one body no body
“How do people recognize, appreciate and honour each other?” A question, the first question, the beginning of a performance, which has already begun…
With this question, my attention is focused, although Raqs Media Collective piques my interest as soon as I enter the Connelly Theatre. Commissioned by Performa 13 and funded by Frith Street Gallery, +91 Foundation, and the Asian Cultural Society, “The Last International” takes up the utopian impulse that transported the First International from Europe to New York City in 1872. Sidestepping theatrical convention through a mélange of genres from symposium to improvisation to multimedia and storytelling, the performance upends time and space from the moment one hands over a ticket and enters. Audience seating is moved, taken up, and piled high into a sculptural mound; the stage is filled with a screen projection of images and words. Voices flow throughout the space, their point of origin for the moment hidden. This in turn is muted, overlapped, intermittently overcome by drumming…but from where? There is – it was hinted – even a hidden passage through which unticketed attendees might enter surreptitiously.
We, the viewers are invited to wander, more typical of a gallery space…or perhaps a town hall or a train station. I recall Italo Calvino’s anonymous narrator from If on a winter’s night a traveler, who introduces himself saying, “for the moment my external behavior is that of a traveler who has missed a connection, a situation that is part of everyone’s experience” (Harcourt, 1981). At the same time, I have the feeling of being enticed into a very particular encounter. With their home base in New Delhi, India, the Raqs Media Collective has shaped a creative practice much like a shaman’s trove of 21st century remedies. Founded in 1992 by Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta, they make films, curate exhibitions, edit books, stage events, as well as collaborate with architects, computer programmers, writers and theatre directors. For the scenography and performance elements of “The Last International,” for example, they collaborated with third generation theatre director, Zuleikha Chaudhari.
Taking on a plurality of roles, from artist to philosophical agent provocateur, Raqs (pronounced “rux”), by their own description, follows a “self-declared imperative of kinetic contemplation” – restless in terms of the forms and methods that it deploys, meditative in its speculative procedures. Shuddha speaks of a practice at once intellectual, aesthetic, and functional – a camaraderie in isolation – as if it were necessary to be everything for each other because there is no one or no thing to fill these roles: mental and emotional stimulus, aesthetic and functional productivity. He describes making art as if recognition would never come, to exist for reasons other than success. From the beginning, Raqs formed a collective practice to sustain (rather than explain) life. And then a new wave of diasporic times began and art making moved here and there…
So, yes, the drummer tam, tam, tams behind the screen onstage, unseen from any usual point of view. The voices of symposium participants, seated face-to-face in the balcony, warm up with glasses of good red wine and dispute the meaning of time. From such a vantage point, one looks down to the assemblage (assembly?) of chairs, their arms and legs akimbo interlocking in a jumbled mass, potted citrus trees placed here and there, a blackboard to the side and a bright red ladder positioned at the entrance (to walk around or under and through depending on superstition or inclination), a banner waves from the balcony its lemniscate (a horizontal figure eight), and images too plentiful to remember sweep across a screen and on monitors tucked in nooks and crannies as if to isolate particular moments of time and thought, reminiscent of secrets.
“How do people recognize, appreciate and honour each other?” Monica sits at a small table in the upper left corner of the performance space while Shuddha takes his place in the lower right. The voices of the symposium, active for the preamble of the evening, now quiet down. The audience takes seats surrounding the space of performance either in the balcony or the orchestra level below. Three performers dismantle the tangled array of chairs, now ordering them into dominos, then, as they topple, shaping the line into a tunnel and, after crawling through, tilting the arrangement into a tightly packed tier, the improvisational momentum rising and falling in its own drum-like beat, the movements pedestrian yet graceful in their ebb and flow. “How does a moment become momentum?” This thought, which will become a point of exit for the performance, a question to take and ponder when the evening is over and all is said and done, is already present in the very nature of the activity that holds our attention.
I have shifted to sit on top of the chair’s back, my feet planted on the seat, leaning forward to balance this precarious position I hold for the duration so that I might better see all that is going on in front, above, and around me. Monica’s question leads to Shuddha’s story and a “once upon a time” slips into an infinite sequence of time-travel and historical narratives that include according to stage notes: “…urgent questions in the lemon orchard, …the unnatural history of a runaway rhinoceros, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels and Friedrich Sorge, a reclusive robot from a transitive time, a dashing deep sea diver and the origins of life, mathematical botany… and a marmalade recipe.” The performance is a rapid fire, rhizomatic ping-pong fling of images, data, movement, poetry, and narrative rhythms. It is a rhyming of the relations between beings within history, across oceans, and among thought and ideas. It is a coupling of hope and understanding. It asks questions and expects no answers. Yet a response is part of migratory practice and their concept of sharing.
one thing no thing everything
Raqs Media Collective, wraps us in a proliferation of stimuli akin to the overwhelming contemporary experience of information overload – the catastrophe left in the wake of Benjamin’s angel of history – yet The Last International eases confusion through its intimate interplay of voices. Speaking across time and space, they weave a tale of accidental purpose. It is impossible to see and grasp everything but anything detected and remembered becomes a trigger for curiosity. What was once the political utopianism of the First International of 1872 becomes the incidental opportunity of a conversation the collective began two decades ago – messages in a bottle that now reach new shores, protests in urban centers, resilience of labor movements, aesthetic investigations, and interpersonal relations – the momentum of infinite moments.
Peter Brook opens his well-known treatise on theatre, The Empty Space, with these words: “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.” Call it theatre, performance, or art – with hints of inspiration from 20th century theatrical avant-garde, Sanskrit drama, and contemporary installation art – time and space perceived and shaped by Raqs is hardly empty yet it is every bit as wonderful as Brook himself imagined collective engagement could be. Whether the first or “The Last International”…whether a traveller who has missed a connection or simply gotten lost, Raqs honors the diverse sources of creativity as antibody to the overwhelming nature of our times and the gap between nothing and everything.
There is such a complex layering of imagery and ideas within this single work, that I proposed to Raqs Media Collective an exchange: over the next few weeks I will take a random selection of their text and respond to it through my blog Shifting Conversations as a means to expand my perspective and welcome theirs – a question and answer dynamics whose response is as open-ended and celebratory as the performance inspires.