Alexandru Patatics on Mon, 22 Apr 2002 15:53:11 +0200 (CEST)

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[Nettime-ro] FW: RHIZOME DIGEST: 4.21.02/sarai interview

Date: 4.18.2002
From: Mike Caloud (
Subject: Sarai
Keywords: research, public space, media activism, connectivity

[Sarai is an alternative, non-profit organization in Delhi, India. They
describe themselves as "a space for research, practice and conversation
about the contemporary media and urban constellations." Sarai publishes
an annual "Reader" covering many issues relevant to new media art. In a
recent email exchange, Mike Caloud had the chance to interview Sarai's
"Raqs Media Collective" on their unique institution

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Mike Caloud: Let's begin with a little background history. How and when
did Sarai begin? What were the interests and motivations?

Sarai: To understand how Sarai began, it may be necessary for us to take
a brief step back to the summer of 1998, when five of us, (Ravi
Vasudevan & Ravi Sundaram from CSDS, and Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula &
Shuddhabrata Sengupta from the Raqs Media Collective) began to conceive
of Sarai.

The summer of '98 was a time for many new beginnings in the city of
Delhi. The nineties had been a decade marked by doubt and rethinking on
many fronts, all of which seemed to have come to a head for some of us
during that summer. There was a sense of disquiet with increasing urban
violence and strife, dissatisfaction with restrictive modes of thinking
and practice within mainstream academia, the universities & the media,
and a general unease at the stagnation that underlay the absence of a
critical public culture.

At the same time, Delhi witnessed a quiet rebirth of an independent arts
and media scene. This became evident in exhibitions and screenings that
began taking place modestly in alternative venues, outside galleries and
institutional spaces, and in archival initiatives that began to be
active. Spaces for dissent and debate were kept alive by clusters of
teachers and students in the universities. New ideas, modes of
communication and forms of protest were being tried out and tested on
the streets. The nuclear tests by India and Pakistan in the summer of
1998 had brought many people out on to the streets of Delhi in
spontaneous protest. There was a vibrant energy evident in street level
improvisations with new technologies. Public phone booths were
transforming themselves into street corner cybercafés, independent
filmmakers were beginning to organize themselves in forums, and a new
open source and free software community made its mark in the city's BBSs
(Electronic Bulletin Boards). The city itself, as a space and as an
idea, was becoming a focus for enquiry and reflection, and a provocation
for a series of creative experiments.

It was from within this ferment of ideas, rough & ready plans, and
fragments of proposals that a series of conversations on film history,
new media theory, media practice and urban culture was able to mature
into the conceptual foundation of Sarai. Sarai (the space and the
programme) takes its name from the caravan-serais for which medieval
Delhi was well known. These were places where travelers could find
shelter, sustenance, and companionship; they were taverns, public
houses, meeting places; destinations and points of departure; places to
rest in the middle of a journey. Even today, the map of Delhi carries on
it twelve place names that include the word Sarai. The Sarai Initiative
interprets this sense of the word "sarai" to mean a very public space,
where different intellectual, creative, and activist energies can
intersect in an open and dynamic manner to give rise to an imaginative
reconstitution of urban public culture, new/old media practice,
research, and critical cultural intervention. The challenge before the
founding group was to cohere a philosophy marrying this range of
concerns to the vision of creating a lively public space where research,
media practice, and activism could flow into each other. It took two
years (1998-2000) to translate this conception into a plan for a real
space and to design a workable interdisciplinary programme of

The third Next Five Minutes conference in Amsterdam was a turning point
in some ways. The discussions between those of us who were planning (or
rather dreaming) Sarai, those in the Waag, and those who were to become
part of Sarai's international partners began taking a more concrete
shape at that event. The next several months were spent in detailing
what we wanted to do at Sarai and on the hammering out a concrete
proposal that focused Sarai's interests and objectives.

Today, the Sarai Initiative embraces interests that include cinema
history, urban cultures and politics, new media theory, computers, the
Internet and software cultures, documentary filmmaking, digital arts and
critical cultural practice. Sarai opened its doors to the public of
Delhi in February 2001 and the first year has been very hectic for all
of us, especially as all our projects and public interventions have
begun to take concrete shape. As we draw towards the completion of our
first year we realize that our strength lies in the collaborative vision
that has been the founding principle of Sarai, and that the space can
grow only by continuing to include and engage with new people and ideas
from across the world.

Mike Caloud: The beginnings of an institution like Sarai involve
gathering resources, raising funds, and setting up a space to work. What
was that initial experience like?

Sarai: We had to spend a fair amount of time and energy to garner the
resources and the funding that made Sarai possible. In fact it took
roughly two years (with some of us concentrating full time on the task
of writing and following up on proposals) for Sarai to become a reality
in terms of funding. The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies,
our parent institution, contributed the space, which has been a major
asset. Additional funding was raised, through the Waag, from the Dutch
government for a collaboration and exchange programme. And, over time,
we have raised further resources for our other projects.

