Sunday, June 29, 2014

Profiling the Artist Duo Pors & Rao: In OPEN Magazine This Week

I spoke to the Bangalore based artist duo Pors & Rao for a profile. See it in Open here or read the slightly longer version below.

Heavy Hat (2008-11) Photo courtesy: Pors & Rao Studio


In what could well be an office of an electronics-mechanics related firm, with bespectacled engineer-types peering into their large computer monitors, some technical manuals at arm’s length and whiteboards with equations on the side, Aguirre tears through, happy for anyone willing to spare him a pat. Over the phone with artist Aparna Rao, one half of Pors & Rao, I have been asked if I am scared of dogs. I have said no, I love them. Aguirre, named after the Herzog classic, is tall for an eight month old. I can see why that question is necessary for anyone wanting to visit Pors & Rao’s studio in Benson Town, Bangalore.

Right outside, below the long orange and yellow benches, in a small tank, bright saffron fish dart under the lotus leaves, now there, now not. Plants, collected from everywhere by the landlady, are strewn around, some tall on the ground, others in pots. These living, breathing organisms quietly juxtapose with the artworks that are being realized inside, a farm to the factory where Aparna Rao and Soren Pors, who form the collaborative Pors & Rao artist duo work. They have two shows coming up by the end of this year, a biennale to participate in, though they can’t give details yet. They have signed on recently with Bangalore based GallerySKE to represent them. “A show there might happen next year,” says Rao, the vagueness of time and details courtesy of the very lengthy production time their works require. 

Sunitha Kumar Emmart, gallerist at GallerySKE says, “As a gallery, we look to represent artists from a spectrum of diverse practices. The process of Pors & Rao’s works involves huge collaboration, apart from involving basic human emotions. For me, their works deal with what we as humans deal with. Theirs is a unique practice in the country and we are excited to represent them.”

In a society that is increasingly slavish to technology, their main interest lies in behavior, their works trying to capture the innocent, ephemeral, organic expressions of behavior and how these can vary. It is an interesting contradiction, technology that permeates modern lives, technology that can, and often is, perceived as cold and distant, is used to help them express their emotions and the behavioural patterns in the creatures they create. Both live and work in Bangalore; in the manner of the silicon city, their works are wholly global, with none of the localism having any place.

Pors & Rao’s works have been described as cutting edge, humourous, edgy, interactive, quirky, words they vehemently disagree with, especially the interactive part. But before getting to what their works are not, let’s begin at the beginning.

Rao tells me that she wanted to be an artist as a child but always felt that she was not good enough. “I wanted to find my own language, my own voice,” she recollects. By the time she was going through college, the internet had exploded. A two year long research scholarship study in Italy that sought to look at technology in a different way culminated in Rao finding Pors, an artist from Denmark, to collaborate with and a road for herself. “It happened organically. I have always loved animals, dabbled in martial arts, some sports, etc., so the idea of physical presence was very important. I started to have an aversion towards how rapidly all our previously varied, physical actions were being replaced by virtual ones where keys are pressed for writing letters, do grocery shopping, pay bills, etc. Almost as an instant reaction to that was the need to re-physicalize, and work with movement, performance and physical forms,” she says. Their collaboration began in 2004.

Even as Pors & Rao took to technology, both became “slaves to the idea of making something physical” using technology. Their art works employ physical technologies which Rao calls “expensive and very, very difficult.” It was when they first gingerly dipped their fingers into the field that they realized that “when you want to build something from scratch that does not rely, refer or draw upon the existing industrial norms or standards, which are of course highly advanced, then we are back in the dark ages.” The prohibitive costs and a dearth of technology experts who would take them seriously initially made them work day jobs, taking 5-6 years to finish their first work, a very collaborative project. “A lot of support and mentoring came from senior scientists pro bono at that stage, that was invaluable, both in realizing the works and getting a grip over the medium. These 12-13 years have been a long journey for not that many artworks…From an artistic, existential point of view, it is much better now, but still very tough,” says Rao.

