute to the extension of the functional territories of art through works conceived from and for specific regions, but applicable toward broad social structural goals. Among such works are those discussed below: Willats' Inside An Ocean and Kanwar's The Sovereign Forest, both of which seek to map out solutions to the increasingly urgent issues raised by today's active global public.

Stephen Willats, Inside An Ocean, 1979, photograph of a problem display [archive of the artist]

The 13th Istanbul Biennial opened in September 2013, just months after the Gezi Park protests sparked a national revolt against state power in Turkey. As a result of these events, the biennial, which intended to explore the efficacy of public parks and squares as sites for public representation and political debate, had to move part of its program back indoors and, for the most part, into private spaces: Antrepo 3, ARTER, and SALT—all funded by various Turkish corporate dynasties—as well as the Galata Greek Primary School, and 5533, an independent artist space located in a commercial complex in the old city. In effect the exhibition was pulled into the very zone it was trying to depart from—the private. The question of whether public space actually functions as a site of common agency was essentially negatively answered even before the biennial began. Within this context the work of British artist Stephen Willats, which was presented at ARTER, a space initiated by the Vehbi Koć Foundation, Istanbul, was fitting. In one wall drawing Willats depicted a swarm of arrows moving into and through what looks like an abstracted city space built from black blocks—a cohesive mass broken up by a maze of planned passageways. The piece provided an apt metaphor for how an urban environment and the systems that have defined it might induce a kind of fragmentation, while also calling for a more nuanced, networked view of what it means to be "public" today.

Of course, this question has been circulating for years. The Arab uprisings that began in late 2010, the Indignant movements of Greece and Spain—sparked by the Eurozone crisis—and Occupy have all brought renewed fights for the public right to space and to the shaping of society, beyond the limits of the city square. The hardest lesson that was taken from all of the above-mentioned initiatives was the truth that "public" space is not public at all. In Manama, Bahrain, the now-demolished Pearl Roundabout was controlled by the state, which thus allowed for its total erasure post-uprising; in London, Paternoster Square Management Ltd. declared Paternoster Square, which hosted the Occupy movement at St. Paul's Cathedral, "private land" in clear signage. Whatever their ownership, these grounds have nonetheless operated as common sites of communication and confrontation between people and power. When these squares were cleared—or, as in Manama, razed—what was revealed was the challenge of how to produce new, more collective models for change within the territories controlled by pre-existing political systems that make change difficult through efforts to fragment the public or limit the use of spaces in which a unity might congregate.

Stephen Willats, Inside An Ocean, 1979, boards displayed at the Ocean Estate, concurrent with the exhibition Concerning Our Present Way of Living, Whitechapel Gallery, 1979
[archive of the artist]

Another group of Willats' works exhibited at the Istanbul Biennial proposed a plan to resist such fragmentation. In a series of texts grouped under the headings "Art and Cognition," "Life Support Systems," and "Control," Willats explored the restricted and hierarchical behavioral conditions produced by our machine-age culture. Then he highlighted the potential for networked systems to encourage greater equilibrium between needs, behaviors, and structures. In Willats' reading, the notion of a singular, central "public space" is altogether dismissed in favor of a complex ecosystem of relations geared toward the ability to sculpt social conditions. This proposition is all the more compelling when we consider the context in which these works were exhibited—the Istanbul Biennial—as a collaborative effort between private funders, corporate sponsors, and a constellation of artists, curators, volunteers, and other agents of culture and infrastructure.

Essentially, what Willats pointed toward in Turkey was a networked commons—a term that is useful when thinking about what it means to operate collectively today. In medieval times "the commons" described land owned by a sovereign power on which local inhabitants exercised certain rights. More recently, it has come to refer to shared resources, from drinking water to fishing grounds. Within this notion is a granular understanding of the collective, which includes state and private bodies of power.

The idea of the commons also lends nuance to two questions that have become key in our times: namely, how do we bind complex social bodies beyond the frame of designated public space, and how might art re-envision or indeed facilitate the production of the social models necessary to do so? In the works cited above, Willats proposes an understanding of the commons, and indeed visualizes it, as an intricate network—an alternative to the public "square." This vision can be traced back to Willats' earlier projects, particularly Inside An Ocean (1979), in which Willats engaged with the Ocean Estate in East London—one of the largest and most impoverished social housing projects in western Europe at the time. Through recorded interviews and questionnaires inviting residents first to describe the reality of the estate, then to envision what it could be if things were to be made better, Willats produced posters that distilled these observations as common concerns and desires. The results were then presented back to the community, with an exhibition at Dame Colet House—part of the Ocean Estate—concurrent to one titled Concerning Our Present Way of Living (1979) at the nearby Whitechapel Gallery. Both projects were presented again earlier this year at Whitechapel, in an archival show curated by Nayia Yiakoumaki.

