Artists

Critical Collective: Your practice seems to engage with a dynamic abstraction, working between the coordinates of matter, light and space. Is there an overriding principle in these aesthetic positions? Related to this, what determines the choice of scale in your work?

Rohini Devasher: The short answer would be I am interested in nature, as a construct which keeps transforming, as a discipline which sometimes combines the study of the universe, the natural world, the geologic etc. Time is certainly something that links everything as the catalyst for change; manifested either through mutation or geological scale for instance. The changing nature of wonder is another, what does it mean to be human?

More recently I have become concerned with the loss of empathy, wonder, hope and possibility. A simple example would be the loss of the night sky in Delhi. What would it mean for a generation of children to grow up without the stars? Does it matter? In the age of the Anthropocene, Capitalocene, Chthulucene all these scenes, … is there still room for Wonder?

Last summer, I spent 26 days on board the High Trust, an oil tanker, as part of a unique artist’s residency program called the Owners Cabin. The voyage took me from Suva (Fiji), to Singapore, via Apia (Samoa) and Pago-Pago (American Samoa). When I signed off in Singapore, I felt the most acute sense of loss. For one, the 26 days had forged a very real bond between the crew of 25 and me. But also because experiencing the planet the way I did felt like the most incredible privilege. I saw horizon to horizon skies; not an aircraft in sight, and clouds of every possible description. I saw the Milky Way arching overhead every night. I saw the Pacific Ocean at depths of 4500 meters, a blue so deep it was opaque, and at depths of 15 meters when crossing the Torres Strait, where the turquoise was blinding.

The voyage brought into sharp focus something I have been walking around the edges of for some time now. How do we construct the environment and how does the environment in turn construct us?

Scale is determined by the material in question and what would best suit its viewing and the viewer’s experience of it. Some pieces require space and distance; others require a more intimate viewing.

CC: You mention elsewhere, that “the conceptual is embedded in the material.” Could you explain this with reference to the diverse media you employ in your work?

RD: My MA was in printmaking and it was this that provided the foundation for my interest in the processes of iteration and the self-organization of pattern in nature. The idea of the gradual articulation of a surface became the means to construct something entirely new. Printmaking in turn led the way to experiments with video-feedback, both processes being rooted in the repetition of simple rules and processes. Similar to kaleidoscopes, video feedback is created when an ordinary hand-held camera is plugged into a TV and pointed at itself. The optical equivalent of acoustic feedback, a loop is created between the video camera and the television screen or monitor. With patience and certain amount of trial and error, it becomes possible to explore a vast arena of spontaneous pattern generation by varying the available controls (brightness, contrast, hue, focus, camera angle etc). The result is an amazing array of spatio-temporal patterns, mimicking those exhibited by physical, chemical, and biological systems, i.e. plant structures, tree forms, bacteria, snowflakes.

When I said I have found the conceptual embedded in the material and the idea within the method, I mean that in a very real sense with both printmaking and video-feedback, it is impossible to tell which comes first, media (raw material) or idea (form if you like). One seems to lead the other but they also loop back on each other, like a Mobius strip.

CC: One may seek similarities in the essential elements, and the affective quality of the work, with a painter like Vija Clemens. What antecedents can we trace in your work?

RD: In 1610 Galileo published his extraordinary Sidereus Nuncius or the ‘Starry Messenger’, the first scientific treatise based on his observations of the Moon, the stars and the moons of Jupiter through a telescope. His drawings describe a Moon pitted and scarred, an astonishingly irregular and not so unfamiliar surface.

“this lunar surface, which is decorated with spots like dark blue eyes in the tail of a peacock, is rendered similar to those small glass vessels which, plunged into cold water while still warm, ‘crack and acquire a wavy surface, after which they are commonly called ice-glasses.”

As various scholars have pointed out, the images Galileo conjures to describe the lunar world are themselves a species of ‘chimera’. These images and metaphors, stemming as they did from ancient myths and fables are at odd variance with the astronomical frame onto which they are mapped. They are one thing, standing in for something else, pushing the limits of the known and the imagined. What Galileo was trying to do was to try to create a physical world out of images. To establish some kind of similarity between the Earth and the Moon, to try and translate these images from the telescope into something that could be understood by the reader.

In rendering the strange conceivable, projection has its limitations, as with Galileo’s description of the dark spots on the lower horn of the moon. But studies on creative problem solving specifically William J.J. Gordon’s theories and those of Bipin Indurkhya have shown that one way of gaining new perspectives on a problem is to juxtapose it with something completely unrelated, thereby making the familiar…. strange. [1]

What interests me about speculative fiction is that it is based on a simple premise; ‘what if?’. And that question could take us in very different directions when we look at what we expect from human-planet relationships etc. It also thrives on the improbable, which as many have argued in the state of the world today! That moment when the unexpected comes in and forces you to pay attention.

