Reliable Copy discusses the circulations, influences, and audiences in Bangalore’s publishing scene and beyond.
Reliable Copy is a publishing house and curatorial practice dedicated to the realisation and circulation of works, projects, and writing by and with artists. Based in Bangalore, India, and founded in 2018, they publish books and documents, curate exhibitions, undertake research projects, organise workshops, and host a wide variety of programming. The following conversation was moderated by Samira Bose, Asia Art Archive in India’s Programmes Coordinator.
Curating and Independent Publishing
Samira Bose: I’ll begin with a really simple question. How did you arrive, as artists, especially as those with individual practices of your own, to a mode of independent publishing?
Nihaal Faizal: I suppose it was mainly from noticing a gap in the way art was being produced, where everything seemed to be geared towards an exhibition model, at least within India, or the context I was closest to. It seemed as if that was the only kind of production that was worthwhile or that could reach anybody—because there was no other infrastructure for anything else—whereas my own practice was looking at histories that work counter to that. For instance, I was looking at conceptual art and video art, and in those cases publishing or other distribution channels offered a means for the work to not just exist, but also circulate; by extension causing certain other kinds of practices to emerge. It was from that perspective that I thought, what else can be done?
I already had some experience running an exhibition space for three years (2013–16) prior to Reliable Copy called G.159 in Yelahanka, a suburb of Bangalore. I knew I didn’t want to keep making exhibitions anymore, but collaboratively working with other artists to help realise their projects was something I enjoyed very much. With publishing, the premise was that I could continue to do this, but with different intents and results. At the same time, it had the potential to teach me something new because I had little experience with design or editorial work or even publishing for that matter—it was a completely new field.
Sarasija Subramanian: By the time I joined, Nihaal had already gotten reasonably far in, at least in creating a framework for what Reliable Copy was at that point. I hadn’t fully understood if my practice required spaces and avenues outside of a white cube, but it wasn’t like it was really fitting in to the white cube either, so it was neither here nor there. In my practice, I work with not just text, but also historical documents. They are often textually driven, or specifically literary. There was definitely an affinity to working in a space that allowed for multiples, as well as for models that allowed for information to not just be “created,” but also re-circulated.
Before joining Reliable Copy, I was working for a publishing house in Mumbai—developing and editing pedagogical content. Reliable Copy, for me, was about being able to do something which would give me not only some kind of financial stability, but also an understanding of how far a field like publishing could be pushed within the arts—something that also helped within my own practice.
SB: This idea of a recurring distrust of the exhibition space—is it entirely because of access and circulation? You’ve mentioned in our conversations before that there is something specific to India as a context that you are responding to. Is it the exhibition space as a white cube in general, or exhibition spaces in India that underline your distrust?
NF: It’s not one or the other. Sarasija and I talk about how every kind of artistic production, but also everything we do in life, is grounded in and governed by two factors: the legal and the financial. My distrust isn’t with the exhibition form as a setting in which you enter and see objects, but more with what that object comes to be in terms of its speculations as a financial object, or how the exhibition form dictates certain legalities of access, use, and distribution. It’s almost always the same, even if we now move into something like NFT models or online exhibitions. It’s still a replica of certain conditions from physical frameworks, and while this is suitable for certain kinds of work, it cannot simply be applied to all forms of artistic production.
That is why a figure like Seth Siegelaub is very important. He used to run a gallery in New York in the 1960s, but realised quickly that the work he was interested in representing or dealing in didn’t need that kind of structure. So he dropped it, and began pursuing exhibition projects that dealt with other things, such as publishing. Today we would call him an “independent curator” in some sense, but he performed quite a range of roles—as art dealer (Seth Siegelaub Contemporary Art), as a public relations agency (Image. Art Programs for Industry, Inc.), as a publisher (International General), as the initiator of a research centre (Center for Social Research on Old Textiles), and this isn’t even half of it. Coming back to the exhibition space, one of his early contributions was the Xerox Book (1968), where the entire exhibition was inside a publication that was, as the name suggests, produced by the photocopy process, and I think he had displayed it the first time as a book in a gallery. Meanwhile, the book was also available through an independent network of bookstores in a first edition of 1,000.
