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Does a city like Karachi even need a Biennale?

Simply placing artwork in a public space does not make it public art.
Updated Nov 16, 2017 05:46pm
I


In the mini blue booklet distributed to visitors as a guide to the first-ever Karachi Biennale (KB17), the chief curator Amin Gulgee quotes the mystic poet Kahlil Gibran:

“Now, I feel, is the time for us to join together as artists and as human beings to bear witness to our shared salt.”

We think it is time to remind ourselves that there is no shared salt here.

It was the Sindhi feminist poet, Attiya Dawood, who first convinced us of the fallacy of shared salts. We were talking poetry at her sunny apartment on a Sunday morning, and we remember being ecstatic at the prospect of venturing into Bhittai, hailing it as a universal text.

At this point, Dawood smiled coyly and shared a small anecdote: She was once interviewing a group of Sindhi women in the interiors of the province whose husbands had migrated to Gulf countries in search for jobs.

Eulogising their suffering, Dawood told them: “Seeing you here, I am reminded of poem by the Shah of Bhittai, a poem that mourns the lives of Sindhi women on the banks of the river Sindhu, who, separated from their lovers, are heartbroken.”

At this, the Sindhi women burst into giggles, and asked: “Kaunsi poetry? Kaunsa love? Hamare shohar bohat badmaash the. Pura din ghar ka kaam karvate the. Acha hua chale gaye.”

(What poetry? What love? Our husbands were quite notorious. Making us do housework all the time. Thank goodness they’ve left!)

Dawood burst into laughter as she finished her anecdote, but that day, we learnt a vital lesson about the fallacy of the universal and the importance of the particular.

Explore: Dialogue: Laurent Gayer and Omar Shahid Hamid on Karachi

Driving to the 160-year-old building on the M.A Jinnah Road that houses the NJV School, we, too, are moved to ask: “Kaunsi madness?” (What madness?)

We, of course, are not responding to any poem, but words from the chief curator’s statement, the contents of which are aimed at poeticising something that is hardly poetic: The disorder of Karachi.

“Of course, the city is by the sea,” Gulgee tells us in a KB17 promotional video. “And of course, you can go there, look at the waves and feel open and clean and fly like a seagull."

"You have the energy of the city, the city buses, the rickshaws, taxis, it’s polluted, it’s crowded, and it has this tremendous energy… I call this maddening, inspiring city home.”

The taxi driver taking us to the NJV does not think there is anything inspiring about the traffic or the fumes. For him, on the contrary, Saddar represents a site of claustrophobia and frustration.

Upon reaching the NJV, when we ask him if he knows what is happening inside the building, the opening of Pakistan’s largest contemporary art event that is “an occasion to participate in an aesthetic, intellectual, and emotional survey of the city,” his response is a mix of indifference and dismissiveness: “yar kitna traffic hai.” (God damn this traffic!)

He reminds us of the laughing women from Dawood’s story, who have already made clear to us the difference between the imagined and the lived: The disorder of the city that is mad and inspiring for some is conversely nerve-wracking for others.

At the KB17, the two-week long, public exhibit spanning 12 venues, the politics of conflating the city as a site of lived space with the city as an imagined space – a concept of spatial politics on par with Benedict Anderson’s notion of imagined communities – was quite apparent.


The city imagined by the KB17 was a far cry from the city as it is experienced by those who bear the brunt of its material degradation.

Imagined geographies, to borrow Edward Said’s term, refer to the perception of space created through certain images, texts, or discourses – and in our case, the exhibit of the KB17 itself – that is radically different, and in fact, establishes a distance, from the lived nature of the spaces in question.

Yet Said has the French geographer Henri Lefebvre to thank for this very critical distinction between the city as imagined and the city as lived; Lefebvre, who had aimed to liberate space from both its status as a pre-existing given and its passive role as a mere backdrop for social activities.

Who can forget his polemic statement that “Space has now become a theatre [emphasis added], a stage or a setting of action, than action itself.”

