Records, Fictions and Futures – Rohini Devasher and Srinivas Aditya Mopidevi In Conversation

Srinivas Aditya Mopidevi (SAM): The conventional archaeological approach predominantly sees the past as something that needs to be preserved for the future. But the explications in your recent body of work offer an alternative perspective. How did you use Archaeology, a term instituted to talk about the past, to speculate about the future?

Rohini Devasher (RD): I think we need many visions of the future, perhaps in parallel not in one linear progression as conventional archaeology suggests. We need to think about ways of looking and understanding our world without necessarily being rooted in a present.

This comes back to genres like science fiction, but also specifically speculative fiction, which is literally the fiction of speculation. Its most fundamental question being, ‘what if’? The minute you ask that question, the answers are immediately more open. Deep Time an exhibition I did in 2013, looked at a very specific idea of geology and astronomy. Comprehending and bringing into some sort of perspective massive time scales, requires an amazing feat of projection. Of looking into the far past and building on what astronomers and geologists have done before you, while also looking to the future so you can try and predict or forecast patterns and events. This was one part of an ongoing project that tries to map common points between astronomy and art practice, through the lens of metaphor.

SAM: When one looks for images of structures in the past, archival or otherwise, one is trying to assemble a record of events. You have been using the expedition as a method of pointing towards something anew. While your recent film work Shivering Sands choreographs a specific thinking about sea and place in reference to Maunsell Sea Forts in England. Encounters of the Remote Kind and Field Notes foregrounds an archival aesthetic using the found photographic images of the sea forts. Was this framing a conscious one? Is it possible for us to think about archive that is not a record?

RD: Absolutely! For me the expedition is as much a method of re-discovery as it is one of discovery. For instance, the film Shivering Sands is a journey, across the ocean to what seems to be some sort of strange forgotten, abandoned outpost.

shivering-sands-video-stills-rohini-devasher-2016-3 shivering-sands-video-stills-rohini-devasher-2016-1Shivering Sands, Single channel video (stills), 21 min, 2016.

What are these strange tripod-like structures? What were they meant to be? What could we imagine them to be? The film has two simultaneous narratives; the first, the vastness of the ocean and horizon, the approach, sighting, circling and last view of Shivering Sands. The second, a contrapuntal narrative of an annotated and edited text (written by Laura Raicovich), that guides us through physics, symmetry, pattern, cosmology and poetry, resonating strangely and perfectly with the geography and phenomenology of the site.

When I first saw these sea forts, they suggested multiple things to me. On the one hand, so dystopic, strange abandoned rusted beasts in the middle of nowhere, on the other, they are so futuristic, they could be the progenitors of the All Terrain Attack Transports (ATAT’s) from Star Wars. They also have an uncanny resemblance to the Philae lander that accompanied the Rosetta spacecraft until it landed on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko. I wanted to see what these amazing forms would look like at sites and times across the world. There is a Super 8 film filter at the beginning and end of the film, the idea being that you may be moving through the past and discovering the ‘site’ only to leave it in the past once more and so on and so forth in an infinite loop. The photograph and print series Encounters of the Remote Kind and Field Notes are a continuation of this loop, of something having been lost and then retrieved.

SAM: This connection brings both the works that came out of the expedition to Shivering Sands together. The records you found and documented are not presented as they are, but they are constructed in new and imaginary places/contexts. Could we say the process of re-working helped in thinking about these structures outside of their monumentality?

RD: You have to imagine you are an explorer, on an expedition and you stumble across these incredible constructs, they disappear for a century and re-appear after another. I think that the expedition is a very interesting way of working. It started with a project in 2010 as part of the Sarai City as a Studio Fellowship which began with the collection of stories, interviews, conversations and histories of the amateur astronomy community in Delhi. I was looking at exploring the idea of something that comes alive once it is ‘finished’. How does one create a sense of engagement with someone else’s experiences? Is it possible to be a participant again once a work is complete? As an amateur astronomer myself, I was keen to explore the dual role of the artist as both ‘participant’ and ‘observer’. Somehow, the expeditionary mode is an extension of this.

field-notes-1-rohini-devasher-archival-pigment-print2016Entry 1, from the Series Field Notes, archival pigment print, 17 x 12 inches, 2016.

SAM: So a record based on observation in a field can be of any kind. A live recording, a performative recording, a really basic perceptual recording in your mind. How conscious are these orchestrations when you are at a site?

RD: It’s interesting because the field functions at two parallel registers. On the one hand, I think the nature of the site is at complete odds with conscious orchestrations, at least in my experience! The ‘field’, is never what you expect, nor is your reaction what you expected. The landscape, weather, your tools; camera, audio recorder, sketchbook, all function differently. Circumstances come together to force you to do what you can under a very specific set of circumstances. But the field is also a place (or group of physical sites) in which evidence of past activity is preserved. For the amateur astronomer as for me the night sky is also a field, a blank canvas onto which we project our thoughts, dreams and imaginaries. As a mode or methodology:  the field, then becomes  a space for investigation, that allows you to explore something unfamiliar, rather than a moment of consciously acquiring knowledge.