Very tough because works like Pygmies, where 509 black silhouettes of tiny creatures peep from behind white panels and react to sound by hiding, each moving differently to create a life-like reaction akin to, say, curious squirrels or mice, requires complex electro-mechanical integration. These creatures, with hand drawn white eyes, and their moods give rise to questions that are very life like – the naivety, the curiosity, the almost involuntary need to hide. If Pygmies react to sound, several of their other works are activated by human presence. “A lot of the industry works like Lego, where existing blocks are assembled differently as per requirements. But when they are required to do something that is not there, coming from a new space, this is a bigger challenge from an engineering and production point of view,” says Rao.

Technical specifications down to every last mm are something they have to fight for. Precision is crucial for every work, like Heavy Hat,where an upside-down man, his head full of heavy thoughts moves around in a constrained circle. When a viewer walks in, the figure moves slowly and almost seems to fall, provoking the viewer to want to go help the man. Almost painfully drawn out mechanics were beaten out into shape over several years, for it was necessary that the upside-down man not fall and damage the sculpture itself, yet there needed to be enough of a fall to instill a sense of fatalism. Technical challenges run as a common thread in all the works of Pors & Rao. “It can take between two and eight years to finish a work,” Rao tells me, adding, “We don’t give up, that’s the thing. We don’t stop until we are completely satisfied with the quality and expression of the form and movement.” It has taken them ten years but they understand the medium better now, they say.

Rao finds it hard to rationalize how the process of a new work begins. “A lot of my adult life I have spent with Soren, we are not a couple. Over the years we have developed our own private world. An idea might spring from a conversation, a dream, a drawing, anywhere and we pick the one that presents the greatest sense of urgency.” she says.

This sometimes takes years and is always organic, mostly unpredictable. A lot of conceptual work follows, models are made with cardboard, clay, sketches are drawn and software is used to simulate the way they want the objects to behave. After about six to eight months of this, collaborators are brought in, often from around the world. “Earlier on, it was hard to find engineers who understood what we wanted and were able to deliver, against professional agreements,” Pors & Rao admit. But things are better now, with a robotics scientist, a kinematics professor and a systems engineer as mentors.

Their works engage in slapstick, life-like movements, not stiff like robots, not entirely like humans either. This, more often than not, lends to their works, like in the lengthy, red The Uncle Phone or Sun Shadow, where an object tries to climb up a wall and keeps sliding down, an element of humour. “Working with humour is not intentional at all,” says Rao, insisting that she was always the serious, shy introvert and that it came as a surprise when people thought her work was funny.

Nor are the works ‘interactive’; both don’t like the word. “Often, the moving artworks are not responding to people; human detectors are installed only to save power and contribute to the longevity of mechanical parts. It puts the artwork in ‘sleep’ mode when no one is in the room,” says Rao. “Interactive to me is where you give an input and get an output. We don’t ask anything of the viewer, no press this button, pull that lever, etc. Some of the works are responsive and respond to the natural movements and behaviours of viewers,” says Pors.

Not interactive, not cutting edge either. The duo says that there is nothing cutting edge about the technology they employ in their work. “The technology is fifty years old. It is just that not many people have tried to build anything like this before.”

Teddy Universe, with thousands of fiber optic lights embedded in faux fur in the shape of a teddy bear, is under bubble wrap, it has come to the studio for some maintenance. This work apart, all the others, like Split Knife, especially Decoy, have a very factory finished look. How thin is the line between design and art for them, I wonder. “Art is subjective, everything is in the service of art, be it the use of technology or design. The content and context is what makes something art or design,” says Rao. Both say that subconsciously they like the idea that though only 2-3 editions of a work are made, it looks like there might be thousands of them made in a factory. “They don’t have a practical use but there is still a hint of utility,” says Rao, Pors adding that the industry-line finish also makes the work seem “depersonalized, giving another perspective.” While the idea behind each work is deeply personal and rooted in behavioral patterns, the polished consumer aesthetic depersonalizes and creates an interesting distance between the two experiences. A contradiction, a farm of personal connections to the factory of mechanics.

They currently have some 8-9 projects in the pipeline, at various stages of production. There is Imperial Monochromes where panels remain in languid disarray until a viewer walks in and they snap to attention. Clappers, where 996 small figures arranged in an amphitheatre shape are enabled to clap whenever they want and Framerunners, where figures run within the frame, only to hide when a human presence is detected, are also under production.

For all the technology they use, surely Pors & Rao are techno geeks themselves? “We don’t love technology, we are allergic to it,” says Rao, insisting they see it only as a necessary evil, like having to go to college.

