AAA’s Researcher for India Sabih Ahmed spoke with the artists of Desire Machine Collective about why the collective form is appropriate for their practice, their interest in negotiating power relations, and the two experimental art initiatives they founded in Guwahati, India.
Asia Art Archive (AAA): Could you tell us a little about the milieu within which you felt compelled to emerge as an artist collective? What possibilities did the form of a collective offer to you when you started off in 2004, and does it pose itself any differently now after seven years?
Desire Machine Collective (DMC): Having travelled a trajectory of political violence and conflict, Desire Machine Collective started off as a dialogue. The impetus for our practice was collaboration and participatory methods of working. Our concerns ranged from the personal to the political and required more than an individual reaction. Our practice lies in a space post authorship and deals with modes of cultural production that are process-driven and outside regulated establishments. The location of the Northeast of India where we decided to base our practice and the absence of any art market, gallery, or state run art establishment there meant that we had to assume a larger role than that of an individual artist. Our concerns and engagements too made a collective an appropriate format to work within.
AAA: Can you tell us a little about the process and preparation behind your work? Including the planning, but also the negotiations you have to carry out in different situations. I can imagine the restrictions you would be facing within Guwahati because of State oppression. Or the fact that you sometimes deal with what might traditionally be regarded as taboo, for instance in your extracting sounds from a forest which is considered sacred. These conditions must pose conceptual as well as very practical challenges which enrich your practice.
DMC: Research and archival practices are at the core of most of our works. The process of making a work has precedence over the final output. Extensive research on a subject slowly leads any work to take form. Long term engagement and a dialogue with persons or communities involved are important components. The process is also participatory and open to discussion with those engaged with the making. The work does not stop with the production but has a life beyond it. Every work defines its own process, and we are really interested in the challenges in these processes. In the case of Trespassers Will (Not) be Prosecuted, a sound installation, we started recording the sounds without having any end in mind. The work stands as a final assemblage of various tribulations, discussions, and formal experiments. There is much data on different studies and research in our studio, unable to find any particular finished form.
We are constantly developing strategies that subvert the hegemony of a center. These strategic devices in turn inform not only the content of our work but also the form. There is a constant negotiation with and revealing of power relations involved, be it the nation state or any other apparatus at work like a particular discourse or knowledge structure. DMC’s work is not a celebration of a form; the interest is in the ongoing and transient realities.
In the case of the sounds from the sacred forest, the taboo is in taking any material out of the forest. Sounds are vibrations, guna or a property, and thus non-material. The recording of the sounds was thus not opposed to the belief system of the community. This was also the reason for using sound as a medium. This work explores the realm of dematerialisation and transience. False memories (of a forest) are instilled in the audience’s mind and the work has a life after the installation is over. This soundscape was installed in a public space with subliminal notions of memory, ecology, and geography experienced aurally thereby reclaiming it and rendering it dynamic. It acts as an intangible intervention into time and space.
AAA: How does the "studio" figure into your practice?
DMC: A studio is something that is ever-changing in our practice. It is a nomadic and temporary enterprise and takes on the extended form of an open space like the project Periferry. A space that is also malleable and can take on the form of a studio, a workshop, residency, symposiums, a space for larger concerns and discussions. It has the scope of being more participatory and inclusive of multiplicities than a conventional studio space. It is a site, which allows for trans-local dialogue and extending the boundaries of a practice. It pushes for experimentation and extends the limits of our practice as well as other practitioners.
AAA: Trespassing, be it of national boundaries or of the limits of political consciousness, seems to be a recurring preoccupation of yours as artists. I’d be interested to know what borders and trespassing mean to you.
DMC: The apparatus operates in multiple forms constantly. In order to negotiate the power relations at play in contemporary times it becomes mandatory to constantly negotiate the spaces beyond the established "lines of control." Be it the meta-narrative of the nation state or rules constructed by a social body, it all needs to be deconstructed in order to reveal its functioning. The darkness on the edge of sight or the visible world is what DMC engages with. It is of prime important for us to appropriate boundaries by creating situations and positions through which to engage with different apparatuses constantly. Some of this assumes a form in which the processes can be shared while other material remains in archives.
