Thoughts on Modern Indian Subculture & Then Some: The Kadak Collective

I met three of the members of the recently formed Kadak Collective at an event in London a couple of weeks ago, and immediately knew that their work would be a great fit for the readers of this website, given how innovatively these women are interpreting modern Indian culture through their art. They have distinct styles of work, and are learning by doing as they work towards the East London Comic Art Festival in June, where they will be showcasing some of their collaborations. I highly recommend that you check out their individual portfolios as much as their collaborative work. They kindly agreed to answer a few questions for me on art, culture and their relationship to the web today. Reading the interview below is like listening to a segment of the very tuned-in, opinionated and talented population of today's India, though in this case they are distributed across both India and the UK. I trust you will emerge both entertained and informed. 

The Kadak Collective are: 

Aindri Chakraborty (London)

Akhila Krishnan (London)

Janine Shroff (London)

Aarthi Parthasarathy (Bangalore)

Garima Gupta (Mumbai)

Pavithra Dikshit (Mumbai)

Kaveri Gopalakrishnan (Bangalore)

Mira Malhotra (Mumbai)

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Kadak Collective uses art to reflect your 'preoccupations with a changing subcontinent'. In your words, what are these changes and why are they interesting or important to capture through your art?

Aindri: For me, the changing subcontinent is the parallel one that is happening online; the one without physical borders. For example, I made a comic about Sandra Hassan, whose app I’m Alive happened to come up on my Twitter feed. I’m Alive was built by a Lebanese developer living in Paris, petrified about the wellbeing of her family back in Beirut in the face of constant bombing in 2014. This story became a comic by an Indian illustrator living in London, which is me. Reaching out to her and drawing out her story was such an amazing experience, even though we do not speak the same language. I can imagine that this parallel world can be a positive, collaborative environment for the subcontinent. 

Mira: I think each of us have different preoccupations and that's what makes this so interesting. To be very honest, Indians are everywhere. I grew up in the Gulf, so many of the families I knew moved on to Canada and the U.S.A. My chachi grew up in the Fiji Islands. When I was in the Gulf, I identified strongly with being Indian as I was placed next to a Saudi, a Filipino, a Lebanese, etc. When we eventually arrived to live in India for the first time, I found myself unable to define who I was because I had no measure to define myself, I wasn’t Indian anymore in India as such, in fact I felt like an outsider. I think a lot of the work in Kadak is different just because of its identity. The collective is interesting to me because it offers not only a South Asian viewpoint but also that of young women and girls who are fighting and compromising all at once, the traditional notions of who they are ‘supposed’ to be versus who they want to be.

Pavithra: One of the preoccupations which is important ­would be having a point of view which is not essentially feminist or women-oriented but it comes from observations of women and that’s something we all have in our practice.

Kaveri: I find it most interesting to question the backdrops and ‘roots’ that we each align ourselves to, knowingly or unknowingly. I had a greater sense of what my ‘Indian’ identity was when I met people from different parts of the world at a residency in the School of Visual Arts. It changed the way I looked at the topics I unconsciously gravitated toward, and perhaps previously looked at more superficially because I took for granted the cultural norms of the place I’m from: broadly between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu in South India, entirely English­-speaking, living on a farm for most of my growing years. I’m curious about balancing this mix of Western influence in South Asian subcultures, and how it reflects in each of our works the moment we placed ourselves as a ‘South Asian collective of women making visual narratives’. There are so many grey areas and questions in all our visual representations in Kadak that I’m curious to explore.

Aarthi: There’s so much that’s changing in the subcontinent right now - socially, culturally, politically. As artists, observing, documenting, commenting on and shaping the world around us is what we do, that’s the power and reach of art. It’s important to respond to the world around us, and engage with different kinds of story­telling and image­making, to encourage multiplicity of thought and opinion.

Garima: I feel that­ this, right now and here, is a very interesting slice of time/space. It’s a time in the subcontinent that is so visibly and vastly different from the past few generations. We, more specifically women, are beginning to talk about things which traditionally had a pre­defined place, namely under the carpet. This shift of thoughts and the space it provides for dialogues/art is very interesting.

