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by Francesca Ceccherini and Noriko Yamakoshi

Interview with Raqs Media Collective

Francesca Ceccherini and Noriko Yamakoshi: First of all, we would like to ask you about the essence of your practice. What motivated this energy at the start and along the process up to now, when Raqs is twenty-six years old?

Raqs Media Collective: We wanted to give to ourselves an image that allowed us to rethink continuously who we are, not as a fixed idea or image, but as something mobile and in transformation. So, we came up with this specific name—Raqs—that suggested a form of “dancing” together, whirling, relaying an inner joy to one another. It was a way to give ourselves a philosophical principle. We didn’t write a document or a manifesto; we tried to figure out a way of writing the self and the collective through our practices. “Raqs” is Arabic, Persian, and Urdu for the ecstatic whirling of Dervishes, and drawing from there we translate it as “kinetic contemplation.” It’s an idea that you can be with others, as a collective, where others are a part of you, in movement with you.

In the dance of the Dervishes, there are two important elements: the earth and the sky. The body becomes a medium—with one hand up towards the sky, the body conducts energy from the sky, and the other hand pours it onto the earth. To us, this becomes a way to rethink the relationship between the sky and the earth, between life and the collective, between thought and action. It’s a rethinking that we have been doing through our practice in our twenty-five years together. Rethinking, and also acting on ideas of what collective life is, and what it means to cultivate—and to question—the capacities and the relationships that we build in the world.

11th Shanghai Biennal, China

In this way we contribute to a certain way of thinking our name—for it not to turn into a thing written in stone, for us to not become imprisoned by our own words and, also, for us this investigation acts as a horizon.

FC/NY: How did you come to work with this kind of co-curating practice?

RMC: We were born as a collective through writing and filmmaking, and into undertaking long-term research projects on the histories of cinematography, and anthropological photography. We wanted to do many things, and we did not define ourselves as artists or curators. We are somewhere still media practitioners that keep active: by curatorial and artistic processes, by writing, by teaching, setting up institutions and scenarios, and by being engaged in conversations with the coming generations. Our practice is something we always keep testing between us, and with other people in the world. In not following the certainty of any script, the idea is to keep moving and testing new terms.

We became curators after an invitation in 2006 (from Hans Christ and Iris Dressler at the Württembergischer Kunstverein in Stuttgart to curate a section within an exhibition titled On Difference #2). We realized that our practice had already had curatorial dimensions at Sarai. It was not long before we started working as curators—through an awareness of our curatorial agency—in specific contexts and situations.

We enjoy working with a lot of people. Like in a game of football, where many play together. This “playing together” is very important for us. That’s what makes curating a lively process—rethinking collective life and an enlargement in the number of people coalescing and colliding in one’s head, and in reality. A seasoned football player has over a thousand players in their mind at all times. In that sense, curation is akin to creating unlikely processions with many figures and movements; it is an act of co-creation that opens out new journeys and itineraries.

FC/NY: As Indian artists and curators, coming from a land made by a powerful history of art, strong traditions, and contradictions too, moving between the East and the West, how do you perceive the so-called Centre-Periphery dichotomies in artistic and curatorial practices?

RMC: The “Centre-Periphery” dichotomy was produced after World War II. It was the result of a thinking about development as something that goes through stages, and that certain societies and economies were at the “centre” of the global economy, while others were still waiting and were at the “periphery.” After the ‘70s, this understanding broke down because the world economy became very unstable and volatile. And now, in terms of GDP, the world economy has shifted from about 5 trillion USD in the ‘70s, to 75 trillion USD today. What we see now is an intensification, a reorientation, and re-routing of the production and circulation of both material and immaterial goods and wealth around the world. The “Centre-Periphery Dichotomy” cannot describe the world anymore.

What we have to notice is the entry of some new power blocs, cutting into the earlier solidity and locations of power. Institutional spheres, like museums, leverage a high quotient of hold on discourse. Fixed geographical locations of museums that are valued are increasingly facing a challenge from the multiplicity and mobility of other locations and their claim on discourse.

Over the last twenty years, the density of traffic of artworks, artists, and people encountering art has shifted away from the so-called “old centres.” Just look at Asia, at the biennials and triennials, and also consider new museums and other temporary shows, and you’ll see that the traffic is very intense—and that there is much more traffic of European artists to Asia than there are Asian artists travelling to Europe or America. The big problem is that this traffic is not represented, is not registered, is not comprehended as an occurrence that is here to stay. Rather, these are seen as aberrations and distractions from the “real” world of art, and they are dismissed as something resulting from neoliberalism. So, while it is a major reality, it remains minor in terms of discourse. In a subterranean way, discourse is multiple and multiplying from many sites, and will emerge as a significant force that will upset the confidence of established museums and art historical modalities.

