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Shaping the Future of New Media Art in India

An interview with Shammi Raj Balla, co-founder of Sensistan


Tones, Ansh Kumar, 2020, Interactive Installation




My connect with Shammi happened a little while ago. I was quickly impressed with some of the work Sensistan had done, but I was more moved by how kind, patient and forthcoming Shammi himself was.

 

Shammi Raj Balla is the founder of Sensistan, a not-for-profit that works to create an awareness, appreciation and adoption of new media art in India. He is also a coder with a postgraduate degree in financial engineering, and a generalist who first discovered the world of tech-art while living in the US. Inspired by the potential of experiential art to create social impact, he quit his job in 2016 to first co-found Cyrcus Collective and, three years later, Sensistan.

 

Now, having had a fair bit of experience managing projects and teams in past avatars, I’ve learned, through blood, sweat and a lot of tears, that running any type of team-based project is bloody hard work — especially if you have strategic, business or financial goals to achieve. And I’ve always had much admiration for anyone who chose to work with creatives and folk inclined to thinking and operating “out of the box”. The idea has been romanticized excessively in every-day culture and, of course, it could be fun. But the ground reality of the experience is far from it (And I should know — I consider myself one of those odd odd-ball-creative types). From a purely project management standpoint, it can be very, very challenging — and challenging enough to ask the question: Why would anyone do it?!


Then I saw Shammi at work and it dawned on me: you don’t do it to meet strategic, business OR financial goals. You do it for something else..

 

But what?

 

To find out what exactly, I knew I had to spend some time with Shammi himself. And spend some time I did — or rather, he obliged. And here’s what we talked about…   






M: Thank you for taking the time, Shammi.

S: It’s a pleasure and an honor. Thank you very much.


M: Can you tell us about your background and the journey that got you here?

S: Sure, I’ve always been a creative growing up. Coming from Calcutta, my sister learned Bharatanatyam and other dance forms — my parents put her into such kind of classes. I however did not go through these, so I used to draw and sketch instead. But as a boy and coming from a lower middle-class family, they always pushed me to study well. So, even I when was drawing they were like, “What are you doing with this? Why don’t you study?”. I was a blessed kid in a way. Seeing my parents and the life around me, I knew that if I do not study, I’m going to remain here. None of my friends left that area — maybe one or two did move outside Calcutta and joined the military or what not. So, I became like a horse wearing blinders and I ran the race. I scored good marks, got many scholarships, graduated BITS Pilani in 2005, worked for a couple of years at a startup in embedded software designing chips for phones and got bored of it. Then randomly, in 2007, after a few years of making money, I decided to book a travel vacation to New York. That’s when I realised that there was a world outside India. I returned and wrote my GMAT, applied to a masters in financial engineering at New York University, via a scholarship, got through, and found myself back in the US. At the time of doing my masters I was working three jobs including one at a gas station. I graduated in 2009. But this was the time of the financial crisis. For six months I lived with almost no money; I survived on Cupo Noodles and Bread-Omelets while living with a Columbian family of a mother and son — and to get to my room I had to go through the mother’s room (laughs).


M: Where in the US was this?

S: This was in Brooklyn. Finally, I got a job and the dream of working at Wall Street came true. During this time, I also met my wife, Steph — she was working with the UN. While I was helping rich people get richer, she was helping the poor — I saw the gap in what I was doing with my life. At the same time, a Burning Man event in New York was going on and with it came my introduction to drugs — and that opened valves that weren’t open before. I met doctors and scientists — the first drug given to me was by a doctor; I was amazed with the type of people that I met. We live in a society where everything is judged; Wall Street is all about how you look, the suits you wear, the shoes you wear, where you went to play golf, which Hamptons apartment or beach-side home you have etc. But here were people who were so different. The contrast I saw blew me away and I was like — this is not the type of life I want to live —


M: Which year was this?

