Sunday, 26 October, 2008

Subversive Art

I just finished an interesting book titled "Film As A Subversive Art" by Amos Vogel" which is considered to be among the most unorthodox film histories in history. The author was also the founder of the New York City avantgarde ciné-club Cinema 16 (America's most important film club 1947-1963).

The book talks about the history of films that have been subversive in nature, first being used as tools by new, emerging, revolutionary groups (like the socialists and communists) and later being used against these very establishments. He also talks about subversion in a different sense, in the art of film making itself, in the portrayal of ideas, forms, shapes and direction - how they have responded over the years to a constant desire to challenge the existing norms and techniques of film-making (for example he talks about the movement of camera and camera angles as a revolution in itself). The artbook's review says:
So ahead of his time was Vogel that the ideas that he penned some 30 years ago are still relevant today, and readily accessible in this classic volume. Accompanied by over 300 rare film stills, Film as a Subversive Art analyzes how aesthetic, sexual, and ideological subversives use one of the most powerful art forms of our day to exchange or manipulate our conscious and unconscious, demystify visual taboos, destroy dated cinematic forms, and undermine existing value systems and institutions. This subversion of form, as well as of content, is placed within the context of the contemporary world view of science, philosophy, and modern art, and is illuminated by a detailed examination of over 500 films, including many banned, rarely seen, or never released works.

The essence of book lies in eternal subversive art, where the author stresses that subversiveness is an inseparable attribute of true art. The freedom to question lies at the heart of what art is all about.

Indeed, if you notice, one of the most prominent periods in history of art was during the renaissance age, which undoubtedly came about as a result of opposition to the existing Church regime.

Its really amazing to see the time and age when Vogel wrote down the book. The fascimile edition, you will notice, is written such that the concepts have been conveyed in so abstract a sense that they are meaningful even today. This and this will give you a better read into the history / biography of Vogel and Film at his time, including cinema 16.

His work seems to be inspired in part by the outrage against Nazi oppression of occupied Europe. (He fled Nazism with his parents in 1938 to the American South, where, he noted, the racial divide was analogous to the anti-Semitism he witnessed in Europe).

We are what we are today as a result of what our ancestors were yesterday. In pre-historic times, the fear of attack and conflict with other tribes/animals was a catalyst for social bonding and building of groups. This, as it often happens, was (mis)used by many as a tool for power during the medieval ages, and later during the 19th century too (If you remember, it was the fear of communism that lead to appeasement of, and the rise of fascism WWII). In today's world, the fear is not as much of attack or danger, as it is about the curb of freedom.

Its not only about Film, but any art in general is used by the prevailing authority to reinforce the prevailing cultural values and beliefs. Look at China today, talk about the "cultural revolution", look at the promotional art propagated by the nazis, The communists at the time of Lenin were no different. Look at the media today, they seem to be reinforcing beliefs too.

But then history is witness to the fact that the nature of art is such that there cannot be no contradiction. There will always be a form of art questioning the prevalent obvious. Theres a British band (the name slips my mind, ill update the post when I recall later) who have taken it upon themselves to produce the most horrifying and unpleasant music as is humanly possible. This they say, is their attempt to oppose social norms and do things differently.

Grosz once said of his work:
I drew and painted out of a spirit of contradiction, trying in my works to convince the world that it was ugly, sick and mendacious
The origin of abstract paintings also shares a similar notion.

If you have ever heard of the Manhua comics, you will realize that what I am trying to say.
The first Manhua comic appeared on the Chinese market in 1928. The genre was used as a political tool during the Second World War and by Mao's regime, before being adopted by today's underground artists, intent on challenging the state.

During Mao's Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, comics were used as propaganda, featuring a smiling workforce and heroic images from folk legends.

In recent years, the artform has been adopted by a group of underground illustrators to challenge notions of freedom and modernisation in China.

Because of their subversive nature, Manhua comics are not granted licences to be sold in bookshops, so artists give away artwork or send it free to mobile phones.

[Offtopic note: Manhua comics now come to britain ]

Here's another take on subversive art blogging.

And Here's a really interesting depiction of subversive art in guerilla marketting.

If you ever get to read the book, and if you appreciate it, you would love to view the films that he discusses at great length. Here's a site which makes an attempt to provide most of them.

IMO, the quest for subversion will forever remain as long as art remains; for there will always be opposition and curbs of varying form and degree in times to come. There will always be something to oppose and something to embrace, for change is the only constant, and without that, we cease to exist.

