The Negotiation of Positions: A Conversation with Balamohan Shingade

“I like the idea that research is something that you circle around. If I were to imagine a forest, research isn’t really a path through the landscape inasmuch as circling to the same pond and getting to know it in more and more detail. Not suddenly, ‘I’ve climbed this mountain!’ But instead, ‘I know this pond a little bit better because I’ve spent more time here, and therefore I don’t know what’s on the other side because I haven’t been there yet.’”

I had circled my way to ST PAUL St Gallery by wandering down the correct road, then second guessing myself when no gallery appeared. I had allowed Google Maps to lead me to the wrong building one street over. A kind woman redirects me, and I find Balamohan waiting outside slightly further from where I had ventured and given up. A large glass-fronted affair, the gallery entrance is introduced by wide concrete steps. I’m slightly stunned as Balamohan takes me on a tour of Galleries One and Two, unsure how I could’ve missed it earlier.

Tell me about curating.

Balamohan became interested in curatorial practice in his third or fourth year of art school, and his final year submission as an undergrad became his first curatorial project. Thirty-six Views of Mount Taranaki looked at the way that faith and religiosity functions. It collapses pilgrimage with tourism, and references Japan’s Mount Fuji and Hokusai’s Edo period woodblock prints. He invited writers and artists to journey with him to Taranaki and back in one day, and to work together on an exhibition of artworks based on that pilgrimage.

This reflects how curating is always a collective process.

“It’s always a collective inquiry; even when doing a monograph or engaging with a single artist’s practice, you’re always in dialogue with that artist, even if they’ve passed away. What is the artist’s sensibility?”

Balamohan says he has been learning from the curators Allan Smith and Marcus Moore who are curating a show by the late Paul Cullen.

“The questions Allan and Marcus pose are very interesting. ‘Oh, that doesn’t feel quite playful enough for what Paul is doing.’ Or,‘that feels too rigid for what Paul would do.’ They’re working with Paul’s archive, and are asking: is the tone right in terms of what he would’ve done? Or if you’re not intending on getting the tone right, what are you doing by inflecting that tone?”

That process reminds me a lot of the editorial process. When you get a piece of work, to what extent do you ‘improve’ it or stay faithful to the writer’s own voice?

The to and fro involves what he terms “the negotiation of positions”, a constant negotiation with each situation and each artist’s practice. He explains how this negotiation became important because of the accusation that curators were themselves becoming artists, that it was becoming an exhibition of the exhibition rather than of the artist’s work. This raises the question of what right one has as a curator in showing an artist’s work in a particular way.

For Balamohan, responsibility and right go together.

“In the Hindustani languages, Urdu and Hindi, it’s very difficult to separate the two words ‘responsibility’ and ‘right’. ‘Haq’ is both right and responsibility. And the second word that I go to is ‘zimmedari’. It glosses into English as ‘responsibility’. I borrow this thinking from Raqs Media Collective, who’ve explained that Zimmedari, coming from the Arabic root zimma, meaning ‘guarantee,’ by way of Persian into Hindi-Urdu. It suggests the notion of being a guarantee of something or someone. A zimmedar person, a responsible person, then, is someone who is willing to act as guarantor to compensate for the consequences of an action.The zimmedari of the curator, then, I see as not only an interpretive one—as someone who is interested in art and the meanings it produces— but also performative. It is to compensate, at once and at the same time, for the consequences of the artist, audience and institution.

Often, they are an izzatdar person, a person of honour or power. This sense of the word touches upon my understanding of custodianship, of what it means to care enough for something or someone so as to stand as its guarantor to the wider world—to be, in a sense, its curator.

That’s so much more nuanced than power. Even if you are held in higher esteem, you are held on the shoulders of—

“Exactly. And you are only held in high esteem because you’re caring for others. As soon as you stop doing that, your honour is depleted in some way. It took me a while to realise that no matter how much skill and intellect, it’s of no use if it’s not in the service of others. You’re only able to carry out those roles  because it’s in service of the artist’s practice.”

The question seems to be one of what to stay true to.

“‘What do you stay true to?’ almost is the big question because especially in this negotiation of positions, there is a different importance people give to different aspects of a show.”

And that same question arises in the context of identity. Or, perhaps, the question of what not to stay true to. Balamohan refers to his essay titled Attending to the Other in Us and the work of Māori philosopher, Carl Mika.

“If identity binds, it’s also what can and does unbind. And when it does, that expulsion is not necessarily by means of letting go and setting free, but a more violent means of expulsion. What we call other is the thing that constitutes us and our identity. So what are those things that are not us, that create us?”

He explains how the Buddhist philosophers put it:

“At the core it is a sense of no self, anattā. But it is how everything outside of us is actually what creates us, and everything that we don’t call ‘me’ or ‘I’ is actually what ends up constituting us.”

The idea of “staying true” reminds me of the idea of faithfulness. There is a line in a poem called The Way The Light Reflects by Richard Siken that was in my head when I was walking around art galleries for a while: “The paint doesn’t move the way the light reflects, / so what’s there to be faithful to? I am faithful / to you, darling.

