Civil Society and Novel Assemblages: On Persistent Iteration and My Piece of Chennai | Claudia Costa Pederson and Nicholas Adrian Knouf | 2010
References in order of appearance:

Arzu Ozkal's Contrary Info

Meena Natarajan and My Piece of Chennai

Pukar [partnership for urban knowledge, action, and research]

Sarai [research, practice, and conversation about the contemporary media and urban constellations]

See also Sarai: The New Media Initiative at Subsol

Ernest Wolf-Gazo, John Dewey in Turkey: An Educational Mission, Journal of American Studies of Turkey, 3 (1996)
“. . . While Turkey needs unity in its educational system, it must be remembered that there is a great difference between unity and uniformity, and that a mechanical system of uniformity may be harmful to real unity. The central Ministry should stand for unity, but against uniformity and in favor of diversity. Only by diversification of materials can schools be adapted to local conditions and needs and the interest of different localities be enlisted. Unity is primarily an intellectual matter, rather than an administrative and clerical one. It is to be attained by so equipping and staffing the central Ministry of Public Instruction that it will be the inspiration and leader, rather than dictator, of education in Turkey.”—John Dewey, “Report on Turkey” (281. Italics Wolf-Gazo) pdfpdf

Ned Rossiter, Organized Networks: Media Theory, Creative Labour, New Institutions, (Rotterdam: NAi Publishers, 2007).

Gary Genosko, “Félix Guattari: Towards a Transdisciplinary Metamethodology,” Angelaki: Journal of the Theoretical Humanities 8, no. 1 (2003): 129–136.

Critical Art Ensemble, “Resisting the Bunker,” in Electronic Civil Disobedience: and Other Unpopular Ideas (http://www.critical-art.net/books/ecd/) (New York: Autonomedia, 1996) pp. 34–54.
link to Electronic Civil Disobediencelink to Electronic Civil Disobedience


CAE imageCAE image


Félix Guattari, Chaosmosis, trans. Paul Bains and Julian Perfanis (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995).

Walter Benjamin, “The Author as Producer,” trans. John Heckman, New Left Review 62 (1970): 83–96.


Claudia Costa Pederson is a graduate student at the History of Art and Visual Studies department at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. Her research focuses on the connections between art and social activism. She is currently writing a dissertation on digital games by artists using the medium for social intervention.

Nicholas Knouf is a PhD student in information science at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. His research explores the interstitial spaces between information science, critical theory, digital art, and science and technology studies.
For more visit Zeitkunst.org

Claudia Costa Pederson and Nicholas Adrian Knouf are PhD candidates in Art History and Information Science at Cornell University respectively. Here they broach the subjects of education, representation, and organized networks through a review of works by Arzu Ozkal and My Piece of Chennai.

Persistent Iteration by Arzu Ozkal is a two-channel video from a series of video works exploring identity in relation to the artist’s body. The two juxtaposed video feeds, the first of which shows a close-up shot of Ozkal’s hands and a school notebook on which she repeatedly writes türküm (Turkish); while the second image consists of a recording at an elementary school classroom attended by Ozkal in her childhood. In the latter, a stationary image of saluting Turkish soldiers is superimposed to the left of students engaged in their morning pledge to the Republic of Turkey. The soundtrack is of the students’ voices reciting in unison lead by a senior student. Ozkal is a Turkish-born artist of Turkish and Bosnian descent. The work was generated shortly after the artist’s completion of a MFA in Computer Art at State University of New York at Buffalo (SUNY), and was subsequently shown at various national and international venues.

Meena Natarajan is an interaction researcher and design specialist trained at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. She joined the project My Piece of Chennai as lead coordinator upon return to her native India in 2008. My Piece of Chennai is a open-source, online project developed by a volunteer network of Chennai- and North American-based designers, artists, entrepreneurs, and community organizers in collaboration with Chennai residents. The project’s website describes the aim of the initiative as an attempt at creating, “a place and medium of collaboration for local communities in monitoring civic amenities in their area, taking joint ownership of their piece of Chennai.” My Piece of Chennai follows on the heels of a number of independently run projects situated in large urban areas of India, such as Sarai, a well known collective in New Delhi, and Pukar in Mumbai, led by anthropologist Arjun Appadurai. These collectives are established as spaces and networks dedicated to research, practice, and conversation on topics related to urbanism.

Common to Ozkal’s and Natarajan’s projects is an examination of questions regarding subject formation, representation, and community. The points of intersection in these projects pertain to models of organization, an issue pertinent to both artists and activists. This essay examines the relationship between art and design practices conceived from an interventionist standpoint via generative modes of research and the development of autonomous networks.

