In conversation with… Marialaura Ghidini
Silicon Plateau is an art project and publishing series that explores the intersection of technology, culture and society in the Indian city of Bangalore. The series responds to the editors’ interest in how new technologies and their infrastructure shape people’s everyday, and also how they morph according to the social spaces they inhabit. Each volume of the series is a themed repository for creative research, artworks, essays and interviews that observe the ways technology permeates the urban environment and the lives of its inhabitants.
For Silicon Plateau Vol-2 the editors, curator Marialaura Ghidini and artist Tara Kelton, invited seventeen artists, writers, designers, lawyers and anthropologists (Sunil Abraham and Aasavri Rai, Yogesh Barve, Deepa Bhasthi, Carla Duffett, Furqan Jawed, Vir Kashyap, Saudha Kasim, Qusai Kathawala, Clay Kelton, Mathangi Krishnamurthy, Sruthi Krishnan, Vandana Menon, Lucy Pawlak, Nicole Rigillo, Yashas Shetty, Mariam Suhail) to contribute to the book by responding to a main question: what does it mean to be an app user today—as a worker, a client, or simply an observer?
The result is a collection of stories about contemporary life in Bangalore, of conversations spoken and typed, of deliberations on how people behave, what they sense, and what they might think about when they use the gamut of services offered on demand, through a simple tap on a mobile device.
Miriam: Let’s begin from the title. Silicon Plateau reminds me of the Silicon Valley as much as Deleuze and Guattari. Can you elaborate on these two possible references and the way the city of Bangalore, with its art community, speaks of technological development and philosophical questioning?
Marialaura: Silicon Plateau is literally a topographical reference – it’s the nickname of Bangalore, which lies on the Karnataka Plateau in the south-eastern part of the Indian state of Karnakata. We appropriated this descriptive name as a title to point at how the identity of the city (as many other cities in the world) has been shaped by the ecosystem created by the IT industry. We are interested in critically exploring this by moving beyond simplistic stereotypes and ideas about technological progress, which is too often understood as a generalised, global phenomenon whose effects are abstracted. If I say Silicon Plateau rather than Bangalore, your approach to reading its urban environment will most likely be affected by cliched visual ideas and narratives that are not situated in any specific local ecosystem and its nuances. Silicon Plateau wants to challenge this by focusing on the specificities of a place and individual human experiences. Beyond the grey, clean geometrical patterns of the book cover (a signature style of tech buildings that dot the city, or any Silicon city for that matter), the reader finds stories that provide a behind the scene to global technological narratives, such as the life of a young woman working in a customer support department of a tech company, the daily exchanges between on-demand drivers and their clients and the stories arising from their conversations, the expectations of the customers of the new economy when they outsource farming through rental services, and so on.
There are many so-called Silicon cities, such as Silicon Lagoon (Lagos, Nigeria) and Silicon Wadi (Tel Aviv, Israel), and locations, such as Silicon Roundabout (London, UK) and Silicon Savannah (Kenya), and they all inhabit our collective imagination as places that are key to bringing economic and societal change in relation to the Silicon Valley rhetoric of innovation and social mobility. But beyond this façade there are always much more complex scenarios, where many elements come into play and pose questions about what it really means to talk about innovation and progress, and for whom. In this sense, Silicon Plateau Vol.2 wants to explore how global narratives and collective imagination coexist with the history, culture, economy and social life of a local urban environment, in our case Bangalore, and it does so by combining artistic research with sciences such as anthropology and disciplines such as law and economy.
If we really want to bring Deleuze and Guattari into this, although is not where we started from, maybe a broad link can be found in their idea of the rhizomatic mode of knowledge, with their notions of multiplicity and heterogeneity. Silicon Plateau Vol-2 is like a curated zibaldone that provides one of many possible mappings of everyday life and the mediation operated by the on-demand services of the sharing economy. It brings together different personal experiences, observations, analysis, and fictions that spring from such mediation, and it does not provide an answer, or a beginning and end, but a multiplicity of points of view that the reader can enter and combine in different ways. Maybe this could be connected to Deleuze and Guattari’s idea of the map as something that “constructs the unconscious”…
Mi: The contributors come from different fields of practice, i.e. visual arts, design, academia and law. This reminds me of Experiments in Art and Technology (E.A.T.), the non-profit, research organisation established in 1967 in the United States, by engineers Billy Klüver and Fred Waldhauer and artists Robert Rauschenberg and Robert Whitman, to foster cross-field collaboration around art and technological development. Was this a model in the conception of Silicon Plateau? Or what other resources have you adopted in the formulation of the curatorial concept for this project?
