From the rooftop terrace, a sliver of ocean is within sight. There are children below, playing in corridors. Airplanes fly overhead, occasionally stirring the air. In the room beyond the terrace, the presence of technology is felt. Screens lean against each other. Coffee is being brewed, chairs await occupants.Outside, a man hawks bananas on the corner; motorcycles swerve. Narrow lanes stretch toward the sea. In Bombay, lives are lived densely, proximity is assumed.
This is where CAMP lives. CAMP—a gathering of energies, of friends, of intentions. A home. A place where ruminations morph into shapes—books, films, virtual platforms, public gatherings, performances. CAMP began in November of 2007 with Shaina Anand, Sanjay Bhangar and Ashok Sukumaran. It has since developedan art practice that nourishescommunity, and unseals the unseen.
We found our way to the CAMP residence in Bombay’s northern neighborhood of Khar. The voices you’ll hear belong to Shaina Anand and Ashok Sukumaran, who shared with us some of the currents that course through CAMP’s imagination. Listen to their audio conversation above.
Ashok: The way we define CAMP is that CAMP is a space, as opposed to an artist collective or organization. And I think the reason for that is we always thought of it as a kind of studio or a place and a space like what you see outside – a place where people gather and can work together. It was something that happens in more informal settings, but in the context of Bombay and in the context of what we were trying to do, it’s an important idea that you can sit together despite all our computers and the fact that we’re working on this so-called networked environment, including the internet, it was nice to imagine a group of people sitting, eating, working together.
Shaina: You know Sun Ra famously or infamously said, “space is the place”. His use of the term space was quite political in that sense—because it offered people who felt alien in American society this idea of being from the intergalactic outer space, and a place where they could claim a fantastic and phantasmagorical identity.
Ours is a bit tamer, but the idea of a space is still one you can call your own. And the rooftop here is a place where many intergalactic travels and fantastic ideas and projects can be thought of. But it also has its terra firma beneath it, which is a very contested idea of space, and physically contested space: the city of Bombay. And whether we look at the idea of physical space in Bombay and the fact that it’s tight, there’s a space crunch of every sort, or the intellectual space the city offers: there is not very much. It’s hugely commercially driven. Peoples’ tolerance level for experimentation or a new idea is nil. You’ve got to do things fast and it has to have a commercial logic and commercial gains attached to it quite soon.
To not have this kind of space is a really disturbing fact—and let’s not talk about the city at large, let’s talk about a young artist or young media practitioner. They leave their other cities—smaller cities, often—and come to Bombay to want to have those intergalactic dreams and do creative things and just the 10x10 house you have to rent… It leaves you with very little creative space. It was very important for CAMP to become that production space and to let collaborations take their own form here. We’re not a finite collective and things quite organically take the shape of projects from what people bring in. And they may just be coming here to sit on a desk because it has internet and 9,000 movies on a hard drive.
C-A-M-P – is a dynamic acronym. When you visit CAMP’s website, a computer program randomly generates a meaning for the letters. At the moment, there are one hundred thousand possible recombinations: Collective After My Permissions. City Among Meta Parties. Community Around Mumbai Panoramas. Conversation As per Moral Politics.
Imbued with seemingly endless possibilities, the name CAMP comes to mean nothing. Or rather, it means everything. The constantly regenerating ‘purpose’ of CAMP questions the idea that the intentions of an organization can be predetermined, or even knowable at all. CAMP resists inertia (Instead, it aspires toward infinity).
This disarticulation– and subsequent transfiguration – of a fixed idea, place or system – is a regular feature of CAMP’s work.
In a project called Edgeware Road, CAMP uncovered the histories of buildings on a busy London street and explored their uses as sites of commercial as well as social exchange. They then created an online platform where the public could participate in constructing a shifting, manifold history of the street. Wharfarge is another ongoing project that demonstrates CAMP’s interest in sites of exchange – in this case, the port of Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates and its role in trade with Somalia. CAMP excavated records from this port and re-presented the information in ways that reveal how the mass movement of goods affects humans and economic conditions.
The market is a physical and philosophical space of enquiry. And in the commercial frenzy of Bombay, the various connotations of market are omnipresent.