Arzu Ozkal’s video, Persistent Iteration, evokes a paradigm of population management performed as educational ritual. Students’ bodies and psyches are brought to order through repetitive writing and vocal exercises. Persistent Iteration allows us to witness present-day, ritualized subjection to a vision of community established in Ozkal’s native Republic of Turkey by its founder, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881–1938). This designing of modern Turkish subjectivity on the model of the European nation-state has its roots in an Enlightenment ideology that valorized principles of individualism, self-interest, and utilitarianism, and extolled governance by Law, linear logic, and rationality. In practice, Atatürk had set out to design the institutional apparatus of Turkey in a series of cultural, political, social, and economic reforms upholding nationalism, modernization, democracy, and secularization guided by educational and scientific progress. This became known in Turkey as Kemalism.

Arzu Ozkal,Persistent Iteration, digital video, 2008Arzu Ozkal,Persistent Iteration, digital video, 2008


Following the arguments of Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish on the disciplinary function of teaching handwriting and military drills in schools, Ozkal represents the classroom as an extension of the state’s disciplinary apparatus, i.e., in its new forms of punishment. The militaristic ritual of the morning drill in Ozkal’s school also recalls Atatürk’s own training as a military officer. The liberal values of honesty and hard work (indicated both in speech and in writing in the video) foreground transparency, as a political principle, and efficiency, as an economic aim, two key characteristics of Atatürk’s program of economic, political, and cultural reform.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, September 20, 1928Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, September 20, 1928

It is significant to note that the revolutionary Turkish statesman’s educational reforms were developed in conjunction with the American educator and pragmatist philosopher John Dewey, who first visited the fledgling Republic in the summer of 1924. Dewey’s version of progressive education was designed to enable students to become functioning members of a civil society. Dewey believed that a vibrant democracy required the development of well-educated citizens schooled in the ability to think independently and not in the re-presentation of facts learned by rote memorization. This position was opposed to the classical view of the teacher as providing knowledge that fills the student vessel; in its place, Dewey’s teacher becomes a facilitator of the student’s own development by way of direct experience. A reduction of hierarchies in the classroom was to be mirrored in the structure of the educational bureaucracy as well. In the case of Turkey, Dewey wrote of a need for “unity” in the system, but not “uniformity”; unity in the sense of providing the same lessons everywhere within the Republic, but diversity in method of instruction.

Dewey’s influence on Turkish education is evident in the second channel of Ozkal’s piece. Prior to the founding of the Republic, Turkish was written in Arabic script, estimated to take three years to learn to an elementary level. As literacy was key for both Dewey and Atatürk to a well-functioning democracy, the estimated 90% illiteracy rate among the population at the time, along with the difficulty of learning Arabic script, needed to be remedied. The state-run Language Commission (Dil Encümeni) developed a modified version of the Latin script that Dewey came to advocate. Ozkal’s repetitive motions reinscribe the Turkish experiment in educational reform—an exercise in Europeanization—into her body.

My Piece of Chennai records the aftermath of modernist-driven processes of nation building in the wake of decolonization. Meena Natarajan’s photographs register these processes in visual juxtapositions of a highly polarized urban space (Chennai, India) and in the development of proposals for electronic frameworks for public interfacing akin to some forms of public art. This project involves an examination of current models of community as based on cohesion and unison, and raises the issue of the position of designers in relation to the local community they intend to address.

Meena Natarajan, Juxtaposition, My Piece of Chennai, 2009Meena Natarajan, Juxtaposition, My Piece of Chennai, 2009


The question of organizational form is key for My Piece of Chennai. The project appears at first glance to take the form of a traditional non-governmental organization (NGO). Upon inspection, however, we see that the members are instead all volunteers, living in various parts of the world, and come to the project at differing points in their lives. Heterogeneity of experience is the norm. My Piece of Chennai taps into both diasporic and generational networks by involving not only those who have left the city, but also those who have remained but might be at a generational remove from technological youth and thus more likely to be excluded from such initiatives. We can understand My Piece of Chennai as an “organized network” in the sense Ned Rossiter uses the phrase in his recent book Organized Networks: Media Theory, Creative Labour, New Institutions. In contradistinction to “networked organization,” where institutions retain their forms of hierarchy and merely use the rhetoric of networks by taking advantage of networked forms of communication, the “organized network” functions in a non-representational manner, with minimal hierarchy, and by fully exploiting the potentials of networked forms of communication. Organized networks are primarily horizontal, with just enough verticality to enable their survival within present configurations of civil society. The organized network is meant to be more stable than other forms of activist or artistic networks that appear and disappear quickly; it exists in a different temporal frame. Therefore, one of the main challenges organized networks face is that of sustainability: how to design the institution such that it can exist across different funding climates and survive the disappearance of charismatic personas. Additionally, organized networks must face the complexity of engaging with the older networked organizations and work through the complexities of this transitional period in civil society.

