Recounting contemporaneity: India’s Raqs Media Collective – artist profile

India’s multifaceted Raqs Media Collective work across disciplines, merge roles and trespass mental enclosures accounting for tumultuous interconnected contemporaneity. 

Art Radar profiles internationally acknowledged, New Delhi-based Raqs Media Collective by focusing on their latest transdisciplinary, curatorial and artistic projects on view throughout the globe.

Raqs Media Collective, 'Time Capsule from 2011 (to be opened in 2061)', 2011, Aluminium Box with contents. Image courtesy the artist.

Raqs Media Collective, ‘Time Capsule from 2011 (to be opened in 2061)’, 2011, aluminium box with contents. Image courtesy the artists.

How can art making and other forms of knowledge be designed to account for and accommodate a multiplicity of encounters? Such a question rephrases Raqs Media Collective’s reflection on multiplicity in the essay “Earthworms Dancing: Notes for a Biennial in Slow Motion” published in e-flux journal #7 in June 2009. 

Raqs Media Collective, 'Art in the Age of Collective Intelligence, The Kuru Princes', 2015. Image courtesy the artist, New Delhi.

Raqs Media Collective, ‘Art in the Age of Collective Intelligence, The Kuru Princes’, 2015. Image courtesy the artists, New Delhi.

Raqs Media Collective embodies the notion of pluralism, interdisciplinarity and proliferation. The vastness of possibilities, be they unpredictable or latent, are at stake in their research, alongside fostering awareness of individuals’ abilities to stretch their own lives beyond predetermined mental categories.

Raqs Media Collective, 'Wall Writing', 2002, Signage: Plastic/vinyl, 18 unique stickers in language variations. Languages: English, Hindi, Turkish, German, French, Roman, Urdu. Image courtesy the artist

Raqs Media Collective, ‘Wall Writing’, 2002, Signage: Plastic/vinyl, 18 unique stickers in language variations. Languages: English, Hindi, Turkish, German, French, Roman, Urdu. Image courtesy the artists.

Raqs Media Collective is the powerful result of three forces – Monica Narula, Jeebesh Bagchi and Shuddhabrata Sengupta – who founded the group in 1992. Through the words of Argentina-born curator Ferran Barenblit, recently appointed director of the Museu d’Art Contemporani de Barcelona (MACBA), Raqs Media Collective is

a thinking laboratory that uses the aesthetic as a starting point for social and political reflection. At present, the Raqs collective carry out installations and performances, as well as editorial, curatorial and educational projects through different approaches such as sociology, geography, mathematics, industrial design or urbanism. The origin of their name refers both to the word used in Persian, Arabic and Urdu to define a state of meditation, and to the acronym in English «Rarely Asked Questions», a wordplay with the better-known FAQs «Frequently Asked Questions» – that we find on so many websites.

Raqs Media Collective, "Sarai Reader 09: The Exhibition", 18 August 2012 – 15 April 2013, at the Devi Art Foundation, Gurgaon, curated by the Raqs Media Collective. A collaboration between Sarai and Devi Art Foundation.

Raqs Media Collective, “Sarai Reader 09: The Exhibition”, 18 August 2012–15 April 2013, at the Devi Art Foundation, Gurgaon, curated by the Raqs Media Collective. A collaboration between Sarai and Devi Art Foundation. Image courtesy the artists.

The Collective’s multidisciplinary approach combines elements of research, installation and multimedia production, applied to the public sphere. Collaboration and the union of theory and practice are essential to their work as well as to the Sarai Programme they initiated in 2000 with faculty members Ravi Vasudevan and Ravi Sundaram at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) in Delhi. Raqs describe their approach in an interview published in OnCurating Magazine:

What we managed to embody was a fundamental move, a refusal to sustain the rupture between theory and practice, between thinking and doing and creating and reflecting. Ours was a wager that the conversation between practices and methods was more important than the soliloquies of any one kind of practice. We remain committed to that vision, even today.

Raqs Media Collective as curators

Often appearing as artists, the Delhi-based collective also plays the role of curator, collaborating with and inviting other artists to join the conversation on such broad issues as globalisation, economics, politics and urban life. 

"Insert2014: The Sharp Edge of the Global Contemporary", 31 January-28 February 2014, at Mati Ghar, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi, curated by Raqs Media Collective. Presented by Inlaks Shivdasani Foundation. Image courtesy the artist.

Raqs Media Collective, “Insert2014: The Sharp Edge of the Global Contemporary”, 31 January-28 February 2014, at Mati Ghar, Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi, curated by Raqs Media Collective. Presented by Inlaks Shivdasani Foundation. Image courtesy the artists.

