The Ecology of Creation

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The original Chittara typeface drawings by Radha Sullur (on the wall). Wooden Blocks made out of the Chittara and Godna typefaces. (on the tables). Copyright: The Typecraft Initiative

 

Overview

Fukuoka Asian Art Museum’s Crossing Vision series comprise exhibitions that introduce various visual expressions that extend well beyond the boundaries of art. These include shows on Manga, animation, video, and design as well as new currents of Asian art emerging from this mix of genres.

These include the exhibitions Asia in Comic: Where are we going? (2001); Indian Video Art: History in Motion (2004); AniMate: ANIME in Japanese and Korean Contemporary Art (2005); and Wing and Lighting: A Half-Century of Magazine Design by Kohei Sugiura (2005).

Ecology of Creation is the fifth for the series and will revisit the original theme “artistic intersections.” It features artists whose work attempt to span and cross several realms.

Their works fuse art with agriculture, economics, design, fashion, architecture, science, engineering, and/or medical care. All seek to explore as yet uncharted directions. Process and relationships are paramount in the act of creation for the exhibition’s participating artists. In the course of making their works, they focus more on preparing an ideal environment for the work, creating good relationships with supporters and collaborators rather than the singular intent of efficiently solving a problem. At times, these underlying processes and relationships appear more important than the final works themselves.

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Citing the ecology of the natural world as parallel, the creative environment is imagined as ecosystem that sustains the act and processes of art making. Ecology of Creation is informed by this metaphor as shown by a diverse range of artistic projects.

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The exhibition will be at the museum lounge and café area, a setting uncommonly thought of as formal exhibition space; for visitors to enjoy the artworks any time and at their leisure. We also hope that various events organized to complement the exhibition deepen and enrich the experience of art at the museum.

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Curatorial Essay by Nakao Tomomichi
Curator, Fukuoka Asian Art Museum

“The project is meant as a way for craftspeople and tribal artists to think in new ways — in a world where they are no longer able to sustain themselves solely through traditional networks and systems.”

These words by Ishan Khosla an artist from India about his project Typecraft Initiative, aptly introduces the exhibition.

They capture the precarious life led by people in traditional societies and the even greater likelihood of their ways of life disappearing. His words likewise suggest that in order to sustain these ways of life, it is essential not only to support traditional societies but also to preserve the environment and strengthen communal ties. It remains a challenge to work toward these goals given the rapid and tumultuous changes we face today. What is required of us then is to find new ways to reconstruct and redefine our living environments. Considering these urgent realities of traditional life, Khosla’s Typecraft Initiative resulted to the digital Godna and Chittara fonts, both developed from traditional art forms.

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One of our goals is to transcend the stereotypical barriers between craft and design, so that a craftsperson can become a designer and a designer, a craftsperson.

 

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While the situation of the Jatiwangi community where Indonesian artist Julian Abraham Togar created a series of art works is not as endangered, his project emphasizes the network of relationships between Jatiwangi and the earth, a resource from where they make their living. Jatiwangi is known for its roof tile industry. Through collaborations with local people and specialists, Togar created perfume and liquor from Jatiwangi’s soil and music instruments with the roof tiles. Neither the making of these objects nor documentation of processes was the ultimate goals for the artist. Rather, Togar intended for the project to create a framework through which Jatiwangi culture and identity are strengthened and cultivated in individual members of the community. Togar calls works imbued with these functions “monument;” regardless whether they have a physical appearance or not which is contrary to how we perceive monuments.

Ecological Perspective

The artwork is a result of the complex combination of various factors, so much that even small changes surely affect the final state of the work. It can remain a minor difference, or cause a fundamental change that will turn the work into a completely different object. If the relationship or the environment plays such an important role in shaping an artwork, we can claim the relationship is, in fact, a determining factor of the work. We can further say that the relationship itself is an artwork, and that the essence of art resides not only in its physical form, as Togar’s idea of the monument indicates.

While this borders on exaggeration, there are surely artworks that do not fully rely on their materiality or object hood. Such tendencies are becoming greatly pronounced in contemporary art.