Intellectual resources have to be built to do justice to the demand of these new densities and traffic, and we, as Raqs, try to argue for and build these resources, to be actively part of and contributing to the emergent polyphony—a polyphony that is poly-axial and generous in how it sees the world. When ideas are drawn from different resources—from what we, in our practice, call “sources”— then the questions we have will be different, as will the ways in which we understand this world. Otherwise, a lot of the time sources get drawn from histories of Europe and America. Now these are very dense histories, but when they are drawn on to try and encapsulate all that is happening in the world, they begin to thin. And then ideas of “colonialism” and “nationalism” keep getting reconfigured over and over again to try to accommodate other histories.

So then, the question is of traffic and densities between many nodes. A good way to think about this is through biological diversity. One finds that the density of biological diversity is in the so-called “South.” That is, the centres of biological diversity are away from the financial centres of the world. Similarly, centres of culture no longer map onto the institutional order of the world. Now, there are fantastic bio-labs in Europe and America, but biological diversity might be elsewhere, maybe in India or Indonesia, in South Africa, in Brazil, or somewhere else. So, this mapping of the world today in terms of institutional economics, onto other layers, is not possible. We need a different way, a recalibration.

One of the ways to do this is by rethinking these densities, asking questions about traffic in a different way, and by making an argument for multi- and poly-axial sources that allow this new geography to grow in us intellectually and discursively, not kept dependent on categories and concepts that are explaining it away. That is, we need to produce concepts and categories that then enable us to read the world not just in certain local or specific conditions, but which generate a capacity to ask of the world a different set of questions. There is a certain idea of categories that works in the world presently, which is to make us think about the world in terms of so-called “universal categories” on the one hand, and “regional experience” on the other. What we must accept is that there are “contending universalisms” in the world, and they ask us to think about a multi-axial, multi-source world.

FC/NY: And where do you see yourselves on the spectrum between centre and periphery?

RMC: We live in Delhi, a dense city that continues to grow fast, and with an economy that is amongst the fastest growing in the world. It is a highly unequal city, with levels of toxicity rising in its air, water, soil. It has an economic and political climate that is going to throw up a lot of questions about the world. It is, you could say, at a cusp from where it may turn in any direction. In other words, a vectoral space that is dynamic and volatile. It can—in as few as ten years—change the intellectual and political terrain of the world. So, in that sense, it isn’t peripheral to anything, whether one considers global questions of economics, or politics, or climate. It is axial; it is mobile; it is volatile in all matters. And yet, it is not at the centre of anything. Neither centre nor periphery captures the specificity of its being a part of many trajectories of and diversities in the world, or the decisive impact and effect it has on the world. And, though in an opposite way, it’s the same for America. It is no longer the centre of the world, even in its self-image. Its new politics is based on the idea that it is becoming marginal, that it has to reposition itself, and that the rest of the world has become too independent, volatile, and diverse. So then, basically, the situation has changed in the world, and we need a different description. With “centre” or “periphery,” one is still holding on to a very odd idea of economy, institutions, and geo-political relationships.

FC/NY: What is the relation with your native country and its social, political, and cultural contexts in your practice? Have you faced any major problems or challenges in this respect?  

RMC: As a country, India has more than one billion people, and over five to six thousand years of recorded history. That means a complicated landscape and cosmology, and a multi-millennial history of contradictions and conflicts. This temporal and spatial vastness is inspiring, but it is also marked by profound inequality and denigrating thoughts and habits that justify this inequality. Equality is a big challenge here. One of the things that we have learned in our travels—whether to Europe, Mexico, China, or Vietnam—is that equality can be a kind of material force of life. It is a surge; it is in infrastructure; it seeks expression in every encounter, with every form of labour. We keep on observing this: there is and can be a beautiful poetics of equality. Finding equality is a big challenge for the Indic civilisation. The politics and poetics of equality are being intensely fought, and fought for, here. This fight is changing the dynamics of all lives.

Manifesta 7, The Rest of Now, 2007, Bozen, Italy

Also, there are questions of time and place. In our work, these come from our confidence in, and disquiet with, staying in Delhi, and the exuberant experiences of traveling in India. A lot of our works, both curatorial and artistic, are inflected by our thinking on the incongruous nature of time and place that we encounter. We need to re-imagine and re-articulate in order to produce new values.

FC/NY: We could consider urban research, transdisciplinary and participatory practices as part of your main issues. We saw them at Manifesta 7 - The Rest of Now, in Bozen (Italy) in 2007, where you reflected on the urban concept of the “residue.” At the Sarai Reader 09 exhibition in Gurgaon (India), you involved a lot of people from different fields of knowledge to relate their practice with the public. Also, at the 11th Shanghai Biennale (China), where the program 51 Personae re-imagined urban life, celebrating the city, the lives of people, their dreams…How did the locations and contexts influence each project?

