YOU LIKE what we’ve done on the tree outside? It’s a villa for that bird,” said a beady-eyed Richard Armstrong, pointing to a fat bird’s nest on the eucalyptus tree outside his hotel room window. He was joking, of course, but in this playfulness, the director of one of the world’s most influential museums, New York’s Guggenheim, led us to a perfectly serious idea: museums as agents provocateurs. “One of the charms of being in the culture sphere,” he added, “is to encourage eccentricity.”
One year ago, the streets of New York were the centre for provocation, occupied by the 99 percent, not too far from the Guggenheim’s headquarters on Fifth Avenue. At precisely that time, the museum’s curators were thinking about taking the museum to the streets. Armstrong explained the emerging idea, “Why don’t we think about not being on Fifth Avenue, but being in reality?”
It took shape as an on-the-street think tank-cum-ideas bazaar for the city. Or the BMW Guggenheim Lab. The site was in New York’s downtown East Village, at the rubble of a collapsed building. The stage was set for workshops, demos, art, theatre and culture of the city. The smashed remains of an old building became the space for the museum to walk outdoors, where the activist, the protester and the trailer park indignant to meet the scientist, the politician and the polemicist on an equal footing. A two-storey structure was made from black carbon fibre, normally used in tennis rackets, never before fashioned into building material. It became the space where a top-of-the-line scientist ended up having a conversation about the city with a street kid. Another workshop participant fashioned a musical instrument from fruits, a third played Bach on it. “Bach with bananas,” as Deputy Director of the Guggenheim Eleanor Goldhar put it.
The 99 percent were about to protest its opening, when BMW Guggenheim said, “Join us instead… we’re on your side”. The 99 percent must have found an authentic street flavour in the Lab because they dumped the idea of protesting and joined their workshops.
And so at its next stop, Berlin, the Lab decided to inhabit the activist hotbed of Kreuzberg, home to squatters and Europe’s bohemia. That turned out to be a step too radical and the Lab shifted to the calmer Pfefferberg, but with its street sense intact.
Now, the Lab is in Mumbai from 9 December to 20 January, occupying a park next to the zoo, adjoining the Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum in Byculla, where architects and artists, artisans and activists will be asking questions like what is privacy and what is the city. The ideas, workshops and films will also be spattered across the city from the Batliboy Compound in the Mill Worker Colony to Horniman Circle and Mahim beach. On offer are ways to make an autorickshaw highway from old water pipes; re-imagining the Kala Nagar traffic junction as a design competition; the effect of living in Mumbai on people’s minds; photo-tours, food, film and forensic examination, and re-shaping of the city. None of these activities are sterile, run-of-the-mill come, see and marvel. They’re all tactile and designed to get people to go there and shape the ideas as works-in-progress (www.bmwguggenheimlab.org has the schedule).
The Mumbai project, like its other avatars, aspires to “serve inquisitive people,” as Armstrong put it. A space for “social cohesion and social eccentricity,” he added. That seeming contradiction is the point where the 99 percent can stand their ground in a museum space normally occupied by the one percent. In its own quiet way, the BMW Guggenheim is urging people to re-order the world in every conceivable way. Feet planted firmly on the street.
Revati Laul is a Special Correspondent with Tehelka.