In This Issue

THE DISTANCE FROM ME TO YOU: THE 3RD SPACE LAB COLLECTIVE

Bangalore, India, and the San Francisco Bay Area, California, U.S.A.
By
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Participatory Mapping Survey, Leo.

I. BUILDING COLLECTIVE THINKING—CREATING THE SATSANG

IN 2012, WE FOUNDED 3rd Space Lab as an artist collective of seven women from Bangalore and the San Francisco Bay Area, with the common goal of establishing a new global commons. As Sister Cities, Bangalore and the SF Bay Area share the title of technology capitals, are geographic places that have long agricultural histories and large robust migratory communities who have shaped the culture of each place. As a collective, our aim is to create new social pathways between our two cities and larger communities through developing a mutual sustainable art practice to explore new understanding that arise through creating collective thought from opposite sides of the globe.

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Map of San Francisco Bay Area.

Since 2012, we have begun to dig into life, land, and the cultural practices of our two communities, sharing and building our collective thinking to develop a communal process for art making towards designing a new cultural space. Through this we have found striking similarities and vast differences that have both challenged and informed our own individual and collective understandings of the world.

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Map of Bangalore.

Sanskrit has given us an ancient and well-tested definition for a community—Satsang (gathering together for the truth). Where, then, does the notion of a collective fit into this? The idea behind Satsang is that a natural formation of connective tissue gathers and holds a group together. Through the creation of this gathering, synergistic opportunities begin to arise, creating a spiritual soul around the center of the group. Perhaps a collective is then a larger wave of consciousness, forming its own kind of community through developing collective thought. As artists, this is a testing ground for us—we traditionally operate as individuals, where ideas and thoughts evolve through personally centered memories, experience, and interactions in the world. But there is often no or little interdependency in individual practice. French Philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty writes about the development of human perception, “[W]e take up a position in space . . . [and] from that moment we see it in perspective.”1 This is the work of our collective—to take up a new position in space, and we are inching towards transitioning from individual to collective thinking in order to form the first core of our community, building a foundation towards understanding each others’ cultures.

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3rd Space Lab Collective

As artists, we begin redefining our collective perspective while at the same time holding onto our individuality, along with the social theories and esthetic practices of two very different places on the earth. (As a collective we have to remain mindful to attend to the individual and the differences we have through experience, traditions, spiritual beliefs and our individual egos and ideas. There is a constant back and forth between individual and the group indemnity.) This is the complex landscape in which we are operating and developing, revealing to us those in between spaces to mine, explore, and surface in new frames of understanding. Through a series of investigations, we are beginning to map those interstitial spaces of our mutual cultural understandings and challenges, exploring the land as a metaphorical entry point to build a new landscape in order to create a space to play with the idea of merged cultural thinking and identity. Here we lay out our process and interest in building community and collective thinking that crosses borders and enters into the well-charted and not-so-well-charted territories of international relationships, diplomacy, and cultural production.

II. COMMUNITY ONE: WORKING AS A COLLECTIVE—THE INNER CORE

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Exploring the land in India 2014.

Collective Inquiry: What Does the Land Offer as a Place of Knowing?

There are so many vast differences in how our cultures think about the land and the beliefs systems we hold around it. Yet, we are so much alike in our curiosity, creative drives, relationships to our fast developing worlds, and our passion for both social and natural ecologies. Our collective approach to artmaking is a participatory research practice. Through our shared research and thinking, we are interested in the ideas of placemaking,2 an urban planning theory, as a springboard to explore the spaces of our cultures and develop a mutual sustainable art practice. Our current project, The Distance from Me to You, explores this domain through cultural exchanges that reveal both similarities and differences between our cities. As we approach each homeland, we are both awed with the mysteries of a new cultural space and challenged by our own spaces, negotiating sustainable pathways for our futures. Our goal is to present a new frame of possibilities that celebrate both cultures.

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Virtual studio meetings.

As a collective we come from the disciplines of photography, video, architecture, sculpture, painting, installation, performance, and design. We began our work together through a virtual entry point—regular virtual discussions to support and build our mutual respect, learn to love each other and develop agreed upon investigations and processes. We continue to find this platform to be one of our most fluid forms of working together due to the distance between us. This virtual space has become part of our metaphorical landscape, creating symbiotic relationships and carving new pathways that have begun to collapse the distance of our physical and philosophical space. As we develop our research and creative process, our output lives on as archived conversations. Our virtual life has led us to instituting a “zero-balance production” philosophy.3 To this end, as a way to document our process, we have created an online visual research archive, The River, to update the evolution of our process and production through a fluid online public image database. We then use or repurpose some of the images as artworks or ideas. We are interested in creating work that either remains in a virtual state for public access or that goes back into our respective communities where we work as a collective.

