We speak to curator Meenakshi Thirukode about her platform Instituting Otherwise and her views on unlearning, institutional critique and decolonisation ahead of her participation in Reimagine India: Here, There & Everywhere Summit, at mac birmingham on Friday 23 March.
Can you tell me more about Instituting Otherwise in terms of its beginnings and rationale?
I want to start by acknowledging the naming of my platform which is inspired by concepts developed by cultural producers and workers engaged in a long term research project Future Vocabularies initiated at BAK, basis voor actuele kunst, in 2016 that rethinks arts conceptual lexicon. The naming here is both, a gesture of solidarity with the work of like-minded peers and a process of unlearning. It was when I got a scholarship to attend the summerschool project at BAK in 2017 that a philosophical framework for my practice found an articulation.
I’ve been working within institutions – especially commercial spaces like galleries and a museum, based in the US and in India, over the course of my career. And a lot of my practice was to subvert these spaces in order to confront the ways in which the system works, particularly the relationship of culture and representation to capital as it relates to South Asia. So for me I don’t come from that binary understanding of a center-periphery, but rather from a space of loopholing and finding the glitches within the system (we never really function outside a system) in order to find possibilities and futures of an “otherwise”.
For me the curatorial is a space for that conversation and engagement to take place and holds potential in India. Unfortunately in India ‘curators’ are understood to be exhibition makers or function on an advisory role. To me, it’s a pedagogical space and I want to explore that as a possibility with real stakes in the politics of the country, by working with those outside of the dominant market oriented art world infrastrutures.
What do you feel the platform provides/offers your curatorial practice?
For me it’s about creating a ‘space’ – an infrastructure, not always a physical one of course, for thinking about political urgencies and its related stakes in the ‘real’ world and the role cultural producers will play in imagining and producing that. That’s what ‘Instituting Otherwise’ can hopefully be a part of. I’ve moved beyond art as something ‘object’ oriented or as a space where we constantly produce and consume – not just aesthetics but also effects like anger and pain and desires. How does one participate in the world with the kind of knowledges we produce in the political conditions we live in? And I’m trying to create that space so we can figure this out. I don’t have the answers but I hope we can start to ask the right questions, together.
What are your thoughts on ‘unlearning’ and on institutional critique within the context of mac birmingham’s summit, Reimagine India: Here, There & Everywhere, and its position as a popular arts centre?
I think ‘Institutional Critique’ is a western canon – or at least when we talk of Institutional Critique, it’s a very particular history we refer to that’s seeped into our collective conscious as a dominant narrative. Outside of England, Europe and North America, there were/are a different set of political, socio-economic and cultural histories that are important to look at. Of course that could entail looking at what it meant for artists say from South Asia, living and working with artists in the late 60s and early 70s in America or the UK, might have engaged with. And then how those narratives engage and create a more complex set of relations with how we understand identities, representations and subjectivities today.
Unlearning is perhaps in this particular context, a way to begin setting different frameworks, different variables and starting from an understanding that someone like me is a product of predominantly western academic institutional system – and so I feel like I need to acknowledge that and then start to unlearn all of it via shifting the ‘POV’ from which we view political and art histories.
For all this to happen, mac and the summit become that space I was talking of earlier – by involving me, mac and the Here, There, Everywhere summit, is now a site for asking the right questions, in terms of how I laid it out in my previous answer.
Likewise, can you tell me more about your views and experiences of decolonisation within your practice and what this might mean to a city as culturally diverse as Birmingham?
I’m always learning what that term might mean. I think there’s always a tendency for an over-use of a term or to think of it as a ‘constant’ concept – and we see de-colonisation being used everywhere, when actually some sites and spaces are not necessarily de-colonising. So one has to always understand the precarity of the process, and how these concepts can be co-opted by capital or even far right populist movements.
We need to really think about what we mean by cultural diversity, by the term diaspora and what it means to someone like me, who has lived and worked in many contexts and conditions in the US and in the UK, but is from India and lives and works there now – a choice I made because at some level, these an urgency and stake in my being geographically located in India. So I think there’s an opportunity here at mac and in Birmingham to be able to really complicate the many ways in which we think of cultural diversity and that’s exciting for me.
What upcoming projects and research do you have planned?
I’ve been interested in how the curatorial in India can be a space of pedagogy and politics and I’m working to develop my platform ‘Instituting Otherwise’ in that regard. In terms of research I’ve always been interested in lost, erased histories and now the histories of the ‘otherwise’. I’ve been looking at how colonial and imperial imaginaries and histories (not just art but for instance, International Relations and Policy histories) have shaped the way we understand the world outside of the ‘West’ and how ‘culture’ was/is constructed as a means to oppress and marginalise. I’m also interested to continue research around performativity and the political – and particularly looking to work and research alongside those doing work on caste representations in visual and popular culture in India.
Projects around these trajectories of research are taking shape right now, so I will have more information on that in due course!
Reimagine India: Here, There & Everywhere Summit
Friday 23 Mar | 9.30am for 10am start – 5.30pm | £10*