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<nettime> A Visit to the Sarai New Media Initiative
geert lovink on Sat, 26 Oct 2002 04:16:32 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> A Visit to the Sarai New Media Initiative


New Media Culture in India
A Visit to the Sarai New Media Initiative
Delhi, October 2002
By Geert Lovink

A year and a half after the new media centre Sarai opened, I returned to
Delhi, curious to meet new staff and see how projects have evolved.[i] The
centre is a buzzing hub, full of energy. During the six days of my stay I
only got a glimpse of what is going on. I will not attempt to sum up all the
projects that Sarai is initiating and facilitating but will briefly go
through a few of the activities and feature a subjective mélange of
projects-and people-that I became familiar with during my stay.

Delhi, as hot and polluted as ever, is undergoing a major transformation.
The construction of the subway is well underway. The first line will be
opened late this year. Due to the tense situation in Gujarat and Kashmir,
Delhi feels under a siege. Surveillance and control have been stepped up;
there are police roadblocks here and there. Politically the week was marked
by the elections in Jammu and Kashmir, which resulted in a defeat for the
ruling National Conference. This party is a partner in the Hindu nationalist
BJP led National Democratic Alliance coalition, the current Indian
government. Positioning itself 'off the radar,' so far Sarai did not have to
deal with state interference. The impression one gets of Sarai is that of a
dynamic cultural centre where new media are centre stage but not the sole
denominator. Instead, what Sarai drives is a passion for cosmopolitan
intellectual debate on contemporary city culture. The central concern of
Sarai is the connection between urban culture, media and daily life. The
annually published Sarai Reader is proof of the strong ties to book culture.
At the same time the Sarai server is host to a range of electronic
mailinglists, from the South-Asia IT list 'Bytes for All' to a discussion
forum on community radio in India.

At Sarai there is a weekly public screening program, using easy to obtain
VHS and DVD copies of feature films and documentaries, not 16 or 35 mm. On
the program this week an Iranian film (Kandahar by Mohsen Makhmalbaf). The
day I arrived Michael Saup of ZKM gave a workshop, which was supported by
the Goethe Institute, which itself could not host such technological events.
Also there were two Australians doing a residency. In the midst of it all,
staff meetings, heaps of them. And yes, there were the occasional
electricity cuts. Because of road construction the ISDN connection to the
Net had been down for a while but this improved later on in the week.[ii]
One of the Sarai founders, Ravi Sundaram, said bandwidth could have been
better but that the government was holding up connectivity because of the
post-911 security clearance of cable landings.

Let's look into some of the projects. Ravikant, a former historian, is
responsible for the language and popular culture program. Hindi is perhaps
one the largest language in the world but the illiteracy is also one of the
highest.[iii] However, the best books on the Hindi public domain all are
written in English. Experts on Hindi film only publish in English. Ravikant'
s research looks at the implications-and possibilities-of new media for
Hindi popular culture. He is the editor of the 'Hindi Media Reader,' a Sarai
publication due to come out in November, arguably the first new media
publication in Hindi with commissioned articles on free software, satellite
channels and tactical media. The reader also contains specific essays about
the Indian context. As a first book on these issues, the reader celebrates
new media. Ravikant: "The Hindi world has been obsessed with print culture,
which rose in the late nineteenth century. Related is the love for
literature. But in our age they're more ways of looking at the world. Film
and television now constitute language." In the Hindi context it is
important to discuss the anxiety between 'high' literature and popular
media. The Hindi media reader discusses the relation between the book and
the computer. Sarai wants to play a mediator role and lift the knowledge of
one sphere and transfer it into another. Ravikant knows only of a few Indian
media theorists; post-Marxist scholars and writers who have been struggling
against the dominant trend that treats audio-visual media as suspect. New
media are usually seen as part of the package called globalisation.

