There are two aspects in the context of books and artists. One, an “artist’s book”, a work created by an artist in the form of a book. It’s a work of art. And the other, a “book on an artist”, which contextualizes his practice. It is about documenting the work of the artist. And both are important for understanding the very medium of a book. Art that exists in the form of a book is created because the work encourages “interactivity.” He invites the viewer to participate not only in the creation of meaning, but also in the creation of the work. Like any other format, art books project the voice of the creator, but are superimposed on a dynamic, tactile object.
In 2018, artist Anshika Varma founded Offset Projects to explore the diverse engagements and sociological impact of worldly reception through creative expressions in visual language. As a photographer and curator, she was keen to use photography in conversations outside of her community, related to storytelling, identity and history. Based in New Delhi, India, Offset Projects works to create channels for engagement in photography and bookmaking. “Personally, for me, the book is a warm invitation to the conversations I want to have with my audience. This places a demand on their time, on their emotions and on their thoughts. It’s not a passive object that you can pass by, but it’s in your hands and it allows my reader to own the moment when he reads my book. This relationship is very sacred to me,” Varma says.
It is this same attention that Varma wanted to bring to the works and practitioners of South Asian media-lens that led her to want to publish Guftgu. “As a photographer and curator, I have been aware of their investigations into the medium, as well as their ethics and processes when creating their work. Although there is recent interest in the nature of work that is created in South Asia, most, and rightly so, focus on the form of work,” she explains. From her position as a photographer and working through Offset to make photography an inclusive language for a wider audience, she wanted these works to exist even outside the periphery of the art space. And, it’s for the same reasons that they’ve made it into a deconstructed book form that lets you engage with each artist’s work in their own unique format.
For Varma, photography is not just in the four corners of a frame, but anything that can invoke the visual, either literally through the camera or through text, video, sound and even the smell. “I wanted to develop the way people perceive photography. Expand the conversation from our preconceived notions about engaging in photography and bookmaking, but also make it a point of questioning and research,” she adds. In the chapters of Guftgu we find Diwas Raja browsing through private family albums in Nepal to tell us what it means for a historian to look at an image. By decoding small visual details and taking them as data for a larger narrative, it provides insight into the process of developing the history of the women’s movement in Nepal. Uma Bista’s chapter was created from two existing bodies of work that reflect and elaborate on her engagement with issues of patriarchy and gender. In contrast, Adira and Amar’s component (Adira Thekkuveettil and Amarnath Praful) reflect on their practice in academia, writing and teaching photography in a region where the history of the lens has been deeply influenced as a practice of colonial enterprise.
They say a picture is worth a thousand words. I ask Varma why then the need for text to support these images in Guftgu? She says the relationship between text and image has long been disputed. When text stands as a “crutch” for an image, becomes a literal explanation of the visual that exists and when it becomes a beautiful collaborator, allowing the space of the image to have its own conversation as a reader and its place to do so has often been contested in multiple situations. “The works incorporated in this edition/conservation interact with the text as an important participant in the stories and subjects with which they interact. Cheryl Mukherjee’s text, repeated throughout the pages of her chapter, echoes through the traumas of memory, leaving us with scribbled fragments of thoughts in varying intensities and sequences,” she explains. In this context, the text is visual. It informs the viewer of the sequence of events. On the other hand, for Jaisingh Nageshwaran, the text is a browser to bring together the two worlds, that of image and language. He was part of the Narmada Bachao Andolan and could not have removed the social constructs that made him an ally of the people of this land, of his own. dalit identity that helps him document the stories. Varma said, “For Guftguthe text is therefore a collaborator, not a literal explanation of the images we see but a mediator between the visual and the emotional and an extremely important part of the work itself.
The true power of holding the subject matter of a book, allowing the image to take on a life and experience of its own, runs much deeper than the idea that a photo book is a consolidation of the journey of an artist, a testimony of the works produced, witness moments, and the journeys made. The book can be the start of conversations. “I thought about how different the life of the image could be if, as artists and curators, we could create a bigger world for the images we make. How tragic it would be if writers wrote only for other writers and were read only by other writers! “, she says.
Guftgu is a fine example of creating editorial experiences that allow artists to engage in the “language of the book”. Extended programs will include workshops and publishing mentorship programs, including elements of the medium. Varma says the goal of these engagements is to expand photography associations, not only through established names in the “photographic West,” but also to create our own circles of solidarity, learning, and creating a stronger local representative voice.