Akhila: I think that the world is changing in unimagined ways through the spread of communication – especially mobile phones and the internet. I used to be the biggest sceptic about their impact, but I am coming around now. India is especially interesting because we just became independent in 1947 – about 70 years ago (69 to be precise)­, which frames this larger international change within an interesting context. Technology is driving and raising questions of access – both in terms of accountability of the government in providing access to basic amenities of food and water, and also access to stories of how people in different parts of the country live. As a practitioner, I make a lot of work that might be fictionalised, but is rooted in real events and facts from newspapers and the like. The fact that I can access them in the first place, and the research I can do online – both in terms of finding my stories and being inspired (by other practitioners from around the world) about how I can further shape them, has fundamentally changed my practice. These stories are also important to tell in our own personal ways, because as creative practitioners we can express things in ways that are shareable – even if some people feel that our work does not speak for them. But these stories represent this slice of time now, these questions we are trying to answer.

At the end of the day I am Indian, though I might live in London for work now. I tell these stories to understand who I am and where I come from, to remember my childhood, to celebrate my parents (who have seen India change from a country where it was hard to get a colour TV and a telephone, to one where you can call an autowallah on his mobile, in the span of their lifetime) and to also understand and negotiate my own experiences growing up as the daughter of a naval officer – who never lived in any city longer than 5 years. London is in fact, the longest I have lived in one city and I am not sure it will ever feel completely like home. This tension is a big part of my work: the perpetual feeling of an outsider looking in.

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What are the most useful tools and services (online or offline) that you use as designers and creative people in general?

Aindri: Medium, Twitter, Tumblr, Dropbox, Gimp, Blender

Janine: Photoshop, Illustrator, Indesign, Google Drive, WeTransfer, Canon S100

Mira: Facebook, Flipboard, Illustrator, Photoshop, Indesign, Dropbox and a Nikon DSLR

Pavithra: Analogue - Pencils, Pens, Nibs, Inks, Paints, Papers, Scissors, Glue, Washi Tape among others. Digital - dobe Creative Suite, Instagram, Google Drive, Medium, Snapchat

Kaveri: Analogue - Pencils, Black Brushpen, Watercolors, Coloured Inks, Markers and varied traditional drawing materials. Digital - Photoshop, iPhone, Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, Google Drive

Aarthi: Twitter, Google, Facebook, Word, Photoshop, Illustrator, FinalCutPro, Adobe Premiere, Canon 5D, GoPro, black pens (lots of them)

Garima: Instagram, Medium, Vimeo, Pinterest

Akhila: Analogue - my scanner (!), ephemera I have collected through the years, my journal(s). Digital - my Facebook feed (I read articles posted by a few friends whose perspectives I respect – a curated feed in some ways – this is a big way in which I find stuff), news websites – The Guardian, Homegrown.in, Tehelka (pre-Tejpal trial), Instagram, Dropbox. For inspiration - The Art of the Title (since it perfectly reflects my interests in moving image and illustration), books. I’m ON all on the time – sometimes it feels exhausting.

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What is your opinion on the increasing use of technology and social media in the subcontinent ­ with such a large young population, how do you think they can be used or are being used positively and are there any examples of this you can mention?

Aindri: I am eagerly looking forward to The Suppressed Anger of the Pakistani Obedient Daughter by Ayesha Tariq getting published. I came across her last month and right now her story for me is everything! I really like the candid language in the book and I can relate to her making work after a fight with the family.

Mira: I see young people who ordinarily weren’t the sort to be bothered about news - politics etc. - gaining access to the same pretty easily via technology and writing about it, being articulate about it, being informed, being opinionated, with a very well­-considered POV. Supposedly silly but powerful things like memes, bite-sized news (easier to read than the everyday tome that is the newspaper), apps like Flipboard and the ability to choose what is of interest to you, (personally I am relieved to be able to choose media that gives me relevant news, not information about some celeb's post-­baby body) has made a huge difference. Examples are blogs like The Ladies Finger, @AmbaAzad’s crowdsourced online list of open­minded gynaecologists Gynaecs We Trust (which helped me find a non-­judgmental gynaecologist and really take care of my health). Also Spoilt Modern Indian Women’s memes are hilarious and gender role-defying.

