Activist Listeners

raqs plane

Raqs Media Collective, There Has Been a Change of Plan , 2006

Operating from Delhi since the early 1990s, Raqs Media Collective has developed a multifaceted body of work with a unique take on globalized culture. Mixing contemporary art with historical and philosophical theory, their diverse work consists of a wide range of old and new media techniques, including image-text collages, installations, performances, and media objects.

Reflecting on the politics of mobility and dislocation, There Has Been a Change of Plan (2007) is a series of photographs of derelict airplanes. Showing removed noses, damaged wings, or other states of ruin, the work is an invitation to pause and converse about the “debris of the unrealizable.”

Raqs’ projects are open-ended, often incorporating open-sourced networks. OPUS [Open Platform for Unlimited Signification] (2001 onwards), for instance, is an online database of artist-submitted artworks. Conceived in the spirit of open-source software development, it’s an online space that enables visitors to view, create, and exhibit media objects, as well as appropriate and modify work originally produced by others. The collective’s devotion to free and open culture can also be seen in The Sarai Program at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies in Delhi. Sarai, a network of artists and scholars, produces interdisciplinary research and practice on urban space, media, and information, all of which is subsequently placed in the public domain.

Raqs Media Collective reaches well beyond the confines of the art world to appeal to communities both on and off line. “Raqs” translates into “dance” in Farsi, Arabic, and Urdu. But founding members Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula, and Shuddhabrata Sengupta once jokingly stated, however, that raqs stands for “rarely asked questions.”

NIELS VAN TOMME: Let’s start with the beginning: How was Raqs Media Collective formed? To which conditions did it respond?

RAQS MEDIA COLLECTIVE: 2009 marks the 18th year of our work together. In 1991, we were new graduates from a film & media school in Delhi (the Mass Communication Research Centre, Jamia Millia Islamia University) who had enjoyed the experience of collaborating. We then officially came together, wanting to continue exploring the documentary form as a collective.

The years 1991 to 2000 were spent chasing several essay-film proposals (that never got made), writing reviews for newspapers, working as assistants with other filmmakers, working as researchers, technicians, and producers on the fringes of the television industry in Delhi and making the occasional short film.

During this time, we traveled extensively across India. We pursued an oral history project on cinematography and camerawork that enabled us to have many long conversations with veteran cinematographers, some of whom were at that time struggling with neglect and amnesia. We were also active in the discussions within the expanding documentary film and video scene in India and spent long hours chasing ghosts in different archives. We had conversations with bystanders on the fringes of weekly anti-nuclear protests, read voraciously, and sometimes to each other, saw films and plays and wrote reviews of them for newspapers, and stayed awake throu gh late night screenings of Bollywood films in grubby cinema halls. We generally kept ourselves going, high on enthusiasm and low on income and prospects, but with a cheer born of friendship, solidarity, and the evolution of a shared vision of practice.

In the late 1990s, the coalition of power in New Delhi — led by a right-wing party with avowed revivalist aims — had set off India’s second set of nuclear tests, ushering in a climate of intense anxiety. A new aggressive, triumphalist belligerence, buoyed by a discourse made up in equal parts of euphoria and paranoia, seemed to thicken the air. Everything from textbooks to the scripts of films and news bulletins on television were being written to the tune of a manic nationalism.

There was an urgency for a space for critical reflection, for practice forged on new terms. And it was during this period that our conversation with Ravi Sundaram and Ravi Vasudevan (both scholars at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, an independent research center and think tank with strong dissident credentials and a reputation for critical theoretical reflection) consolidated itself in the creation of Sarai in 2000. We wanted to build a space equally hospitable to intellectual rigor and creative dynamism. The challenge was to build new streams of public knowledge focused on the city as a space of communication and exchange, as a site for an intense level of media activity of all kinds. At the same time, we wanted to create a space that, through its practices, would question the protocols of entry and access to networks of knowledge, such that the production and nurturing of knowledge itself could become a democratic imperative.

NIELS VAN TOMME: You describe the Sarai Program as a “research center, publishing house, cafe, conference house, cinema, software laboratory and studio for digital art and design.” What have you achieved with it since its inception and what are you still aiming for?

RAQS MEDIA COLLECTIVE: Sarai was a specific response to what we felt were the institutional crises of cultural and intellectual life at the turn of the 21st century. These were: a flawed, insecure contemporaneity that saw itself in terms of lack and anxiety, a poverty of sustained interdisciplinary dialogue, hermetic separations between the domains of practice and theory, a suspended engagement with the city and with urban conditions, and a failure to address or recognize communication, information, and media as objects of creative engagement or philosophical reflection. Apart from all this, there was nothing at that time that could offer hospitality to new and emerging practices, that archived contemporary culture, that even offered young people a safe space to be together and think freely outside institutional constraints.

