In 2016, I conceptualized an installation titled ‘The Colombo Project’ which was commissioned by Cinnamon Colomboscope, an annual contemporary and multi-disciplinary arts festival in Sri Lanka. The focus of the exhibition for that year was Arts and Digital Cultures in South Asia and Europe. My installation was part of the ‘Kalaidescopia’ theme, where artists were expected to focus on communities and social cohesion.
(above featured image by Ruvin De Silva)
I chose to base my installation on the neighbourhood around the Kirulapone Canal. Though the canals themselves were built during colonial rule, the area around the canal now houses ethnically and socioeconomically diverse communities of Colombo.
With journalist Megara Tegal, I conducted several surveys and interviews with residents to understand their perception of other ethnic/religious communities and how factors such as social media and physical interaction could influence these. Particular attention was given to how the built environment could impact these interactions.
The places we covered included Havelock City (upscale new apartment complex built on the former Wellawatte Spinning & Weaving Mills), Sri Siddhartha Road, Thalakotuwa Gardens, Park Road, and Mayura Place. The erstwhile residents of the land which is now Havelock City are housed at Lakmuthu Sevana (government apartment complex) at Mayura Place. They are mostly descendants of the mill workers from India, and formerly lived in tenement housing.
The exhibition was held at the Old General Post office, and in the installation, we recreated the homes and streets around the Kirulapone Canal and employed photography, film and light projections to give visitors an experience of the area and the way in which its inhabitants interacted with one another. Threads were used to show human interaction, with colored threads showing physical interaction and copper colored ones to show virtual interactions.
Physical interaction with residents was higher where the built environment was not walled, particularly down Sri Siddhartha Road where we conducted several face to face interviews with residents. However as we moved to Havelock City, Park Road and Thalakotuwa Gardens, our access to the residents here was primarily through email, whatsapp or facebook.
One of most recognizable and unique features of this area is the proximity of four different places of worship. Mayura Place is lined by a Catholic Church, a Mosque and a Hindu Temple with the Buddhist monument in the adjacent Havelock City. Mayura Place was often cited as a place of communal and religious harmony during our surveys and interviews.
For the installation, Mayura Place provided a shared shared sacred place which brought people together. An added feature was the ‘raft’ which was a common area created at the intersection of the ‘L’ corridor where visitors were drawn in by the placement of a tv screen which showed video interviews of residents. Cushions and cooling fans were placed strategically in order to ensure people spent time on the raft and interacted with one another.
Most residents had access to a smartphone, however access to social media was dependent on being able to afford data packages.
The idea of the installation was to enable visitors to understand how our built and virtual environments impacted our interactions with one another. Our interactions are key to formulating perceptions of each other, and as Colombo City expands both vertically and horizontally, embracing the aesthetics and technology of a ‘modern’ and ‘global’ city, what could these changes entail for social cohesion and social mobility? In a country fraught with ethnic and class tensions, the most recent being in March 2018, when the government launched its social media ban after anti-Muslim riots took place, what is the role of the built environment in providing physical security, helping overcome political agendas and empowering people? This installation invites people to create common spaces and embrace interactions that will help people overcome their physical/virtual boundaries with one another.