Wednesday, 6 December 2006

Hello. Welcome to the first instalment of what will be a regular series over the next few months. This is where I’ll explore some of the ideas and experiences constellating around my placement at HP Labs in Bangalore.
I want to use this writing process not just as a way of documenting my activities, but also as an integral part of the work.

I have been invited here as an artist, and yet I have no specific brief. How I define my engagement with this context has been largely left for me determine. I’m not required to make anything. There is no specific project on which I am particularly required. I am not instrumental, but just an incidental person.

So what am I being paid for? What is my work? What is my role as an artist? This is one of the questions I want to ask here. And I suspect it may turn out that this questioning is in fact the answer. I could approach this in the way a classical scientist designs an experiment. My null hypothesis, then, is ‘I am useless’.

Or perhaps context is all the work. My job is simply to interrogate the context.

Shall We Dance?
A conversation can be like a tango around an invisible point of balance, a push and pull around a tacit centre of gravity. In the circling and the dynamic unbalancing is the meaning of the dance. My work here, as I see it, is partly to take part in this conversation, to participate in the play between some key agencies. The first of the players in this particular dance was the Arts Council of England. I can’t remember now exactly where I came across the invitation but somehow I heard that placements were being offered in unusual international contexts. I heard that one of these was in Bangalore and I was immediately interested. Why?

First of all, it was the opportunity to live in India for some time. For many years the idea has been condensing that I need to find a way of really examining in depth my fascination with India. This interest is not arbitrary or accidental but clearly traceable in my personal history. I was born in Calcutta and brought to London as a young baby. I grew up as an immigrant always with one foot in each country. I spoke Bengali with my parents and in the extensive Bengali social network of London. I learned to use a knife and fork at school dinners and learned about England in the playground and through the cathode ray tube. I never really examined my Indian-ness. It was just a fact of my life, of which I was sometimes vaguely embarrassed, sometimes acutely ashamed. I tried to be British for half of my life. Then in my early twenties I realized that this British part of me was in denial. I felt I had an immense amount to learn about my heritage which was of vital importance if I was to make sense of certain strange lacunae in my own life and the cultural life around me.

Then I began to engage more consciously with Indian culture, but always, it seemed, at a slight remove. The idea gradually formed that in some way I needed to really deeply participate in this significant place. Over the years my interest in Indian arts and philosophies has been cultivated. I’ve studied as much as I can in Britain, attempting to integrate the various influences and elements that converge in me. I’ve gradually formulated a plan to spend an extended period of time living and studying in India, not just as a tourist or as a family member, but in some directed, professional way. When this opportunity to work with Hewlett-Packard in Bangalore presented itself it seemed like a perfect next step. I’d briefly visited Bangalore a year or so ago just out of curiosity. On my way to a three month residency with an arts organization in Burma in 2004, I’d decided to stop off in Bangalore for a couple of weeks.

As a Director of Arts Catalyst, the London based science-art agency, I’d been hearing a lot about a school of art, design and technology in Bangalore. Arts Catalyst had a burgeoning partnership with the school and, coincidentally, an old friend of mine was also now working there. I’d first met her about ten years ago when I was working as a composer with the dance company Attakalari, which was then based in Kerala. A group of dancers and musicians travelled from England to Kerala to make a new piece. She was a core member of the Indian production team. Now, years later, she was working at this art school in Bangalore.

And I had other friends who had also somehow ended up in this city. A San Franciscan Jain musical entrepreneur, who was experimenting with reversing the diaspora, offered to put me up in his new, furnitureless apartment. Another artist I hadn’t seen for eight years who was now living in Paris turned up in Bangalore. Clearly this was a place of connections, and not just silicon ones. And, through the connections I already had, I met a diverse, dynamic and cosmopolitan crowd in a city surfing on the frothing edge of a surging sub-continental wave.