As we walk into the NJV, the voice of the exasperated taxi driver fading into the background… yar kitna traffic hai … we realise that we, too, have entered a theatre that holds little semblance with the world right outside the NJV’s gates. Welcome to the Karachi Biennale 2017.

We are greeted by two security guards with metal detectors, who ask us if we have invitations to the private opening ceremony – an affair kept entirely separate from the ‘public’ for whom the exhibits open on Day 2 – a contradiction in itself.

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After being cleared, we proceed to the reception area where a couple of volunteers are handing out the Biennale booklets, the first few pages of which lay out the project’s philosophy, describing it as a strategy to “strengthen a global art exchange” by proposing that “a bruised city like Karachi enter into an international discussion on art.”

That this is a statement so symptomatic of what Federica and Vittoria Martini, in their book Just Another Exhibition: Histories and Politics of Biennials, call “the globalisation of the art system”, is hardly contentious.

The KB17 curatorial team has no qualms about confessing this themselves, when they say that they “are part of the global network of the International Biennale Foundation [previously named the Venice Biennale] and have a strong partnership with cultural institutions abroad.”

To understand the socio-economic ramifications of the ways in which the KB17 posits an imagined geography of the city to embody a global aesthetic, we must first trace the spatial politics of its source inspiration – the archetype of the Biennale itself – which will allow us to understand the pitfalls of globalising cities, common to this popular exhibition model.

II


While first popularised in 1895 by the Venice Biennale, cultural theorists Peter Sloterdijk, Marion Roces, and Donal Preziosi, amidst others, trace the genealogy of this exhibitionary model in those notorious world exhibitions which began with the Grand Exhibition of 1851 in London and were epitomised by the Exposition Universelle of 1889 in Paris.

These exhibitions, according to theorists, were “the first human attempts to condense the representation of the world in a unitary exhibition space, where the main exhibit became the world itself, a museum – an ahistorical thing [emphasis added].”

In his seminal 1989 essay Orientalism and the Exhibitionary Order, British political theorist Timothy Mitchell brilliantly documents the curatorial strategies used during the world exhibitions. A world exhibition, he tells us, spanned across the public spaces of the city hosting it.

Each site chosen for the exhibition would house large-scale structures that served as replicas of cities from around the world, so that for the person navigating through the city, “the world itself was ordered up as an endless exhibition,” or to echo a phrase from Martin Heidegger, the “age of the world as exhibition.”

Mimicry, spectacle, and performance were incorporated into the exhibition’s 'theatrical machinery' to accentuate what Mitchell calls 'the effect of the real.'

Such was the obsession with maintaining this effect, according to one Arab writer visiting the exhibition, that “even the paint on the replica building was made dirty to represent ancient Cairo.”

Also read: The lament of a heritage manager in Pakistan

Parisian visitors who had never been to Cairo themselves were convinced in the honesty of these reductive representations.

Things only went bizarre when a group of Egyptians entered the replica of a mosque, only to find themselves in an Oriental-themed cafe that served real coffee.


Disoriented, resentful and angry, they brought the ‘effect of the real’ into serious question: Had their lived experiences been reduced to mere objects?

Where exactly lay the fine line between the artificial and the real, the representation and reality?

The organisers maintained their cool, asserting that turning the world into an exhibition only functioned as a larger metaphor: Of the globalisation of cities.

Or to use the rather ritualistic expression, “the meeting of cultures” and “breaking down of cultural barriers” – in this case quite literally, within the space of the world exhibition itself.

38 years earlier, the curatorial team at the Grand Exhibition of 1851 in London had responded with the same rhetoric to similar objections raised in Paris.

Of all people, Karl Marx happened to be in the British capital at the time. Persuaded by Engels to visit the Exhibition’s opening, they had flocked together to the grounds of Hyde Park where the world exhibition was taking place.

Furious at what they saw, they wrote a scathing critique in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung Revue shortly afterwards, describing the “spectacle” as “the most impressive cold-bloodedness” they had ever witnessed.

