Ashfika Rahman, The Last Audience, 2016
Over 300,000 people visited the 2018 Dhaka Art Summit. The 2020 edition, which took place over 9 days, from 7 – 15 February, attracted nearly half a million visitors. While the vast majority of these visitors are Dhaka locals, included in this number are also hundreds of international art world regulars who flew in for the summit. To communicate with both of these audiences, one untrained in the protocols of contemporary art, the other steeped in theoretical debates about decoloniality and collectivity, the programme had to speak at different registers.
This poly-vocalism was particularly strong in the practice of the Jakarta-based collective Gudskul. Most of Gudskul’s events were programmed during the Summit’s closing weekend, coinciding with a public holiday celebrating the first day of spring in Bangladesh, by which time many of the summit’s international visitors had left and the site had the energy of a fairground.
On the second-last day of the Summit, the ground-floor space that had been designated the Collectives Hub was taken over by a printmaking machine. Grafis Huru Hara (which is one part of Gudskul), the Malaysian collective Pangrok Sulap and the Dhaka-based Studio Shunno facilitated a linocut and monoprint workshop. Pieces of rubber, paint, paint rollers, paper, cutting tools and various other materials were provided. The collective members gave help and encouragement. Passers-by paused for a few minutes or became engrossed for a couple of hours, scraping detailed designs out of MDF board. As a member of Studio Shunno explained to me, what was important here was not the outcomes that people produced, but the engagement with the materials and the other participants.
The next workshop, Speculative Collective, facilitated by Gudskul, brought people together to form temporary collectives. Over an hour and a half, visitors got to know each other, share their knowledge and imagine what kind of collective they’d like to form. One group formed a collective named “F**k That S**t”, an alternative to toxic environments in the art world. The group I was a part of formed a collective whose name was a non-verbal graphic illustration. I found myself grateful for the conversations this exercise generated, building on art’s potential for encounter. As a space of pedagogy, it was also an experiment in collective teaching and learning.
In Jakarta, Gudskul is literally a school, albeit a radical one that upends traditional conceptions of education. Its year-long programme engages with the idea of collectivity and supports the formation of new collectives. It is also itself a collective of collectives, formed by Ruangrupa, the curators of the upcoming edition of documenta; Grafis Huru Hara, who facilitated the printing workshop; and Serrum, who focus on pedagogy. A non-hierarchical, flexible, collaborative practice is at its core.
On the second-last night of the summit, Gudskul hosted a karaoke party on the rooftop of the Bangladesh Shilpakala Academy, the Summit’s venue. The sun had set, and a table had been set up with speakers and a laptop playing karaoke tracks off YouTube. On a nearby table, people chipped in, chopping vegetables for a salad. The art mediators, technicians, and volunteers who had been central to the smooth running of the summit sang the most. A lot of people cheered. Everyone had fun.
Exhibitions are often organised around a particular set of behaviours (“don’t touch the art”) that visitors are either attuned to or chastised for not following. This is particularly fraught in South Asia and the global South in general, where contemporary art too often remains the preserve of the elite. In the practice of Gudskul and many of the collectives who were present at DAS, art is not a rarefied, elite commodity, but rather a space of open-ended exchange and encounter.