Conversation :Surekha and Veena Shekar — October 2009- published in Art & Deal

What is it that transcribed between your choice of different medias and the conceptual framework that resulted?

Tell me about the transition you went through, while ‘contextualizing’ your works, from the past decade? “Selving A Body” (1997) was the work from wherein my prolonged preoccupation with addressing the body in political and historic context was initiated; and a string of continuity is evident even in my current engagement with video art. I began to work with rice paper, not as much as a media but as a triggering agent that would avail itself (surface itself becomes the skin, for instance) as something else and more than being a mere media. This habit, I believe, carried onto my photo/video and video-installations.

In other words, I realized that be it a sculpture, site-specific, photographs or video, it served not as an ‘analogous body’ to contain my ideas. Instead, the medium I used somehow was appropriated into a certain body of my thoughts, ranging between gender, urban, sociological and contemporaneous issues, which I have dealt with till now. Simply, I look at the chain of my works, irrespective of the media, as another way of expression, culminating into video art. One of the prominent dimensions I have acquired in last decade is of artistic preoccupation, in arriving at a cohesive, complementing of concepts-material-ideologue nexus. (a) Regional literature, (b) My cultural background before and after an exposure to various cultures/countries (c) The pedagogic exercises; and (d) My involvement in art activities like Khoj, BAR1 etc, facilitated me to acquire my frames of artistic references. The credit of pioneering video art in the Indian subcontinent goes to at least two important art related personalities: Pooja Sood and Johanne Pijnappel.

I can broadly classify my works into the premise of (a) Home, (b) Street and (c) the World in general. Autobiographical and collaborative issues about gendered politics, fit into these categories respectively.

How do you link your earlier work with the current video and photo-performances/ actions in our works?

The specific story I have quoted in the catalogue of “Selving A Body” refers to desire. The freedom assured by and yearned, because of the promise of desire, was perhaps the initial moment when woman looked at herself as her ‘self’. This very realization is the beginning of her empowerment. From the blouses in “Selving A Body” (1999), I have moved onto realizing this blouse/costume as a ‘body in itself’, which was further, in turn, photographed in relation to a real body. This aspect, continued in the “British Make” (2000), Costumes and poppies acted as connotations of violence and war memorials respectively and addressed the body as a Warfield. Already the body has been addressed doubly, between two of my works. My stay at Bristol, for instance, with its slave museum, sea trade and dock yards made me come up with the “British Make” work. Poppies are connotated with war memorial, made by the disabled people. Ship-sail also could address the tale of colonization; slave trade further helped me to come up with the metaphoric question of “has it really ended, in the criss-crossing context of gender-class-caste-wars?” Projection of photographed costume onto the body and re-photography was my way of bringing about reconciliation between the sculptural and the virtual. Later “Fragrance of Jasmine” (Mysore Khoj workshop, 2002), a photo installation, was a desire to multiply the body, with almost a compulsory mirror behind each one of them. This formed the beginning point of my performative photos/videos, beginning from “Reaching Myself” (2003) to “Three Fragmented Actions of Silence” (2006) videos.

To elaborate, in “A Moment of Strange Stillness” (photo- action-Srilanka, 2006), I tried to explore the omnipresent dual realities of Buddhist referents and everyday violence that I witnessed, in the course of two weeks of Theertha workshop at Colombo. I photographed myself sitting still in a variety of bustling Sri Lankan environs. It was like pitching the body of one’s creative self into a neighboring situation that also has a history of addressing the body as a target, which depicts a visual-epistemological battle between images which serves as signs of resistance to violent imageries. I address what I understand of a specific geography-of-extremes: questioning extreme violence versus images of peace icons of Buddha.

How do you equate the relation between your video art and the gender concerns?