They referred to it “as a striking proof of the concentrated power with which modern large-scale industry is everywhere demolishing national barriers and increasingly blurring local peculiarities [emphasis added] of production and society…”

This politics of globalising cities at the world exhibitions has now largely been documented by historians and urban theorists alike, finding its way to Pakistani artists too, one of whom, Julius John Alam, writes:

“The oldest arts festivals, including The Great Exhibition (1851) can be seen as the first attempt by a world power to affirm its spectacular wealth and high taste."

"The world fairs held in the 19th century provided a prototype for the modern art fair. While the overt desire was to provide a venue for a proliferation of arts and crafts, a covert goal was the affirmation of the hosting country as the hub of power and culture."

"This is the common agenda of capitalism and consumer culture, that is to dissipate itself through spectacle.”

Read more: SMOKERS’ CORNER: KARACHI: A HISTORICAL MESS

One is then led to ask: Whether their illusion was broken or not? The answer lies in the experiences of those Europeans who left the exhibition and encountered the real beyond the exhibit.

“So here we are in Egypt,” wrote one of them, a certain Gustave Flaubert, in a letter from Cairo.

“What can I say about it all? What can I write you? As yet I am scarcely over the initial bedazzlement … each detail pinches you; and the more you concentrate on it the less you grasp the whole…. it is such a bewildering chaos…”

In this encounter with the real that Mitchell brings up too, Flaubert experiences Cairo as a material chaos. And what can he say about this material experience? That “it is a chaos that refuses to compose itself as a picture… it is an absence of pictorial order [emphases added].”

Subsequently, dissociating oneself from the city’s material reality is also expressed in pictorial terms.

“The more distance you assume, [the city] becomes harmonious and the pieces fall into place of themselves, in accordance with the laws of perspective,” writes Flaubert. “The world arranges itself into a picture and achieves a visual order.”

“Every year that passes,” one disappointed Egyptian wrote criticising Flaubert, “you see thousands of Europeans traveling all over the world, and everything they come across they make a picture of that tells nothing about our lives. [emphases added]”


Flaubert’s account exposes the contradictions of world exhibitions, or their modern-day successors, the art biennales of the world.

Curators reorder the real as a picture, a spectacle, a theatre, a museum, a mimicry, a performance. In doing so, a great deal of distance is established (“the more distance you assume”) from the materiality of the lived space.

In establishing distance from that materiality, art biennales’ claim that they “are here to represent cities” and “to witness what the city stands for” simply drops dead.

As we climb the stairs to the NJV, Mitchell’s words hit us too, “As visitors to the world exhibit, you imagine yourself caught up in a hall of mirrors from which you cannot find a way out."

"You cannot find the door that leads back to the real world outside; you have lost touch with reality. [emphasis added]”

We enter the NJV, establishing distance. The regurgitating sound of the traffic outside drops dead.

III


If imposing an exhibitionary order onto lived spaces had such serious social and political ramifications at the world exhibitions in the 19th Century, it is unfortunate to hear Nilofur Farrukh, the CEO of the KB17, describe her project precisely along these lines:

“I’m looking at it [the city] as a museum.” It is equally unfortunate to hear Asma Ibrahim, a Trustee of the KB17, describe the event as “a museum outside of the building.”

Reducing lived realities of a city space to a museum can only offer us a myopic understanding of the nature of city spaces.

Biennials, or city-as-exhibits, participate in the construction of this myopia, where audiences, following the romantic attitudes of Phileas Fogg, the fictional character invented by Jules Verne, navigate the city in an “ambition to represent the complexity of the world in a compressed journey.”

To evoke the words of the founder of modern anthropology Claude Lévi-Strauss, compressed journeys “do not involve, as we like to believe, in discovering facts after long and thorough study, but in covering a considerable number of kilometres, while collecting fixed and animated images.”

Read next: Karachi diagnostic

It is important, then, to ask ourselves: Underneath this ambitious palimpsest of animated images, what are the plain facts about Karachi in general and Saddar in particular?

From Arif Hasan to Perween Rahman to Noman Ahmed to Nausheen Anwar, responsible and engaged intellectuals and citizens alike have written about the problems that have plagued Karachi.

