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Sideways in Time, Part 1: Raqs Media Collective talks with Erica Levin

Erica Levin, Assistant Professor, History of Art, Ohio State College of Arts & Sciences

Apr 05, 2021

Installation view of Provisions for Everybody by Raqs Media Collective at the Wexner Center for the Arts

Above: Installation view of Raqs Media Collective’s Provisions for Everybody in Climate Changing: On Artists, Institutions and the Social Environment.

[Image description: Image description: a gallery with a video projection on white wall showing a dark tunnel with tracks running through it, perhaps it is a mine. There are white captions at the top right of the projection that read “Then make a note about the value of refusing. And think again about the calculation of the difference between burning and becoming fuel.” The projection is reflected in the shiny gold wallpaper that covers the long adjacent wall to the right. This wallpaper includes green-outlined computer rendered illustrations, including a boat, an insect, a pig, a helicopter, all different scales. The gallery has light beige carpet and a maroon couch and chair facing the projection.] 


 

Erica Levin is a member of the advisory committee for Climate Changing: On Artists, Institutions, and the Social Environment. In December 2020, Levin began corresponding with members of Raqs Media Collective about their contribution to the exhibition, a video installation entitled Provisions for Everybody (2018).The following conversation about film form, history, and politics took place over the course of several months and will be presented here in two parts. Levin begins the conversation below. Look for the second half of their exchange next week.

The title Provisions for Everybody (2018) is borrowed from George Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier, published in 1937. Like the book, your film visits sites in the industrial north of England where Orwell observed the daily lives of working-class people and the exploitative conditions that they faced in the coal mines. Early in the film, you describe a road movie as a time machine that takes you “sideways in time.” The phrase got me thinking about how this genre might enable us to understand history differently, and here I’m thinking specifically about the histories of colonialism, political conflict, and war that shaped Orwell’s political subjectivity and project as a writer. 

The question of going “sideways in time” can actually be seen as a way of folding space (even though it represents an attitude to time). It yields a different topology of history, in which space is not organized in a temporal hierarchy - with some place and geographies ‘ahead’, and others ‘behind’ in some kind of spatio-temporal obstacle race. Let’s not run this race. Let’s walk, amble, zig zag, gallop, if need be, without a finish line. Let’s move for the pleasure of movement. Not to win, but to move. 

What if we could fold time in the same way as we can fold a piece of paper? Supposing we could fold it into a boat or an airplane, what kind of voyage would we find ourselves embarking on? Would we realize that our sense of our time, the time(s) we live in today, are also amenable to being folded in a way that can make us sense other times in a way that is suddenly up close and personal even as they retain their chronological distances? All of Provisions for Everybody is made up of this kind of proximity to other times, other places. 

Then there is another kind of fold. A fold in space made possible by moving sideways in time.  If you fold space by moving sideways in time, you do away with the logic of center and margin, and a simplistic relationship between metropole and colony. When space folds in your mind, what was in the margin can suddenly take on a central significance. Polarities can reverse, alter, shift. 

In our understanding, Orwell’s life, like that of several people in the twentieth century, is an instance of the actualization of this disposition of the fold. That’s how we see his itinerancy, in England, in Spain, in India and Burma. He’s a great sidestepping zig-zagger to have as a traveling companion. 

Going with this flow means that to understand the devastation of coal mining communities in Northern England you might have to take a detour through Northern India, and think about coal, calorific value, heat, energy and yes, even sugarcane, on a global scale. 

This is a result of the fold that suddenly creates a proximity between what happens in places that are very far apart. You thicken time, make a thicket of time, and it yields a different sense of space—all folded up in the thickening. In Provisions for Everybody, we come across a herd of pigs in Motihari, Bihar, next to the small house where Eric Blair (George Orwell) was born. That herd clears a path to Animal Farm, and to yet another equation between power and energy in the film. In this way, the work becomes, gradually, a meditation on the politics of energy. That is why it is possible to read this allegorically - as a way of thinking philosophically, and in a fabulist manner, about the consequences of different choices to do with the harnessing and distribution of energy. In that sense, it’s about everything else that also changes along with climate change. It’s about the coefficients and functions of the changing terms of the equations that govern the presence of fuel, the burning of calories in fuel, and the distribution of energy in our lives. 

We have to remember that Orwell’s political awakening against the abuse of power came out of his experiences in the Imperial police in Burma. He wrote a remarkable short essay—“Shooting an Elephant”—fragments from which we have used as epigrams to accompany a suite of sculptures by us  - Coronation Park that act as rebuses for the under-examined relationship between power and hubris. Here, one of the text fragments that becomes a plaque marking one of the hollowed out spectral viceregal forms of Coronation Park says, “he often wondered whether any of the others grasped that he had done it solely to avoid looking a fool”. 

Raqs Media Collective's Coronation Park

Raqs Media Collective, Coronation Park. Fiberglass sculptures on bitumen coated wood pedestals with acrylic polymer plaques. Dimensions variable. Installation view at The Whitworth, Manchester, 2017. Image courtesy of the artists and Frith Street Gallery, London.
[Image description: Three white marble statues of cloaked figures atop tall, stepped obsidian plinths. The photo is taken at an angle, and the furthest sculpture has a wedge cut in it, the middle work is a cloaked figure, with the body absent, and the closest work is of a person cut off from the waist up. There are leafy green trees in the background.]

