The Karachi Art Anti-University is an Anti-Institution based in Karachi seeking to politicise art education and collectively explore new radical pedagogies and art practices. KAAU is a nomadic space moving outside the institution to occupy public spaces in the city as sites of study, disrupting imperial modes of knowledge production and circulation. Their sessions are site specific explorations that seek to learn, share and produce knowledge collectively while exploring new ways of inhabiting, knowing and being with the city, and being with each other. The Karachi Art Anti-University was founded in May 2015 by Shahana Rajani & Zahra Malkani.
Theo Di Castri sat down with Rajani and Malkani to talk about KAAU's unique approach to landscape, architecture, politics, and the past.
Theo Di Castri: How did you come to work at the intersection of landscape, architecture, and art?
KAAU: Zahra has a background in Studio Art and Visual Culture and Shahana in Art History and Curatorial Studies. We both came to work at the intersection of landscape, architecture, and art mostly through our shared interest in Karachi – the city we both live in and are from – and in attempting to think through and formulate an art practice that engages the city politically and examines critically the processes through which it is transforming. Perhaps because our interest and background is in the visual, landscapes and architectures become essential entry points and modes through which we engage these spaces and questions.
TD: What does your practice look like? Where do you begin? How do you proceed?
KAAU: We don’t quite have a methodology yet… The projects we discuss here are all collaborative. The Gandi Engine Commission was a project we took on as part of the public art collective, Tentative Collective, and The Gadap Sessions, for which we have brought together a team of 11 interdisciplinary researchers and practitioners, is part of our long term collaborative project, the Karachi Art Anti-University. We tend towards projects that facilitate a long-term, research-intensive, political engagement with a space or a question. At KAAU we are very inspired by the principles of Francico Gutierrez’ ecopedagogy: collective and engaged study as political praxis. Site-specificity is also important to us: to engage the environment and surroundings of our projects in conversation and struggle. Further, we always attempt to connect with and work in collaboration and solidarity with groups and communities that are organising around the city.
TD: How does your particular context working in Karachi--a post-colonial, rapidly globalising, Pakistani city—inflect your conception of “landscape”?
KAAU: We want to move away from European/white notions of land as something to be enacted upon by Man, but instead as that on which you live and with which you work. In our art practice we experience and engage with the landscape as a teacher, a storyteller, a source of great knowledge, a historian, a witness, an archivist.
It is important in the postcolonial context to understand the ways in which “landscape” as a concept is embedded in the colonial project, how it helped harness the environment as a medium for the production and maintenance of colonial power and how these practices live on in neocolonialism and the comprador class. Just as the colonial city was built in the reflection and interests of colonial social relations, so too are landscapes and colonial landscaping practices. This includes the outlawing and erasure of indigenous agricultural practices and knowledges, conceptual categories, native flora, and topographies etc. You can read and trace these histories and processes in the landscape of the city, and we attempt this in our practice.
Much has been said and written about the centrality of land and contestations over land in violence, conflicts, and politics in Karachi, conflicts that are escalating as Karachi sprawls outwards and is increasingly subjected to the aspirations and interventions of infrastructure and real estate developers. Meanwhile the dire consequences of climate change in Karachi are also becoming increasingly apparent, with extreme and frequent heat waves and water shortages becoming routine. We know that the effects of climate change are manifesting disproportionately in cities in the global south and we are clearly witnessing this here in Karachi. The intense militarisation of our city in relation to the war on terror is also inscribing itself onto the landscape, in the form of new emerging structures, architectures, and occupations on the land.
Development is also rapidly transforming the urban landscape. The visual framing of landscape in development discourse, for example as barren wasteland [depicted by] the colonial myth of Terra Nullius, plays an important role in sanitising development projects and obscuring their systemic colonization of space. It is through the landscape then that we can situate the abstracted and de-materialized imperial forces and power relations within lived realities. In the Gandi Engine Commission, we were interested in tracing the flows of waste to make visible the ways in which development and toxic colonialism rely on sacrificial places and bodies. In our more recent project, Gadap Sessions, we have been closely following a mega-development project by real-estate company Bahria Town, that is violently transforming the landscape at the outskirts of the city, to bring into view its mechanisms of erasure and displacement.
