By Babitha George
Being asked to write on UnBox as an inter-disciplinary festival that we have hosted as a collective for almost a decade now is a wonderful opportunity to reflect on the nature of this adventure and what we have learnt over the course of this journey. I have specifically attempted to articulate possible learnings around openness, community and that our journey with UnBox could have for cultural production. Simultaneously, this reflection is not one of completion and looking back, but to actively think about a set of attempts with partners and friends to progressively push the idea of what it means to create and host a series of movements and collectives, with an eye towards the future.
UnBox is a multi-disciplinary, explorative space to initiate and build narratives reimagining India’s plural identity and futures. Founded in 2011 as a festival, at the intersection of design, art, culture, social change, technology, environment and creative enterprise, Unbox is a space that prompts experiential learning and new thought. As part of its agenda, the Unbox Platform creates collaborative projects, labs, festivals and publications that bring together diverse expressions from India and abroad while making space for mutual learning. Over the years, Unbox has partnered with and been supported by multiple Indian and international cultural agencies and institutions.
UnBox emerged from a shared need for the growing community of creative, academic and development professionals to pause, reflect, actively collaborate and explore projects beyond their immediate practice. A community of co-creators -students, young professionals and artists, academics, studios, industry practitioners — are thus, active participants in the festival and not just an audience. More than half the festival participants also being active creators is something we actively facilitate and thus UnBox deliberately tends to attract a community of progressive thinkers, influencers and strongly independent individuals.
This piece will primarily focus on the evolution of the festival, as well as how some of the other initiatives have actively fed its spirit, tone and programming. The festival is put together by a large team of people, each of whom have their own aspirations and hopes for UnBox, but I hope that in being a core part of the team since inception, I am able to honestly represent some of these collective ambitions as well, in addition to my own personal journey.
The Evolution of the Festival
In the initial years, the festival was largely a celebration of “multi-disciplinary thought and action”. What does this mean? And who should even care? During the inception, the intent was to balance between a few things within the space of UnBox:
- To reflect the complexity of the real world that we inhabit and the relationships within it, striking a balance between exploration, thought and action
- To be honest, playful, thoughtful and creative in our explorations and participation
But this also put us in danger of not being specific. The lines are blurred and it doesn’t make it an easier “sell”. At the end of the day, we want the festival to bring together different people who might not usually come together, in a spirit of collective sensemaking and fun. Does this make UnBox sound frivolous? Does it take away some of the buzz of festival jargon? Maybe it does. But the honesty with which we have approached this has only stood us in good stead and widened the ownership of the festival to a larger network of friends and co-collaborators.
We have sought to do and explore this through a few different ways:
- Programming, curating and managing a host of different practitioners and artists by actively engaging with them to shape what they would like to bring to the festival — more than finished pieces or resolved thought, but allowing them space to explore and actively shape new conversations and work.
- Bringing in a diverse range of backgrounds, experiences and intents. What does it mean to get out of the usual bubbles and echo chambers that we often get ourselves into? What does it mean to be open to and influenced by new and unlikely backgrounds and perspectives?
- Engaging people actively not just as participants but as co-creators, in a spirit of making and thinking, engaging hands, hearts and minds.
- Constructing short yet potent bursts of activity that builds hope, inspiration and constructivism without being burdened with the weight of these constructs but by approaching it in new and playful ways.
The challenge of integrating disciplines without the pressures of forming fully-resolved work continues to remain prominent, as we try and explain what the festival stands for. An experience aimed at bringing together such a diverse community can only be fulfilled if the community co-creates it, and our various experiments with extended autonomy and self-organization have been aimed at this. What is encouraging is that the community has evolved, alongside the core team at UnBox, finding value in this premise of openness and are willing to suspend disbelief and cynicism in co-creating this with us.
It is this spirit of openness that has been crucial to the success of UnBox. On one hand, it drives our curation and production of it — in not being tied in to set patterns of festival production, in being freer to receive new things and get rid of things that do not make intuitive sense. And on the other hand, in audience participation — by allowing them to experience processes, as opposed to fully-resolved showcases, in an atmosphere of safety and creative comfort, thus opening up what failure means for each of our practices, as we go back into the real world.
