Old Pathways-New Travellers:
New Media, Electronic Music & Digital Art Practices in the Asia-Pacific Region
International Colloquium on The Impact of Digital Arts in the Asian and Pacific Cultures
organised by Digi Arts Programme, UNESCO in collaboration with SARAI-CSDS
(New Delhi, India, 4-5 December 2003)
"Samsara_Ballet_t05" by Eduardo Paz Carlson


Under the UNESCO Digi-Arts Knowledge Portal for technology-based arts and music, an international colloquium took place on 4-5 December, 2003 at the Sarai Center for Study of Developing Societies in Delhi, India. The meeting, entitled "Old pathways/New travelers: new media, electronic music and digital art practices in the Asia Pacific region", sought to launch a media arts and electronic music initiative sponsored by UNESCO Digi-Arts and Sarai, to promote and develop research, networking, mutual cooperation, training and knowledge in these fields within the region. The meeting also aimed to point out the role and place of media and technology in a social, cultural and economic landscape inscribed by ancient histories of contact and paths that internally connect the landmass of Asia and the island cultures of the Pacific regions, its impact on young people and its potential as a unique tool to promote cultural diversity.

Contemporary Art Practice in several Asian Pacific Countries has entered the digital domain. A significant increase in the access to new information and communication technologies, computers, the Internet, digital video and audio devices, as well as an influx of filmmakers, sound and video artists, interactive game designers, website developers and programmers into the contemporary art contexts has resulted in the inauguration of a new set of creative practices. Yet, these voices articulate themselves in a setting densely inscribed by ancient histories of cultural contact. New media based arts practitioners are new travelers on old paths that internally connect the landmass of Asia, and the island cultures of the Pacific regions.

In some countries, such as Japan and Australia, new media based practices have an established history, at least since the closing decade of the twentieth century, in others such as India, despite a rapid expansion of the base of digital technology in urban areas, new media based art practices have not as yet carved out a space of their own, even though new media practitioners from Indian cities have been shown to critical acclaim internationally. In yet other spaces, such as Singapore, a burgeoning technological environment has resulted in the emergence of a variety of digital practices, as well as a modest but active discursive framework for looking at these practices within the art academy or within general cultural life. In China, like India, the new media space tends to be identified with the activity of individual practitioners, rather than with a dynamic 'scene'.

In yet other spaces, such as Afghanistan, the task of the reconstruction of cultural resources after years of war, offers opportunities for the initiation of new media practices, even as these need to negotiate with more basic tasks of the building of safe spaces for cultural production.

Given this variety of conditions, building a framework for dialogue about new media practice in Asia is a challenge. We need to recognize that despite a diversity of conditions, certain basic features are similar in a host of Asian cultural contexts - these include - the co-existence of old and new communicative cultures, a dynamic history of popular media practices, the cross fertilization of cultural materials across ethnic, linguistic, geographic and cultural divides, a diversity of languages and traditions, and a ready acceptance of technological innovation. There is a great need for practitioners, critics, curators and others in the creative community to take stock of the directions new media based arts practices are taking in the Asia Pacific region.

The joint UNESCO/SARAI colloquium "Old Pathways/New Travellers", a two-day international colloquium at Sarai-CSDS, explored these issues with an invited list of practitioners, artists, curators, theorists and critics from across the Asia-Pacific region.

