Time makes a mockery of objects. It gnaws away at them, strips them bare, loses them. Objects are cracked, faded, dissolved, forgotten, deformed, renamed, undone—all in time. When artists set out to make objects that visualise time itself, they risk turning time into space and thereby losing its temporal essence, its movements and contingencies. The New Delhi-based artists Monica Narula, Jeebesh Bagchi and Shuddhabrata Sengupta of Raqs Media Collective have been dealing with questions about time and history for several decades now, producing works that reconfigure normative conceptions of linear time, and call into question its figuration and homogenisation in our modern timekeeping devices.
Narula, Bagchi and Sengupta formed Raqs Media Collective shortly after graduating from the Mass Communications Research Centre at Jamia Milia Islamia University, New Delhi, in 1992. Raqs is a word in Persian, Arabic and Urdu that refers to the whirling dance of Sufi dervishes. It is a highly focused and meditative state, but it’s also a state of constant movement. Narula, Bagchi and Sengupta like to think of the word raqs in terms of ‘kinetic contemplation’, a notion that could also aptly describe the mode of inquiry that is at play in their work together. They travel the world far and wide, working in many different contexts, constantly moving between forms including documentary filmmaking and video art, sculptures and installations, conferences and publications, performances and lectures, and pedagogical and curatorial experiments.
Emailing me from their studio in Delhi, Narula cites the Yaksha Prashna episode of the Mahabharata, where an exiled prince tells his mysterious interlocutor that time cooks us all. “All our work,” Narula remarks, “is an attempt at being sous-chefs and chief tasters in time’s kitchen”. She recalls that the group’s interest in temporality initially arose out of their concern with ideas of measurement and the immeasurable. “We realised that a lot of the distress and confusion in our lives was coming from the misidentification of the thing that is measured with the device that does the measuring—we mistake clocks for time,” she remarks. “Once we realised that time—which is infinite—actually cannot be measured, and what we parcel out is duration and not time, we felt that we had experienced an epiphany.”
This notion of epiphany comes up recurrently in the work of Raqs Media Collective. In recent years the group has presented a range of custom-made non-numerical clocks—for instance Whenever the Heart Skips a Beat (2012), which started as a video piece and later became a series of public billboards; the installation Escapement (2009), which featured twenty-four modified clocks; or the electric-kinetic poem-sculpture The Ecliptic (2014). Instead of running ‘like clockwork’, in a repetitive, predictable and synchronised fashion, these re-imagined clocks give a sense of time running erratically, speeding up or slowing down, taking a rest and changing direction. Many of these works have the word epiphany at the top of the clock-face, the space of midday and midnight, replacing the regular cyclical transition between ‘a.m.’ and ‘p.m.’ times with a sudden moment of revelation about what standard clock-time cannot tell us. “We should all have epiphanies about time,” writes Narula, “and our work is an attempt at inducing these experiences, in ourselves, and in others”.
For their contribution to the 2015 Venice Biennale, Raqs presented Coronation Park, a series of nine sculptures installed outside in the Giardini. The title of the work refers to a public park on the outskirts of Delhi, where large sculptural monuments were installed to commemorate the British Raj in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In their Coronation Park, Raqs Media Collective displaced and re-imagined a selection of figures from this site, maintaining their authoritative postures and monumental scale but also drawing out their inherent incompleteness and impermanence. Closer examination of the sculptures reveals that certain faces, heads, torsos and whole bodies are missing—lopped off, hollowed out or left unfinished, in the midst of all the ceremonial formalities and pompous regalia that the former imperial power wanted to set in stone.
Narula describes the site of the original Coronation Park in Delhi as “a derelict quasi-ceremonial space, where relics of the British Raj are kept for the consideration of an absent public”. It was here, amongst the dilapidated and near-forgotten official commemorations, that Raqs experienced an epiphany, “about the hollow interiority of all constituted authority; the constant panic at the heart of power considering its fraught, frayed and often fraudulent claims to legitimacy”. This moment of revelation, Narula tells me, provided the initial impetus for the Coronation Park work, which they consider as “a provocation to think about the inner life of power, and its deepest anxiety: the inevitability of abdication”.
