Innovation in Public Spaces: Bengaluru and the Republic of Zoom
Covid-19 was in many ways the Chief Transformation Officer to a digital world. It has been no different in the public spaces for discussions, theatre, museums, galleries, films, music and more. Many Bengaluru Public Institutions innovated during the pandemic period to stay relevant and connected.
This is an edited version of a panel discussion moderated by Rohini Nilekani on Innovation in Public Spaces : Bengaluru and the Republic of Zoom, a BIC Streams event. Covid-19 impacted the mission and traditional operating model of many institutions. Speakers discussed how organisations dealt with the new reality and pivoted to an online world. They included Arundhati Nag from Ranga Shankara, Jahnavi Phalkey from Science Gallery Bengaluru, Abhishek Poddar from Museum of Art and Photography, and Ravichandar Bangalore International Centre.
The pandemic has shrunk our social spaces, restricting our lives in many ways. We’re not able to go out to restaurants, cinemas, performing arts spaces, museums, and so much more. But we have used this opportunity to innovate new spaces within our virtual world. But we must first acknowledge what many of us already know – our cultural and creative spaces have been among the most badly hit during the pandemic in terms of employment and livelihoods. Data from OECD countries show a loss of up to 5% of employment, which is a huge number compared to other affected sectors. It’s difficult to measure the cultural economy since it remains hidden and therefore not counted, but the impact has been immense during this time. And yet, we have been able to come together while being at a distance.
There’s a new kind of culturalization of the society and the economy, and we need to also consider the other impacts of this. In 1973, Mark Granovetter, a sociology professor at Stanford University, published a very interesting paper called ‘The Strength of Weak Ties.’ In it, he refers to one of Harvard’s long-term studies on happiness, which states that the most important thing for stable, long-term happiness is the social ties we have with our family and friends. Granovetter proposes that quantity matters as much as quality, and if we don’t meet people who we normally meet in our day-to-day life like the vegetable vendor, college professor, the person next to you at a conference, or a stranger sitting next to you in a cinema hall, it will affect your happiness as well. These shrinking social networks impact our wellbeing more than we realise. He makes a compelling argument that the pandemic has impacted all of these things, and we should remember to go out of our way to improve the strength of our weak ties.
The pandemic has resulted in us putting art and culture on the backburner, to focus on ensuring that everyone has adequate food, rations, and living spaces. Art was reduced to the sort of cosmetic idea that it is not necessary, but good to have. Whereas actually, we desperately need our art and culture to be revived because art is what makes meaning in our lives. Culture is what allows us to make sense of the world. And we really need to get that back in a meaningful way, however new that way may be.
Shifting to the Virtual
Ravichandar describes the many challenges for organisations who had to pivot to a digital-only presence in March. His team at BIC soon got proficient in Zoom, Vimeo, and podcasting within this period. They also managed to safeguard the BIC office staff’s salaries, despite the fact that their sustainability model was under threat and they were going into a deficit. Over 270 days, they managed to organise 255 events, showing that the move to digital and virtual was not only possible, but successful for them.
Abhishek Poddar also started seeing the value of digital spaces when they launched MAP virtually. Instead of having people travel to BIC in person, they now had an audience from 30 countries logging in to their events, which made them realise the potential of the digital space. He guesses that their physical launch would have been for 200 people whereas their digital presence has been viewed up to 40,000 times. It made them realise that having a museum in one city means a much more limited audience. This gave rise to their Museums without Borders project, where they have collaborated with more than 15 museums including the British Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts. Abhishek acknowledges that the pandemic couldn’t have hit them at a worse time, however their team, advisors, and patrons provided support and ideas to innovate. When they started planning the launch, their aim was to reach 5,000 people. In reality, invitations went out to over a million people.
But in order for a digital space to be engaging for audiences, time and money must be invested in the technology behind it. For MAP, Abhishek worked with a company called Xarpie as well as a lighting director, sound director, and a videographer. With the help of this team, they were able to create MAP as a digital space, 3D scanning each artwork so that viewers could look at it from any angle. On the other hand, Jahnavi Phalkey notes that the more high-tech things become, the likelier it is that it might be inaccessible to audiences who might not be able to view it on high-tech computers or smartphones. So while you expand and engage your audience with better tech, you also need to make sure that you’re not losing people at home.
Jahnavi also had to launch Science Gallery’s third exhibition, PHYTOPIA virtually. They didn’t have a very strong IT team and realised that the platform that hosted their website had certain limitations. The other issue was how to include hands-on experiences and intimate conversations with mediators in a digital space. So their challenge with PHYTOPIA was how to bring the world of plants into people’s homes as well as how to bring the warmth of human interaction and the kind of conversations and collaborations that would otherwise happen between artists and scholars across the world. But like MAP, their audiences and colleagues from museums across the world were ready to support them and their groundbreaking work. Jahnavi proposes that the future is hybrid and that the expansion into the virtual world means an expansion in audiences. She hopes to leverage that to become a different kind of institution, which is strongly rooted in the local but engages with the global. This experience has enhanced their ambition and ability to do things differently, and these innovations are here to stay.