Pavithra: Technology has given us access to a large set of people who are expressing their views online. The pros are that more individual voices are being found and heard. Even the introverts have a way to be out there without feeling shy. And a lot of walls are crumbling between nations and communities as people befriend others very easily. Examples are Humans of New York and Ai Wei Wei expressing the suffering and real stories of refugees. Their style of journalism is far more powerful than regular media channels and that’s the future.

Kaveri: We’re all still excited and unsure about how to use technology. It’s a privilege now to pick the kind of information that you want to receive: following the news and current events through informed choices, and taking a step back when it comes to sensationalisation. Micro­blogging on Instagram and Tumblr (which I do a lot of, and have discovered so many people from various fields and interests in) has so much scope: it can give anyone a voice. Particularly in Asia (or at least India, which is what I can attest to), we have grown up with SO much knowledge of Western cultural norms, current affairs and popular culture - it’s important that there’s more of a mix out there now, that we can take charge and speak up and make content and feel represented.

Aarthi: Technology and social media have really changed everything in the last few years, ­ especially with the production and consumption of visuals. Like Mira said, it’s made a lot of people engage with things around them, and express their opinions and reactions easily. We also have to bear in mind that it’s not all positive -­ we’ve seen social media being used for propaganda, to incite and provoke violence, to quash debate. But some examples of positive developments are ­the public reaction after the 2012 Delhi gangrape incident - the kind of questioning, debate, inquiry around the issues of gender and feminism that exploded into national consciousness at the time; the kind of art/visuals/memes that are taking on politics and current affairs in the country now; the anti­-establishment debates around student politics that social media helps bring to the forefront now (a lot of this is not covered in mainstream media).

Garima: Social platforms have definitely given voice to several important conversations that would have otherwise never reached even a fraction of their audience in the real world. Last year I got really interested in podcasts and stories from across the world. I followed both seasons of Serial and really binged on This American Life. I have a newly-found respect for non-­fiction narratives and their potential impact.

Akhila: As I said before, I think this is a great thing. I’ve heard of friends doing online dating through apps like Tinder or OkCupid in India now, and I think this is wonderful. I wish it was around when I was living and working in India. It might sound like a silly thing to say – but ideas of access and choice are a big thin. I love the link Mira sent through (Gynaecs we Trust) – just the idea that that represents, about having a safe online community that you can ask for advice you would not be able to ask those around you – represents a powerful thing. Especially for women.

When I was growing up, I felt everyone but me had control over my body, and this allows women to take that control back. This ability to create a safe community – I know there is a lot of chaff to separate out from the wheat, but at least you can walk into the field now. I also think the fact that all this can be done on phones, that we have phones to call people if we are in trouble, is big. I didn’t get a mobile till I was 21 in India - no wonder my parents were worried about me when I had to travel alone. These ways in which technology is giving us choices is what I think is most powerful.

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If there was one person or organisation anywhere in the world you would work with if you could, who would they be?

Aindri: Darth Vader. JK. 

Janine: I think Darth might have a good recruitment policy and incentives on the Death Star. Do I need to choose an organisation? I don’t think about organisations in aspirational terms. I might work with them as an obligation to survive, not so much as a dream realised. I’d like to own a small island with a private plane and wifi and do drawings there full time. Person: Neil Gaiman?

Mira: The Beastie Boys and Bikini Kill. But one of the Beastie Boys is dead. Sigh.

Pavithra: Organisation: No idea. Person: Henri Matisse or Amrita Sher­Gil, both who are unfortunately dead. Or Maria Popova of Brain Pickings.

Kaveri: I’d like to self­-publish/produce ideally, or work with someone like Maria Popova on a platform like Brain Pickings.

Aarthi: Would love to work with Kate Beaton, Molly Crabapple, Ta­Nehisi Coates. I’d love to work with Indian museums (on Indian art history), with the Organic Farmers Association of India, and Chimurenga (Aindri put me on to their work, love what they do).

Garima: Jane Goodall / David Attenborough / Tim Laman (I generally drift towards those involved with conservation work).

Akhila: Michael Haneke, UVA, Dark Horse Comics, Forensic Architecture, The Gagosian Gallery, Commissioners of the 9/11 short films...but this is just nit-picking, I’ve been privileged to have worked with some amazing people and institutions in my work life so far, especially in London.

