A Conversation with Desire Machine Collective

On the occasion of an event at Asia Art Archive in America, March 18 2012
Transcribed by Xiaofei Mo and Stephanie Hsu, and excerpted and edited by Jane DeBevoise

Jane DeBevoise (JD): I’m Jane DeBevoise, the chair of Asia Art Archive and today we are delighted to have the opportunity to host Desire Machine Collective, Sonal Jain and Mriganka Madhukaillya. Sandhini Poddar, curator at the Guggenheim Museum who has a show on view right now called Being Singular Plural: New Video Art from India, will give an introduction. Desire Machine Collective has three pieces in this show, one of which is a sound piece located outside the Guggenheim building and “on view” at all times. We are delighted to have Desire Machine Collective here to talk more about their work.

Sandhini Poddar (SP): Hi everyone. As Jane mentioned, Desire Machine Collective has a few works at the Guggenheim at the moment. A sound piece called Trespassers Will (Not) be Prosecuted, which is on Fifth Avenue, is a 24-hour public artwork; as well as two moving image works. One is a four-channel video installation and a 35 mm film. Sonal and Mriganka have been collaborating as Design Machine Collective since 2004. They bring their training as filmmakers and are interested in examining design and technology and looking at innovative ways of using the moving image such as film and video. They also run a few multidisciplinary artist projects based in Guwahati, a city of eight million people in Assam in the northeast of India. They moved back to northeast India after spending a few years in Ahmedabad at the National Institute of Design. When the Gujarat problems happened in 2002, they made the conscious decision to move back to their home region of the northeast, which is an interesting space in relationship to the rest of the country—intellectually, politically and geographically. What drew me to their work many years ago—we’ve been collaborating since early 2009—was their persistence and dedication to moving image practices as well as the intense research that they apply to all of the projects which they develop sometimes for five, six, ten years, and then only some of these projects actually manifest. It’s been a real privilege working with Sonal and Mriganka and having the Guggenheim support their work, in both Berlin and New York. I am extremely honored to know them and to count them as friends, and of course individually I have been very inspired by their work. Welcome to this seminar of Asia Art Archive in New York.

Mriganka Madhukaillya (MM): First of all, I would like to thank Jane for inviting us to present our work here, and also to take this opportunity to thank Sandhini, without whom none of this would be possible. We are Desire Machine Collective. We have backgrounds in design, film and photography, and as Sandhini mentioned, our journey has taken us from different parts of India to where we are now. But when it became imperative that we start working or giving certain form to some of the research or documentation that we had been doing, we felt we needed to start with an idea, an approach or a methodology, and this was informed by the French philosophers Deleuze and Guattari. In the archive of the National Institute of Design, we found two of their seminal works, Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus. In 2002, we found ourselves in a situation in which we were not able to articulate ourselves. We talked about how we were actually following the cartography of conflict, how we were actually moving out of our homes to find a sense of peace, but in a sense, against different kinds of conflicts, we were a part of it. From the politics of representation to the politics, of something else, which at that time we didn’t fully know. So that articulated our practice and what we were trying to do.

Brahmaputra: North Guwahati, a project by Michael Aschauer. For more information please visit River Studies

This image is a virtual simulation of the river we live near. We often work with the concept of flow, and here I refer to the economist, Manuel Castells, who describes the modern world as a “space of flows—flows of people, capital, information, technology, images, sounds and symbols.” Castells says, “Flows are not just one element of social organization. They are expressions of the processes dominating our economic, social and symbolic life.” We come from the northeast of India, where since 1947 most of the natural flows have been disrupted. [In a] construction of history that allows flows and flux, as seen as only constants, be it of goods or ideas or people, a disruption of flow provides multiple points of entry.  Our practice emerges from studying experiences of this reality within Southeast Asia.

Assam on Google Map

One can see that the area we are talking about is actually a buffer zone between South and Southeast Asia. It is connected by rivers, which start in Tibet, flow through Assam, and then through Bangladesh. This river [the Brahmaputra] has many names [changing as it flows through one place to another]. So this got us thinking about the binary situations of the center and periphery.

Sonal Jain (SJ): In a lot of our works, what we are engaged with is the notion of time.  I would like to show you about three minutes of one of our films. Then I will talk about how we perceive time and how we deal with it in our moving images.

