‘Raqs’ in Arabic, Persian and Urdu encompasses various forms of dance including Sufi whirling – a form of meditation based on movement. Since forming Raqs Media Collective in 1992, Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta have taken this ‘kinetic contemplation’ as a model for their own restless curatorial and artistic practice, which extends into historiography, philosophy and sociology.
If their project sounds loosely defined, then that’s how they like it. Working between and across disciplinary boundaries, the New Delhi-based collective has made films, curated exhibitions and edited books; staged public interventions, performed lectures and founded a ‘platform for research and reflection on the transformation of urban space’; collaborated with architects, programmers, historians, writers and theatre directors; and researched and restaged the histories of communities from Shanghai to Manchester.
That resistance to categorisation, and impulse to forge connections, means that each project feeds into the next. Their current exhibition Not Yet At Ease at Firstsite, Colchester (commissioned for the 14–18 NOW programme marking the centenary of the First World War), for example, explores the psychological trauma suffered by Indian soldiers through the format of a ‘Theatre Opera’ developed during Raqs’s curating of the 2016 Shanghai Biennale. In turn, their research into the history of neurology came to inform their curatorial project In the Open or in Stealth at MACBA, Barcelona.
These are just the most easily disentangled threads from Raqs’s cat’s cradle of an oeuvre, which itself expresses the collective’s vision of the world as a complex but always interlinked network of people, ideas, places and histories.
ArtReview Asia Your practice engages with themes of techno-capitalism, globalisation and Marxist theory. It’s been almost exactly two years since your Shanghai Biennale opened to the public, and now that a new edition is about to open, I wonder if you could describe how you explored those themes in the particular context of Shanghai, and the associated challenges?
Raqs Media Collective There are always challenges in any curatorial adventure. In Shanghai one of the challenges we set ourselves was to think about art in China in a way that was not consumed or imprisoned by spectacle and glamour. Because a lot of what the world sees from China, in terms of contemporary art production, is a macho presentation of big-scale production, we asked ourselves if it would be possible to create a biennale that was more nuanced, more conscious of itself. For us, the important consideration was to try and create a conversation between the kind of work we were bringing to China and that which we were taking from it. It was important for us when a lot of Chinese intellectuals told us that the biennale had made them think about Chinese art anew. We have just curated a show in Barcelona where there have been different and continuing challenges.
ARA You’re in Colchester for the opening of a new commission, Not Yet At Ease. What is the significance of the images of synapses and neuron pathways, and the snatched phrases such as ‘The strongest nerves…’ that run along the curved wall that welcomes visitors to the show, and the texts running across other walls and windows?
RMC The images echo illustrations of what nerve cells and endings were thought to be like in 1915, 1916 and 1917. A newspaper article we found spoke for the time. It said, ‘The strongest nerves will win the war’, and it has an illustration of what these literal nerves might look like. There was a lot of discussion at that time about the First World War being ‘the battle of nerves’. But how are you going to convince hundreds of thousands of men to have strong nerves when they have no investment in fighting?
ARA You found the newspaper articles you mention during the research process for Not Yet At Ease. Were there any other specific source materials that informed the exhibition?
RMC We were particularly interested in the psychological experiences of Indian soldiers during the First World War. We also used medical reports, and from these stemmed our interest in understanding the mental life of the soldier and others who were called ‘followers’: the workers who cleaned up the mess of the battlefield.
At the time, doctors were trying to understand what was happening to the bodies and minds of these soldiers. We read letters written by soldiers early on in the war, in 1915, the contents of which suggested that something was going wrong with their minds. One of the military censors wrote that the letters display a tendency towards an excess of poetry, which he saw as ‘an ominous sign of mental disquietude’.
For us, that was a clue and an interesting way into this material. While there was an awareness of psychological trauma, the authorities didn’t want to give it a name – they denied the diagnosis of shellshock that was widespread among both Indian soldiers and British servicemen. Shellshock assumes that the person who is shocked has a mental life, an inner life, and the army doctors were only willing to give that diagnosis to officers – men like themselves. The common conscripted soldier – the vast mass of the fighting men – was not seen fit to have an inner life.
Apart from the letters and the medical notes and official reports, we have quoted and extensively reworked and interpreted two archival photographs, both from the collection of the Imperial War Museum. We have also used two fragments of archival film from the period, as well as sound recordings of the voices of Indian soldiers made by a German linguist in a prisoner-of-war camp near Berlin.
All of these are starting points for a linked set of artistic and imaginative gestures that render our sense of the moments of poise and lucidity that the soldiers and followers found in the middle of the war. We are particularly interested in bringing the subjectivity of the followers to the foreground. Additionally, there are also readings of brief fragments from literary works that reflect on the period, as well as our own writing. A section on the Berlin-Baghdad Railway – one of the causes of the war – helps write a different sense of ‘worlding’ from one usually ascribed to the war. It also traces continuities between the geopolitical factors of the war a hundred years ago and the routes traced by refugees fleeing from wartorn territories in the Middle East to Europe today.
ARA What were the diagnoses for these common soldiers who weren’t diagnosed as shellshocked?