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As cultural commentators, what is your favourite piece of art, technology or design today that reflects modern society and why do you like it?

Aindri: The New York Times blogs, especially Abstract Sunday by Christoph Neimann and And the Pursuit of Happiness by Maira Kalman. I am really interested in data visualisation and the investigative approach to visual storytelling, which is where both these illustrators excel in terms of retaining the human approach to curiosity.

Janine: My work is more emotion-based and less data-led. So inspiration comes from all sides, and gleaned from a variety of ever changing sources: conversations, friends, Gchat rants, Facebook feeds, design blogs, news online and offline, TV and the net.

Mira: I have to say I’m in love with Google Cardboard and the whole idea of Virtual Reality: how alternate realities are presented to temporarily replace one’s own. We’ve always talked about this happening and now it actually is. When I first experienced it, I thought I wouldn’t really feel or experience anything that much except the fascination for the 3D, but the 360-degree viewability felt like I was actually living in the gameplay which both excited and terrified me. Also the fact that Google has produced a tiny, cheap DIY cardboard flat-pack VR viewing device was exciting. Mainly because I was surprised my VR viewer was made out of the most traditional medium - paper - and it was so accessible as opposed to the Playstation and Oculus etc. I think as a modern society we love escapism, and this is truly the ultimate affordable escape.

Pavithra: My work is influenced by being actively engaged online, from books and magazines I’m reading and from bringing discipline in my life. A fair bit also comes from trying to figure out my identity in the chaos of everything.

Kaveri: Things that are translations of emotional responses. Multimedia artist Swoon floated giant debris ­rafts down the Hudson river post-Hurricane Katrina, in a fantastical response to real conditions. It references poor coastal communities that are most vulnerable to rising seas, and being in ‘Submerged Motherlands’, the space she created, took me right to the aftermath of tsunami that hit Chennai in 2004. It was disconcerting and odd, and I had mixed feelings - seeing the entire homes and lives of people swirling around a ragged tree that reached (almost) through the roof...

Aarthi: Hmm. That’s a tough question. And Mira’s answer is spot on -­ 3D visualization and filmmaking is really intriguing and the possibilities are fascinating. I feel platforms like Twitter and Wikipedia are amazing pieces of technology that reflect modern society as it stands, complete with its collaborative approach, speed and messiness ­.I’ve learned so so much from them.

Akhila: I wouldn’t say there is one thing. In my other life, I work in video design for theatre and performance, and I would say that it is work in that world (of live experience) that represents the best works in modern art and design today. This is because they are run by incredibly complex modern systems (servers, projectors, programming consoles, new bespoke software) in technology that didn’t exist a decade ago, but they work because they are experienced live. And performance as an art and craft is hundreds of years old. It’s that combination of the new and the old; of experience, performance and design, of working live, that’s just breath­taking. Works like Rain Room by Random International, The Encounter by Simon McBurney, Night Train by Katie Mitchell and Leo Warner. As an Indian storyteller hoping to work in a modern and provocative way, I would say Until the Lions by Akram Khan was one of the most wonderful pieces I saw this year. I wish I could make something like it.

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Could you share some of you work, especially the early ones which as I understand were largely based on your personal experiences - and tell us a little bit about them?

Aindri: I have a publication on Medium called There Was a Brown Crow

My Green Period is a comic about my positive experience of using the menstrual cup. The comic encompasses my earliest memory with menstruation, the outlook to menstruation around me, why the menstrual cup can or cannot be the answer in developing countries like India, the environmental impact of feminine hygiene products and lastly an enlightening conversation I might have had with my vagina.

Janine: Lesbians Riding Ponies is a piece based on the idea of an imagined Gay­uptopia (or Gaytopia) but without the idealised blue skies and rainbows. It is also partly a visual diary of my life over the past 2 years, with friends, relationships and culture. Gaytopia is a fun land but storm clouds appear on the horizon and changes might already be happening from within. The Ponies refers jokingly to the ‘lesbian and horses’ stereotype and plays with that concept a little.