25/75, 2007. Digital colour video with sound, 6:40 mins

This work was made in 2007 and is entitled 25/75. It was shot in the town of Shillong, which is about 100 km from where we live in Guwahati. It is a meditation on the use of different times, and draws on our own experiences. We realize that the experience of time differs; it can be cosmological or biological, and in different regions, it changes completely. Also the disruption of time is something really important in our work. The flow of time can be disrupted by many means. Conflict disrupts our sense of time the most. Conflict is one means of disruption, whether it’s personal conflict or a political one. We have also started working a lot more with things like trauma. What you see here is an earlier work—the numbers [that you see] are drawn from a system of betting which is practiced locally in that region. This work is based on a local lottery game about dream interpretation – people bet on certain numbers based on their dreams – and explores a different kind of time zone that you are taken into by these devices.

Nishan I, 2007-2012. A 4 channel colour video installation with 4 channels of sound

The next work is on view at the Guggenheim right now and is called Nishan I. It’s a moving image work, shot in a derelict house in Srinagar, Kashmir. What we’ve done is shoot from inside the house at different times. This work too reflects the disruption of time, the many layers of time. It also has to do with a sense of trauma. How do you internalize certain kinds of conflict? From our work, we realized very quickly that representing political conflict often comes down to giving logistics and numbers, and there’s a whole set of politics to that. So how do you actually share lived experiences? From that we are trying to develop a different language, which comes through in a work like Nishan I.

JD: For those of you who haven’t seen it, this is an entire room installation.

SP: It’s 40 feet across and 8 feet high and projected from four projectors mounted on the back wall. Even though it seems like one large panorama of a still image, in fact there are 13 or 14 moving image files that have been layered and spliced next to each other. So it appears like a still image, still time, but in fact it is time that is moving at different speeds. You’ve got time-lapse images, real-time images, and images in which time that has been slowed down. You see them through the windows, and it’s not immediately obvious. You need to spend twenty to thirty minutes to give up yourself into this experience before you can start to discern these little details.

Installation view of Nishan I at Guggenheim Museum, New York

SJ: For the soundscape, there is actually a lot of body sounds. We’ll show you how we arrived at those sounds, and how we look at the body in terms of time. In Nishan I there’s the sounds of distressed breathing. For us, important markers of time is biological time. And as everyone is aware, there is increasing colonization of the body; [it’s as if] the body is now under attack. So in this work we have different sounds of the body, like sounds of a sonogram, blood flow, breathing, and respirators. That’s how we constructed the soundscape for this work.

MM: Do we represent the construction? Or do we construct the representation? The thing that has happened or is happening is usually already absent.  It’s the context. It’s the context of the last film 25/75, or the context of Nishan I – [which is Kashmir but] Kashmir is not really visible; it’s missing. I need to give you a little overview of our methodology.  We are working against the tyranny of nationalism. In some of our earlier works that we don’t show anymore, we were engaging very directly with what was happening in Palestine or Kashmir or Ireland—many of these things have gone through representing and re-representing and showing and re-showing, so in that sense, those were media forms. Now we are using the same apparatuses like cameras, but the point is the information is not there, so in a sense it’s like an experience…

Residue, 2011, 35mm colour film with sound, 39 mins, looped

The next work is a 35 mm version of Residue, which is also on display at the Guggenheim right now.  It was shot in an old power station in Assam that has been closed for 25-30 years. What this film is about is debatable.  We have been talking about it a lot.  But it relates to what Deleuze talks about—the whole notion of the cinematic consciousness. It’s not primarily about cinema, but [about] creating a new kind of interface between human life and philosophy. We are talking about the experience of viewing. It is not about remaining a passive viewer, you have to collectively engage with it. It can have your own personal meaning. The same film, if I show it in Assam, people will understand it differently than elsewhere.  For example we were surprised when the mother of one of our technical consultants understood everything, even what I was trying to hide. I was surprised because I thought it would not be easily recorded.

Residue, 2011, 35mm color film with sound, 39 mins, looped

Passage, 2006. Digital colour video with sound, 7:22 mins

The next work called Passage which was finished at the same time as 25/75 belongs to the same trajectory.  It was shot through a prism in a camera. There’s no special effect. It also borrows from the idea of the cinematic consciousness. We’re looking from the meaning and trying to deviate to perception. When trauma is saturated, what happens to the subjectivity, the state of mind?

SJ: Now, we would like to share for a few minutes another project we have been part of since 2007. This is a project that we initiated in Guwahati. One of the problems about these kinds of projects is how to show them, but we know filmmaking, so we made a short film to about it.

