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Raqs Media Collective: On Triangles, Infinity and Learning Where to Stop. -  THE END IS WHERE WE START FROM (II).
The Fuschia Tree
Editor's Note.
Conversations with artists, musicians, actors, film makers and curators on their eccentric journeys, their absurd dreams, and the manifestation of their desires and destinies...

"What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning." And with T.S.Eliot in our heads we wander into a wasteland where the lost and the forgotten are reinvented so that Nostalgia gives way to Now in the Future Perfect.
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Issue 16,The End is Where We Start from II, January 2013
The Raqs Media Collective is most often a triangle, sometimes a circle and often a shape elusive to geometry, a bubble, a building, a boat. In being, they create. In creating, they think and in reading, they make space for the unwritten. They have shown their installations all over the world, which are as firmly rooted in India as they are universal, and often timeless. Here is them sifting through their own archives…



Himali: Raqs' work often flips the hourglass that is Nostalgia and the Tomorrow (Time Capsule). As if the point of rest is merely a kinetic passageway from one to the other. How did the three of you meet? How and why did you form Raqs?

Raqs: As a nearly twenty year old practice, Raqs have a stretch of time to look back on. Sometimes nostalgia is a vehicle that takes us back to threshold points within the last twenty years. Nostalgia originally meant a kind of homesickness. An out of sorts with where you were. This means that one can even have a nostalgia for tomorrow, provided you feel you are actually an inhabitant of tomorrow, passing through today. Both these tugs - the pull of the past of our practice, and the uncanny attraction of the possibilities of tomorrow can be felt. The question contains an astute observation. Raqs do find itself in the narrow joint in the hourglass between Nostalgia and Tomorrow, sometimes flowing in one direction, sometimes in another.

The three of us met as students at the Mass Communication Research Centre (MCRC) in the Jamia Millia Islamia University in Delhi. It was a class of talented individuals and the collective energy was electric. Long nights of discussions and creating images, scripts, sounds and preposterous ideas. MCRC was at that time led by the late Dr. Habib Kidwai and he enjoyed his students doing all kinds of things and acts. The ambience was free and experimental.

Our practice is animated by the energy we perceived in bouncing ideas off each other. We literally throw things at each other all the time: ideas, images, conjectures, and have thus learnt to be agile, both to throw and to catch all the missiles. This process (of play, argument, discussion, creation) has a kinetic charge. Our name has two terms, Raqs and Collective that point towards kinesis (Raqs is a word in Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Urdu that connotes the rotation of whirling dervishes - a sort of mobile, ecstatic, trance).

Each revolution, or rotation, each step in the dance, is an instance of the kinetic contemplation of the world.

Of a thought that moves the body. Of a movement of the body that asks a question.

It would be one thing if we had to describe the movement of a single point in space and time. But having chosen to be a trio, we are also required by the history of our practice to account for our triune velocity. We move a little bit here (through our work), a little bit there (through our notes), and a little bit, everywhere (through our questions). That is the dance that Raqs does.


Himali: What were the first days as a collective like? How often did you meet, what did you talk about? Did you have a studio? What was the very first work you created? Do you think Nostalgia was less important then?

Raqs: An apartment across the Yamuna in Patparganj was our studio for a very long time. The three of us met almost every day, regardless of whether or not there was 'work'. Work was occasional 'educational' television programs for the University Grants Commission Network, assistantship to documentary filmmaker Pankaj Butalia on his long documentary Moksha, TV episodes for Sanjay Kak, and writing assignments for the arts pages of Economic Times, then under the editorship of Sadanand Menon, along with film and theatre criticism for the Pioneer under Chitra Padmanabhan and Kajal Ghosh, and the Indian Express under Ranjani Rajgopal. These were times when newspapers would allow for serious long reviews of art and culture.

It was during this time that we started a long research towards an essay film that we hoped to make on Anthropology and Photography in the Andaman Islands. We had a grant to do the research from Alan Fountain of Channel 4 in London. He had been a active supporter of experimental documentary works from the global South. Alan left Channel 4 and the film never got made. What it did was to instill in us a sustained interest in memory and measurement along with a habit of regular meeting, discussions, travel, taking notes, finding things out and, crucially, visiting archives. We read a lot, went to libraries, went to screenings and exhibitions, talked a lot, saw loads of films and made forays into making documentaries for television. This was also the period we embarked on a long research on the history and practice of cinematography in India with C.K. Muralidharan, one of the most exciting cinematographers working in Mumbai right now. This research was from the first batch of proposals funded by the then just-initiated India Foundation for the Arts. Over the four years of research, we saw the work of many incredible cinematographers and enjoyed amazing late night conversations with the late Subrata Mitra and the late K.K. Mahajan, two stalwarts who have transformed cinematographic possibilities and ambition in India.  