I began making videos / video sculptures consistently since 2001; and the media includes even fabric, performance, artists and anecdotes. My video is essentially multi-disciplinary. Consider for instance, “One-to-One”, “Johannas Midsummer” and “Threading the Threads”: Wherever there was an addressal of gender in relation to ‘professional preoccupation’ like psychology, the ‘geographical location’ of the urban and ‘engagement’ with the new media—all in all, they turned out to be a matter of curiosity to me. The “Johannas Midsummer” is a collaborative video I made at HIAP (Finland), with a Brazilian artist and Polish art historian, which reflected more about the self-censorship and gender. The notion of nakedness in various cultures was addressed through this multi-narrative video. Professional artists’ notion of ‘intimate space’ was realized in “One-to-One” video while the craftswoman’s inevitable verbal narratives, while stitching, was documented differently as part of the making of the video-sculpture in “Threading the Threads”. The ever-prevalent ambiguity of being woman, being feminine was largely addressed through the internal aesthetic and external politics of these particular videos. In general, these are admixtures of fictions and documentaries and demands for a renewed genre. Together, they form an altogether different visual language for me.

In “Tree woman”, “Tree walkers” and “A Pillow to Sleep” I have used real life personalities, like Salaumarada Thimmakka, (the woman who planted 400 trees, for ten years, at the stretch of 4 kms), Swiss tree doctor, Sibyl Trueb (the one and only tree doctor in Switzerland) and Park Padma (a homeless person, who has made Cubbon Park her home since 30 years).

“Communing with Urban Heroines” (2007), a culture specific project, was my first ‘video-installation’ in a larger scale. It comprised of fourteen videos, installed together. It positioned gender-specific experiences of the contemporary urban woman, in the face of the almost regularized, certain, yet mysterious death through water and fire, as reported in newspapers. Domestic violence is the most ignored form of gender-specific violence when compared to the violence due to terrorism or war. Based on my survey of unnatural deaths in the city of Bangalore, I created these videos. I collected from the archives and interacted with real cases at an NGO called ‘Vimochana’. I did not want to use those archived details directly. Instead I created characters from urban and popular folklore and myth – larger than life images that act as real, symbolic and metaphorical characters. The situations were created/re-located in the present time. The focus was on domestic elements and also the relation between the body and natural elements like fire, water and earth. I tried to touch upon some of the basic sensory experiences and their connection with the body – as the expansion of an incomplete body. These fictions came out in the form of woman and a girl character——playing hopscotch, being at the gym, making tea/cooking, enacting the myth of Bhagirathi (Bhagirathi bringing water) and the like, which were meant to take symbolic and metaphoric meanings yet in a semi-documentary language.

Could you say about the post production –technical details of your videos, video-performances and video-installations?

In my earlier videos I kept post-production technicalities to the minimal. In fact, home-video is the closest to being ‘painterly’ in essence, which a professional technician might brand it as amateurish. That is where the catch is, in fact. My earlier videos were straight cut: a common man’s intervention to the technical world. Some simple experiments I have done can be viewed in “Reaching Myself” (capturing of re-projection), reversal in “Three Fragmented Actions of Silence” and mirror image in “Cooking Concepts” for instance. You don’t see them as techniques; they become the concept by themselves.

The three months workshop at ‘No Where’ in London gave me an introduction to the history of the predecessors of film making like, 16mm, Super-8, and using of Rostrum, Bolex cameras etc., Herein I could even learn developing super8 and 16mm and Telecine etc., The painstaking laborious manual involvement and the current gadgets that seem to mock at it, by making it brisk and effective, has a statement about manual involvement. It is like enlightenment at a flick of your hand. But my recent videos, “Nobody’s Walls”, “Not All Towers Fall”, and “Another Day” involved the technicality of 3D max and animation, while the focus was upon political issues.

Could you speak about your current project?

My work in progress- a photo-video-installation project addresses that thin gray areas between the artistic with the domestic performative circumstances. There are people involved in ‘beyond-the-ordinary’ preoccupations, to make a living. Their real life performances and artistic performance are to be equated since such an appropriation is what brings art closer to social engagements which are, sociologically speaking, a postcolonial subaltern addressal.