It felt like India was accelerating into rapid and radical change. I’d been going to Calcutta fairly regularly for many years, and mainly into the warm, if slightly suffocating, embrace of an adoring family. From visit to visit I noticed changes, the disappearance of human rickshaws, the coming of electricity, telephones, televisions. But now - either because of my own circumstances or new perspective, or wider social factors - the pace was dizzying. The more I studied India the more interesting it became.

A view of India from the perspective of a major American multinational company was a fascinating prospect. Much of my work over the last ten years or so has focussed on ancient Indian knowledge. In piecing together my own fragmented history, and in trying to uncover universal principles, I have been drawn towards classical Indian music, Theravada Buddhism, ancient rural organization, dead poets. The view of the mystic east from Britain is obviously to be imbibed cautiously, highly inflected as it is with guilt, awe and hostility. But the India I could glean from my parents was a society frozen as it had been when they left it in the 1960’s and tinged now with the sepia of nostalgia. I was quite aware of the dangers in my practice in which Indian ideas and practices were often foregrounded. The chance to be confronted with the reality of modern India was a promising challenge.

So the fact that the Arts Council was offering to support a period of research work in India was immediately attractive. Arts funding in England is a curious beast. Patronage of individual artists is the new way forward but there are also specific drives around particular issues. The kind of concerns I’ve been talking about so far, to do with my homeland, emigration and cultural identity, would fit very well into another part of the funding system.

The decibel scheme which has been running for the last few years looks to foster the work of culturally diverse artists in England. And there is debate within meeting rooms, studios and conferences about the merits of ghettoization or positive action. Personally I’m happy to have a chimaeric practice. I’ll make the most of whatever opportunities are available without compromising my own deep principles. And, in the course of that, my own attention is inevitably drawn by public concerns and policies. It’s a dialogue with emergent properties. So this opportunity to live and work in India was exciting for many reasons other than the immediately apparent.

The reasons can be mapped on a spectrum which connects personal and political concerns. For example, having, at the age of 41, never had a proper job, I’m fascinated by the lives of people who work in offices, for big firms. What do they do all day? What’s it like to be part of a big team, in a big industry, for perhaps years on end? What’s it like to leave your work behind in the evenings and at weekends?

In my first few days here I’ve stepped into the intimate choreography of contracts and legal agreements. By temperament I incline towards a preference for Open Source and for a very light grip of ownership. But now I am confronted by the mindset of a multinational company in the business of inventing and patenting. I am becoming aware of the extent to which the field of Intellectual Property Rights is an increasingly important frontier.
So personal experiences merge into larger question about the power of institutions compared to individuals and about the movements of global capital. Very quickly they lead into ethical and ecological considerations.

And what is the best way to explore these questions from within the object of enquiry? I’m hoping this log of my developing thoughts may be one way.

Re: the creative thinker as simply witness in an industrial context, and the necessity of being ‘incidental’, I have been revisiting Stuart Brisley’s Peterlee Project


I came to HP labs in September to have initial meetings, look at contracts and sort out domestic arrangements. I then returned to England.

In the last month or so there I’ve just completed a collaborative project which has resulted in the publication of a book of dialogues called ‘8 Artists Try Not to Talk about Art’.
I’ve also been involved in kicking off an MA course in Art & Ecology at Dartington College of Arts
Interdisciplinarity is a key feature of it. The course is a meeting place for disparate approaches. It is in the conversation that the work happens. A symposium running closely alongside the MA and in close conversation with the RSA had a large element of Open Space Technology

These experiences over the last few weeks intertwined with my experiences on my first visit to HP labs. I was struck by the interdisciplinarity of the lab. Here there were not only the hunched solderers and savants that I expected, but also social scientists, and a huge assortment of alert people with an expansive view of their practice.

In this context I need to narrow my focus without closing down too many options. I need to find a way of framing questions which allows me to listen rather than pre-empts the answers.


There is an interest in language in the lab. I read somewhere about HP’s strategic thinking including the linguistic landscape of India. It’s multiplicity of languages and its sharply heterogenous literacy.
Also pen interfaces are interesting. And the Gestural Keyboard, a new way of interfacing with the computer.