The report The Rise of Karachi as a Mega City gives us frightening statistics of urban poverty: 50% of the total population in Karachi is living below the poverty line, a large ratio of which occupies the peripheries of katchi abadis. Out of this ratio, 54% are chronically poor.

Karachi struggles to cater to rising urban demands and finds itself in the face of a staggering 90,000 unmet units of housing this year.


The traffic fumes in the city, especially on M.A Jinnah road right outside the NJV building, are good enough to choke you.

The National Environmental Quality Control estimates that 86% of the city air pollution is high sulphur in disguise, emitted from fuel-inefficient motor vehicles such as the W11 buses and the rickety rickshaws that symbolise “a tremendous energy” for the chief curator of the KB17.

The city generates an unbelievable 475 million gallons of sewage per day. Open sewers and overflowing manholes abound throughout the city, carrying an artery of untreated waste that is discharged into nallas winding their way into an Arabian Sea that the chief curator of the KB17 finds “open and clean.”

Saddar itself is emblematic of Karachi’s historical material problems and their transformations.

Part of British modernisation that divided the city into Old Town and New Town, Saddar was part of the latter, along with Civil Lines and the Cantonnement – centres of social and political power where the British (and some indigenous elites) resided in luxury.

Separated they were from the Old Town where the natives lived in a “maze of densely populated mohallas roughly organised in ethnic and religious lines, without any access to water, electricity and sewage lines,” according to researcher Laurent Gayer in his impeccable book, Karachi: Ordered Disorder and the Struggle for the City.

Further read: Karachi needs revenues of the size of a country, not of a municipality

The spatial segregation along class lines continued after the creation of Pakistan, when the “wealthier muhajirin, including public servants, were allocated prime housing in downtown localities around Saddar,” notes Gayer.

“Karachi’s turbulent plebs,” on the other hand, were settled on the outskirts in Baldia, Malir, and Korangi during Ayub Khan’s regime.

Some were “forcibly settled” in New Karachi under Ayub’s Greater Karachi Resettlement Plan – a “disciplinary project which aimed to sanitise and secure the city centre [emphasis added] by sending away the poorer, working-class segments of the refugee population to the periphery of the city,” writes Gayer.

This class-based urban engineering of the city resulted in consequences that Karachi still lives with, one of which is most apparent on the M.A Jinnah Road.

As all other major arteries, it became a “transit channel” for the working classes to move between the city centre and their residences, leading to “clogging and environmental degradation” of Saddar, destroying any potential it had to be a “socially integrative” place.

It is here, in Saddar, on the M.A Jinnah Road, that the KB17 purports to “disrupt the limits of our spatial imagination… [and be] an occasion to revisit our histories, rethink our present, and reimagine our future with greater optimism.”

The irony lies in undertaking a project whose curatorial paradigm reproduces precisely what it claims to disrupt: A distance from the material realities of the space it has entered.

IV


The politics of establishing distance from the material realities of Saddar, and thus de-limit, rather than disrupt, our spatial imagination of it, manifested itself in many ways at the KB17.

Simply placing artwork in a public space does not make it public art, especially if distance is at work.

In her monumental book Evictions: Art and Spatial Politics, Rosalyn Deutsche formulates a clear-cut working definition of what public art means – and one that is as inclusionary as it gets.

“The most radical promise embodied in the public art”, writes Deutsche, “is to decrease this distance by “dislodging public art from its ghettoisation within the parameters of conventional art discourse, and resituate it, at least partially, within critical urban discourse.”

Borrowing from Eric Gibson’s Public Art and the Public Realm, Deutsche establishes the "criterion" for public art: “What distinguishes public art in the eyes of its proponents, and, further, what renders it more socially accountable than the old, is precisely its 'usefulness.'"

"Definitions [of usefulness] will differ from artist to artist, but they are held together by a single thread: it is art plus function [emphasis original], whether the function is to provide a place to sit for lunch, to provide water drainage, or to enhance and direct a viewer's perceptions.”

"Utility", to quote Gibson himself, “is the principal yardstick for measuring the value of public art.”