Artist Huang Po-Chih uses bottles of lemon liquor, found natural and artificial objects from his lemon farms, together with his poems for his 500 Lemon Trees piece. The core element of his work however resides in his everyday activities, which cannot be displayed in the museum. Other intangible factors of the work include his conversation with his mother as well with the lemon trees, his relationship with his supporters, who actively participate in the project by donating cash. Although we only see what is exhibited in the museum, his work Factory: A Proposal for the Museums, we can take a part by imagining and sharing the future of his project by becoming a supporter through donations for building the factory.

In their methods of art making, kinds of relationship these artists adopt alongside the creative process directly impacts the works themselves. The individual steps to cultivate a relationship become necessary, unfolding as they do over time — processes necessary to reach the ideal relationship for the work to transpire or come into being. Such apparently “inefficient” processes could be crucial to the creative outcome.

Although not included in the exhibition, Beak Jungki’s Is of series is an example. In his 2011 works of Naejangsan mountains in Korea, the artist photographed the fall foliage and printed the image with pigments made from leaves gathered from the site. While the artist spent 2 years to complete an original printing system, the color made of actual leaves was less realistic than the artificial ink typically used. However, while the intensity of the color was less strong, the photographs faded with the passing of time, echoing those of the seasons and much like real fall foliage.

Their works and approaches made me think of “ecology.” Biology treats the link between living things and their environment as an ecosystem. In other words, a single living element and its environment cannot be regarded as separate entity, and the problem of the living element cannot be solved without considering its environment. This idea of ecology can be applied to art when we think of how an artwork is made possible in relation to the artist and its working environment. The notion of ecology in relation to contemporary art is also thought-provoking because of its emphasis on quality over quantity, and the cyclical sense of time. While the term ecology is somewhat overused, it surely is an important lens by which to think of society in the 21st century.

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Crossing Visions

This exhibition is the fifth in Crossing Visions series. It shares the basic concept with previous four exhibitions that featured various expressions in the margins of art, such as Manga, video, and design. While the previous exhibitions focused more on the works that “expanded” the realm of art, this exhibition places a stronger emphasis on the works that “cross” various genres as the title of the series, Crossing Visions, suggests. Crossing various genres, we may find unexpected similarities or profound antinomy among them. We may also find a seed for a completely different style of expression through the mixture of genres. Ecology of Creation is an attempt to cross artistic and biological perspectives, and individual practices of participating artists will also show various forms of interaction and new means of relationship.

While Khosla and Togar sought to introduce new cycles into the lives of traditional communities, other participating artists desired to cultivate a new form of expression by expanding art into a realm made possible by advances in technology and through collaborations with various genres. Nam June Paik who created Plutonian, a robot shaped video sculpture, is representative of this approach.

Paik is internationally acclaimed as a pioneer of media art, and his early video works were made possible with the support of Japanese engineer, Abe Shuya. They first collaborated together in Paik’s Robot K-456 in 1964 and developed an original video synthesizer in 1969, which ultimately expanded the possibilities of new media art.

The notion of ecology in relation to contemporary art is also thought-provoking because of its emphasis on quality over quantity, and the cyclical sense of time. While the term ecology is somewhat overused, it surely is an important lens by which to think of society in the 21st century.

XCEED and monocircus both use advanced technology in their art making as well as working with a group of people of different specializations. XCEED, directed by Hon Him, is a team of young creatives with engineering backgrounds, all based in Hong Kong. Their interests are wide ranging including social issues to space science. These go well beyond their exhibited piece, which rather gives us a peaceful and introspective impression. Monocircus’s work involves an interesting gap; that is, a collaborative team of an artist and an architect who creates 3D accessories. While based in Fukuoka, a non-capital city, their works are accessible from anywhere in the world through their online store.
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Nakao Tomomichi interviews Ishan Khosla

(for other artist interviews, please visit here)

1. For the project (Godna, Chittara and others), what is a vital skill/technology and knowledge needed? 
I chose to start The Typecraft Initiative, as it was a logical extension of my skills as a graphic designer, and, yet I could see the potential of creating beautiful and functional display typefaces from India’s rich craft and tribal living tradition.

