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It's not AI! Designing for automated conversations

Below are a few practical things we learned as a design team when building automated conversations for our two products ReferralCandy and CandyBar.

A snapshot of CandyBar Assistant. It tells people how many rewards, stamps and points they have

A snapshot of CandyBar Assistant. It tells people how many rewards, stamps and points they have

Why automated conversations?

For us, it all started with an experiment.

We had an SMS being sent out, and we wanted to make it better i.e. more useful, helpful, more engaging and interesting.

Trying to make the SMS shorter, cleaner, with neater links

Trying to make the SMS shorter, cleaner, with neater links

We did a ton of usability testing on the SMS flow. The results were not great. People didn’t notice the message. It didn’t feel relevant, engaging or interesting.

We had to figure out a better way of messaging people.

Our first MVP experiment with automated messaging was with Facebook Messenger.

Results looked good! Our engagement went up, our testing lead to better results, more people were giving feedback about the places they visited, and conversions looked good too.

So here’s what I learned from the last two years of building automated conversations with my team:

1. Don’t make it look like a human


Samantha is not a real person. Her photo is from, a website for free to use commercial photos.

Trust is fragile in an automated conversation. 
Make sure your automation clearly looks like a bot. An automation cannot do human tasks.

Be honest and transparent that it’s just a bot and therefore it’s limited. Use non-human names and avatar images.

Our product is both merchant facing and customer facing. So our interface and bots speak to both end consumers and merchants who want to connect with their customers in a meaningful way. We also have an excellent customer support team talking to these folks.

In a complex situation where both people and bots are helping out, clearly differentiating between the two is the key between a good or effective experience and a bad or confusing experience.

2. Design basics are the same, but your tools are different

Stick to a typical iterative product design process.


Your qualitative and quantitative user data is in the center of your process as you ideate and test your ideas in the real world. Make sure you are measuring the right thing. Your success metrics should be chosen carefully.

We did a lot of testing especially for the first MVP automated conversation

We did a lot of testing especially for the first MVP automated conversation

But your tools are different

Sketch isn’t the best way to draw your MVP Conversation
Initially I tried to make detailed mockups but my team found it difficult to understand the MVP concept and design updates this way.

Some initial sketch mockups for the MVP

Some initial sketch mockups for the MVP

We were iterating too fast (every 2 days) for good looking mockups.

What actually worked:

Conversation tree for the MVP

Conversation tree for the MVP

Then, write an MVP script to test each flow


Imagine your MVP conversation like a movie script with characters, stages and scene changes. This will help you test each flow properly, so that it sounds as natural as possible.

Once you have your Conversation tree and MVP script, create some visual story elements:

A few story elements from CandyBar Assistant

A few story elements from CandyBar Assistant

Prototyping is the best way to share your work

I recommend Botsociety for quick prototyping for your MVP

I recommend Botsociety for quick prototyping for your MVP

So in conclusion, basic design process is the same, but the tools you use are different.

3. Become a really good writer OR get a really good writer

Can’t underline this enough. Your MVP has to have good writing. It’s not optional.

Getting a culture check is good too. Sitting in Singapore, we didn’t know this would happen with Americans using our bot. A surprisingly large number of people hate Jimmy Fallon

Getting a culture check is good too. Sitting in Singapore, we didn’t know this would happen with Americans using our bot. A surprisingly large number of people hate Jimmy Fallon

4. It’s ok to say sorry and I don’t know

Error handling is always important in any design process, it’s just way trickier in a conversation.


This person asks a pretty relevant question “How many points do I have?” but CandyBar Assistant doesn’t understand. It quickly apologizes, making it clear that it is limited, and provides a button so the person can find their answer anyway. By tapping on “View Rewards” this person can see how many points they have.

5. It’s not AI and it doesn’t have to be AI!

You are replacing a traditional interface of fields and labels with a rich conversation.

The bot reminds me of this olden days CLI

The bot reminds me of this olden days CLI

The bot reminds me a bit of this ancient command line interface I used to load up games when I was a kid. You put in queries, and the system did a thing. If you put in the wrong query, it failed horribly.

With an automated conversation, it’s pretty much the same Q&A format, just in a nicer, more human, friendlier wrapping. Maybe even some jokes, emoji’s and GIFS added to the mix!

You don’t have to have artificial intelligent to create a really really good experience for the people using your software that’s fun, enjoyable and also works.


  • Don’t make it look like a human.