Shaina: The city is particularly market driven, and yet it’s a peculiar city: it could be the financial capital, so it has a bit of New York to it, but it’s also Hollywood, and it’s big finance and big media, the entertainment industry is here, so quite naturally everything here is market driven. We like markets. We have nothing against them. They are the noisy places where things can be bartered, things can be haggled over, things can be exchanged. We also like free markets—both free as in beer, but also free in conceptual terms. And I think one of the things that has distinguished CAMP’s work from other artistic practices is the ability to create platforms, and to create our own kind of exchange value for things.
Whether it be the sharing of resources online, or physically—one of our new projects that we meet to do on Friday is indexing the book libraries of various art spaces in the city. And all it takes is Sanjay writing a bit of software, Ashok helping him with it, and a barcode scanner to be able to index these books and have them accessible online so that a young activist/art student/urbanist knows that all these books are actually here, within 6 or 8 roofs in the city and they’re available, you come in and read or you take them out. These are markets in many ways, these are spaces of exchange.
For the past several years, CAMP has explored the lives of sailors and boatbuilders who are involved in the movement of goods and materials around the Indian Ocean. But while trade is defined by great movement, what you often seeat a so-called port city is remarkably stagnant. When asked to make a piece for the 2013 Kochi-Muziris Biennale in the historic port city of Kochi, CAMP noticed that massivecargo container ships formed the backdrop of the city. They set out to create a video piece that would reveal the inner workings of this dominant form of world trade – trade that happens inboxes.
Shaina: That’s 96 percent of global trade – inside a container, across the oceans. Perhaps one of the reasons why it’s also been less apparent to us, even though we live in Bombay, which has one of the largest container ports in India, is that Bombay is no longer the port city or the downtown which flourished because it was a port—downtown is no longer where the ships come.All this is schlepped to the side and happens in a special economic zone and happens further north of Bombay, in it’s own zone. It’s not a place any of us has actually set eyes on because you can’t enter. These are fenced off places, this is where all ports around the world are moving: outside of the original port city.And then comes Kochi, where there’s an island in the middle of the 5 or 6 islands in Cochin, and literally a new set of container cranes drops down and sets foot, and that’s how it happened: these cranes arrived by ship and then the island started sinking and there’s all sorts of reasons of how the island of Vallarpadam became the international container truck terminal.
Ashok: In Kochi the port comes back into the city, in a form that’s cleaned up and mechanized, where you only see the boxes, and this lego world of things being taken down. The interesting thing about that is that many of the activities related to ports like goods and people and longshoremen and port workers and all that is pushed far inland. The interesting thing about that is that, for example, the early history of this and other places in Kerala because such kind of work is heavily unionized—it’s a traditionally communist state, which has very strong unions—turns into a debate between who– because the dock worker unloading the container 10 miles inland isn’t really a dockworker. So there are these conflicts that happened and continue to happen, between what is at sea and what is what is a dock anymore, when most of the activity happens far inland. So these sites, which are quite peculiar places, are called stuffing centers, or container freight centers more formally.
We decided to ask the biennale, in a typical CAMP project, use the official context to enter into a certain environment—be it CCTV control rooms or trade archives or other kinds of official closed spaces, and then ask them or request the government to allow us access to this and let people see and understand what was going on. It was a fairly straightforward thing where we went and we just filmed containers being stuffed and unstuffed and stuffed again -- because the customs people have to. The amount of labor actually involved in stuffing a container is not small. It’s actually comparable to what is involved in filling up or stuffing a wooden ship. It’s easier because a container is a certain size and so on, but you have to fill it up and then it has to be customs inspected so the whole thing has to be taken out again and then put back in, and this happens quite regularly on both sides of the transfer—that means it’s inspected here, and when it lands it’s inspected again, and so on. So it’s just this very peculiar world where these boxes have to be stuffed, that’s literally the word that’s used.
We filmed 4 or 5 places where the stuffing activity happens. Absolutely security zones, fenced with barbed wire—in the import situation they describe it as “not yet in India”, even though it’s 7 km inland, for example, because it’s not cleared the customs boundary. When the truck leaves the processing center, then it’s in India, but as long as it has a seal on it, it’s not yet (for tax purposes) in the country. There are these kind of strange pipes and new organizing morphologies or spaces where the net effect is that people don’t have any human way of understanding what’s going on. You’re looking at thousands of boxes up and down, but you have no idea what’s going on.
