VISIT TO SARAI: What is the question?

When I first arrived at Sarai CSDS I was invited to attend their weekly Monday meeting. It was bizarre suddenly sitting in a boardroom hearing about an organisation’s marketing strategy for their written publications after 5 weeks of travelling around rural Rajasthan and mountainous Himachal Pradesh. In attendance were the various artists, writers, editors, techies and researchers involved in Sarai – about 20 people in total, 5 of them women. One of these women was a Slovenian masters student, visiting India to research ‘DIY media education’ for her thesis. She had visited a Tibetan ICT centre in Dharamsala and various other ‘tele-centres’ around India, investigating the ways they were connecting and educating their communities, and was presenting her findings at the meeting.

Her presentation was interesting but a little dry and borderline didactic. But the round table discussion that followed was great – crunchy and challenging. The first question she was asked at the end of her presentation was “What is the question you are asking?” She replied after a few ums n’ ers … “How do self-funded/self-initiated ICT community organisations operate in India?” The guy who asked her the question replied (and I’m paraphrasing) “Be very careful with the conclusions you draw from your research. There is a significant disconnect between studying different processes, then asking “What works best?” … A lot of media research gets defeated by posing that question?” He then suggested that her case studies should be critiqued on an individual basis, taking the context, the place and the individuals into account.

What he was saying really resonated for me, considering my own experiences working with community groups on art projects. Each project is so different due to context, place and the individual. Research into models, methods and other theories have failed to prepare me for the different bag of challenges each project has offered up … and so pursuing one true ‘best practice’ strategy in CCD art projects is problematic.

The next question that was raised in the meeting was “I think the more important question here is ‘What is community?’” It was posed by one of the founders of Sarai and a member of the RAQS collective, Jeebesh Bagchi. I was a little accent challenged during most of the discussion but here’s the general gist … Jeebesh was conveying his frustration in the way the word ‘community’ is used and overused. He was challenging the room to think about this word when they use it and to ask themselves the aforementioned question.

He then stated that he didn’t believe communities were empowered if they were ‘residual communities’ … communities that arise due to some other factor. I’m still trying to get my head around this one, but it is food for thought.