The Guardian of Banished Books

Una Meistere

An interview with Shubigi Rao, an Indian-born artist, writer and the curator of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2020


Shubigi Rao is an Indian-born artist, theoretician and writer who has been based in Singapore for many years. Her fields of interest range from archaeology, neuroscience and the natural sciences to migration, ecology, language, cultural genocide and literature, and her intellectually provocative work arises from the points where these many different spheres come into contact with each other. Rao’s artistic tools include installations, books, etchings, drawings, pseudo-scientific machines, metaphysical puzzles, video, ideological board games, garbage and archives.

For ten years, Rao worked under a different identity, using the male pseudonym S. Raoul. Afterwards, she compiled her experiences in the publication History’s Malcontents: The Life and Times of S. Raoul (2013). Raoul was a fictional scientist, theorist, archaeologist and scapegoat. According to the legend she created, he was also Rao’s mentor, patron and, in later years, a collector of her work. Rao says Raoul sated her thirst for “honest critique”, because, as a female artist, her work was invariably being read through the twin lenses of gender and ethnicity, instead of its content. For ten years, she did not organise a single solo exhibition under her own name. In a way, by cultivating her identity as Raoul, she was sacrificing her own career. However, exactly ten years after inventing him, she destroyed Raoul, staging his death after tripping over her installation of books River of Ink. Rao’s young son is now named Raoul.

Since 2014, Rao has been working on a large and significant multimedial project...which is also set to last for ten years. Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book is dedicated to the history of book destruction, the history of censorship, and books as an instrument of social activism and resistance. As a part of this project, she has travelled half the world studying books, visiting libraries and archives (both official and underground), interviewing and filming people, compiling their stories and legends. The project has already resulted in two books, with the third to be published next year.

In addition to a number of solo and group exhibitions in Singapore and elsewhere around the world, Rao has participated in the 10th Taipei Biennial (2016), the 3rd Pune Biennale (2017), the 2nd Singapore Biennale (2008) and the 4th Kochi-Muziris Biennale (2018). This year she will debut in a new position, as the curator of the 5th Kochi-Muziris Biennale in India. She is already the second female curator of the biennial in its history, after Anita Dube in 2018, and also a continuation of its tradition of inviting artists to curate the event.

Rao and I met in Riga, where she was doing research for the artist selection process for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2020.

Shubigi Rao. Photo: Kathrin Leisch

Why did you accept the challenge of curating the Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2020? Why is it interesting for you to return to India, a country that, in a way, you ran away from?

One of the reasons why I left India was because I found the art world there at that time to be closed to someone like me. Now when I come back, I come back as an outsider who has been away for twenty years. That can be seen as a challenge, but I think it is very liberating, because I don’t have any preexisting relationships there. So, being free of that structure allows me to have more intellectual freedom in defining the scope, the range, the focus, and this very invigorating for me. During my practice I have travelled a fair bit and worked a far bit outside of the art world. I don’t generally engage with that whole mechanism. So, I am bringing some of that method and approach with me – the sort of dissolving of those boundaries – and that is really important to me as well.

If I was a visual artist based in India, then I would be foregrounded, that would be the position from which I operate, that would be my method and my approach towards people I deal with. But that is not the case at all now. I have free range across multiple specialties and disciplines. In the past, I have worked with everyone from neuroscientists to librarians. There is a lot to be said for the way we look at and understand things that are beyond our own comfortable contexts. And that ability to step away from what you know into something that you don’t have any knowledge of, the guidance that you get from specialists in those fields, becomes very important.

One of the things I’m trying to do is to look for particular specialists, and especially across the so-called Global South. When I say specialists, I don’t mean only experts or academics; I also mean things like performance art collectives. I am interested in the way in which they have survived regimes, how such groups have operated despite repressive conditions for artists. One of the ways they have survived is because they are not restricted to media-specific work that could easily be censored or destroyed. So, this is a mechanism, and these are things that I am very interested in.

After Anita Dube for the previous edition of the biennial, you are the second female artist in a row to curate the Kochi Biennale. Is that a coincidence, or is it in some way a symbolic gesture?