This project is actually housed on a ferry. Ferries are important in the context of Guwahati and the region of Assam. They form part of the British legacy, when during their rule steamboats were an important form of transportation. As you know, Assam produces a lot of tea, which needed to be transported to Britain and other parts of the world. The Brahmaputra River, which actually connects to the sea, became an important source of transporting goods and people. In the last fifteen years, there has been a shift from water transport to land transport. A lot of bridges have been built and the boats are no longer needed, so there are a lot of them just lying around un-used, at the docks of Guwahati and elsewhere. So in our endeavor to work in Guwahati, we realized very soon that it was important to have a space for discussion and other kinds of activities, and the ferry seemed to be appropriate because it is located in between land and water.  The ferry opens up an interesting public space for many things, quite unlike a building or a white cube.  We’ve had many events where we’ve had people just walk in, people we haven’t invited, people who are just walking on the roadside near where we are located. It’s fantastic in that it’s open to people to engage in their own ways. The ferries are owned by the government, and large numbers of people actually live on them.  These people have become an important community for us.  Initially, we faced a lot of distrust, but slowly they have begun to engage with our projects.

The river we are on, the Brahmaputra, actually starts in Tibet. It flows through India, into Bangladesh and then into the Bay of Bengal. It’s a really important river that faces a very indefinite future, because of two drastic scenarios. One is the possibility that China is building a huge dam [that may divert its waters] and the river may dry up. The other is that of flooding, with global warming and the melting of the Himalayan glaciers that form an important source of the river’s water. These are the two uncertain future scenarios that we face. Historically the river has been an important part of the imagination of the people. Here are a few maps that we got from the British Raj. An important Indian filmmaker, who made some of the first Indian documentaries, used references to the river in his films.

There is no sound. These are images from around the river. The people use the river in multiple ways. There are temples along the river which form important landmarks. This all becomes an important part of our work, because this is where we are located, in the northeast of India.

MM: 90% of the border in Northeast India is international. Now when people refer to India, they usually only talk about India and Pakistan. But before the 1940s, the links to China, Bangladesh and Burma were also talked about. This is a zone that cannot just be understood in terms of South Asian politics; it must be also understood in the context of Southeast Asian politics.  The physical reality [of this region] has influenced us since the very beginning. It makes one to think about post-binary, post-border kinds of things. These are the most interesting links. For this, there are two kinds of references. One is the river, which is the most pristine thing because it knows no border: people are travelling it, going on and off to Tibet, China, Bangladesh, all the time. There is an artist we invited from Indonesia collective called ruanrupa. It didn’t take him more than two weeks to understand the situation and he shot a film of 60 minutes. The second thing is to look at how Foucault talks about heterotopias. He emphasizes that the ship is the ultimate heterotopia, which is a utopia in a real sense, a place in between reality and utopia….

Another trajectory [of our work] is when we extended Desire Machine Collective to Periferry [the project on the ferry]. We wanted Periferry to work as a laboratory for people engaged in hybrid practices. Periferry focuses on the creation of a network space for negotiating the challenges of contemporary cultural production against a backdrop of local and global negotiations.

Bartaku, A Slow Flow, a micro Intervention/installation on Periferry on February 13-14, 2010

For example, this work [done at Periferry] is an experiment by a couple of artists and scientists from Belgium (Christina Stadlbauer and Bartaku) who wanted to create edible solar cells.  The idea was to consider of how hybrid knowledge collapses the borders between art and science, science and technology, ecology and sociology. Structure-wise, this work also takes the form of a spiral, [a form which] takes a minimum space to produce maximum space utilization. They created this work with lots of plants. It’s a very utopian project, and although in the end, we did actually make electricity, the whole idea was not about functionality. This exhibition opening was actually just a workshop to teach people how energy can be made and to discuss [our] relationship [to] energy.  And the spiral also acted as a water purifier for the river. It was only a five day project but the spiral is still there and people still come to see it. We were looking to understand the demarcation of borders including the borders between science and art, so we hoped Periferry would work between an artist’s studio and a science laboratory, where people can engage in these hybrid practices.  From the very beginning, we never used the word “art”, we called it “Periferry,” but this also changes all the time. The idea is to collaborate, to bring people together.

