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Raqs Media Collective Profiled
byVagabond Reviews

Seeders, torrent files, time, old roads, city space, post taxidermist visit, missing persons, memory and fragility, monumental baggage, romanticizing the ruin.

Based in Delhi, Raqs Media Collective was formed in 1991 by Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta. They are co-founders of the Sarai Media Lab, which serves as their studio, hosts workshops and maintains, an extensive Web site containing essays, discussion groups and interactive projects. Since 2001, the lab has published the Sarai Reader, an annual anthology that focuses on one theme per issue, such as the public domain. Raqs has been included in many international exhibitions, including the 50th Venice Biennale and Documenta 11. For their first New York exhibition, "The Imposter in the Waiting Room," the group used video, photography and texts to create an installation that explored the boundaries between public and private life, especially in situations related to immigration and travel. Their work engages with urban spaces and global circuits, persistently welding a sharp, edgily contemporary sense of what it means to lay claim to the world from the streets of Delhi. At the same time, Raqs articulates an intimately lived relationship with myths and histories of diverse provenances. Raqs sees its work as opening out a series of investigations with image, sound, software, objects, performance, print, text and lately, curation, that straddle different (and changing) affective and aesthetic registers, expressing an imaginative unpacking of questions of identity and location, a deep ambivalence towards modernity and a quiet but consistent critique of the operations of power and property.

Vagabond Reviews: Our first question is to what extent would you identify your work as a project self-consciously articulated along connectivities between the local and the global?

Shuddhabrata Sengupta: When we download a torrent file and then track our downloads, we find that it is being fed by many seeders. The location of those seeders is unknown to us, but they constitute the way the software will get built in our computer. This multiplicity of places acting at each point with various effects and affects is something we have come to realize as a primary condition of life today. It's an increasingly fluid and thickening meshwork. Within this, it is extremely difficult to know the complexities of one’s own imbrication and entanglement.

This criss-cross of places is also what engenders an incomprehensible movement of materials in today’s world. All materials have a location. They have to be moved. This relation between movement and location is mired in various inequalities, opportunities, threats, dreams, nightmares and possibilities. It is here the question of the local and it's relation to movement starts tearing apart into various strains of aggression, humiliation, cunning, deception and self-enclosure.

Recently we were looking at a series of photographic and video images that we had taken a few years ago in Pittsburgh. They were of a now rarely-used road. It was marked by scars of wear and tear and occasional contingent repairs. On closer inspection it did not remain a road. Something had changed. It's confident linearity had been perforated and disrupted by other movements. Time no longer retained its homogenous confident arrow, it had become broken and angled into varying directionality and incompleteness, ruptures and new pathways, tearing and filling up.

We are trying to investigate a planet, it's turns, it's umbra, it's penumbra. It's also a personal experimentation with ourselves and the ability to construct a relation between various realities that we find ourselves merging in and emerging out from. The oscillation is between the planetary and the personal.

Vagabond Reviews: Next, a question arising from the Dublin context where a certain kind of nostalgia is expressed, for example towards the disappearance of the old indigenous shops identified with a particular era. This is an always already lost dream of conservation: we say of the city ‘you could be anywhere’. At the same time we have seen the productive momentum of other global effects such as the transformation of the Dublin docklands, a familiar sequence in cities where the warehousing of the 19th century storage spaces are transformed into professionalized living zones promising a visceral urban experience without risk. In all of this there is a sense that public art has been harnessed as a signifier for the glamorous future, rather than let’s say the critique of global capital.

Would you say that critique is part of your project and if so, would you say it’s a sort of poetics of resistance rather than fighting in the streets?

Shuddhabrata Sengupta: Walking in the dockyards on Liverpool a few years ago, we were surprised by the absence of the human and its earlier trace of active life. The containerized reality was efficient but had displaced too much. To remember when things have been superseded is always difficult. How do you write it, think it? It's difficult. Its previous image, signs of life remains unresolved, untamed in some way. These keep returning to us. A city space that permits no real engagement with its memory is like an animal after it has been to the taxidermist. Ornamental, clean, poised, gut-less and dead.

