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Interview with Artistic Director Raqs Media Collective

By Pat Binder and Gerhard Haupt, 21 August 2020

 Raqs Media Collective: Shuddhabrata Sengupta, Monica Narula, and Jeebesh Bagchi

Raqs Media Collective: Shuddhabrata Sengupta, Monica Narula, and Jeebesh Bagchi
© Photo: Raqs Media Collective

Binder & Haupt: Your poetic concept Afterglow, amplified by the reverberations and resonances of the Sources which you have shared at the beginning of the Triennial's curatorial journey last year, contains statements which today appear as disquietingly prophetic. Here we just quote a few: "Nothing that does not live need be concerned with a toxin." "The handling of death, of infectious disease, of human and animal waste, and of the residues of production was not for people with time, power, and wealth." "Life, the universe, the world, and the time of each day disintegrates and gets re-constituted through innumerable acts, incrementally rebuilding through luminous care." Although being aware that they refer to broader spiritual, social, or environmental issues, one cannot help but to think of the pandemic situation, even when reading about a "narrow space where your shadow just shies away from meeting theirs." How do you handle the fact that your curatorial approach might be seen mainly through a Covid-19 lens?

Raqs Media Collective: One of the senses of the word "afterglow" is to be within spectral conditions. The intuition of the contagion, the toxic, and the imperative of care comes from being within many spectral and subterranean presences. One question that has been troubling us for some time has been the ever-growing recognition of toxins in contemporary life, and a refusal to learn from the folly and cruelty that was and still is unleashed by this.

An old and obvious instance has been our civilisation’s inability to live with toxins. Caste within Indic civilisation produces graded discrimination as a method to organise knowledge, labour, and toxins. Toxins produced the ‘outcaste.’ An inability to take care of the presence of the toxic - an epiphenomenon of waste from life and its production processes - plays out as a fear of contact, of contagion, of miscegenation, even in the meeting of shadows. Voices from the life-worlds of the "banished" tell us how immensely unjust and brutal this form of "safe-keeping" of the life of some has been to the life of many.

The ‘unequal distribution of toxicity’, however, is a phenomenon that is global in nature. Capital’s monstrous hunger and impatience have accelerated it. The civilisational blunder, the impasse, an un-thinking with the toxic that we find in India needs to inform and caution the world. This has to be thought with in the world today to find egalitarian principles to the measure of toxicity. This calling we have termed "care with toxicity".

In a short essay a couple of years ago that signposted our thinking with toxicity at the time, we wrote, "The predicament of being human involves the production of waste on a monumental scale. This is generally called civilization; sometimes it is simply a copper smelter. This is not a matter that can be resolved metabolically, or bio-chemically. It doesn’t just all get sublimated, recycled, or used-up in some arithmetically sorted way that leaves the debit and credit sides of production, consumption, waste, want, and excess all neatly squared up. Each hillock of refuse at the outskirt of every city represents a demand made by the present on the future, with no promise of recompense, until the archaeologists come calling." The temporal horizon of the question we were raising was not bounded by the present moment. Similarly, the condition we are thinking with now has a reality independent of the sweeping viral force of the current pandemic.

The present pandemic does skew our attention to current urgencies. In a way, it is double-edged. It brings in an acute attention to words and works, their insights and tonality, and that is needed for art to newly address the present. However, to reduce a large gathering of works only through the optic and anxiety of a pandemic would be unfair.

Going by responses, it seems something else is also happening. The attention to the two moves that the encounter with art can engender: one, of finding within ourselves and our milieu an unfathomable spread, and two, of a feeling of being transported into alien and unfamiliar places and times - both of these are being recognised. The urgencies and stillnesses of works and worlds have become entangled. Finding ways of dismantling and reconfiguring our own urgencies with others is a form of ‘luminous care’.

Binder & Haupt: Apart from acting as "curators of knowledge," you have brought about a site- and time-specific exhibition, both for distant and proximate viewers. Could you describe several examples of how did the artists crystallize the inspiration drawn from your sources and conversations? How did new artworks change along the way due to the unusual production challenges, and how previously created or conceived artworks are re-read now in the current context? For example, we were listening to Naeem Mohaiemen in an online discussion recently, where he said that his feature film was focused on a "couple refusing medical treatment" which seemed to him now "like a conversation from another time." But then he showed a sequence from his film, which appears extraordinarily relevant, because in a terminal situation "believers have more of a centre of calm, whereas for rationalists, it is a profoundly confounding moment, because you want to believe in the mastery of humans, the doctors, scientists to overcome this moment..."

Raqs Media Collective: One of the question that we are grappling is: how do you attend to the world. To ‘attend’ implies a sense of attentiveness, and also an exploration of capacity. These are qualities that are present in everyone in different measures, both at the level of the quotidian and also at the level of the exceptional. The measure may fluctuate from being very sparse to an overflow. This reading could also apply to milieus and institutions. We initiated our conversation with artists with this query. Each and every conversation surprised us and gave us a kind of lateral spread. Like walking a shoreline with the sense of the sea and the sky constantly changing.

