Presentation by Shuddhabrata Sengupta from Raqs Media Collective
March 9, 2012
AAA in A, '09-'21
43 Remsen St. Brooklyn, NY
A presentation on the occasion of Raqs Media Collective’s participation in the exhibition Lines of Control: Partition as a Productive Space, at the Johnson Museum of Art at Cornell University (January 21 – April 1 2012), and on Raqs member Shuddhabrata Sengupta’s recent visit to New York.
Jane DeBevoise (JD): My name is Jane DeBevoise and I am the chair of Asia Art Archive. Shuddha, it is a great pleasure having you here with us tonight. We really look forward to hearing you speak. While Sandhini (Poddar) will be making the formal introduction, I just wanted to say that I first met Shudda when he and his colleagues at Raqs Media Collective came to Hong Kong to participate in Asia Art Archive’s first artist residency program in 2009. Since then, we have hosted other international artists, including Young-hae Chang Heavy Industries, and this year, Song Dong. We also host local, Hong Kong-based artists, so far Wong Wai Yin and Pak Sheung Chuen, and this year, MAP Office. In 2009, we also established this Asia Art Archive office here in Brooklyn. While we are not going to set up a replica platform here in New York — we believe that the history of Asia should be written in Asia — we do regularly organize a series of talks and salons, as well as collaborate with institutions in the United States.
I am now going to turn things over to Sandhini, so that she may introduce you to our friends this evening.
Sandhini Poddar (SP): Thank you Jane. My name is Sandhini Poddar, and I am the Associate Curator of Asian Art at the Guggenheim, and I also am one who believes that the history of Asia should be written in Asia. Until I can get to that though, we are trying to do our best through the Guggenheim, internationally. I have known of Raqs Media Collective for many years, and got to know Shuddha quite recently, delightfully, at a party, at which he came up to me and said, ‘your show is quite good.’ And I thought, ‘okay, finally! We can actually have a chat and get to know each other!’. (Laughter)
Raqs Media Collective is a triangulation of three extremely smart, extraordinarily talented people, all based in New Delhi, a collective including Monica Narula, Jeebesh Bagchi and Shuddha Sengupta, who has joined us this evening. The three are all very well-versed in the traditions of documentary filmmaking, and all came together to form what has become an artist think-tank, founded in 1992. They are celebrating their 20th anniversary, absolutely obscene for people who are only in their 40s. (Laughter) They started this collective whilst in their 20s, just out of university. I think the arc of their work is extremely hard to describe because it is quite multifarious, and because they are truly artist-intellectuals, and I think what I find particularly interesting, not just in terms of their materiality, formalism, and sensibility to work across different scales and audiences, is their sense of time. I think Shuddha, for me, of the three, is the one who in many ways frames some of the most important questions that Raqs then researches over time. This question of temporality is an interesting one because, of course, they are interested in linguistics, etymology and history, but also incredibly interested in society and the future. I think Shuddha will talk about that to some extent this evening. Thank you for being with us.
Shuddha Sengupta (SS): Thank you Jane, thank you Sandhini. It is wonderful to be with friends, first of all. The only reason why we make art is to be able to share an idea, a dream, a thought, a conversation, with people who are friends, or will be friends. And I presume the people in this room are either our friends already, or will become our friends by [the end of the] evening. That has to do with our understanding of time, because we [Raqs Media Collective] are a friendship. The three of us, one woman, two men, were students together in university, and as students, liked working with each other on film projects. Filmmaking doesn’t have the solipsism of many kinds of work, so you have to have constant conversations and do things with each other. We ended up realizing that what we enjoyed most about making work was the fact that we had conversations with each other. We are still having the same conversations, and we are still having the same disagreements. (Laughter) We disagreed with each other twenty years ago, and we disagree with each other now – about many things. Between the three of us, as we have grown older, we have come to realize that the most important thing is for us to allow for each other to change, to allow for the triangulation that keeps things rolling in terms of ideas, dreams, questions, and curiosities. So, friendship is the reason why we make art.
I am here today, talking to you while my two friends are in Berlin opening a show [Reverse Engineering at Nature Morte] and that is as it should be. We have a distributed presence in the world; we live in Delhi, we live out of each other’s lives. For those of you who have been to Delhi, you have a sense of that life. We live more than one life. I live more than one life, and when three people live more than one life, they inform each other with the entanglements of their more-than-one-lives. In this presentation I am going to take you through a body of work to describe what it is I do with Jeebesh and Monica.
