Raqs Media Collective was founded in 1992 by Jeebesh Bagchi (New Delhi, 1965), Monica Narula (New Delhi, 1969) and Shuddhabrata Sengupta (New Delhi, 1968). Raqs is a word in Persian, Arabic and Urdu and means the state that whirling dervishes enter into when they whirl. Raqs follows its self-declared imperative of “kinetic contemplation” to produce a trajectory that is restless in its forms and methods, yet concise with the infra procedures that it invents. The collective makes contemporary art, edits books, stages events, has made films, and initiated processes such as the “City as Studio for artists.” It co-founded “Sarai,” the inter-disciplinary and incubatory space at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Delhi, in 2001. Curatorial exhibitions include “The Rest of Now” (Manifesta 7, Bolzano, 2008), “Sarai Reader 09” (Gurugram, 2012-13) and “INSERT2014” (New Delhi, 2014). Their prospective, “With an Untimely Calendar,” was held at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, in 2014-15. They are curators of the 11th Shanghai Biennale, titled “WHY NOT ASK AGAIN,” running from 11 November 2016 to 12 March 2017 at the Power Station of Art, Shanghai.
In this interview, they share with us thoughts, stories, and ideas linked to the biennial they just opened.
Raqs Media Collective, Chief Curator of the 11th Shanghai Biennale
Full conversation transcript below
A conversation with Raqs Media Collective (full version)
A 2 minutes excerpt from the conversation
Jeebesh Bagchi: We started with a series of sources, which we drew from our reading, our interest in the history of cinema and the history of science-fiction, like a significant film, and one book that has been with us for a year and a half now. From these sources we started generating a series of possibilities: how do we create a movement between artworks and the city, the positions and itineraries of artistic practices? We started drawing a series of diagrams, a series of movement images, and a series of times, that would develop over a period of time. This slowly became a form. We started interrupting that form through ideas like the “Infra-Curatorial,” “Theory Opera,” and the “51 Personae,” that extend, grow and keep interrupting slowly, giving a conceptual tongue, a conceptual language. In the sense of the conceptual form, like in our artistic practice, there were forms surprising us and building the possibility of a conceptual ground that would push us again in search of new forms. It was implicated.
Monica Narula: We talked about this a little bit before: the question of attitude. How do you approach something, how is something to be looked at, as much as what it is doing, what form it might happen in? Being able to look at the world, and the idea of an exhibition itself as opening up the attitude question. That is why the exhibition is called “Why not ask again”: repetition is not reiteration. It is possible to open up new things by asking again, but it is an attitude of being willing to, amongst other things. So we are also centring on the “how” question, at the heart of what we see the biennial to be.
Shuddhabrata Sengupta: Also perhaps going back to the two sources that Jeebesh described, one is the science-fiction novel by Chinese writer Liu Cixin, called “The Three-Body Problem,” which interested us because of the way in which it related to concrete historical time, with deeper, larger questions on the destiny of the universe. The film is Ritwik Ghatak’s “Jukti Takko Aar Gappo” (1974), which brought together personal biography, a picaresque philosophical journey, as well as larger historical questions. The title of the film sort of translates as “Arguments, Counter-arguments, and Stories.” Basically we were looking at trying the relations between the reason, the image and the narrative. How does storytelling act upon the asking of questions, how does that inflect the imagination? This is what we were looking for in doing this biennial and which also reflects the mode in which we work within ourselves.
MN: The thing is that you have the singular, the individual, and when you have two you have the binary situation. I think for us, not only as a collective but also otherwise, the moment you bring the third element in, a third possibility, it becomes the multitude. You have the beginning of the many. Triangulation is also a great word because it actually is the method by which you find your way, looking at the relations between stars and land, so for us it was a way not to make things singular, not binary, but opening up the possibility of there being many directions, many questions. This is also at the heart of the exhibition: the fact that you make thing neither singular and nor binary.
MA: How does this reflect not only in the structure but also in the reality of the Biennale? Because I mean, this is a very particular one, also the context as we were saying is a peculiar one. How did you address questions to this context and what were the answers that you got back?
