Books for Twenty-First Century Travelers

If on a winter’s night a traveler, in a taxi headed south from Bombay’s airport with a heavy suitcase full of hard drives, handmade electronics, and newly bought used books, were to consider his or her recent trip from New York to a village in Europe, to suburban London to Cork to Cairo (via Amman), the exhausting thing about it wouldn’t be the sheer physical distance covered in economy seats, or the days of caffeine and work and nights of drinking and conversations but something in the background—the incredible range of contexts one, or if lucky two or three of us together, passes through and inevitably responds to. Globalized contemporary art throws you into tearingly diverse worlds and situations: administrative offices, art openings, rivers, computer bugs, hardware shops, collective traumas, and dreams. Not just one place after another, but all of them fitted and crushed together. Amid such multiple intimacies and so many things to care for and be curious about, only a few books we read last year while traveling seemed unafraid to take on the full, fractured, multi-demanding forces of global reality.

Stupid Guy Goes To India by Yukichi Yamamatsu

An unemployed, 56-year-old Japanese manga artist comes to Delhi for several months in this non-fantasy, deadpan, off-key, “artless” comic book that has more charm than many of its more self-conscious graphic-novel peers. “Stupid” here means naive but also persistent. From these two qualities a peculiar intimacy is wrought as the author inserts himself (literally in some panels) into an alien “everyday” environment that is overwhelmingly strange for him, but that he slowly and with great effort adjusts to, ultimately managing to get his books translated and sell them on the streets in Hindi, a language he has learned to speak in joyful outbursts.

An Enquiry into Modes of Existence by Bruno Latour

Latour’s work has moved gently from ethnography in North Africa, to a deep study of science labs in America and Europe, to courts of law in France, to co-curating the 2005 exhibition “Making Things Public,” to this work of metaphysics, which proposes that there are different tonalities or “truth conditions” in different domains of activity. So to understand economics, networks, organizations, and religion is a matter of finding the right key in which to test them, to think organizationally or politically, burrowing through rather than looking upon these forms from above. The suggestion of independent values or ways of being in this book, and a suspicion of digital “double-click” information, is an invitation to dig deeper into many social and political formations beyond Latour’s own “anthropology of the modern west.” There is no separate aesthetic or cultural mode here, and aesthetics appears in the gaps as a common substance, a glue, or sensitivity to others. This, of course, serves a direct challenge to institutional art. If aesthetics is everywhere, in every crack, what should art do?

Dariyalal by Gunvantrai Acharya

This 1938 Gujarati-language book—only recently translated into English—offers an ocean-spanning tale of “globalization from below” from more than a hundred years ago. It rides on mercantile, ethical, and political life in and around the Arabian Sea, focusing primarily on Gujaratis based in Zanzibar and opening up to many encounters beyond the colonial/colonized binary. Circling its central hero, Ramjibhai of Kutch, this work of fiction finds many occasions for rare accounts (in Indian literature) of interior African forests, slavery, and complicity, as well as women traveling across oceans.

Cinema by Alain Badiou

And finally a reminder, at the start of a new year, of what has been made in the past, rampantly plural and impure, from impossibly eclectic materials, unidentified ruins and junk, and generally too many things (since perhaps every generation claims this as their reality):

“To paint a picture, you also begin with an absence, a surface—and the whole history of the visual arts, as a basic potentiality. But beginning a film is not at all the same. The conditions of production of the movement-image or the time-image involve a unique assemblage of materials. You need technical resources, but you also need to marshal extremely complex and, above all, heterogeneous materials.”

Locations, text, screenplay, dialogue, bodies, chemistry, editing equipment, ideas! And then:

“You can produce anything at all now with an image and a movie camera—it’s terrifying, terrifying for art. How can this sensible infinity be dominated, how can it be mastered? My own hypothesis is that it has become impossible to master that sensible infinity. This impossibility is the real of cinema, which is a struggle with the infinite, a struggle to purify the infinite. In its very essence, the cinema is this hand-to-hand combat with the infinite.”

Ashok Sukumaran and Shaina Anand are the founders, together with Sanjay Bhangar, of the Mumbai-based group of artists, programmers, and filmmakers known as CAMP.