Criticality, Comfort and the Collective – The FICA Virtual Reading Group

Anisha Baid

Screenshot from a session of the FICA Virtual Reading Group

What follows is an interview with Annalisa Mansukhani and Sukanya Deb from the Programming Team of the Foundation for Indian Contemporary Art (FICA), who jointly discuss a recently initiated Virtual Reading Room which started post lockdown. For them, and the many who have joined since, the idea of ‘reading together’ is an act of forging collective grounds for novel conversations, and engaging with new social formations in a time of limited inter-personal contact.  Consciously reading texts that may lend a critical perspective to the established cannons of photography, Annalisa and Sukanya reflect on the interrelationships between theory, pedagogy and practice, and how they manifest in the working practices of an extended arts community.

  1. What is the FICA Virtual Reading Room? What were your intentions and initial expectations from it? 

The Virtual Reading Group is an ongoing project at FICA, where we host weekly sessions presenting readings, generate conversations and hope to share critical insights through a selection of curated texts. During this period of the nationwide lockdown, we were compelled to extend the work that we do in our physical space at the FICA Reading Room in New Delhi. We wanted to take the opportunity to continue the act of reading and thinking collectively during this unprecedented time of increased social atomisation, seeking collective grounds for continuing conversation.

Our main intention was to try and find ways of speaking around the present situation and the inherited anxieties therein, to address systems and methods of meaning-making within and outside the institutional art sphere. We found writing samples and monographic reflections in the fields of art, culture, politics and literature to initiate interpretations and cross-references.

Screenshot from Instagram Live session of the FICA Virtual Reading Group.

We initially started these discussions on Instagram Live, which we used as a platform to coalesce an interactive base through the presentation format. After three sessions, we felt a more intimate space of reflection and personal interaction would allow our reader-listeners to participate and contribute more openly and actively. This shift to the video group chat form has been interesting in itself, and we hoped for our reader-listeners to be able to stake an ownership of sorts to the space.

Annalisa Mansukhani : For me, reading together also implies listening together – apart from individual explorations and examinations, it means mapping a practice that can accommodate multiple approaches and perspectives, sharing well-traversed routes to the familiar, while also venturing into the uncharted together.

It’s been very informative in the way each individual has brought the tantalising mess of subjectivity, intuition and ‘theory’ to the readings and the format at large.

Sukanya Deb: We’ve introduced a couple of new formats which have also been exciting to explore. Our new formats include monthly sessions where we invite a peer to curate a session, where they choose the text(s) to be discussed in session, and are able to change up the format that we have generally followed. The second new format we’ve introduced is the ‘Virtual Reading Playlists’ which takes the idea of read-alouds forward, where we choose a theme, and release an open call for participants to respond to this with any kind of text they see appropriate – whether poetry, critical writing, fiction or otherwise – and read the text aloud within the session. This places the act of listening at the fore, which we thought would be interesting given how we’ve approached the topics of ‘reading’ and ‘listening’ (cf. Tina M. Campt).

Exhibition View, Torchlight Journal: An Argument for Bookish Love at Project_Space, FICA Reading Room (2019)

  1. I’d like to know more about your interest in photography as the subject. The texts you have focused on have largely been non-canonical, subaltern narratives and critiques on photography. How did you go about selecting those texts and how did the group relate to them?

Our selection process was one of finding specific continuities and linkages between texts, where between the two of us, we would alternate each week, detecting ways to remain in communication with themes we thought relevant today, each text speaking to one another in some way. We began with Ariella Azoulay’s The Civil Contract of Photography (MIT Press, 2008), because of its immediate accessibility, and it turned out to be a great launchpad for later sessions, especially because of her incredibly riveting and unabashed writing on photography and the civic space of relations that it engenders. Her call to action and responsibility with regard to what we ‘see’ and distance ourselves from fit perfectly within the nuances of our present that we wanted to engage with.

The Civil Contract of Photography by Ariella Azoulay, Book Cover, Zone Books.

Our attempt with reading a variety of writing on photography, and of course with other texts as well, was to attempt to move against the grain of top-down understandings, looking for texts that were dismantling what we see as fixtures, destabilising what is sometimes uncritically accepted. Keeping with our own desire for non-hierarchical discussion, this was a choice made to read texts that were actively de-colonising and rethinking vocabularies around photography. The virtual environment of Zoom and Google Meet have also provided us with the ability to present images within the sessions swiftly. While that is merely a small takeaway from the format, there was a dearth we felt in conversations around photography within the art sphere, as well as a certain urgency to respond to the omnipresent, digital/global image, which of course, is derived from the indexical nature of the photograph.

Spread from In Defense of the Poor Image, an essay by Hito Steyerl

With texts that have looked at politicising the poor quality image (Hito Steyerl), documentary photography and the mundane (Patricia Hayes on Santu Mofokeng), the archive and black identity (Tina M. Campt), and the specific consideration of the Tibetan photo-object and the “artefactual diaspora” (Clare Harris), we have been able to discuss intricacies in acts of making photographs, the spectatorial position, materiality, and the apparatus…and much else. Conversations have been fruitful, where we have found our readings readily supplemented with questions, suggestions, probings. It’s also led us into reading histories of photography that have emerged across geographies outside the USA and Europe. This choice to look closer, dig deeper and nitpick has fragmented what could have possibly been readings limited to a very canonical approach to photography and its implementations.