Concerning Our Present Way of Living also included works produced from Willats' engagement with various other social realities encountered in East London. Working Within a Defined Context (1978) is an instructive series of panels wherein images from the city's West India Dock are graphically connected to behavioral and procedural observations from dockworkers. The Place of Work (1979) was created from similar interactions and studies, this time conducted with leather tanners at Spitalfields Market. Sorting Out Other People's Lives (1978) was undertaken with an active female resident of the Ocean Estate, making use of tape recordings of conversations between her and her husband. Information was presented visually: photographs of home activities were interlaced with commentary—"It's not been made for a large family that's got to play," and "Develop more facilities for the kids on this estate," for instance—which turned observations and wishes into a networked system of messages demonstrating cause and effect, thought processes, and, essentially, social demands.

When asked about his simultaneous presentations—one in a housing estate, another at a gallery—Willats cited an interest in "trying to represent the institution in relation to the world around it." At the time, he sought to facilitate a dialogue between the polemics and issues of a given area and the arts institution located there, bringing collaborative works with members of different communities inside the gallery—and conversely exhibiting artworks in the communal environments they addressed. Willats described the nature of such community collaboration as an "act of mutuality."

Stephen Willats, The Place of Work, 1979, two panels: 103 x 76 centimeters each,
photographic prints, photographic dye, gouache, ink, Letraset text on card, made
with the cooperation of the staff of S D Fashions, Fournier Street, London E1
[collection of mima, purchased with assistance from the V&A]

At the time, Willats was responding to the political questions of the preceding decade, during which artists on both sides of the Atlantic had begun to aggressively explore the relationship between—and sometimes, the simultaneity of—art and social practice. "I was reacting very strongly to the inherited models—the sort of straightjacket—of the 1950s and early 1960s," Willats recalled in an interview, "and trying to break out of this historical determinism and develop a practice ... very much related to new visions that seemed to be originating at that moment, not just by myself but by a lot of other people at that time, who began to see a new society emerging."

The roots of the theories underpinning Inside An Ocean and Concerning Our Present Way of Living appear in a drawing the artist produced in 1977, The Twin Towers. The work, appropriately, depicts two towers. One, according to Willats, is "descriptive," in that it represents the world as it is. The other is "prescriptive," he says, in that it represents the world as it could be. "Each tower is made up of a series of frames of information," Willats explains. "So rather than saying that any area of attention can be broken down into different fragments or sub areas of attention, each area of attention has its own world or list of variables." The Twin Towers acted as a parameter for the works detailed above. The perspective it conveys is one of fluidity and possibility, awareness and potential; the works exhibited in Concerning Our Present Way of Living furthermore suggest that such change can be achieved through education and observation, process, dialogue, and engagement. Recontextualized by the Gezi protests in 2013, this view was illuminated in its wide social applicability, as relevant outdoors in Istanbul's public squares as it was "inside" the Ocean Estate, where one poster read: "Our house and their blocks they are always closed but sometimes we make get together in the passage," then suggested, "Why might it be difficult for residents to establish contact with each other."

On the issues that were identified from context to context—the dockworker, the leather tanner, the inhabitant of social housing—Willats observed a commonality that was familiar to people even if they themselves were not in the particular set of circumstances: "they had a kind of common knowledge," he explains. "For example, you didn't need to live in a tower block to understand the problems with living in a tower block." Here reality becomes elevated into what Willats has described as a "symbolic world"—one that might, borrowing the artist's words once more, "express another model of society based on the tenets of mutuality." Willats' symbolic realization of real-world issues provides a tool for understanding the commons as an engineered social space—such as a housing estate—that is in effect a public site of negotiation and relation between a state power and its subject populations. The aim of producing symbolic worlds is thus to recognize and visualize existing social structures and situations, so that one might recognize commonalities in social issues, while imagining ways to respond to them.

This symbolism is equally present in the work of the Indian artist Amar Kanwar. His The Sovereign Forest (2010-ongoing), an installation-in-progress most recently exhibited at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (Yorkshire, UK), takes on the idea of a shared inhabited space, through which a multitude of layers—and stakeholders—intersect and interact. Kanwar's piece is an archival work that charts ongoing civil actions in the resource-rich region of Odisha, India (formerly Orissa), framing the area as a literal "sovereign forest." Odisha, where nearly 70% of the working population depends on agriculture, has been subject to a massive governmental drive to bring about economic development through a program of industrialization. Kanwar's forest suggests a public-driven alternative.

