first published in

A Formal Film in Nine Episodes, Prologue and Epilogue

- A Critical Reader

Spector Books,Leipzig, 2013.








































































keywords: static / vectorial, insider / outsider, invitation, margins, education, travel

In Conversation
[New York, September 30, 2012]
Shuddhabrata Sengupta and Nikolaus Hirsch with Mario Pfeifer

Shuddhabrata Sengupta is a co-founder of Sarai and the Raqs Media Collective, whose practitioners have been described in a number of ways: often as artists and occasionally as curators, editors or as cultural catalysts. Nikolaus Hirsch is an architect and curator, and the director of Städelschule and Portikus in Frankfurt am Main. Both have collaborated on numerous occasions, most recently on the Cybermohalla Hub, which was staged in New Delhi, Copenhagen and Bolzano.

MP: I would like to commence by asking you, Shuddha, how you see the notion
of cross-cultural practices today. Is this something you feel yourself involved in?
Do you think that my project discusses this realm or operates within it? And what could be the benefits of such a practice either for an audience we might call
local or one we could define as international? In both our cases, works are produced in a certain context but they might be introduced to a very different audience that had only a little knowledge in this specific discourse.
SS: Well, you know, I come to this question slightly differently. I don’t think that there is any work that is not cross-cultural. Even the artist who assumes the most local position—who produces what they think a critical reception of their work would recognize as local—for me is not local. There is no such thing as a pure local. I see things more in vectorial terms in respect of their trajectories and movements. One can use the terms local and global if one assumes that location and space are static. I don’t think that’s the case. I think we are inhabitants
of a moving planet and we move: our history makes us move. Our sociopolitical dynamics, the aesthetic conditions in which we live, are cross-pollinated by everything else around us. First some clarification: in my view there is no such thing as non-crosscultural artistic production. That leads us to the question: if everything is cross-cultural, what does it mean? I think we have to consider the
fact—and your work is an interesting take on this question—who is the outsider? Again, I would say that you and your work pose the counter question—who is the insider? I don’t know of anyone who can be called an insider in any situation. Whether that is in Delhi or Bombay, New York or Berlin. We are all, to a greater or lesser extent, outsiders in the conditions we find ourselves in. And those conditions are reflected differently upon. So the value of your kind of work would be to foreground the question of what it means to be inside or outside a world that is constituted in a neighbourhood, in a city, in a street—anywhere. It remains to be seen. In every work of art—in the particular work you are doing—
I think that is the question that you are posing and also that is the question your time would ask you.
NH: The question of the in- and outsider brought up by you, Shuddha, could possibly be argued differently. One could always assume the situation of an insider, or to flip the question: nobody is an insider or everybody is an insider. This is a paradigmatic situation for an artist or cultural producer. Constantly thrown into a situation, we search for situations that are foreign to us and nonetheless assume an insider situation at some point. This is the moment when people start criticizing you for not being a local or not having local knowledge. The so-called local is, of course, a construction. Indeed, it’s an ideology of the local. And sometimes that ideology, I think, was used for good purposes, for resistance. Sometimes, neighbourhoods would use the notion of the local in order to protect themselves or their living conditions from certain forces that they would describe as outsiders. But even more often the “local” is used, or rather misused, for quite obvious territorial motivations by curators, cultural
politicians and NGOs. For me, on the other hand, it’s more interesting to assume the position of an insider and to productively deal with the problems that are raised by this.
SS: Well, if outsiders insist they are insiders, I have nothing against it. It’s when insiders insist that they are insiders that I have a problem—particularly in a city like Bombay where the past 30–40 years of politics have been all about being an insider or an outsider. There are at least two fascist parties in Bombay declaring that politics are about insiders and outsiders. There are people, for instance, who migrate to Bombay from all over India and are challenged all the time because
they are outsiders, and it’s fine when they say, “No, we are insiders. This is our city.” It’s when the so-called original inhabitants of Bombay insist on being insiders … But first of all there are no “original” inhabitants in a city like Bombay. When somebody insists they are an original inhabitant, I will always consider that claim to be inaccurate.

