Moonis Shah investigates the politics of archived history through his practice

Subjects of satire and violence in the art of Moonis Shah bring to focus the idea of using archival data as a tool to classify and control.

by Rahul Kumar Published on : Nov 21, 2020

Moonis Ahmed Shah uses an interdisciplinary approach through his art practice, that straddles commentary on history and archives alongside futuristic alternatives and possibilities. He grew up in Kashmir at a time when the state remained troubled and in constant socio-political flux. His works often investigate the idea of identity and territory. He examines the process of political control through the idea of archives. “Archive has a history of being used as a topo-nomological tool of control,” he says.

02 mins watch Your tool is my resistance too | Moonis Shah | STIRworld
Your tool is my resistance too Video: Moonis Shah, Courtesy of The University of Melbourne

Shah uses satire to communicate some of the deepest thoughts, for instance, in The Birds Are Coming, he created a fantasy archive, built on rumours and outlandish news clips of birds accused of espionage activity. The installation, made of light boxes and an interactive web archive, carries mug-shots and investigative reports of the accused ‘avian’ agents. In yet another series, Shah uses Artificial Intelligence and machine learning algorithms. He creates portraits, that are failed reconstructions of soldiers based on the data acquired from various folk stories, poems and oral histories from regions of Germany, France, Switzerland and other parts of Europe.

I speak to the artist about his worldview of truth, history, and future.

The Favorite Moslem | Moonis Shah | STIRworld
The Favorite Moslem Image: Moonis Shah, Courtesy of FICA and Vadehra Art Gallery

Rahul Kumar (RK): You have interest in the archives and its narratives. Why are these referred to as ‘hegemonic’?

Moonis Shah (MS): There has been a practice in the history of archiving where it is used as a tool to create, classify, and control not only bodies but landscapes as well. The practice of ‘The Archive’ as power, for example, helped to create and sustain colonial empire, particularly the British India, which was made through listing, registration, and classification of its subjects, an archival practice emerging from the 18th century Europe. There is a continuation of such a practice of the archive today as well, whereby, using the topo-nomological aspects of the archive, a certain gaze towards populations is created that not only controls or identifies them but creates them. Recent examples are the CAA bill, Electronic Identification systems like Adhaar and last but not the least, the creation of Domicile Certificates through abolishing the Article-370 of the Indian Constitution. It is one of the reasons that the archive interests me, whereby the human subject, especially in the so-called post-colonial countries is constructed as an epiphenomenon of it.

Telegram | Moonis Shah | STIRworld
Telegram Image: Moonis Shah, Courtesy of Gallery Ark

RK: In continuation, what drives you to examine ‘alternatives’? Is this originating from a place of angst or a playful fantasy, is it personal or just an academic interest?

MS: Archive, like I mentioned, has a history of being used as a topo-nomological tool of control. But there are always methods and methodologies to re-configure or re-engineer a tool so that it does the opposite. The archive is no different in that sense. In Badiou’s sense, the archive is like the process of ‘count-as-one’ which always classifies, conforms, or counts the multiplicities as one, but certainly and surely it also contains a void threating the structure it produces. It always includes through the process of exclusive inclusion, the madness, and the possibility of events which can totally transform the everyday, identities, and beings. This is what drives my interest to examine its alternatives. It is perhaps why the destruction, accession, and control of the archives is one of the first outcomes in conflicts and wars, for example, the United States captured hundreds of documents in World War I, seized more than 50 linear feet of enemy records in World War II, captured truckloads of documents and in the Second Gulf War confiscated documents and records from Iraq that were measured in both ‘miles’ and ‘terabytes’.

01 mins watch Roshangoalle (video)| Moonis Shah | STIRworld
Roshangoalle by Moonis Shah Video: Moonis Shah, Courtesy of FICA and Vadehra Art Gallery

RK: How significant in your mind, in context of your art practice, is the quest for ‘real/absolute truth’? By challenging the ‘logic and practices of representation’, is your focus to display possibilities, or is it a mission to prove reality otherwise and question the documented history as we know it?

MS: Of course, there are counter-histories, narratives and truth(s) which always threatened to emerge through the structures of established and documented narratives and histories. But what interests me also is the phenomenon of how the institutions and narratives and histories, which are otherwise thought to be neutral, practice violence and have an undetectable non-literal taxonomy of terror. For example, there is a very large systemic machinery behind the idea that ‘Kashmir is like heaven’, where there is delicious kahwa (saffron tea) and beautiful carpets and shawls. This systematic arrangement and taxonomy of the ontic is what interests me too. Through them emerge questions such as ‘how are such everyday objects configured, re-configured and reimaged in the practices of contemporary power, to invalidate the other experiences and information while validating others?’ My practice is interested in such processes but does not have a journalistic approach. That is not to say that I am not interested in the truth. My interest lies in the truth-event which causes the structured presentation to waver towards the phantom of inconsistency. Such truth is not an a-priori, but is indiscernible and yet through a militant engagement one can name the universes to come.  

01 min watch The Favorite Moslem (video)| Moonis Shah | STIRworld
The Favorite Moslem Video: Moonis Shah, Courtesy of FICA and Vadehra Art Gallery

RK: Your artistic process overlaps classical/traditional and new media. How do these distinct formats come together for you?

MS: There is not a specific medium I work with. With each work I try to figure which medium will work the best. At the same time, the media I use are conceptual decisions too. There isn’t a specific intent to choose ‘traditional’ and ‘new media’ together.

RK:Soldiers and other defence services functionaries are recurring references in some of your works. The Favourite Moslem and Neither Does One Pray There nor Shout also have layered context of found objects. What do you hope your viewer infers from these references?

MS: I think partly it is because of my growing up in Kashmir where there is a large presence of armed forces. In one way these works try to negotiate my own experience with the armed man, who is there to protect some country and people from some other people camouflaged around us. The camouflaged man is an interesting trope too because it has an interesting history. Through Heidegger’s critique of the Descartian Human Subject, who lived above the ground of the world in an abstract phase space, he was trying to camouflage the human subject back into the world of experience. It was during this time that the military also had invented the camouflage. The interactions between Heideggerian camouflage, the military camouflage and the militant camouflage in Kashmir is what prompts me to use such categories in my work. There isn’t a particular set narrative of all the works together but I would say that the attempt is to point out the limits, fractures and therefore the possibilities of the universes to come in the ontic which surrounds us.

The Birds Are Coming | Moonis Shah | STIRworld
The Birds Are Coming Image: Moonis Shah, Courtesy of Gallery Ark

RK: In some works, like some other people were here too and Roshangoallè, you have worked with tools such as Machine Learning. Please take us through the process of your data collection, developing the algorithm, and eventual outcome. What is the desired takeaway for your audience through this work?

MS: I try to do things which I generally do not know how to do. So, for example I had no prior training in Machine Learning, which was used in these works. In the work, Roshangoallè, I gathered audio recordings of electoral speeches which mentioned, referenced, or spoke about Kashmir during the national and state election campaigns in India. There is a similarity in the sound of these speeches because they mention same things about Kashmir such as, it is beautiful, everything is okay in the valley, we have neutralised the enemies of India and so on. This homogeneity is interesting especially in the context of Machine Learning because the Machine Learning algorithm learns through patterns and repetitions present in the data and tries to find a structure or a design to it. After finding the structure in the data, it then attempts to create new data, in my case, new speeches about Kashmir. These outputs with their abstractions, complexities and absurdities therefore found their way into my work.

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