‘I am the most logical person, and what have I just done!’ This was the reaction of the CEO of Directihosting.com, Bombay, into whose servers the holy network cable was plugged, and on which the blessed-bandwidth.net website was launched. blessed-bandwidth.net is the latest net art piece from Shilpa Gupta, in which she uses the medium to reflect on and intervene in activities and issues affecting global society. But inblessed-bandwidth.net, the viewer is kept wondering whether to actually believe the artist’s claims or not? Can you really get blessed? Is Gupta documenting social reality or critiquing the political and religious situations of today?
Net art hardly exists in India, despite it being a world recognised centre for software development. Along with the Raqs Media Group from New Delhi, who achieved international recognition after being included in Documenta XI, Gupta is one of the most well-known net artists to emerge from the Indian visual art world. She creates fake worlds that simulate the culture of her environment, while simultaneously standing this culture on its head. In a conversation we once had, she suggested to me her reasons for bringing net art into her practice: ‘It is about default properties,default politics. Net.art is non-consumable. It is familiar, interactive, friendly and time based. It can’t match your curtains, and comes built in with a challenge to the lopsided hierarchical relationship between the artist and the patron.’
‘But only for that moment’, Gupta added, ‘because you never know how it will change over time. Everything does end up being consumed finally and again strategies have to be reworked.’ If her choice of medium is unusual in India, she does not perceive herself to be a new type of artist. Gupta resists the labelling of her work as either political or theoretical, arguing that such terminology is ‘overused, insincere.’ The preparations for each of her web projects, and the ensuing interactions with different layers of society, are for Gupta just as important as the final work.
Gupta not only targets traditional net art audiences with works like blessed-bandwidth.net, Sentiment-Express.com (2001) and Diamonds and You.com (2000). Her intention, rather, is to attract the interest of a larger audience. In the case of blessed-bandwidth.net, this audience might include tourists planning a visit to Tate or people not interested in art that may stumble over the work via the adverts she has placed on Google.To engage this range of audiences, she uses a language constructed of images that convey meaning even when their cultural context is changed.
At first glance, blessed-bandwidth.net appears to offer visitors to the site the chance to receive an authentic blessing from the religion of their choice. Photographs and video provide ‘proof’ of the authenticity of this offer, as do certificates visitors can print out and retain. In this ‘realistic’ experience the Hindu visitor, if menstruating, is requested via a pop-up window not to pass beyond a certain web page. In fact, the deeper visitors travel into blessed-bandwidth.net the further they drift away from the notion of ‘authenticity’. Moving through these pages one wonders how bizarre religion will become in the information age, when, for instance, a personal ‘love meter’ can exist between you and your God?
The appearance of the artist as an armed and cloaked figure in several of the pages adds another level of significance to the work. Gupta has, in fact, included herself in several of her earlier online works, appearing as a mannequin and a love-letter-writing mermaid in Diamonds and You.com and Sentiment-Express.com respectively. In blessed-bandwidth.net she plays the role of a figure of authority in an over-sized uniform that is a cross between those worn by both the military and by monks. She holds a gun to her head, one moment apparently praying, and the next aiming her rifle at an unspecified target. Click on the image and she says: ‘Do not panic you are being watched, get blessed, feel secure.’
This incongruous figure calls attention to the overlap of religious and political interests that occurs in certain state institutions. Religion is often used today as a tactic of control, or as a means of creating hierarchies and divisions, not just within a specific country but also at the borders and beyond. There has been sectarian violence in Bombay since the early Nineties when Gupta was a student at the J.J.School of Arts. In more recent times, with the riots in Gujarat in 2002, for example, the situation has become more extreme and ethnic clashes have been ceaseless. They make the news daily, each faction apparently blessed by an authority higher than human authority, but which one? blessed-bandwidth.net is not a direct reaction to the recent bomb blasts (August 2003) in Bombay but it is set within this context. The piece is a development of some of Gupta’s earlier projects, including the offline work Blessed Canvases (2002). For this work, created at a time of increased fundamentalist activity, Gupta went on a pilgrimage with her parents, carrying a blank canvas to each of the holy people they visited, requesting they ‘please bless this canvas in such a way that it brings peace and happiness to wherever it stands.’
Looking back and building on the range of interventions Gupta made at art school, in galleries and in public spaces in Bombay since the late 1990s, it seems logical for her to use the internet as her medium. Realising that she could not earn a living making this type of art Gupta enrolled on several computer courses while at college. In 1999 she made her first ‘net art scribbles’, as she describes them, when she started a job in the new media industry. The first scribble was based on parts of her body: when clicking on the outer screens, a photograph of a nude body part is revealed. This work remained unfinished. For a long time it sat on her computer until it finally merged into the work Diamonds and You.com in 2000.
The first scribble was made at a point when Gupta did not know how to create ‘net art’, or even where to show it in India. It was however, already clear that as a medium it interested her and she went on to make a whole series of scribbles over the next two years. Innovative Designs for Brain Preservation is a scribble which enables you to upload your brain on the net. My email.com provides services for people who suffer from email anxiety. Memory of lets artists live in your memory. One Big Superpower US, was created during the Iraq war and calls for another superpower. Key in an Idea for an Art Project suggests art ideas be communal and is about the boundaries that appear between artist, curator and writer. This last scribble also addresses contemporary art practice in general, where uniqueness and individuality are idealised above all else. For Gupta, the emphasis on uniqueness and newness in the art world is tantamount to consumerism.
The fully developed web projects which came later, such as Sentiment.Express.com (2001), focus on the effects of globalisation by using the very same features that facilitate it as tools for commentary. Recent works like Xeno.Bio.Lab (2003) and an as yet unrealised project, Transit Lounge, have become more macabre or acutely realistic. Visitors to Transit Lounge will be able to choose international packages to a range of exotic tourist destinations bundled with bonus special body treatments. The treatment could be the replacement of an organ or body part, such as a smooth new skin. This website is intended for anybody, but of course artists who use the services will get a special discount as they travel so much, just like curators.
In the past few years Gupta’s works have been selected for many international events. She is convinced that when an artist tries to address a larger public, the language used often makes communication very difficult. Moreover, the pressure on artists to continually come up with something new and unique only adds to this problem. She argues: ‘We are not able to make anything that anybody understands besides the art world.’ Gupta has found a way around this by developing a visual a language and a way of installing her works that suits her aims. She takes an existing visual vocabulary, gives it a twist and creates a new narrative and experience for the visitor to the site. Her presentations online or in gallery spaces look deliberately casual, as if they are designed for direct consumption. In the case of blessed-bandwidth.net the first layers bear resemblance to other religious websites in India, devoted to the beloved Gods and shrines of Indian people. Gupta describes this appropriation as walking on both sides of the line. ‘If I say or scream my ideas from the art point of uniqueness it does not work. But if I say it from the other side there seems a stronger possibility that it would work.’
Johan Pijnappel is a Dutch Art Historian/Curator living in India