SS: I think that the context is anywhere in the world, especially in a city like Shanghai. You are really foregrounded and thrown in conditions of a complex turbulent world of capitalism, of the way in which desires are processed, of the way in which value shrinks or expands, and of the way in which hope, fear and anxiety get circulated into this world. That is the context everywhere, but a place like Shanghai is a prism through which this context gets refracted in a very particular sharp and pointed way. Naturally the biennial was present and resident in today’s world; but also in some ways anticipating other possibilities of time, other futurities, tangential ways of being in relation to the current context. Sometimes contemporaneity can be a bit of a trap, where you are constantly confined to the question of what is the current topic. Whereas we were reading contemporaneity also as a way of advancing a mode of being in time, not just responding to the nature of the world as it is today but also offering back a kind of response of a greater imaginative plenitude.
JB: Art itself in its mobilization and in a certain concentrated form is the context. For us the biennial has become a context within a context within a context. The reason is that art produces that intensity of becoming something that then creates the possibility of refracting other realities, other imaginations, through it. Our primary focus was: how could we create that concentration so that its specificity was something that we were always dear towards, like any artistic practice would do. What is exactly in the discipline that you are in and what you can weigh in, and transform the location with that. In this sense, the biennial always addresses the whole world question again and again. For us the biennial is very significant because it keeps on making a work appear and reappear again, and that becomes its context. We approached the whole biennial like that. The artists were centred to asking of that context: what is their practice doing, what are the forces that they are trying to access and bring out in some sense of the world? The sensing of the world has to be felt with a specific intensity. That was one of our impulses in moving, talking, working with artists. It has been something that grows.
MA: Do you want to talk about a particular work perhaps?
JB: Another thing we tried with this biennale was to make it impossible to talk about a particular work. Every work continuously draws other works, in a kind of infinite possibility, so that if you move through the exhibition space your body follows the works and, according to the angle you turn, the logic of the work changes too. If you take the Foyer, the huge lobby of the PSA is twenty-seven meters long, and it stages five, six works together. One is Sun Yuan & Peng Yu’s work, which is being pulled apart by two forklifts kept together by a vacuum. This work is composed of two opposing forces acting to create a movement of contingent stability, but that stability can break up into infinite other directions. And then behind it there is Peter Piller. He worked in archive for twenty-five years dealing with regional photographs for newspapers, where he discovered people very seriously looking at holes, very dark ones. It is one of most humorous works in the show.
MN: Both very serious and very funny.
JB: And next to it you have Lee Mingwei’s dancers dancing with grains. Extremely fragile things are coming together and, as the people form a circle around them, the circle shrinks and expands according to the movement of the dancers, and there is the very primary material of the grain. Facing them is three bodies…
MN: It’s figurative, humanoid figures that could be made of vegetal material, but possibly also creatures from another landscape entirely, who are kind of permanent viewers or watchers of the dance, and of this interplay of forces. So what you create is a simultaineity that will happen even when the forces pull against each other. Mingwei’s dancers are speaking with the grain, the grain will tell you how it moves after this.
JB: And when you look at it there is a pendulum moving. In its own rhythm. It is not a rhythm that follows the movement of the dancers but you are speaking your dances with the grain. Then you suddenly turn and you realize there is a face looking at you with eyes and it is Christian Thompson’s work. To the left there is a stroboscopic environment that totally disorients you from your perceptional abilities: what are the edges of your perception?
MN: This is a kind of orbit, what we have begun to call between ourselves “orbits.” What is interesting about them, and it is also in the source book that we were talking about, is that gravity acts on all things, and an orbit, a certain path, is constructed because of the interrelation between one and another, that is how an orbit gets formed. We were looking at the idea of creating orbits that people could follow — you do not have to follow, but if you look at the guidebook you will see some orbits, the whole layout is there. For us there is a kind of presentation of possible ways of manoeuvring through the space. Not as a linearity or a sequentiality that we usually experience in an exhibition space. The novel Shuddhabrata told you about before (“The Three-Body Problem” by Liu Cixin) also says that when you have three bodies in the space acting on each other gravitationally, things become unpredictable. The orbit sort of allows that kind of unpredictability, that there are no predictable conclusions necessarily. Different points of conclusion and departure can happen for everyone experiencing it as an orbit. The exhibition does not play with sequentiality in that sense at all.