First of all, the word Raqs is a word in Urdu, Persian, and Arabic, which connotes movement, kinesis – that is why we have that little figure in the logo, with which we began describing ourselves. In January, we visited Istanbul and finally went to visit the Mevlevi Order of Whirling Dervishes; Raqs actually comes from the state of what happens to whirling dervishes when they whirl. That doesn’t necessarily suggest that we have an overly mystical predisposition – although that sometimes comes through in some of the secret things that we do with each other – but it does point to an understanding of contemplation as a kinetic process; that we who are moving through the world while the world is moving around us find within that movement our kinesis. Movement, as we know, is how we know time passes, and when things move, things change. Sandhini is right when she says a lot of our work has to do with thinking about time and temporality, rhythms and measures. That for us is the fulcrum of how we have seen our own life together. We’ve seen ourselves change and are trying to register those changes.
We didn’t start off thinking we were going to be artists, nor did we know we were going to be artists. We never actually suspected that we were going to be artists (laughter). These are three different things. We were trained in documentary film and as filmmakers for nine years [1992-2001], floundered, trying to realize impossible projects that never got off the ground, and those that did never seemed to be containable within the film, television or screen. For instance, Amar Kanwar, whose wonderful work is also in the exhibition ‘Being Singular Plural’, as curated by Sandhini at the Guggenheim, presents a special luminosity in film. We all began as people who wanted to register the real. In the process of registering the real, we tapped into minds and loads of meanings about dreams, and that’s what we ended up being. The space of contemporary art was most hospitable to our adventures, and that is why we are here. As long as it is hospitable, we will be here. We have ended up pursuing an art practice, pursuing curation including a section of Manifesta [Manifesta 7, July 19 – November 2, 2008], which in itself was an interesting proposition, bringing in artists from Delhi to curate a European contemporary art biennial. We had at that point written an essay for the Manifesta Reader, anticipating something like this to occur, stating that, ‘one day there will be people from outside Europe curating European art just as there are European curators curating Asian art. This will be natural.’ We didn’t expect it to happen in our lifetime, but are happy it did!
We have worked a lot with other disciplines, and have collaborated with other artists, architects, programmers, and theatre directors – a lot in theatre this past year. In 2000, we founded an interdisciplinary research space called Sarai in Delhi. A lot of the names you may hear in contemporary art today and of the next generations that have come with us have passed through us. We created a fellowship program as well, of which many others have been a part. That has been a decade of work, of thinking about the nature of cities, of urban life, of the politics of intonation, of the relationships between culture and technology, and of the relationship between art theory and practice. Sarai is a kind of time capsule of the 21st century in Asia, and in a city like New Delhi.
We think a lot about time in Asia because cities in Asia imbue layers of time that are quite unique. I am not actually one of those who thinks the history of Asia should be written in Asia; I think the history of Asia should be written in Argentina (laughter), but there is a way in which specificities [in Asia] may be experienced. For example, cities like Hong Kong, Istanbul, and Delhi have a layering of different kinds of time creeping on them. That is what makes living there a fascinating and adventurous task. That is what we end up doing; we end up thinking about the time around us. On this topic, anytime someone wants to ask me a question or wants me to stop, please, I welcome it; I can talk a long while.
This is a very recent work, because it won’t be seen until fifty years from now. It is a time capsule that was planted into the earth in Norway in a little town on the west coast of Norway, and it contains our thoughts for 2011. Accompanying it is a text that we wrote for my colleague and friend, Monica’s five-year-old daughter – she was four at that time. The condition of the work is that she has to be present when the capsule is opened in 2061; she will be a fifty-four year old woman. Thus, it is a letter addressed to a four year old and a fifty-four year old, and the letter includes certain clues about what is actually in the work, which I am not at liberty to tell you, because a time capsule can only be opened in the fullness of time. So, right now it is shot, it is under the earth, it contains its own secrets, but the reason I am starting with this is because we have come to think that a lot of contemporary art, our dissatisfaction with the world of contemporary art, has to do with its very limited temporal horizon. It is so of-the-moment and of-today and nothing else seems to matter. We are people who are deeply invested in thinking about history, about the past, and because we live with a five year old, we think a lot about the future. Not only the future of her life, but of the remote future. We just finished directing a conference in Mexico on the future, on time. I am curious to think about how what we do today will be seen 800 to 1000 years from now. Whether we like it or not, just as we see what is behind us, the classical arts that we recognize were once considered contemporary art. I like to think that we have a responsibility to the public of the remote future, and that is one of the reasons why we keep doing this kind of work and investing in its future.
