A Conversation with Natasha Ginwala

Ocula Conversation (Excerpt, published: 15 February 2017)

This conversation focuses on Ginwala’s next curatorial project, Contour Biennale 8: Polyphonic Worlds: Justice as Medium. Contour Biennale, also known as the Biennial of Moving Image, was founded in 2003 as an organisation for showcasing film, video, installation and performance. Between Biennale editions, Contour focuses on commissioning installations and organising public programmes across different venues and sites in the city. This year’s edition, curated by Ginwala, brings together 25 international and local artists and art collectives who work across art forms such as media, sound, performance, drawing, installation and publishing; including Basir Mahmood, Karrabing Film Collective, Eric Baudelaire and Rana Hamadeh. Here, Ginwala reveals more about her background, research travels, advisers and some of the concepts that will be explored in Contour Biennale 8.

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Tess Maunder: Congratulations on curating the upcoming Contour Biennale 8: Polyphonic Worlds: Justice as Medium. Could you tell me about your curatorial background and previous projects to date? I would like to know about how this grounding has shaped your approach to the Biennale.

I began my career at the intersection of three different kinds of disciplinary backgrounds: art history, political science and journalism. Writing continues to be a very strong component of my curatorial practice today, which is a result of being trained by a cultural critic, Sadanand Menon, in journalism school. I then went on to study at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) School of Arts and Aesthetics [New Delhi]. JNU offers education in art history, but also exposure to curatorial studies, cinema and performance. I feel that this grounding resulted in a specific kind of exhibition-making practice, whilst the discourse of practice is premised upon an understanding of time-based media, cultural history and performativity.

How did you build upon this initial and critical experience in India to inform your now international studies?

Following my studies at JNU I participated in the de Appel Curatorial Programme in the Netherlands, and realised that working as an independent curator wasn’t simply about fitting into the social circuits delivered by the art economy. Instead, I believed it was to do with mobilising concepts that are crucial to developing a politically nuanced understanding and aesthetically grounded approach to the present. I was asking myself, how do you construct a self-driven language as a curator? This was something that I feel we all were inspired to achieve through de Appel. The level of collaborative dialogue that the situation provided brought us together to realise this. So, I feel a kind of a sudden level of international exposure combined with a level of interpersonal intimacy has characterised how I like to work. It provides me with a sort of necessary confidence to avoid narrow frameworks that restrict an evolving practice to a label—limited to a geopolitical capsule or point of origin.

Conversations-Nastasha Ginwala-RanaHamadehcopy_720_0.jpgRana Hamadeh, The Sleepwalkers (2016). Installation view: The Showroom, London (27 January—19 March 2016). Photo: Daniel Brooke. Courtesy the artist.

How did this international experience characterise your projects that followed? Who have you been working and collaborating on projects with since?

Very soon after the de Appel Curatorial Programme, there was an invitation to work with Anselm Franke on curating a segment within his Taipei Biennial in 2012. This was my first biennial experience, and I think it helped to push me to hone a different approach to curating—one that entangles artistic practices with intuitive modes of knowledge production. I suddenly had this unique invitation where I was asked to offer a speculative model for a museum, and discern how this museum would deliver a narrative arc—which led to ‘inventing’ The Museum of Rhythm and considering the use of Henri Lefebvre’s propositional tool: rhythmanalysis. Another pivotal moment in my practice was initiating the curatorial platform ‘Landings’ (1) with fellow de Appel alumni Vivian Ziherl.

How did these experiences inform your research processes for Contour Biennale 8?

I feel that many practices that I was already engaged with for some years continue to shape Contour Biennale 8. Then there are those that I’ve recently encountered and have been excited to develop a conversation with. For instance, Vivian Ziherl and I have been working with the Karrabing Film Collective since 2013. I’ve wanted to invite the collective to participate in a biennale that enables a comprehensive way of associating with their films, field work and processes which deal with survivance, the Australian government’s ‘intervention’ and law enforcement policies since 2007, sacred sites and toxic environments—so the display is animated by the dynamic levels of thinking and producing.

Discussions with the advisors of this edition, artist Judy Radul and writer-theorist Denise Ferreira da Silva, have ensured that this exercise in biennale-making is one that stays aesthetically challenging and philosophically grounded. Also, I’ve attempted not to ‘hide’ the artist list, but rather to try and contextualise these participating voices every step of the way. The online journal which we are commissioning, Hearings, explores artists’ approaches to language and their style of research, while also including art historians, poets and anthropologists to bring forth a solid discursive presence for the public and wider online audiences, even a year before the Biennale’s opening.

Conversations-Nastasha Ginwala-KarrabingMayNGRender14_720_0.jpg        Natasha Ginwala visits with Karrabing Film Collective in their community in the Belyuen region of the Northern Territory, just east of darwin, Australia.

When artists were invited to make site visits, we were introduced by city historians to Mechelen’s medieval past, its relationship to legal history and to polyphonic music. These visits were crucial in staging a way that the group of practitioners could spend time getting to know each other as well as the city, and for us to hypothesise together where this endeavour is headed. Also, for a small-scale biennale, there is an increasing preference to keep the dialogue building among one another. It works because informality is a possible and desired condition. I’m keen to maintain that kind of informality, elective affinities and politics of care when realising any international art event.

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