Apart from his curatorial and publishing work, producing catalogues and other documents—he called these documents “primary information”—he also did other really important and interesting things, such as draft a contract with a lawyer named Robert Projansky called Artist’s Reserved Rights Transfer and Sale Agreement. It was a contract that ensured that any artist who used this for a sale would receive resale royalties of up to 15% for every work. It also offered the artist a 50% fee for every time the work is loaned or rented to another institution, and it offered the artist veto rights towards the conditions and sites of the work’s display. So, Siegelaub’s propositions were very much about changing the conditions of exhibition making, but also art production and circulation in a wider sense.
SS: And this contract was, in a way for him, a publication, right? It was open source?
NF: If I remember correctly, he published it in various magazines at once. He also translated it into four different languages and published it as posters, and made the printing plates available to anyone that would want to reprint further. And it’s still very much in use—I’ve read somewhere that Hans Haacke still uses it, and there’s been other artists that have modified it according to their own needs.
On Influences and Being Located
SB: I want to probe what you said about “at least in India” a little more.
SS: Earlier, when you asked about distrust and our own practices, maybe we’re at a point where these particular economic and speculative market structures are not working. I always had some scepticism about the idea of one specific art object as finality, because I don’t think there’s anything I’ve done which has existed literally as one (or at least not in a long time). Sometimes it was printmaking, but sometimes it was like making the same drawing or image again and again, and that resistance to that one object maybe brought us closer to this idea of publishing. But of course, then it also questions what else is possible in a gallery space.
A lot of our references seem to be from different parts of the world—in some ways it’s because we’re trying so hard to find an answer to something so specific that maybe within India, we just didn’t know how to access it immediately. It just didn’t seem to come up as easily as what else had happened in other parts of the world, and then eventually, we realised that so much has also happened here, which has not been historicised.
NF: Most of our examples come from “elsewhere,” especially when it’s contemporary examples as opposed to more historical ones. Back to the term “primary information,” as an artist and publisher a lot of my references come from America, even though I’ve never been anywhere near the country. But you know, whatever I’ve accessed, whatever I’ve studied—I think of it as all being primary information, I can access it here and read it here and experience it here.
Three years ago, we did a presentation in Baroda about Reliable Copy. An audience member who taught at the university took issue with all our examples being either from the Middle East or America or Europe. “What about Indian publishing?” he asked. I think because we were born in the 1990s and grew up in the years following India’s market liberalisation, and of course, with access to the internet, a lot of our experiences came from media documents that were as real and important as anything else we had access to otherwise. We no longer saw something as “imported.” These thoughts around “primary information” also surfaced in our recent exhibition in Bangalore.
SS: We’ve just begun to understand and even just have access to, in terms of language and resources, what has already happened in India’s history, how it’s happened, and then to be able to understand those structures. It’s been a substantially more recent and complex process.
SB: Sarasija, the fact that you moved to Bangalore—I think it’s really important to understand why Reliable Copy is located in Bangalore. What is it about Bangalore?
SS: I’ve worked in different cities: Delhi, Bombay, Baroda. The shift to Bangalore was quite serendipitous; I was at 1Shanthiroad for three months, for a project, and everything that developed, happened from there and the people I had met. I felt then that Bangalore had a very different art-world culture than other cities, which I guess concretised gradually as I understood its alternative infrastructures more and more. Back then, Bangalore was a shift in terms of where I could see myself living and working, but I don’t have a very clear answer yet.
NF: Bangalore does have a long history of artist-run spaces and artist-led projects, including many of the art schools themselves. Karnataka Chitrakala Parishad and Ken School were both founded by artists, so all of these educational institutions were also artist-run in that sense.