Over the last few years considerable progress has been made concerning the
introduction of Hindi as a computer user language, both on the level of
software interfaces and on the Net. But still a lot of work needs to be
done. Like Japanese, Hindi has its own set of characters. Both programs and
the keyboard need to be adjusted. Ravikant: "At the moment there are three
levels at which work is being done. There is the font solution, in which you
have to install fonts within the application you use. Then there are the
dynamic fonts. Thirdly, there is the Hindi Unicode (the extended standard of
ASCII), which will be the long-term solution. However, you can't use it yet
for the Linux-based Star Office. Compared to open source programs, Windows
has a much better support for Hindi Unicode. The BBC Hindi site has started
using Unicode. You can download fonts from there, which are for free. But
keyboards have not yet been adapted." For those interested, there is a yahoo
group that deals with Hindi and computing. Lately, Linux groups in India
have woken up and start to deal with the language issue. Ravikant: "I just
came back from a conference in Bangalore that dealt with all the issues of
standardization-mainly visited by Linux users.[iv] Whatever input devices we
use, we should give people choices. In India old school typists turned DTP
operators do most of the work. Their needs should also be taken into
account. Many are bi-lingual workers. But there are also those who only
speak Hindi. For them we should also offer the phonetic choice at the QWERTY
keyboard level."

Despite rampant nationalism, the Hindi part of the Internet is much more
tolerant than one would expect. Ravikant: "We learned to live with the
tension of hate sites. There are limits to what you can do against them.
There is such an obsession in India with the protection of the 'purity' of
culture. We therefore have to find ways to talk about other topics. There is
always the danger that the Hindi language agenda gets hi-jacked by the
guardians of cultural purity but that should not stop us from getting
involved. I am hopeful. The Hindu right wing forces are losing one election
after another. The ruling class is in fact not following the nationalist
economic agenda."

Cybermohalla is perhaps one of the Sarai's most impressive projects. In May
2001 a media lab was established in a slum called 'LNJP,' a 'basti', next to
a hospital in central Delhi. The settlement is living under the permanent
threat of eviction. Bulldozers could come at any time and force the
inhabitants to resettle on the outskirts of the nine million people
metropolis. The project is based in a small room nicknamed Compughar, has
three computers (two of them Linux), mainly used by a group of young people
most of whom are young Muslim women. Shveta, who trained as a social worker
before coming to Sarai to work on the Cybermohalla project, has taken me to
Compughar and translates from Hindi to English the many stories the
youngsters have to tell. The co-coordinator Azra Tabassum, a lively 20 years
old, shows us around. Compughar is a self-regulated space. Azra looks into
the everyday functioning of the lab. Monday to Saturday everyone meets from
10 to 4. There is lots of laughter-and expertise. The Cybermohalla project
is now well under way. The frequent visitors, most of them school dropouts,
have quickly learned to master word processing (in Hindi), drawing and
animation programs (Gimp), games, the digital camera and a scanner. There is
even a phone and email access via a modem but the connection is not always
that stable. At length we discuss the use of Hindi fonts, compare chemical
processed pictures with digital ones, and go through of the countless
computer animations the children have made of their computer drawings.

Cybermohalla is not just one out of many Digital Divide projects. Together
with Ankur, the Society for Alternatives in Education, Sarai has developed a
unique methodology. Ankur's philosophy is to give young people what they are
deprived of in schools. Prabhat, who works for Ankur, writes: "What is
needed is that we be excited by innovation, but not get swept away by blind
faith in it. That there be creativity, along with a critical attitude."
Unlike most projects in this area the focus is not primarily on
(Micro)software training. It takes courage to step outside of the
development logic that IT is solely about bringing prosperity etc.
Cybermohalla is first of all about digital story telling. The participants
go out, into the small lanes, and bring back what they have heard and seen.
Technical training is only one aspect. The ability to tell stories is as
important. Prabhat: "Within a month the children understood that they were
not doing a normal computer course." A community media memory was in the
making.