Pedagogy has been very important to us. We keep asking ourselves, “What is the use of what we are doing?” In that sense, practice is pedagogy. Periferry [can be considered] a pedagogy lab where people come to engage, learn and extend their own practice. Periferry negates the very concept of space and time that we are generally accustomed to. Space that is a static entity, where time flows. On the contrary, the stagnant, ferry is a space marked by constant flows, linking people across the globe, arriving and departing, exchanging ideas, resulting in the creation of a network space of flows. Space is not in a state of inertia, but in incessant flux. “The space of flow is not so much organized to move things from one place to another, but to keep them moving around. In the space of flows, arrival becomes elusive, virtually indistinguishable from departure.” (Stalder 2001) Many people say this is too utopian, but that’s the point. The whole idea is to locate utopia. People offered many different suggestions, but we said, “No, we want to do something different—and this is it.” A project we are going to work on later this year or early next year is to have the ferry actually move upstream and downstream. It will be a curated journey. People with their projects will be posited in the river and will connect to a network of individuals, universities, and institutions. This is ambitious and is also bound to fail. We are prepared for it.

Thank you very much.

Question: I am curious about the sound, which is a very important element in your work. Are you collaborating with someone else? Or it’s all your own work?

MM: We wanted to collaborate with a lot of people. But because we are located so remotely, we have to do most of the things ourselves. But we do have some technical assistance.

SJ: Technically of course we can have someone help us, but the design part is completely our job.

JD: Maybe you can talk a little about the sound project [Trespassers will [not] be prosecuted] at the Guggenheim.

SJ: That project is really special to us, because on one level, we are filmmakers and we are obsessed with images. But that project only uses sound. It’s a soundscape using sounds taken from a sacred forest in the region where I grew up. The indigenous people who live there believe that you should not pick up anything from the sacred forest. This is part of a belief system that has come down through the ages. Because of this belief system, that region has remained a very bio-diverse ecological zone and many studies have been done there. It is the belief of the people that has preserved it. There are many such forests in that region. What was interesting to us is that as we spent time to experience the place, very quickly realized that it was like a sound archive. When you are outside, you don’t hear so many of the sounds, but when you enter the forest, you hear a lot of very different, very beautiful sounds.  So we started talking to the people living there and found that even in the culture of the indigenous people, sound is not a material. Because sound is intangible, they told us that we could record it. Conceptually, from that we started to record the sound and created this soundscape. One of the important elements for us in creating the soundscape is that we wanted it presented outside in a public space for 24 hours, even after the Guggenheim closes. An important part of this is to create false memory. Once it is there for three or four months, when you take it away, what happens to that space, to the memory of the people? Would people think it had always been there or not?

MM: The idea is to create an absence. So the work is operating when it’s running, but at the same time it’s creating that void…. As artists, how do you deal with the notion of the visual, presence and the material?  How do you deal with the question of what is material and what is not? Certain things, like the value of the sacred—can it be packaged and temporarily installed? Here we are not taking a position. We are playing with the things.

Question: You mentioned A Thousand Plateaus by Deleuze and Guattari. Can you explain how it is relevant to your work?

MM: We call ourselves “Desire Machine Collective” which borrows from Anti-Oedipus. In the book, Deleuze and Guattari talk about desire and production… The idea is that the desire is real—it’s not a lack. It’s connected to reality. This is basically the philosophy on which we started to work together.

Question: Who gets invited to the Periferry? Do you just hold events whenever there is an opportunity or someone has an interesting project? Is there a selection process?

MM: I would say very plainly that very few people visit the northeast of India…. The notion of flux has informed our work. This isn’t really an artist residency, because most of the time we are collaborating, like with the artist Bartaku, who is working on the interface of art and science. We also let people [who visit] influence what Periferry is about.  We have also worked with an interesting artist from Vienna who has been mapping and scanning rivers all over the world.  He works with a technology similar to that used by Google Maps.  The work [he developed at Periferry] covers about nine kilometers of the river and now we want to extend it to cover 200 kilometers upstream and downstream.

Arjun Appadurai (AA): This is remarkable work. But I would like to reflect for a moment, like everyone else does, on my current preoccuption. I’m very interested these days in harvesting what the word failure is about, because we live in a world where 99% of humankind is considered a failure. Why? Because they don’t grow.  All remotely capitalistic their economies require growth; otherwise they are considered failures.  They don’t progress. So I think in the Northeast, as someone who has never been there, it may seem that way, as a zone of failure. I don’t have a big observation, except to say that somewhere in your work, you have a possibility of exploring failure as a very deep thing that characterizes the large bulk of human experience, which is not in a sense “productive” or “successful”, but it moves on, it moves forward. In your work you show people who have experienced failure, but does that mean that they are bankrupt? I doubt it. So I think there is a chance to explore that theme substantively. It is also a chance to explore that in terms of what art does. We can have installations, exhibitions, and curated moments appearing to fail, but does that mean they are meaningless? I doubt it. So I don’t have a big observation to make, except to say what I myself am interested in—which is to explore failure more closely, because it’s tied up in a lot of human experiences but it is also involved with art, which is a very high risk enterprise.

