BY Edna Bonhomme in Opinion | 27 JUN 23
Featured in
Issue 236

The Double Life of Paul Purgas

The DJ and writer experiments with electronic music and rethinks the meaning of a ‘sonic archive’ upon discovering tapes at the National Institute of Design

BY Edna Bonhomme in Opinion | 27 JUN 23

This article appears in the columns section of frieze 236, based on the theme 'After Dark'.

DJs often lead double lives. By night, they might perform at a clandestine rave, where bodies writhe salaciously in dense fog. By day, they may be a barista sketching latte art or a well-paid tech worker funding their craft. For the devotee, the DJ’s sonic lyricism is meant to muster exaltation, enabling them to float on a euphoric cloud as their problems are eviscerated into thin air. Sometimes, these performers are driven to speak to a world beyond the rave, to the histories of the music they play. The exhibition ‘We Found Our Own Reality’ (2020–ongoing), developed and curated by Paul Purgas, is a multi-media collaborative venture that anchors contemporary electronic music in its history. What coheres the enterprise is a sonic archive brought to life – not by a dusty historian, but by people who practise the music. The work centres on the National Institute of Design (NID) in Ahmedabad, which had an electronic music studio as early as 1969. Motivated to visit by his fascination with art and technology, Purgas uncovered a collection of tapes in the archive.

Paul Purgas digitizing tapes at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, 2018. Courtesy: Paul Purgas

In late January of this year, Purgas took the exhibition to Berlin’s Kulturquartier, silent green, for the 24th edition of CTM Festival. Located in the working-class neighbourhood of Wedding, the Kulturquartier is a repurposed crematorium, the first built in Berlin. The final incineration took place there in 2002. Now, it functions as a gathering spot for artists, musicians and writers. Purgas produced new music for the event, sampling unreleased recordings by five Indian electronic composers who worked in the NID studio between 1969 and 1973.

As Purgas stood over the decks, his eyebrows were crescent-shaped, and his eyes pensive. Unlike a typical dancefloor crowd, enlivened by free movement, silent green’s audience was soberly engrossed by the performance. In one area, the aroma of sandalwood – often associated with Ayurvedic therapy – wafted through the air. The music was uncluttered and breezy, anchoring the project to a buoyant art form, as if a conductor and his orchestra had morphed into one. Purgas’s work was presented alongside that of other experimental artists – including Ahadadream, Poulomi Desai, Nabihah Iqbal, Imran Perretta and Suren Seneviratne – in the minimalist space. While the hall’s presentation was trim in appearance, the electronic curation is a testament to Purgas’s evolution as a curator and an artist for setting a serene temper.

Paul Purgas, 'We Found Our Own Reality', installation view, Tramway, Glasgow, 2021. Courtesy: Paul Purgas; photograph: Keith Hunter

Born in Wales and raised near Bristol, Purgas was a child of a 1990s Britain recovering from the government of former prime minister Margaret Thatcher, at a time when artists and musicians could still afford to live in urban centres. ‘There was this sense that music was part of the fabric of the city,’ Purgas told me when we met in late February. But the city is not the only place that shapes him; his approach to sound is also bound to his acute discipline.

When we spoke, Purgas had been deeply immersed in several projects: composing, curating and writing. Our conversation felt familial, as if I were chatting with a cousin. But, unlike my relatives, he was soft-spoken, enticed by music – specifically, electronic music – and philosophy. Purgas provided a well-padded account of his intellectual journey, squeezing out a history of the 1990s Bristol music scene. Undoubtedly, the lower housing costs and living expenses, which gave artists such as Portishead and Massive Attack the space to write and live in the city, made a career in music more sustainable. Bristol, according to Purgas, wasn’t just a place that bred groups like these; many of his peers experimented with and composed music willingly and openly. When I asked him about his musical training, he laughed. ‘I am self-taught.’ With Detroit house and British industrial music in mind, he bought records, plucked synthesizers and pounded drums. ‘Music became a device for narrating,’ Purgas told me, which meant that the divide between everyday life and electronic music was not so neat.

Reconstruction of NID’s historical vinyl collection, Berlin, 2023. Courtesy: CTM Festival/Udo Siegfriedt

But music was only part of his life. Coming from a South Asian family who encouraged him to pursue a white-collar vocation, Purgas studied architecture at university to allay the anxieties of his elders. This experience will be familiar to those visionary creatives whose parents – projecting onto them their own hopes and ambitions – encourage them to compromise and choose a career that offers financial security. But, for Purgas, the architectural training was not just pragmatic: it was fruitful, giving him a sense of abstraction.

Purgas is inquisitive. Among other things, he tries to move between space and time, asking: ‘How do you pull the past into the present? How do you make it into the present? How do you make the history, context and archive resonate with a contemporary audience?’ When he described his archival journey, my ears pricked up, because it reminded me of my artist journey in the archive. For Purgas, the sonic provides the foundation for archiving through cultural, philosophical and spiritual means. Sound also sheds light on specific histories that may not have been acknowledged theoretically or holistically. After discovering the collection of tapes at NID, Purgas produced Electronic India (2020), a documentary in which he and his collaborators managed not only to track down one of the surviving studio composers but also to conduct in-depth research into the history of design in India. Committed to expanding his lexicon beyond music and design, Purgas strives ‘not to separate the sound from its cultural-historical context’.

Recording session at the NID sound studio, c.1969. Courtesy: National Institute of Design-Archive, Ahmedabad

Electronic music can be playful, therapeutic or highbrow. More than anything, it can challenge us to step outside of ourselves. Purgas stands firm as a multi-hyphenate theorist, musician, artist and author, and his work anchors itself. The sonic might be the perfect escape for those thinking deeply about non-linearity and speculation in the arts or, as Purgas remarked, playing with the ‘slipperiness of time’.

This article first appeared in frieze issue 236 with the headline ‘Sonic Slipstream’

Listen to Paul Purgas's
Frieze DJ in Residence playlist on Spotify, here.

Main image: live improvisation by Poulomi Desai and Suren Seneviratne, Berlin, 2023. Courtesy: Stefanie Kulisch/CTM 2023

Edna Bonhomme is a historian of science and a writer based in Berlin, Germany. Her work has appeared in Al Jazeera, The Atlantic, The Guardian, the London Review of Books and elsewhere. Her forthcoming book explores contagion in confined spaces.