The physical infrastructure of Jaaga, an experimental art and community center in India’s tech capital, is as unique as its programming: its headquarters is constructed of pallet racks, more familiar to most people as the industrial shelving used in stores such as Ikea and Costco. We spoke to Jaaga cofounders Archana Prasad and Freeman Murray about the center and Bangalore.
Can you explain how the physical space of Jaaga came to be?
Freeman: In Bangalore—but probably across India and the developing world—empty lots tend to be a sort of public nuisance. They collect trash and don’t really do anything for anyone. It’s also not great for the owners. There are problems with people encroaching and potentially squatting. But there are still lots of empty properties across the city, since it grew rapidly. Not everybody gets the memo at the same time and builds.
With Jaaga, we’ve taken a piece of undeveloped land in the middle of the city and built a large four-story temporary building out of pallet racks. Pallet racks are the warehouse shelving components that you see at Ikea or Home Depot or Costco in the States. They’re a really common material—basically every warehouse on the planet is filled with pallet racks—so you can get them easily in India as well. They’re relatively low-cost—you’re really just paying for the steel—and they’re extremely strong. They’re made for supporting pallets of dog food and other kinds of cargo at multiple levels in a warehouse, so the 50 to 80 kilos that a person brings is really not stressing them too much.
I got into putting a bunch of pallet racks together and making floors out of them—floors, rooms, offices, and auditoriums that could be used by the community. The first one that we did was maybe 3,000 square feet, and the one we have now is probably closer to 7,000 square feet. We set it up and opened it up for co-working. We do exhibitions; we have residencies where we bring artists in to do interesting things; we have lots of public events. It’s become a big, vital community center.
How did the pallet rack idea come about?
Freeman: I grew up around San Francisco and there were a number of big art warehouse spaces that always seemed super cool to me. They threw parties, had galleries, did workshops. I always dreamt about doing something like that. And then in 2003 I met up with some interesting people in Los Angeles who were doing sort of a filmmakers coop, helping independent filmmakers learn the trade, get into making videos for the internet, looking at alternative distribution mechanisms.
I went in with them and we got a warehouse in Venice Beach. The goal was to be able to provide semi-private studio space for people to work on their projects, but also to be a public space where we could have screenings, exhibitions, workshops, parties. Fairly quickly we got into some conflict with the public/private spaces, and it became clear that we needed to figure out how to create a first story where people could work and a second floor where they could have their private studios. But we had a short-term lease, so we couldn’t really afford to do any structural modifications to the building. I looked around at different scaffolding things and eventually found pallet racks as a really modular, super-strong, super-common material that was able to do what we wanted.
I built out this one warehouse in 2003 in Venice Beach, and then we gave up that space and took the whole structure out to Burning Man, set it up out there, and then came back and got a larger warehouse in L.A. We ran that for a year and then gave it up, took all the pallet racks out to Burning Man again. And then I moved to India the following year.
Fast forward a couple of years, and a friend, Archana, was trying to set up an artist’s collective. She had 20 individual artists who wanted to go in together and get a gallery space, but she was having trouble finding people who would rent to her because it was such a sort of strange assortment of people. She hit on the idea of just getting an empty lot and building a temporary structure. I told her about my experiences with pallet racks and agreed that if she found a space that I would go in and build a structure.
That’s what ended up happening. And everything since has been about what to do with all this space once we have it.
How long do the pallet racks last?
Freeman: They’re heavy steel, so they’ll last almost indefinitely. So long as you keep it painted and relatively well cared for it will last almost forever.
Are there issues particular to the city that you’re trying to address with Jaaga and its programming?
Archana: In the last few months we’ve been working the state government, with DULT (the Directorate of Urban Land Transport), trying to find if there’s a community-centric way of dealing with vehicular traffic.
Bangalore’s a big boomtown, one of the fastest-growing cites in Asia. In the last decade the population has tripled—from 2001 to 2011 we went from 2.5 million to 8.5 million. So it’s kind of a city in crisis. It used to be a sleepy town, known as a pensioner’s paradise and a garden city—those are the kind of things I grew up with while I was a kid in Bangalore—and then in the last decade or so it’s kind of become the Silicon Valley of India.
So it’s good and bad. I think the bad part is the city wasn’t able to cope with the growth in population. You feel that especially on the roads. The traffic is insane; it takes an hour just to get a couple of kilometers. The city’s very noisy and dusted and polluted because of the traffic.
At Jaaga, we had experience in community-building and community engagement, and we said we’d like to pull out of Jaaga and see if we could work with the city and the neighborhood. We chose a historically significant neighborhood called Malleswaram and convinced DULT to work with us. We wanted to see how we could engage the people who live or work or study in this neighborhood to both come up with the problem and participate in finding the solution. We had a fun time really trying to crack our heads and see how to get people involved real-time—not just talk or do a Q&A session, but really be part of the process.
We did 2,000 surveys, each more than half an hour long, in three months. All of this has been put up on the website, yourmap.in. We worked to make the process completely transparent to the public using the website. We did a series of short documentary films of the entire process leading up to the final event, the big neighborhood festival. The data was just published; I think it can be useful for a whole bunch of different researchers. We had a pretty comprehensive survey set.
The entire process was community-driven. The people who did the surveys lived or worked or studied in the area. We worked with the sociology department of one of the colleges in the neighborhood; some of the students got credit for the work they were doing for us. Researchers looked at our data to make sure it was high-quality data.