They pose for the last set of photos with cardboard and clay models of ongoing and scrapped works. A prototype for Space Filler, a w-i-p, lies nearby. Aguirre the Doberman is not around. The engineer-types are saving simulation videos on Basecamp, measuring something, making notes, office work as usual in the studio then.

Friday, June 20, 2014

One Afternoon When it Rained in Kochi

One afternoon in the August of 2009, I was on a jetty in Kochi, waiting for the Chinese fishing nets to arrange themselves around that evening's sunset. Instead, it rained. And this is what I had written in my notebook.

The sea when I sail out is a pale blue. It must have been around 4.30 in the afternoon. A single ray of the late afternoon sun catches a wave that is about to ebb and there is a burst of light that in an instant spills to the next wave and the next. There is then a whole sheet of light around me.

A boat, two fishermen in it. They move away from the jetty I am in, pushed outward gently by the waves of the bigger sailor.

I wish it was all quiet then. But as always, I forget silence has a sound too, a loud one. Specks of green weed float by. And so do miscellaneous other things. A few more fishermen, not too bothered to look up at the aliens.

The jetty slows down, then picks up speed, turns this way a bit. In the distance, darkness approaches. Thick, ugly, a spoil sport. The setting sun reluctantly goes behind the opaque curtain.

Pale blue turns deeper. It is a palish black now. I think I know her nuances by now, she is not menacing. Almost playful, she throws up the jetty a bit, rocking and lulling out the gentleness. The deepening anticipation breaks only slowly. A trickle starts at a distance. By the time it approaches the jetty, it is heavier, the raindrops large and none too cold.

She, sea, seems a little agitated now, dark, with differing shades of grey. Rocking about those who dare disturb her rhythm, testing endurance, testing their stand. Not out seeking vengeance today, all she wills to give, in a glimpse behind a veil, is what she might do in anger.

She must feel benevolent today. The dark ceiling parts a while and the sun, with his last parting fiery rays for the day, breathes out. The light is welcome, though the strips are not strong enough to bring back those sheets of gleaming waves again.

As if to make up for keeping the famed sunset away, there is a burst of aftermath colour and within seconds, the waves take on these hues too.

Reds and pale pinks, a burst of violet. 

Garnished with a faint salty breeze.

The birth of colours, their lifetime of half a dozen minutes splashed across the canvas.

A fishing boat drifts by in the distance. It completes the picture.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Turn off all million stars
I don't need them tonight
On the jackfruit tree I saw
2 or 3 fireflies
When we declared this evening

Twitter poetry, for April skies and breaking barriers, written 05.04.2014

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

The Politics of Coffee Drinking: Filter Coffee Column in Kindle Magazine this Month

This had to happen. With a column called Filter Coffee, it was only a matter of time before the subject happened to be coffee itself. In Kindle magazine this month, I write on the politics of coffee drinking in our Southern states. Read it here or see below.

Coffee means a lot of things to a lot of people: a shot of energy, a family tradition, hospitality, regional heritage, or a caste privilege, for example. Deepa Bhasthi muses on the customs and power-dynamics of the favourite drink of a people.

First you boil the milk. Do not add water. Pour, and stretch it with a clever, practiced flick of the wrist, from the vessel to a tall steel glass and back and forth till it is frothy. (I do not add sugar to my coffee) Add the decoction – from coffee powder from a particular shop in town, 70% coffee, 30% chichory - to taste. NEVER bring to boil after adding the decoction. Pour into a mug with a stretch of the hand again, so there is froth, so a layer of yellow cream doesn’t work itself into a formation on top, so the coffee stays hot longer.
That is how my mother always says a good coffee is made. Her coffee is rather famous in family circles. So I suppose she is right.

I try to make coffee like hers sometimes. But sometimes there isn’t time (and added lack of interest to do so) to stretch the milk into this glass and back to that pan and so on.

Most times I don’t buy milk. These days only black coffee, only slightly watered down for proprietary’s sake, without a grain of sugar, cuts it. If faraway family visited and I served them that coffee, even if the powder was from that particular shop in town, they would think I was poor, a poor struggling writer who couldn’t spare for milk and sugar.

What would they know that black coffee is the artists’ elected drink for times when harder liquids aren’t on the table?

