ABHINIT KHANNA: MAKE MEMES NOT WAR

Abhinit Khanna is an independent arts manager based in Mumbai, India. He provides consulting on creative business development and arts management. As a creative arts manager, he has worked with leaders across industries including art, campaigns, fashion, publishing, sustainability, cultural and social entrepreneurship. For the past 18 months Abhinit Khanna has been vocal and visible through #artworldmemes, where he critiques, reflects and asks pertinent questions through the sharp humour of memes. He has perfected the art of combining observations in the Art World with popular images from the Indian Film Industry’s visual landscape. Through his memes, Abhinit is interested in making the Indian Art Scene accessible, questioning embedded practices of an increasingly hegemonic and capitalist system, made up of the powerful few. His memes bring forth his solidarity with the many voices that comprise the Art World but are given little space. We think that his satire might just be one of the most accurate observations of the Art World today, which nail down the Art World’s problems in just a few words and an image. OUTSIDERS AT WORK speaks to Abhinit Khanna to explore his experiences regarding this practice – persistence, fearlessness and the desire to disassemble seemingly obtuse and complex hierarchies in the Arts.

V: What is your idea of perfect happiness?

AK: A modest house near the beach with a modest income to travel around the world.

V: What is your greatest fear?

AK: Not having money.

V: What is the trait you most deplore in yourself?

AK: It’s a deplorable trait but also great, it is knowing everyone else’s gossip.

V: What is the trait that you most deplore in others?

AK:  People ripping off others’ work without giving due credit.

V: Which living being, or which living person do you most admire?

AK: The person taking this interview.

V: What is your greatest extravagance?

AK: Being in London.

V: What is your current state of mind?

AK: Anxiety.

V: What do you consider to be the most overrated virtue?

AK: Gratitude.

V: On what occasion do you lie?

AK: At an Art Opening.

V: What do you most dislike about your appearance?

AK: My squint.

V: Which living person do you most despise?

AK: I can’t go on record with the list. But at the moment it is our Prime Minister.

V: What is the quality you most like in a man?

AK: Men not acting like men.

V: And in a woman?

AK: When they don’t act how they’re expected to.

V: Which words or phrases do you overuse?

AK: ‘Fuck that!’ and ‘Tu Dekh’.

V: What or who is the greatest love of your life?

AK: My mother.

V: When and where were you the happiest?

AK: I was the happiest in London and Berlin. I was at my creative best.

V: Which talent would you most like to have?

AK: I wish I could draw and write like you.

V: If you could change one thing about yourself, what would it be?

AK: Stop being lazy.

V: What do you consider as being your greatest achievement?

AK: A Bachelor’s Degree in the United States of America.

V: If you were to die and come back as a person, or a thing, who or what would it be?

AK: I’d be a woman

V: Where would you most like to live?

AK: In Copenhagen.

V: What is your most treasured possession?

AK: My first iPod that my father gifted me.

V: What do you regard as the lowest depths of misery?

AK: To live on rent forever.

A: What is your favourite occupation?

AK: Travel Consultant and being a Producer.

V: What is your most marked characteristic?

AK: Humour.

V: What is it that you most value in your friends?

AK: The trust that they have in me.

V: Who are your favourite writers?

AK: Arundhati Roy, Susan Sontag, there are a bunch of others, but off late it is Cody Delistraty.

V: Who is your favourite Hero of fiction?

AK: The Dogs in Wes Anderson’s film ‘Dogs’.

V: Which historical figure do you most identify with?

AK: I would say Barrack Obama, and maybe Bernie Sanders…

V: Who are your heroes in real life?

AK: My mother, and my naani (maternal grandmother)

V: What are your favourite names?.

AK: Vidheshwari, the instagram handle… and I think Faviana and Jang

V: What is it that you most dislike?

AK: People trying to act rich, when they’re not rich.

V: What is your greatest regret?

AK: To not be able to work in America.

V: How would you like to die?

AK: Well there were some great answers on Instagram, but I don’t remember them, so I would say, ‘in my sleep…’

V: What is your motto?

AK: ‘Do or die’.