To explore language and communication conversation seems a useful research tool.
Perhaps the clearest job description is given by Jean-François Lyotard as ‘incredulity toward grand narratives.’
But although I see critical thinking as central to my practice, I prefer to enter the exchange with a collaborative attitude rather than a confrontational one. How far can hectoring and polemic get me? The first point of damage, after all, is myself. And then it’s my relationships. Better to foster critical thinking within friendship. So much more difficult though.

Here’s a quote I saw today in the Times of India, from J. K. Rowling. ‘It takes a great deal of courage to stand up to your enemies, but even more to stand up to your friends.’

So how to even begin to consider the subject of corporate social responsibility? ‘… or CSR (increasingly used as an abbreviation for corporate sustainability and responsibility). CSR has evolved from a rallying cry of business critics to a fashionable concern among corporate executives eager to demonstrate that high-mindedness can co-exist with the pursuit of profit.’

Some of the current work at HP Labs is connecting up The Karnataka State Government and the United Nations Development Programme in a rural education project which has already involved the Indian Space Research Organization with its telecom satellite network. Clearly a lot of collaborative effort is going into this project. And yet there is no clear commercial benefit to anyone. It’s not something that HP sees as central to its business. So why do it? I have to think through my notions of the world of business. Perhaps ethical grounding can make good business sense. presents some interesting case studies which suggest that might be the case. And once again the name of Narayanan Murthy comes up. I keep hearing about him.


I was just doing some research on Fortune 500 companies to see where HP is. Came across ‘How I Work: Bill Gates’ It’s an on-going series apparently. Fascinating to get some insight into the cult of productivity. And also notice my own participation in it. I remember as a child reading little potted biographies of great men, and occasionally great women. In the old days it would have been lives of the saints. There’s something necessary about biography.

Passed a billboard on Airport Road the other day on work-life balance. A see-saw with a man on one side and a woman and her child on the other. All gleaming and glowing in the smooth light of ad-land. With a bit of added exoticism because the woman was in a sari. I should take more pictures. It would be nice to post them here. Anyway, I’m thinking of the contemporary religion of efficiency. Modern moksha is to be a crorepati. (I must say, between Amitabh Bacchan and Chris Tarrant I know which is the lesser of two devils).

I have a slightly guilty fascination - which isn’t purely ironic - with the self-help, self-management, secrets-of-the-CEO’s movement. I wouldn’t say Alan Sugar is a role model but I do have Stephen R. Covey on my bookshelf and a key attraction for me to come to HP is just to see how things are done by clean, efficient, systematic people. Not that the art world is solely populated by crusty’s and floating bohemians of course. In the end, searching for difference, I find how similar things are.

The thing that really tickled me about the ‘How I Work’ series is the Hardware and Software rundown next to Bill Gates’ story. Reminded me of the drumming magazines or studio musician magazines that give diagrams and equipment lists. The height of nerdiness I suppose. But the thing is, I actually find it interesting. It’s the nitty-gritty, the human detail. It would be interesting also to talk about the quality of light, the ambient sounds, the physical sensations. Might be fun to try to map all that with employees at HP.

I guess I’m groping for a connection between the tiny details of moment-by-moment experience and the cataclysmic, global events of impersonal institutions, markets, geographies and biospheres.

Well that’s probably enough rambling from me for now.
I am honing in on a specific plan to focus my research. I have a couple of very particular projects in mind – to do with language, writing and music and relating to something called Printcast and a thing called the Gestural Keyboard. But more on those later. The largest question remains: What is the work of an artist in this workplace?
But in asking that I’m already defining my role as an asker of questions, a problematizer. My hunch is that that’s a key part of being an artist but I don’t think that’s all of it.