Ma: It is an exciting parallel, in its understanding of the crucial role that engineers (and their work) played in society, and their willingness to find ways for artists and technologists to work together, E.A.T. proposed a very inspiring curatorial approach to creating links between diverse areas of knowledge (they also developed a collaborative research project in India called The Anand Project in 1969). E.A.T. was not a direct model for Silicon Plateau, but it is definitely an approach to curating I am very much interested in and I want to pursue more. I think the model of Silicon Plateau is an extension of my curatorial practice, I like to set up situations where an exhibition, be it a book, a residency, an online show, explores a topic and grows through the work and conversations of the people involved. Over the years, I have also felt that my work became quite limited by contemporary art discourses and theory (my background is in art history and philosophy beside curating) and I find great inspiration in collaborating with people whose background and work is different than mine – our entry points of observation are productively different. It is in this sharing through differences that fruitful conversations arise, and art moves beyond field-specific discourses to enter in conversation with everyday life. Tara also shares this interest, which is evident in her own artistic work and research. We both like working with publishing (Tara designed the book with designer Furqan Jawed), and personally I enjoy bringing stories that have different ways of engaging with a reader together, from academic writing, to fiction, to graphic narratives, to reports, to artworks.
In a nutshell, Silicon Plateau originated from our common desire to create a platform that would point at the fact that collaborative research – between artists, designer and writers and people working outside the creative field – raises questions about technology and society that are more comprehensive, and are more sensitive to addressing human experiences, local issues and inherited knowledge frameworks. When we started in 2015 we thought that there were not enough opportunities for cross-field collaborations in the context of art and technology in Bangalore, and we were also very much aware that in India much of the most interesting research in this field has been conducted in the field of anthropology, social sciences and law. So, Silicon Plateau has been a conversation starter as much as a way to trigger artistic explorations in the field of art and technology, which is also something I do with my students (I teach at Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology in Bangalore).
Mi: How would you comment on the implications of time and place, e.g. E.A.T. in the New York of the 1960s versus a project like Silicon Plateau in the Bangalore of the 21st century, in relation to cross-disciplinary collaborations in art and technology? I am here thinking of the narratives that can emerge when talking about technological progress in different socio-political contexts and post-colonial geographies.
Ma: I don’t think I can draw a parallel, if not just a series of speculations since I am not familiar with the New York cultural scene. I think the way we see collaboration in the field of art&technology has different goals because the context in which we understand the idea of tech-enabled progress has profoundly changed and responds to very different geopolitical and economic areas. E.A.T. operated at a time when the US was considered a ‘superpower,’ the West the driver of change and there was much state investment, in terms of funding and research, into developing the IT industry – something that created fertile terrain for the coming into being of the Silicon Valley’s story of technological innovation; whereas Silicon Plateau exists at a point in time when the world’s power structure has changed, the IT industry and specifically the digital economy has shown its shortfalls in full, and it also responds to the complexities of the global economy of India – it is also embedded in a context where digital technology has been promoted as a way to create ‘a better state’ (the Indian government launched the Digital India programme in 2015, whose vision is “to transform India into a digitally empowered society and knowledge economy.”) Because of this our understanding of innovation is different, E.A.T. funders saw the bringing of artistic thinking and practice into the use and development of new technologies as something that would create innovation in both the arts and the tech industry; while we see Silicon Plateau as a space to raise broader questions about what technological progress means in relation to the day-to-day life of its users, and to propose a view on the user as not simply a passive customer but an active agent who can shape the way a technology inhabits our everyday. So, our scopes are different – if E.A.T looked at innovating what existed with no specific focus on their geographical and socio-cultural location, we are looking at the ramification and behind the scene of the rhetoric of tech-enabled innovation from a localised perspective. I think E.A.T was less interested in avoiding the abstractions inherent to discussing technological progress as a global phenomenon, as it happens in the media and political discourses, than us. But this is because discourses have changed and nowadays we have seen, first-hand and multiple times, the socio-cultural and political impact that global corporations, and their services and algorithms have on all aspects of life. Everything is political, even the choice of a word like Silicon.
On a more general level, of course the narratives emerging from exploring the impact that the sharing economy has had in Bangalore are different than if you were looking at a city in the US or Europe; they are inevitably linked to its geographical position, its political context, the rejection of Western exoticism, and the colonial past of the city and the subcontinent. The reason I think Silicon Plateau is an important project is that it creates a way of discussing the role that technology has in our society in an interdisciplinary manner that has the human experience and the specificity of a place at its centre. Unlike E.A.T. it is more a container of different voices.