This thinking about time takes us across time zones. Here is a work from 2009 called Escapement. Escapement is a very simple mechanism of time through clocks and watches. It involves the mechanism that takes the minute, second, and hour hands and releases them, the mechanism that allows your clock to hold and release time. Time is in a sense clocked and then escapes, clocked and then escapes. This is a work that is made up of a set of twenty-seven clocks – it clocks twenty-four hours in twenty-seven time zones, of real cities and three imaginative cities that mirror time. They are times of Macondo in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude, of Babel/Babylonia, from which language erupted, and then of the Shangri-La. These are all running, mirroring time. Witnessing this play of moving forward and backward is usually a face that circumnavigates the globe; it is not clear whether it’s a man or woman, old or young, of a defined race…and he or she breaks a lot in the course of this navigation. But, in that blink, that break, there is a register of something, a change in something.
You read the emotions of the face between the emotional states that are described on the clocks. It is also like a book of hours, which is an established tradition, whereby you have a meditation on the hours. For instance, while it may be ‘remorse-past-guilt’ in New York, it may be ‘ecstasy-past-anxiety’ in Baghdad. Here, you would be able to read off the different emotional cartographies of the world. The works can also be rendered in different languages, so here are some diagrams for the clocks rendered in Hindi, Arabic, and English. We’ve produced them in different languages, as it is always interesting to think about what happens when you slip between languages. For instance, the Arabic word for ‘epiphany’ – and there are three words in Arabic for epiphany (laughter) – is in one fold liturgical, which has to do with the sense of epiphany in the Eastern Christian liturgy, and in other folds are revelations or strokes of something else.
We are also interested in the differentiations made between linguistic traditions, histories, and cultures. While we all feel the same things, we are able to talk about them in different ways. That for us is the way we think about the world and the international space – we are not different people but that we have different vocabularies for thinking about the way we are. As people, for Raqs, language is very important. The language that the collective speaks between itself are Bengali in its various forms and English, which is the language we end up thinking in all of the time. We flow between languages, and a lot of our artwork is actually a registration of what happens and what is gained in translation.
Here is another image and rendition of the clocks piece, of different cities, different times, and different states of being, all of which take you into this register of being mobile in a work. Like language, words play a major role in our work, especially the placement of words in our visual works. Words for us are also images for their calligraphic notation, but also because they point to the impossibility of words whilst making certain kinds of works. We play with their limits, and they also deliver themselves as failures. It is the failure of words and the failure of communication to which working with words sometimes leads.
Here we have a flying carpet, a timetable, a wrong chair, and a mirror stage of some sort. You can play with all of these like you would in a scrabble game, and in the mix can have flying time, the wrong stage, the mirror table, and so on. A variety of combinations can occur and we like to think about ourselves as striding these flying carpets, cities of timetables and occupying the wrong chair. That is how we work; that is how our lives are.
The words take on other considerations, forms of sculpture and of the landscape. This is a work called More Salt In Your Tears, which was installed in the Baltic Sea. It registers the fact that as long as there is more salt in the Baltic Sea than there is in our tears, then the world is all right. The Baltic Sea is an inland sea, and one of the key things about global warming is that it can be measured through its salinity. If the Baltic Sea ever gets saltier than human tears, then we are done for. As long as our tears are saltier, then the world is okay. This piece becomes a register of reflection too, of sunlight, of water, of salt and fish, and it is hugely public because it is placed in a thoroughfare. There are about 25,000 people who visit this work everyday through passing ferries, passenger ships and ocean liners, all moving within this crowded highway of the archipelago. It makes this interesting because we see ourselves as these passengers; when I am in the streets of New York, or any other city, I am always reading the city because there are words everywhere. Every street corner has its own stories, its own novels, its own fables. You can reconstruct them whilst looking at shop signs, at windows, and at wall posters. In this country, I often look at pillar signs and milk cartons for notices stating lost children and lost pets because there are all these feelings that come with these words. We have done a lot of work with lost and missing people, and the posters of lost and missing people always tell you stories about where they come from. In a country like India, where people disappear voluntarily or involuntarily all the time, missing people and disappearing, vanished people always tell you something new.