What Gets Lost in the Digital
All the world’s a stage is acquiring a completely new meaning now, however there is a downside to all this. Arundhati Nag mentions that this may be especially true for the theatre sector, which has not been able to switch over to the digital world as easily as others. How does live performance go digital and still maintain human contact and intimacy? While this is still a challenge, she is learning from the work that Jahnavi and Abhishek have done with their institutions, which are both fairly new but have launched with a global platform in mind. It opens up the idea of connectivity with the world, and India is so beautifully poised with its variety and antiquity of performance art practices.
What is lost in the virtual is the magic that happens during a live performance. Fifteen minutes into a performance, everybody’s heart is beating at the same pace, says Arundhati. How can that ever happen with us beaming ourselves out on screens? Theater is one of the few performance practices that presents blood, sweat, and tears, right in front of you, she argues. Cinema blows everything up 100 times and television compresses it. Theater is the only space where you see what is real. So this is a challenge to humanity. Theater is a medium that must be kept alive and we need to build a network of theaters. We need to re-purpose our public spaces, connect further with real art and artists, and make their lives viable, because otherwise we will lose their art. The Theyyam artist who doesn’t have food to eat because he is from a lower caste and at the bottom of the economic rung, is actually a repository of such fine art. So we really need to look at the economic part of sustainable art. The future may be hybrid, but we cannot lose our performing arts because those experiences just cannot be replaced.
Abhishek agrees, noting that we couldn’t have gotten through the last nine months if not for the arts. The amount of arts, theater, music, and opera that has been consumed and the exhibitions that people have seen, hit record numbers during the pandemic, even though it was all virtual. So we have undeniable proof that art is something that sustains us. But seeing art in person, as opposed to printed in a book or on a screen, is a vastly different experience. Reproductions will always be second best, and he hopes that technology never reaches that point where we would not need the physical at all.
As a theatre practitioner, says Arundhati, we survive on this invisible connection between what the playwright has given us and what we deliver to our audiences. We become the medium. To not be able to project our voices and actually perform for audiences has been like a death blow for all artists. She says that artists have come to Ranga Shankara weeping. So it’s been an immensely difficult time for many people, especially artists. Ranga Shankara is trying to offset this by providing a free platform where artists can come and sing or play the flute or perform. Abhishek agrees, remembering a conversation with Marina Abramovic and Nikhil Chopra, where they described the sense of emptiness in performing over Zoom, once the audience logs off and the artist is left alone, in front of a screen.
What is also lost, for Jahnavi, is the visible wonder in people’s eyes when you do a hands-on workshop or interactive exhibit which just doesn’t come through in online sessions. There is no way to gauge whether you have impacted your audience. People are working on how to improve the digital experience so that it doesn’t feel so disconnected, but we have to acknowledge that this is not the last pandemic, so we need to allow technology to augment our experiences then. We have to innovate ourselves out of this and human beings are tremendously ingenious, so I believe we can do it.
The Importance of Sustainability
Art institutions cannot operate in their own silos anymore, says Arundhati. As of now, they don’t have any kind of association that can represent their interests whether it’s at the state level or at the central government level. The sector is unorganised, whereas the kind of employment that this sector creates is almost equal to the organised sector. Nationally, the number of people engaged in the creative arts is huge. But we need to start thinking of how to communicate and organise ourselves better. Arundhati gives the example of the transgender community, where some initiatives involved calling them to paint a mural and giving them some money in return. But what we really need to do is create a sustained training program for people from marginalised communities that actually provide them with employment. Otherwise their engagement in the arts will continue to be marginal because they are struggling to survive. Creating livelihoods is a priority and integrating them in a public place like Ranga Shankara has become important to Arundhati.
Ravichandar notes the importance of sustainability and of legacy spaces surviving. The pandemic threatened this greatly because the financial models that artistic spaces depended on such as renting out to other organisations, was suddenly gone. So the challenge is two-fold – one is keeping the creative arts alive and the second for legacy spaces is how to stay relevant in a pandemic where entering a theater means risking your life. For the BIC, their focus is on a membership model, which has meant that they are now losing money per month and are now looking for scope in other revenue models.
Abhishek suggests a mix of revenue models are needed, including an increase in philanthropy, CSR, retail philanthropy, etc. He also believes a corpus is needed in order to ensure that the arts survive. People are used to consuming art and culture free of cost, but we now have to ask ourselves, “How important is it for us?” and then find the right amount to pay. In terms of MAP’s revenue model, he mentions that since the museum was launched digitally, they are now launching a digital membership which expands their income from visitors and will hopefully help them to be sustainable.
