Offline Matters:
An Interview Series — Unsettling the Normative with Mithu Sen

Text by Jess Henderson

Images Courtesy of Mithu Sen

Offline Matters: An Interview Series is co-presented with No Fun Mag, a membership newsletter by Jess Henderson, author of the book Offline Matters: The Less-Digital Guide to Creative Work.

 

In this interview, Jess speaks with Indian conceptual artist Mithu Sen, whose constantly evolving styles and explorations of different mediums allow her to defy expectations from both audiences and the art market alike.

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From her work on ‘radical hospitality’ to unsocial media, Mithu is a Queen of complexities of the body, interrogating the self as a matrix of identities and myths, and questioning societal norms, fixed beliefs, and categorisations.

 

She is a contemporary pioneer of non-language (what she calls ‘lingual anarchy’) and utilises the prefix ‘Un’ as her medium (just visit her website and you’ll see what I mean.)

 

I had the fortune of meeting Mithu in Berlin in 2019. Since then, our relationship has blossomed and we have found ways to grow closer and build an intimacy despite physical distance – Mithu is mostly based in New Delhi.

 

She invited me to participate in her Berkley Art + Design intervention ‘Berkley for Sale!’ last October, as part of her residence at UC Berkeley South Asia Art Initiative, where for three consecutive days Mithu ‘sold’ her residency in one hour slots to the personal invitees who in turn could ‘sell’ whatever they liked within their time frame. I sold my ‘ignorance’ for the hour, as I was unfamiliar with the Berkley institution’s efforts and intentions, reading from a book on the meanings of common phrases that we tend to not know the history of.

During the pandemic, Mithu and I engaged in the following dialogue, which manifests as today’s interview for your reading pleasure. In this piece, Mithu flourishes as her full magnetic and enigmatic being.

 

Read on to get a taste of what it’s like to enter Mithu’s world.

“Dear Jess,
What a long day with you today!

Am writing to you for hours….don’t know if it looks ok for you….but I tried my way.

 

love.

 

mithu ♥️”

Jess: What a pleasure to have this (e)conversation with you. All I want to do is speak together in person! Alas, this digital transmission will have to suffice. Could you please tell us where you are and what you’ve been up to over the past few months? What have your days been like?

 

Mithu: I am just trying ‘To be (or not to be)’ in every micro NOW moment… no more no less.


In our last mail you described how at the moment “It is so suffocating at the same time a time for rebooting ourselves.” Could you elaborate on what you’re observing around you (and online if that’s included)?

 

I cannot overstate the gravity of the quarantine and its immediate effects on our daily lives. The small things overlooked by my consciousness are giving me room for introspection.

Right now we are caught in an in-between state, having long drifted away from the normalcy of the way things were, and with no clear vision of what the future will look like.

 

I am and I want to reflect on our cognitive ignorances in every possible way.

 

The online is a space that is very present in my day-to-day life, it is now almost supplanting for real life. The ‘new normal’ that we are confronting at present is a normalcy that has been effected by the online space, where institutional demands and market considerations have morphed into a perpetual need for artistic virtuosity. I find that suffocating, because we are in a situation where the artist is a constant “responder” to the crisis, or a content creator; almost like an influencer.

 

I was totally humbled by some other words you said. In reference to the persona of Jess and the writings of Outsider, you kindly said “you know how to make others happy and calm with your skill through digital/online (un)presence…” To me you are the Mother of the Un. Can you please describe to our readers your relation to and reading of the ‘un’? I sense something radical and liberatory there…

 

Un- is a narrative trope of my own making that when used as a prefix, lends a contrary meaning to the word. Through un- i seek to unsettle and confound the normative: be it in words, images, sounds, gestures, codes of conduct.

Screenshot from one of Mithu’s ‘Un’usual artist presentations

The ‘new normal’ that we are confronting at present is a normalcy that has been effected by the online space, where institutional demands and market considerations have morphed into a perpetual need for artistic virtuosity. I find that suffocating, because we are in a situation where the artist is a constant “responder” to the crisis, or a content creator; almost like an influencer.

— Mithu Sen

Your work promotes so much energy from questioning, criticality, and being with- as well as being against. All done with a smile, humility, with playfulness as a challenge. What is the underlying message here?

 

In rethinking hospitality in these times, the unworld of my practice is a zone of propositions. I hope to create and visualise possibilities–both absurd and plausible. As long as these propositions are there, there is always, I feel, a possibility of them germinating into forms that could move towards political action.

 

Another ‘Un’usual presentation

What is the current status of the artist on the internet in your eyes?

I am thinking a lot about the kind of roles this new state of the world is according to the artist. As a responder, as a content creator, as a user, as an influencer – all of these identities in one!

 

When you think of ‘the offline’ what does that mean to you? I like to think of ‘the offline’ as a possibility space. If I were to ask you to fill in what it could be a space of possibility for, or how you would dream to see it utilised, what are your feelings?

 

I find this idea of a possibility space really interesting. I would say that I have been melding the offline with the online for a while now, and separating them as one does in life doesn’t seem like a viable possibility to me. As our lives are being led virtually, to me it is a ritual of meditative contemplation.

 

What seems like a possibility is that despite the medium and platform, if we are able to enter into dialogues with ourselves and others, and shift the nature of reality by our own criticality. When it comes to my own platforms online, I like to capture the space online to forefront the logic of social media capitalism.

 

Can you tell us about what you’re working on at the moment?

I am working on my soon to be published monograph of my last 20 years journey…

 

And for one final question, if you wished to send a message to our fellow curious, critical, dissatisfied, joyful collective of minds, what would you say?

 

Make a list of your own cognitive ignorances.