Audience member: I have a question about your piece in the Baltic Sea. What are the characters made of? It seems they change color based on what is being reflected.
SS: At the moment you are seeing a reflection of the sun. The characters are made of mirrored high-grade stainless steel and one that will not corrode in salt water. If the work were to fall into the water – which it eventually will – it will not pollute the landscape. There were a lot of considerations made for material.
Audience member: Is it a permanent work?
SS: No, it is not permanent, because once the ice freezes over as it has now, it can crack so it is taken away in the winter. It was a commission by CAA [Contemporary Art Archipelago], an exhibition of site-specific works in the Turku archipelago off the coast of Finland. There are a total of twenty works that can be viewed by a designated ferry. The installation process for this piece was quite interesting because it required a diver and his dog, because the diver goes nowhere without his dog. The dog watched from the ferry as the diver anchored the work; all twenty tons of stainless steel.
This is another work called However Incongruous . Everyone recognizes this image by Albrecht Durer, here. The work has been installed in the Gulbenkian Foundation gardens in Lisbon. We had an invitation to design a garden gnome (laughter), so we decided to construct a rhinoceros, because in the 16th century, the king of Malabar once gifted a rhinoceros to the king of Portugal. This rhinoceros traveled all the way to Portugal and upon arrival the Portuguese king thought it would be a great idea to gift the rhinoceros to his cousin, the Pope. So, the rhinoceros traveled from Lisbon to Rome, but was shipwrecked and lost at sea. Three hundred years later, and no rhinoceros in Europe, Albrecht Durer was commissioned to make a piece about this story. I think a print now hangs at the Arthur M. Sackler Museum in Massachusetts. There was a rhino and an elephant, from Jose Saramago’s novel The Elephant’s Journey, which states ‘However incongruous it might seem but an elephant is on its way…’, and that is from where we take our title. The rhinoceros’ name, Gainda, which means rhinoceros in Hindi, was lost, unfortunately. Durer reconstructed the rhino from hearsay, and did a pretty good job considering having never seen a rhino before. We re-positioned the rhinoceros as a carousal animal – an animal astray from its group – because the Gulbenkian Foundation ground was once a fairground. It seemed quite appropriate that the rhinoceros appeared this way. The work also points to our relationship with the archive, with the trace, with things that are lost and found again. It is something that often reappears in our work.
Here is an image from a recent show called Surjection , which deals a lot with trace too. The hand that you see is a trace of a handprint that was produced in 1858 in Bengal, from a peasant on a land deed document. That document was used to verify someone of his identity and was sent to London to the laboratory of a man called William Tiegal, who was a eugenicist of sorts, working with biometrics in the early days. It is the handprint from which all fingerprinting technology comes. There was a research team built to study the print of the hand as a possible source of identity, and that is where biometrics today stems from.
Surjection is a mathematical term that describes the relationship between two quantities that are not identical but which can be overlapped onto one another to create sets. For example, in five apples, four oranges and one peanut, one can create a relationship between apples and oranges through its defined set. That transposition of qualities is what mathematicians call ‘surjection’, and was first developed by the mathematical inter-generational collective called the Bourbaki Collective [c.1935], first active in France. We have always found them inspiring because they were able to presume mathematics very seriously under the cover of this fictional character, Nicolas Bourbaki, and for a very long time, they reconstituted the foundations of 20th century mathematics as a masquerade under a collective identity. It is something we try to do too, with Raqs.
The show has different elements, including proverbs like this one: emotions surge but do not count. It consists of words that are lit up by electricity and which change their meaning through action of electricity on the surface of the tablet. It can become ‘emotions surge…we do count…emotions do not count…’. There is a way the light on the surface changes the meaning of the proverb, but then, in the end, what counts? It frames the way you enter the space, you think about space, about counting, about feelings, about the relationship between being singular and plural, and you think about saying things and not saying things. Then, behind itself, it becomes a living being; it is a huge projection, much larger than life-size, that begins to count to infinity. It is called The Untold Intimacy of Digits, which, when abbreviated, becomes UID, also an acronym for the Indian government’s completely mad scheme of developing a biometric database of more than a billion people, now in full swing. It is a historically unprecedented exercise of counting a billion people by their biometrics, and it is bound to fail and will in its wake create terrible tragedies. This is a monument to the UID, unto its failure and unto its tragic consequences. It is a monument that tries to attempt the impossible, which is that every time this work is on display it is counting toward infinity. In that attempt to encapsulate an end race, the incommensurable, the infinite, we think of the conditions of our time.