We remember meeting with Masaru Iwai, who described working with radioactive waste after the 2011 tsunami, earthquake and Fukushima nuclear collapse. To him acts of cleaning are our accursed share of being human on this earth, and an acknowledgment of the fact that our lives are the after-life of those who have gone before us. He has taken the act of cleaning to a rare place where it is able to be both poetic and analytical – gently pointing to the troubled histories of cleaning.

Amol Patil’s works in Plot 48 have drawn into the exhibition the upheaval and rebellious spirit which refuses to be condemned to life curtailed by toxicity and its unequal burdens. For the artist collective Make or Break (from Sydney), it was to find an architecture of interaction that could bring in care, with a sensibility of corrosion. The very many bridges of Yokohama became a trigger, and exquisitely re-created bridge balustrades are placed in the exhibitionary to be observed, and cleaned with saltwater. In the very act of cleaning, lies their everyday, and their demise.

Artists continuously pose and investigate questions of the "perimeter of the self". These perimeters are constructed through generations and relations, through institutions, through journeys, and they do not obey rules of normative belonging and boundaries. They breach hard-held markers and checkpoints. This exploration and disobedience is to be found in so many of the works. The sources that we offered in the Sourcebook were in some ways able to alert many of us to the shadows and luminosity of caring as a practice. This is a method (and mischief) of auto-didacticism and of discovering, as much as it is of inventing new procedures of living.

Since you mention Naeem Mohaiemen’s new work, it will be necessary to underline that we hold the work differently from the way Naeem narrated it in that discussion. To us Naeem’s film (Those who do not drown) is about the junction in which we enter an unknown place produced by a duration of care to allow a life to rest. What is the nature of this duration? How is the world stitched when the overwhelming sense is of drifting and breaking apart? The film stays in that zone with patience and elegance, with the building, and the dysfunctional medical instruments, with hesitant speech and brooding silence, and the indifferent city doing its own grinding work on our consciousness. It manages the difficult act of not dimming us to the future, even as it prepares us for it. Pandemic or no pandemic, the work will stand. When he talked about the film, showed us the rushes or discussed the script, we always felt that an inchoate expression was finding an exploration, and a making.

In this same discussion, Ivana Franke reminded us that Monica asked her in a WhatsApp message in February 2019, 'Ivana can you make a building disappear?' The question was possible because, as she beautifully says, there is a shared deep-time of a practice. Conversations nest in that deep-time and they become part of the making of a work.

Binder & Haupt: Already in November 2019 you started a series of events in different countries which could be followed online, which you call "Episōdos" to expand the conversations in time and space, ahead of the proper exhibition in Yokohama. Could you portray one or two as example of how they work? With the pandemia they have acquired a special importance and autonomy, are they the kind of formats which will prevail in the near future?

Raqs Media Collective: Time, infrastructure, and how to multiply have been our concerns for a long time. In our institutional innovations (Sarai, Cybermohalla, City as Studio) as well as our curatorial practice this has been tested and explored at some length. For example, in Shanghai Biennale we created and worked with an infra-curatorial process — different kinds of curatorial sensibilities and intelligences working together and enfolded into the exhibition. Similarly, 51 Personae extended the Biennale into the city, and Theory Opera brought different kinds of sensoriums and knowledges into the exhibition.

We see the Episōdos in this trajectory, but a few things are specific to their process. Firstly, they extend the experience of time to a much longer durée in the expression of the Triennale, and argue against the reduction of time in such large processes to only the specific concentration of the exhibitionary. Secondly, they address the place-fixation of a city-funded event (like the Triennale) by dispersing a deliberative amplitude into other places. The Deliberations on Discursive Justice ensemble (Lantian Xie, Kabelo Malatsie, and Michelle Wong) took this opportunity to propose Johannesburg and Hong Kong as places of extension, and modes such as an after-party, a scenography, and a chase to produce a high intensity, low infrastructure event-field which could bring in many more. This is the link to a remarkably calibrated moment of digital publicness of the Jo’burg Episōdo. They use a combination of commentary and conversation to talk about entropy, boundaries, fugitives, fish, heron, grills, corridors, copper, motorcycle, realms of illegality, precarity and preciousness, and thoughts about justice -- before their capture by the binary of perpetuator and victim.

Episōdo 04, Institute for Tropical and Galactical Studies, by Inti Guerrero investigates dimensions of the collection of the Yokohama Museum of Art itself - the exhibitionary site of the Triennale - and suggests a possibility of a decolonising and queering re-scripting of the collection.

Sure Inn, Episōdo 05, will be a massive and exuberant collective artistic production, part online and part offline. It is a kind of border-crossing between China, Korea and Japan, alert to wounds and silences, and finding ways to converse, make, melt unrelenting differences, challenging dominant geo-political identities and obduracies.