In Bangalore, the gallery model has not been the most successful model, or at least never as successful as the artist-led model. A case in point is something like 1Shanthiroad, which continues to run even today after two decades, while many of the galleries from the same time period have shut down. There’s also a clear gap in the money available for the arts in Bangalore as compared to cities like Delhi or Bombay. Of course, the Goethe Institut, India Foundation for the Arts, and other organisations do contribute quite a lot to the development of the art scene of the city, but it’s not really a collectors’ market or a commercial art market grounded in sales of artworks. However, many other events—screenings, performances, and workshops—happen quite frequently in alternative venues.
Similarly, short- and long-term project spaces have existed, and continue to exist, and new ones keep emerging. Right now in Bangalore, there’s a lot of production-oriented spaces, and this seems to be a new direction for the alternative spaces here, for example, there’s Kanike Studio, which looks at analogue photographic practices, and there’s Prati, a print-studio. Before this there were a lot of project spaces including Home Sweet Home, Power Cut, and the whole group of project spaces in Yelahanka. Even before that, there was Bengaluru Artist Residency One (BAR1), Jaaga, and Samuha, amongst many others. So Bangalore has a long history of this, and perhaps for that reason, Reliable Copy fits really well into a city like Bangalore.
SB: Nihaal, you were talking about how you were questioned that your examples and references are from, say, the US or the West. Do you feel that kind of pressure, or have you been facing that pressure about fitting into or catering to certain kinds of vocabularies of the region, or locating yourself within certain histories and trajectories of publishing and printing within a region, either India or elsewhere?
NF: I mean, our references might be from elsewhere, but the work we do still happens here. Initially, we were more conscious of Karnataka as our location, and also of producing from within our immediate surroundings, so a book like Flexing Muscles was in English and Kannada, and very much about Bangalore as a city. The 1Shanthiroad Cookbook is also about its place in the city. But moving forward, a lot of our interests have now found a home in Gujarat, for various reasons. Sarasija studied there for many years at the Faculty of Fine Arts in Baroda, and a lot of our funding is coming from Baroda—our partner Gallery Ark is from Baroda. We’re looking at Kumar Magazine, which was published in Ahmedabad, and we’re looking at a book with the artist and educator Jyoti Bhatt that looks at his life and practice. Moving forward, we have other projects that are related to Baroda more than anywhere else, including those that look at the MS University Faculty of Fine Arts’ dissertations.
For us though, it’s not so much about catering to one geography as it is pursuing certain lines of thought that sometimes organically emerge. We might be done with this Baroda chapter in our lives, and then everything we do might be—I don’t know—based in Serbia. It’s not fixed in that sense, and we’re not thinking so logically about it. One project leads to the next and then that leads to another.
If I look at my own life—my family is from Kutch in Gujarat, I’ve grown up in Kerala, and now I live in Karnataka—I have always been at odds with my surroundings. I’ve never really felt at home anywhere, and I’ve always felt slightly like a permanent tourist. As I get older I realise that this is true of culture as well. When I was a kid, I watched the TV show Shaktimaan—India’s first superhero. But Shaktimaan is almost an exact replica of Superman. Shaktimaan’s alter ego is a journalist, very much like Clark Kent. Even the costume resembles Superman’s. The producer of Shaktimaan—who also claimed the role of the superhero in the show for himself—talks about how he was drawing from Western examples but adding an Indian twist (by Indian he meant Hindu twist) and was using digital technology and special effects from that time to capture the child audience of India, because suddenly it was something new to watch, something wonderful and amazing. So here’s something that has been packaged as being from the region, but it’s really not in any way so well defined or so clear cut.
SS: It seems that for us, a lot stems from the West (particularly in terms of models and systems of working), but we are very much based in this geography at the moment, and we are trying to understand what has happened here before us. Through this Kumar Magazine project, for example, or by looking at what has happened from the 1920s onwards in Gujarat, but also via studying self-publishing or publishing models in other parts of the country. The idea of how they were circulating content or the kind of content that they were circulating had such interesting and established structures that can actually work as models for the next person.