MP: If we were to expand this discussion and reflect on art itself, and move into a sociopolitical context, it would also ask questions about the audience / recipients. If you say that there is no such thing as an insider / outsider situation, that also means that anybody could look at a piece of art and have an opinion, regardless of the fact that some of them might be familiar with its context, while others are not. I think that is a situation I was in, and am very much interested in, to conceive a project that means something for an audience … Whether they are familiar with the site of production or its culture or not, they feel able to access a piece like A Formal Film with the means at their disposal, on an individual level of experience, knowledge and discourse.
NH: To say that everybody should or can have an opinion about a work of art doesn’t imply that you, as an artist, should give up your position as an artist. There is very often a misunderstanding.
SS: Yes, that is often misunderstood.
NH: Having a broad audience doesn´t necessarily mean that you have to compromise or deliver socially productive work. I think that there is an aesthetic and artistic potential that goes beyond social and political discourses.
MP: Did you have a specific interest, Nikolaus, in working in India and engaging
with thinkers in that region, e.g. in New Delhi?
NH: My first interest in India can be reduced to a purely personal level. An invitation and a relationship that had very little to do with an interest in India as a state or as an exotic image. We are all used to working on a global scale but all
of these projects and works have to do with invitations: in the case of the Cybermohalla Hub in Delhi it was an invitation by the Raqs Media Collective.
SS: And our prior history of working together …
NH: … on some installations based on friendship and trust— so quite romantic, which I think was the basis here too, because the same situation occurred within this project, which itself has a long history. It’s not an exhibition that you produce within a year or two, that would then be finished … No, it’s an ongoing story. It was crucial for me to understand how Sarai and Ankur, the two founding partners of the Cybermohalla project, developed something over years and years—an evolving project that was always carefully managed around the notion of invitation. We were talking about large audiences earlier and it is important to understand who the audience really was in this scenario. We had a broad impact on the larger, often Western, cultural environment but actually it was the private, intimate situation of production that made everything possible—this was my way to relate to India, and maybe it was the best entry point.
MP: Are the questions that are posed in this story, that you are writing and maybe continue to write, are the questions and problems discussed in this specific context somehow paradigmatic for our global society, our time? Is it by accident that it takes place in New Delhi or India? Does this environment, its society or economy, which is undergoing such a dramatic change and development, offer a scholar like you a more productive place to engage with?
NH: There is a specific situation here, which to a large extent is predicated on a personal relationship. At the same time the situation has very clear social and political implications. I think we are always working in situations that are at the
same time generic and very specific. You have to keep a certain autonomy in a project. This is an inherent part of what one can do in the cultural field: have a critical position that cannot be reduced to the sociopolitical facts. The work—although it can have positive implications—is not an instrument for making life better. It is not a sociopolitical tool as such: it has to be more. The members of the Cybermohalla Ensemble have always said it’s about the idea of change, of fluidity and trajectories, as Shuddha mentioned. In that sense the Cybermohalla project is not a classic neighbourhood project, although the word mohalla means
MP: And the project itself started with a specific problem in that neighbourhood …
NH: Yes, but it’s not good old “development politics”.
MP: How do projects like Cybermohalla or Sarai go down with the public or society? It feel that these educational tools offer something different from a conservative or traditional education in India. What is the situation like for artists or critical scholars wanting to be educated? How do they acquire their knowledge? Do they study abroad or in New Delhi or Bombay or somewhere else? Are the hubs of critical thinking specifically situated at the margins or is there also an approach that could actually impact on the educational system as it exists today?
