Raqs Media Collective
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Raqs Media Collective is a group of three media practitioners – Jeebesh Bagchi (New Delhi, 1965), Monica Narula (New Delhi, 1969) and Shuddhabrata Sengupta (New Delhi, 1968) – based in New Delhi. Raqs is best known for its contribution to contemporary art, and has presented work at most of the major international shows, from Documenta to the Venice Biennale; but the collective is active in an unusually wide range of domains, and it is perhaps this breadth that gives their work its originality and scope. The members of Raqs were co-curators of Manifesta 7, The European Biennial of Contemporary Art which took place in Trentino-Alto Adige/Südtirol, Italy in the summer of 2008.
Raqs Media Collective was formed in 1992 after its three members graduated together from the prestigious Mass Communications Research Centre at the Jamia Milia Islamia university in Delhi. During the rest of the 1990s, Raqs made a number of strikingly original documentary films, including In the Eye of the Fish (1997), Present Imperfect, Future Tense (1999) and a thirteen-part television series, Growing Up (1995), which display many of the themes that the collective has continued to explore and develop in its subsequent work: the urban landscape and experience, the meaning and uses of media and technology, the nature of knowledge and what it means to learn, and the idea of creativity – which in their work becomes not only an artistic impulse but also a wider human faculty associated with the capacity of individuals and societies for imaginative and ethical innovation. These films show Raqs strenuously avoiding conventional tropes of documentary narrative, whose relationship to sedimented forms of power strikes them keenly, and searching for new kinds of flow and
In 1999, the members of Raqs Media Collective were invited to participate in the development of a strategy for the public broadcasting of documentary films in India, a discussion which led to the foundation of the Public Service Broadcasting Trust, still the main engine of documentary film production and viewership in India. More significantly for Raqs's own work, this thinking took them into the new debates about knowledge, culture and technology that had become prominent with the rise of the Internet, and led to a search for new forms of production and dissemination of knowledge and cultural material.
In 2001 Raqs co-founded and worked The Sarai Programme at CSDS (Centre for the Study of Developing Societies) at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies with Prof. Rvai Vasudevan and Prof. Ravi Sundaram as Directors of the program . The word sarai, or caravanserai, common to many Central Asian and Indian languages, refers to the shelters for travellers, sometimes large and extravagant, that traditionally dotted the cities and highways of that part of the world, facilitating travel and commerce but also enabling the exchange of stories and ideas. Serving the function, variously, of research centre, publishing house, café, conference centre, cinema, software laboratory and studio for digital art and design, Sarai is striking for its networked structure. Through its institutional partnerships, the research fellowships it provides each year, its residencies for visiting artists, researchers and programmers, multiple email lists, and many informal collaborations, Sarai has developed a large network that allows it to accumulate a vast range of knowledge and opinion from across the world and to make it available in many forms, places and languages. "Cybermohalla", the network of media laboratories established by Sarai in collaboration with Anukur Society of Alternatives in Education an NGO working in Delhi for more than 25 years in less-developed areas of Delhi, has led to a particularly impressive collaboration between members of Sarai and groups of young writers, artists and thinkers from Ankur Society run centres ; while collaborations with programmers have led to "OPUS", an online experiment in artistic production inspired by the working practices of the free software movement. Raqs stopped working (informally) at the Sarai program sometime in 2009 and moved to their studio outside CSDS.
Raqs started producing art as part of and with the help of the researchers and practitioners of the Sarai Program till the time they moved out of the Sarai Media Lab. In 2002, Raqs Media Collective based at Sarai/CSDS was invited to participate in Documenta 11, the major art show held every five years in Kassel, Germany. This was the beginning of the collective's ongoing engagement with the contemporary art world which has resulted in a collection of often highly compelling installation work. This work makes obvious use of the group's background in film but has been progressively more complex and poetic in the conversations it suggests between video or still images and text, sound, software, performance, sculpture and found objects. In addition to Documenta and the Venice Biennale, their work has been shown at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Palais des Beaux Arts in Brussels, the Liverpool Biennial, the Guangzhou Triennial; a full list of their work can be found on their website. Sarai Media Lab where Raqs was based was awarded the Unesco-DigiArts Award at ISEA 2004, and in 2006 was invited to co-curate the show "On Difference" in the Kunstverein in Stuttgart, Germany.
Like their earlier films, Raqs's art installations are challenging works. They display a sustained ambivalence towards modernity, and refuse most of its organising principles – progress, development, nation state, etc. But while they are explicitly critical of the operations of power and property, they nonetheless refuse the simple coherence of any kind of "activist" position, and prefer to stay at the more undefinable level of an unresolved poetics.
A good example is "Five Pieces of Evidence", which was exhibited at the 2003 Venice Biennale. A five-screen video and sound installation, the work reflects on missing persons, urban myths, transition, mapping and global networks. The titles of the five screens – "The Missing Person", "The Assailant", "The Scene of the Crime", "The Trail" and "The Motive" – promise the comfortable finality of the "whodunnit", in which superficial mystery resolves tidily into the clear truth beneath. But in this work we are not really sure what the crime is, and the "assailant" film shows us news reports of a "monkey man" that mysteriously scratched the faces and haunted the dreams of sleeping people in a working-class neighbourhood of Delhi for some weeks that year. In seeing the city as a crime story we begin to look at its various facets – missing person notices, street maps, demographic statistics, pipelines, rail tracks, glinting skyscrapers – with the eyes of suspicious sleuths, but the closer we look, the more the five tidy titles begin to blur and circle. Is the glinting city "The Motive" as it says, or is it "The Assailant"? The work gives us no answers; it merely presents a number of intensities from the city and asks us to wonder about what links them – and there does not seem to be any possible narrative that does not lead us into a strong sense of horror.
Based in Delhi since its foundation, Raqs Media Collective nonetheless has a complex relationship to location. The city of Delhi is very often the subject of their work, and in their engagement with modernity they often display a lived relationship with myths and histories from South Asia and its wider region. They are, however, resistant to the label "Indian" since, they argue, it represents an abstraction so enormous that it can explain nothing about them, and prefer to talk about themselves simply as "from Delhi". Highly sensitive to intellectual and cultural currents from everywhere else in the world, they are cynical of the language of multiculturalism, identity and nationalism and prefer to find other languages with which to narrate personal and social histories.