Raqs Media Collective at the Kunstsammlung NRW in Düsseldorf, K21
The Delhi-based artist trio Raqs Media Collective are Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta. They work with installations and videos, stage media projects or curate exhibitions in which they address the changes in a globalised world. Terms such as language, history and time play an essential role in their examination of social and societal contexts.
The artist group responds to questions posed by kunstaspekte about collaboration in the collective and the artistic concept informing it.
Lothar Frangenberg asked the questions.
Language and therefore texts play an important role in your work. How does the sensual presence of the works of art relate to this? Are the visual aspects mainly a means of conveying the linguistic and conceptual message or do these also unfold unexpected, surprising qualities for you as artists?
Raqs Media Collective: Our sojourn with art is to cajole the visual to go beyond the retinal; to deploy language in order to approach the ineffable; to create a set of polyphonic silences along with rich sources of active noise. We give each other the gifts of voice and audition, we could learn to speak in tongues, too: in the whisper of sedition and heresy, in the songs sung in pleasure in spite of injury, in forensic diction and visionary stammer, in measured timbres and ecstatic tones, in echolalia and laughter. Even in silence, and joyfully in poetry.
Our concern is not so much about how words and language are used as frames, furniture or filters, playing a subordinated role of mediating or admonishing armature to the experience of art. Rather, we are interested in talking about how language whispers within art. About how words mutter and mumble and perform odd mnemonic dances within an art work, where, in a strange reversal of the 'Please do Not Touch The Work of Art’ injunction, words abandon the job of being shields and become the hands and fingers of a work of art. The hands and fingers that touch the viewer. Sometimes to caress, at other times to pinch, slap, or tickle. At all times, to beckon, to invite a closer look, perhaps even a surreptitious feel.
The texts that nest in our installations are neither explanations nor illustrations. They are not aide memoires or notes or labels. Rather, they are a double within the voice in which the work speaks, never directly, always allusively, pointing to things within and outside the work.
Our art practice has sometimes taken the shape of lexicons and dictionaries, mathematical formulae, tracts made out of aphorisms, proverbs, textual sculpture, latento, clock faces, correspondences and letters, as well as incantations and theatre scripts for online and offline performance. In all of these, the words are as much the material of the work as are images, and in some ways they are images.
You present yourselves to the outside as an artist group. What are the advantages for you of working as a collective? Does the collective in a positive sense generalize the artistic view away from the purely subjective towards a more complex, more objective view of the works and of the world? Do you also work individually on your own ideas or does everything flow into the group, so that each of you gives up a piece of your individuality within the collective?
And is the individual artist as a seemingly autonomous, creative "Self" an obsolescent model from pre-globalised times?
Raqs Media Collective: To answer this question, we would like to offer an extensive quote from a text that we wrote to address precisely this query. Titled, “On Collaboration, and being a Collective”, it was published in Manifesta Journal 8. This is the section that addresses how we make decisions emerging from the history of our conversations.
“A collective is the history and the future of the conversation that a collectivity has with itself. Not every collectivity chooses to speak. Not every collectivity can speak, or listen to itself. And those that do speak, don't always talk within themselves, or to each other. Those that do talk within themselves or to each other, stand the chance of becoming collectives, provided they enjoy the terms of their talking. Provided they get used even to listening to their silences.
The history of every work that we make is traceable to a series of moves made in messages. Everything that we work with is either found, fished or floated in the current of our constant chatter and in the things understood in silences and incomplete sentences.
It is not as if the ball of an idea, be it an image, a fragment of text, a sketch or a set of instructions, or a curatorial proposition, once chucked by any one of our three minds is automatically destined to travel, as if in relay, in the direction charted for it by the person who first threw it. The interception of the idea, and the turn that may be given to it once it is caught while it courses the world between our hard drives, may change the very direction of its flight altogether. Things may bounce back and forth for a long time, or they may acquire spins and velocities that takes them into completely unexpected orbits.
This can continue, until the ball comes to rest in a momentary pause in the game. This pause is often the moment when we find that a work is at a stage when it is more or less ready to slide into the world outside our hard drives. Usually this is an art work, sometimes it is an exhibition that we have curated, or a text written by us.
This changes the way we look at the creative process. A work (or an exhibition, or a teaching course, or a text) is no longer the concrete materialization of an ideal-typical form conceived in the mind of any one person in the collective. Rather, the work begins to occur when the idea it germinated in meets its interlocutory challenges and responses. The materialization of the work, rather than concretizing and containing authorship within an embodied person, disperses it into the history of the network of communications that went into its making. In that sense our practice, and our collective, is not so much an accretion of three individuals and their biographies as it is the lattice made out of the communicative acts between them.”
