The Art of Interaction: Bombay Arts by Vishal Rawlley

We patiently wait in queue as a group of hushed whispers decides on what to speak into a mobile handset. Following their gaze, we look up in anticipation as a giant LED star suspended in front of a church in Panjim blinks back in response. A sense of awe, and a fit of giggles later, everyone disperses as we step up to our turn. Amidst the installations at The Story of Light Festival held in Panjim in 2015, this installation was where one had to ‘call’ the Star and engage with a quiz on light. It piqued interest and curiosity, all the while making place for urban engagement.


The man behind the curtain, Vishal Rawlley is a new-media artist, the founder of Bombay Arts and one of Super Studio. In the span of his young career, he has worn many hats; as a dropout from a B.A. programme with an inclination towards creative arts and aptitude for science and technology, as a storyboard artist for feature films, of a documentary filmmaker, an illustrator for publications, a graphic and web designer – an exciting furtherance gained in the unconditional avenues of Mumbai.

“The city,” he mentions, “was my real learning ground. I learned from street artists and local craftspersons like signboard painters, film poster painters, silk screen printers, automobile decorators, etc. I started with documenting their work and collaborating with them. Through them I learned production techniques and industrial processes that I employed in my work as well. But more importantly I learned about the culture and context of these urban art and craft practices. I read a lot of design and media theory, but it was my engagement with the city that made me realise the meaning and application of what I read. This is why my research work and experimental work is clubbed under the banner of Bombay Arts.”

About the images above: The panels here are panels from a sample comic book inspired by film poster painting and calendar art styles.

There is a sort of newness in this approach, a learning instigated by experience (vis-à-vis formal education) which seems visible in the area of his work that we find the most intriguing – public art projects. Revelatory, this work deviates from this ‘museum-esque’ notion of art that we behold conventionally.

“Much of Public Art I see around,” he mentions, “are just dominating forms imposing themselves on public spaces: a cubist sculpture at a prominent intersection, an abstract installation in a public park, a surreal mural on a massive façade… These are just examples of assertion of authority by the dominant classes. They strike awe and wonder and leave you feeling small. You cannot touch them or embellish them. They invite no participation from you and they are not interested in your opinion of them.

I like public art to be in a form that it feels like it belongs to the local space. But it certainly should not be mundane. It should have an element of spectacle and magic. It should invite you to participate and partake in that joy. The artist becomes very vulnerable when s/he puts out this offering and people can choose to reject it or engage with it.”

About the images & video above: boat@hauz and burak@hauz – Interactive public art installations on the hauz-i-shamsi. They were put up during the Phool Walon ki Sair annual fest around the pond. These installations light up when a given number is called and every time you speak into the phone.

Involved lighting up a floating installation shaped as a Buraq (a winged horse associated as a mythical legend to the pond) with the visitors’ voices, activated through a Skype ID annotated to the pond! Composed of tin obtained from a manufacturing facility of air-coolers and trunk boxes, it was structured rather instinctively than calculations to be ‘buoyant and stable’. In the making, Vishal says, “For the interactive part I used Skype and then mobile phones. I experimented with different circuits, long range wireless switching, call recording software to capture the voice interaction, etc. But the most challenging was figuring out the power source for the floating electronics. Eventually solar charged batteries proved to be the best solution. Fixing the installation in the middle of the pond was also a big challenge. It required me to swim in the water while towing the installation. I anchored it by tying it to a big stone that I dropped into the water.”


The repertoire now organised within verticals of Bombay Arts – Public Art, Popular Culture, multidisciplinary Workshops – gradually developed with access explored to research grants for documenting urban culture and street art, fellowships, arts residencies. Other than this, the work is self-funded by commercial work in the domains of new-media, video, photography and design that Vishal undertakes with his partner Abhinandita Mathur under the banner of Super Studio.

And occasionally, the project broadens the agenda. For instance, the floating installation on the Hauz-i-Shamsi, an 800-year-old reservoir in Mehrauli Delhi cultivated a newfound respect and popularity which ‘egged on the authorities to take the required steps for the pond’s restoration.’

Loosely bound by a penchant to usher in these kind of conversations, the work of Bombay Arts recapitulates on deeper roots – in cultural engagements, in local idioms and vernacular iconography, prevalent in the street aesthetic, of social issues, and above all, the emerging flux from Vishal’s own sense of adventure, ‘jugaad and DIY techniques’ and the conversations he seeks with people to reimagine the expression of art in an urban space. One dwells upon concerns such as housing or documentations of TyPoCiTy archiving rare instances of typography in public spaces in Mumbai or fun projects dealing with film posters, comics or hoardings.

About the images above: typocity a-z and typocity-art-deco is an alphabet chart and a font design respectively – inspired by the typefaces found around Bombay city. These are from the TypoCity project.


Of course, such projects are rarely plausible where creative work is often dictated by a client’s aspirations and convictions. But Vishal manipulates the slightest of possibilities to break through the mould of “comfort zone of POS danglers and standees with stupid slogans and stock imagery.” An EventBot – a robot that acts as a mobile branding unit; an automated kiosk that uses sensors and augmented reality and video screens that react to voice commands have been the outcomes of such manoeuvres.

Here, creativity drives the potential to strengthen connections between people, technology and spaces and to spark that extra sense of merriment for some and for some, thought.

Especially, tangents that emerge like these:  “Today it has come to be that the purpose of design and media is only to serve the purpose of advertising, publicity and promotions; or to fashion a purposeful product; or for embellishment and decoration. This is how design and media is even taught in schools and colleges. However the great power these tools have are to create an inter-communication, to connect people with ideas, to promote imagination. In the context of an urban setting these can be very important devices in creating a dialogue about our shared space and our common future. We have to be able to look at our tools and our training and use it beyond just function; we should be able to shape dreams and create possibilities.”

As work to look forward to, one can look out for snippets of an ongoing project with the working title of Panjim Love chronicling the beautiful and derelict layers of the city. Also, check out Bombay Arts and Super Studio

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