In the past when I’d get asked this, I would say that I hadn’t noticed it. The reason I said this is because people didn’t notice when the 1st, 2nd and 3rd biennials were curated by men. The default is male, so we only notice when it is a woman. I think having two women in a row was a coincidence. I’m still not fully sure about that, but I would tend to not call attention to gender. I am a feminist, of course, and quite open about that. But I think that ‘feminist’ as an identity is not separate from one’s being. It is not something where you are a feminist and now it is a box and that is all that you are. But for some reason, the feminist label immediately destroys nuance. Because of the deliberate misunderstanding of feminism by most people. The same way that to say that you are a female curator is also perhaps a restriction. Because I primarily am and will remain an artist. I think that is very important.

What is perhaps more noteworthy is that when they asked me to curate the biennial, my first thought was not so much about my gender but my age. I am 44, which is regarded as being rather young. But I don’t really think age is a factor.

To go back to what you said, I think gender does matter, especially in countries like India. It always matters. I know what it is like to be overlooked historically, what my gender has gone through. Women have been overlooked. We know this. There is a running joke that you can be recognised when you are above 60, that is when it is your time. Finally you are recognised, you are written about and apologised to.

The Pelagic Tracts, 2018. Kochi - Muziris Biennale. Photoprint. Courtesy of the Artist

How do you see the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in the context of the global art world? One of the unique aspects of the biennial is the fact that it was founded by artists. A second aspect is that it’s deeply connected with the city/region itself and its history and traditions, and it constantly interacts with them.

You are right. I believe that one drawback of most biennials is that they have little to do with their locations. Sometimes that doesn’t matter, but sometimes it really does. Like for the Istanbul Biennial, for instance, location matters. We all know that, and we have seen how political some previous editions have been. But more and more you see with biennials that they have less to do with their locations and the context of their locations. Kochi has retained this link, and it is retained as a part of the biennial’s character. It is reflected, first of all, in the way that the sites are located, but also very much in the way that the local people have responded to the biennial. There is a sense of ownership, a sense of claim, a stake that local people have in the biennial.

Yes, a genuine pride can be felt there during the biennial. Everyone knows about it, from schoolchildren to rickshaw drivers.

I remember when I was there for the last biennial. The manager of the hotel I stayed in was also a tuk-tuk driver. He was so excited that I was an artist staying at his hotel. He went out of his way to obtain the access to the archives that I wanted. I couldn’t get access to certain archives because I was a foreigner, a Singaporean. I had gone through the official procedure, applying to the correct ministry, etc. But it took months and nothing was happening. And this guy went out of his way to help me. He facilitated everything in a day.

The hotel manager was so proud of the fact that I was staying at his place that he introduced me to his daughter, who is studying art. He said that his daughter wanted to be an artist because of the biennial. I think part of it also has to do with this hunger. A lot of young people don’t have the means to travel and see the world like the rest of us do. So in a sense, Kochi is making the international art world more accessible to them. So that again becomes a very important thing. Context matters, the site matters, the location matters.

Because this is one of the rare places in the world where you can still feel that art has a voice, that it has the power to change something.

Yes it does, definitely. I saw that when I was there for the last edition of the biennial.

That also heightens the curator’s responsibility, the message that you are bringing in. Can you speak a little more about that?

One of the things I explored in one of my projects was storytelling and strategy in terms of resistance. What the act of storytelling means is very different depending on which part of the world we are talking about. How storytelling functions is very illuminating when you look at certain specific literary forms that have developed under duress, that have developed despite repression. We see this very obviously in literature; we may not see it as clearly in visual arts, but it is there. There is a lot to be gained from looking at different mechanisms, strategies and methods.

The method is very important, and by method I mean a thing that is specific to that particular region. I have specific artists in mind, who I can’t name yet. But we are discussing areas such as South East Asia, Latin America, North Africa, and West Africa. Very similar ideas, similar tensions, similar concerns and issues have been at the forefront in these places. But the mechanisms are different. To use an analogy, if we think about these practices as different conversations, then it is important to have that message. I don’t like the sort of linear approach where you have a singular idea that dominates. I don’t think that would work for Kochi. But it might work for a biennial of a different type – a smaller one perhaps, or one that is not such a heavily loaded site.

