Sonal Jain (b. 1975, Shillong) and Mriganka Madhukaillya (b. 1978, Jorhat, Assam) have been collaborating as Desire Machine Collective on films, video and sound installations, as well as residency programmes and interdisciplinary projects since 2004. After the Gujarat riots in 2002, which began with the Godhra train burning, they made a conscious decision to leave the city of Ahmedabad (where they had been involved with the National Institute of Design) and move eastward, back home to the north-eastern region of India. Since then, they have been based out of Guwahati, where Madhukaillya also teaches at the Indian Institute of Technology.

Desire Machine Collective’s praxis examines the roles that moving images play in recording social histories and asks what the limits of this involvement can be. In 2007, they established Periferry 1.0, an ongoing migratory artists’ project utilising the M. V. Chandardinga, a government-leased ferry docked on the Brahmaputra River in the heart of Guwahati. Negotiations involving the Inland Water Transport Department over the ferry continue to run the constant risk of dissolving the initiative at any moment. Given this fact and the limited opportunities and platforms that exist for interstate or interregional exchange (with Southeast Asia) in the north-east, Jain and Madhukaillya’s context-based practice operates against state sanctions and bureaucracy. Ultimately, their aim is to dislodge the ferry from the city proper and conduct community-based workshops along the Brahmaputra. As an act of cultural resistance that deconstructs centre-periphery biases, Periferry 1.0 extends praxis to incorporate flux and nomadism as essential components of a contemporary vision. Such a model is detailed in Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari's 1972 text Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, from which the artists derive their name and theoretical disposition.

In his Duke University lecture notes on Anti-Oedipus, Michael Hardt decodes Deleuze and Guattari's ideas: “There is no such thing as desire, only desiring-machines.... Desire as desiring-machine is not a thing but a process, an act of producing.... Desiring-machines can thus never be ‘satisfied’ or come to a completion.”1 Jain and Madhukaillya's artistic output, primarily in digital video until 2008, has undergone a number of shifts and transformations since their collaboration began (they oftentimes conceptualise their videos independently, but support each other on the shoot, sound design and editing). In their process of self-interrogation, brought about through a maturation of experience and a deep interest in critical theory, certain themes have emerged. Whereas an early video such as Alfa Beta (2005) resides squarely within issues of representation (of the self, as well as the north-east), later works such as Passage (2006), Nishan (2007 -), Noise Life (2008 -) and Residue (2011), move beyond the mechanisms by which culture enacts itself (through references to archival documentation and the history of cinema) to display a complicated relationship with violence and control.

Alfa Beta consists of spliced-together pirated footage from director Mani Shankar’s Bollywood film Tango Charlie (2005), which was banned in the north-east for its controversial portrayal of the ethnic Bodo community in Assam, and Dinesh Gogoi’s Surya Tejor Anya Naam (The Sun is Blood's Other Name, 1991), an Assamese film that sympathised with the insurgents and was also subsequently banned by the government. “I wanted to expose all the clichés associated with this region,”2 says Madhukaillya of the work. The video also includes found archival photographs as well as raw footage from a handheld camera that catches partial glimpses of the artist’s portrait and the surrounding urban environment in order to develop an epistemological relationship between private and social histories. The subsequent video, Passage, is in the artists’ words, a “sketch on the unspeakable, the sublime”. Shot in an old zamindari house in Baruipur in West Bengal, they employ the optical device of a mirror attached to the camera in order to observe light passing through a set of window frames. The abstract images follow a path of repeated ruptures and turbulence that disrupt the pleasure of looking. Considered by the artists as a “reflection on cinema”, the works diffused atmosphere creates a heightened feeling of suffocation. The endless repetition and mirroring points to the presence of death.

The title of the collectives video 25/75 from 2007 alludes to a local lottery system based on numbers that correspond to dreams. Working against grand narratives, the duo focuses our attention on what Jain terms “micro modernisms” - mundane parallel realities and timescapes that escape the notice of a hegemonic centre. The video is an assemblage of images and textures, set against a soundscape of dripping water that drifts us into an aqueous dream world. The video 30/12 (2009) takes us back to December 30, 2006 and was shot in a single day. Desire Machine Collectives penchant for micronarratives - stories about people living with a completely different worldview, and seemingly insignificant events that become more significant - is presented in a non-narrative, deconstructed manner. As the artists meditate on their subject matter from a distance, the camera continues to record. They then collage a number of disparate elements to comment on the schisms of a globalized space. As itinerant orchid sellers go about their day, the artists add auditory layers that disrupt any straightforward documentary approach. The sound of a Bengali man selling ashtadhatu focuses our attention on the minutiae of market life, whereas American and British news commentaries opining on Saddam Hussein’s execution, manage to jam these audio fields and further disable the conventional narrative format.

By subsequently preferring to portray abstract and perceptual processes to communicate their inner lives rather than visible signifiers of violence, the artists excavate a repressed public life through their own private experiences and symptoms of fear. Madhukaillya asks, “What is the construction of India? Which community do I belong to? I need to recognize my symptoms; it is a form of therapy. I am looking for an expanded, formless time.” The move away from representation (expression or meaning) to production (process or usage) in the artists’ modus operandi also rests in Anti-Oedipus. Hardt explains: “In Anti-Oedipus, expression is related to representation and signification, and thus it designates precisely what is not immanent to the term or thing. . . . As such, expression is the primary enemy of production.”3 For Jain and Madhukaillya, this philosophy of focusing on process and usage insteadofthenuances of expression is of the utmost importance.