SS: No society or country is interesting per se. I don’t think India is an interesting country—or Germany. They are all boring agglomerations of people and histories. It’s what we do in each place and each context that creates certain patterns of intensity and concentration. As Nikolaus said, it’s the particular personal context of a certain relationship or of a certain investigation that leads to convergences of time and produces certain results that change the practices of those involved. We can say that working with Nikolaus and Michael [Müller], and the particular practice they have, made us think about space in a very different way. I am sure they would say the very same thing about working with us. That has something to do with the specifics of the histories we have inherited. The specificity of a certain architectural education that they have had or a way of thinking about space and the politics of space that they have … a certain, perhaps, perspective on how timeless space is, growing up in a city like Delhi, which is both a very old and a very new city. It has two kinds of temporal footprint. These conditions make you think or open up the possibility of thinking in different ways. When you have people from these situations interacting because of the personal context of an invitation, then what is brought into play are the other things that come into our sense of crowdedness and density and temporal debt, their sense of whatever they have come through. Then certain effects are produced—you bring two chemicals together and they will create certain attractions: repulsions and reactions will occur. They cannot not occur. Coming back to your question … What then is the development we have? What is the education that constitutes the element that we bring into being? And how is it embedded in society? I think we can say that, since the beginning or end of the Second World War, there has been a general crisis in intellectual production in the world. A general crisis has to do with the fragmentation of intellectual labour into more and more professionalized science. So I am not saying that this is a particular crisis. This is a general crisis that manifests itself in different ways in different places. In India it may be manifested in the extreme compartmentalization separating the worlds of the liberal humanities and arts, and the professions of, let’s say, architecture, engineering or science. There is no discourse or dialogue about this. But it is a symptom of a general intellectual crisis, where intellectual and cultural life is seen to be subordinate to some kind of broader developmental goal—that’s what Nikolaus was talking about earlier. Because there is a political decision that at a certain time a society needs a certain number of engineers or mythologists or whatever, and this creates these kinds of compartmentalized containers.
NH: … under the label of development …
SS: … so you then have unintelligent scientific and technical professionals and stupid artists. That’s what the society has produced. Those of us who have been accidentally lucky—purely accidentally—escaped these developments in their most crushing and cruel way, probably because we were not very good at these things—I never went to art school and I had a slightly ramshackle social science degree, and then a film education. So, people like me, and my colleagues at Raqs, slipped between the cracks. What is perceived as a great disadvantage in our society could then also become an advantage, where we could, in our practice, reconstitute a different way of knowing and thinking in the world. This has nothing to do with the particular crisis in Indian education or art education, which is a tragic failure, or the particular crisis of hyper-professionalized expertise, which is also a tragic failure.
NH: Yes, those professions are historical products …
SS: I am much more comfortable with a nineteenth century intellectualism, where it’s possible for somebody to be a scientist and an architect and an artist and a poet at the same time. You don’t actually know where the borders between these things occur.
NH: It’s also interesting, if one takes architecture as an example, in a country like Germany the profession of the architect is perhaps no more than a hundred years old. Mies van der Rohe didn’t study architecture and he became one of the most influential architects of the twentieth century. Or Walter Gropius inventing the Bauhaus. Or Arundhati Roy being an architect by training and then becoming a writer. It can bevery productive to be trained and become an expert in a particular field and then, almost accidently, do something completely different. As the director of Städelschule and Portikus, I could use myself as an example.
SS: You are doing things that you were not trained to do.
NH: Yes, that is also what my predecessor Daniel Birnbaum told me about his own curriculum vitae. He was a philosopher and became a curator over the years by experimenting with Portikus.
SS: In that sense, I think these accidents and these combinations of chance and desire … as there is also an element of desire, you do seek certain conversations out that have a long term impact. They are not necessarily translatable into immediate consequences but they have a very long-term impact because they produce a certain style of life and practice. And that can have a contagious and infectious character because it can then make people curious: “Oh, why can’t we think like that?” That is, as a practice, what Raqs and I myself are more interested in—passing on a certain style and a certain sensibility to a generation of practitioners, artists and intellectuals, rather than founding institutions that are momentary in the long run. Sarai has a history of eleven, twelve years. It may have a history that continues or it may not—we don’t know. These are all open questions but the consequences of Sarai or Cybermohalla, or whatever we are doing, have to be seen in terms of how they affect a certain climate of thinking and practice. And that I have a handle on …
NH: Which depends very much on individuals and the way individuals become examples.
