Monica Narula on Sat, 2 Mar 2002 01:24:24 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Sarai - first anniversary

Dear Nettimers

As many of you may know, Sarai : The New Media Intiative (
completed its first anniversary yesterday. It has been an exciting first
year for all of us at Sarai, and we thought that we would share with you
our reflections on our experience of the first year on this occasion.

Below is a text that I spoke yesterday evening at the gathering at Sarai
when we released the Sarai Reader 02 (of which more in subsequent
postings). I hope that it gives you a good picture of what we have been up
to at Sarai.


Sarai - One Year in the Public Domain

As a person who has been involved with Sarai from its inception, I am
obviously not a disinterested, objective observer. What I am going to
share with you in the next few minutes is not an 'annual report' on our
activities. It is rather an attempt at communicating some of the
excitement of being here, and I hope that by bringing the reasons for that
excitement into what we (ever since the last Sarai Reader) have grown
accustomed to calling the 'Public Domain', I can invite you to find your
own points of engagement with what we are doing at Sarai.

You might as well ask, what do we do at Sarai? Where in all the spectrum
of activities and projects is the focus that animates Sarai? I will try
and answer this with a series of instances of the kinds of work and the
processes that have been at play here. But before I do that, I would like
to dwell on two terms - "Collaboration" and "Commons"  - that have
translated themselves into key concepts for us. Perhaps then you will see
how the work we do connects with the City, with Media and with the Public

So what are these two words - 'Collaboration' and 'Commons' - and what do
we mean when we deploy them to describe or qualify what we do, and also
who we are. For us, Collaboration denotes those encounters and processes
that entail a synergy between discrete forms, practices, and cultures.
These can be between media practice and media theory, between designers
and researchers, between programmers and artists, between people in a
basti and people in a digital lab, between practitioners across borders
and cultures in an electronic public domain, and between languages.

Typically, the city as a cultural form is the arena where such encounters
are played out to their fullest potential. A programme such as ours which
foregrounds the urban as a category for reflection in this sense mirrors
the sensibility of the city. It does so by welcoming a range of
collaborations that describe an array of origins including scholarship,
activism, media practice, technological innovation, cultural intervention,
creativity and play, all of which taken together constitute an ensemble of
energies that are animated by each other. All these communicate with each
other through a constellation of media practices ranging from print,
video, sound, to the internet and digital art. All this contributes to,
and takes place within, a notion of the "Commons" - a metaphor taken from
the ways in which resources and space have been held together through
history, and which is now deployed to suggest an accretion of cultural
energies and materials that are openly available and that are built over
time, through shared endeavours, in the Public Domain. The "Commons" is
the frame within which "Collaborations" take place. This, we would suggest
is how the City, Media, and the Public Domain hang together in our frame
of things.

How then does this translate into actual practice. I would like to offer
you a few instances from the last year at Sarai. A residency that Sarai
shared with Khoj, an artists network, to host Syeda Farhana, a
photographer from Dhaka, Bangladesh led to her creating a hypertextual
photographic installation on Bangladeshi migrants in Delhi in
collaboration with Joy Chatterjee in the Sarai Media Lab. The work done by
her constituted not only a stand alone digital work, but the nucleus of a
set of materials in the Sarai archive of the city. There are several
levels of interaction here, between Sarai and another institution, Khoj.
Between Farhana and us at the Media Lab, between photography and digital
media, and between art practice and an archival imperative. This is an
example of the ways in which the word collaboration comes to mean what it
does at Sarai.

One of our print media fellows - Frederick Noronha - is working on a
documentary history of the free software movement in India. His research
methodology involves an active 'posting' mechanism. He posts his queries
on to a series of electronic lists, and the queries and the responses, as
well as what he writes in the form of notes, observations and essays are
made available online. In this way, an archive of materials is formed out
of the growing correspondence between him and his subjects, for all of
whom the project that he has embarked on is essentially a collaborative
venture to write their history together with him.

Ravi has already mentioned the Publics and Practices in the History of the
Present, work for which has begun, as a unique set of activities that
involve practitioners, theorists and researchers in a repertoire of
explorations. While on the one hand it might involve me photographing the
lobbies of old cinema halls, or the electronics bazaar at Lala Lajpat Rai
Market, and Bhrigu or Parvati taking notes for a detailed ethnography of a
media space, it also involves me and my colleagues in the Raqs Media
Collective, Jeebesh and Shuddha, working together with Ravi Vasudevan and
Ravi Sundaram to arrive at conceptual categories with which to think
through the very idea of what Ravi Sundaram likes to call the 'messiness'
of the contemporary!

Collaboration also informs the making of this Reader - "The Cities of
Everyday Life". It has been from the very beginning a collective
endeavour, with five of us at Sarai interacting closely with Geert Lovink
from the Waag, who is now in Sydney, and then with us at the media lab
working in tandem with Pradip Saha, the designer of the book over the last
few months. I think that in this case the results of collaboration are
very visible. The richness of textual forms, and of approaches, and yet
the clear presence of a focus on the city as an object of knowledge,
interpretation and reflection of this order is seldom possible to achieve
without the coming together, the concert, of many energies, curiosities,
and passions.

