Born in Rochester, New York, Sanjit Sethi has done a residency at the Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada, as well as earned a master of science in advanced visual studies from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Visual Arts Program in 2002. His work consistently deals with issues of nomadism, identity, the residue of labor, memory, and movement in the urban sphere—all of which involve various disparate social and geographic communities.
Having completed a Fulbright Fellowship in India on the Building Nomads Project, Sanjit continued his strong focus on interdisciplinary collaboration while director of the MFA Program at the Memphis College of Art. His dedication to diverse forms of artistic practice extends in his new position as California College of the Art’s chair of Community Arts Program, and Co-Director of CCA’s Center for Art and Public Life.
Sanjit’s current work includes a collaborative project titled, Urban Defibrillation, the Gypsy Bridge Project, and the Kuni Wada Bakery.
Dwayne Butcher: What brings you to CAA? Any there any particular panel or sessions you are interested in seeing?
Sanjit Sethi: I have attended several panels. There was a panel about the role of museum education; I am interested in the subject itself. There was also the African cities panel. It was about how do we view a city, in this case, from an architectural and urban development standpoint, it was really interesting. I attended a community arts project panel, tying to see different methodologies other than my own. I am really interested in questions. Any mission statement I have for the operations of my individual practice and the work I do through the college revolves around addressing a specific question. I am not here, necessarily, to somehow absorb the conference in its entirety and expect that the light will finally flicker. But rather to see what other questions that people bring up and how they are actively and dynamically working on those questions. I also use this as an opportunity to reconnect with people, which is just as important as anything, whether it is colleagues or former students, just to see what it is going on. I do have concerns whether I did a good enough job, was I good at whatever it was I was doing? So, it good to reconnect and see what the students have been up to.
DB: Can you talk about your experiences of interviewing at CAA?
SS: I did not interview at CAA for my first teaching job, it was an instance where I sent in a packet after someone had abruptly left and I got the position. But, I have interviewed in the “room.” It was probably the most unpleasant experience I have ever been through, there is the institutional lighting, you can hear the hum of the sodium lights. It is kind of like doing a prep walk as well. I am having flashbacks being with you here in this lobby.
One year while the conference was in New York, which I can chuckle about now, while still teaching at MCA, I had three interviews. Generally, you meet the person at the prescribed time in the lobby and go up to the hotel room, which is great and how it should be. For one of those interviews I remember, to my horror, that the institution wanted to meet around the corner. So I meet them around the corner. As I was walking by, my current boss at the time, was sitting there, not fifteen feet away, interviewing someone for another position. During the entire interview I was totally unnerved, I blew that interview. It was a fiasco.
DB: Can you explain your role at the California College of the Arts?
SS: I wear three hats at CCA. I am a tenure track faculty member, I teach in the in the Community Arts Program, which I chair, I am also the Director of the Center for Art and Public Life. Originally, I was just a tenure track faculty member and to chair the Community Arts Program, six months later, I was asked to be the Director of the Center for Art and Public life, which I thought would be an interesting opportunity. It has a great history of engaging the public and working on issues of social justice, racism, diversity issues and sustainability. It has been really exciting.
DB: What type of projects are you working on with the Center? And how do you come up with the projects?
SS: The role I play as Director, is certainly parallel ideologically to the work I do with my individual practice. The Center for Art and Public life evolves around the question, “How can an institution of higher education that is devoted to creativity utilize the brain trust of its students and faculty to address areas of critical, cultural, social, geographic, and economic needs we see within local, national and global communities?” What I am able to do is have a role inventing and crafting programs that try to best address this meta-question. Right now, we actually trimmed our sails to running three programs. These three programs have implications across the college, and ideally, across communities. One of the curricular projects is “Engage at CCA” which is basically how we support faculty members to adapt their own curriculum to collaborate with a community partner, to address the learning outcomes they have with that course. For example, a furniture design class builds tables for a local charter school that cannot afford tables. The Center has a great history of working with community partners that were built with the efforts of my predecessors. I am able to take advantage of these partnerships and the great reputation that the Center has in the Bay area, especially with the non-profit and education communities. It is also about forging new partnerships as well. We just launched an initiative called “The Impact Social Entrepreneurship Award.” We graciously received start-up funding to create an interdisciplinary award program where we ask students to come up with projects in collaboration with a community partner. They have to find that partner and seek a letter of support from that partner for a project, for example, the students talk with an after school program and that school really needs a collapsible performance stage. This proposal will come from students that are studying to be architects, industrial designers, and maybe an illustrator, the students have to come up with the project. The Center, through a really competitive selection process, will award three groups for each of the next three years, ten thousand dollars each to execute these projects. This is really exciting to have curricular based and project based learning combined with community engagement. Again, these students should ideally have their own studio practice. Not to say that everyone is all of sudden going to devote themselves to working in and for non-profits. The idea is for the students to get a well-rounded aspect of how they can assist in all these different communities. We like for the students to take their own initiative and this galvanizes the idea of independent student learning. The deadlines for the projects were yesterday, (February 11, 2011) so we will see.
DB: So, what are some of the projects you are working on for yourself?
SS: I have an ongoing series called, “Indians and Indians.” It is a personal practice reflection on the idea of hybrid identity and this artificial name we associate with an identity. I recently finished a series of flag projects creating a hybridized flag, an American Indian flag. I am also about to create American flags using only material from Indian flags. Which is a nightmare quilting project from hell. I have this beautiful hand-woven Indian flag that I am both excited and terrified about cutting into. I have also been doing a series of photographs, kind of a diptych called “Watching Indians.” I am looking at representations of Indians, both American Indians and India Indians by western cinematographers. So basically, I am watching these films on a large flat screen television, I am looking at the way they are depicting Indians for clues. I am also searching for aberrations or interpretations. So, there are these photographs, these diptychs of me staring and scrutinizing the screen itself.
DB: Well, I think that is about it. That wasn’t too bad, was it?
SS: It was the best interview I ever had.