Shveta tells me more about the way Cybermohalla works. "We use a variety of
media forms, from wall magazines to html pages, animation, stickers and
diaries (texts, audio recordings, photographs). The participants write about
the basti, about the neighbourhood, they make excursions into Delhi (short
walks, for instance), as well as to other cities. Excursions are often in
small groups. The texts - narratives, reflections, descriptions - written
individually, are shared within the group. It is through this loop of
writing, readings and sharing, and very significantly, the conversations
these engender, through the words and ideas that they move through, that
Azra, Nilofer, Shamsher, Suraj, Babli, Shahana, Mehrunisa, Yashoda and
others discover and evolve the various concepts we engage with." The
conversations, Shveta explains, are critical to the process of 'concept
making' at Cybermohalla. Ruchika, another researcher at Cybermohalla,
brings, through readings and discussions, into the labs her own narratives
about the city, narratives she is currently working on through her
interactions with 'scavengers,' people who live on streets, 'street
children,' the 'invisible margins' in the city.

Besides Shveta, there is Joy, who is a web designer the Sarai media lab,
provides support and shares skills in text editing, image manipulation. Also
part of the team is Ashish, who oversees the technical skill sharing for the
use of low-end consumer technology (camera, dictaphone, sound equipment,
microphones). Ravikant, involved in Cybermohalla because of the Hindi
language aspect, agrees that the project has a 'post-educational' emphasis.
"The mainstream understanding is that there is a direct link between
technology and development. And between education and employment. We could
say that at Cybermohalla these kids gain critical skills. But we should
pretend that we provide existential comfort to the people associated with
us." Shveta: "It's not just the mainstream understanding of a link between
technology and development, or between education and employment, but also
the notion, a class-based bias of looking at certain peoples as culture
deficits, waiting for a delivery system of ideas, words, concepts and
skills, that invariably gets articulated under the garb of the language of
'lack' and 'empowerment'. Sadly, this masks the significance of 'cultural
creativity', or that of users and producers contributing to and guiding
(technical) innovation."

One year into the project the produced material was brought together in a
beautifully designed, bi-lingual book. On July 11 2002 the 'By Lanes'
publication was presented at Sarai.[v] All the children, parents and others
came to Sarai. The place had never been that packed. The Compughar group
read their stories. The response of the basti community was mixed. Ravikant:
"There was some opposition, but now there is openness about what the women
are doing. For the first time there are reports coming in from the basti
citizens themselves. Before reports were usually written by outsiders." The
Compughar group made an animation about the fierce debate within the basti
community. Why would the outside world be interested about the everyday life
of the slum, some asked. The style of the diary-type entrances in By Lanes
about daily life in the settlement is reflexive, poetic, and at times
nostalgic. The online stories in Cybermohalla's 'Ibarat' newsletter, for
instance about a train journey to Mumbai, are more fragmented and
narrative.[vi]

In the afternoon we visited the second Cybermohalla media lab in the
Dakshinpuri resettlement district. The lab had opened only two months ago.
Pinki is the co-coordinator. The growing group of participants was still in
the process of finding out about the possibilities of the software. Both
exhausted of the encounters and the long journey through town by car, Shveta
and I returned to Sarai.

In an email exchange, a few week later, Shveta writes: "What Cybermohalla
creates is a context for researchers, media practitioners, web designers,
programmers-from different contexts, with our specificities, pursuits,
subjectivities-to interact, to collaboratively, dialogically create and
transform our own, and one another's' practices through an awareness of and
a critical engagement with one another, to participate in the process-as
Jeebesh puts it-not as unequals. It is a dialogic reflection among peers.
The processes are not determined by their ultimate purposes. Skills, forms
and materials are not introduced into the labs with a fixed, predetermined
purpose or instrumentality. We're not working with or within a curriculum,
or 'evolving' one. Otherwise where would the room exist for experimentation,
or a playfulness with forms, an interrogation of these?"