SS: Yes, individuals and how the milieu changes them and how they
respond to the milieu.
NH: An institution can become a trigger. As an institutional person, somehow embodying the Städelschule, I would say that institutions have to be understood as spaces of production and as curated environments. This is dependent on particular agents, such as my pre-predecessor, Kasper König. He was not an art historian, not an artist—he was an outsider to the official German academic scene. He set an example for others coming from different fields, including Hans Ulrich Obrist who was working with König at the Städelschule. The concept of an institution as a space of production is important to me. But for all they offer in terms of acting as a catalyst, institutions are not the ultimate answer.
SS: No, they provide the context.
NH: Sarai, the institution you co-founded in Delhi, is another example of the impact of institutions—in that case a selforganized institution that plays a particular role in the cultural debate in India.
SS: Where there are institutions, good institutions, I am committed to making them perform better. Where there are no institutions, I am interested in efforts to create institutions that have long-standing influence. When it is not possible to make an institution manifest itself, then one searches for other methods. I am not someone who feels that institutional practices themselves are the answer, or that institutions themselves are the problem or the absence of them … Let’s say there is a crisis in art education in India. All the places where artists are taught art as pratice have failed. They’re colossal, catastrophic failures: Baroda is a failure, Shantinketan is a failure, Delhi College of Art is a failure, JJ School of Art is a failure. Because they are not able to respond to the needs of contemporary artistic practice today.
MP: What about Srishti in Bangalore?
SS: It’s an interesting question but it has not had the time to be a failure. We will see. There are a few places where art history and art criticism are taught. The Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in Delhi has a relatively new Arts and Aesthetics Department where there is a lot of energy. There is a new university, Ambedkar University in Delhi, where a school of creative and cultural practices has just opened—it just began this year. They seem to have an interesting mandate but we will see how things turn out. I don’t go by what people write in prospectuses.
MP: But that’s an interesting evaluation as it feels that there must be a certain
kind of frustration about that.
SS: No, I have no frustration, because when the institutions fail, we have to have other methods. If they were succeeding, if they were able to live up to the challenges, we would respond differently. But when they are failing and have failed … I think, one generation has to end in order for the next to do something else. In physical terms it means that some people have to die. It’s a very simple matter. Certain ideas have to die—some people have to die—in order for something new to begin. In the course of time it is inevitable that they will die. But the question is how one responds in the meantime until they are dead. You respond by adopting other methods; you respond by creating models of practice.
Or you go through a process of refinement by engaging constantly with those institutions and their students. You never refuse, or at least I never refuse, to engage with an institution. I think one should engage with institutions on terms of one’s own choice. For instance, we taught one semester at the School of Arts and Aesthetics (at JNU) last year. It was very successful for us. I mean we learned a lot and gained a lot in that experience. And I am sure that the students got something interesting out of it, that something emerged from that. But that may create a body of people infected by a certain style and sensibility. To return to your question: What kind of impact can things have that one thinks are marginal—can they have a broader milieu? The question of the marginal and central only arises if one thinks in terms of insiders and outsiders. If we think of contagion or infection, then one malaria parasite is enough to destabilize an elephant. Maybe sometimes we have to act as engaged insiders, sometimes act like the malaria parasite, sometimes act as institution builders, sometimes act differently, and in different contexts. You see, when we are teaching in the United States, we will obviously respond differently because there are different problems and different questions here. And one responds to that. When one works in India, one works differently. Not because I am an insider there and an outsider here. I may be equally an outsider in all these places and equally an insider. But each situation and context demands a different style of response.
NH: Thinking about your project, Mario, I would be interested to know more about your working process. How did you find your way into the situation in Mumbai? We were talking before about the notion of invitation. What was your motivation and how did you organize the research for your film? I do not see the project as being in the category of “artistic research” but I guess there was research involved. And one last question: What do you think about your film in terms of your aesthetic or artistic position?