The nine years of Sarai have seen an enormous change in all these areas. The Sarai fellowships have produced a tide of contemporary practice and practitioners. Forms that had no chance of developing a sustained body of practice in India, such as the graphic novel, sound art, software art, and performance, now have stable bodies of work around them, partly thanks to Sarai fellowships. We kick-started the revolution in the opening up of Indian languages to cyberspace through early interventions in free and open source software for Indian languages. Now there is a burgeoning new public sphere on the internet in Hindi and other languages that is directly attributable to Sarai’s efforts in the field. The robust challenges to censorship and self-censorship and the tyranny of intellectual property that have emerged in the last few years in India can be traced back to an extent to the work that began at the Sarai Program. Our preliminary investigations into surveillance, into the vibrant cultures of piracy and into the interface between politics, political economy, and information are beginning to yield a lively public debate on these issues. And a large number of questions that are now commonplace factors of public discourse — from the state of the urban environment to issues of eviction and displacement as a result of urban “redevelopment” to the rights of queer people in India — were in many ways first “aired” within the hospitable safety of the Sarai cafe, and on electronic discussion lists hosted by the Sarai website.

An enormous range and number of people have passed through the program over the last nine years. People have come to Sarai for events and conferences, for screenings and workshops, as designers and artists, as writers and readers, as interns and residents, or just to have coffee and conversations and feel unburdened of the heavy load of intellectual hierarchies and orthodoxies. Next year we plan to release ten new books, which range from comic books to a new issue of the Sarai Reader. We plan to launch some ideas that we hope can act as probes into new areas of practice and reflection. We’re currently working within the framework of Sarai to embed enduring yet provisional and lightweight studio situations for constellations of artists and practitioners into the fabric of the city of Delhi. We hope that this will allow us to work in a capillary vein within the city, infusing interstitial urban spaces with new cultural and artistic energies.

NIELS VAN TOMME: Notwithstanding your very active work as cultural workers and activists with Sarai, as artists you refuse to take an activist position. Why do you find it important to define a significant part of your work as “art practice”? Why is such distinction necessary?

RAQS MEDIA COLLECTIVE: Activism, in the sense that it often gets framed, presumes a separation (and a hierarchy) between living, reflecting, creation, and action. We do not accept these distinctions. For us, an ethical and political strain runs through every aspect of life-practice, including those that are silent, or only apparently inactive.

raqs escapement
Raqs Media Collective, Escapement, 2009

The Viennese satirist Karl Kraus once said, “Those who now have nothing to say because actions are speaking continue to talk. Let him who has something to say come forward and be silent.” We think silence is not given its due in the world. Silence is important, because you can’t listen effectively if there is no space created through silence around any given instance of speech. Though we use text and words quite often, we have often preferred to work through an ethic of listening rather than speaking aloud. If we could be described as activists, then the only way would be to see (or hear) us as “activist listeners.” We listen to everything.

We understand the importance of bearing witness to the world but insist that there is no right and true way in which to bear witness. The language of witnessing is capable of infinite subtlety and delicacy, and allows for sustained exploration or ambiguities as much as it enables swift and sure slogans. The contemporary world is enthralled by the fear and delight produced by commodities; it is insecure about questions of identity, belonging and sovereignty. These issues demand not just “activism” but also sustained reflection. And the prerogative of activism (while not unimportant in itself) can never be allowed to replace, or overwhelm, the sustained need for reflection, and the creation of new contexts, ambiences, and situations for enacting new and different responses to our complex world.

NIELS VAN TOMME: Sightings is a series of photographs of decaying architecture. Taken together, these images seem to indicate the possibility of an entire map of the world that can be deciphered from the close observation of walls that need renovation. Could you elaborate on this remarkable project?

RAQS MEDIA COLLECTIVE: We have this habit of walking around in Delhi or any other city we get to spend time in. These are walks without much orientation or intent. These walks open us to various ways in which a surface emerges, peels off, and vanishes. Walks have a quality of arresting you to slower rhythms. Sightings emerged from a surface that we encountered in our neighborhood. The wall opened itself to an amazing range of imagining. Forgotten places, mythical places, real places, cartographic habits — they all made their way into our conversation with that wall. So many lives were peopled in it.

NIELS VAN TOMME: You received international recognition with installations that suggest complex relationships between different media such as video, still images, text, sound, software, performance, sculpture, and found objects. In which way do these installations differ from your earlier film work?

RAQS MEDIA COLLECTIVE: Clearly, they differ formally. And the formal difference follows from our view of the way the different mediums can be put to work. Film is mainly a single-channel medium, with a linear presence in time. The reason why we have on occasion abandoned single-channel formats is because we have often found it necessary to project on to more than one surface, use different temporal registers to express different ideas in a single work, and mix sound, image, objects, text, and textures of more than one kind.