Let's switch to Sarai and the arts. Sarai is by no means a national centre.
>From the beginning it has been embedded in regional and international
networks. The exchange program between Sarai and the Amsterdam-based Waag
Society for Old and New Media is one example.[vii] The Raqs Media Collective
(Jeebesh, Monica and Shuddha), founding members of Sarai who have been
working together for a good ten years, have been showing their work abroad
for a long time. Recently, Raqs had an installation work at the Documenta 11
art exhibition in Kassel, Germany.[viii] A year before the opening of the
show one of the 'platforms' (D11 curator Okwui Enwezor's term for public
debate), had taken place in Delhi.[ix] Raqs' installation, 'Coordinates of
Everyday Life,' consists of two parts. The video section, using a few
projectors in a dark room, engages with Delhi urban culture. Shuddha: "Many
hours of shooting were done over a period of one and a half years. It is 90
minutes of video material if you want to see everything. We engaged with the
city in a systematic way, each week identifying an element of city life. We
would then go to that particular spot and shoot. There is for instance
footage of us in the fog, standing on a bridge at one camera angle for one
and a half hours. We learned a lot from that discipline. In filmmaking you
are always under the pressure to move your camera and yourself. This shift
is related to our move into the arts. It is a move away from the 'universal
clock' of television. At the same time it is a more serious engagement with
documentary filmmaking. Before, the 'clock' of television was running in our
heads. Now, there is no search for any spectacular, decisive moment. We did
not look for the significant shot. In that sense creating a work for an arts
context allowed us to re-engage with the documentary sensibility."

The work also looks at law, the legal regime that governs space, the textual
component of the work. Shuddha: "Certainly the presence of rules and
regulations in urban space has increased dramatically. The first piece that
you see in the installation is the law on land rights, dating back to the
19th century. It defines what is property in land. What matters here is not
so much the codification as such but its precise articulation in todays
context through regimes of surveillance and urban relocation." The paranoia
about security is significant in Delhi. For the installation Raqs also
produced stickers. They contain simple messages such as 'look under your
seat', 'do not touch abandoned objects' or 'missing persons report
immediately'.

The second part of 'Coordinates of Everyday Life' at Documenta 11 was a
piece of open source software, presented on PC monitors. Opus (Open Platform
for Unlimited Signification) is a web-based database structure for shared
content.[x] Opus is an attempt to create a digital commons in culture, based
on the principle of sharing of work, while at the same time, retaining the
possibility (if and when desired) of maintaining traces of individual
authorship and identity. I asked Shuddha to what extend the conceptual
nature of the Opus database was related to the precise nature of the Delhi
everyday life imagery. Shuddha: "Both are about inhabiting space in a
different way. One is about being restrained by legal regimes in offline
space, the other reflects on the possibility of sharing space in a much more
free-floating, dispersed fashion. We started to be interested in work that
enables work. Opus means work. It's a work about work. It's not an object
that can be contemplated. Rather, Opus is a playground. I look at Opus as a
building or architecture, a blueprint. It is like a building waiting to be
inhabited. It takes some talking to communicate to an art audience what the
implications of Opus are." Those familiar with free software immediately
understand the basic ideas behind Opus. But they would ask: 'why label it
art'? Shuddha: "Certainly. Software questions the boundaries of art. The
most interesting response came from a group in Brazil called Recombo who
were doing something similar with music. They take the idea of the remix
culture literally and built an online architecture for people to make
collaborative music. In this way peer-to-peer distribution is extended with
peer-to-peer creation. Others are interested in the source code. Now we are
translating the Opus ideas into physical space. It is a work commissioned by
the Walker Art Center, in collaboration with Atelier Bow Wow, a group of
Japanese architects. The show opens in February 2003. We are trying to
figure out what kind of analogue manifestations Opus can have in a gallery
space."

