Notes on the Semi-fictional Form

As a form of practice, BARD studio works with the semificional form to think about cities and places. This semi-fictional form is based on rigorous archival and field research. BARD Studio uses the artistic methods of collaging and montaging bits of material found in the field and the archive to put together a narrative on places and practices. As a form of work, the semi-fictional form is as true or untrue as any other form of work that claims an empirical and evidence based process as all empirical processes undergo editing at various levels: be it then be at the level of asking questions, taking field notes, aggregating data, etc. This is because, unlike physical sciences, the cultural fields (where social sciences and urban studies are located) do not have clear apparatuses like the microscope and the telescopes, nor clear parameters like boiling points and force equilibriums, etc. The oblique dimensions of desires, aspirations, kicks and trips, aesthetics, etc. shape the cultural fields in ways that they require oblique forms and methods to think about them. The semi-fictional form strives to be that oblique form and method. 

For example, it is easy to establish a sweeping conceptualisation that ‘the neo-liberal policies of financialising land and property brings about loss of land and property assets amongst the poor’. For proving such a conceptualisation, one can look at four things – first, the policy regime over time to establish how private financial institutions have been promoted to invest in land and property; second, the practices of state bodies, financial institutions and developers to establish how titling regimes have been regularised to ensure clean movements of finances; third, the instances of older inhabitants pushed out of their (land and property) assets on account of being either arm-twisted through regulatory or muscle powers, or through carrots of small money; and fourth, the instances of rich-people buying the land and property with clear titles to establish that the assets of the poor are now taken over by the rich. Putting these four arguments together, one can conclude that the neo-liberal processes have indeed caused loss of assets amongst the poor. In this whole argument, there are clear gainers like the financial institutions, the developers and the rich people there are clear losers like the poor and probably also the state as it is unable to ensure equity. However, when one starts looking at the material from the field and the archive, one finds many stories that makes it difficult to formulate such a conceptualisation. The archive and the field reveal many things – innumerable historic practices of financialising land and property through small and big lenders; a variety of evidences that make the titles so blurred that it is not possible to regularise them; instances of developers shifting away from property development and moving into other areas like providing internet or establishing retail shops, or even committing suicide; more instances of one set of poor people (usually older inhabitants) evicting the other (usually the newer inhabitants or renters) than the financial institutions and developers; instances of older inhabitants becoming landlords and squeezing the newer ‘richer’ inhabitants through excessive rents and property prices; etc. When such material emerges, it is not possible to make the sweeping conceptualisations and more. BARD Studio argues that in all urban processes, sweeping conceptualisations are not possible and further, that such sweeping conceptualisations are only possible by suppressing one material from the other. And these suppressions happen through methodological frameworks that are empirically mobilised – like the types of questions asked, the frameworks used, etc. Moreover, the material from the field is also procured, read and edited based on the relationship one has with the field. BARD Studio does considers the field and archive as an extension to one’s own life and habitation. Here the relationship with other habitants is that of friendship and compassion and therefore it becomes difficult to treat friends as objects of research and conceptualise their existences. Furthermore, BARD Studio is interested in asking first questions – How did the first owner become owner of land and property? Why is the practice of paying commission to agents and touts considered of lower value than paying commissions to state agencies and other formal organisations? When was there no ‘corruption’ in public projects? etc. A philosophical inquiry into such questions creates more difficulties in making sweeping conceptualisations. The first ideas (of ownership, commission, value, etc.) are themselves destabilized and there appears no relevance in discussing phenomenon through them. For this reason, in the studies of land, BARD Studio aims at layering the non-propertied relationships of human beings with land that may give a thicker sense of practices and phenomenon. 

While the critique of conventional research methods and forms of empirical research are at the core of mobilising the semi fictional form, there are four other reasons to undertake this: first, the collage and montage form helps in stitching together incoherence without being bothered about gaps that can be filled through research based conjecture – here, depending upon the the space of argument, one could alter the collage and montage. It is possible to create extremely incoherent discussions and extremely coherent ones with similar material. The agency of the researcher is much more than being neutral here. Second, the work becomes available for all kinds of audiences – it provides readability to casual readers looking for fiction and gossip, to academics engaged with conceptual experiments, as well as serious scholars of urbanity. Thirdly, it does not allow a techno-legal hijack of the narrative where people’s lives are threatened. Most urban and social science studies texts are written as if one is arguing in a court of law with the writer being responsible for the burden of proof. Such writings easily lend themselves for a technolegal hijack. It is not difficult to find academic works that are used in courts of law. In one instance a detailed political economy based work on an informal plastic recycling neighbourhood was used in the court of law to prove the illegalities and environmental hazards that the practices of recycling produces and pushing the court to order an eviction of all such recycling enterprises. It would not have been possible to use a semi-fictional work for such a purpose. And fourthly, and engagement with the urban is also an engagement of joy and pleasure. The practice semi-fiction is an artistic practice that is conscious of this and engages with the urban to produce joy – not only for the researcher, but also for the audience.