Art from The Digital Tribe

As printed in The Week, November 9, 2012

With only five works on show, The Digital Tribe is a quiet art experience at the Siddhartha Art Gallery. The silence and emptiness of the space make you observe the works more closely, to reflect on the subject at hand, and to raise further questions as well.

An outcome of a three-day workshop led by Bulgarian artists Sofia Burchardi and Plamen Bontchev with 11 KUart students, the exhibition is about “understanding who we are in the age of hyper connectivity.”

It is needless to explain the importance of digital technology and the Internet, as I write this article on my computer and will later email it to The Week.

Nonetheless, Magsaysay Prize winner Mahabir Pun’s First Computer of Nanghi, which is a part of the exhibition, is another kind of reminder of what digital technology means to education, communication and economic development in rural parts of Nepal.

First four photographs: courtesy of The Digital Tribe

A simple wooden box has been cut out with holes and fitted in with hardware parts of a central processing unit (CPU). There’s a light switch for the ‘on’ button. It’s nothing like the shiny sleek CPUs we have in Kathmandu’s market, but the impact and change that the First Computer of Nanghi brought about to the village is probably a hundred times more than our latest computers, which we use to Facebook and check emails in.

These days, most of us are used to saying, “Oh! We’re just Facebook friends.” But what does that mean, or does it even mean anything? Burchardi and Bontchev – also known as the miniartist duo – explore our identities, social structures and relationships with and within our virtual worlds in their installation, Augmented Deities.

The eight-phase lenticular photograph of Augmented Deities is a part of the duo’s project called “Alone Together” from 2011, which can be viewed on the miniartist website. Here, they have contextualized Alone Together in the local Nepali culture. Instead of displaying it on an open wall, the photograph hides behind a small curtained area. Four pairs of Google, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube slippers lay outside the curtained area, as if the space was sanctified, and the photograph within was a deity in a temple.

In a lenticular photograph, the image appears to be continually shifting and moving. It’s something we had in our pencil boxes and rulers as kids. Depending on how you looked at it, you would see two different action figures. In Augmented Deities, portraits of multiple people have been embedded in one. As you move, you see different images from different angles.

The duo artists explore and present different analogies in Augmented Deities. On one hand, they refer to the ever increasing merge between our virtual and real worlds. Though they are private individual spaces, our virtual worlds are, in a way, becoming as important as a sacred space of a temple, that stands in real public spaces.

For many of us, it may be easier to be someone else or even to be yourself in cyber space because we aren’t in there, physically talking to someone. Augmented Deities comments on this ability of people to morph themselves into different identities in the virtual world. The lenticular photograph merges the faces, bodies and clothes of different people, and from any angle you’ll find a different combination of these elements, and therefore, innumerable identities.

The underlying question that Augmented Deities asks is, “Who are you in your virtual world?”

The rest of the three installations in the exhibit are by KUart students who have worked in groups. A Huge Bit by Saran Tandukar, Shiva Prasad Upadhayaya, and Nhooja Tuladhar explores the phenomenon of ‘Torrents’ and torrenting in the Internet.

The three artists went around the city with a cart containing various objects such as fruits, clothing items, bags, old cassettes and more. In the process, they asked people to exchange their things with what they had in the cart. It’s interesting to watch the video of the exchange. A group of kids swapped the clothes they were wearing for things they fancied in the ‘Sata-sat cart.’ An installation was put together from things collected from the exchange. The items appear to be flowing out of a traditional waterspout constructed out of papier-mâché.

While the installation, video and title are all interesting, A Huge Bit doesn’t exactly examine ‘torrenting in the physical sense,’ as stated by the artists. It seems to be more of an exercise of barter trade which existed centuries ago, before the invention of monetary exchange.

Torrenting is a technology that enables individuals to download files from multiple users in the Internet, making it a faster, although illegal, method of downloading anything from music and movies to software. In torrenting, you don’t know who you’re downloading your files from and with whom you’re sharing your files. There are no personal connections and you have the choice of whether you want to share what you have with others or not.

In A Huge Bit, the reference to a waterspout seems more relevant. While previously, people gathered and interacted at a communal waterspout, nowadays most of us spend our time chatting on Facebook and other myriad online chat applications.

All that you can’t eat by Karma Gurung, Suresh Maharjan, Rabindra Shrestha, and Shreejana Shakya goes along the lines of computers and the Internet becoming as important as food. Keys from computer keyboards have been put in several kinds of bowls, plates and glasses, as if the keys were food items. But of course, you can’t eat the keys to survive although digital technology is becoming as indispensable as food.

All that you can’t eat could’ve used much lesser keys and utensils, and it would’ve still made its point. And perhaps even more poignantly than a jigsaw puzzle piece like table cluttered to the edges.

The last work on show on the third floor is titled Verse. Roshan Sakha, Pramesh Sherchan, Bhawana Ghimire, and Rabin Maharjan have imagined a space of a stone carver. The setup with traditional mats, fire lamps, stone carving equipment and drawing materials, all seem to suggest that this imaginary stone-carver existed some centuries ago. The carvings on the slate stones, which are of computer symbols and languages seem to suggest otherwise, and that the person is someone from the digital age. For instance, the stone carvings include an ‘On’ button, a computer pointer, binary digits, and even the symbol @. A number of drawings are scattered on the floor. Some of them appear to suggest that the carver was inventing some sort of a code of alphabets and computer keys, but with thumbprints.

A lot of effort has been put into this installation. But with no explanation provided to viewers, I couldn’t understand what the artists were trying to communicate through Verse. A short statement would’ve helped.

Supported by the Danish Arts Council, The Digital Tribe is on show till November 15 at the Siddhartha Art Gallery in Baber Mahal Revisited, Kathmandu. Visit www.miniartist.org for more works by Sofia Burchardi and Plamen Bontchev.

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One thought on “Art from The Digital Tribe

  1. thank you for the amazing post. the photographs along with the write-up was another testimony to how we still can enjoy art exhibitions at the space and comfort of our home, a boon of the ‘digital tribe’. while there’s more time to introspect, the connection between art lovers in a gallery or the cafe outside it is impossible. i thought the pictures were superbly taken and critique quite nicely done. i think an installation with myriad computer parts with faces stuck on them interconnected with throw-away wires or even wool strings would quite be the point at how connected we are virtually, taking note of our real solitude….

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