by Dilpreet BhullarMay 07, 2020
In the first week of December in 2013 I got connected to Monica Narula by my Program Manager at the India Foundation for the Arts (IFA). I had received a grant in support of my large-scale ceramic installation and Raqs Media Collective was being supported for its iconic Sarai-Reader project. Both Monica and I were on the same flight from Delhi for IFA’s induction programme in Bengaluru. I was at the boarding gate well ahead of time and Monica, like a seasoned traveller, walked in just in time! I distinctly recall telling her that I was still clueless about their practice, even after a lengthy in-flight conversation about it! But I confess, my admiration grew for the conceptual work Raqs was engaged in. So much so, that exactly one year later I co-created a work titled Metamorphosis of Yaksha and Yakshi, that was part of the first major exhibition of Raqs in India, Untimely Calendar, hosted by the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA, New Delhi) in December 2014.
Monica Narula, Jeebesh Bagchi and Shuddhabrata Sengupta form the Raqs Media Collective, which has been appointed as the Artistic Director of The Yokohama Triennale that is opening to the public in mid-July 2020. “As the world begins to emerge, in different ways from different kinds of lockdown, we all have to test new ways of publicness, new ways of approaching culture, and sociality. The opening of the Yokohama Triennale at such a juncture needs to be seen as one of the first major public moves made to step into a new time,” says the trio. They further add, “…the Triennale, like all public processes that open up in this time, will have to ask: ‘how near or far to be with each other?’ and ‘how contagious or contained to be in relation to the world?’. These are very real, very concrete questions that will shape the logistics of the presence of works and people in the Triennale. At the same time, they are metaphorical and philosophical questions that foreground how art is changing, and will change, in response to our rapidly changing time”.
I speak to the trio on curatorial framework of the Triennale and vision of presenting it in the backdrop of COVID-19 pandemic.
Rahul Kumar (RK): What is the status of the Yokohama Triennale? Has it been pushed out or you still believe it will open on-ground in July 2020?
Raqs Media Collective (RMC): The world we were/are in anyway requires us to think about the presence of toxins and risk, about vulnerability and care, about the restoration and recuperation of life-processes. This is where our thinking was located when we approached the curatorial exercise for this Triennale. Much before the pandemic was on the horizon, in all our communications with our artists and colleagues for the Yokohama Triennale, we had been alluding to the questions of toxicity and care. Our insistence on foregrounding the auto-didactic disposition as a contribution that artists make to the world by their very presence, as a kind of people who are never to stop learning and sharing their questions, has something to do with our sense that everyone needs to learn some new ways, and unlearn some older ways, of being in the world. There is an uncanny prescience that marks some of our discussions. Looked at in another way, these are questions to do with thinking (or rethinking) what is necessary and vital for basic infrastructures for sustenance, nourishment, and continuity instead of just accumulation and growth to exist in the world today.
We are midway through a fascinating process of innovating on the logistics and protocols of installing an exhibition at a distance — through online video-conferencing tools, and daily consultations with a host of figures: artists, installers, curatorial assistants, and museum staff. The opening days will also be ‘public’ online in a different sense. Visitors to the exhibition online will see a wide variety of artists begin to execute and perform their works. One artist, with whom we have been in conversation with for a long time about his ‘cleaning performances’ (we were drawn last year to how he systematically and meditatively ‘cleaned’ radioactive sites in the wake of the Fukushima Nuclear disaster) will undertake a ‘cleaning’ operation of a part of the Triennale venue as part of his process. This will be visible live, online. In the new context of post-pandemic lockdown-reversal sanitisation processes, his artistic practice of ‘cleaning’ takes on a new resonance. We always knew his work would be to do with cleaning, and had been drawn to it as a result of our interest in the distribution of toxicity, but no one had planned for or thought about a pandemic last year. Now, in this new time, it takes on an added relevance.
RK: Your curatorial approach for the Yokohama Triennale seems unique in the way to provide ‘sources’ rather than a ‘thematic’. But, isn’t the list of sources acting as potential theme itself? What is conceptually different here?
RMC: What we are offering is a constellation of sources, through and with which all the protagonists in the process - artists, publics, critics - can make their own ‘cognitive diagram’ of how the Triennale is anchored, or their own itinerary though its concerns and questions. This is one way to act in a vari-axial world: to irrigate an open field of interpretations and to let diverse dispositions contend with each other in thought, action and play.
Sources propose that the artistic worlds that this Triennale is offering are to be elaborated and linked to emergent ideas of the world. The initiating ideas that are being offered through the sources are posing: life as a weave of cosmologies, self-propulsion driving intellectual life, meaning-making as a creative act, friendship as an experience of luminosity, and that toxicity cannot be abandoned from life, or rather abandoning toxicity away from living comes with great cruelty and risk to life.
These sources hold an egalitarian, non-rivalrous stance between them. A day labourer and a Nobel laureate share the same space with a traveller observing an unfamiliar life and a manuscript from 16th century. They are part of an imaginary scenography of the care of friends, and friendship.
All the sources are presented in the Sourcebook in an edited version, as also our reading of these sources. It is one specific reading among many other possible ones. We made it available to public in November 2019 so that a milieu of discursive concerns is created and lived with, both by the public and the artists. We would request the reader here to join in this trans-creation.
