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A bleeding city, a spaceship shelter
ADITYA MANI JHA  7th Mar 2015

View of Vienna envisioned as a self-sufficient space station by CAAS in an earlier project.

n 2013, the author Vikram Chandra wrote a non-fiction book called Mirrored Mind: My Life in Letters and Code. As the title suggests, the book sought to make sense of Chandra's dual lives as programmer and novelist. One of the most important points that Chandra made was that while the best coders thought of themselves as artists, taking care that their creations are not just functional but also elegant. Artists, on the other hand, are prone to give in to the feelings of alterity that science provokes in them. Chandra writes: "Most of the artists I know — painters, film-makers, actors, poets — seem to regard programming as an esoteric scientific discipline; they are keenly aware of its cultural mystique, envious of its potential profitability, and eager to extract metaphors, imagery, and dramatic possibility from its history, but coding may as well be nuclear physics as far as relevance to their own daily practice is concerned."

When I visited The Undivided Mind, an exhibition (at Khoj Studios, Khirkee) that sought to bridge the gap between art and science, I was mindful of the challenges such an enterprise entailed (even the name of the exhibition echoes the name of Chandra's book). The creators were Susmita Mohanty (spaceship designer and aerospace entrepreneur), Barbara Imhof (space architect), Sue Fairburn (scientist and design researcher) and Rohini Devasher (visual artist). The gallery space at Khoj was visualised as a giant spaceship, with individual segments of the show being kept at different "modules" of the ship (the idea is called CAAS: City As A Spaceship).

The Undivided Mind has an ingenious thesis at its heart: that there are parallels between the challenges of living aboard a spaceship, with no gravity and not much by way of (recognisable) food, entertainment or other creature comforts; and the everyday struggle of living in a city where resources are dwindling at the speed of light and sustainable alternatives are hard to implement. In one of the print materials that form part of the show, the creators put forth the CAAS vision thus: "By grounding space innovations and uplifting earth innovations, CAAS can challenge and shape ideas and serve as curator and broker to the planning, designing, developing and inhabiting of near future cities. We are, by no means, propagating that the way we live in outer space is more eco-efficient than how we live on our Earth, or the other way round. There are parallels, there are differences and there are reciprocities."

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We found The Undivided Mind to be more science than art, but it is an undeniably elegant depiction of some rather dire scenarios that seem very plausible indeed.

True to this manifesto, the centrepiece of the show is a pair of video installations. The first video shows NASA astronaut Sunita Lyn Williams giving a guided tour of the International Space Station. The tone and tenor of this video is fascinating: Williams is, of course, a top-notch scientist and engineer, and she explains the science behind space exigencies superbly. Every now and then, though, you get a glimpse of the gaping loneliness and ennui of space; her fellow astronauts seem to be straining to smile for the cameras, like they'd rather be doing anything than this. It is in these moments of fracture that the art/science crossover aspect of the exhibition really kicks in.

The other installation is a small documentary, comprised mostly of interviews with researchers at CSE (Centre for Science and Environment) and professors at SPA (School of Planning and Architecture). Together, these interviews try to make a road map of what Delhi needs to do in order to have a sustainable infrastructure network: clean water, clean air and unclogged roads. These interviews are helpfully interspersed with long shots of Delhi's squalor; dustbins overflowing with rubbish, roads so filthy it seems a travesty to walk on them, motorists and pedestrians with masks, going about their day with an unmistakably martyred air.

At one point, Satwik Mudgal, senior research associate at CSE says: "I see almost every Indian city turning into a waste mine... 50 years down the line, we might be mining our own waste hills, our own landfills." Strong words, but what is even more troubling is that he, as well as the creators of the exhibition, have done their homework and have the science to back these statements up. At the end of the documentary (and in the printed materials), there is a set of visual data representations, input-output graphs that show us just how far in the quagmire we have sunk. These graphs show us the consumption patterns of industrialised cities, using parameters like power, water, food consumption, waste production and CO2 emissions to generate eight-headed figures.

Here's what the results show: "(...) As with the first set, one finds the industrialised economies consuming a lot more thus, spitting out a lot more in terms of waste. The emerging economies will likely catch up with this pattern in the coming decades and the situation might get out of hand, putting the future of the planet in peril."

We found The Undivided Mind to be more science than art, but it is an undeniably elegant depiction of some rather dire scenarios that seem very plausible indeed. Perhaps we ought to follow the words of Captain James T. Kirk (he's quoted in one of the galleries here); in terms of our megacity plans, we may have to "go where no man has gone before".

 
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