I was reading the other day about the paradoxes and biases of observation. On the one hand, we “see what we expect to see”, on the other we “see what we want to see”. There are also situations like the ‘streetlight effect’ where the researcher will only look where they think they will find positive results, or where it is easy to record observations. Recording as a strategy offers the possibility to eliminate the distance that seems implicit in the empirical reading of ‘observation’.

SAM: Exactly, the engagement is not passive!

RD: That’s really interesting. So are we still in the observational mode or is this something else?

SAM: Well recording an observation has many dimensions to it. It could just be you trying to put together your experiences in a particular form without necessarily saying that ‘this is the goal you would like to achieve’. If you break it down further, recording could just be a conscious form of experience without a set destination.

RD: I think this is really crucial.

04-atmospheres-video-still-rohini-devasher-2015-204b-atmospheres-1Atmospheres, Single channel video (stills), 6 min 56 sec, 2015. 

SAM: Let’s say for a moment that experience is just being responsive to the site that you visit. Whereas the recording is the second layer, which is trying to channelize that experience in some form. But also coming back to thinking about recording in a much more material way. Is recording the frame within which a lot of scientific devices collapse into one? In the sense that there is audio, there is video, there may be statistical recording. Is that the conceptual frame within which a variety of things can be spoken about? So what would it mean to think about a work as a recording, rather than as a video etc. and the presumption of what that approach could generate?

RD: I suppose it suggests a certain ‘untouched’ quality right? A ‘record’ has this ring of ‘truth’!

SAM: If we go back to a different kind of question. About whether the recording in meant to be producing a temporary record of something. In a real sense it is. What role does a record play in moment where there are so many methods of engaging with it? As opposed to a state led archival way of looking at the recording. Because, somewhere, artistic practice opens up this idea into a much more fictional space. Which brings me to the question of fiction and the record. It could be very interesting to think about the record you could generate through fiction.

RD: Absolutely!

SAM: It’s also a kind of fictional truth. But if we put aside truth for a minute and think of it as a constructed fiction which is open to possibilities, then it would be worthwhile to revisit what fiction then does.

RD: I remember this happened actually all the way back with the amateur astronomy project. When I was doing the interviews to begin with I kept taking myself out of the recorded audio. I wanted to minimize my voice in the conversation. I don’t remember who it was, but someone said you have to be the anchor, because you are the filter, through which these experiences are being processed. I realise now this is not anthropological or ethnographic exercise in that sense. I am not only collecting data. Once you have collected and recorded what you ‘could’, you make something of this collection, not of what you thought to collect. What I like about the play between recording and fiction is that the latter subverts the truth or verity implicit in the record. That’s very interesting.

terrasphere_image-credit-anil-rane-courtesy-bhau-daji-lad-museum-5Terrasphere, Single channel video and wooden pedestal surmounted by poly-carbonate mirror dome, 24inch (diameter), 10 min, 2015. Photo: Anil Rane, courtesy of Dr Bhau Daji Lad Museum , Mumbai.

SAM: You’re producing a record to ‘perform’ a fiction. And what that allows, is for you to easily break away from what it is. The ‘real’ becomes mutable.

RD: The idea of a mutable reality makes me think about the ‘specular’ in ‘speculative’. Specular or having the properties of a mirror. I like the analogy of a mirror in this context, not just because it references both the telescope and the microscope, but also because when you mirror something, it is reversed and very often that reversal is enough to make something familiar very strange.

SAM: The ability to produce consensus and the experience of what you have seen collectively is a perpetual chase of finding the new. That is a very interesting way of looking at the world. Perceptually, can we look at the world as a place? Or  is the only conversation about the world premised on its image?

RD: Like American historian of science Lorraine Daston has said ‘Strange objects, strangely seen, often by strange people’

SAM: In a lot of science fiction there is some form of pre-occupation to show the materiality through which something is happening. Somewhere the materiality is always foregrounded as if you would need that mechanical addition to change the human sense?

RD: Materiality is crucial in science and magic too! I am very interested in 17th and 18th Century scientific observational instruments, for instance the Planisphere an analog star chart computing and observational tool, the Cyanometer which was used to measure the ‘blueness’ of the sky, or the Tellurion, an apparatus describing the movement of the Earth on its axis around the Sun resulting in the seasons and day and night.

All three objects have the most fantastic physical form and structure, but beyond that they are a physical manifestation of the desire for understanding (some might say controlling) the natural world. But they are also simultaneously objects of such simplicity grappling with enormous scales, of time, hue and shade. For me, they represent so much of what we have been talking about, science, time travel, illusion, fiction, and magic.


All images courtesy and copyright of Rohini Devasher and Project 88, Mumbai.

Text copyright of Rohini Devasher and Srinivas Aditya Mopidevi, 2017.