Mira: Bai Bye is a piece on Indian working women who are forgotten by upper classes of society, seen all the time, but rarely remembered, and mostly taken for granted. The Kaamwaali Bai has a unique and difficult job unfamiliar to those outside of the country. She has many bosses, mostly women, of higher classes than she. She is always rushing through her work, consisting of hard domestic labour, to get to another household where she repeats the process. The piece is a light hearted view on this working woman’s struggles, but by making her a subject, is also valuing her as a working woman whose job is usually thankless and hectic.

Pavithra: I participated in the global #100DayProject where I worked on my daily experiences as a home gardener. Having a fairly large terrace garden in the city of Bombay has been like a utopia for me. It goes way back to my roots as my nanaji (mother’s father) was a farmer and my father has loved his roses in red, pink and white displayed around the house. I was born in Chennai and in my then house, my father would grow as many vegetables in the backyard as imaginable. It was his favourite pastime, apart from taking our dog for a walk. It is obvious that these traits would pass down to me. Some parts of the project can be viewed here.

Kaveri: Before You Step Out is a short graphic story I wrote about parallels. I found a surprising ease and comfort in the darkness and silence of walking in a pitch black forest in a rural area, and compared it to the fears of walking down the roads of my hip young neighbourhood in the city after sundown. I narrated real experiences, and found myself questioning what our idea of security is, what urban women in India think about drawing lines between personal and public space, and finally back to my own insecurities and comfort zones, coming from growing up in both the farm and the city.

Aarthi: Royal Existentials is a weekly webcomic that I started a year and a half ago. It uses Indian vintage imagery, especially miniature paintings, to tell stories of contemporary social and political angst. The comic started after a lot of churning and thinking about different issues, both online and offline. Each strip in this comic reacts to a specific incident. Without naming people specifically, it tries to link personal, existential philosophical dilemmas within the larger political sphere.

Akhila: I’ve still not got a good enough online presence I think – documentation is not my strong suite, but my comic commissions for Manta Ray comics that were published by Live Mint in their newspaper, are pieces I am very proud of. I wrote and drew the pieces, and used them to talk about things that were on my mind. Here are two pieces: 21:30 (IST) – my comic about Skyping with my grandmother and negotiating the fact that I live away from my family and Ritual Transfiguration, a piece about the horrors of acid attacks.

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What are you working on right now that you're most excited about? 

Aindri: I am excited to go home to India right now to sift through and document all my junk­ - partly because I want to find those objects that actually inspired me into illustration, or shaped how I look at things around me. This is inspired by the conversations we are having at Kadak, what comes out of it will hopefully be more illustration/visual work.

Janine: Actually Aindri's suggestion of getting a table at ELCAF coincidentally came at a time when I was debating/struggling to try to illustrate and write a series of short stories I’ve been told by my great grand-aunt about the various Parsis in the family. Another thing I’m looking forward to is a ‘warm up’ comic about silly superstitions or myths collected from acquaintances & a large painting about abortion.

Mira: I’m working on two zines for the ELCAF table, independent of the additional Kadak zine that we are creating as a collective and am awfully excited about it, because it’s the first time I’m taking authorship and self­-publishing this seriously. I seriously hope I’m good at it. I’m the graphic designer of the bunch and run my own studio. My own work has always been more focussed on commercial viability as a result, and my aesthetic has evolved from that and has disproportionately been my focus for a long time. I love this diversification of my skills. Fingers crossed.

Pavithra: A couple of things actually. I’ve been working on this project where I make a salad to eat and re­create it with paper every week (view here). This has been hugely challenging and fruitful for me as an artist and graphic designer - to not only make the salad a fabulous mouthful of texture but also make it look splendid in design; which is coming together into a little journal for ELCAF. 

Kaveri: I’m excited about putting together the UrbanLore zine with Aarthi, and taking time off (finally) to generate more content for that. It’s been an exhausting 8 months of client projects and diving into more comics work has made me really re-look at priorities. I’ve been working on a graphic novel with Garima for young adults based in Goa, about the experiences of growing up; talking about life after death, early sexuality and so on. I’m also (literally) examining hairy issues for a comic story I’m writing in the 2016 Indo-German issue of SPRING Magazin. It’s a lot of sitting at the drawing board, and back and forth discussions with collaborators, and so much questioning and re-looking at my own practice. Good pain, like the rare occasion that I wax in summer.

