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Khoj: searching for the cutting edge

KHOJ International Artists Association (Khoj) completes a decade of its activities this year. Voicing the alternative and networking for the cutting edge art, Khoj has gone through the highs and lows. Hemant Sreekumar, program coordinator, Khoj, New Delhi, sheds light on the past and present of Khoj.

An institution, simply put is a structure, a social construct operating from the time of it's conception with a finite set of evolving purposes, guiding the lives and social order of the populace within it's range of transmission.

Predominantly a lot of art institutions in India follow a well traced history of hegemonic tendencies charted out in pre independence times. The administrative patterns that at the time of creation had a well considered radical approach to achieve the intended purpose in the most feasible way have gradually entered a period of lethargy where applied principles of past decades are viewed as fundamental guidelines instead of keeping pace with contemporary life or initiating attempts to challenge the nature of the inflow of content.

Khoj International Artists Association (henceforth referred to as khoj) was instituted as a registered Ngo in New Delhi in 1997 by a group of 7 young Indian Visual Art practitioners who were eager to create a stage for themselves. A two week long workshop model inherited from and facilitated by the Triangle Arts Trust, a UK based trust that was running similar models in Africa, was to be the means of creating such an experimental forum.
Modi Nagar, an industrial town on the outskirts of  the metropolis of New Delhi was the site of the annual workshop from 1997-2001. The workshop consisting of 24 artists half of whom were from India and the rest from different parts of the world,   may be viewed as  an art laboratory that endorsed a forum for free exchange of ideas, dialogue and debate. The criteria were not to create aesthetic forms which would justify the notions of a rapidly evolving Art market. Instead, the onus was on sharing of works, techniques, contexts and dialogues around the practice of the participants.

It was in no way confrontational to the commercial gallery as initially, the workshops were literally annual eye blinks in the visual art landscape of India. They did however have their own internal logic and dynamic which has grown over the years. The real point of departure of the Khoj workshops from any other gathering of minds was the tactical programming that went into it. The core invitees were from what can be best termed as the global south, a region from which existing institutions in India till then had never interacted with on a human level apart from huge state enabled cultural exhibitions. The mixture of a fifty percent young Indian artists and the rest from other International locations created a flexible and exhilarating crucible with reversible pedagogical roles between the participants. This aspect of "peer to peer learning through exchange" has been crucial for the success of Khoj as it has generated enormous good will amongst the artistic community in the last decade, spawning networks where none existed before.

Khoj (meaning search) by definition – is a parallel environment for professional artists that facilitates experimentation and endorses art practices that utilize non-traditional methodologies. It seeks also to introspect into erstwhile applied methodologies and cushions a departure towards more relevant contemporary and cutting edge applicable techniques of art production.

After 2000 the workshop model was taken ahead to different parts of India (Mysore,2002 Bangalore 2003, Mumbai 2005 and Kolkata in 2006) by artists from these locations who had participated in the workshops and had been enthused by the energy at the  workshops .

In 2002 meanwhile, Khoj in Delhi  became building based and began organizing a 6 week residency model  with a fewer number of artists (five artists). This was aimed towards a more intense interaction between the five participating artists. These later evolved into theme based projects in order to seed new genres that have yet to reach a critical mass. These new Genres like Public Art, Performance Art, Sonic Arts etc are already genres with vibrant histories in other parts of the world but the strength of the Khoj programming lies in the stationing of these within Indian conditions. As a fundamental rule of any laboratory created for experimentation often the successes and the failures of any or all of these projects are relative judgments which vary from person to person, incoherence often being an inherent attribute of such compositions considering the novelty of the approaches and contexts.

In terms of organizational structure, during the early years Khoj was a unique artists run initiative where the line between artist, management and organizer  was a very blurred one. Even while new members joined the team it had a very DIY (do it yourself) approach which was  necessary even imperative for the  young  organization with clerical and administrative tasks being handled by the artists themselves

Presently the Khoj Studio (New Delhi) is handled by a small paid team of the Director and two full time staff and two part time staff. Though this crew handles all grassroots level administration it is supported by a advisory group comprising of artists and other creative practitioners from a variety of fields such as pure fine arts, new media arts, theatre, activism, photography, dance, architecture and film making. The advisory group supports the studio crew with their ideas, expertise and contacts, A Governing Board comprising of founding group members and other eminent  persons overall support and evaluation. As an association based entirely on voluntary involvement, apart from staff, the flexibility of the structure ensures that no member has any commitments beyond a tenure which they decide for themselves.
The real strength of KHOJ which has sustained it for over a decade however, has been the goodwill and the informal network spawned by the positive energy, where an artist even after the short time spent at KHOJ goes back and suggests contacts who would benefit from and would feed back into KHOJ. The residency and workshop programs allow artists a valuable real- time, peer to peer opportunity to network with other creative practitioners of the same and variable wavelengths. The informal atmosphere of the entire programme creates a trustingly conducive space for honest criticism and sharing of works / ideas etc. which are not possible in more "institutionalized" spaces or seminar room discussion time. As the artists are left to their own devices they tend to have highly valuable and engrossing dialogues amidst themselves (over a couple of beers and coffee) without the need to use academic or theoretical jargon!

Unlike a lot of  "institutionalized" institutions with formally impeccable but functionally and post implementation repercussion wise moribund structures, Khoj's policy of inviting young dynamic creative practitioners who are direct stakeholders in the broader creative circuits lends a sense of urgency and sincerity to it's programmes as in some sense all individuals are finally answerable to their own intellectual integrity.

 Khoj has passionately been endorsing since it's inception wider exchange in the immediate South Asia region with the countries that share immediate borders with India. Seeding participation in all programmes of artists from the South Asia Network (Pakistan , Sri Lanka , Nepal and Bangladesh) Khoj has greatly used it's position of existing outside the Indian state apparatus to super adrenalise South to South exchange in the visual arts circuit of the subcontinent irrespective of inter South Asian foreign policies and mass media  created notions of xenophobia. This exchange has spawned ample inter- sub-continental movement of visual artists and obvious cultural ripples of holistic understanding between the art communities of South Asia.

Even in the context of the Global South, Khoj has been able to network since 1997 with artists from locations like Iran, Egypt , Cuba, Argentina, Brazil, Lebanon, Indonesia, Singapore, Thailand, Japan, Mainland China, Taiwan and several countries of Africa, through their participation in various programmes.

The Institutional structure of Khoj also comes with imminent dangers of closure if funding dries up and Khoj has to be ever vigilant regarding this. Thus while KHOJ is  dependent on funding cycles, it is  keen to continue its position  of  being a not for profit space as it allows it  greater freedom to  artists who can involve themselves in more ephemeral projects such as like ecology , public arts ,community based arts , and technology based arts etc which evoke a lot of great appreciation from large segments of people who happen to see it but who might not necessarily be the target audience of commercial art spaces. The educational and outreach aspects of Khoj which deal with young persons and support their exposure to alternative aesthetics, fuelling lateral thinking paths which they can apply in a host of other fields is also key to its thinking.
The Scope of this article does not permit more information about the activities of Khoj. Please do refer to for further insights into the institution and it's activities. All comments and insights on Khoj are received with attention. The field of experimental, cutting edge art practice is vast enough to encompass contradictions and opposing interpretations. And, Khoj is open to opinions and suggestions.


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