Mera Karachi Mobile Cinema is an initiative collaborating with various marginalised and migrant communities to produce short films made with cell phones, and to organise free screenings using a rickshaw-powered projector. The people behind it aim to provide an alternate space and build a collective artistic social practice.
Hira Nabi spoke with Yaminay Nasir Chaudhri from Tentative Collective (known as Aarzi Group in Urdu) who runs the Mera Karachi Mobile Cinema project. They talked about challenges involved in the project, social practice in the field of art and possibilities in Karachi.
HN: What is Tentative Collective?
YNC: We are a nomadic collective of people who share resources to create art in the public spaces of cities where we live. We want to cultivate new spaces for social engagement through creating surreal and transformative situations within the everyday. Our projects are collaborative, site specific and involve different levels of society.
At the moment, we are responding to the observation that public space is shrinking, and we try to insert ourselves into the city every time an opportunity presents itself. The name “Tentative” is appropriate for us because of the unstable political context within which we operate. We try to use the uncertainty to our advantage and adopt a sort of creative “Let’s do it!” methodology. Different people generously donate their time and resources to different projects depending on their interests.
Our latest project, Mera Karachi Mobile Cinema, was a response to the walls that are rising all around Karachi. Our parks are walled, and the beach now has an entry fee. Homes in both elite and marginalised areas have enhanced their boundaries using hedges, grilles, concrete and barbed wire — barriers to mark our visual landscape. For us, projecting moving images on these walls is a way of dematerialising them. Mera Karachi Mobile Cinema also aims to create a sense of community ownership of public spaces in various neighborhoods by hosting screening parties featuring videos filmed on cell phones and gathered from those locations.
HN: How does the project grow? How do you involve more people?
YNC: Each project has its own team of participants, so it really depends. I don’t think we are aiming to continuously growing. Personally, I think too much growth can have dangerous side effects. But we do want to become a sort of institution that is present for many years and available to anyone who wants to take advantage of our resources.
We are always open to new people and new projects. Since we are so young, I am currently handling a lot of the organising and structural setup. It would be great to get a good core group in place or a whole slew of people who want to take our themes and use them to organise new projects all over the city. Our current way of reaching out is through word of mouth, social media and a network of people we meet, work with, employ and accidentally encounter!
With Mera Karachi Mobile Cinema we started small, with a lady living in Ibrahim Haidery. She was introduced to us by an urban scholar, Dr. Nausheen Anwar, who is a friend and an adviser to our team. This contact became a member of the collective and pulled in her entire neighborhood. It was all very organic.
HN: How participatory is the work that you do? What kind of access to technology do collaborators have to create and share work?
YNC: I am trying to establish a horizontal approach to creating work. That is, I want people who participate to share and produce ideas equally and to learn from each other instead of having a top-down approach. This is very hard. It’s particularly hard to navigate class and educational barriers as some members’ privileges can outweigh the ideas of others. But we are aware of this and deal with it by exposing our own irregularities and subjectivities. Technology is shared as much as possible and we seek mediums that are easily accessible and common, such as cell phone cameras instead of expensive DSLRs in Mera Karachi Mobile Cinema.
This offers the possibility of replication or reuse after we are gone. Therefore, in many ways it is the idea that has preference rather than the technology. And sometimes we dream of upping the ante and doing things like teaching our resident contact in Ibrahim Haidery how to edit and how to become a teacher for other kids in the neighborhood, so that after we leave the area that teacher can continue organising new things and develop our idea in myriad ways.
HN: What kind of history does artistic social practice have in Pakistan?
YNC: To be quite honest, I don’t know enough about the origins of artistic social practice in Pakistan but at the risk of sounding presumptuous I have observed that there isn’t a large group of artists working in this realm. This might be because of a lack of institutional support and an art scene that is largely dominated by gallery practice. In other words, it is harder to sell social practice performances with intangible outcomes than it is to sell paintings and sculpture.
Until quite recently, two and three dimensional works were at the forefront of what was identifiable as visual art in Pakistan. Contradicting myself now, I have to say that, having visited art colleges in Pakistan in the last five years, things do appear different. There is a vibrant experimentation that students are pursuing via video and performance in the public space, and it is exciting to see a language of conceptually driven projects emerge in Pakistan.
