Somnath Bhatt on intuition, labour, and relinquishing individuality
The multidisciplinary designer and artist advocates for the peer-to-peer model of designing and explains how decolonisation of the field cannot be taken lightly.
9 November 2020
Somnath Bhatt’s work reveals itself as a sea of pixels. The rules familiar to many are replaced by a different lineage. His symbolism is not merely intellectual or referential, but deeply emotional and intimate. Disembodied arms float above a sea of powder, signifiers for humans are repeated, their gestures pointing to a maze that sprout like fungal roots. Though distinctly unique, he is in no rush to claim this imagery to be his. Rather, the works that are most meaningful to him come from a peer-to-peer model of designing and making.
“I am blessed with very kindred and generous collaborators – like two planets in the same orbit. I always enjoy when my work finds unlikely audiences!” Somnath tells It’s Nice That. Things have changed since we last wrote about Somnath on the site. “I ended a fellowship at the Walker Art center, left a two-year relationship, moved across the country, joined a union and worked with the fashion designer Hyein Seo on her SS21 collection. I took writing more seriously and conducted a lot of interviews for The Gradient,” he says speaking of Walker Art Center’s now-defunct publication. “It feels fun to be interviewed by It’s Nice That in return.”
Over a summer that drastically changed the working patterns of design studios, students and freelancers, it was perhaps prime time for the designer to reconsider what the industry should be. Somnath questions the sustainability of doing design work as a field that has been intensely professionalised and “thoroughly implicated in empire,” criticising design institutions and design media for being too invested in glorifying individual successes. “Hyper-individuality sucks. It makes designers so territorial about revealing their processes and we fixate on showing glossy surfaces and art-directed imagery,” he explains. Part of this issue, he says, comes from the race by designers to claim an aesthetic as new or original rather than acknowledging their peers and predecessors.
“Unless I work corporate full time or have generational wealth, being a designer is very unstable and anxiety-inducing,” Somnath says, having had to defer his enrolment to RISD because his parents could not afford the tuition. “The gig economy is a scam and I need health insurance in this pandemic.” He notes that his criticism shouldn’t be taken as accusations either, but rather as reflections on the status quo and a “kind of a concerned letter to a loved one.”
In working through the issues that he outlines, Somnath manages to find moments that are truly meaningful and experience collaborations that are intensely intimate. “I really advocate a peer-to-peer model of designing and making,” he says. “The hierarchies of client and designer were broken down. I anticipate more of this egalitarian energy in 2021 with collaborators, artistic or otherwise.”
When it comes to his projects, Somnath wants to enact a polyamory of formats, himself bubbling with ideas. Recently, he’s looking to destabilise platforms, bringing in ideas like migration, nomadism, gardening, displacement and cyclical rebuilding into the collective process. “I think a lot about how we share streaming service platforms. Can we also share Creative Cloud passwords? I can’t afford it,” he says.
One recent project was his collaboration with musician Nicolás Jaar for his project Telas. “Nico encouraged our collaborator Abeera Kamran and I to have an abundant belief in our own intuition. He welcomed all intensities of feeling, which became a way to make creative decisions,” Somnath says of the collaboration which took over two years to complete. The project manifested in three interconnected outputs: the album artwork, the website and the music. Throughout the process, the three worked with unfinished music, trusting the process rather than envisioning an end goal. “The processes of musical composition and design iteration were parallel, interwoven and occasionally cyclical,” Somnath describes.
Looking back, he mentions that it’s difficult to retrace these steps coherently. “Since the process was so purposefully intuitive, it seems futile to decode it in a purely analytical mindset. There is a world beyond ours that is out of reach, but also nearby and invisible,” he explains. “Every part of the process felt meaningful. There was even poetry in how Abeera, Nicolás and I saved the files.”
This nonhierarchical process, and the visual language that Somnath prefers also asks questions to designers in the Western design sphere. “How can we give the same aesthetic and cultural individuation, acknowledgement and articulation to art and design movements that are non-Western and from the Global South?” he presses. He gives an astute example: references to Paris and Copenhagen evokes so much cultural specificity in the collective subconscious of designers, but does the same distinction occur at the mention of Dhaka, Senegal or Jakarta? “My friend Elias Chen once asked whether it is possible to ‘decolonise’ professional fields like accounting or finance. I feel a similar skepticism when designers are too eager to ‘decolonise’ their studio practices or pedagogy.” When decontextualised from the abolition of imperialism, he says, decolonisation “becomes its own scam,” recommending the essay Decolonisation is Not A Metaphor by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang as a reading to better understand this point.
Looking into the future, Somnath tells us that he’s keen on seeing “the intersection of graphic design, labour and craft” unfold. He also wants to see more discussions on career mentorship in terms of how to make enough money to survive, as well as the exploration of design history and visual culture of the Global South. “All creation implicates ourselves, because everything we make involves self-making.”
About the Author
Alif joined It's Nice That as an editorial assistant from September to December 2019 after completing an MA in Digital Media at Goldsmiths, University of London. His writing often looks at the impact of art and technology on society.