S: This happened in 2014. So, I quit my job and decided to go backpacking across Central-America. I traveled for about a year and came back to India and continued traveling. My wife joined me and we traveled a bit — we also travelled through South East Asia. Then I went back to NY and was supposed to lead a 500-people organization with AIG, in Mexico. But there was another, smaller economic crisis during the time and the project got cancelled. At the same time, Steph got a project to lead in the Mekong region of Cambodia — so we both moved there. During this time, while she was at work, I had nothing to do — I applied for jobs on the side. I also bought a small projector and started to teach myself projection mapping. So, while working various jobs teaching Corporate Finance at a University, working with PWC, then a venture capital firm etc. I was experimenting with Resolume and projection mapping on the side. Soon, I got a few gigs and events and started an organization called Art Venture Time. The company my wife worked with gave us a big bungalow with a pool and we did not know what to do with it; we both are very simple people. Wondering what to do with so much space, we started inviting artists through this website called workaway.info where traveling artist come and collaborate on different projects. We met amazing artists — people from 16 years to 65 years this way. So, while Steph used to go to work, I used to work on different projects with them. That’s when it stared for me. Post that, different things happened: one huge opportunity presented itself — there was a huge ship— a 60 X 40, 6-storie vessel was abandoned on the docks of the Mekong River. We looked at it and thought why don’t we build an Art-Cultural center on the ship? — we tried to raise funds, tried to talk to the local government, tried to talk to the local people, but were told that there were just too many risks — the ship wasn’t stable and might sink etc. etc. In 2018 I wanted to come back to India where I could practice projection mapping, interactive art, and even tried my first AR and VR apps. These were all very exciting and seemed like a huge opportunity in this field, globally. And I realised that not many organizations were working in this niche. Steph and I took a three-month break to decide if we wanted to do something in India — in between, something else happened; Steph was working on a project with the Red Cross, Switzerland, around psycho-socio education in refugee camps. Because I worked with technology, we joined forces to run interventions in these camps under what we called Psycho-Socio Education with Techno-Magic — that was the key word. This was in 2018, at a time when about 1.4 million Rohingya refugees were displaced from Myanmar and many of these were now living in camps in the Cox Bazaar area, in Bangladesh. So, we had the question of what we could do for these people, and after talking to an organization called Codec and UNICEF, we learned that because he populations in these camps were from different communities and backgrounds there used to be frequent conflict in the camps. Also, the dearth of food and resources didn’t help. Keeping the work of Clowns Without Borders as an inspiration, we thought of doing something with the people using what we called Techno-Magic.


Cosmic Pathways, 2021, Interactive Installation, Saeed Quaiti, Kaushik Varma, Shivani Prajapati, Shrishti Patra, Ayesha Dutt




M: What is Techno-Magic?

S: So, in short, we used electronics and the techniques of projection mapping to interact with school kids and bring a cohesive environment amongst them. E.g.: we gave people a drawing of a fish on paper and asked people to color them. Then we scanned these drawings of fishes, added animation and projected these on a wall to show scenes where all the fishes moved together — the message being that as an individual you will be eaten whereas together, you can thrive. Another exercise involved giving people the task of designing a wheel and we used projection mapping to add the wheel to a car and make it move — the idea here being that individually a single wheel cannot go far but when four wheels come together, they could move a car or large truck etc. For us it was a very good learning to see how people perceived what we were trying to do and its potential. We also found that everyone was excited to see technology in use. If we had used any other format like games etc. to communicate the same messages, we found that not everyone was excited about it. But the moment you add technology — one may not know what’s going on in the background, but the colours, lights, all seemed to be magic — hence, Techno-Magic. In three weeks, we worked with about 300-400 students. Teachers used to complain that these same students would not come to school but for our programs they came and even got their friends and they theirs — people who did not even go to school — they started hanging around eager to see what would be next. That really inspired us.

We spent a few weeks there. In Oct 2018, we moved to Goa, India, and decided to create a Lab to take this further. We found a very beautiful building on rent after 6-8 months of searching. The place was very expensive — about 2 lacs a month. We decided to take it and build out a revenue source later.

"...But the moment you add technology — one may not know what’s going on in the background, but the colours, lights, all seemed to be magic — hence, Techno-Magic."


M: Was this still Steph and You?

S: It was. My sister helped financially too, to realise this, as well. We started the Lab and an exhibition space. And that’s how we started Sensistan, which was India’s first Tech Art Experiential Museum, in 2019. Because we did not have much money, we reached out to friends, did open calls to see who could come without us paying fees, and offered the space, stay and food. For some, we provided flight tickets as well — national and international. We planned funding for about a year and thought that we could get the ball rolling before then. Then two months later Covid hit. We had a staff of about 30-40 people with at least 10 on a regular payroll. So, there was money going out but non coming in. What happened during this time, since it was a museum and cultural space, was that the community around us, in Goa, who had nothing to do, would also come around and hang out with us and the place eventually transformed into a community space. The same thing we had done in Cambodia, started to take shape here. We’d have projection mapping, have performers, collaborations, we’d start shooting videos and post them online. The news spread like wildfire, locally. We had artists coming, audiences, then the police, and the local mafia for different agendas. It was fun! (laughs again). Finally, we ran out of funds in 2021.

