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<nettime> Sarai: A New Media Center Opened in Delhi
geert lovink on 23 Mar 2001 02:41:47 -0000


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<nettime> Sarai: A New Media Center Opened in Delhi


Sarai: A New Media Center Opened in Delhi
By Geert Lovink

During the last weekend of February, Sarai, arguably the first new media
center in South Asia of its kind, opened its premises with a three days
conference on the Public Domain. Sarai, which means an enclosed space,
tavern or public house in a city, or, beside a highway, where travelers and
caravans can find shelter in various South-Asian and Middle Eastern
languages, is located in the basement of a newly erected building in Delhi
(India). The Sarai initiative describes itself as an alternative,
non-commercial space for an imaginative reconstitution of urban public
culture, new and old media practice and research and critical cultural
intervention.

Sarai receives key additional support from the Dutch Ministry of Foreign
Affairs (Research Division of the Development Aid Section), the Daniel
Langlois Foundation for Art, Science and Technology and the Dutch aid
organization HIVOS. The inception of Sarai coincides with a three yearlong
exchange and collaboration program with the Society for Old and New Media
(www.waag.org), Amsterdam. The Dutch Foreign Affairs Ministry also supports
this partnership. Sarai is in the process of developing local links with
initiatives in Delhi and India and international links with partners in
South Asia and elsewhere. Significant amongst these is an effort towards the
setting up of an informal South Asian New Media Network to collaborate with
like-minded initiatives in the region as well as an emerging relationship of
partnership and cooperation with the Australian Network for Art and
Technology (ANAT).

Sarai is a unique blend of people and disciplines. The main background of
the initiators of Sarai is in documentary filmmaking, media theory and
research. Historians, programmers, urbanists and political theorists have
subsequently joined them. One of the founders, Jeebesh Bagchi, describes
Sarai as a "unique combination of people practices, machines and
free-floating fragments of socially available code ready for creative
re-purposing. Here the documentary filmmaker can engage with the urbanist,
the video artist jam with the street photographer, the film theorist enter
into conversations with the graphic designer and the historian play
conceptual games with the hacker."

Sarai is a program of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, an
idendepedant research center, founded in 1964. CSDS funded by the Indian
state and a range of international donors. The center has welcomed
dissenting voices in South Asia and it is well known for its skepticism
towards received models of development. Sarai is a pilot project for the
Dutch ministry of foreign affairs. So far most of the money was spent on
building water pumps in rural areas. For decades Dutch policy had been to
only support the poorest of the poor. However, recently more and more NGOs
in the field started using Internet. There is a growing awareness of the
importance of IT-use within development projects-and society as whole. New
media are becoming an important part of the rapid growing and diverting
process of urbanization.

With a public access space full of terminals and a cafe, Sarai neither has
the feel of an isolated research facility, nor does it have the
claustrophobic agenda like many new media arts institutions, let alone does
it equal an IT-company, even though the place is flocked with young computer
hackers. Monica Narula, (another co-founder of Sarai, member of the Raqs
Media Collective) is a filmmaker, photographer, and in charge of design at
Sarai. She is responsible for the look of both the website and the internal
network interface. She says: " Delhi is a polarized space. Young people and
students have nowhere to go. Either place for them is expensive or nothing
is happening. People can come to Sarai and use the internal network
interface via one of the terminals in the public space, have coffee and also
interact. The internal Sarai interface is much more sophisticated compared
to the website. In India download time means money; people don't have the
necessary plug-ins installed. After a fierce internal debate we decided to
develop a more interesting, creative interface for the public terminals and
have the website really light."

The atmosphere during the opening was one of an exceptionally high
intellectual level, the air filled with lively debates. The Sarai community,
now employing 13 staff members, is open for everything, ready to question
anything. Jeebesh, himself a filmmaker and another member of Raqs Media
Collective says: "I was not happy with the way in which classic research
feeds back into society. I don't like being specialized. The idea is to
proliferate and multiply, creating a new hybrid model in order to discover
something and not get stuck with the form in which we are producing it."

