48˚C Public. Art. Ecology was a nine-day festival of public experiments and interventions situated around Delhi, India, involving Indian and international artists. Each public artwork focused on the theme of ecology and interrogated the complex environment of Delhi as one of India’s largest cities. Eight key sites of cultural and/or historical significance were selected to exhibit works by 25 artists. In addition to the artworks, a diverse schedule of public programs was presented, including a two-day symposium, urban eco-tours, films, performances, urban eco-talks and a concert.
In the words of curator Pooja Sood, the festival’s title is
an urgent reference to the exigencies of global warming which can be felt in Delhi’s continuously escalating summer temperatures, as also to the frenzied paradoxes of a city that seems to be in perpetual, strident overdrive, yet is also mutely, violently, ‘running on empty’… The snarled throb of daily gridlock, the grotesque, gigantic spasms of steel and concrete structures, the rags of cloud drifting across glass-faced corporate towers, the obdurate stratigraphy of caked roadside detritus, the phantom horizon: all these are superimpositions on an urban matrix whose embedded reality is fracture, rupture, corrosion, squalor and steady decay.
The Yamuna Blues by Haubitz +Zoche.
Haubitz +Zoche created a video sculpture that focussed on the environmental conditions of Delhi’s Yamuna River. A 40-foot high bamboo tower was constructed at Kashmiri Gate, part of the historic walled city of Delhi. Resembling a makeshift lighthouse, the tower projected a beam of light displaying images captured from above and below the river onto the ground. The images revealed the high levels of pollution, raw sewage, industrial waste in the city’s main water source, and its overall degradation.
Roshanara’s Net by Mary Miss.
Located in a public park, Roshanara’s Net reflected on the health and wellbeing of urban dwellers. A temporary garden of medicinal plants was installed alongside a visual arrangement of tin plaques displaying information about the medicinal qualities of each plant. This work was made in response to the fast growing population of Delhi and the continued ecological effects of this growth on the environment and people.
The Stainless Steel Bucket by Subodh Gupta.
The Stainless Steel Bucket was a giant sculpture of a bucket on a rusted metal plinth, with continuously overflowing water. This work remarked on the constant usage and wastage of water both globally, and also specifically in Delhi, where water scarcity is a severe concern and becomes increasingly apparent as water levels drop each year.
Crane + Tree by Krishnaraj Chonat.
Crane + Tree was created in response to the rapid urban expansion and redevelopment of Delhi in recent years. Chonat’s work involved an uprooted tree hovering from a crane over the lawn of an abandoned colonial-style bungalow on one of Delhi’s major thoroughfares, Barakhamba Road. The dead tree was symbolic of the hundreds of thousands of trees that have been removed from Delhi’s streets to make way for high-density buildings.
Flotage by Vivan Sundaram.
The plastic water bottle is a global symbol of consumption and waste. Using 10,000 plastic bottles, Sundaram created a raft that he set afloat on the Yamana River. The assemblage of plastic bottles was designed to be a spectacle and drew attention to the many issues surrounding water, including the potential for future ‘water wars’ over access to the precious and limited resource of clean water. The work commented ironically on the relative abundance of the ubiquitous commercial drinking water container polluting the waterways.
Aesthetic/Visual and Innovation/Risk: The festival was competing with a bustling metropolis, home to Bollywood and giant malls, and therefore required spectacle to divert attention. Curator Pooja Sood wanted to instill balance into the festival’s visual elements by selecting artists who work on a large scale to create spectacle and excitement, and also artists who work on a smaller, more intimate and conceptual scale. Sood was reluctant to incorporate ‘plonk’ art and wanted each artist to respond to the ecological concerns in Delhi, transforming the chosen popular cultural and historical locations around the city.
Audience Engagement: The festival organisers aimed to present a balance of work that was accessible to audiences who were unfamiliar with contemporary art. They strategised to create a series of smaller events around the main festival event to draw in people with interests other than contemporary art. They created educational programs in collaboration with different people across the city who were invested and interested in similar issues in their own ways. The organisers selected artwork sites that were close to the new Delhi Metro Rail stations to enable greater accessibility. They arranged for a large number of volunteers to engage visitors, answer questions and give directions to the artworks and events. Supporting these measures, extensive signage was placed around the city, and each metro station near an artwork had maps and clear directions for visitors.
Social Debate/Community Development: The organisers of 48˚C Public. Art. Ecology wanted the festival to identify crucial ecological issues within Delhi and to open discussions about how these problems could be addressed. Without the brief being too didactic, the artists were asked to address an environmental concern present in the city and to raise questions about the city. The organisers developed an extensive public programs schedule to further enhance the scope of explorations of these topics.