  • Trust is fragile in an automated conversation

  • Design Basics are the same but your tools are different

  • Write your MVP script and test as much as possible

  • Get a really really good writer

  • It’s ok to say sorry and I don’t know

  • It’s not AI! It doesn’t have to be AI to be effective

Thank you for reading! This article is based on a talk I gave at UXSEA in Singapore, Nov 2018.
I’d love to hear your perspective on this, please add your comments below.

First published on Medium

What I learned from listening to 40 product leaders from South East Asia

Networking has become a bad word.

It means saying “So what do you do?” repeatedly and superficially at after work meetups while half-listening to a speaker talk about their work.

I’ve faced my share of superficial conversations. As a frequent outsider at these events, I spend at least 3 to 4 mins of a conversation looking at the puzzled face of the person I’m trying to talk to as they try to repeat my foreign-sounding name awkwardly or try to parse my accent.

It doesn’t have to be like that. Meeting people from your industry can be meaningful and conversations can be real.

Arriving in Ubud, Bali for a 3 day retreat with 40+ product people :D

Arriving in Ubud, Bali for a 3 day retreat with 40+ product people :D

I recently spent 3 days in Bali listening to personal work stories from 40 product leaders, founders and cofounders from Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia and HongKong.

This is what I learned:

Everyone is struggling to make their work meaningful

I met Dan and Jo from Hong Kong. They’ve been working on a solid, actionable framework for Making Meaningful Work or MMW for more than 20 years. It was inspiring to hear their story.

After three short sprints we came up with an initial framework of ideas for working with our teams with a lot more heart.

I found several people in the group who hate the term “soft skills” as much as I do. The term soft skills is just a horribly dismissive way of talking about the most important part of leading a team — being human, listening and caring.

The focus was on actionable, positive things to do for your team. And how to develop healthier, sustainable and more meaningful ways of working.

“It doesn’t have to be crazy at work.

It really doesn’t! We aren’t machines that can be equally productive every day, every week and every year.

You’re not a car that can always “go the extra mile.”

Level 4 listening is hard

Going from factual listening and downloading to deeper empathy and generative listening

Going from factual listening and downloading to deeper empathy and generative listening

We’re continuously distracted by smartphone notifications from our friends, family and work.

I’m frequently tapped on my wrist by my Apple Watch, reminding me to stand if I’ve been sitting too long.

Michael put up this sheet early on during the event, telling us to try and practise Level 4 Listening. With a stranger that’s tough, and in todays tech world, that’s even harder.

As a designer I’m formally trained in empathic listening. But listening and being empathic during a 2 hr usability interview and doing it constantly is a different thing.

Empathy only takes you to Level 3 listening

For example, I listened to a hiring manager talk about how they judged someone for leaving jobs every year or “job hopping.” And later regretted it.

Level 3 listening means you can hear their story with true empathy, leave your self and your judgements out of it, truly feel the other persons anxiety and point of view.

Level 4 listening is more generative. You build on base empathy with a deeper sharing of ideas and feelings. You swap stories. For example, I shared a story of my own personal bias during hiring, and when I realized it. It’s important to avoid jumping directly into solutioning during this level of discussion. Just reflect, share and listen.

I’m not the only one with Creative FOMO

Fear of missing out for creative people

Fear of missing out for creative people

What is creative #fomo? The feeling that out there, there is a better and sexier product and a more genius team that you can work with.

Where you can do better design things in a better way.

I’m always looking for people with good taste. I’m always in a #fomo about doing better and better work.

It was heartening and validating to hear similar self doubt from non-designers. Though it did take some time for people to open up about it.

It’s about people, not processes

After a number of years of experience, all leaders from all fields reach this same conclusion.

People are so important!

I think this tweet sums it up:

Deep, meaningful conversations means you cannot avoid the other persons politics

Comic by  Will McPhail

Comic by Will McPhail

Keeping things polite is impossible in a group of 40 people in Bali trying to practise level 4 listening and sharing and spending all their free time together.

It’s okay to have uncomfortable or even hurtful conversations or to be in groups of people where people have sexist or racist beliefs — that’s reality.

Really listening requires suspending your own impulse to correct, to dismiss, to shut down. Navigating this is a challenge, because you don’t want to betray your own values — but you want to give people enough space to open up and feel comfortable having their opinions challenged and scrutinized.

P.S. This is for work. This is putting other people’s feelings ahead of your own, and it’s important to be mindful of why you’re doing that. You are getting useful insights and you have a goal, but it shouldn’t become your default way of operating. That isn’t healthy.

Do by not doing

I learned a bunch of Chinese sayings during the retreat. The one that stands out is Wu wei or 无为 — which loosely translates as “Do by not doing.”


An important part of being a leader is to know when to let things resolve themselves.