When we were reading about Kumar Magazine—which is, at the moment, as “Indian” as an Indian periodical reference can get for me—their references were periodicals from London and Paris that the magazine’s founder drew inspiration from through a writer in Bombay. He literally wanted to mark the coming of the twentieth century by bringing to a “modern” Gujarati audience a periodical like The Strand—naming his own journal Visami Sadi (Twentieth Century). So, how far back do we have to go for it to be still “Indian” is a whole other question. Especially within publishing, a lot of things that were happening during that moment in the 1920s began with materials from the West being circulated in India, so naturally that influence was there.
NF: The Kumar Magazine project we are currently working on looks at a debate between Jyoti Bhatt and Pherozeshah Mehta on the subject of modern art. Pherozeshah Mehta heavily criticises modern art, talking about the artworks that are in the classical museums as ideal forms of art, while Jyoti Bhatt defends modern art—and all of this is happening in Gujarati in the late fifties and early sixties.
SS: We also noticed that even in the 1960s, people were discussing what Indian and Western art were and what that demarcation meant. There are one or two who even respond saying there’s no India, there’s no West, everything is global—and this is 1961.
On Inspirations, Dispersals, and Audiences
SB: Where did the title of your publishing practice come from, since you are speaking about a shared interest in reproduction and the copy.
NF: The title came about by accident. I was making a list—a very long list of possible titles—and nothing worked. After rereading the list two or three times, this stood out: the idea of reliable copies. It also brings in this idea of distrust that we talked about earlier. The very first logo I imagined for Reliable Copy was a mirror that reflects something, and that would be a “reliable copy,” but very easily the mirror could be distorted and the reflection could become unreliable. It’s a very thin ground of whether it’s reliable or not, and publishing is that thin promise of reliability. When you buy one out of a thousand copies of a book, you believe that it’s reliably the same content in all thousand, but then you have books that are suspicious, you have piracy, you have bootleg copies that have pages missing, you have books with covers that are different from their own. When I said our practice was about reproduction, ultimately it’s because both of us work with found materials. It might be from entirely different sources, but the basis of our practice is almost always found material and usually of a documentary nature.
SS: This was one of the reasons why Michelle Wong’s curation of Portals, Stories, and Other Journeys got me so excited. For me, it’s often about using some kind of source material and wanting to bring that back into circulation. An archive just existing as an archive or a book just existing as a book will get me curious as to how that can be worked with or brought back. In that case, the copy becomes very important—as to how it is then reproduced or what is it that I’m reproducing. After joining Reliable Copy, I also realised that the editorial tendency is very high in my practice. It’s not just about reproducing it, it’s about editing it and then reproducing it, but editing it very much the same as I would edit text—not significantly changing an image or imagining it, but retaining exactly what I want to retain in what is being said, to then bring it into focus. And reproduction is the first step.
SB: You were greatly inspired by Something Else Press, a publisher that was active between 1963 and 1974, and especially by their Great Bear Pamphlet series. How has the inspiration informed or manifested in your work?
NF: Something Else Press was a publishing house started by the artist Dick Higgins, and amongst many other kinds of books, they also published a wide range of writing by artists. The Great Bear Pamphlets was such a series devoted to short form writing. These were cheaply produced, staple-bound editions, featuring manifestos, short stories, poetry, scores, and essays, amongst other texts. I cannot remember where, but I once heard that they were also available in a couple of department stores, next to the check-out counter.
What we have with us in our office are reprints of the Great Bear Pamphlets by a publisher called Primary Information—who take their name from what Siegelaub said. Their own publishing practice is very interesting as well, and they do a lot of facsimiles, alongside publishing new content. I think the Great Bear series was very much about managing a publishing practice that was affordable and cheap and therefore sustainable, while giving access to the most exciting writing of the period by artists. We haven’t yet begun anything as such, but this is something we hope to be doing soon too—an affordable series of short form texts by thinkers and practitioners that we feel certain affinities with and that we regard as essential for our present moment. We’ve also been thinking a lot about Semiotext(e) and their Foreign Agents series in this regard.
