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Maximum City turns into art lab

Dec 14, 2012

Richard Armstrong, Director of the Guggenheim Museum, finds Mumbai complicated, culturally stimulating and among the top cities of the world. Now he has turned it into an art lab and its residents into subjects for his experiments. Armstrong tells Rahul Kumar of OneWorld how artists can reform cities and how people can participate.

Richard Armstrong

Mumbai these days is witnessing a most exhilarating interactive art event for a whole six weeks. The BMW Guggenheim Lab in collaboration with the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum is offering Mumbaikars to peep into their city from a different perspective, looks at its spaces from a different angle and contemplate their role and interactions with the city.

The global project, places Mumbai on the world map after New York and Berlin, wherein city residents will think, act and participate in a unique urban art project—The Mumbai Lab. The project that is happening at six sites in Mumbai not only makes them think about urban challenges but also about balancing the individual (‘me’) and community (‘we’) interests.

The project is all the more relevant in times when we have a generation of people who cannot imagine themselves living anywhere but in a city. “With 50 per cent of the world’s population living in urban areas, the young generation is asking ‘how can we make cities better?” says Richard Armstrong, Director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and Foundation.

Excerpts from the interview.

OneWorld South Asia: Why did you choose Mumbai? Why not Delhi?

Richard Armstrong: When you look at the ten most complicated and culturally interesting cities in the world, Mumbai will always be in that mix. So, we thought let us go there after we have been to easy places like Berlin and New York. So here we are ready to take on a different challenge.

Mumbai seemed in a way more urban because of its supreme density and we had some connections there through allies of the Guggenheim Museum and on a visit last year, I saw a sight that I thought would be good for us to do this. So, here we are.

OWSA: You are addressing urban challenges. Now, what according to you are the current ones?

RA: Here we look at the equation ‘me equals we’ and a question for this culture we have to take on with us is a possibility, a responsibility, a privacy. In New York and Berlin, we looked at ‘what is comfort’ because we thought that it is an ultimate discussion-point where everyone is an expert.

Here, it is a cockier question… you might say that everyone is an expert on the issue of privacy.

OWSA: But how are you looking at privacy, because In India, there is supposedly less privacy. You look at the metro in the city, you look at the open spaces here, people are all squeezed in.

RA: That is precisely why we chose that kind of question in this kind of place. We thought that would be provocative and interesting for both parties–natives and visitors.

OWSA: What do you hope to get out of this project? Where will this privacy thing will lead?

RA: It might lead to a revised notion of what privacy means and can allow to a person. We are not really here to answer questions. We are here to provoke them and also to eventually suggest some new interventions, for example that will help us to see and live in the city differently.

OWSA: An art work either appeals to one’s senses, or forces people to think or it may even allow them to participate. At which level are you working on?

RA: We like all three of those options. We are offering food so you have the feel of the senses. We are asking you to participate and we are listening to your ideas, sometimes in response to other people’s ideas.  No matter what, we care about your opinion.

We think it should be stimulating, but we are not offering a graduate seminar in urbanism. Rather it is a sustained set of conversations to invite everyone in. We hope that people participate. In New York we attracted about 55,000 persons on the site and over 400,000 people online. In Berlin we had a comfortable percentage of the population. So, in a city of roughly 20 million people, we hope that we have a sizeable population also.

OWSA: Can the art world or artists actually make a change or eradicate the problems associated with urban challenges?

RA: Absolutely. I would say that making art in itself is a reform instinct. And you might think of that in a literal definition of reform. An artist looks at colour and shape and makes it differently, and then we start seeing it that way also. Things that your grandparents never imagined as verifiable through art and visual imagery are now considered to be true. So there is always change that way.

The thing I would say about art in relation to political reform is that it takes longer. So it is not on the metabolism of political activism. It is maybe a generation of sustained change through the art.

In New York we had impact literally on the site and also on the way people were thinking about certain aspects of the city. The same in Berlin and here we have the ambition of leaving behind works putting forward sustainable changes in Mumbai.

OWSA: That brings us to the concept of sustainable cities. What do you understand by this term and can we actually make sustainable cities?

RA: Yes, I see a delicious paradox. There is probably no such thing as a sustainable city, but what is nature without man? Sustainable but uninteresting... so we have to find a way to ask for that balance. I read an article recently saying that the heat part of the city is in some ways beneficial for vegetation. There may be a way that we can harness the extra heat of the city into making botanical growth even more dense and interesting.

The question is not ‘what is sustainable?’ Because there is no way to eradicate the human element. The better question is ‘what is the natural element that can be brought into balance with the human element’?

OWSA: So what are the natural elements that you are looking at? If we talk about some of the international cities –New York, London, Mumbai and Delhi—they have green areas. New York has the Central Park, Delhi has city forests and London has many parks. So when you talk about man and nature and sustainable cities do you also focus on the greens?

RA: Yes, we do. We take that for granted. We imagine that wherever humans go, specially the enlightened ones, there will be trees, probably more than man. But we have to imagine that. In a city like Mumbai, there is no way to offer a central park. So we have to be idealistic and then to be realistic. And we have to ask what can be done, what can be changed, what can be added in a manageable fashion so that the city can be more green.

We are trying to make sure that there is a balance between people and nature.  And it is demonstrated at the site in Mumbai where one of the art sites is at a green patch near the zoo.

But there is a bigger question that you might be alluding to, ‘how can you reformulate an existing city? The answer you know is probably you cannot. We have to find out the solutions.

OWSA: When you talk about other solutions, do you mean solutions related to technology and a less consumerist lifestyle?

RA: Both of those, no doubt about it. But I would also say the introduction of different ways of absorbing water, sewage, gutters, green roof-tops—all those things that we hear in today, which are all the more important in a monsoon-led climate.

One of the complicated issues, specially in North America is light pollution, and too much distribution of power. So we are in a slightly different state of evolution now, but I should think in the long-term the consumer’s behavior should also change after all.

The programme in Mumbai has been designed in such a way that all of those topics will be addressed in a non-specialist vocabulary. So, here we talk about city dreams and unwrapping Mumbai. These are all things that we would be addressing and that would be happening in the course of the project.

We are looking at all the aspects of a city—social, cultural, physical and natural. All these points are addressed in specific ways, for example a competition to eliminate a giant traffic jam; how to use the existing water pipeline infrastructure that has been abandoned to create a green highway; in another project we are asking people to wear certain sensors to find out their physiological reaction to certain urban stimuli. This tests your mood in the face of what the city is presenting to you.

OWSA: How does the project fit into your global vision of things?

RA: A project that was meant to have a global cast to it was begun in familiar and somewhat easy places like New York and Berlin. Now we have round the globe to a place that will be more complicated, not only out of respect for Indian civilization but also because of the growing sense in the country that there is a change, a progress and a-coming-to-grips with the urban challenges here.

We are here to learn, we are here to listen. We chose India and Mumbai very deliberately, consciously and with respect.

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