Rohini Devasher, “Ghosts-in-the-machine”, Single channel video, sound, 6 minutes, 2006.

Rohini Devasher, “Ghosts-in-the-machine”, Single channel video, sound, 6 minutes, 2006.

During the HKW’s (Haus der Kulturen der Welt’s) 2016 Anthropocene Curriculum: The Technosphere Issue, Delhi-based multi-media artist, Rohini Devasher, and I attended the same Co-Evolutionary Perspectives of the Technosphere Seminar. Part of our required reading was Tim Ingold’s essay, “On Weaving a Basket.” By looking at the long history of basket making, Ingold explores how “the difference between making and growing is by no means as obvious as might have thought,” (p.1) suggesting as a result that we might have to soften “the distinction between artefacts and living things” (p.1), form and substance, and even technology and nature. In the following conversation, Devasher and I explore similar themes as they weave in and out of her own diverse practice.

Caroline Picard: Is this what you thought the House of World Cultures would feel like?

Rohini Devasher: To be perfectly honest, I don’t think I had any particular expectations about the HKW.

CP: I guess I ask because the name, House of World Cultures, seems very literary to me. It sounds like a place that people in a novel would go. (laughs) How did you come to be here? Did you apply?

RD: A curator I know, Maya Kovskaya, went to the first 2014 Anthropocene Curriculum and she said it was something I should look at, so I decided to apply.

CP: It does seem like there is a strong interest in ecology and technology in your work.

RD: I’m glad. I’m always a little afraid of saying that because I feel like I don’t necessarily have the, what’s the word…

CP: Chops?

RD: Exactly! That is exactly the word I was looking for. Because I don’t have training in ecology, I don’t have field experience like people who work either with grassroots organizations or specifically with real science, whatever that means, but ecology is something I am very interested in. I’m glad that comes across.

CP: Your work addresses fractals, botany, radio telescopes, video feedback, the sky…

RD:  There are parallel streams in my practice. Video feedback is one side, my interest in amateur astronomy another, or my wall drawings—I’ve been doing those since 2004. Depending on what research I’m doing at the time, the wall drawings change, obviously, but they’re a very real, physical, embodied way of working on a space. I’m really interested in the contemporary condition of wonder—because with the Amateur Astronomers for instance, what worries me is that Delhi is losing the skies…

CP: What do you mean, losing the skies?

RD: Light pollution. When I joined the group in 1997, we had overnight observations just at Nehru Planetarium which is right in the center of the Delhi. Now you have to go six hours or seven hours out of the city to see stars. It’s really bad. Pollution in Delhi in any case is bad, but what people aren’t talking about is light pollution. What happens if a generation of people grow up without ever seeing the stars? That’s deeply troubling to me. Seeing the night sky is something that plants you on the Earth in a way that nothing else does.

CP: Yeah, Astronomy makes you think about what is above and beyond—just having to acknowledge that burning rocks hang out in the distant universe is wild! But I also love pretending sometimes that the sky might just be a black cloth with pin holes in it.

RD: A screen for projections or something.

CP: You started as a painter and a print maker?

RD: I think print making started everything off, because it has two parts. You’ve got the plate making and the actual print making; and the plate—whether it’s stone, whether it’s metal, whether it’s a screen, whether it’s a block of wood—has this potential for multiplicity and iteration which I found very interesting. Even when I was studying print making, I was frustrated by the idea of the edition, where every print that you make has to be identical to all the rest. Later, I started using the plate as a sort of block that also has the potential for multiplicity and iteration. I would take like a lithograph and just one piece of paper and I would keep printing over it with that same image.

CP: Like an analogue method of distortion…

RD: The interesting point is when pattern becomes noise becomes chaos and then after that form emerges again. That’s what got me interested in plants, because nature is fractal. Nature has a very simple and effective method for building complicated structures from simple parts using recursion—manifesting in almost infinite instances of pattern, symmetry and geometry. Plants are one example. From the more conventional forms of printmaking, I moved into digital mediums, where I would construct these sort of strange denizens of a science fiction botanical garden, specimens in a bizarre cabinet of curiosity, or portents of a distant future. Each final work was the result of many hundreds of layers, of both photograph and drawing. But once finished, they were necessarily flattened and lost any sense of gradually articulated complexity that is so integral to their making.

CP: And that’s how you moved towards video?

RD: Literally. One day I was just surfing, researching complex systems online, and I saw an image of what looked like a star burst, so I clicked on the link and it went to this page which was a DIY diagram of video feedback, which has been around since what, the 1960s, right? I tried it out, and until that point if you had asked me if I would work with video I was sure I would never have, but this feedback approach was a language I understood, because I got it, it was just a camera plugged into a TV. It’s a camera looking at itself. It’s like a reflection, and then the forms that are generated within it start to mimic biological life, and that’s amazing, and then the wealth of possibilities within this dynamic system and the fact that it’s so embodied.

CP: So, the technology starts to perform patterns we’d otherwise attribute to the natural world? What is it recording? Is there a first landscape, for instance, that you then distort? Like the lithograph block?

RD: In video feedback the forms are all generated within the machine, so if you just have a camera and the TV, then usually you get a blob, a circle, which then becomes a square, which then becomes a triangle; it’s instructional if you want to understand morphology. It’s very similar to the old kaleidoscopes. The optical equivalent of acoustic feedback, where a loop is created between the video camera and the television screen or monitor. Like two mirrors facing each other, the image is doubled and interferes with itself. And if you add mirrors at right angles to the TV, that’s when it gets really interesting! It becomes fractal. Because there are more surfaces for the light to bounce off, you get an amazing array of spatio-temporal patterns, mimicking those exhibited by physical, chemical, and biological systems, i.e. plant structures, cells, tree forms, galaxy like formations, starbursts, bacteria, snowflakes. I take all that footage, I dump it into a computer, then cut it up and stitch it back together in different configurations, sort of like a backward jigsaw.

