Raqs Media Collective Interview: 1980 in Parallax
1980 in parallax is a new exhibition by New Delhi-based Raqs Media Collective. For the past three decades, the Collective’s work has been located at the intersections of contemporary art, historical enquiry, philosophical speculation, research and theory – a hybrid practice and methodology that finds correspondence with Charles’ work as designer, critic and historian. Their exhibition centres around a new film commission titled The Bicyclist Who Fell into a Time Cone which reappropriates the term parallax to describe perceptions of a particular moment in history. In this interview with Jencks Foundation Artistic Director Eszter Steierhoffer, Raqs Media Collective members Monica Narula, Jeebesh Bagchi and Shuddhabrata Sengupta discuss their new work and exhibition on view at The Cosmic House from April to December 2023.
Eszter Steierhoffer (ES): I would like to start with a question about your encounter with The Cosmic House itself, the conceptual context and the physical environment in which your new exhibition unfolds. One might perceive some affinities between the work of Raqs Media Collective and the recurring ideas, methodologies and overall attitude of The Cosmic House, which led to our invitation to collaborate on a new commission. How would you describe your first encounter with the house in retrospect, now that the work is made?
Monica Narula (MN): The very first moment when you enter the house and you look up to see the ellipses and the layering of geometry, there is a play between idea and form which the house literalises. One may use Jencks’ word ‘architistics’ (architecture’s linguistics). The question of language is really important to us in Raqs. We work a lot with language, but language not only in terms of how one utters but also what one utters with; language as material and as a translation practice, the fact that all language is – at the end – a translation. How Jencks is interested in bridging language and architecture is also a kind of translation project. Being able to start from the same starting point and consider the unexpected turns it takes – we have this unpredictability in our own process as well.
Jeebesh Bagchi (JB): The surface, or floor, on which you stand is another thing that may correspond to the expression of the chronogram. This takes from the unexpected flooring of The Cosmic House. In India, early modernity was very taken up with flooring. Kolkata houses had this specific red oxide flooring, which you also find in Kerala and, now, in other parts of India: an adding of colours to floors, such as turquoise blue.
The intention of the surface – that on which you stand – is a route for us in this work; The Cosmic House’s grounding and unfamiliarity are a provocation to think playfully, joyfully. Unfamiliarity gives rise to a different account of time and history where you do not take the familiar narrative, rather try to discern other currents within it.
ES: Another interesting dialogue between your project and Charles’ design revolves around the perception and representation of time as a non-linear concept. The spatial logic of the house complemented with the various symbolic depictions of cultural and cosmic time translate as a set of superimposed diagrams of time itself. Your new film The Bicyclist Who Fell into a Time Cone, which you describe as a chronogram, is a contemplation about time through time. To complicate and collapse the idea of linear time you borrowed the concepts of the ‘time cone’ and parallax. What might these different concepts and methods of capturing and rendering time imply?
Shuddhabrata Sengupta (SS): One of the things that we all noticed when Monica brought back pictures of the house were relationships of diagonality. Your eye line was never looking at one space alone. That helped in our thinking of the parenthesis. The bracket is how we have been thinking about 1980 – not just as a duration/period but also as a feeling. We've worked with the idea that there's a 1980 hidden in every year. And for us, the starting point of that feeling has to do with a memory of being on a bicycle, looking up at the sky, watching a plane fall. It's as if that moment is being revisited in the memory, in our understanding of time as a time when something stops and something precipitates. So the parallax is the double vision of the bicyclist, looking at time stopping, but also time accelerated – both to see it in motion and beside itself. I think that's where the bicyclist and the time cone and The Cosmic House meet and have a conversation.
MN: What is interesting about the twenty-first century’s relationship with digitality is that it offers another understanding of time. For example, the loop of a GIF, the fact that things are always looping, is a very common experience of things that we watch today. The repetition is the point of a GIF. Thinking about the idea of parenthesis, which is such an important aspect of the film, is also about how one inhabits the loop and then gets out of it. How does one see this GIF of a moment – time in a short loop – but then, even while inhabiting it, also being able to see it from the outside?
The digital has become an integral part of the exhibition, with the AR elements and the digital drawings – the interferences that are made on the skin of the house. The question of the skin becomes important because it's such a crowded house, visually overloaded with so many elements – much like how the post-modern is hyper expressed. How does one make a mark on a skin so as to not overload it yet again? How does one speak to its surface while adhering to digitality? We offer a virtual surface to a real house, but the sensation is real.