The speculative allows many visions of the future, not bound by any form of linear progression. It allows us to think about ways of looking and understanding our world without necessarily being rooted in a present. Where wonder is about seeing the world ‘as if’ for the first time, the speculative asks us to take that and turn it on its head as ask again ‘what if?’.

If you look at the word, speculative, ‘specular’ or having the properties of a mirror, is the mirror-like reflection of light from a surface. I like the analogy of a mirror in this context, because when you mirror something, it is reversed and very often that reversal is enough to make something familiar very strange.

Strange-ing then becomes a strategy for encountering,observingandfinally recording both environment and experience. Strange-ing as a practice explores the inter-connectedness of our relationship to the planet and offers a perspective that may be useful to our imagination of our future in both shaping and living within it. When walking a fine line between wonder and the uncanny, it can change how we see the world.

CC: Several of your works have emerged from your interest in the history of science, and attempt to unpack the notion of science as a purely instrumental, empirical enterprise. Could you elaborate on this intersection between scientific and art practice?

RD: In 2012 I was invited to spend 4 months at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science in Berlin. I began that residency by trying to understand my relationship with astronomy, through a project I began in New Delhi in 2010 as part of the Sarai City-as-Studio fellowship, which was a form of collective investigation with the amateur astronomer community in Delhi. Stories, interviews, conversations and histories came together in a slowly building chronicle of the almost obsessive subculture of people whose lives have been transformed by the night sky. I was interested in what these groups of people, so enthralled by the night sky might tell us about the nature and complexities of human meaning making? Amateur astronomy is as much about an encounter with the self as it is an experience of space and horizon. The sky because of its scale provides an almost mythic realisation of oneself within an environment. As an amateur astronomer and an artist, this was also an exercise in self-reflexion. Where did I position myself within the material, or perhaps where did astronomy position itself within my practice?

Science is understood to be based on research, empirical, a systematic enterprise that builds and organizes knowledge in the form of testable explanations and predictions about the universe. [2] The history of science humanizes this vast body of knowledge, the what’s, why’s and how’s if you like. It aims to understand scientific thinking and practice as historical phenomena, to emphasize the "human component" of scientific knowledge, and to de-emphasize the view that scientific data are self-evident, value-free, and context-free. [3]

My time at the MPIWG, spent researching the histories of observation, deep time, the history of drawing within astronomy, the role of metaphor and projection are all things that more widely contextualize the work, but also in many cases give it new shape and meaning.

CC: An entire suite of works employs the device of the video loop. Video feedback, here, is more than merely method, indicating a plane of creativity removed from the organic, and thereby, a radical autonomy of the virtual. Do these works anticipate a posthuman future? Or do they acknowledge planes of existence that have always exceeded the human?

RD: There are several aspects to video-feedback that are very interesting. The first is that the feedback in generated entirely within the system, ghosts within the machine. The material mirrors patterns exhibited by physical, chemical and biological systems, but these emerge spontaneously from the feedback system. The process is also entirely embodied, if the camera is static so too will be the behavior. Without my hand moving the camera, zooming in etc., there would be no morphological changes. So I would say that it is deeply organic but within the digital.

Freud held that the uncanny is very often neither supernatural nor particularly mysterious in its origin, but rather, completely familiar. Video feedback is extraordinary in its origins, and its subsequent making into the familiar, the almost mundane is what takes it into the realm of the uncomfortably strange. Because of the nature of its origins, it retains a quality of the uncanny. The tree is not a tree, it could be bone, or cartilage, the insects are not quite right, but they could be.

What is also fascinating is the point at which pattern is disrupted.

“What happens in the case of mutation? Consider the example of the genetic code. Mutation normally occurs when some random event (for example, a burst of radiation or a coding error) disrupts an existing pattern and something else is put in its place instead. Mutation is crucial because it names the bifurcation point at which the interplay between pattern and randomness causes the system to evolve in a new direction.” [4]

In my most recent solo, Hopeful Monsters at Project 88, Mumbai in Dec 2018-Jan 2019, I was interested in just this moment of disruption between pattern and randomness. Hopeful Monsters was a speculative journey into a sort of transitional morphology, plant, insect, animal. To borrow a phrase from the science fiction author Jeff Vandermeer, I was interested in exploring what happens when the natural world around us becomes a kind of camouflage.

Hopeful Monsters is a video and print work using video-feed back after a space of almost 8 years. Each of the 150 digital specimens that comprise Hopeful Monsters is drawn with lines of video-feedback, structures made of individual, manually placed layers of video-feedback. The still images of the insects are not part of the video-feedback process, but instead form the underlying layer on top of which the video-feedback builds. And each form within each cabinet, in turn, like an insect, in its chrysalis, reassembles its parts to make a new form.