Image courtesy of the artist

We are interviewing Abhinit Khanna on his 31st Birthday, in the balcony of his home, in Mumbai.

AK: Yes, I realised a lot of things through these questions.

AAM: Great! Let’s go through the next set of questions…

AK: Thank you for asking the earlier questions, is has given me some clarity. I never imagined that to not be able to work in [The United States of] America would be one of my regrets, because the truth is that I was unhappy living there. I would never move back to the US – partly because of what is going on right now but also because leaving the US was a painful exit. Everyone I knew through years at the University and other networks found jobs and then lost jobs after recession hit the States. Since then no exciting work has come my way nor I have I got through what I have applied for, and it’s demotivating when I see people smoothly land great jobs abroad despite not having the same qualifications or experience as me. It makes me feel like I’m missing out. I’d really like to have that experience on my resume, you know.

Image courtesy of the artist

AAM: But you do have experience of working in the States… before you moved back to Mumbai…

AK: Well, I think it was inevitable for me to move back to India in 2009 after the Lehman Brothers crashed in New York. I saw the misery of people… my friends with good jobs getting ‘pink slips’ in front of me… So in that sense, when you start reassessing your options and if the option of returning home is open, you do. I spent 6 years living in upstate New York, and New York City and I was tired of doing odd-jobs just to pay the rent. I can hustle, but I don’t want to hustle in a foreign country while growth is happening in India at the same time. I could see that I could position myself in India as a person from the Arts community, who had experience working in the MOMA, the Paper Magazine, and the Whitewall Magazine. In the pre-Instagram days, Paper Magazine and Whitewall Magazine were extremely popular online. Along with these jobs, I had worked for a documentary filmmaker in New York.

AAM: You did Photography and Business Management, and worked with magazines?

AK: Yes, I dodged between Business, Arts, and Publishing – enjoyed all three equally.

AAM: To what extent did living, studying, and working States shape your work sensibilities? Do you often reflect on your time in the US?

AK: In my first few months I wanted to drop out of Rochester. I’m just thinking now, had I dropped out of Rochester, it would have made life rather miserable. I friend of mine was in Buffalo and he dropped out after six months – and that made me anxious… I was like, ‘Oh shit, he’s dropped out… how will things work out for me!’, because it was in the first winter blizzard, with -25 (Celsius), and thinking that maybe I’ve taken a wrong decision by landing up here. People who joined as freshmen disappeared in the hallways, and suddenly you think that “Oh fuck, maybe this is not a great University”, and you’re going to live here for FOUR years. Four years, and multiply that by 50 thousand dollars, that’s fuckloads of money going to waste. So his decision freaked me out and I too wanted to drop out. I am thankful that some fellow students reached out to me and advised me, ‘No no, don’t go, you’ll find your groove’, and my advisor helped me by transferring me into an Arts program. Had I only continued in Business School, I would have graduated with a terrible GPA, would have come back and worked in a corporate day job. I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing today…

And in my second year, it became clear, when I saw students in the Arts departments that this is how I want to be – I want to be around the Arts. I wasn’t going to pursue becoming an artist per se, but if I learn about inks, their chemistry and printing techniques, I could print magazines and even design a magazine – for me it’s as beautiful as being an artist. For me, being an artist is to be able to design a book, and that’s what I studied – I studied Publishing Design and I considered myself to be good at it. But, during my time at Paper [Magazine], I was made to think I sucked at my job. They gave me the shittiest jobs, like to photoshop nail polish on models and fashion people. I was assigned the last page where I would do the cutouts. I’d think, ‘Will I be doing this for the rest of my life?’ (laughs), and it became even more pathetic because when I came to Mumbai, I applied to L’Official thinking that it would be as glamorous as New York even though I was feeling suffocated around these fashion people from my time in NY. But when I went for the interview, I was shocked to see the state of the office – it was so uninspiring – I’m glad it didn’t work out because throughout my time at their office I was thinking, ‘how do people work in these spaces?’