RMC They would say Indian soldiers had ‘trench spine’, a shock to the spinal cord, which caused nervousness – a similar diagnosis to the nineteenth-century ‘railway spine’ used to describe traumatised railroad accident survivors. The Kitchener Indian Hospital in Brighton had a special annex for a psychiatric ward for soldiers who suffered from what we now identify as PTSD – this categorisation of shock with the cruelties of war as ‘madness’ made us respond with the architecture of the installation, which is a labyrinth of soft-walled cells. Who is the really insane one? What kind of normalcy is war? We are asking people to be within such structures and look ‘out’ through the viewing slits into a speculative interiority.
ARA Alongside the installations, you have programmed a Theory Opera, a series of live events – readings and performances – in the space. Could you explain the ideas behind a format you previously employed at the Shanghai Biennale?
RMC First of all, opera literally means ‘work’, and the work of theory is to inform and be informed by the work of practice. It is exciting to do this here [in Colchester]. Here it has the potential to have an intensity of impact, along with the installation and mural. In Britain, as everywhere else, there is a shying away from what military experience is. With a major commission like this, where there is a lot of research and a whole network of conversations that are the backbone of the work, it is interesting to lay that bare and explore it further. So, a lot of the people we are inviting to the Theory Opera are historians and others from whom we have learned in the process.
For the Shanghai Biennale, our impulse was to create a lattice and web of things of the city of Shanghai itself – to make extendedly communal layers and events and encounters within it. This attitude also comes from our experience of working with Sarai [an experimental research initiative focused on the transformation of urban space] for 12 years. Looking back on that time, we understand that a lot of what we were doing had a curatorial sensibility. Sarai’s climax for us was Sarai Reader 09 (2013), a large nine-month-long exhibition that began empty and ended full and brought to itself many kinds of energies. It was an experience that informed the way we think. Making anything, curating anything, is an opportunity to explore the entanglements of forces and energies in the world.
There are no questions we won’t ask, but there are those which we haven’t asked. When we founded Raqs we didn’t make a manifesto – that gave us an open window for what we didn’t even know we could or would do. Many of the things we are doing now we didn’t know we would be doing then. And I am sure there are things in the future of which we have no comprehension now.
ARA You mentioned your forthcoming curatorial project at MACBA. How did you select the artists and what is your research process?
RMC We take advantage of being three to multiply our vision – the sum is more than the parts. All sorts of stimuli are brought to our table in the studio and that is where the conversation starts.
With each exhibition, we try and create a picture of the world. The world changes, nuances change. It is a different picture each time. Ultimately, we find a form – and each exhibition finds its own form. The selection of artists is not a singular moment – it is a process of engagement of various kinds of practice, at different times, in different moments of their articulation. The joy for us is this process – to find new and different things, sometimes only because it’s the right time to look at them. We are a practice that is a quarter-of-a-century old, and by now we know that there is material that we will return to in the future.
ARA What is the organising principle for the show in Barcelona?
RMC This exhibition is called In the Open or in Stealth. It looks at the ways in which the ‘future’ might already be here – either in the open or in stealth. It has work by contemporary artists and also poetry written by a computer during the 1980s. Thinking about poetry and computers, and robots committing suicide, raised the question of the nervous system: so the exhibition also has drawings of the nervous system by the influential neuroscientist Santiago Ramón y Cajal, who lived around the time of the First World War. He was doing studies of the human and animal nervous system – he would stare at the microscope and then make the drawings. These are also works of art. Obviously, there was something to do with nerves also going on in our minds, because we were working on Not Yet At Ease, looking into nerves, and so we included this great Spanish artist, who is a neuroscientist, in the MACBA exhibition.
ARA In the preview text for In the Open or in Stealth you write that the exhibition hopes to ‘gain an understanding of the way we live together and explore possibilities of how we can improve’. To what issues are you alluding?
RMC Everything. Everything. What’s exciting about living in this time is that everything is up in the air, you can take nothing for granted. It’s one of those threshold moments. One of the interesting things we found about researching the First World War is that in those four years the shape of transportation changed. In 1914 the world was still largely horse-drawn. By 1918 it was an automobile world. Four years is a very short time, but think about how much faster things are happening now – there are probably things that are happening now that we know nothing about. It’s possible that within the next two decades, hydrocarbons will no longer be used to power transport. That will change everything. The way we store energy will be completely different and the nature of politics will have changed. All the relationships that constitute the material structures are up for grabs. We are living in a time of great change and transition where you see new centres of wealth and power, but the lesson of our time is not to try and seek it within the boundaries of physical regions but to see it in terms of networked entity. We are not a mass but are constituted of singular sentiences. It is not grand to say that the work of art is open to everybody, not just now but in the future.
Raqs Media Collective: Not Yet At Ease is on view at Firstsite, Colchester, through 31 December; In the Open or in Stealth – The Unruly Presence of an Intimate Future, an exhibition curated by Raqs Media Collective, will run at MACBA, Barcelona, through 17 March
From the Winter 2018 issue of ArtReview Asia