SB: How do you think the circulation of interesting writing by artists informs your practice? Is it something about the material? Is it about the way that Something Else Press was created?
NF: Several years ago, I encountered a PDF by Seth Price called “Dispersion,” which has been very essential to my understanding of publishing. That PDF traces a history of artists working in formats through which they can disperse their artworks—it charts examples all the way from Marcel Duchamp making something called anemic cinema, where at a World Fair he had set up a stall to sell optical illusion devices, using magazine advertisement space to publish his content. It looks at that history of artists working with distributed media, and the text is a call to arms inviting artists to go out and distribute their content, and more importantly, to create in formats that allowed for that kind of distribution. This is from 1998, and Seth Price’s own practice over the last couple of decades serves as an example of what he describes.
When we started Reliable Copy, it wasn’t from a nostalgic fascination with the book form, but from a place of using the channels of publishing to print artistic works that can move freely. Our first publication, A Memorial for the New Economy, is a free-to-download, copy-left publication where the photobook exists as a folder of jpegs, and whoever decides to download it has direct access to the files, which constitute the work. The images are not formatted into another template such as a PDF, but literally what is available are the files that came from the photographer. Even the file names appear as the photographer labelled them.
SS: It’s not about the book form, it’s actually only about making something public in whatever form is suitable. In one of our earliest press interviews, we had mentioned t-shirts as being an example of expanded publishing, and when the article came out we were made out to sound like a company that prints artworks on mugs and t-shirts!
SB: I would love a Reliable Copy t-shirt! You mentioned to me how you recently learned alongside from Display Distribute based in Hong Kong, and their manoeuvres in slow distribution and parasitic publishing, as well as from March, the recently initiated journal of art and ideas based in Berlin and St. Louis. You talked about a transnational conversation or dialogue with these publishers.
NF: With Elaine from Display Distribute, with March, with another publisher called Kayfa-ta based in Amman and Cairo, and with Motto Books in Berlin, we have four very different kinds of relationships.
March exists in print and online, so we started a partnership of exchanging books. They send us a few copies of every issue they publish and we match the value of those books with our own publications, and they distribute our titles and we distribute theirs. That’s how it works—we follow each other’s publishing practice, and that’s how we are in conversation. I know them from when they were an online platform called Temporary Art Review, which was the only journal that accepted reviews for exhibitions that we did at G.159. It’s a similar model of bartering books with Motto, but at a much larger scale.
Elaine, I met at a conference in Abu Dhabi hosted by Kayfa-ta. She was representing Display Distribute and we soon found many shared interests. She has different models under which she practices—one is Light Logistics, which is a courier system but much more personal. Say, Sarasija is going from Bangalore to Germany, and if someone ordered books in Germany, Sarasija will take it with her to deliver, and Sarasija gets a big discount for whatever she orders for herself.
SS: And I would get to read the book along the way.
NF: It works well as a system sometimes, but it can take really long. Elaine is really into these alternative modes of publishing and distribution. For instance, she will get a commission to design a catalogue, but then use that commission to insert a catalogue of her own or commission a new text as part of that catalogue—have her own content parasitically inside the catalogue of an exhibition that she is providing a service for. These are very interesting models, and our conversation began because we felt that we didn’t have enough time together in Abu Dhabi to talk about everything we wanted to, so we started writing to each other. When we were invited to write something for a public platform, we just continued our conversations.
SB: I’ve been thinking throughout this conversation about audiences. When you are circulating through publishing, you have certain audiences in mind. When you’re thinking about your exhibition and where it’s located, how do you imagine your audiences, particularly considering how much things are going to circulate beyond your control?