Around 1998, we felt the need for a more stable base for our practice and to connect in a sustained way to other kinds of scholarship and practices. It was at this time that we started a conversation with Ravi Vasudevan and Ravi Sundaram, who were both faculty at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. And we began exploring with them the possibility of initiating an inter-disciplinary platform for research and practice that would address the urban experience, and specifically, the city of Delhi. It was this process that led to the formation of the Sarai Program, which we co-founded at CSDS, in 2000. This was facilitated by Sarai's institutional collaboration with Waag Society, Amsterdam, the organization that Ravi Sundaram knew well from earlier, and also an active intellectual dialogue with new media theorist Geert Lovink, and the evolving Free Software movement. From 2000, for about ten years, we were primarily based in Sarai, and we moved eventually to our own studio in 2010.

The first works we created were short films and videos. The very first work, as a not-yet-Raqs, was a short 16mm fiction film (now lost) called 'Half the Night Left, and the Universe to Comprehend' - for a workshop with the German filmmaker Johann Feindt at the Max Mueller Bhavan in 1991. It was long on ambition, and raw, and tried to do too many things in one small film, but was a great learning experience, and it gave us the sense that there was something out there in the world that bore our names and that it was not a 'student' project. Then, we made a short film called 'Present Imperfect, Future Tense' in 1996, about the life of four young people, and two photographers, for an Irish youth group. Then we made a series of thirteen television films for Doordarshan III called 'Growing Up' about the childhood and adolescence of interesting writers, artists, scientists and intellectuals. We travelled all over the country to do this, met many interesting people, and found ways to compress entire lives into short spans of time. DDIII was a short-lived but an excellent attempt at innovative television and it's first Director, Ms Jai Chandiram brought in a range of filmmakers to do projects.

The first work that we made (produced at the Sarai Media Lab) for an art context was 'Global Village Health Manual, Ver.1.0'  for an exhibition titled 'Print.Com', curated by Amit Mukhopadhyay in 2000 at Max Mueller Bhavan. It was an interesting, if eccentric show; we showed the html-based work on a CD Rom on a free standing linux computer. It was perhaps the first time that a computer had been used to show an art work in an exhibition in India. Our next work was the 'Co-Ordinates of Everyday Life', which came out of a year's research and shooting, investigating the relationship between legality, illegality, habitation and the making of the daily life of a city. This was shown first in Documenta 11, Kassel, in 2002 on the invitation by Okwui Enwezor. Since then, we have worked mainly within contemporary art, with forays into research, architecture, teaching and writing.


Himali: Your most recent works, such as The Philosophy of the Namak Haraam or The Great Bare Mat & Constellation, are almost imaginary. They seem to create objects that don't yet exist, as receptacles for knowledge and ideas that are as yet adrift in the ether. How are pieces such as these inspired?

Raqs: Well, they occupy a place both in the imagination, as concepts, and in reality, as concrete, materialized objects or as constellations of objects. But both kinds (concept or embodied materiality) invoke possibilities. Both works act as invitations. The first (The Philosophy of the Namak Haraam) to the possibility of seeded, transverse readings of a canon, as to how to read a book when all the words have left the printed page, or, how to 'insert' the words of one book into the folds of another, and let the insertion take its consequences in a public manner; and the second - to the possibility of debate and conversation, as to how to make a carpet a place to sit on and consider how different lives 'taste'.


Himali: Which brings me to meaning. You have often experimented with doing away with meaning by enhancing meaning. Such as in The Librarian's Lucid Dream. Where, in your work and in your lives, is the vanishing point of fact, and the beginning of fiction? Why is it important to make these invisibles visible?

Raqs: You can never do away with meaning, because meaning doesn't ever let go of you. There is no human act or gesture that is also not a sign. We sign to ourselves, to our own interiority, or to the seemingly unending emptiness of interstellar space, at all times. And we are always signing to everything between these two polarities. The world is also a playful and troubled archive. And everything in it is an incomplete file, a perforated index card. We track the slippages and stains and try to make another figure out of them. Most of the time we are working with highly visible things. It is just by detouring it to another route that a new sense and new value gets produced.  

This space of signs is a space for serendipity, a performative space, an arena of stories, haunted, enchanted, charmed and cursed. It could be said that it is a space where you have to enter with the nose of a detective and exit with the eyes of a poet.  Fact can tend towards dreaming, and a dream can lean towards a fact.


Himali: I love Raqs' philosophy of embracing multiplicity: showing at diverse venues in diverse locations, utilizing multiple mediums, being multiple people in multiple roles, a kind of 'Escapement'. What is this condition of 'many' like? Is it easier and more honest or is it sometimes hard to find the consistent thread, the overwhelming narrative?

Raqs: To be a collective it is not enough to simply understand the arithmetic of being more than one, of being three, or many, or plural. Alain Badiou, in 'On Number and Numbers' asks - "Isn't another idea of number necessary in order for us to turn thought back against the despotism of number, in order that the subject might be subtracted from it?"

What can this 'other idea of number' be?

What is required is the everyday working through of a geometry of relationship such that the 'work' happens in the angles formed by the linking of the arms of a figure.

In our specific case, this produces a triangulation, which can be acute, oblique or equilateral, depending on the circumstances. Any cones of any triangle can find mooring in any space that is prepared to receive their pointedness. Triangles can nest in figures shaped to receive them. Collectives can find anchorage in collectivities larger than themselves.