Wednesday, 8 October, 2008

Internet, Network and our Rights - BITS Pilani Goa Campus

I am writing this blog entry out of sheer desperation over the hopeless actions continually undertaken by our network administrators and providers in college.

I am a 4th year student of BITS Pilani Goa campus. I have been studying here for more than 3 years. In today's world, network availability and quality internet access is indispensable for any sort of academic activity. Let me recall the issues that I am talking about:
  • The entire college shares the internet over a 4 Mbps connection. This connection is further bifurcated through the use of multiple proxies for the faculty, staff and students. The exact bandwidth available to us is not made public, but I can vouch for the fact that a common google search, for which Google, Inc. takes 0.12 seconds takes well over 10 seconds to display on my room connection now, at 11pm today. (And it has been roughly the same almost every day).
  • The internet access is unavailable in our hostel rooms from morning 9 to evening 5. Presumably this has been done to increase attendance in classes. If this were so, wouldnt cutting hostel electricity be the logical next step? Is it moral to restrict someone's right over a basic necessity for something like attendance? Why not just let the grade reflect the attendance issues and let internet and other rights be left alone?
  • This semester, we have timed internet slots of 2 hours each, during which we get access to the internet - hostel wise. Did we know we were paying for this at the start of each year? Do we _want_ to pay for this? If low bandwidth is the problem, shouldn't a raise in the payments be an issue of debate? Shouldn't quotations be obtained from other service providers in search for the best deal? Have we seen any such attempt? I am afraid not.
  • Up until a month ago, I couldn't search for 'tuberculosis' on the internet because of the censorship policy.
    I couldnt search for 'chest cancer'.
    Nothing with 'teen' included.
    I couldnt apply to university of georgia because it had the phrase 'orgi' in it.
    I cannot log on to orkut to join communities for placement discussions and project discussions.
    Facebook has now been banned
    I cannot update my Linux system (fedora) with online repositories because apparently their download links have banned phrases.
    People have had to change their blog titles and had to rename sketches on their blog (remove the word 'Girl'!) to make sure they are accessible in campus.
    I could go on, and this list runs into thousands...
    I relied heavily on anonymous proxies to do this for me. And I'm not alone, a lot of my colleagues have to resort to it too. And given our bandwidth, imagine the patience that goes into such an effort. Add to that our growing censorship of these anonymous proxies by our self-proclaimed morality-keepers, the network administrators.
  • Our internal file sharing p2p network - DC (which has been the centre-stage of file search and information exchange in campus) - is in danger of being shut down because it is claimed (as per the notice put up), that it affects 'internet' bandwidth. I fail to see how much the internet bandwidth is affected by a p2p-based network which runs on a 100 Mbps network.
  • I'm afraid that if this continues, whatever we share over the network may come under surveillance of network staff and if deemed inappropriate the network facility will close down.
    I'm afraid that soon, there will be a day when each of our computers will be scanned for 'inappropriate' or 'banned' material.
    As deplorable as it sounds, these actions are still tolerable if these bans were legitimate, but 'tuberculosis' , 'chest' , 'georgia' etc. being considered 'inappropriate' ??

    Is this what we have come to?

It seems that internet usage and LAN are considered more of a privilege than a right in this campus. But are we, as students, paying for a privilege? Something that may be denied to us at the free whim of some external agency (These bans are suggested and implemented by the network admins, some of whom work for Wipro)?
Who decides the morality of these restrictive actions that affect our usage?
In any considerate society (and I believe ours is a considerate society), a person who pays for a service decides how best to use it. Shouldn't the people who pay for these services, decide how to use it best? This is how it should be, but morality creeps in, and in order to justify the incorrect actions the general fall-back claim is
'The students don't know what is right and wrong. By imposing restrictions, we prevent them from doing wrong things'
Two questions:
  • Who decides right from wrong? Should it be the administrative staff who provide the connectivity?
  • When the network admins say that a particular policy or a restriction needs to be taken to 'improve connectivity' or 'bandwidth' , are they always right? most of the times, 'NO'. There are many other ways of achieving better connectivity but those options have never been explored. My guess is that this is because our network admins are incapable of, or do not know all the different ways and do not wish to let this incapability be known to the general public. As a result, secrecy creeps in. They do whatever they want and claim it is the right thing to do. Haven't we already abandoned this kind of thinking long ago when the renaissance age crept in? Has there ever been an open debate in campus over this issue discussing these policies? I don't recall any.
Today, I was intrigued about the economic crises that have brought a lot of countries to the brink of bankruptcy.
I couldn't read the New York Times, because has been banned by our network administrators. This is what it says:
Access to the page:
... has been denied for the following reason:
Banned site:

You are seeing this error because what you attempted to access appears to contain, or is labeled as containing, material that has been deemed inappropriate.
Reading international news is considered inappropriate?
We are paying for this connection, not to be told that few of the most informative and educative sites are "inappropriate" for viewing. And by the way, who decides on the appropriateness of sites? If the network admins provide us with connectivity, does it automatically give them a right to
  • control what we do with the connection?
  • pry on our usage and violate our privacy?
  • dictate moral terms on the usage of the connection?
As an analogy, does providing us with a hostel to live, automatically entitle the wardens to impose on us a lifestyle of their liking and self-proclaimed morality? (I'm not talking about socially acceptable norms). It obviously doesn't. And similarly issues of morality should be considered separately from issues of connectivity, service and bandwidth.

When the Local Area Network and the Internet were designed and made public, they were done so as to enable everyone to stay connected without bounds and restrictions. And the internet and even intranet networks today exist between many societies across the world.
Ours is a civilized society where we have rights and liberties and duties.
Recently, various international human rights organizations, the Internet Society, Human Rights Watch, The American Civil Liberties Union, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, the Association des Utilisateurs d'Internet and other civil liberties and human rights organizations have joined together to create a Global Internet Liberty Campaign ( Two of their principles that I would like to highlight are:
  • The Global Internet Liberty Campaign advocates prohibiting prior censorship of on-line communication.
  • The Global Internet Liberty Campaign advocates insisting that on-line free expression (reading and writing) not be restricted by indirect means such as excessively restrictive governmental or private controls over computer hardware or software, telecommunications infrastructure, or other essential components of the Internet.
You can read more about the principles here:
The GILC invites all aware and conscious global citizens like us to join them.
We invite you our fellow users from around the world who are interested in taking concerted action to protect the Internet to join us in this campaign.
I would definitely support the cause of this campaign. And in case you are an open and aware internet user, I would like you to do so too.

India is a free nation. We have laws of freedom and liberty applicable to all our citizens. And as 21 yr old citizen, I am entitled to my rights. I have the freedom of equality, of speech, of religion and many others... But before we speak about that, the spirit in which these liberties were designed, were such as to enable a person to reach his or her full potential. To lead a better, richer life. To live freely. Without restrictive boundaries and fear. And in order to protect these rights, we have an independent judiciary. Independent, to make sure even the government cannot step over the line. We are the world's largest democracy. And our current rise shows that our system is successful. We should be immensely proud of that. However the global internet liberty campaign has not yet made it into our legal system, but I think it is only a matter of time before a similar set of rights are incorporated(there are many agencies already campaigning for it within India). Until then, I would hate to see the lack of such rules or norms cause inappropriate restrictions in our campus.

Although I have criticized the restrictions and policies that we are facing, I'm sure the administrative staff and faculty don't bear any ill-feelings towards the students. There is a major lack of communication and uncertainty over the right course of action. There is a fine line between trying to impose a morally effective policy and crossing over the right to freedom, liberty and information of an individual. Although the actions are noble in spirit, they are restrictive in action. I believe that the network and internet should 'enable' a student to achieve and perform better, rather than 'disable' him/her.
And for this to happen I would like to see the following take place:
  • Removal of all absurd and inappropriate timing restrictions for the internet.
  • Availability of internet connectivity in hostels at reasonable speeds (which it certainly is NOT right now). There are two ways in which this can be done:
    - Increase the bandwidth given the the ISP. This might involve increase in payments, and if this affects students' fee amount, a reasonable discussion should be put forth.
    - Search for quotations from alternative service providers who provide better service.

    In case this does not work out, then a reasonable and open debate about the restriction policy should decide the action to be taken.
  • surveillance of activities of individual users on grounds of morality should stop.
  • The connectivity staff should strive towards creating an open and free system in order to 'enable' every student in campus.
Although I have deep gratitude towards our alumni who provided us this connectivity through BITSConnect, I would like to point out the situation it is currently in. What was considered a luxury a decade ago is now a necessity, and we are being deprived of it. There is certainly something more to be demanded and done...

Sunday, 5 October, 2008

The engineering craze in India and college rankings

This is partly in response to an earlier post I wrote about engineering college rankings.

