For the first time in its nearly 10-year-old history, the Biennale, which was to be on from December 2020, was postponed by a year owing to Covid restrictions. Coincidentally, the curator’s note mentions ‘‘optimism in the darkest absurdity’, though it was written before the pandemic set in. In conversation with Shubigi Rao, curator of the fifth edition of the Kochi Muziris Biennale (2021).

What changes did the pandemic and the postponement of the Kochi Muziris Biennale (KMB) by a year bring about in terms of the theme? Did it disrupt your original scheme of things or are you considering choosing works centered on the pandemic as well?
Luckily I had completed my curatorial research, more or less, and had already formulated my curatorial framework, which, as it turned out, was relevant too to the reality of the pandemic. This edition of KMB will be very much a reflection of our current realities, but it is important to remember that the pandemic is not the sole defining feature of this time. Also, it is inevitable that the physical isolation experienced by a number of artists would inform their work, but more than that, I can see their navigation, their rethinking of how they produce, being more evident in their work. I have already seen changes in the work of a number of artists. Some have had to completely change their proposed work. This is not necessarily a problem — because this is part of the rethinking that I believe we must do. To me, it is a creative act to think through problems, to circumvent obstacles, and to work with people to collectively, inventively dismantle challenges. I have to say that I see challenges as creative opportunities, and a chance for people to work collectively.

On a practical level, did it make travel needed to meet artists and their works difficult? What were you involved in during the lockdown months? Is a new book in the pipeline?
I was fortunate in being able to complete the bulk of my curatorial travel and research before the lockdowns came into effect. During the lockdown, my team and I have been in touch with the artists through calls and online meets, figuring out solutions to halted production and lack of access to sites. In some ways, this has been an opportunity for a number of the artists to rethink their approaches, methods, and the reliance on conventional resource-intensive processes. We had to take stock of the many repercussions of the pandemic, and find inventive solutions. Our team is working very closely with all involved to ensure we can work within existing limitations, and also to pre-empt future situations that may develop. Of course, there is a lot of unpredictability in the local, regional, and global situations, but as I mentioned earlier, I see these as opportunities to figure out new ways of working logistically and creatively.

I’ve also been busy with my own work and films, which I had originally deferred to 2021 when I was asked to curate KMB. A new book will be out in early 2022, the third volume from my Pulp project.

You have mentioned ‘optimism in the darkest absurdity’ in your curatorial note. Does it allude to the pandemic times or is that just a coincidence?
I wrote that before the pandemic, but I still wouldn’t call it a complete coincidence, because some of the hallmarks of this global pandemic are systemic and pre-existing problems and conditions. In many ways that statement can be read in any inequitable situation as a way of recognising a potent tool to correct power imbalances.

What can we expect at the KMB 2021? More representation of women, more representation of South East Asian artists, you being from Singapore?
Yes, to both, because the moment you seek out overlooked brilliant practices, you will find yourself looking to the margins, a place that women artists know all too well. I am also keen to emphasise some of the currents that flow between South and Southeast Asia, as well as with the global South. At the very outset, I was determined to think of the Biennale as a crucible, capable of holding the diverse discourse of the critical, political, and social in artistic practices. As an artist, I’m driven by many things — the need to situate myself in this world (historically and in my current reality), my responsibilities to not just our species but to the planet, and to recognise that artistic and literary practices have the potential to strengthen existing communities and to generate new thought and action. These imperatives continue to be present in my curatorial work for the next KMB, and this work will, in turn, inform my praxis. I prefer an indiscriminate approach as a curator. I have other points of entry when examining practice. Of importance to me as the curator here, are concerns like the artistic fidelity of the project to the stated intentions of the artist, their position, their methods of inquiry, ethics and sensitivity to materiality and contexts.

Have you ever felt that, like in many other fields, a woman has to be extraordinary to make it to the top in the art world, while a man just needs to be really good?
Yes, and intersectionality plays a part here too – after all, an upper caste woman with means faces very different situations and has different support structures available. It also matters how much one subsumes one’s practice to the market, what forms of mentorship are available, who one is related to, and so on. I’d also like to point to the problem of defining success here, or as you say ‘making it’. What does that mean after all? It is damaging to base one’s practice on arbitrary notions of success that foster overly competitive, less collaborative, and sometimes exploitative forms of work.

During the pandemic, the focus was, and is still on, to an extent, essentials, among which art and art shows have not been included. How do you view this idea that art is but a luxury of the privileged, something which the KMB has consistently tried to change?
Looking back over my research and travel since June 2019, I find tremendous diversity in regionally specific works, but also a sense of familiarity. In speaking with overlooked artists and collectives, my conviction remains that the Kochi-Muziris Biennale is well-suited to hold these practices, ideas, and conversations from the majority world. KMB is unique for two distinct reasons — firstly, it is an artist-led endeavour, and is, therefore, more liberated from certain entrenched curatorial methods. It allows for inclusive forms, discussions, and practices with a sensitivity that is sometimes absent in the replication of conventional exhibition formats. So, while the biennale as format is still important, it becomes vital too to recognise that the global south has its own established networks of thought, practice, and discourse. The KMB is also a vital platform for emerging practices and voices in South Asia. This is very exciting to me. As an artist-led biennale the KMB demonstrates a wide spectrum of sensibilities that are deservedly very well-received both locally and internationally.

Secondly, as a people’s biennale, it is firmly rooted in its locale, and this regionality is crucial. As I see it, KMB can be a crossing for global conversations and exchanges, without losing the richness and depth of original contexts. The culture, history, and ecosystem of Kochi are incredibly robust. Historically Kochi has withstood and amalgamated the often fraught legacies of numerous rulers, ideologies, and multiple European colonisers. I couldn’t imagine a more apt setting within which to stage an international people’s biennale.

Finally, I have to say that usually I’m reluctant to ascribe redemptive power to art, but I maintain that there is an inherent vitality involved in the making and thinking in artistic process. In times of disaster, art may alleviate, bring some measure of solace, but eventually the very real labour of rebuilding community, livelihoods, etc., must occur. It is also reductive to consider art in utilitarian terms. I do hope the biennale can function as a space of comfort, consolation, and perhaps as a reminder of what is shared, a counterpoint to isolation and pain.