In the 1990s, ‘Karachi pop’ artists including Durriya Kazi, David Aylesworth, and Elizabeth and Iftikhar Dadi provided a jumping-off point for collaborative social practice projects. Arze-e-Mauood (picture below) is an excellent example of a project constructed in the 1990s by Kazi and Aylesworth that set the tone for social practice in Pakistan. In this project, a shamiyanah (tent) erected outside the gardens of Frere Hall transformed the anonymous public space into a convivial zone for desire-centric photo opportunities and message-board exchanges between unlikely strangers. Visitors observed a kind of “brotherhood spirit” inside that space.
The situation in Pakistan is really different today with international opportunities, education, biennials, residencies and grants opening up to artists here. There is a growing appetite for social practice and intangible conceptual work in an increasingly diverse art market. Groups like Mauj Media Collective work in Pakistan but show their work internationally. Individual artists with studio practices are also doing interesting work. Bani Abidi’s Shan Pipe Band Learns the Star Spangled Banner, an awesome video, captures the layers of political complexity when a Pakistani musical ensemble is asked to rote learn and reproduce the American anthem. There are several more artists whose individual works I can mention in this category, but I can’t say there are many whose entire body of work is based on social practice.
HN: What are some of the specific technological hurdles you have faced working in Karachi?
YNC: There’s a bijli (electricity) problem. Some of the places we go to have a kunda system [where people obtain electricity through illegal means by tapping power from wires without paying for the power consumption] and they don’t get electricity from the government. That made us think about how to make our projection system mobile, and was the main reason why it became mobile and self-sufficient. We have our own batteries and our own inverter, and we are totally off the grid. We were forced to think in those ways because of the specific situation in Karachi.
Since we don’t know what the security situation will be in the future, we’re trying to think of a vernacular aesthetic for this mobile cinema device, so that we are not overly conspicuous as outsiders. The situation requires certain decisions that inform both the visuals of the project and the subject matter.
Now, this is interesting as some of the videos that I received were, I realised, made just for me. Women had filmed themselves without burqahs, thinking that they were showing themselves to another woman.
HN: They knew the videos would be screened?
YNC: Yeah, they had been told earlier. When they realised they would be shown in public, there was an uproar. So we embarked on an intense round of edits, blurring faces and cutting shots of certain body parts. That edited body of work, with all the exclusions and the subtractions, became a piece of work in itself.
HN: Is it possible to replicate this project? Can it serve as an anarchic model for other similar initiatives?
YNC: What is really important for determining this is to think about things like: How slick is it? How consumable is it? There is a huge preference in Pakistani art to make the product look polished, beautiful and well-produced. My observation has been that our art scene is very craft-oriented. To make a piece look like it belongs in a gallery or in a museum poses an issue of sustainability that is very hard to afford.
It is very important to create an appetite for work that is true to its own nature. Therefore, maybe the videos that will be made here will not be slick high-end productions – they are made with low-resolution cell phone cameras. Maybe they will be very rough and raw, and that will be a language that we will have to be okay with, because it is true to the nature of the place where it comes from. The medium itself begins to reflect the conditions in which it was made.
That is also a big part of reducing the cost of our endeavors. We rely on individual donors and institutional funding to be able to make this happen. But always when working with institutions, there are stipulations and conditions that may at times threaten to compromise the integrity of the project. It’s a balancing act, very tricky. There are lots of credit cards involved (laughs).
HN: Apart from that, have you been forced to self-censorship at other times?
YNC: Politics and religion are the two other things that we sometimes have to censor. In particular politics, because we can’t jeopardise the safety of the participant being filmed. Censorship is guided by the community so people tell us themselves. For instance, some women have said: “Look, I’m showing you footage of myself without a burqah, you can show it anywhere but just don’t show it in my neighbourhood.” Some people have made critical political videos and asked us to show them in a different part of town, where the opposing party supporters live.
HN: So, is Tentative Collective almost a kind of messenger service?
YNC: (laughs) Yeah at times but we don’t always do that, because we have to save ourselves also. It can also be dangerous for the collective, because if political videos go viral, “we” can be misunderstood as political middlemen and get shot at from the other side. We have to constantly reposition ourselves outside political rivalries in the city and stay clear of religious and political agendas.
See www.tentativecollective.com for further information on the projects and how you can be involved.