Invisible Hierarchies and the Politics of Progress

Public policy must recognise and include the multiplicity of stakeholders and their perspectives. Environmentalist and artist Ravi Agarwal tells us how he explores this possibility through art

LILA: You have written extensively on sustainability issues as well as forayed into experimenting with different artistic mediums. However, for a majority of your work, your medium of choice has remained photography. What drives your photographic vision? Do you see your visual work as a social critique?

Ravi Agarwal: Photography is my medium and my language. It is what I know best as an artistic expression. But I have used moving images, objects, text as well over time as my language has grown.

I am also deeply interested in the idea of a ‘document,’ and how that operates as a signifier of the world around us. I see the photograph as a document because I feel its strongest ability is its indexical connection to the world. It always captures information. Even when we shoot objects from our imagination (like creating a set based on our imagination and taking photographs of it), the photograph still captures information about something, and cannot escape the document as a format. What the document is, what we do with it, that is a secondary story. 

I am hesitant to purposely aesthetise something. The image reflects the ‘eye.’ Photography is a document in a modernistic kind of way, where the images are focussed on the subject. If somebody reads something into then, they can.

For me the work is a way to express and clarify personal questions – and social critique is part of it. Most of my work is work to myself. It is my own learning and curiosity. Even when I am invited by someone to do a project, first it is a communication about something to myself. Everything else follows, and is usually not intended.

LILA: You have also experimented with installations as a language of artistic expression. Often public art and installations, even though they are meant to engage the public in a discussion/discourse, are not able to convey the message that is intended. On the other hand, much of the large-scale installations are created out of materials that are later dumped as waste. What is your perspective on public art and installations today, especially from an ecological point of view?

Ravi Agarwal: Public art has particular responsibilities to change public consciousness. It can, by being site specific, help in creating community and a democratic public space, which has been conceded and is increasingly becoming privatised. It is not like art in a gallery that is simply placed outside. It is specifically created for that place and speaks to its concerns. I see it as a very important sphere to work in. Of course, today public space can be physical or virtual and publics can be diverse. The use of sustainable materials for public art is an important consideration, but not always possible to achieve fully since we are lodged in a circulation of unsustainable materials. We must move towards that.  One easy way to do it is to ensure more recyclable and sustainable materials are used, or not to use carbon based energy in them. Sometimes it may mean a complete redesign and conceptually different forms.

LILA: Can you share some insights into encountering such diversity of perspectives, realities and impacts, from both your work as an artist and an environmentalist. How has that helped you understand the coexistence of man and nature?

Ravi Agarwal: Both my art and activism are interested in approaching the world from the ground up perspective. I am interested in how the world shifts in the social hierarchy, and the question of what is visible and what is invisible, which is a political hierarchy. For instance, women become invisible and nature becomes completely invisible. Though we create this human-nature question, the question is actually of hierarchy, where the approach to nature is top-down. I have always been interested in the idea of equity and justice. So, for instance, my work ‘Else all will be still’, for which I worked with Tamil fishermen to study the multiple inhabitations of a local ecology, is an exploration of that.

The second thing to look at in the man-nature question is that nature appears in its most immediate form if you are living in the landscape, that is, the landscape is like an extension of your life. That is what traditional livelihoods always did – because you were exchanging with nature, that exchange built many cultural, language and social networks, and in many different ways, the landscape became a lived landscape. There is also a landscape where exploitation does not help those who depend on it. Therefore, many social codes exist at that level, and they will only take what is needed. This is very apparent when you look at water systems. Where traditional water systems are treated like the commons, you have water sharing agreements which are just social agreements on how much water each field will get.

So the idea of sharing is very intrinsic to cohabitation. And in that sharing, there is also survival of the ecosystem and the biodiversity – what we call the non-human. This whole categorisation of the human and non-human is because of abstraction and separation, and because separation serves particular ends. This takes us to the realm of whose ends; what is the role of capital; what is the role of technology; is technology neutral or is it serving the interests of something? And that becomes the Anthropocene question of whose Anthropocene. It is like decolonising your mind in the real sense. I think future sustainability will depend on how much we can link with and learn from hereon.

Suppose you think of technology – technology is just a device. It answers the question you ask of it. And the question you ask of technology depends on where you are locating the problem. For instance, in the climate change or water discussions right now, they want to interlink rivers. You are thinking at the macro level because you have the means to shift whole landscapes, and can afford it. Otherwise we would have been looking at systems which already exist and trying to augment them; or trying to think about question like how do you share water, how do you conserve water, how do you store water in the ground, how do you let rivers fulfil their function of replenishing groundwater. Instead, we have done a lot of thinking in silos – we think of groundwater separately, then surface water, water for irrigation, drinking water. We have removed water from its landscape. But my point is that you cannot remove nature from its landscape. It is an integral part of it. The moment you remove water from its landscape, it becomes a free-floating metaphorical thing which you can then mobilise on your engineering desk. But the characteristic of water come from its landscape, because it is not only water, but a whole social and economic network through which co-existence takes place and life takes place.

I am interested in this real overturn, and I do really believe that future sustainability will not lie in geo-engineering, but in our ability to rethink the question. Rethinking the question means from whose perspective; from which viewpoint? Whose sustainability are we talking about? What does sustainability really mean? Though we are a free, independent, post-colonial country, but we have many colonial views if you think of colony as an imposition. They exist in our institutional systems, they exist in our perceptions, they exist in the way we assume what we know.