TD: Tell us more about your most recent project: the Gadap Sessions. The Gadap Sessions is a project concerned, at least in part, with unearthing and recovering forgotten histories. What methods and practices emerged on this front?
KAAU: The Gadap Sessions took place from February to June 2016 in Gadap Town at the periphery of Karachi. Gadap Town is inhabited by indigenous Sindhi and Baloch communities who have lived and worked on this land for generations. Many of these communities (at least 45 villages) are now being driven out and the land is being developed for a massive real estate project, Bahria Town Karachi (BTK). For the Gadap Sessions we worked in collaboration with the Karachi Indigenous Rights Alliance -- a community alliance formed in 2015 to resist BTK and to defend indigenous settlements, land, historic sites and culture throughout Karachi -- to document the devastation of this project.
Understanding this struggle has necessitated going beyond the atrocities of the present moment and looking into the past. Mainstream origin stories of Karachi usually describe the city as being “discovered” or “built” either by colonisers or settlers (the British, the Urdu-speaking community, etc). The story of “Modern Karachi” begins with those who modernised and urbanised it. Such narratives elide the existence of the Sindhi and Baloch fishing and agricultural communities that predated these groups. The erasure of Sindhi and Baloch communities from the history of Karachi has taken place alongside their physical displacement from their lands and livelihoods. The present-day situation in Gadap thus needs to be situated within this frame and a larger struggle for giving visibility to Sindhi and Balochi claims to this city, and the many struggles these communities have had to fight across Karachi and in the rest of Sindh and Balochistan against development, displacement, and resource extraction.
It is important to understand the current development of Gadap as a new phase in, and continuation of, a larger project of marginalisation of these communities and to historicise it within the slow violence of environmental degradation and state negligence this region has suffered at the hands of the state for decades. Gadap was originally named after its abundant waterholes, and not long ago it was considered the ‘fruit-basket’ of Karachi. However large-scale removal of the top soil in the region, the drying up of its abundant wells, and the diminishing rain caused by climate change have significantly transformed the landscape of Gadap over the past decade. Images of the now dry and barren landscape are used to give legitimacy to BTK, framing it as a benevolent project rejuvenating barren, uninhabitable wasteland. It is therefore necessary to unearth, recover, archive, and visualise the erased histories and counter-landscapes of Gadap, to make visible the long histories of inhabitation that are tied to this land.
Part of the need to turn to, visualise, and dwell in the realm of the past also comes from a desire not to merely (re)produce and circulate images of this region and community in its present moment of degradation and impoverishment. Though it is important to document the evictions, the police brutality, the rubble, and the parched land of Gadap, the violence of BTK’s walls and structures, we believe that the circulation of this imagery often reproduces this very same violence. So we are interested in finding other ways to tell this story.
The Gadap Sessions were not planned to have a final product; the process of working together through a shared politics and learning with and from each other was central. That said, we are currently developing an online space to make the collaborative archive we have produced accessible to others. This website will map out the various layers of our research spatially, temporally, and thematically. Although the sessions have concluded, many of the participants are continuing to work on their own individual and collaborative projects in Gadap. We also hope to facilitate the circulation of their research in its various forms, whether it be via art, academic publications, public lectures, or curatorial projects through our website.
TD: Can you talk a bit more about the Gandi Engine Commission workshops? What emerged out this project?
KAAU: Gandi Engine Commission examined the relationship of the river Ravi to the city of Lahore. Deriving our title from a water treatment plant off the Ravi, colloquially referred to as the gandi engine (“dirty engine”), this project looked at the river as a recipient and vessel of the copious and continuous sewage of the city.
In the public imaginary the Ravi is frequently invoked as a dying and ruined river, however when we came to its banks, there was nothing dead about it. Although we could see the river carrying many waste objects in its murky waters, we also saw many lives and economies still attached to the river. Fisherfolk still managed to fish; buffalo herders and cattle grazers still used the water and land. Across the island, along the river, was an entire village colony that lived with and negotiated the river on a daily basis. This degraded ecology of the Ravi -- polluted by sewage and industrial waste, neglected and forgotten at the peripheries of the city and yet lush, abundant and alive in parts -- seemed to articulate a refusal of colonial and capitalist logics and ways of relating to land: a counter-landscape almost, in its perseverance and denial of colonial concepts of land use and productivity. However, this was also a vulnerable and marginalised zone of increasing state surveillance and regulation, where the state's ambitions for development posed very real threats of expulsion and displacement to people whose livelihoods depended on the river.