JB: There is a room which between us we call “The room of the revolt of the sediments.” Basically you enter and you see a huge rock and a light moving out; behind you see a fossil record; and beyond that a huge fixed landscape being dug out; and again before that a tree with many sequels, waiting between rest and work. That could be a potential for rebellion or withdrawal or renewal for the next day of repetition. We tried to produce this kind of landscape through movement. When you are looking at the fossil record you are also looking at deep time, but also as a time of excavation for the economical political times; and as an interruption or withdrawal that can happen too. This time of continuous flow, that is not something that we mapped conceptually — we rather sensed it in a large number of works that were coming our way, and in the way the artist was speaking with us. A lot of the works we did not see before they were installed because there were a lot of new commissions. This is what we sensed through our conversations and that made us move through the work and we just kept ourselves with that. The layout and the way the exhibition is structured come from this sense of moving with the feelings we had, both at an instinctive level that looked to the fabulous and the way the story will take over; and on another level, being very sure of arguments that were continuously formed.
MN: Arguments and counter-arguments.
JB: Continuously. I think they are fighting each other, pushing each other.
MA: This is what confers movement to the displayed artworks, I guess. The exhibition is a catalyser system for all these energies and interactions to happen, if I got it right.
JB: It is very nicely said. We can keep it!
MA: And I guess the research phase was very important. Also the first contacts you had with the artists — maybe some of them you knew for a long time and others not, you had new commissions and existing works.
MN: I just want to say something about the research process. The most we travelled to find out was in China. We went to Shanghai of course but also to Beijing many times and to Guangzhou, and the curatorial collegiate travelled too. The reason why I am saying that is because it was very important for us not to bring something that we liked to Shanghai. The point was: what kind of exhibition do you make when you are standing here and you look out. We were not thinking “this is a good work and we should take it, no matter how strongly it may speak to us, let us take it to Shanghai.” When you are here in this milieu and you try to find out the texture of that world, the distinction is more about looking out than bringing in. And the rest of the research, as you pointed out, some people you know well, some people you have showed before.
JB: One of the things that we have discovered in this process, because when we did the Manifesta we met almost no artists, it is that we had a group of five persons that we worked with. But our curatorial project was not concentric circles — “here is a group of people we are very good friends with, then some others from the region, and then some others we selected and we liked.” It was not based on that logic but on a much more spread out lateral one. For example, Monica visited Sun Yuan’s studio in January, very early on, and this work was discussed preliminarily. That shaped the way we started looking at the “lobby,” the kind of forcefield that it generates and what kind of counter subtle moves that we had to make to push the reading of this work to another territory, compared to the one it was proposing. That is the curatorial work. The artist proposing a terrain to be ready, we are proposing a further pushing of that terrain to another terrain by the work of another sensibility, another itinerary. This is the move that we were trying to build continuously, a very slow meandering process.
MA: What did you discover about Shanghai, and China in general? Was there something that impressed you in terms of artistic reflection, something that was really important for you to consider during this curatorial experience?
SS: I think that we discovered, and we were quite clear in what we were looking for, is a different sensibility. There is a cliché about contemporary Chinese art that says that it is big, brash, spectacular, and shiny. We were very determined to give consideration to…
MN: We believed that there had to be!
SS: …works that are thoughtful, humorous, reflective in more ways than one, and also sharp towards philosophical as well as historical political reality. We were also very clear that it did not have to be this overwhelmingly masculine presence. I think that the exhibition does foreground, even for a Chinese public, a different profile of what contemporary art is and can be, and especially in the Chinese context. We went for example to Shanghai and we found Shanghainese artists who had been practising for a long time often in registers that in a way are a reflection of auto-didactic personalities. There is a wonderful documentary film by Ma Haijiao, called “Mr. Quan,” a very young Chinese film-maker, one of the youngest in the exhibition, which is a deeply meditative work on destiny, and on what happens in an industrial context, the life of an injured factory worker, a kind of meditation in a contemporary Buddhist sensibility, which is very eccentric, on faith and what it means to profess something. These are the works, I think, that could be considered as discoveries even in the Chinese context.
JB: But one thing that we were taking up, and there is a recognition of it in a part of the exhibition and of the thinking, is a sense of mutuality that is part of Chinese artistic production, and that has been there for a long time. This is what we gathered from research and conversations with many people: a deeper sense of mutuality and helping each other. That is something that we learned from and we were surprised of how deep that culture is. It keeps artistic production and artistic intellectual inquiry alive. The whole large number of practices in Shanghai, Beijing, Guangzhou. These are the cities where we understood the mutuality is very lively, in terms of how they help each other. This is something that has informed our interaction with our colleague Liu Tian in there, and also the way we developed “Theory Opera,” which we made inside the exhibition space. The way everybody contributed to it and helped financially, the way they kept on bringing new ideas for each other, suggesting things, that non-competitive reciprocal environment that really needs to be understood, appreciated, and talked about globally. It is not mainly what we hear continuously “contemporary art is an everybody-wants-to-kill-each-other competitive environment.” It is not at all like that. This is something that we learned, we have been humbled by it and it helped us to think of the possibilities of contemporary art practices in many parts of the world. I am sure this is the subterranean terrain that keeps so much of the practice alive.