Having got the funding, we had to spend a lot of time on actually
converting the space that we had (an empty basement) into what it is
today. This meant designing the space, supervising construction, buying
furniture and appliances, and working a lot with our own hands to create
a well-equipped, convivial, and comfortable space. As we had no
precedents to follow, we obviously made a few mistakes and errors of
judgment, and had to learn to deal with realities like power surges,
leaking basement floors, complicated insurance contracts, and purchase
invoices. We think that these mundane aspects of setting up spaces such
as Sarai often get overlooked in the hype about culture and creativity,
but without them, and without people working really hard to ensure that
everything in a building is working and in its place in conditions that
are far less than ideal, none of the culture and creativity and new
media can flourish. We have enjoyed dealing with all this as much as we
have enjoyed designing our website or creating new media work, or doing

Mike Caloud: Do you have sufficient computer hardware and software for
your projects? Also, how much does Free Software play a part?

Sarai: We are reasonably well equipped. We have a Media Lab that has
five multimedia computer workstations, including 3 Mac G4s, and two
Linux PCs. One of these is equipped with Final Cut Pro, and so doubles
as a video-editing suite. The Media Lab is the production hub of Sarai,
all our creative work in various media, Internet projects, print and
design projects are located here. The Media Lab has a scanner, a
printer, a digital video camera, a digital still camera and audio mini-
disc recorders. Five people work at the media lab. The Interface Zone -
the public access area that is also used for residencies, workshops, and
exhibitions is equipped with five PCs. The Interface Zone is looked
after by an animator who designs and curates events, and facilitates
public interaction. Apart from this, the research projects have five
computers, which are used by research assistants and fellows at Sarai.
The free software project has two PCs.

Sarai's experimental outreach programme--the Cybermohalla Project--a
digital culture lab in a slum settlement in Central Delhi is also
equipped with three Linux PCs, a scanner, analog audio recorders and a
digital still camera.

Sarai has a core team of eighteen people from different backgrounds and
disciplines (filmmakers, academics, software programmers, lawyers,
social workers, activists, designers, writers, researchers, and media
practitioners) who work on a regular basis on different collaborative
and individual projects. Apart from this, eighteen seed grants and
fellowships have been given out this year for different research and
media projects on themes that resonate with Sarai's interests with city
spaces, urban cultures, and media forms. These include architects,
theorists, sound artists, student groups, and a graphic novelist. Sarai
has also embarked on a modest residency programme for visiting artists,
practitioners, and scholars to work and interact with Sarai fellows.

In terms of connectivity, we have recently acquired a 64K lease line
connection. This means that we have now enough bandwidth to begin
thinking concretely about streaming audio, and hopefully eventually
video from Sarai.

To answer your question about the usage of free software at Sarai: The
entire network at Sarai runs on Linux. The PCs are all Linux machines,
and run free software applications, and one of the Macs at the media lab
has been configured to run Linux. Everyone at Sarai is encouraged to
work as much as possible with free software, and most of us use Free
Software (we experiment/use many distributions).

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 not to 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. A mono-cultural domination of
Microsoft, or any form of proprietary software, is as lethal for the
sustenance of the dynamism and diversity of software culture(s) as the
domination of Monsanto seeds is to farming. We want to contribute to
autonomous, collaborative energies in the field of software culture,
which are conducive to conditions of diversity. Many of these
collaborative energies challenge, or at least are skeptical about the
commodification of digital culture across the globe. That is a
characteristic we would like to see fore-grounded in a lot of the work
that we do.

We are lucky to have on board a team of young, talented, and
enthusiastic free software activists, who also run and administer the
network at Sarai. They have been able to put in place an array of
machines and applications across platforms, which we think is unique in
terms of the variety and number of sometimes conflicting demands that it
effectively addresses.

Mike Caloud: is evidence of the partnership between the
Waag and Sarai. How have the Waag and Sarai benefited from

Sarai: The relationship with the Waag has been one of collaboration at a
very practical, concrete level, as well as one of the sharing of
intellectual and creative energies. There has been a lot of two-way
traffic, with exchanges of residencies, and visits. This has certainly
lent dynamism to the creative processes at Sarai. The programmers and
media lab people at Sarai have benefited enormously from their visits,
for instance, to HAL and to tech_2, both of which took place with
support from the Waag-Sarai Exchange programme. We have also had
workshops in design, networking and system administration, as well as
video and audio streaming. The partnership has also facilitated visits
and talks at Sarai by media theorists from Europe, and starting from
this summer, it will be theorists and practitioners from Delhi who will
be spending time in Amsterdam, doing talks and conducting workshops that
will be organized by the Waag.

The publication of the Sarai Readers 01 and 02 is another instance of
the Sarai Waag collaboration. The readers have been jointly published,
and Geert Lovink from the Waag has been a part of the editorial team for
both Readers.