Audience Member: But if the Periferry ends, does that mean that it’s failed? Does that mean it’s over? I mean it sounds like you’ve had a great run and that you’ve already succeeded.

Leeza Ahmady (LA): I think the reaction that you provoke is part of universal human nature, not necessarily just in India—the tendency to become very attached to the end product or the actual thing that you show and tell about, and that you can create statistics about. No matter what you do, anything that starts at the periphery, at some point by nature of what flow is, comes to the center. If we’re talking about rivers or we’re talking about energy, somehow that’s the way things work. And then something else will come to the periphery. I think what you’re doing is very important, because it’s instigating and engaging a place in which to create experiences that you can’t package and call a success or a failure. You can’t even really grab it, you can only share it.  Maybe ten years later someone will talk about this work as something that happened historically. In that sense, it comes to the center and succeeds, even if it’s non-existent anymore.

MM: Creative Time has showed Periferry. Some architecture exhibitions in Germany have showed Periferry. But we don’t actually have the facility to maintain the space [to infinity], so in that sense, everything is transitory…. And then there’s the whole notion of the archive—what exactly is an archive? What is being produced? What is being seen? We don’t know and archiving has never been part of [our project].  So in that sense, there’s the whole notion of the living archive.

AA: One more quick comment—the reason why flow is important in the Castell sense or in Deleuzian sense is because it has two effects. One is to say within the ideologies of success—measures of success—there is a lot of failure that has to be hidden. But failure is never just failure, and that’s why I’m very optimistic when I say that there’s failure and then there’s failure that is reflected upon. Because in failure—and I know this from my own research with very poor communities that are trying to change their own situations that fail for 20 years and are still failing—in every failure—and it’s a Judith Butler thing, is a performance that slightly changes the context. So I’m very optimistic about failure just as I’m very pessimistic about success. We have a thousand successful systems at the heart of our world that are actually killing us. And we have tons of failures in which we can find hope. But that flow that you talk about is actually, thank god, there. So successes and failures are not two separate spaces where they just determine themselves. They have to interact. I think there’s something optimistic here that says that the periphery, the forgotten place, the absence, the silence, the deleted are not for that reason, dead. They’re doing something and that something will come our way.  And I think these kinds of interventions are part of it.

SP: Looking at Burma as well – talk about a forgotten place – how do you consider the [work] Torn First Pages that were finished in 2008 in the context of this community that is now a civilian government and where political prisoners are just now being freed?  Do you believe it or not, do you have hope or not, is it a failure or not? It’s kind of endemic to all of the work in the exhibition.  I mention the filmmaker Kamal Swaroop, who made this great film Om-Dar-Ba-Dar in 1988. It was completely forgotten. So what is success and failure? Moving image and sound practices within the context of the Indian art market are totally peripheral. So I think that there’s great agency in all of this, in trying to tap into this. You’re not resuscitating it, you’re not going to represent it, you’re not going to save it, you’re just saying, I’m going to have a conversation about what’s happening to these ideas.

JD: Well, on that note, I think we have to close this section of this conversation to continue it later. Thank you very much Sonal and Mriganka, and I urge everyone to go to the Guggenheim to see the exhibition.



All images courtesy of the artists


Born in 1975, Shillong, India; lives in Guwahati, India.
1994- 98, Bachelor of Fine Arts, Maharaja Sayajirao University of Vadodara, Gujarat, India



Born in 1978, Jorhat, India; lives in Guwahati, India
2001-03, Post Graduation Diploma in Film & Video, National Institute Of Design, Ahmedabad, India
1996-99, Bachelor of Science in Physics, Fergusson College, Pune, India

Collaborating since 2004 as Desire Machine Collective, Sonal Jain and Mriganka Madhukaillya employ film, video, photography, and multimedia installation in their works. They initiated Periferry (2007–), an alternative artist-led space and residency programs situated on the M. V. Chandardinga, a ferry docked on the Brahmaputra River in Guwahati.

DMC have presented their works in Intense Proximity, the 3rd edition of the La Triennale, Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2012); Being Singular Plural, Solomon Guggenheim Museum, New York (2012) and Berlin (2010); Everyone Agrees: It’s About to Explode, the 54th International Art Exhibition of the Venice Biennale, India Pavilion, Venice (2011); Indian Highway IV, MAC Musée d’Art Contemporain de Lyon and Indian Highway V, MAXXI Museo Nazionale delle Arti del XXI Secolo, Rome (2011).


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