Notes on Visiting Sarai, Delhi, Dec. 2003

“The high-tech is an epistemological constraint I want to escape. That’s the secret of hybridisation. The biggest hybridisation is of course the sexual encounter which you want to escape and at the same time are seduced by. Yes, epistemologic constraints seduce me because they are outside of me, while at the same time I want to escape them. This is how the game of hybridisation in my life goes on.” – Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak in interview with Geert Lovink

“Freedom… is an inherently diverse concept, which requires consideration of processes, as well as substantive opportunities.” – Amartya Sen, _Development as Freedom_

The concept of ‘manaaki’, often translated as hospitality or generosity, is central to Maori culture. Welcoming, hosting, and feeding visitors is fundamental to the mana or status of the marae (meeting house and environs) and its people. The most imposing whakairo (carvings) or spectacular tukutuku panelling count for little without the ‘ringa wera’ (‘hot hands’) of the aunties in the kitchen – or the men putting down the hangi – who magically provide for what are sometimes large and unpredictable numbers of visitors at special occasions.

For Pakeha/Europeans, there are often three stages to the experience of manaakitanga in the Maori context. The first is an overwhelming sense of amazement and gratitude. Secondly, it’s hard not to notice the contrast between that generosity and the severe *lack* of generosity evident in white representations of Maori culture. Thirdly, white culture reveals itself as somewhat bizarrely constructed of various exclusions and barriers in spite of its professed ‘openness’. [We might suggest that the West has led development of ‘technologies of freedom’ that exceed its cultural capacity to productively use them.]

There are two effects of manaaki that are equally significant. The first is the ‘ethic of care’ which is directly embodied in manaakitanga. It simply reiterates: people are worthwhile and their well-being should be paid attention to. I’m reminded of a recent presentation by Meaghan Morris, who noted that her main concern as chair of an academic department was the *physical* well-being of her staff, who were working themselves to death to meet institutional demands. This is not in her job description. It is a sad indictment of our institutional forms that these basic processes are so often neglected.

The second effect is more subtle, but important: manaaki diffracts the “neutral”, unmarked, authoritative positioning that is embedded in colonial language and culture. For there to be good hosts (tangata whenua – “people of the land”), there have to be good guests (manuhiri) – and one has no choice but to be clear on one’s role in any particular situation. These roles are however not attached to particular people immovably: under marae protocol, once the manuhiri are welcomed onto the marae and share a meal, they take on the role of tangata whenua and are expected to assume the responsibility of manaaki toward any other visitors who will arrive. Therefore, roles are always *relational*, and no-one speaks from an unsitutated position (there are also other aspects to Maori tikanga that contribute to this that remain outside the scope of this piece). The logic will be familiar to anyone associated with contemporary theories of cultural identity in the wake of Marxism.

The combined impact of feeling cared for and understanding one’s role contributes to a subjectivity where social structure and individual agency are not opposed in the same way as the ideology of European individualism. [This holistic sensibility is embodied in the formal Maori greeting “Tena koe” – which literally translates as “That’s you”. At that point of being greeted, one is recognised as a person – “one becomes who one already is” – one speaks from the position that we have no choice but to be who we are.]

I outline (and oversimplify) these processes for a reason, which is to account for the distinctive nature of conversations I have when attending hui/conferences etc. in a Maori context compared to European institutions. The wide-ranging conversations routinely integrate discussion about theoretical/ontological frameworks and real-life motivations, desires and possibilities – compared to the bounded, disciplinary dialogues that constitute much of Pakeha cultural life.

The Sarai New Media Initiative in Delhi ( is the first non-New Zealand environment I’ve encountered which facilitates dialogue in a similarly rewarding way. “Sarai” in a number of Indian languages means “a place for travellers to rest”, or “meeting place” – perhaps like a mobile marae. The twin themes of generosity and freedom of movement that the Sarai concept implies, articulated through a distinctly Indian elegance of thought, create a poetic theoretical language and a political approach which is best described as “beautiful”. Sarai’s activities apply this sensibility to the very real materialities of Delhi’s location on global circuits of capitalist exchange. They traffic, with exquisite reflexivity, between “home” and the international flows of money and information in which they are implicated. This situated perspective has the effect of “marking” other new media initiatives which (particularly in Europe and the US) attempt to make the “global” their home in some abstract way.

An example will help. The Cybermohalla project bears a passing resemblance to telecentre projects which have been a staple of ICTs-for-community-development. Computers are made available in a poor basti in Delhi, loaded with open-source tools, and young people far outside traditional educational structures participate in the labs discovering new forms of media production. But in a typical Sarai inversion, the goal is not to “train” or “educate”, but to open an opportunity for the creativity of the participants to emerge, and then travel on a broader circuit. The source of value is located in the participants rather than the facilitators, and Sarai document and disseminate the (often gripping) stories in book and web form. It is a kaupapa of exchange and circulation, rather than transmission. Against the Protestant logic of instrumentalism, where outcomes are foreclosed before exchange begins (“we” must help “them”), we are asked: “Before coming here, had you thought of a place like this?”. Agency is continually decentered, questioned. Those who seek to change must prepare to be changed themselves (Spivak), to allow the narratives of the Other to overlay and transform the narrative of the Self.

This logic – a “narrative upon narrative” that Sarai call “rescension” – operates across all their projects: art, media theory, software development. They are fluent in the language of Empire having been subjected to it all their lives. But they also draw upon languages and resources Europeans do not and cannot know. You get the feeling that their popularity in the North trades on this exoticism a little, but then novelty is the frontier currency of new media theory, and reputation capital is fleeting, so everyone makes the most of it. In any case, it makes far more sense than being a new market for European theory, which is more common. It’s all part of the mode of circulation. Like many historical trading ports, Sarai is a place of exchange, diversity, and openness.

All I really want to say about Sarai is this: Sarai is the significant centre for new media’s future. It’s a node that can potentially connect Europe’s new media initiatives to the massive social movements in Europe’s Asia-Pacific colonies (an articulation which desperately needs to be made if European conceptions of media are to remain relevant).

I know I could take to Sarai the people from whom I learn – artists in the Tino Rangatiratanga (Maori Sovereignty) movement in Aotearoa, the activists behind the Indonesian Internet Xchange, the development communications publishers in Penang – confident that they will feel welcomed, cared for, loved. This is due to Sarai’s processes as much as the substantive content of their activities. Or more precisely, the values of the Sarai continually reverberate through the organisation itself.

[I visited Sarai as a guest of UNESCO for the colloquium “Old Pathways New Travellers: New Media Arts and Electronic Music in the Asia Pacific”. I am grateful to Chaz Doherty (Tuuhoe) for discussions on manaakitanga – however the misrepresentation of the concept I present here is my own responsibility.]