Image courtesy of the artist

In the US, I took decisions regarding work on my own because from early on, I was in situations where I didn’t have the option of asking anyone whether I was doing the right thing. I became confident with my decision-making abilities, I was a great networker, and my communication skills improved considerably while living in New York. I felt confident of all my decisions – even the decision to switch from Business School to the Art School [at Rochester]. I mean, I did tell my family, ‘Okay, I’m not going to an Art School, it’s just the Print Media School where they’ll teach me how to make inks and make a magazine.’ But it was an Art School, I was surrounded by artists, and most of my friends were from the Master’s program.

I took every opportunity to travel in the States – even to the smaller cities and towns unlike most international students, who, when they got a break, ended up at New York City, or Las Vegas, or Miami, great cities, absolutely urban but no different from any other mega city like Mumbai. During the Spring Break, I went to Charleston, South Carolina with a bunch of mixed-race people, not just white people – we had a tight group of four international students who are all in similar precarious but adventurous situation.

People travel and move easily now because of globalisation, but in 2005 things were so distant – we were using calling cards. I didn’t know anyone in the States… so, how do you make a start when you don’t know anyone? Perhaps this is something that you as well must have experienced when moved to Helsinki, placing yourself into the unknown and then getting comfortable in that space by adopting and adapting. I do think that I have become slightly complacent. I should move to another country or city… completely detached or maybe it’d be nice to go back to the US and see friends and refresh. I’ll go when there’s a new President there.

My work mantra are these four things – confidence, communication, networking and travelling. And I discovered the real America in these smaller pockets – be it Montreal, or Quebec. Once, the four of us just landed up in the small town of Quebec – in the middle of winter – when nothing is going on except Thanksgiving and beautiful experiences of food and French cuisine. These experiences are so interesting and enriching. I think I’d never say no to meeting people.

And, I made sure I had a mentor, Professor Myrtle Jones. I told her, “You are going to be my mentor”. She was exceptionally supportive, kind and critical and made me feel comfortable in my skin. We even travelled to New York together, which was great. I am very thankful for that. I was happiest partying with people like David La Chapelle. I would have not in my wildest dreams ever thought that I would hang out with such artists… I was really really intrigued by David La Chapelle’s work when we were introduced to his works in our photography class. I would follow up on his work through print magazines and Online media. I was so impressed by his portraiture work. I was very interested in Portrait Photography and I was doing very well in the program… I was told on several occasions that portraiture is one of my strongest point in photography – and I really like making portraits and I want to get back to it.

Image courtesy of the artist

AAM: Once you returned to India after your studies, you worked with many established artists and organisations Did the experiences in the US help you to acquaint yourself to the Indian Art World more comfortably?

AK: Yes. I was uncertain about what I’d do when I returned. I didn’t have any contacts or connections in the Indian Art World. I wasn’t aware of the various galleries or their program. To come back to Mumbai was as much a culture shock and finding my feet again as it was leaving Mumbai and landing in the Rochester and I was like, ‘Oh wow! This is a whole new world.’ Ironically at that time, despite being unabashedly elitist, it seemed to me that there was space for everyone in the Art World. Goes without saying that you claim this space by putting your foot in the door, making a name, and being aggressive about it. I am thankful and grateful that I immediately found work upon returning to India, with the right mentor, at a time when there was not much around. Recession had hit every sector globally and no one even responded to your emails. So, when this artist responded and hired me, and I ended up working with this artist for several years on several iconic projects. Had I not taken up the job, I would have never been in the Art World. I would have never imagined a career here or be in the position to mentor young artists or have some amazing artists and curators as friends.

AAM: Did it also help that you were back in the city that you grew up in? Could you take us through the challenges of feeling unfamiliar in familiar spaces?

AK: I realised that it would be difficult to adjust into the rhythm of the city unless I was curious about it. Bombay is so otherworldly and different parts of the city belong to different times altogether. Sometimes, you need to simply take a walk in the city. I get very excited when I find myself in a lane I’ve never been in before. In the last few months I have been hanging out with Areez Katki, who is an independent textile practitioner based in Auckland but who is in Mumbai to conduct research for his debut solo exhibition at Malcolm Smith Gallery. So, I was travelling through the city with him to various Parsi colonies and visiting Art Deco houses while he interviewed and collaborated with many senior members of the Parsi community.

