We’re all well too aware of the social hierarchies and relationships that control and manipulate the art world. Unfortunately, we’re usually too afraid to say anything about it. Except UBIK: an artist who has recently been making waves with his series of tongue-in-cheek text works. Short animated .gif pieces that cleverly and humorously critique the entrenched social value systems at play in the art ecosystem.
Ahead of his solo exhibition DEAR (2018) at the Sabrina Amrani Gallery in Madrid this March, I sit down with UBIK to discuss his beginnings as an artist in Dubai, his thoughts on labour, identity and ‘work’ as an artist, and his desire to use Instagram as a platform to share and exhibit his art.
Follow his latest work on Instagram at @whoisubik
Sitara Chowfla: Can you tell me a little bit about where you started?
UBIK: Dubai. I started out doing a lot of street art. Text was a very important part of my work. That’s also because I am a Graphic Designer by training, and I think this is a very important aspect of me being an artist. It helps me formulate my work in a lot more of a structured manner. It was only around 2011 when I properly started to explore contemporary art.
SC: You started your practice in Dubai, which is multilingual place, but the work that you do has always been in English. What does this mean for your communication and representation? Do you speak another language and have you thought about making work in other languages?
UBIK: I do speak two other languages (Hindi and Malayalam), but the problem is that I can’t write in them, and I don’t think in either of those languages. Being from Kerala, Malayalam is a more complicated language because there are certain words that you really can’t translate into English. I feel like I would be exoticising my own identity if I wrote in my mother tongue. That’s also one of the reasons that I don’t even use my real name when I make work.
SC: Where does the name UBIK come from?
UBIK: The name UBIK came when I was doing a lot of murals. People would invite me to do things and they weren’t expecting a South Asian to show up with that name. Ubik is also the name of a sci-fi novel by Philip K. Dick. He’s derived the term loosely from ubiquitous, which obviously means omnipresent.
At that point in Dubai everyone was making work about identity, and about understanding his or her cultural specificity – I was very adamant about not addressing my own identity because it was quite evident that I was South Asian when you would see me.
SC: Dubai’s art world is fraught by politics of labour and identity. How did your work respond to this while you lived there?
UBIK: The first large scale, site specific work I did was Portrait of an Artist as Statement (2012). This was at the 2012 Dubai Art Fair. I really wanted to show people what it means to be a full-time, South Asian, immigrant artist. This was the first time that I was confronting the idea of identity. It was a work that was trying to address the class politics in the UAE and also respond to people’s misconception about how you earn as an artist. My visa actually said I was a ‘Marketing & Sales executive’, which I actually thought was quite ironic, because as an artist you are always struggling to sell your work. So I made a work where I opened up my bank statements for a year, and made 5,000 fortune cookies with these statements within them. I was inspired by Felix Gonzalez Torres. I was not struck by the content, but more by the image. I hadn’t seen the work. The way he’d arranged the work – but piled up on the floor. That’s what interested me. I thought – wow! That’s a way to make a statement. I thought it would be great to have my work scattered around where no one would really know that it’s art.
SC: To me you are continuously trying to address this notion of what labour within an artistic practice is, and this misconception of what artistic labour actually constitutes of and where that action of doing and relationship to capital exists.
UBIK: I’ve always thought of myself as somebody who is an art worker. Dubai didn’t afford me the privilege to be an artist. I was mostly an immigrant worker making art there – there is a big difference. Even then I was really questioning my practice, asking, “Am I really an artist, when I have to worry about my visa?” These are things that were going through my mind and something that I addressed later in my practice as well.
SC: For you is that question of identity more important than an identity based on where you are born?
UBIK: Absolutely. I don’t like geographic identity because it is too easy. I find it too easy. And then I started to experiment, at this point of time in Dubai people weren’t really experimenting, and I was quite lucky to get opportunities. So this is a work called Autosuggestion (2012). This is an installation that I did – I took writing from self-help books and I culled it and I made it quite dark. It kind of reads your mind, or it appears that way because of the way that it is programmed. It ends on this very dark note that says, “Are you earning what you are worth?” The text was quite dark, with me reflecting on my one particular day.
SC: When did you decide to shift to India?
UBIK: Incidentals (2014) was the last show I did in Dubai, and the only one where I ever addressed my identity. It was my goodbye show in 2014. I literally took apart my passport – my whole identity in its rawest form. If people were to ask me what my identity was in Dubai – I would have said, it’s my fucking visas!
SC: This is the second instance in which you’ve referred to a work as a portrait where you don’t really have a character or a figure in it. Is the characterisation about the erasure of the physical body? These are the documents that represent you – your bank statement, your visa, the things that allow you to work.
UBIK: Yes – this was the issue. Small instances of violence were also in this work. Every time I returned back to Dubai after a holiday, the immigration officer would fold the corners of my passport down so that the next time I come back in he knows exactly where to stamp my return. A sticker ‘H’ marks my identity that is how I was filed away in some cabinet. This is because my boss’s father’s name starts with an H, and I was hired through his company. I was just a sticker. A sticker that covered and erased the emblem of my own country.
