Skirmish by Raqs Media Collective (RMC) is a sad love story told in eight panels. It is one of the three works that the collective is exhibiting at the group show titled This is Unreal, currently on at the Experimenter gallery in Kolkata. It consists of eight photographic images, each with a couple of lines of accompanying text under it.
Four of the eight images show large outlines of keys drawn on a wall that also has a sign in Arabic stuck to it. The text itself—haiku-like in its brevity—tells of a woman who is getting the keys sketched on the walls to torment her former lover by reminding him that she had once given him the keys to her apartment. The tormented lover wants to get back at her by getting someone to draw padlocks on the walls. City dwellers, oblivious of this skirmish, think the keys are the handiwork of locksmiths advertising their trade.
The trio that make up RMC—Shuddhabrata Sengupta, Jeebesh Bagchi and Monica Narula—spotted an outline of a key drawn on a wall in Damascus when they were there for a residency and got the the idea for the story. “When we travel, we take visual notes,” Sengupta says. “We travel a lot. We exchange notes.” The “visual notes” are recorded with still and movie cameras. According to Sengupta, travel and movement are central to RMC’s creative output—he terms it “kinetic contemplation”. The phrase sounds like an oxymoron—don’t contemplation and creativity require stillness and calm? Not for him and his partners, all of whom spend three-four months every year travelling outside India, participating in exhibitions and workshops, curating shows, teaching and attending art residencies. “To consider the world, you have to be constantly on the move,” he says.
Skirmish looks like a simple fable simply told, especially when compared with the enigmatic 4-minute audio-visual clip titled I Did Not Hear that is also part of the show. A man is engaged in target practice with a pistol at a firing range—the sound mufflers covering his ears could well be headphones. There is an ongoing dialogue, except that it is the same female voice that is doing the questioning as well as the answering. She seems to be offering evasive explanations to avoid talking about an unpleasant event that is never described.
“This is Unreal resonates with a lot of our concerns,” says Sengupta about the show. “Dream, for instance, is it real? It feels real because there is experiential vividness... There is a conspiratorial tinge to it... The idea that you can conspire with reality to create hyper-real effects like a dream appeals to us.”
RMC has become better known in India over the past three-four years, but it has been around for much longer. In 1992, the three fresh graduates from the AJK Mass Communication Research Centre at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi, decided to band together and make documentary films. They did this for about a decade and then found their focus shifting. “Our formal concerns were making us move beyond single screen to two or three screens,” recalls Sengupta.
According to him, this shift coincided with changing trends in contemporary art practice internationally and RMC found itself making works that used a variety of material, such as screen and text, sculptures and found objects. Their third work at Experimenter for instance, titled The Librarian’s Lucid Dream, features wallpaper made out of library index cards.
With works that blended mediums as well as concepts, RMC was charting its own eclectic course. Validation came in the form of an invitation in 2002 to show at the prestigious Documenta art show held in Germany. Since then the collective has shown at many exhibitions and galleries across the globe, including the Venice Biennale. But the trio are chary of calling themselves artists, preferring “media practitioners” instead. As Sengupta points out, this is because they never consciously set out to create “Art”. Another reason would be that the sphere of their activities is very diverse; in the form of Sarai, a centre RMC co-founded in 2000, it involves supporting artists, academics and fostering debate on vital public concerns.
Sengupta says art in India still revolves far too much around talk of prices and investment, though he finds a newer generation of curator and gallery owners who are “more interested, less intimidated and less patronizing”. And they are getting increasingly interested in conceptual works such as the ones RMC creates, which can’t be bought or sold easily.
“Our work is not intentionally difficult or obscure, but I can see it as being tangential or oblique,” he admits. “Chess is a very simple game, but it has a great complexity of moves. That doesn’t stop a seven-year-old or a grandmaster from enjoying the game. You can enter at any level.”
This Is Unreal , featuring Raqs Media Collective, Susanta Mandal and Yamini Nayar, is on show at Experimenter Gallery, Kolkata, until 5 September. For details, log on to www.experimenter.in