Public art, as such, has a functional basis and involves a dedication to extra-aesthetic concerns of the community it is claiming to represent.

Radical public art, then, is promoted as useful in the reductive sense of fulfilling essential human and social needs.

Building on this foundation, radical public art claims to unify successively a whole sequence of divided spheres, offering itself in the end as a model of integration.

Initially setting up a polarisation between the concerns of art and those of utility, it then transcends the division by making works that are both artworks and usable objects at the same time.

Further, it claims to reconcile art, through its usefulness, to the public.

Related: KARACHI: The partitioning of Clifton Beach

If the supreme act of unification with which the intelligent public art is credited is its interdisciplinary cooperation with the public and their lived realities, the KB17 seems to have disappointed.

Nowhere is their promise of “cross-disciplinary approach that reflects collaboration among communities” and “discursive interventions that aim to cross pollinate idea across contexts" realised.

These exhibits of the KB17 belie the impression of bringing “art out of the galleries and to the public,” but their imagination of what constitutes public, to use the Lefebvrian analysis, is limited to seeing “space as a mere backdrop for social activities…”

It is not a coincidence to discover the word backdrop in the official statement of the international partner of the KB17, The International Biennale Foundation (formerly known as the Venice Biennale):

“The goal of Karachi Biennale is to bring visual art into public spaces to invite, encourage, and sometimes impose [emphasis added] public engagement on the viewing audience."

"Using the metropolis of the host city as a backdrop [emphasis added], the Karachi Biennale 2017 will present artistic content that addresses topics and initiates discussion under a conceptual framework titled Witness."

"Projects will be created that interact with the viewing public to create a platform that is democratic and accessible.”

The word backdrop exposes KB17’s theatrical connotations, implying distance from the lived, reminiscent of a canvas on which paint applied, or a Cartesian grid on which everything is an empty, white space waiting to be conquered.


As such,space is rendered as passive and the artist/geographer an active agent of negotiation. Space and the public living in it are already reduced to non-agents.

But perhaps comparing the city to a canvas might be overlooked, given the KB17’s lack of cross-disciplinary ethic. More appalling is the use of the word impose in the same paragraph as the word democratic, a coupling rather unfortunate to come across.

As the organisers of the world exhibitions asserted that imploding the cities of the world into an exhibition only functioned as a metaphor of “the meeting of cultures”, now the KB17 curatorial team insists on “strengthening a global art exchange showcasing Pakistan to the world.”

On the same topic: Cities, climate change and Pakistan’s extended urbanisation

Mimicry, spectacle, and performance are now part and parcel of the KB17’s 'theatrical machinery,' as they once were of the world exhibition, and they manifest both, in the KB17’s overall philosophy, but also in its curatorial strategy that manifests in individual exhibits that are the positioned in the city space.

In their books, The Society of the Spectacle and The Revolution of Everyday Life, Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem warn us against the cultures of mimicry, spectacle, and performance marketed as “public representations.”

At the heart of their discourse is the idea that spectacles degrade human life, because those creating are detached from those experiencing it, and whether to create poetry out of someone’s dispossession is to degrade their struggles.

As such, with the degradation of human struggle, also comes the hindering of critical thought.

“The whole life of societies,” writes Debord, “presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles [emphasis original]. All that once was directly lived has become mere representation."

"The phenomena of maintain distance is part and parcel of a global social praxis that has split up into reality on the one hand and image on the other.”

At the KB17, this splitting is exercised at many exhibits.

Let us take, for example, Huma Mulji’s installation, titled An Ode to a Lamppost That Got Accidentally Destroyed in the enthusiastic Widening of Canal Bank Road, which she had drilled into the walls of the Pioneer Book House, endangering the historical bookshop in the process.

Mulji writes of her site-specific work for KB17: “The installation shifts from buoyant absurdity to a paradoxical and monumental decline… The site of Pioneer Book House, equally worn, gives sanctuary but also illuminates the enormity of the moment, the slow passing of time. The site and the installation within collaborate…”

Of what Mulji promises in technical terms, she, in fact, delivers: As we walk into the Pioneer Book House, we do not even notice the exhibit until we are on the second floor, to behold the distressed face of Maniza Naqvi, who describes herself as the “voluntary caretaker” of the book house.

