Originally published in Humanscape special issue on Learning Beyond Teaching, edited by Shilpa Phadke, August 2003.
It is a well-known cliche that today, all of us deal with information in much greater abundance and intensity than ever before. The Internet, the sign of this new economy, is a huge repository of information, with signs, images and stories flowing through its ever expanding networks. Any creative and critical engagement today also means learning to deal with such enormous archives and flows of information, and understanding how they are created. While on the one hand the world around us is increasingly mediated by new technologies and media forms that shape our perceptions acutely, on the other hand most of us do not have access to these technologies, nor are we encouraged to shape the mediated reality around us.
Any critical pedagogy today must address these questions, raised by the advent of new media practices, and the increasing importance of information and communication technologies to our everyday lives, especially in cities in India. The response of mainstream educational institutions has been primarily defensive, to shore up their role against a weakening state and an aggressive market — with the introduction of new diploma courses and degree programmes catered for lucrative careers in the corporate media, such as the Bachelors of Mass Media (BMM) courses in Mumbai. The responses from individual teachers and scholars, media producers and activists, and other groups and organisations is still being debated.
The technical complexities of computing and media production — or simple aversion to machines — have often negated the enhanced role and importance of the imagination in a time of mass mediation and increasing connectivity. With regard to education, this paradox is reinforced by a generational divide which is both social and technical. Many school and college students today have been socialised into the use, abuse and appropriation of sophisticated technologies and media from a very young age — unlike their teachers, parents, and mentors, who often find the learning curve much steeper. We underestimate the enhanced cultural and social literacy of a generation of kids raised on cable television, e-mail and chat rooms, and cheap mobile communications.
What we must recognise is that this conjuncture — of technophobia on the one hand, and of generational difference on the other hand — represents a significant reversal of standard pedagogic approaches. Vocationalisation has been one response to this dilemma, reflective of the weak institutional conditions prevailing in many colleges. Narrow technical instruction, by simply satisying the desires of the job market, cannot substitute for the work of the imagination — which makes technical skills and tools useful and exciting outside both the clasroom and the workplace, in the public sphere of citizenship and civic action. The decline of the traditional arts and humanities courses, and their replacement by career-centric education, while a complex phenomenon, also presents new opportunities for pedagogic experiments outside the space of the curriculum and classroom. In the next two sections, I describe one such extra-curricular experiment, the PUKAR Monsoon DOC-SHOP, which attempted to recognise and build on some of the paradoxes and insights outlined above.
PUKAR Monsoon 2003: “On Cities, On Water”
PUKAR (Partners for Urban Knowledge Action & Research), a cross-sectoral collective of researchers and professionals based in Mumbai, has been deeply concerned with various concepts and practices of documenting urban spaces and environments since its inception two years ago. PUKAR views documentation not simply as a passive act of recording reality, but an active, imaginative process that allows us to participate in the construction of the reality around us. Similarly, our view of the city is not one of static forms or stable structures, but of a constantly changing urban processes in which the city is better understood as a nodal point in mobile flows of people, money, images, and resources.
We annually organise the PUKAR Monsoon — a series of occassional lectures, workshops, presentations and activities from May to August every year, in which undergraduate college students in Mumbai address a specific urban theme through a variety of approaches. The theme chosen for this year’s PUKAR Monsoon was “On Cities, On Water”. Water as substance and as medium has been central to the urban experience throughout human history, particularly in coastal and port cities like Mumbai. In the context of globalisation, other dimensions of water, and of the relationship between cities and water are becoming increasingly visible and contested in the public arena — notably through the privatisation of water resources and infrastructure.
Our aim in the PUKAR Monsoon has been to enable young people to develop a critical understanding of these and other relationships between cities and water, and the cultural and political implications of these connections. The theme of water becomes a useful pedagogic device to explore new understandings of cities and urban life in the context of globalisation. Traditional approaches to understanding cities have often treated the urban environment as an static object of inquiry, with fixed boundaries and a coherent set of technical and social indicators related to infrastructure, population, and employment. The flip side of this technocratic understanding of the city has been sentimental imagery of the heritage conservationists, of beautiful colonial buildings and monuments, which objectifies the contemporary city as an irretrievable picture postcard.
As opposed to these geographies and imageries, which are based on fixed and static conceptions, a more mobile and process-oriented pedagogy recognises that neither cities nor water ever stand still, and are characterised by constant motion and flows. The attempt at documenting these flows of water — which spill out and extend across regions beyond the city and even the nation — reminds us that the formation of contemporary mega-cities like Mumbai is as much a local as a global process, linking the city in complex and unequal relationships with its local, regional and global environments.
PUKAR Monsoon DOC-SHOP
The PUKAR Monsoon 2003, timed at the beginning of the college year in Mumbai, thus provided us the context to explore some of our related concerns with new forms of pedagogy, documentation, and understandings of cities, in relation to the theme of water. The first event in the PUKAR Monsoon 2003 was the DOC-SHOP, in which we attempted to connect these concerns with new media technologies and practices to create new knowledge about the city.