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The River a Flickr stream of documentation for 3rd Space Lab Collective.

Currently, a large part of our process has been to continually address new understandings that arise through conflating collective thought between cultures. While this is a challenging task, we have been fortunate to extend our thinking through partnerships with other regional disciplinary experts, cultural thinkers, and artists. In January 2014 our collective gathered together for our first live residency in Bangalore, India, to develop cross-cultural intimacies and opportunities that only emerge with working together in one another’s presence. Prior to our gathering in January, we spent the fall investigating the landscapes of our homelands, looking for metaphors that could help us enter into a mutual conversation. We called this field trip aspect of our research Explorations on the Land. As part of this research, we began to meet with different experts from the places we visited. We invited a group of local community artists, environmentalists, and cultural thinkers to enter into dialogue with us about the land as both a metaphor and practice for understanding contemporary culture, history, and ecology.

As a group we are interested in employing the methods and tools of other disciplines such as social, environmental, and geographical sciences and educational pedagogies (cognitive learning theories around understanding) to advance our practice and cross esthetic and cultural borders. We are influenced by the movement of global networks used and developed by other artists and collectives to create immersive opportunities to explore, share, and unite one another’s customs and cultures. Through this lens we see our inner core of diversity (our collective disciplinary expertise) as a doorway to meet and engage with each other and a wide variety of other creative thinkers and practitioners in our communities, expanding the new metaphorical landscape we are developing.

While in Bangalore in January, we gathered an engaging group of experts to share their knowledge and experience in the areas of the physical, cultural, and technological landscapes of Bangalore. As trees, water, and technology were our entry points, we met with Dr. Yellappa Reddy, a noted and passionate environmentalist and former Indian Forest Service Officer, who has contributed immensely in the maintenance and balance of the ecosystem through the recent growth of urban Bangalore; Dr. K.Y. Narayanswamy, poet and playwright, who made the connection between nature and women through Kannada folklore; Sunanda Bhat, an award-winning documentary filmmaker whose film “Have You Seen the Arana?” addresses the dilemma of the imbalance created in ecosystems when small creatures such as the garden lizard slowly disappear.

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Dr. Yellappa Reddy, a noted environmentalist and former Indian Forest Service Officer.

Bangalore is a city with many water bodies. S. Vishwanath, a pioneer in rainwater harvesting, provided insight into the importance of such water bodies that have disappeared over time. Dr. Lata Mani, an artist, writer, feminist theorist, and cultural critic, talked about the cultural impact when a city such as Bangalore grows quickly into a booming world metropolis. Design and design thinking have become an important part of our work and research. We are using this as a framework to explore how to design a new metaphorical space. To deepen our understanding of the intersections of design and nature, we invited bio-inspired designer Thomas McKeag, a Fulbright Fellow in Bangalore, citizen of the SF Bay Area and co-founder and editor of Zygote Quarterly, a digital magazine devoted to the nexus of science and design. Tom opened doors around the intersections of nature, design, and technology currently being explored by designers in both India and the U.S. In exploring an interdisciplinary model, we see all these intersections as possibilities to build and grow our larger collective thinking and gather new partners to support the development of our work, while expanding a larger collaborative community around us.

III. COMMUNITY TWO: WORKING WITH OUR URBAN NEIGHBORHOODS—CONNECTING ROOTS

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Simulated Sacred Grove, (3rd Space Forest) Redwood and Banyan Trees, 31 x 65 inches chromogenic print, 2014.

Collective Inquiry: What Is the Folding and Unfolding of Our Work Together?

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Our studio practice is made up of investigations on the land and a laboratory of ideas to build knowledge. Part of our social/participatory goal is to share ownership of our work through ongoing conversations, collaborative design and art making opportunities, together and with others to build more sustainable bridges of diplomacy between our two cultures. Our interactions with regional experts helped us to see where we could begin to push out into our communities to engage with local craftspeople, thinkers, and designers that can help us develop our first series of investigations on the land and explore the landscape as a cultural and natural metaphor to find common ground.