The education of filmmakers in film schools involves an immersion in a wide range of disciplines. As a film student, you are expected to engage with theatre, photography, literature, sound and music, graphic design, and visual culture in general. These are thought of as essential inputs, the absorption of which shapes a cinematic sensibility. All of these influences are supposed to flow into the making of your scripts and storyboards.

Somehow, in our case, these “influences” did not subordinate themselves to the making of our “filmmaker” selves. They continued to hold a place in our practice independent of any one master-narrative. The many-headed hydra of our practice emerges from this entanglement with different forms. This is what makes our practice a growing, constantly transforming constellation of different modes of doing and making things.

NIELS VAN TOMME: You often explore the nature of knowledge, learning, and creativity. In which way can we engage differently with such notions through art and culture compared to more straightforward channels of pedagogy?

RAQS MEDIA COLLECTIVE: We remember well what it is to forge one’s ideas, not with books in sumptuous libraries, but with faded, smudged, stained photocopies of texts passed eagerly from hand to hand in the days before the internet. This experience of “knowing” can never be separated from the solidarity and sharing that underwrote the knowledge. It also implied that the sources of knowledge never had for us a somber, authoritative totality. When your library is a patchwork of torn pages, your learning has to be a matter of live improvisation more than it can ever be a performance of leaden completeness.

As incorrigible autodidacts, we have a good sense of the pleasures and perils of swimming the rough currents of knowledge. In our understanding, nothing, not even what you call “straightforward pedagogy,” can communicate a sense of these pleasures and perils better than art. Most importantly, as autodidacts, we have a good measure of the radical incompleteness of our intellectual horizons. This does not limit our practice; rather, it fuels our quests. The space of contemporary art today is hospitable to this experience of a joyous radical incompleteness of knowledge. That is why art practice allows us to develop and nurture our keen awareness of what we “do not know” as an instrument with which to forge knowledge itself.

NIELS VAN TOMME: Although internationally very active, you are still based in Delhi and often make work that directly relates to that city. Nevertheless, you refrain from labeling yourself as “Indian.” Can you explain why you prefer to identify yourself as being “from Delhi” instead?

RAQS MEDIA COLLECTIVE: As a city of around 16 million people, Delhi is a world in itself. And it is possible to think the world from Delhi. Like many contemporary global cities it is too complex an entity to allow oneself to fully belong to it, and too dynamic to produce a sense of apathy or disinterestedness. You can neither let go of it, nor let it overwhelm you. We find this challenge to maintain a fine balance between commitment and distance, which repeats itself on an everyday basis, an intellectually and affectively demanding predicament. It keeps our thinking, and all our senses, on permanent alert.

Nation-states seem either too large or too small a frame to allow a real and concrete sense of engagement with the issues of our times, be they economic realities or ecological issues like global warming (for which they are too small), or the day-to-day arrangements of people’s lives (for which they tend to be much too large). They are the blunt instruments of realpolitik, but come laden with a sense of historically ordained arbitrariness and abstraction that makes it impossible to conceive of them as organically evolved entities. The “origin myths” of national culture are usually conceived by dominant classes as ways to cover up the artifice of nation-building.

The specific histories and realities in different parts of the world do not necessarily map out in absolute accordance with the borders marked by the current system of nation-states. They are not independent of the nation-state system, but they are not identical with it. Local particularities can be larger or smaller than nation-states, depending on the question that they pertain to.

Given this reality, a more precise and acute application of national parameters (only when necessary) to questions of classification, taxonomy. and analysis of global realities is probably a better idea than the random and indiscriminate usage of the term “national” for all things, and to all ends. The application of the “national” framework in relation to the production of contemporary culture needs to be rigorously and thoroughly unpacked.

NIELS VAN TOMME: Are you currently working on any new projects?

RAQS MEDIA COLLECTIVE: We have just finished designing currency for a hypothetical Bank of Time initiated by e-flux. We are editing the eighth Sarai Reader, which is going to be on “Fear,” and are finishing a book, titled Seepage, that collects some of our writing and image and text-based essays.

We are working as dramaturges with a theatre director, who later this year is doing a new production based on Ibsen’s play John Gabriel Borkman and our texts. We are working on a long-term investigation of spaces and histories in Warsaw, Berlin, and Bombay that is likely to culminate in a work early next year. We are in the middle of designing and conceiving some public art projects that we hope will be realized sometime next year. We are working on a screen-based work that grows out of Sleepwalkers Caravan that we made last year with sculptural insertions into the urban landscape of Delhi.

So, as you can see, as always, there are many different processes in motion, and we are just as eager as our publics to see how they will unfold.

Niels Van Tomme is associate director of arts and media at Provisions Library. He is also an independent curator, art critic, and contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus. This series on new media is part of a special collaboration with Provisions Library supported by the Arca Foundation.