MP: When it comes down to it, I also followed a personal invitation to Bombay in order to work and collaborate with two Indian female filmmakers. So, at the beginning, it was not my plan to conceive a project myself but rather to work with these two filmmakers on their project.
NH: Did you know them before?
MP: I didn’t know them before, as their invitation came through a curator friend of mine, who asked me if I would be interested.
NH: So it was a curated invitation.
MP: [laughing] Yes, it was a curated invitation that became a personal invitation, only with minimal interaction via Skype and an accidental meeting at the Rotterdam Film Festival before my departure. The information reached me very last minute, only a month or so before my actual departure. For this and other reasons, I decided not to prepare for this trip by researching my destination—not do any kind of special reading or watch films that might provide me with more knowledge about the city, region or country. I arrived in a city that was unknown to me: in the way it smelt, in the way it looked, in the way people did things, how they cooked food or listened to music. Everything was, in some way, new for me, even though I had travelled to Asia quite regularly before. I was very impressed by the cityscape, visually and also sensually. After I had worked for several weeks with the two filmmakers, I then decided that this environment seemed very fruitful and interesting and it inspired me to actually start investigating things I was interested in, things I could realize in a film project. In my case, it meant physically experiencing the city, walking by myself in the city every day for weeks on end and approaching situations that I was formally interested in but could not fully grasp, intellectually and culturally speaking. But still I believed that in time I would understand them, simply because I was in this situation, in this place—I did understand them somehow but the way I understand them might be different from the person next to me, who might visit the place every day, or is there just occasionally but utilizes the place in a different way. I personally understand research, or artistic research, also in the sense of it being the liberty to choose to do things that one wants to do, that other people might not choose or might not be able to choose to do. In that sense it also meant having a predominantly first-hand experience. Spending as much time as possible in a location and understanding its micro-setting—everyday actions, little symbolic matters that reappeared during my visits and observations in different sites—but relying less on text based research, which itself was also part of acquiring knowledge during my time on site. These first-hand encounters and studies expanded into working with two research assistants, who were living and working in Bombay, whom I would then bring to the locations that I had previously studied, and try to analyse the experience based on their knowledge and resources. I was trying to establish a situation where I could rely on different people’s knowledge or their networks of knowledge. For example, my assistant would then call a friend, her father, her aunt or somebody else to discuss the topic that I suggested. The insights gained in this way helped me to decide on nine episodes, which I would shoot on film, with, to some extent, an open message, reading or potential reception.
NH: What is the relation between the film as a work of art on the one hand and, on the other, the context in which it was produced and its audience in Mumbai? I first saw your work at the Zollamt MMK (Museum für Moderne Kunst) in a curated group exhibition, i.e. in the context of Frankfurt or more precisely in the context of, for the most part, Städelschule-related artists. When I saw your piece, it certainly reminded me of India, but it was a new experience.
SS: Would that have something to do with the project being set in Bombay?
NH: Maybe, because I am a Delhi man [laughter]. Seriously, it might have to do with the particular rhythm of the Cybermohalla project, this long and on-going involvement. I never had the time to arrive in India and just be there and get lost in what could be called an exotic environment. I didn’t have the flaneur-like situation that you had.
MP: Yes, a bit like Of Walking in Ice, to use Werner Herzog’s words …
NH: … which is one way to understand a city. Your work expresses this journey and the slow process of perception.