One of the other concerns we have along with time and temporality is the question of measurement, and flow from one to the next. We have been thinking a lot about devices that measure life, speeds, volumes, weights, and which become means by which we talk about the qualities of things. The relationship between quantity and quality mathematically is a surjective relationship, and that surjection has its consequences. So, we think a lot about measurement, and a lot about what is really a secret tussling of ideas of measurement through an insisted refusal to be measured. This is one of them. What it then leads to is the question, ‘what does this hand do when it begins moving?’ and one answer is that hands talk. People who are deaf and mute often use their hands to talk, too. That handprint then becomes an assemblage for saying its statement, which is a grammatically clumsy statement, the kind you would say if you were a new learner of English, whilst trying to talk about the relationship between singularity and plurality, between I and We. That distinction could be made in a relationship, in a couple, in a community, or in a nation. It is still the relationship between I and We which interests us, and of course, the relentless search for a landscape that encapsulates an I-ness or a We-ness. The statement is then translated into American Sign Language, so that a deaf/mute person looking at this work would be able to read it just as we read letters and speech. There is also a table where you can reconstitute statements by configuring these decals that are magnetic on the table. It takes you from one kind of statement or state of speech – the constituents of silence; talking when words fail – seeing how one gestures to the ineffable when silent. Often words fail us when we get into states of being that are more than the simple units we understand.
This is the next work in the cluster called 36 Planes of Emotion. I am showing you a lot of new work because I think you can all go to our website to look at works from the past, and I’m excited about the new work. 36 Planes of Emotion is an assemblage of planes in acrylic sheets, which leak white onto each other. In the English language there is this wonderful property we have for generating collective nouns. At the ends of certain dictionaries you can have these different collective nouns, like schools of fish, confederacies of dunces, etc., but the thing, in the end, anyone can make up a collective noun. Nothing prevents one from making up his or her own collective noun. You could say, a bouquet of perfumed cruelties, or, a fleet of fugitive annoyances, or, a fluster of surprised kisses (laughter) and these would perfectly enter the language as idiomatic expressions worth the while. We thought this would be an interesting way to think about the unnamable, or the inexpressible quality of emotional states. So, what is a ‘perfumed cruelty’? There is no such thing until you think about it.
This work goes back to a series of works we have been thinking about which have to do with our interactions with theatre, because in the last year we have been producing a lot of theatre. When you talk to actors you have to talk in terms like this, about the nuances between emotional states. We have been watching a lot of rehearsals, of actors at work, and realized that there was a whole vocabulary of feeling and thinking that we actually never thought about. We went back to a medieval text, to an actor’s manual by the 8th century aesthetician Abhinavgupta, who produced a classification of states of being and transactions of audiences and performance, of complexities like horripilation, a feeling of what happens when your hair stands on end as a result of something about which you are scared about or in which you are erotically entangled. Those complex states of being are what we are gesturing toward in 36 Planes of Emotion.
This extends to another piece of work, titled An Afternoon Unregistered on the Richter Scale, a gradual animation of a photograph, which begins with a little constellation of stars. It is very quiet, and then you begin to realize there are these gentlemen studiously at work. The photograph is exactly one hundred years old, taken by the British photographer James Waterhouse and called Examining Room of the Duffing Section of the Photographic Department of the Survey of India [Calcutta, 1911]. It presents cartographers of the Survey of India, a gigantic Science and Technology enterprise. We took this photograph and decided to bring it to life in certain ways. There are subtle disturbances in the photograph: the shelf of little bottles turns indigo; a man walks across a desert through the window; the central man’s hand dips and makes a point on the paper; the fan moves from one direction to the next; there is a rustle of pages from a book – little things you may miss if you don’t pay enough attention. These are all unregistered on the Richter scale; the earth does not shake, but something changes. We are interested in the soft and subtle changes and they are ways for us to enter the historical, the archival trace, the archival photograph, and to bring it back to life as if it were affecting our dreams, which they often do. As a group of people who have spent a lot of time looking at archival materials, we do feel they begin to infect, affect, appear, and reappear in dreams, in waking, in the unconscious, and that is where a lot of this work comes from.