Jaggery is much cheaper than sugars, brown or white. It sweetens the house of those who work for us in estates where they pick the coffees we dry, pulp, sell, roast, powder, blend and make into decoction for the mornings.

Across the district where the beans are grown in fragrant, well lined estates under the shade of pepper vines, ‘writers’ supervise the rest of the labour force, harder every passing year to get on the payrolls. They are merely the literate among the unlettered, they maintain the books of account, who gets paid what, how many bags of beans one day to the next. Their wives when we visited served bella-kaapi, thin milk coffee with shreds of jaggery that my mother insisted I drink quietly, even if I wasn’t used to the unusual taste. It was rude to refuse, just because we had sugar in our house.

To recreate traditional cuisine, for themed parties in homes with well-travelled friends, we place bella-kaapi before them with the veneer reserved for the exotic voyeur tourism that is always in fashion. In homes of writers’, it is still a sign of unaffordability.
The Hindu newspaper is deemed a morning ritual in several South Indian homes. It is one of those Madrasi clich├ęs, a white-lungi- filter-coffee-in-steel-tumbler routine. It is unvarying, hereditary like the four varnas and their innumerable offshoots that choke the assumption of secularity this country, most of us, try to pretend to embrace, and regularly fail.

The suitable boy begins to emulate the elders. A suitable public image for him is where he just “is”, oiled hair, newspaper in hand, coffee ordered with a bark at the low caste waiter. The low caste waiter brings forth, with a slight quivering hand, coffee filled in a steel tumbler and inverted on to a steel bowl, to keep it hot. He will stretch his hand and keep the coffee on the edge of the table, lest his fingers brush against the suitable boy’s. The first few times, the boy will invert the glass in a hurry and spill the coffee, but he will soon learn to do it right. He will never meet the waiter’s eye. So what if he made the coffee and washed the cups that the boy, his father, the caste elders drink out of? Surely you can’t let his fingers touch you, especially not on a Monday.

“Some things are just not done. That is how it has always been.” The suitable boy will learn this. Even if he reads The Hindu and the other liberals every day. Why mix these things, when this is how it has always been, he will wonder.

Over 4,000 kms from the south, in villages of Meghalaya, they have a story. The story tells of a poor couple who invited a rich friend for lunch. Ashamed that there is no food to serve the guest, the wife kills herself. The husband goes to see what’s taking her so long, sees her dead and kills himself. The rich guest peeps in to see what’s taking them so long, realizes what has happened and ashamed that they died because of him, also kills himself. A thief, escaping villagers, enters the house, finds it quiet, rests there till morning, sees the gore in the kitchen and assuming that the villagers will think he killed the three, also kills himself. The Khasi elders, in whose community this tragedy transpires, consult at the dorbor and decide that from then on, rich or poor, every household will offer all guests the inexpensive betel nut, betel leaf and lime.

I wonder what the story behind coffee is in houses rich or poor. There must be one. Human beings are after all made of stories.

In the thin land of waterways, houseboats, coconuts, fish and Communist men, Che Guevara overlooks the proceedings of party meetings. Sagave! Viplavam Jaikatte! Comrade! Victory to the Revolution! Kattan chaya or black tea charges the party workers. Not coffee, I’m told. But then they grow a lot of tea there, perhaps that’s why. Who determines these drinks and community habits? Did the state assign the workers tea?

Neighbouring Kodagu where most of India’s coffee comes from, also mainly drinks tea. It’s hard to explain why. It can’t be economics. Single malts and Old Monks are brought out after hours. The morning after, doesn’t coffee work well enough? The British left behind the expansive coffee estates; it is very British to drink a cup of tea. Perhaps that’s why.

Apart from tea, coffee is a drink (leaving alcohol, varying reactions to it aside) which doesn’t supply any nutrients to your body. They say it can cut risk of cancer. They say it can give you cancer. Have the scientists made up their minds yet?

Coffee. Its varieties, many, many varieties. Like the many, many parts of routine rarely singled out to examine, to culturally anthropologize, coffee is many things at once, a definer, a separator, a unifier. I suspect cultural conditioning might have something to do with it, but as your years go by, coffee becomes one of the few stable, reliable pick-me-ups in daily lives.

“Some things are just done. That is how it has always been.”

A tall mug of dark black coffee, without sugar, slightly watered down, with the morning newspaper.