The materiality of the sculptures further draws out the sense of impermanence and inner fragility. Initially suggestive of classical sculptural materials like solid marble and polished granite, the partial figures are in fact cast in white fibreglass, with their lofty pedestals made from cheap plywood coated in bitumen. So what appears at first to be solid, impressive and lasting turns out to be flimsy, hollow, and always in the process of coming undone. The temporality evoked here is not simply that of entropy's irreversible arrow, moving things incrementally towards ruin; power is inevitably eroded over time, but it is also inherently incomplete and always in the process of constituting itself. The sculpture’s missing pieces suggest something that is either unfinished or undone, so the time that is described in this work is both not yet and no longer.
Theory and practice are inseparable in the work of Raqs Media Collective, and their highly researched essays and lectures are an integral part of their artistic output. In their text Now and Elsewhere, published in e-flux journal in 2010, Raqs write about time and the apparent lack of it in contemporary lives. “In the struggle to keep pace with clocks,” they reflect, “we are now always and everywhere in a state of jet lag, always catching up with ourselves and with others, slightly short of breath, slightly short of time”. When possible, Raqs suggest, “escape is up a hatch and down a corridor between and occasionally beyond longitudes, to places where the hours chime epiphanies”.
In this essay, Raqs reflect on the history of horology and the ways in which clocks have shaped and distorted our understanding of time. In contrast to the ancient timekeeping devices that marked temporal passage with things like sand, water or incense, mechanical clocks started to slice the continuum of time up into neat, standardised units. And according to Raqs, the ticking hands of this clock “rendered a conceptual barricade between each unit,” making the past seem surgically cut off from the present. But Raqs also observe that while clocks introduced a false sense of clean separation in time, our international time zones simultaneously fabricate a notion of temporal unity. In capitalist modernity, all places are swept up into a single time-system, regardless of the real differences in the lived experience of time around the world. Places which might be very distant from each other—geographically, historically and culturally—can be assigned a shared time, simply because of their arbitrary longitudinal placement. As Raqs write, “clocks in London and Lagos (with adjustments made for daylight savings) show the same time. And yet, the experience of ‘now’ in London and Lagos may not feel the same at all.”
Raqs have often attempted to account for the ways in which time feels different in different places. Their clock works, in particular, have gone against the idea of a homogenous, globalised time, reminding us that the rhythms, paces, effects and demands of time are, in important ways, context-specific. A day in the life of Kiribati (2014), for instance, is a clock that represents daily life on Kiribati, a small island nation in the Central Pacific Ocean where residents are preparing to become some of the world’s first environmental refugees as a result of climate change. As sea levels continue to rise, the island’s evacuation looms. What does the impending human-made disaster do to the experience of time on Kiribati? The clock is ticking—but rather than moving regularly between numbers, Raqs Media Collective’s clock moves erratically across and between a range of emotional states, including guilt, duty, remorse, awe, anxiety, indifference and panic.
The Ecliptic (2014) is another custom-made timepiece which refuses notions of numerical measurement and the global homogenisation of time. The word ‘TIME’ appears in LED lights on the right-hand side of the clock-face, while other words light up along the left, intermittently spelling out ‘fix TIME’, ‘free TIME’, ‘fun TIME’, ‘fold TIME’, ‘figure TIME’ and ‘freeze TIME’. What are these flashing alliterative phrases doing in place of the fixed numbers that usually divide the clock’s uni-directional time up into neat units? Fold time could be read as a time for folding, or a folding of time itself—just as freezing, fixing and figuring might be things that happen in time as well as to time. What, then, is free time? Time free of obligations, time given without charge? The adjective is also a verb: to free something is to release it from confinement, so we can read the words free time in the imperative, as a direct call on us to free our time—to liberate it from its imposed representation, and instrumentalisation. Time, then, is no longer pinned down and measured, but released as an active force of change, and escape.
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Image 01. Escapement, 2009. 27 clocks, high gloss aluminium with LED lights, four flat screen monitors, video and audio looped. Courtesy of Raqs Media Collective and Frith Street Gallery.
Image 02. Photo by Srinivas Kuruganti.
Image 03. Coronation Park, 2015. Central Pavilion, Giardini, ‘All the World’s Futures’, Venice Biennale. Courtesy of Raqs Media Collective.
Image 04. Coronation Park, 2015. Central Pavilion, Giardini, ‘All the World’s Futures’, Venice Biennale. Courtesy of Raqs Media Collective.
Image 05. The Ecliptic, 2014. Clock movement, aluminium, acrylic, LED lights. Courtesy of Raqs Media Collective and Frith Street Gallery.