MP: It is, to a certain extent, also an experiential piece, both in terms of image and sound within the film, but also in the way it is shown as an installation within an exhibition space—where there are several screens with the viewer needing to physically participate, to move through the space to see the entire film project, or having the liberty to decide how many episodes he or she wants to see and for how long. I followed another idea in a recent exhibition at the MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst Frankfurt am Main, where I decided to install one projection inside a niche in a window front. The effect for an audience was that, on screen, one would see two selected episodes that represent different urban architectures in the Greater Bombay region, while if one looks through the windows (darkened with UV film but transparent), one would see the skyline of Frankfurt and the domestic urban architecture of the post-war era, along with an Indian restaurant (Mayur) on the other side of the street. In this situation I also indicate the possibility of a relationship between two sites, geographically at a great distance from one another but maybe closer in terms of their geopolitical relationships (Frankfurt’s Deutsche Bank Twin Towers might be the most direct point of reference via the bank’s current CEO, Anshu Jain). In that sense, I am quite interested in how to work with the format of an installation within an existing piece of architecture—I do not show the work within a black-box, cinema-like setting. For that I prefer a real cinema and the film version as screened in different contexts, whether at Anthology Film Archives in New York within the framework of Migrating Forms or at the London International Documentary Film Festival and the World Film Festival in Bangkok. For the installation I am interested in a slightly more open setting, my ambition being to separate the episodes as much as possible within a space to allow the visitor to have other experiences in between. A good example was the inaugural presentation of the piece in Frankfurt, when the installation, consisting of two projections, took place in two different institutions, the Frankfurter Kunstverein and the Zollamt MMK. The audience needed to move between these exhibition venues and walk through the cityscape to experience the entire piece. The audience wasn’t told that there were two projections relating to one project as I believe it is interesting to have encounters and draw conclusions in the space between the episodes, reflecting on their narrative suggestions and representational settings. I also would not mind if somebody had only seen one part or one episode or ten seconds of an episode, since in all cases an experience and a reaction is evoked … whether to leave or stay, or even come back.
NH: Have you shown the film in Mumbai?
MP: Yes and no. I introduced excerpts of the film project in a lecture setting in a small artist-run residency programme in Bandra, Bombay during a second research process that actually also has similarities to your Cybermohalla Ensemble project and its publication. Like you, I also had the idea of a publication that would investigate a project, but after the event rather than parallel to it, as you conceived it—a kind of critical reader that would invite several contributors, several voices to discuss ideas that my project had suggested or inspired. As the film production took place entirely in Bombay, Markus Weisbeck and I decided to also produce the entire book on location, starting with research materials and moving to aesthetics, designs and printing techniques, while at the same time engaging with a diverse group of contributors. Markus and I gave lectures to introduce both the film project and the book’s production process, while we were working in a local artist’s community. Around fifty people gathered at Last Ship in Bandra, and it was this Bombay audience that were the first to see excerpts from my film project, an audience that would have access to all the sites in the film and could understand the different languages and dialects. In a way I got quite nervous showing it …
NH: How did the audience react?
MP: What evolved was quite an energetic and in-depth discussion of various issues that arose, from language, format and the mix of Hindi, English, Marathi and Tamil in the film to architecture and formal thoughts on the ice factory. Only one person in the audience had ever been to a site like the ice factory. But what I was most intrigued by was that the audience had a discussion amongst themselves, with me included but with a different energy when they were talking with each other, with quite a few disagreements about very specific issues and ideas on accuracy, the sites and spoken words, although, in general, they were intrigued by certain formal approaches of the project. Another interesting moment occurred when I installed the piece at MMK and Dayanita Singh came by to look at it. Her responses gave me a good deal of confidence ahead of the planned presentations of the installation in Bombay and New Delhi next year.
SS: In my experience a lot of people living in Bombay do not know their city too well, especially in the arts context.
MP: I was also asked if I had made a comedy since certain scenes seemed funny and I remember a majority of people feeling quite amused by certain moments, a much more subtle reaction for an audience that I consider local and therefore more sensitive to specific moments and experiences. And those subtle reactions are something that is fundamentally interesting to me. In that sense, the project is only completed at the moment it is properly shown and discussed in India, which we are planning for in 2013 at KHOJ in New Delhi and later in Bombay— something we’ve been working towards, together with the Goethe Institute, for the last two years. It’s not an easy undertaking to find either an institution or a nonprofit exhibition space to put on this project! I see my work as a discussion or moderation of an experience within an open situation, even if it involves the work being rejected, which would be a strong response and generally interesting to me as a cultural producer. At the same time, I am also suspicious of putting on this project in a Western context, although there are different arguments for and against that. The criticism that has been published contains some interesting considerations and conclusions.
NH: What was criticized? Did it have something to do with the exploitation of a context?