JB: The chronogram acts as a time cone also in its formal structure. You enter the work slowly, from afar, sliding into its pace, where it is almost impossible to hold your perception, and your ability to organise perspective is gone even though you feel exhilarated. The time cone allows us a certain kind of consolidation and loss of perspective, not as an unanchored, unembedded floating device, but as a challenge to make sense of something that is extremely proximate and also in movement along with your movement. It is not only that you are moving and the world is static, which is a dead way of looking at the world, a dead reckoning. Or even that the world is continuously moving, massively, and you are merely trying to touch it. The time cone as a ‘thought process’ allows for a different ordering of this relationship.
MN: Like a live reckoning with time.
MN: The bicyclist – who we evoke in the film – is a figure who's in a mode of repetition. I remember days-long endurance performances by bicyclists seen in different parts of India, or at least north India. I remember going with my grandfather over days to one of these performances and this man would just be cycling round and round and round.
This constant spiralling also connects to The Cosmic House’s ceiling ellipses, but also there is a trance-like state which one enters with the experience of duration itself. So it connects memory and fairgrounds to quantum physics.
ES: Your chronogram experiments with new editing techniques, or what you described as a new tectonic or textural quality achieved through juxtapositions: a polyphony of layers that breaks with a linear, narrative organisation of images. Did the work open up new ways for you to explore the medium of film itself?
MN: Over the years we have worked with the frame in multiple ways. We have worked with orthographic elements – the question mark, the exclamation mark – in a sculptural piece. What we enjoyed in the making of the film was the use of orthographic mark or parenthesis as the skin, language and texture of the film, which breaks the perspective not for the sake of it but because parallax provides you with that kind of a starting point. Like when you look through the eyepiece of a rangefinder camera of the 1980s, you see two frames. I remember having a Hanimex as a child that was given to me as a birthday present. The double framing asks you to pay attention to the fact that just because you saw something, it doesn't mean that the camera saw it the way you saw it. So there is this element that joins the skin of the film with this little loop which plays out both digitally and durationally.
SS: There is also the question of the materiality of magnetic tape of different kinds. Because 1980 or thereabouts is also the time when videotape and television become an important presence in our lives. Unlike the seeming immateriality of the digital form, analogue video was a very tactile thing. It would get folded, it would get crumpled, it would get fungus and dust, and the chronogram that we've made actually works with some of the memories of these interruptions in the visual field.
It brings to the optical surface a memory or rendition of these interferences, which sometimes also means that the image moves backwards and forwards in time, if you like. For us, 1980 as a period has that quality of being that fold.
JB: Between the Augmented Reality and the AR extensions into the skin of the building, it is as if you're walking into something or that something exists around you which is unnoticeable at first. What the bicyclist does is twofold. One, it makes us discover different landscapes and, second, its rhythm disobeys a temporal way of narrating historical time. The bicyclist’s rhythm is undulating, repetitive, seeing either the sky or the horizon or the ground itself.
With the digital prints, too, there is a presence along with your presence – other forms, surfaces and connections. A co-presence where your imagination has to do the work. The work of time in the piece is experiential and conceptual, and it is also an imaginative act that you bring into the world. This multi-dimensionality, we hope, will be expressed through this combination, ways of conceiving a space–time relationship, ideas of different presences, with presences not just becoming archival or of the present, but with discontinuous ideas of the future. Recognition of co-presence as a pulsation into a space where you express, feel, move through, move into.
ES: The Cosmic House itself is a simulation, and while obviously the high-tech means were not available at the time of its design, a lot of ‘virtual reality’ is already present through low-tech means such as trompe l’œil or mirrored surfaces. It is really great to see how your work infiltrates the spaces of the house: in the gallery as wall drawings, or as ‘imprints’ on mirrored vinyl, which is then further extended into a virtual dimension through the AR intervention that you titled ‘Betaal Tareef: In Praise of Off-time’. Could you talk about this title and what it means?
SS: The basic thing with Betaal or the off-time character is that it is a companion. If time flows in one direction, there are also tangential directionalities to time, and the sensations that stand at the tangent to the onward flow of time is what we call Betaal. In musical terms, think of syncopation, the beat moves forward but the off-beat moves sideways, which is what a Betaal is. It allows us to expand our experiences of being in time. It is similar to how Jencks saw the post-modern condition, not as something that comes after but along with/beside modernity.
JB: We’ve heard Betaal stories from childhood, versions of which are found in different parts of India. It’s a goblin who sits on the king’s shoulders, asking him questions, persistently. If answered correctly, he will fly back to his tree, and if answered wrongly, he will kill the king. The Betaal becomes arresting because, while it is a continuous co-presence, it’s the ‘off’ that can be both an extended duration or just a moment.
In many cultures of performance, there is this moment where one emotion calls for an extended exploration, so much so that you forget the narrative and that emotion moves on its own. Betaal allows us to bring all these questions and conversations back into some degree of focus in the context of The Cosmic House. It remains a question whether The Cosmic House itself is a Betaal, sitting as a goblin over other forms of modernism.
