Soumya Sankar Bose, Where the Birds Never Sing, Inkjet print on archival paper, 2017–2020 Image courtesy the artist and Experimenter, Kolkata
Co-founded by Prateek and Priyanka Raja in 2009, Experimenter has since rooted itself at the heart of the country’s cultural capital. Over its long and momentous history, the space has hosted the likes of Soumya Sankar Bose, Sohrab Hura and Ayesha Sultana in a list of many others, constantly pushing the limits of what a white-cube gallery can and cannot be. Experimenter’s multidisciplinary focus has made it the centre for conversations around not only curation and incubation, but also knowledge, creation and learning. As the gallery marks its twelfth anniversary, we speak to the co-founders about the milestones so far and those to come.
Twelve years in, what has the journey been like?
When reflecting back over the last twelve years, one aspect that stands out is the journey that we have made, hasn’t been in isolation. It has been made together with a group of incredible artists, friends and supporters, and is an ongoing adventure. To describe it in a phrase or a few sentences is difficult since there have been so many simultaneous experiences, but to start with, we would call it exhilarating and fearless, and one that forged friendships we cherish dearly. Every exhibition we do, every art fair we install works at, every museum acquisition and every aspect of the extended program, whether it is the Experimenter Curators’ Hub or the Experimenter Learning Program, our activities under Experimenter Labs, the Generator Cooperative Art Production Fund, all of these are milestones. When we began twelve years ago, all we had was a clear vision and determination to stay on the course. When each aspect of the program is built, it feels like a part of that vision falls into place. Milestones therefore become signposts, moments of acknowledgement, but only act as building blocks of that vision.
What was the biggest challenge in adapting to the new limits posed by the pandemic?
The pandemic posed unprecedented challenges in many ways, yet in our opinion, we worked together in remote mode quite seamlessly from the beginning. An entirely new parallel program, Experimenter Labs, was launched within the first weeks of the pandemic, in early April, as we realised that the impact on our sector would be long and harsh, especially for artists who do not have gallery representations. Experimenter Labs includes several initiatives such as Filament, an online film program, Experimenter Labs Reader, a guest-edited online anthology, Deep Dive, which facilitates artists and peer conversations, Experimenter Radio with playlists and podcasts, BlackBox for works based on digital platforms, online Experimenter Learning Program modules and finally, the cornerstone of Experimenter Labs — Generator Cooperative Art Production Fund, which is unique and entirely co-operative, based on a non-hierarchical format that has supported over thirty artists over the last year. We therefore built our programming online through the past year and continue with these activities. The physical exhibitions program restarted in August 2020 with several important shows across both our spaces, with safety and capacity protocols in place, and we are continuing our programming through the summer as well.
What do you look for while finding new artists?
For us, artists and conversations with artists are at the core of what we do. It is an organic process. When we speak with artists whose works we are interested in, we are typically looking at long arcs of conversation that develop over years. We follow an artist’s practice over time and through these conversations, we develop a relationship that we are invested in taking forward. Therefore, like any relationship or deep friendship that evolves with time, we base our relationships with artists on common interests and shared ethical anchors, facing challenges and celebrating moments together, and that’s how we slowly build our family. As a result, the artists we show also embody our personal interests. But the initial interest is always the artist’s work and their personality — friendship is really what we are pursuing.
Contemporary art has evolved in unprecedented ways, with new technologies at its disposal. What guides your choices today, as opposed to when you started?
We are rather old-fashioned in that sense. Yes, technology has transformed dramatically and continues to develop at breakneck speed, especially in these times with several online platforms, artificial intelligence, 3D spatial mapping technology et cetera, but we prefer to experience art in person. Since we are based in Kolkata, from the very beginning we have been used to working with technology. We feel in current times there is a healthy combination of online and on-site exhibitions, global collaborations, simultaneous in-person and virtual modes of interacting. But what guides us now with regards to the choices we make guided us back then too. These choices are fundamental and will always be about putting our artists’ interests first, sticking to political and ethical choices in the work we do, and being able to create a reflection of the world around us, to hold a mirror that captures the contemporaneity of our times.
Going forward, what is your vision for the next leg of the journey?
We envision to further entrench ourselves in the work we do, steadily build dialogue, discourse and conversation, collaborate with people-led initiatives that have similar principles, go deeper with our program and lead a program that leaves a lasting impact for our region and beyond, and work to create new loci that disrupts geo-political ways of looking at the world. These go beyond philosophical tenets and are realities that we are actively pursuing as a team. We are also building infrastructure in the immediate future. Being indoors all of last year, we have thought a lot about the importance of a non-exhibition-oriented space for free thought, fearlessness, introspection, pluralities and new possibilities. To realise these thoughts, we are currently working on Experimenter Residency, which is a sustainable long-term physical space, that will hold at its core a multi-disciplinary residency program, a growing digital and media archive, a collaborative open studio space and an organic terrace farm.