The art collective Otolith Group creates “a science fiction of the present”
“At the very end, this experimental drummer called Charles Hayward, plays 16 musical instruments for six hours, creating all kinds of percussion, from gongs to cowbells to darboukas. He was told to imagine sheep bells in Sardinia… ”
Kodwo Eshun, half of the art collective The Otolith Group, which also includes Anjalika Sagar, describes the process behind a particularly fascinating scene in their film, People who look alike (2012), currently on display as part of the Xenogenesis exhibition at the Sharjah Art Foundation, presenting a selection of their work from 2011 to 2018.
In it, moving capoeira dancers are encapsulated between a close-up of two chopsticks. There is a magical moment when the light strikes and the black and white images color, like a rainbow of dancing sound.
“We chose 12 different video sequences to project on the drums and none of them worked except for a Kathakali dancer and high contrast images of students practicing capoeira. The chopsticks act as a screen. While Hayward is drumming, it’s like he’s leading the picture, ”Eshun says.
This video about the Codona music group is not developed through their music but rather through language, modularity and movement. It incorporates various excerpts from the American novelist and poet Gertrude Stein from her 1920s novel, The Making of Americans: Being a History of the Progress of a Family.
Stein writes about the similarity and difference in iterations which are spoken forcefully alongside archival images which include ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax’s documentations of folk music and dance across Asia and Africa. .
“He created a scoring system for bodily gestures,” Eshun explains. “We took the rotations, the moments when someone is turning their heels, to create a visual alliteration with other moments.”
Using dual screens, the images reflect the text which, in its various combinations, reflects the music. The Otolith group was inspired by the permutation and recombination model of Stein’s language.
“We try to conjugate photographs like Stein conjugated his grammatical tenses. The idea was to make music with the photographs with Stein as a combinatorial score, ”Eshun explains.
The Otolith group’s vast body of work often transmutes forms and genres. In People who look alike, literature, music, cinema and critical theory come together thanks to a quote from Stein (de Make Americans) on the back of the Codona album cover. Their work is full of these strange synchronicities, which play out in different modes of narration and translation.
“These are not moving images but moving images,” Eshun explains.
The title of the exhibition, which premiered at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven in May 2019, comes from a trilogy of 1980s novels by African-American science fiction writer Octavia Butler. A larger-than-life image of Butler occupies a wall in the foundation courtyard, presiding over the space like a digitally reproduced ghost. As is another luminary, experimental musician and composer Julius Eastman, who has been largely forgotten in the history of American avant-garde minimalist music.
Eastman died homeless and with just an album, Unjust discomfort, to his name. He is the subject of the mighty The third part of the third measure (2017), a film featuring a speech made by Eastman at Northwestern University in 1980, when he presented a controversial performance by three pianists. There he defended the titles of his compositions (using the N word). There is a political imperative in the work, the urgency to sacrifice everything for a point of view as a black musician in the LGBTQ community.
Butler’s writing is less of a narrative vehicle for The Otolith Group’s work, it is more of a sentiment – with its sense of estrangement creating what they call “science fiction of the present.”
“I think the idea of a voluntary estrangement, of putting an aesthetic and a practice around it that does not put a representational value is what motivated us as a methodology and manifesto for the future” , said Sagar.
Artist-led learning is an important component of collective practice. Their cinema, Horizon, on the pan-Asian educational practice of Rabindranath Tagore, at the crossroads of art, nature, dance and song, is projected outdoors. With semicircular seats, it mimics how learning would take place at the Visva-Bharati School in West Bengal, established in 1921.
Elsewhere, they stage architectures that are intended to be tactile but alienating, such as From the left to the night (2015) mounted on inclined plinths, reflected in mirrors on the ceiling. These fluid landscapes of geometric shapes are a reference to the liquid crystals that exist under our screens. It’s a sequel to 2011 Anathema, which zooms in on 300 advertisements for flat-screen televisions, laptops and mobile phones as well as the privacy of our devices. In surreal images, black screens recede onto freeways while others appear to attract human contact.
The work poses the question of what it might be like to apprehend the human relationship with technology from an extraterrestrial perspective. “We think we know what to expect from our displays, but we don’t quite know what our displays want from us. We reverse the perspective, ”says Eshun. The results are both compelling and distant in their abstraction, from a drone image of a city at night to the oxidizing microscopic vitamin C resembling a worm.
Other strange connections are made between people who feel earthquakes in their bodies, cracks along vacant parking lots, the deepest underground spots in Los Angeles (Middle earthComm. 2013) and the Joshua Tree Desert in California. This tectonically unstable landscape of the “seismic unconscious”, as the artists say, is one of the two works of still images in the exhibition, Who does the Earth think for? (2014) – a series of handwritten earthquake forecasts and diagrams sent to the US Geological Survey Pasadena field office (1993-2007). Like obscure warnings on overlapping paper, they pose a certain psychic vernacular.
Opposite this ambiguity is the regiment Political skill: An incomplete timeline of independence (2014-2019), backlit inactive postage stamps commemorating the independence of Africa while questioning the idea of sovereignty and unity. This visual iconography, although including miniature pieces, forms a sinister urban-type infrastructure that wraps impressively around the gallery.
“There is a 1928 essay by Walter Benjamin, entitled Stamp shop, where he compares the color of an entire sequence of stamps to the light of a strange sun, ”Eshun explains. It echoes the title of their video in the same space, The year of the quiet sun (2013). The film asks: “How to build a Pax Africana in a world threatened by a Pax Atomica?” It unfolds like the disappearance of the Pan-African dream of the United States of Africa, where color is both a political and aesthetic tool in that all the images and the tint of each frame refer to the colors of the stamps and to more insidious ramifications.
“It is possible that bright colors hide the horror, especially in the stamps of the DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo], which were issued during the assassination of Patrice Lumumba. Congo stamps are a series of glorious flowers – the more vivid the color, the more vividness evokes a hidden horror, ”says Eshun.
As the layers unravel, the encounters with the work become more and more strange and unrecognizable. It’s a work that continues to unfold, that never really ends. It puts you in a non-world. Pushing yourself to look at things from an alien, alienating point of view is what it would be to see things as a fault line, a screen, a state.
Xenogenesis is on view until February 5 at the Sharjah Art Foundation.
Update: December 23, 2021, 4:35 a.m.