MP: One aspect of the film’s professional reception relates to its formal qualities,
the colour spectrum and soundscape, the conceptual rigour of its structure and installation. At the same time, the criticism hints at such questions as why an artist would travel so far, in search of what and for what purpose, what can be understood and why expose clichés—while I would argue that it is not cliches that I am exposing but rather their reverse side.
NH: That’s an interesting remark, as it raises the question: Why is there a need to explain? Why is there this pedagogic impulse to explain something that is assumed to be foreign to a Western audience? “Explaining” already presupposes some kind of instrumentalization in terms of a development policy agenda. You would not do this if you were to make a film in Berlin or New York. This reminds me of a wonderful film by Jeroen de Rike and Willem de Rooij (who was your professor at the Städelschule), Bantar Gebang, a one-shot film set in a shanty town near Jakarta. A static camera observes the sun rising in a single shot—lasting ten minutes, the length of a 35 mm film roll—while some people move through the frame in front of a wall, an architectural structure, with some palm trees in the background. What is interesting in this film in terms of our conversation is the visual and formal strength it has, without it explicitly giving any sociopolitical explanations at all. Some critics might argue that the film Bantar Gebang is an exotic depiction. I would argue that this is exactly where an artwork starts to engage critically.
MP: Being asked to explain the kind of details we mentioned before is to agree to the practice being labelled cross-cultural, which in turn also assumes the existence of boundaries and borders that one has to cross, literally and symbolically. My artistic idea actually suggests that everything is available and also equal. So you can conceive a project that is readable but how it is interpreted, and with what outcome, will always depend on the individual reading it. Another review, more situated in a film context, which focused on the screening at Anthology Film Archives, described the film as a tour de force, saying that seeing these images would make any filmmaker’s jaw drop. But the critics also raise an eyebrow at a romantic scene towards the end of the film. In other words, in the moment you drift into fiction—and mirror part of a film discourse and history as well as a strong tradition and a pretty rich one in the region—a film critic would protest against an episode having a rather cheesy, emotional ending. Meanwhile, I would be interested in showing exactly such scenes to an audience that is interested in cheesy, romantic depictions. And this audience is by no means small.
SS: There is a history to this kind of filmmaking. It’s almost like a certain examination European avant-garde filmmakers have to pass for themselves, whether it’s Antonioni, Pasolini …
MP: … or Louis Malle.
SS: Or Louis Malle! They all had their “India moment”. And they negotiated these notions of explanation, shock and delight in different ways but I don’t think that in any of these moments they could see themselves as anything other than Martians with lanterns. I think these films are interesting, not because of what they tell us about India but in what they tell us about Pasolini or Malle—which is a valid thing. I don’t have to agree with Malle to be interested in his films. What I think is interesting is that India creates this Louis Malle or, to be more specific, this encounter in an Indian city creates this specific turn in the filmmaker’s consciousness—what is normally repressed comes out to play in film.
NH: That might be an artistic trap too, but nevertheless …
MP: … it could still be very productive.
SS: The question that one would have to ask … because I think that any film or work about a city cannot really exhaustively answer all the questions about a place. There are interesting models in experimental literature. I am very partial to the work of Georges Perec and he once wrote this great exercise, “An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris”, where he sits in a cafe on a street corner and notes down everything that passes—bus number three passes, and then it passes again, four people pass with blue umbrellas, two people pass with a red umbrella … I always use that as a kind of reference to think about the task of what we do when we’re standing on a corner in a city with a camera. That’s what we are doing and nothing that we do will exhaust the immense possibilities of a place, its potentials of order and its potentials for animation. What we produce is a film, or a work of art, that tells us something about what happened to us at that time. If someone says this is an exotic fill, it always tells me more about the filmmaker than about the place. Or about the audience.
NH: A Gauguin moment.
SS: That is what I’m interested in. So I’m much more interested in what you do next as a result of this process.