Some of my work can’t be framed in the form of a question. Certainly I’m curious, but it’s more of a listening attitude than a questioning one. I’m curious to know what it feels like to be immersed in the world of work and business. I’m curious to know what the issues are in this world, what drives people. I’m curious to learn about the history and economics of this world. I’m curious to know what all the fuss is about these tiger economies and dancing elephants of Asia. I’m curious to look out on the world from the other side, to transcend a parochial European perspective. I’m keen to just observe with as little interference or judgement as possible.

As I immerse myself however, certain questions arise. They dissolve away again in the continued observation and give rise to subtler constituents. But for now here are some pretty basic ones.

What does Hewlett Packard do exactly?
Why does Hewlett Packard want to be in India?
What does it say about itself?
What engagement with ethics is here?
What is it like to be an employee?
What kind of technologies/products/services are being developed here?
How might I use or contribute to them?
What new toys can I play with?
What is the history of the Multinational Corporation?
Can it really be traced back to the East India Company?

These questions might sound a little shrill but actually I just want to initiate a conversation. Then I’m looking forward to something emerging between the participants in this conversation which is not wholly determined by anyone. The participants so far are myself, HP Labs and Srishti College of Art, Design and Technology. Gradually the institutions are opening up to reveal the petals of individual employees and faculty members. As the conversation begins none of us can predict where it will go. This itself is fascinating.

One of the first actions I want to propose is to concretize this conversational process. So I want to set up a series of dialogues with key people. These will be filmed, transcribed and otherwise notated as a first stage in opening up the field. Here’s a mini workshop I’ve designed which I’ll run at Srishti as a special project leading up to their graduation day. I’m hoping it might be a good way for me to make a direct connection between Srishti and HP labs. It may also result in an exhibition of some sort.

Conversation is thinking in its natural state.
Thinking is the conversation within us.
Words began in human beings
in the process 
of transforming
gregariousness into co-operation.
Malvina Reynolds

This short course will explore ways of initiating, performing and documenting co-operative thinking.

Art/science is a mode of practice which has grown rapidly in the last few years - but what is it? Other forms of practice in which artists engage with practices outside the art world, for instance in businesses, prisons or hospitals, are also increasingly common. These can be one-off projects, residencies or a central, abiding preoccupation. But what are the underlying dynamics of this negotiation of relationship?

A key stage in the generation of new ideas, and in the engagement with new situations, is the conversation. We will consider conversation, in its widest sense, not as a merely linguistic phenomenon but as a dynamic spiral of feedback, and as a foundational practice in science, art and politics. In this short course we will focus primarily not on the content of collaborative or interdisciplinary practice, but on its form.

We will also consider conversation as a strategic device for the solution of seemingly intractable problems and as a practical way of generating new ideas. Students will gain insight into methods of working in preparation for future projects in collaborative or socially engaged art. To this end we will examine the legacy of conversation, or the trace it leaves behind. How do the effects of conversations extend beyond the initial space and moment of participation? And then how do these traces, after-images or reverberations become the raw material of subsequent work? We will consider various methods of documentation and recording, from the reporter’s shorthand to musical notation, from oral recounting to video editing, from drawing to desk-top publishing.

1. The workshops will begin with a presentation of various ideas about the nature of conversation through film, music, texts and performance. Some starting points might be: Ingmar Bergman’s film ‘The Hour of the Wolf’ on solitude and company
An overview of artist’s residencies as settings for conversations
A recently published book of collected interviews ‘8 Artists try not to Talk about Art’
physicist David Bohm’s ideas on ‘dialogue’
Joseph Beuys’ practice of Social Sculpture
Theravada Buddhist dialectics
physical and theatrical games to expose the structure of conversation.
Transcript from meeting of Rabindranath Tagore and Albert Einstein
Exercises in deep listening

2. This introduction will be followed by an invitation to participants to identify people with whom to initiate a conversation, and to set up brief interviews. These will be recorded by some means to be determined in advance.

3. The third stage will constitute the bulk of the time and will consist of the transcription and interpretation of the recorded materials. The final outcome could be in the form of a musical score, a moving image work or a book.

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