SS: When you were talking about the boundaries of the nation, what that is and how it shapes what we’re doing, within circulation and distribution are where I think those boundaries have become most blurred. We’ve realised that our circulation and distribution channels are sometimes stronger in other parts of the world than they are in the country right now. Within India, there’s a few bookshops with our publications, but abroad it is surprisingly wide. It’s much more about how far a particular book or idea can move instead of looking at who the particular book was for. The starting point is the idea. I was thinking about selfishness, and that we might be our own primary target audience—we are publishing for us, and seeing how far that can go becomes the next step.
NF: I’ll give you an example. Flexing Muscles is a bilingual book in English and Kannada and is the only publication of ours that will reach parts of Karnataka that are not the city centres of Bangalore and Mysore. There’s a bookstore called Ankita Pustika, and the owner of the bookstore, Prabha Kambathalli, was the copyeditor of Flexing Muscles; quite a few copies have been sold by them. They also told us that sometimes people come to the bookshop and read the book cover to cover and put it back and go, so it’s kind of also functioning as a library.
Another book, Still Life: Mirrors and Windows by Mario Santanilla, is in the New York State Public Library. A friend who is curator from New York, Joseph Lubitz, is currently a resident at the Onassis Air Foundation programme in Greece in Athens, and he found The 1Shanthiroad Cookbook in the library there. We have no distribution or bookstore connection in Greece, so it’s funny how things circulate because sometimes it reaches places we don’t expect.
SS: Maybe we have not reached a point of distribution and circulation where we know exactly which book goes where, so it’s still like an experiment. It’s about sending things out and seeing what kind of people respond, and then slowly using that to see where the next book goes. Circulation, distribution, and the target audience are still an evolving situation.
Food, Cookbooks, and Artistic Practices
SB: What led you to your recently concluded exhibition at the kitchen table at 1Shanthiroad?
SS: It began because we started working on The 1Shanthiroad Cookbook, which is what the food aspect of the exhibition can be traced back to. We started with the idea that we wanted to create a portrait of 1Shanthiroad as a space, but we didn’t want to do this by tracing its history in terms of the exhibitions it’s held or its public programming. For us, it was important to centre a place like 1Shanthiroad for what it fosters and what sets it apart from everything else.
In those conversations we realised that 1Shanthiroad’s kitchen is so important, because it’s functioning in what is majorly a residential space—like an open-door home—where a lot of artists, writers, friends, family, etc., spend time. And so, the research project for the cookbook started. We had never worked on a cookbook before, so we began by first getting into the format of a cookbook, to see what a cookbook can do. We started collecting cookbooks to understand this better. Initially, because we were looking at 1Shanthiroad as domestic in many ways, our references for the cookbooks also remained family—and community—driven. As the project progressed, we had an expanded list of cookbooks, and we began thinking about what an expanded cookbook could be.
An example of this, that we also included in our exhibition, is Esther David’s Book of Rachel. It is a novel, but every chapter starts with a recipe, which is an entry point into the novel’s plotline. It was here that the exhibition began to develop as something that could now exist as an entity outside of the research for our cookbook, because it had expanded enough for us to be able to push that aspect of it forward.
NF: This was all part of a research grant that we had received pre-pandemic from the India Foundation for the Arts that was framed as a research project towards collecting recipes for The 1Shanthiroad Cookbook. The proposal was that we would spend a year doing programming that will help us collect material for the book, ranging from potluck dinners to cooking classes. Through this programming, we began to think about artistic practices that also engage with food but as a form of documentation, or through a form of inscribing and recording that isn’t just about presenting food in an exhibition, but looking at food histories and its connotations in culture or through its movements in periods of crisis. We were interested in how food has been communicated, transcribed, indexed, and recorded.