AAA: There are already two experimental art initiatives you have founded in Guwahati, Periferry and A+type. Can you tell us a little about the context in which you chose to make those interventions, and what you envisioned the initiatives/interventions to entail?
DMC: These initiatives emerge from a need and absences, like the absence of a public space and public opinion in the case of Periferry. Caught between the rhetoric of insurgency and counter-insurgency the civil society finds itself without a voice. Anything anti-government is viewed quite easily as pro-militant and as such diminishing any public space in civil society. Periferry came about on a disused ferry, an icon of the petrol era, relegated to a state of redundancy in the emerging consumerism in the region. It also occupies a space that is liminal and between—land and water, urban and rural. It is like a realisation of a utopic post-apparatus, post-binary world where still some terms like "neglected" are used to define the regional identity.
AAA: Whereas overtly political themes have been central to your practice, you have also shown a video artwork titled 25/75 which refers to a local lottery game. If the latter is about chance whereas any emphasis on political intervention is increasingly about self-determination and a will to change, I am interested to know how you see the relationship between chance and will.
DMC: 25/75 is revealing a world governed by numbers. These numbers are arrived at through dreams and the interpretation of dreams according to a system developed in the realm of the oral cultures of a particular community of people. It looks at a world that lies at the edge of human consciousness but manifests in a world of numbers (that of the lottery as well as money) which is both powerful and tangible. Different systems and mythologies (be they of dream worlds or a political system) are governing and are in control, and in this the two (a dream world or a political system) are not very different.
AAA: You have recently returned from showing an artwork in Venice where India hosted its first national pavilion at the prestigious Venice Biennale. Knowing the conflictual past and present vis-à-vis the Nation State in Assam particularly, and the North-East at large, can you tell us your experience while participating there? Of course, the curator of the India Pavilion in Venice, Ranjit Hoskote, kept distinctly in mind the characteristic of marginality within imaginations of the nation. But do you feel the burden of being responsible for or representing a context within those imaginations?
DMC: The concept of the nation is a construct in itself, and, in the present context of globalisation and neo-colonisation, is dated and rhetorical. In a post-binary discourse the only use of being within this construct of a nation-state, be it India or Assam is to reveal its failings. There is a burden of representation when one is working out of a central location; it becomes easier to connect one’s practice to a regional identity. DMC however attempts to move beyond a form that is representative and deals with complexities of image construction witch deals with image as perception, time, and location.
AAA: Since your practice is often hinged on exploring the context of a very specific region and its situation in the present moment, does the question of translation get posed to you when you show your works outside of the region where viewers are not necessarily attuned to what you refer to? Further still, does the same question get posed to you within the region?
DMC: Our work is not attuned to creating a didactic discourse on these questions and is not representative of any particular region or context. What interests us is approaching a problem in a lateral or oblique manner. Our work has more to do with archives and investigates power relations in the contemporary world. The context forms only the starting point of a work and in form the work is opposed to the idea of being textual. DMC is interested in perceptions rather than the attention economy.
AAA: It would be nice to know about your ongoing concerns and some of your future projects.
DMC: Currently we are working on a show titled, Being Singular Plural at the Solomon R Guggenheim Museum in New York. This is an ongoing dialogue with the curator Sandhini Poddar and the seminal text by Jean Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural, from which the show derives its title. There is a work that will be shown here for the first time as a work in progress and is the outcome of four years of research. It is titled Nishan and was shot in Srinagar, Kashmir. It is a 4-channel audio-video installation. This is one component in a series of multi-channel audio-video installations.
Residue, another project, is developing into other forms apart from film installation and Periferry and A+type are ongoing community projects.
- Thu, 1 Dec 2011