The work rules to be invented, which is part of the game, a three-dimensional chess game with knights and dice. There is chance and there are natural moves, all of which surround the work The Capital of Accumulation , which is partly a detective story, partly a treatise and political economy, and partly an investigation of urban processes. It mainly follows the legacy of the body of work of Rosa Luxemburg, work we have been thinking about for a long time. For twenty years, Jeebesh and I were involved in a fringe communist anarchist group that published an edition of Rosa Luxemburg’s book called The Accumulation of Capital, which, before the Internet, you actually had to read in full (laughter). This work of ours returns to that book, to Warsaw, to Berlin, to various places in which Rosa Luxemburg worked and lived. It tries to re-read the world through The Accumulation of Capital and ends up being The Capital of Accumulation.
In the process of doing this work, strange things happened: Rosa Luxemburg’s body turned up in a morgue in Berlin, and we were privy to the information. The body was decapitated, a torso with no hands and feet, a specific kind of remainder of something, the consequence of a certain process of extraction, and so on. The interesting thing is that a central trope in Rosa Luxemburg’s work is the question of the missing body; of what gets extracted away when industrial capitalism expands to other spheres. Something gets hollowed out and that thing that gets hollowed out has to be disposed of in some way. It was very interesting to think about a work haunted by a missing body, which was the author of an idea of the missing body, which in a sense reconnected to all our thinking about disappeared and missing bodies as in our earlier work. We met with relatives [the great-grand niece and others] of Rosa Luxemburg who said they do sometimes talk to Rosa’s spirit. Rosa’s nephew, now 97 years old, is in this film and describes dreaming about her. There are all kinds of strange forensic strides in this investigation that think about what the body is, and what it does. I’ll show a snippet from this film tonight.
The Capital of Accumulation, 2010, 2 synchronized video projections with sound, 50 minutes; 2 books in vitrines
It is followed by a work called Strikes at Time , which is a reading of Jacques Ranciere’s La Nuit Prolitaire [Prolitarian Nights], in which there is a statement about taking back time, where time is the adversary. It uses that phase to bring together a found-worker’s diary with the fringes of the city and its industrial processes, and does this kind of account of the everyday. Both of these works are presented as large installations with many large screens and are fairly complex installations to stage. What you see here are fragments of that installation as a viewing copy for computers. There is a concern [in the work] with what happens to the laboring body under the duress of time, where time runs out.
While doing the work on Rosa Luxemburg, we shot a lot of film in the Rosa Luxemburg light bulb factory, which is an abandoned factory in Warsaw. All the light bulbs in Eastern Europe were made in this factory. We thought a lot about what it means to constantly be exposed to electric light whilst making things, damaging the retina, as a start. Workers were often sent to the factory as dissidents of Poland, so it was in some sense also a place of punishment. The factory also had a history of labor dissatisfaction, mainly with women laborers who were working with electrical filaments. We realized that we could talk about something called ‘revoltage’ here, the voltage of revolt. This piece is an homage to the women laborers of the Rosa Luxemburg light bulb factory, an assemblage of light bulbs appropriately placed in the building Oscar Niemeyer built for the headquarters of the French Communist Party [Paris, 2000]; they have forgiven themselves not to read the irony in the work. (Laughter)
This is another part of the piece, including a set of orthographic signs, exclamation marks, question marks, etc. I think I’ll end with this image, for now. If there is more work one wishes to engage, we have everything on our website, obsessively documented too.
JD: I would love to know more about how the three of you engage. Do you read books together? What kind of time do you spend time together? How do you together come up with your projects?
SS: When I am not in New York and they are not in Berlin, we are together every day, and we have been together for twenty years. We meet every day, whether or not there is work to do. We meet at, say, 10:30, and then we stay together until 5. In that space of time, there are things that inevitably have to be done, about something that either one of us might have read the night before, of something that we might have seen, somewhere we might have gone, notes we took about our experience, things we wish to share. The substance of the work is really the conversation of things we experience all the time. What ends up happening is that an idea that might have occurred to Jeebesh might then become completely transformed in my mind, and then completely wrecked in Monica’s (laughter), and that is usually the way it finds its way into the world. What transpires between us is what occurs in the artwork, rather than what happens within our heads.