Reflections, Ansh Kumar, Filatova Natalia, Shammi Raj Balla, Vijay Lama Tamang. Interactive Installation, 2020



M: What was your mission with this endeavor — were you just trying to replicate what you did in Cambodia or was there a different objective?

S: Our inspiration — the reason to move to India and starting Sensistan — was to create something on the tines of Team Lab in Japan and Meow Wolf in Santa Fe, New Mexico. When we started there were about 8-9 technology experiential centers globally which use space, art, design and tech to create immersive experiences for people. Now there are about 50-60 around the world. We were one among the first to create and be a part of this — I can proudly say. The idea was to create such centers which would become the future of entertainment — now it’s the normal of entertainment. The goal is to provide entertainment as well as psycho-socio interventions. So, we started a private limited company and also a not-for-profit foundation —


M: Two entities?

S: yes, it called a hybrid model.


M: How does that work?

S: Starting a dual organization is not necessary. Why we did it this way was because, close to our hearts — both Steph and mine — we wanted to still do our charity work in India and refugee camps etc., and create a private entertainment business, which is a for-profit business, and use one to support the other. So, this was the model we decided.


M: Did the functioning of this dual model kick off?

S: After 2021, everything stopped, we burned out physically, mentally, and financially. Then we decided to take a six-month break. We went to Austria, built a camper van, and travelled from Austria to Sicily, and spent time climbing mountains, playing sports, cooking, jumping into the coldest of lakes, and having fun.


M: Let me ask you, had Covid not happened, what would have been your trajectory?

S: If Covid did not happen or even not if we had to restart, I believe there is so much of digital content around us on phones and other devices, OTT platforms, cinemas etc. people are desensitized to what’s out there and people will look of alternate avenues of entertainment. In India, unfortunately, if you look at the mass level, it is restaurants, malls, movie theaters, and sometimes parks, and theme parks are where people get to go to. But there are only few things which are available for the entire family — from a small kid to a senior citizen, there are few placed where they could go together — most people just go to the mall. So, the question is, how can we cater to that need? Also, if you look at the globe, there are several experiential centers coming up in various countries around the world, but most are lacking a narrative. That’s not the case with India. We have so much of history and culture from the Panchatantra to the Ramayana and Mahabharata, there are so many possibilities to start telling the same stories in a different format. Like with print to tv serials to movies and 3D animations what’s next to tell the same story? I truly believe this is going to create a lot of jobs and opportunities. There is a tremendous opportunity and that is the reason Sensistan is still operating through these residencies.

When we started in 2019 the biggest challenge was not too many people were practicing this niche art in India. That’s why we had to invite many people from outside the country. So, one of the things we had to do was to train people and bring exposure to artists, the audience, and also investors. Initially when we did the residencies, we invited artist to come and explore their art practice — we did not charge people for it. But then we saw that artists were sometimes very lost — they would come for three months, experiment and spend days trying to figure out a creative problem but there was no one to ask for help. So, I said, OK, what if this was the case and there were a few mentors around to help them. But then if we did have experts around, they would charge us — I wouldn’t ask them to come for free. Otherwise why would anyone come? So, I said if they are charging, the question was how do we make revenue — we couldn’t only rely on ticket sales, which may or may not happen. That’s when we decided to charge the participants and create this as a short-term learning program where people could learn different skillsets and get an introduction to it. This is how the residency developed.

"When we started in 2019 the biggest challenge was not too many people were practicing this niche art in India. That’s why we had to invite many people from outside the country. So, one of the things we had to do was to train people and bring exposure to artists, the audience, and also investors."



M: How many residencies have you had so far?

S: This is the third, formal residency where we started called it The Circle. In total we have had six residencies so far— Initially, when we did that as a free program, we had 15 people in first — Anandya was one of them. When we did the first paid program, we invited the people who had attended before to join us as mentors — hence the name Circle — people trained in prior events joined us as mentors or became a part of the organising team etc. etc. for future events. And that’s how we started to grow as a community


M: What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced so far, besides those that were pandemic related?