The Sovereign Forest has been described in the documenta 13 exhibition catalogue by Artistic Director Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev as a "constellation of moving and still images, texts, books, pamphlets, albums, music, objects and organic materials, events and processes" that come together as a "discourse on seeing, on understanding, on compassion, on issues of justice, sovereignty, and self-determination." There is a clear purpose in this accumulation of materials and responses to the struggles over Odisha's sovereignty amid state abuses of power, particularly regarding the management of the area's considerable mineral wealth. By 2005 the state government signed as many as 43 memoranda of understanding with numerous multinational and heavy-industrial corporations, facilitating the construction of industrial units—an accord that amounted to a re-assignment of land occupied and cultivated by rural inhabitants.1 This population has not remained passive, however.

One corporate body to have benefited from these memoranda is POSCO, a South Korean steel-making company, against which citizens of Odisha have mounted resistance that has placed sustained pressure on the corporation and the state. POSCO is also a protagonist in one work within The Sovereign Forest: a book titled Time (2013), which presents what Kanwar described in conversation as "the entire game that is being played out between POSCO, the state and the resistance," in the form of a week-by-week account of actions taken against POSCO, and why. According to Kanwar, Time was conceived to assist "anybody who has been engaged with small or large community movements or political organizations and political campaigns," especially if they are based in rural areas inhabited by "varied kinds of people"—economically and ethnically heterogeneous regions, in other words, where "comprehending what is happening has always been a problem." What Kanwar seems to propose with The Sovereign Forest is a kind of "slow" activism: one mindful of the hours and days put toward a particular cause. Human time, he explains, "gets lost" when you are fighting to hold on to your space and your dignity. Researched and documented by the same individuals fighting Odisha's industrialization, the information presented in Time produces what Kanwar calls a "timeline of the resistance." This timeline, as it stands, is open-ended: Odisha's is a lasting struggle between people and power.

Amar Kanwar, The Scene of Crime, 2010 [courtesy of the artist, photo: Henrik Stromberg]

The importance of time is further underscored in Kanwar's observation that each timeline conceals a "second." The Sovereign Forest reflects this notion through its documentation of another, older case of civil resistance against state-imposed industrialization, this time in Odisha's neighboring state of Chhattisgarh. Also presented in book form, The Prediction (1990-2012) is a comprehensive collection of evidence and testimony relating to the 1991 assassination of Shankar Guha Niyogi, the enigmatic union leader for a local movement of mine workers in the central Indian state. The work includes Niyogi's prediction of his own death, and it archives the government's subsequent cover-up, which, in 2005, resulted in the Indian Supreme Court's overturning the earlier convictions of persons initially held responsible. Time and The Prediction constitute "parts" that are consistent with the documentary goal of the "whole" that is The Sovereign Forest: namely, to engage art in the functions of witness and record injustices, here perpetrated by the state, for ethically questionable gain.

In addition to cataloguing the social impact of such industrial initiatives, and to engaging and taking an interest in the welfare of citizens, Kanwar is, naturally, concerned with the health of the environment. The Scene of Crime (2010), a video work included in The Sovereign Forest, is composed of a series of visual "maps" that document aspects of Odisha's landscape in minute detail, from Niyamgiri mango saplings to the paddy fields of Beldal village. One image shows a single stone column in a green field—a shrine to those from the town of Kalinganagar who died protesting the negative effects of its fast-growing industrial area—and reappears in an accompanying book, wherein the names of those victims, and others from the region who have been killed in conflicts with state police, are printed alongside their photographs. The Scene of Crime thus serves as a memorial to a locality, and a community, fractured by state intervention.

Despite the work's regional focus, the events recorded in The Sovereign Forest—and specifically, Kanwar's approach to their presentation—suggest the possibility of more global social applications. At the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, the installation made reference to local history—namely, the social impact of de-industrialization in Margaret Thatcher's England. In 1984-1985 a miners' strike—a showdown between Thatcher and a trade union movement headed by Arthur Scargill—responded to the planned closure of some 20 coal mines in Yorkshire, which tore apart communities in the region. In solidarity with this legacy, Kanwar produced Listening Benches (2013), a series of six benches made with parts from 19th-century wooden organ pipes salvaged from a chapel on the Yorkshire Sculpture Park estate. He used these same materials to create The Six Mourners and the One Alone (2013), an outdoor sculpture constituted by seven organ pipes inscribed with text and staked upright into the ground. Both commissions witness and memorialize an industrial history distinct from Odisha's, but nonetheless engineered by the processes of capitalism, industrialization, and commerce.