Reacting constantly is probably going to make things worse.

A product manager from the retreat shared a personal story on Day 2. A problematic person in another department was making trouble and creating a negative atmosphere in that department, which was affecting his own work, his team and his timelines. Although he tried for weeks to “fix” this, eventually the problematic person left for unrelated reasons.

The problem resolved itself on it’s own.

A startup is like a sinusoidal wave pattern, just get to the next wave

(A fancy way of saying there are ups and downs and thats ok)

(A fancy way of saying there are ups and downs and thats ok)

Finally, reach out to your community and be open to people reaching out to you

A solid support system is key to thriving in your industry.

How do you reach out? A lot of people just aren’t sure.

We’re consumed by “busy-work” and miss out on real connections around us. It’s easier to just coast through meetups without having a deeper connection and its easier to avoid truly listening to the other person.

If you look around you, its amazing to see so many people willing to reallyhelp you and talk to you.

All you need to do is be open and vulnerable to that connection.


  • Networking can be genuinely and deeply connecting with people

  • Everyone is struggling to make their work meaningful

  • Deeply, truly listening is hard

  • It’s ok to be in uncomfortable or hurtful conversations — that’s reality

  • Do by not doing or 无为

  • Reach out and be vulnerable, it is super rewarding!

Thank you for reading! This was originally published in UX Collective on Medium in June 2018, so this is a repost.

P.S. The G&T Product Meetup in Bali was organized by Michael OngMike, and team. Huge thanks to them for having me :D

The Tubelight- How I learned things years after they were taught to me
In the 90s in India we used the word TubeLight as an insult. For someone who is slow or lights up too late. Basically the last person in the room to get the joke :)

Agencies, studios, startups and consultancies

I started off as a designer in India with a salary of about $450 per month, designing logos and artwork for brands.

That was 10 years ago.

Since then I’ve worked in ad agencies, mom & pop design studios, tech centric startups and consultancies.

I’ve worked in huge teams of 150+ and tiny teams of 2 and 3.

I’ve worked as a graphic designer in print, as an HCI researcher going door to door in India, as a UX designer in San Francisco and Bangalore.

And now I’m working with a product design team in Singapore.

I looked for a common thread in all this design experience.

The TubeLight Moment


What I found was that throughout my design career I learned amazing new things that only truly clicked much later. I either didn’t get it, got it for a moment and then it was gone, struggled to grasp or apply it in any practical way.

And when it did finally click it was usually months or years afterwards.

Let me illustrate this with a few examples.

Draw 200 trees


My first story is from the design school I attended before I became a graphic designer.

Day two of our five year course we were asked to draw two hundred trees.

My immediate response was “What?”

What was the deadline? How do we draw it? Should we use 2B pencils or something else? Is it supposed to be realistic? Or abstract? What course was this part of anyway? What paper should I use? Are we going to get grades for this?

And so we wandered about our beautiful campus with questions and more questions.

I completed the task along with my classmates, wondering what my teacher was upto. At the time I thought he was just testing us, trying to get us to break out of our usual idea of an assignment. We were coming straight out of a rigid education system and he wanted to throw us into another mindset.

Years later my TubeLight came on and I realised there were two main lessons here.

The first was — Explore, explore and explore some more.

Draw 200 trees was a great way to explore the campus for new students. You could explore different styles of drawing. You could do anything really.

The second lesson was — getting comfortable with ambiguity.

Draw 200 trees was a very vague brief. It was up to us to clarify it, come back to the first principles of it and deliberately interpret it as we wanted to.

Design a chair


I was talking to a close friend of mine about this and she remembered her own TubeLight moment from her design education.

They were told to design and build a chair out of corrugated cardboard.
It had to support the weight of a person and behave like a chair.

Like any design student she was super excited about this exercise. She worked on it for a long time with her classmates and eventually came up with something she was happy with.

However what she thought at the time was:

I’m going to be a graphic designer. That was a really fun exercise but I’m probably never going to design a chair. Oh well.

A few years later — she was working on making hygiene kits for underprivileged children in Mumbai. The goal was to encourage basic practices like washing your hands.

She remembered the material corrugated cardboard. 
How it was flexible, strong, affordable, and if done right, could look good. Suddenly she could show off her in depth knowledge of the material to her colleagues and her boss. They had found the perfect material for making hygiene kits.

That was her TubeLight moment — When she realised the exercise wasn’t just about designing a chair. It was about understanding materials. Not just understanding cardboard, but understanding the depth of how you could use a material in different ways.