And faith, faithfulness—religious terminology, I love. Not because I love organised religion but because I think there is a way of putting things that have been put well in other contexts that we can retain without the dogmatisms. I believe that art practice retains all kinds of religiosity because it’s a faith-based practice. It’s not to say that museums are now temples, that sort of clichéd phrase, but more that you need to have faith in a sculpture in order for it to have a way of revealing itself to you.”

In a way, too, staying true is also the big question in relation to authenticity, particularly in communities filled with difference. Some assert their identities so strongly that they have no faith in anyone else. What do we overlook due to a lack of faith in the other? What are we blind to in ourselves because we shun the other?

“Let alone the other, it’s you yourself that you don’t even know. Understanding the other on its own terms—let alone that—understanding you on your own terms is the question of authenticity in many ways.”

If  you reify the other, you become secure in yourself but that’s just a fakeness—it’s a decoy.

“A lot of the ‘sitting with difference’ sorts of conversations have to do with how to mitigate that difference or how to… pacify or compromise. The multicultural project can be seen as a reconciling of difference. But the most challenging thing is how to live through that difference.”

It was an experience of learning to belong with someone else without a shared identity that made community a very complicated question for Balamohan. He worked for some time in Howick, an east Auckland suburb.

“There was a guardian, a kaitiaki, of an education institute, a wharenui. A Council-operated place in the heart of Howick’s town centre. After an arson in the early 2000s, it took 10 years to rebuild it. I got there after it had been built in its first year of programmes. But what was really interesting for me was that I didn’t share that history, that struggle—I didn’t even identify with any of the racialised politics of that place. But what I had was a sense of a connection with this person, Whaia Taini, where I really started testing the idea of: can we belong without mortgaging our belonging to identity? If we were to have a way of meeting, can it not be because we share something in common, but because we share our difference and we sit with that difference?”

And the question of how to live together continues to follow Balamohan into his project for next year.

“That’s the driving question. In order to answer this question, I want to look at the two opposing impulses of community and solitude. What is the distance I must maintain in order to retain my solitude? What is the intimacy I must develop to be part of a community?”

Where did this come from? And how do we live together?

“The book that has began this investigation is called How to Live Together. It’s a lecture series by Roland Barthes. The concept that it rests on, which I think is exciting for a curatorial experiment, is called idiorrhythmy. The word comes from ‘idios’ and ‘rhythmos’. ‘Rhythmos’—rhythm. And ‘idios’ as in ‘individual’, ‘idiosyncratic’. So that word becomes: how do you respect an individual’s rhythm? How do I respect an artist’s creative practice?  

If you have that rhythmic cycle, it also brings in destruction.

“That’s a good point. Destruction as a way to think about how to end something and begin anew. One of the most challenging things, I think, will be how to bring the exhibition to a close.”

And ideas of hiddenness, too. There’s a film in which two characters have a conversation that you can’t hear on purpose, and it becomes what you withhold from the audience as well.

“The idea that I like in withholding is that nobody, not even the curator, has a full sense of the project a priori. Everybody has a partial perspective of what’s going on.”

What, then, does it mean to be ‘authentic’?

“In order to be authentic, I think you need to have the idea of a ‘you’ that you’re being authentic to, that you’re being faithful to. But if the idea of you is something that is a process — something that is augmented, unfolding, something that’s constantly being modulated by interactions and relationships — then can you focus on the ways you’re being augmented, modulated? Who you are is never constant. It’s always day to day, year to year. My idea of who I was (to do with diaspora, migration, so on) is changed even with a single visit to India. How I relate to that country is completely changed because now I can do more things there. If my sense of who I am in the world is constantly changing, being authentic has to do with paying very close attention to how I am being augmented, modulated by the world.

To see authenticity as process returns to Balamohan’s idea that the things that are not us create us. The negotiation with things outside of us open us up to the potential for change such that the authenticity is located in the process itself of the negotiation. 

This reminds me of  Paul Ricoeur and narrative identity. So it’s the idea—and Charles Taylor picks this up as well—that you can’t have selfhood without the idea of the whole. We figure ourselves in terms of a kind of plot because plot allows change. So you can have radical disjunctures in selfhood. If I grow up in a cult, and then leave, and I change my name and relationships and disregard the entire ideology I grew up with, how can you say that I am the same self? But you can in the process. And you need to because, otherwise, you give up things like imputation, morality, and it’s just unnatural to say that it’s a different self.

“Oh, totally! And it’s also unnatural to say that you’re the same. It’s that problem of sameness and difference. A conversation with somebody has a potential to change you, and to allow yourself that possibility is necessary. So if you take that as a given, that openness to having our mind changed, then the authentic experience would be one where we pay close attention to every interaction.”

It changes when you look at it as a process.

“To have a language of process is very difficult but I think it’s truest.”

I think it’s the truest as well. It’s the least… absolutising.

“Exactly. Well, in that way, in some sense, what this conversation really around authenticity is, is authenticity as driven by process.”

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Balamohan Shingade is a curator, and the Assistant Director of ST PAUL St Gallery, Auckland University of Technology.

 

Interview by Janna Tay