A before and after photograph from Roland Roos’ series “Free Repair”. Photo credit: Roland Roos
Blessy Augustine is the winner for Art Writers’ Award 2019-20. An art writer based in Delhi, Augustine completed an MFA in Art Writing from the School of Visual Arts, New York and a Masters in Arts and Aesthetics from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. She is the recipient of the 2017 Toni Beauchamp Prize in Critical Art Writing. She has written for publications such as Art in America, The Hindu Business Line, Mint, Reader’s Digest India, Blouin Artinfo and Time Out Delhi. Her column, Afterimage, which looked at socio-political events through the prism of art, was published in Business Line Ink from July 2017 to July 2018.
Blessy Augustine’s residency at Villa Sträuli was cut short due to the pandemic. During her home-not-alone residency, Augustine started off conducting research on the connections between labour, democracy and freedom using the works of Joseph Beuys and Tania Bruguera to probe the paradoxical relationship between having political rights and being free. Because Beuys—a Nazi turned educationist—and Bruguera—an artist operating in the communist dictatorship of Cuba—have had to contest actual legal and moral boundaries, Augustine believes their works can offer unique perspectives to arguments about the ‘illegality’ of citizenship and migration. In her Q & A with Pro Helvetia New Delhi, Augustine reveals how artists inspire new ways of being political.
1. Tell us about your project during this home-not-alone residency.
There’s a shape-shifting relationship between the ideas of labour, freedom and democracy. We labour now, so that we can be free in the future. We follow the will of the State, so that we can have rights in the future. Technically, because we are citizens we have rights, but it doesn’t go down well with the State if you actually try to assert those rights. So being free is a condition that is always postponed to the future. We have normalized this logic.
My research involves looking at artistic works that unwittingly question this logic.
2. What is the inspiration behind this project?
I’m interested in the way artists, because they can work outside of the logic of a market-oriented society, can inspire new ways of being political. Because their artistic gestures are not in the service of anything, they can be quite disruptive. I think we need to pay attention to these disruptive gestures. What do they tell us about our existence as individuals in society? What can we do to heal ourselves socially and politically?
3. How do you intend to go about this exploration?
These are very fragile and abstract ideas. For my residency, I’m looking at specific Swiss artists—Baltensperger + Siepert, Mo Diener, Ursula Biemann, Roland Roos, Christoph Wachter + Mathias Jud—whose works help me make more sense of the ideas I’ve mentioned above. Many of them have worked with refugees, a group of legal citizens of one place that become illegal when they move; the idea of waiting in bondage to be declared free at a later date plays out rather literally in their case.
4. How is it to be on a home-not-alone residency? How does it compare to a ‘normal’ residency?
I did have the chance to spend two weeks in Switzerland meeting some of these artists. As a writer, I think being able to see, touch and feel artworks and performances is very important to me. Also, being able to discover artists and their works. Now I’m forced to streamline my research. It’s not ideal, but I guess we all have to learn to navigate these unusual circumstances.
5. What do you hope will be the outcome of this residency?
I guess the “happy” outcome for any research project would be more clarity regarding the questions and ideas you begin with. And hopefully discovering some new ones along the way.