Episōdo X, on other hand, is an online eXtension of the Triennale, intended to change every day. It is a specific response to the sudden realignment of the digital when confronted with the pandemic. In Broom Stars (Episōdo 06), Masaru Iwai has dissolved his presence, and acts within the fine grain of life with others: We encounter hundreds of people with personalised and expressive masks reflecting on the process of cleaning through acts of sweeping in homes, streets, and the museum, and images are shared online on the Instagram handle @broom_stars.

We are confident of the efficacy of Episōdo as a form. We hope that, as a model, it is discussed and analysed. Many kinds of genealogies and connections with other practices will emerge. It can provide an experimental, mobile, malleable, scalable, and intensive modality in which to "do" contemporary art. The ease with which artists and curators have played with this form in the Triennale -- transforming it, layering it, extending it -- shows it already carries an internal capacity to mutate and morph. It allows a startling range of persons, overlooked geographies, and minor histories to gather energies.

Binder & Haupt: At the end of your online discussion broadcasted on 7th August with Triennale artists, Shuddhabrata briefly touched upon a question, which we would like to pick up again. If we remember well, you said that there is an internal logic of these Triennale/Biennale events with a high-energy concentration, people coming together, massive production and consumption of artworks. Did the Yokohama Triennale loose some of that energy because of the pandemic, or did it gain other qualities or types of awarenesses? Will there be a new logic of how artists work, or work together, or show their work as a result of what was gained from this experience?

Raqs Media Collective: This is a difficult question. What does the loss of the moment of physical and spatial synchronicity between artists, and between artists and public mean? Surely one aspect is that one isn’t able to speak to and sense each others’ work and persona. The body senses an artwork in ways that surprise and which stay in uncanny ways. That cannot be substituted.

Critically, daily rhythms with late night intoxication and joviality are interrupted. This a-temporal break we miss deeply. In Shanghai, the blue carpet phenomenon of extended collective lingering to overcome the day’s exhaustion by reciting poetry in the hotel lobby is now a metaphor between us all for a revelrous embodiment of artist-gathering.

But the crucial question now is what is this new time that we are living in, and what are these new emotions and relations that we are sensing, and having to make meaning of. There is an enormous empathy that we can see in finding temporal synergy as we try and synchronise our distant clocks. This was probably how the curatorial team at YT could install such a complex exhibition without the physical presence of artists and artistic directors. The ‘footprint’ of the Triennale expanded to resemble the shadow of a roving satellite in a near-earth orbit, and the tug of submarine cables.

This has become a "big" experience because its dimensions are uncharted and unknown. Everyone has a certainty that the pandemic is something that will alter the way we think art, and how we inhabit and move between places. We all will be seeing a large fluctuation of scale and composition of art worlds, along with similar compression and de-compression in the world.

The informal walkthrough with and for the artists and us on the evening of the opening, with all of us dispersed in our different locations, made the event have a degree of heightened presence, and we feel this will only gain momentum over time. This was among the earliest contemporary art exhibition openings that happened across so many time-zones, and this creates a different quality of awareness and attention. In the ‘informal’ meeting that ensued, which we call ‘Blue Carpet Assemblies’, the spirit was to find each other, meet across present uncertainty, and find a form of touch.

Here we want to quote an insightful comment that came to the Discursive Justice ensemble (after the Blue Carpet Assembly following the Episōdo02/Johannesburg walkthrough) from the artist DK who was an observer-participant in the event: "In the discussion, some members of the DJ ensemble also spoke about the turn towards intimacy in contemporary artistic practice. This made me think of awkwardness. Is the discomfiture of awkwardness a particularly intense, albeit tangential, form of experiencing the intimate or is it a deferral of that intensification? In trying to think more concretely about those transversal flows of affect, that flow without being captured into specific subjectivities, I was also led back the question of the refusal of the (auto)biographic. What indeed would a non-biographic intimacy look like?"

These questions will accelerate now and, honestly, we don’t quite know the scale. But we do know that between installation and quarantine, between gathering and distancing, something has altered; the realm of the division of experience and seeing, of the confident separation of primary, secondary and tertiary has been scrammed. Something is changing. And it is a bit of an unknown time.

(The interview with Monica Narula, Jeebesh Bagchi, and Shuddhabrata Sengupta of Raqs Media Collective was conducted via email by Pat Binder and Gerhard Haupt, Universes in Universe, on 21 August 2020)

More in UiU:

Yokohama Triennale 2020

17 July - 11 October 2020

Yokohama, Japan

Title: Afterglow (see the concept)

Artistic Director: Raqs Media Collective

Participants: 67 artists and groups

Organizers: City of Yokohama, Yokohama Arts Foundation, Japan Broadcasting Corporation (NHK), The Asahi Shimbun, and Organizing Committee for Yokohama Triennale

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