We came up with a wish list of about ten practices that were foundational or inspirational to our own practices. One of them included David Robbins, whose work and writing has inspired a lot of what I do as an artist. His practice really looks at how the artwork can expand, and a lot of his work is invested in combining the criticality of art with the appeal of entertainment. As an artist who began working in the 80s, he was equally inspired by the TV shows he saw as much as the paintings that most moved him, so his question was why one is considered art and the other entertainment, if both are cultural products? His ideas have greatly influenced Reliable Copy, but so have other practices such as Lantian Xie’s and many of the other artists that we invited to be part of this show.
SS: By this point, the cookbook had been produced and was living a life of its own. The food became an excuse to now bring these practices together, and while they were all diverse, they had all engaged with food in some manner. It was about presenting not just the particular food-related work, but also their methodology, their process, their ideas.
NF: We gathered the courage to write to all of them with a very simple proposition: we have no money, we can’t invite you here, but would you be open to devising a format of representing the work from a far? A format that we could then reproduce here on ground. We knew that all of these practices had an affinity to publishing and forms of distribution and documentation. In some cases, we got somebody to introduce us, and in others, we just found their email IDs and wrote to them. To our great surprise, every single artist we reached out to said yes.
And the process of each artist developing their presentation formats was really interesting. For instance, David almost immediately took on the Keynote presentation as the most suitable form for his multi-form, long-term project the Ice Cream Social. Whereas Lantian’s was maybe the longest process, because he kept resisting the documentary shift until the very end; he didn’t give us anything we asked for, but instead gave us the bibliography or a collection of different objects which became the work, and this negotiation was itself quite interesting in understanding the document and its roles.
SB: I liked what you said about the bookshop as this kind of library earlier. As a personal anecdote about New Book Land Bookstore, which is in Janpath and one of the earliest bookstores in Delhi. They have this nice round space right in the middle of the marketplace. When I was seven or eight, I would just sit in the bookstore and read while my aunt was shopping, and it feels like such a foundational part of how I read or think about accessing books. I barely ever bought books from there, but the owner was really kind. It’s interesting how you’re thinking about tracing circulation through that register.
1Shanthiroad feels like an in-between space—between a home, a community kitchen, and a space for exhibitions. Nihaal, during the walkthrough of the exhibition that I attended in Bangalore, you referred to this exhibition as in between a library and a gallery space. What does that mean?
NF: Your childhood memory of going to a bookstore and just sitting there, using it as a library—it’s like that. You use the space to come and read something. A lot of the artworks presented in this roundabout fashion also had a lot to read. It wasn’t so much an aesthetic experience of looking at an object, gauging it or admiring it, as it was about engaging with something almost in a literary way.
SS: Or reading about it, or listening, or watching. Every work we showed is very durational in that sense. The regular walkthroughs also had an impact on that because then it became about being able to talk about the works more than the aesthetic experience of them, because there was so much context that inherently existed.
NF: Calling it a gallery is pretty inaccurate, because one of the rooms upstairs was actually a residency bedroom. We also had Lantian’s work in the courtyard dining area, while some parts of it were in the kitchen and storeroom.
SB: You mentioned one of your early foundation references as Kayfa-ta, an artist-led publisher of “how to” books.
NF: Yes, Kayfa-ta has been foundational to our understanding of publishing in a big way. What they showed us was that publishing can be a form of making tools accessible or available. For instance, if you look at a cookbook it is a kind of toolkit, an instruction manual. It will guide you, step-by-step in achieving or preparing something. Kayfa-ta similarly works from a format of publishing that looks at the “how-to” format of books as a vernacular form. They expand this in quite a lot of directions and in very poetic ways. This framework also accompanies not just their books but also their curatorial projects.
SS: This is also the beauty of their self-imposed restriction, because it’s actually so specific and yet it manages to accommodate so much. And that is what I felt in our exhibition as well, because food was enough to get the other person curious. And then you could do whatever you want with it, you could literally tell them something completely bizarre which had nothing to do with food. And yet it was fine.