The Urban Resource Group was commissioned to prepare an Ecology Report on Delhi to assist the organisers and artists in planning the festival and addressing key concerns. The report was sent to artists to assist their research into the ecological problems in Delhi such as water pollution, restricted water supply, waste, air pollution, and urban density.
OUTCOMES AND IMPACTS
Innovation/Risk: 48˚C Public. Art. Ecology set a precedent for producing public art projects in Delhi. Obtaining permissions for presenting large-scale public artworks had not been achieved before in the city. The planning and preparation that went into creating the festival forged the way for other artists and curators to create public artworks in Delhi.
Audience Engagement: The diverse festival programming was successful in engaging different audiences. The organisers worked with several people to create periphery events, including a Cycling Gang, Urban Eco Bus Tours, Bird Walks, films and talks. These events brought together a constituency of people who were primarily interested in aspects of ecology but who by default saw the artworks. The events attracted audiences for different reasons and opened them to new experiences.
A public art festival was a completely new cultural experience in Delhi. Curator Pooja Sood describes audiences as being “shell shocked with the art.” People enjoyed the festival’s events and spent time in public spaces usually not occupied.
Social Inclusion: The festival provided an opportunity for new audiences to experience contemporary art. Some of the local roadside teashops were transformed into media hubs where visitors could stop for chai and have a conversation about the festival or the city. The teashops created a democratic atmosphere, with people from different areas coming together and sharing space.
Community Development: The locations selected for the artworks activated areas that most people living in the city generally overlooked or had never visited. The Urban Eco Bus Tour took participants on a journey around Delhi to explore significant natural and built environment ecologies so that they could obtain a better understanding of the complex infrastructure and ecological extremes of the city. The tour visited lesser-known green spaces in the city in addition to the polluted Yamuna River and the Ghazipur landfill site. To further enhance discussion, a two-day symposium was held with a range of speakers from areas of ecology, urban space, architecture, sociology, development, design, curatorship and public art.
Since its inception in 1997 the Delhi based arts organisation Khoj, led by Pooja Sood, has been producing small-scale public art projects focused on ecological themes. Based on her work in Delhi, the Goethe Institute commissioned Sood to create the first large-scale public art festival in India. There were many unknown factors affecting the 48˚C festival. Obtaining the permits required to use public spaces involved some major challenges. The India and Delhi Governments supported the festival, but difficulties arose when planning the specific logistics for each artwork. The governing bodies required, for example, information about audience numbers for each event or space; the organisers were uncertain about these things.
A few weeks before the festival’s opening date there was a devastating terrorist attack in Mumbai. Security measures all over the country were dramatically increased and the organisers were concerned that the whole festival would be cancelled. As a result of the security crackdown some of the proposed areas for the festival became off limits, and the artworks planned for these spaces were relocated. The renegotiation of locations at such a late point in the planning and implementation phase meant that some artists had to modify their artworks to fit the conceptual framework of a new site.
The obstacles and complications surrounding permits and security raised important questions and discussions about the management of public space in Delhi and throughout India. Finding public space in Delhi proved difficult in itself. The city is overdeveloped, leaving very little public space. The organisers learned that much of the space that they had thought was public was in fact not public, and that the governmental and corporate structures implicated were more convoluted than first thought.
Delhi is a huge city and Pooja Sood wanted the festival to encompass many parts of it. Easy access to all the venues was an important part of the project implementation. All sites were located either a short walk or rickshaw ride away from a metro station. All sites were clearly signposted and the event was heavily marketed to attract large audience numbers.
IMPACT OF ARTWORK PRODUCTION
The organisers of 48˚C Public. Art. Ecology did not want to constrict the creation of artworks by specifying that certain materials had to be used. It was important to give participating artists freedom to be able to create site-responsive work that engaged the ecology of Delhi without the pressure of only using sustainable materials. The majority of artwork production and fabrication took place in India, vastly cutting down on carbon emissions otherwise caused by long-distance transport.
Beitiks, Moe. “Delhi Public Art: 48 Degrees Celsius.” Inhabitat, entry posted December 13, 2008. http://inhabitat.com/delhi-public-art-forty-eight-degrees-celsius/ (accessed November 27, 2012).
Sood, Pooja. “48˚C Public. Art. Ecology.” Forty Eight Degrees Celsius: Public.Art.Ecology, 12-21 December 2008. http://www.48c.org/index.html (accessed November 27, 2012).
Sood, Pooja. Interview by author, 20 November 2012.