SC: This shifts me into a couple of the other questions that I want to ask you about your new body of work. Tell me about your interest in using digital formats and how this has led to your forthcoming show.
UBIK: The newer video format began because I really wanted to teach myself animation, and I was bored spending so much time on my computer. I like Instagram a lot. The new show I am doing is something quite interesting because we are thinking of changing the content through out the eight weeks of the show being installed. The display becomes a shell and the content keeps changing in some ways. We are playing on that idea right now. And also things like – how do I sell an Instagram account to a collector? How do I sell a suite of videos and tell a collector that you can never ever…
SC: Take it off Instagram?
UBIK: Ya, and also it will be a private account. The only way you can show people the account and the works is if you accept people’s requests on Instagram. And more importantly you can’t display these videos on a screen ever, but just as one particularly suite of work. So we’re now trying to figure out how we go about the strange legal aspects of Instagram. These are things that I really like. Also with Instagram it’s quite challenging. I was talking to my gallery and I was telling that I want my solo to happen simultaneously on Instagram, while at a physical space.
SC: Well, this was my question about this project. For you these recent text based works have been so much about being on social media and being to address a certain kind of audience and its sounds like you have really thought about that carefully while making that shift from having this as a personal ongoing project into a gallery space. Do you even think its necessary to show it within the gallery? What happens in that shift?
UBIK: Yes and no – I don’t think its necessary to show it within the gallery but it is kind of crazy. I wasn’t honestly thinking about showing these as proper ‘proper’ works. I was quite content with this being on Instagram and I really liked it being on Instagram.
SC: A lot of your work is about canonicity, and the rejection of what goes into forming a canon, both into the actual objects that are entered into a canon, and also about who enters a canon. Which is very important- because it comes across both in the development of your practice until this point, and the kind of critiques you are putting across in your recent work.
UBIK: The artwork is almost a negotiation between my gallery, the collector and me. All three of us are saying whatever piece of object that I am making is an artwork, and it’s almost taken at face value in that sense. I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of what gets to be ART – sometimes I don’t think that what I make makes sense! I have a lot of insecurity issues in my life, and rely on my gallery to push me. I feel uncomfortable with the authority that I have to say, ‘this is the art object, and I am the artist’. A lot of the [Instagram] work is very self critical… I have to make fun of my own self. I can’t be that serious!
SC: Lets close by talking about your more recent work and the videos that you are going to be showing. So it is a project that you’ve been working on privately, out of a compulsion to respond to the strange social hierarchies of the South Asian art world. How do you feel about this position where you are both an insider, and an outsider in this world- rejecting it, but needing it; belonging to it, but standing at the edge of it. Does it allow you this position of spectator and have these particular critiques, to ask the kind of difficult question that people might be too shy about asking?
UBIK: I’m quite honest about it. When I put a post about the artist lists for the forthcoming Dhaka Art Summit, someone asked me in private – would you have done it if you were a part of that list? I said, of course I would have, because that is who I am.
SC: This also takes me to a question about subversiveness: we live in a system where being subversive is also protected as something ‘trendy’. Where you can get away with doing this, and it might in fact raise the value of your profile, because your identity is now of that person who ‘takes those risks’.
UBIK: Yeah! It’s strange because all of a sudden so many people are interested in me.
SC: The ironic thing is that the very people who you are being critical of will buy that work and then install it in their bedrooms. What do you make of that relationship, where you attempting to critique a larger system actually gives you more value within it.
UBIK: I find it quite interesting and I’m quite surprised that people are actually doing it.
SC: Did you expect to be ostracised?
UBIK: It didn’t bother me, even if I was. I guess having a gallery outside of India protects me. Even if it does ostracize me… I don’t think I’m very bothered by it to be honest. I really want people to buy shit like this and put it on their wall. I like making art that’s very difficult for people to own. That’s why a lot of my work doesn’t really exist in itself. A lot of my work doesn’t really exist anymore. With this new text work – I am actually really surprised that people are taking it in such a positive way. I’m not pissed that they are not irked by it. Its crazy – every day somebody new is following me. Suddenly people are like, ‘oh wow, who is this person who is being so critical’. I find it really amusing.
SC: Is it provoking any debate?
UBIK: Between my peers in a very isolated way, but not out in the open. And I don’t think it will, I don’t think my work has that kind of a power yet to do it. I don’t think anyone in the scene would back me up openly, either.
SC: Do you think it would not be exhibited in India? Because the critique is very specific to South Asian art worlds and the people within it.
UBIK: I don’t think people would get it, as an exhibition format. And that’s the tricky bit of it. I don’t see why it shouldn’t be exhibited in India.
The title of the interview is derived from a recent Instagram work by UBIK
Sitara Chowfla is a curator and researcher based between London and Delhi. She is currently an MA student at the Royal College of Art, Curating Contemporary Art program. Previously, Sitara worked as a curator and program manager at Khoj International Artists’ Association in Delhi, organizing exhibitions and artist residencies.