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Tree drawings for henna.

One of the visual metaphors we have been working with is the idea of constructing a symbolic forest using iconic tree images from both cultures that hold the history and stories around the development of both places. Trees are a mutual entry point where we have found our cultural differences start to blur and collapse. The juxtaposition of the forests of both Bangalore and the Bay Area seemed a natural way to begin to build our collective imaginations. In our studio/laboratory, we simulated drawings of iconic redwood forests and banyan trees found in our two landscapes creating a pathway for us to begin exploring the social and cultural influences and commonalities between our cultures, and as a way to conflate the two. Through the process, we began to envision how far we have to go to develop this new world. Even though we shared iconic understanding of trees and landscape, we found that our initial ideas about methods and cultural concepts required us to stop and listen to each other stories, in order to understand how to build diplomacy among us a group, and how to relinquish preconceived, individualized thinking. During our post-residency reflections, a question began to surface for us: Is discomfort the place where art sits or art starts? In Bangalore, two projects began to emerge as steps toward constructing a new identity –creating a collective visualization of us as individuals. We also saw these as opportunities to begin our investigation into collaborating with regional artists in Bangalore.

Canvas 1: Simulated 3rd Space Forest

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Lokesh and Sunil in front of Raj Mehandhi Arts, Bangalore, India.

Henna is a paste made from the leaves of the Mignonette tree that creates a temporary stain on skin. Henna artists use it for celebratory rituals to create designs with traditional motifs on the arms and legs of women. In constructing our first simulated forest, we met our first rub—the California artists became interested in henna as a national art form. To them it was part of their larger cultural fantasy of India. Our Indian collective members considered this a cliché but, in the spirit of exploring a new third space of combining our cultures, made a commitment to experiment. We invited two traditional local henna artists, Lokesh and Sunil from the Raj Mehandhi Arts, to join us in our studio space. Here, they worked with our images of forest drawings, combining them with traditional motifs, to begin constructing a simulation of a new landscape. Reflecting on an earlier image of trunks of banyan trees documented during our explorations on the land, we used our arms as canvases to develop the imagery in combination with the color and texture of our skin. The resulting images have become a metaphor of our examination of the commonalities and differences between our two cultures, and the beginning of our process to conflate the two. The images on our collective skin, and ultimately the photograph, support the idea of a hybrid forest and the relationships we share among our bodies and the land.

7. TN_DSCN07652 Canvas 2: Building an Identity—Playing with a New World Landscape (River of Faces)

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The goddess Gangamma, Nallur Sacred Grove protector.

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Collective member Shamala

The goddess had been calling for a while, and as a collective we had to attend to this immanent practice of spiritual connections and relationships to the land. During an initial investigative trip to the Sacred Forest of Nallur outside of Bangalore, our Indian artists happened to meet Narayanaswamy, a memorable old man sitting under a grand old tree near a temple. He was the human guardian of the place, attending to the ecology of the forest. Looking at our collective member Shamala, he remembered “Gangamma,” the presiding deity with whom he once took a spiritual stroll in the jungle. “She’s just like you,” he said, with ease and lightness, as though human resemblance was a natural way to ignite the myths and stories that helped to keep the forests and its ecology alive. It also seemed natural then for the goddess’s red face to begin to surface in our thinking and experiences in India. The tradition of painted faces in Indian performance art and theater became another iconic image with which we revisited spiritual beliefs shared in Indian culture. This image of the painted face began to grow on us, seven women from the West and the East, becoming a way for us as a collective group to physically connect to the land and build a collective portrait. During the process we grappled again with the image and its implications in both cultures. We found that our differences and identities could merge under the hands of our collaborative partner, Bangalore theatre designer and artist Ramakrishna Beltur.

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Ramakrishna Beltur painting faces of collective.

Why Do We Travel toward Water?

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Collective Canvas (New World Landscape) 2014

In this portrait of us, we wanted to explore water as an idea and metaphor—water is an important landscape element in our cultures—an element that both separates us and joins us as a global subject. We are interested in playing with the idea of flow, which we represent in our visual research archive The RiverIn the Collective Canvas (New World Landscape), the image of water crosses our faces as a collective and represents, for us, the color of life (the red of blood) and the silvery blue of water, all merging in a single landscape across our skin.

Community Canvas: The Truth about Ownership. . . .