The wasted river is testament to a complete absence of state regulation on sewage. Working with the Ravi, we started to investigate the sites through which sewage enters the river. We found a series of defunct sewage treatment plants through which the 12 main city drains emptied into the river. These gandi engines (“dirty engines”) were a ghostly infrastructure where sewage lingered and accumulated; spaces defined by a ubiquity of waste.
We were especially drawn to the gandi engine at Shahdeen Park because of the steel scrap yards located down the lane. These warehouses recycle scrap metal that comes from ship breaking yards on the coast of Gadani in Balochistan. This presented us with yet another circulation and economy of waste. End-of-life ships are sent to the shipyards in the global south for breaking, recycling, dismantling, and scrapping. The materials recovered are then sold to the steel industries in Punjab, which recycle the scrap to produce the metal needed to sustain the kind of development and construction that is currently devastating Pakistan’s urban centers. Through this process, the very means and materials of colonial conquest are sent back to the post-colonial nation, subjugating people and landscape to an ecologically destructive economic order and continuing the cycle of imperial ruination.
So we found ourselves dealing with two things. First, a desire to subvert this false dichotomy of a dead versus living river, and to reframe the ruination of Ravi as an active, ongoing process rather than a static ruin. We also felt it necessary to connect conversations on Ravi's present environmental degradation to deeper, colonial histories of conquest and the violent restructuring of the river and land use. Towards these ends, we designed an experimental workshop on an island in the river which took the form of an artist-led walk. The workshop was an experiment in pedagogy that created a kind of relational history for the audience by connecting fragmented and dislodged histories to the imperial present. The gesture of walking in the space came to connect first hand these connections and processes. The walk culminated at a 4-channel installation of moving image and text projected around the gandi engine and the metal workshop. These videos served to highlight and render visible the interconnections between water, waste, and development.
TD: All of your work has a strong public dimension to it. What is the importance of working on public projects for you?
KAAU: We are always seeking out modes of art production and circulation outside of the art gallery/market system. This comes as much from a political desire to engage and work outside the commercial art community, as it does from a need to find and create alternative spaces because our work, in its forms and content, is indigestible to the many traditional art spaces in Karachi. So the flight from traditional art spaces and institutions has been both voluntary and involuntary for us.
We also want to be wary of the sensationalisation of “public art” that has been happening of late, especially in many cities in the global south. It seems the more devastated by war or impoverished a city is, the more global audiences crave “public art” visuals from its streets. Public art does not necessarily mean accessible or inclusive. We have seen over the past few years in Karachi and Lahore just how much “public art” can be used to close off spaces, to exclude, to condescend, to make spaces alien to inhabitants, to erase and whitewash histories and local traditions and usages of space. We have also seen how cheesy, liberal conceptualisations of “public art” can be mobilised in the interests of the imperial project as global demand for and fascination with cultural production from Pakistan has grown. For example, USAID recently spent hundreds of thousands of dollars funding public art projects that covered a staggering amount of Karachi's wall space as part of their Counter Violent Extremism (CVE) programming.
So while we want very much to think through new and alternative modes, methods, spaces, audiences, and participants for art production and circulation, we are wary of fetishising the “public” for these purposes and are acutely aware of the limitations of this approach.
TD: What is next for you?
KAAU: Our next step is to get the work we have produced over the past six months in the Gadap Sessions out there – for which we need money. We try to operate and produce in ways that require minimal funding but we still find ourselves hemorrhaging money out of our own pockets. There is very little public funding in Pakistan, especially for these kind of practices, and though there has been a huge influx of international donor money into the cultural fields in Karachi in the past decade, we are very wary of the agendas and entanglements that accompany these sources. Yet we are also acutely aware of the need to make our practices sustainable, and to value our labour adequately, as artists, educators, and women – all of whom’s labour has historically been devalued.