Explore vs. Execute


Another TubeLight moment for me was when one of my first bosses said:

Your first option is probably the best one

In design school we were pushed to try 500 different options until we found the right one. The harsh reality of the design industry was execution.

You had to deliver results — sometimes on the same day.

Explore vs. Execute. So I thought, OK this was the balancing act we have to do as designers.

Then there’s Make and Ship


If you don’t have time for 500 explorations and to truly go in depth, you can make a quick prototype.

You can workshop and build test objects. This isn’t production quality execution. But you can still explore by making things: You can convince clients with a prototype if the explorations aren’t getting through to them.

Then I discovered- Shipping. Ship your product to production.

When I joined the startup world, this is where the whole explore vs. execute conflict really clicked for me.

While working at Postman, an API testing service for developers, we grew to more than 4 million developers. That means, 4 million developers were using our software in about a year and a half. That’s a really hectic growth curve.

I learned to ship a lot! We shipped to millions of users and learned which designs were actually working, live in the real world.

The moment we knew which designs weren’t working, we would update again to millions of people and keep iterating on the fly.

It was a great way to explore and execute at the same time.

TubeLight moments are not always aha! moments.
They are (sometimes) slow dawning realisations over months and years as you delve deeper into the things you’ve learned.

Learning moments depend on being in the right place at the right time.And having the precious opportunity to practise what you have learned.

Learning design like a TubeLight

1. Most of the time you don’t truly connect the dots until much later.

2. TubeLight moments click like aha! moments.

3. Sometimes TubeLight moments are (painfully) slow dawning realisations.

4. Without the right opportunity in the industry you may never truly learn — because you can’t apply what you’ve learned.

Thank you for reading ❤
I would love to hear your TubeLight moments in the comments :)

(This article is an excerpt from my talk at the IXDA Education Summit in France in Feb 2018).
Originally published on Medium.

Your design career doesn't have to make sense right now

A lot of designers I meet worry about structuring their career in the “right way”. They obsess over which “industry vertical” to work in. They worry if this or that company is the right “next step”.

This was especially highlighted when I spoke at DBA Singapore recently about my work. It made me realize a lot of things that I’ve learned, I have learned in hindsight.

So here are some things I wish someone had told me while I was slogging out there in the design industry.

Don’t worry about some kind of overarching “narrative” in your career

It will make sense eventually (trust me).

Do what you love, learn new skills (even if they are not design related) and work with amazing people.

If you studied graphic design, don’t get too invested in the label of “graphic designer”.

Your career is not a straight up ladder (it’s a zigzag)


It’s a lot of detours, experiments, random events and luck!

Just have fun on the ride while you try to pay your rent.

If you need to learn a new skill, take that demotion if you can. That new and different skill is going to be invaluable to you in the future.

Failure is good


It makes you question and experiment more. It makes you leave your job and try something else. That’s amazing.

The more things you try the closer you are to finding the thing that is going to work for you and bring the story together (finally).

It doesn’t matter how cool the work is

You could be working for the biggest brands, the coolest clients, newest tech, the most funded startup. But it means nothing if the people suck. Work with the best people and teams. You will become a better designer.

Caring too much about the “what” you are working on is a rookie mistake.

It’s ok to quit your job in the first 3–4 months


No it doesn’t “look bad.” You tried something and it didn’t work. It’s ok!

The best time to quit a job that’s not working for you is in the first 6 months. Don’t stay and just make it worse for yourself and the team you are working with.

Go look for something better for yourself.

Thank you for reading!

What did you learn from your design career? Does your design career make sense? Let me know in the comments :)

This post was originally published on Bytes of Candy in October 2017.

Sequoia::Hack 2016

Super exciting to be part of the hackathon as a judge and mentor for the second year in a row. More than 5500 people applied this year to participate, and it was an amazing turnout. Inspiring to see so many teams come together to build something awesome in 24 hrs. And it is always a learning experience mentoring teams as they develop an idea into realization in a frantic rush to the finish line.

The "Slightly Mad" team talks to me about their foot scanner concept. Loved their design process and teamwork!

The "Slightly Mad" team talks to me about their foot scanner concept. Loved their design process and teamwork!

By Day #2 everyone was sleep deprived, intense and focussed and the space started to reflect it :)

By Day #2 everyone was sleep deprived, intense and focussed and the space started to reflect it :)

Only an hour left until judging begins...

Only an hour left until judging begins...

It was a bit disappointing to see an all-male judging panel for the main development track in Seq Hack, but hopefully things will improve next year.

The day after the hackathon, there was terrible violence due to the Cauvery river water conflict. It was sad to see this especially just one day after the hackathon where so many futuristic concepts were shared, discussed and built. While a team in the hackathon won for building a robot that can help diagnose your illness, the streets the next day fought over water shortage, communal differences and drought issues.