Designing for Shared Ownership
This last aspect is particularly dear to me. One of the other critical aspects we have focused on at the festival as well as some of the associated labs and workshops has been creating slower, more nurturing events. And how we can potentially think, feel and learn differently when we make and learn together. How do we create settings that allow people to feel like they have agency and that they are in a co-owned process that they are collectively in charge of, simultaneously leading and participating in. One of the biggest learnings over the journey of UnBox has been how important it is to create these settings deliberately. This becomes even more relevant if we want to initiate and engage in not just multi-disciplinary but also trans-disciplinary work that attempts to uncover complexity and engage with hard questions deeply, in a spirit of positivity and constructivism. As most influences and pressures in our professional lives and practices urge us to go far and go fast, I always imagine UnBox as a space to slow down and indulge ourselves with the space and time (albeit limited) to not have to do this. And this is crucial in enabling us to consider new aspects of our practice and be open to people and disciplines that we are unlikely to encounter in our usual spaces. This is not to say that the process isn’t challenging in its attempt to bring people out of their comfort zones; but we have always wanted to do it within a more nurturing, safer space, without aggression or attempts to resolve things quickly. We are not a conference, a hackathon, a seminar or an installation. We are a festival that is probably best equated to a pop-up studio over a limited and intense time frame, where people are not overly directed and can forge their own journeys and explorations, while actively making things together, and through engaging different senses and intelligences.
The Richness and Challenges of Context
The other aspect that I would like to explore in this piece is the unique space that we are situated in as hosts of UnBox. Being in India is crucial to what UnBox is. As a collective, we are curious about India, her stories and how we can preserve some of these. And how we can play our part in uncovering the richness and nuance that our cultural heritage stands for, especially in light of social and technological change that is rapidly altering the landscapes that we operate in. As the core host of UnBox and in our primary role as a creative consultancy, Quicksand’s practice and our work with clients has grown hand-inhand with our independent and personal creative pursuits. This has been crucial in keeping alive Quicksand’s curiosity and interests, as well as in bringing newness and texture to all streams of our work. The areas of our work are often complex and fuzzy and the dynamic of reciprocity that emerges from our independent work brings new thinking and creative approaches to areas that are often in need of these new perspectives.
Our explorations with UnBox have been part of an open emergent journey, where we have kept each other company with patience and trust, while also affording each of us the space to skip away at times and explore on our own. We have thus seen UnBox as a space where we can take time to pause, explore nascent ideas (or even well-formed ones) with each other and immerse in the contexts around us.
After a break of 4+ years with the festival, during which we explored several formats and themes, we decided to bring back the festival format in 2019; in a new city- Bangalore, and reflect the evolution of our own practice as a collective. A lot of our old friends commented that this was probably the most “serious” version of UnBox, as it reflected topics and themes around technology, society, sustainability, and several such others that we have ourselves been engaged with in the past few years. But what remained was the ability to bring new discussions and explorations to these themes and keep the spirit of creative partnership, playfulness and celebration alive through it all- whether it was through a completely reset festival identity and website, reimagining a new space, as well as bringing music, food installations and other ways of engaging all the senses.
The Possibilities of (un)Production
This also brings me to another core aspect of UnBox — that it isn’t created or run by an events or production company. It is a labour of love for Quicksand and its extended network that brings agility, frugality, resourcefulness and adventure to how we explore the idea of UnBox. We aren’t tied into set formats, and we may not be extremely efficient in producing it, but we do it with curiosity and playfulness. We make the festival as an extended community, dealing with the many practical aspects of putting it together, often in environments and spaces that are pushed to the limit with the demands that the festival programming places on them. This is a vital experience for us, filled with joy, heartache and confusion, that leaves us exhausted but richer each time. There are aspects of the festival that not everyone in the festival team subscribes to but nevertheless participate in for the sake of experimentation or for other relationships within the ecosystem, while keeping true to a core value system that we collectively seek to create and nurture. It is not a full time job for us and this allows us the freedom that is probably the most defining aspect of our journey, reflecting the shifting and dynamic nature of our lives.
As a creative manifest of the studio’s own explorations and practice, one of the tensions inherent in organising UnBox is between content creation and content facilitation. In bringing together people from multiple disciplines, geographies, spaces, the role of programming becomes as much about facilitating these new connections and conversations as it is about creative explorations and as such, both roles become critical responsibilities for the team. Interdisciplinary explorations depend on exchanges, and at UnBox, the sheer range of these exchanges can be quite broad thus placing fairly severe demands on facilitation and production by organizers, who are not professional event producers. Each aspect of the festival is in turn influenced and fed by several others and it brings together a different approach to event production that is in turn fed by several of our professional interests and skills — experience design, service design, programming and space design, to name a few.