Sarai has five research areas: ethnographies of the new media, the city and
social justice, film and consciousness, mapping the city and language and
new media about the role of Hindi. The Internet provides an occasion for a
new form of Hindi language expression, different from the culture of the
Hindi literary establishment. Apart from research programs the
"CyberMohalla" project is under construction. It will focus on tactical, low
cost hard and software solutions for web authorization, scanning, streaming
of audio and visual material. Sarai will provide schools and NGOs with
solutions that are resulting from this project. From early on, Sarai has
been collaborating with the Delhi Linux user group which led to the Garage
Free Software project whose aim it is to set up a gift economy, working on
alternatives to expensive proprietary software. It will also develop
user-friendly interfaces and develop Linux based applications in Hindi.

Over the last half year all those working at Sarai members have been busy
creating the space, installing computers on an entirely open source network,
designing and uploading the website (www.sarai.net), doing basic
construction work in order to prevent the monsoon storm water from entering,
and setting up the groundwork for the Sarai archive so as to enable it to
hold a variety of platforms, from books to DVDs, and connect it to a
database with material accessible to visitors of the public access area. The
Sarai database is best accessed via Sarai's internal network interface.

Monica Narula: "We have been working on three versions of the site. The
second one was slick but slow. The new one is faster and more complex. What
I will start working on is the idea of multi perspectives. We want to
combine elements from traditional work with the contemporary street feel
with its bright colors. Here we are experiencing simultaneous time zones.
Old representations show up in the most unexpected places. Here we have a
non-perspective approach to representation."

Already before Sarai started, Monica had the idea of the computer taking you
on a journey through the city. Monica: "The experience would be interactive
but also would give you a path. Icons representing concepts would lead you
through a narrative space. That idea was a little ambitious. We started to
realize that such a difficult design was all about coding. A sense of
discovery remains important. You click on a certain motive and get somewhere
else. You think you know the city, but you discover you don't. By looking at
it you start seeing new elements. That's the motivation behind the Sarai
interface."

For the handful of international guests visiting the opening, the quality of
the Internet connection was a surprisingly stable 128K ISDN leased line,
supported by back-up battery systems in case of "load shedding" which indeed
frequently happens. At one occasion, last year, North Delhi had a 36 hours
electricity power cut. The batteries for the Sarai servers is worth more
than the servers themselves and can hold for up to 4 1/2 hours. Apart from
that each PC has its individual USP system.

Using both old and new media is a key element in the design philosophy of
Sarai. Monica Narula: "It's all going to be interpretive and subjective. Our
"Mapping the city" project is not going to give a demographic or
ethnographic account. Our question is: how does the city feel to us?
Questions of class and gender are involved in this. There are so many untold
stories, from people that usually do not matter. I like reading but I much
prefer talking, and listening. We will focus on the dialogue aspects,
looking into storytelling and oral traditions. Using film, photography and
sound we would like to do an anatomy of one specific location, a little
zone, making a cross section from the rich trader to the man who is pulling
the street car, all within a square kilometer. Take the example of Old
Delhi, where at one place someone registered twenty-one different ways of
transport."

The city of Delhi, with its approximate ten million inhabitants, is an
endless source of inspiration for the Sarai members, lacking the disgust for
poverty, pollution and noise of the elite and innocent Western tourists. The
setting is post-apocalyptic. Shuddha, also a member of the Raqs Media
Collective and one of the Sarai founders: "In Delhi we are in some ways
living in the future. In a situation of urban chaos and retreat of the
public and the state initiatives. Tendencies that are currently happening in
Europe. The young generation in Europe will face some of the realities that
many of us are accustomed with in India, whereas we may leave some of these
realities behind. The difference between a contemporary moment in India and
Europe is one of scale rather then of an essential nature. There is more of
everything here. More people, more complexities, and also more
possibilities."

Geert : Would you therefore say that Delhi is a global city as Saskia Sassen
defined it in her book "Global Cities"? Delhi more looks like a national
metropolis rather then a node for global finance.

Shuddha: "Earlier Delhi was not considered a global city because it did not
have a harbor, unlike Calcutta and Bombay. In global capitalism that doesn't
count any longer. What's important is the capacity of a city to act as a
network with other cities. Delhi is a center of the extended working day,
providing the global market with back office accounting and call center
services. There is an emerging digital proletarian class which is connected
to the world."