The Pelagic Tracts, 2018. Kochi - Muziris Biennale. Film Still. Courtesy of the Artist

In terms of participating artists, are you are trying to make the Kochi Biennale even more international than it was in previous editions?

I haven’t consciously done so, but it is happening because that has been my approach as an artist in general. I have never felt bound, I have never belonged to a single community. I don’t even belong to a single linguistic group, and that is a very hard thing to say as someone of Indian origin. Because everyone there can quite clearly trace their lineages, and those lineages matter, whether it’s in the culture of the food that you grew up with, or the hometown where your grandparents are from, and so on.

But I don’t have that – all my ancestors quite shamelessly married for love. Well, it sounds like a privilege, but actually it resulted partly because of the conflicts in South Asia. Some of my ancestors were displaced or had to move, and they remade their lives depending on whom they married. I also grew up in the same way: I kept moving as a child, I learned languages and forgot them. So I am aware of what it is like to not have a singularity in terms of being a part of one specific group. I think community can be a very temporary idea, which is why so many people keep trying to redefine it and why identity always remains such an issue, why states or regimes attempt to reshape, destroy or redefine a community by imposing one national language and banning others. In Singapore, for instance, everyone has an identity card, and race is one of the components on our cards. And your race is always your father’s race – it has very little to do with who the person actually is.

When you say international, I don’t really know what international means in a conventional sense. I mean, I understand the word, of course, but I don’t feel it in that sense. I grew up in a very strange way, in an isolated part of the Himalaya, in the mountains. I didn’t have many people of my age around me, but my parents had this vast library that they had collected over many decades, and it was really a library of the world. I grew up reading the words of people who were long dead, but they were from cultures completely different to mine. Including things like old chronicles of indigenous histories recorded by English civil servants. So I learned about my country through English, the language and interpretation of the coloniser.

The point I am trying to make is that I always felt included in every conversation, because that is what reading does. It makes you feel like you are supposed to be part of that conversation. At least it felt that way to me as a child. My gender didn’t matter, my age didn’t matter, it didn’t matter that I was growing up in a part of the world that had very little external influences at that time. I felt included in what it meant to be human and what it meant to share human stories. And that international history of thinking, if I can use that phrase, is what shaped me. My philosophy was shaped by the writers I read as a very young person. And I realised that a form of passive civil disobedience is not cowardliness – it is actually a very powerful form of action or inaction.

I also realised how powerful humour is, because humour also worked for my nature. Every time I was angry or furious, it would emerge as a sort of dark humour. The angrier I would get at injustice, the sharper or precise would be the humour in the work. I realised that this tendency of mine had been magnified by listening to the ways other people, writers, painters, philosophers and so on had employed humour. This is not specific to any one country or one community – it is a mechanism for survival.

You’re based in Singapore now. Do you feel that you belong to Singapore?

Funnily enough, I do feel very much that Singapore is my home. Maybe because that is where my family is; my child was born there. And with children you get involved in schools and all that sort of thing. I also taught at an art school in Singapore for eleven years. Eleven years means that you have seen an entire generation. You listen to them, you feel their fears, and you hear what they think and desire and what they long for. And because of that, it seeps into you much more.

I have been in Singapore now for almost twenty years. That is the longest I have lived in one place, so I do feel very close to Singapore. It drives me crazy in many ways, but I think any place would. And also, if I can say something slightly sentimental, when I came to Singapore, it was the first time that I felt human first and female second. I can’t tell you how liberating that was. Suddenly my gender was not foregrounded – it was the work that was important, not me. So the very first thing I did, my first project, was to do everything under a male name.

S.Raoul. Courtesy of the Artist

Why did you invent S. Raoul, this discrete Singapore-based scientist, theorist and polymath, as your secret alter ego? Was it connected with your past and the historical role of the female artist in India?

Yes. It came from my youth in India and the constant trivialisation of what it meant to be a woman. I mean, the method I used was that I was always a protégé, a female protégé of an older man. He was a brilliant man, and everyone accepted him. When I published papers, I would be the secondary author, I would present on Raoul’s behalf. If it were an exhibition, I would be the booth girl who showed the work of this famous neuroscientist and naively try to explain his really difficult, complex idea, the hypothesis that had been developed by this scientist. It’s always easier for people to accept something when it is delivered in that way. I also got access to places that I could not get access to now as Shubigi.

