Virtually going above and beyond: meet the Artistic Director of The 98

Artists in transition during another movement piece for 98 Spiral. Photo by Riana Chandaria (2019). 

If lockdown has proved anything, it’s that so much creativity is still possible in a virtual space, if you put your mind to it. The URL way of living has enabled most of us to expand our visions beyond the physical sphere. Toronto-born creative Mallika Chandaria, Artistic Director of The 98, is no stranger to this as she has recently had to shape her vision board to a more virtual one.

The 98 is an art organisation comprised of over 100 artists from all over the world, born in the 1990s. The collective has now curated seven international art shows which aim to “make art less predictable, by pushing limits and connecting people together in unique spaces around the world”.

Mallika wants to experiment artistically with the collective and create a space that is free of censorship, and, she has a lot on her calendar to achieve this, including a seven-part, pandemic friendly, site-specific movement series. We caught up with the Brooklyn-based multidisciplinary artist to discuss The 98, her upcoming plans, and adjusting to lockdown restrictions as it becomes the ‘new normal’.

MESA: When did you launch The 98 and can you tell us about your professional background?

Mallika: As I am writing this, I realised that it has been three years today since I launched 98. I came up with the idea after seeing the Pink Floyd exhibition in London at the Victoria and Albert Museum. I was processing what I had witnessed on a park bench in Hyde Park, when the idea for this collective struck me. Our first show happened a couple of months later on the top floor of an abandoned parking garage in Boston.

MESA: Can you tell us a little more about The 98’s most recent art show?

Mallika: The first project I took on with The 98 this year was to create our show, 98 Illusion in a Virtual Reality Arcade in New York City. After collaborating with TJ Butzke (my point of connection to the arcade), I realised how amazing VR is as a tool to extend impulse-oriented art into a deeper world. Throughout 2020, TJ and I continued to develop 98 Illusion with 40 artists from around the world. The crossroads moment was obviously when the pandemic emerged. Our options were to either wait like everyone else, or to adapt and make the impossible, possible.

The 98 core production team (TJ Butzke, Londeen McEachron, Julian Shapiro-Barnum, and myself) started to have daily Zoom meetings about how to reinvent the show using a virtual platform. We came up with a two-fold solution: first, to use a 3D scanned version of the arcade courtesy of TJ to insert all the artwork into an online show, and second, to create a five-part experimental documentary about the process with footage taken by all of the artists in quarantine. Both projects were successfully executed in May.

At the beginning of October, we transitioned from the virtual show to a COVID-friendly hybrid state at Public Records NYC in Brooklyn. With the help of our tech team (Londeen McEachron and Miles Herman), we projected an audio-visual gallery, the documentary, along with a new movement piece tailored to the Public Records.

The choreographer, Dana DePirri, and her company of seven dancers created this exceptional work with less than two weeks of socially distant rehearsals. This transition was an experiment above all: we were challenging the societal hypothesis that an evolving idea under the circumstances of the pandemic is impossible. Strangers came together to witness a realignment of perspective: that innovation by nature requires an embrace of these very circumstances.

Behind the scenes of shooting the movement piece at Public Records for our most recent hybrid show. Featuring Miles Herman on the left who is filming, and Dana DePirri on the right, who is the 98 choreographer. Photo by Mallika Chandaria (2020).

MESA: How are you planning to continue your work with lockdown restrictions still in place?

Mallika: I think the key to the organic progression of an idea is to pay attention to what excites people: both those who are creating and witnessing. In this case, I think it was a movement. It’s funny because doing anything performative with lockdown restrictions feels a little rebellious because of how many people in the industry keep saying how impossible it is while following safety precautions (maybe that’s why people like the idea of this now).

This is why we are going to do a seven-part, pandemic friendly, site-specific movement series specifically with the intention of celebrating the resilience of art-making in this time. Together, the series will function as a 98 visualiser: showcasing experimentation with form, function, and content. I hope this will encourage larger institutions to keep creating.

MESA: You mentioned that you could work with someone who lives 10 minutes away or someone who lives on the other side of the world – how would you go about doing this?

Mallika: I have been incredibly fortunate to have done 98 shows internationally (Boston, Oakland, Paris, London, and New York). In every city, we have had the opportunity to work with local artists either approached on the street, connected through other artists or found on social media. We truly have a global network. Once part of The 98, always part of The 98: for every show, we reach out to all the artists we have worked with previously and invite them back.

Depending on their seasonal availability, some artists might participate three years after their first show, and some will join every time. The adaptability in this sense is important. Regardless, we always have a group brainstorm for each show (which means that people might be calling in from Spain at 3 am their time), but it creates this atmosphere of a team that can surpass geographical borders. It’s all about extending a hand and being friendly, and suddenly all the barriers melt away.

At the bottom of it all, social media has been a huge enabler for international work. We always keep all the artists for each show in one big group chat, so they are updated. I also have regular individual phone calls with each artist to stay informed and maintain a personal edge to all the 98 relationships, even if I have never met the artist in person, and this is how strong shows are [made] possible, in my opinion.

MESA: What sets The 98 apart from other organisations?

Mallika: The pop-ups shows are charged with electrical impulses: like an all-age playground. You can climb on anything, talk to anyone, smell, touch, feel, and scream (the latter is rare, but has happened). People are allowed to engage with the art, rather than having to keep 6 feet apart to walk in a grid around the pieces. Nobody looks at their phones because there is such excitement about the art.

You never know what’s going to happen. The crowd might be parted any second for a movement piece, you may be handed a paintbrush to participate in a live-painting, or a sculpture could suddenly come to life and talk to you (all of which have happened). Those who attend the shows are always wonderfully interesting, dressed up for the affair, and everyone almost definitely meets someone new. It feels like being inside an active volcano, a bubble of vibrant life – an eco-system of some kind.

MESA: Will you venture back into physical exhibitions once we go back to normality?

Mallika: I desperately hope so. It’s the metaphysical aspect: space in-between bodies that comes alive when we can witness something live and ephemeral all together. I miss feeling moved by watching people’s reactions to art. I also miss hearing trash-talk in the bathroom stall of a theatre or gallery. It’s all part of the experience.

MESA: Do you think remote collaborations will remain the norm, even when lockdown restrictions are lifted?

Mallika: Absolutely, and I think it’s because we have been given so many more tools to make this possible. People have developed routines around remote collaborations, and have made the impossible, possible. I recently spoke to a stylist who has been doing remote-photoshoots for Vanity Fair – I mean how incredible is that?

Movement piece at 98 Spiral. Photo by Kevin Cheung (2019). 

MESA: Finally, what has been your favourite project since launching The 98?

Mallika: My favourite project to date was probably doing 98 in Bloom. The whole time I was planning it, I would catch myself laughing at the absurdity of what I was doing in any given moment. I was speaking French on the phone to people I’d never met trying to negotiate a two-story glass gallery on one of the main shopping streets in Paris. I snuck into a Paris fashion week event with my close friends pretending that The 98 was “covering” a Kitsuné show, just so that we could meet some artists.

The week before, I ran across a highway in a bright yellow shirt to try to locate a wholesale flower market. A couple of days later, to my disbelief, I found the most beautiful uprooted tree leaning against the door of my apartment building with a bouquet of dead flowers neatly tucked in. I lifted it, brought it inside, filled it with fresh roses and attached dozens of strings filled with flowers to suspend it, and it became the centrepiece to the second floor of the gallery. This whole experience was one of the most beautiful, spontaneous, and unbelievable dreams come true.

Mallika Chandaria 

Find out more about Mallika and what a typical day looks like for her here.

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