Ravi Sundaram, a Sarai founder and a fellow at CSDS adds: "Saskia Sassen's
book "Global Cities" came out right after the rise of finance capital in the
late eighties. I think we have to rework that notion. The new phase of
globalization in the nineties does not only depend on financial nodes
anymore. They are complex network of flows. Delhi is a new global city and
there are many of them. In the new economy people are trading in global
commodities, using global technologies, increasingly using the Net,
surrounded by an empire of signs. Delhi used to be like Washington DC. That
was 15 years ago. Now it is a mixture more reminiscent of LA South Central
with its urban chaos, migration, and uncontrolled growth of suburbs,
informal networks and capital flowing everywhere. In that sense I would not
limit global cities to financial nodes and labor flows. The narrow
definition of global cities borders the sociological. We should move to a
more cultural, political and engaged form."

I met Sarai co-director Ravi Sundaram for the first time in June 1996, at
the fifth Cyberconf in Madrid. He delivered a paper about the difference
between coming of cyberspace in India and previous national
industrialization policies such as the building of dams. Ravi's research
topic within Sarai is electronic street cultures, the grey economy of
hardware assembly and the role of software piracy and cyber cafés in the
spreading of PC usage and the Internet. The aim of Sundaram's investigations
into the local "ethnographies of new media" is to add complexity to the
elitist view that computers are a conspiracy of the rich against the poor
with only the upper class benefiting from information technology. Sarai
rejects such clichés. Ravi: "The elites in the West and India share a
culture of guilt. In the view of these elites, "their" technology and
creativity cannot be a property of daily life. Rather, the domain of the
everyday is left to state and NGO-intervention for upliftment. Sarai does
not share that agenda. "We live in a highly unequal, violent society. But
there are very dynamic forms of technological practice in that society. We
speak to that, and not just in national terms. We speak equally, within
transnational terms, which marks a difference to earlier initiatives in
cinema, radio or writing. We are not the third new media (like in third
cinema)."

How does Sarai look at the development sector? Jeebesh: "Development often
implies the notion of victims of culture. I don't think in those terms.
People live, struggle, renew, invent. Also in poverty people have a culture.
I feel a little lost in this terrain, knowing that Sarai, to a large extend,
is financed through development aid programs. I would never use a term like
"digital divide". We have a print divide in India, an education divide, a
railway divide, an airplanes divide. The "new economy" in India is
definitely not conceived as a divide. It is a rapid expansion of digital
culture. The digital divide is a 'social consciousness' term, born out of
guilt. We should interpret the media in different terms, not just in terms
of haves and have not."

Sarai rejects the "Third World" label altogether. Jeebesh: "Within arts and
culture, the human interest story usually comes from the Third World whereas
formal experimentation is done in Europe and the United States. That's the
international division of labor between conscience and aesthetics. It would
be unfortunate if this would happen with Sarai. Working within the Net, with
different forms of knowledge, no longer can have discrete spaces. Working
from a so-called developing country means that you are constantly put under
the techno-determinist pressure to be functional. At present there is no
other domain to be creative outside of the development realm of sanitation,
water and poverty. The pressure will always be there. But what worries us
more is what discourse critical minds in Europe and the States will
construct around Sarai."

Being the South Asian early bird on the global screen comes with certain
responsibilities--and pressures. The thread of being instrumentalized,
having to act within Western parameters is a real one. Sarai members are
aware of the danger of exoticism. Jeebesh: "I am afraid of over-expectation
and over-burning. Ideally Sarai should not become representative of its
country or the region it is located within. We should break with the
tradition of national cinema and the national filmmaker going to
international festivals, saying "I am from India, I am from Germany, etc."
We can lose focus if that's happening. We are interested in a dialogue
amongst equals and do not want to get caught in the curated festivals of the
world." Monica: "Showing work abroad has a good side. It gives you
deadlines. But I am not interested in becoming the authentic Third World
voice. The aesthetics have to be driven from here. An equal collaboration
has to integrate the smell and texture of a city like Delhi. For Sarai there
is a danger of supremacy of the text. This has to be fought. You can say a
lot with images. Images are either highbrow art or kitsch from the street."

