Shilpa Gupta: A Cutting Edge
by Leon Tan
Linear conceptions of time could make us think about cutting edge as some aspect that moves radically away from the existing norms and systems. But cutting edge could be an incision on the social fabric that helps the de-territorialisation of concepts, notions and events, says Leon Tan, citing the works of Shilpa Gupta.
The expression ‘at the cutting edge’ frequently means to be adorned in the ‘latest’ fashion, equipped with the ‘newest’ technological device and attuned to the most ‘current’ knowledge. However, by the time something has been publicly identified as cutting edge, it is usually already sliding rapidly away from an edge. ‘New media’ was at one point considered the cutting edge of art. Nowadays, the combination of words makes some of us uncomfortable, not least the artist whose work this brief essay, discusses Shilpa Gupta. In an interview this August, Gupta had this to say on the matter:
I am not so comfortable with the word ‘new media’ for a couple of reasons. One, it sounds a bit fashionable, and two, it’s also an emphasis on the ‘avant-garde’ or the new, and to say that the old is obsolete, which is actually never true, history is very important.
It probably does sound fashionable, just as ‘relational aesthetics’ also sounds fashionable among certain private and public art institutions. The more important point Gupta makes, however, is one worth thinking through in detail.
To say that something is new is almost invariably also to say that something else is old, passé or irrelevant. Such a habit of thinking comes attached to a linear concept of time in which the past is succeeded by the present. If new media consists of art built on the latest technologies, a linear concept of time is problematic because it implies that artistic practices in different parts of the world in which access to such technologies is limited are somehow out-of-date, behind the times so to speak. Is this really the case? It also implies that these practices cannot possibly be at the cutting edge, the vanguard of experimentation. Does this seem plausible? Since the long duration of human history provides evidence that different populations in every age had their own technologies, why should we over-emphasise the ‘new’ technologies of this era, and in particular, a set of digital technologies originating from the U.S. and Europe, as a kind of radical break in history?
On the other hand, there is another concept of time, through which a different understanding of what ‘cutting edge’ means is possible. If the present does not succeed the past, but emerges from the past so as to coexist with it, we would have a situation of multiple co-existing times or durations. A person might consist of a duration of eighty years, a city, a duration of a thousand years, and a species, on average, a duration of two million years. Using Manuel DeLanda’s (2006) ‘new philosophy of society,’1 we can call durations ‘assemblages,’ that is to say, open wholes composed of more or less heterogeneous parts that are at once individual and social. Every assemblage is always caught up in at least two tendencies, one a tendency towards territorialisation, which results in the assemblage’s consistency and identity over time, and another, a tendency towards de-territorialisation, which results in an erosion of the assemblage’s consistency and identity.
Within this framework, a cutting edge may be conceived as a blade slicing through an assemblage, opening it up to transformation. A cutting edge is a vector of de-territorialisation within a social whole, causing relations among component parts of that whole to come undone. It is in this sense that Shilpa Gupta as an artistic practice is a cutting edge (rather than Gupta the artist ‘being at the cutting edge’ simply by virtue of her engagement with a range of ‘new media’ technologies). When in the work Blame (2002-2004) she hawked bottles of artificial blood (labelled ‘blaming you makes me feel so good…’) in Mumbai trains, asking passengers to identify different bottles by race and religion, she made visible invisible tensions and tendencies-to-violence within the habitual social patterns of everyday life in the city. A Mumbai assemblage was sliced open to outside forces, to unpredictability, uncertainty and anxiety, its ‘stability’ and identity (as a crowded but relatively ‘safe’ train journey) momentarily threatened with erosion. In There is No Explosive in This (2007), bag-covers carrying the title text were distributed to visitors to be taken out into London streets. Much like the blame bottles, this work also effected momentary threats to ritual public interactions and the social stability such interactions contribute to, making palpable the existence and circulation of currents of fear and anxiety associated with the possibility of ‘terrorist’ attacks.
In the work Threat (2009), Gupta presented an installation of soap bars impressed with the word ‘threat’ and stacked into the shape of a wall. Threat was not sold to visitors but given away, each visitor being invited to take a bar of soap home. While the gifting of the bars literally reduced the wall of Threat, the use of Threat soap in everyday life resulted of course in the erasure of the word itself. What stands out in this work, and more widely in the artist’s preference for working directly in public as well as in public (state-funded) art institutions, is the gifting to the public that replaces the economy of sales characteristic of private dealer galleries. Such a practice comes out of a commitment to making work, or even working for, a variety of publics and not just the elites of so-called art worlds. This aspect of Gupta’s practice is another cutting edge of sorts, a vector of de-territorialisation running counter to a prevailing tendency to reduce all values to financial or monetary value.
This is not to say that Gupta’s works are never ‘sold,’ some have ultimately been acquired by both private and public institutions. The fact that Gupta’s works are collected should not, however, detract from the dynamics of gifting she introduces into the complex relations between artists, institutions and publics. Bear in mind, the artist has to make a living too. What is significant is that she describes some of her work as ‘distributive media,’ for distribution, especially widespread public distribution or diffusion through gifting, literally de-territorialises the capitalist logic of accumulation and concentration. Having said all this, recipients of Gupta’s gifts should never forget what Marcel Mauss taught us about gift economics, ‘The taonga or its hau – itself a kind of individual – constrains a series of users to return some kind of taonga of their own, some property or merchandise or labor…’2. For some at least, what is asked in return is a kind of affective labor, at times an engagement with wounds in desire that cause us to close ourselves off to the world and its unpredictability.
1. Manuel DeLanda, A New Philosophy of Society: Assemblage Theory and Social Complexity (New York: Continuum).
2. Marcel Mauss, The Gift: Forms and Functions of Exchange in Archaic Societies (London: Cohen & West Ltd., 1966), p. 9-10. Taonga is a Maori term for something treasured, whether tangible or intangible, while hau refers to its spirit.