Putting up his antennae

I t is not very often that science meets art, nor does one find an artist who mixes both worlds aesthetically. Yet Bangalore-based artist Navin Thomas does it so efficiently that he has been shortlisted for the Skoda Prize for Contemporary Art for the three best solo exhibitions of 2010.

Navin has been chosen from among 128 entries across the country for his exhibition, “From the Town's End”, at Gallery Ske. In this exhibition, he has explored “the afterlife of salvaged electronic junk” and how animals react to electronic appliances and magnetic fields in the house (like a doorbell).

He has held more than 20 exhibitions across the world in cities like Vienna, New Delhi, Paris and Warsaw.

As an artist, he has had residencies in One World Foundation, Gallery Krinzinger, Sri Lanka (2009), Khoj-international sonic art residency, New Delhi (2008), The Mattress Factory, Pittsburgh ( 2007) and AFFA winter artist residency program, Paris(2006). Excerpts from an email interview:

What does it mean for you to be shortlisted for the Skoda prize?

When I made it to the top twenty, I didn't make much of it, but after I made it to the top three it took a week for me to realise the seriousness of the whole affair and what a lot of effort Skoda has made to be supportive of contemporary art in this country.

How did you get interested in art?

I think it may have started off with me being one of those little boys who came back home in the evening with a pocket full of seedpods and rocks. All my childhood heroes were all anti-heroes— the cobbler, the carpenter and the town drunk. Most importantly, I had a distant relative who managed a farm and every time I stayed over, he would get me to fix things on the farm. So I think I learnt about craft and sculpture from having to regularly tend to farm animals.

Could you briefly describe your journey as a contemporary artist?

I started off wanting to work with ethnographic sound. I wanted to be just like Paul Bowles, travel in search of forgotten song and language. With the help of a few grant-giving organisations, I actually did pursue this interest seriously for a while. It was filled with travel and adventure and landing up in strange places in the midst of strange people. After a while, I began to feel like a social worker. So I dropped my bags and started to follow up with other practices in sound. I love what I do these days.I sleep, eat and live it.

Some of the best experiences were…

Finding myself in a hidden passage way under the Nizamudden Dargah, two months in a rainforest trying to record a mythical singing cobra, watching a solar eclipse in the desert with no protective eye wear, waking up on a mountain top and wondering why the clouds were several meters below my feet…

What is you art about? What do you wish to communicate through it?

There are a couple of things, which I have been preoccupied with over the last few years. One is beta-testing on the possible after life of salvaged electronic junk, mostly discarded transistors and smaller objects, with a possible audio capacity. Another pastime is observing how your pets and smaller species react to magnetic fields.

For instance, is it possible that your electronic doorbell makes regular contributions to the evolution of a newer acoustic ecology.

I would like to remind you that my approach to this phenomenon is not that of an activist, but simply that of someone curious about the private life of your discarded electronic appliance.

You are inspired by?

On my days off, I like to go to scrap yards and observe what a city refuses and throws away. I think you can tell a lot about a culture or a city from what it throws away. I like observing people at scrap markets, looking for the strangest oddest of ends, wondering how they will reorganise and revive an obscure object. I also enjoy hanging out with scrap market dealers and flea market treasure hunters — they always have a very interesting story with a very peculiar object that goes with it.

Why does science play an important role in your works?

I was trained in graphics and cinema; I knew nothing about sound except for some old Kraftwerk and Tangerine Dream records I had inherited from my mother's brothers. And as a child of the 80's, fooling around with a medium wave transistor and trying to find new obscure frequencies was a favourite pastime. I was also fascinated by patterns of flux every time our antenna moved during the course of a thunder storm. I think I pursue sound with a lot of enthusiasm because I had no training in it.

What are your favourite subjects and why?

My grandparents raised me with a lot of birds and animals in the house, it must have been to make up for a lack of something else. Anyhow, I used to spend my free time trying to teach the pet parrot to talk or observing how the rabbits got along with loud music. I think how it all finally surfaced was in the deep interest in mutations in language and electro-acoustic ecology.