Ahi Karunaharan is the artist behind this weekend's Kollywood Extra.

Satellites: Putting the spotlight on Auckland’s Asian artists, in the burbs

Satellites is a series of public events and encounters showcasing the most exciting contemporary Asian artists in Auckland. Sam Brooks interviewed the founder of Satellites, Rosabel Tan, and one of the artists, Ahi Karunaharan, about this year’s programme.

A K-Pop dance explosion at Botany Town Centre. An all-female tiger dance at Sandringham Reserve. A give-one-take-one take on a fortune cookie cart. A workshop in turning a piece of beloved fabric into your own collage.

One of the highlights of living in Auckland in the past few years has been the Satellites programme, showcasing not just Asian artists but a diverse range of suburbs. There’s a wild misconception that Auckland art exists in that bubble between the Harbour Bridge, the Newmarket Viaduct and the Auckland Zoo, but for four years now, Satellites has been bringing us the city’s most vibrant, exciting art.

This year, there’s an interactive film set in Sandringham, a pop-up exhibition in Papatoetoe, a Filipino pop-up breakfast and an interactive K-Pop performance on the North Shore. I sat down with Rosabel Tan, the founder of Satellites, and Ahi Karunaharan, the artist behind Kollywood Extra, to talk about the 2019 programme, and $200,000 weather machines.

So, what is Satellites?

Rosabel Tan: Satellites is turning four this year! It’s a series of events, and exhibitions, and encounters with contemporary Asian artists in Auckland. There are a few things it’s trying to do, and one of them is that it wants to champion and make more visible contemporary Asian artists. But it’s also to support those artists, to hopefully push themselves and create something more ambitious than they might usually be able to, through production support from our end.

So there’s that kind of advocacy aspect to it, but there’s also another form of advocacy in it, which is that Satellites is always programmed into public spaces, in suburbs that have traditionally, historically been under-catered to in terms of the arts. So we do actually try to stay out of the central city, although some of our works this year would suggest otherwise.

But for the most part we are trying to go into suburbs that might not have theatre or gallery space, going into spaces that people are naturally congregating at anyway – usually like a park, or a shopping mall –and a big reason for that is the ways in which buildings can be a barrier, like it’s scary to go into a building if you’ve never been into one. There’s kind of like this advocacy element for championing all the amazing artists in the city, and then the other one is actually championing art, in a very fundamental way. That’s Satellites.

How has it shifted since it started in 2016, like in its focus and scope?

It was a real challenge right at the beginning when we were figuring out what it was going to be, because I think any creative practitioner of any kind can imagine like, when you have the opportunity to shape something, you want to give as many opportunities as you can.

I think a lot of people’s instincts would be like to give as many opportunities as possible to as many artists as possible, and so we actually had to pause and kind of dial back on that, and say, “Actually, what is it that we’re trying to do, to truly support artists.”

It’s not really supporting artists to pay them not enough and say, “Can you give us the world?”, even though that is what a lot of people are accustomed to.

And even now we’re still not getting it right, but we really had to take a step back and be like no, actually what we’ll do is a very small number of events, and try and pay people a much as we can.

I think over the past four years the biggest change has been probably the way that I’ve changed in the way I’ve related to my identity, and to be honest, I think when I started, I had a very different relationship to my ethnicity in particular.

How so?

You know, I’d come out of my Masters, and really rejected the idea of identifying as a Singaporean artist of any kind, I’d say I’m a writer, but I wouldn’t say I’m a Singaporean writer. And now I don’t even ever say I’m a writer!

But now I think the way we talk about identity has changed a lot in the last four years. There’s my journey, but there’s also everybody’s journey. I think the biggest way that it has shifted is the way in which it negotiates being in a public space but having a political agenda, and figuring out, in a more nuanced way maybe, how to do that in a way that aligns with my politics, I think?

My thing is that I really believe in kindness, and I don’t think people change by being punished. So figuring out how to use that framework with the work that we’re doing, to continue to weave Asian faces and voices into our city. It’s sort of – none of it’s been drastic, it’s all been sort of evolutionary, I guess.

How’re you weaving that politic into this season of events?

I think a really good example is always our food events, because food is always a universal language – everybody loves to eat!

Food is such a beautiful way to bring people together and to create a sense of community, and in terms of what I was saying about my politics, the way that manifests is like for example this year… we’ve been doing breakfast events every year, and our breakfast event this year is with two different Filipino chefs, Jess Grenada, who runs Nanam out in Takapuna, and Carlo Buenaventura, who runs the Cult Project, which is a roving pop-up that also focuses on traditional Filipino cuisine.

The third event of Satellites 2019 showcases the culinary talents of Nanam’s Jess Granada and The Cult Project’s Carlo Buenaventura, with original artwork by illustrator Marc Conaco

So it’s a traditional Filipino breakfast. There’s also a Filipino illustrator, Mark Konako, who is going to be making the placemats with his own interpretation of his own relationship to the food that is going to be served. So the way that that event is running is that there is a two-course breakfast, and with each course each chef and Mark will tell a story – well actually they’re reading a letter – that unfurls their personal relationship to the food that is being served.