S: When we were abroad, we heard a lot of propaganda about the ease of doing business here in India: that there was a lot of government support, art and culture was thriving, etc. Then we came here and I’ve had to knock on so many government doors telling people this is what we are trying to do. First challenge was they did not understand what was experiential-tech art. They were like — “show me”. I had to make them understand that it’s not so easy to show them on a piece of paper. So we created videos etc.. But some got it, and some did not. I also thought funding would come easier — maybe I do not have the skills or the knack to go after funding — these were the two primary challenges. Today, people know a lot more from places like Instagram etc. There also weren’t many artists practicing. At one point I went to a panchayat in Assagao, in Goa, 13 times to get a document signed giving permission to start.

M: What have been your biggest learnings?

S: There have been so many learnings — every part, from ideation to execution. One very important learning was that I cannot do it all. Trying to do everything by yourself is not possible. I used to open doors early morning to take out the garbage and close doors after 11 or 12 at night after everyone left, and everything else from managing social media, to bringing the artists, to handling people and everything else — we single handedly did everything and eventually we burnt out. At one-point Steph and I burnt out to the point where our relationship did get affected and were separated for a year. What we learnt was the need for team that was equally passionate.


"One very important learning was that I cannot do it all. Trying to do everything by yourself is not possible. "


M: How do you find such a team?

S: You have to try things out — it comes from constant trial and error. People initially make a lot of promises, but then you required a lot of sustained energy and a lot of effort to start from the ground up versus having something already established.

M: What’s been the best thing about this current residency?

S: The people (replies in a heart-beat). I mean, the quality of the people who applied, the way the program was conducted to the final result that has come out, all of this has been top notch. This time we found partners in Craftech360, Param, and Bangalore Creative Circus (BCC) and others — full partners and associate partners. And because we did it in Bangalore, because the affinity to tech and art is higher here, I’ve met such amazing people. Although this residency has been at a loss — that I had already accepted before — it is not about the tangible but the intangible benefits that happen. And there have been a lot of positives that have come out of this residency. I’m very happy. Ultimately, it’s the relationships that develop that are the best outcomes — I believe everything else is temporary. Relationships are also temporary, you could say. But the relationships I’ve made and people I’ve met because of this is so satisfying and fulfilling. To see that there are so many people passionate about this, it’s incredible. I feel like, when I said initially the word movement, it is a movement which we started because there were not many people practicing or doing this. I can see the movement finally starting to gather mass and momentum.


M: Giving your unique experience and perspective in India and outside, what advice would you give to folks like me and other artists, participants of this residency and others?

S: Perseverance. Being an artist is generally very difficult. When artists die, usually only then are they and their work given importance or significance. But travelling globally, I see the opportunities it has —specifically tech and art and the combination of new media has huge potential. Persevere. You see only the tip of the iceberg but there is a whole mountain below and infinite potential above. Of course, that’s not the only thigs. You have to make good work and constantly put yourself out there, market yourself, as an example, look at fruit sellers — especially in the old days in villages — they grow their own food and then take it to the market to sell themselves — we have to do the same thing. We have to produce as well as well. If you cannot do this — hire someone. Hire me (laughs).


"Travelling globally, I see the opportunities it has —specifically tech and art and the combination of new media has huge potential. Persevere."


M: What’s next?

S: Long term, my plan is to create tech art experiential centers in India and provide as many jobs as possible and opportunities for people to come together and work together and create an eco-system. Like how the movies of the 50s and 60s are now a phenomenon, our goal is to create that sort of a phenomena in tech art and entertainment. It’s going to happen — whether I do it or someone else does it. Because I started sooner, met so many people, know people in the field, have people know Sensistan — why not take advantage of that and leverage what we’ve already built so far. I’ve had a few opportunities to move back abroad and get back to a regular 9 to 5, but I choose to stick around and do this because I feel it is going to do good for so many people — how can I be selfish? Why not continue until the battle is won?



"..I choose to stick around and do this because I feel it is going to do good for so many people — how can I be selfish? Why not continue until the battle is won?"





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‘Lost in Bangalore’ is open from 9th March - 7th April, 2024, from 7 pm - 10 pm. The installations are crafted by 18 resident artists, technologists, and designers, coming from different parts of India. This exhibition is a culmination of a 2-month Artist Residency in New Media Arts by Sensistan Foundation’s Circle III Residency and partners Craftech360 and Bangalore Creative Circus.


Learn more about it here.




Learn more about Sensistan Foundation and their work:




All photographs and screengrabs are copyright Sensistan Foundation/ respective owners. Content on this blog copyright Malcolm Fernandes, 2024, All Rights Reserved.

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