How do we share ownership of this work? In thinking back on the ideas of Satsang, the coming together, we find ourselves as artists back in the first layer of our ring. Through both of these new works, we explored creating a new identity through a shared artistic vision of others. In the henna process we were able to bring together our thinking and agree to enter a new territory through participatory process. But how does the work of Lokesh and Sunil, who in concert with us created the images on our arms, and that of Ramakrishna Beltur, who painted the river on our faces, truly become part of this transformation? We stepped into this agreement with uncertainty between each other and with our creative partners, and that brought a fair amount of disequilibrium. We had to learn how to trust one another’s visions and be open to learn from one another—both as a collective and in collaboration with artists outside of our group. Through this process we are learning how to embrace ambiguity, feel okay outside of our own skins, listen to others, see the possible visions and versions of ideas, give up our individual ownership, and let go with confidence that a new path will be carved that lives in the Satsang. In the end, our henna artist partners worked through their skepticism of merging our literal interpretations with their own designs, and left with a new frame to consider, documenting our arms with their smart phones. And Ramakrishna Beltur, who has years of experience working with others in the world of theater, skillfully navigated our questions and made a space for us to trust him. We all stepped into a mutual agreement once the process began. We are learning to trust those who we invite in, who know more than we do. We are learning to trust each other, to be open, and to listen. And we are learning how to share ownership, gathering together to create a larger spiritual soul around the center of this work.

IV. COMMUNITY THREE: CREATING A GLOBAL COMMONS—GROWING A FOREST

Collective Inquiry: What Is the Course and Language of Mapping a Place?

Our friend and great thinker Lata Mani asked the question: What is the course and language of mapping places? Perhaps mapping can be seen as a diverse system of merging both ecological, social forms and pathways to better understand a space. Mapping can be both concrete and conceptual. It is a tool of power. It is a tool that can build and breakdown in the same moment. How do we use the tools of mapping to create pathways of reference as the changing landscape rearranges our knowledge of ourselves in relationship to the land? Change can be disorienting—it scrambles what we know so we are faced with creating new landscapes, new markers for our memories and our knowledge of the land. As a collective we are exploring systems of mapping to help us see our path and create new opportunities to intersect with others.

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Participatory Mapping Survey, Sacred Remnant Left Behind, Unknown Participant, 2014

In early January 2014 as part of our Explorations on the Land, we visited Dodda Alada Mara, situated in the village of Kettohalli on the outskirts of Bangalore. This giant, 400-year-old Banyan tree has a crown circumference of more than 250 meters and more than 1,000 aerial roots that span across four acres. It is a site that is visually arresting, inhabited by monkeys, spiritual leaders, and global visitors. After our first visit during our initial field trip, we agreed to return for a creative investigation. Imagine a tree that spreads itself across multiple village blocks—one tree that looks like an entire forest.

Participatory Survey and Mapping Experiment at Dodda Alada Mara

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Mapping Seven Sisters, (Pleiades Star System) at Dodda Alada Mara, 2014.

In mid-January we revisited the Dodda Alada Mara. The sheer scale of this site called us to explore, survey, and map. While preparing for this participatory mapping survey, we compared the daylight and nocturnal lives of our collective group. When we are awake in Indian daylight, San Francisco is asleep, and visa versa. What role do our nocturnal lives play in thinking about our connections? Our awareness of night and day is made apparent every time we schedule a virtual meeting for our group. This interstitial place is where we work together most of the time—it is the space of our virtual lives together, where we are constructing the dreams of our future. The night sky became a research model to explore our first mapping project. Working with the star system Pleiades as a metaphorical tool we mapped ourselves onto the root systems of the great Banyan tree at Dodda Alada Mara.

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Temple Priest and his Wife, Dodda Alada Mara, 2014.

As a site to experience, Dodda Alada Mara is a stunning color feast. While the mother trunk is now missing, it supports thousands of light gray branches reaching towards the heavens juxtaposed with a ground of rich red earth. This site is a sacred place. A temple on the spot of the now deceased mother trunk reminds us of this. Offerings are made, bells ring, flames purify. We entered this sacred space arms filled with black ropes made from human hair and yellow and red cotton string. We used them as measuring instruments to survey the physical space, inviting grove visitors to join in mapping the distance and the meaning of this place through actions, sharing stories and documenting our mutual findings, using a hand-to-shoulder system, an everyday form of measurement in India. This also allowed us to engage local individuals creating a participatory event experience, building scale and data through many different bodies, as our records of measurement.