Flowers & People
Flowers and People cannot be controlled. team Lab. Singapore 2015.
Flowers and People cannot be controlled. team Lab. Singapore 2015.

A young family enjoys the immersive digital installation 'Flowers and People cannot be controlled but Live Together.' It was part of the 'Art in Motion' series during Singapore art week. I noticed more than 8 massive projectors used to create the space. The flowers and petals grow, wither and die. As you move, the petals try to grow around you along with a tinkling almost fairy-like sound. Overall a beautiful, almost meditative experience.

Creating the Jugaad Dishwasher, The X-Way

The X-Way was a 2 day workshop sponsored by Nokia and Microsoft that focused on ideas, strategies and discussion around improving Mumbai city. Ben & Andrew moderated the workshop, keeping it challenging as twenty creatives and innovators came together with many, many city ideas.

One of the interesting exercises was listing things we love and hate about Mumbai. It was heartening to see that the 'love' pile was so much bigger despite Mumbai's numerous faults.

When discussing Mumbai's numerous problems, traffic cannot be ignored. Everything to do with traffic and way-finding is contextual. Signage is missing in a lot of places. When pedestrians give directions, the meaning may be different depending on the tone of their voice, how they stand, hand gestures and language. Honking has varied meanings depending on frequency, tones, loudness and the length of each honk. The city is a hotbed of large scale issues and topics of interest.

My team eventually looked at pavement ownership as a microcosm of health and sanitation. How could we encourage and create value in a public space such as pavement. We were in posh areas of Mumbai, and even here we found street hawkers taking ownership of pavements (in a good way) keeping them clean and ensuring their part of the pavement was maintained. Eventually we focussed even further and came up to a sugarcane vendor. Could we come up with something to help him wash the glasses in his stall while he was busy doing a million other things like making the juice, serving and cashing. A lot of times hygiene and proper washing was way down in his priorities while multi-tasking.

The final concept after two days of guerrilla research and quick prototyping was the 'jugaad dishwasher' - a mechanically automated machine that washed glasses saving the vendor time and effort as he ran a one-man operation. The washer connects to the juice machine itself so it doesn't need electricity to run. Soap is optional here since most vendors do not use soap. Overall the 'jugaad dishwasher' concept could also work for other street hawkers, juice vendors and with a few upgrades could even save time in someone's kitchen.

Check out some photos of the prototype we made. The video below has a few shots of us talking to sugarcane vendors.

The rotating juicer translates into the up and down movement of the simple washer, which repeatedly rinses the glasses. The trough can be easily refilled and cleaned and occupies minimal space.

We made several quick prototypes using found and re-usable materials. Above is an image representing the juicer wheel. A simple mechanical addition to the wheel as shown above allows it to connect with with dishwasher out of frame.

More about the X Way here and here.

Arduino Yun Workshop

The two day workshop by Ankit Daftery was a great way to dig deep into the possibilities of the Yun. As an interactive artist, I'm already aware of various options available. Trying them out was empowering and surprising. You can make complex interactions with just two to three days of effort [as a beginner], especially at an affordable price.

This example converts two fruits into a drum kit, sort of a very basic version of the famous Makey Makey. Below is a short video of the test.

UX Workshop at Construkt

The workshop focussed on teaching hands-on design prototyping, taking the participants step-by-step through a prototyping process, how to think and analyse their design concept, and even a quick ten minute guerrilla user research activity at the festival grounds. It was rewarding to see the 25 participants get so involved and excited about what they were building. Below are some pictures of the three hour session. It started with some warm-up creative thinking activities, after which the participants chose a random 'everyday-life' object. They then proceeded to redesign it, much to their surprise! One of the participants chose an orange as a common 'everyday' object for the first exercise and ended up 'redesigning' it into a scent dispenser and pen holder. Every participant had a set of raw materials such as card paper, straws, tape and foam pieces to use. UX Workshop participants at the Construkt Festival, Bangalore. The Construkt team gave me a beautiful location under a giant tree on the festival grounds, so everyone could work in the outdoors.

UX participant shows off his prototype, a redesigned Table Tennis racket as part of a completely new type of Table Tennis.

UX workshop participants at the Construkt festival, Bangalore. One of the central goals of my workshop was to make it hands-on learning, and also ensuring it was fun. It is so important to enjoy these exercises since it makes people more relaxed and therefore more creative.

UX participant shows off his smart watch prototype at the end of the workshop. The last stage included quick user research, getting reactions from people wandering around the festival and trying to make last minute adjustments on the first level prototype.