Also, what transpires is the engine that makes us work in different mediums because we can push each other. ‘Let’s not make a film; let’s make a theatre-play. Let’s not make a theatre-play; let’s make a work for the radio.’ We recently made a piece in Korean, which is a set of ghost stories for a radio in public places. They are set in the town of Anyang [Gyeonggi, South Korea], whereby figures on a park bench who look as though they are getting ready to leave activate the telling of ghost stories.
These are ways in which the works travel between our heads, our machines and our forms. Things occur in these travels to make them transform, which we have no way of knowing. It is fueled constantly by disagreement because one rule we maintain is that if Monica says to me ‘Shuddha, that is such absolute rubbish’, which she says on a daily basis (laughter), then there is a responsibility for her to come up with the alternative to the rubbish. I can completely negate that too, but then I have a responsibility to come up with the next alternative. In this process, the idea, the image, and the work itself transform into something neither of us would have recognized. This has been going on for twenty years.
JD: Do you ever reveal those layers, that process? What we see is the result but your process is quite interesting and not necessarily apparent in the work.
SS: Well, frankly, we don’t know ourselves. I have often ended up defending an idea I myself previously rejected. (Laughter) But in a sense, there is an archive present – we write to each other everyday, and that archive (between our three computers) could be taken apart by someone who wished to labor through it all. Something about our process would be understood or misunderstood, I suppose.
Audience member: It is always very interesting to me to hear how fascinated people are by how artists negotiate their relationship within a collaboration, as though we are so brainwashed into the idea that creative practice is an individual pursuit, that if three people were to share in this act, in this practice, a lot of questions are raised. What interests me in this collective is how you pay yourselves, (laughter) because I know you have an interesting way of dealing with this matter seriously. You have a salary for each other, yes? There is a strange institution in place – you go to work, say 10:30am-5pm, and then you receive a monthly salary. It is unusual; I don’t know any other artist collective that does this.
SS: Really? No other? We even negotiate our raises! (Laughter) We have meetings, say, ‘My daughter is going to school, so…’ (More laughter) There is a way in which this is done. Raqs is not me, Jeebesh, and/or Monica; Raqs is the entity that makes the work. We work for Raqs Media Collective as lifelong full-time employees, with a lot of heartburn and heartache, and the occasional strike.
SP: What is the relationship of Raqs to Sarai now?
SS: As briefly mentioned at the start, Sarai is a space we co-founded with others and is a Center for the Study of Developing Societies, an inter-disciplinary platform for thinking about urban space and information. It does many things: it has projects in neighborhoods with working class children; it has full-on research projects, but unlike other art practices, we don’t try to take ownership for these as art projects. They have their own life; we are involved with them, we are a part of them, but they are not our artistic work. They are artistic works in their own right. Sarai is a coalition of media practitioners drawn from their working class neighborhoods in Delhi and are people we began working with when they were teenagers. Now they are full-fledged authors, producers, writers, photographers, media-makers, and Sarai is their ongoing life in art. We [Raqs] will never say that a project from Sarai is a Raqs work, because it is not. That is the environment we have created to nourish ourselves intellectually and spiritually, but we make a distinction between Sarai and Raqs.
These are examples of our Sarai Readers, all in different themes, all available online. This one was called City as Studio and brings together a lot of young architects, poets, and writers, all of whom we worked with over a period of nine months to produce exhibitions, processes and artworks. Projects with Sarai are what we need to do as citizens. I try to make this distinction between citizens and the work we have as artists. There is a responsibility we have as citizens, and a responsibility we have for Raqs. We don’t transpose that responsibility because I feel then that we wouldn’t take our responsibility as citizens seriously enough, and would not pursue our art practice seriously enough. It is like Noam Chomsky doing his politics and linguistics separately, that kind of thing. Of course there are connections, but the connections are not to be instrumentalized.
JD: When we talked about Asia’s history being written in Asia, you said that you took issue with that, which I appreciate. You then made a statement about nationhood. In terms of Sarai and Raqs, of which country are you a citizen? With what citizenship do you associate?