For nonprofit organisations like Ranga Shankara, Arundhati mentions that the priority is to sustain a social fabric and so their sustainability is also socially linked. It’s only by keeping their prices low that they can be accessible to communities. She points out that in 16 years they have not raised their prices much and people can still rent their space for Rs 2,500, which is why theatre is flourishing in the city with 400 performances a year at Ranga Shankara. The pandemic has hit them particularly hard, and during the past nine months that Ranga Shankara has been closed, they received no support from the government. A group of 14 institutions that came together to submit an application to the Chief Minister and got their electricity bills waived for six months. She hopes to get them waived further for at least another six months to a year because they will only be able to open at half capacity. So revenues are slashed completely and Arundhati hopes that the government needs to take cognizance of this. Otherwise, they will have to look to CSR and the corporate sector for money. Jahnavi also hopes that the state will step in to ensure that art and culture remains a common, public good. In places like Germany and the UK, the state provides stipends and funds for artists and cultural spaces to survive, and we need to ensure that this happens here as well.
Art, however, doesn’t always have to be monetised and Ranga Shankara’s RS Connect program exemplifies that. By taking out the transactional relationship between art and society, they hope to make people realise the value of art. People can come and listen to poetry readings, music, or watch an artist paint. So it’s not just about buying a ticket and watching a play, it’s about engaging with the way people make art. They also have a psychiatrist who conducts free counselling sessions for people, which is another way that art can also help society. Theatre is a counsellor of sorts, but since we have had no theatre over these past few months, a psychiatrist has been coming to Ranga Shankara so people can talk about their problems. What we need right now, says Arundhati, is to create art. But in the digital age, this requires marketing strategies and professionals who can do what artists may not be trained to do, in terms of videography, etc. It’s just a matter of money, so we need the kind of funding that allows for a digital division to help bring art to the virtual world. As we develop more digital pedagogies, perhaps we will see a whole new stream of livelihoods and people offering services across creative and cultural spaces to help enhance the digital experience and keep livelihoods of these communities sustainable.
Towards An Inclusive Future
We think that human beings don’t take to change very easily. But the past few months have shown that this is not true. We have all changed and learned, regardless of where we were in the world. And now, as we get back to the normal world, what should we keep in mind and how should we re-imagine the public sphere? Jahnavi believes that we will return to a hybrid world, not only because we now know the various possibilities, but also because there will be other pandemics or crises and they will be here sooner than we expect. So it’s not only about what kind of world we return to, but how we do that. For her, it’s about managing technology in a manner such that we are not leaving people out, but bringing them in. In the physical realm, we also need to work out how to occupy space and similarly manage that divide such that the digital and the physical complement each other and allow us to create something that we wouldn’t have been able to otherwise.
Collaboration will also be much more important than it ever has been, says Abhishek. Audiences are now much bigger than what was initially imagined, so going forward in order to be relevant to a diverse audience, we need to be truly inclusive. This is especially true for communities who are underserved and underprivileged. So how do we ensure that spaces are accessible to people who are differently abled, for example? Abhishek hopes that more artistic and cultural spaces will be able to diversify and be inclusive to all their audience members now.
Arundhati mentions the importance of creating a space not just for art practice, but one where people feel like they belong. To her, theater is a mirror of society and therefore it really needs to become a space where people come to regain their trust in humanity. Theater should be talking about the plight of farmers and questioning what is going on in the country – these are questions that art must address. Somewhere along the line, art has abdicated its responsibility and it’s no longer safe to speak the truth. So we need theatre spaces and public spaces in general, to become places where people feel safe, and we must do that by speaking truth and building trust.
With schools closed, Arundhati notes that children have been left out and will be adversely affected by this pandemic. She wonders about the kinds of memories they will have of this time, and the residual factor that is going to continue when they become adults. It’s a question that all art institutions need to address – how are we going to touch the lives of children who have been adversely affected by the pandemic? The digital divide is a huge barrier in terms of accessibility and inclusion. As Abhishek mentions, MAP was not able to work with government schools that did not have Zoom or computers, and so an entire section of society was left out because they didn’t have the means to access these tools. There are also senior citizens who have been affected and isolated because they may not possess the kind of digital literacy necessary during this time. Ravichandar also argues that the creative artists community has really been abandoned and so we must think differently about how to provide them with spaces and earning potential.
For many custodians of public spaces, the value of their work and trusteeship has increased tenfold, says Ravichandar. When audiences return, there will be a whole host of mental health issues that they will be facing and art and culture will provide the balm that they need. The pandemic has shown the importance of public spaces and when the vaccine is finally rolled out, these places will come alive again because this is where we are able to share and recognise our collective humanity. We need more public spaces that are truly inclusive and democratic. Ravichandar believes that the responsibility of artistic institutions now is to take this on and create the kind of spaces that people really need right now. Art and culture extends beyond language, and it needs real space to thrive. The future is not as far away as it appears and we will come out of this pandemic with renewed support in the coming years.