Installation Sketches

Worked on some collaborative concepts with Ankit Shekhawat who is the head of the Emerging Media lab at Moonraft in Bangalore. We pitched these ideas to an upcoming event in Bangalore. Conceptualizing these installations is a really fun process, especially when budget is not a constraint. Quite proud of these sketches, since we went crazy dreaming up robot drones to do our bidding.

Hoping to get a chance [funding] to build this stuff one day.

Creative Workshop at Sourcebits

Inspired by the Marshmallow Challenge Ben and I organized a creative thinking workshop for the lively crowd at Sourcefest, a two-day hackathon for the employees of Sourcebits. The aim of the session was to get people excited and energetic, and of course get their creative juices flowing. Instead of using marshmallows and spaghetti, I sourced waste foam material and straws. The idea of wasting so much food just didn't make sense [especially in India]. 45 people attended the session. Rules were pretty simple, use only straws and foam cubes, no glue/sticky tape is allowed, and the tallest structure wins. And the tricky part - the tallest point of the standing structure has to be a piece of foam.

Very rewarding to see everyone have so much fun and make crazy structures. Here are some pictures from one hour session.

Vikhroli Skin - Prep

My most recent work will be displayed at this event sponsored by Godrej Labs on the 14th of Dec. It is going to be 200 thousand square feet of art, performances and culture, so don't miss out if you are in Mumbai. The space is an abandoned Godrej factory which will be demolished soon after the art event. The factory will be moved elsewhere. It is deeply relevant to the story of Mumbai and how it has grown into post-industrialization. Here are some images of the space, once the setup starts I will do my best to share photographs of the buildup.

The plan is create an interactive installation using projections, the audience and city images. It is going to be a real challenge setting up an installation outdoors, in the day time, where electricity is coming in from generators. Limited electricity means that planning and testing the installation in another location is crucial.

NID Talk

It was a healthy turnout of about 45 students, still in their first years studying Interaction Design. Talking about my work from the past six years helped me look at it in a completely different perspective, basically the breadth of different types of projects I've done, and what interested me the most. It was titled 'Mobile UX - What it's like to design and create iOS and Android apps today.'

Students were full of questions, which is a great sign. Post talk discussions brought up several interesting topics, such as power dynamics between designers and engineers in the industry today. One thing I always stress is respect - engineers are the ones implementing your work so a healthy respect goes a long way especially in large companies and situations when engineers are part of a client team. Another thing that interaction designers should strive towards, and something I struggle with everyday, is keeping up to date with the latest tech so you can converse intelligently with the team.

One of the stories I like to tell at such talks. Check out the full article here.

NID Bangalore is a R&D hub for design in India. Image Source.

The Clock

While first entering this work by Christian Marclay, I was a bit sceptical due to the expensive MoMA entry fee of $18 and then the huge 45 minute queue to watch the video. Eventually I got in and it was worth the effort. Almost calming, at times ironic and humorous this 24 hour video work pulls you in and makes you just sit and watch for a while. I managed to watch it for 30 mins the first time and 2 hrs the second time. Almost addictive and hypnotic it's amazing how accurate the film is and lovely to spot familiar scenes from favorite movies or old classics I was forced to watch in art school.

A must-watch for anyone interested in the video art side of things. Ever since I accepted the fact that I cannot enjoy art at a purely intellectual level it is much easier for me to spot things that I like versus things I don't like. It's almost crude to divide art into these groups but it is true. You either feel something when you look at a work or you just don't feel it. You can still enjoy the techniques/concept/history/context/etc. that the artist uses but eventually it doesn't matter. If you really want to become an art lover, then be honest and admit that the giant 100 yr old oil painting of a naked woman is pretty cool but doesn't do anything for you.

The Clock 2010 by Christian Marclay. Single-channel video with stereo sound. Twenty-four hours. Image Source.
Gallery Reflexive

Prajakta Palav (Dec, 2011). This caught my eye because of the way she has used the gallery floor in her work. It is intelligent and relevant, especially in these old buildings of South Mumbai that are converted into gallery spaces. What I love about this is how the work is almost indistinguishable from the gallery floor at first glance. It makes you sit up and pay attention. Here are some pictures I managed to take from my mobile phone.

Reclining Buddha Murals

These are photographs of the detailed murals that decorate the walls and windows of the Reclining Buddha temple. It exists in a much larger temple complex called the Wat Pho, which contains several hundred images of Buddha, many stupas, a huge Bodhi tree, stone statues and smaller temples. The scenes narrate the story of Buddha, and remind me of the vast murals in the Ajanta caves which are much older.