The balance between developing new media and doing research is a delicate
one. The exciting and demanding production of new media works can easily
take over from theoretical reflections. Sarai is in the first place a
research facility, but the pressure will be strong, from both in and
outside, to show concrete results in terms of interfaces, software and new
media titles. I asked Jeebesh how he would stop a hierarchy between new
media production and research from happening. "It's a deep, institutional
tension. There is an academic codification of research. In India there are
only a few independent researchers. The academy here is creating systematic
knowledge, but it's not creating dynamic public forms. In the early 20th
century most of the brilliant thinkers were independent researchers,
creating a dynamism of thought which we still carry on."

According to Jeebesh Bagchi, Sarai should create media forms, which the
academy cannot neglect. "Feature film has been respected as an equal,
artistic art form, whereas the documentary form has been patronized by the
academy. We should create such a dynamic tactical media form that it becomes
equal to academic knowledge." Sarai intends not become a production house.
Jeebesh: "We are into experimenting. Still, there is certainly slackness
amongst documentary filmmakers. We shoot and there is an equation between
what has been shot and the film itself. The claim to be the makers of
reality bites has created a climate, which is not very self-critical. There
is a crisis of representation. I do not want to represent anyone. So what
then is an anti-representational documentary? With new media we would like
to emphasize that intellectual crisis.

Where in Delhi does Sarai look for collaboration? Jeebesh: "Some of the
intellectuals are experts, a technocracy which is being taken serious. After
1989 you can more freely say what you feel because the burden of state
socialism and communism is no longer there. We will therefore see more
interesting things happening. It will not only be about talking but about
doing. From the beginning Sarai did not want to network with people who have
already established themselves. We can collaborate with individuals, on a
mutual basis. More challenging is how you engage with the popular design
sensibility. What kind of dialogue with this strange and eclectic world do
we want to create, not based on domination or populism. How does a
programmer create software for a non-literate audience?"

So far in India popular culture has been defined by film. There is a
tradition in India to interpret society through film. Jeebesh: "Film will
remain an important reference. Till the mid eighties film was looked down
upon. In the nineties different readings of film and social inequalities
were created. These days film has a strange presence through television
culture. The music video clip does not exist here. What we have is
television relaying film songs. India is a song culture and visual sign
board culture. It is deeply embedded in the stories you tell. New media are
reconfiguring narration and codes of self-description. There is interesting
science fiction now. The problem is that film and television may be
imaginative but it is not creating a productive culture. There is a tension
with new media, from which potentially something new could grow. We are
still surrounded by 20th century broadcasting concepts: inform, educate and
entertain. New media should not follow that rubric."

There are numerous obstacles for Sarai in building public interfaces. Will
the general public finds its way to Sarai and how will Sarai reach out?
Jeebesh: "Let the practice speak over time. We must become a place where
young people feel at home and become confident so that they will start using
it. An intellectual place where different opinions can be articulated, not a
ghetto where people feel they have to say correct things." The balance
between dissent and power is a delicate one, constantly having to question
and re-invent ones self while slowly becoming an institution. Co-director
Ravi Sundaram: "One has to be deeply skeptical of all institutions,
including our own. Being part of an institution means being part of power,
whether we like it or not. Both universities and arts institution are strong
nodes of power. In India both of them are in a financial and intellectual
crisis. For a long time arts institutions were a monopoly of the state.
That's over now."

Jeebesh: "Recently an American media artist was visiting Sarai and at a
certain point the conversation focused on the question how to map a database
onto a surface, if I want to see the content of a database as an image? What
is the aesthetics of a database? That's productive discussion. If people
that takes an art form, and see it as an art work, that's fine, as long as
it comes from an internal curiosity. In a non-visual, non-literate culture
we have to somehow work out how the database relates to the surface, which
is not text based."

Shuddha: "People may be interested in such arts-related issues on an
individual basis. There should be an open space for the creative pursuits
that people wish to follow on their own instinct, without taken away the
concerns that Sarai has as a collective body. We are not here to provide a
platform for Indian new media artists to engage with the international
community. Nor is it in our interest to stop it."