We’ve found this assertion to be an instance of a rhetorical move that enables a “sideways movement in time” because it allows us to consider actions undertaken whether under a colonial, or, a republican sign, as-per the criteria of what power does, rather than as-per just its locus classicus or its provenance. We could also think about the unwillingness to change bred by an addiction to fossil fuels, despite the consequences of that intoxication staring us in the face. 

If you consider the absurd lengths to which forms of imperial authority in the twentieth century were prepared to go to, as well as the extent to which constellations that currently claim authority, say to do with the distribution of resources - are prepared to go to - in order to maintain their posthumous (because they aren’t really vital anymore) grip on life, then the making of ‘sideways moves in time’ can help us stay more alert to actual conditions rather than be swayed by the emotional black-mail of fealty towards too easily ascribed histories. 

Still from Raqs Media Collective's Provisions for Everybody

Raqs Media Collective, Provisions for Everybody, 2018 (still). 4k video, color, sound. 53:11 mins. Courtesy of the artists and Frith Street Gallery, London.
[Image description: Three brick walls surround a headless stone statue of the Buddha seated with legs crossed in the center that is atop a pedestal. In the upper left-hand quadrant a caption with white text reads: “As the Buddha said to the Kalamas at Kesariya, ‘Forget the comfort of readymade answers.’”]

One of the sideways moves that the film makes is to an ancient monument, the Buddhist Stupa in Kesariya, described by the narrator as “caught in the confrontation between remembrance and questioning.” How did “traveling with” Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier allow you to revisit the political conflicts with which he grappled in the book and throughout his life? How did you find yourself navigating the tension between remembrance and questioning in the process?  

To answer this question, we have to take a few steps sideways ourselves. Let’s start with one into The Road to Wigan Pier.

There’s a remarkable, but not very often cited passage in The Road to Wigan Pier where Orwell says - “Nevertheless, the essential point about the English class-system is that it is not entirely explicable in terms of money. Roughly speaking it is a money-stratification, but it is also interpenetrated by a sort of shadowy caste-system; rather like a jerrybuilt modem bungalow haunted by medieval ghosts.”

To remember this passage is also to ask a question, along with Orwell. Can you understand Class without Caste, or figure out Caste without Class? To ask this hinged question is to express a doubt about the settled categories of class and caste by transposing the question that arises out of the historical understanding of two very different societies on to each other. 

It’s fascinating to think about this passage as an uncanny key with which to open an understanding of caste in Britain, or class in India. It is unusual, because it comes out of left field. 

Orwell’s intimacy with the social morés of India lets him see how caste interpenetrates class. This is not what any sociological theorist of class would easily say about class in Britain. But Orwell, being a writer, an artist, exercises the freedom to unsettle categories in a manner that a social theorist may shy away from doing. We think, and especially now, at a time when the discussion of caste is rapidly acquiring a global currency, that this is a fascinating conjecture. Because it shows us that someone like Orwell is prepared to use a category like ‘caste’ that emerges from a colonized society, as a tool for the analysis of the social order of a colonizing power. In doing so he signals that at least in this instance he is prepared to step outside his complicity in the operation of power in either space. That’s a fold, a different topology. It’s the kind of ‘sideways step’ that the practice of art and literature enables due to the increased analytical amplitude and imaginative breadth of aesthetic practices. 

This totally disrupts the settled certainties of established social analysis. Now, you must be wondering what this, or remembering Orwell, has to do with what the Buddha is thought to have said at Kesariya. 

While spending time at, and thinking about, Orwell’s birthplace in the rural hinterland of northern Bihar, one of the poorest parts of India, we were drawn towards visiting and thinking about the Kesariya Stupa - the site that you refer to in your question. This is a site where the historical Buddha is said to have delivered a sermon (the Kalama Sutta / Advice to the Kalamas) on the significance of doubt. 

“Doubt Everything” is the précis of what the Buddha says in the Kalama Sutta. He asks us not to believe something just because it is conventional, habitual, backed by authority, because it feels right, or even because it is taught by a great teacher. This celebration of doubt, and willingness to ask a difficult question - such as of the kind that led Orwell to be skeptical of all forms of authority, and to dismantle settled ways of thinking about class, or caste, for that matter, is something we explore in the short distance between Motihari, Orwell’s birthplace, and Kesariya, where the stupa celebrating doubt has been standing for more than two thousand years. 

One of the teachings of Buddha that you cite in the film is “Everything is Burning.” Could this be another way of thinking about or knowing history? What does it mean to know (or to give up knowing) in this way? 

There could certainly be more than one way of thinking about or knowing history. Why make art otherwise? 

In the Fire Sermon, which we quote in Provisions… , the Buddha said, “Everything is Burning”,

“…All is burning, form is burning, feeling is burning, perception is burning, the will is burning, consciousness is burning”.

The history of the world can be written in chapters named after substances that burn. Firewood. Coal. Sugar. Oil. Indigo. Opium. Tea. Coffee. Grain. Meat. Atoms. Words. Ideas. Silence. Everything burns. 

Large sums of energy are measured in gigajoules. A ton of coal burns to release twenty-two gigajoules. The amount of energy equivalent to the maintenance of the basic metabolic rates of the global population of seven and a half billion people is something like forty-nine trillion and five hundred billion gigajoules. Life takes a lot of calories. 

A lot must burn for us to be. But we too are fuel of one kind or another. In order to burn the fuel that we need to exist, we must be combustible. Every human on earth is the fuel that runs the world engine. One has to think again about the calculation of the difference between burning fuel  and becoming fuel. All the possible futures of the world will be found between the figures that haunt that calculation.