What is even more interesting is that it is clear to us, that this book in
its print form is very much a new media work. Of course this can be
substantiated by the fact that this is a copyleft work, and with
collaborative authorship. But I think that this is true even of the form
and argument of the structure of the book. The texts that constitute the
book may be arranged sequentially, but they follow a hypertextual logic
that is also a result of our online engagements. Also, for instance, the
online dialogues culled from the Reader List. The list itself emerged from
the publication of the first Sarai Reader and has entered this year's
book. A book gives rise to an online community, and the online community
gives rise to content for a book.

Similarly, an important section in the book emerged out of the workshop on
cinema held at Sarai, and Ranjani Mazumdar, Ira Bhaskar and Moinak
Bishwas, each of them independent film scholars, have had their insights
relayed into the book via the workshop. Even a series of film screenings -
Nitin Govil's curation of Science Fiction Films at Sarai - has translated
itself into an essay on the city in science fiction for the Reader. This
model of creating works and processes that embody an encounter between
different communicative practices is something that we have been able to
arrive at over the past year, and we have been able to do so because the
work we do at Sarai is inter-disciplinary. It is an assemblage of
practices and discursive acts as an interweaving of different rhetorics,
of different modes of address, of diverse technologies of communication.
We will carry this further through the publication of a book from the
Cybermohalla project, a sense of which you can already get in this years
Reader and a Sarai Reader in Hindi, both of which, are slated to come out
early this summer, as well as in all the ways in which we make our work
public.  In the book itself, "The Cities of Everyday Life", the coming
together of forms and practices has pushed open possibilities of what the
pleasures of making a book can be. This is why the the term "new media"
for us is not so much about the novelty of computers, multimedia and the
Internet, as it is about new forms and strategies of practice, about
innovative re-combinations between "Old" and "New" media, between and
across, print, film, video, television, radio, computers and the internet.

We are keen to effect crossovers and transgressions that displace both old
and new hierarchies, which privilege neither tradition nor novelty for
their own sake, and give rise to a more layered and agile form of media
practice that is more reflective of the contemporary in our spaces. This
means being as invested in the making of print objects, visual works and
soundscapes as in the creation of web content, and looking for ways in
which practices and objects can straddle off-line and online trajectories.

We are also working on a number of new media projects which examine
questions related to claims and contests around issues of space and access
in the urban environment and explore the idea of a "digital commons". We
hope to realize at least three to four major new media projects around
these themes this year on a variety of platforms - on the internet, as
installations, and in the form of publications. Significant amongst these
is the OPUS project, an online inter-media platform for collaborative
digital practice. OPUS will be a space where old and new media can meet
online, and create hybrid works through dispersed authorship. It is a
translation of the basic principles of openness and collaboration that
animates the free software milieu into general cultural practice. This
presumes the cultivation of a sensibility of creative and intellectual
collaboration and free exchange. The OPUS project has benefited enormously
from the contributions of Silvan and Bauke, students of digital media, who
have been with us on extended residencies, alongside Pankaj and the rest
of us on the project. Their sheer energy and tenacity in terms of coding
has been one of the anchors of the OPUS project, and this is one
collaboration that we know has an exciting future.

A central thread running through our work is the politics of communication
itself. Who can access which tools to say what to whom. Hence our
engagement with technology as cultural form and as the crucible of a new
contest of power. This is certainly a conscious choice on our part. We are
interested in Free Software not only because it makes economic sense in an
Indian context to not spend a lot of money on expensive proprietary
software, but also because we believe there are crucial issues of cultural
freedom and creativity that are at stake here. And the insistence that
access and control over the technologies of communication and information
must be opened out is central to democratic practice of culture. We want
to contribute to autonomous, collaborative energies in the field of
software, culture and communication technology, which are conducive to
conditions of diversity. That some of these energies challenge, or at
least are skeptical about the commodification of digital culture across
the globe, is something that we would like to see foregrounded in a lot of
the work that we do. We are also organizing a workshop on Information and
Politics from tomorrow which will include discussions and presentations by
activists, media practitioners and researchers on surveillance,
censorship, free speech, free software, cyber laws and the right to
information campaign in India. This workshop will, we hope, open ground
for a serious public debate on the politics of information, as well as the
domination of the media and communication technologies by entrenched

Sarai is interested especially in those media cultures that lie in the
shadow of technological and social elites. We are interested in speaking
to critical voices that produce and live the new media, which may exist in
the street, the software factory, the worlds of the local videowalla, the
neighbourhood Public Call Office/cybercafe, the gray markets in music,
computers and other media-ware. This is the electronic everyday, which
resides in the shadows of the spectacular media space conjured by the
media empires in South Asia, and will be very much an area where Sarai's
work is slated to grow in the near future.

I hope that all this gives you a sense of who we are and what we have been
up to in the last year. It is evident, but I will say it regardless. We
are busy, we are public, we are open and we intend to stay that way.

Thank you for being such a critical, patient and friendly public.

Monica Narula
Sarai:The New Media Initiative
29 Rajpur Road, Delhi 110 054

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