Throughout this month
if you enter the den-like Project 88 gallery in Colaba, Mumbai, you’ll be
buffeted by screeches, croaks and howls that seem to come from a phantom
creature. The sensation is dramatic, of having encroached into someone’s
hallucination or a sci-fi horror movie in which ghosts are made of sound. These
sounds are of loud static, the cry of cicadas, political speeches, mob
hysteria, and a malfunctioning machine. This swarm is further echoed by a sound
wall embedded with speakers and the meditative, shelter-like atmosphere of the
gallery is broken.
This raucous noise is emitted from the sound and video installations by Desire Machine Collective (DMC), which is having its first solo show in Mumbai, called Noise Life. The show punctures the stupor and complacency that permeates our highly mediatised society in which we have become immune to the horror of violence because of the glut of images and sound bytes. It manipulates the same images and sound in a non narrative, jumbled form to give a sensory experience of raw violence. It succeeds, because at first the installations seem like chaotic white noise, but soon you get goosebumps and an urge to look over the shoulders to see whether someone is lurking behind, waiting to attack you.
That is what perhaps DMC’s Sonal Jain and Mriganka Madhukaillya had set out to do, their projects exposing different forms of repression. Their work reveals how everyday violence and repression affects place, nature and human psyche. Noise is one of the products of that repression.
Most of their ideas emanate from a text called Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia by Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, from which the collective also takes its name. The book develops a political analysis of desire called schizoanalysis, according to which each unconscious desire has a social effect. For example, fascism is considered to be a product of the masses’ libidinal desire aroused by Adolf Hitler.
Schizoanalysis also assumes that the experience of life is a clamour of multiple desires, which have no meaning or outlet and are felt purely as intense noise and sensations. This noise is felt in the social realm in extreme forms. It can either express itself as art or as collective mass hysteria.
Jain and Madhukaillya experienced this hysteria first hand during the Gujarat riots in 2002 when they were at the National Institute of Design. Jain was part of the faculty in communication design while Madhukaillya was a student. They moved from Gujarat to their home in Guwahati after the riots. Since 2004, they have collaborated on practising art concerned with mapping flows of desire of hidden and unseen cultures that are in conflict with the desires of the hegemonic culture. They work in moving images, sound installations, and other multimedia installations. With Noise Life, they have moved to object installations for the first time and a human subject also makes his debut in one of their videos.
Earlier in 2007, in a project titled Periferry, they utilised a government-leased ferry docked on the Brahmaputra to set up an ongoing project where they hold artist talks, residencies and other collaborations. Through Alfa Beta in 2005, they questioned the clichéd representation of the north-east using footage of Tango Charlie, a Bollywood movie with a controversial representation of the Bodo community of Assam.
Their engagement with sound started in a 2012 installation called Trespassers Will (Not) Be Prosecuted in which speakers with ambient sounds installed outdoors interacted with passersby through motor sensors. The sounds were drawn from the sacred forests of Mawphlang in Meghalaya. According to local animistic beliefs, spirits guard the area and taking of any objects from the forest was considered taboo. But by recording the sound of the forest, DMC tried to create a dematerialised, aural space of the forest within the consumerist city.
DMC has an international visibility with shows in New York, Venice and Berlin behind them. Here Jain and Madhukaillya talk about their need to form a collective, the symbolism of boats, and why they find the movie Mary Kom funny.
How did the idea of
forming the Desire Machine Collective come about?
Madhukaillya: We were spending some time in National Institute of Design when the Gujarat riots happened. I was from a science and film background and Sonal was from art and photography background. The Gujarat riots made us feel as if we were being pursued by a cartography of conflict as we are from the north-east where the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) is in force at present, besides having a history of colonial and other kinds of repression. At the same time we realised that this is not our conflict, this is not our place. So, we decided to leave Gujarat.
We didn’t start as artists but the fact that we went back to north-east where there was no public space or a free space of expression, we could not function as individuals but only as a collective. We wanted to set up a laboratory for site-specific social experiments. Our project Periferry was born out of that.