In August 2002 a delegation from Sarai flew to Sao Paolo to install a work
of Raqs Media Collective at the new media arts exhibition Emoção
Art.ficial.[xi] The installation called location (n) has eight clocks and
eight monitors. Shuddha explains: "The crucial idea is one of time zone. The
clocks represent different cities such as Sao Paolo, New York, Lisbon and
Delhi. Instead of hours the face of the clock has emotions such as epiphany
at 12 o'clock, anxiety, nostalgia. The fun of the work is that visitors can
compare the different states of being in each city. The whole room is filled
with the sound of a heartbeat, layered on to which are the sounds of global
electronic transactions, modems, fax machines, and phones. On the monitors
you see a face slowly moving from left to right. It's a mysterious image
because it looks like as if the face disappears on one and then reappears on
another monitor. The face seems to be travelling between the time zones. We
are playing with the Kulishov effect in early cinema where expressions and
objects each produce different emotional effects. In our case it was about
the expression of the same emotions in different time zones. Globally
speaking we always had the same emotions. It's just that there is no
singularity. Everyone feels the same but at different point of time."

My round along the Sarai projects ends with an interesting exchange on free
software and open source and the Indian context. Tripta is responsible for
the free software public outreach project of Sarai.[xii] Before stumbling
into the Linux scene she studied ancient Indian history. In retrospect,
Tripta explains, she already encountered open source issues during her
study, as she could not access the artifacts and primary sources. Six months
ago she became a member of the Delhi Linux User Group.[xiii] At the first
meeting she was appointed general secretary. In the beginning her curiosity
was born out of activism. The group brought out its own distribution CD and
went to schools to give presentations. Tripta: "After a while I realized
that the group did not manage to penetrate into the schools and break
through the barriers of preconceived ideas. Microsoft is the software that
authorities use." In a response to this impasse, the Delhi group decided to
put up a website and post research outcomes of each of its members. The main
issue is: how can Microsoft's hegemony be broken in more than technical
ways? The aim of Tripta's research is to get more people interested in the
cultural aspects of free software related issues. Without research such work
cannot happen, she says.

Tripta: "For me open source and free software is not an isolated body of
knowledge. It should be placed in a specific context. In my research I am
not only looking at the rival factions between the free software purists and
the open source pragmatists. I am mainly looking at the Indian context. I am
also interested in the media representation. I asked Tripta what the
specific situation of Linux in India is. "Programmers here are not into the
development of Linux itself. They are more involved in the service industry.
Linux is new here and only few people have expertise in this field. So
Indian programmer do not change the source code (despite the philosophy).
They even develop code and then release it as proprietary software, parallel
to their free software activities. This does not only lead to a personality
split between the daytime and the evening. Also, the overall development of
open source stagnates. There is certainly the image that Indian programmers
are not designers. They are not good at conceptualizing software. Instead
you tell them to do a certain thing and they will program it. This is might
be a caricature but there is some truth in it. There is a sense that Indian
techies cannot penetrate other disciplines. In order for this to change a
difference sensibility towards technology needs to be developed. For most of
us technology is still this overwhelming thing. The distance between us and
technology needs to be broken down."

Then there has to be a viable business model; a universal problem with
significant local consequences. Tripta: "Free software cannot be isolated
from the social reality in India. I don't want to see our efforts as a
hobby. That wouldn't bring us very far. Maybe within programmers' circles it
might be a heroic thing to do to sit through the night and hack the code but
in the larger picture it reduces its own importance." Another global trouble
topic is the total absence of women. Tripta: "Recently I visited one of the
colleges. There were lots of women around in the computer science
department. Later I realized that all these women, after their graduation in
computer science will either study psychology, do an MBA, history or
whatever. But none of them will pursue programming. They said that men were
better at it. There is the widespread idea that women cannot think
logically. The issue is not that women are not using computers. What we
should do is break down the barrier between users and programmers." A
cultural turn seems inevitable.