Rossiter draws on the concept of transdisciplinarity in developing his concept of organized networks. Developed most prominently by Félix Guattari and elaborated by Gary Genosko, transdisciplinarity entails the development of a metamethodology that reworks the relationships between traditional fields such as science, the social sciences, humanities, the arts, and politics. Transdisciplinarity is not predicated on the logic of the between, as found in inter-disciplinarity (where institutional boundaries remain and subjectivity stays tied to traditional formations), but is rather linked to transversal connections and the formation of novel assemblages. Transdisciplinarity is foremost a question of method, and coalesces around how new linkages that disrespect traditional disciplinary edges can be fostered. According to Rossiter, “The practice of transdisciplinarity preconditions the invention of new institutional forms” (18). The development of organized networks, and the experiments necessary to create ones that are sustainable while retaining qualities of non-representationality, rely on metamethodologies that work against reductive forces that would ossify the network into a rigid, hierarchical institution.

Underlying this tension between organized networks and networked organizations is the dialectic of strategies and tactics, linked to longstanding debates within activist and artistic circles. Historical references for the distinctions between these two terms come primarily from either military theory (Carl Philipp Gottlieb von Clausewitz’s On War) or the social sciences and philosophy (Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life). The question of not only the relative importance of strategies versus tactics, but which historical referents to use for their definition, has been a major point of contention in media arts circles, particularly in tactical media, throughout the late 1990s and 2000s. Rossiter’s approach clearly foregrounds a need to rethink the strategic component of activist practice. While not denigrating the importance of tactical activities in reinvigorating moribund practices, Rossiter understands the present experiments in new institutional formations as working through the complications of integrating both tactical and strategic practices within organized networks. My Piece of Chennai enacts these complications through its teams, each one incorporating a different ratio of strategies to tactics. Imbrication of this sort works to ensure the continued existence of My Piece of Chennai. The unknown temporal extent of the project—simply put, how long the project can sustain itself—is presented immediately as a question to the potential volunteer through the recruitment form, encouraging him or her to not overstate their commitment and thereby not imbue the project with false promises of future energy. This realism is not an abdication of hope, but rather an acknowledgment of and desire to work through the challenging problems of ongoing community engagement and institutional formations.

In addressing the issues raised in these pieces, two essays come to mind. The first, “Resisting the Bunker” by the Buffalo, New York-based collective Critical Art Ensemble (Electronic Civil Disobedience, 1995) presents the concepts of nomadic performance and the bunker. Nomadic performance is associated with horizontal (i.e., non-hierarchical) organization, ephemeral or process-based dynamics, and the creation of participatory spaces involving non-specialists and cheap materials. For CAE, the aim of nomadic performance is to question assumptions about the very publicness of public space, revealing it instead as a highly managed and controlled axis of disciplining mechanisms. In contrast, the bunker designates hierarchical structures, spaces of contemplation, permanence, specialization, and costly materials (e.g., sanctioned projects of public art, be they murals or monuments). The goal of bunker mentality is the buttressing of the status quo, enforced through compulsive, contemplative consumption. These concepts help us contextualize distinctions between public art projects as enacted by groups like CAE (as in the case of street performances involving “suspect” behaviors) and official public art projects (as in works sponsored by bureaucratic entities). One such example consists of a performance by a friend of CAE playing in a public space with toy cars. Initial public reactions involved surprise and pity (some of the people gathering around the man assumed he was a Vietnam veteran). As police officers approached the crowd, urging the man to move along or face arrest, the public reacted with disbelief and became angry with the police. While this particular performance revealed the limits of space as public, Arzu Ozkal’s public performance titled Unattended Body (Buffalo, NY, 2003) raised a counter scenario. (Ozkal studied under a member of CAE.)

Unattended Body, performance, Buffalo, NY 2004Unattended Body, performance, Buffalo, NY 2004


The piece shows the artist sitting on the ground for an extended period of time at three locations: a gas station, a mall parking lot, and outside a bank. Even though passersby noted her presence, no one approached the artist in these supposedly highly surveilled spaces. This, shortly after the events of 9/11, when the American public was urged by authorities to report suspect behavior with the now-familiar slogan, “If you see something, say something.” The obvious difference between the two performances is the apparent gender of the performer’s body. The male body engaged in child’s play appears to be more threatening than a passive, seated female body. Nor does the public appear to respond to these bodies with the same degree of empathy. In like vein, Ozkal’s Toys That Encourage Thinking installation at Brew House Space in Pittsburgh (2005) sought to engage children (and their parents) with the soundscapes of war.