Image from the series Train Church by Santu Mofokeng, 1986

Buddhist Retreat, near Ixopo (2003) Santu Mofokeng/Santu Mofokeng Foundation

  1. How are you, and other programs at FICA Reading Room, looking at reading as practice at large?

As a practice, FICA has always tried to look at reading as providing possibilities of and toward activation, collectivity, self-reflexivity, and criticality. At the recently launched Project_Space, we were very glad to have hosted Torchlight, an online journal on bookish love and libraries in India, and were also looking forward to having Aqui Thami and Sister Library, whose work derives from notions around intersectionality, safe spaces, activism, and female voices, to take up residency at the Reading Room. Our first resident at Project_Space was Niroj Satpathy, who through practices of collecting, annotating, dismantling and reconceptualising objects, ephemera and material, provided readings of the city of Delhi. The dialogues and conversations that have happened over the past years and in the recent months have maintained a dalliance with processes of reading.

Exhibition View, Torchlight Journal: An Argument for Bookish Love at Project_Space, FICA Reading Room (2019)

Exhibition View, Niroj Satpathy’s Open Studio at Project_Space, FICA Reading Room (2019)

The Reading Room idea finds itself referenced in our recent exhibitions: Critical Constellations (2019) at IGNCA, and CALL TO DISORDER (2019) at Serendipity Arts Festival, Goa.

We are also constantly trying to think around the act and practice of reading as essential, and how it can be deployed in a multiplicity of contexts. We do see reading as an essential act within art-making, whether literally picking up a book, or navigating information in other ways.

Installation view, Nilanjana Nandy’s Read aloud in your mind at Critical Constellations (2019)

Library at CALL TO DISORDER, Old PWD Complex, Panjim, as part of Serendipity Arts Festival (2019)

With the Virtual Reading Group in particular, we felt that we were trying to locate our own responses to our present witnessing. Looking at reading as a practice, we thought a collective reading group would enable new navigations, form new networks of support and articulation as we grow accustomed to what has been a drastic upheaval within our day-to-day lives, where we find ourselves in immense social, cultural, for many, economic, and political uncertainty, that continues to (have the potential to) alienate us. We see this upheaval in the daily lives we lead as well as larger questions of political alienation, disavowal, and ultimately, agency, in the face of continual crises that have been present from before the pandemic, in terms of legislative, economic, structural, and overwhelmingly public forms of violence.

We are keen to keep the Virtual Reading Group as a welcome space of reflection, interpretation, and involvement that does not really place a standard or expectation upon the reader-listener but instead caters to and catalyses individual modalities of responding to text and context.

  1. What are some of the ideas that have struck a chord in the reading group? Are there any particular texts/authors/notions that have been particularly exciting? 

Apart from photography, our themes have followed some really expanded trajectories: a brief history of participatory art, afrofuturism, resistance, colonialism and the museum, modernism – to name a few. Conversations and discussions across these themes have been equally engrossing, opening up connections and parallels with a number of current issues, even personal experiences.

Afrofuturism, Illustration by Max Loeffler for Bandcamp Daily, 2019

AM: Personally, the associations and processes of meaning-making around photography that emerged were hugely fascinating because they brought out a number of intriguing tangents that added onto the texts. It was great to take note of the fact that with some of the slightly denser readings, there was an effort to try and relate to certain themes and concepts. With Afrofuturism for example, we had a text by British-Ghanaian writer, theorist and filmmaker, Kodwo Eshun and he presents this rigorous set of references that frame his explorations. With Ariella Azoulay, Tina M. Campt and Clare Harris, we were presented with readings of archives, genres, experiences and practices that are so brilliantly assertive in their politics and their socio-cultural particularities. Each of these texts brought a different challenge to prior (mis)conceptions and zones of comfort that exist in vocabularies around photography. These have definitely contributed to altering my own individual approach to reading and writing about photography.

Listening to Images by Tina M. Campt, Book Cover, Duke University Press

SD: It has been interesting to relate to some of the issues we encounter in our lives and in our working fields, through the lens of critical theory – examining the present as well as fields of representation, from the images we see through the news or social media, to the exhibitions we go to. Particular chords that have struck me have been colonialism and the museum, languages deployed to read images and photography and beyond, also increasingly we have found ourselves examining premises we set ourselves up with in our daily lives, the propensity of the poor (quality) image. Looking at histories that we are unfamiliar with has been a way to hone our desire to seek new ground  – such as aspects of Tibetan Buddhism, the Anti-Apartheid movement in South Africa, Black Liberation movements in the US. We found ourselves searching for such futurisms. In our most recent VRG session, we collectively speculated a sci-fi variant of Tibetan futurism based on the Dalai Lama’s taking up of virtual platforms.

Image shared during the Virtual Reading Group Session – His Holiness the Dalai Lama during the online Avalokiteshvara empowerment at his residence in Dharamshala. 

  1. How do institutions help in constructing relationships between theory, pedagogy and practice in art?

Much of our work at FICA is informed by acts and practices of support, sustainable relationships, and consequently institution-building. We find ourselves constantly questioning the position that institutions, ours and others, play in the lives of artists and an extended arts community. We see our work being realised through art education, public programming, and support structures as crucial to the identity of FICA. FICA is also constantly in conversation with art practitioners from whom we find our inspiration and criticality.

It’s quite the entanglement, where those of us working from within institutions, find ourselves positioned at different crossroads, in the midst of this ravelling between theory, pedagogy and practice.

We also find ourselves fascinated by a development of relatability that has sometimes been evident in our motley little virtual space. Following a lot of these reflections, we’re also hoping to keep experimenting with formats for our future sessions, especially as we’ve tried to envision this Reading Group as a mutable space of conversation where acts of reading themselves can be played with and rethought.