Raqs Media Collective, Escapement (installation view), 2009, clocks, aluminium, LED lights, flat screen monitors, video and audio looped. Image: courtesy the artist

Are you being watched? Who are you watching?

I commonly experience a mild dread at the thought of being under surveillance – who is watching, and why? What conclusions are they drawing? Am I in trouble? New Delhi based Raqs Media Collective, comprising Monica Narula, Jeebesh Bagchi and Shuddhabrata Sengupta, have over the years variously approached these same questions. Described as artists, media practitioners, curators, researchers, editors and catalysts of cultural processes their work takes the form of installations, online and offline media objects, performances and encounters.

To Make Comic the Scary Spectre of State Surveillance

In 2002 Raqs made signage to accompany the installation 28°28 N / 77°15 E: 2001/02: An Installation on the Coordinates of Everyday Life in Delhi (2002), which was shown in Documenta 11. The signs announced that there are “No Actors, Only Victims”; they warned, “Careful! Abandoned objects may contain explosive devices” and “Check under your seat. There may be a bomb”; they asked, “Who is the stranger next to you?”; they ordered, “Keep your identity with you at all times. You must be able to produce it on request”; and finally “You are entering a zero-tolerance zone. Make no trouble here.”

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Raqs Media Collective, Coordinates 28.8N 77.15E: 20012002, (detail), 2002. Image: courtesy the artist
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Raqs Media Collective, Coordinates 28.8N 77.15E: 20012002, (detail), 2002. Image: courtesy the artist

I have left out a few, but with their neon colours and faceless authoritarianism, the signs effectively evoke the scary spectre of state surveillance. Since they are taken from actual signs across Delhi, the work comments on the paranoid reality of a terrorist terrified urban society. Raqs are past masters at word play. Their installation Escapement (2009) had a series of working clocks showing time in various world cities, but instead of numbers denoting hours there are words – epiphany, anxiety, duty, guilt, indifference, awe, fatigue, nostalgia, ecstasy, fear, panic and remorse. I once downloaded the clock for New Delhi from their home page; it stopped ticking and I found myself stuck endlessly between panic and fatigue.

In 2006, they emboldened a white gallery wall with the words “Please do not touch the work of art”, but on an adjoining wall they indulged in removing and replacing words in a sequence:
PLEASE. DO NOT TOUCH THE WORK OF ART.
TOUCH. DO NOT PLEASE THE WORK OF ART.
WORK. DO NOT PLEASE THE WORK OF TOUCH ...
And so on.

They underplayed authority, almost like errant schoolchildren, something one increasingly feels like upon an encounter with state institutions. Employing the language of mystery, their quasi-detective work 5 Pieces of Evidence (2003), was based on a scare in 2001 that a black monkey-man was roaming a Delhi locality. The work’s five screens are narratively organised along the lines of a “whodunit” reflecting on urban myths, transitoriness and global networks. Missing persons notices, street maps, demographic statistics and images of pipelines, rail tracks, harbours and cityscapes evoke a multi-layered set of speculations on the way urban spaces stage everyday “disappearances”.[1]

Each screen presents one aspect of the story and together produce a narrative touching upon urban–economic–social development, communal hysteria, international and military intrigue, migrations fuelled by the desire to partake in a grossly fictionalised urban and global opportunism and a constant media frenzy whose selective gaze decides what becomes current affairs, the tone with which it is to be viewed and who is friend and who is foe. The work captures Raqs’ ability to observe and make comic the hysteria of our times but also highlights the danger that underlies social paranoia manipulated by politicians, media, security personnel and god-men – those who wish to manufacture and guide mutual suspicion and fear of the unknown.

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Shaina Anand Top, Jamuna’s new home, still from Khirkeeyaan, 2006, eight-episode video. Image: courtesy the artist

When the Art Audience is made Big Brother: Oh the discomfort!

Khirkee is a small urban village in the middle of India’s sprawling capital city New Delhi. In April 2006 it was the site of Mumbai based multimedia artist Shaina Anand’s public project Khirkeeyaan (khirkee = window, yaan = vehicle) which used surveillance equipment – televisions, cameras, mics, a patch bay – to get the communities cohabiting there to interact with each other and allow us to get a glimpse into their lives.

On seven separate days four sets of cameras, televisions and mics were placed within 200 metres of each other. The cameras sat on top of the TVs and the output from the four views was connected to a quad processor and audio mixer. This quadrant of sound and image from all four locations was fed back to the TVs, allowing the subject/viewer/performer/audience to see themselves and the others in the same frame. Video became the site for these interactions and conversations. Consent and participation were sourced on-site. Each interaction was orchestrated to attract a different subsection and cross-section of the communities.

Complex revelations are produced with a cast including factory workers, middle class housewives, a quack doctor, Nepali immigrant women, shopkeepers and a spunky sweepress in seven episodes, all of which can be viewed on Anand’s website www.chitrakarkhana.net. They range from an impromptu reconstruction of Indian Idol, [2] a musical reality show where everyman becomes the star for a brief but exciting hour, to terse discussions and taunts between the high and low caste, rich and poor, Hindu and Muslim in the tiny geography of a lane.[3]

In Khirkeeyaan we are witness to the landscape of affects our surveillance and screen-dependent society produces. The televisation produced conversations, performance, and rapidly evolving subjectivities, all happening in local time somewhere between reality TV, documentary and artwork. What we see in the first instance, as a feature of these community interactions is how the select public consciously or unconsciously performs its positions and prejudices upon encountering a feedback screen. It is clear that the residents, rich or poor, male or female, Hindu or Muslim, young or old, like to be on display. Baudrillard has argued that what is considered real is the image of the real. Thus the residents of Khirkee are affirmed by seeing themselves on the television sets. They are included within the charmed circle of those who see and are seen.

Raqs Media Collective, 5 Pieces of Evidence, 2003, installation detail, five-screen video and sound installation with steel armature 

The work has a double audience, the participant-performers themselves who respond in real time and then us, the art audience, who watch the episodes in sanitised environments and draw conclusions. We are Big Brother, watching these folks, reading and applying nuances, judging them, their words and actions. Thus we too perform our prejudices on the provocations the artist has ministered but we do it quietly, behind the passive screen.

Baudrillard has written about reality television:

The worst part of this obscene and indecent visibility is the forced enrolment, the automatic complicity of the spectator who has been blackmailed into participating. The obvious goal of this kind of operation is to enslave the victims. But the victims are quite willing. They are rejoicing at the pain and the shame they suffer. Everybody must abide by society’s fundamental logic: interactive exclusion. Interactive exclusion, what could be better! Let’s all agree on it and practice it with enthusiasm![4]

In Khirkeeyaan we have a reworking of Plato’s cave. The captured and relayed images on the screen are the shadows and the more the people witness their actions the more legitimised the screen image becomes and thus the words and thoughts, the social prejudices they are enacting. Who sees the truth? Do we, from our haloed position in the sun?

Footnotes

  1. ^ www.raqsmediacollective.net/evidence.html
  2. ^ Episode 1: streets (indian idols: hauzrani spectricals)
  3. ^ Episode 3: in the lane (mahasangram [which means ‘to create conflict’])
  4. ^ Jean Baudrillard, Dust Breeding: http://www.ctheory.net/a

Deeksha Nath is a New Delhi-based independent critic and curator. She is Desk Editor, Art AsiaPacific (New York) and ArtEast (Kolkata) and has published widely. Her curatorial projects investigate relationships between artwork and audience in socio-political contexts.

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