CAMP produced a multi-channel video piece entitled Destuffing Matrix,where an unflinching camera captures the process of unloading, unstuffing, restuffing, and reloading boxes in the high-security shipping container zone. Viewedsynchronously on twelve screens, the scenes of repetitive labor become rhythmic and meditative.
This piece reflects CAMP’s curious, persistent eye. CAMP looks through walls – and then lets what is glimpsed speak its own story. In their film projects, CAMP regularly makes use of CCTV security cameras – not to unearth or investigate breaches in the law, but rather to inhabit a new perspective – a new way of seeing.
Ashok: So there are all these intermediaries, which you have to craft relationships with. CCTV is a phenomenon of– I am carrying my own camera but maybe this isn’t necessary or sufficient if there are 20,000 other cameras in the same space. So as a filmmaker what is your responsibility – your interest also changes a bit. Because then you say ok if I go into this room, I will have access to and I am able to feel what it feels like to have those 20,000 cameras pointed at the city or at you, rather than restricting it to a personal subjective experience of walking around with a camera and engaging with a subject.
There’s a kind of relationship – very fraught relationship, collaboration, sometimes with the enemy, whatever, that one does in order to access that perception – that ‘oh shit’ there are all these cameras poking, looking at us. And also the feeling of the people who are manipulating those cameras and their thrill, and their training. All this comes into play once you can access that very peculiar phenomenon in the world that is really divorced from individual camera person. Like in the history of photography – it is really this very systemic shift in understanding how images are used.
For example there will be artists who describe themselves as working with the law, or working with legal issues. There’s always been an interest in legal forms, but in the kind of work we do we are not really saying that this is the law, and we have to illuminate something that goes beyond it or, the legal or authoritarian structure isn’t what we’re trying to light up with our searchlights. It’s not about taking authority seriously and saying we have to transcend this in this way. Although early on in relation to technology and code and protocols and so on, these were important questions.
There’s a way in which authority is formed much more insidiously in a codified way, but also by expanding beyond pure software metaphors. One is able to think of different forms of freedom rather than authority. Even the CCTV project—we’re not really talking about disclosing how authoritarian the regime is, we’re saying look at how strange this is, look at how funny and perverse… and there are other words that are maybe more important for the kind of work that one is doing.
Shaina: I thinkthe porosity of the street here, when we were talking about the markets, is probably where our sensibility comes from. The law is there to be misused. It’s there because it becomes interesting and important to find the leakages, find the way you can circumvent it. And I think this is the difference Ashok mentioned: some artists would want to prove its limits or test its limits, and activists would want to use a housing rights or a rights based discourse, as leverage, whereas somebody else would want to quietly see what happens, given the fact that: hey, you have to please that cop, and he’s gonna take his hundred bucks a week, but within that, how can your shop be better and how can you sell your wares better.
CAMP probescracks in preexisting systems, and utilizes technologies like CCTV cameras and radio frequencies to access new perspectives. It also invents its own infrastructures.
For example, Padma, short for Public Access Digital Media Archive. It’s an online archive of freely viewable and downloadable video material. Itharbors mainly footage as opposed to finished films, in an attempt to expand possibilities for video-viewing beyond the finite andcleanly edited film.
In an environment where IP and copyright laws are increasingly strict, Padma is a project that encourages sharing and exchange. It argues against objectification, and instead creates openings.
Shaina:We have been part of the larger creative movement, and legal—less for us on the legal front, more on the creative front—for open access, and to be putting things in the public domain. With art per se, CAMP was born at the moment of the art market. 2007 was the height of a newfound art market – we had galleries coming up downtown, and everything had to be very carefully commodified, quantified, and sold. And if we had to start doing that with our art practice at that stage, it would mean—it would be completely warped. It was very important to safeguard that kind of art practice, because otherwise the city would really… And CAMP as a space was created exactly at that time, because we really felt that—we’re not against the art market per se, but in that moment of greedy boom, art practice was what was in crisis.