People make a city. People connect you to spaces, without whom spaces are empty and without character. For me, it was always about meeting people first and then making sense of the spaces.

Being in the Art World, I made friends with artists. That’s when I met Vidha [Saumya], way back in 2011. I remember vividly meeting her at Galerie Mirchandani + Steinruecke. She was talking about her new drawing to a group from Asia Art Archive, and I was part of the group through a close friend. Later we hung out for many hours after an exhibition opening and shared an auto ride – she was dropping me to Juhu on her way to home. It is a fond memory because we connected immediately and were able to form a bond of trust, honesty and care. That’s rare, isn’t it?

V: I think that in the process of becoming ‘professional’ and through life-experiences of growing up in a deeply hegemonic environment, you stop placing trust in people, especially when you meet them for the first time. But then there are moments that are completely opposite… how does that happen, no? Even for me, it is a distinct memory, so clear in my head… it was unusual because it was rare that I was out that late in Mumbai… I reached home at 4 in the morning!

AK: Actually, it was quite late for me as well because I would be afraid of my parents all the time. When we were [living] in Juhu, I didn’t have the balls to to do what I wanted. In the first few years, when I had just come back from the States, I assumed that I had this azaadi (freedom) because I had come back from living on my own. It took me almost a year to adjust to this new living situation.

V: I’m trying to connect what you said earlier, ‘at that time I knew I wanted to be around the Arts’ to now, where for more than a year you’ve been consistently critical of the Art World that you always wanted to belong to… what are your thoughts?

AK: It’s not anymore what I thought it would be. When Motherland happened (2014), I was quite happy to be leaving the Art World and going back to publishing which was my comfort zone. I know how to run the publishing business – I know the business side of things but I also know how practice publishing creatively – how to commission photographers and artists, find and showcase new talent. At Motherland, I repolished my ‘networking skills’ and met some remarkable creative people. Being away also gave me time to reflect on my practice within the Art World.

Image courtesy of the artist

V: What did you do at Motherland?

AK: I was the business manager, a catalyst of sorts with the freedom to carry out my versatility when I was working in Motherland – I would close the magazine’s production, close the content, proofread it – multi-tasking and loving it thoroughly. I instinctively knew what would look good and sell. I took decisions on the cover, the colour scheme – I mean my aesthetics are well sorted and updated. There is a critical lens lacking in India, especially in the field of Visual Cultures. I often get requests for feedback from designers, book-makers, artists. When I was a studio assistant, I would think that it was not my place or my job to speak or respond critically to artists’ works because once you enter the Art World you’re quickly trained into “Liking”, “Loving” and finding all works, “Interesting”. Well, fuck that shit…

V: Is that what prompted you to make memes? Were you reacting to a changed perception?

AK: Maybe. I made the first meme as a joke on myself. I thought a good laugh at the end of the day never hurt anyone and when I shared it on social media more people were laughing… so I thought, ‘Great! We’re having a great time laughing at ourselves and our behaviour in the Art World.’ I used self-reflective humour to imagine how the people outside the “Art Circle” might perceive us, and the ‘assholery’ that became evident through these memes made me realise, ‘Fuck! I’m actually like that’. After this realisation, even though I continued to make memes, there was a nagging feeling that perhaps the Art World is not for me and that I had taken a wrong decision to stick around in the Art scene.

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AAM: You have been making memes for more than a year now and you have realised that there are consequences to calling people out or bringing forth their hypocrisy. Have you been ousted from the Indian Art World?

AK: I started talking to people about their work, very early on upon my return to India and I made some good friends who’ve had my back and they critique me, advise me and are straightforward with me. There is a dearth of such people and artists feel lonely because there is hardly anyone within the art-world that they can fully trust. When I started making #artworldmemes, people started to use me as their messenger, to say something they’ve always wanted to. It was flattering but I didn’t carry out their messages. They have to do that themselves, in their own ways.