CP: Over the last few days in Berlin, we’ve had different conversations about the Technosphere as an auto-poetic system. It seems related to what you’re describing.

RD: It is! Video feedback is an example of self-organization of pattern in nature, which is why this behavior starts to look like trees or phytoplankton or zooplankton, which under the microscope also have the most incredible skeletal structures. This is what I’m really interested in: how you see biological patterns mirrored in digital space. Like when moss grows in zero gravity, it grows in a spiral, as if the spiral shape is embedded in the material somehow.

CP: Would you say you “collaborate” with the material?

RD: It’s you interacting with the environment at a point in time, and it’s the material suggesting the way forward, which is exactly what happens with printmaking and video feedback. The material, in a very real way, leads the way, much more than in any of the other work I do.

CP: But then isn’t everything that way? Like any material has limits and strengths that one has to adapt to and work with?

RD: I’ll tell you what, I don’t feel that way with the other work that I do. When I go to an observatory, for instance, the site becomes the activator but I don’t think I could call it a medium, do you know what I mean?

CP: Even when you’re documenting the site? For instance…

RD: The telescopes.

CP: Yeah. Describe it…

RD: I’ve been doing this project for about five years, but it started long before that. When I joined the Amateur Astronomers Association in New Delhi (the same year I joined art school) I was a pretty active member for about five years. Then I lost touch with the group for a while, but then in July 2009, India witnessed the longest total eclipse of the millennium and I travelled to Patna, Bihar to see it. Unfortunately, the weather played spoilsport and the eclipse was completely occluded. I saw nothing, except the rain, the darkness, and the euphoria of every astronomer on the roof.  I have never been as aware of my position on the Earth as I was at that moment. I had this intense sense that there was something there, something tangible, something that could be channeled, something extraordinary. I wondered if it was possible to create a sense of engagement with someone else’s experiences even when they were of the single most transforming celestial event, a total solar eclipse.

CP: I like appreciate your interest in the astronomers’ euphoria…that somehow that helped locate your place on the earth as well.

RD: Almost immediately after that, I came a residency in Delhi called the City as a Studio, initiated by the Raqs Media Collective at the Center for Developing Societies (CSDS). I applied, got the nine-month fellowship, and began by interviewing the amateur astronomers. Then started travelling to a bunch of observatories all over India with them, including the second highest observatory in the world, the Indian Astronomical Observatory (IAO) at Hanle, one of the world’s highest sites for optical, infrared and gamma-ray telescopes in Ladakh—like something straight out of Arthur C. Clarke’s “Rama.” It’s this 14,500 feet high altitude desert and you’ve got these incredible telescopes—they become almost chimeric, like interesting signifiers…that’s what got me interested in the idea of these sites of technological strangeness as interfaces.

CP: And when you’re at these locations?

RD: I just shoot. I photograph the site blindly almost…The video feedback work demands such a structured and specific approach, when I first started shooting these sites, I didn’t know what to do because I was like, “this the real world, how do I react to it?” I was shooting everything but what the amateurs were shooting. The amateur astronomer is shooting the night sky. I wasn’t interested in that. I’m more interested in their lived experience of the site.

CP: Even though you’re going to these visually astonishing places, my sense is you’re not trying to capture a traditionally sublime experience of landscape…does that make the landscape more or less a medium?

RD: That’s a great point. I don’t think I’m interested in the sublime in the way I understand the word, if that makes sense. But I am interested in “wonder.” I don’t know if that’s very different? While I’m there shooting the site, I don’t know what the end result will be, so I don’t know then if I could say the landscape is medium. Once you get the footage, then of course the footage will tell you what to do with it.

CP: I’m flirting with metaphysical territory maybe, but at least for me when I see something that I want to work on, write about for instance … let’s just say I feel like there’s a way that the material acts on me. In that way I can’t tell if I would locate the landscape as a kind of medium, or if the medium would only be in the material I use to capture that landscape.

RD: Yeah, you’re right, on the one hand you’ve got these kinds of sites but I’ve also found—like when I went to Japan on this other residency, it was in the island of Kyushu, and I realized that there was a volcano three hours away, so I was like, “I have to go there,” and I was as drawn to that site—so now I’m wondering, “what’s going on here?” Because you’re right, then it is actually about the other kind of sublime, which is the more traditional reading, right? Where it is just this incredible, smoking volcano. I haven’t done anything with that footage yet.

CP: What did you film when you went?

RD: Kyushu actually has one of the largest calderas in the world, this big crater, and you can walk along it, but you couldn’t because there was a level two eruption, so they had closed off one kilometer back. What I actually shot was the smoking crater—a huge cloud, like a massive cloud maker—spewing this beautiful bluish white smoke into the sky. I also shot a lot of fog and mist, It was a very wet and overcast weekend (and the clouds follow me wherever I go, that’s a whole other story, I have been to some of the highest sites in the world and have yet to see the Milky Way!)

CP: What did the volcano smell like?

RD: We were coughing a lot and couldn’t figure out why, but it’s just what you imagine; it’s like rotten eggs, extremely acrid. It’s amazing, but then I trekked along the other bits and there are these older calderas, which are these beautiful perfect green mounds with little dips in them, but then, because you’re high up, and they’re in the middle, and you’ve got this amazing volcanic sort of fractal pattern in the ground; the fog came down then, so the mountain came in and out of focus. It was an amazing thing, and I’m not sure what, maybe I’m going to build some kind of fiction around the idea of disappearance and re-appearance.

This interview was conducted on behalf of Bad at Sports and the HKW.

Caroline Picard