Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta are media practitioners who formed the Raqs Media Collective in 1992. The collective is known for its works of contemporary art which employ various media such as audio, video, found objects and sculptures. Among other places, the collective has shown its work at Documenta 11 at Kassel, Germany, in 2002 and the Venice Biennale in 2005.
Ahead of their new show, Premonition, Sengupta spoke with Lounge about the works on display and Raqs’ approach to art. Edited excerpts:
Tell us about your latest show ‘Premonition’?
The show is working with the idea of something to come—the idea of anticipation. In the work titled Have you factored for Déjà vu and Distance to Baranagar, there is the landscape of a jute mill with a tree growing out of one of the chimneys. When a landscape with jute mills emerged, it was forecasting a future. That future took several turns, not all of them towards tomorrow. Seen from the perspective of the present, those turns can be read as signals. You look at yesterday’s vision of the future—even if it is a vision that never came about. So the abandoned jute mill you are looking at is like a time machine. Déjà vu is the opposite of premonition, but we look at these phenomena as a kind of a loop—a premonition that is also a memory, that is also a warning, that is also a moment of reflection. The whole idea of premonition as something about to happen, as a sense of the future; now what if it is a sense of the future that never comes but perpetually defers itself. It is like looking back at the memory of an anticipation.
(from left) Shuddhabrata Sengupta, Jeebesh Bagchi and Monica Narula.
Does the Raqs Media Collective always create artworks with a show in mind or can they be independent standalone works?
The works are a response to what we are thinking about at the time. Sometimes we create a few works and then detect a narrative thread—like around this whole idea of anticipation. The works then begin to influence each other in their making.
What is the sculpture/installation work ‘Premonition’ about?
The revolving beacon lights, found on the roof of the ambulances, form the two “O”s in the sculpture. We were interested in this idea of the “forever emergency” that seems to bounce off an ambulance. The lights carry with them a sense of emergency and urgency—the intensity happens to be wherever these lights are. As if there is something happening, when the lights flash, even if nothing is going on. There is also this fatigue of forever being on alert.
When viewing an artwork, how important is it for the viewer to arrive at the aesthetic experience through a thought process that is similar to the artist’s when he or she made that work?
We see the work of art as an open door or as an invitation—you come in with your own interpretation and you go out with your own interpretation of the work. We may have a certain sense of the work but it is inevitably amplified when it comes into contact with the viewer.
If the viewer takes away something different from an artwork than what the artist intended, does it still make the work ‘successful’ as a piece of art?
If the viewer didn’t take away something of his own, it wouldn’t work. A work is a success only when there is a multiplication of interpretations.
How important is it for you to have a large number of viewers? Is it better to have a smaller but more discerning viewership?
The quality of understanding is important; if the number of viewers is larger, that is good. The widening of the viewer base would depend on things like the infrastructure and facilities available to display contemporary art to a large body of people. Contemporary art is not inaccessible, as is proven by the large numbers of people who go to see works at the India Art Summit. The question is of making it more available to the kind of people who have the curiosity and the drive. That has less to do with the work and more to do with the conditions of showing the work. If there were more public spaces and galleries, and more discussion and attention in the media about the content of the works, there would also be more opportunities for discerning viewership.
How important is ‘thinking’ to the aesthetic experience? Should artworks make you think? Or should you be able to absorb a work’s import and beauty effortlessly?
There is no cognitive experience where you can separate thought from sensation and perception. Those who try and differentiate between thought, feeling and sensation are under an illusion about how the mind operates. We know enough about the human mind now to know that this separation is imprecise.
Premonition by the Raqs Media Collective will be on display from 4 February-26 March at the Experimenter, Kolkata. For details, log on to www.experimenter.in