Participants included Yukiko Shikata (independent curator from Tokyo); Gunalan Nadarajan (Faculty of Visual Arts, Lasalle-Sia College of the Arts, Singapore); Ava Hsueh (Professor of Contemporary Arts at Plastic Arts Institute of Tainan National College of the Arts, Taiwan); Wang Chia-chi (arts critic and curator, Taiwan and curator of 2002 Taipei Biennial hosted by Taipei Fine Arts Museum); Pan Tai-Fang (National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts); Kenneth Fields (China Center for Electronic Music (CEMC), Beijing); Soh-Yeong Roh (Art Centre Nabi, S. Korea); Pooja Sood (Khoj International Artists Association, Delhi); James Dai (MIT Media Lab); Danny Butt (Department of Media Arts, Waikato Institute of Technology, Hamilton, New Zealand); Ian Whalley (Music Department, Faculty of Arts and Social Science, The University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand); Julianne Pierce (Australian Network for Art and Technology (ANAT), Adelaide, Australia); Johan Pijnappel (Independent Curator, Amsterdam/ Pune); Shilpa Gupta (Artist, Mumbai); Vivan Sundaram (Artist, Delhi); Raqs Media Collective (Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula, Shuddhabrata Sengupta, Sarai, Delhi); Dagmar Demming & Nawroz Ali + Shabna Abraimi (Kabul University Fine Art Department); Shveta Sarda & Joy Chatterjee (Cybermohalla Project, Sarai); Nancy Adajania (Independent Curator, Mumbai); Fátima Lasay (College of Fine Arts, University of the Philippines); Amanda McDonald Crowley (Cultural Worker and Curator, Australia); Tereza Wagner (Deputy Team Leader, Digi-Arts Programme UNESCO, Paris); Ravi Sundaram (Urbanist and Media Scholar, Sarai).

Presentations ranged from new media art practices in the various countries including peer to peer practices, institutions and spaces that support new media works, curatorial practices etc. Once participants familiarised themselves with the range of art practices they split into smaller working groups to brainstorm on the institutional, intellectual, curatorial and critical environments needed to promote media arts and electronic music in the Asian and Pacific Societies.

Discussions focussed on how to enable critical dialogue, creative production, exhibition, research & development and documentation of resources in new media arts and electroacoustic music in the Asia-Pacific region through regional and international collaboration. Everyone agreed that we had to develop ways of sharing information and resources on the new media arts and electroacoustic music of the Asia Pacific countries within and beyond the region. The group also hoped to initiate and support interdisciplinary research projects, curatorial dialogue, resources as well as educational initiatives through exchange programmes and residencies.

The Colloquium helped bring together a diverse group of new media arts practitioners, critics, curators and researchers, and marked the beginning of a larger network in the region. A discussion list was set up for the group to explore and work towards the many goals it had set up for itself in realising this network.

Sarai (www.sarai.net), a programme of the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi, is South Asia's first public initiative on urban culture, media and daily life. Established in 2000, Sarai includes both scholars and practitioners, who collaborate with a wider community in generating critical research insights and knowledge in the public domain. The Sarai initiative embraces interests that include new media theory, computers, the internet and software cultures, urban cultures and politics, cinema history, digital arts and critical cultural practice. Sarai collaborates locally and internationally with individuals, universities, cultural organisations and others within the broad framework of a commitment to a critical public domain.

Our regular public activities include seminars, workshops, presentations by visiting media artists and curated film screenings every Friday. Workshops in the past have included those on Free Software and Networking, Tactical Media, Interface Design, Net Cultures, Digital Art Practice, Hindi language and the New Media, Cinema and Information Politics. Sarai regularly collaborates with other cultural institutions to organise workshops, presentations and exhibitions and host residencies.

The Media Lab is the creative hub of Sarai. It is a space where all the different energies activated at Sarai find expression through a range of media practices that are concretized as processes (of experimentation, collaboration, training, and research), as discrete media objects (print, graphics, web, multimedia, sound, digital art, video and photography) and as the setting for creative encounters between the Sarai community and visiting practitioners.

The Sarai Media Lab regularly hosts local and international artists. On an average we have had 4 residencies each year. Residents at Sarai can take advantage of both a vibrant and stimulating space that attracts a wide range of people from students to academics to media practitioners, and of Sarai's network with other institutions that share a common interest in Delhi and all across South Asia.

Sarai's interest in the digital arts goes beyond fostering new media art and artists ­ it seeks to inquire into the cultural contexts of production and circulation of new media art. This is perhaps the reason why the Digi Arts Programme of UNESCO sought to collaborate with Sarai to host a colloquium on Digital Arts in the Asia-Pacific region in December 2003.

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