Periferry is a ferry which is used for hybrid practices and is docked on the river Brahmaputra. The main reason for locating it in a river, as a vessel, as opposed to land, is because the river Brahmaputra is a transnational river and we wanted to connect it to the idea of flow. The north-east is a land locked area and with its politics of prohibition and restrictions, we thought that it would be interesting to have a boat as our studio. It is a nomadic space, a symbol of mobility and change, and it suits our politics of protest against the restrictions in the state.
Tell me more about the
Periferry project in context of
Madhukaillya: The north-east is the buffer zone between south and south-east Asia but since 1947, all the flows across the
regions were blocked due to nationalist reimaginings. Tibet and China were looked at with suspicion, while the birth of Bangladesh was imminent. For us, the idea of river represents mutual flow. The river Brahmaputra is a transnational river with many names. It starts in Tibet and comes to Assam and then goes to Bangladesh. One of the functions of nationalism is that it disrupts natural flows. The symbolic idea behind Periferry is to break the binary notion of one centre and periphery and build networks beyond the boundaries with the boat as the symbol of movement.
Apart from the name,
what are the other ideas that you adopt from the Félix Guattari and Gilles
Deleuze text Anti Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia?
Madhukaillya: It has taken 15 years for us to understand their body of work. We have to stress that our work is not illustrative of their theories. We have picked the theories that suit our art practice that involves a lot of research and field work. One of the basic ideas that we have borrowed from the book is that art is not a commodity production. We are not practising our art for making money. We still have day jobs to support ourselves.
Another thing the book says that we have incorporated in our work is that art should invent as many forms as it can and all these proliferating forms should have the underlying philosophy that it is not for profit but for fighting repression. Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze were against the neurotic culture that had arisen due to state repression and capitalism in Europe. A similar situation is now in India. Even in terms of image construction and art, there was a kind of fascism of the classical art pedagogy or the Renaissance perspective with a single standpoint.
We broke away from
that by choosing moving images and a non-linear
structure that is not about telling stories but about perception, and the feel of the location and time.
Your works have a
sound theoretical skeleton. Do you borrow these textual theories uncritically?
Have you done your own research and experiments to substantiate these theories?
Madhukaillya: We do extensive archival research and field research. The theories are used to give form to our research; they do not form the basis for research. We do long-term dialogue with the community or persons involved. We can collect data for years without knowing what we want to do with it. The underlying thread through our practice is to subvert the hegemony of a centre, which we do through our content as well as the form.
One of the ideas that
run through your body of work is that the personal body and its desires is
connected to the social and political field.
Madhukaillya: That’s true. We borrow this idea from the book by Guattari and Deleuze. The body is a receptacle. Since it was born, it has been receiving knowledge, images and desires created by media. It in turn produces more similar desires, images and knowledge. It is like a machine and part of mass production. It’s not personal or original.
You can experience it
all around you … For example, in Mumbai there are so many buildings that look
exactly the same. These buildings are meant for families. At the same time, a
city is a place for individuals but the houses are constructed for families,
creates a very neurotic environment. You see that the desire of a personal body for solitude in a city is replaced by the desire for a family, a desire constructed
by the society.
Your earlier works
dealt with questioning representations and stereotypical images like Alfa
Beta. What was the impetus behind this?
Madhukaillya: This was in beginning of our art practice when we reacted directly to the stereotyping of the north-east by the national media. This video questioned the representation of the north-east in a Bollywood movie called Tango Charlie in which the people from Assam were shown as exotic and violent. They were marginalised as the ethnic ‘other’. It was downright racist. That was when we got angry at these stereotypes. It still happens, for example in the movie Mary Kom. It’s so racist that it is funny. I mean, can you imagine an Assamese or a Manipuri playing the role of Sonia Gandhi or Sachin Tendulkar if a movie is made on them?
Then you moved to
sound in Trespassers Will (Not) Be Prosecuted. What got you interested
in that project?
Madhukaillya: We have an ecological concept of the sacred forests which prohibits any outsiders to take any material from the forest. It’s considered a taboo. So before starting this project we had a long discussion with the community head of the sacred forest of Mawphlang in Meghalaya whether the sound of the forest can be considered a material. After a long discussion we came to the conclusion that sound is vibration which existed before matter. So it’s not a material and can be taken out of the forest.