When and why did you decide to switch from your fake male identity back to the real Shubigi?

I killed him after ten years because I was fed up with him, and his time had come I did not have a single solo show for ten years. To be S. Raoul meant I could not be Shubigi. I also wrote fake art history books under his name, so a lot of the stuff I did operated not very clearly in the standard format. And I taught myself a lot. I taught myself neuroscience, I taught myself multiple things just so I could write really ‘credible’ theories and work. And the medium kept changing depending on the ideas. So it was a way of shape-shifting. Because I was not being scrutinised as an artist; it was all through him. It was also a massive critique of the art world structure, because this was the only way that I could be acknowledged. I was Raoul’s biographer. He was also the collector of my work. Because naturally I didn’t have a collector. When I killed him, I did a fake retrospective titled The Retrospectacle of S. Raoul at the Earl Lu Gallery in Singapore. The exhibition showcased “his” works from the previous decade, and my biography of Raoul, History’s Malcontents: The Life and Times of S. Raoul, was published in conjunction with the exhibition. It was also, by the way, a joke on what the word ‘retrospective’ really means. I called it a ‘retrospectacle’, a term unironically repeated by reviewers and press.

Funnily enough, the same critic who had earlier written glowingly about Raoul’s work as path-breaking, and the work of a polymathic genius, now saw the exhibition and gave one of the most condescending reviews ever. He said it is always charming when a young woman (I was not that young, about 38 maybe) attempts to address the deeper concerns of the human condition. It was so incredibly condescending, spoken in expansive terms about the huge range and depth of these complicated projects. It is really telling, this diminishing language we use for women, and in the way that I was even once accused of plagiarising Raoul!

Right after you killed Raoul, you started your ten-year project Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book, which is a five-volume project about the history of censorship, the destruction of books, and the book as a tool for activism and resistance.

Actually, it was how I killed him. Raoul collected the first work I did about banished books. It was a collection of a hundred manuscripts I had written, and they were displayed on these wooden pallets. Raoul collected the installation, but then he tripped over it and broke his neck. So his obituary reads that he died while attempting to negotiate space in a cultural context. When I killed him, it was because of this work. And this work was also the beginning of this whole new project. That same year, I applied for my first grant. That was in 2013. And I had the retrospective in March. I began this new project in 2014, and it will end in 2024. To date, I have published two books, and the third book is due next year. So, every two years I will publish one volume on this subject.

The first volume was kind of a large introduction to all of the ideas. When I say banished or destroyed books, that includes everything from censorship to repression of language. And also vanishing languages, of course. But I am looking at the whole of human history regarding language shift and migration. When we look at the destruction of libraries, we very rarely talk about the destruction of people. But as we know, one of the most effective ways to eradicate a people is to not only kill them but to also destroy their culture. And that is something that is embedded in this project. I am also doing things like looking at who controls the knowledge of the world, so to speak.

I have been looking at pirate libraries as well. I have made a series of short interviews with people who are working with digital libraries. One of them, for instance, lives in a tiny village in the rural South Korea. He is one man, alone, he is not doing very well, and he does not speak to anybody. But I managed to convince him to speak to me. His house is crazy. It is full of books, and he cuts the spine off all of them, because you have to cut the spine off to scan a book. You need the pages flat. And so he sits, cuts, scans. He is like the single largest online pirate library in Korea.

Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book Vol.I, 2016. Photo: Maria Clare Khoo

Are they all handmade scans?

Yes. One man alone, sitting and doing this for years. What drives people like this is really important. I have also filmed some of the people who are responsible for the destruction of books. I have filmed censors, etc. And I do it alone; I travel alone. Part of it is because I want to form a more personal connection with every person I speak to. But then there is also no diffused ethical responsibility. For instance, I cannot show the footage of some of the people I have filmed, because they are doing something illegal or because they have realised that what they talked about (and wanted to talk about) is something that they don’t want people to know after all. They just wanted to talk and were OK with being filmed, but not with the filmed material being shown. And I am fine with that, fine with that footage not becoming an eventual product or project. This is something that I feel very personally. That library I talked about before, my parents’ library, that was also destroyed when I was quite young. So I know what it feels like.

