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A communicative intersection

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					 A P ROFILE O F S ARAI


A communicative
intersection
                           Sarai (www.sarai.net), a programme of the           media. New mechanical printing technolo-
 The Sarai initiative      Centre for the Study of Developing Socie-           gies, photography, cinema, and the parallel
                           ties (CSDS), Delhi initiated in 2000,               histories of telegraphy and the radio, and
 interprets this sense     encompasses an inter-disciplinary research          later, television - all of these ‘technocultures’
                           programme, a platform for critical reflection,      created new forms of communication.
 of the word “sarai”       a screening space, a convivial context for              Consequently, urban spaces in India
                           online and offline conversations and a              have for long been spaces of high informa-
 to mean a very            media lab.                                          tion density.
                               Sarai (the space and the programme) takes           At Sarai, other than an investment in
 public space, where       its name from the ‘caravan-sarais’ for which        researching and reflecting on informal and
                           medieval Delhi was well known. These were           improvisational e-Culture, we are also deeply
 different intellectual,   places where travelers could find shelter,          investing in FLOSS (Free/Libre and Open
                           sustenance, and companionship; places to            Source Software) initiatives. Sarai has an
 creative, and activist    rest in the middle of a journey.                    active and ongoing FLOSS research pro-
                               The Sarai initiative interprets this sense      gramme that is interested above all in local-
 energies can              of the word ‘‘sarai’’ to mean a very public         isation, pedagogy and crticial social usage of
                           space, where different intellectual, creative,      FLOSS products and processes. (http://
 intersect in an open      and activist energies can intersect in an open      www.sarai.net/freesoftware/freesoftware.net)
                           and dynamic manner.                                     When we founded Sarai, the challenge
 and dynamic manner            Our effort at Sarai in these past five years,   before us was to cohere a philosophy where
                           since we began is to create an ongoing con-         research and media practice could flow into
 to give rise to an        text for intellectual and critical engagement       each other. We were interested in the way in
                           with the contemporary urban moment in               which we could see the urban space we were
 imaginative               South Asia. This necessarily includes an in-        located in, begin to reveal itself to us as a
                           vestment in thinking about, researching and         dense communicative network. As a matrix
 reconstitution of         actively practising e-Culture.                      (as crowded as the streets of the old quarters
                               e-Culture has been seen as the “integra-        of our city) within which, new and old
 urban public              tion of information and communication               technologies and practices of communica-
                           technologies into the primary processes of          tion, ranging from print to photography to
 culture...                production, presentation, preservation and          film and the Internet were able to constant-
                           (re) utilisation of cultural expression”. (From     ly renew a dynamic media ecology.
                           ICT to e-Culture: Advisory Report on                    This imperative to understand contested
                           the Digitalisation of Culture and the               meanings and transmission within the
                           Implications for Cultural Policy, Nether-
                           lands Council for Culture, The Hague,               The Sarai Cafe
                           August 2004)
                               Since, the middle of the 19th century
                           the cities of South Asia set up social labora-
                           tories for Information and Communication
                           Technology (ICT). Here, we mean ICT to
 Shuddhabrata Sengupta     be the technological means, which facilitate
 Sarai, New Delhi, India   information exchange and dispersal - a do-
 shuddha@sarai.net         main much wider than a mere clubbing to-
                           gether of computers and other digital