MA: That is great! Do you think this also informs your way of working with each other, within your collective? Probably it already did, we are talking about some values that probably already informed your group.
JB: Yes. We sense this more because we are a collective already.
MN: That is also part of it. I think that working together for so many years, then doing things in which you know that there has to be mutuality. We do not produce works, text or anything else that is not collectively formulated, in some form or the other. That counts on that sense of acknowledging a deeper swirl between each other, as opposed to embodied in each other. And I think that because one has lived by that perhaps, as Professor Lu Pingyuan, who is an artist based in Shanghai and Gwanzhou, said that this is why we are more sensitive to it, and he could be right.
JB: He was very sure about it, that we read something that he sensed. It is not work-centric in the sense that it is not about an artist’s work, but about the way it is shaped. I think that the Shanghai Biennale informed by that sense. I think that the way we look at artists, the way we move with artists, was shaped at some level by this contingent that we found there.
MN: And which echoes with what we think is valuable in it.
JB: At least there is the way they help each other. There is censorship, there are serious constrictions and impossibilities of production like anywhere, but it is much harder sometimes. They are able to navigate it like artist Mao Chenyu who has very important installation in this show. Mao Chenyu’s work is continuously, over fifteen years, from the age of twenty he has been making films, and has this interest in rice-paddy. He does experimental rice cultivation, he makes rice wine, which is like a grappa, and it’s there in the show and it’s given to many of the artists by him. He sustains his artistic practice by working as a graphic designer, but what we found remarkable is the kind of help, solidarity and intellectual friendship that he has with the artistic community. This is rendered in the exhibition as an infra-curatorial project — as a collaboration between Liu Tian and Mao Chenyu, as — “the ghost hunter.” Basically, it involves rethinking Mao Chenyu’s paddy field archive and together they created an amazing installation. This kind of act which we found in the artistic community has entered the biennale.
MN:And speaking of the infra-curatorial aspect of the exhibition, it was a sort of thinking: we invited other seven curators that brought the next generation of curators, the incoming generation. We taught them, or they have curated us, or we had some conversations in the studio, we had some form of connection with all of the seven. When we discuss them we use the word “epiphyte,” and like orchids or epiphytes or other trees — unlike parasites epiphytes live off another plant, but do not destroy the plant at all, they just make it more beautiful by their presence. They need a larger tree to grow but they create a certain kind of beauty and they allow for greater circulation of pollen because they invite more bees and so on. It is a mutually productive relationship. So we used the word “epiphyte” for this concept. It is about asking seven people to interpose themselves in the exhibition. We asked them to think about ideas that we had discussed, debated, agreed. And those are places within the exhibition that you will know when you are in them, that you are in an infra-curatorial exhibition — it says it clearly but at the same time there are no walls, they are not separated, it is all part of the same flow in that sense. These curators addressed formally and conceptually different things. Like Jeebesh said, Liu Tian has worked with one artist, Mao Chenyu, to sort of open up the whole idea of the paddy field archive and the relation between the past and the present as he is looking architecturally and emotively at what is happening in the present day in China. But they also sense orally with the rice and the rice wine. It is a kind of intense engagement with one artist. While someone like Mouna Mekounar has worked with eight artists and one collective, and that is spread on every floor of the exhibition. Sabih Ahmed has worked with one person’s work who has passed away, Ha Bik Chuen, an artist who worked in Hong Kong in the 60’s, the 70’s and the 80’s and has passed away now. Besides his own practice he was an obsessive documenter, a photographer of any cultural event, anything that was happening in Hong Kong. What we have then it is a kind of form that has been worked by the architects of the exhibition, Rupali Gupte and Prasad Shetty, who made something where you can go an look at every picture if you want to, but also in its entirety gives you an image of the entire archive, of the archive as an idea. Each of the infra-curatorial projects has its own tonality.
MA: I think about this idea of always reconsidering things and asking again is an attitude, as you were saying at the beginning, Monica. I would like to know which are the questions that emerged during this experience and that you will keep on reflecting on, if you have some. What would you ask again?