The focus is on taxonomy and morphology with a particular emphasis on mutation. Each cabinet houses a distinct biological order; taxonomic ranks used in the classification of organisms. These include Odonata (Dragonflies), Lepidoptera (Butterflies), Hymenoptera (Bees), Diptera (Flies), and Coleoptera (Beetles). The taxonomic orders show an amazing diversity of patterns, with most of the 18,000 species distinguishable on the basis of their wing pattern. Much of this diversity is thought to arise through novel switches in the genome that turn genes on in new contexts during wing development, thereby producing new patterns. They are therefore the perfect place to begin to understand morphology.

CC: You have a body of work, Archaeologies of the Future, which takes its name from the text by Frederic Jameson, and there also seems to be a strong influence of Deleuzian ideas in your work. Is there a conscious attempt to engage with theory as practice?

RD: Theory allows an opening up of horizons, new ways of meaning making and new methods of stringing together of seemingly disparate things in ways that signal to something more distant and complex. In a way theory completes the framing/articulation of the work.

For instance, the body of work that came together for Archaeologies of the Future: Chaos and Coincidence drew inspiration from Jameson’s text, which examines thefunctions ofutopianthinking by exploring the relationship between utopia and science fiction. I took Jameson's title and used it instead to cast myself as an archaeologist of new fictions and futures. So the work was a series of experiments and observations, constructed by observing, recording, fictionalizing, and imagining objects and spaces that exist at the interface between remote past and possible future, utopia and dystopia.

I was particularly interested in investigations of science and nature using the methods of ‘observation’, and the ‘field’ or ‘site’. Modes that have been particularly useful in the exploration of the relationships between the human and non-human. In the work; skies, sea forts, observation sites, telescopes and cyanometers mix their familiarity with strangeness, suggesting a new way of imagining the interconnectedness of things. Possibly the only unifying characteristic, their uncanny-ness and remoteness.

CC: The notion of deep time, that is the time of the earth as opposed to relatively short spans of human history, is the subject of a number of your works. Deep time is also at the centre of a lot of thinking on Anthropocene. What do you think is the utility of the concept which has often been criticised for its teleological underpinnings?

RD: I’m not certain what you mean when you say deep time has been criticised for its teleological underpinnings.

The way I understand the deep time sciences has much to do with the way historians of science have discussed it, as a study of vertical time, of forms that suggest an accretion both of temporality and material. I am interested in exploring how ideas of deep time and wonder may offer some disruption and suggest new ways of thinking and working when looking at the planet as an inherently mutable framework.

“The deep-time sciences (astronomy, geology) demand a double feat of imagination on the part of their practitioners: to compass the gargantuan time scales in which life evolves or stars form; and to project their own discipline far enough back into the past and forward into the future so that the patterns that emerge only after eons can be recorded and detected. They are the guardians of the far past in the service of the far future.”

Lorraine Daston

For me my work with astronomy has more to do with the community of people whose work with archives and data is built on connections to the past and their projection of that material into the future.

Similarly, for work I did at the Dr Bhau Daji Lad City Museum in Mumbai, as part of my solo show Speculations from the Field in 2016, I worked with the Museum's reserve collection of fossils and minerals that dated from the time when it was Government Central Museum. This work was an installation which included a site-specific wall drawing and curated vitrines of specimens which date back to the Silurian period (approximately 443.7 to 416.0 million years ago), the Jurassic period (approximately 199.6 to 145.5 million years ago), and the Cretaceous period (approximately 145.5 and 65.5)

Geologists and paleontologists usually represent geologic time vertically. An arrangement derived from the vertical succession of rock strata in Earth. This vertical perspective of time is based on the law of superposition, an axiom that forms one of the bases of the sciences of geology, archaeology, and other fields dealing with geological stratigraphy, the branch of geology which studies rock layers (strata) and layering (stratification. In its plainest form, it states that in undeformed stratigraphic sequences, the oldest layer will be at the bottom of the sequence. This is important to stratigraphic dating, which assumes that the law of superposition holds true and that an object cannot be older than the materials of which it is composed. The evolution in the drawing created a fossilised form that echoed this vertical accretion both in form and material.

Notes:

[1] Indurkhya, Bipin. "Metaphor and Cognition." Edited by James H Fetzer. Studies in Cognitive Systems (Kluwer Academic Publishers) 13 (1992).

[2]

[3] King Merton, Robert (1979). The Sociology of Science: Theoretical and Empirical Investigations. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-0-226-52092-6.

[4] N. Katherine Hayles. How We Became Posthuman: Virtual Bodies in Cybernetics, Literature, and Informatics (University of Chicago Press, (1999)

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