So a memory they have, or a particular moment where that dish was especially meaningful, and I think really what that’s about is getting people through the door, who are just interested in trying something delicious, and then creating a very intimate and special moment where you get to get a window into someone’s culture, without it being like ‘come listen to this talk where people will tell you about their lives and their history!”

It’s a little bit more marketing and a little bit in the idea of being gentle with people – and finding the right balance between not being patronising about that, and respecting people’s intelligence, but also not preaching to the converted.

Ahi, what’s your involvement with Satellites?

Ahi Karunaharan: So my involvement for Satellites this year is that I’m going to be presenting artists, and the show that we’re creating is called Kollywood Extra, kind of like an immersive pop-up event that we’re doing at Sandringham Reserve.

The premise is that it’s a fake photo shoot, getting a whole bunch of South Indian actors to play various different characters that would make up a photo shoot, and have various different activities that would take place on a set location, that I think builds up – having a makeover, dress up, taking photos in a pop-up booth, to finishing scripts, learning dances, fight choreographies, essentially learning the tropes of what makes a good South Indian Bollywood film, but also having an immersive experience.

The impetus for this is that every participant that comes in feels like they’re the star of the film. So it’s a charming way to activate a space, because Sandringham is predominantly populated by South Asian patrons, but also whānau that are travelling through are coming in need of South Asian cuisine, so there’s already a half investment in there, but also hopefully for the event and the multitude of different performances – there’s singing.. oh, there’s karaoke, there’s a karaoke room where you can sing your heart out, and my goal is that if I can get all of Sandringham to sing together that would be amazing.

It’s a love letter to the films that I grew up with, but ultimately it’s just an interactive medium to get people to interact with one another.

Is there heaps of collaboration around these events, between the artists and you, Rosabel?

R: Yeah, well we can talk about Kollywood Extra as an example and then I can talk a little bit about the other stuff. It’s that thing where someone’s like – we’re very collaborative. Ahi and I have been talking about this event for nearly a year now – it’s only now that we’re starting to really kick into the production of it, but it has been something that we’ve been going back and forth on for quite some time. It’s been a really collaborative dialogue.

Ahi: For me personally, all of my works usually have been scripted, stage works. So while this has got an element of improvisation, and though it is pretty much an interactive performance, Satellites has done similar kind of events with different kind of angles, so having that but also Rosabel’s overall vision of what Satellites is, and and what the long-term vision of that is, kind of informs some of the choices we make.

It’s always fun because we could just do almost outlandish, crazy things, but then there’s the practicality of it.

R: The other day, we found out there are these things you can buy, and there’s these planes, and you can control the weather… And –

Wait, what. Are you being scammed?!

R: Yeah but Kollywood Extra is in Sandringham Reserve, an outdoor space, and that’s always nerve-wracking, especially as it’s in May. Like for Splore, who had a cyclone this weekend to deal with. But yeah, we found out there’s these planes that you can buy and they will fly over an area and disperse this chemical that will stop the rain from falling.

A: Why did no-one tell me about this?!

R: Because it’s like $200,000!

A: Oh, that’s why you didn’t tell me.

Why do they not use it at Eden Park?

A: I’m researching this all tonight.

Like X-Men, controlling the weather.

R: But yeah, every event that we do also has a different form of collaboration, too. Like with Kollywood Extra, it’s actually been a very straightforward thing – it started with a conversation and it’s just been building on that.

Ahi had done similar events in the past, so we kind of knew what it was going to be. Whereas we’re doing this other event later in the year, it’s our last event – well it’s not our last event, but it’s in June – and we didn’t know what it was going to be. So essentially this artist reached out and we started having these conversations.

We often get emails from different artists, but this artist, his name is Luckshmin Andanaya, he is a visual effects artist, and so we just started chatting, but we didn’t know what the event was going to be, what the piece was going to be. And at the same time I’d also met a sonic and lighting artist, Suren Unker. They didn’t know each other but I had this idea that together they could create something interesting.

So it was almost like supervising playdates, like “come on, boys! We’re gonna hang out!”

Just to make sure that they would get on, and… well, I’m making it sound like an actual playdate, but it’s like, making sure that collaborative process would work well. And where we ended up with that, is that project involves working with children in Papatoetoe to develop their vision of how they imagine the world will be like when they’re 50.

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Just figuring out what the world will look like, what their lives might be, what their jobs might be, what their concerns and joys might look like, and then we’re turning an empty shop in the main street into a giant crystal ball full of mist and projections that brings to life some of those visions.

That sounds amazing!

I hope so! So that one is kind of different. Every event has a kind of different process, that is very collaborative. I think part of the reason that happens is that we’re working in public spaces too so there isn’t kind of a language for how we do that. Whereas if you put on a play, you kind of know ‘OK, this is what it’s going to look like’.

Satellites runs throughout 2019, in suburbs all across Auckland. You can look at the entire 2019 programme and book tickets here.


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