MP: Once I finished A Formal Film I took some time to think about the experience and its process and final presentation. It took me about a year to get involved in another project. It so happened that I went to Morocco, again based on an invitation. One core idea was to avoid following any of the strategies or conceptual rules that I had applied in Bombay in my new environment, which happened to be the Western Sahara on Moroccan territory. Simply because the site was different: the culture is different, the language is different, the food is different, the air smells different, and probably I was different too—still the same person, just knowing a bit more than before as a result of my previous pieces.
NH: The question is whether cultural difference must necessarily have an impact on artistic thinking or production.
SS: The cultural difference between somebody from Colaba (a bourgeois neighbourhood in South Bombay) and Goregaon (a northern suburb) is massive, continental.
MP: I think it ultimately does influence your way of interacting. You might interact differently with somebody from Goregaon than with somebody from Colaba, maybe even on the same street.
SS: There are occasions when a person from Goregaon East and a person from Colaba happen to be in the same street in Bombay but they still carry with them a continental drift. Cities like Bombay, Delhi, Mexico City and São Paulo are actually laboratories of cultural distance, far more than, I would say, New York or Berlin. And if you are talking about a specific cultural character for these cities, it is these massive agglomerations marked by very high inequalities—and in some ways you would be less of an outsider in Bombay than somebody from Colaba would. I am sure I came across that a lot in Bombay, that I know Bombay better—even though I have never lived there—than many people who actually live there.
MP: Going back to the projects that followed, my approach altered, but not completely, as I then found myself in the Western Sahara, exposing myself to nomadic family life in the south of Morocco. I tried to spend as much time as possible with local peasants to finally get into a conversational situation where we could exchange certain ideas about life, religion, living conditions, happiness, economies, astronomy or politics in a rather sparsely populated, cut-off area. In parallel to this, after my return from Bombay and my later move to New York, I started to be interested in a French novel that I had read years before by French
author Alain Robbe-Grillet with the promising title of “Projet pour une revolution à New York”. As a New York based project to be materialized in an artist publication within an exhibition setting, radio play and a mix-tape, I am collaborating with scholars of different fields to define the potential for a revolution in New York, in terms of the city’s urban, political, social and ethical settings and their possible collapse. In a very specific situation and at a very specific time, one takes the city’s map as a starting point to define moments of potential collapse and later one defines scenarios that are both realistic and unrealistic, depending on who would try to realize them. The city as a site, with its specific grid, culture, institutions and their agglomerated power generates the basic material for this project.
SS: It seems that, in both of the projects you describe, the territory you are exploring is yourself.
MP: That’s true, but I still believe the place where I live and work for a certain time suggests a topic and approach and opportunities that I could only find at a certain time in a certain place.
SS: Of course … There’s a reason why artists travel!
NH: Does it have to do with that classic notion of travel as a source of inspiration?
SS: Maybe. Artists travel, perhaps, to get away from themselves but that always ends up taking them to another place to see who they are. There are two types of practice: one founded on a profound comfort of knowing who you are and where you come from; and one founded in … I wouldn’t say discomfort but a feeling of being at odds with who you are and where you come from. And these two have different consequences. One kind of artist relentlessly explores a certainty that they think they have or they think they are. And another is constantly pushed to redefine that question. It’s not either / or—these are polarities. Probably everyone occupies some kind of position in relationship to these polarities. I often think of somebody like Rimbaud—you know, he ended up as an arms trader in East Africa but maybe that’s what he wanted to do, maybe writing poetry was a way to get to be an arms dealer. How do we know? Maybe that was his real ambition: to be a person deeply involved in a dark trade with the true entirety of his being. We have to ask a question like, “Who in human history did not travel?” We come up with certain answers. You will find sedentary peasant communities that did not travel until they were forced out off the land by war or enclosures. But artists travelled, priests travelled, craftsmen and artisans travelled, kings and soldiers travelled … everybody else travelled. Now if this question is asked about us, “Why are artists travelling, why is your practice based on travelling?” There seems to be a doubt about the authority of your being, which is dispersed. But then you have to ask the question: “Who didn’t travel?” I’m as authentic or inauthentic as a blacksmith or a journeyman—the word for artisan in English was “journey-man”—what does that mean? It means people who went on trips, travelling salesmen …