“INSERT2014”, for instance, that took place at Mati Ghar, the peripheral gallery space of the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA) in Delhi in 2014, was an attempt to state the forward-looking action of art. “The Sharp Edge of the Global Contemporary” programme of exhibitions and talks saw engaged artists such as Anton Vidokle, Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme, Hito Steyerl and Rirkrit Tiravanija. As Lawrence Liang wrote in his exhibition review on Art Agenda, Raqs and the invited artists discuss

the idea of a suspended moment between stasis and movement, the animate and inanimate, and potential and failed promises as a way of thinking about the contemporary global moment and Delhi’s place in it.

Intertwining subjects from diverse fields of knowledge will be also crucial to Raqs’ new curatorial commitment as artistic directors of the 11th Shanghai Biennale entitled “Why Not Ask Again?”. The website of the Power Station of Art introduces the major event thus:

Raqs see the 11th Shanghai Biennale unfolding as a structure rich with trigger mechanisms that respond to different kinds of audience expectations and perceptions by offering the pleasurable surprises inherent in fables and story-telling, and a playful deployment of questions and arguments. With these, they hope to offer a matrix of heterodox and non-doctrinaire connections between images, ideas and expressions – between art, literature and philosophy. While Raqs are committed to a biennale that engages its audience intellectually, they are also clear that they do not see it as a diversion for ‘insiders’, or those who think they are ‘in the know’. All they demand of their audience is the willingness to be curious and passionate about the complexity and richness of contemporary life.

Raqs Media Collective, "The Rest of Now", 2008, Manifesta 7, Sud Tyrol/Trentino Alto Adige, Italy. Image courtesy the artist.

Raqs Media Collective, “The Rest of Now”, 2008, Manifesta 7, Trentino-Alto Adige, Italy. Image courtesy the artists.

For the Shanghai Biennale, Raqs Media Collective doesn’t just apply the Sarai Programme’s modus operandi to the new exhibition project. Rather, the Collective develops an approach to the contemporary and to biennials that was already adopted by the 55th Venice Biennale‘s Artistic Director Massimiliano Gioni. In both his large exhibition “The Encyclopedic Palace” and his latest show “The Great Mother”, hosted at Palazzo Reale in Milan in 2015, there are vivid attempts to understand reality by questioning the role of art in relation to politics, social issues, nature, sex, psychology and feminism, among other movements and disciplines.

Blurring the line between professional artists and amateurs, outsiders and insiders, means not creating a static show through which the audience wanders about seeing ‘objects’, with no comprehension of what is happening around. It is instead an experiential path along which visitors look, intellectually interact and actively question what they see and where they are. In fact, returning to the text released by the Power Station of Art,

It is this that leads Raqs to ask, “Why not ask again? Why not begin at the beginning, or the end, or the middle of a question, or a desire (because the task of ‘asking’ can stand both for the posing of a question as well as for the awakening of a desire)?” As curators they seek to inflect their proposal with speculative and philosophical strands of thought, particularly within non-western contexts and fabulist traditions. Their invitation to artists is nothing short of a provocation to respond to the task of a reimagining of the world. Raqs believes that such maneuvers can invite the public of the biennale to undertake close encounters with the pulses of the myriad contemporary sensibilities that are surging through our world.

Raqs Media Collective, "Steps Away from Oblivion", 2008 , in “Indian Highway”, Serpentine Gallery, London; Astrup Fearnley Museum, 2009; Herning Kunstmuseum, Denmark,2010; Lund Konsthalle, 2009. Image courtesy the artist.

Raqs Media Collective, “Steps Away from Oblivion”, 2008, installation view of “Indian Highway”, at Serpentine Gallery, London; Astrup Fearnley Museum, 2009; Lund Kunsthalle, 2009; Herning Kunstmuseum, Denmark, 2010. Image courtesy the artists.

Raqs Media Collective as artists

Sharing, community and collaboration are the main drivers of the Raqs Media Collective’s practice, while focusing on topics such as time, power and art action. Interested in the choral nature of the crowd, Raqs explain in the interview published in OnCurating:

All our projects are jointly authored. We do not identify any one of us as the ‘custodian’ of a particular practice or method or style or work process. The work that we do, artistically and curatorial, emerges and exists at the intersection of our triangulated curiosities, skills and desires. In some ways, we could say, that Raqs, which is more than the sum of its personified parts (any one of us as individuals), is the author.

Raqs Media Collective, Installation view of 'Art in the Age of Collective Intelligence', 2015. Photo: Peter Wochniak. Image courtesy All works courtesy the artists, New Delhi.

Raqs Media Collective, Installation view of ‘Art in the Age of Collective Intelligence’, 2015. Photo: Peter Wochniak. Image courtesy the artists, New Delhi.

Raqs are currently exhibiting in the group exhibitions “Everything Must Go: Art and the Market” at Lewis Glucksman Gallery, University College Cork, “All Men Become Sisters” at the Museum Sztuki, Lodz, and “Where do we Migrate to?” at Swedish Varmsland Museum in Karlstad.

Raqs Media Collective, 'If the World is a Fair Place Then...', 2015. Photo:  Jeanine Chan. Image courtesy the artist, New Delhi.