ES: The Jencks Foundation’s first research theme takes its starting point from the year 1980, a year in-between two decades. It is a significant moment both in the design of The Cosmic House and in Charles’ intellectual work, especially in relation to the 1980 Venice Biennale that famously announced Post-Modernism as the new international paradigm of architecture. The starting point for this new commission was to remap – in retrospect and from a parallax view – the year 1980. What does this year mean to you, from your perspective?
SS: In the film we refer to the beginning of 1980 with a minute of silence in the Indian parliament. The decade begins with a minute of silence in homage to what has happened before. The 70s were very turbulent. And I think that nobody anticipated how much more turbulent 1980 would be: it carries with it the ghosts of the haunting presence of the past and carries within it the not-yet present of the future.
Which is why it is so sympathetic to us in terms of being the year that is in every year as a metaphor, in a way. Five years after the emergency, which is the period of dictatorship in India, two years before the spectacle of the Asian Games, we got colour television – in 1982. It's four years before the massacre in Delhi that made us all grow up very suddenly, an episode of intense violence, following the assassination of Indira Gandhi. And looking back on that time, looking back on its details, its concreteness, we begin to understand a lot more about where we are now.
ES: Your chronogram moves between different scales and dimensions of time. It is composed of various materials – animation, archival footage and slides from the Jencks archive too – that date back to the period of 1980. The archival footage allows you to capture a specific visual texture from the 1980s, which is juxtaposed with contemporary footage – often shot in places in-between, on the edge of other places, in the hinterlands of New Delhi – that seems very much out of time, off-time. How did you select the archival material; what were your criteria for trying to capture a specific year on film?
JB: We looked at quite a few visual and digital archives of videos, newspapers and magazines. We were also looking at how 1980 is narrated inside the Jencks’ archive itself. We found there was an idea of the ordinary vs event-image, with the latter becoming more valuable, because it occupies a space of having recorded an event.
In one of the ordinary videos, a Sikh family enters a bus followed by a red Ambassador car (an iconic image of the 80s). However, the family’s ability to cohere what is ordinary will be completely upturned by the events of the near-future, and the film hints at that moment when it says, ‘four years before the massacre’.
SS: In our chronogram, we speak of how past and present meet for a posthumous dance. That's the notation we create via Charles Jencks’ images of the Jantar Mantar, an eighteenth-century astronomical observatory in the heart of Delhi. Jencks shot the astronomical instruments, these beautiful architectural forms that seem like Post-Modern architecture. And opposite the site is a municipal building, which also echoes the curves of astronomy and the building’s astronomical instruments. Jencks records both in his 1980 trip to Delhi.
ES: In many ways, it seems that the year 1980 has prefigured life as we experience it today. In the film you conclude, ‘there is 1980 hidden in every year’. In what way was that year significant for life and society in India?
SS: One of the very interesting things we found out about the year 1980 is the ‘Mandela Effect’ – a lot of people live with a mistaken assumption that Nelson Mandela died in 1980. Of course he didn't, but there is a persistent idea that he did. Whenever people carry false assumptions about events that did or did not happen at a time despite clear evidence to the contrary, it can be called an instance of the Mandela Effect at play.
We have a feeling that in the time that we are living through right now, we will remember things that have actually never happened.
JB: In 1960, the world GDP was $5 trillion, and in 1980 it was $10 trillion. It doubled in 20 years, and that’s the beginning of the growth crisis. And then, by 2020, we were touching $100 trillion, which is ten times in 40 years. Obviously, something happened in the world.
We hint at circuits and codes changing the logic of production and of global supply chains. In the last 40 years, the way we imagine the relationship between landscapes, machines, technologies, codes, animals, and our possibility as human beings has changed fundamentally. This conversation that we are having was not possible in 1980 because the world was divided in much clearer terms then. Now the terms have changed, and many more are in it.
ES: Working as a collective and embracing your polyphonic voices, you once described yourselves as a creature with three heads, two pairs of testicles and a vagina … The Bicyclist Who Fell into a Time Cone reflects on a moment that is widely associated with ideas of post-modernism, and while as a movement it is no longer around, some might argue we still inhabit an essentially post-modern condition. Would you say are you post-modernists?
JB & SS: I think we are kind of off-modern (drawing from Svetlana Boym).
JB: In the last few decades, modernity has been bashed so much that you almost feel affectionate towards it. Looking at older films one feels nostalgic about such beautiful and elegant ways of thinking the world, but we know the violence that modernist arrogance, modernist visions, produced. We also know the relativism that came with post-modernism produced monsters around us. So we are wise to visit the past and live in the present without any specific -isms. I think that this attitude to -isms itself is a gift of post-modernism.
SS: We are parenthetic and syncopated.