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spaces opened out by e-Culture has taken several inter-related forms.
It has first of all, taken the shape of an intensive research project
called ‘Publics and Practices in the History of the Present’ (PPHP)
which studies how different media spaces, networks and markets
(cinema, cable, telephony, assembled computers and informal
software markets) mark and shape the urban fabric. (http://
www.sarai.net/citylives/citylives. htm and www.sarai.net/mediacity/
mediacity/htm)
    Further, since 2001, it supported more than a hundred inde-
pendent research and practice projects proposed by artists, media
practitioners, researchers and academia from all over India. These
have included support for India’s first published graphic novel, an
audio-novella about growing up in depressed industrial suburbs, a
cluster of new media art projects, oral histories of popular music,
reflections on the public life of cities besieged by violence and
research into the histories of free software, radio, early cinema,
popular music, photography, printmaking. (http://www.sarai.net/          write texts, publish wall magazines and edit books and maintain
community/fellow.htm)                                                    discussion lists and blogs - in partnership with practitioners and
    We have also invested greatly in creating resources to enable a      interlocutors in Sarai. This practice embodies the creation and
vibrant digital culture in Hindi and other Indian languages. This        sustenance of a specific form of self reflexive and highly articulate
has meant not only content generation, but also working on               urban e-Cultural practice that the Sarai initiative has given rise to.
creating open source support structures for the localisation of              The expressions that have emerged from the Cybermohalla
desktops and support to the creation of fonts and keymaps for            project as books, print objects, installations and performances are
Indian languages. (http://www.sarai.net/language/language.htm)           testaments to the creative vitality of a group of young people living
    All of these activities take place within the framework of an        in circumstances of extreme inequality and systematic violence.
express commitment to enrich the public domain, and contribut-           Today, the Cybermohalla project is an inspiration for a growing
ing to the ‘commons’ of contemporary intellectual and cultural life.     number of groups and initiatives in different parts of the world
The research projects feed into an evolving archiving impetus, and       working in media, information and communication technology
the reflective energies are channeled into a series of regular and       projects within a social dimension. (http://www.sarai.net/cybermo-
occasional publications in English and Hindi. These include the          halla/cybermohalla.htm)
Sarai Reader Series, which by now have acquired an international             An environment animated by the presence of e-Culture can
reputation for their foregrounding of key debates and discussions        find fruition through continuous public engagement. In the end,
on themes such as - ‘The Public Domain’, ‘The Cities of Everyday         any form of cultural practice, be it analog or electronic, requires the
Life’, ‘Shaping Technologies’ and ‘Crisis/Media’, by a large body of     rendition of ideas, interactions, discourses and processes into public
international scholars and writers. These publications, which are        forms. The Media Lab at Sarai is the conduit through which all the
produced and designed inhouse at the Sarai Media Lab, are all            various processes at Sarai find public rendition. Here, a team of
available for free access and download from the Sarai website. (http:/   practitioners create new media works, design web and print
/www.sarai.net/journal/journal.htm)                                      content, produce installations, books, and CDs and animate the
    The discursive field around Sarai also includes a family of lists,   design/media processes of different Sarai projects. The Sarai Media
including the Reader List and the Commons Law List, which are            Lab is a space that has enabled the production of works that have
vibrant communities of discussion and debate. (http://www.sarai.net/     travelled to prestigious international contemporary art venues such
community/lists_info.htm)                                                as Documenta 11, the Walker Art Centre, the Generali Gallerty in
    The research processes, reflections and investigations into con-     Vienna, Ars Electronica in Linz, the Itau Cultural Centre in Brazil,
temporary realities animated by Sarai are complemented and               and the Venice, Liverpool and Taipei Biennales. At the same time,
echoed by a series of community based interventions and creative         the Sarai Media Lab remains attentive to the design of low cost such
processes. An instance of this resonance is the Cybermohalla Project.    as stickers, posters, broadsheets, magazines and radio programmes
This project generates a long term creative and interpretative           that are situated in local and community contexts. It is also a site for
context for digital reflection on the urban condition through a          experimental testing and research into usage conditions of various
sustained engagement with working class young people associated          free and open source software dedicated to media and communica-
with media labs seeded by us in collaboration with an NGO,               tions practice. (www.sarai.net/aboutus/spaces.htm )
Ankur. The labs are equipped with free software enabled                      Recently, the Sarai Media Lab produced ‘The Network of
computers and situated in underserved areas of Delhi.                    No_Des’ - an interpretative hypertext collage that grew out of col-
    The practitioners associated with the Cybermohalla (Cyber-           laborations between the practitioners of the Sarai Media Lab and
Neighbourhood) project - many of whom are school dropouts,               the researchers of the PPHP project at Sarai. The Sarai Media Lab
some of them work in factories, and all live in conflict ridden, tough   was awarded the UNESCO Digital Art Award for 2004. (http://
neighbourhoods - create digital works, animations and installation,      www.isea2004.net/mainframe.php?id=latestnews,)

November 2004 | www.i4donline.net                                                                                                            29

				
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