Langurs, CCTVs, zines: An art show in Goa questions our relationship with data
The Bachchao Project exhibition invited artists and data enthusiasts to conceptualise works around digital surveillance, privacy and autonomy in India.
Langurs have no sense of boundaries; they’ll just make a dash at you, snatch away a cookie or a phone. At an exhibition in Panaji, Goa, three sculptures of langurs, their heads replaced by CCTV cameras, sat on a table, watching and waiting for something to grab.
Executed by artist Thomas Louis, with concept by Louis and Chinmayi SK, the sculpture was among many artworks — zines, maps, photo essays, murals — at the exhibition, titled Data: Public, Private and Beyond.
It was organised by The Bachchao Project, a 10-year-old techno-feminist collective that works on research and training to support the technological needs of women and LGBTQIA+ community members in India. The first edition of the exhibition brought together art from Indian creators to explore and capture the acutely Indian experience of interacting with technology.
Held across four days, the initiative invited artists and data enthusiasts to think about the usage and collection of public and private data in India, and how this shapes a person’s autonomy, privacy and security.
There were the langurs, titled See No Evil. A mural titled Let There be Internet, by artist M, portraying women from different parts of India, including Kashmir and Manipur, connected by internet cables. It was a representation of the demand to stop internet shutdowns in these states.
A booklet titled Bodies of Dissent: Exploring Data, Intimacy & Disability on Dating Apps, by Nu and Ritika, artists from Revival Disability India (a community of queer and differently abled people), explored visible and invisible disabilities on dating apps, and the challenges of navigating these digital spaces with safety and agency.
Another zine, by artist Oish, titled Watching You Watch Me, questions what separates our real selves from our virtual selves. It traces how our data is gathered to watch us and influence our everyday decisions.
Excerpts from an interview with Chinmayi SK, founder of the Bachchao Project.
What inspired the exhibition?
It was inspired by The Glass Room, a global public intervention pop-up by Berlin-based NGO Tactical Tech that allows people to confront pressing tech-based challenges in interactive, innovative ways.
In fact, in 2019, to find ways to introduce people to the idea of data and privacy, we hosted an India edition of The Glass Room. Although that exhibition was very engaging, there was very little that was based on issues we Indians experience. It prompted us to think of an India-specific exhibition. We started wondering if we could create art to respond to these issues — art that could be taken to different parts of India and the world.
What led you to pick art as a way to talk about this?
There are considerable barriers to having the privilege to understand how technology works, and the knowledge to evaluate it with respect to parameters such as privacy, safety and security. Currently, for instance, this knowledge is passed on through essays or lectures available to a select few. This is not necessarily the most effective form of communication. Art like this can help translate this information in tactile and audio-visual formats, through fun and, perhaps, less-overwhelming interactions.
We know we’re giving up data every hour. We allow it to happen anyway, with little debate. What will nudge us out of this complacency?
Surveillance, data and privacy are issues that are difficult to grasp, and confront. Unfortunately, we live in a world that is built around surveillance and the exploitation of data. To think any other way, is going against the norm. So, it requires considerable effort to change behaviour, to question, to walk away. It also requires considerable privilege to do this.
We need as many ways as possible to prompt, educate and show people alternatives to our existing ways of living, in a language that’s familiar to them. This is where art can help; it can help capture alternative perspectives. We hope that we can support a recurring series of this exhibition. We need this approach if more people are to understand what they are dealing with everyday.