Nostalgia on the other hand can be as crippling as the demand to transform oneself or a space in the name of a 'yet-to-be experienced' future. Neighbourhoods are cleared of the people and ways of life that inhabit them, both to spruce them up for redevelopment and to restore them to bear a token fidelity to an image of what urban planners think they looked like in the past. The future claims the present in the name of the past. Capital re-makes the world in its own image, and then tells us that this is what we have always wanted to be.

The question is how do we make sense of all this in its graininess. A missing person advertisement in the newspaper is usually placed with a faded passport sized photo. When printed, these are usually high contrast images with varying degrees of blur, or loss of clarity. The accompanying text says very little beyond gross descriptions like height, clothes, features. Nothing special. Nothing memorable. These images and descriptions are what we have of the many who have moved out of their fixed habitat, or have lost their way or have found themselves in difficult, sometimes life threatening situations. But these images and texts are all you have of some deeper churning in your city.

The fractures by which we make the separation between a ‘worthy’ life and unworthy life, or gone time and coming time, shapes the way we enact ourselves in the built environment and constitute. Artists are also inhabitants. They are as much about mobility, about memory wrecking as are about lingering and memory reminding. It is a confrontation with life that shapes art and it is also this confrontation that produces enormous separation and suspension. It is artists relation to life, it's velocity, it's temporal riddles, it's dislocations that constitute the quality and durability of practice. It is important to keep reminding that art can be mobilized for counter-insurgency manoeuvres and it's relation to life is fragile, and that it needs attention and sustenance.

Vagabond Reviews: During our own research on international models of support for public art we were surprised at how much the notion of placing large objects in public space has endured. Your work spans the curatorial, and appears to have an emphasis on the statement as well as the documentary process. So maybe we could return to that monumental tradition within public art for your comments. In your curatorial essay The Rest of Now for Manifesta 7 you stated that: ‘Monuments, contrary to the stated intentions of their construction, abet forgetfulness ….’ Could you expand on that point in the context of your curatorial approach to Manifesta 7?

Shuddhabrata Sengupta: Monuments instruct us to remember that we must remember something. This is a false mnemonic, because, when faced with the magnitude of a monument, we genuflect rather than remember. It is not for nothing that the word 'monumental' indicates scale and proportion more than it does the act of memory.

In the course of our curation for Manifesta, we knew that we had to work in a building (a former Aluminium factory built during the Fascist regime in Italy) that came with a great deal of 'monumental' baggage.

We were interested in seeing how spaces like this can be working spaces. How they can generate and animate concepts and ideas rather than only be reminders of something that is lost and whose loss we have to either celebrate or mourn. So our attention was drawn to the possibilities of creating that precise balance, between the civic acts of restoration & how to work with restoration, which actually allows us to think about the presence of time in a building.

And so, we had works that actually 'exhibited' architectural restoration as a process, we had works that dealt with the history and the present realities of how aluminium is manufactured in Italy and in India, we had works that dealt with the recalcitrance of workers who refuse to leave the premises of a factory once it has been de-commissioned and we had several works that inhabited the terrain of memory not as monuments to be awed by but as mementos to be handled with care, affection and playfulness.

The problem with the nostalgic processes is that they (can) make it impossible to function in their presence - so much so that we (become) outsiders to it. Our approach to the building we were given to inhabit was to see it not as a ruin, as some baroque 'stage set' for an exhibition, but as a working space for the duration of an exhibition. We could also not afford to pretend that time has not actually passed by.

So the act of restoration and the intervention that an exhibition makes in a building like this has to be carefully crafted and balanced between the restoration that relies on erasure and the romanticizing of the ruin. It has to avoid both these kind of traps.

Established by Ailbhe Murphy and Ciaran Smyth in 2007, Vagabond Reviews is an interdisciplinary platform committed to developing creative and collaborative models of knowledge production through a combination of art interventions, research practice and critical analysis. Major projects to date include Open Space research for Dublin City Council and the Cultural Review with Fatima Groups United.

15 June 2009