SS: I am a citizen of my practice, and that has much more stringent conditions of loyalty than a citizen of a state. And, the reason why I think the history of Asian art should be written in Argentina is because I am quite committed to the idea of writing a history of art in the United States whilst sitting in Delhi. We should be able to do these things without qualification. Someday there will be a scholar in Delhi who will write about what everyone was doing here at AAA-A, and that is fine. That is as it should be. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about categories of Asian art, as there are categories, specific, local, and real. I am very nervous when some people feel they are more entitled to say something over others, as a national category, religious category, as anything. I have a secret life of studying Islamic theology; I am not Muslim, but I feel absolutely qualified to have debate and discussion in the field of Islamic theology as I think anyone who is born and raised Muslim should do about other cultures and religions. I think there is a virus with which identity politics or nationalism infects us, which disallows an engagement with the other.
Audience member: You made a clear distinction between Sarai, Raqs, and civic engagement. Should the distinction not be in reverse, to find greater fluidity, a comfortable place where life-practice, education, civic integration, and artistic assimilation provide ground for autonomy and a lack of boundary? It is not about instrumentalization, I don’t think.
SS: Yes, I agree, but I think that, in all modesty, with all due respect, it is not what artists should be saying about what they are doing; it should happen. There ought to be a reticence about it in public pronouncement. That is my opinion. A lot of my time is spent in civic engagement, and a lot of the art is engaged with that, but there is an autonomy that I insist that the artistic practice ought to have, beyond the temporal imperatives of civic engagement. For instance, a lot of what is considered activist art often flounders on two things: if the cause that it promotes succeeds, then the art is no longer relevant, because the cause is exceeded. If the cause fails, then the art is a failure. For me, the function of art is actually to strengthen civic engagement by deepening categories of thought, by producing more intense ways of thinking and feeling about things, which is not the same thing as being in service to the things we are thinking and feeling.
Audience member: It is not necessarily one or the other.
SS: No, it is not. But I feel uncomfortable making that claim. If the claim is made as a way of understanding what I do, I will not disagree with it, but I won’t make the claim because I have seen too much activist art that messes up political engagement. I say this too because I am someone who also has an active political life, and that is what worries me about a lot of artistic engagement with the political.
Audience member: I guess I would just want to create a distinction between activist art – which I don’t necessarily condone – and civically engaged art, which promotes a deeper thought process into societal concerns, political motivations, teachings from history, pursuits for future cause, and a lapse and moment of interrogation that is open-ended. That for me is what Raqs is doing. This is my understanding of your artistic practice, which is the absolute epitome of civic engagement, par excellence. It does not read as ‘I am a democratic citizen because I voted in the ballot.’ It is about wanting to be a democratic citizen because ‘I constantly question my government, my society, everything, and I want the betterment of it to no end.’ That to me is a valuable way of pursuing politics.
SS: But that is the function of all artistic practice. It should never be seen as the reason why art practice is of consequence, because the fact that it exists is important. I am weary of the way in which we, as artists, derive the legitimacy of our work from a presentation of our civic engagements. That is what scares me a little. I have seen that go wrong more often than not.
SP: That is of great value. [What Shuddha is talking about] is very prevalent in India. Obviously, the cases Shuddha is talking about are global, but this trap about artists legitimizing themselves with political motivations through their art is extremely problematic in a space like India.
SS: If artists were legitimizing their political engagements through their aesthetic commitments, I wouldn’t be so worried. If I say my political engagement is worthwhile because you know you should take me seriously as an artist, then I am fine with that, because artists have something to give to the world. If I think about mathematics or an 8th century institution that is relevant to our contemporary understanding of what it means to forge a democratic politics, I would say that very seriously. But if I were to say ‘you need to take my being in artist significantly because I happen to work two days of the week with working class children in Delhi [with Sarai]’, then I am not so comfortable. I cannot explain why I am uncomfortable. When I work with those children in Delhi and talk to them about an 8th century institution, then I am fine.
JD: Well, with that, I am afraid we need to wrap up. This was great. Thank you very much, Shuddha. It was a pleasure having you speak to us this evening.
All images courtesy of Raqs Media Collective
SHUDDHABRATA SENGUPTA Born in 1968 in New Delhi, Shuddhabrata Sengupta graduated in 1992 from Mass Communications Research Centre, Jamia Milia Islamia University, New Delhi. Sengupta is a media practitioner, filmmaker, and writer with the Raqs Media Collective, and one of the initiators of Sarai. His recent work involves textual explorations of aesthetics, surveillance, and cyberculture. He is currently working on a series of new media and digital culture projects at the Sarai Media Lab.
Transcribed and revised by Ali Van, edited by Daisley Kramer