Raqs Media Collective: Casebook
by Michael Maranda, Editor
Art Gallery of York University, NY, NY, 2014
300 pp., illus. 120 col. Paper, $30.00
Reviewed by Edith Doove
Transtechnology Research, University of Plymouth
In trying to describe his appreciation for Raqs Media Collective's oeuvre curator Anders Kreuger names "its literary and literal qualities (its use of the object as text and text as object, to begin with), its credibility (as a voice audible above the art world murmur) and credentials (as an indispensable ingredient of the same murmur), and its coherence (enhanced and enlivened by heterogeneity, and its tone" (Maranda, p. 143). What this appreciation implies in the first place is a richness of the many layered aspects to which Kreuger returns in the rest of his text 'On Appreciation: The Case of Raqs' that is included in section 5: 'The Librarian's Lucid Dream (From Decomposition)' in Raqs Media Collective: Casebook. It also implies that 'whirling' that lies at the heart of Raqs' work or, as they explain, "Raqs is a word in Arabic, Turkish, Persian and our own Urdu that denotes a whirling, a dancing, a practice and cultivation of ecstatic contemplation founded in kinesis. So our name, our artistic signature, comes from the whirling – the Raqs – of whirling dervishes…" To which can be added that Raqs is also an acronym for "rarely asked questions" (Maranda, p. 21 – note 3). The whirling is also brought forth by their multiple roles as artists, curators and social researchers and an oeuvre that can not easily be defined, consisting of films, exhibitions, books and all kinds of other collaborations. It is the typical oeuvre that does not exist by the grace of its separate art works but rather by its accumulation and eventual interrelatedness.
Raqs Media Collective: Casebook presents 50 artworks and projects of the in New Delhi based collective consisting of Jeebesh Bagchi, Monica Narula and Shuddhabrata Sengupta, from the period of 2002 to 2012. The book functions as a (late) publication in conjunction with the exhibition 'Surjection' at the Art Gallery of York University, Toronto end of 2011, curated by Philip Monk. Divided into eight sections, with an introduction by Monk, the fifth section brings together a range of essays and an interview, while the other sections are dedicated to several projects of Raqs Media Collective. The wide international range of critics, curators and writers that are brought together in the essay section to comment on Raqs' work from various perspectives are no doubt illustrative for what Kreuger calls their works' credibility and credentials. they include, amongst others, Svetlana Boym, Cuauhté moc Medina, Srinivas Aditya Mopidevi, Molly Nesbit, Hans Ulrich Olbrist and Cé dric Vincent.
Despite its seemingly strict organization, the book invites to be read like A Thousand Plateaus, namely back and forth, weaving so many rhizomes through their work and commentary on the go, and this connects it to the whirling motifs mentioned at the start of this review. For this reason the texts are not organized in alphabetical order but respond to, and whirl around, each other. The project section carries poetic titles that usually refer to the first art work under its heading, but also contain other works that are sometimes seemingly unrelated. Consequently, reading this book thus means to wonder about possible connections or to just get happily lost in its labyrinth.
At the heart of Raqs' activities lies in fact another text, the Mahabharata, referred to by them as "deeply hypertextual …, every story contains the threads of many other stories" (Maranda, p. 130) that explains a lot about this Casebook's structure. In the interview with Obrist Raqs Media Collective mentions how in the Mahabharata stories finish but also continue and flow back without it being clear whether something is the beginning or the ending of a story (Maranda, p. 139-140). With this interest it is not surprising that they see (art) products only as an articulation of process as Philip Monk indicates in his introduction. The artworks form, in Raqs' view, nodal points in a transversal scheme that is not end oriented. As described on their website, (which forms an excellent companion to the book), "Raqs follows its self declared imperative of 'kinetic contemplation' to produce a trajectory that is restless in terms of the forms and methods that it deploys even as it achieves a consistency of speculative procedures" (http://www.raqsmediacollective.net)
For media-theorist Svetlana Boym Raqs' way of working connects to what she calls the 'off-modern' in which they follow the trajectory of the "lateral move of the knight in a game of chess" (Maranda, p. 127). Boym picks up on the fact that Raqs' recent projects deal with the improbable texture of our time which makes "[t]he 'a' (as in arrhythmic), 'counter' (as in counterpoint), or off (as in off-modern)" more appropriate than postmodern, posthumanist or postcolonial if there needs to be a label to describe their activities. In their desire to fold time as a piece of paper Raqs Media Collective relates, according to Boym, to the ideas of Bergson, Mandelstam, Benjamin and later Deleuze, around imagination, memory and possibility. Raqs' work in that sense connects back to an inspirational past to build a critical but also playful view on the here and now as demonstrated in so many of their works.
This beautifully designed book, thus, connects well to this practice, giving an excellent insight and overview of the main projects of this enigmatic and inspiring collective. With questioning as one of their main occupations Raqs Media Collective manages to transfer this activity in an intelligent way to the reader, simultaneously contained and open-ended.