Mi: Text and image in the publication have a descriptive as much as a visual and symbolic purpose. Could you tell me more about the differentiation (in purpose and role) and the integration between the two?
Ma: Because we worked with people who tell stories using different genres, styles and media – from a lawyer, to an artist, to a writer, to an entrepreneur – the book content is both descriptive and symbolic. Silicon Plateau Vol.2 is not a theoretical book or a writers’ anthology, it provides different ways of observing and interpreting our present. Because the present is so fleeting, so difficult to discuss in a nuanced manner rather than a divisive one, we feel that exploring the relationship between technology and society today requires a combination of different ways of observing and telling stories, from more factual accounts to fictional stories to symbolic narratives. Even though I believe in the power of art to raise questions and inspire people by providing experiences (be them visual, physical or emotional), I also believe in the power of the detailed directness of scientific analysis and the mental meandering devoid of visual pointers offered by literature. In this sense, I see the differences you are pointing out as elements that complement each other in order to take a snapshot of where we are and what we might be heading towards as users, citizens, friends, workers, clients, or just as people. In Man in the Dark, Paul Auster has a character saying: “There are many realities. There’s no single world. There are many worlds, and they all run in parallel to one another, worlds and hate-worlds, worlds and shadow-worlds, and each world is dreamed or imagined or written by someone in another world. Each world is the creation of a mind.” And I think this is telling of the approach to research that we used for Silicon Plateau Vol-2.
Mi: After the experience of this volume, what are your concluding remarks about contemporary life in Bangalore and the services that are offered on demand?
Ma: Bangalore has changed greatly with the development of the ITC industry, but at the same time, as it emerges from the contributions in the book, it has also not. People’s basic necessities and desires are the same throughout history, and this is true for Bangalore as much as for other cities across the world. By going through the contributors’ stories, it becomes clear that the sharing economy is shaping business models, the way we interact with the environment and with one another, for example, but it is far from having lessened segmentation in society, our general carelessness towards the environment, or poor labour conditions when conditions were already critical. However, some of its services, and most of all the way they have been adopted by their users, offer new possibilities for changing the way we inhabit the city, and the relationships developing within it. I do think that Bangalore shows more attempts by entrepreneurs to develop services that take into consideration sections of society than are in need and might benefit from being involved in the sharing economy – more than what I have experienced in Europe – but simultaneously there is a more pressing danger of having private companies replace public services because their infrastructure is still developing and is more precarious than in a city like San Francisco. But here I am really simplifying and I think all the contributors proposed nuanced observations about the impact that the sharing economy has had on the city and its inhabitants, in a manner that highlights the complexities of a place like Bangalore, which has grown at an incredible fast speed in the past two decades and is the house of a great variety of people, who speak different languages, have different believes and religions, and come from different places, from within India and abroad.
Mi: Thinking about the next step of the project; will the series translate into physical exhibitions or will the publication remain the exhibit in itself?
Ma: Both Tara and I like the idea of the book existing as a book. This is because there is a specific way in which narratives unfold through moving from one page to another. But we often discussed the possibility of organising an exhibition arising from this research, which inevitably will be an extension of the book because some of the contributions are not translatable for an exhibition context – I am currently working on an exhibition project that is related to the impact of mobile services, it is a sort of expansion of this research. The next theme of Silicon Plateau is still under discussion, what I can say at the moment is that we have been thinking to expand the location of our observation and the word magic came up several times.
Silicon Plateau Vol-2 is published by the Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam, in collaboration with The Centre for Internet and Society, Bangalore, and available for purchase as a print-on-demand book and as a free ePub and PDF from the Institute of Network Cultures website, networkcultures.org
More information about the project can be found at siliconplateau.info
Marialaura Ghidini is a contemporary art curator, researcher and course leader of the MA in Curatorial Practices at Srishti Institute of Art Design and Technology, Bangalore, where she teaches courses in new media art and curating. Marialaura was founder director of or-bits.com (2009-2015), an online platform dedicated to the production of art on the web, curator of #exstrange (2017), an exhibition that explored artistic and cultural exchanges on eBay, and programme director of T-A-J Residency (2015-2017) in Bangalore. Interested in exploring the intersections between art, technology and society, Marialaura has curated art projects online, in galleries, public spaces and in print, and collaborated with organisations such as AV Festival, Banner Repeater, Grand Union in the UK, and The Centre for Internet and Society, GALLERYSKE and the National Centre of Biological Sciences in India. She is co-editor of the publishing series Silicon Plateau.