Do your works change depending on the country or culture in which you exhibit and work? The exhibition at K21 is announced by curators as a non-European perspective within contemporary art.
Raqs Media Collective: We are not from Europe. We like to think about the places we visit and work in, and our work has had relationships to many histories, to different aspects of South Asia, to China, to the Arab and Islamicate worlds, to South America, to the former Industrial centers of Europe and North America, to the arctic borderlands of Scandinavia. We consider our work to be responsive to the world we live in, and move in. This is a question of fidelity to the nature of our time. At the same time, we live and work in Delhi with 22 million people, fastest growing city in human history. That shapes the way we think, and the work we make.
But perhaps it is also pertinent to ask whether the question of a ‘European’ or a ‘Non-European’ perspective is any longer relevant to a discussion of contemporary art. What is relevant is that if we define the contemporary moment as having a global, planetary character, then, the presence of museums and exhibitions staking a claim to speak a language that is agile, mutable and always in translation will be the challenge of the coming decade.
Your work revolves around topics such as the effects of colonialism, industrialization and globalised capitalism. To what extent do you see your work as critical of society and system? And do you see yourselves as politically active artists who believe that art and artistic work are an effective medium in this sense?
Raqs Media Collective: The actual political significance of art (a matter greater than mere politics as we know it) lies in the fact that each artwork comes laden with its own invocations pointing towards a range of possible dispositions because it proposes something specific and unique with reference to being itself. Such an action takes us beyond the horizon of the political into questions of ethics and ontology, and paradoxically, that is why it is so urgently political. The most political thing in the world is that which shows up the limits of politics. It is at this limit that being seeks to assert its radical heteronomy, desiring a state of freedom, desiring desire itself, beyond necessity, in a manner that cannot be contained when it is articulated within the formal language of politics, within arrangements and rearrangements of power, even within the vocabulary of rights and duties. Every being renews the question of what being is. Every work of art proposes the possibility of a world that does not fit the sockets of this one.
Our works often embody elements of a continuing conversation that we have about the world, about history, about things we see, feel, know. We like to think that practice is theory congealed in the world of objects, processes and affects, and that theory is practice congealed within multiple durations. Often, this requires us to fashion very carefully worked out figures of thought, which sometimes are expressed textually, within or in tangent to an image. The images that we work with - or towards - take the form of rebuses, of puzzles that encode a process of thinking. The image for us occupies the status of an aphorism or an epigram, a concentrated, charged, and acute note on a thought about the world.
Evidently, there are many routes in and out of the maze of our time. Not all of them need go through the tollgates of greed and cynicism, or the checkpoints of guilt and rage. We need not be caught forever between the supermarket and the penitentiary, between having to choose between the stroke of the auctioneer's gavel and the whiplash of the petitioner's complaint.
If so, do you always find the right public in museum or similar exhibition spaces or are there other places you would like to work or exhibit at?
Raqs Media Collective: Like Don Quixote asking Sancho Panza to deliver to an unknown address a love letter written to a Dulcinea imagined only through desire, or like the lonesome forest spirit trying to inveigle a passing rain cloud into carrying messages to his distant lover in the opening canto of the classical Sanskrit verse-drama “The Cloud Messenger”, artists often find themselves having to rely on mediators to even begin to become visible to their publics, their distant Dulcineas. This is the crucial role that Museums, and the people who work in them, play.
That is why museums, especially public museums, are exciting. They allow for an encounter with strangers, and enable artists to become strangers, and guests in their own work. People, the public, which is made up of many singularities, bring their own histories, memories, scars and desires to bear on any work that they encounter. An artist cannot possibly know what these may be; in fact, when an artist works, he or she has little or no intimation of how members of the public will get to know themselves when they face the work. The private language of the artist will never be the same as the private language with which the work will be ‘read’ by its viewer. In this sense, the artist is like someone who writes a letter to a lover they do not know they have, in a language that they do not understand, without any guarantee that the letter will either reach its intended addressee or be opened and read, if indeed it ever arrives.
Apart from Museums, we have worked with post cards, broadsheets, software, within public spaces, in the middle of the sea, in abandoned factories and railway stations and in gardens. We like the way a work of art can take people by surprise, whether inside the walls of a museum, or an exhibition, or a biennale, or outside.
*) note: Title of the catalogue accompanying the exhibition