Raqs Media Collective, ‘If the World is a Fair Place Then…’, 2015. Photo: Jeanine Chan. Image courtesy the artists, New Delhi.

Raqs Media Collective, 'If the World is a Fair Place Then...', 2015. Photo:  Jeanine Chan. Image courtesy the artist, New Delhi.

Raqs Media Collective, ‘If the World is a Fair Place Then…’, 2015. Photo: Jeanine Chan. Image courtesy the artists, New Delhi.

In addition, Laumeier Sculpture Park in St. Louis, Missouri is now hosting two interventions until 14 February 2016, namely If the World is a Fair Place Then… and Art in the Age of Collective Intelligence inaugurating the exhibitions programme at the Whitaker Foundation Gallery in the new Adam Aronson Fine Arts Center at Laumeier Park. Both projects share an interest in the topic of community and collaboration. Particuarly, as the press release (PDF download) states,

If the World is a Fair Place Then… is an outdoor commission inspired by the more than 500 responses to the prompt gathered by Laumeier in 2014. Forty stainless-steel bands etched with various thoughts, feelings and ideas from the responses encircle tree trunks along Laumeier’s Art Hike Trail, exploring Raqs’ interest in the history of World’s Fairs—especially the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis—and the polyphony of the crowd.

Raqs Media Collective, 'Art in the Age of Collective Intelligence', 2015. Photo: Peter Wochniak. Image courtesy the artist, New Delhi.

Raqs Media Collective, ‘Art in the Age of Collective Intelligence’, 2015. Photo: Peter Wochniak. Image courtesy the artists, New Delhi.

Raqs Media Collective, 'Art in the Age of Collective Intelligence', 2015. Photo: Peter Wochniak. Image courtesy the artist, New Delhi.

Raqs Media Collective, ‘Art in the Age of Collective Intelligence’, 2015. Photo: Peter Wochniak. Image courtesy the artists, New Delhi.

This sense of “collectivity” composed by small pieces and thoughts scattered throughout the park in St. Louis formally recall Coronation Park (2015), a project of nine plinths, statues and plaques spread across the Giardini at this year’s Venice Biennale. As Raqs describe the work on their website, these

fragments of ceremonial regalia, residues of authoritative stances, and the accoutrements of dematerialized power commemorate neither victory nor defeat. They offer nine meditations on hubris.

Raqs Media Collective, 'However Incongruous', 2011, Fiberglass, painting. Image courtesy the artist and Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Portugal.

Raqs Media Collective, ‘However Incongruous’, 2011, Fiberglass, painting. Image courtesy the artists and Fundação Calouste Gulbenkian, Portugal.

Raqs Media Collective relate the notion of time to power and authoritarianism, the “hard” master, in the recently concluded exhibition “It’s possible because it’s possible” held at Buenos Aires-based Fundación Proa. As the two curators of the exhibition, Ferran Barenblit and Mexican Cuauhtémoc Medina, briefly defined the show, this “is an irrefutable statement against a defeatist determinism”.

Raqs Media Collective, 'Blackboard Economy', 2012, Chalk on blackboard. Image courtesy the artist.

Raqs Media Collective, ‘Blackboard Economy’, 2012, Chalk on blackboard. Image courtesy the artists.

Raqs Media Collective, 'Reverse Engineering the Euphoria Machine', 2008, Multimedia Installation. Image courtesy the artists and Nature Morte, Berlin.

Raqs Media Collective, ‘Reverse Engineering the Euphoria Machine’, 2008, Multimedia installation. Image courtesy the artists and Nature Morte, Berlin.

In the show, Raqs’ vision against all kinds of despotism emerges in relation to time, to which individuals are subordinated, as they also state in their reflection on time in “Now and Elsewhere” published in e-flux journal #12 in January 2010:

In the struggle to keep pace with clocks, we are now always and everywhere in a state of jet lag, always catching up with ourselves and with others, slightly short of breath, slightly short of time.

Raqs Media Collective, 'Meanwhile Elsewhere', 2014, Hoardings, dimensions variable, Photo: Shumon Ahmed. Image courtesy Samdani Art Foundation.

Raqs Media Collective, ‘Meanwhile Elsewhere’, 2014, Hoardings, dimensions variable, Photo: Shumon Ahmed. Image courtesy Samdani Art Foundation.

Raqs Media Collective’s reaction to determinism is the imperative refutation and rejection of the same. Raqs oppose a panorama of possibilities, which imply there are no constraints nor further subjugation to impositions. As we live in a world where certainties no longer belong to the contemporary, Raqs propose “the possibility” – as possible practice, possible criticism, possible invention – as a way to escape the dominant “truth” and way of thinking.

Carmen Stolfi

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Related topics: Indian artists, artist profile, art and the community, biennials, gallery shows, curatorial practice, curators, events in the US

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