The collective's recent 35mm film Residue is framed from the perspective of the schizophrenic. “The human, the machinic, and the natural are all one,” says Hardt. “The first great advantage of the schizophrenic is her/his recognition of this unity.”4 In Residue this unity is proclaimed through a series of shots in and around a redundant coal power plant on the outskirts of Guwahati. The plant was abandoned due to the high costs of production, which outweighed the benefits vis-a-vis its electricity output. Residue embodies several key notions within Anti Oedipus and distills them to an essence. Nestled within an encroaching forest, thick with undergrowth and surrounded by an ambient drone, the power plant lies dormant. Using slow, meditative pans, the artists focus our attention on the generative and regenerative processes of nature as it slowly claims its ground. A machine turns into a butterfly. At times, the camera zooms in on meters that lie powerless at zero watts. At others, these machines assume anthropomorphic qualities and quasi-human forms. Madhukaillya states, “I am interested in constructed signs that can never be replicated or remembered and in the relationship between matter and memory. I am also interested in endless circularity, in unbearable silence - the pause - and in looking at other possibilities of the site. In the end, it is a perception-image.” At a time when society lies in the stranglehold of an “attention-economy” (with its hyper-mediatized images and tightly controlled messages), the “perception-image” serves a diagnostic function and provides recourse from repressed trauma. It repositions us within a no man’s land of continual flux, where capital is unable to reterritorialize.

A related work, Tresspassers Will (Not) Be Prosecuted (2012) is a multi-layered outdoor sound installation consisting of speakers with ambient and directional sounds that interact with passersby through motion sensors. According to Jain and Madhukaillya, “The installations conceptual point of departure is critic and technology theorist Paul Virilio’s definition of “space.” He points out that the limits of the city itself have come into question, largely because of new informational and communication technologies that have introduced a novel idea of space, i.e., space as virtual or dematerialized.”5 The sounds are drawn from the sacred forests of Mawphlang in Meghalaya, India. According to local animist beliefs, spirits or “U Ryngew U Basa” guard the area, and the taking of any objects from the forest or the destruction of plant or animal life is taboo. By lifting sound recordings from the forest and inserting them into the consumerist space of the city, the artists run the risk of “trespassing” upon the sacred area.

These autonomous, isolated sounds exist beyond agency. The artists continue, “We want to use sound as an alternate way to map physical spaces by creating a subjective “ideoscape” in each observer’s mind. This internal soundscape in a public space, with subliminal notions of memory, ecology and geography experienced aurally not visually, simultaneously compels a realigning of sensibility to external space. Thus, the passive, fixed public space is reclaimed and rendered dynamic with the use of technology.” In keeping with Desire Machine Collectives praxis, Trespassers Will (Not) Be Prosecuted has both material and non-material aspects to its formation and existence (visuality here is imagined) and utilizes sound to mobilize affect.

Filmed in Srinagar in a now-derelict house (that was once occupied and subsequently scavenged almost bare by the military, and then appropriated into an army bunker in this heavily militarized zone), Desire Machine Collectives four-channel panoramic video installation Nishan (literally meaning ‘mark’ or ‘trace’, also described as ‘wound’ or ‘sign’ by the artists) is currently a work-in-progress. Although the artists started to envision the project in 2007, they were hesitant to rush into producing it, given its sensitive location and subject matter, and decided instead to research the politics of the area and conduct workshops with communities over time. Jain states, “Having been born and brought up in another region, which has shared similar political discontent insurgency and counter-insurgency, and had special army laws and acts imposed on it - namely north-eastern India - I have come to know of Indian democracy as a crowded collage of disparate and often violently clashing realities. I relate to the situation Kashmir finds itself in - stuck in between the conflicting nationalisms of India and Pakistan . . . In an area with prolonged conflict deficit of any humanity, reality and truth are also in deficit; there exist only versions of the truth.” Framed within a vacant apartment with numerous windows opening onto roads, canals, bridges, birds and people, Nishan moves beyond conventional narrative structures by adopting a panoply of visual and temporal structures that interrupt the flow of our familiar perceptions, thus engendering a “consciousness of duration” as the artists put it.

Playing with ideas of proximity and distance in both historical and spatial terms, the artists present this installation as a collaged work consisting of multiple moving-image files layered on top of and placed seamlessly next to one another. As they employ long and static camera shots to capture these perceptual and reflexive images (causing a sensory displacement that is further distilled through a number of overlapping audio channels), what comes across is an ahistorical experience of time. The installation also recalls the microcosmic life of a miniature painting. Mixed into the footage are images of found objects consisting of children’s notebooks, newspapers, journals, photographs, blueprints, army boots and belts. Some of the newspapers and notebooks date back to the nation-building decades of the 1960s, 70s and 80s in India. Alongside artists and filmmakers such as Harun Farocki, Alfredo Jaar, Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, Amar Kanwar, Walid Raad, Raqs Media Collective, Hito Steyerl and Akram Zaatari, to name only a few, Desire Machine Collective use their practice to excavate and investigate history, swerving away from hegemonic meta-narratives to present alternative stories founded on propositions, contingencies, observations, allegories, reconstructions and remembrance. These are some of the tools employed by our contemporary historians.


[1] Michael Hardt in Reading Notes on Deleuze and Guattari, Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Check

[2] This and all subsequent quotes by Desire Machine Collective: Sonal Jain and Mriganka Madhukaillya in written, e-mail and telephone conversations with the author, September 2009 - November 2011.

[3] Hardt, Rending Notes on Deleuze and Guattari, Capitalism and Schizophrenia.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Desire Machine Collective, “Dematerializing Space: An Interview with Desire Machine Collective by Sandhini Poddar”. Deutsche Guggenheim Magazine, Berlin, Issue 12 Summer 2010, pp. 6 -7.


Adapted from No 0rdinary Darkness originally published in Being Singular Plural. Copyright. The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York, 2010. Used by permission. ART India, December 2011, Volume XVI, Issue III. Image courtesy of the artists
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