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Measuring from shoulder to hand at Dodda Alada Mara.

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Community participate logs his mapping measurements and stories in survey books.

During our surveying, we crossed one another’s paths through the Banyan forest and recorded our exchanges in a book. We noted GPS data of various points and marked our measurement with a cloth tag, documenting the date, the measuring surveyor and other incidental data. This process helped deepen our understanding of the physical and psychological distances between us and the community members with whom we worked at the site, enabling us to reflect on our points of origin, creating a new understanding of our lived experiences. We made portraits of each visitor surveyor and ourselves as we mapped and collected stories in a book. Then packed up all our ropes, tags and documentation, and traveled with them back to California at the end of our January residency, to be used for measurement tools while our group is in residence in the San Francisco Bay Area during August, 2014.

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V. DISSOLVING BORDERS: MERGING CULTURAL THINKING—COLLAPSING DISTANCES

Collective Inquiry: How does one keep a loose and mutually loving embrace of the places we know well, while embracing the ups and downs of a new territory?

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Measuring ropes on display in the National Gallery of Modern Art studio space in Bangalore.

What is in our future? As we continue to shape and form the 3rd Space Lab, our interests and commitment to this work come out of our mutual longing toward the same cause—to understand one another’s lived experiences and create a new landscape designed from possibilities.

Much of what we saw and made during our residency in Bangalore, fed our ideas and goals for the future. Influenced by discussions with bio-designer Tom McKeag, forester and environmentalist Yellappa Reddy, and environmental filmmaker Sunanda Bhat, we continue to use the forest as a metaphor to develop our thinking and growth as a group. To this end, we are beginning a new series of experiments based on our new lines of inquiry and research. We are interested in continuing to explore new systems through the metaphor of the forest and playing around with both live and conceptual ideas to surface our goals. Can we cultivate a live symbiotic 3rd Space forest made of collective native seedlings that we care for and nurture as a gesture over time—building a live garden? We are looking toward our continued work with experts that can help us explore a variety of possibilities for creating a symbiotic life test, including hydroponic technologies and greenhouse environments, among others to be developed in both Bangalore and the Bay Area.

What is the communication of water? Though our discussions with S. Vishwanath we have been thinking about the universal and central role water plays in our lives. The continued building of our Flickr visual research archive, The River, depicts a flow of our visualized experiences and projects, using the properties of water as a metaphorical base. Through this we are sharing the evolution of our growing practice, interfacing with global audiences and creating opportunities to meet new collaborators.

Lata Mani propelled us to make a commitment to our zero balance philosophy and to keep a “loose and mutually loving embrace of the places we know well.”  To this end, we move forward into the future looking, listening, measuring, and making new meaning through mapping as an active experience and as a way of diminishing our gaps, challenges, and the larger dimensions of our work. No place or path along this journey is still. As a collective and a community, we continue to play with and explore multiple temporalities to help us envision the future, animating our thinking and deepen our understanding of what is possible. We are inching our way towards the Satsang, creating a soul around our work to create a bridge of creative, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual proximity—a networked path to art, culture making, and new friendships.

In August 2014, we will be together in San Francisco Bay Area where engaging with cultural thinkers and environmentalists who shape the Bay Area and work collaboratively with them to develop a new series of creative productions. During this time we will initiate a new round of investigations through actions, experiences, experiments, and artworks that we can exhibit, perform, and produce for the communities where we live.

To follow the work and outcomes of our developing practice, please visit http://www.3rdspacelabcollective.com/  

Authors Trena Noval and Lalitha Shankar are founding members of 3rd Space Lab Collective. As of May 2014, collective members included: from Bangalore: Lalitha Shankar, Shamala Billava, Arzu Mistry, and Anuradha Nalapat; from the San Francisco Bay Area: Trena Noval, Robin Lasser, and Shalini Agrawal.

END NOTES

1Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception (Routledge, London/New York) p. 236.

2Placemaking is a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design, and management of public spaces. Placemaking capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential, ultimately creating good public spaces that promote people’s health, happiness, and well being. Placemaking is both a process and a philosophy. See http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Placemaking.

3Zero balance is a philosophical approach we have developed toward our art production that allows for us to thoughtfully gauge what we put into the world, where it will live or be housed, and for what purpose. Our goal is not to create things that need to be stored with no purposeful reuse.