From the photos you notice that some parts of these murals look newer than others. I can only guess that these parts have been restored and touched up recently.

Shift Exhibition

Have a look at our post-graduate show Shift. This friday (9th September) is the last day so don't miss it if you're in or around Bournemouth :)

Artist Yi Lu with her paper mache world

Subconscious Form by Shiro Araki

Urban Brick by Bana Toutounjee

by Taro Morimoto

Mumbai/Bombay by Aditi Kulkarni

New Blindness by Rocco Nahas

A stretchable movie by Richard Hurst.

Be-Bee Project by Kaya J. Lee

The Ophelia Project by Samantha Else.

Out of Sight

The exhibition Out of Sight is from 17th to 24th of September from 11am to 6pm and will showcase a wide variety of artwork from multimedia installations to sculpture and drawing.

With an unused underground car park as its gallery walls, Out of Sight investigates the resilience and flexibility of art, and the need for its development with supporting communities in unorthodox circumstances: an appreciation for the otherwise overlooked in the chosen location compliments the political provocation of the role of the outsider in society and rebellion against industry precepts.

Below is a video by Michael Compton of day two of the massive clean-up of the dark, unused space.

More on Shadows

In his essay In Praise of Shadows Japanese novelist Tanizaki writes about the conflict between western and eastern aesthetics in the modern world. He says that Japanese 'find beauty not in the thing itself but in the patterns of shadows, the light and the darkness, that one thing against another creates.' He emphasizes beauty in subtlety and that which cannot be seen too clearly, leaving some of the experience to our imagination. Pallasmaa talks of something similar when he emphasizes the importance and intimacy of darkness:

The eye is the organ of distance and separation, whereas touch is the sense of nearness, intimacy and affection. The eye surveys, controls and investigates, whereas touch approaches and caresses. During overpowering emotional experiences, we tend to close off the distancing sense of vision; we close our eyes when dreaming, listening to music, or caressing our beloved ones. Deep shadows and darkness are essential, because they dim the sharpness of vision, make depth and distance ambiguous, and invite unconscious peripheral vision and tactile fantasy. (Pallasmaa, 1996, p.46).

Pallasmaa continues to say that bright lights kill our imagination whereas twilight, dimly lit spaces and foggy scenes spark our sense of mystery, the mystical and mythological. Tanizaki also mentions this sense of tranquility and calm in shadows, that which separates the inside from the outside:

Whenever I see the alcove of a tastefully built Japanese room, I marvel at our comprehension of the secrets of shadows, our sensitive use of shadow and light. For the beauty of the alcove is not the work of some clever device. An empty space is marked off with plain wood and plain walls, so that the light drawn into its forms dim shadows within emptiness. There is nothing more. And yet, when we gaze into the darkness that gathers behind the crossbeam, around the flower vase, beneath the shelves, though we know perfectly well it is mere shadow, we are overcome with the feeling that in this small corner of the atmosphere there reigns complete and utter silence; that here in the darkness immutable tranquility holds sway. (Tanizaki, 1977).

In my work there is a combination of bright light that hurts the eye and multiple shadows. Parts of the space are brighter and dimmer than others. The views of the city begin with twilight, continue to sunset and then cycle back to twilight in an endless loop. Various kind of shadows are present in the work, those that are glaring and sharp and others that are subtle and noticeable only after an amount of time spent in the space. Due to a feedback loop dim mirror versions of yourself are also visible in the walls, each a mere second after the next. The overall effect is an experience which is disconcerting as you see several shadows of yourself, the other in the walls on either side. Despite bright lights the audience cannot see the entire work because the city is fragmented with shadows. The gaps and shadows leave the final interpretation up to the audience themselves. It is an experience which aims to express the inner conflict of the city, which I call Mumbai.

Reference: Pallasmaa, J. (1996). Eyes of the Skin: Architecture and the Senses. John Wiley & Sons: UK. Sowin, J. (2006). In Praise of Shadows: A Meditation. [online]. Available from: [Accessed 17th August 2011]. Tanizaki, J. (1977). In Praise of Shadows. Leete's Island Books: USA
Post-Traumatic Urbanism

Mumbai as a city has undergone several traumatic events in the past few years. Those in my direct memory and experience are the 26/11 attacks and the painfully recent 2011 bombings. Earlier I argued that despite these tragic events the city in essence remained the same. How does a city survive these traumatic events whether they are natural flash floods or terror attacks, and in what way does it change? Today people try to understand how cities survive and evolve through math and science. As a philosophy urbanism states that cities are vitally important to the progress of humanity. In his talk The Surprising Math of Cities and Corporations, West argues that cities are both the solution and the problem, underlining their bipolarity.

