Raqs Media Collective: Guesswork
Raqs Media Collective returns to Frith Street Gallery with an exhibition featuring new and recent work which includes play with words, light and electricity, sign language, chiastic variations, archival traces, counting exercises and insurgent readings of time.
They represent the way in which Raqs is thinking at present about counting, gestures, signals and the presence of the ineffable in our lives. The works featured in Guesswork invite the viewer to consider what it means to measure infinity and to seize time rather than to be captive to the passing moment.
By working with pixels and proverbs, circuits and syntax, Raqs turn thoughts into images and images into questions. The works ask us – how might one read, or unread, the relation between singularity and the multitude? What does one say when one is at a loss for words? How does one harness the energy of questioning what we take for granted? Guesswork, being guess-work, provides conjectures rather than answers in response to these questions.
The first work in the show Marks was originally made for the Oscar Niemeyer designed headquarters of the Parti communiste français in Paris. In this piece, that most abused of symbols; the Hammer and Sickle, has been reinterpreted and reinvigorated using flashing LED lights. Strike which was also made for the PCF building uses a single phrase illuminated in various configurations to ask and answer the same question.
Untold Intimacy of Digits is an animated facsimile of the handprint of a Bengal Peasant, Raj Konai. The handprint was taken under the orders of William Herschel – scientist, statistician and at the time a revenue official with the Bengal government. It was sent by Herschel to Francis Galton, a London eugenicist and pioneer of identification technologies. It is currently in the custody of the Francis Galton Collection of the University College London. This is where the Raqs Collective first encountered the image of Raj Konai’s hand. This handprint, taken in 1858, is one of the earliest impressions of the human body taken by a person in power with the explicit purpose of using the trace to identify and verify a human subject. It was taken in lieu of a signature, to affix the identity of Raj Konai (the owner of the now phantom limb) to a document. It was felt, at the time, that subaltern subjects were way too slippery when it came to the presentation of their identities to the authorities. This handprint became the cornerstone of the edifice of the identification technology that would in time, be associated with fingerprinting and various anthropometric operations. These technologies create the possibility of the state touching its subjects. The intimacy of this spectral caress, with the digits of the state getting under the skin of our bodies, is not very different today from what it was in Raj Konai’s time. With the setting up of the infrastructure of the Unique Identification Database, the government of India, seeks to repeat what its colonial predecessors sought to do – to know, map and control a turbulent population. The floating image of Raj Konai’s handprint, counting, a ghostly reminder retrieved from a colonial archive, speaks from the vantage point an earlier moment in the history of the intimate power of calculation. It haunts its way into our imaginations as a countdown towards infinity, a quiet subversion of the vanity of quantification – the futile hope that a human being can be reduced to numbers.
In Re-writing on the wall, Raj Konai’s handprint is made to speak in letters instead of numbers. The hand print is reconfigured to produce an alphabet of gestures – each sign a gloss of the letters in standard American Sign Language, as used by deaf and mute people. The letters add up to a text (which accompanies the work) a stammering, hesitant, syntactically unsure consideration (written by a hand that appears on the wall like the hand that wrote on the wall in the episode of Belshazzar’s Feast in the Old Testament) of the relationship between ‘I’ and ‘We’ and the horizon that encompasses singular and plural modes of being.
Raqs Media Collective are: Jeebesh Bagchi, b. 1965, New Delhi, India;Monica Narula, b. 1969, New Delhi, India;Shuddhabrata Sengupta, b. 1968, New Delhi, India. Recent exhibitions include, Surjection, Art Gallery of York University, Toronto; The Things That Happen When Falling In Love, a solo exhibition at Baltic Centre, Gateshead; The Capital of Accumulation, a solo exhibition at Project 88, Mumbai; The New Décor, a touring group exhibition at Hayward Gallery, London and The Garage Center for Contemporary Culture, Moscow (all 2010). The Surface of Each Day is a Different Planet, a solo exhibition at Art Now Lightbox, Tate Britain, London and When The Scales Fall From Your Eyes, a solo exhibition at Ikon, Birmingham (all 2009).