RMC: Locations and contexts change things. For example, in Manifesta, it was clear that we were working in Alumix, an ex-aluminium factory. Bolzano is a very small town, but with a very fascinating twentieth-century history. The factory—today a residual place—was a very important site related to World War II. Apart from production, there was also the symbolic power of aluminium for the Fascist regime in Italy. Aluminium is still a very important material in all our lives. The thing to do was to investigate, materially and conceptually, the venue and this history; to create possibilities that we then shared with artists, both established and emerging, to realize works.

Sarai Reader 09, Gurgaon, India

The exhibition in Gurugram, Sarai Reader 09, had a completely different impulse. It was to create an open format that could allow over a hundred artists and practitioners to interact and produce works in public view, with public conversations. It was a nine-month-long process, which invented its rules and protocols as it went along on its course.

Shanghai is a city of 23 million, with a turbulent twentieth-century history. It built more skyscrapers in twenty years than New York made in a hundred. Here, we were encountering a very different set of questions. 51 Personae emerged as we started to articulate the question of the life force of the inhabitants of the city, their ideas and skills, their intensities, their life worlds. The challenge was to travel through the city to make sense of its interstitial, edge-consciousness at work.

In our practice, we try to give a play to a sense of time, whether to lighten it, to dilate it, or to make detours from known chronologies. We need this to operate. It’s how we find ways with which to narrate the world we live in, possibly dislodging habitual ways of seeing it.

Places change the questions we start with. Places interrogate us, and our ideas of the world. They interrogate us about who we are, and our assumptions, positions, directions, and movements. Places change the way we look at artworks, change the tonality of our speech, and the boundaries of our bodies. We like curating in this sense, this heightening of our relationship with places, becoming entangled and enveloped in uncharted dimensions.

Raqs Media Collective was formed in 1992 by Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta. The word ‘raqs’ in several languages denotes an intensification of awareness and presence attained by whirling, turning, being in a state of revolution. Raqs Media Collective takes this sense of ‘kinetic contemplation’ and a restless and energetic entanglement with the world and with time. Raqs practises across several forms and media; it makes art, produces performances, writes, curates exhibitions, and occupies a unique position at the intersection of contemporary art, philosophical speculation, and historical enquiry. The members of Raqs Media Collective live and work in New Delhi, India. Exhibitions curated by Raqs include The Rest of Now (Manifesta 7, Bolzano, 2008), Sarai Reader 09 (Gurugram, 2012-13), INSERT2014 (New Delhi, 2014), Why Not Ask Again (Shanghai Biennale 2016-2017), and In the Open or in Stealth (MACBA, Barcelona, 2018). Their work has been exhibited at documenta, and the Venice, São Paulo, Manifesta, Istanbul, Shanghai, Sydney, and Taipei Biennales. Their prospective, With an Untimely Calendar was held at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, in 2014-2015. 

Other solo shows at museums include at the Isabella Gardner Museum (Boston, 2012), CA2M (Madrid, 2014), MUAC (Mexico City, 2015), Tate Exchange (London, 2016), Fundación Proa (Buenos Aires, 2015), Laumeier Sculpture Park (St Louis, 2016), the Whitworth Art Gallery (Manchester, 2017), Firstsite (Colchester, 2018), and K21 (Dusseldorf, 2018).

Noriko Yamakoshi is a German born, Japanese art practitioner. Studied in Cultural Studies and Art History, she is currently under the Postgraduate Programme in Curating at Zhdk. She has engaged herself with exhibitions and program making under various forms of organizations in art along with research and writing projects. Exhibitions include: Sapporo International Art Festival (2014), Saitama Triennale (2015-16), “12 Rooms 12 Artists - from UBS Art Collection” (2016), solo exhibitions
 with Thomas Hirschhorn + Santiago Sierra, Yoshua Okón, Pauline Boudry/Renate Lorenz, Oliver Beer (2015-2016), Moon Kyungwon & Jeon Joonho (2017).

Francesca Ceccherini is an indipendent curator, producer and journalist. Her research focuses on site specific projects, cross-disciplinary practices, performing and sound art especially, and works related to the memory and its reenactment. She worked for La Triennale di Milano and she takes part to Contemporary Locus (IT) from 2012, TAD Residency (IT) from 2017 and Exibart art magazine from 2014. In 2017 she was selected to the Curatorial Program Art Junction Residency in Udaipur (India). From 2018 she is part of the MAS Curating in Zurich researching about contemporary art practices, activism, communities, politics and participation. She is based between Zurich (CH) and Bergamo (IT), and member of NGBK in Berlin (DE).

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Issue 41

Centres⁄Peripheries – Complex Constellations

by Ronald Kolb, Camille Regli, Dorothee Richter

by Heike Biechteler

by Ella Krivanek

by Giovanna Bragaglia

by Francesca Ceccherini and Noriko Yamakoshi

by Paola Granati & Ronny Koren

by Domenico Ermanno Roberti