The data sets that astronomers work with at present are so dense that they require collaborative linkages between various capabilities and locations for us to even begin to make sense of them. However, this collaborative imperative does not preclude the possibility of individual acuteness and insight around the same material.

The same could be said about the times we live in. The complexity of contemporaneity is so multifaceted that we need a vast array of practices and sensibilities to be in sustained dialogue with each other in order to even begin making sense of where we are in culture today.

This balance between a collaborative engagement as well as an alertness to a singular sensibility is what we strive for in our practice. We see this as a form of travel. As in all such journeys, you strike up conversations with travellers that continue, even as paths fork, diverge, and intersect. Our 'work' in the Raqs collective grows in this way. The first set of conversations is between the three of us, and then there is an expanded field of conversations, with many forking paths, with many fellow travellers and guests.

Often, the signal to begin any movement, even a straightforward practice run, is the simple articulation of the first three numbers. One (Ready), Two (Steady), Three (Go).  It is said that all accounts of the world can be simplified into a three-step operation. Herein lie the beginnings of mathematics, philosophy, performance, literature and of every attempt to speculate about the world. There is me, (one), there is you, (two), and then there are many (three). Three marks the beginning of plenitude, the escape from the prison of I-and-thou, self and other, into the world.

With the number three, the first wild card, the first odd prime, our account of the world takes us out of the interlocked prison of the dyad of either opposition or reflection or echo. Three is the key move as well as the option out of the treadmill of the dialectic. With three, we begin to understand plurality and plenitude, to ascend the ladder of the calculus. It is with three that we begin to glimpse infinity.


Himali: If Raqs could live on four foods (you have these in abundance), including the essentials like salt, water, gin, what would they be? Four books and four pieces of music? (This is the 'sparing down in the much' experiment) :)

Raqs:

Four Essentials-

Fish (Pabda or to give its proper taxonomic name - Ompok Pabo) Green Chillies

Bread, not wheat, but rye

Wine - a robust red, a merlot.

Four (or more) Pieces of Music-

'Bhanwra Bada Nadaan Hai' sung by Geeta Dutt from Guru Dutt's film - Sahib, Bibi aur Ghulam.

Suman Sridhar, singing Muskaane Jhuti Hain, from the soundtrack to Talaash

Sneha Khanwalkar's 'O Womaniya' from the Gangs of Wasseypur soundtrack

Glenn Gold's rendition of Johann Sebastian Bach's Goldberg Variations - the later recordings.

Youtube downloads of the late Vikram Singh Khandura singing Rabindranath Tagore's song 'Amar Shokol Niye Boshe Aacchi, Shorbonasher Aashaye' (I sit waiting with all I have, in the hope of your apocalypse)

Amy Winehouse, singing 'Back to Black'

Four Books-

A book by Keigo Higashino, preferably a mathematical murder mystery, probably - 'The Devotion of Suspect X'

 The Mahabharata (because there is nothing that is not there)

The Total Library (Borges, a library of libraries)

Das Capital (Karl Marx)


Himali: 'When the Scales Fall from [one's] Eyes', what would you advise a young thinker?

Raqs: Never be afraid to betray yourself, choose only the best adversaries and learn where to stop, as you are likely to become like your adversary.


Himali: We began with questions of time. Lets end there too. The no. 8 turned 90 degrees, is a symbol for infinity. What are Raqs' thoughts on infinity (Premonition)? Is it something to be afraid of, or does it release us from constraint? And what should we make of the idea that some infinities are bigger than others?

Raqs: You want to return to time. Very well, but infinity is not eternity. We are very comfortable with infinity. But we would not want to condemn anyone to an eternity of anything.

The one thing you can say about infinity is that it has room for everyone. There is an infinity of irrational numbers (decimals) even between any two whole numbers, say two and three. That is what we learn, for instance, from the madness of mathematician Georg Cantor.

Closer home, there are four remarkable 'Pauris' (verses) in the Japji Saheb composed by Nanak (and traditionally, the entire Japji is contained in the opening segment of the Guru Granth Sahib, the scripture of the Sikh faith). These Pauris talk about numberless worlds beyond our own, and about the many kinds of countlessnesses (asankh): countless meditations, countless virtues, countless vices, countless sins, countless acts of kindness and generosity, and countless possibilities.

Thinking in these terms can act as a kind of release. As artists, it means we never have to repeat ourselves (even if we occasionally do) because there is no restriction or limit to the way in which the imagination can turn a thought or an image. Immanuel Kant tells us that there is nothing that we can do to be prevented from thinking. No thought is impossible. That is good news for artists, isn't it?


The Raqs Media Collective is comprised of Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta. They live and work in New Delhi.The stories behind their conceptual art can be found on http://www.raqsmediacollective.net/.

Himali Singh Soin is a writer with a home in Delhi and tents everywhere.

Also in this issue


Illusion: Seeing Beyond Seeing
Meaning: In Search of Significance.
Melody: A Different Tune
Rhythm: Ordering Time

Dhrupadi Ghosh is an old friend of mine. We have often had long sessions of adda late at night, discussing her dream projects since her college days at Santiniketan, where she majored in Sculpture.