Itinerant bodies: Raqs Collective’s audience gets lost in the archive

Monday, December 7, 2020 - 4:51pm

The performance art troupe The Raqs Collective went live on YouTube last week to present a talk alongside a presentation of “31 Days,” a video piece amplifying pandemic life.

The performance art troupe The Raqs Collective went live on YouTube last week to present a talk alongside a presentation of “31 Days,” a video piece amplifying pandemic life. Buy this photo
Courtesy of the author

The performance art troupe The Raqs Collective went live on YouTube last week to present a talk alongside a presentation of “31 Days,” a video piece amplifying pandemic life. The group is composed of the performance artists Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta and is based in New Delhi, India. 

To behold objects in the Raqs Collective’s work isn’t to observe the curated, forced silence of the museum but to engage with time and inquiry through those objects, presented as framing devices for generating inquiry. With that said, the framing does not hold: Entropy overwhelms its sense of coherence. As a direct result, the audience is forced to stand in as an essential part of the Collective’s work — to the point of their continuous, forced engagement being vitally necessary for finding a coherent direction for the narrative.

The group immediately reinforced the central positioning of the viewer by opening their live performance with an instruction to “let us begin from where (the audience is), both present and absent.” They further declared their artistic practice to be an “infrastructural art” and emphasized the importance of their ‘curatorial practice’ as something ‘built into’ the everyday.

In “31 Days,” Raqs indeed presented their audience with the banalities of daily pandemic life — by filling their digital void with a chorus of fountain pens comprising parallel timelines in the form of a triptych. The first panel engaged the passage of time by showing the drawing of a seismographic line, while the second panel displayed a calligraphic writing-in-progress. The last panel depicted a blank space that “let itself be unseen” and which echoed the viewer’s everyday lived experiences, of muted and then unmuted audio or video functions, in predictable patterns of fluctuation. Insofar as its being an infrastructural art piece the relevance of this video triptych managed to invoke yet another everyday experience involving parallel timelines: Zoom squares.

The fountain pens applied to thick construction paper generated an ongoing static sound of written or “etched” language being made in real-time — the production of which was witnessed solely by the viewer. Set in the context of their larger body of work, this piece felt like a continuation of their tradition of poststructuralist film theory — of dissolving borders between presence and absence, present and future, performer and audience. 

Despite my appreciation for this aspect of their work and my suspicion that this was supposed to make me feel like a voyeur, I realized my enjoyment of  “31 Days” was directly related to incidental Audio Sensory Meridian Response triggers coming from the pens scratching in tandem.

At some point, there had been a rippling of applause alongside animations of the Michigan Theater’s main stage where this talk would have taken place. But without the dimly lit theater space fusing everyone together like an adhesive, I found myself pondering a question, posed somewhere in the melee of introduction and performance: What, then, did we have in common between us?

The collective seemed to try to work within the visual syntax of charged objects to conjoin the audience inside the pandemic. Language and time seemed to be the bonding adhesive — rather than a dim theater encasing us in shadows — that was shared across the collapsed spaces of the internet. The performers’ unawareness of the audience felt especially awkward due to the YouTube format — their words meandered off into the empty distance and didn’t feel directed at an audience.  Practically speaking, a Zoom webinar would have been more effective.

As a distraction, the performance was effective and I felt myself, as Roland Barthes would say, “unglued from the mirror” — I felt an ecstatic separation from myself. But the objects I watched through my screen made me feel psychologically itinerant in another way. My focus was scraped thin and divided between the myriad throughlines. Was I supposed to hone in on the intimacy of iron mining work, or to concern myself with epiphanies related to being mentally engulfed in the size of crashing space objects?

The problem wasn’t the visuals but the group’s lack of textual or verbal anchoring for them. I felt lost, blanketed in an expanding cloud of abstraction. How were these objects like hearing aids as the group claimed? Problematically, there weren’t any stories about the miners themselves, or of anyone who lived in India under British colonial rule, to hook the audience. The statements written in calligraphy felt irrelevant; perhaps, I mused, they would feel relevant to someone else. While this reviewer concerns themselves with deconstructionist theory because abstractions are delightful and playful — if needlessly ambivalent about the state of reality — the performers’ repetitions of them were overdone. 

In playing the talk through a second time, I noted how Raqs seemed concerned with the audience’s plausible ways of seeing through the lens of their abstractions, as a reason for leaving traces of themselves in real-time. When they showed a medieval print on the screen and spoke of the presence of long-departed “itinerant autodidacts” — noting how in the Middle Ages there’d been a profound traffic of ideas — I felt myself implanted somewhere in a multiverse where perhaps I would have watched from the shores of medieval Syria as ships arrived from England.

Raqs Collective’s work feels like a restless striving for kinetic energy despite its placement in the ongoing past, like the slow chemical turn of a leaf embedded within a photograph, that is transmuted from catatonic grey in the kinetic wash of its development bath into the beginnings of a rapidly dilating chemical eye. 

I felt restless in an entirely unrelated way. I felt myself age into another version of myself who might watch again, maybe as an ode to this particular moment in time when I watched simply because I was, originally, seeking distraction from the seemingly boundless network of ongoing global violences. It was a mirage but it felt like I was already there, populating a screen somewhere else.

Daily Arts Writer Sierra Élise Hansen can be reached at hsierra@umich.edu.

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