The other inherent conflict in this model is that of a creative practice organising a showcase and platform for other creative practices and studios. As one of my UnBox team partners Avinash says, “Where does one draw the line between sustaining a platform for the common good and exploiting a platform for personal profitability? It is a hard question since both go hand-in-hand, and perhaps the question is best answered by participants. We have believed that people will simply ‘feel’ our intentions. We brand less, we work more. We set the stage and let players act out their parts. We often don’t have the time to think about ourselves. At UnBox, we have always played down the role and presence of the organizers because we really believe that anyone who really wants to know who we are, will take the trouble to find out. We do not need to hand out brochures on our practice or sell our wares at the festival. There is a community of participants who have been on an intense journey with us, and we need to respect that these interactions will deliver equity. Promoting the festival and our partners is one of the most liberating aspects. Perhaps because it is once removed from us, and we can exercise some aspects of fantasy and play to its manifest each year. We want others to be popular. In fact, we want each person to feel celebrated because they have put their trust in our beliefs and are amazing in their own ways. In the often political world of creative practice that we strive to stay away from, I think we have succeeded every time in creating an environment where there is a genuine sharing of ideas and critique.”
But what does all this mean in the context of India, especially in light of funding being limited to established events that are fully formed conferences or traditional arts and culture practices — with government funding being next to negligent for multi-disciplinary and exploratory formats or themes and with corporate sponsorship being limited to large events that are primarily about “eyeballs” and “footfalls”. The challenges of funding have only become more severe; especially when our core values revolve around consciously reinventing formats and refusing to forego creative agency and control to larger sponsorship interests. This has forced us to be more creative in how we make things happen, while also sharing our vulnerability openly with the larger community of UnBox. What is magical is how this has given this larger community a deep shared ownership of UnBox and an accompanying shared sense of doing what it takes to collectively bring together the experience. This has most often implied small and varied pots of funding manifested through barters, commissions, patronage and goodwill that have allowed people to participate, to make new things and connections, without the pressure of a large sponsor, allowing for some of the inherent dichotomies and tensions to comfortably co-exist within the space of the festival. In addition, traditional metrics of value and impact may also not possibly apply to explorations such as UnBox, and may require new and bespoke metrics of value creation. Maybe there are future opportunities that encompass experiments such as UnBox and others from across various spaces, to come together to begin to define for ourselves what these parameters might be, in a manner that makes sense to us as creators but can also begin to define value for other stakeholders in a new way. As a financially loss-making entity every year, this is probably the most important manner in which we can define the value of it for ourselves.
The world isn’t shiny nor is it fully resolved and UnBox reflects this very human aspect of our lives and practices. It is messy and chaotic and often leads us down false starts or unresolved journeys. But we learn new things, make new friends and have our hearts broken and healed through all of this. And maybe what is most valuable is that we feel more confident through it all, to be open to serendipitous discoveries, to allow ourselves space and time to pause and be free, to find new energies, meaning and interests and to be comfortable with not having all the answers right away. A festival experience that seeks to speculate on our collective futures in an open manner requires patience and cannot be designed with set outcomes in mind. It necessitates comfort with ambiguity and irrationality. What I would like to present to other collaborators and friends is this question — as we are increasingly faces with complex questions, how can we as cultural producers actively create spaces that can tolerate and celebrate ambiguity and work through messiness together. And how can we come together to define our own successes and articulate our learnings to represent the uniqueness of our own contexts and visions.
*Making Space essays were commissioned and written in 2019
About Babitha George
Babitha George is a partner at Quicksand and anchors their Bangalore studio. Her prior work in education in India prompted her to actively think about the role of design thinking in impact contexts, leading her to steer several of Quicksand’s social innovation projects. She is a management graduate from the Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad, prior to which she studied English, Journalism & Psychology. With this background, Babitha believes strongly in the strength of multi-disciplinary approaches. She is one of the co-founders of the UnBox Festival, leading on networks and collaborations bringing together efforts around social change, art & culture, thoughtful design and open research. She is also on the Advisory Board of the Victor Papanek Foundation and was featured in the British Council’s ‘Blurring the Lines’ exhibition in London, as one of sixteen people from around the world who are reinventing creative exploration and participation in their respective communities. She is a member of the Mozilla Foundation’s first cohort of “Network50”, for outstanding work in Internet health. She was also part of a Rockefeller Residency Grant in 2017 at the Bellagio Center with Mozilla Foundation, to address the societal challenges faced by the emerging voice-enabled Internet.