When working with craftspeople and tribal artists, in general, it is important to firstly, treat them with respect and as equal partners in the project and to remember that they are the custodians of their own history and knowledge system. Whatever they create in terms of intellectual property belongs to them. Additionally, being humble about the fact that they are far more skilled than most of us designers. And that, we are not doing them a favour by working with them  — but it’s quite the contrary. Some of them might not have a formal education — but their knowledge and belief system, which has been handed down for generations — is immensely rich, and much more valuable than a college degree. It is also important for us to understand their context — in terms of where they come from, their practices and beliefs and current social and economic situation and challenges.

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As far as The Typecraft Initiative is concerned, we involve craftspersons from various parts of country — some groups are more “exposed” to working with outsiders, while others are not so. Understanding these differences is an important aspect of how much time is to be allocated to a particular group. The group that is less used to working with outsiders, needs more time to work and get comfortable with the project at hand.

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Since all the people we work with have no exposure to typography, we start slowly. Sometimes we don’t even work on typography for the first week of our exchange. In the case of the Gond tribal artists, who create godna tattoos — we began by documenting their existing motifs and designs, and, interviewed them about these motifs and their tradition and belief system. We also recorded some of their songs. This made them feel more at home.

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In the subsequent weeks, we slowly introduced them to working with typography. Giving an understanding of the project and yet being able to not burden them with the technical aspects of typography and type design is important. The designer must be sensitive to the both the artistic and aesthetic considerations along with the practical realities to type design and usage. The more complex the letters, the less usable they are. Conversely, the more simple and neutral the letters are, the less unique and authentic they might be to the original art or craft form they have come from and represent. Collaboration with Spanish type designer, Andreu Balius, was an essential step for us to transform the letters into a workable typeface.

As an aside, I am saddened to see many designers and designs students brazenly create some form of craft or tribal art, on their own — without involvement of the group that owns that craft or tribal art — and claim ownership of the designs or concept. They have in effect stolen the IPR of the craftspeople and tribal artists, and used it without their permission.

2. For the project, what is a vital cycle?

All the projects that have been a part of The Typecraft Initiative, thus far, — have been made in collaboration with women. “Sangam” lettering with Sajnu ben (Dhebaria Rabari tribe); Mithila Typecraft with Mamta Jha (Madhubani); Chittara Typecraft with Radha Sullur and Godna Typecraft with Ram Keli, Sunita and Sumitra (Gond tribe).

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Rites of Passage

In general, women have a strong connection with the idea of a “vital cycle” not only as life givers, care-takers of children and the home; and their own monthly menstrual cycles. Some women, especially those from the tattoo community within the Gond tribe have a strong connection to the rites of passage — which are marked by the application of a certain godna tattoo motif on a specific part of the body — to mark the entrance into a new phase of life (such as puberty or pregnancy), for a woman. The motif and the placement varies according to the tribe they are inscribing the tattoo on. Baiga tribe motifs vary for instance, from Bhil tribes. That the tattoos are mainly done by women on women is another strong connection they have to the cycle of life.
Similarly, both Chittara and Mithila art was traditionally painted on the walls and floors outside the home — according to the season, festival or special occasion (for instance, marriage) by the lady of the house. The motifs (in the case of Chittara) and the subject matter (in the case of Mithila) reflect the changing of seasons and represent the different stages of life — from birth to death.

3. What is art for you?
In my opinion, the three — art, craft and design — have a very tenuous and problematic relationship in many ways. The classification of art as done by the West is — in the Asian and contemporary context — a bit limiting as it tries to put the visual arts into neat boxes. In reality, there are and were, varying degrees in which “beauty” and “utility” coincided in every object made. This makes the idea of classification a moot point — especially on the basis of beauty vs. functionality (form versus function). For instance, isn’t there beauty in an iron implement such as a tong or a scissor, and not “just” functionality? Does not a beautiful votive sculpture have an intrinsic function that is rooted in prayer, devotion and faith? Is then, a votive sculpture not functional?

