In 2019, Chennai’s heritage buildings, libraries and MRTS stations doubled up as unexpected art galleries: prints spread across station walls, exhibits in college campuses and videos projected on Indo-Saracenic buildings. Chennai Photo Biennale’s second edition put the city on the global map through its multidisciplinary exhibits spanning across mediums.
In 2020, though the global pandemic stalled the festival’s much-anticipated edition III, the planning never stopped.
Now, exactly a year after CPB announced its theme — Maps of Disquiet — for edition III, the festival will begin: on December 9.
Spaced out across 60 days, till February 6, 2022, the festival will take a hybrid route this time: in the form of physical exhibits and virtual experiences, says Varun Gupta, festival director and co-founder of CPB.
Maps of Disquiet plans to address the “exigencies of our times”: Everything from resistance to majoritarian impositions, ecological collapse and technological dystopia, by building “new networks of solidarity.”
The four-member curatorial team, comprising Bhooma Padmanabhan, Arko Datto, Boaz Levin and Kerstin Meincke remains the same, as does the theme. But some artists have reimagined their projects to fit the virtual component that forms the core of this edition.
“We decided that it’s important to go ahead with our plans. We are rethinking the biennale into one that you can basically watch from home, office or even a teashop on your mobile phone. We went back to the drawing board around six to eight months back with the curators. And, we have been working with the artists to custom-develop a website that is going to be an online exhibition experience,” says Varun.
To help people engage with the theme, as a precursor, two research-driven journals on the theme will also be published.
While venues like Senate House and the Government College of Fine Arts, Egmore, were “jewels in the crown” for the second edition, this edition’s physical component gives these venues a miss, considering COVID-related challenges. But the upside, Varun believes, is that the world is now their audience.
“It’s no longer an option for us to do ‘physical’ on such a big scale. But we are presenting at three galleries in Chennai — Ashvita Art Gallery, Forum Art Gallery and Roja Muthiah Research Library. Apart from this, we have the Goethe-Institut, which lends itself as a viewing room,” says Varun. Renditions of video art through single-screen and dual channel projections are expected at the venue. He explains, “At the viewing room, people can come and watch multiple artists and video works every Wednesday and Saturday which will also be available online for audiences outside Chennai.”
There are two major commissioned projects on the subject of the excavation site and village in Tamil Nadu, Keezhadi.
“Andreas Langfield and Sarabhi Ravichandran are working on a project together — a video, with interviews of scholars on the subject. In parallel, we also have Saranraj, a young, Madurai-based artist from the Government College of Fine Arts, who has been working on the site for the past one-and-a-half years. He will be presenting his project at the Roja Muthiah Research Library.” This edition has a more regional flavour thanks to the focus on projects from Tamil Nadu.
Another question they wanted to tackle was how they could get the biennale to the people? For that, the team has come up with a newspaper-style publication. Essentially the biennale would travel to people’s hands and homes. “It will be circulated across colleges, libraries, galleries and also available online to order.”
Student showcases are an important component of all CPB editions — “This time too, the students’ showcase is going to be physical. The venue is yet to be decided,” says Varun.
He adds that they believe there is something on offer for everyone, both outstation visitors and city residents, who wish to visit the festival. “It’s not going to be just prints on a wall, there will be installations too, presented in an immersive manner,” says Varun.
Over the course of the pandemic, thanks to screen fatigue coupled with the need to step out, virtual art viewing has taken a significant hit. Many also argue that experiencing art through a screen will never match up to walking through a space to relish it up close. “We are aware that it’s sort of an odd experience where you are there more for the gimmick than the art,” says Varun, adding, “So we wanted to create something that’s focussed on presenting the art, the narrative, actually in a way that can’t be done in a physical exhibition where it is very sequential.” A narrative that is scroll-driven, keeping in mind the mobile and the desktop user, can be expected, he adds.
With the festival, CPB also hopes to push the nature of hybrid events in the arts space. “We would love for people to come to Chennai,” concludes Varun. “But it’s no longer a limitation.”
CPB is looking for volunteers, donors and collaborators for this edition. Reach out at contact@chennai photobiennale.com.