The cultural change we speak about here will not come overnight and might
have to be accelerated by conflicts and dialogues. Hackers vs. artist types
is a conflict that also exists within Sarai, like in so many new media arts
organizations. There are tensions with the first generation of young
programmers and the artists/intellectuals. Tripta, trapped between the two,
explains: "In both 'camps' there is this arrogance: what I know you won't be
able to understand. Then the conversations cease to happen. Techies should
be involved on all levels. Programming should not be seen as a commissioned
job. Techies have to be fully aware what the ideas behind a certain project
is. The problem is: techies at Sarai do not see why technology should be
used within arts and culture. They do not see the point of net art and
prefer to do 'more substantial' stuff. It is important that these issues are
addressed in this space, because if they are not discussed in Sarai, then
where would they? Businessmen wouldn't even bother to look into such
 issues." For Tripta the conflict is all about sensitivities and the
backgrounds people come from. She stresses the importance of going to
schools. "We are building a web portal for students to put their open
content on. That could be a beginning. The continuing use of Microsoft
products has led to a closed sensibility towards software. In that sense,
the use of open source software in daily life would indeed make a
difference. But that's only a long-term solution. For artists and critics it
doesn't really matter what software they use. What counts is the openness
towards the ideas and the willingness to start the dialogue with
programmers."

When I leave Sarai, the staff is examining 120 applications that have
arrived for the second round of the seed grants program for students and
young researchers. Sarai is committed to generating public knowledge and
creativity through research. The Independent Research Fellowship Program is
one of Sarai's most successful initiatives. In particular Bangalore
initiatives have benefited. Sarai does not just support Delhi-based
individuals and initiatives. Themes are as diverse as habitation, sexuality,
labour, social/digital interfaces, urban violence, street life, technologies
of urban control, health and the city, migration, transportation, etc.
Operating within limited space it was clear from the start that Sarai would
not be able to expand dramatically in terms of staff and offices. Around
20-30 micro grants will be awarded. Also, preparations are underway for
three conferences: a meeting in December about intellectual property rights,
a groundbreaking conference about the city in January 2003 and one about
'crisis media,' early March.[xiv] Dazed and encouraged about Sarai's
activities, debates and contradictions, I leave Delhi.

(Edited by Linda Wallace)

--------------------------------------------------------------------------


[i] A report of my visit to Sarai was posted to nettime, March 23, 2001. A
slightly different version can be found in Dark Fiber (MIT Press, 2002).
Sarai's website: www.sarai.net.

[ii] Supreet, one of the Sarai programmers explains: "We have a PII 400 Mhz
with 56kbps dialup which I think is pretty decent config for a machine
connected to net. It requires 333.916 secs this particular page to load
which is AFAIK is graphics which shows all the projects inside the OPUS
database. See:
http://www.opuscommons.net/templates/doc/index.htm. A few more numbers are
available at http://www.opuscommons.net/usage/

[iii] More than 180 million people in India regard Hindi as their mother
tongue. Another 300 million use it as second language. Source:
http://www.cs.colostate.edu/~malaiya/hindiint.html.

[iv] See: www.indic-computing.sourceforge.net.

[v] Online version available at
http://www.sarai.net/community/cybermohalla/book01/bylanes.htm.

[vi] URLs of the Cybermohalla Ibarat newsletter:
http://www.sarai.net/community/cybermohalla/ibarat01/page1.html
http://www.sarai.net/community/cybermohalla/ibarat02/pages/page01.html
http://www.sarai.net/community/cybermohalla/ibarat03/PAGES/page01.html

[vii] URL: www.waag.org. The Waag Society has been instrumental in the
founding of Sarai.

[viii] See:
http://www.documenta.de/data/english/artists/raqs_media/txt_kurztext.html.

[ix] The platform took place from May 7-12, 2001. See report:
http://mail.sarai.net/pipermail/reader-list/2001-May/000069.html.

[x] URL: www.opuscommons.net. Silvan Zurbruegg and Pankaj Kaushal did
coding. See also Sarai's posting to nettime, July 2, 2002.

[xi] Raqs Media Collective  {AT}  Sarai: The New Media Initiative, Emoção
Art.ficial Exhibition, Itau Cultural Centre Sao Paulo, Brazil, August 2002.
URL: http://www.itaucultural.org.br/index.cfm?cd_pagina=1415

[xii] http://lap.linux-delhi.org/cgi-bin/view/Main/LapHome

[xiii] http://www.linux-delhi.org/

[xiv] If you wanted to keep informed about Sarai's activities, please
subscribe to their electronic newsletter. Emai: dak {AT} sarai.net.

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