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16 April 2013

From UnBox to Alchemy

When the British Council and partners took a leap ‘out of the box’ of academic and industry partnerships, no one quite imagined the remarkable power of creativity and technology in response to India's design challenges.

By Carly Frey, Creative Economy Advisor

Moseying around the exhibition halls of Southbank Centre’s Alchemy Festival this past weekend – an annual celebration of music, dance, literature, design and debate from India, South Asia and the UK– one is immediately struck by the dazzling spectrum of cultural and social ties between these participating nations. The gift of this festival appears to be its ability to not only express historical, multi-layered stories in new and engaging ways, but act as a lens into a promising and innovative future for the creative industries.

In similar fashion, the Unbox Festival in Delhi earlier this year was a showcase of the cream of the crop of India's burgeoning design, art and technology sectors. The Creative Economy Unit at the British Council, with its long standing relationship with India’s creative entrepreneurs, recognized the potential of the UnBox platform as an anchor for a larger peer to peer UK-Indian knowledge exchange programme, as well as an opportunity for an unusual cultural relations piece between academia and industry. Through an open application process, the lead partners curated five multidisciplinary teams comprised of UK and India-based academics and creative professionals to collaborate over a six week period, across India, on a range of site-specific projects. Their mission? Not exactly run of the mill:

Work with your assigned host organization to identify a local challenge, develop an innovative solution involving the various disciplines of expertise within your team, design an interactive means of expressing this at the UnBox Festival in Delhi, dare to pitch for £25000 worth of R&D funding from AHRC to a panel of leading experts and academics, and finally, devise a way to bring your learning home to British audiences at Alchemy. Oh, and while you’re at it, negotiate the inherent trials and victories of teamwork between academics, artists and technologists…!

Fast forward two months, and Alchemy festival goers now have a chance to taste the fruits of the Fellows' labour. An exhibition showcasing all five of this year’s projects runsuntil 21st April in the Queen Elizabeth Hall Foyer. Through interactive activities that will contribute towards the on-going development of their ideas and innovations, audiences can explore the potential of design, film, technology and art, test new gaming platforms, and even participate in a culturalmapping exercise of their very own Southbank Centre.

Professor Andrew Burton, Professor of Fine Art at Newcastle University, and Academic Fellow for the UnBuild: Sustainable Lifestyles project, remarks on the process of transferring the installations from the Delhi context to London. “It’s great because when you revisit things and see them again, you realize certain things about the project which weren’t as apparent at the time.” His team will be challenging Alchemy goers to try out his team’s handmade and beautifully beaded camera rigs which they used to compile and chart a diverse range of cultural, commercial and social relationships in a Goan market town. “Whatever happens,” Burton adds, “there’s been a unique longevity to the project now that it’s been brought to the UK context. It’s really helped our thinking and brought new questions to light about how to map spaces in very different and vivid ways.”

Bahbak Hashemi-Nezhad

The UnBuild project at UnBox

One might ask what makes India, aleading player in the global economy, particularly ripe for this kind of cultural relations work? Perhaps in light of its own development path - wavering so symphonically between tradition and modernity, the rural and the urban, and the increasing demands of global integration - its growing design sector is a natural home for solutions-led thinking. Moreover, the interdisciplinary approach of the UnBox Fellowship experience enables it to build unique bridges between the creative industries and arts and humanities research, and between lessons learned in the UK and that of a society with very different trajectories and challenges. The Fellows and their audiences cannot help but walk away with a clearer understanding of what makes India so critical right now in its global position, and what makes its localised challenges hold such weight on a meta level... or, in this case, two international festival stages.

In her Fellowship team, Radhamohini Prasad, a filmmaker from Kalimpong, has been exploring new ways of communicating what are infamously complicated Indian legislative processes to wider civic audiences through creative multimedia platforms. This work is especially relevant, she says, at a time when one nation’s law governs two co-existing ‘India’s’ - the urban and the rural. “As someone from the arts, I’ve always felt the need to put things into context. This is why I applied to this fellowship, [because] it was actually rooted in something. The end result could have been abstract; it could have been a lot of things. But it was steeped in a foundation [the Parliamentary processes] which was very structured and has been formed for decades. I’ve always looked for important contexts in my art forms so that it connects with people. It’s become a great need in India to have artists coming into do this… to help us understand where we’re all coming from.”

Ioanna Manoussaki-Adamopoulou

Multimedia installation from the UnMap team

It seems altogether possible that the outcomes of the Fellowships may distil more questions than answers. As renowned design producer John Thackera echoed whilst keynoting at UnBox, their strength lies in how they unearth ways of knowing rather than finite solutions themselves. After all, their departure points are moveable feasts; the destinations, yet to be seen. Here, the cliché value of a journey may hold true more than ever. In their attempts to cross-pollinate elements of cultural heritage, civic empowerment, creative technology and community mapping, the outcomes of the Fellowships are pertinent, transferable and provocative. Above all, they highlight just how socially critical the connection between research, design-led thinking and creative practice is likely to become the world over.

Such as the case of the UnBox Fellowships programme, the British Council’s Creative Economy Unit is keen to encourage a range of interdisciplinary and multipurpose relationships between the arts, business, technology and academia in key markets around the world. By stimulating and supporting an important new space within creative, design and innovation sectors, Creative Economy aims to explore, unpack, and share the learning to international communities of interest.

Louise Clements

15 Creative & Academic Fellows / 5 Extraordinary Hosts / 5 Distinct Outcomes for Social Design

UnPlay

Hosted byQuicksand, this Delhi-based team explored the capacity of new technology to tell age-old stories in an Indian context, cross-linking Kinect-based approaches and playful content with that of museums and other institutions of learning. Their research question will focus on the importance of digital technology in educational and cultural heritage sectors in India, as well as how commercial contexts both locally and globally can shape the game’s narrative and technical potential.

UnMap

Hosted by theCultural Resource Conservation Initiative (CRCI) in Punjab, this team considered how cultural memory and amnesia intersects with the Grand Trunk Road – one of South Asia’s longest transport routes which has linked the eastern and western regions of the Indian subcontinent for over two millennia. UnMap team used multimedia tools to capture memories of a forgotten place, to explore connections between built heritage and cultural memory, and to test immersive installations in local communities using touch and motion sensors.

UnTill

Hosted byDigital Green, the UnTill team’s motto was “playing to learn”. Based between Delhi and Madhya Pradesh, these Fellows explored the impact of game-based learning on social change by connecting digital natives to the plight of farmers in India. They have now developed and begun testing a software prototype for an online adult game-based learning platform aimed at creating a more experiential and immersive opportunity for urban citizens to gain an understanding of their interconnectedness to farmers and, in effect, India’s future.

UnBuild

Hosted byPeople Tree in Goa, this team used the Mapusa Market as a microcosm through which to examine how local commercial centres are both a historical and current hub of cultural production and community. Through wearable cameras, UnBuild contrasted between localized encounters with the market, versus what it is ‘supposed to be’ according to outdated maps and other topographic documents. Going forward, this team is hoping to find ways of making the knowledge contained within the market more explicit, especially in the face of its potential future irrelevancy anddemise.

Unveil

Hosted byPRS LegislativeResearch in Delhi, this team explored the opportunities around media for open governance and civic empowerment. Through tactical, creative media projects, they developed ways of disseminating information on public policy in new innovative ways, creating a more accessible awareness of legislation and the legislative process. Given access to further booster funding, the team plans to work with specific communities to explore imaginative approaches to hermeneutically translating legal docs into visual media involving sound, video and animation.

Carly Frey is Creative Economy Advisor for South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa at the British Council in London.

More information on the UnBox fellowships here.