A Thought in Two Registers

A digital drawing on the computer screen at Raqs Media Collective’s studio is the site I begin with. Partly resembling a world-scape, and partly a memory drawing, the process of this work was conceptualised as a network map of links, layers, nodes, conversations and friendships shared through and between three personal computers of the Raqs members. From being a digital drawing, this image went on to take the form of The Great Bare Mat, fuelling levels of conversations and collaborations between artists, anthropologists, historians, philosophers, scientists and musicians from different parts of the world. [1] On a second take, the image resonates through/across the lines of experience we inhabit in today’s world that is made up of the sign system of graphic scribbles. It suggests to us imaginary geographies beyond a specific cartographic representation, aiding us to see them as threads, lines and colour hues, whose beginnings and belongings are multiple and are continuously multiplied. In as much as they are scribbles, they are rewritings as well, on the uneven landscapes of past and present, embarking on new and unseen terrains while rethinking known ones. Two such registers, of archival past and its artistic afterlife, are what I shall limit myself to at the moment.

The Knots that Bind are the Knots that Fray. Seven screen digital film installation (transferred from HD) Screen One: 1’24”, Screen Two: 59”, Screen Three: 1’09”, Screen Four: 2’10”, Screen Five: 1’02”, Screen Six: 56”, Screen Seven: 1’43”. 2010.

In an instance of voyages, transitions, and departures, Raqs Media Collective uses found footage of the last voyage of ship-building cranes down the River Tyne in northern England. Titled as The Knots that Bind Are the Knots that Fray (2010), this seven-screen video work tells the story of early April 2009 when “the distinctive Titan cranes from the Tyneside Swan Hunter shipyard in northern England were loaded up onto a heavy load vessel and sailed out of the River Tyne. These vast iconic forms were dismantled and were shipped to a new life at the Bharati shipyard on the west coast of India.” [2] The dismantling of these massive cranes followed by their displacement also lets their histories float away from northern England and into sites on the distant west coast of India, acquiring newer forms and, perhaps, roles. The footage excavated by Raqs from the collection of a video enthusiast now relives in a digitally reconfigured life-form. These binding and fraying knots crucially point our attentions to not only the specific voyages that history has not registered, but remind us to see the histories of spaces/places, also in terms of past/lost voyages and found footage.

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‘An Afternoon Unregistered on the Richter Scale’ is a looped video projection of an archived photographic image in which a room full of surveyors in colonial Calcutta is transformed by the Raqs Media Collective through a series of subtle alterations. Shown at Surjection, in Toronto (2011), The Photographers’ Gallery, London (2012)

In another register of excavation, a photographically indexed afternoon from the year 1911 is restaged. This moment, frozen in time by the famous British Photographer James Waterhouse shows the examining room of the Duffing section at the Photographic Department of the Survey of India, then housed in the city of Calcutta. [3] Almost a century after its original configuration, this image was culled from the archive of the British Library in London and translated into its extended artistic life in 2011. [4] Titled An Afternoon Unregistered on the Richter Scale (2011), the photograph is reconfigured into an animation interlacing layers and levels of what Raqs calls “subtle interruptions” into this century-old moment of an afternoon: A person — perhaps an intruder — walks through the “windows” in the background; a constellation of stars begin to appear on the drawing board; the fan that was static starts to slowly spin in reverse; the color indigo rises to conquer the mood of the image; the light brightens and dims. These immensely delicate alterations and tremors collaborate to make the afternoon too subtle for the Richter scale to register. [5]

Both these instances, one of the voyage and other of an afternoon, produce intimate conversations with the past and its archive fuelled by the forces of the digital. The intimacy, produced here by the digital interface, does not recover the archival past as it is. Instead, it opens it up for an arena of engagements, interruptions, and, more crucially, reconfigurations. In a sense, such pasts are not to be seen as sites of lament and moaning; rather one needs to locate them as what Raqs calls “latent possibilities” that might trigger a different range of artistic and intellectual journeys. They are to be seen as the “footnotes” that bear the potential to debunk dominant assumptions of existing historical discourses.

In a time that is increasingly fuelled by the digital, links to the past and the present are spread across archival databases, blurring and redefining the cartographic conceptions of the world. Raqs’ artistic processes conceptualize the world through scribbles and scratches where “footnotes” radiate as possibilities, leading us to terrains that we have not anticipated or foreseen.

NOTES:

1. Raqs Media Collective. The Great Bare Mat & Constellation, Gardner Museum, Boston, 2013. http://www.gardnermuseum.org/contemporary_art/exhibitions/past_exhibitions/great_bare_mat_and_constellation (Accessed 16 March 2013).

2. Raqs Media Collective, “The Knots that Bind are the Knots that Fray,” 2010. http://raqsmediacollective.net /result CC.aspx?id=63&type=works (Accessed 12 April 2012)

3. Raqs Media Collective, “An Afternoon Unregistered in the Richter Scale,” http://www.raqsmediacollective.net/resultCC.aspx?id=143&type=works (Accessed 16 August 2012)

4. Ashita Nagesh, “Artforum.com Critic’s Picks”, http://artforum.com/index.php?pn=picks&id=31234&view=print (Accessed 14 August 2012)

5. James Bridle, ‘Frozen Moments’, Booktwo.org, http://booktwo.org/notebook/frozen-moments/ (Accessed 15 August 2012)