CAMP's As If - II

Saturday, March 28, 2015

"I don't know what's wrong," he answered on the phone from the terrace of 24 Jorbagh in Delhi. It was past midnight, the weather was cold and I sat on the steps across the building facade relaying to him how his new installation was behaving. Ashok was fiddling with the circuitry of the 'Four-Letter Film' unaware of the way in which the two storey tall electric letters were displaying on the face of the building. They were almost alright as we tested one by one earlier. When put together, they didn't form accurate shapes.

Since the huge letters were controlled by a small circuit box sitting on the terrace, that Ashok was tweaking, he could not see the results of the experiments he was actually doing. We thus were communicating each other through our mobile phones. I became his eyes, while he inhabited the machine. With all connections being almost right, but yet not the correct results, I asked him, "What's wrong, after all with this?". I believed that the creator of the work would certainly know what's going on! Ashok's reply, as stated in the beginning above, encapsulated for me the spirit of CAMP's 'As If - II' at 24 Jorbagh in Delhi, titled 'The Flight of Black Boxes'.

Ashok had briefly explained me about the phenomenon of black boxing during planning the exhibit. To quote Bruno Latour from wikipedia, 'blackboxing is "the way scientific and technical work is made invisible by its own success. When a machine runs efficiently, when a matter of fact is settled, one need focus only on its inputs and outputs and not on its internal complexity.' Ashok elaborated that, in order to work with anything, one has to assume a certain disappearance of some of its constituents. You need to hide something in order to engage with that thing. The above idea is similar to what Umberto Eco spoke at a lecture I attended  at Yale University; he said that it is important to forget in order to be able to remember what you must, so that you can make sense of things. Talking of black boxing, Ashok exampled, "If you see the working of the constituents of a car while driving, you will be in a very precarious situation, and not be able to drive at all!" Mobile phones, laptops, televisions, microwaves - almost every other object that we engage with today is a black box. Extending this to the social realm, Ashok mentioned, even institutional setups today have become black boxes - beyond what we put and what we get out of them, we do not know anything about them...
Ashok was into the circuit, or shall we say the building box that was transformed into the machine itself. The huge bungalow was masked through a stretched fabric held through a minimal steel frame. Behind the mask were four letters designed using the 13-segment display mechanism. When seen through the mask, the letters seemed to emerge on a large LED cinema screen. 

Seeing the production of the entire artwork was fantastic. When I reached the site, I saw that a thin but firm metal structure already encased the three facades of the building. I was reminded of the durable fragility one sees in works like the Serpentine Pavlion by SANAA, or works of Junya Ishigami (whom Ashok himself had introduced to me). This framework was not overdesigned, just about right for the project. It was to take on the large fabric, that which is generally used on construction sites, in order to cover the entire building. The fabric covering the entire building had to be a single piece. A local tailor helped execute this job, stitching away long unending pieces of cloth, making provisions for installing the curtain on the building. 

On the other hand, I was busy finishing another piece of the windscreen, this time a smaller size and shape revised to the aerodynamic properties, learning from the previous one. In parallel, the drawing for Khirkeeyaan was being projected on the wall, outlined by artists Amol and Poonam from Clark house, and finally inked by Ashok himself. Multiple screens for various films to be  projected were being stretched on steel frames. Much work was being coordinated by Bala, an architect working in Delhi, assisting us with the exhibition. Shaina rejoined us in  Delhi two days after I arrived. She took charge of the various video installations.

The work seemed to go slow in the beginning. It was winter, and Delhi, for some reason, was experiencing showers over the nights - something completely undesirable for the artworks, as well as the interior works. The walls of the building were wet, refusing to dry off the freshly coated paints. In addition, they leaked current. Shaina and Ashok continued to work through the shocks, literally playing with electricity.

We decided to eliminate placards for captioning each work, writing them by hand on walls using a sketch pen. A lot of preparation went into ascertaining the right kind of lettering. Ashok was quite concerned to not make it look like the architectural lettering. He wanted it to be carefree. I couldn't impose the organized self to be so. Thus I pencilled the captions everywhere and he went over it with the pens we had. We had to get new pairs of pens, for the ones Shaina had purchased from Mumbai seemed inappropriate for the walls. Erasing the guidelines made for the lettering was the biggest task, because the wet walls wouldn't accept erasers. Zinniah had developed blisters getting rid of those lines with an eraser while I kept taking pauses to finish the job! We cursed the wetness -the rain and the dew seemed to intrude a lot into the works.

The curtain was created and finally pulled on the building with the help of many people. The tailor was an intelligent and sincere young man. He monkeyed the entire process of putting up the fabric. While stitching, the effective length of the fabric after being stretched was calculated in a way that the joints appeared on between the four letters. Initially, this did not seem to happen. The workers hesitated to stretch the fabric too hard, since it was tearing off at joints. Yet, the stitched joint unaligned with the letters behind was unacceptable. It needed labour. The lower end of the fabric was looped to take a continuous steel rod, inserted in a way quite funny. It was pushed back into the adjoining property, and brought back into the cloth in the site. Finally, the cloth was stretched enough in a way that all joints aligned correctly. The loose ends were stitched and secured to all ends. It looked fabulous - particularly because it hid all the bruises on the building made by the earlier artists, Raqs Media Collective, on the facade which would have otherwise interfered too much with the present work.

A big window was cut into the building in order to install a work called Interior Design. The project was a play on the working of a camera, once literally a black box. Ashok took much effort in programming the work right, although it took more time than required. It also demanded a lot of extra work in extending the window shades outside the building to protect the machine operated blinds from the uncertain showers, and the managing the excess sunlight leaking in from between the screen and the window frame.

With all this madness, the preview of the show happened on 27th January 2015! As visitors continued to flow in, Ashok was sitting on the terrace trying to understand what is still wrong with the programming of the four letter film. I had a couple of times went up to check the behind the scenes of this screen. Bunches of wires came out of a circuit powering each arm of the letter-framework. Each of such arm was numbered, as was the corresponding wire. I had memorized it by then. However, inspite of attaching and checking that the right wires went to the right socket, the film screen behaved slightly off. Ian was using his algorithmic logic to figure the bug. He was trying to identify the reason for the problem by making various combinations. Just the earlier night, it worked fabulous. People passing by the street read, laughed and gazed! On the opening day, it was put to a snooze mode. Yet I am sure, the artists were not so, for they were living the black box!

The sewer's machine and seat!

The young tailor who monkeyed the installation of the fabric.

The LED framework. The earlier intervention of Raqs on the Jorbagh building. 

Testing the first segmented display.

Anamolies in display - an art in itself.

Snooze Mode

My moment of fame!

Amol and Poonam tracing the diagram on the wall

Ashok finalizing the pencil drawing.
The lettering on the wall - non-architectural.

The revised smaller windscreen with laser cut paper pixels

Inside the black box. 

People at work till late nights.

The Preview opening.

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