Humour is a sharp tool – you have to use it with precision or you end up butchering a situation. Indian Art World is toxic and hypocrites must be called out. It is important to rattle the so called ‘powerful players’ even if it is at the risk of being out of the circle. I enjoy the attention the memes bring and it is flattering to receive ‘Likes’ and ‘Shares’ but that comes hand in hand with being ‘Blocked’ by gallerists and artists. That affects me, of course but it is important to not be I overcome by the negativity in the Scene because I like artists, I like Art, I like the vibe and I value the support it can offer as well. I want to work with people amidst whom my criticality has space.

I have made many people unhappy and they ensure that you know that you’ve made them unhappy. But the sad part is that even they seem to be more interested in Instagram ‘Likes’ and Story ‘Views’. I don’t think they have the time to save anyone’s ass. So, I’m also happy being outside their clique.

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AAM: What do you see from the outside?

AK: I believe that when you’re pushed out you move closer to what you really desire and deserve. From outside the Art World, I am able to learn from and work with educators, writers, poets, textile designers, entrepreneurs, young restaurateurs whom I would have never meet had I not been pushed away. I am happy, but I’d be happier if I get to collaborate with them.

V: Something that I’ve always been curious about – you said that ‘my aesthetics are sorted’, or that ‘I know how to finish off a product’ – how do you do that? How do you update yourself?

AK: I was exposed to a lot of magazines back in New York, and a lot of books. I have a visual memory of most of these books. When studying in the Photography and Print Department, I was browsing every possible visual book – with a load of images, of course – in the Graphic Design Library of Rochester. I also had access to ‘ProQuest’, which is an online library, where you can borrow books from any library in the world which would come to Rochester.

…And I pushed myself.

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AAM: There is been much discussion amongst the millennials regarding ethical and non-hierarchical ways of working. What are your views on that?

AK: I find that there is a big problem with ‘personal time’ in India – most of us don’t have the privilege or the resources to spend time only with oneself. Your life is always open to scrutiny, whether it’s parents, society or surveillance. This kind of a societal pressure is culturally difficult for me to manage. It is important to take time out and disappear from the Internet, sit with books, watch films, cook. You also need to bounce off ideas with friends and like-minded people. If I find something extremely interesting, or exciting, I will immediately share it with friends and people – like, ‘you have to read it, how can you not read this? How can you not access this information, which is for free!’

I don’t get this me-time very often. I cannot afford to rent a studio, but that’s not the point. We need libraries, parks, public spaces to be able to spend time with oneself. Who can do that here, anymore? Tell me one person who has said that today I will go to Kaifi Azmi Park and read a book! First, the machchars (mosquitoes) will bite you, and kill you, or there will be someone who will spot you and tell you, ‘What the fuck are you doing here?’ and ‘Why are you sitting here alone by yourself?’ So these factors affect our emotional intelligence and our public behaviour. Having some sort of me-time is extremely important for an individual.

Lately I have been so anxious about not being able to catch any sunsets – something I used to do often – to do that much for yourself is beautiful. I found a quote that I will use in my memes someday, it goes like this, ‘No matter how many times you see a sunset, each time you experience it, it’s different’. It may seem banal to watch a sunset, but each time we do, we make a photo of it for some reason, don’t we? It’s basic, but you see it, consume it… sunsets are great, beaches are great. I want a home that is like a sunset (laughs).

V: We have discussed often the idea for a space that you want to open with a program for artists that could provide this ‘me-time’ that you’re talking about. Do you want to share something more about that or is it too early to talk about it?

AK: No, I’m happy to talk about it. The city should be brimming with such spaces given the number of creative people in the city. I want to start a multi-disciplinary space for creative people because I am sure that in the next ten years people would be craving for such spaces. There is anxiety, trauma, and misery, no matter what creative industry you are a part of and people need space to take a break. Art is therapeutic for people – and I don’t mean only [Contemporary] Art. This is also what I meant when I said, ‘people make spaces’.

AAM: Till that happens, how should we manage?