It is only until Naqvi points it out, jammed between the floors, that we can discern it, that we are almost forced to negotiate its visibility from the materiality of the space it inhabits.


Looking at the exhibit, we are immediately reminded of a quote by Samuel Beckett that he reserved for the works of James Joyce: “It not about something; it is the thing itself.”

Such is the obsession with maintaining the ‘effect of the real’ that, as the owner of the book house Zafar Hussain bitterly reveals:

"When the artist was leaving, she asked me to spit my paan onto the installation. When I refused, she asked if I could get someone to do it, to make it look like it fit in."

It reminded us of the perplexed Arab writer’s account of the world exhibition, that “even the paint on the replica building was made dirty to represent the real Cairo.”

Consider the performance piece, Any Last Words by Kanwal Tariq, who had a few human beings stuffed into sacks to mimic the movements of those who are kidnapped in the infamous band boris of Karachi.

The sacks were placed in between the feet of visitors. We, for one, accidentally walked over a sack, mistaking it for an object, until it resumed its movement, making contorted sounds, to show us that it was alive.

During the opening of the show, people took to the social media to document the performance. Videos showed up on people’s Instagram, with hashtags like #ExperienceTheBody #ContemporaryMovement, one going to the extent of using the hashtag #UrbanRomance.

Later onwards, the editor of ArtNow Pakistan described the performance as “a notable performance” that “brought a certain richness and excitement” to her.

Another depressing example is Hurmat ul Ain and Rabbya Naseer’s tragedy of epic proportions, Dropping Tears Together II. In what was dubbed as performance art around the theme of tears, the two artists came together to chop a dozen kilos of onion.

The sweeper woman we spoke to later, who had to clean the onion peels in the aftermath of the KB17, did not witness any poetry in this installation.

She only stood at a distance, obscured by the weight of the urban visitors and foreigners, the chopping of the dozen of onions only symbolising one thing to her: Waste and humiliation.

The number of activists that the country has known, for whom the memory of suffocation in a sack lives with them every day, to watch a crowd of consumers ‘witness’ their memory by hash-tagging it #UrbanRomance is a very unfortunate affair.

To stereotype and dehumanise Zafar Hussain’s paan-eating habit and turn it into an aesthetic of the working-class as an object of art is questionable behaviour by every standards.

Related: Pakistan’s urban policy: Turning cities into slums

“The spectacle”, Debord tells us, “asserts that all human life, which is to say all social life, is mere representation."

"Any critique capable of apprehending the spectacle's essential character must expose that representation is a visible negation of life — and as a negation of life that has invented a visual form for itself. [emphasis original]”

“The actor supposed to play a condemned man in a realist play is at perfect liberty to remain himself,” continues Vaneigem.

“Herein lies, in fact, the paradox. This freedom that he enjoys is contingent upon the fact that this "condemned man" is in no danger of feeling a real hangman's noose about his neck."

"The roles we play in everyday life, on the other hand, soak into the individual, preventing him from being what he really is and what he really wants to be."

"They are nuclei of alienation embedded in the flesh of direct experience”

If such alienating experiences are created by local artists, who embody considerable detachment from the materiality of the spaces of the exhibits, we need not imagine the alienation carried out by the foreign artists, 40 of them, who have all flown into the city to engage with the public.

Yet, they have brought art “geared toward showcasing New Media, [and] video installation” that relies heavily on technology, intertextuality, and transnational cultural contexts.

This creates a knowledge gap, which according to the journalist Hamna Zubair, has furthered alienated “a public that still conceives of ‘art’ being a product of traditional forms of expression — portraiture, painting and calligraphy, for example."

According to a poll by Dawn, international exhibits have created “an attitude of apprehension” amidst the local public, many of them “admitting that they ‘didn’t understand’ the art” and even “lack the words to explain why.”