How it was destroyed?

We were robbed. We had nothing of value in our house because we had no money; we only had those books. So in their anger, the robbers destroyed everything. These were priceless books, some of them had been rescued from libraries that had been shut down. There was no knowledge about antiquarian books or anything like that at that time in India. So, that’s a memory I remember very clearly...walking into the house and seeing the destruction. That and the rage left its mark. Also growing up as a child in Darjeeling...

I once did a trek in the Sikkim region. Darjeeling is a very special place.

It is beautiful! While we were growing up there, Tibetan refugees would come over the border. They brought with them only two things: their children and their manuscripts. And a number of them were illiterate. But as they were fleeing, the monks from the monasteries gave them these manuscripts. And they were heavy; they were not easy to carry over the mountains. But they did. And this is a motive I understood very clearly, even though I was very young at the time, only seven or eight years old. I even remember that moment of clarity – understanding that legacy in the most basic of human terms. One thing, of course, is the concept of carrying on your species, your children, who are your legacy. Which, as we know now, is a very flawed idea considering our overpopulation of the earth. But the second legacy is your culture, whether in written form or some other form to carry it on. In cases where there is no written form, culture has been carried on by the grandparents, the people who can tell their stories to the children and grandchildren.

That’s why you can have major rupture when dialects are removed. In Singapore, for instance, when they decided to have national languages, they decided to have only the simplified Mandarin form of Chinese. Because China is one of our big business partners. But the older generations in Singapore spoke Hokkien, Teochew, even Cantonese, basically all different dialects. And because dialects were banned from TV, and dialects were no longer taught in the schools either, grandparents could no longer speak to their grandchildren. Imagine the incredible loneliness. They are sitting at home and can’t even watch TV, because there are no dialects that they understand. So, it is an incredible silencing mechanism. And that is not even a particularly horrific example. I have seen really horrific examples across the world. I call my project a short biography of banished books, because ten years is not enough for something like this.

Where have you travelled as you work on this project?

I have been in forty-something cities all over the world. I was filming in Bosnia when I got the call about the Kochi Biennale. So I went to Venice for the announcement straight from there. I like to go to a place again and again, not just do a one-off visit. In Bosnia I also formed really close friendships with some of the people I worked with. But it is also really troubling, because I am always aware that, as an outsider, as an artist, it is very easy to parachute in from outside. To take someone else’s experience and turn it into a project that makes you look good as an artist. That is one thing that I cannot bear. Very often a lot of the work I do will probably not be seen. And I want it like that; it has to be that way. Because otherwise it is dishonest.

Could you characterise the Pulp project a bit – is it just books, or is it a multidisciplinary project?

It is also video, and photography. I also work a lot on paper. I have been doing that for years – it is one of those things I somehow enjoy.

You once said that ink and text are fluid, meanings shift between the two and bleed into each other and repel one another.

That is quite true. They are also both uncontrollable media. For me, language is an uncontrollable thing, because, as you can see from the speed at which I speak, I don’t always filter what comes out. That is not a good thing at all. I am more precise when I write, because the act of writing is a slower process. But I don’t overthink things when I write, either. I can write really quickly – for example, I wrote the second book in 15 days. The first book took less than a month, and that includes things like fact-checking. I am constantly fact-checking while I write, and I am able to retain those thoughts. When I draw, the fluidity and uncontrollable nature of ink work really well with the text. For instance I constantly have lousy lyrics running in my head. My mind mutates them, puts together strange combinations of words especially when I work with my hands. When I draw, I tend to be more precise. But I don’t know how that works, because I don’t plan any of my drawings beforehand, and I certainly don’t plan any of the texts. They just happen together. Sometimes it is just a few words, but they can be incredibly descriptive. Whereas if I attempt to explain the same idea, I could probably carry on for at least twenty minutes.

So that is why the first solo show I did as Shubigi took place the same year I did the Retrospectacle. I did something called Useful Fictions, which comes from Hans Vaihinger’s idea that most human concepts are simply useful fictions. It was only sixteen drawings, but each drawing dealt with a particular lie that we tell ourselves. One of the drawings, which was the main guide map to the whole exhibition, was called “Tree of Lies”. And it is a conversion table – a demonstration of whatever lie you want to tell yourself, there is an easy way to convert it.

Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book. Film Still. Courtesy of the Artist

Have you ever also thought about the origin of language?

Absolutely. In fact, this is one of the things I have been trying to study, and at one point I was also working briefly with a neuroscientist who was looking at language acquisition in an infant’s brain. Because I want to understand how language origin occurs biologically. But of course, I also look at the origins of language in terms of etymology.

Two words I always avoid using are ‘genius’ and ‘feisty’. You know, ‘feisty’ is used for women who are particularly strong. But if you look at the etymology, ‘feisty’ comes from the Old English word for flatulence. It is still a diminishing term because it makes strength appear cute and non-threatening, and, of course, it originates from a slightly grotesque bodily emission. The other word, ‘genius’, comes from Latin and in general means to give life. One of its roots is said to mean ‘testicle’, because of the patriarchal notion of the man as life-giver. So when you call someone a genius, you are calling them a testicle. I remember one of my students calling me a genius (you know how students idolise you even if you don’t deserve it). I said, “You just called me a hairy ball,” because it’s true. That’s the origin of these words. I think these are very illuminating examples of how language works. Especially the English language, which is kind of a beautiful bastard language.

But this is also a way that we reduce the work that people do. We diminish it. So, for instance, if we say a woman is feisty, it is one of the most diminishing words you can use. Without even knowing the etymology of the word, you already know it is a diminishing word. I think it is a really horrible negation of the value of the work that has been done. Or any form of action that has been done.

It’s really interesting that you’re doing this ten-year project based on banished books, but if we look at the situation today, books are also partly being diminished from our regular lives now. Because everyone is googling everything, reading materials digitally or just not reading at all.

I definitely agree. The way we read and absorb information has changed. Unfortunately, the brain doesn’t retain information as well when reading from a screen. You can retain the idea, but it is harder to recall specifics than when reading from a physical book. It really is a pity, although I actually don’t place physical books above digital reading material. If we look historically, when the codex – which is the book form – was invented, all the scholars and philosophers of that time thought it would be the end of civilisation. Because people were not reading scrolls anymore. In fact, reading in Europe was not a private activity right up to the time of Romans. Grammar rules, or orthography, also didn’t exist in the way we understand them today. Because you were always read to; you had orators reading for an audience. This is kind of the continuation of storytelling.

I don’t completely believe this narrative, but a fair number of scholars believe that with the fall of the Roman Empire the scroll became an impractical medium. With the codex, people could now have their own material in private form, and reading became a solitary activity. Punctuation rules needed to be invented so that people would know when to pause while they were reading, when a sentence or thought ended, etc. Over time, paragraphs began to develop. So, it is interesting how grammar responded to the act of solitary reading. And when we look at the so-called grammar of reading online, you can see how, for example, paragraph alignment has a lot to do with ad placements and so on.

Our irritation levels can only be pushed to a certain extent before we shut down. I have absorbed a lot of this into the book design. How far you can push the attention span of readers in an age when people don’t prefer to read physical books anymore? So, for example, I use footnotes not endnotes, because no one is going to go all the way to the back of the book to read something and then return to the original page again. The attention span is gone. So I always footnote, but under the footnote I also have hand-written annotations, because of how our brains now work on multiple planes at the same time. This is also an acknowledgement of the reader jumping back and forth between things. And that is really important. Another thing I have done is that the books open completely flat, so you don’t have to cut the spine like a pirate. You can just scan it and put it in a pirate library, for example, without destroying the book.

But why did you decide to divide the project into five parts?

It is a very simple idea. When I work, I do deep-dive research, which is something in which you can get completely lost. It can overshadow everything else. And while I keep travelling and filming, I allow myself to do that. I allow myself to get completely lost in one region over a span of years. In the meantime, publishing one book every two years gives me structure. It’s a self-imposed deadline that I cannot break. I have to do that.

While the artwork can take time to develop, some forms take longer than others. Every single short film I have ever made is incomplete. I mean, it can be shown, it is a complete film, but it is re-edited every time it is shown. The reason is because I have to contact the people again and get their consent. It is more like an archive in progress. Not a conventional archive, but I think of it in those terms.