So that was interesting. The other project we did in the city was something called the Avant-Garde Project. It was funded by the Goethe Institut, the German cultural embassy. It was part of a longer conversation over the last few years between me and the previous director. The municipality of the city decided to hire a set of hand-painters who lost their jobs when printing technology got really good. A whole bunch of these people were suddenly without jobs, and at the same time the government decided they needed to do something to really spruce up the city in terms of local infrastructure. The idea was to get these guys to paint all the public walls in the city, miles and miles and miles of walls. It was this three-pronged kind of thing—one goal was to give these guys a job; a second was potentially tourism; and thirdly, there was this whole thing of people peeing on the streets and on walls, so the art was perhaps one way to keep them from doing that.
At the time, this was a pretty hot topic among artists. A lot of the artists said things like, “Why were we not consulted as a community, how come this wasn’t raised publicly?” It’s one of those things where perhaps it was a good intention and perhaps just a bit of a disconnect. My take on it was, it’s all well and good that these guys who lost their jobs had something to do, but the content—either it was like animals and birds or it was kind of touristic. Like, if it was along the walls of the defense research facility then it would have aircraft painted on it. It was a really specific, kitschy style. My concern was that this would be the most significant interaction with art for the broader public who don’t know much about art. We don’t have a grafitti culture. Shouldn’t they be exposed to different styles? I thought there needed to be some discussion around that.
Why start Jaaga in Bangalore in particular? Does it have a big art community, or are you guys breaking new ground in that sense? What’s the scene like?
Freeman: My experience of Bangalore is that it has a very strong experimental arts community. Delhi and Mumbai have sort of a stronger conventional gallery culture. There are some galleries in Bangalore, but not as many. There’s less of a commercial art scene, and what it means is that there’s more freedom of the artists here to sort of be crazy.
What sort of artists do you see coming through Jaaga?
Freeman: The stuff that we’ve gotten really engaged with bridges between technology and art. We had one artist, Heather Dewey-Hagborg, who came over from New York to do a project. She created a physical steel sculpture of a man in the style of some of the indigenous sculpture from India. Then she embedded a computer in the back that would read a bunch of different web sites and RSS news feeds and generate a sort of poetry based on the text coming in, then recite the poetry using text to speech. And the voice that she used to have it speak was a combination of all the people who are part of Jaaga.
Right now we’re doing a project using SMS and the phone system to create almost like a tour that connects with people and walks them through this ongoing experience that unfolds over the course of several days via the SMS messages and calls that they get, calls that they need to make, and places they need to go.
What has the reception been within Bangalore?
Freeman: It’s all been positive. People like it—or at least within our scene people like it. There’s definitely a large enough crowd in Bangalore that’s technically literate and appreciates the arts and is interested in what’s going on in the world.
Are there other institutions that are doing similar things in Bangalore?
Freeman: There’s a few right in our little neighborhood, a couple other spaces that are also sort of fringe art spaces. There’s another organization called Bar 1, just around the corner, that does a lot of experimental art exhibitions and performances. There’s another space which is a sort of residency and gallery space which also does pretty out-of-the-box kind of things. There’s a dance studio close by that’s also kind of avant-garde, and a couple other galleries. So yeah, there’s a bit of a scene.
Are a lot of those organizations also tied to the tech world?
Freeman: No, I think we’re the only one that has a strong tech connection.
Anything else that you think would be pertinent to discuss?
Freeman: Yeah, there’s one other thing that we’re trying to do. There’s a movement in education that I’m really fascinated by. It started with MIT releasing their open courseware, but lately Stanford and Harvard and Princeton have all sort of gotten on board with making a lot of their high-end classes, especially technology classes, freely available on the internet. They’re going beyond just releasing lectures, and are also conducting the online classes in conjunction with their actual physical classes, then letting people online do the homework, take the quizzes, take the tests, and get a grade and a certificate that says that they would’ve gotten an A, B, C, or D had they actually been a student at Harvard or MIT or Stanford.
This has all the appearances of being a mass movement. The first class that Stanford did was a graduate-level artificial intelligence class, and it had 140,000 students. And since then they’ve done another 20-odd classes, and I think they’ve had close to 1,000,000 people register. It’s really providing a glimpse of what the future of higher education may be.
With all this really amazing online educational content becoming available, I’m really curious about what kinds of physical structures and social structures will evolve to support online learners. We get more sort of out of going to university than just the time we spend in the lecture hall. There’s something very beneficial to being in a large social environment where you’re surrounded by a bunch of people who are trying to learn the same thing, where you have access to people who are more senior than you who can help answer questions, where you in turn may act as a TA and tutor people who are younger than you. So as we run this large community center it’s one of the things that I’m trying to play with—how we can become a community center and support center for online learners. We’re playing with this idea of what a distributed university can look like if we can get access to all the best classes from the best universities in the world. How can we support that group with a really sort of motivated social learning environment that’s grounded in a physical place, so that people actually meet each other? So that’s a project that we’re working on.
Has that sort of come up in discussions about this movement, or do you think it’s something that’s just starting to evolve?
I don’t know anyone who’s doing it at this scale, but at a smaller scale it’s definitely happening. The professors who are running all of these classes are really encouraging this at a small scale. When you sign up for these classes you can put a note on the class board to try to find study groups in Rio or New York or San Francisco or Mumbai or Bangalore. So in a very small way it’s being strongly endorsed and promoted by the professors. I don’t know of anyone else who’s trying to go a little bit bigger and say we want to become a space for all of these study groups to come together.
All images credit Jaaga / Archana Prasad.