Amar Kanwar, The Sovereign Forest, 2012 [courtesy of the artist, photo: Anders Sune Berg]

These communities' ostensible similarity is made plain by the addition of The Counting Sisters and Other Stories (2011), a narrative scrapbook, of sorts, hand-sewn from banana leaf paper, to the UK iteration of The Sovereign Forest. The work presents a series of fictionalized tales authored by Kanwar, and based on people whom he has come to know through his research. They include the titular Counting Sisters: a group of mourners who sing about the atrocities that have befallen their community, and who are incarcerated by the state for doing so. Once imprisoned, the sisters nonetheless continue to sing—a strong iteration of the persistent, communal voice that Kanwar seeks to draw out, amplify, and effectively universalize.

A permanent installation of The Sovereign Forest was set up in Odisha at the Samadrusti campus in Bhubanesawar, where it continues to collect material related to the struggles in the region. Some of this research was exhibited at the Yorkshire Sculpture Park. The Sovereign Forest was thereby expanded, both as a symbolic space—honed through the project's presentation at documenta 13 (2012), the 11th Sharjah Biennial (2013), and the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (2012-2013)—and as a rooted point of focus for a particular local context. This multipolarity is what makes The Sovereign Forest a broader work. Although it has meaning as a document of ongoing, regional struggle, that meaning flourishes once it finds a common point of reference with another location (in this case, Yorkshire). Furthermore, as a "symbolic world," Kanwar's work engages with the very tenets of mutuality explored by Willats in East London: it is operative within a closed social context, and within the greater networks of interaction engaged when such contexts are presented more widely. The symbolic worlds of Inside An Ocean and The Sovereign Forest are not one, but many; yet in this multipolarity, these worlds are grounded in the reality that they are all our worlds.

The persistent message in both projects is that works born of research into the structures of community make the biggest strides in mapping the path toward that convergence. Both operate through engagement with particular spaces approached not as physical demarcations, but as a "commons"—a multidimensional, dynamic zone comprising human and material realities. They provide a neat spectrum through which to contemplate the idea of the functional, communicative collective, whose representation within the dominant systems of our times continues to come into question, and with increasing urgency. Through their focus on the social body both projects challenge the enlightenment formulation of the social contract, one inherited from Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan, and drawn between a sovereign power and the state based on the presumption of "the tragedy of the commons," to borrow ecologist Garrett Hardin's term. Hardin refers to the tragedy afflicting a people incapable of fairly sharing resources due to the fundamentally self-serving, group welfare-averse nature of the human species. "If ruin is to be avoided in a crowded world," he wrote in 1968, "people must be responsive to a coercive force outside their individual psyches ... a 'Leviathan.'"2

In this, Willats and Kanwar propose distinct but complementary strategies designed to emancipate us from what has grown to be a rotten Hobbesian deal. The substance of their respective experiments is a grass-roots, environment-conscious network of data collation, documentation, communication, and collaboration that relies on the sustainability of such networks through sheer perseverance. The results underscore the fact that coming together must be made possible if we are to renegotiate the systems within which we operate. Finding ways to stay together as a collective body despite the systems of fragmentation that limit the potential for publics to unite in physical space, becomes key. Rewriting the social contract, then, begins with the production of a common network. The lessons of the recent past suggest that the challenge is sustaining it outside the fractured public square.

Stephanie Bailey is the managing editor of Ibraaz. Born and raised in Hong Kong, she is currently based in London, though her heart is in Athens, Greece, where she wrote, edited, and taught between 2006 and 2012. Bailey also writes for Artforum, ArtAsiaPacific, Modern Painters, LEAP, Ocula, and Yishu Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art. Her work also appears in Notes on Metamodernism and Hyperallergic.

1. Kailas Sarap, "Forests and Livelihoods in Orissa," in Piers Blaikie and Oliver Springate- Baginski (eds.), Forests People and Power: The Political Ecology of Reform in South Asia (London: Earthscane Publications Ltd., 2007): 261–299.

2. Garrett Hardin, "Political Requirements for Preserving our Common Heritage," in H.P. Brokaw (ed.), Wildlife and America (Washington, DC: Council on Environmental Equality, 1978). Cited in Elinor Ostrom, Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1990): 9.

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