New ways of being

Zehra Hamdani Mirza meets Faisal Anwar and offers a peek at the work going into the upcoming Karachi Biennale

It is evening, in 2016, and Toronto’s Aga Khan Museum, majestic as an Egyptian temple, is lit from outside and within by “Char Bagh: A Sensory Garden”. Squares of coloured light pattern the façade, moving in a geometric web. Created by Pakistani-Canadian artist Faisal Anwar, the piece is “an ever-evolving, aerial view of a digital char bagh”. Audiences can stroll past like a Jane Austen character, or fidget with it using their cell phones: the living “bagh” consists of stylised trees, nourished by “incoming streams of data generated via Twitter and Instagram.” Every social media interaction is projected on to the garden and then woven into its carpet of light. The work shakes hands with the viewer.

Recently in Karachi, for a workshop for the Karachi Biennale Trust (the visionary platform combining international art shows, discursive interventions, public and educational outreach), it is undeniable that Faisal has had a most curious trajectory and practice. Even as an undergraduate at NCA, Faisal was intrigued by the way things work: puppetry, hydraulic arms, spaces and interactions. “Technology evolved differently in our part of the world. There wasn’t 3D mapping and such processes. I’d spend months experimenting.” Currently living in Canada, Faisal is an established new media artist, creating quirky, immersive pieces that tease the boundaries of the public and the private. Before we had Ipads on our sofas, he created interactive sculptures for kids, where they could feel like a butterfly or a cat. In his choice of materials, he swaps acrylic and canvas for “real-time open network data” creating “hybrid cross-platform projects”. In other words, technology marries the beauty of a painting and the audience is as important as the artwork. In fact, often the art can’t exist without it. The viewer nurtures and feeds the art: his acclaimed Tweetgarden had participants respond to a curated hash-tag and assist in growing a virtual garden. He appears more DJ than artist, orchestrating a party of sorts around his installations.

In the past he has toyed with the paradoxical intimate and awkward spaces of elevators and hallways, even time travel.  His gentle “Up In The Sky High” rained photo memories from clouds of eco-friendly balloons. His 2007 installation “Zero Cluster: Deportation” explored the stories of deported individuals, and the passive relationship between audience and musician. Viewers could walk around giant screens with projections, while the multicultural Canadian band LAL played inside. The piece toured like a music band would – “except my instruments were a little different,” Faisal says.

Char Bagh - a sensory garden on the facade of the Aga Khan Museum, Toronto 2016 - Photo credits - Salina Kassam

Details are top secret, but the resulting 'urban stories' will be part of Faisal's work for the Biennale in October

In Karachi, his recent workshop for KB engaged students from Karachi School of Art, NJV and the community of Orangi Pilot Project. Prior to meeting the participants, Faisal had ideas for the workshop, but once he met the kids, he says “I realised they should be telling the story”.

Armed with the weapons of urban living —smart phones— Anwar taught them to see in “layers. I wanted to give them handy, accessible tools,” he says “and a very simple language”. The workshop made them see for the first time: the beauty and captivation of their daily journeys. “I’ve never lived in Karachi”, Faisal says. “It’s so huge and fascinating, we had kids coming from so far away, so many different communities.” He found that – naturally – they wouldn’t notice the details anymore. After the workshop, they had a feeling of ownership of their own space, a delight at the daily excavations, in one case a mysterious, ignored object turned out to be an abandoned Victorian buggy. “It was amazing,” Faisal says “I really want to spend more time with these kids” (one told him proudly he went to the same school as Jinnah).

Details are top secret, but the resulting ‘urban stories’ will be part of Faisal’s work for the Biennale in October. Curated by Amin Gulgee, the show engages over 150 artists from Pakistan and the world, under the theme ‘Witness’. KB’s public art project is Pakistan’s largest, spreading functional and striking art around the city; its discursive programming brings the intellectual and artistic (poet, musician or painter) together to document and share knowledge. And since last year, inventive artists (like Faisal) from as far as Germany and Malaysia have visited the city to engage with schoolchildren and communities.

Tweetgarden - Photo credits - Faisal Anwar

In an age where artists are rock stars with record selling art pieces (currently at the Venice Biennale, British star Damien Hirst’s new work has the theatrics and cost of a Hollywood blockbuster) the average person often wonders: how is art relevant to me?  Isn’t it something to be ‘assessed’ by suited men with hammers, or ‘owned’ by mansion residents? Critic Niilofur Farrukh references the upcoming KB, of which she is CEO, to explain why art is more than just a commodity. “I think KB 17 is making art an experience as well as encouraging reflection on society, like a good book or play. It gives people access to ideas and concerns in a more nuanced way. Art can be a collective experience.”

Faisal’s art reflects that. “I don’t call myself an activist,” he says. “But I think technology is a good medium to generate a conversation. My medium is looking at the angle of how to create awareness.” In places like Pakistan where art is confined to homes and commercial galleries, “people feel left out” says Farrukh. With ongoing events like Faisal’s workshop, she says, “we are trying to build a connection.”

And wouldn’t it be wonderful and important, if we could all, every one of us – the bus conductor, passenger, the one driving past in their BMW – sit under a luscious mural, or in the shadows of a sculpture, or in Faisal’s case, stroll through the caverns of a breathing installation?

Zehra Hamdani Mirza is a Karachi-based writer and artist