AK: Independent practitioners and freelancers are already doing side gigs that are more ‘legit’ than the Arts – that is making them stronger. I am noticing that either they have a family backing or way along in their path towards securing their finances before they’ve turned 35, and that they’ve fixed something for themselves that even if it doesn’t work out for them as artists, they have something to fall back on. Even if you think of a coffee shop or a sandwich shop, or the smallest thing you want to sell on the side that makes you money or brings you joy, or is the closest to your personality, it is the smartest thing to do. Most of your anxiety will go away, because while you’re making art, it will take care of the other things

What’s the point of being selfish, and envy others’ success? I mean Capitalism anyway makes you an asshole, then why further its cause? We are community builders but instead we isolate ourselves. I mean look at me, I’ve not stepped out of my apartment all day, I mean how is this possible? Everything is turning into an App  – you want food, I’ll order; you want a therapist, I’ll order; you want a foot-massage, I’ll order – isn’t that pathetic? Human interaction has become a service that can be rated.

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AAM: What do you want to do now? What ‘legit’ side gigs are you interested in?

AK: I don’t want to leave the Arts. Right now, there is deep anxiety because the future seems bleak, and you’re constantly hustling. My priority, hence, is to first secure my financial situation. I want to go back to the family business and figure out my way within the family business, while continuing my consultancy practice. As well, I want to be creatively engaged – I’ll make memes or work in an agency or consult independently. I am refusing unpaid jobs but I still try to negotiate some deal because I want to meet everyone. I’m always interested in people.

I do want to start my own space.

I said that it is important to find work you can do as independently because we are living in times where free interns and substandard work is preferred over paying someone a competitive salary for their expertise. I was convinced that my skill-sets are unique but I now know that I can be easily replaced.

AAM: How do you suggest, we improve the ‘intern situation’ within the Arts?

AK: It’s a given that interns at Art Galleries, Art Fairs, Biennales, Auction Houses, and even Artist Studios will be patronised into doing extra hours, unpaid hours – and it’s a thankless job…

Interns must understand that there’s no proving to anybody. There is no reason an employer should make you work extra hours and not pay you for it. You are obliged only to do your job and complete it during work hours. We need serious improvement in our work-ethics. Those who work extra hours have no respect for themselves. It shows a lack of organisation and a lazy attitude towards work.

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AAM: Would that be your advice to your 17 years old self, or other 17-year olds?

AK: What I have learnt along the way is that it’s good to help a lot of people but it’s important also to keep a healthy distance from their anxieties. I used to aggressively network and often ended up taking people’s toxicity in my stride even when they were affecting my work ethics. But it takes time to figure it all out.

My 17-year old brown person in a white pre free internet [The United States of] America was so unaware. When I moved to the West, my perception levels were overwhelmed. I was easily suppressed because I am hardwired into being colonised and that’s how I got treated. In a racist environment, unfortunately, one sticks with the oppressor in the absence of a caring support system. I must also acknowledge that we are not educated on this front in school and in our general environment. We grow up internalising problematic terminologies and ways of living. The damage is so deep that it takes exposure and education to unlearn it. Moving from a protected home environment to the Western world was a difficult transition. Even my extended family abroad made me feel that I didn’t fit in, unless I went by their rules. Indians abroad can be extremely ‘White’… and I knew no better, so I began converting myself, whether it was learning to speak like them, dress like them… I even bleached my hair to fit in.

But no matter where you are and how uncertain it gets, if you can talk as much to people, reach out to people, be confident, and travel… I mean these are clichéd suggestions, but if you take a confident step, saying ‘haan, kuch to hai’ (there is something), that’s why I’m saying Yes to my gut feeling, then you’ll find your groove.

Image courtesy of the artist

AAM: Do you think the process of making memes is furthering the process of detoxifying your work environment?

AK: Making memes helps me articulate my thoughts and my experiences. Bollywood offers a perfect analogy to the ‘fakeness’ that exists in the Art World where we only bitch, there is little room for critique.

AAM: But you take these visuals, and that association of fakeness, and subvert it through satire and humour. What we see are a sharp critique and a relevant ongoing commentary on the state of the Contemporary Artworld in India, and by extension of our selves. Thank you Abhinit, for speaking to us, and for these memes.


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