Thoughts from the Impakt Festival in Utrecht

In the Kiker Theatre on my last night in Utrecht, I witness a YouTube battle. Audience members have lined up their most bizarre, fabulous or pathetic videos on the theatre screen and all of us vote on which stays and which gets eliminated by choosing to wear funny paper hats. Rohan Sehgal, my new desi best friend in Utrecht, has us roaring with laughter with his nomination – “the worst movie death scene ever” from the 1973 Turkish film Kareteci Kiz. The ‘us’ is a motley bunch – students, scholars, artists, designers. I had no idea Utrecht is so cosmopolitan. Imagine having an Aborginal Art museum in the middle of the town. Aboriginal? In the Netherlands? Utrecht is that kind of place. Strange, cool, hip, underrated, just like the opening night post-dubstep music of Filastine, the Barcelona-living American DJ who combines lyrics and visuals in his commentary on everything from the consequences of globalisation and the Arab Spring to environmental pollution and the economic crisis.

My time whizzes by in a whirlwind of panels and lectures. As the Festival Fellow for 2012 (a joint appointment between the Centre for the Humanities at Utrecht University and the Impakt Festival), I give five talks on topics like Indian sexuality and the changing face of Bollywood while listening to Lacanian analyses of Nollywood (Nigerian) films. I learn so many new terms (Afro-futurism, C-pop, J-pop, K-pop, the Grass Mud Horse), encounter so many new organisations (the China-Africa Think Tank forum!), come across so many acronyms (BRICS you all should know by now, but do you know about what ENA or BASIIC stand for?) and see so many global versions of ‘Gangnam Style’ (from Eton schoolboys to African jigs, this meme is just never going to end, it seems!) that I spend half my time on Google, with just one ear on the talks.

I like how the festival is structured. At the behest of festival director Arjon Dunnewind, the two curators – Californian author Samantha Culp, who now lives in Shanghai, and South African researcher, Cher Potter who now lives in London – provocatively call the festival ‘No More Westerns’. As they tell me over not-so-cutting chai, and while gifting me my festival T-shirt (a faux Chanel logo mashed up with Arabic script), the world has changed and European and North American countries will soon have to relinquish their dominant role to a number of rapidly developing economies, such as India. But how is this process developing? Which visual languages, icons and symbols are being mixed up? Sam and Cher provide us with some pointers via their eclectic content programming of academic panels, screenings, music performances and art exhibitions.

I attend a screening called ‘Fourth culture kids’. This is a spin off from the term Third culture kids, which is used to describe kids raised between two different cultures, such as kids of expats. Fourth culture kids refers to many of today’s kids and youth – who are being raised between increasingly blurred cultural lines with the Internet dominating their lives more than their parents or their national origin. Language, values and aesthetics all get mixed up and the khichdi is fascinating but I still feel acutely, the presence of the West as a source of desire, while watching the different films. Take Kitintale (directed by Yann Gross), a 2008 short film about skateboard culture in a small Ugandan town. Skateboarding is a metaphor for imagining and a possibility of one day making the crossover to a better life. Similar desires are expressed in Bikelordz (directed by Mikey Freedom Hart) a documentary about the self-taught BMX bicycle culture in Accra, Ghana.

Watching the documentary Heavy Metal In Baghdad is very moving. The directors, Eddy Moretti and Suroosh Alvi, follow the Iraqi heavy metal band Acrassicauda from the fall of Saddam Hussein to the continuous presence of US troops to their escape from Iraq. During the concert in the documentary, power goes off in the hotel in which it is being organised, but when it finally comes back on, the energy with which the metal-fans head-bang is funny, and yet so sad. Watching a BBC news report about the battle between emos and punks in Mexico is also poignant. Both emos and punks are non-native Mexican trends with complex alternative notions of machismo. Sometimes contested versions of the west are fought over within non-western locations, to tragic results. There is no one West just as there is no one East. Nor is there one idealised idea of West in the East or the global South. All is contextual.