An earthen pot for instance, has evolved over thousands of years to suit the local conditions of soil, how and where it is stored in the home, how women carry it (on the hip or head), how water is collected — whether by bring thrown into the well or from the river — and how smoothly, the water pours out of the spout. This is in my opinion, “high design” and “user centred design” as it has matured over eons of time — based on observation and re-use. However it is also a craft — made by a potter by hand or on the wheel, where each piece is unique. Additionally, it has artistic value not just from the perspective ornamental beauty, but also, how it is so timeless and yet so simple, and essential. And lastly, and most fundamentally, the earthen pot is also a functional object. In resource scarce societies in India — utility and not beauty, was essential to the object. However, even in such societies, some element of ornamentation — no matter how sparse — would find its way into the utensil as beauty was highly valued. Yet, on its own, beauty would have been seen as wasteful.

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4. Why did you decide on creating a typeface? Why was this form of art chosen to preserve the traditional tattoos?
I chose to create a typeface from tattoo art (Godna) as it was a logical extension of my skills as a graphic designer. Typography is the language of graphic design and essential to a graphic designer. Additionally, I wanted to create something that is useful and not “art” or just “decorative”. This functional aspect mirrors the functional aspect of the tattoos themselves which have a ritualistic place in the society of certain tribal communities. By giving it a functional aspect of a typeface — I believe people — not just designers — but anyone could use the typeface to create all sorts of things. For instance, this typeface could become the state typeface of Chhattisgarh and be used by the state government to promote tourism in the state and also use it for signage — for instance in the Railway Stations. it could be used by individuals to create posters — which may or may not be related to the original community — but whatever the outcome, we have create a language which can be used in myriad ways of expressions, and which celebrate the beauty and the richness of Indian tribal art. It would be great if things come full-circle and the tribal communities themselves, one day use this typeface.
I believe in the power of design and technology to transform Indian craft and tribal art and make it more relevant in the contemporary milieu, rather than just let it fade away into oblivion. This typeface will enable the artform to live on.

5. How do you want to develop the project?  What is your vision for an ideal final form (if not, the next stage)?
The long-term vision for this project, is to create a non-profit foundation to be able to give back to the communities we engage with. I believe that while this project is already beneficial to the tribal artists and craftspeople we work with — there is little long-term impact to their day to day lives. For this project to really make a difference, would mean giving back to the artists beyond just the payment of their fees.

The needs of each craft or tribal group can be very different. And the foundation would need to be able to support the specific needs of the people we involve in this initiative. For instance, while one group may need their home to be rebuilt for the monsoon, another may want to be able to sell online, and, yet another needs funds for tools and raw materials.
My long-term vision for this project as well as other projects that engage with tribal and crafts groups is for them to have a palpable benefit to their standard of living. The foundation will also provide interest free loans to the groups it engages with. This can be of tremendous assistance in hard times.

As far as the near-term goals are concerned, I would like The Typecraft Initiative, to be more involved in creating Indic typefaces in scripts such as the devanagari and dravidian systems. This is far more challenging than creating typecraft in the Latin script, due to the number and complexity of the glyphs in Indic scripts. We will have to re-think our approach and how to simplify the letters to make them functional and yet embed the “DNA” of the craft into the letters — so that they represent the particular tribal or craft community involved in their creation.

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6. Do you have anyone in mind who you want to work with sooner or later?
I am interested to explore a 3D Devanagari script with a more sculptural artform such as the metal work of the Bastar tribe in central India. The typographic sculptures when created in 3D can be rendered using 3D software and then either used as individual vector letters or as a 3D typeface. Some of these forms can be made into a 2D typeface as well. Three-dimensional typefaces are still a very nascent area in type design, and one would have to look at the technical challenges of realising this.

Additionally, I am also keen to work in Ikat and other forms of weaving from the East and the Northeast of the country, and to create typographical forms out of that.
The over-arching idea for each new typecraft, is, to challenge both the craftsperson and ourselves as designers. The aim is to be able to engage and work with a number of forms of craft and tribal art from all parts of the country — that are made with varying materials for different purposes and a diverse set of meanings associated with the craft or tribal art.

Since I work a lot in the cultural sector, my goal is to include the completed typefaces from, The Typecraft Initiative, into these projects and also have more and more people and state governments use the these typefaces. It is only then that the project will be successful and can make a bigger impact.

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