DOC-SHOP — shorthand for “documentation workshop” — was a week-long series of intensive sessions that fostered a critical and intellectual engagement with the terms and practices of documentation through reading, discussion, and lectures, while also encouraging hands-on learning of technical skills in digital and print media. Twenty-six undergraduate students from arts, science, mass media, and architecture courses participated, almost all of them from Mumbai.
The DOC-SHOP was conducted by the PUKAR Associates, along with resource persons ranging from video editors, sound recordists, and new media artists to engineers, anthropologists and community activists. The structure of the DOC-SHOP was to combine a morning of lectures and interactions with practitioners, followed by an afternoon of shooting, recording, photography or other documentation of water in the city, and evenings spent in editing or reviewing the documentaries produced by the students. Five separate days were devoted to distinct media forms — video, photography, text, sound, and the web — followed by four days of production work on small multi-media documentary projects.
DOC-SHOP activities ranged from scripting of short films, writing poetry and short expressive essays, recording sounds of water captured from city streets and markets, to photographing the city’s waterfronts and public fountains, and developing web-based presentations to link different elements of video, text, sound and images about water and the city. The discussions in the DOC-SHOP included reflections on the digitalisation of still and moving images and the changing role of video and photo documentation, the history of state and market control of the FM airwaves and the idea of low-cost community radio, and understanding the changing nature of the archive and artistic and expressive practices in the age of the Internet. The emphasis throughout the DOC-SHOP was on combining practices of documentation in various media forms — through the use of digital cameras, recording devices, and computers — with a creative approach to the urban environment, using the city’s constantly changing and mobile landscapes as a medium for a new kind of engaged pedagogy outside the classroom.
The eight days of DOC-SHOP activities culminated in the DOC-SHOP Review on 27 May 2003, a public exhibition of short videos, photo essays, edited sound recordings, web art, and other small documentary projects produced by the students (a web archive of these projects, designed and built by one of the DOC-SHOP students, can be seen at http://www.pukar.org.in/doc-shop/). The DOC-SHOP Review concluded with a two-hour public discussion featuring film encyclopaedist and cultural studies scholar Ashish Rajadhyaksha of the Centre for the Study of Culture and Society (CSCS), Bangalore, oral historian and feminist scholar C.S. Lakshmi, of SPARROW (Sound and Picture Archives for Research on Women), Mumbai, and documentary film-maker Madhushree Datta of Majlis, Mumbai.
A New Pedagogy?
Pedagogic interventions are important to a new generation of urban youth, whose critical understanding of society is mainly formed in the space of colleges, and through the world of the mass media. The PUKAR Monsoon — now in its second year — was conceived in a spirit of engagement with younger voices, which are often neglected as sources of serious reflection on our city and society.
While we are used to according to young people the role of creative social agents, and address both their imaginations and aspirations as future citizens, we are still unused to regarding them either as technical experts, or real producers of knowledge. How often have we heard the lament that post-liberalisation generation have shorter attention spans and are more apathetic than ever before? Everything from lack of political awareness, to mindless consumerism, to disinterest in reading long books, has been blamed on the alienation of today’s youth.
What these comments reflect is our inability to recognise the potential of new media practices to unleash new ways of learning from our information and media-saturated environments, particularly in cities. This technological shift necessarily disrupts the institutional moorings of mainstream education, creating new spaces outside the classroom for innovative pedagogic practice. Vocationalisation — and other forms of “dumbing down” in the media and public culture — are only one, rather weak, response to this new conjuncture. As opposed to vocationalisation, recently many pedagogic initiatives have intervened directly through the curriculum — taking advantage of the weak institutional conditions prevailing in many universities to introduce new courses and means of certification. While this has largely resulted in the proliferation of degree courses which narrow the scope of undergraduate education, it has also opened a space of opportunity for bold curricular initiatives such as those at the Centre for Study of Culture and Society in Bangalore (which now offers certificate and distance education courses, as well as PhD certification, in cultural studies).
The PUKAR Monsoon, while only in its second year, has based itself on a different kind of extra-curricular practice which uses the city as a pedagogic device for the creation of new knowledge. Through the DOC-SHOP, we realised that digital technologies are lowering the barriers of access to the means of producing new social imaginations, and more than ever before young people have the tools to build new and imaginative forms of creative reflection and civic engagement. What is left is to articulate a new pedagogy — and institutional forms appropriate to this practice — which gives young people the space and the equipment to create these new worlds and act on them, not just as good students or workers, but as confident citizens.
The PUKAR Monsoon DOC-SHOP was made possible through the participation of Rahul Srivastava (PUKAR), Paromita Vohra (PUKAR), Gauri Patwardhan (film editor), Neeraj Voralia (film editor), Rajesh Vora (photographer), Abhay Sardesai (PUKAR), Sadaf Siddique (film editor), Vickram Crishna (Radiophony India Pvt Ltd), Beatrice Gibson (new media artist and researcher), Indu Agarwal (SPARC), Hansa Thapliyal (Majlis), Qusai Kathawala (Transmit Audio Lab), Mukul Deora (Transmit Audio Lab), Ashish Rajadhyaksha (Centre for the Study of Culture and Society, Bangalore), C.S. Lakshmi (SPARROW), Madhushree Datta (Majlis), Shahid Khan (Apple Computer), Girish Menon (PUKAR) and Shonali Sarda (PUKAR).