SB: This connects to our whole conversation about circulation and distribution, to not control or even determine the manner in which your work will take form in the future. I even feel this about digitised personal archives that are accessible online for free—it really is a gesture of letting go, almost accepting that your archive is vulnerable to circulating in all kinds of ways.
In your exhibition, there’s this intrinsic interdependence between instructions and cooking. The artists that got this aspect most viscerally were Carolyn Lazard’s A Recipe for Disaster and Rajyashri Goody’s Writing Recipes. They were both hinting at or directly confronting the violent undertone of instructions—not straying from the recipe, not crossing the line.
NF: I think you’re right about what you observed, both in regards to Carolyn’s emphasis on media accessibility, and Rajyashri’s work about caste and the violence associated with instructional restrictions within the domain of food. Similarly, Gavati’s Sushila’s Kitchen is about the majoritarian politics that determines what can and cannot be consumed. It’s also about the performativity of an instruction.
SB: One thing that struck me was with recipes—it’s similar to the family photograph sharing trend during the pandemic lockdowns, where family photographs are circulated in public, like these archival images. Like with family recipes, there are things that we are proud of that might actually be tools of violence and exclusion—who is not allowed to be in the photograph, for example. Family recipes have histories of caste violence and racism, and that permeates so deeply into culinary habits. Look at the way upper-caste North Indians act towards fermented food from East and Northeast India and elsewhere. In that sense, the presence of Rajyashri Goody’s work about caste and violence really does shake the whole exhibition up, because it breaks a lot of the romance around sharing family recipes. I almost feel it would be important to read her poems at the end of the exhibition.
The other distinct theme that this leads me to in your exhibition is how recipes and food enable a kind of intergenerational transference of knowledge—whether through memory, identity, or trauma. Was this an aspect you had traced before, or did it just emerge as the show came together?
SS: It definitely was on our mind to a great extent because of The 1Shanthiroad Cookbook. There were so many cultural anecdotes or moments that came out from different people telling us why they were giving us a particular recipe. Even Shanthiroad itself, which we see as a domestic space, is actually a completely chaotic combination of people. It’s people from different backgrounds with diverse cultural understandings of what food is, what a kitchen is, what an ingredient is, what family is, what can and cannot be eaten, what should and should not be done. Also we had seventy contributors. Undeniably, everyone came with the background context of what they were giving us, so it was very much a part of the conversation. This theme of the family recipes entered the artworks as well.
NF: There’s Leone Contini’s work Ricettario Immaginato, which is a republished copy of his great granduncle’s journals from his time in prison after the Battle of Caporetto. In these journals, his uncle Giosuè notes down recipes shared between inmates for the food they desired and dreamt of—their imagined menu. And it is also about his relationship to his uncle, whom he cares for so much that he refused to translate some bits of the police report on him, saying that his uncle wouldn’t have been happy about some of the things that were said about him. In this case, this refusal of access to information is a familial gesture.
There’s also Pushpamala’s film Rashtriy Kheer & Desiy Salad which looks at the idea of the ideal Indian family, using her family cookbooks, where she’s framing family as a product of independence and the newly-formed nation state. There’s also Jason Hirata’s work, an audio piece that lists the meals served in Japanese internment camps in the US during the Second World War; his family was in one of those camp.
As you pointed out, this is all especially acute in the context of the cookbook. In Five Morsels of Love by Archana Pidathala, the author collects her family’s Andhra recipes, but this then becomes a community cookbook that represents an entire cuisine. The family becomes a representation for something much larger, and in the same way food becomes a way of accessing something much larger.
Nihaal Faizal is an artist whose works respond to the copy, the replica, the remake, the gadget, and the gimmick, often reflecting upon media documents from popular and cultural memory. He founded Reliable Copy in 2018.
Sarasija Subramanian is an artist and the editor at Reliable Copy. Her research-based practice stems from analogies derived from the organic world, growing from the desire to revisit critical moments of the past, and to raise these to legibility in our current contexts.
Samira Bose is Programmes Coordinator at Asia Art Archive in India.