And the tsunami of problems that we feel we're facing in terms of sustainability questions, are actually a reflection of the exponential increase in urbanization across the planet... However, cities,despite having this negative aspect to them, are also the solution. Because cities are the vacuum cleaners and the magnets that have sucked up creative people, creating ideas, innovation, wealth and so on. So we have this kind of dual nature. (Geoffrey West, 2011)

West explains why cities are so successful when he says 'You could drop an atom bomb on a city, and 30 years later it's surviving. Very few cities fail.' Mumbai as a city has survived several traumatic events over the past two hundred years, though nothing on such a catastrophic level. It is an ancient place that has been ruled by a succession of invaders. There is even evidence that suggest that the islands have been colonized by humans since the Stone Age. Each event in this recorded and unrecorded past have changed the landscape and its people, but I am most interested in its recent traumas.

So cities are extremely successful, bipolar creatures. But how do traumas affect them? Philosopher and critical theorist Andrew Benjamin says that 'trauma involves a more complex sense of place.' He proposes that the city contains forgotten and repressed settings that are beyond memory but always present, creating an 'estrangement' and sense of the 'unaccustomed' when such events return.

The term 'post-traumatic' refers to the evidence of the aftermath - the remains of an event that are missing. The spaces around this blind spot record the impression of the event like a scar. (Lahoud, 2010. p.19).

Cities like Mumbai and Beirut have developed in unstable uncertainty and in many ways are resilient survivors. They have adapted with 'redundant networks' and 'diversity and distribution' rather than 'centralized efficiency' which makes them flexible in the face of shocks to infrastructure (Lahoud, 2010). When it comes to events like the most recent bomb attack in 2011, the city picked up the pieces and went on the next day as if nothing had happened. Local trains continued to run. The event was given its significant narrative by the media and the places that were bombed were cleared up. Memories and the gaps created by such violence will always remain an intrinsic part of the city's architecture. But it is Mumbai's impenetrable resilience in the face of such catastrophes that fascinates me. Events such as 9/11 in a first world country completely derailed the city, but in Mumbai it was in many ways business as usual. But forgetting like we do in Mumbai does not erase the hurt.

The Diversity Machine and Resilient Network, 2009. Social Transformation Studio. Martin abbot, Georgia Abbot, Clare Johnston, Joshua Lynch and Alexandra Wright.
Anthony Burke says that the reason cities are so difficult to predict is that they are very complex systems 'growing at the edge of chaos.' Even small events can lead to avalanche-like conditions because both natural and human-made catastrophes display a self-organizing criticality or the:

...tendency of large systems with many components to evolve into a poised, `critical' state, way out of balance, where minor disturbances may lead to events, called avalanches, of all sizes. Most of the changes take place through catastrophic events rather than by following a smooth gradual path. The evolution to this very delicate state occurs without design from any outside agent. The state is established solely because of the dynamical interactions among individual elements of the system: the critical state is self-organized. Self-organized criticality is so far the only known general mechanism to generate complexity. (Per Bak, 1997, p.1).

The idea that a city is on the verge of chaos is not far from many narratives in western popular culture. The accepted line is that just one push is enough to bring the whole system crumbling down. However the theory above is not as simple as that, these systems are large and therefore extremely difficult to destroy completely. Its heartening to see that even human cities are in the end, part of nature, and follow patterns similar to natural phenomenon such as weather.

Although there are no definitive answers to what post-traumatic urbanism is the term itself raises critical questions and discussion. An often quoted statistic today is that the urban world is larger than the rural world, which underlines the importance of trying to understand urban trauma and its effect on the city and its people. In my journey to capture the essence of Mumbai, to explore unexpressed feelings of conflict created by repressed events and resolve my own perceptions and experience; it is this complexity which is central to understanding my art.

Reference: Benjamin, A. (2010). Trauma within the Walls: Notes towards a philosophy of the city. Architectural Design. Vol. 80. No.5. pp.24-31. Burke, A. (2010). The Urban Complex: Scalar probabilities and Urban Computation. Architectural Design. Vol. 80. No.5. pp.87-91. Lahoud, A. (2010). Post Traumatic Urbanism. Architectural Design. Vol. 80. No.5. pp.14-23. Per Bak. (1996). How Nature Works: The Science of Self-Organised Criticality. Copernicus Press: New York. West, G. (2011). The Surprising Math of Cities and Corporations. [online]. Available from [Accessed 2nd Aug. 2011].