The level of exchange and collaboration is poised to enter a
qualitatively new phase as both Sarai and Waag as content producers can
envisage the possibility of entering into new collaborative
possibilities, this time with third parties located elsewhere. This is
particularly because the experience gained by both Sarai and Waag in
developing digital cultural interventions in cities like Delhi may have
relevance in many other cities of the South.

Mike Caloud: Do you have other collaborations planned in the Asian/South
Asian regions, and internationally?

Sarai: Sarai has active ties with other international institutions,
organizations and bodies, and these are growing as we get many requests
for collaborations, exchanges, and visits from overseas. We have
especially good relationships with the new media scene in Australia
(through ANAT, the Australian Network for Art and Technology), the UK,
and Germany. We do feel that we should have a more active relationship
with practitioners in North America, especially in the free software
movement. We are developing partnerships with similar bodies in Eastern
Europe and Japan, (through ISEA) and are actively pursuing a more
dynamic network in the South Asian Region, especially with practitioners
and artists in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal. The political realities
of South Asia, particularly the strained relationships between the
Indian and Pakistani governments makes the need for collaborative
energies in the region more urgent and all the more difficult, but this
is certainly an area that we hope we will be able to forge more
meaningful relationships in the future.

Another area of building interesting alliances with artists,
practitioners, and public intellectuals is with similar cultural and
academic initiatives in other Indian cities, particularly with Mumbai,
Bangalore, and Kolkata--where we are now beginning to be known.

Mike Caloud: The Opus Project seems especially compelling as a model of
collective creation. How far has the collaboration software progressed?
What are your hopes for Opus? Also, if participants can easily modify
nodes within Opus, how do you determine authorship for nodes? Will
authorship even matter?

Sarai: Opus is an acronym; it stands for Open Platform for Unlimited
Signification! In a simple sense, it will be an online space for people,
machines, and codes to play and work together--to share, create, and
transform images, sounds, moving pictures, and texts.

Once you have published your work, other members of the Opus community
will be able to give their comments and reflections on your work through
the attached discussion boards. You can also inspire others and allow
them to take your work as a starting point for a new (art)work. Opus
follows the same rules as those that operate in all free software
communities. The source(code), in this case the video, image, sound or
text, is free to use, to edit, and to redistribute.

Needless to say these freedoms also apply to the code, i.e. the software
itself that lies behind Opus.

We are quite excited by the possibilities that we envisage in the Opus
Project. I think it exemplifies for us the opportunity to evolve a new
ethic of creativity, of making work that is collaborative, playful and
involves a series of interactions between practitioners, technicians,
coders, and artists. This involves a necessary re-imagination of the
character of cultural praxis. Opus is less about individual artists or
practitioners, but of laboratories and virtual ateliers where
practitioners develop creative processes, and those cultural artifacts
are available to all those who seek it. This is related to an idea that
we have been working on for some time now, which is to lay the ground
for a "digital commons" which is predicated not on the dissolution of
authorship, but on its dispersal and elaboration over time.

We are not saying that authors do not matter, but what we are saying is
that a "line" of works may be the result of many authors who enter the
process of creation at different points of time, or who are located in
different spaces. This is analogous to the way a population grows.
Authors (or the traces of them in different works) act in the same way
as parents act in a given generation of human beings. Their children
(the works) may attract other materials and further processes of
reproduction will involve the exchange of the genetic code of different
works. The process of survival and growth of the population of works
over time is dependent on their ability to attract partners (other
authors, other materials) and reproduce. Since each work, at each stage
of its presence--as a "rescension" in Opus will embody the signature, or
code of its parentage, it will be possible to construct genealogies of
works, making it possible to identify quite precisely the distributed
authorship of a work and its rescensions over time.

A word about the term "rescension"--a "rescension" is a narrative which
can give rise to another narrative (which is neither a clone nor a copy
of the "original") without being a replacement of the first. We see this
as being vital to the development of a collaborative space for creation.
Each rescension stands in relational autonomy to every other rescension,
the presence of one modifies the reading of another without calling for
its replacement.

Curiously, this is the process by which epic narratives have multiplied.
A good example is the way in which the narrative of the "Mahabharata" in
South Asia has formed and reformed--as rescensions--allowing for an
extensible multiplicity of meanings and authorial agencies. These new
"rescensions" and/or threads will not replace the older ones. They will
together form a series of interlinked interpretations.

So authors will matter, but they will matter in a dynamic, rather than
in a static sense of their contribution to a work or works. We are
actually quite pleased with the obvious parallels between the process of
continued creation in an online environment and the ordinary business of
making babies, or ensuring that life continues in the real world.

At the moment we are working (at a relatively furious pace) the front
end of the Opus Interface and on the code on which Opus will move. The
media lab is quite busy with Opus; we are a fairly motley crew, with
programmers from Delhi, Zurich, and Amsterdam poring over long sheets of
code, while designers and media practitioners debate the look, the feel,
and interactivity of the interface.

[Please continue reading part 2 of this interview online at]

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