The first three years of my research were completely dedicated to the Balkans. When I was a preteen, I saw my mother cry. She has probably cried three or four times maximum in her life. I saw her cry in a way I had never seen before. It was the burning of the library of Sarajevo. I couldn’t understand why watching it on TV affected her so deeply. She explained to me what it meant, what a loss for humanity that was. It was something that not only mattered for the people of Sarajevo; it mattered for everybody, including the people who were responsible for the destruction. It also mattered for what that region meant historically, for what it continues to mean. I have never forgotten that conversation. The grief was very, very real.

And so, when I visited there myself, it was not as an outsider who is just looking at an event that has been written about – the longest siege in modern warfare. What a lot of people may not know is that the idea for destroying that library came not from some kind of military command. Instead, it came from a local professor of English literature. It was his idea to destroy the library. His own books were in the library, but he was the one who basically gave the idea. Because he was in love with the ridiculous idea of ethnic and nationalistic purity.

The River of Ink, 2008. Courtesy of the Artist

Do you already know what the last book in the project will be about?

I have no idea. There are multiple possibilities. I have even looked into species communication. Because it was also my parents who at one stage took us away into the jungle and made us live there for ten years without electricity, etc. My brother and I went to a boarding school, so we still got formal education, but my sister grew up on the land This was located in a wildlife corridor between two major national parks in India, a passage for leopards, tigers, elephants, bears, everything. My mother is kind of a radical environmentalist. We were young children then, and I was the eldest, about 12 years old. My sister is five years younger than me. We were never harmed by any of the animals. How did we stay safe? First of all, our parents taught us how to understand alarm calls. So we understood the relationships between prey species and predators.

We also understood another rule of the jungle, which is quite amazing: animals that are not the natural prey of the predator, when they hear the alarm call of a prey species, they will pick it up and use their own language to carry that information and get it transmitted through the forest faster than the predator can travel through the forest. So, for instance, leopards love to eat monkeys. Monkeys will be the first ones to let out an alarm call when a leopard is approaching, and the squirrels pick up the message and send it further. Birds and squirrels are not eaten by leopards, but they pick up and amplify and basically pass on the information. The information includes the speed at which the predator is moving, is it hunting, has it eaten, or is it just passing through. All this information is passed on. And the depth of this information is really incredible.

Very recently I was reading the work of certain acoustic biologist, and he described the richness of a single such encounter lasting just one minute but which can take years to decode. Even fish understand it. Certain species, such as pygmy owls, can transmit information that is so incredibly complex, and they do it in a matter of seconds. Sometimes this “bush telegraph”, as it is called, can travel up to 170 km/h – way faster than any predator, including falcons and birds of prey. Insects also carry it. So, as humans we knew when the forest was transmitting a message of danger. We all learned it and almost instinctively listened for it all the time. But that form of communication is so underrated, and we just don’t know what it is like to have that anymore, to really listen to other species. We have never been given that kind of enlightenment.

Some simple things. In certain parts of the world, for example, the Philippines, the names for plants have nothing to do with taxonomy. Normally, when you look at the name of a plant, you know what family it belongs to, its genus, etc. But in certain areas in the Philippines, you don’t have that. Instead, when you look at the name of a plant there, you know if it is safe to eat, if it is medicinal, what are its uses and what environment it will grow in. So, basically, practical information. And original context. Linnaean taxonomy is interesting, especially the sexualisation of plants; but it does not retain the original context. So, for example, you may know the Latin name of a plant, you will know very little about its original context.

These are things that I find very interesting. When I talk about banished books, I talk about all the banished forms of knowledge. And as you can see, ten years is just too short. It is a difficult project, if I am honest. I have talked to people who have survived war and conflicts, and it is hard. I do it alone; I can’t talk to anyone about it. I cannot talk about the specifics. In a sense, I am basically collecting the pain of people across the world. But one of the joys of this project is finding the ways people resist that pain, the ways people survive. This is part of the method that I am bringing to Kochi. But there I am doing it by looking at artists’ practices. There are many different ways to address or approach these ideas, and the richness, this diversity of strategies is what I hope to demonstrate as a kind of knowledge commons.