2017: An Oscillation Between 2000 Years After and 1000 Years Before

Raqs Media Collective on their 2017, from a séance with an 18th century automaton-tiger to imagined conversations with Édouard Glissant

BY Raqs Media Collective in Opinion | 21 DEC 17

Think of the 'en' you add to the beginning or end of a word, to make it do something. Think ‘vision’: add an en and it becomes ‘envision’. Add an en at both ends of ‘live’ and it becomes ‘enliven’. Take a unit of space or time and you add an en and it 'lengthens' what you are thinking about. It keeps going, that little twitch of a word, and suddenly, you are transitive, changing. This is the subterranean flow and aspiration that was tapped in the séance we held with Tipu’s Tiger at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in February. Intergalactic interlocutors from 2000 years ahead were channelled to ride the automaton-tiger into a future history of Europe. This meant being suspended between animal and android selves, between many epochs and drifting continents. On the way, we made a few new words – like ‘zombiscuit’, ‘qualiatomic’ and ‘algebrahmin’ – as passwords for time travel.

Raqs Media Collective, The Return of Tipu's Tiger, 2017. Courtesy: the artists and Frith Street Gallery, London

What are the possibilities today of a conversation between practice and thought, between technologists and practitioners of embodied knowledge, between the archivist and the hacker? How will this conversation be conducted and what forms of gathering and conversation will need to be invented? These ideas were extended by Santhosh Sadanand (philosopher of art, at the Ambedkar University Delhi), and Keller Easterling (architectural philosopher at Yale University) during the inter-generational conference we recently co-convened with Sarai - Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, ‘What time is it?’ at the Max Mueller Bhavan, Delhi.

The tasks of making, doing and thinking disintegrate and reconstitute themselves so rapidly now that keeping a stable distinction between thought and practice is difficult to hold. The seeping of intelligence, as well as questions about forms of human labour, into the making of things and digital objects is creating entanglements that we would not have thought of even a decade ago. The Akansha Rastogi-curated ‘Hangar for the Passerby’ at the Kiran Nadar Museum, Noida, as well as the talks and performances at ‘Specters of Communism’ (initiated by Okwui Enwezor) at the Haus der Kunst, Munich, made us realize how expressive this entanglement is, in singular and collective forms. It opened avenues for agile responses and play. Both operated under an equality of terms between different forms and protocols of asking questions, argumentation and listening.

Raqs Media Collective, Re-run, 2013, film still. Courtesy: the artists and Frith Street Gallery, London

Practitioners have begun to search for the companionship of philosophers and hackers, because there is no other way out. Instead of its feared disappearance, philosophy has now dispersed into the general intellect. Must philosophy too then not ask new questions of itself? So, we imagined conversations between ourselves, and the philosopher-hackers Ibn Sina, Al-Biruni and Édouard Glissant.

In the year 999 (CE), a 28-year-old Al-Biruni, sitting by the shores of the Aral Sea in Gurganj (in present day Turkmenistan) wrote a letter to the 18-year-old Ibn Sina, 250 miles away in Bukhara (in Uzbekistan today) that inaugurated an exchange that lasted for two years. What were Al-Biruni and Ibn Sina quarrelling about? Their disagreements centred around divergent readings of Aristotle’s understanding of heaven and the stars. ‘Are there other solar systems among the stars or are we alone in the universe?’

Villa Empain, Brussels. Courtesy: Villa Empain

Ibn Sina answered Al-Biruni’s challenges by asserting that the consideration of infinity necessarily entailed the admissibility of many worlds other than our own. The possibility of many worlds was simply a corollary of the necessity of infinity. We read our rewriting of this dialogue for the Sharjah Biennial 2017; and it was heightened by the presence of Laura Marks who has so eloquently opened up multiple genealogies between Islamic history and new media art.

Much as Glissant intimated, ‘an island assumes other islands’. And he was the necessary reference for the Hans Ulrich Obrist and Asad Raza-curated exhibition ‘Mondialité’ at the Villa Empain in Brussels. In the publication accompanying the exhibition, we wrote, ‘A telescope powerful enough to aid us in discerning the shapes and extent of craters on the moon will reveal a very different picture of the universe to one that unravels the rings of Saturn, or one that can bring home to us the light of a distant star. The universe looks different, depending on the questions we ask of the stars, and the magnifying power of our viewing devices.’

Raqs Media Collective, Communard Biscuits, 2017. Courtesy: the artists and Frith Street Gallery, London; photograph: Michael Pollard

Contemporary art and its stance to time is key, not as a conceit, but as a contention. The nature of time is demanding. Its distractedness calls for a recalibration of what we mean by focus. Its intensity calls for a new threshold of thinking about experience. In Accra, Ghana, the curatorial intensive gathering of the Independent Curators’ International featured different ways of thinking that tested the various thresholds of the sites of knowledge production to claim other provenances for the ways in which we can think, feel, talk, across the world.

And that is why, for ‘Twilight Language’ (our current solo exhibition at the Whitworth Gallery, Manchester) we baked a mound of edible 3D replicas of a biscuit from the Paris Commune, found in the People’s History Museum of Manchester.

Main image: Tipu’s Tiger, c.1795. Courtesy: Victoria and Albert Museum, Wikimedia Commons

Based in Delhi, India, Raqs Media Collective comprises three artists: Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta. Their first major UK exhibition ‘Twilight Language’ is showing at the Whitworth, Manchester, until 25 February 2018.