Aarthi: The ELCAF Kadak zine is very exciting, and is in the works right now. And I’m also working on a Royal Existentials zine, and a zine on the webcomic UrbanLore (with Kaveri Gopalakrishnan) for the festival. Other than that individually, I’ve been working with Parvathy Baul, a singer/­storyteller of the Baul (folk) tradition from West Bengal, and have been shooting with her and other Baul singers on a project with Ekathara Kalari, her gurukul. I’ve also been working on a comic project with Shalaka and Chaitanya from Falana Films (our studio) on sexual harassment, with Breakthrough, a Delhi­-based NGO.

Garima: I have been working on a graphic novel for the past one year (and possibly the coming few too). This is my first independent research/long­-form narrative project and I’m equal parts excited and nervous. The book is an account of my personal journey on the island of Papua New Guinea, attempting to see the elusive Birds of Paradise and documenting stories of conservation in the region.

Akhila: I am excited about the ELCAF zine and all the things we are discussing for it. It’s wonderful to work with such a team of 8 amazing women. I am learning a lot just through our long conversations, especially about the many different perspectives with which we all look at things. Apart from that, ELCAF is giving me the opportunity to produce 3 of my works (which would otherwise be languishing in my flat and are also offline) in a zine format, which I think it a good exercise for me. One of these, Ten Past Midnight, is a graphic novella involving stitching as well. I’ve only made one copy of it, so I excited to produce it as an edition.

Individually, I am in development for a theatre show based on Sampat Pal and the Gulaabi Gang, that will hopefully open in India and the UK next year. I am excited about that, as I will be working on the overall visual language of the show (set and video design).

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How the members of Kadak Collective know each other

How the members of Kadak Collective know each other

What are all of you hoping to get out of this collaboration as individuals?

Aindri: I am excited to see my comics in print as self published books/zines. It is something I have never had the courage to do before and it’s amazing to be doing that in the company of very talented people. Also I realised that many within our collective have never met before but are familiar with each other’s digital footprints. It is very exciting to see collaboration translate out of a Google Drive.

Janine: It’s nice not working in isolation, and equally nice to show work at ELCAF. Beyond that, I think it’s just having a community of other creatives and makers, possible collaborations and being inspired and goaded to do work. I’ve been following everyone in Kadak for a while so it feels pretty organic on the whole.

Mira: It’s just really cool to be with women artists who are so smart and talented, I’m in awe actually. I’m looking to learn and also see how the whole trans-geographical communication works in real time. So it would be

1) to learn

2) to gain some exposure and

3) get that awesome rush when you can pull it off!

Pavithra: For me, Kadak is like a community and support system of sharp women who are not afraid to speak their mind and share their opinions. Having deeply admired all of the others, I feel grateful to be sharing some space in the future with them. I’m super excited about showcasing my work and gaining exposure. Also this is opening doors for collaborations which is something I’m totally excited about.

Kaveri: My first thoughts for Kadak were: YES. I get to work with all these people. This is what I’ve been working toward since I started freelancing in 2013! I’m enjoying the really open­-minded, cut­and-­chop­-it-­up and examining approach that we follow with our email threads and WhatsApp conversations. We all seem to really get all into discussion, thrash things out, and talk about each other's work in a thoughtful space. Apart from the common threads in our work, and the parallels, the nostalgia, salads, bais, royals, angst and wilderness: I’m excited about evolving together.

Aarthi: Kadak is a collection of amazing women, and I’m learning so much about them and their work, which has been very enriching. I’m personally hoping for more conversation and reflection on our work and approach, exchanges of ideas, and hopefully collaborations on more projects down the line.

Garima: I feel that the nature of our work is such that we are holed up for long periods of time, busy producing work. To have a collective of artists whose work I have hugely admired over the years is such a blessing! I’m so thrilled to be here, learning and growing in good company!

Akhila: Being part of this community of amazing women. I think I’ve always felt a bit isolated as a practitioner, since I have varying interests in different mediums. It’s wonderful to be able to be part of a whole.

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A huge Thank You to the Kadak Collective for their time and insightful answers!

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