SS: Asking again is a meta-question, it is a question about questions. It is, as Monica said elsewhere, an antidote to the illusion of inevitability.
MN: To the poison of inevitability.
SS: We live in a world where people think that the election of Donald Trump is inevitable. If that is inevitable, how do you respond to that? How do you unpack the assertion of “this is what it is”? One of the roles that art plays, we believe, is to foreground not the inevitable but the possible, or the desirable, or the question, or the laugh. All the different ways in which we can protect ourselves from the poison of the inevitable.
MN: I wanted to show you the guidebook of the exhibition. It has many things, including the orbits, but here it says “Twenty-two Questions for the Eleventh Shanghai Biennale” that we wrote during the process of the exhibition. Both to keep ourselves active and sensitive, people were paying attention in a way that you can pay attention to something without knowing what you have been attentive to. You can be looking at something and not being attentive to what it is and what is pulling at you, what it is that you are making connections with. Some of the questions go like: “What does the revolt of the sediments look like? Can we think of theses on gravity and lunacy? What happens when worlds collide? Do archives bleed?”. We spread these twenty-two questions all over the physical structure of the exhibition as well. Even when you go to the book, the questions are accompanying you as you go through what we call “the blueprint” of the exhibition.
MA: If you want to add something else, please do so.
JB: Two things. There are two relational aspects of the biennale that go on, along with the exhibition. One is what we call the “51 Personae”: every week we are meeting three people from Shanghai, figurants from the city, who have chosen the time, the form and place they would like to interact with invited guests, in some case unlimited invited guests, or a small group, or people passing by and participating in response to the invitation. This is one of the most fascinating discoveries of the city for us. It opened it up as a site where people make what Monica calls “artful living,” in the sense that the distinction between art and life opens out, living itself is a practice.
MN: And not assume that there is one… Whether is someone cooking you a meal, or showing you the candy wrapper collection, or do exercise, or somebody you can play Go with around the city, at a park in a corner, in a theatre at certain time, just to play an afternoon for a game, or walk along the reservoir of Shanghai etc.
JB: Then there is “Theory Opera,” which is in the exhibition space, and is basically pushing the idea of how you can take the theoretical position, the thinking proposition into the playing of a performance that you can sense with the body — what we call the “sensational thinking.” How does thinking work with our body? It is a test and we inaugurated the “Theory Opera” by reading the “Einstein and Bergson in Three Acts: On Physics and Philosophy” written by Jimena Canales. She is the author of the book “The Physicist and the Philosopher,” and has made these three act plays for us, so we inaugurated it with that. So there are two directional aspects very crucial as it unfolds, and changes its direction.
MA: And what about the four terminals — as you call them “the pressure points.”
SS: They are points of concentration and intensity. They are also bodies of work by particular artists. In a sense that the terminals are like a vortex: you don’t encounter a particular work but a gathering of various different kinds of creative intensity that the continuing life work of an artist represents. For instance one of the terminals is Regina José Galindo from Guatemala. The exhibition architects designed a kind of housing for her terminal.
MN: I call it a circlusive space.
SS: Once you are at its thresholds you meet a golden lion, which is a replica of the golden lion she won in Venice, but she changed it and made another one and so on. She takes the consequences of her art practice itself for the first body that you encounter, and then you do it in different ways, particularly the starkness with which she confronts the world, the one in one of the videos you see her naked, taking the earth literally with another feet. The presence of these different signals of her presence, the way in which she inhabits the space and time of our world today, constitutes a ring of forces, a kind of revolt of the sediments. That is one terminal which again takes one artist work and allows the artist, the space to spin around the world. Marjolijn Dijkman produces a pendulum but also works with the idea of rotation, lunacy, the attraction of spatial bodies in outer space and even constructs or offers a table and chairs during the exhibition days to sit on, but on a full moon night it becomes a space for full on conversation about physical and natural forces. We had one that we began, in which we had everyone, from a young woman science-fiction writer to a leading astrophysicists who was looking at superstructures in the Milky Way, to a calligrapher to a person that engineers robots and artificial intelligences… It brings together different questions and trajectories of energy, different kind of inquiries. The idea of the terminals is both that of a body of work, and also the setting for a conversation. Each terminal in a sense represents a thickening or a weightage of a question.
MA: Thank you very much for all this and for the time that you were sharing.
MN: Thank you Michela.