34 go mad in Ahmedabad
Mid October 2015, paraphrasing somewhat:
Me: …oh yeah, and I’m about to hand my notice in at work.Jon: Shit dude, you’ve got to come to India with me.Me: OK! Why? Who’s paying?Jon: It’ll be fun. We’ll figure the rest out.
It’s fair to say I’m in a point of flux. I’ve just left a job I’ve been in for nine years to go freelance. Jon Roger’s offer of a couple of weeks in India the week after I finished was the kind of opportunity that was too good to turn down. It was a blank page but I knew Jon well enough to know that’s where he makes magic happen.
I came with no expectations, which is tricky when you’re trying to explain to your in-laws exactly why it is you’re flying half way round the world. I wanted to use the time to clear my head and renew my energy for the next phase of life.
Deep breath. Jump.
First impression: India is nuts. Everything’s turned up to 11 — the colours, noises, smells, contrasts are all extreme. The trip from the airport took us past green, riverside parks sitting next to slums piled with kids, animals and huge piles of trash. The sun was setting over the river, the smog in the air turning the skyline into a watercolour. Get to the hotel and see monkeys playing out on the roofs opposite my window with Black Kites circling above. We’re truly not in Kansas anymore.
We were 34 global makers, thinkers, artists, curators and students gathered together by Jon and Tabitha and NID (India’s National Institute of Design) was our concrete playground for the two weeks, offering a home from which to explore the city and a studio to build projects together. The only brief for our work was to explore Connected Communities and the target was a show somewhere in the city (venue TBC) a week and a half later.
The first couple of days were spent in sponge mode, absorbing, then rapidly forgetting, people’s names, touring the city in autos (the omnipresent yellow and green motorbike rickshaws) and visiting workshops and markets where people were making stuff. My small group comprised Laura de Reynal and three NID students who took us to a paper factory out near Ghandi’s house, a family of weavers making fine fabrics from their porch and a guy designing printing blocks and producing scarves with his prints. We’d heard about a group of puppet makers too, but the directions took us through a slum on the outskirts of the city. The experience shook me, firstly from nerves and then from the guilt. The smell from the rancid stream running through it will stay with me for a while too. What does a digitally connected community mean for the families living there? Right now it feels as distant and irrelevant to them as a manned mission to Mars, but when will they intersect, how and what will that mean for the city and the world?
That felt like a challenge that could frame our work: trying to imagine what the next fifteen years might hold for the residents of this city of seven million that’s doubled in size over the last fifteen. Prime Minister Modi’s Smart Cities Mission underlines this question. It also gave us a way to connect the other projects being run within the Caravan, by considering their long-term possible impacts if scaled up.
The Future Histories project sets us in 2031’s Ahmedabad, looking back at the last fifteen years of the city’s development as a connected community, through imagined news headlines, short provocations, first-personal social posts and other media.
Bobby, Laura and I created a stream of news based on the outputs of the Caravan’s other projects, woven with provocations from the group earlier in the week, research on the state of India’s digital development and discussion with people that live here. Primarily, it’s a list of stories that paint a picture of potential shifts and trends in development, and that invite questions about the positive and negative impacts to different societal groups of technological development.
We beta-tested the approach at the Wednesday show in the Museum of Conflict by sticking headlines up on the wall printed on pieces of A4, with a pad of paper for visitors to suggest their own. The permanent version is a digital piece that allows you to scroll through a timeline of the key stories and social responses.
To bridge the gap between the city’s huge population of craftsman and the screen, I created an object— by using a locally-made terracotta chai cup as an interaction tool to move through the timeline. Reflecting the city’s culture up-cycling of discarded materials, the internals are from a very second-hand USB mouse, re-wired to suit the purpose and embedded in a teak body turned in the NID’s carpentry workshop.
The project has been a fascinating and challenging experience — using elements of my previous experience in strategic comms planning to think about audiences and the ‘Why’ of any piece of activity in a new environment, and contrasting that with developing new or seldom-used hands-on crafting skills to adapt materials to a new use. I just wish I’d had the time to learn to use the workshop’s lathe to turn the wood from a solid cube into the finished article.
The project has a possible future life ahead of it, as the digital version will be live for the foreseeable future, and it’ll be great to add to it as new trends and developments come to light. I’ve also got plans for Version Two of the terracotta time-turner, as a self-contained unit rather than as a peripheral. By making it slightly larger to hold a Raspberry Pi Zero, it can plug directly into a reclaimed CRT or LCD screen. I’d also love to work with local metalworkers to create a contrast between cast copper, bronze or brass against the terracotta.
Sign me up for the next one, Jon.