We started recording the sounds without any end in mind at first then we came up with the idea of the sound installation Trespassers Will (Not) Be Prosecuted. We wanted this installation to be held in a public space and see how the passersby interacted with this sound of the forest. This presence of the sound of the forest also created a sense of false memory of the forest and its sounds among the city people who have never been to this forest. This also led to the transferred experience of a particular ecology and its memory aurally across a geographical divide. In New York, where we also exhibited this work on the street, birds started coming and roosting around the installation.
Although your works
have sound theoretical basis, the experience of them is very sensory. What is
interesting is that you use images and sounds and deconstruct them to create
sensations like that of fear, horror, and suspicion. The same usage of image
and sound in a different way dulls our perceptions, such as what we experience through news.
Is there a conscious decision behind this deconstruction?
Madhukaillya: Yes, we decided long ago that we do not want to give information. We are not media. That’s why we chose the non-representational form. We want to evoke the violence that occurs in the society without showing any images of violence.
Why do you show decay
and ruin so often in your work, like the derelict buildings and the power
station in Residue?
Madhukaillya: We have moved away from direct representations and referents in our work. Our art practice comes from a region that is politically, socially and psychically repressed. It has been reduced to a colony, a wasteland used only for extracting resources and energies. By showing the ruined ecology, we are trying to show the psyche of the region. It is abandoned like that power station. I grew up near the power station and as a child we used to get electricity from that but one day it was abandoned. The story of the region is much like that.
Your practice also
reveals the hidden oral cultures of the north-east, like that through the local
lottery game shown in 25/75.
Jain: 25/75 is about a world ruled by numbers. In the video artwork, we show a local lottery game practised by the Khasi tribe in Meghalaya in which the betting numbers for an archery game are arrived at through dreams. For example if you dream of a girl swimming underwater, the betting number is 75. It would be a completely different number if you dream of two eggs. The method of interpreting dreams is a complex symbology and the numbers are arrived at through the rules articulated according to their folk tradition.
Through this project we try to show how the intangible, subconscious world is connected to the material world of money and the lottery. More than trying to reveal the hidden oral cultures, we are trying to show how control peters down to our subconscious world. Every system or mythologies, be it the political world or dream world, has its own methods of control. If the world can be governed by democracy, capitalism then why not dreams?
In Noise Life, you use human subject for the first time. What was the reason behind this?Jain: In this exhibition we moved to the unconscious and its relation to the social field. We wanted to show that the human unconscious is like a factory of desires and noise, much like what Guattari and Deleuze write in their theory of schizoanalysis. It states that the unconscious experiences the world as pure noise and sensations without any meaning. Despite this theory we do not want our work to be textual as we are interested in the perceptual world or the world of sensations.
We created that by playing the video with the sound installations. The sound that we use is images of repression, of the multiple colonisations: by the politicians, machines and the market world. The discrepancy in the images and the noise create the world of the unconscious and the way in which it experiences the world as cacophony.
You also used objects
for the first time. The tables with the sound of typewriter reified the
function of the table as the furniture used only for producing text. It also
made it seem corporeal. Is it a statement on the control over production of
texts and knowledge and how this knowledge has a life?
Madhukaillya: With the table installations, we want to show that even the tables incorporate the memory of the typewriter like bodies incorporate ideas and images from their surrounding media. A lawyer who came to the exhibition said about the sound wall emitting sounds that ‘Deewaroon ke bhi kaan hote hain. Even the walls have ears.’ According to him, the wall was emitting the sounds that it had heard. Similarly the tables here are emitting the sounds of the typewriter. This is to suggest the receptive power of objects and bodies, whether from the typewriters or other media.
Tell us about your
Jain: We are doing a new project around the water politics in the north-east. Thousands of new dams are being constructed here to supply power outside the state. We are trying to document the relation between power and energy, the contrast between the ecology in indigenous cultures and modern culture. There is also a reference to the Buddhist philosophy which was not anthropocentric and respected the life of plants as well of minerals.