Looking forward: Insta-gratification and the art of writing letters

When was the last time you expected a letter? Still, there’s something to be said for the thrill of anticipation and the creative responses it evokes.

Sandbox Collective, based in Bengaluru, paired 11 artists from the city with the aim of sparking original ideas. Called the See-Saw Project, it was conceptualized by Karen D’Mello with Charulatha Dasappa, Suchaita Tennetia and Aakriti Chandervanshi.

“During the pandemic, we were looking for ways to collectively reflect on themes of identity and bias, people and communities. That’s how we came up with the idea of ​​using snail mail as a way to develop a sense of collective thinking even while apart,” says Karen D’Mello.

The team identified artists from various disciplines and matched them anonymously for 11 weeks. They were given the opportunity to choose their pen name as their identities were kept secret for the duration of this project.

“By hiding their names, we hoped to circumvent any preconceived ideas artists might have had. Every week, we sent them prompts—touchables or activities—to engage, which were supposed to spark their creativity. The prompts were open to interpretation and we hoped that if the artists used them as guidelines, it would stimulate creation within a framework.

Looking forward: Insta-gratification and the art of writing letters

Participants would send their partners or “pen pals” everything they had worked on by post. The animators would engage weekly with uploaded versions of these creations during the exchange, which began in September and ended in November. “The results were thoughtful artistic responses to the same, as it encouraged artists to explore art forms outside their areas of expertise. The focus was on the process rather than the form it took and we hoped it would start a conversation or an invitation to engage in similar projects,” says Karen.

Jeisi Amawasa (her pseudonym), visual artist and lawyer, says, “What I really liked about this program was the lack of an audience to interact with or perform for, at least in real time. The fact that I didn’t have to adapt to a particular aesthetic was liberating as it helped me move beyond my traditional forte of illustration, to use art forms such as collage or writing to Express myself.

For Jeisi, the most empowering prompt was one consisting of breadcrumbs, red food coloring, fake grease, and a blood fry recipe. “It made me wonder if I was as progressive as I thought I was and if there were still some biases lurking inside me. Although they were wrong, the prompts were modeled on objects I’m not used to and it made me question my personal view of things. I realized that we are all castes or biased at some level and need to make a conscious decision to unlearn these notions,”

The purpose of the prompts was to provoke thought – participants did not have to use them as part of their responses. “I had no idea who I was interacting with and they also had no idea who I was – it was a raw experience, communicating with a stranger on such diverse and intimate topics,” says Jeisi. Participants were paired with different artists after five weeks.

For collaborative theater artist Lavender Hippo (her pseudonym), who works in the areas of gender identity, caste and sexuality, the experience was truly difficult because her skills are intangible. “As an actor, it was the first time I couldn’t see my audience, and in a way, it was appealing to work anonymously outside of my comfort zone. The first prompt we received was sensory in nature – we were asked to take a walk and figure out how we felt about certain smells and why.

Looking forward: Insta-gratification and the art of writing letters

“I found ideas to interact with my correspondent since I was not there physically. I sent them guessing games, a poem and a USB stick with audio and video files. Mostly, I wrote to them — a medium I’m not comfortable with. This whole project has been an opportunity for me to explore ways to express myself.

Among the responses she received, Lavender says the one sent during week two when the prompts revolved around dating apps, struck a chord. “My pen pal sent me a ball made out of strips of chart paper and each strip had answers you would typically see on a dating site. You realize how superficial the whole process is and the ball of paper fragile that could be so easily crushed was a fitting indicator. At the same time, there was this realization that we are all in this together. There are others I have not met who experience the same feelings of rejection or acceptance than me; it served as a powerful bond,” she adds.

After the See-Saw project was completed, Sandbox Collective posted the completed works on its site along with the names of the participating artists. However, the uploaded works were always under pseudonyms. “We tend to believe that the circle of art is very close, so it was very surprising to see that I didn’t know any of the artists once our names appeared on the site,” says Jeisi.

The See-Saw project is supported by Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan Bangalore and can be viewed at https://www.sandboxcollective.org/see-saw

Scott R. Banks