Amplifying this contextuality is a lovely art exhibition that I visit, called ‘The Impossible Black Tulip of Cartography’. The title refers to an extraordinary map, drawn by the Italian missionary Matteo Ricci for the Chinese emperor in 1602, which placed China at the centre of the world. This was the first-ever Chinese map to recognise and include the Americas. As Sam and Cher write on the festival website, this map is a reminder that the theme ‘no more westerns’ has “deep historical roots, and is ultimately a rediscovery of a previous norm as opposed to a new invention; which today is brought to the fore by the emerging BRICS and digital innovations that make binaries like East and West seem outdated.” They continue that “the title’s double meaning is critical – the implication that the act of mapping is itself an impossible pursuit, and that any attempt to map the world and its future will always be incomplete and biased. Better, perhaps, to chart the limits of knowledge through the fictions it refracts, the distant yet intimate future, the contours of mythology, and the substance of style.” The exhibition does exactly this, with its display of games, sculptures, photographs and video art from all over the world arranged in maze-like corridors.

I am drawn particularly to two videos, each very different from the other. The first is ‘Allegoria Sacra’ (Sacred Allegory) – a large-scale digital video installation by the Russian collective AES+F. I was awestruck by their 2009 work the nine-channel video ‘The Feast of Trimalchio’ when I encountered it at the Biennale of Sydney in 2009. Sacred Allegory, their most recent work, is based upon the medieval Giovanni Bellini painting with the same name. The trailer that I see in Utrecht brings together reality, fantasy and history, zooms between the past and the future, and interprets hell as a dystopian airport terminal that contains dragon-aeroplanes, centaurs, magic carpets, sand, ice, chopped-off heads, multi-racial warriors, hybrid babies and sleeping passengers. The colours are loud and the photography is sumptuous, glossy and fashion magazine-ish, even though much of the video is about killing.

It is a complete contrast from the second video that I like – the deliberately amateurish and low-tech ‘Who cares about the future?’ made by Double Fly Art Center, a collective of nine recent graduates from the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. It’s brilliant – mashing up old Chinese song-style with faux boy-band choreography. Anti-Gangnam style perhaps, but it draws its aesthetic from similar YouTube memes. The lyrics mock the systems of the art world and what it means to be an adult itself. Here are the first few lines: “I’m into oil paintings, you do installations, we welcome our mommy from Serbia, who’s destined to be an artist, picking up a chrysanthemum…” For more, search for it online. It’ll be five minutes well spent, I promise.

China is so exciting and I’m surprised that we aren’t engaging with it much in India, especially on a cultural level. In Utrecht I meet Zafka Zhang on the ‘News in a Multipolar World’ panel, chaired by my friend, the provocative Utrecht University professor and author of Bastard Culture, Mirko Schaefer. Zafka is an experimental musician and the co-founder of China Youthology, a market research firm studying China’s post- 1980 generation for blue chip clients like Pepsi and Nokia. He talks about how Chinese youth are using the Internet to connect, as a result of the other pressures all around them. Memes are big in China but there, they are more than just dirty jokes and/or silly videos. Identity and political satire find their way into Chinese memes, and youth use these to connect to each in a way they can’t in their real lives.

I make it a point to visit Puha, the new edgy design store located right next to the prostitutes’ windows on the Hardebollenstraat (Utrecht’s single-street red light district). It has a sharply curated mix of sustainable clothing, jewellery, bags and books created by over 50 young Dutch designers. On a free day, I also pop over to attend the Dutch Design Week in Eindhoven. This is a spectacular, once-a-year metamorphosis of an industrial city. During the Dutch Design Week, Eindhoven gets transformed. Shipping containers host pop up shows, old Philips factories open up with installations in them, and food courts emerge on street corners. It’s quite magnificent.

* This post is a modified version of my column Parmesh’s Viewfinder which appears in Verve magazine every month.