It is Sarai's explicit wish not to create a new discipline. A brave
statement in times in which artists either have to buy themselves into the
IT-industry or, as in the case of net.art, are bailing out by writing
themselves into art (history) discourses and their institutions. Shuddha
Sengupta: "Sarai is not going to become an arts institution. There are many
of us who are practitioners, working with images, text and sound. We look at
those practices from different points of view. We would like to find hybrid
forms, beyond the categories of the artist, activist, theorist or critic.
Some of the work will take on the form of the aesthetic. Other work will
engage with the realm of the political, of knowledge, and with the realm of
understanding. None of these elements will have a primacy because we don't
see it in those terms. Which is not to say that we will not have an
engagement with the aesthetic or the realm of pleasure. We certainly will."

Jeebesh does not want identify himself with any artist specialization.
"That's the problem of net art or net culture. It limits cross
conversations. We will be very sensitive about that. We should not establish
formal identities and disciplines. This can create structural divisions
between us. That's why I like to call Sarai a post-institutional space where
the public is always present, pushing you to be different."

Ravi Sundaram: "I never understood most of net art. I have always been
interested in avant-garde practices but I have not yet identified net art as
such. These are complicated aesthetic translations and we at Sarai still
have a lot to discover. Two years ago we never imagined what and where we
would be today. We have a shared language and a lot of creative
disagreements and we would like to share that with outsiders too. If
dialogue is a transparent, honest process, not rendered in national,
Indian/Western terms, it becomes easier. It is a cruel, historical baggage
that we are born into. It is marked on us that you are from the Third World.
We abandon that old baggage."

Shuddha: "Working with sound, text and images over the past years we have
found that the taxonomic regime of people being described as writers or film
makers has been an inhibition of our work. We wanted to do more interesting
work than filmmaking allows. Funding wants to classify your practice and
organize it in certain modes of qualifications. Having said that we do not
want to enter into another regime of qualification of ourselves as net
artists. One of the reasons why we entered the new media is because we felt
that it allows for a certain liberation in which qualification regimes can
be put aside." Ravi Sundaram adds: "All of us want to break out of
disciplinary forms. I come out of formal academic institutions. Yet, Sarai
is a program of an academic research institution, CSDS." Jeebesh interrupts:
"I like the tradition of public intellectuals, such as Ashis Nandy of CSDS
who has a disdain for academia. He says: 'I don't write, I think.'" Ravi
Sundaram interrupts again: "There might be an avant-garde urge to mock
institutions. But the money and recognition will come from that very same
place. We have to recognize that tension. If we do not recognize the tension
we will become rhetorical. We want to be in both places. We are not innocent
of power. We live in a highly unequal society. But it is important to render
this public, straight."

Let's go back to Sarai's original drive, to develop its own language of new
media. What would it be based on? Shuddha: "The communication imperative is
an important one for us. Media technologies in India so far have only been
one to many. That should not happen to the Net. The relation between
communication and power should be investigated, and challenged, even only
conceptually to begin with. In order to get there we need to establish a
truly international sensitivity. With that I do not mean national or
regional identities. New media culture is not yet international. What goes
on elsewhere has to be taken into account. When I used to look at the
Internet and the new politics of communication that emerged earlier, I
thought: our space, our city should be able to create this. I hope it will
be possible for someone living in Teheran or Rangoon, parts of Asia and
Africa to think that something like Sarai should also be possible here. At
one time it was impossible for us to imagine a Sarai. For me, after coming
back from the Next Five Minutes Conference (Amsterdam, March 99,
www.n5m.org), it seemed possible. Before we were unable to bring together
the energies that were necessary. There is a process of discovery of such
energies."

---
Sarai, The New Media Initiative, Centre for the Study of Developing
Societies, 29 Rajpur Road, Delhi, 110054, India. Phone (00) 91 11 3951190,
e-mail: dak {AT} sarai.net, www.sarai.net. For the opening a reader has been
produced, entitled The Public Domain, with a variety of texts about new
media in South Asia. For more information how to order, please write to
dak {AT} sarai.net.

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