Thursday, August 27, 2009

Independent documentary vs. Video art: Girish Shahane on Amar Kanwar

A strange thing happened to Amar Kanwar around the year 2001. He had already established himself in alternative film circles, when a gentleman named Okwui Enwezor came to Delhi looking for artists. Enwezor, a thirty-something Nigerian who had made the United States his home, had been appointed the artistic director of the most important art exhibition in the world, Kassel's Documenta. He brought a distinctly political, postcolonial perspective to bear on his curatorial choices, and cast his net beyond artists who showed in galleries. He picked Amar Kanwar along with the Raqs Media Collective, leaving people in the art world befuddled. Documenta 11 part-financed Kanwar’s A Night of Prophecy, a film about poets in conflict zones, which was screened through the exhibition’s run in Kassel in 2002.

Kanwar had become a name to be reckoned with in two different worlds with two very different systems of financing. A typical independent documentary is funded by an NGO. The director, who doubles as producer, makes a certain amount up front, with further money coming through DVD sales and telecast rights. To make 5 lakh rupees, a director would have to sell 500 DVDs priced at 1000 rupees each, quite a tall order. The art world, on the other hand, depends on scarcity rather than volume. A video artist will make an edition of, say, ten prints of a video, to be sold for maybe 5 lakh rupees a pop. After the gallery commission, just two sales will provide the video artist the same amount of money that 500 DVDs got the documentary film maker.
It is no wonder that, during the art boom, many experimental film makers reinvented themselves as video artists. The boundaries between the two are blurry enough for the transition to be made without too many eyebrows being raised.


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