This virtual infrastructure is a bridge. It links users with subjects. The subjects are beyond individual reach, but are intrinsically connected, or connectable. CAMP injects air into preexisting but ignored or forgotten linkages. It seeks tools to illuminate undetected systems of circulation.
Ashok: One way to talk about this is—for us, it’s not possible to kind of sit as an individual subjects or even citizens and have any perception. You don’t have any organs, as I’ve said in Kochi, to sense what is going on in the world—the complexity of things that are going on, the nature of things, the fact that they’re hidden away, they’re in pipes and streams. So we don’t have the normal sense organs associated with artistic practice or aesthetics. We don’t have any organs anymore—as in, we have our organs but we don’t organs sufficient to sense the complexity of contemporary movements, life, extraction, profit. The way to start approaching this as an artistic problem—we don’t have any way to sense electricity or global trade, because it’s really not touchable, it’s become so mechanized, informatized. So we have to find tools, or build ways.
The classic artistic way (in the previous century) has been illusion, or indirect metaphor, or talking about an experience that describes the results of climate change, but you can’t actually deal with climate change as a phenomenon because you can’t really sense it. One theory is that you’d have to build other kinds of machines, like capitalism built its own very sophisticated machines to sense the market, to sense financial slows, and surveillance systems have built very sophisticated ways to sense the movements of people and things like that.
The aesthetic end of it: culture also has to built its own kinds of machines, for lack of a better word. Whether you call them institutions, relationships, aggregations, collectives or whatever. Tools—all these are, and we have to kind of test them and probe them, so in a way a lot of this is trying to imagine a new kind of art, or a new form of practice that allows us to sense some of these very complicated things, or inhuman things, or things that are much bigger than us. Things that became invisible and insensible and unhearable. So, I guess the thing about relationships is that one is trying to form relationships with these complicated things by building a way to access them in some form. It means yes, relationships with other people—such as sailors, since you have no way of really understanding what the Indian ocean looks like, you don’t have a sense for it anymore also in Bombay, although it’s right here. It’s become more of a picture.
So if you go on Bandra hill it’s the kind of blue that’s sold to you as part of the real estate deal. But you have no other engagement with it really, because it’s a kind of image, it’s a backdrop for a high real estate pitch. So how do you develop it? You talk to sailors – but you also talk to boats. Or you try and talk to oil slicks and Somali fisherman. You’re trying to start these conversations with different kinds of entities or different kinds of systems, this kind of description. And you talk to customs agents and navies, or you probe the official system of collecting trade information in the UAE, and you poke at a port down in Somalia, and you ask a question to the trader in Bosaso. There are these different kinds of ways in which one is trying to create a way to sense—you need these mediums, or these intermediaries, to even get to the point where you can feel something. You can’t jump into the sea—yes you can, but that’s not the only way of sensing what’s going on in the sea.
Normally anthropologists go through informants. But in art you’re trying to do something else. You’re also trying to affect something, or produce some intervening, or turn it in certain ways. So your informant has to be working both ways, A. Secondly that informant is not always another person, because you’re talking sometimes about these very systemic questions. So its not like I can just approach the mayor of Sharjah, or the chief minister of Bosaso and he will tell me – you know, I’d have to go and kind of approach the boats. I would have to look at the goods, I would have to look at the excel sheets full of this crazy data. And I would have to find a way of speaking about them.
So in Wharfage, the first book, we kind of turned these things into lists of things. Instead of the manifest being a record of what was produced, we turned them into a list of what had gone to Somalia that year. A change of tone, from something that is a record of a business transaction, into a kind of magical list of all the things that went to Somalia that year, from chapals to used goods to cars to shampoo. All of them commodities no doubt, and all with some profit motive, but not only that. And so you can imagine a life at the other end where shampoo is being used and chai is being drunk and all this is happening and there is a desire of these two sides to exchange something. So the mode of being able to turn that requires some other kinds of crowbars and things you don’t always have ready.
In language that would be called vocabulary—but you need a different set of tools, maybe, to kind of twist the thing around. And sometimes it happens via relationships one forms with machines or with institutions or with people.
Meara Sharma and Henry Peck are sound documentarians and producers of Almirah Radio.
CAMP is an art-making space in Bombay.
If you have trouble, Listen to their radio conversation above, or download it here.