These semantic contexts remained unbridged throughout the KB17; and on the contrary, the curators let them exist in this schizophrenic way, without a single inquiry into the desires of the public.

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We still navigate through the exhibits, hoping to find something that would make KB17 worthwhile endorsing. But we are proven wrong – all optimism is thwarted when we chance upon the fact that KB17 has announced a tour of Karachi for the international artists through the Super Savari Express.

In a very problematic feature article written for The Guardian in 2015, journalist Maryam Omidi described this bus service as “an armed tour bus for crime-ridden Karachi.”

The bus comes “secured by six armed guards close by at all times, serving to protect the tourists from the city’s day to day reality.”

One passenger finds the merits of travelling on this bus in the following:

“You have the opportunity to explore the city in a typical Pakistani bus [that are otherwise] fast, with passengers jumping onto the bus; others sitting on the roof if there is no room inside.”

The Super Savari markets itself as a local tour bus promising a local experience of the city while conveniently also facilitating a complete disengagement from the material conflicts of the everyday commuter of the “typical Pakistani bus” that it is modelled after: The W11.

A fuel-inefficient motor, the W11 is no great romance: It contributes to pollution, it is here that working-class women are harassed, and owing to a history of urban rupture, inefficiency and failure, it is part of the city’s transport system now on the verge of collapse.

At Rs2,000 per ticket, against the staggering Rs10 which its local counterpart affords, the Super Savari attracts only the wealthy clientele of posh areas, offering them mediated experiences of the city that cannot be classified as the experiences of the public by any standards.

While the Super Savari tour was open to everyone at the KB17 , international artists were given complimentary trips, while locals were asked to pay the regular fee to avail the same tour.

If the desires of the international artists are really about connecting with the city and its people, why did the KB17 not take them on a local W11 bus?

Here, the KB17’s own contradictions are exposed: They subconsciously devise a separation of the public and the international visitors.


White People want to explore the buildings of Saddar, without having to deal with the locals of Saddar, who are stereotyped into disparate categories because of their class.

Only a panoptic ‘tourist gaze’ is maintained, whereby native bodies and native settlements are reduced to static objects, only to be observed at a distance.

“By absorbing dominant ideology about the city,” writes Deutsche, “proponents of the public art respond to urban questions by constructing images of well-managed and beautiful cities for a global audience. Theirs is a false vision.”

Further read: Who are the winners and losers of Karachi’s mega development projects?

Arif Hasan, the authority on urban planning in Karachi, traces this dominant ideology to the “the World Class city agenda” which comprises of four key desires:

"The World Class city should have iconic architecture; it should be branded for a particular cultural, industrial or other produce or happening; and it should cater to international tourism, which has promoted massive gentrification of public space.”

For Hasan, the above agenda is already in operation, fueling projects spanning from social to cultural to political ones through which global social, economic, and cultural capital (often a combination of these) flows into the city space, at the cost of local modes of life and culture being sidelined.

“Insofar as it discerns a real problem”, writes Deutsche, “the loss of people's attachment to the city – global capital, whether cultural or social, reacts by offering solutions that can only perpetuate alienation: a belief that needs and pleasures can be gratified by expertly produced, "world class" environments: by turning the city itself into a global urban utopia.”

V


“Why should Karachi be Dubai?” asked the late Perween Rahman. “Karachi should be Karachi.”

When looking at what will make Karachi a Karachi for its citizens, how the citizens will reclaim the right to their city, the Karachi Biennale Foundation, as a public art project that purports to “bring art to the public,” needs to ask itself a very pressing question:

When public art itself takes on an insular character and seems more and more divorced from the quotidian issues of the denizens of its city, does Karachi even need an internationally-inspired biennale that fails to create art that can call itself public?

If the aim of the next KB is to consider the issue of public space at all, to forge a lasting discourse on public art, they will have to bring what Gayatri Spivak calls “a shift in their own desires,” towards the local, and acknowledge that first, space is political, and second, so is any intervention in that space.

The purpose of this critical appraisal is solely to suggest an alternative, possibly transformative, practice of public art that understands the political nature of space. This is the struggle for responsible curation.