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.

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