Toys That Encourage Thinking, installation, Brew House Space, Pittsburgh, PA 2005Toys That Encourage Thinking, installation, Brew House Space, Pittsburgh, PA 2005


Ozkal constructed a children’s play space in the gallery where children were invited to color a series of coloring books and play with a teddy bear. The bear was modified so that a loud siren sound would be triggered by sensors in its body. The coloring books consisted of images of the same bear in bandages against a background of palm trees, planes, and falling bombs. To the artist’s surprise the children enjoyed the installation, while parents were alarmed (presumably because of the siren’s cold war associations).

Toys That Encourage Thinking, installation, Brew House Space, Pittsburgh, PA 2005Toys That Encourage Thinking, installation, Brew House Space, Pittsburgh, PA 2005


The second essay, which involves the question of representation central here, is Walter Benjamin’s essay, “The Author as Producer,” first delivered at the Institute for the Study of Fascism in Paris in 1934. In it, Benjamin addresses the self-positioning of German leftist intellectuals as representatives of the proletariat. Benjamin argues instead for a shift in artistic and political representation tantamount to transforming one’s position as a cultural and political representative. For Benjamin, it is not a matter of standing in for a concept such as “the community” or “the other” (that is, an artist or a politician cannot represent a particular sign); one must speak from one’s own position. Thus, the question becomes, not what politics the piece represents, but rather, how it is produced. The shift in focus from representation to participation implies that cultural producers and critics ought to orient their practices toward the issue of positionality, and for each to note whether his or her position entails one of operation or reportage. Thinking in terms of democratic structures allows for difference, rather than abstraction/consensus. The difference between these positions—the patron of the working class vis-à-vis participation within class struggle alongside the working class—is theorized by CAE along these Benjaminian lines. Benjamin includes three examples to illustrate his point. He cites the aestheticization of poverty in images (i.e., photographs) which become objects of consumption as a result of the public’s predisposition to engage images in Kantian terms as objects of contemplation. In order to make the point that technical progress ought not be confused with cultural progress, he includes as an example “canned music” as a degraded form of entertainment. In his third example, he favors Bertold Brecht’s epic theater, which involves the counteraction of illusion through alienating elements, principal among them is the interruption of plot. The dialectic between culture and politics is, as Benjamin sees it, the organizing function of representation. The recognition that aesthetic and political representation (form and content) are intimately linked, suggests, he argues, that those invested in cultivating new aesthetic and political sensibilities, ought to focus on collaboration and participation as points of departure for producing public debate.

My Piece of Chennai, WireframesMy Piece of Chennai, Wireframes
My Piece of Chennai, DrawingsMy Piece of Chennai, Drawings


The collective model of My Piece of Chennai calls for a similar reading given its model of network organization. The words—collaboration and participation—appear regularly as buzzwords uttered by both the techno-elite and corporations eager to continually expand their businesses. Indeed, local, state, national, and international governments and organizations have also been quick to latch onto these ideas in the guise of promoting “creative cities” or “creative industries.” For these actors, the goal is the development of intellectual property that can be exploited. For Natarajan and My Piece of Chennai, on the other hand, collaboration and participation work to create horizontal connections between disparate groups, not a marketable commodity that freezes movement and potential. The forces of recuperation continually work to enclose these practices within a capitalist logic; the challenge for the participants in My Piece of Chennai is how to develop ways of modifying their organized network as needed in order to not only counter these forces, but show how their alternative works in practice.

On a broader note, open-ended processes guide both projects’ content and form. In Ozkal’s performative works, the implied subject is in flux and at play as a model for envisioning new social relations, while games are proposed as possible modes of interaction in My Piece of Chennai. Making transverse (Guattari’s term) connections among existing sets of relations are of particular concern for the Chennai collective’s aim at interrogating, testing, and transforming the dynamics consolidating the urban fabric of Chennai. As noted by Natarajan, these tensions are especially pertinent to the context of design given that artists and designers work under different expectations. As the project develops, this point might prove one of its most generative facets in that it could serve as a touching point for examinations about the dynamics of collaboration among the members themselves and the broader community, as well as about the role of art and design in the context of urbanism in India today.

We wish to thank Arzu Ozkal and Meena Natarajan for their contributions, as well as Camel Collective for their invitation to contribute to the archive, suggestions, edits, and convivial disposition.

Claudia Costa Pederson
Nicholas Adrian Knouf

February, 2010.