Something offtopic before I get to the point: Outlook's ratings are out this time and it agrees with even Mint's engineering college rankings in stating that BITS Pilani ranks as the #1 private engineering college in India. Being a Bitsian, this comes as a relief to me (not as joy though, mainly because its common knowledge that these rankings lack credibility).

Anyways getting back to the point, this is about the engineering college rankings (or the so called perception among people, of ranking). To get into perspective, these are few of the most widely popular rankings that majority of the public go by:
  1. India Today, college rankings:
  2. Outlook, college rankings (methodology here):
  3. Dataquest college rankings:
What is the fuss about?
In my opinion, all the fuss is about confusion and misinformation. Half the students who get into engineering dont know what it is about, or what they want to do in life. A great majority of them are pushed in by their parents, who know little about other alternatives and are ignorant or indifferent to suggestions of alternative options.

Whatever may be the reason, engineering is considered by a vast majority of people as a gateway to good jobs and a means to earn a good living. In this pursuit there is a mad rush for engineering all around India. This is evident by the number of students who sit for engineering entrance examinations such as JEE or AIEEE. And this number is only increasing year after year. No proportional growth in the colleges results in a very visible rat race for the few colleges that have earned a respectable reputation among the masses.

In this wild rush, there is a great deal of chaos and confusion which is the reason why people seek these so called rankings, so that they may get a sense of direction and information out of the confusing mess that they are in.
But they do not know that the rankings they depend on, are not dependable at all. They are at best attempts to judge the colleges. And different agencies, magazines, judge colleges differently and not always correctly. The criteria for comparison also varies and often it is misreported (as had happened in the case of bits pilani and india today). For example, in the case of anna university, I quote (From T.R. Muralidharan's article in Outlook):
Anna University (to which TN engineering colleges are affiliated) is still finding it difficult to ensure that infrastructure and facilities at the colleges conform to standards. The quality of education rendered too is often substandard. There is a shortage of good professors in areas like IT and communications where developments happen rapidly.

The rankings are widely accepted to be futile, but however they do seem to have a following among the masses because of lack of other information.

When we try to analyze all potential rankings, there could be 3 kinds (source of information detailed below is
  1. Government rankings: The central government carries out a survey of engineering colleges every few years. The survey, conducted by the World Bank, is used to arrive at a funding formula for financing colleges under United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and to monitor the progress of the colleges receiving funding.

    The government survey is highly respectable and includes comments/suggestions for the improvement needed by the colleges. These are generally not available in public domain.

  2. Academic rankings: These is carried out by leading institutions around the world and sometimes by academic and scientific magazines. The survey is authentic and unbiased, but is of limited use. It is used mainly to boost the ego of a college among similar colleges, to attract talented faculty and to keep flow of money from its patrons.

    The Asian Technology Information Program, Tokyo, is a prestigious, non-profit think-tank, which monitors research programmes from universities/institutes across Asia and classifies some of the leading universities in a specific research area.

    For example, according to ATIP, Indian Institute of Science is among the world leaders in the field of nano-crystal technology research. Similarly, it puts Banaras Hindu University among the leading research universities in the world in the field of application of hydrogen energy to two-wheeler vehicles.

  3. Magazine rankings: Also known as popular rankings, these are the ones that are mostly read by common folk. These are carried out by national magazines as a guide for students and faculty, and for the college themselves.

So what we do require is a blend of government and agency rankings (pure government rankings could make the system corrupt, agency rankings coupled with openness of the ranking methods and information used, could be more transparent and a better system).

The craze?

A third point to ponder upon is the mad craze after engineering in India.
The mushrooming of coaching classes for engineering and private tutors and the conditions of teaching etc clearly indicate that students are trying too hard to satisfy this 'craze' or 'rat race' of getting into a good engineering college no matter what it takes. Heres an article that discusses one such region: Kota, where 40000 students join annually in hopes of entering an elite engineering college.

The craze is maddening, and will end only when either or both of two things happen:
  • People get wiser to the availability of other options for a good career; and students going after their passions and interest to chart out a future career that is both satisfying and monetarily rewarding
  • The number of colleges (not just any colleges, quality colleges) increase in the country, without useless fuss of quotas and locality rules spoiling the merit-based-admission criteria.
Thats as far as my mind goes, lets see how the future unfurls itself. Either the rat race ends, or we just wait for a Pied Piper to come along and lead us to our own disaster.
Or probably we dont even need him, we are enroute already...