LILA: You have often mentioned that your artistic and activist voice is not about knowing what should be done, but about exploring the possibilities of answers and solutions. As we work with such diverse and complex systems, how can we go about finding linkages between them?

Ravi Agarwal: We have to start by listening. We have stopped listening. We have started knowing, but knowing on the basis of something that is not real knowledge. So if we start listening, we will know what we don’t know.

What is unique in a landscape like India is that it is still a transitional landscape – from deeply traditional to some kind of modernity. This has already been lost in many western countries. For example in America, the Indians are the indigenous people, whose society and culture have long been separated from the mainstream. But here there are communities for whom these are normal lived cultures. They inhabit such a richness of diversity in ecological thought. We are still in a place where we are a much more complex culture; we have not yet been segregated. It is not hard to find examples of cohabitation in diversity. I am not at all suggesting that we go back to the old systems, because they have other problems of feudal, caste and gender discrimination. But we have a lot to learn in terms of political positions and self-locations.

I’ll give you another example, from when I was co-curating this public art project called Yamuna Elbe Project, between Hamburg and Delhi. Everybody in Delhi wants the Yamuna to be like a European river, where you can have coffee, walk around, and it is clean. But when you go to Hamburg and see Elbe, they are in deep crisis. They don’t know what to do. They are not sure if they should trench the river or not. The systems we are trying to follow have not resolved the ecological question, otherwise why would there be an ecological crisis today? As I always say, progress does not address the question of ecology. It hasn’t, because nature has been outside, invisible and taken for granted. You can mobilise anything you want, you can take from it whatever you want. We have nowhere to look, except inwards. Because there are no solutions there. They don’t know what to do. And they don’t even know where to look because they have lost the resources. I am interested in where we can look here, and what we can learn from this, and how do we think about this. It has seeds for future sustain-abilities, which I think must be equitable across all species – from the human to the natural or the non-human world.

Vulnerability is the key question. If you feel empathy and are vulnerable, you will learn from many things. It is a world of our making I believe. We can remake it, if we can make it.

LILA: From engineering and management to art, academia and environmentalism – how have you come to engage with such diverse fields of thought and practice? Can you tell us about your initial interest in them, and how that has influenced your work today?

Ravi Agarwal: Engineering taught me analysis, and management helped me understand organisational systems which enabled the building of Toxics Link as a not for profit organisation which works for environmental justice and freedom from toxins, and has lasted over 25 years.  But what they offered to me as professions did not interest me for long. Being a photographer at heart since I was 12 years old, and not wanting to do commercial or journalistic photography, I followed the paths available to me. At some point, I gave into my instincts and passions. It took me to new understandings and new questions – about nature, human society, its political sphere and the future. Everything I learnt earlier became a steppingstone to another new world.

LILA: Artistic and academic expressions can differ to quite an extent in their approach – one is more intuitive and abstract, while the other is built on hard arguments and facts. Can you describe your engagement with both these formats – does your thought process or analytical methodology change with each? Do the insights or lessons you gain from each practice differ?

Ravi Agarwal: I like working with questions and observations. How one does that depends on the sphere one is engaging with. Art is everything one can make it to be – but it is ultimately deeply intuitive and can bring complex questions together. It can go beyond the boundaries of discipline, and can address spheres of existence that are subtle but essential. Art can help imagine new trajectories and directions. It is where the human being comes together and can exceed itself. Research has methodology and tools. However, research also needs intuition and abstraction. I learn from both. My deeper artistic questions about ‘nature’ are reflections and expressions. For impacting environmental policy, one needs research and advocacy.  In practice these are different, but ultimately to me they come from the same place.

LILA: How do these two practices converge for you? For instance, have you brought your art practice into Toxics Link as a means of communication?

Ravi Agarwal: Toxics Link as an organisation is a certain kind of institutional space. It has a certain methodology that requires that kind of engagement, and I don’t want to dilute that objective and make it less efficient. The whole team is very focussed and knows very clearly what we are doing. It’s not an arts organisation. It’s a very specific tasked organisation. But outside Toxics Link, in civil society space, I am open to other forms of connections. Toxics Link might come in as a partner to that, but I don’t want to put it as a work goal, or transform Toxics Link in that sense. Where Toxics Link looks, or what it researches is a political question. It has very clearly stuck to its area of expertise. It has always said that it will come to the table with what it has to offer, so it has to have something to offer. It can always bring new knowledge or new questions to an art and ecology space, but it cannot inhabit that space, because that has a different culture in a sense.

LILA: How do you envision your work shaping the discourse on sustainable living today? What role do you believe art plays in moulding human behaviour and activity towards a sustainable future? 

Ravi Agarwal: Art can play a foundational role in shaping a discourse or changing perceptions and consciousness. Sustainable futures are to me about changing the very assumptions and basis of society. It is about equity and democracy, but also about decolonising the mind and rethinking our relationship with the non-human from one of arrogance and control to humility and co-existence. Nature exists in deep time, and reacts accordingly. We cannot understand it from narrow frameworks, and we have to live in constant unknowing and discovery. Art can help us reconfigure this essential relationship.

To view a gallery of Ravi Agarwal’s work, please see:

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