Interview with exhibiting artist Ranu Mukherjee

SOMArts graphic design intern Corinna Karg caught up with exhibiting artist Ranu Mukherjee to talk about collaboration, crowd-sourcing, overlapping histories and migration. See more of Mukherjee’s work online at and in The Future Is NOW: Asian America on its Own Terms, now through May 25.


As a collaborative project, you have been accepting images from the public which reflect the experience or understanding of the nomadic. How large is your archive of publicly submitted nomadic images, and what have you learned from these images?

I don’t think of my investigation of the nomadic as a collaborative project, in that when I show work that comes out of this process the people who give me images are not named as artists- when I make ink paintings of images people give me I name them in the title as an acknowledgment of the source of the image and the exchange that came with it. (I spent many years working as part of the collaborative artist Orphan Drift, so I have thought a lot about what constitutes collaboration) I do think of this as a way to manifest the idea that images are made collectively and that source material itself is nomadic, particularly with our current communication technologies. It is important to me that the process of making the work is nomadic and hopefully the work itself continues the journey and translation of the image.

The archive is small- about 55 submissions or so, some of which have been stories, ideas or objects. I began by sending a call out to my own mailing list and got images from people I knew fairly well. I made this searching process more generally public with the installation I did in Bay Area Now 6, as an attempt to expand it beyond people I had some connection with already. I have recently been asking specific communities as a way of collecting source material for an upcoming exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Art.

I have learned a lot from the responses and they have been one way for me to find a sense of direction in what is an impossibly wide topic full of contradictions and uneasy politics.

Some of the things I have learned have been about specific cultures and histories of material transformation- i.e. the Empty Quarter into a major oil producing region, or the Valley of Heart’s Desire into Silicon Valley.

I have learned a lot about what I am doing when I translate photographic images or things into these ink paintings I have been making- how I edit out what I am not looking at in the photographs and remake them into different kinds of artifacts. It has clarified my interest in the fragment as a unit of measurement, and in a neo-animist (to borrow Betti Marenko’s term) relationship to objects.

I have learned that it is really important to me where my source material comes from- I was feeling really despondent about Google searches and when I began receiving images from people, I found them so much more interesting, specific, idiosyncratic. This difference is perceptible and affective, subtle visually but very important. It confirms for me how much the process and the non-visual elements of a project matter.

I am not too concerned with the fact that I get a few responses for each call I put out because it enables me to spend time with the responses I do get. I think there is a value to the inquiry, for anyone who relates to it, that goes beyond whether they actually send me anything or not. But, I am trying to learn how better to frame an invitation to respond in different contexts and I am curious about this as a craft generally. I don’t want to generate time consuming work for people who want to send responses and I want to encourage people to respond off the top of their head without worrying about what I am looking for. I know there can be barriers as far as sending such a wide open request.

Via painting, digital animation, and photography, you transform crowd-sourced material into brilliantly colorful films. What are the benefits and challenges of working with crowd-sourced material?

I never thought about what I do as crowd sourcing until I saw the media release for my upcoming exhibition at the San Jose Museum of Art. I associate that term more with the field and culture of viral marketing and the idea of aggregate personae that come from data collection. But, since they wrote that I have been thinking about how and when it applies and I can see how its pertinent in relation to the “Seeking Silicon Valley’ theme of the ZERO1 Biennial.  Crowd-sourcing is defined as outsourcing tasks to an undefined public- and I do invite response from a really wide public, but also invite specific people to respond based on particular projects.

As I mentioned before, in one way this is simply a mechanism for putting a question out there and the benefit of outsourcing a question is that it proliferates.

This process also brings an element of chance for me, and takes me places I may not have gone otherwise. I am very inspired by particular source material that comes to me and I end up following it, while other source material feels more like  a form of evidence that I can paint because its often something that is all around us. I also love the exchanges I have with people who respond, however brief or involved.

I spent a long time making work that involved a lot of sampling, so that sensibility is second nature by now. This feels like an extension of that in some ways- a very embodied kind of sampling. But responding to your question is making me think about the different economics and ethos behind sampling and crowd-sourcing.

The challenges are all about feeling uncomfortable asking people to do things that take their time in a world filled with surveys and requests for participation or feedback. And when we call it crowd sourcing it starts to bring up questions around labor- and why people should be giving me images at all. There is a hope of course that another kind of economy is always at play and that the exchange is about considering and questioning the role of the nomadic condition.  Sometimes there is also the question of feeling responsible for the material people send and how much of the story doesn’t get told when I make work from this source material. I think that the project of collection is this long term, immaterial work which happens parallel to the things I make- so it can be challenging to describe that relationship. I don’t know if, when or what kind of form the archive itself will take . When I am making the hybrid films in particular there is a point where I have to forget about all of this and let the picture emerge by following its internal logic.

How does history work its way into your practice of contemporary art?

That’s a big question! My first response would be which history? Very generally I am interested in manifesting overlapping temporal registers and non-linear ways of perceiving the world.

A couple of years ago I started to look at and then work with Indian imagery from the late 19th and early 20th century- the early ‘calendar art’ prints in which Hindu deities were portrayed in Western style (landscapes) that preceded Partition. Both of the works in the Future is Now exhibition take specific images from this tradition as their starting point. I hope that by the way I am treating them, the work carries their history with it in some way, but also are translations from a distant place and time which transpose another (neo-futurist) narrative with what is there. These images are of interest to me in many ways that are all historical; formally, politically and personally (they correspond to my own genetic history and the ways that I ended up where I am).

I think a lot about narratives around material transformation- (again i.e. the Empty Quarter into a major oil producing region, the Valley of Heart’s Desire into Silicon Valley, stories of the migration of refugees during Partition, speculative fictions about the future.)

In your paintings and postcards you often work with an empty shape in the picture. What does that symbolize?

They are a space for the body of a viewer to enter, which can function without anthropomorphism. I really want to make work that people can physically connect to but in a way that is not about visual human/facial recognition. In the films the body is evoked through oozing animated shapes, and the different tempos and movement. In the paintings I think it happens through color as well as through the silhouetted figures.

When I began to work with these 19th century god prints from India I needed to take the deities out because they were distracting. I am making secular imagery, and I wanted to focus my images on the elements of the picture that I was looking at- the landscapes and the indeterminate substances like halo’s, both of which are seen to be emanating from the deities in the mythology. I  got really excited by what happened when these deities were taken away. The Hindu images are there but not there at the same time- which is exactly what they are -as avatars-in a way. I think that a shift in focus from a human centric perspective is currently crucial, as is the notion that we can see ourselves materially connected to the condition of the world.


Pictured above by Ranu Mukherjee