RK: You have directed and curated similar large-scale events in the past, and have been practitioners yourself. While artist-as-curator is not new, how has this crossing the line been for you?
RMC: Straddling the line is a different experience each time. Each occasion brings with it a shift in emphasis, or tone, or method. Sometimes, curatorially, the challenge is to think in terms of bringing to life an abandoned site (The Rest of Now, in an ex-aluminium factory in Bolzano for Manifesta 07). This requires our ‘artist’ selves so as to see the sensory qualities of a space, its configuration of light and volume, its history and politics of growth and waning. At other times, like for the Shanghai Biennale, the challenge is to let works speak distinctly even within a very substantial exhibition, and yet curatorially build affinities and play out divergences. This was to think as to how to syncopate different weights and intensities of attention, and produce procedures to bring in other curatorial subjectivities into play. In Why Not Ask Again, we worked with eight curators, each doing distinct work within the framework of a merged experience. We thought a lot through infra presences, orbital relationships, and passages of time. Our attempt here was to inflect the sense of contemporaneity with voices, concerns and sensibilities that may be tangential to it, or alien to it, so that viewers can experience the tug of a different sense of living with time from what they are accustomed to.
In Yokohama, we have in a strange way been discussing toxicity, care, auto-didacticism and luminosity of friendship with artists and public from much before the pandemic, and that has now become amplified in the public imagination far more than we could have ever anticipated. In this pandemic-inflected reality, artists in this exhibition are bringing to attention a range of doubts, aporia, sentiments, emotions, materials, positions, historical exegesis, intimate accounts of loss and love, and also playful mischief on a large terrain — built with present urgencies but informed with deep time. The world needs to listen to, and give value to, this encounter.
RK: While sharing your sources, you focus on ‘light and luminosity’. Please talk about the ideas you intend to explore through this.
RMC: One of our sources is a remarkable text by the Russian-American theorist and writer, Svetlana Boym. She seeks the radiance of solidarity in her writings on friendship. Boym is particularly interested in thinking through the covenants of female friendship. This is not a matter of flash and dazzle. Rather, it is about the steady hand that holds out and opens the door to another, and then another, and another, as a cascade of relaying luminosities.
We are also interested in learning from and thinking with phenomena like bioluminescence, and particularly the work of the biologist Osamu Shimomura. Here, the luminous is a sign of vitality - on the bodies of organisms that use light to signal both presence and toxicity is a fascinating lead into thinking about the relationship between light and life. This is a thread in our thinking, and in many of the things that will be visible in the exhibition. We feel that luminosity (not enlightenment) as a state is in grasp of everyone and an awareness of it exists in all milieus. Ours is an attempt to draw in a concentrated attention towards it.
Artists in the Triennale have elaborated on sensibilities around luminosity and luminance in their own ways, and in their own practices. This we are waiting to share with everyone as soon as the works come into public life.
RK: What is the intended outcome of producing ‘The Episōdos’: “a sequence of intermittent, short-durée occurrences”?
RMC: The temporal signature of contemporary art has intrigued us, and in thinking about how to expand it beyond the time-bound limitations of events has been our quest. It’s akin to thinking about democracy outside the time-limits of elections!
In Yokohama Triennale we offer an evolving structure that opened before the opening, and which will continue, and be present in more places than once, and stretch the notion of the end-curtain. The last Episōdo will go on after the closing.
The word Episōdo is chosen so as to consider what happens when a scene seizes the attention of a time. This is something akin to what happens when we witness a sudden change of temperature, or try to look upon an eclipse through an over-lit sky, or when an improbable synchronicity appears between unrelated instruments. There will be Episōdos in Yokohama during the months of the exhibition, and there will also be Episōdos in Hong Kong and in Johannesburg. With the pandemic the time sequence is a bit scrambled, but this had added a new dimension to the unfolding. Maybe Johannesburg will start before and develop a virtual dimension that was not intended. A tributary of the Episōdos is being created by a triangulation of young artist curators: Lantian Xie Dubai, Michelle Wong (Hong Kong), and Kabello Malatsie (Johannesburg).
The Episodo 00 in end-November 2019 is when we launched the Sourcebook of the Triennale, and invited a selection of artists to present works in performative and discursive registers to inaugurate the Triennale. The public can still access the event online via an extensive video documentation of the day’s unfolding.
RK: Please elaborate how the participants were selected for the upcoming edition of the Triennale. Also share specific examples of works you are particularly excited about.
RMC: Being artists, we always look at and learn from the work of fellow artists. It’s about observing artistic processes over extended durations, having conversations with them as peers, not as someone ‘external’ to the processes of creation and production. Of course, we do studio visits, and we have travelled extensively between the three of us in the Asia-Pacific region, and in Australia, as part of our research into a range of new visions and practices for the Yokohama Triennale.
Many new artworks are being created for this edition. This is the most challenging and much-anticipated part of the curatorial process. And then there are artists who have left behind a body of work for us to think with. There are new iterations of works, and some works are being tried out in a different staging. And most crucially we have worked long hours to think through the co-presence of artworks. We are eagerly looking forward to this.
(Yokohama Triennale 2020 is scheduled from July 17-October 11, 2020.)